Old grudges die hard in the Leap of the Dog


A clergyman forced out of Limavady in the 1980s will not be granted the freedom of the borough, after unionist councillors voted against the move.

Reverend David Armstrong left the town after a backlash from within his Presbyterian church over his decision to shake hands with a Catholic priest.

He received loyalist death threats over his Christmas message of goodwill to Catholic counterpart Fr Kevin Mullen.

The vote for the SDLP motion was 8-6, but a two-thirds majority was needed.

Fr Mullan said he was “disappointed” at the outcome.

“Neither David nor I asked for this, and when we heard about it we were honoured.

“If it had gone through it would have been momentous.

“The fact that some people have felt it’s inappropriate or untimely I think is a little disappointing.

“There was an opportunity to heal a wound that had been there that had been causing hurt,” he said.

The Presbyterian Moderator, the Reverend Donald Patton, said more groundwork was needed.

“I think the issue shows that we do have a lot of work to do to build understanding and trust and respect across our community.

“We’ve come out of a very difficult situation, and we’re glad that we have put the violence by and large behind us, but we’ve got to work on relationships.

“Maybe the timing for this particular proposal wasn’t quite right, and maybe more groundwork needed to be done,” he said.

After leaving the town, Mr Armstrong retrained as an Anglican minister and is now based at a Church of Ireland parish in County Cork.

Unfortunately, this whole incident back in 1984 is still one of the things Limavady is known for to outsiders, and 24 years later – after a decade and a half of the peace process – one would have thought that trying to efface the memory would be, well, a fitting thing to do. But apparently not. The whole thing was a disgrace from start to finish – all Rev Armstrong did was to go to the local Catholic church on Christmas Day and offer greetings to the congregation. For that small gesture, he faced a sectarian revolt in his own congregation, and ended up being drummed out of town. The pusillanimous leadership of the Presbyterian Church offered him no support whatsoever, and he couldn’t find another Presbyterian congregation in the whole of Ireland willing to take him. If this sort of thing hasn’t happened more often, it’s only because the initial gesture hasn’t been made more often. An instructive counterpoint, then, to the usual happy-clappy scenes of our church leaders.

As for Limavady’s unionist councillors, it might have been expected that they might abstain – a high proportion of them are steeped in anti-Romanist fundamentalism, after all – but voting against? Do they not realise how that makes them look, or do they just not care?

Buffoon gets bitch-slapped

I’ll be honest, the Nation is in the normal run of things not a publication I read very often, and that’s deliberate on my part. It goes back to too many years of being much too annoyed at the Dude’s pronunciamentos, although that’s a little unfair as he’s long since gone.

Likewise, I would normally not take much notice of a new book by Bernard-Henri L’Oréal, far and away the most aggravating of the Nouveaux Philosophes. (Glucksmann is probably just as offensive politically, but at least he doesn’t do that hair-flicking thing.) The news that BHL had a new book out on the moral bankruptcy of the left excited me not at all, since it seems to be a variation on the man’s long-running theme of proclaiming himself the conscience of the left while simultaneously dumping enormous buckets of shit over everything the left has historically believed in.

My curiosity was piqued somewhat by a rather strange review from Nick Cohen. As usual these days, this says rather more about Nasty Nick than it does about his putative subject, but the theme is that the Nouveaux Philosophes are the French analogue to Britain’s Decent Left. This manages the remarkable feat of actually lowering my opinion of the Nouveax Philosophes.

However, I note that BHL has now been taken to task in a manner befitting, and in the Nation no less. (Hat tip.) The assassin in question is the estimable Scott McLemee, and while Scott’s always worth reading, this finds him in top form, not least on the great Yankophile’s invincible ignorance of American politics. And all I can say about that is, it’s probably better than the old windbag deserves.

Bernard-Henri Lévy. Because he’s worth a good kicking.

Let’s kick back with Lucilectric

Yes, as a special Saturday treat, it’s Luci Van Org with the infectious early 90s feminist anthem “Mädchen”.

Keine Widerrede, Mann, weil ich ja sowieso gewinn
Weil ich Mädchen bin.

And I think that’s a sentiment we can all get behind. Ganz affengeil.

Gordon looks for that elusive boost

Dear lord, what a dispiriting spectacle. Every year, you think the Labour Party conference can’t possibly get any worse, and every year it seems to. Some of this is probably the mind playing tricks – after all, the supremely aggravating Mr Tony has left the stage – but it’s still bloody awful.

What’s worse is if you can remember when the Labour conference provided some entertainment. Big set-piece arguments – over unilateralism, say, or Europe, or Barbara Castle kicking up about pensions. Union barons casting millions of block votes. Blokes with dodgy combovers and northern accents urging the comrades to support Composite 11. Practised stump speakers who were not only good at speaking but, more to the point, had something to say. That’s all gone now. The whole event has been slicked into a vacuum. The relentlessly rightist politics are something one expects of New Labour, but the sheer tedium is almost as offensive. If your memories are of Benn and Scargill – or Foot or Kinnock, for that matter – then what price spending your valuable time listening to Millipede and Wacky Jacqui and the rest of the lightweights? Life’s too short.

There are, though, one or two points of interest. The first is the unbelievable gormlessness of the press pack. Since the 1990s, both Labour and the Tories, largely due to media demands, have changed their constitutions to make it almost impossible to mount a challenge to the sitting leader. The result is not improved democracy in either case, but a leader chosen by media anointment. Mr Tony, of course, got the top job in the first place because the papers had declared him the crown prince in advance. The walking vacuity Cameron beat out the serious, thoughtful – and conservative – Davis. You’ve seen plenty of that with the pillorying of Brown over the past year, by the very same pundits who spent years hymning him as an economic genius. No wonder Sir John Major observed wrily that Brown had been praised too much and was now being blamed too much.

But then Gordon delivers a reasonably competent speech and suddenly the man who had been dead in the water was a contender again. Really, this stuff writes itself.

The more substantial point is the sudden collapse of the Anglo-Saxon economic model, and it strikes me that if Labour retained any of its populist instincts, now would be a good time to dust them off. There is an obvious difficulty in that much of Gordon’s voodoo economics relied on a consumer boom resting on a mountain of personal debt, itself resting on an unsustainable property bubble. This would require a bit of spinning. But the polls suggest that, while the punters think Brown has handled the situation badly so far, they don’t on balance blame him for the crisis – they apportion much more blame to the City spivs. This shouldn’t be surprising at a time when even multimillionaire Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who himself made a killing in the property market, is talking about Wall Street greed. And it’s beginning to filter through that food and fuel inflation are being stoked big time by speculators.

All in all, if Alastair Darling had announced plans to take a bunch of hedge fund managers out and shoot them, I think the population as a whole would have responded sympathetically. Any social democratic government worth its salt should be declaring war on these parasites. But Alastair didn’t do that. Insofar as he has any plan, he seems to be leaning towards raising the tax burden on an already overtaxed working class. You can just see the New Labour bosses saying, “Regulate the City? We can’t do that! Rupert wouldn’t like it!” That’s if the thought occurred to them in the first place, which I doubt.

No, the nearest thing we saw to populism came from, believe it or not, Lady Harman in her speech on the equality agenda. Now that’s a phrase that sends chills down Norn Iron spines, and for quite a long stretch of her speech I was wondering whether it had been written by Gerry Adams. In any case, who’s been in power for the last eleven years? But the delegates didn’t seem all that enthused by her muted references to class. What really got them going, and brought the cheers up for Harriet, was her getting stuck into kerb-crawling and lap-dancing. Neither a practice that I’m going to defend, but that probably tells you something about the priorities of the delegates.

Forget about the Large Hadron Collider. I think we’ve just been looking at a black hole.

Tuesday evening, before the watershed

Hasn’t pre-watershed telly got very near the knuckle these days? I notice that Tuesday evenings are shaping up as the Battle of the Bosoms – at seven on BBC2 you can see Nigella Lawson (32G) ladling on the sauce with her current series of food porn, while at eight Anna Richardson (32F) is fronting C4’s Sex Education Show. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I’m complaining, it’s just that the hour seems a bit early. Time was when this sort of thing would be held back to the midnight hour.

Nigella Xxxpress is a very odd show. It’s nominally a cookery show, of course, but in fact the cookery is a minor, if vital, theme. Now we know that the old-fashioned instructional cookery show has died a death except for the sainted Delia, and whether we’re watching Masterchef or Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, we expect some gimmick, hook or drama. Nay, we demand it! Nigella is probably the acme of this. Some people will, I expect, be watching for the cookery tips, but they’ll be a distinct minority. There might be a larger audience, mostly of the female persuasion, who will be watching for the lifestyle. I can see them being fascinated by Nigella’s enormous spice rack and treating this as aspirational or escapist programming, the same way people used to watch Dynasty. But mostly it’s about the sex. This is a cookery show that’s not about us wanting to eat the food, but about us wanting to fuck the cook. Or possibly both, maybe even simultaneously.

There are, I suppose, good reasons why the format is ripe for sexing up. Going way back to the Bible – or, for the scripturally challenged, you may like to think of 9½ Weeks – popular culture has drawn a very close link between food and sex, those two great pleasures of the voluptuary. It always fills you with confidence if you’re faced with a cook who obviously loves food, which is why TV cookery shows are all rich flavours rather than healthy options. And, as Jamie was saying apropos of Sarah Palin, if someone gives the impression that she has a lot of sex and enjoys it, that makes her much more attractive. In Nigella’s case, it’s the air of the devoted sensualist that’s as important as her appearance.

And this is what’s played up to so shamelessly. That’s why all the fluttering of eyelashes, flicking of hair, licking of fingers and acres of heaving cleavage. Hence, too, the Meyeresque low-angle camerawork – if you ever see Nigella in the flesh, you’re immediately surprised by how small, almost elfin, she is, because on the telly she looks like Tura Satana. (At least, her tits seem to take up three-quarters of the screen, and while substantial, they’re not that big.) And this all has to be done in a teasing, naughty-but-nice style that won’t scare off the suburban audience. It helps a lot, of course, that she’s posh. A host with the accent, demeanour and wardrobe of Jodie Marsh couldn’t pull it off. It’s quite a delicate confection, and you need the ingredients to be just right.

Frankly, it’s a little embarrassing. You’re talking here about a woman who’s naturally very sexy and doesn’t need to camp it up, but it’s being laid on so thick that Nigella is increasingly coming to resemble, well, Ronni Ancona sending up Nigella. And at the end of it, you feel like you need a bath.

C4’s Sex Education Show, while definitely risqué, is actually much less lascivious. At least, while it must be said Anna Richardson is very attractive, the show is not sold on the host’s sex appeal. There is more going on than that.

The target audience is teenagers, which would explain the early time slot. And there’s a clear justification for something like this, in a context where rising teen promiscuity exists alongside monumental levels of basic ignorance of sexual health issues, among adults as well as kids. Hell, you’re in a situation where chlamydia rates are practically at epidemic levels. It seems reasonable to suppose that taking teenagers and giving them a good shake can only be a public service.

So there is actually a serious core here. Last night, for instance, was focussed on childbirth, and was quite good on women’s experiences. Last week, on STIs, was even better, as Anna showed a group of teenagers graphic photos of diseased genitalia. This had a visible, visceral impact on the kids – I’m amazed none of them puked – and if they were shocked into using condoms, this is obviously a good thing. The public service aspect of breaking down British reserve, getting useful information across and exploding old wives’ tales is managed reasonably well. Of course, with British culture being what it is and Channel 4 being what it is, there are also a fair number of daft stunts to lighten the mood. But at least the stunt quotient is kept low enough that we don’t just drift aimlessly into Eurotrash territory.

I should also say that, while I’m not too familiar with Anna Richardson, she may well be the perfect host for this sort of thing. She’s articulate, game for anything (from having an STI test to getting her bush waxed), shows a refreshing lack of vanity, is humorous without sniggering and is obviously very good indeed at talking to young people. Where have the TV bosses been hiding her?

So there you have it. The sex show actually felt cleaner than the cookery show. And both were racier than what was on after the watershed. Scheduling is a strange art indeed.

Did I imagine this, or did it really happen?

Saturday night, remote in hand, flicking the channels. X Factor comes on, and three thoughts rapidly line up in my mind:

a) Cheryl Cole needs a good meal.

b) Cheryl Cole needs a hairdresser who’s willing to tell her that less is more.

c) Cheryl Cole needs subtitles.

Anyway, it’s not worth watching after the audition stages. Thank heavens Strictly is back.

But the hell with that, what I really wanted to see was the Beeb’s new celebrity game show Hole In The Wall. Having had my curiosity piqued by Charlie Brooker’s preview, I was dying to see if it was really as transcendentally stupid as Charlie reckoned.

Well, yes it was. Perhaps even more so. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched a show open-mouthed because you literally can’t believe what’s going on, but this is probably the first time since Cheggers’ Naked Jungle that I’ve done so. Hole In The Wall goes beyond simple stupidity, to being so unbelievably dumb it’s almost brilliant.

Let Charlie explain the high-concept format:

It’s been described as “human Tetris”, which it is. Each week, two teams of celebrity contestants go head to head. One-by-one, the players stand on a pad in front of a pool while a wall moves slowly toward them, ready to shovel them into the water. The wall has a hole in it. A person-shaped hole. The sort of hole Wile E Coyote would leave in the side of a cliff when blasted through it by a cannon. The contestant has to contort themselves into the right position, like a key going through a lock, so the wall can pass them by without knocking them into the drink.

Yes, and that’s it. You think there’ll be some clever twist or something, but that’s it. The celeb gets into the correct shape and goes through the hole, or gets drenched. Usually they get drenched.

This whole farrago, by the way, is hosted by Dale Winton, who must be wondering where he went wrong, and what he has to do to get back onto quality shows like Supermarket Sweep. And the contestants included the dead giveaways of Andi Peters and Anton Du Beke, both renowned for their willingness to appear in any old tosh. I was actually wondering a little about Andi, who’s a high-powered executive these days and has surely earned some credibility by making the final of Celebrity Masterchef. But then I remembered him falling on his arse in Dancing On Ice, and it all made sense.

Oh, and the outfits. The outfits really are something else. Hideous wouldn’t be putting it too strongly. Our celebs need to be wearing something waterproof, so they’re bedecked in what appear to be silvery Lycra jumpsuits. And not the flattering kind of Lycra. When Zoe Salmon is wearing skintight Lycra and even she doesn’t look good, then you know something is very very wrong. Not to mention the cycling helmets, so the teams begin to bear a startling resemblance to the good old Smash Martians.

When I was watching this, my first instinct was to record it for posterity on the grounds that surely it couldn’t last long, and surely even the most desperate celebs with the most ruthless agents would begin to dry up. I’m not sure about this in retrospect. There is something appealing about the sheer dopiness of the show, so it may actually catch on, especially if the students decide it’s ironic. And then you consider the list of people you could reliably count on to volunteer for the most stupid game show imaginable. John Barrowman? Kerry Katona? Indeed, what of the mighty Cheggers? And that’s before you even start thinking of the Big Brother and X Factor retreads.

By the bye, if Japanese TV has an equivalent of Chris Tarrant, they should think about buying up the rights immediately. In fact, and thanks to Martin for pointing this out, it’s an adaptation of a Japanese format. You know, I thought there was a definite Tarrant on TV quality about proceedings.

These dudes are wack

Because we just can’t help ourselves, let’s take another brief look at the SWP coup. The Weekly Worker was of course gazumped at the time by the news coming out after it had gone to press, but this week the unmissable organ of the Conrad Party of Great Britain makes up some ground. As expected, chief Kremlinologist Peter Manson is on the case with a lengthy article. This is the Weekly Worker, of course, so all sorts of health warnings apply, but there are some little snippets worth commenting on.

Peter sets the context with:

Martin Smith had been increasingly worried, as the Respect project began to crumble last year.

If so, we are tempted to say that Martin is a disingenuous fucker. Who was it, at the outset of the Respect split, who flagged up the SWP’s intention to “go nuclear” if Galloway criticised Rees? That’s right, it was Martin Smith. Who was it who persuaded his good friend Mark Serwotka to come out publicly against the “witch hunt”? Right again. Martin, I’m afraid, has been playing the old Chris Harman game of publicly supporting Rees to the hilt while discreetly emitting smoke signals to those in the know. Peter continues:

Comrade Smith was supported by Alex Callinicos, secretary of the SWP’s ‘international’, the International Socialist Tendency, who, it seems, was moved to take a firmer position against Rees, following the intensity of IST opposition to the SWP line on broad parties. The Greek, French and German sections in particular were opposed to SWP attempts to locate the collapse of Respect as part of some general European trend.

I’m not sure about this. The French and German sections are currently involved in deep entry projects that have little in common with Respect, and although they might baulk at a turn back to the old ways, I’m sure they could find some way to finesse things. The Greeks are in a broad coalition with themselves, not unlike the Left Alternative. And of course ultra-loyalist sections like the Irish and the Canadians don’t need to be mentioned – one may assume they will follow whatever orders they receive. In any case, I know his lordship and I know how he runs the Colonial Office, and listening to the concerns of the franchises isn’t his strong point. Emailing them detailed instructions based on what he’s read in this morning’s Financial Times, yes. But I suppose he wouldn’t be above using some grumbling in the international tendency to score some domestic points.

I’m sorry, Peter, go on:

Smith was also supported in the move against comrade Rees by another senior leader, Chris Harman, and backed up strongly by Charlie Kimber, who now looks set to move up the SWP pecking order. Also voting against Rees were Colin Smith, Hannah Dee, Judith Orr, Michael Bradley, Viv Smith and Weyman Bennett.

For his part, comrade Rees was backed only by his partner and main collaborator, Lindsey German, along with long-time allies Chris Bambery and Chris Nineham – although it has to be said it is by no means certain that the latter two will not jump ship in the near future, now it is clear that the balance of forces is totally against Rees.

You read this and you wonder what happened to the extraordinarily talented leadership the party used to have. Then you remember that most of them are dead, retired or long since expelled. I for one have never seen the point of Chris Nineham.

The August 27 CC meeting was extremely heated, with comrade German at one point threatening to resign not just from the leadership, but from the SWP itself. Although she herself was not affected by the ‘cabinet reshuffle’ that accompanied Rees’s demotion, she announced that she too would resign from the Left Alternative NC in solidarity with him.

Aw, now that’s nice. Who says there’s no humanity at the top?

It goes without saying that the SWP rank and file has been kept completely in the dark as to the nature of the furious row that has engulfed the whole leadership.

You don’t say!

Think about it. Rees has been ditched because of his disastrous misleadership. The Left List London assembly debacle was too much even for the CC to stomach. In this context it is not just a ‘debate’ about the SWP’s future direction that needs to [be] had. A whole “argument” about the politics that led the organisation into Respect is essential.

Well, yes, this is the key point. And if the CC didn’t have this ingrained pas devant les enfants attitude, which can probably at the heel of the hunt be blamed on Cliff, they would have inaugurated one quite some time ago. You never know, it might be quite fruitful. Anyway, this year’s IBs will make for interesting reading.

Hundreds of SWPers opposed the Respect turn from the start, refusing to abide by the three-line whip to join the ‘unity coalition’. Most of them voted with their feet and drifted into inactivity – a form of passive rebellion. However, another minority were taken with Respect. They went ‘native’, seeing it as a principled and worthwhile formation in itself, a way out of the sectarian ghetto and into the big time – not just another ‘united front’, designed to win sympathisers and recruits for ‘the revolutionary party’.

This is true, and the institutionalised ambiguity is, I’m afraid, what did for John in the end, as he fell between two stools. The only way he could square the circle was if Respect really did help him get rich quick. The more long-term a project it was, the more untenable his position would be. It would almost make you feel sorry for the guy, if he wasn’t the author of his own misfortune.

There is also some stuff about the class contradictions in Respect, including the usual cpgb boilerplate about Asian businessmen. This is something I’ll return to separately. To the conclusion:

However, it is not just the SWP’s new contacts, made through Respect, that have now mostly gone. The organisation has lost a whole swathe of its own members as a result of the Respect disaster. Worse, the SWP has succeeded in alienating ally after ally – to the extent that no serious left figure or group will now contemplate joining forces with it in any new electoral alliance.

Well, fair enough. This won’t be a problem in the way Peter puts it, if the electoral front has effectively been wound down. But since the SWP has theorised (to the extent it ever formally theorises anything) the united front as its strategic orientation, and is operating on a sort of Venn diagram basis of lots and lots of “united fronts” (which, it must be said, bear little resemblance to the Comintern concept), then you do have a problem.

There’s a moral in this story – if you make a habit of fucking your allies over, then sooner or later you won’t have any allies left. Here endeth the lesson.

The Court of Decency versus Osama Saeed and Alex Salmond

This morning we turn to the latest Private Eye, and I am pleased to note an appearance by regular Decent columnist ‘Ratbiter’. This column is usually worth a chuckle or two, although not intentionally one presumes. Unless it’s really a devilishly clever spoof of Nick Cohen…

The target this fortnight is Osama Saeed, with a sideswipe at Alex Salmond. Osama is the Scottish National Party candidate for Glasgow Central, which alone would be enough to raise our columnist’s ire – the thought of running a Muslim candidate in an area with lots of Muslim voters! But Osama is also the boss of an outfit called the Scottish Islamic Foundation (SIF), which spends most of its time lobbying for Muslim faith schools, and in which capacity Osama has received a cheque from Alex Salmond.

Now then. The Decent Left don’t like Alex Salmond, although I suspect they dislike him for the wrong reasons. And they – or at least the denizens of Harry’s Place – really don’t like Osama Saeed, who’s an articulate Muslim critic of British foreign policy, and so obviously an enemy of the people. In fact, at HP Sauce they occasionally like to produce some barking mullah and loudly demand that Osama condemn this mullah, of whom he may or may not have heard.

Anyway, Ratbiter asserts that the SIF is nothing less than a front for the Muslim Brotherhood. He doesn’t actually produce any evidence, but I suppose the chain of reasoning goes like this: Osama’s political background is in the Muslim Association of Britain; the MAB is an offshoot of the Ikhwaan; QED. And, since the Ikhwaan revere Sheikh Qaradawi, this provides an opportunity for Ratbiter to dust off Qaradawi’s more outré pronouncements on wife-beating and female circumcision and use them as a stick to beat Osama, and by extension Alex. You could, I suppose, ask Osama what he thinks on these subjects, but where’s the fun in that?

So, the general thrust is that the Scottish Government is in a coalition with the Muslim Brotherhood. Ratbiter further insinuates that, as Osama has been interviewed on BBC Scotland, the Beeb’s Caledonian operation is also in thrall to the Brotherhood. This seems to show a lack of understanding of how broadcasting works. If Oliver Kamm appears on Newsnight, does that mean the Decent Left controls the BBC? No, it’s because Ollie has something distinctive to say. One can fault the range of voices for being too narrow – it’s nothing short of a scandal that, in the runup to the invasion of Iraq, Scott Ritter couldn’t get on Newsnight despite demonstrably having something important to say – but there’s no need to invoke conspiracy theories.

Some useful background to this was provided a little while back on the invaluable Aaro Watch:

What winds up Scottish Labour (and indeed English Labour) about the SNP and Osama Saeed is not so much that a political Islamist is being allowed to participate in mainstream politics, but that a political Islamist is participating in mainstream politics without the primary aim of delivering block votes for the Labour Party. The latter exist in some numbers but are quietly hidden away, invisible except to the small and insignificant few who closely follow municipal politics. Their grasp of English is also often poor, which prevents them saying anything embarrassing in public.

Quite so. There’s also the assertion that the SIF is unrepresentative, which may or may not be true (I’m not sure they claim to be representative) and a bit of a whine about Muslim groups that haven’t got funding from the Scottish Government. These are unnamed, probably sensibly when you bear in mind the few Muslim groups that do meet the approval of the Decents.

Finally, the really interesting stuff about religion in Scotland is the assiduous courtship of Scottish Catholics by the SNP, which has been trying heroically to shed its Orange patina. That it has made some progress has been evidenced by increasingly friendly coverage in The Universe, and confirmed by the Glasgow East by-election. The SNP’s Muslim outreach is really a subset of the same thing. If pushed, the Decents would probably have a go at the Catholic stuff too, but anti-Catholicism just doesn’t have the same frisson as sticking it to the Muslims.

Rud eile: It may be worth pointing out that the column in question is a more or less straight regurgitation of this article in Democratiya. But don’t put too much money on this blatant plagiarism making it into Street of Shame.

The long farewell: Ciarán Cannon puts the Progressive Democrats out of their misery

It is the early 1990s. I am enjoying a nice beer in an agreeable hostelry in Greifswald. Günther walks in.

Günther: You remember Martin Bangemann?

There is a long pause, almost a Pinter pause.

Myself: Oh, the politician? Now that’s a name I haven’t heard for ages. What about him?

Günther: He was just in the paper this morning.

Myself: What for? Is he dead or what?

Günther: No, it turns out he’s a European commissioner.

Myself: Holy living fuck. How did that happen?

Günther: Well, I suppose somebody must have thought it was a good idea.

Funny, isn’t it, how people or even organisations can slip your mind? Ciarán Cannon has just called time on the Desocrats, although the last rites will have to wait a month, and a few diehards might be tempted to carry on as Continuity Progressive Democrats. And I’m sure the general public will have reacted in the same way as when you hear that some old Hollywood actor has died and you say, “I thought he was dead years.”

Take Noel Grealish. For months now you’ve been seeing occasional stories in the press that Noel was about to jump ship to Fianna Fáil, and take the party’s Galway councillors with him. Then a few weeks later you’d hear that Noel Grealish was going to defect to Fianna Fáil, and you’d say to yourself, “Has he not gone already? Jesus, he’s taking his time about it.” Such is the fate, I suppose, of the moribund party.

So the Sunday papers were all full of the imminent death of the PDs and their legacy to the Irish political scene. But they really were a curious bunch, weren’t they? It says something about the unideological nature of Irish politics that, when they were launched in 1985, nobody had a clue what they stood for except that they were against Charlie. Des O’Malley had been in politics a very long time, but nobody seemed to know what his politics were. Garret FitzGerald, who knew him better than most, said years later that he encouraged Dessie to form a new party but he had no idea it would be a rightwing party. Oh, how innocent we once were…

And so the new party was launched, and it looked fresh, and it had some impressive-looking personages, and it had a great name – who wouldn’t want to be progressive or democratic? And it quickly surged to something like 28% in the polls. Then the voters got a look at the eclectic Desocrat ideological mix – Thatcherite economics, total political correctness and a neo-unionist line on the north – and the party settled down at the 4% or so that was probably its natural sociological base. Ideology remains a niche market.

Des Fennell described this as D4, which had had a slightly social democratic cast in favour of the public sector (for good self-interested reasons) hiving off a conscious right wing. I think there’s something to that, certainly with regard to the PD milieu in Dublin, as opposed to whatever rural personalities would build up a personal base. On the other hand, you needed those strong individuals, as can be seen from the party’s sorry state since the last election, which has left Cannon in the almost poetic position of trying to lead a moribund party from the mausoleum-like surroundings of the Seanad.

And what of this great legacy? The most extravagant claims of course come from Collins, but the general thrust is that the Desocrats protected Ireland from the demons of nationalism, unreconstructed Catholicism and socialism. Furthermore, they kept Fianna Fáil honest, not necessarily in the financial sense, but in terms of stopping FF devolving into a Blaneyite party. (This derives from a peculiar anti-Haughey reading of history, linked not least to Jack Lynch having acted as the PDs’ grey eminence.) They were the trailblazers of partnership and the liberal agenda. And so on.

This is almost certainly a big overstatement. As was pointed out on Cedar Lounge, the secularising liberal agenda really begins with FitzGerald (who only got inconsistent support on this from O’Malley) and the Boss himself could claim credit for partnership. What has their significance been? In ideological terms, probably as outriders for hard rightist positions that the bigger parties could then water down for public consumption. In Machiavellian terms, which would matter more to Bertie, as a lightning conductor for discontent with Fianna Fáil. One imagines Biffo will miss the lightning conductor, if he doesn’t manage to shuffle that role off onto the Greens.

Ah well, goodbye then. Can’t really say it’s been nice knowing you, but the landscape will be a little less colourful without you.

Summer reading: The Abi Titmuss diaries

Back to books of the summer, and if you’re looking for a change of pace from Mark Steel, another entertaining volume is The Secret Diaries of Abigail Titmuss. Sadly, this is a book that I feel is unlikely to find its audience. Abi Titmuss’ image is such that I imagine many buyers will be priapic lads looking for a one-handed read. These guys are going to be sorely disappointed if they expect the book to be wall-to-wall shagging. On the other hand, I can’t see the book being a big hit amongst feminists, who might actually be interested in it. Because we’re not talking about Inside Linda Lovelace here, what we actually have is quite a sharp treatment of celebrity culture and in particular society’s expectations of women.

You already know the outlines of the story. We have here a respectable nurse, with ambitions of becoming an actress, who meets a bloke off the telly and winds up in a relationship with him. Things are going reasonably well, until he’s accused of rape. And, although he’s exonerated in court, he ends up becoming unemployable. Meanwhile, his photogenic girlfriend suddenly gets propelled into the media spotlight, for no apparent reason other than being photogenic and in the news. And so we have the birth of an unlikely celebrity, one of the type who you could only really have in our postmodern age where “fame” is a commodity in itself, divorced from actual accomplishments.

It’s to Abi’s credit that she’s aware of the absurdity of her own position. You get this at an early stage where she’s asked to take part in Hell’s Kitchen alongside established entertainers, and feels a keen sense of her pointlessness, dreading anyone asking her what she actually does. She’s dependent for her celebrity on the tabloids, yet they still keep printing shit about her. Soft-porn red-tops denounce her as “sleazy” for, er, having sex with her long-term boyfriend, but at the same time clamour to run saucy pictures of her, trading on her image as a bit of a goer. The papers are full of columns wondering why she’s in the papers all the time. She hires photographers to take “candid” snaps that she’ll profit from, gazumping the paparazzi. (This, by the way, is quite a common tactic in Celeb World. Liz Hurley does it all the time.) She hopes her raised profile might get her acting work, but it’s offset by a total lack of credibility. And so on. Baudrillard would have loved this – we really are talking about the simulacrum raised above reality.

Of course, with the meteoric rise goes the downward spiral. I remember Debee Ashby talking about this quite a few years back, apropos of so many Page Three girls going off the rails that there was talk of a curse. Nonsense, said Debs. You take young women and throw them suddenly into an environment of fame and wealth, of swanky nightclubs and free booze (these days, one might add free coke) and it’s no wonder that some of them went off the rails. I might add that, if a smart woman like Debs could go a little off the rails, it could happen to anybody.

And so it is with Abi. She’s caught in this strange celebrity bubble where you can’t trust anyone, where everyone has an agenda. You can’t form relationships – it’s difficult even to form friendships with anyone, there are so many agendas flying around. She develops an obvious drink problem. More interesting, perhaps, is the body image issue, where the pinup of millions can’t see herself as attractive. In fact, you’ve got a woman weighing less than ten stone constantly worrying about whether her photos make her look fat. This isn’t helped by female pundits calling her fat all the time. (A particular offender is the ghastly Carole Malone, who’s built quite a career out of deploying the f-word against women half her age and half her size.) And this all serves to humanise someone who you might not have expected to find sympathetic.

And, naturally, following the downward spiral hitting rock bottom, we have the redemption. This is where Abi rediscovers the things she puts real value on – family and girlfriends – while knocking the booze on the head and getting out of the crazy celeb bubble. And she even gets some theatre work, which is all she really wanted in the first place. Which forms a nice postlude.

A most enjoyable read, I must say. You’ve got a classic narrative arc as your structure, yes, but you’ve also got some acute observation, a fair amount of wit and an engaging authorial voice. The absurdity runs right through the book, to the point of creating its own pathos. And it works pretty well as a dissection of media-celebrity culture. This is a book that needs to be put on the Media Studies curriculum immediately. And handed out to any young woman who thinks that “being famous” is a viable ambition.

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