The king is dead

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Mugs

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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!”

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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?

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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?”

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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

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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

Comment isn’t free

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First, a few unpaid words from Stephen Hull, UK editor-in-chief at the Huffington Post, the newspaper that was never a newspaper and always a website which empowers its writers by not paying them. He was being interviewed by media interrogator Steve Hewlett on Radio 4 (as reported on the New Statesman website). If you are a writer, or someone hoping to make a career out of writing, make sure you are not holding any hot drinks. Ready?

“If I was paying someone to write something because I want it to get advertising, that’s not a real authentic way of presenting copy. When somebody writes something for us, we know it’s real, we know they want to write it. It’s not been forced or paid for. I think that’s something to be proud of.”

So, conveniently, payment robs comment of authenticity. All those words I’ve written for money – and indeed all those words written by Noam Chomsky, JK Rowling and Paul Morley for money – are in some way inauthentic. Oh, and paid writing’s only purpose is to attract advertising.

As an unpaid blogger, by choice, and a paid writer in other quarters – a line of work I have been pursuing for 28 years – this not only infuriates but saddens me. The Huffington Post is successful, innovative and decorated. It is a beacon for our times, when print, deserted by traditional advertisers, is choking on its own thin air. It offers a high-profile platform and shop window for its writers (it calls them bloggers to stop them getting fancy ideas above their station), and you can’t buy that kind of exposure. Except you are buying it. You are buying it with your time and your expertise; your ability to rearrange the English language into sentences. Writing is not a mystical art. All but the technically illiterate do it every time they fill out a birthday card or leave a note on the fridge. But increasingly, as those public outlets for writing dwindle – farewell, the printed Independent; hello, unloved piles of wafer-thin giveaway NMEs thrown back into cardboard gondolas at Sainsbury’s and railways carriages decorated in crumpled copies of today’s Metro as if in dirty protest – the once romantic idea of wielding a quill for money withers on the vine. People would rather watch a Vine.

I’m lucky. I was first paid to write my first ever review in 1988, a year out of college – and not a college where I studied journalism, or the written word: this was the 80s, a golden era of opportunity between the closed shop and the internet. I was paid £23.00 for this review by the publisher IPC, as quaintly typed out in the payslip above, which marks the day I became a professional writer. It seemed like an awful lot of money to me. I would have paid IPC to see my words in print.

ThisIsThisMy only qualification to write this review and see it published was a single copy of a fanzine I’d put together [left], and the skill of being keen enough to ask. This century, I’m often asked to give advice to people wishing to get a start in the media. I’m a media veteran. I’m always happy to tell people my own story, although with each passing year, it becomes less and less relevant to today’s literary and journalistic wannabes. For years I’ve been telling students that I envy them. In the mid-80s, I had to type up my fanzine on an electric typewriter, cut it out and Pritt-stick it down, and pay to have it printed at a high-street Kall-Kwik, then hawk it around in a shopping bag at gigs hoping to sell a copy for a pound. (I sold one by mail-order – it was mentioned in a magazine called Underground and two kids turned up at my flat to buy one, with cash. I was fucking cock-a-hoop.) These days, you need only a broadband connection to publish instantly to the world. No guarantee that a single soul will read it, of course, but it will look professional and you will by definition be a published writer. You can publish a novel in the same way. It’s liberating. It’s also demonetising.

I wrote about the curse of unpaid labour in the media three years ago. I wasn’t paid for writing it. I wrote it for free, here, on this blog. I commissioned myself to write it, sub-edited it myself and headlined it Keeping up appearance fees. If you have the time, you can read it here. Most of it is still true. I will precis the salient points here.

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When you see somebody talking on the telly, do you assume they have been paid? You are right to. Unless they are a member of the public whose opinion or testimony has been sought by a news crew, or an audience member doorstepped by the host on an audience show, or they are questioned in a news studio as a representative of either a political party or a private company, then they will usually be paid an appearance fee.

This will be nominal, but it covers their time and their expertise, and reflects the fact that – like an actor in a drama, or a singer or dancer in a chorus – they have helped to make a TV programme, and without them there would be a person-shaped gap, which will never do. TV programmes have budgets, and from those budgets, fees for actors, singers, dancers or contributors are found. (It goes without saying that there are many, sometimes hundreds of people you don’t see on the telly who are just as vital to the making of the programme, and they will be paid too. This will effectively be a non-appearance fee.)

However, it ain’t necessarily so. When, in 2013, James Gandolfini died, I was contacted on the day by email – via the Guardian as it happens – by a broadcaster who requested my presence on a live studio discussion about Gandolfini, to take place at 4pm the next afternoon. Having gathered my thoughts sufficiently to write a blog and be filmed for the Guardian video obituary, I felt confident I could make a good contribution to this TV show.

However, having agreed on principle with the producer to be at the studio for 4pm (which just happened to be geographically between the British Library, where I was writing, and 6 Music, where I was headed for an appearance on Roundtable, so it was all awfully convenient and meant to be), I was then told, “It’s not actually our policy to pay guests.”

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Without wishing to come across as some kind of square, I rather insisted that I would expect some recompense for my time and expertise, and after a couple more emails, during which the producer went to their editor and came back, we hit an impasse, at which the producer said, “We’re going to have to go with someone else.” This meant somebody who didn’t require paying. Fair enough. I had pushed for payment and they’d called my bluff. To be honest, it was one less extra thing to think about. I was at the time writing a second draft of a pilot sitcom script to a deadline, something I was being paid for.

I have a realistic view of my own importance. I do not delude myself. But I do believe the 28 years’ mileage on my clock gives me a degree of authority and I like to think I can string a sentence together on a good day. I cannot build a wall or fix a radiator but I can talk. A tradesperson is rightly seen as someone who is paid for their time and expertise. If you can plaster a wall yourself, you have no need to call in a plasterer; if you can’t, you must expect to pay a plasterer for the work, and they must be expected to do that work to a certain standard in return.

I once entered some provisional talks with a small, independent publisher about publishing my “selected works” in a book. It never happened, but I had a title: Punctual. I have always been proud to be reliable, to write to length, and to deadline, to turn up on time, and to call ahead if unable to do so. These boring qualities go a long way in showbiz. (I have heard of certain performers who are apparently a nightmare to work with – ones you would instantly recognise on the telly – but you have to be pretty bloody good at your job to get away with this.) I have never fooled myself into thinking I’m some kind of literary, verbal or televisual genius, to whose door broadcasters will constantly be beating a path, but to borrow a phrase, I like to think I’m never the problem.

Now, if I had accepted the no-fee for the Gandolfini appearance on the current affairs show and given my two penn’orth to the broadcaster that day at 4pm, here’s what would have happened:

  1. My face would have been on the telly.
  2. Some people might have seen it.
  3. The whole thing would have lasted a matter of minutes (which, when you build in the travel at either end, plus the buffer of some green-room waiting time, makes the appearance a tiny percentage of the time and effort expended).
  4. The broadcaster might have used me again in the future and on that occasion maybe even paid me.

Also, I suspect, if you’d seen it, you would have assumed I’d been paid. But I wouldn’t have been. It would have been voluntary work, except not voluntary work for a worthy cause.

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So I declined, politely, and wasn’t on. I wonder who was? It doesn’t matter. The world kept on turning. The broadcaster who wouldn’t pay my fee for talking about James Gandolfini offered a car there and back. What a waste of money. It’s nearly always easier, and quicker, to get about London on public transport. Why would I want to be in a slow-moving car? Think of all the money they could save by not running a private car hire service. Perhaps they could pay contributors with that instead? I’ve also been offered unpaid slots on TV and radio shows where my reward was to be able to plug something. This is actual bullshit. Literary festivals are currently under fire for not paying authors (and I mean really famous bums-on-seats authors, not authors at my level) for personal appearances, again, on the understanding that they will be able to flog a few books afterwards. I’ve promoted my books this way, and a) people who run festivals, bookshops and libraries where the event is likely to be tend to be really nice, and b) you do get to sell a few signed books. Should authors be paid a small stipend on top? Or is the platform – like the Huffington Post – enough? Are you being paid “in kind”?

Not all potential guests and contributors are egomaniacs. Given the choice between appearing as a pundit on Channel 4 News and getting home in time to watch Channel 4 News, I’d always choose the latter. I turn down roughly 75% of the offers I get to be myself on radio and TV. It may be more. Frankly, I don’t have anything to flog. And I have no deep need to hear my voice or see my face. I will always jump at the chance to be on Front Row on Radio 4, because I love the show and, oh, I will be paid. Not much. But enough to take a short detour via Broadcasting House and get to talk to the always amenable people who make Front Row.

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I was invited last week to mentor someone hoping to break into the media by an entirely admirable charity-based body that encourages that very thing. I’ve done unpaid work for them in the past. My choice. I like them. But I had to decline the mentoring gig, as I remain a self-employed freelancer and I don’t have the luxury of time to devote to this year-long commitment. (Others in the media who have taken it on seem to work for, or run, production companies or TV channels.) Also, I would, in a roundabout way, be training someone to steal the work that puts food on my table! After all, it may be tough to break into the media and earn enough to actually live on in a digital age where writers are called bloggers and comment is literally free at the point of sale, but at least the young have youth on your side. This is a valuable currency in the magpie eyes of a demographically myopic media. I was delighted to be asked to host the red-carpet coverage of the Bafta Film Awards for Bafta many years ago, the first time the august body had produced its own content for its own website; it was deemed a roaring success and as a result, the next year, I was replaced by a younger, more attractive and more famous host. It was the day I stopped dreaming of being a TV presenter. But even in this cruel Logan’s Run world, the one thing I can offer is something that money can’t buy – experience. It’s just that increasingly, broadcasters and content providers want it for for nothing.

DON’T WORK FOR FREE. UNLESS YOU CAN AFFORD TO. OR IT’S FOR CHARITY.

I will donate the non-existent fee for this article to myself.

 

The hopeful eight

OscarBestPicnoms

It was with some satisfaction that I belatedly watched Mad Max: Fury Road on DVD, thus putting myself in the position of being able to say I have seen all eight of the pale-faced Best Picture nominees at the 88th Academy Awards. I can thus now fruitlessly compare them. They seem like as accurate a barometer of this year’s crop (and thus last year’s movies), so I am about to do just that, although what I think should win is entirely theoretical, as I am not one of the 6,300 or so members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and thus hold zero sway in this regard.

What I think will win is also fluff. What do I know? I have feelings in my bones, and I am a seasoned Oscars watcher of many decades, so have some predictive form, but I don’t want to know what’s going to win. I’m glad about that. It would be boring. I like surprises. I actively want to be wrong. Despite being statistically made up of mostly old, white American men, the Academy is still capable of delivering a bookmaker-upsetting surprise; even causing a relative upset. I enjoy the start-of-year awards season and the resulting quality bottleneck, as I am usually entertained and exercised by its vagaries and waves. I relish the controversies the Oscars throw up. This year: lack of diversity. Meet the new controversy, same as the old controversy.

I don’t blame the august Oscar voters for Hollywood’s lack of diversity. Hollywood is to blame, with its deep-seated patriarchy and its demographic timidity, not to mention its unbreakable Plexiglass ceiling for women and the equivalent of “voter ID” for black actors, creatives and technicians. All of this bleeds into the reductive treatment of all Hispanics (sexy, smouldering, hot-tempered, etc. – it may be positive discrimination of a type, but it’s not so far round the dial from Trump’s rapists), although at least one of the Hopeful Eight was directed by a Mexican.

It’s the entertainment industry’s fault, not the mainly white, mainly male, mainly over-50 demographic of a club of movie professionals, which, by dint of inducting anyone who wins an Oscar and then has the ability to not die, means the Academy is full of people who aren’t black or Hispanic, and a vicious circle is hard to extract yourself from. The problem isn’t with the Oscars, or who wins them, but with American cinema itself, where people tend not to be of colour, or women, and especially not women of colour, like Jada Pinkett Smith, who is among those who’ve threatened to boycott the colourless Oscars ceremony. If I were a black actress, I’d kick up a right stink and then make damn sure I attended. Being invisible is playing into the racists’ hands.

MadMaxFuryR

You keep hearing the truism that male Academy members “give the films to their wives to watch,” which may or may not explain the popularity of certain movies. I hesitate to make sweeping generalisations about what women or men want. Romantic comedies may be machine-tooled to appease women, but men also like them, and women also hate them. Equally, noisy action movies: aimed at teenage boys or men who wish they were still teenage boys, but not necessarily only appreciated by the intended gender or age group. The high nomination tally of Mad Max: Fury Road – which, by the way, is a “male” film by type (action, noise, explosions, petrol) but, interestingly, dominated as much by female characters as the eponymous male one – is a tonic. That it’s only really picking up “technical” awards (so named as if acting, writing and directing aren’t technical) – four wins out of seven at the Baftas for costumes, make-up, editing and production design – should not concern us. It’s doing well and it’s an action movie.

Brooklyn

Max is one of three Best Picture Oscar nominees whose poster is dominated by a woman’s face; also, Room and Brooklyn, both based on novels, one written by a woman, the other a man, one Irish-Canadian, the other Irish, which is a cheering ethnic skew. I first saw Brooklyn trailed at a tiny cinema in Bantry, County Cork, and felt the Irish love (I dislike being English and wish I was Irish). Though an Irish/UK/Canadian production by funding that’s set in Brooklyn and partly shot in Montreal, its Irish authenticity is deep, with the scenes set in novelist Colm Tóibín’s Enniscorthy also shot there, and only two of the principal Irish parts played by non-Irish actors (the bankable Julie Walters and Jim Broadbent). Since it’s about homesickness within the Irish diaspora in America, it could prick a few glands among the immigrant Academy members, but it’s not going to win.

Nor is Bridge Of Spies. I have no ill feelings towards it, but it’s a bit stolid and unsurprising. Cold War. Tom Hanks. Mark Rylance (not in it enough). Snow. Germans. Spies. It’s well enough made, but if it didn’t exist, you wouldn’t have to invent it. (Its score by Thomas Newman is actually something of a beaut, but it’s not the equal of Carter Burwell’s gorgeous score for Carol, which, by the way, despite being a good fit for the wives of the lazy male Academy members, looks to be this season’s big loser. I don’t really get why.)

Room

I admire Room; its stars, its writer (Emma Donoghue, adapting her own novel with precision), its director, another Irishman, Lenny Abrahamson. It will I think win Best Actress for Brie Larson, but it doesn’t feel like a Best Picture. Too gloomy. Too grubby. Too creepy. All the things I love about it. The Big Short, too, is a poor fit for traditional Best Picture thinking; I thoroughly enjoyed its manic energy, but I fear the financial crash and subprime mortgages will not sing in the minds of the panel. (“Aren’t we, like, in some kind of recovery?”)

If Best Picture is between any two films, it’s The Revenant (which I have raved about here) and Spotlight. I don’t think Ridley Scott’s The Martian is going to find much traction at the Oscars. I got it into it, but found it tonally disconcerting. Was it a drama? Was it a comedy? (It was canny of Fox to put it forward for the “Musical or Comedy” categories at the Golden Globes, where it picked up Best Film, thus unrealistically raising its producers’ expectations.) I wondered aloud if Matt Damon might pip Leonardo DiCaprio for Best Actor at the Baftas; that his have-a-go solo performance might sway our less macho voters. But no. There’s no beating Leo’s suffering; he’s a vegan who ate raw liver and raw fish for his art – give that man a statuette and the rest of the week off.

The Revenant is unassailable. There’s an outside chance – the “Crash wild card anomaly” (see: the year Crash beat Brokeback Mountain) – that Spotlight will beat The Revenant to Best Picture and break the Oscar algorithm. Tom McCarthy’s never going to win the Director category, as Spotlight is intelligent enough not to let the direction show (part of its consummate mastery), whereas The Revenant is something like a two and a half hour Oscar begging reel. Look! Natural light! It must have taken ages!

Spotlight

I still harbour a tiny hope that Spotlight, having won Best Supporting Actor for Mark Ruffalo, might win Best Picture. It has all the hallmarks of one of those: true story, set in the past, talky, righteous, no sex, no violence (other than the violence wrought on children by priests, which we do not directly see), and an “issue” that bypasses partisan politics and shows that you have a heart. There are no shades of how much you revile paedophiles.

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As stated, I want to be surprised on Oscar night. I sort of was at the Baftas when Rylance won for Bridge Of Spies, although I suspect patriotism played its hand. (A resource in short supply when neither Tom Courtenay nor Charlotte Rampling found their way onto the Actor and Actress lists for 45 Years.) Hey, this time next year, the voting system may have been overhauled to address the existence of the past 50 years in civil rights, with Academy members who haven’t worked for the past ten years becoming ineligible to automatically vote. We already have gender-divided categories. What about categories graded for “colour”? It would make the Oscars as long and interminable as the Grammys, but perhaps it’s the kind of affirmative action the awards season needs.

What he said

MeatIsMurder

MEAT IS MURDER (WEA)
Released: February 11, 1985

Tracklisting:
The Headmaster Ritual
Rusholme Ruffians
I Want The One I Can’t Have
What She Said
How Soon Is Now?
Nowhere Fast
Well I Wonder
Barbarism Begins At Home
Meat Is Murder

Recorded: November-December, 1984, Amazon Studios, Liverpool and Ridge Farm, Surrey; mixed at Island Studios, London
Personnel: Morrissey, Johnny Marr, Andy Rourke, Mike Joyce
Producers: The Smiths (except How Soon Is Now? – John Porter); engineered by Stephen Street

UK chart: 1
US chart: –

The late Ian MacDonald strikes just one bum note in the otherwise consummate Revolution In The Head. It’s the bit about Penny Lane where he says, “Anyone unlucky enough not to have been aged between 14 and 30 during 1966-7 will never know the excitement of those years in popular culture.” What about people “unlucky enough” to have been 13 or 31? Pah. No good can come of such exclusive, self-mythologising, snotty cultural protectionism.

That said, anyone unlucky enough not to have been in higher education during 1983-1987 will never know the excitement of The Smiths.

When they released their second studio album Meat Is Murder a few days shy of Valentine’s Day in 1985, The Smiths were aged 25, 21, 20 and 21, from Morrissey to Joyce respectively. Though Morrissey, having left school in 1976 to sign on, was getting on a bit, the other three, grammar school boys to a man, might have been at college themselves in 1985. They weren’t, but the music they made spoke to those who were. Meanwhile those who weren’t had the pleasure instead of saying, “That Morrissey – he’s so miserable.”

It is surely no slight to call the Smiths a student band (nor, obviously, does such a label preclude the sensitive soul in gainful employment or, like Moz, on the dole). For it was deep within the fertile soil of the nation’s study bedrooms, draughty, Soviet-style halls and rented rooms in Whalley Range that their unique, intoxicating, life-altering guitar music took root. Higher education, its freedoms increasingly besieged in the mid-80s from a begrudging Sir Keith Joseph and his harebrained idea of top-up fees, used to be a place where you took stock of your life as you passed from late teenage to early 20s. Another Eden, protected from the outside world by subsidy, rebate and time, where you formed your political beliefs away from parental influence, coagulated as a human being, experienced the self-loathing of casual sex, and saw bands on the cheap in the union bar. Historians will need to go back to 1973 and wipe the resinous smudges off a used copy of Dark Side Of The Moon to find a record as beloved of the student class as Meat Is Murder.

The Smiths’ formative gigs were in low-ceilinged clubs and rooms above pubs, but in late 1983 they moved on to the college circuit: Warwick, Durham, Bangor, Kingston, Leicester, Portsmouth, North Staffs. As Morrissey noted of the band’s growing audience, “They don’t spit or gob, they bring flowers.” That’s because they could afford to – they were on grants.

Two years, a dose of mainstream success and a bit of trouble with the tabloids later, and The Smiths still held every safe student seat in Britain. Even though the Meat Is Murder tour would take them into Britain’s pavilions, hippodromes and winter gardens, the students followed. And brought flowers. Support act James found themselves garlanded in prematurely-chucked gladioli, “Don’t waste them on us,” Tim Booth would humbly implore.

Is it any wonder that Meat Is Murder scored such a direct hit with the band’s traffic cone-collecting constituency? For a start, it’s Morrissey’s vegetarian manifesto album. The seeds of his flesh boycott were sown in 1973, when McDonald’s opened its first UK restaurant in Manchester (“It was like the outbreak of war,” he said), but on the powerful title track – saved till the end – he throws down a political gauntlet to his followers (“it’s not natural, normal or kind, the flesh you so fancifully fry”). It made veggies of thousands on the spot.

In tune with this militant tendency, Morrissey’s republicanism rears its lyrical head too: “I’d like to drop my trousers to the Queen … the poor and the needy are selfish and greedy on her terms.” How well this chimed with the sloganeering, NME-reading socialism of the student demo. (Moz attended an anti-Abortion Act march himself in 1980, saying, “I love a good demonstration.” This man could have got himself elected rector of any university in Britain by 1985.)

The album’s masterful opener The Headmaster Ritual – a much punchier affair than the first album’s Reel Around The Fountain, suggesting a new sense of drama and masterplan – was even set at a seat of learning (the unnamed St Mary’s Secondary School), another bullseye with those just putting the gym and playing fields behind them. It even tapped into trendy Vietnam-movie fetishism with an unusually doctored sleeve still from documentary In Year Of The Pig.

The abiding irony of the Smiths is that their deepest appeal tended toward middle-class kids, when Morrissey’s milieu is stoutly working class. Rusholme Ruffians, Johnny Marr’s nod to Elvis’s His Latest Flame, describes “the last night of the fair” in terms not of someone who’s been dropped off by his dad. The “tough kid raised on Prisoner’s Aid” in I Want The One I Can’t Have and the “tattoed boy from Birkenhead” in What She Said seemed like fictional characters to most Smiths graduates, but first-hand authenticity hangs heavy like a dulling wine. It was as exotic as the beat poetry of hip-hop to some pale studes.

Though it’s ultimately Morrissey’s triumph – what Smiths album isn’t? – Meat Is Murder is also a notably musical album. Marr’s on scintillating form, confidently moving between skiffle, heavy metal and whatever you’d call the freight train/wailing riff of How Soon Is Now? Only on the awkward funk of Barbarism Begins At Home do our boys come slightly unstuck, although hats off to an “indie” band countenancing a 15-second bass solo.

Their first and only, it went to number one here, supplanting Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA like an agitated Dad’s Army-style Union Jack triangle. Morrissey’s ubiquity in the press meant that like ’em or loathe ’em, you could no longer ignore The Smiths.

Crunchily produced, inspiringly ordered, melancholy and witty in just the right measure (a balance that would be tipped in favour of the latter on the next two albums), it’s hard to disagree with Smiths chronicler Johnny Rogan’s assessment that Meat Is Murder is “the group’s most abrasive and satisfying work”. It certainly fulfilled Morrissey’s earlier prediction and helped us get through our exams.

(First published in a Q magazine Smiths Special Edition, 2004)