For – cough!

They called her “divisive”. She isn’t now. She has united this divided country in laughter. Press reaction to Theresa May’s “last gasp” closing speech to the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester seems to go beyond party politics. Her performance, wracked by a psychosomatic nervous cough and speared by the latest human hack by comedian Simon Brodkin (with whom I worked long and hard on a sitcom pilot that was never green-lit), was a how-not-to. Even her bracelet bore images of a Communist. As the Express helpfully explained, the horrible piece of wristwear “featured self-portraits of communist artist Frida Kahlo, who was Mexican and died in July 1954 aged 47”, going on to say that she “even had a love affair with Leon Trotsky, who is thought of as one of the fathers of modern communism. Communism is the theory that all property should belong to the state, and those in the community contribute to the state so that everyone’s needs can be met.  This is somewhat at odds with the Conservative Party, which traditionally favours private ownership as a means to promote enterprise.”

TheresaMayconferencenightmare

She may refuse to hand even a fake P45 to her unsackable Foreign Secretary, but she should sack whoever was in charge of putting the white letters onto the blue background. (I’m sure they can find another zero-hours job in May’s Britain, although it will not be May’s anything for long, surely. The writing’s partially on the wall. Oh, and just in case you thought my assessment of her nationwide unification was correct, and multi-partisan, the Express proves me wrong this morning, with a rallying cover that must have been put to bed before anybody had seen the speech, or perhaps composed on the moon. That’s the only possible explanation for this work of fiction.

TheresaMayspeechExpress

And the Mail remains on a planet of its own, with reference via Quentin Letts to the outgoing Prime Minister as “the old girl.”

TheresaMayspeechDailyMail

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Whatever | April 2009

Whatever | Trying to choose a newspaper
Hold the front page! Newspapers still matter!

WhateverPapersApril2009

I think my newsagent hates me. I regularly pop into his shop, but it is not to buy a Boost or a Lotto scratchcard; rather, it is to change my newspaper delivery order. Again. I fear he’s getting tired of re-inputting my latest fickle, print-based whim. I want to tell him … although I don’t think he’ll care … that I’m going through a media-life crisis. Those publications that have defined me for years no longer seem satisfactorily to do so.

I am a loyal subscriber to a number of publications, although I had to let the NME go last year when they stopped running anything over 250 words and, some years ago, I had to cancel my subscription to Your Cat when the same features about collars and worming started coming round for a second time. But I care passionately about which daily newspaper I take. After all, it says a lot more about a person than shoes or haircut in our increasingly promiscuous, mix-and-match age, especially when the only badges people now wear are company IDs round their Orwellian necks.

In London, with three separate daily freesheets in circulation, each as timorously gossip-weighted as the next, it’s a badge of honour to tuck a paper you actually picked out and paid for under your arm on the train home.

I was brought up in a Telegraph-reading household and have been a Guardian reader since the Miners’ Strike: as much a bid for undergraduate independence as wearing no socks or getting all the way through an Einsturzende Neubaten album. But I have, of late, been dallying with other dailies. Come the latest promotional period, when they all start to vie for the floating voter with booklets and Pizza Express vouchers, I began to shop around, weary of my beloved Guardian’s ceaseless manufacture of “personality journalists”, interns plucked from obscurity and offered a shot at the title, as long as they’ll mug for the lens and have wackily self-deprecating photos all over a light-hearted feature about whether haggling works in brothels or how to survive avian flu by living in a hole.

So, what the hell, I flirted with the Times for a few days – after first checking with Ben Elton that it was OK to buy a Murdoch title now. Altogether less concerned with attracting younger readers, I found it to be serious, literate, stimulating and non-hectoring, and its columnists more varied than the Independent’s (another fleeting ex of mine). But I wasn’t ready to commit.

WhateverPapersApril2009

One Thursday in February, I bought all the papers, boosting their ABC circulation figures en masse. It made interesting reading. No surprise, the red-tops were identical, juggling that day’s two big celeb stories: the ghoulish Jade Goody Death Watch – cue: product placement of Hycamtin, the “miracle cancer drug” – and Carol Thatcher’s dismissal for comparing Congolese tennis player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to a golliwog in mixed ie. not all racist, company. The Mirror led on gollies being sold at Sandringham’s gift shop, as, with zero glee, did the Mail, whose editorial line was that Thatcher was being witch-hunted because of her mum (“Revenge on Maggie”) and the golliwog was an “innocent children’s hero.”

But while the once-xenophobic Sun found space for the opinion of Sunderland striker Djibril Cisse (“as a black footballer I’ve experienced racism in many different countries”), the Telegraph gave burdened white man Charles Moore the floor. His conclusion: that the BBC had “revealed its contempt for those who fund it” and was “culturally target-bombing” innocent racists (“I think Carol should start a Golliwog Club to defy the BBC ban and I think we should all join”). Sometimes, they make it easy for you.

The Guardian lifted its skirts in my direction with an investigative piece on corporate tax avoidance, which was all their own work and an actual exclusive. The golliwog story was downplayed on Page 8, although I feared one of their journalists would be blacked up in the next day’s G2 to gauge the public’s reaction. I had narrowed it down to two. Or three. I ordered the Times, missed the Guardian, then cancelled the Times.

WhateverPapersApril2009

All of which may be irking my newsagent, but whatever the outcome of this battle for my soul, at least it will have ink on its fingers. On election day in November, copies of the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times were selling out as fast as vans could deliver them, and Nick Ferrari, reporting for London talk station LBC made this stirring speech: “It’s enough to gladden the heart of an old newspaperman. Whatever you say about the Internet and everything else, people still like to hold onto a manifest product of the news.”

You can’t make an impromptu rain hat out of the Internet either.

Published in Word magazine, April 2009

Join our club

I have been reading and reviewing the splendid new coffee table book BBC VFX by Mat Irvine and Mike Tucker (Aurum, £30), and found my old Airfix Modellers Club membership card (circa 1977) while doing so – the two things are inextricably linked, as I used to envy Irvine whenever he appeared on Swap Shop or Model World, showing how he’d made the Liberator for Blake’s 7 using turrets and doors and other bits from Airfix kits. Anyway, during the same bout of research, I found the following piece which I wrote for the Times in February 2005 about clubs [including mention of the ELO Fan Club, circa 1978, pictured], and I reprint it here in case you are, or were, also an inveterate joiner. (Unless you are a Times subscriber you won’t be able to access my review of BBC VFX when it appears on Saturday – needless to say, it’s me telling you that I really like the book in 1,500 words.)

IT’S GREAT TO KNOW YOU BELONG by Andrew Collins

If I should ever drown, I’m convinced my life will flash before my eyes as a series of laminated membership cards, affiliation certificates and enamel badges. That’s because I am an inveterate joiner. Quite unlike Groucho Marx, I’m happy to be a member of any club that will have me as a member.

Ever since boyhood I have had an urge to join. I can write my own autobiography in clubs and societies, each one pinpointing a different need and a distinct life-phase. First, there was the Tufty Club, founded by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents in 1961, but with a membership of two million at its peak in 1973. Based around a stiffly-animated but sensible squirrel, I dimly remember watching some road safety films in a church hall and having a badge, but little else. I was under five, the club’s target age.

More significantly came the Warlord Secret Agent Club, a covert society run from the pages of the boys’ war comic (home of Union Jack Jackson and unreconstructed dialogue like “Take that, my slant-eyed friend!”). For a 20p postal order you got a wallet, badge and code-breaker. Ideal accessories for the combat games my brother and I played around the fields and building sites of suburban Northampton.

I simultaneously joined the school choir, getting in touch with my inner softy, and the Airfix Modellers Club (membership no. 106339). There was also the Dennis The Menace Fang Club, whose black plastic wallet contained top secret passwords D.I.N.G. and D.O.N.G. (which stood for Dennis Is Never Good and Dennis Owns Naughty Gnasher). In 1978, when I reached upper school, I flirted with the Weston Favell Bird-Watching Club and notched up just the one field trip before self-consciously letting my membership lapse. The shifting musical tastes of a teenager are mapped by the ELO Fan Club (a certificate and five bent Walkerprints, 1979) followed by the 999 International Information Service (late discovery of punk rock, 1981; a few Xeroxed newsletters).

My coming of age is marked by membership cards for the Nene College Film Society, the NUS and the AA, whose motto in 1984 was “It’s great to know you belong.” Then it’s The Whale And Dolphin Conservation Society (waking up to environmental issues in the late 80s), The Labour Party (lapsed after general election defeat, 1992), the NUJ (first job in journalism, plus first strike), Canons Health Club (mid-90s, didn’t we all?), the Soil Association (hardcore organic lifestyle badge of honour), RSPCA, PDSA (you get a Certificate Of Friendship), IFAW, WWF, CPL (once you’re on one acronymic animal charity’s mailing list …).

These days I belong to a whole portfolio of pointless online clubs which require no more effort than checking your email inbox. Even though I don’t especially like her, last year I joined the Pat Benatar Fan Club. Why? Well, I was feeling insecure, having turned 39 and moved to Surrey. And the name caught my eye when I typed “fan club” into a search engine. I could have joined the Hans Zimmer Fan Club or Baseline, the Andre Agassi Fan Club. I chose Pat’s because I could only name one of her hits, Love Is A Battlefield, and she seemed a very 80s person to have an ongoing fan club. I wanted to join and find out more.

On the same day I signed up for Benatar-News, “the Pat Benatar Fan Club News listserver”; the On The Buses Fan Club, whose first newsletter would inform me when the 70s sitcom was next repeated, provide the answer to a previous competition (“Mum used green stamps instead of money to buy her fun wig”) and sign off with a heart-warming “Ding ding!”; and Jane’s, the defence organisation, for free access to Jane’s News Briefs, Sentinel Risk Pointers and Defence Glossary (“a database containing over 20,000 defence-related acronyms and abbreviations”).

It goes without saying that signing up online is too easy. What, no postal order? No agonising wait for your SAE, bulging with documentation, badge and perhaps money-off vouchers? All you get these days is a login and a password. Who would want to join a club that’s so easy to join? At least when Groucho famously resigned from the exclusive Friar’s Club in New York with the words, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member,” he did so by telegram.

Proper club-joining should involve some physical effort and a field trip. Hence my recent application to MENSA. “Do you want to meet like-minded people?” asked the brochure. “Are you looking for intellectual stimulation? Take the first step to membership – NOW!”

Anyone can take the MENSA Home Test. I did, and excitedly sent off my answers. I scored 143, putting me in the “top three percentile” and earning me the chance to do the Supervised IQ Test for £9.95 at University College London with 29 other hopefuls, all at least half my age, and one bright spark aged 10. “People in MENSA are a bit mad,” said the bearded adjudicator. “Cleverness complicates rather than simplifies life.”

I’ll never know. I scored 138 and 106 on the two papers and was barred entry (“Under the rules of membership you are not allowed to retake this test for 12 months,” wrote Ms H Oliver, Testing & Admissions Coordinator).

The Tony Hancock Appreciation Society (est. 1976) required no such aggravation, just a tenner. As well as The Missing Page magazine and access to the archive library, joining offered me the chance to attend my first annual Reunion Dinner, along with 86 like-minded members (mostly older chaps whose wives stayed at home) at the Quality Hotel, Bournemouth, where Hancock lived as a boy. We swapped memorabilia, entered a “fun quiz” (41 out of 45), watched episodes and queued halfway round the dining room to get our menu cards autographed by special guest June Whitfield. I returned to Surrey satisfied that it really is great to know you belong.

And there was a copy of The Teapot Times waiting for me on the mat. Worth joining the Clipper Tea Club too.

It all seems so long ago now – living in Surrey, being 39 – I was actually in the process of working up a new non-fiction book about clubs and joining when I signed up for Pat Benatar, Tony Hancock and took the MENSA test. But my publisher convinced me instead to write the third part of my memoirs, which I did. They were never very keen for me to do anything but write memoirs, which is why I am no longer with them. Still, at least I got a piece in the Times out of it,