Friday, September 14, 2007


Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Eight episodes in, Richard last night suggested we stop bothering to watch Aaron Sorkin’s much-hyped, soon-cancelled follow-up new show (and we gave Robin Hood the full series). The first two years of The West Wing – those on which Mr Sorkin had the most control – are among the best television anyone has ever produced; this has the same writer, the same producer and many of the same faces. Yet it comes across as a bunch of not very funny people who are terminally up themselves about their own genius, with an underlying suggestion of ‘TV series as multi-million-dollar therapy’.

This may sound strange, but Richard and I don’t watch all that much TV. That is, we don’t follow much of it as it’s broadcast, generally watching a fifty-year stretch of favourites on DVD instead. Over the last couple of months we’ve tended to tune in for Studio 60 and Heroes, while in the last few weeks I’ve often caught Hollyoaks (at which Richard rolls his eyes on the occasions when he gets home early enough). Which one ought to be the high-concept, high-budget, highbrow show, and which the clichéd pile of old tat that panders to bigotry? I ask the question only so that, in the style of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, the revelation at the end is pre-telegraphed in letters sixty feet tall.

A Show Within a Show

The format is that we see the making of a show (also called Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) within a show, with some of the ‘hilarious’ sketches that might bear some resemblance to Saturday Night Live if any of them managed actually to be hilarious. The episodes in part tend to revolve around new President of Studio 60’s home station NBS, high-achieving party-girl-but-not-so-much-as-her-slimeball-ex-husband’s-tabloid-friendly-memoirs-make-out Jordan, who despite her role on paper is perhaps the nearest thing the show has to a rounded character, and the big three actors in the show. These are Tom Jeter, token looks-gay-but-isn’t-so-don’t-drop-our-show-please, Harriet Hayes, token Southern Christian, and Simon Stiles, token black guy (again, usually rising above the material). I sometimes want John Simm to pop by and congratulate them on ticking every demographic box, then tell them to run for their lives. Or just telling them to run for their lives and having people shooting at them would do at a pinch.

The two members of the cast that really matter, though, are ‘the one from Friends’ Matthew Perry as writer Matt (who’s on-off involved with Harriet) and ‘the one from The West Wing’ Bradley Whitford as producer Danny Tripp (who’s in trouble for having had trips with cocaine). I rather like both performances, actually, and for me they carry the show, but of course any resemblance to writer Aaron Sorkin and producer Thomas Schlamme is completely coincidental. I mean, look! It was Mr Sorkin, not the producer, who was busted from The West Wing for cocaine! And the show is, essentially, about how unbelievably brilliant these two guys are. If you think this sounds self-congratulatory… That’s one of its typically subtle and hard-to-spot messages. This is laid on particularly thickly in the first couple of episodes, the linked Pilot and The Cold Open, in which once-fired golden boys Matt and Danny are brought back because only they have the quality and genius to save the show, television, and perhaps the United States of America. Danny, like Mr Sorkin, has had a cocaine habit. Matt and Danny, like Mr Sorkin, worked on a brilliant funny-but-political show which, after they were fired, went slowly downhill (“it took four years, but the show collapsed without them” – uncannily, just about the length of time it took The West Wing to be cancelled). By the time beautiful young women are throwing themselves breathily at our heroes with cries of ‘Only your adorable genius offers hope for quality TV! Forgive our foolish ways, and please come and save us, Aaron! Er, Danny and Matt!’ it’s become clear that what the series wants to be is not a showcase for funny sketches and fully-formed characters, but the most expensive therapy session in the history of the world.

The Opening Episodes

The pilot episode opens wanting desperately to be (and referencing) the film Network, with the producer bawling out the viewers after deciding the show-within-a-show has stopped being cutting-edge political and social satire and started pandering to cheap laughs and the middle ground, because, you know, TV is really bad, yeah. And so after that smack in the chops, we’re ready to get a reinvigorated show-within-a-show with brilliantly funny humour and cutting-edge political and social satire once the bright new station president brings back the genius writer and producer that can deliver all this. This may happen fictionally, but to those of us watching the whole show at home, it’s the same problem identified in Cornelltoppingday’s review of The Armageddon Factor (they think it’s a bit Shapps) in their influential Doctor Who – The Discontinuity Guide:
“There’s a parody of bad television and propaganda in the first scene, complete with hackneyed dialogue… However, this would only work if the rest of The Armageddon Factor were lavish and believable and populated by actors working at the height of their powers.”
Most of the actors here are pretty good, but you can tell just how far the fictional talent in Studio 60 lies from what we’re actually given to watch when their first relaunched show is a much-lauded smash hit. In their very first show, they come up with a brilliant and innovative new opening sketch to get people punching the air in delight: do some Gilbert and Sullivan shtick. I stared in horrified disbelief. What really irritated me was Mr Sorkin repeating his trick of ‘two-episode build-up with no delivery’ from the opening two-parter of The West Wing’s third season; in that, we kept hearing about President Bartlet’s brilliant upcoming speech, and the second episode cut off just as he took to the stage. In exactly the same way, the first two episodes build around a controversial but astoundingly funny sketch called ‘Crazy Christians’, which is just about to begin as the episode goes off the air. Grr. Anyway, the next few weeks bumbled along in similar we’re-new-but-brilliant-and-wrestling-with-our-brilliance fashion, until a fortnight ago, when we had the first ‘ordinary’ episode, where it felt like the show had stopped being ‘new’ and settled down. Was this one a success?

To discover just how badly wrong the first ‘ordinary’ episode went, read its surgical evisceration by James Graham. The Wrap Party was the ludicrous episode a fortnight ago in which young actor Tom thinks inviting his stereotypically redneck parents to an after-show party will change their minds about Hollywood (well, it changed mine; I was amazed at the lack of sex and drugs) and a dazed old man wanders about the studio, wanting a photo from the 1950s in which, as every viewer guesses at least forty minutes before the cast do, he inevitably features. To be fair, Eli Wallach is so good as the old blacklistee that he almost, almost beats the treacly script and even more treacly strings that smother the climactic scene. It’s also the episode in which The Middle-Class White Liberals Confront The Black Issue, which turns out in every way as you’d expect. James’ review was great fun to read and pretty much said all that was wrong with the episode, though on the other hand, James had slightly more patience than I did – yes, that’s one of those sentences at which you have to look twice – with one aspect of the show:
“The fact that it tackles the subject of live TV comedy with the same reverence as the top tier of US politics is simultaneously ridiculous and sublime.”
I tend more to the view that it just shows them to be up themselves beyond belief. When people took things extraordinarily seriously in The West Wing, they were debating issues of global importance, and that they could sometimes behave in over-the-top and childish ways became realistic and sometimes amusing character flaws. When they do the same in Studio 60, the bathos is overwhelming. It comes to something when, having spent my whole life bristling at the words ‘It’s only a TV show,’ I have to bite back the urge to bellow them at the cast every time they furrow their brow to a full orchestra at the thought that one of their affiliate stations may be down a point in the ratings that week. I know people in showbiz indulge in queeny strops; this is not lifting a lid on some great revelation, just Mr Sorkin revering his own work again. I. Don’t. Care.

How Not To Deal With ‘Issues’

What tipped us both over the edge, though, was the latest two-parter just shown on More 4, Nevada Day Parts I and II. Having wrapped up everything anyone could possibly want to say about black people, a climate of fear and family tensions in the previous episode – and still had time for the much more important fall-out from a nearly-kiss – Nevada Day was the show’s time to deal with rising capitalism in the China, Christianity, women, gay people, drug laws and small-town America. First, the good bit. Getting out of the studio worked, as did the fish-out-of-water West Wing staple where powerful people are stranded somewhere that ignores their power, this time starting with Tom under arrest, dressed as Jesus, with a spliff in his pocket and in Pahrump, Nevada. John Goodman was funny as the absurdly over-the-top redneck judge; Richard was appalled at his flagrant abuse of all due process, but I suspect by that stage I’d long since stopped hoping for any realism from the show and was relieved to get some broad comedy. Of course, he makes fourth wall remarks about them expecting him to be a redneck, then goes all redneck anyway, the resolution to the storyline is a heartwarmingly predictable homily to America and our boys, and I was only laughing at an offensive small-town America stereotype, but when the laughs are as thin on the ground as they are in this show I take my fun where I can find it. Still more amazingly, the bits we saw of Tom in rehearsal as Jesus placed in charge of TV regulation had the makings of the show-within-a-show’s first funny sketch, even though ‘people who claim to be Christians always focus on telling people off for little things and not on loving their neighbour’ is such an old joke even I’ve made it.

The point where I started growling, however, was when, after the leading lady tells an interviewer that homosexuality is a sin but she’s courageously not really made her mind up about it, Matt exasperatedly tells Harriet there are “any number of gay people working here”. Any number? Would you like to pick one out of the air, based on every single Studio 60 character we’ve met so far? Yes, the number is zero. Even with the stereotypical-gay-character-shaped void that is Tom, who is a bit camp and shy and has issues with his right-wing parents who don’t like or understand his theatrical lifestyle but who, PLEASE LISTEN, SPONSORS, is very definitely dating a LADY.

It’s not that the story didn’t have a little potential, despite its unlikely premise. Rough, tough gays on the streets in conflict with the straight man that ‘looks gay’ – a point nobody made, though in between chiding Harriet for her homophobia, obviously the rest of the cast take time to ridicule the idea of aggressive gay men because they’re all so wimpy and limp-wristed, and men overdo being wound up when asked to rate the appearance of other men. The main problem with that side of it was simply that Harriet sits on the fence, and so does the show. When she says in effect ‘I abdicate my critical faculties to a higher authority’ she’s posing as a dumb blonde, but we’re supposed (in less sexist moments) to find her intelligent and sympathetic. She comes across as cowardly, dim, and a bigot who doesn’t want to admit it. Riled about ‘Hollywood morality’, she instantly names three ‘scandals’, the clichéd bigot-propagandist association of one consentingly gay adult proposition with two underage mixed-sex cases. But no-one points out that leaping straight to the ‘gay = paedophile’ line is like her citing a Jewish ‘scandal’ alongside usuring baby-eaters. Yes, Matt answers her back on why civil unions aren’t good enough; they’re saying that “homosexual love isn’t as good as heterosexual love”. But he can’t answer back often enough or persuasively enough, because that might lose ratings in the real world. And he has no effective answer when her character’s given one of the most ludicrous lines to say, when (as bigots usually do) she claims you can’t compare gay people with black people. Why? Because your lot used to hang black guys from a li’l ol’ tree, but used to burn gay gays at the stake? But no, she argues. It’s because people have had four hundred years to get used to black people, but gay people have only been around openly for thirty. So of course Matt can’t say what he’d really think of Harriet for that, because it would make the idea of their will-they, won’t-they relationship untenable. Black people were only invented when they came to America? Uh-huh. Gay people were only invented when they started coming out? Uh-huh. We were never, you know, called ‘faggots’ because the religious right had hundreds of years to light fires under us? Uh-huh. Because we were driven into invisibility, though everyone knew about the idea, we should wait another 370 years for the people who forced us to be invisible to get used to the idea? Uh-huh. But, instead, so as to remain the charming female lead, all this is presented as her not having made up her mind.

Richard was particularly incensed by Harriet’s complaining that the interview had only quoted her in saying that the Bible says we’re sinful, but not that she had added “Judge not lest ye should also be judged,” and that this meant she left the decision to ‘wiser people’. Actually, he argued, this makes it worse. Either you stand up and be counted for gay rights or you don’t, Richard pointed out. Harry doesn’t. She puts forward the ‘Bible view’ and (never mind her hand-waving qualification) by default she agrees with it. She just doesn’t want to take the blame for that.

Then another woman character performed a clever feint because, ah-hah, I thought her overdone ‘English accent’ was going to be the most irritating thing about her, but no, it’s that she (being a weak and feeble woman who really has no place as a writer) dissolves into floods of tears which only Matt’s manly arms and Danny’s manly orders can dry. Pinch yourself again, and remember which century this is. ‘Tonight, from the 1950s… Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip!’ Like the ‘Operation’ sketch the poor weak girly proposed, you can see how all the parts of this show are assembled, but they don’t add up to convincing human beings. Studio 60 didn’t handle racism well. It handled homophobia very badly. And it seems to have no conception of just how sexist it is. If the show hadn’t been cancelled already, I’d suggest they find other subjects to ‘do’ than ‘diversity’ stories, and not just because they always come down to two self-satisfied straight white guys wisecracking about their ‘chicks’. Which is a shame, because the two lead actors are much better than that (and I never even liked Friends).

Meanwhile, the occasionally-cameoing head of NBS’ parent company does another little turn in the style of the original concept of President Bartlet as an infrequent but powerful presence (Mr Sorkin kept that idea on file, then), though Ed Asner’s not a patch on Martin Sheen; his henchman evil station chairman Jack has some effective moments; and, unusually seeing a cliché and swerving away from it, they didn’t do the ‘hard-faced Chinese man secretly understood every word they were saying all along’ revelation. So that’s one up on Eli Wallach.

Aaron Sorkin. Bona fide record of TV genius behind him. Now churning out self-obsessed, patronising, mediocre pap. It isn’t meaningful, and it isn’t funny, so why bother? Embarrassingly, the show I’m much more embarrassed to admit I’ve dropped in on since a friend told me about a gay storyline a couple of months ago is far more stylish, inventive and raw. Hollyoaks is a cheap teen soap I’d only previously noticed to make fun of. Yet, despite such staples as the hilariously bad soap gangster, it’s mostly well-acted, significantly better-written, and each episode opens with a wordless montage that often dispenses with realism and convention in favour of sheer creativity (though it’s sometimes worth turning off once you’ve seen the first minute or so). It also has actual gay characters, rather than taking the 1950s option of a straight one who’s a bit camp. Heroes, too, soars above Studio 60 for writing and creativity (and hasn’t Steven Carrington aged very well). You know that guy in Heroes who’s an inspired artist and can actually paint the future – but only when he’s off his face on heroin? Maybe Mr Sorkin should never have given up the coke.

26th October Update: Oh dear… So much for the saving grace. You remember I said they swerved away from a cliché by not doing the ‘hard-faced Chinese man secretly understood every word they were saying all along’ revelation? Well, against my better judgement I was watching last night’s feeble episode (The Harriet Dinner, Part II), in which Zhang Tao returns to the show and reveals… Sigh.

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Thursday, September 13, 2007


“Shaaaappps!” (Thunk)

…And it was all going so well. Ming had us applauding about climate change and Iraq yesterday, and then he had to go and say exactly the wrong thing about a referendum. I was going to tot up just how many Lib Dem bloggers disagree with him, but James Graham got there first with a brilliant post (which also includes Daffy Duck). Will we all be grumpy at Conference now? How can I cheer us up? It’s as easy as 1234! This summer saw the emergence of Grant Shapps as a great new comic character: here come his greatest hits, and what they have to do with Doctor Who

Just a few short months ago, no-one had heard of Tory MP Grant Shapps. Even Mrs Shapps was in the dark. Then along came the Ealing Southall by-election, and excited claims (mysteriously not heard since) that he was the Tories’ Chris Rennard. As Mark Pack’s serialisations of Mr Shapps’ hilarious misadventures since have failed to be shortlisted among the Best Lib Dem Blog Posts of the Year – along with Jonathan Wallace’s exposé of Labour’s less amusing election tactics – I thought it was time to remind you of a selection, so if you ever meet Mr Shapps you’ll be able to call out with his other fans ‘Tell us the one about the password again!’ and show him he’s still a beloved entertainer.

“Where Should I Stick This Stake Poster, Missus?”

Liberal Democrats will mostly first have heard of him when he tried to stymie the Lib Dem Ealing by-election campaign by accusing us of dirty tricks (in an unnamed previous by-election) before it properly got going. Now, this should have been a clever thing to make up, because it sounds plausible: everyone knows the Liberal Democrats are good at improving their vote in by-elections and the Tories are rubbish at it (Mrs Thatcher used to be brilliant at winning by-elections when she was in Opposition – but then, of course, she was leading a party that was genuinely on the up). Naturally, say Labour and the Tories, this must be down to ‘dirty tricks’ like working harder and people liking Lib Dem policies when they actually get the chance to hear about them. So that’s a charge that’s made so often it often sticks.

Unfortunately, Mr Shapps made one fatal mistake… What was the kind of dirty trick he alleged? Well, he’s a Conservative, and though they have very few ideas, they have masses of dosh, so at election time their solution is always ‘throw lots of money around’. So he accused the Liberal Democrats of doing the same. To persuade people to put up posters, he claimed, a lottery was run with which to bribe them. Disaster! Oh, Mr Shapps – everyone knows Lib Dems don’t have all that money to throw around, so of course no-one was foolish enough to take you seriously except your absurdly credulous official spokesperson! Well, I said “one fatal mistake”. It also was a bit of a mistake to make an open challenge to the Lib Dems not to do it (‘Will you stop beating your wife?’), get an answer, then, er, not provide evidence for a single one of the open challenges you got back asking for evidence. A lottery ticket? No. A witness? No. Even the name of the by-election where you thought this occurred? No. In fact, no evidence, at any time, of any kind. It’s almost as if Mr Shapps made the whole thing up.

It was at that point that people first realised the subtle genius of Grant Shapps’ comic monologues, and started to snigger. Mr Shapps, though, wouldn’t let a promising comic career stop at just one shaggy poster story. His justifiably most famous gag was yet to come.

As Easy As “1234”

Still copied by tribute acts in comedy clubs and internet cafés up and down the land, the ‘Grant Shapps password joke’ has already passed into political legend. Recounted in comprehensive detail by a helplessly laughing Tim Ireland (who courteously provided the reproduction of one of Mr Shapps’ touring billboards shown above*), this particular act was first discovered by the man who would become Mr Shapps’ principal publicity agent, Mark Pack at Lib Dem Voice. Mr Shapps had already been recognised by David Cameron with the comedy title of Vice Chairman of the Conservative Party with responsibility for campaigning, and he’d been using that gig to rehearse an admittedly lively but still derivative form of the old Tory favourite, ‘No, no, missus, we really are going to win this one’. Then came his masterstroke, combining the hilarious ‘campaigning’ responsibility with the fresh satirical wickedness of styling himself an ‘Internet expert’.

Mr Shapps catapulted the Tories’ comedy routine into true genius with the innovation of combining the old standby of a ventriloquist act with a truly online gag (they’ve become experts at those; did you know that, only last week, they were the first party to use the Internet ever?). His sock-puppet friend aristoteliananselm was all set up to declaim a comic monologue via YouTube in the character of a ‘disillusioned Liberal Democrat activist’. Mr Shapps had practised and practised in the mirror to make sure the little friend on his hand looked like a completely realistic sock, when he was suddenly hit by a brainwave. Like all great ventriloquist acts, Mr Shapps realised that the secret is that the audience has to be in on the joke that, although there may appear to be two speakers, both of them have his voice. So after all that practice, Mr Shapps finally delivered the main part of his gag with his own naked hand:
“Okay, realistically we’re not going to win though. Especially since the Tories have just received 5 defecting Councillors from Labour. Don’t quite know how they’ve done it, but the Tories have stolen a march on us this time.”
Genius! Imagine – not just to be able to style your own sock for a comic routine, but then daringly to pull it off your fingers and deliver the joke under the naked name of “GrantShapps” on YouTube.

There was a pause for breathless applause. You know – that moment when you’re not quite sure whether a new joke has worked. And then Mark Pack started laughing.

The punchline? Mr Shapps adding that his YouTube account must have been hacked by his opponents because they’d been able to guess his password. Which was “1234”. Bloggers round the land were in stitches, and, not to be der-blog-a-Tory, of course no-one was foolish enough to take him seriously except his absurdly credulous official spokesperson!

Now, I know what you’re thinking. It seems such a tired old gag – but it was the way he delivered it. You’ll know that I’m used to being fairly opinionated on the Internet, and always under my own name. Well, just a couple of weeks ago I thought I’d try my hand at a very minor piece of rubbish faux-anonymity – I even accidentally signed my own name, like Mr Shapps – but I shouldn’t have given in to temptation, so I’ll leave it to the master. It just didn’t suit me, and I’m just not as funny. But when Mr Shapps told it – everybody laughed!

Mr Shapps Does Stand-Up (but not to examination**)

And from that day to this, Mr Shapps’ patron Mark Pack has helpfully been plugging his act, making Mr Shapps the Lib Dem Voice equivalent of, say, that famously flattering photo of great lover Mr Andrew Neil which has been seen again and again. Who can forget:

Mr Shapps’ Doctor Who Inspiration

As part of this tribute article I can EXCLUSIVELY – as Mr Shapps’ absurdly credulous official spokesperson would say – reveal that Mr Shapps’ bumbling aide-de-camp act is inspired by a character called Shapp played by Davyd Harries in the 1979 Doctor Who story The Armageddon Factor, soon to be released alongside five others on DVD (best to shop around, though. And do you notice that, like the way Mr Shapps is rarely photographed these days with his sock puppet, the remote-controlled co-star of these DVDs, K-9, is hardly to be seen?).

Mr “Shapps” even takes his stage name from the character of “Major Shapp,” long recognised as a great comic creation and famous piece of rhyming slang among Doctor Who fans for his unusual level of quality. Some people have claimed that this buffoonish performance is a smidgeon over the top. Others, that it doesn’t entirely fit in with a grim story of self-sacrifice and ultimate temptation among the pitiful survivors of a nuclear war. Still more suggest that the moment when he pratfalls onto his back, wailing
for help to his associate Surgeon Merak, then lies, legs splayed, gun sticking up in a vaguely phallic bit of physical comedy, might just be the worst bit of acting ever seen in Doctor Who. Not a bit of it! This inspired slapstick is only let down by the way that the story fails to fit in with him, just as the by-election didn’t quite work to Mr Shapps’ script – and remember, Mr Shapps went one better. He refined the act so that, after loudly bellowing not someone else’s but his own name of “Shaaaappps,” he fell flat on his face.

So, when The Armageddon Factor comes out on DVD in a week and a half’s time as part of The Key to Time boxed set – even if Mr Harries’ performance isn’t quite to your taste, the stories in this box and the wealth of extras add up to the most fantastic release this year – be sure to rush out and buy your copy. Through a tragic oversight, no money from sales goes into Tory coffers.

Mr Shapps seems to have gone a little silent in recent weeks, so let me speak for his legion of fans and say to Mr Cameron, bring him back! Save him for the nation! He deserves to be remembered in rhyming slang of his own: Grant Shapps is a real talent. Not a campaigning talent, admittedly, but anyone who can inspire such gales of innocent laughter is worth his weight in lost deposits.

*Currently having image-pasting problems: Mr Shapps’ touring billboard with aristoteliananselm can be seen here.
**Joke provided by my beloved.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007


What I Think of Jim Davidson’s Whingeing ‘Victim’ Act (go on, guess)

Paul Walter yesterday stirred a hornets’ nest with a Liberal Burbling on the self-destruction of Jim Davidson, who has bleated:
“What about white, straight, Anglo-Saxon males like me? Who cares about us? Where do we go?”
I didn’t see any of Hell’s Kitchen, but I’ve found this man a loathsome, repellent bigot for about as long as I can remember; from my teens, I remember people being bullied with his ‘jokes’ (possibly including me, but the details go hazy at my age), and in his latest outbursts demanding pity and blaming political correctness he has, as ever, missed the point. “What about white, straight, Anglo-Saxon males like me? Who cares about us? Where do we go?” What a tosser. Just like everyone else, you should be judged not on what you are, but on what you say and do. That means that just like anyone else, if you’re worth caring about, people will care about you. Just like anyone else, you belong here. But just like everyone else, if you act like a git or judge people entirely on their skin, sex or sexuality, you can no longer expect not to be called on it. An awful lot more white, straight, Anglo-Saxon males than he imagines would treat his tick-box co-option into “us” with revulsion. I’ve never heard anyone say they dislike him because he’s a white, straight, Anglo-Saxon male; but I know plenty of white, straight, Anglo-Saxon males who dislike him because he’s Jim Davidson.

His ‘humour’ has always been based on a vision of “white, straight, Anglo-Saxon male” supremacy and putting down everyone who doesn’t meet all of those requirements. Now it’s the 21st Century and a lot of us (white or not, straight or not, Anglo-Saxon or not, male or not) are answering back, like every bully he whinges, pretends to be the victim, and then claims he didn’t mean it. What he’s complaining about is not that anyone wants to do down “white, straight, Anglo-Saxon males.” He’s no victim. He’s just outraged and terrified now no-one gives the time of day to his belief that those qualities alone entitle him to treat everyone else like dirt and have us all thank him for it. He demands special rights. He demands special treatment. And he screams especially loudly when he doesn’t get them any more. The only reason that Mr Davidson might feel he has to “go” anywhere is because he’s not willing to share space with everyone else here; and that, Mr Davidson, makes you a frustrated bully, not any kind of victim. It’s a tough life, Mr Davidson, but if you can’t take it, you shouldn’t dish it out.

The craven coward Mr Davidson and his whining apologists blame this on some alien “political correctness”. Rubbish. It’s a from a much older and very British set of values that are now receiving a much wider airing: tolerance; fair play; standing up for the underdog; simple good manners. I was a boy back in the 1970s, before ‘alternative comedy’ started the backlash against the nasty, mean-spirited ‘comedy’ of the likes of Mr Davidson, and long before the term “political correctness” was ever coined. When I was a boy, I’m quite sure that if my Mum and Dad had heard me taunting someone for being different, on whatever grounds, I’d have been told off in no uncertain terms. That’s bullying. That’s rude. That’s just plain nasty. And while in days gone by some nasty, rude bullies were celebrated, standing up to them has also always been a British value, and one to be proud of.

As I’m American as well as British – yes, my Mum’s an immigrant – no doubt this is the point at which Mr Davidson would tell me to get back to where I came from. Like most of the people he’d say that to, I was of course born here. Like most people in the current century, it would never occur to me to tell anyone I disagree with they have to “go” anywhere. We expect people to be able to disagree and still live together. Besides, for Mr Davidson to ‘go back to where he came from’ wouldn’t need a boat; it would need a time machine.

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The Candidate For You?

Excitement is building up about potential candidates for the largest-franchise elected positions both in Britain and the United States – the Mayor of London and, somewhat more grandly if somewhat less directly elected, the President. Yesterday the Liberal Democrats announced their shortlist for the Mayoralty, while in the early hours of this morning Jonathan Calder linked to a handy guide to which Presidential candidate might suit you best. Anders Hanson has also written a piece about Brian Paddick which, as well as being jolly nice about me (thanks, Anders) raised two questions to which Mr Paddick has now supplied answers – do pop over and have a read. James Graham, while so far uncommitted, has also made some interesting comments about Brian Paddick, which I feel I must recommend by dint of the fact that one of the titles features an even worse pun than my own piece.

Liberal Democrats For Mayor of London

I thought I’d said it all in my big piece about Mr Paddick yesterday, but, of course, things have already moved on. I realise it’s unusual for me to jump into supporting a candidate I don’t know, particularly after I had such difficulty deciding between the three Lib Dem Leadership candidates last year, and even more particularly before I’d seen who his competition were to be. It’s possible that last year, because I knew quite a lot about all the candidates, I found it harder to see the big picture.

This time, I’m in the slightly contradictory position of being excited by all three candidates and wanting to know more about each of them, but having already decided to be committed to one. Each of the three have something distinctive about them that might help them get noticed, and each suggests a more diverse party than either of the other parties are offering – a gay man, an Asian man and an Asian woman. I vaguely know Fiyaz Mughal from the FPC and having seen him speak on occasion, and he comes across very well; if selected, he’ll be a good candidate and I’ll do my best for him. I don’t know Chamali Fernando at all, but we desperately need brilliant young candidates and to have been shortlisted she must be fantastic; if selected, she’ll be the Liberal Democrat Youth and Students’ finest hour, and I’ll do my best for her. But neither have the instant recognition and ability to be treated from the start as a ‘serious’ candidate that Brian Paddick does, so I’ve leapt in with both feet and hope to be meeting Mr Paddick in a few days’ time. If I get the chance to interrogate him for this blog, in a ‘critical friend’ way, I’ll post what he has to say here; if you come up with any brilliant questions to ask, as I’m not exactly an experienced interviewer, please e-mail them to me (address in the sidebar)!

Mr Paddick has, of course, already answered some questions posed by Anders Hanson, as I mentioned above; I thought Anders’ first was a very good question which needed answering, incidentally, while the second’s already been thoroughly dismissed by the police, CPS and libel court victory against the Hate Mail on Sunday, so I wasn’t fussed (besides, for a party to investigate someone more thoroughly than the police, CPS and newspapers, we’d have to run private Gestapos, and that would be both mad and wrong. And, for the Lib Dems at least, completely against our values). I was also taken to task by ‘Free School Milk’ for some of my flights of rhetoric the other day, and again, she or he is right and I was wrong. When I talked about the desirability of a candidate who’s “actually done something” – well, if I wasn’t blogging like a speech, I’d have said something more factual like “actually run a major public service for Londoners,” so I didn’t mean to do down candidates I, at the time, didn’t know about! And regular readers will know I’m not in favour of the alleged ‘sweeping clean honest non-politico approach’ either; I’m deeply suspicious of independents because I don’t know what they stand for, and as most politics is making it up as you go along, having a sense of what someone stands for is the only thing that gives you real warning of what they’d be like if they got in. Mr Paddick is different because – when he was a senior police officer and doing an important job – he gave a considerably stronger account of his values than I’ve heard from most Lib Dem MPs.

In case you’re a London Liberal Democrat who’s not just had an e-mail from the Returning Officer, the hustings at Conference is to be next Wednesday (the 19th) at 1pm in the Old Courtroom in Church Street (I wonder if that’s the one once squatted by a bunch of hippies against the Criminal Justice Act while our 1994 Conference was debating cannabis? Nice bunch. Nice brownies). There will also be a hustings for the prospective Mayoral and European Parliamentary candidates on Saturday 6th October at 1.30pm at Oxford House, Derbyshire Street, Bethnal Green, E2 6HG, as well as an online hustings that’s already running. Ballot papers should be with us all by the 22nd of October, and we should have a result in the second week of November…

Illiberals and Democrats for President of the United States

Meanwhile, Jonathan Calder pointed us all to the Candidate Calculator. This tests your position on a number of issues against different Presidential runners – and, like Jonathan, my top match was with Democrat former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel, at 93.10%. Not too far behind was Democratic firebrand Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, while the highest-placed ‘leading’ candidate for me on the issues was down at 62.07% - another Democrat, New York Senator Hillary Clinton. John Edwards came in at 58.62% (free trade counting for about 41%, then?), and Barack Obama only 55.17%, while I was unsurprised that my leading Republican match was libertarian Texas Representative Ron Paul, on 48.28%. I was even less surprised that he was more than 20% ahead of my next highest ‘match’ from the Labour Party’s best buddies! Special prizes to former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson (‘Senator, I knew Ronald Reagan… Senator, you’re not even a Ronald Reagan’) at 10.34% and, probably safely off my postal ballot, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee crawling in at just 6.90%. Not quite within the margin of error of agreeing with me on nothing at all, but pretty close.

The intimidatingly prolific (well, he would be intimidating if he wasn’t so nice) Paul Walter has another piece well worth reading on American politics over at Liberal Burblings, dealing with the not-the-Warner-Bros. He’s written a piece about Jim ‘Pity Me’ Davidson, too, but I’ve gone into that in sufficient length that my response has become a post of its own!

And finally, Paul has allowed a special correspondent to write about the Annual Horticultural Show, which bears some suspicious resemblances to the Lib Dem Blog of the Year Awards. The piece is typically enthusiastic, other-flattering and self-deprecating, though with a considerably higher innuendo count than, well, just about anything on a Lib Dem Blog since my speech at last year’s Lib Dem Blog of the Year Awards. As he said on that occasion, “Ooh missus!”

I would complete a set of links to the Blog of the Year 2007 finalists, but Millennium doesn’t seem to have written anything today. Last time I looked, he was too busy spinning round the room being a Toclafane.

Update: this was nearly ready to post yesterday evening, but then we spent some time installing a new ISP and marvelling over how much of an improvement it was, so I got distracted. Well, I say “we” were installing it, but technically Richard installed it while I sprawled on the sofa and offered such vital advice as “That looks a bit fiddly,” and “Ooh look! The bisexual one on Hollyoaks has been outed.”

Anyway, for the purposes of most of the above, “yesterday” means ‘Monday’ and “today” was ‘yesterday’. Clear? Since then, Millennium has posted a piece about Sir Mr the Merciless and a carnivorous plant which may or may not be from outer space (I thought the stage musical kind of implied that it was bred by Seymour, who was very cute had a lot of talent, but also that it was to do from the mysterious total eclipse and therefore alien). Even more excitingly, Fiyaz Mughal has said hello on my previous Brian Paddick piece (hello Fiyaz!), which you can all read. He’s started a blog this morning, too. Quick, Mr Mughal, sign up to Lib Dem Blogs Aggregated! I’ve also found Mr Paddick’s website. I suspect both will soon be much busier (and let me know if you spot one for Ms Fernando).

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Monday, September 10, 2007


Brian Paddick: He’s Not the Messiah, He’s a… Very Distinguished Police Officer

Today, the London Liberal Democrats announce their shortlist of potential candidates for London Mayor. I don’t know who’s applied, let alone been shortlisted, but there’s a candidate I’m taking a gamble on supporting… Despite not yet having met the guy, and the likelihood that, if shortlisted, he’ll be the only candidate without a long Liberal Democrat record. If all this makes me sound like the worst sort of fact-free blogger going off into fantasyland (and I sometimes am), there’s something remarkable about this potential candidate: he was a senior police officer with an outstanding, liberal, controversial record. He’s Brian Paddick.

Unlike the subjects of my profiles last year – Ming Campbell, Chris Huhne, Simon Hughes and David Laws – I’ve never met Brian Paddick, and I don’t really know what he’s like as a public speaker or his views on a lot of the issues. And it’s quite possible that the shortlist tomorrow will have brilliant candidates I don’t expect; it’ll certainly have Liberal Democrats I know and can, in more ordinary ways, feel more sure of. But I would be gobsmacked if any of them could have anything like the impact on eight million people, from a standing start, that I reckon Mr Paddick can. The two obvious pools of high-profile talent are our London MPs and our GLAMs. Well, after our best-known, best-loved, and probably most hard-working London MP came to grief last time, it’s no surprise that none of our MPs seem to want to do it. And none of our London Assembly Members look to me like they’ve been trying to run for it. Be honest; have any of our GLAMs made such an impact? The only one who did, and now our only MP who’s previously been a member of the London Assembly, is Lynne Featherstone. In some ways, she’d have been the obvious candidate – and, after she was one of the people I hoped in the last year or so might stand for Party President or Deputy Leader, I might have been very torn if the choice had been between her and Brian Paddick… But it isn’t. In fact, when her name came up on a poll of potential candidates on Lib Dem Voice, she suggested people vote for him in the poll instead.

Leave It To Ken and Boris?

Another Liberal Democrat attitude I’ve heard – behind closed doors, perhaps, but it’s what a lot of people are thinking – is that ‘Ken’s going to win anyway, and whoever we stand will get outspent, drowned out and pushed out, so why humiliate ourselves?’ Well, there are three answers to that. First, if we abandoned every campaign in which the smart money would be on us coming a glorious third, we’d have packed up and gone home… Oh, at least thirty years before I was born! And we’ve been on pretty much a constant up since then (NB: I had very little to do with it, though). This is the biggest directly elected job in the country, and we would be mad not to stand. The second, after sheer bloody-mindedness / finding that where we work, we often win despite the odds (take your pick), is that if we don’t choose someone for ourselves, as well as admitting we don’t matter (‘cheers for that,’ says every Lib Dem candidate actually standing anywhere), it invites the question every day until the Mayoral election: ‘So, are you backing Labour, or the Tories?’ The last answer is the most important, and it’s to do with why we bother standing even at those times when we feel it’s a lost cause. I live in London, along with eight million other people across 32 boroughs. And if you want to leave all of us to the Ken and Boris Show, you can f*** off!

Ken Livingstone has achieved quite a bit, of which the Congestion Charge is the most obvious example. But he’s also a bullying egomaniac who puts the Labour Party ahead of Londoners, and Ken Livingstone ahead of the Labour Party. Pretending our GLAMs can hold him to account is, I’m afraid, a pipe dream. He doesn’t believe in accountability, openness or letting anyone else have a say, and the typically control-freak, top-down system Labour devised gives him the thumbs-up for that. Of the 26 people making up the Greater London Authority, one has about 90% of the power concentrated in him or her. It’s not how I’d have designed it, but unfortunately, the Mayor is the bit of the GLA that really matters.

In the last Mayoral election, our candidate was Simon Hughes. Previously, Susan Kramer had run an excellent campaign from a starting point of total obscurity, and nearly beat Frank Dobson, puppet candidate for the smaller split of the Labour Party. Simon was well-known, well-liked, passionate, charismatic… And finished on 15%, just 3% ahead of Susan despite a much greater profile and a much greater growth in our opinion poll ratings between the two elections. So what went wrong? A radical, anti-establishment MP failed against two anti-establishment-seeming politicians from two bigger parties supported by more vested interests. The fact that Simon is more genuinely anti-establishment than either didn’t cut it; he’d have done far better against bland machine politicians, but even Labour and the Tories weren’t stupid enough to try that. He was squeezed into oblivion, and the world’s blandest manifesto didn’t help. That’s why I breathed a sigh of relief when the possibility of Lembit Öpik receded. Like Simon, I know him, I like him, I admire his work and I even sometimes agree with him. But he’s an MP for the middle of Wales, and if what Londoners really want is a carpetbagger who’s funny on Have I Got News For You, sorry, Lembit, but Boris Johnson is a bit closer to London, a bit funnier, and a bit better-known. So where else do we find a ‘name’ that can put up a fight so as not to get squeezed out?

Not Your Typical ‘Celeb’

The answer is to field a candidate whose background is outside politics. Now, ‘celebrity’ candidates often seem like booster rockets that run the risk of exploding shortly after take-off. The SDP by-election bandwagon piled up at Darlington when its TV presenter candidate couldn’t answer questions without a teleprompter. David Icke became as big a millstone to the Green Party as he was once an asset. And UKIP had the misfortune not just of Joan Collins endorsing them, then announcing she had nothing to do with them, but of Robert Kilroy-Silk, the unthinking man’s David Owen. Thankfully, unlike all of those people, Brian Paddick would be a well-known candidate who’s not an actor or presenter, but who’s actually achieved something. And, unlike a lot of ‘stunt casting’ options, he’s unlikely to fall apart under pressure; he’s already taken more questioning and had a tougher media ride than almost any other Liberal Democrat could have nightmares about, from his policing strategies, to his private life, to speaking daily for the Met at televised press briefings after the London bombings on the 7th of July 2005. Will he go ‘off-message’? He’s got a history of it, and thank goodness for that. Will he disagree with the Party on some issues? Almost certainly. But if we wanted candidates who’d stick absolutely to the party line, we wouldn’t have selected Simon Hughes last time. I can’t promise, then, that Mr Paddick won’t go off the rails. But that’s not a promise that can ever be made of any politician – even, in some cases, the most terminally dull.

The other big drawback to someone in Mr Paddick’s position is that he feels like an interloper. Liberal Democrats don’t like people who parachute in and declare themselves the messiah, still less the sense that the high-ups are trying to push him on us. So there are bound to be Lib Dems who’ll oppose him not on his own qualities, record or proposals, but on principle. I might have joined them, but I did a little bit of research to see how comfortable I’d feel with him (isn’t Wikipedia wonderful?). And, though he’d sounded pretty liberal from all I’d heard about him before, what I’ve read has convinced me more than many long-term Liberal Democrats do that he’s a conviction Liberal.

A Conviction Liberal (excuse the pun)

You will not be surprised to learn that my moment of epiphany came with Mr Paddick’s statement that had him most demonised (out of many things) by gutter press like The Sun and the Daily Hate Mail. They read his infamous post on Urban75 and decided he was their enemy; I read it and decided he was not just liberal, but my kind of Liberal:
“The concept of anarchism has always appealed to me. The idea of the innate goodness of the individual that is corrupted by society or the system. It is a theoretical argument but I am not sure everyone would behave well if there were no laws and no system.

“"Do as you will but harm none" is the principle that I try to work to, within the constraints placed upon me. I have the freedom of my own conscience to the extent of the priorities I place on what I and my officers do. Does smoking small amounts of cannabis harm anyone else other than the smoker? I do not think so. Can I, as a police officer not enforce the law and get away with it. Probably not. So I introduce a pilot scheme where we do not arrest people for cannabis in Lambeth.

“I do not treat all of anything as criminals - all protestors, all black people, all straight people (!) I try to treat each individual as an individual.

“I admire anyone who passionately believes in their cause and I will defend their right to promote that cause provided they "harm none".”
A lot of that philosophy is something I’ve said almost in the same words. Compare it to John Stuart Mill; compare it to the Liberal MP who said
“A Liberal is an anarchist by instinct and a constitutionalist by necessity.”
Brian Paddick believes in individual freedom, and can articulate that belief. He believes everyone should be free to live their own lives and fulfil their own potential, without infringing the rights of others. That’s pretty much the core of what Liberalism is about.

Mr Paddick as a candidate might even make the Liberal Democrats hold our heads up over some issues the party’s been afraid of. We’re nervous on crime, because too many of us don’t see how we can sound Liberal and populist at the same time. The Party’s Leadership remains critically scared about drugs policy, and having such a high-profile candidate who’ll inevitably be asked about it might make them make up their minds. And, after twenty years of being the party with the best record by a mile on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights getting forced half-back into the closet by embarrassment by the badly handled outings of Simon Hughes and Mark Oaten last year, having an out and proud gay man as candidate for such a crucial post would do us a power of good (social historians of gay people in the British public view may marvel that he’s a distant relation of Hugh Paddick of Julian and Sandy fame). He’s fought off enough homophobic attacks from inside the police and the braying tabloids that, if a couple of Lib Dems feel stupidly uncomfortable or join a certain blogging ex-member in making up bigoted claims of a “gay mafia”, I doubt he’ll even break step. And more than in any other party, the overwhelming majority of Liberal Democrats will back him to the hilt on that.

Mr Paddick’s candidacy would carry certain inherent Liberal messages – gay-friendly, pro-liberalisation on drugs – but his most important qualification is his record in the Metropolitan Police. A Liberal approach to crime is more likely to work than knee-jerk authoritarian solutions, and his innovative, intelligent work helped prove it. The old Liberal Democrat election slogan ‘A record of action, a promise of more’ can rarely have been more true.

By the time Brian Paddick retired from the police in May, he was Deputy Assistant Commissioner in the Met. He was a sergeant on the front line during the 1981 Brixton riot, proof of the need for community policing, and rose through the CID and eventually to Commander in charge of policing in Brixton, where he pioneered new ways of policing by consent. Famously, he instructed his officers just to give on-the-spot warnings for cannabis possession rather than arrest or charge people, no longer wasting police time on victimless crime and allowing the police to tackle real crime, with the bonus of far greater community support. Despite massive attacks on him, the Government eventually followed his lead by reclassifying cannabis (something on which they’ve been trying to backtrack ever since). Despite all the controversy, that make him one of the best-known and best-loved police officers in the country, with one of the best records.

Can he win? It’ll be astoundingly difficult. If there’s one thing we should have learned from Simon’s campaign, it’s that we’ll never win merely by being everyone’s second choice. Brian Paddick is not the cuddly, fluffy, inoffensive candidate. Some people will hate him. After such a high-profile career, many people already do. But wouldn’t it be a relief to field a candidate who’s actually done something, rather than just talked about it?

In a recent interview with the Mail on Sunday – which shows quite a bit of chutzpah – he outlined some of his ideas for what he could now do for London:
“Nobody else putting themselves forward as Mayor knows more about the issue of law and order than I do…

“I shall never be afraid of adopting a radical solution if it’s fully thought through, if it’s workable, affordable and gets the right result.”
Such solutions from him might include using technology to improve the timing of buses, or making the Congestion Charge could be much more sophisticated. I look forward to seeing more of what he has to say.

So that’s why I want Brian Paddick to be the Liberal Democrat candidate for Mayor of London. A practical approach; a personal record; a strong philosophical base. There’s no doubt he’s a gamble. But some gambles are worth taking.

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Sunday, September 09, 2007


Missing the Boat

Now I’m doing more blogging, I’ve found myself thinking about some of the things I missed in those months while illness and a certain amount of indolence were intervening. There were two new Prime Ministers – one a scary, warmongering, manipulator who tolerates no opposition and wreaks a terrible vengeance on his enemies, and the other in truth the Master. Doctor Who was outstanding (and, in related news, I briefly became a model). Fabulously and astoundingly, the Traveling Wilburys topped the album charts. And one Lib Dem blog post in particular wound me up, so here’s an incredibly late reply…

So whose post was it?

Well, obviously there were plenty that I disagreed with over the months that I slowed to a trickle (still having arm problems, but they’ve eased a lot), but with all these awards doing the rounds, who else could I give my own special award to but (lower lights, cue sinister music)… Laurence Boyce, the notorious Phantom of the Voice. Yes, it’s that terrifying genius who, cruelly denied a blog of his own, haunts the cellars of Liberal Democrat Voice. Happy first birthday to it and the team, but like every grand edifice, the grandest of all Lib Dem Blogs hides a dark secret (well, he’s not exactly a secret. There’s no shutting him up, and long may he continue). Can it be a coincidence that Lib Dem Voice creator Rob Fenwick was visited by a ghastly punishment at the Paris Opera House Royal Albert Hall on the eve of this very anniversary? Or that Ryan, Mark and Stephen always look upwards nervously in case the chandelier suddenly topples down on them? Ming, if you should visit the Voice, don’t sit in the middle!

Oddly enough, though Laurence Boyce is a terrific political blogger and delights in being a controversial one, it wasn’t really a political subject that got my goat. I’m sure Mr Boyce will still be delighted: with the article I’m talking about he had the grand ambition of “becoming the most reviled person in the country” but, as I can be frightfully old-fashioned and British at times, this is going to be a bit more of a tut, a pair of pursed lips and a ‘Well, honestly, that wasn’t very nice’. Sorry to leave my blazing torch at home but, you know, fire can be jolly dangerous. And speaking of my home, in true daytime TV fashion, I live on the Isle of Dogs, out by the Thames in East London. Walk a few minutes down the riverside and there’s the foot tunnel to Greenwich, coming out by the Cutty Sark. Though I’ve lived here with Richard for over a dozen years, I still have fond memories of the Cutty Sark from over a dozen years earlier, when we visited it on a family trip and first walked through to the Isle of Dogs, little thinking that I’d grow up to fall in love and go to live there. And I’ve also since childhood had a love of history, even if I’ve never done much about it. So when, at ten to seven on the morning of May 21st, I heard a bulletin on the Today Programme saying that the Cutty Sark was in flames, I was horrified. Richard felt the same, and together we walked down to see the old ship, more than once that day and in those that followed.

Cutty Sark Frame Prow May 2007
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“It’s Only a Boat”

Mr Boyce’s opinion, on the other hand, was that “It’s only a boat”. There are certain phrases that tend to make me narrow my eyes. ‘Opinion polls say we have to do it,’ before dropping a policy or making one up to suit the Daily Mail.‘I’m not homophobic, but…’ before supporting discrimination or making us out to be sick (to be pitied or ‘cured’), criminal (to be condemned) or intrinsically immoral (to be consigned to Hell). ‘It’s only a TV show,’ as if that’s an excuse for demolishing or denying support to everything that’s fun in the world. It’s only a statue. Only a painting. Only a building. Well, life’s about more than things that make money, or do the government’s bidding, or are ‘good for you’. And now ‘It’s only a boat’. Mr Boyce “was not in the least bit upset” about the fire. Fair enough. There are plenty of works of art or treasures of history about which, really, I never spare a thought – but some people do, and if they’re significant, my instinct is to preserve them for more people to enjoy in the future. Whatever floats your boat, you know.

I don’t want you to think Mr Boyce has some specific vendetta against the Cutty Sark. No, he also piled into such “lunacies” of the Heritage Lottery Fund as baths, churches, moths, archaeological sites and Agatha Christie. What sort of moral deviant could possibly want any of them to survive, eh? Now, if you’ve not read his piece, I don’t want to give you the wrong idea. He fervently believes that some aspects of heritage should be preserved. Well, ‘fervently’ is exaggerating things slightly. He ‘mildly’ believes. Or, well, doesn’t actively oppose, providing absolutely no money is involved. Hmm. Now I look at it, the phraseology might be tiptoeing away from conceding any actual cases, and more in the direction of ‘covering one’s arse’. Let’s see what he has to say:

“Look, I don’t want to sound like a total Philistine,”
No, no, seriously, folks.

“and I’m sure that the Heritage Lottery Fund helps out many deserving causes,”
Though he doesn’t in fact come up with any at all, or even any notion of what sort of thing that might cover, excepting the aforementioned hindquarters. And on that subject, do you feel a ‘but’ coming on?

“but there has to be a limit to the amount of old tat we might wish to preserve for future generations. Surely it would make sense, given how space is at such a premium, to allow a number of old buildings and churches to gently decay, before respectfully bulldozing them.”
History Matters

I wrote last year about why history matters to me. It’s always fascinated me, and I occasionally, say, dip into one of Conrad Russell’s Civil War books or just bounce around Wikipedia simply for the pleasure of it. There are few things sillier or more dangerous than a politician insisting that people share their pleasures, though; I just object to Mr Boyce calling for one of my pleasures to go up in flames. And, surely, for anyone with an interest in politics a sense of history is vital. It’s a cliché to say that you should learn history’s lessons or must repeat them, but it’s still true. When our world and our culture is changing so rapidly, though, it’s important to remember that history is a living thing and not just the fossil record. Know where you come from, cherish the best bits and remember the worst, but don’t hang onto them like grim death and let them prevent you going on anywhere else. Perhaps more importantly still, with so many of the world’s more intractable problems mired in history and grievances that sometimes go back centuries, in many cases the most important lesson of history isn’t who did what and who’s to blame, but that, if you can see that it’s all gone on so long and still nobody’s happy with it, perhaps it’s time to let go at last. History isn’t just the past; it’s about the future, too. And that, I think, is the fundamental flaw in Mr Boyce’s position. I don’t disagree that it’s impossible and even undesirable to preserve everything. It’s that, coming from the other instinctive end of the argument to me, he follows it almost to its natural conclusion and implies nothing about the past can be relevant to today, except in that it gets in the way. He seems to leave no room for learning from the past, still less (heavens forfend!) innocently enjoying it.

“National pride has got to comprise something greater than being in possession of old ships with rigging and everything. Perhaps the sad demise of the Cutty Sark marks an appropriate moment to take stock of our collective sense of priorities, and to remind ourselves that the future is always more important than the past.”
Does anyone seriously doubt that “National pride has got to comprise something greater than being in possession of old ships”? And it’s absurd to suggest that spending on all forms of heritage combined amounts to any more than the teeniest fraction of national expenditure; it’s hardly a “priority”. So it wasn’t Mr Boyce’s Philistinism or different tastes that got on my wick. It was that startling combination of straw man, false choice and post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Liberals shouldn’t abandon emotion, or history. I thought we’d gone way past the caricature of every progressive as someone who wants to start everything at year zero and tear down everything that’s not in their grand new utopian design. I suppose that, when talking about getting rid of old stuff in favour of ‘progress’, there should be a special version of Godwin’s Law: not the first to mention the Nazis, but the first to mention ’60s tower blocks should be told off for resorting to cliché. Still, I’m going to go for it anyway. Not everything old is bad, or unloved; not everything new is better, or will win people over. Why should society choose right down the middle? My Liberalism’s rarely been attracted to ‘Neither one thing nor the other, but somewhere in between,’ but I’ll happily go along with ‘Neither one thing nor the other, but both’. The Cutty Sark is a famous London landmark that I look at and go ‘Ooh’ – so is the Gherkin. And what’s wrong with that?

Cutty Sark Frame Main May 2007
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National Treasures

Over the summer, Radio 4 broadcast a series called National Treasures, in each of which an artificial choice was posed between two different aspects of British heritage, new or old, built or natural, large or small, and let experts and a guest politician – Edwina Currie, Julia Goldsworthy – decide which should get an imaginary investment. The week they pitted Canterbury Cathedral and Damien Hirst’s Bling Skull against each other for £50 million left me a little cold; an interesting debate, but neither much moved me. The one that grabbed my attention was a fight between the Cutty Sark and the National Archive of the British Film Institute for £30 million of hypothetical restoration money. I cared about each of those and, if I won half a billion or so on the Lottery, I’d have been tempted to give £30 million to both. And yet, if I really was faced with that dilemma… Well, I’d have gone for the BFI Archive, surprisingly enough. Three-quarters of a million film and television programmes, described as “A library of moments of time” and the greatest archive of film in the world (though nowhere near as great as the British Library is for books) – I’d just have to restore all those before that single ship. But again, why always pose that artificial choice? And why can history and innovation not go together?

One of the most important pieces of television ever made was The Quatermass Experiment, the first British drama serial originated for television and looking into the future. Stretching the BBC’s technical innovation further than anything else by then, it featured the British Experimental Rocket Group’s ill-fated first expedition into space. Part of it was broadcast 54 years to the day before that edition of National Treasures, but it isn’t in the BFI archive – most of it no longer exists at all (though if you hurry down to your local WH Smith, they’re currently flogging off the DVD set of the third of it that’s left and the two complete follow-up serials for just £12). And I’m not rambling completely off the point, because the Cutty Sark, with its combination of the highest technology and speed of the time, is almost a Victorian precursor to the Quatermass rocket; I’m fond of it for some of the same reasons I’d like us to build spacecraft (though I think I’m more likely to get a Cutty Sark fund past Vince Cable). It doesn’t just stand for heritage, but as a reminder of the advantages of scientific advances. All that, and it’s named after the Eighteenth Century equivalent of a Carry On film, to continue the BFI comparisons – in Rabbie Burns’ poem, a ‘cutty sark’ means a short undergarment (before I read about the ship and saw this, I just knew the word from ‘bare sark’, stripping off and literally going berserk), and it’s about a man getting into trouble for peeping at a scantily-clad witch. Which you would.

The Cutty Sark is well worth restoring. It’s given pleasure to millions of tourists, even if it may have bored millions of schoolchildren (well, no bit of heritage is perfect). Despite the fire – and in part because much of it had already been removed for renovation – only about 5% of the ship has been lost, and the hull was untouched, with much of the fabric surviving from her original construction. With 95% of our trade coming by sea, the only remaining tea clipper is a part of our technological, cultural and economic heritage – and is also preserved in part as a memorial to the merchant seamen who lost their lives in the world wars. And if you wander down to Greenwich, though you’ll find a great big white tent covering the ship itself for quite a while longer, there’s a little spiky-tented visitors’ centre where you might learn a thing or two, or buy some tea, cuddly rats, tea chests, books, tea towels, electrolysed salt, teacups and t-shirts. Alternatively, you can just donate to the restoration fund directly.

Laurence Boyce mockingly talked of

“A majestic ship, which for years ruled the South China Sea, as she conveyed to the nation that most essential of commodities – a nice cup of tea.”
I’m happy with most of that description taken straight, and if that was all the Cutty Sark was about, I’d still want it restored. But in addition to that combination of homeliness and a seagoing sense of wonder, the old ship stands for something else. It proudly symbolises both technological innovation and free trade. And for a Liberal who cares about the future, that isn’t an irrelevance. It’s an inspiration.

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Saturday, September 08, 2007


We Know We Shouldn’t, But We Can’t Resist…

…Talking about Mark Oaten or coalitions (well, it’s appropriate; Mr Oaten talks about both subjects incessantly, but then, he can’t resist anything). What do they have in common? That at the next General Election, we all hope nobody’ll mention either of them! Still, Lib Dem bloggers just can’t resist talking about them either because, well, we all love a good gossip, and I’ve read all the blog pieces doing the rounds, too. Some of them have been serious and very sound (Jonny Wright and his floppy yellow sponge come to mind), but the one most worth reading is Liberal Mafia. It’s a brilliant and highly educational piece, despite, gasp, plugging a rival Blog of the Year nominee (gets you to a tee, though, James), and every party member should read it for moral instruction. I know I reached to protect my own values when I read it.
Is that OK, Don Liberali? As long as I pay you protection of a glowing write-up every month and keep omertà that you’re really Ming Campbell writing under a pseudonym, you promise I won’t wake up next to an elephant’s head (any more than usual)?
The only new thing I’ve discovered from reading all those articles (the MP for Winchester a bit of a prat? Hold the front page) is that, apparently, the only person who agrees with Mr Oaten is Iain Dale. That doesn’t entirely surprise me; call me old-fashioned, but I sometimes feel just a smidgeon of suspicion about Lib Dems whose main fans are Tories… Is it possible their fans might have some ulterior motive?

I’d love to tell amusing stories from the Winchester by-election about Mark Oaten to titillate your desire for gossip, but I only saw him briefly on polling day when he was looking very nervous (because Chris Rennard wouldn’t show him the figures). The only embarrassing story I can actually remember from Winchester involves me and Mark Pack – thinking about it, mainly me – so perhaps I’ll keep that to myself for a little while longer.

On the other hand, I did once persuade Mr Oaten to toughen one of his lines against ID cards by telling him I’d heard from a source that if he didn’t do something quickly, that very issue was about to be claimed by the Tories, back when he was our Shadow Minister for Schadenfreude. It may not have been strictly true, but it was remarkable how he suddenly paid attention and changed his mind on whether he wanted to follow my suggestion when the T-word was dangled in front of him…

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Friday, September 07, 2007


The Tortoise, the Hare and the Witchfinder General

Last week, the BBC’s British film season showed still-alarming horror classic Witchfinder General. Almost as famous as the film itself was the quarrel between director Michael Reeves and star Vincent Price. When their clash of personalities came to a head, Mr Price brought his massive tally of work to bear against the man he saw as an upstart:
“I’ve made 87 films,” he boasted. “What have you done?”
“I’ve made three good ones,” replied Mr Reeves.
Like the old fable The Tortoise and the Hare, it’s a comforting moral for those of us who don’t churn out as much as Vincent Price – because, despite his bitching about it at the time, Michael Reeves’ direction resulted in what many people regard as Mr Price’s finest performance, playing one of East Anglia’s most intolerant sons.

In other news, congratulations to Tom ‘Liberal Polemic’ Papworth, who stormed to victory in the Crystal Palace by-election last night – I’m sure his intelligent criticism will hold Bromley Council to account. With luck, he may find a few free moments to return to blogging at some point… I didn’t always agree with his pieces, but when he did find time to post he was always worth reading. For me, he’s the saddest omission from the Liberal Democrat Blog of the Year Awards shortlists, and a brilliant example of someone who aims, like Michael Reeves did, for quality at his own speed.

Between you and me, I need to do something about my own output, you know… I haven’t written anything about Doctor Who for ages!

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007


Tory Party Unveils Its Soul: Children and Small Animals Flee

Gosh. I’m delighted to have been nominated in the Liberal Democrat Blog of the Year Awards category that I was secretly wishing for, and also in the big one… Where I’d anticipated four of the shortlist, but definitely not me! I reckon I was a rather better (or at least more frequent) blogger last year, so I’m very happily surprised. Thank you very much, those of you who nominated me, and I’ll take it as a punt up the posterior to propel me into more persistent punditry. So while I work on some serious number-crunching, here’s a Michael Ancram moment…

Michael who, you ask?

He used to be Chairman of the Conservative Party.

No, doesn’t ring a bell – Chairman? I can’t even remember all the Leaders they’ve got through between them doing away with the last one they really worshipped and getting in the oily new salesman.

Fair enough. Actually, he stood for Leader, too. Came a magnificent fifth against a field of talent headed by Iain Duncan Smith?

You’ve got to be kidding.

No, straight up. As a consolation prize, he became the Tories’ Shadow Foreign Secretary and – you must remember this – Deputy Leader!

What, for about five minutes, was that?

No, er, four years, actually.

Crikey. I only remember that Ming Campbell being the opposition on Foreign Affairs, the Iraq War and that.

Well, to be fair, the Tories were saying exactly the same as the Government except that they should be just a little bit more gung-ho for the Americans, so it would have been difficult to be very memorable.

I’ll say.

Anyway, he’s the man who used to be the Tories’ answer to John Prescott. Bit rotund, talks rubbish, ludicrous class stereotype to keep the old-fashioned wing of their party on board.

In what way?

Well, he’s not really called “Michael Ancram”.


It’s the Most Honourable (don’t worry, it doesn’t mean he has to be honourable) Michael Andrew Foster Jude Kerr, Thirteenth Marquess of Lothian and Earl of Ancram. QC. PC. MP.

Oh, that Michael… No, no, sorry, still don’t remember him.

Well, he wasn’t as funny as John Prescott.

No, that would be difficult. So why’s he in the news?

He’s just made an attack on David Cameron that’s got in the way of a Tory policy launch.

David Cameron? Policies? Now I know this is a wind-up. Everyone knows he hasn’t got any of those.

Well, he never promised to actually stick to any of them. Just talk about them and see if they looked popular, in which case he could claim credit, or if they didn’t, in which case he could say they were nothing to do with him.

That sounds more like him.

Anyway, Mr Lord Earl Marquess Michael Ancram didn’t agree with Mr Cameron having no policies, and thought he was a bit of an oik – but then, Michael Ancram’s the only person in the country other than the Queen more posh than David Cameron (and Mr Cameron’s a closer relative of the Queen than Michael Ancram is, anyway, so the Marquess is probably jealous).

So what new policies does this Ancram Kerr Thing person want?

‘New’ isn’t really the word. Now – and you may hide behind the sofa if you wish – he says they had a perfectly good set of policies in the Eighties, and Mr Cameron’s been trashing them.

Brrr. But wasn’t the Tory Party all about homophobia, and xenophobia, and slash and burn back then?

And that’s exactly why Michael Ancram liked them. He said so.

Yikes! What else did he say? I’ve braced myself.

Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you. Launching his personal manifesto ‘Conservatives Standing Still’, he said David Cameron must “unveil the party’s soul”.

Aaaggh! Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

I think I am.

That scene at the end of the movie…

When mild-mannered, ineffectual David Cameron unwinds the camouflage wrapping round his head to reveal the ghastly shade of Lady Thatcher still clinging to his party?

That’s it. Help!

So you remember who Michael Ancram is now?

No. But I remember what the soul of the Conservative Party looks like.

PS I hope Millennium wins! The big one, anyway. I admit I’d quite like the Best Posting Award… Well, I’m only human.

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