Who Wants To Be A Billionaire?

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Billionaires. Is it inherently wrong to have that much money? Is it ‘obscene’ (as John McDonnell said today)? Should we get rid of billionaires as some pro-Corbyn commentators (notably Labour’s Lloyd Russell-Moyle on the Emma Barnett show) have observed in recent weeks? Or simply make it impossible to have more than a billion pounds in the uk?

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No one contributed more to the popular perception of wealth than German cartoonist George Grosz

Ok, so I doubt anyone reading this would disagree that the increase in economic inequality not just in the UK, but globally, is a massive problem. But is the answer to it (is the answer to anything?) to start a populist vendetta against a hundred and fifty people whose wealth exceeds what is essentially a random number, picked out of the air because it’s eye catching and easy to remember? I’m not pleading their corner – I’m simply asking the question.

Why do we have billionaires? Russell-Moyle believes that the mere existence of billionaires creates poverty. I watched Laura Parker from Momentum expounding on BBC2’s Politics Live the other day that the only possible way a person could accrue a billion pounds is by aggressive tax avoidance, exploitation and shabby employment practices.

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Momentum’s Laura Parker believes all billionaires to be inherently dodgy

I have no idea if all one hundred and fifty UK billionaires are guilty of this, although depending on where you research this JK Rowling’s earnings have topped a billion dollars and I would be surprised to learn that she was into any of those (although to be fair I don’t know that she isn’t, she could be up to all sorts of heathen and fiendish evil for all I know).

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J K Rowling evil and heathen – depending on her net worth

I tentatively suggest that other factors are at play here, notably maths and technology. Quite simply there are more and more people on the planet, who want more and more stuff and modern technology means that it is easier and easier to sell that stuff… to all of them. Meanwhile inflation has meant that value per unit of currency has fallen over the decades.

Obscene? Or just a thing which is the inevitable result of population growth, and global consumerism and the reality that supply isn’t – nor will it ever be – globally collectivised.

Not right. Not wrong. Just maths and technology. And, for sure, probably a bit of tax avoidance and general skulduggery along the way in some instances.

So. If we did agree that having a billion pounds or more was obscene and that ultimately anyone who fell into that bracket simply wasn’t acceptable as a citizen in the UK how would we set about dealing with that?

For a start is a billion the right number? Are we talking about a billion pounds, a billion dollars, or a billion euros? Or is it just the idea of unimaginable wealth that we don’t like? If we are going to use words like ‘obscene’ where does obscenity start and acceptability finish? I mean why not £640million or £569,482.83p? Is £379m just mildly distasteful?

For it to make any kind of rational sense, you have to set a figure – just as we set a figure for top tax rates. Without a figure it’s meaningless and that figure has to be based on some kind of rationale other than blind resentment.

Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell has made a step towards this. He has made it clear that under a Labour administration no Chief exec in the public sector would be able to earn more than twenty times the National Living Wage. That’s somewhere around £350,000.

That’s a lot of cash to most of us, but small potatoes in CEO land.  And nowhere near a million, let alone a billion. Will it re-set the dial in terms of expectations? Possibly, but I doubt it. Will it stop the best people taking those jobs? I have literally no idea. My gut says that it would change the character of the type of person who applies for this kind of job, which could be a good thing… or not. I simply don’t know.

But there is an underlying message there from Mr McDonnell. We obviously want the best people to run the public sector but the acceptable remuneration for that is £350,000 per annum and no more. Implicit in this is that when you pursue more outside of the public sector you are effectively drinking and driving, you are using your mobile phone while doing 105 down the Motorway of life. Sort of like a premiership footballer, who earn, well, an obscene amount…!

Jeremy Corbyn Tweeted today: ‘Do you know what the establishment and the wealthy few are really afraid of? You.’

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According to Wikipedia, depending on what sort of year I have, my annual earnings usually fall between the top one and two per cent on the UK earnings scale.  In a good year, there are less than half a million individuals who earn as much as I do. Although technically speaking, I am on a zero hours contract… of sorts.

I really need to know who ‘the wealthy few’ are? I mean, if I’m one of them and I’m reading Jeremy’s Tweet… then according to him I’m AFRAID OF MYSELF!!!

If I feed my profile into the computers at Labour HQ I fear they will short circuit like the Nomad robot in Star Trek!

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James T Kirk was always confounding AIs with unresolvable paradoxes

Let’s assume that all of this comes to pass, and having money – or even aspiring to great wealth and prosperity becomes a social no-no – and exceeding a billion squids (or whatever random number) is outlawed, what do we expect those people to do?  There are many devout Corbynistas who say they don’t care and good riddance if the billionaires decide to bugger off. But is that really what we want? Whilst outlawing wealth reduces inequality on paper, it only does so by cooking the books and slicing off the top of the differential graph.

We have to remember what our objectives are. If they are simply ideological – ie billionaires can fuck off – then, for sure, we can achieve that, but there’s no guarantee that in doing that we alleviate poverty at the bottom of the income scale. If our objective is to alleviate poverty and redistribute wealth, then we have to keep the wealth in the country precisely so that it can be redistributed.

You can’t redistribute nothing.

Doing that isn’t easy, and there are a multitude of economic and political approaches to achieving effective redistribution. We could argue the toss about that for months, but I do know for sure that ‘banning billionaires’ or any associated Us-and-Themery won’t get us a millimetre closer to achieving that goal. It’s just populism. Divisive. Pointless. No different at its heart that the mentality of Donald Trump whipping up the crowd at one of his rallies, with the sole objective of fermenting yet moire hate. Are those the values of the Labour Party now? I do hope not.

Please can we be smart about this and think about what we want to achieve and not who we resent, or who we can blame simply for existing. We know exactly where that kind of thinking leads.

In the meantime, I’m going to ensure that my earnings stay at £999,999.99p and not a penny more. That way all my Corbynista friends will go on loving me.

First World Problems And My Pen Of Doom!

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As visitors to this page will know, back in the heady, carefree days of 2017 I was commissioned by BBC Radio 4 to write a five-part drama imagining the UK plunging into a bloody civil war some time sort of now-ish.

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This was to be no sci-fi melodrama but a tale of a Radio 4-style (i.e. middle-class) family’s battle for survival in the face of social and infrastructure collapse, set against a thoroughly researched and war-gamed political backstory.

I called it First World Problems. See what I did there?

To that end, I assembled an array of in-house BBC expertise, academics and parliamentary advisers and researchers – top people who mostly approached the task as a sort of dystopian parlour game, albeit often with a fair degree of wry amusement.

I sat down with one senior political analyst in the airy canteen at BBC Millbank. Well, for starters, we decided it would help if there was someone in the background of my scenario with the civil service in their sights. This was for the BBC so my hypothetical crisis had to work with governments of every hue. On the left that might be a fictional fixer in the image of, say, a Seamus Milne, and on the right it could be someone like, oh, I don’t know… Dominic Cummings?

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We dared to imagine this man pulling the strings at Number Ten. Absurd!

How we laughed.

That was two years ago, and it seemed little more than a flight of darkly satirical fancy. When Cummings’s tenure was announced in July, my stomach turned.

Back in the canteen, my oracle postulated that with the civil service under attack, I’d now need an irreconcilable rift in the ruling superstructure to make my story credible. What if, following a chaotic Brexit, the infrastructure is cracking under the strain: Northern Ireland is subsumed into the Republic, Scotland bolts for the exit with an illegal IndyRef 2.0 resulting in a unilateral declaration of independence? There’s a scramble for control of the nukes at Faslane resulting in an armed and deadly conflagration. The border is closed, and Westminster goes nuts. MPs from all parties try to rein in the Executive, who in turn declares a state of emergency and prorogues Parliament, literally locking the MPs out of the building.

“I mean, I can’t really see it happening”, mused my adviser. Well, as Eric Morecambe might have said, “All the right notes, even if not necessarily in the right order”.

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Eric Morecambe takes a look at my projections back in 2017

There have been rumbles about prorogation all summer, but commentator after commentator insisted it would never happen. It was staying safely fictional, until Wednesday morning.

Please God any resemblance to real events stops right here!

However, within minutes there was speculation that it would turbo charge Nicola Sturgeon’s drive for a second referendum. As to whether that would ever be granted, who knows? If Westminster tried to block it, it doesn’t feel out of the ball park to imagine an enraged Scotland doing it anyway. And if they did? There’s a creeping sense with the departure of Ruth Davidson that perhaps Mr Johnson (or Mr Cummings??) doesn’t really care if Scotland cuts loose. It would make it easier for the Tories to hold a majority at Westminster if they did, but a whiplash fracturing of the Union would, as in my drama, be dangerously destabilising.

My excluded fictional MPs form a Democratic Alliance, which sits in an alternative chamber across the city (today suggested by more than one political player in the real world).

The country splits across the middle, with the big metropolitan authorities – the northern cities – siding with the rogue DA, while the south sticks with the Government. The Royal Family is forced to take sides. We all expect Elizabeth to stay neutral but who knows what Charles or William would do faced with future decisions, especially if the democratic mandate is unclear. This, in turn, begs the question of the military and the police. To whom are they now accountable? To whom are they loyal? What happens if they are split?

Other advisers warned of food and medicine shortages (now being prepared for), not to mention the fragility of the National Grid with multi-generator cascade failures (tick) as the fine balance of our energy infrastructure is disrupted.

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When the power went, people ‘self evacuated’ and walked along the tracks.

Never mind lightning strikes, imagine if Scotland stopped exporting its power across the border to England. In my dystopian Tomorrow, they who control the National Grid Control Centre at Wokingham don’t just control our ability to keep the lights on, they control the internet, the mobile phone network, our ability to get petrol out of the pumps at filling stations, and the BACS system so integral to our cashless world. They control the country.

Far fetched? Ridiculous? Hysterical?

That’s what I thought in 2017, and just look at how much of that has either come true or is creeping nearer to the front of the queue ready to be ticked off the list. Even worse, look at how much we have normalised these things, how quickly we ‘get used’ to them. That, for me, is the most dangerous part of this. Only yesterday I was conversing with one of my former advisers who seemed content that apathy and inertia would stop any major civil unrest happening as if he hadn’t noticed that we are already careering down the slide with no idea what’s at the bottom. Like the old joke about how an optimist  is a person who falls out of a twenty storey window only to shout to an office worker on the tenth floor, ‘All right so far!’.

Just before I penned my radio epic I had delivered a first draft of a police procedural about a series of murders of gay men initially mistaken for terrorism but which ultimately turn out to be the work of a closeted muslim guy unable to resolve deep personal inner turmoil. I delivered it to my producer the day before the Orlando Club shootings about which there has been much similar (but as yet unproven) speculation. The BBC’s Editorial Policy team decreed I would have to rewrite the whole thing even though my script pre-dated reality. Last year I wrote another procedural about the murder of a man, thrown from the window of a Manchester Hotel. Pretty much exactly that happened almost exactly two months after I delivered the script. Although my hotel was absolutely fictional, the imaginative starting point had been the same building.

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The police forensic tent outside Manchester’s Britannia Hotel in September 2018

Of course, these are simply unsettling coincidences.

Or are they?

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The chicken or the egg?

When First World Problems finally aired in 2018 I was accused by organised Twitter trolls of trying to ferment unrest, but whilst the causal accusation is ridiculous, as with all dystopian fiction, if you can construct a possible narrative from your imagination, no matter how seemingly implausible, then that narrative can become reality. A few years back Prof Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw wrote a book about quantum physics called, ‘Everything That Can Happen Will Happen’, but in the realm of human behaviour I’m increasingly inclined to think this is true, quantum or no quantum. If a person, or a group of people, can behave in a certain way, no matter how idiotic, then sooner or later someone will. Just ask anyone who has ever had to design a safety system.

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When I first saw this I thought it was a spoof…  It wasn’t. Although I have to admit a certain pride at being considered worthy of the BBC Death Cult Team.

A month after 9/11, two dozen Hollywood screenwriters were reputedly called in to the Pentagon hypothesise about ingenious and dastardly ways hostile agents could cause death and destruction across the US. I’m having difficulty verifying this, but if they weren’t, then perhaps they should have been. The dystopian and nihilistic imagination isn’t just the preserve of storytellers.

If we can imagine something bad coming, it’s worth taking our imaginations seriously – that’s what imagination is for after all – and then, hopefully, we can head our nightmares off at the pass before they become reality.

Having said that, my wife wants me to use my Pen Of Doom to write a drama about how the Amazon Rainforest is saved, or even better, some dialogue featuring a few winning lottery numbers.

And what about my fictional middle class Radio 4 family? Well you can still hear what happens to them here

Suffice it to say when they flee the city to hide out in the now intensely nationalist North Wales, it doesn’t end well. They’re English after all.

Ethnic cleansing, anyone?

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Syrian migrants crossing Hungary in 2015.

This image was the spark for First World Problems. Although not ethnic cleansing per se, I wanted to examine how my comfortable, white, English, Radio 4 loving family could end up in exactly this situation in our own green and pleasant land.

I’m still praying that my dystopian hypothetical stays precisely that.

When Is A Penis Not A Penis?

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I blame the vaccinations.

I’m 59 and a few weeks shy of a trip to Madagascar to see the lemurs (before the whole island is logged to destruction) the practice nurse advised me not only to renew my typhoid immunity but to have an MMR booster.

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The Marmoset is looking forward to meeting one of his cute Lemur cousins in Madagascar

Cue eighteen hours of slightly trippy wooziness not to mention two extremely sore upper arms. So that was any creative work out of the window. Unable to sleep – because every time I rolled over the pain woke me up – I rolled, instead, down to the tram and headed into Central Manchester to wooze in front of a movie at the city’s premier arthouse cinema, Home.

What to see in the dog days of August? I’m not sure if it’s me, or the exodus of creative talent from traditional movie making to long form TV drama, but I often struggle to find films that really attract me these days. Summer is particularly barren… there aren’t even any blockbusters I want to see. Squinting at the programme on offer I opt for Danish indie movie, Holiday – written and directed by Isabella Eklöf whose screenplay for the dark-as-dark-can-be realist Troll drama, Border, so haunted me last year. I’ve vaguely skim read a couple of reviews of Holiday (i.e. looked at the star ratings) and seem to remember that critics have quite liked it. So in I go.

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Great poster for ‘Holiday’ starring Victoria Carmen Sonne

Ok. I need to be up front about this. I didn’t make it to the end so I am not offering any kind of considered critique of the movie itself. No one can do that without watching the whole of something. To do so would be dishonest and wrong.

I blame the vaccinations. Or The Penis. Or perhaps a heady (!) combination of both.

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Spoilers ahoy – stop here and come back after you’ve seen the movie if you’re intending to take the plunge!

What follows below is a bit spoilery but not too much as it’s hardly a movie that depends on plot surprises. I sensed that most of the other people in the cinema knew what was coming (so to speak). Basically it’s the story of Sascha (Victoria Carmen Sonne), who (in film terms) is a sort of gangster’s moll (yes, the movie – and I – would eschew such dated and sexist terminology, but in critical terms that’s the genre/movie iconography we’re dealing with here). She’s on ‘holiday’ in Bodrum, Turkey, with her drug gangster boyfriend, Michael who is a violent, jealous misogynist.

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Lai Yde as Michael giving his best violent misogynist on a white sofa performance

For the 70 minutes or so I watched, Sascha is navigating his controlling, simmering violent possessiveness. He owns her. He owns everyone. But especially her – and she is his to use and abuse (graphically) as he chooses. The question those first seventy minutes poses is how much is she prepared tolerate? Is his assumed ownership of her somehow to her advantage? Is she helpless or is she complicit? Will she exploit it at some point?  Will she fight back?

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We get the point about Michael pretty quickly

As the holiday progresses she meets a friendly Dutch guy, Thomas, in an ice cream parlour and strikes up a more tender, if flirtatious (on both sides) relationship with him. Michael spots the connection between them and you know it’s not going to end well (although who knows, perhaps they all make up in the final reel and start a socialist commune in Aarhus. Like I say, I didn’t make it to the end.).

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Thijs Römer as friendly Thomas the nice Dutch chap

The whole thing is photographed at an unsettling and icy distance. The Turkish sunlight is bright and glaring – but never warm. We are never allowed to engage with Sascha – but we are invited to look at her, almost askance, to scrutinise her behaviour, and to judge her.

Then there’s… The Scene.

I should have read the reviews more closely.

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Kicking a lackey downstairs turns most movie drug lords a bit rapey

About fifty minutes in Michael has just beaten up one of his lackeys for messing up some drug deal or other, and he’s tense and angry, and so naturally he can only let off steam by vaginally, and orally raping Sascha and then ejaculating in her face.

Lawks a-mercy!

It’s played out in real time, in a continuous wide shot, in all its full frontal priapic and jizz-spurting glory.

Eugh. I’m literally hiding behind my iPad, thanking my lucky stars this isn’t a 4DX screening where they shake you around in your seat and spray your face with droplets!

I’ve seen some explicit movies in my time but this is just HORRIBLE.

Which I guess is the point. Although then I’m thinking… WHAT point exactly? My mind is racing.

I already know that rape is a terrible, terrifying, violent act. Do I need to see it? Does this actress really have to simulate abuse in this way to evoke this disgust in me? Hang on…. Is she simulating it? That purple greasy bell-end – moistened by Michael’s spit – looks pretty real to me – as does the glob of cum hitting her directly in the eye. (NB I am using this explicit language deliberately in order to express the graphic quality of the movie itself). So… what? Is the actress this guy’s partner in real life? What was the audition like? Even if she has consented to this, isn’t it still, effectively, abuse?

For sure, when the BBFC certificate came up at the beginning it did say ‘scenes of graphic sexual violence’ but I didn’t expect it to be this graphic. I look around and suddenly notice that the rest of the cinema is almost exclusively male. Men on their own. There are just two women in the screening. Did these guys know something I didn’t? Are they getting off on it? This is a foreign language ‘art’ movie, but what we’re seeing is the commonplace of a lot of pornography. A woman being horribly raped and the man firing off semen in her face. It is often said that the distinction between pornography and art is context, but any sense of context has completely gone now. Maybe I’m over thinking it – but my brain is now unable to watch or absorb the film as I try to decode what I’ve seen. But hey – ! – if I didn’t stop to think about it – if I didn’t worry about not just the story but the execution of the act for our entertainment – surely that would make me some kind of psychopath.

Well…

I hang on for another fifteen or twenty minutes… until the sexual violence starts up again and then I’ve had enough.

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This scene may well have ended with an innocent game of Twister but I’m afraid I didn’t stay to find out.

I’m hopeful that this film, written and directed by a woman, has some intelligent point to make, and all will make sense eventually, but in my newly vaccinated state I can’t help but think that there is no point to be made (of which I wasn’t already aware) that would make this onscreen sexual brutality worthwhile. But then I think, I’m staying with this purely because it’s by a woman director – a Danish woman director – and therefore it must somehow be inherently ok – it’s ART for God’s sake! – but if this exact same story with these exact same shots came from the camera of, say, Michael Bay, I doubt very much that Home would be screening it.

I’m off – as are another two audience members (including 50% of the female contingent).

On my woozy way home I turn my iPad back on (it has other uses than purely as a cinematic jizz shield). Checking out a few interviews with director Eklöf she is keen to defend the scene by saying that it’s not pornography because there are no close-ups. Seriously? Never come across the idea of voyeurism as a form of pornographic titillation, Isabella? There’s more than one kind of porn. I think to avoid the porn tag you really REALLY have to be doing something far more clearly not focussed on the visual representation of the explicit sexual act. I wonder also if she is assuming that what she is showing is so horrible that by definition it can’t be considered pornography. If only. Pornography is in the eye of the beholder. So to speak.

The other thing I learn is that it was a prosthetic penis after all.

I would say that I found that hard to get my head around – but I won’t as it sounds like a truly terrible and somewhat confused double entendre.

Ok, so it’s a fake cock. Does that make it better? It looked so real to me I assumed it was as real as the penises in Baise-Moi or Stranger By The Lake (which were the genuine article, complete with steaming ball-fresh semen). So if I am fooled by the member’s seeming verité then surely I HAVE to worry about use of a degrading sexual act not just as a narrative device but as something done to an actress on a movie set for a piece of paid entertainment. On the other hand, if I know in advance that it’s a rubber prosthetic, then it’s fundamentally trivial. It’s only pretend and it’s all about the artifice, and I’m no longer really concerned about the character. I’m just wondering how they got the jizz to fly out so convincingly, and ‘wow that still must have hurt when he stuck it down her throat’. Imagine having to fill out the risk assessment on that!

It now does precisely what devalued screen violence does. Whilst you might be alarmed by watching someone getting punched or slashed in a movie, you know it’s all fake so it’s rarely affecting. Unless of course you are either a) gullible or b) excited by the simulation of violence for the sake of entertainment. Indeed, I have (purposefully) adopted a fairly flip tone in this blog as to some of the things depicted in Holiday – serious issues of course – but I can, because now I know it didn’t really happen. It was just rubber and maybe a bit of CGI. The artifice invites me to stand my seriousness down.

Like I say, I am offering no judgement as to Holiday as a movie – I didn’t see how it resolved which I sincerely hope was in a worthy/intriguing/challenging way – all I can comment on is the stuff I saw, but I know I wasn’t alone in being driven from the cinema… and if that happens then surely the movie has failed.
Who is it for?
Does Eklöf want me to stay or to leave?
And if I do either of those, what does it say about me?
Assuming I do hang around, what is it trying to say and to whom?
Most fundamentally of all, does that thing need saying, does it need saying in that way, and if so, why?

There are also wider questions about art and cinema here. Do we need the dangerous moments in cinema to be obviously fake – or does this reveal something problematic with the self importance of film drama – a fundamental flaw/confusion in its aspirations to realism? If something looks real should we assume it isn’t – is that a healthy assumption or just an abdication of responsibility? If we do know it’s fake – or discover the fakery after the event – does that make it any less problematic?

For God’s sake, when is a penis not a penis?!?!

I stagger home, and crash out, hoping to sleep off the worst of my vaccination, comforted by the thought that in a few weeks I’ll be in Madagascar and I won’t have to worry about such questions…

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Sweet little Lemurs who know nothing of explicit Danish art cinema…

The Revelation of the Marmoset

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‘Ande soe yt was thatte thye people of Albion looked acrosse the water to theire cousins yn the New Worlde who were rul-ed by a dylusyonal rhyhte wynged narssyssyste ande theye sayeth: ‘We want one of those’… ande theire wyshe was granted ande yt was trulye thye ende of dayes.’

Amen.

The Uxbridge Guide To Euro Jargon

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Someone recently asked me the meaning of ‘prorogue’, and so, herewith, my helpful guide to Euro jargon courtesy of the Uxbridge Publishing House.

Prorogue – Someone who engages in villainy for money – not just on an amateur basis. Particularly in reference to Conservative leadership hopefuls.

Quorate – An apple that’s been completely consumed.

Federal – Had your Aunty round for tea

Europhile – You resemble one of Adam Flemming’s ring binders (one for fans of BBC Brexitcast).

Plebiscite – When your neighbours stick a sofa on their front lawn and start drinking cans of Tennent’s. 

Declaration – When, after ten cans, one of them announces they are Declan Donelly’s cousin.

Border – How you feel after watching the Ten O’Clock News, Question Time, Newsnight and This Week in close succession, and they all discuss leaving the EU.

Irish Border – The RTE equivalent.

Withdrawal – How you speak after you’ve been to the dentist.

Brexit – What holding a referendum does to a country.

Posturing vs Politics

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Really? I’d’ve thought Donald would have dropped everything. I mean this is Jeremy Corbyn we’re talking about!

Hmmm… this is where the boundary between politics and posturing gets blurred. There isn’t an easy or comfortable answer to any of this – but it does require mature politicians – certainly those who aspire to the highest office – to think long and hard about how on earth they engage with the world – and some of the dickheads who run it – and stand up for essential principles whilst simultaneously protecting our citizens and ensuring the long term prosperity for all which is at the heart of Labour politics.

As Emily Thornberry made very clear on the Today Programme this morning it was important to attend state banquets with President Xi (he of mass persecution, executions and concentration camps) in order for Corbyn to raise these issues with him (although did he? Did he really?).

Aside from this honking double standard, I would have liked to have seen Corbyn addressing cross party rallies in favour of Remaining in the EU with equal passion. His selectivity when it comes to the causes he espouses is little more than opportunistic, politically simplistic and extremely immature.

And much as I love Sadiq Khan – and would happily vote for him if he were Labour leader – I don’t quite get why people are so outraged at Trump for Tweeting about him after Khan wrote in a national newspaper that he was (effectively) a fascist. I think references to fascism are over used, but broadly I agree with Khan. However if you call someone a fascist and tell them they’re not welcome in your city… are you really surprised if they tell you to fuck off right back?

Grow up everyone.

And I mean EVERYONE.

Here Is the News (I Agree With)

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Last week, as a proud alumnus of Manchester University, I attended the annual Cockroft Rutherford lecture, given by Dorothy Byrne, Head of News and Current Affairs at Channel 4. She argued the case for strong political journalism as a key pillar of our democracy, coupled with an analysis of why those who wish to subvert it have turned their weapons on those who seek to report on them.

You can see her whole lecture here. It’s about an hour long and the lecture proper doesn’t start until about twenty-five minutes in. It’s very entertaining and incisive. Well worth a looksee.

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In the colour factor corner…

However, in a largely convincing account of the nuanced meaning of due impartiality, Ms Byrne seemed to have a bit of a blindspot as to some of her own channel’s output. She took a good deal of righteous delight in attacking the BBC for giving undue airtime to climate deniers in the name of balance, conveniently forgetting that it was Channel 4 who led the way on this with The Great Global Warming Swindle back in 2007. She decided that a six part BBC documentary about David Cameron’s tenure as PM would be a waste of money – without having seen it (it may be, it may not be – who knows? There’s certainly plenty to say about his rise to power and, deride it or not, his pivotal premiership 2010-2016. Her uninformed, prejudicial dismissiveness was hardly setting a good journalistic example) and she took great pride in quoting a statistic that said that 90% of Channel 4 News’s audience believed that their coverage was truly independent, the highest of any mainstream news programme.

Duh. Of course they do. They’re Channel 4 News’s audience.

When people say – as many in the Cockroft audience did – that they think Channel 4 News is more independent, or more balanced than the BBC what they mean is, they agree with its very particular Guardian style Liberal/Left – and pro-Remain – agenda. They want Jon Snow and Krishnan Guru-Murthy to express their righteous indignation at people with Right Wing/Brexit views.

I like Channel 4 News. I watch it every day.

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Jon Snow – concern etched on his face. His particular brand of liberal left hand wringing can be pretty wearisome. I can wring my own lefty liberal hands, ta, Jon.

I like The Guardian. I have a subscription. Not because these news outlets are impartial (which they aren’t) but because they have a very clear agenda, which throws a clear light on things, albeit from a very distinct angle. As long as you know what that bias is – and it is bias – you can evaluate what the truth may be. A bit like a Mark Kermode film review. I listen to Mark every week, but there’s no getting away from it, he likes all sorts of tedious shite – however, as long as I know what sort of tedious shite he likes I can work out whether the movie is worth seeing or not.

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A terrific critic, but oh Lordy, I’ve felt my life draining away watching some of the films he has recommended.

I prefer BBC News. Why? Well for the reasons Fran Unsworth  enunciated in yesterday’s Observer in response to this broadside the previous week.

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And in the red corner….

It tells me all sorts of things I DON’T want to hear. Its commentators come from all corners of the political spectrum, not just the ones I agree with. I have to work a bit harder to make my own judgements. The interviewers aren’t trying to express my rage (I can do rage on my own, thank you very much). It’s not presented to me wrapped up in a parcel of satisfying righteous indignation.

Many of my friends on Social Media vehemently disagree with me, insisting that while ‘we’ may be able to divine the truth from such output, most viewers aren’t bright enough, and will be easily swayed by, say, a Nigel Farage, unless the interviewer leaps on them and tells them – and tells the viewers that they’re wrong. Angrily!!

Bloody hell, that’s patronising. And not just a little arrogant as well.

Core to our democracy is the trust that people, by and large, are pretty smart and that everyone has the skills to make considered judgements providing they are given the tools. That’s far preferable than the presenters or interviewers editorialising on our behalf. That’s presumably why the BBC has invested so much into the Reality Check team and they are referred to most days on the BBC TV News. But it is our responsibility as an audience and as participants in the democratic process to make the effort not to go out and make a cup of tea when Chris Morris tips up, or when the fact checker feeds back on PMQs on BBC2’s Politics Live which he does EVERY week. Expecting to be spoon fed won’t help the democratic process – and hats off to the BBC for constantly pointing people to Reality Check web pages, Reality Check news items, the very brilliant More or Less on BBC Radio 4, The Briefing Room etc etc etc.

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This is the programme that does more than any other to tool the listener up to root out bullshit for themselves…

So I will never say: “Well of course I understand what’s going on but it’s the stupid masses who don’t… so they need to be told what to think.” I see an awful lot of BBC bashing social media from people who take that attitude, and it depresses me. Just as in drama – my own personal trade – no one ever wrote a decent script assuming the audience to be more stupid than the writer.

So, for this Marmoset, it’s bloody amazing that the BBC has the courage to go on doing this, and we should treasure it, not bleat on Social Media because it isn’t saying precisely what we as individuals think. The day it does that is the day it has stopped being News and become our own personal echo chamber.

Comic Relief and the (Un)Helpful Whitewashing of Kilimanjaro

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I’ve always had a soft spot for Comic Relief, if only because the telethon can actually be quite amusing unlike the deadening schedule-killing slog of Children In Need and the tooth grinding presence of Pudsey Bear.

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A mascot so annoyingly twee it’s the one creature that makes me want to go big game hunting…

And a telethon packed with such hideously unfunny skits it makes my cancer treatment of a few years back seem actually quite amusing. But, hey, it’s all in a good cause, so that’s not something I would ever admit to in a public arena, especially not on Social Media.

But Comic Relief…? No, that’s the cool one (I like Sport Relief too).

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Red Nose Kili Class of 2009

Ten years ago in 2009 I was inspired by the ascent of Kilimanjaro led by Gary Barlow, also featuring Chris Moyles, Cheryl Cole, Denise Van Outen and other assorted celebs. It was great telly and I donated fifty quid, which is a lot for me as I’m pretty tight when it comes to telethons.

I was also inspired to get off my own arse. I’ve always loved walking and hiking – I’ve been rambling since I was 17 (insert overlong blog related joke here) – but I’m afflicted with crippling vertigo, and thus, much as I love mountains, actual climbing is beyond me. But Kilimanjaro? You can WALK up that one! And it’s enormous. I mean, if Chris Moyles can do it….

I put it on ‘The List’. You know? That list of things you’re never going to do.

Fast forward two years, and I was writing for itv soap Emmerdale when the brilliantly talented series producer Gavin Blyth died suddenly from a rare lymphoma. He was ten years younger than me and with a startling lack of originality I had one of those ‘life is short’ moments when it was time to get out The List and think about actually ticking some stuff off.

Also, as my wife helpfully pointed out, you might not have the knees for it in a few years.

So it came to pass that, later the same year, I headed out to Tanzania as part of an Exodus Travels group to make my own ascent – and to raise money for Lymphoma Research in honour of Gavin.

Don’t ever let anyone tell you Kili isn’t tough. Sure, it’s a walk – with just a tiny bit of scrambling – but if you aren’t a trained climber nor used to altitude, it’s punishing. I had a great time. It was an unforgettable experience. I made some good travelling buddies. I’m not a resilient or brave person so it definitely ranks as my personal best in terms of physical challenges.

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The exhilaration and achievement on reaching Uhuru Summit is chiselled indelibly into my living DNA.

Fast Forward another eight years to last night, slumping excitedly on my sofa in front of the 2019 Red Nose Kilimanjaro challenge – this time with luminaries such as Ed Balls, Alexander Armstrong, Dani Dyer, Shirley Ballas et al. It brought a cascade of visceral memories flooding back. When I say ‘I felt their pain’ for once that isn’t a cliché. I can assure anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of this particular lump of rock that their groans, nausea, tears and exhilaration were all completely genuine. It’s all true. I’ve been there and I literally do have the T-shirt. I’ve got a couple actually.

But… but…

Okay, where to start?

A few weeks ago, MP David Lammy brewed up something of a Twitter storm by laying into Comic Relief, and Stacey Dooley in particular, for perpetuating colonial ‘White Saviour’ stereotypes in relation to the African continent.

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I had mixed feelings about this. It struck me that while it is undoubtedly true such an unhelpful narrative exists, it is also true that Comic Relief raises millions of pounds and saves thousands of lives, and that you don’t solve the former by attacking the latter. I admire Mr Lammy hugely so I was disappointed that he didn’t have a more nuanced and constructive critique.

And then I watched the Kili programme.

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Red Nose Kili Class of 2019

 

Hmmmm.

Ok, it needs to be entertainment telly with a captivating narrative. Brave celebs venture out of their comfort zones to raise hard cash for people who really, really need it. They gasp for breath, they weep, they vomit, but they triumph against nature.

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A plucky band of likeable B list comrades sticking together for a great cause.

There’s a camera on a drone that sweeps up showing them tiny and lost against the massive, forbidding hulk of the volcano. And trust me on this – it IS a massive forbidding hulk of a volcano. Three of the nine are people of colour so arguably I’m out of order to entitle this blog: ‘The Whitewashing of Kilimanjaro’. So why have I?

Perhaps it should read ‘Airbrushing Kilimanjaro’ or ‘Mystifying/Mythologising Kilimanjaro’.

Hit rewind again to 2011. There are twelve tourist hikers in my Exodus group. We’re not B List celebs, or C or D… or anybody with financial pulling power of any sort. We’re just there to have fun, spend our tourist dollars, and some of us are doing it for charity as well. At the risk of sounding as if I’m in their pay (I’m not!) Exodus is a superb travel company. I’ve journeyed with them seven times, including adventures in the Himalaya and The Inca Trail as well as Kilimanjaro. As far as I can tell, they genuinely try to do things properly. So for our small band of twelve we had a head guide – Naiman – five assistant guides, a head cook, his assistant and around forty ordinary porters. A support staff of forty-eight in total, drawn from the local Tanzanian community. These are important jobs done by great people.

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The support team required for a party of twelve European hikers on Kili

Exodus make huge play of their ethical tourism schtick and it’s easy to be cynical but I’m always impressed. There’s a powerful ethos never to regard the support team as simply service staff – or even worse, ‘servants’. They’re all skilled at what they do with employment rights (there are strict limits on the weight any one porter is permitted to carry) and they have lives of their own, and the tour leader will always encourage everyone to integrate and talk and share life experiences where language allows.

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I spent a lot of my Kili hike chatting to the guides and it was clear that these gigs were highly sought after. They’re well paid – especially when you add in the tips – and many of the people I spoke to talked about how a couple of these hikes a year could put a child through education, and all sorts of other things not available to their contemporaries in other jobs. You start as a porter, and develop your language skills and there’s training and apprenticeships to help you work your way up in the lucrative tourism industry if you have those ambitions.

Kili hiking is an industry run by professionals.

And that’s a good thing.

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Have you ever tried to carry eggs up an extinct volcano?

If you’re a hopeless, hapless, helpless white Northern European telly writer on a 19,000 foot rock in the middle of the African landmass, you need professionals around to get you through. In my case it was a six foot two Tanzanian called Anaeli, one of the highly experiences assistant guides. On the final night ascent to Gilman’s Point (the rim of the crater) I was really struggling. Just as I was about to chuck it in, Anaeli appeared out of the darkness, as if by magic, and took my backpack. He was already carrying his own pack – including first aid and an oxygen tank – and being the nice polite, white liberal chap that I am, I was excruciatingly embarrassed, feeling that it was completely wrong to expect someone else to carry my stuff. Perhaps it would be better if I just called it a day? Anaeli shrugged. ‘It’s no problem,’ he said, ‘this is my job. This is what I do.’ He looked me in the eye with a steady gaze. ‘You’re getting to the top,’ he said. ‘I’m going to get you there.’

I’m not religious in any way, but at that moment I thought: ‘This must have been what Jesus was like’ and I fell in love with him there and then and knew it was true. I was going to the top of the mountain because Anaeli said so. He was my Saviour.

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My Saviour – The Jesus of Kilimanjaro

So we carried on up the impossibly steep mountainside. The air is so thin, it’s all you can do to put one foot in front of the other. ‘Polé, polé’ as they say in Tanzania. It was minus seventeen degrees centigrade. A few hundred metres up the track we found one of my Exodus travelling companions, Arrvind, crying on a rock (as the Red Nose celebs illustrated last night, you do a lot of crying on Kili) also about to give up and go home. But with a guide to hiker ratio of 1:2 Anaeli came to the rescue again. He took Arvind’s pack as well and offered the same calm, Jesus like reassurance.

We were going to Uhuru together.  Me, Arrvind and Anaeli – carrying all three packs (and don’t forget the oxygen, which he insisted we wouldn’t need, but for our safety he carried anyway).

After overcoming my terror of heights I managed the brief scramble over Gilman’s at dawn for a moment’s glorious respite, overlooking Mount Kenya poking through the clouds below.

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I’d say it was a breath taking view, but as I didn’t have any breath left to take, that particular cliché is redundant.

It’s another hour at least around the rim to Uhuru, where on an average day there’s a queue of people waiting to grab their photo opportunity. Numbers are restricted – you have pay for a pass to climb the mountain – but it’s still like Picadilly Circus when you get there, largely because everyone arrives at pretty much the same time. This picture below is the more truthful one. Me and Arrvind still clinging on to Anaeli for dear life because we knew we’d only got there because of him.6862 Avind Amaeli & Me Crop

Something the Red Nose doc didn’t show was quite how knackering the descent is. There’s a terrifying near vertical scree run of a good couple of thousand feet, which is nowhere near as much fun as it might sound. Then you have to walk – fast! – for a few hours to make the next camp before sundown. You’ve been up since midnight. I was really flagging by then but a couple of the other guides took me under their wing and chivvied me along, telling me about their experiences working on the 2009 Red Nose team.

There had been over 120 porters and support team for the nine celebs, camera crew and production team – which included at least one make-up artist (!) and, much to the amusement of the guys I spoke to, a personal bodyguard for one of the celebs (who shall remain nameless) who was, according to them, afraid they might be kidnapped on the mountain, and had insisted that they be allowed to bring their own security. To their great credit the guides who told me this were more amused than insulted. They thought it was hysterically funny.

I did try to get them to dish some celebrity dirt, but apart from that titbit of friendly bemusement, they were faultlessly professional and diplomatic. The only thing they would tell me – and upon which they were all agreed – was that Gary Barlow is a genuinely lovely human being and was the one person in the celebrity team who consistently showed an interest in the work and wellbeing of the guides, porters and kitchen team. When I heard this, I realised I could finally come out of the closet – I’ve always loved a bit of Take That.

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A Genuinely Good Human Being!

Back to 2019. Back to the sofa. This time I’m watching the Comic Relief Kili Challenge with informed eyes. I’ve been there and I’m asking: ‘Where are the guides, porters and kitchen staff?’ Ok, so like I say, yes, I know, I know, I know, it needs to be the story of our brave and hardy celebs fighting against the odds – blah blah blah  – with their (white, English) Comic Relief medic looking after their wellbeing and NFL guy giving them team talks… That’s the narrative – Europeans and Americans (albeit some with more diverse heritage) taking on Africa… a team of plucky comrades, this band of brothers, this happy few… and the fewer and bandier they appear to be the more cash we’ll give, right? They even put up their own tents, didn’t they?

No.  They didn’t. Ok, yes, they might have helped a bit on the first night as depicted, and, all right, I wasn’t there, but there’s no way they put up their own tents any other time. You are just WAY too knackered to do that after a day’s high altitude hiking. In reality you get a nominated tent porter. They take it down in the morning, they carry it to the next camp, shooting up the mountain at full pelt ahead of you, while you breathlessly push one leaden boot in front of the other. Then when you finally get there, your porter is waiting with your tent, and your main pack (you only carry a day bag when you’re walking) – your sleeping bag aired and laid out ready for you on your sleeping mat, as you collapse for an hour’s rest before enjoying a hot and hearty meal cooked to perfection by the amazing kitchen team in the mess tent, erected hours before you even got half way.

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About a third the size of the support team who would have accompanied the Red Nose climbers.

Then you get a briefing and pep talk – and medical advice – from the extremely well trained Tanzanian guides. Oh yes, and if you’re really struggling with altitude then you may well pop the odd tab of Diamox. It doesn’t work for everyone, but the medication certainly helped me.

So would it spoil the effect to show this? What is the editorial thinking here? Is it just that it denudes the drama? Is there no value in showing the relationships that can form between the hikers and their very expert local helpers? Does Comic Relief believe we are all so shallow we are only interested in the exchanges between those we sometimes barely recognise from our own disposable culture? Would our European/American chums just look too pathetic if we could see the locals charging up the slopes ahead of them?

What is it that Comic Relief is scared of? Is mystifying the mountain really so important to this narrative? Does Comic Relief believe that if it shows Kilimanjaro as a well managed professional operation it will get in the way of the ‘Aid Narrative’ and less money would be raised?

Or is there a subconscious unwillingness to show the ‘saviour’ halo on the other head?

It would be good to have an honest answer. Perhaps this editorialising – straying dangerously close to the dishonest, patronising and insulting at times – is worthwhile. The ends really do justify the means. When last night’s celebs reached Uhuru, the drone shot showed them with the mountain to themselves – just a couple of camera crew and the head guide looking on – suggesting to me that the Kili authorities had closed the peak for the day. Like I say, it’s normally thronging. But that’s fine. Back in 2011, our head guide told me that Kili bookings had increased by 60% following the 2009 challenge. This is a huge, real world boost to the local economy, and doubtless they will get a similar spike in bookings this time round. I received an email circular about Kili trips from Exodus within five minutes of the programme finishing, so closing the mountain for a day is a cast iron loss leader and that’s on top of the millions that will be raised for good causes.

I passionately believe that it’s mealy mouthed and unhelpful to shun or dismiss projects like the Red Nose Kili challenges – but I also humbly suggest that Comic Relief needs to bloody well grow up and depict the societies they aspire to care for with a lot more honesty.

You need to treat us, the audience, like grown ups – and most importantly of all, treat the people whose hard graft makes stunts like this possible with a lot more respect. You cannot go on marginalising working communities like this. Do this and you will enrich the experience and enrich the narrative for everybody.

Meanwhile, it’s still worth making a donation. I will be.

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Or click HERE to Donate

 

 

 

 

 

The Dog Ate Corbyn’s Homework

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Poor old Jezza’s had a rough time of it recently.

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Jeremy Corbyn – International Man of Peace

Following the dissemination of Mr C’s completely unedited comments about British zionists and their reluctance to study history or understand ‘English Irony’ despite having lived here for ‘probably all their lives’, this morning, the Corbyn apologist defence seems to be running along the lines of: ‘Ok, yes, Corbyn definitely said a racist thing, but that doesn’t mean he’s actually racist.’

Which we can add to:

‘He didn’t notice that the anti-semitic mural was anti-semitic’

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Admittedly very hard to spot the anti-semitism here, although you can probably see Wally/Waldo in there somewhere

Or:

‘It would have been rude not to say “good point” to the phone-in contributor complaining of Zionist Liars at the BBC – especially after Press TV had paid him £20,000!’

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Unfortunately I can’t link to the relevant clip as it has been removed from YouTube

And:

‘It would have been rude to interrupt the ranting anti-semite at the NEC – and anyway you only know about that because some bastard recorded it!’

Similarly:

‘It would have been rude to have interrupted the guy comparing Israel to the Nazis at the provocative event purposefully scheduled for Holocaust Memorial Day’

Not to mention, my personal favourite:

‘I was present but not involved…’ (…at the wreath laying ceremony where there’s a photograph of me laying a wreath.)

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Present, but definitely not involved in any way

As others have commented, surely the world’s unluckiest lifelong anti-racist.

But let’s be honest, he’s brilliant at excuses. Of course you don’t need any of these if you use the McDonnell Special – the classic catch-all: ‘His remarks were taken out of context’.

This is absolutely true.

The context of most of these events is that Corbyn was an obscure back bencher and no one gave a sh*t about what he said. The context now is that he is the leader of the Labour Party and could become Prime Minister.

Let’s hope not, eh.

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First World Problems: How To Build A Civil War, Part 1

When Radio 4 drama commissioner Jeremy Howe gave me the green light for First World Problems – a five part epic drama following the fortunes (and misfortunes) of the Fletcher family in an imagined civil war some time in the near future – it was on condition that I stress-tested the imaginative thinking behind it. This is Radio 4 – we don’t just make up any old nonsense.

What…?

FWP WIDE LARGE FONT

Even if we never leave the sides of Ruth and Dave Fletcher (yes, your right, there is another Radio 4 series with central characters called David and Ruth…) and their struggle to survive, the political hypothetical underpinning the series needs to be credible and forensic, so before I wrote a word of the script I spent an intense month ear-holing everyone who would speak to me. Luckily for me, writing a major project for the world’s premier speech network also gets you access to the finest analysts and journalists in the business.

The following was constructed following discussions with Peter Barnes (Senior BBC Political Analyst), Louisa Brooke Holland (Senior Research Analyst, International Affairs and Defence, House of Commons Library), Rory Cellen Jones (BBC technology correspondent), Gabrielle Garton Grimwood (Senior Research Analyst in Emergency Planning, House of Commons Library), Tamara Kovacevic (Senior BBC journalist with first hand experience of the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s), Mike Livingstone (Former Strategic Director of Children’s Services, Manchester City Council), Jonathan Marcus (BBC Defence and Diplomatic correspondent), Professor Bill McGuire (Emeritus Professor Geophysical & Climate Hazards, UCL) and Gemma Sou (Lecturer in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Conflict Response, Manchester University).  Plus three advisors on civil contingency who asked not to be identified. I also referenced assorted defence and civil contingency briefings, and the brilliant BBC documentary series ‘The Death of Yugoslavia’ primarily compiled by Alan Little. I would like to thank them all here for their time, wisdom and intellectual generosity, although it should be stressed that the following is purely this writer’s imaginative extrapolation of a worst case scenario from the thoughts they shared with me.

Herewith, the core of the briefing document I put together as background for the project in November 2017. Whilst the reader may make their own judgements, and despite whatever personal opinions I have, this scenario is designed to work for a post-May right wing government or equally a post-Corbyn left wing administration:

A Ticking Clock to Civil War

The build up to armed civil conflict in First World Problems takes place over period of about three years… or conceivably shorter, because when things go wrong they can go wrong surprisingly fast. Like a physical hurricane, extreme socio-political turmoil is also about picking up heat, with that heat driving the disruptive forces ever faster to wreak their chaos. That’s why they call it the perfect storm. It’s a confluence of a lot of bad shit coming together at the same time – but historically, that is the nature of ‘bad shit’… shit breeds shit – it’s rarely just coincidence.

Therefore, the dramatic action of Episode 1 commences either in about five years time (circa 2022-3), or at an indeterminate date in a reality only slightly displaced from our own.

The Political Players – Real or Fictional?

Either way, the current well known political players have all moved on. Political turmoil has precipitated a changing of the guard several times over, with Brenda from Bristol given cause to swear at a number of inconclusive elections following in rapid succession, veering from left to right, Italian style.

Crucially, however, Queen Elizabeth II is no longer on the throne. She need not be dead – we need not say either way – but regardless, the UK now has a King for a monarch although we don’t need to say whether this is Charles III or William V. By referring to The King it tells the audience what they need to know, this drama isn’t happening ‘now’ – it’s in a time displaced, and given the Queen’s age, that will now feel reasonably immediate, but not in bad taste. Importantly, a new monarch may not take the neutral stance we’ve come to expect from Elizabeth.

Did I mention Brexit?

If we take the start of Episode 1 as Year Zero, then at some point around zero-minus-three, the UK unceremoniously crashes out of the EU. This happens for a variety of reasons:

  1. Negotiations never really gain solid ground and just collapse to a no-deal exit.  Or…
  2. Things look as if they are going pretty well, but fail at the last hurdle. This is down to bad diplomacy; or the negotiating UK government abruptly collapsing for an unpredictable left-field reason – a sex/financial scandal; a minority government’s coalition partner jumping ship; a series of by-elections going the wrong way, forcing yet another a General Election…
    In fact, any number of other scenarios. Like the man said: ‘Events, dear boy, events.’ And/Or…
  3. Instability in Europe – a collapse of the Euro, the rise of extremist, nationalist or separatist movements disrupt the process beyond repair i.e. I’m not assuming that a failure to get a deal is solely down to the UK.

Almost any combination of these could sink negotiations.

Following Brexit, the EU is seriously destabilised. The Euro goes through another crisis – with Europe increasingly isolated from an isolationist USA and under pressure from new waves of migration from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa driven by conflict and climate change.

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The on-going problems in Catalonia not only spread to other nationalist/separatist movements (eg the Walloons, and in our context, the Scots and Ireland) – but ask irresolvable questions of Brussels, and when things get nasty whose side is the EU on? Will they recognise an independent Catalonia?

Wherever people stand on the Catalan issue, an EU under new pressure is unable to make the best decision, and this puts stress on other fault lines. What on earth should they do? Recognise Catalonia, and undermine Spanish Sovereign authority? Grant Catalonia immediate EU membership? How will Scotland feel? Deny Catalonia recognition and lose the support of swathes of the left across the continent, who tend to a default support of Catalan separatists/nationalists, regardless of any finer nationalist nuances there may be.

After Merkel moves on/is forced out, Germany enters a period of instability with increasing influence from the far right AFD; in Austria The Freedom Party gets an even tighter hold on power; spreading to France which prematurely thought it had seen off Le Pen. With Turkey dealing with its own cycle of problems, Greece comes under renewed pressure from migration, a fractured and impoverished EU is unable to help, and the recovering Greek economy falters again, as Golden Dawn starts gathering new momentum. Italy becomes a similar pinch point, increasingly resentful of the weight it bears in receiving migrants and refugees from across the Mediterranean.

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Inevitably, there are moves within the remaining EU major players for their own exit referendums. The EU is at breaking point – and these new movements, for whom accruing weaponry is less problematic than in the UK, find common cause with ever-angrier factions in England – for whom they are prepared to smuggle in arms, seeing populist uprising in the UK as totemic for their own causes.

Cross border co-operation in a range of fields – trade, of course, but academia, science, security might grind on for a bit, but the pistons of UK/EU relations are seizing up.

The Yanks Are Coming… Or Not.

The US political establishment is imploding. Effectively what’s going on is a coup – albeit a bloodless one happening behind the White House doors. The process eviscerates the already eviscerated mechanisms of state. The US isn’t looking anywhere but at itself.

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Did I suggest this stuff was hypothetical?

Meanwhile isolationist trade practices are further grinding the world economy to a halt.

The Russians Are Coming… (…or Should That be Lurking?)

Russia already has a proven record of using soft power, propaganda, social media to destabilise western powers. They are already making merry hell in Europe, but anything to undermine the workings of NATO suits them just fine.  If there’s a fault line to lubricate there will be someone from Russian intelligence nearby having a sniff around to see how it can be exploited. This may sound like crazy cold war paranoia, but Putin doesn’t have the economy or armed forces to be a major military power any more, and it is widely accepted that he’s learned that there are plenty of other ways of making mischief and therefore allowing what force he does have to work to best advantage.
Russia is scampering around sowing as much disinformation as they can to destabilise the UK, and weaken their role in NATO while the US is barely paying attention. It serves them well as they incrementally seek to claw back power, influence and territory in Eastern Europe, without challenge from the EU, NATO or the US.

Climate

This isn’t a geo-thriller, but only the very naive ignore the role climate is playing in our politics. Heat, drought and coastal flood variously drive the impoverished of the global South to the temperate North…

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And who can blame him?

…but in the world of First World Problems, Western Europe itself is being increasingly hit by punishing, hot summers, which cause power shortages (from French nuclear power stations unable to operate in hot conditions), ruin crops, and kill poor and vulnerable people who can’t afford air conditioning.

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Floods are ever more frequent, ruining low lying farmland, and nagging away at even the most robust western economies.

Meanwhile, out in the North Atlantic, the increase in cold fresh water from the ever greater polar melts (especially from Greenland) is disrupting the major Atlantic currents, risking the gulf stream itself and threatening to plunge north West Europe into a period of freezing winters and cool summers for which our battered economies are ill prepared, while Southern Europe continues to fry… and that’s not even mentioning an upcoming Maunder Minimum.

The End of the Union

Year Zero-minus-three, the UK crashes out of the EU. There’s no good way to spin this, it’s a disaster. Much as many on the liberal left and indeed the populist right say they would happily wave goodbye to ‘The Bankers’, the financial sector makes up 20% of UK GDP, and 29% of our exports – not to mention £67 billion in tax revenues. A mass exodus of financial services – for purely practical reasons – not political ones – not only means the economy takes a massive hit, but the effect is cumulative. As crucial players move out, others are forced to follow.

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Unable to offer any kind of coherent stability to foreign workers health and other crucial services suffer crippling skill shortages

Manufacturing industry is a patchier picture – some sectors do ok – but the vast rump of our industry is reliant on cross European agreements and these all just went up in smoke. It doesn’t matter whose side you’re on any more. If you can’t afford to trade, or be part of a pan European manufacturing chain, you’re stuffed. The corporations move production overseas, deciding that in a fracturing world, the centres of production need to be closer together, because it no longer works to make stuff in little bits across a wider union with the ever increasing risks of European fragmentation. The UK government looks across the Atlantic, only to find an isolationist administration slamming the trade door in our face.

The pound sinks, which ameliorates the worst effects of WTO rules to some degree regarding exports, but the Euro is sinking too so the positives of that are knocked out, and imports soar in price.

Month by month the range of goods available in our supermarkets starts to change, shrink…

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Supplies to supermarkets rely on ‘just in time’ ordering. If that breaks down there will be empty shelves within days.

…retail patterns adjusting to the new economic reality.  Inflation rockets, just as manufacturing crashes. It’s ‘stagflation max’ – like of which we haven’t seen for decades, if ever.

With the crash in tax revenues, public services, already bruised from years of austerity, start to fall apart in a way never seen before – with local authorities thrown into complete paralysis. Minimum standards of health care, social care, child protection, law and order, health and safety – statutory obligations – can no longer be met.

The minority government collapses. It’s all change politically, and a new government is elected answerable to the extreme Left or Right – either works – because we still have debts to pay in Europe but neither a Right nor a Left government wants to settle with an increasingly autocratic and defensive EU. The left dislikes the EU as much as the right – especially when they back  the Spanish Government over Catalonia…

A Right government tries to impose ever tighter public spending. A Left government finds it can’t borrow because the UK credit rating renders our bonds little more than junk. Either way – the country is fast running out of cash, and unlike 2008, there isn’t the underlying industrial foundation and financial sector waiting to be revived and standing as collateral against the kind of borrowing needed to revive the economy.

A Left Government goes to the country with a vamped up version of the Social Contract from the 1970s. Trade unionism has been revived due to liberalising legislation regarding organised labour. The government asks unions to agree to wage restraint in exchange for national stability and sharing what we have. But this agreement is perilously fragile. Charismatic Union Leaders have power again and they want to use it.

A Right government imposes pay caps from the top down.  Industrial dissent is faced down, legislated against, crushed. Civil Liberties are chipped away at an alarming speed.

Either way – ordinary people are getting poorer. And it’s impossible to renew an ageing infrastructure, struggling to support a population knocking on 70 million. The PFIs of the 1990s are still costing shitloads, but they’re starting to look at bit tired.

Over the next two years there are several changes of government, with small majorities or minority agreements but the situation is unresolvable. Charismatic figures on the Left and/or Right decide that the problem lies in the inability of state mechanisms to adapt to New Realities – and when they say state mechanisms, they’re talking about The Civil Service. Thousands of knowledgeable civil servants are side-lined, sacked or choose to resign. Managers from politics and industry are brought in, as blue-sky political thinkers, Trump style, but they haven’t a clue how to manage a crumbling arcane state machine of gargantuan Heath Robinson proportions.

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Elements of the Left and the Right of UK politics have been champing at the bit to call time on the Civil Service for decades, but be careful what you wish for…

Civil unrest becomes ever more frequent – strikes, rioting, and because of the failure of infrastructure, there are more Grenfell like crises that leave the poor and disenfranchised as martyrs of a new anger.

When Left policies – however well intentioned – can’t solve things, voters peel off to the right; when the Right fails the reverse happens. Politics is simultaneously volatile, fractured, fickle and tribal – a huge shoal of fish darting this way and that, as a dark shark-like shadow looms over them.

A Right government imposes ever more draconian restrictions on civil liberties. ID cards are back in the frame; restrictions on the freedom of assembly, trade unions, freedom of speech; the definition of terrorism or sedition is widened; tighter restrictions on migration along ethnic lines…

A Left government becomes paranoid in its own way, embattled and divisive. It tries to pacify the re-emboldened unions and swathes of the angry and impoverished.  It starts to requisition and sequester wealth. Strict new rules are imposed on inheritance and pensions; a raid on property wealth that makes the botched 2017 Tory manifesto look like a hiccup; top-down rationing of resources, housing, health etc that seemingly turns socialist idealism into autocracy.  Unions see a Left government as an easier target than a right one. Plus ça change.

Either way you go, the third minority government in two and half years, left or right, is desperately trying to stop the country falling apart in front of them – and gets nothing but anger in return, making them ever more embattled and defensive and controlling.

Throw into this a major economic collapse. There’s a run on the banks, and ATMs stop paying out. This time the exchequer isn’t in any position to bail them out.

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It’s a good job I’m making all of this up….

Some councils, refusing to abandon their statutory obligations, ask workers to go without pay. Cast your mind back to the Hatton Council in Liverpool in the 1980s. A friend of mine was working for them and wasn’t paid for three months.

Racial tensions increase outside of the socially liberal conurbations. There is more racial violence and hate crime – feeding the far right and stoking tensions between left and right – and post EU the flow of migrant workers dries up, causing skill shortages that start to impact on daily life. The NHS of course, struggles to staff itself, while in agriculture and other sectors some producers simply can’t function.

Jokes about quinoa and smoked salmon shortages in North London turn into sporadic shortages of staple items, causing violence in branches of Tesco…

Either colour of government becomes wary of the way volatility is stirred even faster by social media – and either colour is aware to differing degrees that foreign players (eg Russia) are in the virtual environment making as much mischief as they can.  The government draws up plans (if such plans don’t already exist – I would be surprised if they don’t), to bring the Internet under state control – leaving the network intact but only for government-approved use. The Internet relies on physical hubs, and fibre optic highways. If the government have strategic plans to protect it in the case of physical attack, they can build into those physical plans the means to control what flows through it and who has access to it, as well. But they don’t do anything yet.

At Buck House the Queen who has reigned for the best part of seventy years is no longer on the throne. Republican or monarchist, living under Elizabeth has been the single common defining quality of being a UK citizen for the entire lifespan of the vast majority of the population. Whatever you thought of her, being an Elizabethan was a badge of identity that told us who we were, where we stood in modern history.

You can brush it off as no more than a triangulation point, but without triangulation… we’re all lost.

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Never has UK national identity felt so fragile… as if everyone, stressed by economic disaster and political instability, is desperately trying to find out who they are!!  Old loyalties are melting away like friends you have when you suddenly realise you can’t remember why you ever thought it was a good idea to spend time with them.

And when the resources for ‘getting by’ are scarce, it means that many are prepared for others ‘not to get by’. Whilst a crisis can bring out the best in people – it also can bring out the worst.

This isn’t the Blitz – where plucky Brits faced a common enemy, against whom we could unite – this is a crisis of our own making, and so the only people we can blame are each other.

***

Ok… so am I ever going to actually talk about the English Civil War? As I said, this is about a confluence of events, and the surrounding context is the hot ocean feeding our particular storm. But to see how things play out when the black clouds of civil conflict finally burst…

…you’ll have to wait for the next jolly episode, First World Problems: How To Build a Civil War, Part 2, coming to a website near you, very soon.

Yeats

First World Problems is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 11th-15th June 2017 and on the BBC Radio iPlayer for a month. Click here to catch up from Episode One.