Why we loved Linda

I’ve been reading I Think the Nurses Are Stealing My Clothes, a compilation of the best comedy work of the late and sorely missed Linda Smith. Edited by Linda’s long-term partner Warren Lakin and old friend Ian Parsons, it collects highlights of her stand-up routines going back to the mid-80s, together with her most memorable radio and TV appearances, interspersed with tributes from her friends. It really is a wonderful book to dip into.

I never met Linda Smith, but I suspect like a lot of people, after hearing her on the radio a few times you felt you knew her. She had a terrific likeability and accessibility that caused audiences to warm to her immediately, as well as a great comic voice that fairly leaps off the page here. And, although she came up with the generation of 1980s political comedy, she had her own distinctive style that actually reminds me a lot of another comic genius, Dave Allen. This is probably best explained by contrast – today an awful lot of comedy, even in the mainstream media, seems to be based on the idea that effing and blinding is funny in itself, or that you can get an infinite amount of laughs out of knob jokes. Like Dave Allen, Linda wasn’t averse to the odd bit of swearing or smut, but those become minor parts of your act when you actually have something to say.

And this was the thing about Linda – she did have something to say, and she said it in a way that was uniquely Linda. Although she was definitely a woman of the far left, and her political edge is much to the fore in this book (her wonderfully vicious bitch-slapping of Neil Kinnock is here, and if there’s any justice David Blunkett will never live down her “He’s Satan’s bearded folk singer. How can someone who looks so much like a jolly fisherman be such a miserable bastard?”) but she wasn’t a ranter. Her observational humour was as likely to take in English literature or Test Match Special as politics. And even when she stuck the boot in, she would do it in such a nice, disarming way that you couldn’t really take offence. This is probably why the Radio 4 audience took her to their hearts as they did.

I think there are a couple of reasons why Linda stood out as a political comedian. In the first place, she was a genuine working-class intellectual, coming from Erith (which the maps say is in Kent but at ground level looks like Magnitogorsk) and living for years in unglamorous Sheffield. This background gave her observations an edge that was denied to those comedians who were middle-class kids slumming it; it also meant she didn’t romanticise the English working class. She struck a fine balance between idealism and cynicism.

She also, like most leftwing comedians, was sensible enough not to join a leftwing group. She was therefore free of those left vices – dogmatism, a concern with orthodoxy, political correctness, internecine feuds with other left groups and backstabbing within the group – that, apart from being just plain unpleasant, would be deadly to any comic sense. Imagine if you will a comedian who was a fervent member of the Militant Tendency. Hard, isn’t it? Mark Steel I suppose is the exception who proves the rule, managing to combine membership of the SWP with being a very funny man. But even Mark tends to shy away from mining the rich seam of comedy in his own organisation.

But I think the key point in Linda’s success, and why she is so fondly remembered, is the personality that shone through her work. The tributes in this book invariably focus on her tremendous warmth and kindness – unlike an awful lot of socialists, she not only hadn’t forgot why she was a socialist, but she practised what she preached and embodied those characteristics that I think a better society would encourage in the population at large. Combine those human qualities with a fantastic ability to communicate, and it’s easy to see why Linda was a beacon for any of us who have ever had to say, “I’m a socialist, but I’m not weird, honest.”

Lloyd George knew my father

I read in this morning’s papers that Mr Tony Blair has arranged an honorary knighthood for his great friend, musician and egomaniac Bono. This is supposed to be in recognition of Bono’s courageous struggles against global poverty and injustice.

Ahem. That would be the same Bono who hectors the Irish populace on how their country should be run, while refusing to pay taxes in Ireland? The Bono who paid a small fortune in legal fees to retrieve a pair of trousers, and who famously booked an adjoining seat on a plane journey so his hat could travel in comfort?

I realise I’m on thin ice here – U2 fans are notoriously humourless, especially on the subject of their main man’s pretensions to stand for something. But Bono seems like an intelligent bloke – does he not realise the gap between his words and actions just makes him look a teeny bit absurd? Or, like many celebrities, is he surrounded by people who can’t say no to him?

But it is at least fitting that this honour has been bestowed by another very very silly man, Mr Tony. The prime minister is just back from his tour promoting democracy in the Middle East, where he supported the Fatah putsch in Palestine, glad-handed tribal Gulf sheikhs and Egypt’s grisly president-for-life, and offered his backing to the coalition of Maronite Phalangists and Islamic obscurantists who have run Lebanon since the phoney “Cedar Revolution”. In the midst of all this, he called on “moderates” in the region (presumably those people he had been issuing endorsements to) to ally against the, er, elected government of Iran.

Yup, these two jokers certainly deserve each other’s company.

Stoner bigs up Captain Eamo

Latest in the “you couldn’t make it up” category:

Back on 24th November, the state opening of our wee toy parliament at Stormont was disrupted by mad loyalist killer Michael Stone, who managed to get into the actual building, toting a bag full of crude weaponry, without a cop in sight.

Now Stoner is arguing, in a five-page letter to the press, that his stunt was actually done in the name of performance art. Our man says, “As an artist I viewed the political event at Stormont as an opportunity to exhibit a work in performance art.” This might be aimed at the trendy saps in Dublin who were keen to acclaim Stoner’s painting as evidence of loyalism’s deep aesthetic soul.

More interesting is the list of inspirations Stoner claims. This includes Big Ian (plausible enough), Pablo Picasso (huh?) and, best of all, Eamonn McCann. Eamonn’s stunt at the Raytheon plant in Derry apparently fired Stoner’s imagination.

One would hope that Captain Eamo would have the decency to show some embarrassment about this episode. And that goes for the SWP heads who claimed the Raytheon action wasn’t a stunt but a mass action, too.

Charlie as Banquo’s ghost

Have I read the Moriarty Report? No I haven’t, the bastard weighs in at 704 pages. But I have read the executive summary and skimmed some of the sections, which makes me at least as well qualified to comment as most of the pundits in the O’Reilly press.

We all knew, and had done for years, that Charlie was up to his oxters in corruption. All Moriarty could really do was give the facts and figures. Of the £9.1 million figure Moriarty gives, few people can be surprised it reached that amount – some may be surprised Charlie’s rapacity wasn’t even greater. Of course, what with the secrecy and the offshore accounts, we might never know the full extent of what he was up to.

Charlie was a deeply complex character who defied easy analysis. He was also fortunate in his enemies, many of whom hated him for the wrong reasons. Des Fennell rightly says that an awful lot of the D4 discourse on Charlie is really snobbery dressed up as moral indignation. That’s not to say, however, that moral indignation doesn’t have its place, and Charlie filling his boots throughout the hairshirt 80s is enough to provoke the most phlegmatic amongst us.

What’s more interesting is Bertie’s reaction. Consider this:

A mere few months ago Charlie gets the state funeral he had thoughtfully arranged for himself. Bertie presides, a fitting tribute to his mentor.

Today, Bertie is perfectly happy to denounce the corruption of the now safely dead Boss. In the meantime, Bertie has himself had a bit of trouble in the brown envelopes department.

What’s wrong with this picture?

We have Fianna Fáil distancing themselves from the man who dominated their party for the best part of thirty years. We have Electric Enda trying to make capital, although Moriarty’s second report – into Michael Lowry – is likely to make uncomfortable reading for the Blueshirts. We have Rabbitte clinging to Fine Gael like grim death. And we have the Socialist Workers Party jumping up and down, waving their little placards calling on the gardaí to arrest elected representatives. Dear God.

Kings of the wild frontier

The Irish electoral system, with the single transferable vote in multi-seat constituencies, is not only fiendishly complicated but also, by allowing TDs to be elected by tiny margins, reinforces parish pump politics and intra-party rivalries. I think it was Churchill who came up with the old crack about the opposition being in front of you, but the enemy on your own benches. Any observer of the Irish scene can tell you that Churchill didn’t know the half of it.

We are currently in a pre-election period, where candidate selection and jostling for position are the order of the day. This is an opportunity to look at the game within the game – often more interesting than the game itself. And it’s no surprise that the most fun is to be had watching Fianna Fáil, not only the biggest party in the state but also possessing a capacity for fratricidal feuds that wouldn’t disgrace The Sopranos. FF HQ is, as usual at this point, greatly exercised by constituency organisations that aren’t on message for the centralised and professional campaign Bertie Ahern wants to run. The most intransigent of these constituencies are on the West Coast, Ireland’s equivalent of the tribal areas in Pakistan’s North West Frontier, where well-entrenched local warlords scoff at the emissaries from Dublin trying to exercise some discipline over them.

Wildest of these fiefdoms is Donegal North East, where Niall Blaney’s Provisional Fianna Fáil wound up its 36 years of independent existence this summer in favour of an Historic Merger with the parent party. This left FF with three seats out of three in the constituency, Blaney joining colourful former minister Dr Jim McDaid and HQ favourite Cecilia Keaveney. At the time, Bertie made a big deal of this, and Dublin-based commentators took the Blaney move to be another of Bertie’s famously Machiavellian strokes.

Now bear in mind that the DNE constituency consists of three distinct areas, each of which traditionally provides a TD: Letterkenny town (McDaid), the Inishowen peninsula (Keaveney) and Milford (Blaney). In Donegal, local ties can be just as powerful as party allegiances. So welcoming the Blaneyites back into the fold would seem, on the face of it, to have covered all the bases. But, as Bertie should know, sometimes you can be too clever for your own good.

This is where it starts to get interesting. Although Blaney still has a powerful organisation, it is in long-term decline and he figured the best way to ensure his re-election was to be an official Fianna Fáil candidate. Apparently he was given to understand that, as McDaid had signalled his willingness to retire, there would be a two-person FF ticket – that is, Keaveney and Blaney.

At the same time, McDaid was apparently under the impression that he would be succeeded on the FF ticket by another Letterkenny candidate. At least, that’s what Letterkenny FFers thought – they were certain they would have a candidacy, whether or not that was McDaid. The upshot was that, after the Historic Merger, McDaid announced that he was reconsidering his retirement plans. He has also stubbornly resisted all blandishments to stand down. It’s hard to see what, short of a plum European sinecure, could shift him.

Now FF are in the electorally suicidal position of having three candidates in a three-seat constituency. Party HQ would dearly love to have a two-person ticket, preferably by imposing it centrally and arranging for either McDaid or Blaney to be quietly assassinated. This would avoid the inconvenience of a selection convention, which would inevitably result in open warfare between Letterkenny members and Blaneyites. However, the one thing every FF member in rural Ireland agrees on is their hatred of centrally imposed tickets, and cancelling the convention may be more trouble than it is worth. Moreover, there would be nothing to stop the shaftee – possibly McDaid but more likely Blaney – walking out of the party and going on a solo run.

Now put this in the context of the government being generally unpopular in Donegal, and the opposition parties making a strong showing. Fine Gael’s Senator Joe McHugh is odds on to take a seat; Sinn Féin Nua’s Cllr Pádraig Mac Lochlainn is also coming up on the rails, and is in a good position to appeal to disaffected Blaneyites. The result of this is that the three big FF honchos in the constituency are in a no-holds-barred scrap for two seats at most, and possibly one – and it isn’t likely, but nor is it beyond the realms of possibility that an independent candidacy from McDaid could leave the dominant party in the state with no seats at all in a traditional stronghold.

It isn’t at all clear at this stage how this situation will pan out. But Donegal will certainly be providing Bertie with some headaches in the months ahead, not to say rare entertainment for the bloody political infighting that only rural Ireland can provide. When you hear the banjo music, run like hell.

Getting started

Hello and welcome. This blog is basically designed for me to sound off about whatever takes my fancy, so you’re going to have the virtue of unpredictability.

Expect to see posting on far-left politics, Ireland, the Balkans, history, pop culture and lots of other stuff that I can’t predict at this point. I hope to provoke, enrage, enlighten and amuse. See ya!