Wednesday, 13 December 2017

In Praise of McFadden's Cold War



Picture this. President Reagan sat on Air Force One, reading a book. He appears engrossed. But wait, who’s that lying in a bed behind him? It’s Max Branning from East Enders. Hang on, what’s that book the late President is reading? It’s Pat Butcher’s autobiography.

Welcome to the world of McFadden’s Cold War, the funniest account on Twitter. A bricolage of modern global politics and British television – where Cilla Black is able to sit and have Christmas dinner with Kim Jong-un, where Khruschev and Eisenhower ride the streets of Washington with a young Sam Allardyce and a topless Cliff Richard. Present in most of these images, somewhere, often in a state of disarray is East Enders long suffering alcoholic wannabe gangster Phil Mitchell (as played by Steve McFadden).

McFadden’s Cold War should be Unit 101 in any Postmodernism Studies course.  Disparate images, times and cultural references are thrown together in order to both reflect the fragmented nature of society and the instant accessibility of all knowledge that the internet has afforded 21st century man.

An image of Kim Il Jung and his generals watching a successful missile launch is subverted utterly by the replacement of the on screen warhead with an image of Nick Knowles mouth-turding his way through one of his songs. Reagan’s Cabinet pose for a photo, suddenly with Harold Shipman and distressed murder suspect Christopher Jeffries amongst their number, a juxtaposition jarring enough but given extra power by the realisation that they are posing beneath a large photo of a leering Dean Gaffney. This is Orwell via Wellard.

McFadden’s Cold War plays with ideas of cultureme, chronotopes and the like in a manner of a great sorcerer. In juxtaposing the worlds of pop culture and global politics, he anticipated the televisual celebrity cult of President Trump. Fictional drunks become players on the world stage, statesmen are reduced to mere citizens, drinkers at the Queen Vic, readers of TV Times.  It is this pricking of pomposity at all levels that makes the wonderfully anonymous MCW such a wonderful fountain of deep belly laughter.

 

Tuesday, 28 November 2017


Kingpin

“The world can really kick your ass. I only have a vague recollection of when it wasn’t kicking mine.”


A journey to the North to see old friends. A train I’ve taken many times but not nearly enough of late. My own private demons to contend with.  But these are my best friends and as they’re now old friends in all senses of that phrase, I need to see them as often as I can before it’s too late.
The Monk hasn’t been well. There’s an understatement. The Monk has nearly died and isn't completely out the woods yet. Years of abuse have caught up with him. People will call it self-abuse but it’s a phrase I don’t care for. Slow suicides like his often have their roots in other people. He’s on a long, painful road to recovery but you can hear the demons listening in on every phone call we’ve shared the last few months. Time to see for myself what damage those demons have done.
Feels irresponsible drinking on the train. Disrespectful even. But it’s what I’ve always done on these long journeys and the cold beers bring a glow as familiar as the hills and towns we pass.  
A farcical taxi journey from the station to the House of Monk. He answers the door. I was expecting him to be in a wheelchair but he’s on crutches so at first my spirits are raised.
He lives alone in a ground floor bedsit in a Victorian terrace that lies in a forgotten corner of an industrial town. He cannot venture further than the front door without a vehicle.  In this tiny flat are piled the books, records and DVDs of a man who cannot enjoy much past these things. Art provides the journeys his broken body is now incapable of making.
Our mutual friend Garry joins us and over a few days we talk about the past, the old days, the glory days, the days when the three of us would seemingly find adventure and madness every time we set outside. We never took photos. We have been best friends for nearly 30 years and have never exchanged a birthday card or present. The marking of time, the passing of things is something that we just don’t do. Who wants to think about the end?
We listen to the music we used to love, to the music we used to make.  We talk about everything from Boy George to Anfield, from rugby league to the Rockford Files. In between bouts of silence brought about by the exhausting regime of medicines the Monk needs to take, he is lucid, witty and charismatic as ever. Eventually, worn out by all our natter, we decide to put one of the Monks DVDs on.
Despite the many greater works of art that make up much of the Monks film collection, we settle for an old lowbrow favourite.  For those of you who haven’t seen it, Kingpin is a film about a naïve young man who makes the mistake of trusting an older one against his initial instincts, a mistake that costs him his hand and ends his fledgling career in professional ten pin bowling. Woody Harrelson is Munson, a man whose cruel misfortune has led to his surname becoming synonymous with having the world in the palm of your hand and losing it.  Bill Murray is Ernie McCracken, a professional bowler, all round bad guy and at least partly to blame for Munson's disfigurement.
Seventeen years of hard drinking and poverty pass.  So, when Munson discovers Brother Ishmael (Randy Quaid), a member of the Amish community with a bowling talent kept hidden from his family, he sees a chance to get out of his predicament. There is a bowling tournament in Reno with a prize of a million dollars. Exactly twice the amount needed to save Brother Ishmael’s farm from foreclosure.
You can probably guess the rest. A road trip across America in which a romantic interest, Claudia (Vanessa Angel), comes along for the ride and a showdown at the end with McCracken.

In Brother Ishmael, Munson sees not just a chance to get rich, but a chance to be the man he was expected to be. There is a moving scene in which Munson returns to the small town he left as a young man to seek his fame and fortune, sent on his way by his adoring father. We hear that Munson felt too ashamed to even return for his father’s funeral. Seeing the ghosts of the town he left. Munson realises that though he can’t now redeem himself in his father’s eyes, perhaps he can redeem himself in his own.
Munson sees eventually that he must accept a degree of responsibility for his situation, if not the initial cause of it. From that moment on, though there are several setbacks, redemption seems assured if not in the form we expect.

Despite the jokes about rubber hands, bestiality and alcoholism, this is really a film about broken dreams, second chances, unexpected redemption. Though Bill Murray excels as the wild-haired monster, it’s Harrelson who absolutely makes this film work.  I’ve always found him an underrated actor.  Despite his good looks, something in him seems too nice to land the anti-hero roles that characterised the best work of Paul Newman, yet he could never realistically grab an everyman part like Tom Hanks or a truly bad guy role. Only recently have directors started to realise he can’t play blue-eyed village idiots forever.
There’s many funny and quotable lines in the film but my favourite line is Munson attempting to defend his latest transgression – “The world can really kick your ass. I only have a vague recollection of when it wasn’t kicking mine.”
Something in that line has always seemed very true to me, despite its note of self-pity. The world can kick your ass and it’s been kicking The Monk’s longer than most. I’m not drawing parallels between the Monk and Munson, except in one small way.
The Monk seeks redemption too, another shot at being somebody people can be proud of. If he could only see that those of us who love him are already proud of him, and there are many more of us than he probably thinks, and that it is only himself he needs to forgive, then perhaps victory can yet be his.
 
 
 

 

Thursday, 24 August 2017

A Letter For Europe


Having tweeted the above this morning, I felt compelled to write said letter.



Dear Europe. 

Sorry about all this. It was a game of chicken with some of our more gullible electorate and we lost and you know how it is with us upper class English types – can’t back down. A wager’s a wager and debts have to be settled. More on that later.

Historically, our island nation has often been on bad terms with you guys.  It was hoped that the lessons of millennia of conflict and distrust might have been learnt but do you know how many people read the Daily Mail? I know, right?

Idiots. That’s the only word for it. Don’t tell anyone I said this but we’ve been made to look like bloody fools. We’ve only ourselves to blame,

Truth be told, most of us really like Europe, or at least most of us who’ve actually ventured anywhere other than those ghastly places on the Costa Del Sol where you can get a proper English breakfast and a pint of Carling for under a fiver. Well, could. I see the pound plummeting faster than Boris Johnson’s chances of leading the country and it’s all I can do not to smile.

Would you take us back? I mean, would you consider it? Obviously, we’d have to meet covertly at first, like secret lovers at some impossibly romantic rendezvous. There I go again, peppering this letter with French words.  I’ll have to stop that. Stick to the mother tongue.

English is a mongrel language and we are a mongrel breed. Where we got the idea that we are some kind of pure, undiluted, special breed of man I’ll never know. Last chap who had that sort of numbskull idea was a failed art student and well, you know the rest.

Farage is a prick, isn’t he? Sorry about him. Typical self-made oaf. Stick a stale ham in a tweed suit and off they go, crashing helicopters and screaming the Germans did it.  Still, you won’t be seeing him again.

Us Brits aren’t supposed to do feelings. Stiff upper lip and all that. It’s rubbish, of course, much like the stuff that Murdoch prints but there you go. We’re sad to be going but we can’t admit it.

Chances are that we’ll be knocking on the door to come back soon. The pound is already stood on the white cliffs of Dover, threatening to jump into La Manche.  Any further decline and we’ll be the new Zimbabwe. How ironic would that be, eh?

Knocking? We’ll be pounding more like. Please save our precious pound, Frau Merkel! Won’t someone think of our poor orphaned pennies, Monsieur Macron? You can’t build an economy on jam. You can try to build one on the missiles that destroy the villages thus causing the waves of refugees we are running away from, sure. But not on jam.  Oh God, we’re going to bring back golliwogs aren’t we. I’m so sorry.

Don’t cry for me Ireland, Sweden. I doubt they will. Nor Belgium, Spain or anyone else. Can’t imagine any foreign backpacker will decide to queue for hours just to visit one of our many thousands of Wetherspoons.

UK. United Kingdom. They don’t even realise the irony of what we’re doing. A (largely) successful political union of previously warring neighbours leaving a bigger version of the same thing. It’ll end in tears. But no apologies.

Please take us back. I’m begging you. I'll pay whatever you ask. We're the Lannisters in this thing, aren't we? And the Lannisters always pay their debts.

Yours

The United Kingdom.

 

 

 

 


Monday, 12 June 2017

The Poor Have Never Had It So Good.


There’s still a significant amount of people in this country who believe that poverty is the result of some personal moral failing.  That, if only these wretches could find the resolve to dig themselves out of their self-created messes, everything would soon work out for them. It should be no surprise to anyone that these opinions are, almost exclusively, the preserve of people who have never experienced a single moment of hardship in their lives.  Such fortune only reinforces their opinion, I work hard, they tell themselves. I work hard, I have money, and therefore hard work equals elimination of poverty.
I’ve got a pretty good idea what poverty feels like. It’s like a sack of coal upon your back that you are never allowed to set down. From the moment you wake to the moment you collapse at the end of the day, it’s slung over your shoulder. Nearly every single decision you make depends upon this weight. Few of these decisions involve anything but difficult choices.  Do I put a fiver on the gas meter before I runs out or do I hope it isn’t too cold this evening and buy something decent for tea? Do I get the bus to work or do I pay my kid’s school dinner money? Do I get that toothache sorted at the dentist or do I get my daughter a birthday present? Every day is like this, every single fucking day. And that doesn’t take into account the continual justification you have to make for each of these decisions, to yourself, to your partner, to the woman on the working tax credits helpline, to the bank, to the bloke at the job centre.
Poverty is grim. It stops you from sleeping, it is the unwanted spice in every thankfully sourced meal you eat when the fiscal stars fail to shine your way. It's the hole in your shirt you hope your friends don't notice, the wet walk home when there's no money for a bus. It's the stolen loaf and the Christmas present you wanted to get for your son but couldn't quite afford. I know all of these things and a hundred more and I've got a fucking job right now.
Not the job I’d like, mind.
More than anything else poverty dampens expectations, smothers hopes and crushes dreams. Statistically speaking, if you’re born poor, you’re more than likely going to die poor. It doesn’t matter what talents you have, you’re not going to make it without a huge amount of good luck.
I was the first person in my family to go to university. Without consciously looking for them, I gravitated instinctively to the only other person there who’d been on free dinners. Maybe we recognised something in each other’s eyes or clothes.  We were both skinny.  Maybe that was it. Our accents were ours, not faked, not exaggerated. We didn’t feel the need to say we were working class. Nobody needed to ask.
Fast forward thirty years and we’re still best mates. Neither of us have made much of our lives. We don’t own our own homes, we cling on to jobs we hate because life has taught us the grass is never greener elsewhere. Speaking not that long ago my mate told me about a conversation he’d had at work with his boss.
“Have you seen I, Daniel Blake?”
“Seen it? I’ve bloody lived it.”
We had a good long laugh at that.
I lost a reasonably well paid job in 2006.  I had only myself to blame, I’d launched into an online tirade against a boss who had pushed my buttons once too often. Thinking I’d find something quickly I hadn’t allowed for the first shoots of an economic recession and soon found myself signing on.
There are few second chances for the poor.
Unlike those with the right connections, we go to prison if we stab people. If we lie on our CV, we lose our jobs. We wouldn’t ever get a third or fourth chance.
Living with these pressures day in day out can be difficult. I find it hard and I work full time. Lord knows what it’s like now to be unemployed. In the last five years I’ve been made homeless twice through no fault of my own. I’ve been referred to foodbanks. I’ve suffered depression and anxiety issues. Just as I cling to my job for dear life, not wishing to rock the boat, so I cling to my council flat for the shelter and security it brings my family. It’s in a post-war council block of the kind built by this country in a kinder incarnation, when governments realised that social housing was a necessity rather than a frivolity. It sits a couple of hundred yards from the highest rated state school in the country. From my kitchen I can see the Bristol Channel and the hills of Somerset. It is a beautiful view and one that sooner or later, my local authority will realise it is also one with a high market value. I try not to think about that, though it keeps me up some nights.
I put things into perspective. My ancestors were miners, labourers and factory workers in the days before health and safety regulations. They fought in wars waged on their betters behalf and died in their beds of diseases we can now cure. I don’t have to walk ten miles to source water to drink and I won’t watch my children die of malnutrition.
It is with these perspectives in mind that I suspect Fraser Nelson says “Things have never been so good for the poor.” And even though that isn’t even remotely true, it will be heralded as the fact that justifies the cuts that are still to come.

 

 

 

 

Friday, 2 June 2017

Plainsong


46 years old and still sobbing on trains.

Pop music is the cruellest music. Ephemeral and eternal, pointless and profound, disposable, inescapable pop music. The crackling intro of a jukebox classic, the yearning of a timeless fade out.

Everything I have ever heard and loved takes me back to a moment long lost. I can’t ever just hear a song. It is never just playing. Songs aren’t content with being beautifully rendered pieces of art, they have to torture me with images of vanished youth, thwarted love and wasted time.

So, my walk this morning. Shuffle on. Bring A Friend – HappyMondays. I’m 18 again, having fallen properly in love for the first time ever. Delighted at this unrequited experience, a relief to find I can feel anything, having spent my teenage years till now terrified at the thought of not being able to relate to anyone or anything past my nascent record collection. All of life’s mistakes not yet made. In the psychedelic sludge of Martin Hannett’s production I am reminded of my friends initial disgust at this purchase and their volte-face at Wembley Arena a year later as they slope in with the freshly flared jeans of the interloper.

Method Man – Bring The Pain. Late 20s me, bedsit me, stupid McJob and shit relationship me. Drugs me. Is it real son, tell me is it real son, is it really real son, tell me if it’s real.  I don’t even know if they’re the words.  It doesn’t matter. Just one of pop music’s myriad pleasures is the deciphering, the deconstructing of it’s hidden intent.

The music obsessive is an archaeologist, a historian, a detective, a trivia buff, a snob, a zealot, a tribalist, a completist, a fanatic. We don’t know the price of milk but we know who wrote How Can You Mend A Broken Heart. We argue on message boards, write fanzines, come up with fantasy cover versions, dream festival line ups. We make compilation tapes for would-be lovers, break-up tapes for ourselves.

You can’t prove it but I’d take a stab at saying that if it was possible to have a chart listing every band that had ever featured on a break-up tape then The Cure would be in the top 20. They’d have to be. I’m not even a massive fan but even they have songs that stop me in my tracks, send a time-travelling punch to my solar plexus, take me back to a place where I can literally smell and touch every single thing in the room.

And so it is with “Plainsong” – the kind of song you’d imagine The Cure sound like if you’d only read about them. As you hear it, you realise how much they and New Order ripped each other off. Chicken and egg stuff. All those 1980s music journalism clichés rush to your mouth, synths are glacial, bass lines majestic – drums funereal etc.

Somewhere in all of Robert Smith’s pained mumbling, I’m back to 1990 and enjoying the sound of a summer storm battering the windows of my little college room. There’s a woman asleep next to me. In the background, my cassette copy of Disintegration – the nearest The Cure ever got to a heartbreak album – is purring away. At that moment, all the dreadful and terrible things me and that woman went on to do and say to each other have yet to happen – mere rumours from a personal dystopia not yet written.

At that moment, I think I’m about as happy as I had ever been or seemed likely to be.

And that’s pop music’s terrible power because there’s an equation which goes something like Power of Memory x Soundtrack x Years Passed = Amount of Pain Hearing Said Song Brings.

So it is that, on a beautiful clear Simpsons blue sky morning, I’m pretending to have hay fever on a train to a job on the edge of the world. And there’s no cure for that misery, neither would I want one.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Notting Hill.

Earlier this week I gave a minute-by-minute commentary on the 1998 Hugh Grant slice of cinema verite, Notting Hill.

But I didnt give much of an introduction. Last night I had a curious dream about writing a Victorian style ghost story about Hugh Grant.

So I've attempted to merge the two. Read the short piece below, then the minute by minute commentary. Watch the film at the same time for a fully immersive experience of what it was like to be alive at the moment neither Arsenal nor the Labour Party were a joke.


I remember clearly that it was the week of Michaelmas when the Dean invited me to dine in his quarters. I was glad of the invitation, the first anniversary of my wife’s passing had found me in varying shades of maudlin and the opportunity to distract my mind – if only for a few hours – from sad and dismal contemplations was to be gratefully taken. 

It was an excellent meal. The Dean’s cook, a plump lady in her middle years, had rendered us quite invalid with roast beef, carrots, potatoes and peas – all quite drowned in the most succulent gravy I had ever tasted. Our passage to invalidity, I am almost ashamed to say, was aided by a bottle and a half of a most splendid claret. My comfort would have been unsurpassable were it not for the knowledge that outside the weather had turned most treacherous. Having retired to the Dean’s drawing room, warmed by both the excellent beef and the glowing hearth by which we now sat, I had begun to feel the first stirrings of tiredness when the Dean suddenly spoke. 

“Do I strike you as a good man?” 

I replied that he did. 

The Dean poured two more large glasses of the claret. 

“Even the most proud soldier of Christ has weaknesses, my boy. Strange proclivities, curious wants and illicit desires haunt us as they haunt all men. I have seen things that would shock even the hardest of hearts. But there is one terrible vision which I feel compelled to share with you if you would be so kind as to indulge an elderly fool.” 

The rain grew bolder outside. 

“Mrs Trilby will make you a room up. No point in wasting your warm belly in that storm.” 

I thanked the Dean and reached for my glass. The Dean went to a locked cabinet and pulled out a curious book. Opening it, he withdrew a flat disc of shimmering light. Before I could enquire as to what this disc was for, he placed it in a most curious contraption. All of a sudden, an unusual picture frame that I had hitherto paid little attention to, was lit with moving figures. A strange music came from it too, orchestral, giddy and joyous. 

“What magic is this?” I cried. 

The Dean pressed a button on a small block next to his left hand and the previously unremarkable picture frame filled with words. 

“Allow me to share with you the torments of a man called Thacker. A most unfortunate wretch whose dismal predicament has haunted me these many years. Let us watch the DVD of Notting Hill.” 

Though it is some time since that evening, there is not a part of me that wishes I had taken leave of my host there and then. For though the storm that raged outside that night would pass by the time the sun had risen, how I wish I could say the same for the tempest that has troubled my mind ever since.” 


Hawkney Chess, “The Night of the Glittering Disc.” (1874)


Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Theme to Brexit Boast


If you’re too scared to call Murdoch out just call Brexitboast

We've got UKIP goons and Wetherspoons at Brexitboast

Hear the Leader of the Country invoke Article 50

Remember what you see is not a tragedy but Brexitboast

 

If your party is divided you need Brexitboast

If your pound is falling swiftly just call Brexitboast

   You can let Paul Dacre scare you, and claim the country’s over run

Because we’re horrible, and know you’re gullible - Brexitboast

 

Let me state the most ridiculous statistics, not scientific

In the newspapers and telly everyday.

Our language patriotic , our policies psychotic

We’re heading for disaster Theresa May!, Ya-a-a-ay!

 

We are fanatical hate preachers here at Brexitboast

We will proudly man the beaches here at Brexitboast

We will march towards oblivion

Under a blood soaked Union Jack

We got our nation back from a pretend attack , that’s Brexitboast

We got our nation back from a pretend attack, that’s Brexitboast

 

(Hah-hah-hah-hah-hah-hah-hah-hah-haaah)