25 Years in showbiz: a prelude

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Right, Here’s a splendid photo of me and three-quarters of the band Cud, backstage at Brixton Academy in November, to put us all in a happy place at the end of one year and the tentative, under-par beginning of another one. In other words, let’s just clear up 2012 before we really get stuck into 2013. By my calculations, 2012 was my 24th year in Showbiz. Which is a glib way of saying that I’ve been working in what we must, without irony or sneering, call “the media” since the summer of 1988, when I first stepped foot in the NME office, and wangled a part-time job in the layout room.

It was, of course, through working as a journalist for the NME that I met Cud, along with countless other bands. Without the NME, I might not have played the drums for them for one song at a soundcheck at Wakefield’s Rooftop Gardens in May 1992, thus setting a precedent. Having kept up genial diplomatic relations with the band ever since, I was invited to go one better, 20 years on, and if the notion hadn’t been wiped from history in 2012, I’d have called it a middle-aged man’s “Jim’ll Fix It moment”. I wrote about it here. When you reach my age, milestones come less often. To have played the drums onstage at Brixton Academy, for one song, was one of them. It will forever nail 2012 to the map. As will my appearance, in January, on Celebrity Mastermind (it was filmed in 2011), where I scored 23 points but still only came second.

This was a milestone in the sense that I crossed the Rubicon and became further proof of the dire elasticity of the word “celebrity.” (Watching this year’s run on BBC2, I noted that in his call for future contestants, John Humphrys says, “You don’t have to be a Celebrity to appear on Mastermind.” No, and you don’t have to be a Celebrity to appear on Celebrity Mastermind, either. I wrote about my experience for Radio Times here.)

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It is not to seek sympathy if I say that, on the whole, despite these two marker flags, 2012 was not a historic year. for me. They can’t all be, can they? While the Olympics, the Paralympics, and Euro 2012 ran a highlighter pen through the sporting summer, on a personal level, as a competitor in the rat race, I feel like I spent most of the year running to stand still. The recession continues to bite hard, and the price of everything rises at an inhumane pace, so, in line with the general outlook since 2008, it was a case of watching expenditure, travelling only when my journey was really necessary and reading books I already own, as per my New Year’s Resolution. When you’re self-employed, you do everything in your power to keep working, but it’s never a walk in the park.

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Professionally, I was proud to have my name on the credits of school sitcom Gates, as co-writer and co-creator, which helped relaunch Sky Living in August, having been on ice for about eight months. Sadly, it didn’t ring the ratings bell and was not recommissioned. (I wrote about the show here.) Neither was a much more personal project for me, Mr Blue Sky, although I think we were all very pleased with Series 2, which went out on Radio 4 in April and May, and gathered some nice reviews. Not nice enough to earn us a third series, although it wasn’t through want of trying, I can tell you. (I wrote about Series 2 for Radio Times here.) I’ve written two further scripts, for two further broadcasters, in 2012, and one of them may yet prove to have legs in 2013, depending on how a January meeting goes. Fingers crossed. Actually, my fingers are always crossed; I am a writer. I’m also very excited to have made a ten-minute short film with Simon Day for Sky Atlantic; the all-star anthology of which it is a part, Common Ground, starts on January 14.

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Back in January I did the finishing touches to a script I had in development with ITV which then disappeared in a puff of smoke when the in-house producer I was working with left ITV. This is what happens. Get used to it. My ardent hope for 2013 is to get a comedy commissioned.

In terms of radio, I’ve noticed a slight reduction in hours spent in front of a microphone. I had a couple of nice runs on 6 Music Breakfast, and a short go at Saturday mornings, solo, while they waited to fill the slot with someone more famous. (I was also offered Breakfast in Christmas week but I wasn’t around, to be fair.) I presented the Radio 4 documentary Oscar Sings in February, but that’s pretty much it for me as a “proper” presenter. However, ironically, via the tradesman’s entrance, I appeared in about 50 short films in 2012, further honing my Autocue skills for the Guardian‘s weekly Telly Addict review. I love doing this, so long may it continue this year.

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I had a great time at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, hosting Q&As with Charlie Brooker, Steven Moffat, Victoria Wood, Robert Popper, Frank Spotnitz and others, and this is an area I’d really like to develop. Having sensibly put stand-up behind me, this feels like a far more age-appropriate and far less egomaniacal way of talking in front of an audience: this is the job of the facilitator. You get to meet amazing people, doing it, too. (It was cool to meet Todd Solondz before doing a Q&A with him at the Curzon, Soho, in the summer. You should never get blasé about this kind of privileged proximity.)

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Socially, 2012 was quiet, but deliberately so. I avoided parties, as a rule, although the Radio Times covers party presented its annual opportunity for me to play Zelig with the stars of TV, unashamedly. Here I am with two of the ladies of Downton (and some mad-eyed feminist), and Vic Reeves and Vicky McClure.

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While we’re talking about magazines, 2012’s greatest loss was surely Word magazine. You can read my requiem here, although it’s worth stating that its sudden closure in June – another victim of the advertising revenue downturn and the general decline of print – was twice the loss for me. I miss Word as an employee and as a subscriber. It leaves a void. (It also means I am probably doing more prose-writing for free, on here, than I might have done previously. Sign of the times.)

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Sad, too, to see Karaoke Circus go, after all these years of good-natured, have-a-go entertainment. The final showdown, at the 100 Club, on 29 October, crowned the run in suitable style, even if my overambitious rendition of Jay-Z’s 99 Problems was one of my worst. Nobody complained. And that is why we shall miss it. (The following shot of the final finale is by Russell McGovern, whose full set of pics are here.)

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On the whole, 2012 was less about evenings, more about mornings and afternoons. More about meetings. I’ve had tons of them. Some have led to work, most have not. Some have been administrative, others more sociable. Some have been script meetings, as a script-editor – which, again, is a much less egocentric job to have on a TV programme. I had a brilliant time at the end of the year working on Secret Dude Society for BBC3, an actual, six-episode commission, with the beloved sketch trio Pappy’s, and although it has yet to be filmed (that happens in Glasgow in February), the majority of my editing work is done, so that ought to be a satisfying thing to look forward to in 2013.

When I look back over my 25 years in showbiz, as I am bound to do, I recognise that the bulk of my work has been entirely egocentric and self-centred; whether it’s being an opinionated music journalist, a DJ, an author, or a stand-up. It’s all been about my name at the beginning or the end. The past few years have seen me settling down into a quieter life, whereby my work is often out of the spotlight, behind the scenes, in meetings. This can only be a good thing. There are enough people out there vying for your attention with loud voices. I’m happy if you catch an episode of a sitcom I’ve written for Radio 4, brought to life by professional actors.

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I’d certainly be happy if you bought the new edition of my Billy Bragg biography, Still Suitable For Miners, which Billy and I have been working on updating over the last couple of months, starting in MediaCity, Salford, where I accompanied him for his John Peel Lecture in November. The new edition is due out, in physical form and as an eBook, in the early part of this year (no fixed date as yet). Revisiting his stirring lifestory – and in order to write a new chapter, it is advisable to re-read the existing ones – has reignited my leftist fury. The Tories continued to drive me round the bend in 2012, with raids on the public sector whose bare-faced audacity would have made Mrs Thatcher blush, and a general, all-round dismantling of the state whose ease merely exposes the historic failure of New Labour to do anything to reverse the trend while they were in power.

In this sense, 2012 was an angry year for me. The reelection of Barack Obama provided some relief from apocalyptic thoughts – at least the world is spared a Tea Party in control for another four years – but the news has been ostensibly depressing most days, from ecological disaster to corporate tax avoidance to widespread child abuse hidden in plain sight. Billy Bragg reminds me that hitting your fifties, as he has, does not have to denote giving up, or tuning out, or logging off. He was as fired up by bankers’ bonuses and the Bullingdon Club cabinet in 2012 as he was about the miners and Reaganomics in 1985. We should look to people like him for inspiration.

Maybe Still Suitable For Miners is a perfect example of a project that isn’t primarily about me. It’s about Billy Bragg. I am merely facilitating its existence. That’s got to be a more dignified way forward.

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C.R.E.E.P.S.H.O.W.

I mention this only as a matter of record. In November 1973, when I was eight years old, our Friday afternoon art project at Abington Vale Primary School was to make a papier-mâché puppet. If I remember correctly, we moulded the head around a balloon with strips of newspapers and glue, let it harden, painted it, decorated it, then added the hand-puppet body using rudimentary dressmaking skills, which actually seem fairly sophisticated for an eight-year-old boy, especially the padded hands, although I suspect we had assistance in this.

This brief was fairly typical of the modern, co-educational thrust of comprehensive education in the early 70s: boys and girls mucking in and blurring the distinctions between gender-specific crafts and activities.

As noted in my 1973 diary on Friday November 16, “Today it was art and we are making puppets out of papier-mâché. I am making Jimmy Savile but I haven’t put his hair on yet!”

Thanks to my own adult predisposition to archiving (otherwise known as “hoarding”), I can present physical evidence of the completed Jimmy Savile puppet, with the trademark hair, fashioned from string. The key creative decision, aged eight, to make Jimmy Savile “evil” was, I have to admit, less a prescient appreciation of the darker side of the nation’s favourite kids’ TV host (as previously stated, we loved Jim’ll Fix It in our house), more a reflection of a general boyhood obsession with horror films, as filtered through Monster Fun comic, Aurora glow-in-the-dark kit models, Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s Monster Mash (a reissue of which 1962 novelty tune was a hit that October) and Denis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies. I equated blood running out of nose and eye as “evil.”

Who knew? (That is the question.)

The 834mph question

These are the facts. I offer no editorial on them at this stage. Yesterday, on Sunday October 14, the Austrian man Felix Baumgartner, a former paratrooper, jumped out of a balloon that was 23 miles above the earth, and, ten minutes later – four minutes and 19 seconds of those in freefall – landed on the earth – specifically, Roswell, New Mexico – having reached a speed of 834mph along the way, breaking three world records, including becoming the world’s first “supersonic skydiver” by breaking the sound barrier at Mach 1.24.

His jump was sponsored by the Austrian, ox-bile-based energy drink Red Bull, but its scientific impetus was NASA’s desire to create better pressurised survival suits for astronauts who might fall out of the stratosphere. (The one that kept Baumgartner’s body intact against the hugely varying pressures that marked his drop back to earth, prevented his blood boiling and his lungs exploding.)

A categorically brave man, Baumgartner has parachuted off buildings and mountains. He prepared for this record attempt by performing two practise freefalls, one from 71,000 feet in March and another from 97,000 feet in July. But this one was more like 128,000 feet, or 39km, if you prefer it in new money.

So, as I understand it, he’s now the first human to ever break the sound barrier in freefall; that was the highest freefall altitude jump and the highest manned balloon flight. I wish Roy Castle had been around to see it. Like most people, I saw the footage from which the iconic grab above is taken, and gasped as Baumgartner stepped out of the capsule and into … space. It was amazing. I was amazed that anyone would wish to do that, and that anyone could do that, and not retreat, bawling and sucking their thumb, into the capsule until somebody came and got them. Part of me thinks he is a nutcase. But I guess we need nutcases sometimes.

I do not follow television on Twitter, but had a little look afterwards and it was predictably awash with exclamations. (As we found during the Olympics, Twitter is the perfect medium for exclamations, and it can be quite sweet to see normally erudite people simply gasping in 140 characters.) I threw this question into the mix, partly out of mischief, but partly out of genuine inquiry. Making statements, or pronouncements, can sometimes seem a little arrogant; I quite like asking things instead. I Tweeted:

A man jumped 23 miles out of a balloon. And we have learned … what?

I was, within seconds, bombarded with responses. Most of them took my question literally and answered it. Some of them made jokes. I found this stimulating. Because it’s almost unarguably an amazing feat, and an amazing thing to have seen, I wasn’t actually looking for a fight. There’s little room for philosophical manoeuvre here: it’s amazing. But it’s a valid supplementary question: what have we learned from it?

The actual answer is that a man can do it. And that a man-made pressurised suit can withstand it. This is the research. More elliptically, we have learned that Red Bull has a phenomenal marketing department. We have also learned that the Space Race isn’t over, contrary to the Billy Bragg song The Space Race Is Over. I get the Space Race. It was all about global posturing during the Cold War, a show of military strength by the world’s two superpowers after the Second World War. In this brave new world, a super-sized democracy and a totalitarian state could afford to spend whatever it took to get a man on the moon, and get him there first (after a couple of dogs and monkeys). I also know that many technological advances were made during the Space Race that impacted on our earthbound lives, albeit mostly in kitchenware, dried fruit and sports gear, and, to be fair, satellites.

But you might ask the question, why are we still exploring space when there’s so much that’s going wrong with the planet we already own? Endeavour and exploration for endeavour and exploration’s sake is one thing, but it’s not as if we have finished with Earth, and it costs a lot of money to keep sending things up there. (Even, one assumes, the relatively austere sending up of a balloon to 128,000 feet and having a man jump out of it.)

There’s a Jerry Seinfeld routine, which I wish I could quote, in which he wryly suggests that the minute you have to invent a crash helmet to protect your skull while riding a motorcycle, you have to wonder why you invented something that could smash your skull in the first place. I go along with this. If we didn’t send people into space, we wouldn’t need to invent a pressurised protection suit for them to wear. We could spend the money on something that would help people on earth. No?

I realise that by even asking an innocent question about what we have learned from the amazing feat of Felix Baumgartner I risk upsetting the applecart of blanket adulation for him. I do not wish to subtract from his achievement, and his insane bravery. If you are not in awe of him, then you must think yourself as brave, or more brave. I am so much less brave than him, it would be weird to not be in awe of him. But surely we are allowed to question the point of the feat.

One person replied to my Tweet (“and we have learned … what?”): “That some people aren’t impressed by anything?” He was implying that I was not impressed by the skydive. But I was. I am impressed by big things, high things, tall things, far-away things, deep things … but impressing me isn’t enough. (Actually, I’m more impressed by selfless acts of charity or compassion than self-indulgent acts of bravery or endurance, but that’s just me.)

Another wit responded: “Man has opinions on music and films and telly. And we have learned … what?” Ouch. That’s me told. I’m not permitted a question, because I don’t do scientific feats.

Another asked, “Did we need to learn anything from it? It was a fantastic feat, just appreciate that.” Again, I’m being told to appreciate something. I do find a consensus issue like this one – and the Olympics, actually, although we’ve done those – slightly bullying. There’s only one verified reaction, and if you stray from that orthodoxy you are some kind of spoilsport.

And another: “That there’s pretty much nothing in this world that someone somewhere won’t be sniffy about?” And another: “If you are going to reduce everything to those sort of terms then almost all human endeavour is pointless.” Hmm, maybe he’s right. At least he didn’t say what so many people did, especially in the Guardian comments section under the story: “He’s got balls of steel.” Yep, because having balls is better than not having them, and having ones made of metal is better than having ones made of flesh. Are we still equating testicles with superiority? I do wonder often why women, on the whole, don’t tend to do things like jump out of things and climb up things and do things really fast just for its own sake. Why is that? (Women are great, aren’t they? I think so.)

It does not do to dwell 24 hours a day on poverty, injustice, corporate greed and cruelty to animals and people – like I do – you risk your brow becoming permanently furrowed, which is not a good look. But these issues require more immediate attention than space suits. So may I respectfully recommend that we look down with as much wonder as when we look up? And if someone questions something, do not ostracise them for doing so.

As Marge Simpson once said, “There’s no shame in being a pariah.”

Dear Jim

Diary entry: Saturday, 1 January, 1977
Made a Lego house in the morning. Watched Swap Shop. Watched Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory in the afternoon, after playing Monopoly. New series of Jim’ll Fix It and Dr Who. Watched Starsky And Hutch.

Jimmy Savile, or Sir Jimmy Savile as he officially remains for now, died less than a year ago, on October 29, 2011, two days before his 85th birthday. His body lay in state, in a gold coffin, at the Queens Hotel in Leeds, and 4,000 people lined up to pay their respects. When he died, his secrets died with him. Or at least, they did in theory. Unfortunately, since his death, a number of people have come forward to say that they were abused by him when they were children. Since ITV’s Exposure documentary aired on Wednesday, more have lined up to join them and add to the cacophony of complaint against his good name. I’m not a detective, but when such a broad catalogue of independent testimony corroborates itself in this way, it’s hard not to find the evidence compelling.

The disturbing picture emerging is of a depraved sexual predator with a penchant for girls of around 15 who used his power as a national treasure, a figure on the pop scene, and the host of television shows aimed at children to get what he wanted. By all accounts, he pulled the egregious trick of frightening his victims into keeping quiet, and filling them with shame for something he had perpetrated. By preying on troubled girls from an approved school in Surrey, he exploited a bond of trust between himself and the institution, in much the same way that paedophile Catholic priests use the sanctity of the church to have their way with altar boys.

I only ever sent one letter to Jim’ll Fix It. It was in 1976. I asked Jim – or “Jim’ll” as we jokily called him – to fix it for me to meet my hero, the Daily Express cartoonist Giles, so I could show him my own cartoons. (As related in my book, I even drew some Giles characters on my letter and used coloured pens on the envelope – as if no Jim wannabe had ever thought of that before.) It was all for nothing; I never got a sniff. But then neither did my brother Simon and he’d asked “Jim’ll” to fix it for him to visit the Action Man factory, which ought to have been right up the programme’s street with their appetite for subliminal advertising.

In later, more self-conscious years, I identified Jim as an establishment figure of whom I did not approve, when, after the video of the late Sid Vicious performing Something Else on Top of the Pops, Savile warned the nation not to ride a motorbike without proper protection.

It turns out that he was the one who we should have been warned about. The BBC is under fire, from the usual anti-BBC quarters, for its part in “turning a blind eye” to what Savile seems to have been doing on their premises, in dressing rooms at Television Centre when Jim’ll was the king of early evening BBC. No chatter about how different our attitudes to paedophilia were then, in the 60s and 70s, can lessen the gruesome impact of what we’re now learning. This does not mean anybody covered it up. Savile was a superstar in the 60s and 70s, his creepiness all part of the eccentric nature of his persona – which, if later documentaries about him, particularly Louis Theroux’s, present a realistic picture, were extensions of his actual character. He did an awful lot of work for charity, and this seems to have been his cloak of protection. It’s entirely possible that people he worked with simply couldn’t believe he’d put his hands where they weren’t wanted.

I never met him. But when I first worked at the BBC, in the early 90s, I heard “rumours” about him that were pretty ugly. Funnily enough – or not very funnily enough – the rumours I heard were different from the ones that are now coalescing into testimony and possibly fact. I wouldn’t say they’re worse, but they are equally repellent on an entirely different level. They don’t involve under-age girls. When people say it was “an open secret” that he was a bit of a pervert, this incriminates anyone who heard the whispers. The entertainment industry has its own folklore of dirty stories about well-loved celebrities; with the way the tabloids have worked for the last few decades, you do sort of think: well, if they’re true, they’d have come out by now, surely? I never heard the stories about Savile’s penchant for under-age girls.

If you can assassinate a dead man, that’s what happening right now. Savile’s legend has been rewritten. Those who always found him creepy – which is most of us – can now congratulate ourselves for having spotted that he was a wrong’un, and yet, how brilliant are we for doing that after hearing first-hand accounts of his wrongdoing? It’s interesting that Kenny Everett, another much-loved and wacky Radio 1 and Top Of The Pops DJ, has been celebrated this week, and depicted as a man haunted by the “shame” of his own homosexuality, although I assume that in liberal corners of entertainment, this was not condemned, but accepted. Concerning this “open secret”, we posthumously sympathise with and applaud Ken for battling on, because it was he who was damaged by Victorian attitudes to a legal lifestyle choice. (I say “we” applaud him; I’m sure a lot of purple-faced, Mail-reading colonels in the home counties still think being gay is an affront to nature, but who cares about them.)

If Savile was a serial molester of children, then he deserves to have his plaque and his statue taken down, for he died without ever being found out or punished for ruining so many lives. We didn’t even use the term paedophilia back in the crazy 60s and 70s, although I vividly remember Public Information Films about not talking to “strangers” who promised to show you puppies. Pop star Alvin Stardust and footballer Kevin Keegan, however, approached kids and showed them how to cross the road correctly in similar films. The moral being: if someone famous comes up to you, it’s fine. If Jimmy Savile had come up to them, it would have been fine.

It’s awkward having to readjust your view of the world. I have been thoroughly enjoying BBC4’s repeats of Top Of The Pops from 1977 and, currently, 1978. They are fascinating social documents, when shown in full. Will they still show the editions hosted by Savile, with his mating yodel and his hands all over the 15-year-olds? I suspect not. Although they did show one with Gary Glitter on earlier this year.

A final thought: when I was about 12, the same age as the diary entry above when Jim’ll Fix It was a fixture and Willy Wonka considered a benevolent bachelor proffering sweets, I made a papier maché Jimmy Savile puppet in art at school. Oddly, I made a “horror” version of Jim, with blood coming out of his mouth and eyes, and an evil face. That’s what childhood is about: innocent fun. I’m glad he never answered my letter.

Health, and safety

I have been co-writing a script which is now going into production. You know how I roll well enough by now, so I won’t name or describe the project. But I will tell you this: while writing the script, my co-writer and I enthusiastically set one scene in a park lake, and I mean in it. Two characters are in a rowing boat, and one of them has to walk through the shallow water to the shore. This is fine when it’s just words on a MacBook screen, but becomes an “issue” when the words have to be turned into action in front of a camera. We discovered – and we should have guessed – that filming in a lake is a Health & Safety nightmare.

Apparently, even in a shallow pond, once you put an actor into it up to their knees, tests have to be made on the water for specific diseases that may be present, inoculations are required, and a safety boat and a diver must be present. It’s not a problem. We changed the location of the scene. Not really a nightmare at all. But it made me think about the way that the concepts of health and safety have taken on negative connotations since being joined by ampersand in holy non-departmental matrimony. If, for instance, you glance at the Daily Mail, you will see Health & Safety constantly cited as a folk devil for our times; proof that the “nanny state” is out to ruin our lives with its focus on maintaining the rights of employees to work in safety, and without endangering their health. (Richard Littlejohn, the famous wit, likes to write it out as “Elf’n’Safety”, and although I’m not entirely sure why, you get his drift: the very idea is comical to him.)

The Healthy & Safety At Work Act was enshrined as long ago as 1974. It’s not a new concept. It’s not “New Labour”. The Health & Safety Executive, merged with the Health & Safety Commission, is responsible for “the encouragement, regulation and enforcement of workplace health, safety and welfare.” Some might say that its reach extends too far, and into farce, so that the simple act of going about one’s work is often a minefield of regulation and administration. But there is common sense at its heart.

In today’s Guardian, journalist David Conn has written a long and vigilant assessment of the safety failings that contributed to the death of 96 Liverpool fans at Hillsborough on 15 April 1989. It’s worth reading in full although I’ll precis it here. What struck me about this deadly litany of fudging and finger-crossing and hoping for the best is that the evil spectre of Health & Safety was nowhere to be seen, and look what happened. The Hillsborough Independent Panel, chaired by James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool and charged with combing through all the evidence two years ago by Labour’s Alan Johnson, presented its findings last week, since which all manner of bodies have queued up to issue full, frank and unreserved apologies to the families of the dead, including South Yorkshire Police, the FA, the Sun (not that one more blot on News International’s copybook is going to make much difference this year) and a sniveling Boris Johnson, on behalf of The Spectator. But Conn’s report looks past the appalling mishandling of the situation by the police, and the disgraceful misreporting of the tragedy by the tabloid media, and points the spotlight at Sheffield Wednesday, whose application to host the ill-fated FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Forest in 1989 was made despite its ground’s safety certificate not having been updated since 1979.

It was, in modern parlance, a Health & Safety nightmare. According to the report, helpfully and clearly disseminated by the Guardian, “the risks were known and the fatal crush … was foreseeable.” Counsel on behalf of the Hillsborough Family Support Group is calling on the director of public prosecutions to charge Sheffield Wednesday for corporate manslaughter. This is an interesting development, but not one that should come as a surprise. News International have been punished, in Liverpool at least, ever since the egregious Sun headline of April 19, 1989 (“THE TRUTH”). It seems likely that those officers at fault within South Yorkshire Police will at least be investigated by the IPCC. But what of the owners of the stadium itself?

I didn’t know this, but there was a “serious crush” at the Leppings Lane terrace in 1981, at which 38 people were injured. The club’s then-chairman Bert McGee, reacting to the police’s claim that they had averted “a real chance of fatalities” in a post-match meeting, replied, “Bollocks – no-one would have been killed.” This cavalier attitude to health and safety masks a much deeper contempt for the fans. The club erected those metal fences which created “pens”, something the report said made “a demonstrably unsafe terrace dangerous.” A supporter wrote to the FA after another crush at the “old, inadequate” turnstiles in 1988, calling the Leppings Lane terrace “a death trap.” What a chillingly prescient prediction; what a shame it was from a fan. Fans appear not to have mattered much to the FA, or Sheffield Wednesday, in 1988.

The FA asked Wednesday no questions about safety when it awarded them the FA Cup semi in 1989. Lord Justice Taylor, who delivered the first report four months after the disaster, listed all of the club’s “safety deficiencies and breaches of the Home Office Guide to Safety in Sports Grounds (or Green Guide)”, and described Leppings Lane – whose name is now etched on the minds of all who remembers that horrible day – as “unsatisfactory and ill-suited to admit the numbers invited.” The new report merely underlines these findings.

There was a disconnect between the club’s eagerness to host a glamour tie and count the ticket money of the 54,000 people who attended, and the reality of safely siphoning those fans into the stands. 10,100 fans came from Liverpool, and yet the turnstiles at Leppings Lane were “too few to admit so many supporters.” The tunnel into the pens had a gradient of one in six, much steeper than the Green Guide maximum; 40% of the fans were too far from the prescribed distance to an exit; the crush barriers were the wrong height and too far apart; and liaison between the club and the police – as we know – “failed.”

Good heavens, it really is a nightmare, and yet most of this stuff we’re only officially treating as gospel  now. (I think most ordinary people knew what went wrong at the time. Certainly Jimmy McGovern’s powerful Hillsborough made it plain in 1996.) But Sheffield Wednesday never admitted liability and not a single director or employee of the club resigned at the time. They didn’t even put up a memorial until 1999. As you know, I’m not a dedicated follower of league football. I come at this story from a pretty casual stratum of devotion to the sport, so if it sounds like I have it in for Wednesday, I clearly don’t; my reaction is based on what I’m reading – and, more viscerally, what I remember so vividly from the heartbreaking news pictures on the day. Trevor Hicks, chairman of the HFSG, speaks of the club’s “contempt” for those fans that died, or their families.

Sheffield Wednesday only made an official apology last Wednesday, on the morning of the report. Dave Richards, who took over from McGee as chairman in March 1990 – apparently prompted to join the board by what he saw on the day at Hillsborough – presided over the dead-air period when the club refused to memorialise the tragedy. He left in 2000, since which he’s been a well-rewarded chairman at the Premier League (his salary last year was £347,000). Under his chairmanship at Sheffield, the ground became all-seated. But the Guardian says that he now admits he didn’t put a memorial up to the 96 who died after legal advice; he was advised that if they put up a plaque it would compromise the club’s denial of liability. This is pretty rum. The families’ lawyer – who happens to be Charlie Falconer, former Blair flatmate and then Lord Chancellor, but wipe those old prejudices aside – says, “The idea that Sheffield Wednesday putting up a memorial would amount to admitting liability is utter rubbish … they wanted to reduce their association with the disaster as much as possible.”

Yes, that Health & Safety disaster.

It’s all too easy to fall in line with lazy, Daily Mail orthodoxy and regard Health & Safety with sneering disdain. But if Hillsborough’s safety certificate had been renewed at any time between 1979 and 1989, maybe 96 people wouldn’t be dead (41 of those deaths are currently adjudged to have been avoidable). It might be slightly irritating to have to wear a high-viz tabard, or a safety helmet, or protective gloves, in the workplace, but the same paranoia behind such measures might have reduced the chances of Leppings Lane becoming a “death trap”, into which fans were herded, down an inappropriate gradient, with many different sorts of contempt and neglect.

When representatives of official bodies give a “full and unreserved apology”, as the FA did, you have to check the wording. Are they really apologising fully? Or are they actually apologising partially, in order to avoid admitting liability?

I have been able to rewrite a comedy script to that an actor doesn’t have to be inoculated and stand in a pond, by relocating the scene to a children’s playground. Not so easy to rewrite – or relocate – Hillsborough.

It’s a royal knockers-out

Pardon the deliberately lowered tone of the headline, but we must dip a toe here into the murky depths of tabloid intrusion and a very British obsession with bared flesh. Kate Middleton, an attractive if thin Berkshire woman of 30 whose official title is Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cambridge – or has been since she married, with her eyes wide open, Prince William, His Royal Highness The Duke of Cambridge, Earl of Strathearn and Baron Carrickfergus, in April 2011 – is currently on holiday. It is a working holiday, in the sense that she didn’t choose it, or plan it, and while on it, much of her time is being spent doing things she wouldn’t normally choose to do, while being photographed doing it. This is the life she chose.

Although her role in life is now predominantly played out in public, by her own choice, and much of what she does during the day is arranged specifically to be seen by the public, she is, like anybody entitled to private time. Of course she is. What she does in private is nobody’s business, unless it is against the law, at which point her qualification to represent this blighted nation before the rest of the world would be called into question. To my knowledge, she has not broken the law, and seems, if anything, quite nice.

However, last week, during some private time before embarking upon her current, paid, working holiday of Southeast Asia, she relaxed at the private chateau of Viscount Linley – which is his whole title – son of Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, and Antony Armstrong-Jones, 1st Earl of Snowdon. (Linley’s daughter was a bridesmaid at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in April 2011.)

The royal couple called it a “second honeymoon”, according to the press, who must have been fed this information. And why not? The Chateau D’Autet in Provence, is set “amid 640 acres of ­lavender fields and woodland”. The temperature while they were there reached 31C (88F). Perfect weather for sunbathing, like normal people do.

During a spot of sunbathing, among friends and family, it seems that Kate took off her bikini top. We know this because a man photographed her in this state of undress with a long lens. As far as I know, he is not the first photographer to use a long lens. Again, as far as I can tell (as I haven’t seen the photos, other than on photos of the cover of Closer on the newsstands, which are on the internet), Kate went topless outside, on the verandah or balcony of Linley’s chateau. Now, outside on private property may be private on paper, but if you are outside, in the world, that privacy is harder to apply in actuality. The result of this confusion: scandal. And the second example of illicitly-documented young, royal nudity in two months.

In August, Prince Harry – sorry, His Royal Highness Prince Harry of Wales – took his clothes off in a hotel room in Las Vegas, during a game of what was reported as “strip billiards” and, seemingly, unsupervised. (One imagines the young royals are usually chaperoned for most of the time.) Photos of this nakedness were published in this country in the Sun, and the paper seemed to get away with it. He was naked in private, behind closed doors, but, unfortunately, among a bunch of other people who did not necessarily respect that privacy. Frankly, you take your kit off in a hotel room with other people in it, especially when phones are cameras, and you run the risk of photos being published. This, presumably, is why Clarence House didn’t attempt to sue anybody after the fact.

With Kate, it’s different, apparently. The French version of Closer magazine splashed the pictures (“Oh My God,” it squealed, in the international language of exclamation) and the magazine is being sued. The Irish edition of the Daily Star has also reprinted them, with an Italian magazine, Chi, threatening to do the same now. (Richard Desmond, the notoriously prurient and censorious owner of Northern & Shell, which publishes the Express and the Star, and co-publishes the Irish Star, has threatened to take his ball home and withdraw his stake after the publication of the snaps.)

So … before I comment on the whole hoo-hah, may I just state the following facts:

  1. I am a republican. I do not believe in the royal family. Which is not to say I do not believe that the current royals are descended from previous royals, or that there is such a thing as royalty, or that the current House Of Windsor goes back to 1917, before which it was called the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. I know that the crowned heads of Europe are all historically sort of interrelated, and that cousins have always been marrying, and that by this complicated series of fluid exchanges does Kate Middleton now get called Her Royal Highness as if perhaps we still live in the 15th century. I also know the powers of the constitutional monarchy are limited. I still firmly believe that by the state funding these decorative ambassadors, who are some of the richest landowners in the country, is wrong. I do not think the royals should be guillotined, merely stripped of their public funding and asked to fend for themselves, like the other aristocrats with all their assets.
  2. The world we live in is a coarse and ugly one, and no matter what the outcomes of the Leveson Inquiry, and the News International criminal prosecutions, it is unlikely that our newspapers will suddenly stop being interested in famous people at any time in the foreseeable future. The celebrity culture is here to stay for as long as it sells papers and advertising. I find it unedifying. But for as long as we all flock to the newsstands and the websites to seek out grubby gossip about people who are only by the smallest margin more famous or richer than ourselves, the papers and the websites will continue to print it, within the bounds of the law.
  3. Exhibitionism is now standard. Where once this country was renowned, and mocked, for being stuffy and sexless and tongue-tied and shy, we now seem to flaunt ourselves and our emotions with abandon. We make more noise. Sometimes this noise is cheering, as heard at the Olympics, and can be good noise. Sometimes it is simply shouting, as heard on trains and buses and in the streets after 11pm in cities, or in the afternoon if the sun’s out. (I passed through Euston station yesterday and a man, with his top off, was slumped at the feet of his friends at an outside table on the piazza, shouting at the world.) I am not John Major, or Mary Whitehouse; I do not wish a return to Victorian values, but my abiding prudishness does seem to make me feel increasingly out of step with modern thinking. This is my problem.

With all this said – and I hope I have painted a depressing enough picture for you! – I will say this: Kate Middleton is an idiot. Why, when she is the wife of the future King of the United Kingdom and the 16 sovereign states of the Commonwealth (gosh, even typing those words makes me feel a bit queasy), would she take her bikini top off when she is outside? It was the daytime. The clue that she was no longer inside, away from prying lenses, was that there was a sky above her. Prying lenses work best when there are no bricks between them and the subject. Paparazzi scum have been plying their trade since the 1960s when the term for their profession was coined in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (in which news photographers harass a visiting film actress, and, in a neat reversal, one of their scrum travels out to photograph a sighting of the Madonna at a church). Fellini said that the word Paparazzo “suggests to me a buzzing insect, hovering, darting, stinging.”

Kate’s husband, William, is the bereaved son of Her Royal Highness The Princess of Wales, herself hounded by the paparazzi, who were certainly on her tail when her car crashed in a Parisian tunnel, killing her, in August 1997. If ever a new royal knew what she was getting into, it was Kate Middleton. I am not Kate Middleton. But if I were, the one thing I would make sure I never did, ever, was to take my top off outside. Just in case. (We might remember that no topless shots of her late mother-in-law and arch publicity-manipulator Diana ever came to light, so we have to assume that she never went topless outside.)

It is a tragedy that a 30-year-old married woman cannot take her top off on the balcony of her bridesmaid’s parents’ chateau in Provence without being photographed from a very long distance away by a man who makes his living selling his photographs to magazine and news agencies, but there it is. I feel sorry for her up to a point, as her freedoms, as a holidaymaker in the South of France, have been curtailed in a way that an ordinary woman on a balcony’s freedoms would not be. But then, she is a member of the royal family, and I stopped feeling 100% sorry for her the day she agreed to join this unlikely and surreal firm of interrelated people.

Closer’s editor-in-chief Laurence Pieau described the photos as “beautiful” and claimed that they’d not printed anything degrading: “There’s been an over-reaction to these photos. What we see is a young couple, who just got married, who are very much in love, who are splendid. She’s a real 21st Century princess … a young woman who is topless, the same as you can see on any beach in France or around the world.”

Hey, I’m quaint enough to still be against Page 3. I don’t think women’s breasts should be shown in newspapers which can be seen by children and impressionable teenagers. This is the kind of 1980s woolly liberal I am, and if grown women want to be topless on beaches around children and people they don’t know, that must be their right. And with the internet, you might argue that what’s on the third page of a newspaper doesn’t matter any more. (I think it does.) We all agree that Kate Middleton has not committed a crime. When I first heard that topless pictures of her had been printed, I assumed these were from the days before she was married, from some scummy ex-boyfriend or something. If they had been, I would have had full sympathy for her, as she can’t really have known she was always going to be a “21st Century princess”.

But she slipped up. The world outside the walls of her chateau – a safehouse – is a sleazy one. She should know better. Don’t feed the trolls. The trolls have cameras.