Same procedure as every year

Of course, there’s one thing you absolutely can’t miss out for New Year’s Eve…

Should I not be back by midnight, a happy new year to everyone.

Our new finance minister

In light of the reshuffle, just thought it was worth returning to Sammy Wilson’s finest hour…

Postman Pat

You know, I never realised Spitting Image was still running in France. But it’s nice to see Olivier Besancenot keeping the old profile up.

Slap it up these two bozos

Look, I know there are multiple agendas here. I know the Mail and the Sun aren’t going to miss an opportunity to stick the boot into the BBC. As for the Beeb bosses, nervous after last year’s pratfalls, they’ve been harrumphing up a storm. But two things are blindingly obvious about Manuelgate. Firstly, there was a systemic failure. This goes from execs in thrall to the cult of youth who demand “edgy” material, to the 25-year-old producer who doesn’t think that the audience out there might not all have 25-year-old tastes.

On the other hand, that producer is not going to be in a position to say to a star on a colossal salary, “Fuck off, Russell, that’s not going out.” So it comes down to the performers, and I have to say I’m only surprised this never happened sooner. Certain broadcasters, and these two in particular, have been getting away with murder for ages now. They both have track records as long as your arm.

Although I have serious reservations about both Ross and Brand, I don’t particularly bear them any ill will. Ross, as a young man, was one of the most naturally talented broadcasters of his generation. But I don’t like his chat show, for the same reason I don’t like Norton’s show, in that it’s all about him, and the guests really just figure as straight men. Parky used to let Billy Connolly tell the jokes; Ross’s guests get to sit and laugh at the host’s hilarious banter. The other thing about Ross is that, in recent years, he’s quite cynically used cuss-words and toilet humour to cover up just how Wogan-soft his interviewing is. What’s more, it’s slightly worrying that a man pushing fifty can get quite that frisson from using naughty words on the airwaves. Don’t say you haven’t seen the glint in his eyes when he’s about to say “fuck”.

As for Brand, the guy has natural charisma and can be quite witty when he puts his mind to it. What puts me off a little, apart from his media ubiquity, is the sheer level of narcissism in his act. Fair enough, he gets away with it a lot of the time – that’s all part of his charm – but there’s a very Ross-like element, going beyond the usual narcissism of the performer, where other people exist only as props for his comedy. This has, on more than one occasion, meant going into detail – including names – about past notches on his bedpost, in some cases with women who knew Brand many years ago, who are not public figures, and who may not be thrilled at his propelling them into the public arena. You know the way our culture abominates those kiss-and-tell bimbos who shag a footballer and then sell their story to the News of the Screws? I think Brand is actually worse, in that he’s the one in the position of power.

So, what of the prank? I must confess, if there was any cleverness or satire there, it was hidden so deeply as to be invisible. What we seemed to be dealing with – using a young woman’s sexual history to wind up an elderly man – was the verbal equivalent of happy slapping. Let’s take the universalist approach – if I did that, I would very quickly find myself talking to the police. Ross and Brand, at their best, may be talented performers, but I don’t see that they’re so special that they can get away with that on a publicly-funded service. I’m aware, too, that a lot of comedy has a cruel streak – that’s why millions watch videos of people falling over on You’ve Been Framed – but occasionally it is possible to step over the line into simple bullying. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re bad people, just that they ran away with themselves. Ivor Dembina’s comment, that Brand had been lauded so much he thought he could get away with anything, sounds right to me.

And I think it’s right that they are penalised. It’s right that Ross’s suspension hits him where it hurts – in the pocket – rather than an Ofcom fine that would be borne by the license payer. (It surely isn’t irrelevant that so much of the criticism has taken note of Ross’s inflated salary.) Ross, of course, works more or less exclusively for the BBC, which is why he appears so chastened, and why his enthusiastic consumption of humble pie contrasts so much with Brand’s whiny apology. Brand, on the other hand, will probably prosper from this. Sure, he’s lost his Radio 2 show, but he’s got so many contracts with so many media outlets that he’ll not really find himself at a loose end, and after a while this will all add to the bad-boy legend of Russell Brand.

(Parenthetically, and talking of middle-aged men acting out their psychodramas, I was struck in the SU thread with so many lefties’ reflexive urge to rush to the defence of Brand and Ross, and the equally reflexive lack of empathy for the young woman. It was noticeable that the few women who commented seemed to be having a completely different conversation.)

Anyway, one thing I found a little depressing was, by way of contrast to the complaints, the deluge of texts and emails to Radio 1 saying it was all a lot of fuss about nothing, and anyway that the prank was hilarious. This generational gap seems to be borne out by the reactions of most under-30s in vox pops. I hate to sound like Peter Hitchens and start banging on about moral degeneracy, but I do think this illustrates something of a coarsening of the culture.

You don’t have to go back to the 1950s to find evidence of this. Let’s consider that the late Kenny Everett, whose act Russell Brand has liberally nicked from was sacked from the BBC not once but twice for lesser infractions. Let’s recall that, after his notorious fisting joke, Julian Clary was effectively banned from live TV for ten years. Nowadays you can switch on the telly a few minutes after the watershed and hear Jordan and Peter Andre merrily trading quips about, saints preserve us, anal bleaching.

Talking of how things have changed, I seem to remember, after George Best appeared pissed on Wogan, promises that it would never happen again. And yet, the headlines last week were full of Kerry Katona’s slurring on This Morning. Whether or not she was pissed, she was clearly in no state to go on air – but neither was Bestie all those years ago. But it gets better. Kerry, God love her, is in the unfortunate position of being a celebrity without a marketable talent, whose main activity seems to be doing interviews about her awful childhood, her history of substance abuse, or other highlights in her soap-opera life. So what got lost beneath the slurring was that Kerry’s appearance was aimed at promoting her latest media venture. Which was? Yes, her televised breast reduction. I thought Cosmetic Surgery Live was bad enough, but doing a Kerry Katona version sounds like a Chris Morris skit. I suppose it’s a measure of Chris’s genius that the actual broadcast media are coming to resemble his imagination.

Really, sometimes you despair for civilisation. How long before someone, perhaps at C4, really does launch a happy slapping show? You know, that coveted 18-25 audience would love it…

Summer reading: Mark Steel asks, “What’s going on?”

So I’ve just finished the left’s smash hit book of the summer, Mark Steel’s new tome What’s Going On? Regulars can rest assured that a wider selection of summer reading will be reviewed, but Mark is as good a place to start as any.

If you know Mark’s material, there is a fair amount here that will not be surprising. That is, we get lots of comedic ruminations about the state of the world. The antiwar movement is covered here, along with Mark’s thoughts on the changing composition of the working class, the British education system, the homogenisation of town centres, the entertainment industry and celebrity culture, and much more besides, all delivered in the patented Mark Steel style. Which, it’s true, can sometimes be a little annoying in that what works in performance doesn’t always translate to the written page. Mark can be a little shouty, and he’s still very much addicted to the “it’s as if…” or “I was expecting him to say…” clause. But, at his best, reading Mark is like listening to a mate tell you brilliant rambling stories, and often he is at his best here.

What lends this book a little piquancy is that Mark is forced to deal with being middle-aged. This must be doubly painful for someone who likes to be down with the kids – I know little of this “hip hop” of which Mark speaks, but I can well imagine that a fortysomething man might feel a little out of place in the mosh pit. Parenthood also looms large here, notably the socialist parent’s dilemma of how to get your kids to be sceptical of all authority except yours. There’s the issue of how advancing age makes you more sensible. And there’s also an underlying theme of mortality. Mark finally meets his idol Joe Strummer, then a few weeks later Joe dies. Mark strikes up an unlikely friendship with Bob Monkhouse, started surreally by Bob approaching Mark in the Television Centre car park and saying how much he loved Reasons to be Cheerful, which he’d got as a 75th birthday present from Jeremy Beadle. But by this point Bob has terminal cancer, and soon he dies. The seemingly indestructible Paul Foot dies. Hovering over this, unspoken, is the premature death of Mark’s close friend Linda Smith. Unspoken, I assume, because Mark must have been terribly upset. I know I was upset, and I’d never even met her.

The background to all this is Mark’s two divorces, first a painful split from his long-term partner, then the end of his thirty-year association with the Socialist Workers Party. To begin with the former, this is a shame. I always thought Mark was a good bloke, and Bindy was nice, and human. These are qualities you value on the left, instead of taking them for granted, which might tell you something about the actually existing left. After all, the reason Linda Smith inspired so much affection was that she wasn’t just extremely funny and on the right side, she was a real person.

But to get back to Mark’s situation, he does get genuinely poignant here. He’s self-critical and, I think, emotionally honest, which is all we can expect of him. After all, it isn’t really anybody’s fault. Mark could mention his partner’s bursts of bad temper, or the trials of living with a comic, whose first instinct is to look for the punchline rather than the soothing word. But, really, what we’ve got here is the common phenomenon whereby two people fall out of love, and do it gradually, almost without noticing, before realising one day that they just don’t like each other very much. And even then you find that sentiment, or hope springing eternal, or concern for the kids, or sheer bloodymindedness, keeps you together much longer than is wise.

Then there is the settee phase. I have been there, and can absolutely vouch for Mark’s accuracy. Because the settee is bloody uncomfortable, and there is no way you can fit your body into it painlessly, you end up lying half-awake through the small hours, gazing in fascination-cum-bemusement at all those channels. The question of how shopping channel hosts can be so enthusiastic at selling shit; the jaw-dropping GOD Channel; weird esoterica on the Open University – this is the nightly fare of the settee-bound. Although I didn’t become addicted to Icelandic buggy racing as Mark did, preferring to watch repeats of Herman’s Head. And tied in to this is the horniness of the settee-bound, as you become more obsessed with sex the less you’re getting any. And, then there’s the fact that the 40-year-old libido is much less predictable than its 20-year-old oppo. In any case, it’s one thing to get aroused watching some soft-porn show, or a Nigella Lawson cookery show (a fine distinction I’ll grant you), where the whole point is to achieve arousal in the viewer. But you know you’re in a bad state when you’re watching Newsnight and you suddenly realise that a 20-minute discussion of the American economy has completely passed you by because your brain has been running scenarios of all the ways you’d like to bone Kirsty Wark.

And after all this, with your aching back and your head full of the 700 Club and Icelandic buggy racing, after all the times you’ve tried to get off the settee, it’s actually a bloody relief when it’s all over.

Then there’s Mark’s parting of the ways with the SWP, an organisation he joined at 18 and was remarkably loyal to for a very long time. On this I’ll give Mark two cheers and a rap over the knuckles, as will become clear. The background to this is the decline of the left’s traditional environment. The trade unions are not quite a hollow shell, but they aren’t far off. You’re more likely to find a supporter of the Iraq war in the Labour Party than in the population at large. There is a culture of protest among youth, but these youth are really cut off from older traditions and are apt to ask you, “Socialism, what’s that then?” in the manner of a teenager showing mild curiosity in his dad’s James Last albums. And, not surprisingly, the far left hasn’t a clue how to respond to all this. The left’s responses have veered between ignoring what the kids are doing, outright hostility and intervening in such a cack-handed way as to put the kids off the left for life. That’s why you meet so many kids on demos in Dublin who are vehemently “anti-Leninist” – it’s not that they’ve considered Lenin’s politics and decided to reject them, it’s based on their concrete experience of groups claiming to be Leninist. It doesn’t help, either, that much of the left is deeply incestuous, with cliquish habits and elaborate systems of etiquette that might almost be designed to put young people off.

So Mark becomes impressed by the disconnect between the shoots of resistance he sees, and the organisation he belongs to. You have here an organisation in obvious decline, but which goes on making grandiose proclamations about the fantastic opportunities ahead. There are two possible responses to this – denial or questioning. Unfortunately for Mark, while the SWP is a great place to get questions on abstruse doctrinal issues answered, it isn’t a very welcoming place if you want to ask open-ended questions, and especially not if the question you really want to ask is, “Have we just gone mad, or were we always like this?”

Since Mark is good enough to ask “Or is it me?”, I can set his mind at rest by informing him that some of the harebrained organisational wheezes he complains about have roots in a time prior to his membership. For instance, there was the time in the 1970s when Cliff became convinced that the group’s slow growth was a function of other people’s lack of enthusiasm, or as he put it that “the organisers have got to start pulling their socks”. Cliff then set an enormously damaging precedent by appointing himself membership secretary, getting the district organisers to submit recruitment tallies, and regaling the monthly NC with a league table showing the red-hot recruiters at the top and the deadbeats at the bottom. Needless to say, the organisers quickly became wise to Cliff’s game, so that by Month 3 the only thing measured in the league table was who was the most brazen liar. (Usually this was Roger Rosewell, a particular favourite of Cliff’s at the time.) As if to prove this wasn’t an isolated lapse, Cliff followed this up with the Leading Areas plan, according to which an area that was doing well (say, Manchester) would be identified extra resources. Of course, the organisation’s limited resources meant that this penalised areas that were already struggling. Cliff gave us to understand that, such would be the shining example set by the Leading Areas, that struggling areas would be inspired to redouble their efforts and would therefore benefit from a kind of trickle-down process. And that worked as well as might be expected. Cliff had lots of good ideas, but he was also prone to daft brainstorms, and the trick lay in knowing just how seriously to take him at any given time.

Since Mark was one of Cliff’s golden boys, it may be too much to expect him to bring this stuff up. But, that aside, Mark is very good at skewering the pretensions of the post-Cliff regime, and particularly of Kim Jong Rees, whom he seems unable to mention by name. Which is fair enough, as since Cliff’s death the leadership cabal have staggered from one disaster to another. One example Mark deals with is the SWP’s claim to have 10,000 members, which was clearly an enormous exaggeration and one that only became more enormous as time went by. But considerations of face meant the CC couldn’t admit a declining membership, which they would need to on the basis of the old definition that a member was someone who paid subs, attended meetings and sold the paper. Instead, we got the immortal line that “We have to redefine the definition of membership.” Which meant, of course, membership lists packed full of names of people who weren’t members. At this point Mark writes:

It was as if the aim was to maintain a steady amount of enthusiasm, but because there was around one-fifth of the number there used to be, everyone had to be five times as enthusiastic to keep things even. Some people, unable to bridge the gap between the rhetoric and the reality, would drift away. And then the enthusiasm demanded of the remainder would become even greater. I had a vision that at the end of this process there’d be one person left, standing at the top of a mountain yelling, ‘IT’S MAGNIFICENT!!!’

Quite so, and Mark is good on how an organisation that used to pride itself on its realism and modesty, Cliff’s occasional brainstorms aside, became mired in denial and self-deception – or, to quote Duncan Hallas’s immortal description of the WRP, “bluff, bluster and bullshit.”

Mark reaches the end of the road with the SWP around the time of the Respect split. And on this he’s quite strong, because Mark is far from being an uncritical groupie of George Galloway. In fact, Mark’s position is similar to my own, that, while George has unique and probably indispensable strengths, he can also very often be a pain in the hole, and sometimes he’s an outright menace. But when George made his very measured criticisms of Rees – criticisms that would seem pretty commonplace to anyone who’s ever dealt with Rees – the reaction of the SWP leadership was simply crazy. To listen to these guys, grovelling in front of Saddam Hussein and making cat noises on Big Brother were things any of us might do in a moment of weakness, but criticising John Rees was the absolute frozen limit. At one meeting, Mark recounts, a speaker compared Galloway’s criticism of Rees with the 1973 coup in Chile. This completely bonkers analogy was supported by most of the people in the room, including one J Rees. And at this point Mark started to wonder whether he had any place in this crazy organisation.

Right, so far I am with Mark. But, and I have to make this point as a small criticism, Mark may be a good bloke but he’s also a little bit of an asshole. What I mean by that is, the history of the SWP, and other left organisations, is full of people in privileged positions who have known all about the organisational skulduggery that goes on, and haven’t said a word until they have been targeted themselves. I think there is a particular responsibility on people like Mark Steel or Paul Foot or Eamonn McCann, who function as a human face of their organisation and make people feel good about being in it, and who could function as a sort of conscience of the organisation. But normally they don’t. Paul Foot, who I miss a lot, was a lovely man, a brilliant journalist and one of the best speakers I’ve ever heard. But it must be said that, when confronted with the SWP leadership and with Cliff in particular, Paul could be the most awful creep. Eamonn has gone along with all sorts of hair-raising stuff, as long as he’s been allowed to plough his own furrow in Derry. And so on.

Now, Mark has to his credit that he did in fact discover a backbone. But there’s a whole lot of people who came before him and got it in the neck good. For example, on the issue of the inflated membership lists, I know that Mark knew about this years ago, because a mutual acquaintance of ours blew the whistle on the membership figures, and could have done with a little moral support. I suppose what I’m getting at is, it can be a little aggravating for Mark to be recounting stories of leftist craziness and tailing it with “I felt like saying…” No, but you didn’t, Mark. No doubt you had your reasons, but a little acknowledgement of this point wouldn’t go amiss.

This may seem like a bit of a negative note to end on, but it’s just a small point that needs to be made. Overwhelmingly, I really enjoyed What’s Going On?, finding it to be probably the best thing Mark has written. It’s funny, of course, poignant in parts, angry in others and genuinely insightful. I’ve thought for some years that Philip Roth’s bitter divorce was the best thing that could have happened to him as a writer. Perhaps we can say the same of Mark.

Socialist realism goes to the music hall

So, riffing a little on the Eurovision, it’s interesting to consider what travels well and what doesn’t. Comedy is a real minefield for this sort of thing. You can get away with a lot, of course, by relying on classic archetypes, but context is all.

For example, I’ve never met anyone in Belfast who like The Vicar of Dibley. Which is not to say that it’s an intrinsically bad show. But Dibley draws on a particular pop-cultural tradition of rural English life, with the vicar, the squire, the village fete and all the rest of it. Even though it’s a life that has nearly died out in England, one of the most urbanised countries in the world, it looms large enough in the culture to still provide comic mileage. I think it doesn’t travel to Ireland because, even though Ireland has a much bigger rural population, the whole rural culture is different. On the other hand, loads of Belfast people loved The Royle Family or Rab C Nesbitt, for obvious reasons.

Think of the TV shows the Brits have managed to sell to America – Steptoe becoming Sanford, Alf Garnett as Archie Bunker. Now think of those that didn’t sell. The US networks wouldn’t pick up a classic like Porridge, because the execs couldn’t get their heads around the idea of a sitcom with a career criminal as the hero. John Sullivan couldn’t get them to buy Fools and Horses, but Dear John (his finest creation IMO) went down a storm. The reason, I think, is that American popular culture doesn’t really have an equivalent of the wide-boy street trader, but there are plenty of divorcees around. You can’t beat universality. And the turnabouts you get with adaptation are often quite fascinating. Men Behaving Badly died on its arse in the US, according to the critics, because to an American audience two thirtysomething men living together weren’t ‘lads’ – they were gay. On the other hand, while we can tolerate Friends as an import, a British version wouldn’t work – the beautiful hipsters would just come off as unbearably smug.

And so, in the spirit of Eurovision, there’s the question of what appeals to Eastern Europe. To be honest, native product is a lot more popular these days, and much better than it was before the Wall fell. But there are a few interesting historical idiosyncrasies. I’m thinking, of course, of George Formby.

If the British left’s cultural critics would look beyond writing endless articles on “What the Clash meant to me”, they might find that George Formby has a lot to recommend him. He seems a bit passé nowadays, but if you go back to the Lancastrian master of the banjolele, you’ll find a lot of social commentary in his songs, and a surprisingly sharp wit. The latter often veers into Donald McGill ribaldry, and the Formby oeuvre contains an astonishing amount of phallic innuendo, enough to keep Graham Norton in knob jokes for the rest of his life.

Of course, in his famous trip to South Africa in 1946, George was the first entertainer to break the colour bar and perform to black audiences, and we should honour him for that alone. But what fascinates me is that in 1944 George was awarded the Stalin Prize on account of his films’ enormous popularity in the wartime Soviet Union. Why is this? I’ve never come across a Soviet equivalent of Ebert or Kael to explain the phenomenon. The only thing I can think of is that the stock Formby character, a plucky, good-natured little proletarian who wins through against the odds, sat well with Soviet sensibilities as well as being able to get past the Stalinist censorship regime.

Come to think of it, there might be a similar reason for Norman Wisdom’s cult following in Albania, which is usually put down to a personal eccentricity on the part of Uncle Enver.

This is all just pulling cultural theory out of my left ear, of course, but I have a feeling there’s a seam to be mined there. And reference to socio-political context might just explain why On the Buses was such a smash hit in Yugoslavia, something that’s always been a bit of an embarrassment to those of us who love the wit of Miroslav Krleža. Come to think of it, a sitcom about workers slacking off in an inefficient nationalised industry is an uncannily close metaphor for late Titoist Yugoslavia.

I still can’t for the life of me explain, though, why Cubans are so keen on George and Mildred. If you’ve any theories, feel free…

Alan Coren 1938-2007


So, farewell then, Alan Coren.

I used to read his stuff in Punch. Not that I ever bought Punch, but it was always in the dentist’s waiting room, and Alan always raised a chuckle, which I suppose is what you want when you’re at the dentist.

It’s not very PC nowadays, but his impersonation of Idi Amin (the most amazin’ man there has ever been) was a classic. Somewhere I have the LP, with John Bird on narration.

Then of course there was The News Quiz and Call My Bluff… how flat would they have been without Alan’s flights of fancy? Such a fixture was Alan, that I don’t think anyone could replace him, and I don’t think anyone should even try. That’ll just be another sad gap in our culture.

Search of the week


Just wanted to say, I really enjoyed Johns Bird and Fortune giving a rare interview to Belvid for last night’s South Bank Show. Nice to see the overview of their whole career going right back to Cambridge. Also, I never knew that as a young man Bird had joined the Socialist Party of Great Britain. It makes some sense that, were he to join a left group, it would be the uniquely intelligent and charming SPGB.

Time now for Search of the Week, to see what waifs and strays Google has brought our way. Newton Emerson feminism turns up, as does Donegal Mafia – and I repeat, any serious student of Irish politics should really take a look at Sacks’ classic book on the Blaney machine. And those readers who remember the CPI(ML) will be delighted that I have a hit for David Vipond Trinity.

There are several sex-related local searches, beyond the usual punters interested in Methody girls’ skirts. I am slightly alarmed at sexy loyalist girls Belfast, in case this indicates that the priapic Johnny Adair is thinking of making a comeback. We also have Newtownards gay, Portadown brothels and Buncrana porn, all of which are beyond my ken. And Sikh women sex makes some sense, but gay tracksuit fetish really has me scratching my head, as does dungarees porn.

There is one for saucy Eoghan, which I really hope isn’t our favourite senator, and political searches include Kate Hoey BICO, Kevin Myers homophobic Belfast Telegraph and National Rosary Crusade Ireland Hibernian.

We have Jackie Gleason and Irish mafia, which would put a whole new slant on Smokey and the Bandit; criticism of Marcus Brigstocke; and I’m pleased to get one for Power Man and Iron Fist, obviously from an aficionado of early 1980s comics.

In third place is Than Shwe’s philosophy of life. Hmm, maybe practice of death would be more accurate.

Our runner-up is money for old rope columnists, of which there are many doing the rounds. I think that leads to a discussion of Carole Malone, who certainly believes in recycling.

We have a runaway winner this week, and that winner is Chomsky wearing saucy schoolgirl uniform, an image I’ll find hard to erase. Beat that, Volty.

From New Laddism to Raunch Culture: the far left versus Lucy and Michelle


So I’ve been wanting for a while to write about this “raunch culture” debate, but, having recently covered the lad mag circulation crisis and the culture of sexual hypocrisy on the left, now seems as good a time as any. This is something that you associate on the left with our old friends in the SWP, and can be seen as a revival of their campaign against “New Laddism” in the late 1990s. Their championing of Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs (a real curate’s egg of a book – there are sharp insights alongside half-developed ideas and some outright silliness) provides the official logic for the current line. I direct readers to this excellent treatment by Anne McShane, but there is more to this than meets the eye. The SWP, of course, are not straightforward puritans, as you might gather from the swinging lifestyle of many of their leading cadre, and their ultra-libertarian defence of Tommy Sheridan. Nor are they simply adapting to their conservative Muslim allies – there is a bit of that, but they still attack Catholic moral teaching with what can only be described as gay abandon.

The root, I think, is to be found in the organisation’s uneasy relationship to popular culture. This is encapsulated as well as anywhere in a 1996 Pat Stack column in Socialist Review. Unfortunately, it’s not one of Pat’s better articles, and tends to make him sound like both a humourless git and a puritan, neither of which he is. But Pat does cover the main bugbears of the New Laddism period: Loaded, Men Behaving Badly, Fantasy Football etc. Over to Pat:

The new lad is apparently harmless. Unlike the traditional ‘working class lad’, the new lad is not violent, nor is he racist. He is an educated, middle class, witty character who is only reclaiming parts of harmless masculinity from the horrors of feminism and the terrible wimpishness of the ‘new man’ era.

The new lad is, according to his defenders, only reaffirming the fact that men like a pint, like their sport, and find women sexually attractive. The new lad is still ‘alternative’ when it comes to comedy, but is free of the sexual prudishness of the original alternative comedy scene.

In fact, Pat’s description sounds a bit like, well, your average straight man. There is an interesting idea here struggling to get out about the embrace of faux blokishness by a layer of middle-class youth, but Pat quickly leaves that aside to bang on about the political virtue of the alternative comedy scene in banishing demons like Bernard Manning and Jim Davidson, who thought that minorities were fair game for comedy. New Laddism, apparently, was rolling back these gains.

Now, I’m not sure about this. We don’t often like to admit today that Terry and June regularly got three or four times the audience of The Young Ones, but I’ll go along with the idea that the alternative comedy scene was massively influential in terms of comedic fashion. Where I take issue with Pat is that he’s assuming a list of taboo subjects and arguing in favour of a good, progressive comedy that takes aim at the right targets. I find that profoundly problematic. It seems to erase the context and nuance that a lot of humour depends on – for instance, an ethnic joke from Sanjeev Bhaskar or Jackie Mason will be rather different than one from Bernard Manning or Jim Davidson. Besides, only very strange people will listen to a comedy routine while preoccupied about whether it is PC to laugh at this or that joke. To someone who didn’t know the SWP in the flesh but only from its press, the long-running debate on the letters pages about Ali G would simply have appeared insane.

Then we have the dreaded “irony”. Often this was amped up to “postmodern irony”, but since Alex Callinicos doesn’t know what postmodernism is, and most comrades never got past page four of his little book, we can assume PoMo in this context to be an all-purpose intellectual swearword. The line was that New Laddism was all about “using postmodern irony to rehabilitate sexism”. This was deployed particularly in relation to the SWP’s official Most Evil Show On TV, Men Behaving Badly. If you watched the show, you might have noticed the traditional sitcom device (you find this also in Till Death Us Do Part, Love Thy Neighbour and Home Improvement, to name a few) of showing the men as idiots and the women as the sensible characters. How could a show portraying sexist men as idiots be endorsing sexism? You see, comrade, this is merely a cunning use of postmodern irony. Portraying the men as idiots is just a sly ruse to allow them to talk about Kylie’s arse.

Maybe this is just me, but I find this a paranoid mode of thought. I’m reasonably sure that, when Loaded was launched in 1994, it had a business plan rather than an intellectual manifesto. And I’ll lay money that, when Frank Skinner writes his routines, he does not say to himself, “Hmm, what bit of patriarchal ideology can I sneak in under the guise of postmodern irony?”

I think, and I’ll stick my neck out here, that there is a certain amount of class-biased thinking involved. As Des Fennell likes to point out, the working class is more concerned with how things are and the middle class with how things appear. An anecdote from Mark Steel’s autobiography springs to mind. The young Mark has heard middle-class comrades talking about “sexism” and, while he knows what racism is and why it’s bad, he isn’t sure about this sexism. A comrade explains that pinups and Page Three girls are sexist, to which Mark’s response is “Thank God I wasn’t a socialist when I was fourteen.”

Women face plenty of material obstacles in society. The absolute worst feature of the Dworkin-MacKinnon school of feminism was its idealist assumption that the major obstacle women faced was “sexist” imagery, extremely broadly defined, and this was the logic in Dworkin looking to the Reagan administration to “liberate” women from porn at the same time as it was gutting equality legislation, slashing social programmes and restricting abortion. Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs, which is a good deal better, nevertheless has a strong streak of this idealist thinking.

But this sits rather well with a milieu saturated in middle-class PC thought, where it is considered sexist for men to find women physically attractive (I suspect too much reading of Jane Austen is a factor here) and where working-class women who wear revealing clothes are damned as suffering from alienation and false consciousness. Consider Judith Orr’s interview with Levy in SR. Some of the most interesting comments are to be found in Judith’s editorialising, as in “the sexual freedoms the women’s movement won have been swallowed up by capitalism, commodified and sold back to young women as boob jobs and push-up bras”.

Well, commodity fetishism is basic ABC Marxism. But the sneering tone is the key here. I suspect the push-up bra has become a symbol of evil because it’s a garment you associate with the slappers on the estates. At its crudest level, this becomes the argument – which I actually heard at an SWP public meeting a year or two back – that capitalism is forcing women to have boob jobs. No it isn’t. Yes, cosmetic surgery is a profit-making enterprise, but women have boob jobs because they want bigger breasts. That can be explained with reference to psychology, media images of women or what have you, but the capitalist system does not require women to be lugging around big plastic breasts.

It’s all quite delicious, isn’t it? Of course you need to stand by “the sexual freedoms the women’s movement won”, or it might begin to cramp your own lifestyle, but the deity forbid that anyone might express these. You have an opposition to legal censorship combined with horror at what the plebs are reading and watching. Nudity in art-house cinema is perfectly fine, but Michelle Marsh in her undies on the cover of Nuts is the death of civilisation. What we end up with is a sort of systematic doublethink, perfectly mirroring the Orwellian template in that its skilled practitioners don’t even notice the inconsistencies.

Memo to Beeb: Give this woman a new series!


I want to see more of Karen Taylor. If you’ve been watching Touch Me, I’m Karen Taylor, you may not think there’s much more to see. But I came to this series without many expectations – Karen had impressed on The Sketch Show, but we’ve seen other performers’ solo vehicles sink without trace – and ended up warming quite considerably to the potty-mouthed Cumbrian lass.

TV comedy has been going through a bit of a dry spell for, oh, several years now. The good old British sitcom has died on its arse, with most of the decent shows now on coming from America. The sketch show has been pfuttering along on an empty tank, running off the reflected glory of The Fast Show. The fashion nowadays is for Office-style docucoms, which are notoriously hard to pull off, and satirical panel shows, which have pretty much reached saturation point.

So if you see something with potential, grab it with both hands. Touch Me has been hit-and-miss, sure, but such is the nature of the sketch show, and a relatively high proportion of hits is the most you can hope for. Plus, some bits – the pervy schoolteacher was a standout – showed genuine inspiration. Another series please, or at least a rerun on BBC2. This blog demands it.

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