The lothario of Montgomeryshire

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The young lady above is called Katie Green. She’s been in the news a few times in recent months, but for the benefit of this blog’s high-minded readers it may be worth recapping why. Last summer, Ms Green won a competition to model for Wonderbra. Then, by her account, they referred her to a model agency, where she was unbelievably – no, actually, all too believably – told that she was too fat and she needed to lose two stone, as they wouldn’t have anyone on their books who was more than a size ten. Which says a lot about the modelling world, if this woman can be considered too fat to be a viable proposition.

Katie then went public with this story. That got her into the papers again. Rival bra magnate Michelle Mone, who can spot a PR opportunity a mile off, headhunted her to be the face (well, I say face, but you know what I mean) of Ultimo. And Katie has turned her experience into a campaign against the size zero culture. Fair enough, and I wish her luck. Young women have enough problems with the images portrayed by the media, and any turning of the tide against the idea that women should look like pre-pubescent boys is welcome. Sometimes you would get the impression that the fashion and advertising industries are actively trying to promote eating disorders.

But that’s all by the by. The aspect of this story that caught my eye was this:

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Yes, you recognise that bloke. It’s Liberal Democrat MP, classic motorcycle enthusiast, asteroid aficionado and all-round man about town Lembit Öpik. What, you may ask, is a respectable politician doing hobnobbing with a lingerie model half his age? Officially, Westminster’s answer to George Clooney is simply helping Katie with some ideas about how to publicise her Say No To Size Zero campaign. Unofficially – or at least according to the Mail – it doesn’t seem to have taken him long to get over his Cheeky Girls heartbreak.

Well, one salutes his indefatigability, of course. And I must say, there’s something oddly engaging about Lembit. I remember it was said of the late Clement Freud that, having established himself as a noted wit and media personality, he decided to become an MP so people would take him more seriously. With his party colleague Lembit, the opposite seems to apply. I sometimes get the impression that he became an MP so as to be better placed to blag invites to showbiz parties. Maybe, if he hadn’t become an MP, I would be sharing a drink with him at sci-fi conventions.

Be that as it may, let’s not forget that, while Lembit is the nearest thing we have to an MP for Heat magazine, in formal constitutional terms he also has actual electors. And I often wonder what the conservative Methodist farmers of Montgomeryshire make of their representative’s swinging lifestyle. Actually, they probably love it, on the principle that Lembit’s life of glamour brings some reflected lustre to the area. Certainly, he’s the most colourful character in Welsh politics, at least unless someone can convince Greatest Living Welshman Howard Marks to take a run at the ballot box.

In related Liberal Democrat news, teenage Lib Dem MP Jo Swinson has called for a crackdown on airbrushing in ads aimed at young people, on precisely the grounds that unrealistic body images damage young girls. As Anton remarks, her point may have carried more weight if it was made elsewhere than in the Daily Mail, an organ that specialises in attacking female celebs for being either too fat or too thin, or occasionally looking a bit rough when papped without makeup.

And finally on this theme, a brief editorial note. Despite rumours to the contrary, I am not moonlighting at Stumbling and Mumbling.

Very strange man dies

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Truth be told, Michael Jackson never really did it for me. I do like some of the old Motown-era Jackson Five material, but his solo work I can take or leave alone. On the other hand, I can well understand the reaction from people who were seriously into him. When Warren Zevon died, I was so upset I could barely listen to his records for months afterwards.

So I’m not going to get into the whys and wherefores of Wacko himself. His musical work should be assessed by someone who’s got more of an interest in that sort of thing. All I know is that he was enormously successful, and he influenced lots of people who have also been successful, even if I have no real interest in them. I mean, I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on the oeuvre of Justin Timberlake, but I can tell a Michael Jackson tribute act when I see one. And as for his bizarre life story and Howard Hughes-style eccentricities, one can only hope he gets the biographer he deserves.

No, I just wanted to do a briefish rumination on the media and the fans. There is of course hardly any escaping him in the broadcast media today, and if you think the telly is bad you really should have been involuntarily exposed to Cool FM for several hours. We’ve had a good illustration of talk expanding to fill the available space, even when there weren’t any solid facts. The rampant speculation on the rolling news last night was one thing. And even then, you could spot two conflicting instincts – one to pay tribute to an iconic figure with many millions of zealous fans, the other cognisant of the fact that, now he’s dead, there are no legal restrictions on what you can say about him.

But this morning was even better. I knew you could rely on GMTV to always go for the lowest common denominator, and sure enough, a show that’s parodically celeb-centric at the best of times was on jawdropping form. One would have though the Queen had died, or a couple of planes had hit the World Trade Center. When I switched on over my porridge, it was going very roughly like this:

Carla Romano: And as you join us, the celebrity tributes are pouring in. Here’s one from Madonna. Here’s one from Liza Minelli. Here’s one from TV’s Ray Stubbs. Here’s one from Linsey Dawn McKenzie. And of course, there have been loads of texts and emails from you little people, and you can see them scrolling across the ticker at the bottom.

Ben Shepard: The autopsy won’t be taking place for several hours, so we don’t really have any gory details about the cause of death. But here’s Dr Hilary to fill up five minutes with some speculation.

Dr Hilary (for it is he): Well, Ben, I really don’t know the details of his medical history…

Shepard: Oh, come on.

Dr Hilary: …cardiac arrest blah blah blah prescription drugs yada yada yada doctors will have questions to answer.

Shepard: We’ll have more after these messages.

[Footage of young Jackson singing “Ben”. Then some chirpy ads, contrasting just a bit with the apocalyptic tone. Then we’re back, to footage of Jackson singing “Beat It”.]

Romano: Now let’s go to Ross King in LA. Ross, what have you heard?

King: The word on the street is blah blah blah…

Romano: Really? Because when I was in LA, people were saying yada yada yada…

Shepard (with disturbing glint in eye): But I really want to hear more about this autopsy…

God love the British media. And by the way, while I can understand why Barack O’Bama would issue a statement, why in the name of perdition do we need to hear Gordon Brown and Rankin’ Dave Cameron give their thoughts on the matter? [Hat tip: Dave] It’s all a bit reminiscent of Mr Tony Blair’s creepy tribute to Frank Sinatra.

Now, as for the fans. To my mind, a great songwriter is one who you feel an almost psychic connection to, as if they’re expressing what you would say if you were articulate enough. I’ve enough experience of that eerie sensation that Warren or Leonard or Kate was inside my head to know exactly what the feeling is like. Very often, fans will form an intense attachment to their favourite artist, such that you have to keep remembering that “fan” is a contraction of “fanatic”. And the late Mr Jackson, massively successful artist as he was, has left behind an army of millions of fanatics.

What always strikes me about Michael Jackson fans is that there’s an appreciable subset thereof whose fanaticism goes well beyond the intense connection you’d expect from a much-loved artist. You know the type – the people who, once they get over their grief, might be digging out the pitchforks and flaming torches and going out to hunt down Martin Bashir, Jarvis Cocker and Weird Al Yankovic. A few of these guys, in my humble opinion, need their heads felt.

But my mind went back to that Bashir documentary, and I can’t get one image out of my head. That was a painting on the wall, this pastiche of The Last Supper:

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You may think this just evidence of megalomania, but it’s plain that there are people who considered him a Christ-like figure, persecuted by the forces of darkness. And that he played up to the messianic expectations heaped on him. For some people, he came to fill a space in their lives that in another generation would have been filled by religion. Indeed, looking at these pranksters, how long can it be before someone does the same thing with serious intent?

Hail, farewell and cha’mone!

More on this subject, well, everywhere, but you might enjoy this and this.

Celebrity Big Brother: Just one more dissection

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I realise this is a few days behind the curve, but having covered Celebrity Big Brother already, a few thoughts on its ending would perhaps be appropriate. And actually, there isn’t a great deal to say – the new, Ofcom-approved, cleaned-up CBB was deadly dull most of the time, and the fireworks we watch it for just didn’t materialise.

I must say, too, that I was as surprised at Ulrika winning as anybody – I firmly expected Verne to romp home. The Daily Star is crying fix, but then they always do. Possibly, and this is being a little optimistic about human nature, it had something to do with her being the last woman standing in a house where the women hadn’t had a great time of it. And while the contrast with the boos outside is striking, this might perhaps be explained by what psephologists will soon be calling the Eoghan Quigg scenario. Which is to say, there were questions raised about how the tousle-haired scamp from Dungiven could top the X Factor poll in six out of the ten studio rounds and not win the final. Actually, that’s easy to explain, and has something to do with turnout. In an earlier round, with two million or so votes spread among seven or eight acts, a couple of hundred thousand block votes from Norn Iron could propel wee Eoghan to the top; with eight million votes between three acts in the final, that just wasn’t enough. So it’s possible that the sort of people who appear in the Big Mouth audience or go to eviction nights – the hardest of the hardcore Big Brother fans – may be out of synch with the casual viewers from time to time.

There was also the question of the misogynistic bully Coolio, who I genuinely feared might win after Verne had gone out. It was frankly a little mortifying that the Star, of all media outlets, would run big splash articles attacking Coolio’s behaviour, yet this drew only the mildest of reactions from the two right-on socialist blokes in the house. Of course, Coolio shooting his mouth off about bitches and hos is what Coolio does, and what the producers should surely have expected. Condemning Coolio for that sort of talk is like condemning a dog for licking its balls – it’s just the nature of the beast. What worried me a little more was the attitude of the young women on Big Mouth, which could be summed up as, “Coolio is hilarious! Get the crybaby Michelle out!” One would look in vain there for sisterly solidarity.

And oh yes, Verne. I was struck by this point made by Remote Controller in Private Eye:

The severely growth-restricted actor Verne Troyer is the most disabled performer to be admitted to the home for limelight-denied performers. This could be seen as a progressive move – and Troyer played along with this idea in the early stages – but there’s an uneasy sense that CBB, not for the first time, is trying to have it both ways. The camera angles often seem calculated to achieve a comic effect from his tininess, a sort of documentary version of his shtick in Austin Powers, and a nagging feeling that he’s present as a test of the tolerance and liberal credentials of the other housemates… and that, if they fail it, C4 will milk the publicity while smugly telling the regulator that it was investigating attitudes to disability.

Very much as they did during the Shilpa Shetty race row. That didn’t happen, unfortunately for those of us who would have liked to see someone engage Verne in an Austin Powers-style punch-up. What was more interesting is that Verne was nearly as un-PC as Coolio – he turned out to be a right cheeky wee bastard – but he got away with it much more easily. Was it people cutting him slack out of liberal guilt? Possibly, but there must also be the factor of him playing up with a twinkle in his eye, a certain light-heartedness and an awareness of his own comic potential. And, after all, his sheer size meant that he couldn’t be loud and overbearing like Coolio was.

What do we say about the Tangerine Man, who was the main reason why I was watching in the first place? He was fairly dull even by this series’ standards, and got progressively duller, to the point where he spent most of the time sitting cross-armed on the sofa, refusing to take part in activities he thought would make him look undignified. This suggests he wasn’t aware that lack of dignity was the whole point of the show, and anyway a concern for how one appears sits oddly with his insistence on going about in shorts and treating us to extended views of his hairy legs. All in all, Tommy didn’t do anything as cringeworthy as Gallows’ cat impersonations, but nor did he really do anything to win the public over. Optimally, as Phil says, a few kids might wonder who this character is and find out something about his politics; on the other hand, the not inconsiderable number of people in Scotland who already thought Tommy was a bit of a tube will only be confirmed in their view. With each of his media adventures – the football commentary, the stand-up comedy, and now this – he looks less like a working-class champion and more like a minor celebrity with a vague interest in leftwing politics.

All right, that’s enough about the actual show. But if I may finally return to the question of impressions – and the Big Mouth audience is perversely fascinating here – it’s interesting to see how some of the dynamics work. Firstly, the fact that, of the five men and six women to go in, the first four out were all women. We’ve come to expect that from the regular BB, where on at least one occasion they’ve had to draft extra women in halfway through because the house was just getting too male for comfort. Partly this has to do with the nomination procedure. It’s fairly standard at the beginning of the show to notice the blokes bonding with each other and being generally blokey, while the women immediately start to compete over pecking order. So it is that the men nominate the women, and the women also nominate the women. And then there’s the public vote, where the (mainly female) audience isn’t usually very forgiving of female housemates.

There’s also the structure of voting, where until the final you can’t cast a positive vote but only one to evict. This makes it a system geared towards haters, and often very subjective and emotional dislikes of particular individuals, which people then go on to rationalise in quite striking ways. I’ve mentioned before the cleft stick Lucy Pinder found herself in – on the Monday the Big Mouth audience were deriding her as a bimbo because she gets her tits out for a living, while by the Thursday they were deriding her as boring because she wasn’t getting her tits out in the house. You could be forgiven for thinking that you can’t win, and indeed you can’t.

If you’re loud and stroppy, there’s a fair possibility you’ll go out at the beginning. If you’re loud and stroppy and by some miracle survive the first couple of weeks (vide Jade) the voters might keep you in on the grounds that you’re entertaining. Being boring is often a good survival strategy – you can more or less sleep your way to about week seven. But that too can be held against you. And I’m always amazed at how, when some housemate (invariably a woman) is nice and pleasant and completely inoffensive, some of the audience (almost invariably women) will start in with, “She’s so false! She’s got a game plan! Get her out now!” On one level it’s an amusing catch-22, but on another level you see some of these eviction crowds, booing and shouting at someone whose only sin was to argue over who nicked the custard creams, and it’s so easy to picture them with pitchforks and flaming torches.

Ah, well. And the most depressing thing of all is that the auditions are currently under way for this summer’s tenth series. To be brutally honest, the Big Brother format is totally clapped out, and has been for at least three or four years, no matter how many twists they add, and no matter how energetically Davina gurns and shouts. (The woman makes David Tennant look like Victor Garber.) But it’s such an enormous cash cow for C4 and Endemol that it can’t simply be put out of its misery. So it will drag on, year after year, until it finally becomes a liability. Low ratings notwithstanding, I fear that is a long way off.

Citizen Tommy does Big Brother

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Just what the fuck does Tommy Sheridan think he’s doing?

No, hold on, that’s a stupid question. His justification will be the same as that put forward by his good friend George Galloway about his own appearance on Celebrity Big Brother three years ago. George argued – and appeared to sincerely believe – that the show offered an unprecedented opportunity to communicate with young people who ordinarily would take no interest in politics. And he sort of succeeded in that millions of youth who would have trouble picking Gordon Brown out of an identity parade know who George Galloway is – trouble is, most of them came away with the impression that he was a wanker. In fact, George may be the only man on the planet who believes his appearance was a great success.

And now Tommy is giving it a go. Actually, he may get a chance to talk politics – Tory girl Lucy Pinder will probably be up for an argument – but he’s going to get a rude awakening if he thinks it’s going to be all, “10.45, and Tommy and Lucy are discussing the situation in Gaza.” The point of the show is bickering and bitching and inane tasks that make the celebrities look like plonkers. The only advice I can give to Tommy is, if they ask you to impersonate a cat, for God’s sake try to do it with a twinkle in your eye.

Aside from that, it’ll just be a test of how well he gets on with strangers in a cramped space. He does have a certain rugged Sean Connery sex appeal, but does he have the wherewithal to survive the house without getting up everybody’s nose?

One also suspects that the producers are hoping that, by dangling some attractive young women in front of Tommy, his libido will get the better of him. Not if he has half a brain cell, it won’t. Tommy, as we know, has certain legal troubles, and will have an eye on the court of public opinion. Perhaps more to the point, he’ll be aware of the possibility of Gail skinning him with a blunt knife if he misbehaves. You cross Glaswegian matriarchs at your peril.

On a brighter note, I’m happy to see Terry Christian in there. Come on, you remember Terry Christian. No? Well, it probably says something that his career highlight is still presenting The Word, which, let’s be honest, was pants 90% of the time. What I remember it best for was Terry’s unique interviewing style. I have never seen a man with such a genius for killing a conversation stone dead. Let’s see if he’s got better at it. Anyway, he can be excused some relief that his nemesis Frank Skinner, the Emu to his Parky, is nowhere to be seen.

Ah yes, Lucy Pinder is there after all. I’m afraid she starts with three strikes against her. Two of these are to do with demographics, as the Big Brother core audience consists largely of gay men (an appreciable subset of whom don’t like women) and young women (many of whom take an instant dislike to any woman they perceive as prettier than them). Her third strike is that, being a Page Three stunna, people will assume she’s a mindless bimbo. In fact, in real life Lucy is intelligent, charming and often very funny, but I’m guessing that her intelligence, charm and wit do not feature among the two reasons the producers are interested in her. The calculation will be that Lucy’s participation will attract an army of “lads” looking for some one-handed viewing. But the lads will want Lucy to be whipping her bra off every thirty seconds, while that’s the very behaviour most guaranteed to alienate the core audience. I feel her only option is to play down the glamour and hope her natural likeability shines through.

Stopping briefly to remark that I’m very taken with Verne and Tina, and expect great value from both of them, let’s just do a brief survey of the rest:

Ulrika-ka-ka: Walking tabloid headline, to the point it’s difficult to remember what she was famous for in the first place. I expect women will hate her, and the Daily Mail will be asking pointed questions about who’s looking after her many children by many fathers. The one person this year most obviously looking for redemption.

La Toya: Ditzy, but hasn’t made much of an impression on me yet.

Coolio: This is where the audience cry, “Who he?” One stonking single back when dinosaurs ruled the earth, but seems to have faded from view since. He might be brilliant, or might be another Dennis Rodman.

Michelle: This is the anti-Coolio problem for me. I’m vaguely aware that Liberty X existed, but couldn’t tell you a thing about Michelle. This won’t be a problem for the Heat readers out there, though.

Mutya: Yes, generational issues apart, I am aware of the Sugababes and enjoyed a few of their singles. Mutya may well be lovely, but I’m not sure I’d want to get on her wrong side. Expecting fireworks from that quarter.

Ben: Boy band refugee, looks good, seems bland and inoffensive. There’s your early favourite to win then.

Of course, all this is just immediate impressions. We’ll have to get into the bitching and the tasks before things start to clarify themselves. And, against my better judgement, I’ll have to cast an eye over Big Brother from time to time. In any case, I fully expect this to dominate the left blogosphere for the next three weeks. Phil has beaten me to it with a measured assessment, there’s more forensics from Madam Miaow, and no doubt there will be plenty more fun elsewhere.

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.

Katy French becomes a strained metaphor for the Celtic Tiger

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It’s a curious thing about the death of Katy French, that the media seem determined to find a greater significance in it than just a personal tragedy. Some of this has just been silly – I’m thinking especially of Paul Williams in the Sunday World managing to blame Katy’s death on the Provos, via an alleged Provo-Farc conspiracy to flood the Emerald Isle with cocaine. Even for Williams and the Sunday Roast, that’s stretching credibility. More generally we’ve had the sentimental view that Katy represents some kind of death of innocence for the Celtic Tiger.

I suppose though that it does illustrate some aspects of our modern Irish society. WorldbyStorm has already reflected on this, but there are one or two things I think might be worth flagging up. The first is that up until quite recently I’d never heard of Katy and was very hazy as to what she actually did. In fact, just over a year ago hardly anybody had heard of her, but all of a sudden she was everywhere. This had an awful lot to do with her close collaboration with Dublin’s new breed of celebrity gossip columnists, who manufactured her profile in a quite conscious way. Ireland being short of real celebrities – just look at Charity You’re A Star! – it’s very easy to get a media profile very quickly.

The other thing I would ponder on is, yes, how the drugs question relates to the Celtic Tiger. It’s funny, but in recent years I’ve become much more attracted to the old Workers Party bugbear of the lazy Irish bourgeoisie, something that seems to me to have a lot of truth in it. If you think about it, what has Irish capital contributed to the long boom? A sober economic answer might be, frig all. The Tiger has been almost entirely based on inward investment – to be sure, there have been spin-off benefits for Irish capital, not least the construction industry in a wildly overdeveloped Dublin, but the Irish bourgeoisie, as such, has been very much parasitic on the boom.

So booming Ireland hasn’t really developed a culture of enterprise, but it has certainly developed a culture of conspicuous consumption. Look in the Turbine most Sundays, and you’ll see photos of ludicrously lavish society parties, not to mention weddings that even Premiership footballers might think a bit OTT. And this has drastically changed the drugs culture in Ireland. Twenty years ago, the word “drugs” summoned up images of shivering junkies shooting up in inner-city sink estates. What you now have is a very affluent section of Irish society where cocaine use is well-nigh endemic.

To a large extent we’re talking about the younger end of D4, which is why Justine Delaney Wilson’s The High Society reads at times like she’s interviewing Ross O’Carroll-Kelly. But this goes way beyond the Ross types. We’re not really talking about the Irish establishment, but yeah, the sons and daughters of the establishment are as likely as not to be sniffers. And not even just in Dublin – in provincial towns you’ll hear quite open talk about such-and-such from this rich family who’s a notorious cokehead.

And this was the layer of society that Katy moved in. That particular slice of Irish society where socialites, journos, luvvies and the like mix, in clubs where the term “powder room” carries a very definite double entendre. A lot of these people seem to have gone to ground over the last week or so, no doubt due to the fear that a whole lot of drug scandals could be unearthed by the guards or enterprising hacks. Perhaps the death of Katy French will in the end make some contribution in helping to lift the lid on moneyed Ireland’s dysfunctional relationship with drugs.

Charisma and its pitfalls

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I was listening to Radio Galloway last night, mostly because there was an excellent discussion on filthy hospitals, with a typically thoughtful contribution from John Lister, as well as an ex-nurse giving a critique of nurses’ training I’ve heard from several old-school nurses in recent years. But this led me to ponder on the fact that, whatever the immense reservations I have about George, he’s one hell of a communicator. I couldn’t help thinking of Alex Callinicos’ recent performance on The Moral Maze – the good professor was nearly picking his testicles up off the floor by the time Mad Mel had finished with him.

But there was another thing that came to mind. That was this extraordinary article that appeared in Socialist Worker last September, during the split in the Scottish Socialist Party, whereat Chris Harman puts up a rather limp and shamefaced argument in support of the SWP’s defence of the Tangerine Man. This takes the form of Chris, someone who has spent decades arguing for “socialism from below”, praising the role of charismatic leaders. There is a cheap shot there about Chris Harman and charisma, but I’ll let Chris speak for himself:

Often when a new movement is developing, certain figures emerge who seem to many new activists to embody what it stands for. For instance, in the late 1960s the new mass movements of students and workers found its first figureheads in people like Danny Cohn Bendit in France, Tariq Ali in Britain and Bernadette Devlin in Ireland.

Quite, and I’ll come back to Bernie in a second. But go on, Chris:

Once such personalities begin to have a prominent role there is, of course, the danger that they will later use their prestige to mislead the movement – as Fausto Bertinotti has by entering an Italian government that is sending troops to Afghanistan and Lebanon.

But socialists cannot, out of fear of what might eventually happen, simply turn our back on their capacity to stimulate the growth of a movement.

We have to throw ourselves into building that movement, knowing that as people become part of it, they can begin to discover their capacity to take control of things without relying on individuals.

In doing so, they can create an environment with its own democratic structures which are the only protection against individual personalities going in the wrong direction.

What is remarkable here, apart from the fact that Chris could write a defence of Sheridan while failing to mention what Sheridan had done, is that the only argument he can put is an instrumentalist Heineken one. That is, that often a charismatic leader can reach the parts that, oh, a small left sect can’t. You may mock the Gorgeous One’s showbiz antics, but his talkSPORT show has a listenership hugely in excess of the circulation of Socialist Worker, and his profile is so high that even those daft twins from Big Brother know who he is. But the problem here, as Chris seems to realise, is that a movement built around a charismatic individual can easily go astray. What he seems to be arguing for is that first you use George or Tommy to build a movement, then you discipline them.

Let me take you back to an argument Chris would be familiar with, when in 1968-9 the International Socialists decided to adopt democratic centralism. The previous loose structure had meant there was little of the draconian regime that would later characterise the SWP, but on the debit side it meant Cliff could very much do what he liked. Duncan Hallas and Jim Higgins, amongst others, reckoned that the adoption of democratic centralism would give them an opportunity to discipline Cliff and force him to work as part of a team. Cliff on the other hand saw democratic centralism as a way of getting the organisation to more effectively do what he wanted. Well, we know how that turned out.

And so it is, decades later. Chris may have held out the idea that you could build a party around Sheridan and then make him act in a disciplined way, but the SSP already did that and it didn’t stop Tommy fucking them over and trying to destroy them. The Scottish SWP will learn that a second time if they stop paying obeisance at the court of King Tommy and Queen Gail. And so it is in Respect, where Rees and co may have thought that George was a figurehead and they were the power behind the throne, but they should now know that the power dynamic doesn’t work like that.

We have of course had some experience with this sort of thing in Ireland. Much as I love Bernie McAliskey and recognise her talents, anybody who knows Bernie will tell you she isn’t a team player. Like many charismatic figures, boy does she realise she’s special. This was evident early on, when she rejected Peoples Democracy in the hope that she could build something even broader and looser around her own personality. It was evident in her falling out with Costello, who was a bit of a prima donna himself. And that’s why she has never stayed any length of time in an organisation.

You could say something similar about the late Nollaig de Brún. During the Mother and Child row in 1951, Dr Browne gained a reputation as a principled and idealistic man that he never managed to lose, despite being through multiple parties including Fianna Fáil, Labour and several personal vehicles. The old SLP existed as much despite the leader as because of him, for the simple reason that Noël didn’t want a living organisation, he wanted gofers who would secure his seat. How the SLP had as much substance or longevity as it did, the deity alone knows.

So that’s what you get when you stake everything on a charismatic individual. If you’re extremely lucky, you get Fidel Castro. More often, you get Tommy Sheridan. Here endeth the lesson.

Thanks to Korakious for the scary image.

Send in the clowns

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They do say politics is showbiz for ugly people, and I suppose that next year’s London mayoral election proves the point. And, just like Kylie or Madonna, the key to success is being known by just one name, as it shapes up into a fight between Ken and Boris.

So, Ken Livingstone will be running for a third term. Red Ken, truth be told, hasn’t been red for a long time – he’s more like Pale Pink Ken these days – but he’s still a cheeky chappie. And there can be little doubt that his cheeky chappiedom, combined with hostility from New Labour, has endeared him to London voters.

The Tories, on the other hand, have had serious trouble finding a contender who can take Ken on. In the first mayoral election Jeffrey Archer was making a strong pitch for the candidacy, but then he had some little legal difficulties. As a result, in the last two elections the Tories have run used car dealer and heroic shagger Steve Norris, a capable man but lacking in Ken’s star power. But now they have hit on a potential winner in Boris Johnson. Boris’s hardline neo-Thatcherite politics are neither here nor there – to the voters, he’s the amiable spacer with the arresting hairstyle who seems to appear on Have I Got News For You every other week.

It looks like being a celebrity election all round, if Wikipedia is to be believed. The English Democrats, an obscure and eccentric far-right outfit, are running TV critic and Bluto lookalike Garry Bullshit. UKIP, also seeing the vote-winning potential of talkSPORT, attempted to draft James Whale, who won’t take the party nomination but is threatening to run as an independent. Not wanting to be outdone by Bushell and Whale, LBC’s chubby chatterbox Nick Ferrari wants to be mayor. For fuck’s sake, why not run Stephen Nolan and have a full house? And that’s not to mention a potential Right Said Fred candidacy.

I am disappointed that the Liberal Democrats are refusing so far to play ball and treat the voters like idiots. This blog hereby demands that the Lib Dems draft Lembit Öpik, preferably with the Cheeky Girls in tow.

And what’s with Respect running Lindsey German? I can see that Lindsey’s magnetic personality and easy charm are formidable assets, but the left can’t afford a celebrity gap. This situation demands nothing less than that stalwart of Walthamstow SWP, Big Brother’s Carole Vincent.