Sunday, 25 June 2017

Widescreen Milan

The wolf lay on its side, shivering as it died. Other wolves would take its place and over time they would bring me down. I would become a frozen corpse like all the others. God was sick of chaos. He had decided to find out which animal was the best, and his patience had run out.

Off to Milan - I actually shot all these in September 2016, but didn't get around to processing them until now.

The dam could be defended, but a wolf had already got in. One of the windows was broken. I would have to fix that, after I had fixed my arms, if they could be fixed. I could hear the wolf, and with darkness falling it had to go, so I set out to kill it.

What did I know about wolves? Only what I had seen on television. They were territorial, they rarely attacked, you should pull a jacket over your head and never break eye contact. I remember a demonstration of a police dog tackling a man. Putting all this knowledge together - all this knowledge - I taped the remains of a rucksack around my forearms, put on thick gloves, took out my knife, hoped that it had a proper whatever it was, the bit of the knife that went into the handle. A tang. I hoped that it had a proper tang that was made of carbon steel, because that was the best. Knowledge was what separated us from the other animals.

They were all shot with an 8mm Peleng fisheye lens on an old Fuji S5 and then defished with software.

I knew enough to know that it never works. Whatever it is, it never works. The wolf would slash my throat and I would die on the floor before the fight began. I would drop the knife. The knife would break at the handle. I would stab myself in the arm. The wolf would hide in a spot that I couldn't reach. I would slip and knock myself out, and the wolf would chew off my face and genitals while I lay unconscious. It would not go as I expected, so I steeled myself. I would explode on the wolf as if it was a tiger and there was a nuclear bomb in my heart.

The wolf didn't care about me. It was a dog that hadn't learned to flatter mankind's vanity. We are what we have, and we live and die alone. I found it shivering on its side, wet with blood. Its chest heaved and although its eyes were open it didn't see me. It had squeezed in through a broken window and it must have fallen on the glass. I remember a video once of a killer whale. It had broken its jaw, the bones cutting an artery. Blood sprayed from its blowhole for half an hour before it died. It sucks to not have hands. That was the other thing that separated us, we have hands.

And so the final battle between two animals passed with a series of wet whimpers as the wolf died. I stood with my arms wrapped in masking tape and thought about stabbing the wolf for all mankind, but God laughed at me. Ragnarok could wait.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Were You Still Up for Portillo?

Why do we value beauty? We value beauty because the world is mostly ugly. In Britain ugliness is all around and beauty is unusual. This is the reason why Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus feel so strange to British audiences. They are British films, but they are visually stunning; they are escapist fantasies and they are cinematic.

Beauty is rare and precious, dazzling to those unfamiliar with it, which brings us neatly to Michael Portillo. In 1997 he was not by Hollywood standards a beautiful man, but compared to the likes of David Mellor or John Redwood - his political contemporaries - he was Hugh Grant and indeed Cary Grant rolled into one. And yet in 1997 this beautiful man was widely hated in Britain, and in the General Election of that year the people of his constituency rejected him. He was not the only Conservative minister to lose his seat in 1997 but he is the one that most people remember today.

Twenty years and a month ago Britain's Labour Party won a smashing election victory. Now they are poised to win again under the wise leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, who despite being of pensionable age looks much younger than his years. Every so often Britain has a realigning election that reflects a fundamental change in the country's mood. The election itself is just a point on a larger wave; the elections of 1979 and 1983 took place during a phase of realignment, and so did the elections of 1997 and 2001.

Each shift sets the pattern for subsequent governments, but over time the wave has flattened. The elections of '79 and '83 led to a major shift in Britain's political landscape. Today no mainstream politician believes that Britain should have full employment, or that BAE Systems should be run directly by the government, or that anything should be done to reduce house prices, for example. The tower blocks in the image above would be unthinkable today because they might reduce house prices, which would be disastrous given that a substantial percentage of Britain's economy is based on the value of houses going up. All of these ideas are legacies of Thatcher's Britain.

It is much harder to pinpoint the legacies of '97 and '01. New Labour hoped that an influx of new British people would give Labour a perpetual majority, but in practice the impact of the New British on politics has been negligible. It's almost as if immigrants are individuals with political opinions of their own, and that importing millions of them simply increases the number of voters for all parties, not just Labour. Imagine that. Britain of 2017 idolises slender posh white women such as Kate Middleton and Taylor Swift, and all the young girls are called Saffie or Esme or Queenie etc, and Downton Abbey and Poldark and Call the Midwife are popular on television - but none of this is convincing evidence that Britain has reacted to mass immigration by becoming a nation of white supremacist Tories. There are ample counter-examples. Although the papers like to pretend that Jeremy Corbyn will take Britain back to the distant past the fact is that he cannot, because Britain will not go with him. He's smart enough to recognise this.

Corbyn was first elected to parliament in 1983, the same year as Tony Blair, but I believe that for most British people he was a complete unknown until 2015, when he "rose without trace" to become leader of the Labour Party. He beat a much younger man and two women, which is something I have not yet done. Back in 1997 he was a nobody holding down a safe seat in Islington North, which he won with a commanding majority of 20,000 votes. He was active in the House of Commons, but New Labour didn't care for him and he was otherwise just another long-term Labour throwback. Looking at his activity in Hansard I learn that in 1996 the average amount of rent paid by private renters in London was £114 per week, which seems quaint nowadays. See, this is the issue that large numbers of voters care about. Affording to live. No amount of frugality will help if the cost of rent and transport suddenly becomes greater than your income, and even if you are keeping your head above water no-one enjoys being in a position where one missed paycheque will result in economic ruin and homelessness.

I digress. In 1997 New Labour's big guns were Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, John Prescott, Peter Mandelson, David Blunkett, and Alastair Campbell, all of whom seemed like political giants at the time. Campbell was an unusual figure in that he wasn't a politician, he was instead Labour's version of communications director, its version of Joseph Goebbels.

Quoting from Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads is a cliché of writing about Britain in the 1970s, and so is quoting Enoch Powell's maxim that all political lives end in failure, but it's true. The young meteors of New Labour all failed sooner or later, sometimes several times, although on a personal level they are now very wealthy men. Peter Mandelson was sacked several times before being sent to the House of Lords, where he earns a few hundred pounds just for turning up; David Blunkett was sacked and is now a Baron; John Prescott was famously useless at whatever job he was given and is also now a Baron; Gordon Brown spent years trying to become Prime Minister, and then performed poorly when he finally got the job. He is not yet a Baron.

Jack Straw failed to turn Britain into a police state and attracted controversy in 2011 when he suggested on television that certain sections of the population were conducting activities, which is something you aren't supposed to say; Clare Short huffed and puffed but amounted to nothing; Alistair Darling spent his entire career being laughed at and mocked by his bosses and is now a Baron; Robin Cook died; Mo Mowlam died. Some hung on before giving up in the 2010 or 2015 elections. Alastair Campbell is in an odd situation whereby he is interviewed on television and people laugh at his jokes and pretend to be friendly to him, despite the fact that - like Goebbels - he is a fundamentally evil man responsible for thousands of deaths. Whatever political power they once had is now slowly fading in inverse proportion to their accumulated wealth.

Jeremy Paxman opened an interview with Tory grandee Cecil Parkinson by saying "You're now chairman of a fertiliser firm. How deep is the mess you're in at present?"

Were You Still Up for Portillo? was published in October 1997, five months after the election. It was written by Brian Cathcart of the New Statesman and is essentially a lengthy magazine article published as a book. It describes the spectacle of the election, in particular the television coverage, without delving much into the historical context. The book begins at 10pm on 01 May 1997 and ends early the next morning. I remember that 02 May 1997 was bright and sunny, and everyone was happy because the forces of youth had won and the evil Tories were gone forever. A few days later Gordon Brown gave the Bank of England freedom to set interest rates, and it seemed that New Labour really was as good as everybody said, but it was not to last.

Today the period from 1997-2001 is lost to time and memory. The period from 2001-2008 is dominated by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the period from 2008-2010 is overshadowed by the Great Recession, with the result that as time goes by New Labour is overshadowed by what appear with hindsight to be a series of calamitous natural disasters. Furthermore rather than shaping destiny New Labour developed a reputation for reactive politics, whereby its policy wonks would read through the Daily Mail on Monday morning, announce half-baked policies that would appeal to the newspaper's readers on Tuesday, implement them poorly a year later and then drop them without fanfare after that.

Despite living as an adult for thirteen years under New Labour - some of those years in London, no less - I struggle to remember any of the Party's policies. The minimum wage, set so low that it made more sense to be on benefits. ID cards that no-one wanted and that served no practical purpose. The congestion charge, which was actually Ken Livingstone's idea. The rebranding of Royal Mail to Consignia and then back again, also not directly Labour's doing although symptomatic of the Labour years.

Everything was built on masses of debt, which made sense because the economy was always going to boom, so why not use future revenues to pay for things today? The economy was built in cheap loans and interest-only mortgages. History will recall that New Labour devised public-private partnerships, the Child Support Agency and Railtrack, but history would be wrong because all of those things were introduced by John Major's Conservatives in the 1990s. At heart New Labour arrived at the same conclusions as the preceding Conservative administration but had much better presentation and a more charismatic leader. A fertile leader, no less, because three years after winning the 1997 election Blair fathered a child, thus demonstrating to the voters of Britain - especially the female voters - that he was healthy and his seed was pure.

She is happy because her children will not go hungry; he is happy because he is in charge. He will stand next to Bill Clinton on television, and when Clinton's time is over he will stand next to Al Gore, and the world will see that he is leader.

The election happened while Pierce Brosnan was James Bond. The result was announced while Brosnan was filming Tomorrow Never Dies, his second film in the role. I've always felt that Tony Blair modelled himself on Pierce Brosnan's version of Bond, or perhaps that they both modelled themselves on a shared archetype. A good-looking good guy, polite and worldly-wise, with a hint of Celtic grit (Blair was born in Edinburgh; Brosnan is Irish); broadly pro-European, nothing against gays, drinks wine occasionally, enjoys tapas. With their good looks and arsenal of decent suits they were what men of Britain circa the late 1990s aspired to be, and in their day they were both very popular although no-one admits to liking them nowadays.

We know a lot now that we didn't know then. The affair-having, egg-disrespecting, child-beefburger-force-eating, arms-to-Iraq-denying antics of the Tories in the 1990s seem quaint in the wake of a decade of drone strikes and IEDs. It turned out that most Members of Parliament were attracted to the job by generous expense accounts rather than a desire to make Britain proud. Jimmy Savile, Rolf Harris, Cyril Smith etc were not great men after all, and Jack Straw's opinion that certain sections of the population were conducting activities turned out to have a substantive factual component, but that was the price of a guaranteed Labour majority and we weren't supposed to talk about it. Throughout the 2000s there were numerous marches in London to protest at Israel's treatment of Palestine, three thousand miles and a world away; for Rochdale and elsewhere there was silence.

Even today, seven years into a period of Conservative rule, the very mention of those activities and in particular the suggestion that they were conducted by certain sections of the population in particular is enough to have one ostracised from polite society. In fact it would have been better for all of us if the victims had just vanished into space, along with the probably neo-nazi fellow traveller who wouldn't shut up and was rightfully sacked for making things awkward for the rest of us. I'm digressing here, but again for some people the most pressing political issues of the New Labour years were not the railways or foreign policy, they were real things of genuine concern to actual people trying to live their lives, and when confronted with reality Labour not only did nothing, it actively suppressed any attempts to act. In 1998 the Belgian government faced a no-confidence vote in response to its inability to deal with, supposedly, a single man acting alone; no such thing has happened in Britain. No wonder some people believe that the recent witch hunt of a supposed paedophile ring in the British government of the 1960s was actually an attempt to deflect attention from more recent events.

Brian Cathcart and the people of 1997 were not to know about any of this, or if they had suspected it they would have kept quiet. In 1997 Labour had been out of power for ages. Although it had been in office as recently as 1979 its power had evaporated; the last time Labour won a commanding majority was in 1966. Labour in the 1980s was profoundly unappealing to Britain's youth and seemed out of step with the times. British people of the 1980s wanted McDonalds and home computers and video recorders, and the Tories understood this. Thatcherism sought to blame Britain's ills on unions and the poor, who were loathsome parasites, and this remains an effective tactic because no-one likes to identify as poor. The problem for the Tories was that once everybody had a home with two cars and the gypsies had been moved off and the poor had been starved out there were no more cards left to play. Margaret Thatcher became intolerable and her replacement, John Major, was hard to take seriously.

Throughout the 1980s Labour faced a problem whereby its most popular or at least visible politicians - the likes of Tony Benn, Ken Livingstone, and Derek Hatton - were despised by the people who ran the Party. Labour supporters tried to compensate for the lack of a parliamentary majority by using control of local councils to exercise power independently of the Party's machine, with the result that Labour of the 1980s was loved by its fans but treated with suspicion and fear by everybody else, which is not an effective way to win over the entire country. Labour tried to win over Britons by demonising wealthy Yuppies, which had limited appeal because a lot of British people actually did want to be Yuppies.

At some point I will start writing about Were You Still Up for Portillo?, question mark full stop. The drink is starting to have an effect and I am finding it hard to concenreate. Mountain Dew, malt whisky - any kind - and water. IT hits the pots. Labour's victory in 1997 was seen as inevitable. The Party had wised up and cleaned up its image in the 1980s and early 1990s and came close to winning in 1992, but despite a memorably inappropriate victory rally by then-leader Neil Kinnock, the Tories won a slim majority. This proved to be a mixed blessing. The Tories hoped that things would get better, but they didn't.

It has nothing to do with the article.

The Tory majority of 1992 was whittled away in by-elections to nothing over the next five years, and then eventually less than nothing. The Party's appeal had traditionally been built on its command of the economy and concern for strong defence, but after the Cold War the people of Britain were resigned to defence cuts, and in the wake of 1992's Black Wednesday the Tories seemed to have no idea how to balance Britain's books. Tory ministers were in a state of civil war over Europe and they just came across as a bunch of arguing little shits who hated each other.

In 1997 Michael Portillo was Secretary for Defence. At the age of 43 he was a Tory version of John F Kennedy, young and handsome, although there were continual rumours that he did not have Kennedy's eye for the ladies, or for ladies in general. In 1995 he gave a famous speech at the Conservative Party Conference in which he mocked Labour's defence policy and tried to associate himself with the SAS. The speech was popular with Conservative fans but came across as too American for the rest of the nation.

Nonetheless he was tipped to run as party leader in the event of the inevitable Tory defeat. But Labour's victory was even bigger than the polls had forecast, and Portillo lost his seat to Labour's Stephen Twigg, a complete unknown. Portillo was unable to stand as party leader. The Tories instead picked William Hague, who had his moments but was outclassed by Tony Blair. Portillo returned to Parliament and ran for leader when Hague resigned, but lost. As with Michael Heseltine before him he was doomed always to be one of those "what-ifs" of British politics.

For non-UK readers of this post - both of you - I don't need to identify the two men. Portillo has a sneer of cold command. Stephen Twigg won the seat again in 2005, with a larger majority, so his victory in 1997 wasn't just a fluke.

Portillo's defeat became symbolic of the 1997 election. A lot of people absolutely loathed him. In their minds he was the living embodiment of the stereotypical second-generation Thatcherite Tory. Along with David Mellor, John Redwood, and Neil Hamilton, he seemed to represent everything that was unlikable about the Tories of the late 1980s and 1990s. He came across as a real-life version of Rik Mayall's Alan B'Stard from The New Statesman, albeit that in retrospect it was his looks and manner than irritated people rather than anything he did. Many years later he became self-aware - in 2010 he wrote that "my name is now synonymous with eating a bucketload of shit in public" - and nowadays he works as a television presenter and general media personality. Even his critics admit that the programme he did about the trains was good. His time in government is now a distant memory. Perhaps he will make a political comeback one day.

Yes, but what about the book? What about Were You Still Up for Portillo??, which is grammatically correct because I'm using the title of the book as a question. I wonder how you would say that sentence. How do you articulate "what about Were You Still Up for Portillo??"? If this blog post was translated into Spanish, would that sentence become "¿Qué pasa ¿Estabas Todavía por Portillo??"?"? Is there a way I can fill the screen with punctuation marks?

Over the last few years, perhaps even decades, it has become fashionable to "uptalk", which is the practice of ending all sentences as if they were questions. It comes from America. The book is a quick read, just shy of 200 pages. Flicking through it again I am reminded of Jonathan Aitken, who lost his seat to a man called Stephen Ladyman, who was later made minister of Transport but was sacked for failing to denounce Top Gear. Aitken went on to lose a libel case and was made bankrupt. Aitken was perhaps even less popular than Portillo if only because he had a sinister air about him. He was chair of a right-wing think tank and wrote the official biography of the current President of Kazakhstan, so he probably knows someone who could have you killed, but is it all just bluff?

I am also reminded that there was a Conservative minister called Michael Carttiss (sic). Hansard records that during a debate in the House of Commons called shortly after Margaret Thatcher decided to resign, he shouted "Cancel it! You can wipe the floor with these people!", which is sweet.

The Guardian is usually associated with failure and lost causes, but in the 1997 election former Guardian journalist Martin Linton beat junior health minister John Bowis. Inevitably he later got in trouble for suggesting that the "long tentacles of Israel" were interfering with Britain's elections - Britain's Labour Party is indifferent to the Jewish vote, to put it mildly - but on the other hand he has been far more successful in politics than Polly Toynbee or Seamus Milne, other Guardian journalists who tried their hand at the real thing. Portillo also reminds me of the existence of James Goldsmith's Referendum Party, a kind of trial run for UKIP. Their one goal was a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU, so I suppose in terms of percentages they were - despite failing to win a single seat - the most successful of all the parties that stood in 1997. They got their referendum and the people voted as they would have wanted.

The book also reminds me of the existence of Jerry Hayes, a Tory MP who would have fitted in perfectly well with New Labour, and also of William Waldegrave, whose name sounds like a fictional character; they both lost their seats. So did Edwina Currie, who left politics shortly thereafter. In 1997 no-one suspected, except as a joke, that she had been having an affair with John Major for several years. In 1997 the thought of either of them having sex - much less with each other - was ridiculous and even today it is a topic that I find difficult to contemplate.

1997 also saw the election of Mohammad Sarwar, Britain's first Muslim MP, who handed his seat to his son in 2010 and went off to be Governor of Punjab, as you do. The book reveals that ITV's staff cheered when Labour won an overall majority, so it's not just the BBC that should be deloused, it's the entire media class. 1997 was also the year that television war journalist Martin Bell won Tatton while standing as an anti-corruption independent. He was well-liked in his constituency but kept his word only to serve one term there. He was replaced as MP for Tatton in 2001 by George Osborne, who would go on to greater things.

Were You Still Up for Portillo? doesn't have an index, which is a big problem, especially given the cryptic chapter subtitles. Perhaps Penguin Books didn't have time to make one up. The book is essentially a lengthy piece of you-are-there reportage. It doesn't try to explain why the Tories lost, for example, and has a lot of minutiae about the television coverage that adds flavour but not substance.

Portillo went on sale for £5.99 but is long out of print. It is widely available on the used market. It was only ever released as a paperback; it's small enough to fit into a large jacket pocket, which is how I read it first, while on the London Underground. There is a page about Penguin's new website, which is still at When Penguin goes bankrupt Britain will be finished. Long live Penguin.

The two main parties learned a lot from 1997. Labour learned that even if you make yourself electable and then win elections, you're still subject to the same forces of entropy and decay as any other political party; the Conservatives learned that Britain had changed. And spare a thought for the Liberal Democrats, Britain's third party. In 1997 Paddy Ashdown won 46 seats, more than double the Party's total of 1992. Under the leadership of Charles Kennedy the Liberal Democrats became a major political force, but Kennedy had a drink problem and so Nick Clegg took over.

In 2010 Clegg took the party into government, as partners with the Conservatives in a coalition, but it was a disastrous miscalculation. During the coalition the Liberals came across as Tory lackies and they had no real power. Clegg had traded the Party's soul for nothing, and in the 2015 there was a Liberal anti-landslide, with 49 of the Party's 57 MPs losing their jobs. A by-election win means that there are now nine Liberal MPs. The Liberals are the only party unequivocally opposed to Brexit, and yet they seem to accept that Brexit is inevitable, which raises the question of what else they stand for. Nonetheless, while our eyes were turned elsewhere, the Liberals had the most dramatic course of the last twenty years.