Monday, 12 January 2015

Clickbait hate does none of us any good

Last week Channel 5 screened a documentary entitled Benefits: Too Fat to Work which, I confess, I didn't watch. Being part of a group that is subjected to probably more clickbait articles and TV programmes than any other (being fat in contemporary Britain makes you feel about as popular as an imam on Fox News), I thought that I'd pass. Admittedly some programmes are well-intentioned and genuinely do set out to inform and help those of us who regularly clog up the NHS with our vast, wobbly bottoms and multiple chins, but this didn't seem like one of the good ones. In fact, a combination of benefits and obesity seemed calculated to press all the wrong buttons: “The benefits cheats are back – and this time they're GARGANTUAN!”

Given the obviously prejudicial nature of this latest salvo against fatties, I was amazed to read that The Guardian's TV reviewer, Euan Ferguson considered that, “Fat people have been dealt with down the years by most major channels with surprising empathy...” I must confess that that statement caused me to LOL, long and loudly. Firstly, Mr. F, I would ask you to put yourself in my shoes and ask how you would like to spend even a week in a world where you were seen merely as a problem that needs solving? That, in itself, is dispiriting enough without being almost single-handedly held responsible for the parlous condition of the U.K.'s health system.

There is no doubt that there are more overweight people around these days and this is clearly worrying health professionals, but is it really so surprising? Since I left Britain in the middle of 1982 the whole country has changed beyond recognition: the idea of a job for life is merely a distant memory and, for those of us who are lucky enough to have a job or at least enough work to cover our basic bills, life is a constant battle to grab some time. I certainly didn't sign up to work this hard for so little return – in basic terms, I must work long and hard to earn an amount of money that is an inadequate return for my experience and effort, BUT it is better than nothing. However, it does mean that I don't have a lot of time to spend making my own dinner from scratch. Basically, people buy a lot of ready-to-microwave food because it buys them a few extra minutes, as does driving to work, even when the office might be within reasonable walking distance. These days, more than ever, time is money.

Despite being a lardy I am, however, a non-smoking teetotaller. It's not a course of action that I would recommend for everyone, but it works well for me. Many of my friends drink considerably more than me and I can only say good luck to them if they enjoy it and their systems can tolerate it. The advantage that heavy drinkers have, of course, is that – unless they have descended into full-blown alcoholism – they can turn up for work on Monday morning with a clean slate. Unless their employer has actually witnessed the Friday night carnage and seen them lying in the middle of the street in a puddle of vomit and wee, they are free to carry on. I have no objection to this and can boast at least one great-grandfather who continued merrily pickling his liver and nicotining his lungs into very old age with few apparent ill effects.

However, I am obliged to ask where all the clickbait documentaries about binge drinking are? Certainly we can rely on the annual news reports every December when the office party season swings into action and the vomit comets line up on the street to bus all the revellers to A&E but when it comes to regular, unsubtle hate-mongering it definitely seems that the drinker is of less interest than the fatso.

Yet neither, I would posit, is the true reason for the imminent collapse of the NHS.

When the system was set up in 1948 the job for life was a reality, not a vague historical concept and most adults worked, therefore regularly paying to support this new “free at the point of delivery” lifeline. Furthermore, the population was roughly half of what it is today, the number of services that could be offered by the NHS was very limited (no MRI scans and open heart surgery, for instance) and life expectancy was lower – much lower. Despite continually being told that we are digging our graves with our teeth, we are nonetheless living beyond the point at which we can possibly enjoy a decent quality of life, with conditions like Alzheimer's and senile dementia felling many long before death. At the same time less money is flooding into the kitty because fewer people are earning enough money to enable them to pay taxes and help with supporting the health system.

THAT is the problem.

Still, I would be more willing to accept Euan Ferguson's verdict on Benefits: Too Fat to Work had he not fallen for this bit of blatant prejudice. Discussing the people featured on the programme he revealed, “But I didn’t hate them – although, granted, I wouldn’t have queued to stick my nose into their fragrant armpit-geysers.” The worst thing about fat people is that they SMELL, of course. Fat people – don'tcha just hate them? They sweat cobs and they stink like pigs. At the age of 54 I am old enough to remember the bad old days when it was said that Asian and black people smelled. Since then I have heard that old people smell really bad too and now it's the lardies' turn. On one occasion I had the pleasure to be told by an acquaintance that I should be sure always to shower at least twice a day because, “Fat people smell really bad.” Sadly, this chain-smoker failed to apply the same strict criteria to her own hygiene regime, so she invariably ponged like an old ashtray.

As I look at The Guardian's website I note that they are no less guilty of whipping up hatred than any of the red tops. At the bottom of Euan Ferguson's TV review I am invited to read articles entitled, “Obesity plan could cost shoppers dear”, “Young pioneers in the frontline of NHS battle against obesity” and “The bulk of the nation”.

We have already seen violent crimes committed against other hate figures in our population – how long will it be before we see the first against the obese?

Thursday, 20 November 2014

An Open Letter to Sir Bob Geldof

Dear Sir Bob,

While realising that the past few years have not been kind to you and not having any desire to 'tune you grief' as my South African mates would say, I still think that it's time that you and I had a little talk.

When I was a teenager I was quite a fan of The Boomtown Rats and certainly rated you more highly than that prize ass Bono (is there no bandwagon sufficiently transient to induce that tax-dodging eejit not to mount it?!) but some of the things that you have said and done recently have made me realise that it could well be time for me to speak up.

Firstly, you appear to think that anyone who has expressed reservations about the latest Band Aid project doesn't give a toss about the way in which various countries in West Africa are being ravaged by Ebola. Nothing could be further from the truth – but I would posit that most refuseniks are probably more likely to be suffering from charity single ennui than compassion fatigue. Speaking for myself I do care about Africa, so much so that I elected to study African History in an African university, so don't think that you can wear me down with your, “Give me your feckin' money, you feckin' tight, pig-shit ignorant Western feckin' bastard!”

However, I think that I can probably speak for many of us when I say that I am heartily sick and tired of being asked to hand over dosh by a bunch of multi-millionaires who have “generously given their time” in order to lay down some piss-poor cover version of a 'much loved' classic. It might be their time but it's our money!

I have been a professional writer for more than 25 years and am still not earning enough to trouble HMRC. Do you know how insulting it is, when Britain's NHS and educational system is in a state of crisis, to submit your tax return and be told, “No, it's all right, love – you need it more than we do.” Yet YOU are expecting ME to be the one to hand over the money. Why not ask your dear old mate, Bono to donate the moolah that he saved from moving his financial affairs to the Netherlands?

I would also ask why, in any case, we should donate to Band Aid? It would surely make more sense to ask us to send a fiver to Medecins Sans Frontieres because they are at least on the front line.

Of course, in the end the people who should be pressured to contribute should be the big drugs companies such as Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline who are, after all, in more of a position to make a real contribution to ending the scourge of Ebola than the overworked and underpaid workforce of the UK. What we need most of all is a vaccine, but I think that you will find the pharmaceutical big hitters less susceptible to your peculiar brand of brusque Dublin charm.

Finally, could you and Midge not have written a new song? For God's sake! That's four feckin' times we've had to endure Do They Know It's Christmas? and, let's face it, this knackered old war horse is looking its age. If you hadn't kept on digging it up it might have evoked a few sensations of cosy nostalgia but now we're just fed up to the back teeth.

And, despite the 'subtle' lyric changes it's still a patronising and misleading view of the continent.

Sorry for your troubles and all, but I just had to say this.

Your former fan,


Sunday, 27 January 2013

Patsy Stone and A Grand Night Out

Recently I happened to see a stand-up routine by the waspish comedian, Simon Evans, who lives in the Brighton and Hove area. Most of his rant concerned the vast numbers of scantily clad ‘hens’ that hit both towns during weekends, leading him to posit that perhaps it would be a good idea if the local prostitutes were to wear badges so that punters could more easily identify the real working girls from the amateurs.

This comment did ultimately raise a laugh, but it was preceded by the sort of collective intake of breath that must have warned Evans that he was perilously close to the precipice, the point at which a triumphant Sunday Night at the London Palladium becomes professional suicide on the stage of the famously tricky Glasgow Empire.

Perhaps I laughed earlier than the rest of the audience, because this observation was one that I had recently made myself, when watching some fly-on-the-wall documentary about the mess that police and paramedics are forced to confront on the streets of Britain’s cities every weekend. Watching one crowd of women staggering along the street, clad in what can only be described as inappropriate attire considering the inclement weather I had thought exactly the same thing myself. Having been absent from my home country since 1982, I started to wonder at which point it became perfectly acceptable for young women to venture out at night in what would have been regarded in the 1970s and 1980s as the classic uniform of a brass.

At this point I would like to state that I have absolutely nothing against prostitutes; these women perform a very useful service and I would love the profession to be legalised, thereby offering them an increased level of protection against pimps who are a bit too handy with their fists and equally violent punters. Without this protection, many prostitutes are forced out onto the streets where they become easy prey for men like Steve Wright, the lorry driver who murdered five women near Ipswich in 2006.

The bald fact is that when you have something to sell – in this case, sex – you have to make sure that the potential customer can see the goods in advance of payment. So, that is the prostitute’s angle; what tempts the ordinary lass out on the town to market herself in exactly the same way?

In the 1990s I started to be aware of the now well-worn phrase, “I’m confident in my sexuality.” This is all very well and would perhaps explain an attitude that might persuade women to put their melons on show: “See these? See how ripe and luscious they are? Well, have a bloody good look, love, because this is the closest you’re ever going to get to them!” That is a dangerous game at the best of times but, coupled with an intention to drink one’s own bodyweight in alcohol, it becomes damn near suicidal.     

Recently Joanna Lumley has added her own five cents to the debate by advising young women on ways that they might keep themselves out of harm’s way. “Don’t look like trash, don’t get drunk, don’t be sick down your front, don’t break your heels and stagger about in the wrong clothes at midnight,” she said. Sound advice, I would have thought. Yet delivered in La Lumley’s cut-glass accent, this sensible warning has been construed by The Guardian’s columnist, Tanya Gold as an attack on working class culture.

Speaking as a member of the bourgeoisie I would like to posit that, were I working class, I would deeply resent the implication that a typical night out for me would inevitably involve donning a fanny-flashing dress, downing an industrial-sized quantity of Bacardi Breezers and sitting in a puddle of my own wee.

It is perfectly natural, upon reaching middle age, to imagine that the years of one’s youth were far superior to anything on offer today, but given the evidence that many of Britain’s towns and cities are virtually no-go areas most evenings (and especially on weekends), wouldn’t it be great to return to the days when all generations felt comfortable about hitting the town after dark?

On the odd occasions when my friends and I could talk our way out of Bryntaff, our boarding house, and onto the mean streets of night-time Cardiff (and this always involved a lie about going to the cinema), we inevitably applied make-up and wore our “going out” clothes. We usually ended up in a pub, in conversation with some slightly lairy, but perfectly decent blokes from somewhere exotic like Port Talbot or Neath and probably had a bevvy or two. I am heartened to note that a night on the town for my 25 year-old goddaughter is pretty much the same; having seen photos of her social life I can confirm that she and her friends also prefer the ‘dressing up’ to the ‘dressing down’ option. Probably they have a drink or two, but stop long before they lose control.

The main problem is that, in combination with excessive amounts of booze, wearing a PVC nurse’s uniform that barely covers one’s arse cheeks is an invitation to trouble, whatever Tanya Gold says. When I was a teenager I was advised not to wear cripplingly high heels because, if some man with evil intentions did decide to rape or mug me, it would be more difficult to make my escape. That seemed like sound advice then and it still does now.

There is a vast gulf between offering advice to help women stay out of trouble and stating that, “They asked for it!”

Like many of us who experienced our teenage years in the 1970s I was raised on the old feminist anthem, “Whatever I wear, wherever I go, yes means yes and no means no” but I hadn’t factored in the possibility of living in an era when women would drink so much that they would finish a night out so drunk that they would be unable to withhold sexual consent.

Being too drunk to say no is a massive problem – possibly one of the largest facing young women these days.

It’s for this reason that courts are obliged to hear cases which revolve around “he said, she said” non-consensual sex scenarios and the incidence of STDs like chlamydia are higher than they have been for decades.

In advising girls not to dress like tramps and drink like fish, Tanya Gold accuses Joanna Lumley of colluding with the Taliban. This is clearly complete nonsense, but does expose the current British obsession with not being judgemental.

Maybe it is time that we rediscovered the positive aspects of being judgemental. Maybe it is time that we told young women that to venture out at night in clothes bought at Anne Summers and combine their inappropriate attire with copious amounts of alcohol is a thoroughly bad idea. Maybe it is time that we told them that a little responsibility for their own actions is in itself empowering – and far more celebratory of their sexuality than going commando in a perilously scanty French maid’s uniform.

“Whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no.” I still believe in that philosophy; any sexual assault is ALWAYS the fault of the rapist. However, when my friends and I chanted this, all we were thinking about was displaying perhaps a centimetre more cleavage than our parents would deem suitable.

If I acquired a Porsche convertible and parked it in an area of high crime and left the keys in the ignition I would anticipate a stern lecture from the local constabulary about my carelessness and lack of common sense, were it stolen.

Of course, it is a big mistake to associate rape with revealing clothing; most sexual attacks on women by men have absolutely no bearing on their choice of outfit, but it certainly is true that a combination of trashy costume and terminal drunkenness is a pretty good guarantee that a night out will end in trouble, whether this involves pregnancy, an STD or finding yourself in bed with a total stranger.

As we seventies feminists have long realised, ending up in bed with some unpromising herbert due to the application of beer goggles does not a rape or serious sexual assault make.

You want equal rights? You’ll just have to butch it out and admit your mistake.

When I was a teen there was a phrase that used to send us all into gales of laughter. It was very popular with Play for Today style dramatists and always involved a scenario where a girl was debating the merits of sleeping with her boyfriend: “Will you still respect me in the morning?” Oh, how we laughed!

Funnily enough, it doesn’t sound quite so amusing these days.



Saturday, 12 January 2013

Bowie and Me

In his typically humorous memoirs, The Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson frequently comments on his status as a baby boomer and philosophises about the way in which the average boomer’s expectations of life differed from his or her parents’.

Born in 1951, Bryson is definitively a baby boomer as, born in the final quarter of 1960, I am too. Maybe I limbo-danced my way into the great boomer party at five seconds to some mythical midnight, but I have no less a right to consider myself as part of this great post-war reproductive experience.

One thing that quite clearly separates us from our pre WWII parents is our status as perpetual teenagers. This is something that was made blindingly obvious to me last week, when David Bowie released his first new work for a decade.

Even if Twitter had existed when my Mam had been 52, as I am now, I can hardly imagine her tweeting “OMG have you heard the new Andy Williams album? #amazeballs” to her followers; yet many of we Bowie fanatics have been rediscovering our teenage years with the news that our favourite Starman is on the brink of releasing a brand new album at the age of 66.

One comment that I saw on The Guardian’s website struck me as particularly apposite: “David Bowie made me who I am today” it read and, had it name checked almost anyone else, I would probably have guffawed; loud and long. Yet how can I scoff when I have to admit that in my own life there is a Bowie-shaped fault line?

All it took was one picture; an exotic, glamorous creature reclining on a chaise longue, one arm raised gracefully over his head, a head which is incidentally adorned with gloriously long tresses. Oh, and did I mention that he was wearing a dress?

That picture which, I later learned, featured on the cover of an album entitled The Man Who Sold the World, was to divide my life into BB (Before Bowie) and AB (after Bowie).

BB KJ was a happy, innocent child who liked nothing better than to throw on a pair of blue and green tartan ski-pants, a jumper knitted by my grandmother in wool of such an intense colour that it could probably be seen from outer space and a pair of wellies (I was a style icon even then) so that I could ‘help’ my grandfather in his vegetable garden. Granted this assistance generally involved accidentally slicing earthworms in half with my mini-spade and marvelling that they didn’t die, eating peas straight out of the pod and wandering off when some random thought distracted me, but it was a healthy, out-of-doors existence and it suited me very well.

AB KJ was a very different beast. All I recall after seeing that picture (and where was it, I wonder now; in some teen magazine possibly?) is training bras, Clearasil and the development of a very bad attitude. To my grandfather’s dismay, the genie was out of the bottle and it was never going to be pushed back in, however hard he tried.

A long-haired man in a dress was quite possibly the worst thing that you could have ever shown Granddad; let’s just say that he didn’t share my enthusiasm for all things Bowie, who quickly became the centre of my pre-teenage universe. Why would anyone bother with Donny Osmond and David Cassidy (sorry, boys) when the man who fell to earth was carving out new territory?

Bowie quickly came to represent the possibilities of the world outside my little rural patch of West Wales. I cannot imagine how a man in a dress, more beautiful than many women, would go down at the Martletwy Young Farmers’ Club but something told me that he would have to be very handy with his fists to avoid a good kicking.

Of course, what I did not realise that the late sixties and early seventies would later be famous for its celebration of androgyny and ‘gender-bending’ as it later came to be known. We Bowie-istas like to imagine that our hero sprung, fully formed, from the rib of Zeus or something equally mythological but, as Peter Doggett reminds us in his excellent book, The Man Who Sold The World: David Bowie and the 1970s, Bowie is nothing if not a magpie, albeit a very intelligent example of the species.

With input from (amongst others) Anthony Newley, mime artist Lindsey Kemp and his contemporary, Marc Bolan, Bowie began his process of Ziggyfication and unwittingly became the template for many other later music stars, including Madonna and Lady Gaga. My first Bowie album was The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars, reaching backwards to embrace Space Oddity, The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory, before he reached what, to me, will always be his apotheosis, Aladdin Sane.

Due to his talent for recreating himself in a variety of fascinating guises, Bowie’s career has been something that we fans can constantly dip into at various stages along the way. Tin Machine did not appeal to me, although 1999’s distinctly Hunky Dory-ish Hours did.

The nearest I have ever come to meeting Bowie was during my time at drama school in 1981, when a fellow student volunteered her boyfriend to help with the sound on a production of Godspell since, “he has worked in the music industry a bit.” He turned out to be Tony Visconti, producer of both Bowie and Bolan and on meeting him I was so hysterical to be shaking the hand that shook the hand etc. that all I could manage was a high-pitched squeak. Prepare ye the way of the lord, indeed. My middle-aged self, of course, is furious that I lacked the gumption to make him a cuppa, sit him down and winkle as many stories out of him as I could when I had the chance.

I have no desire to meet Bowie in the flesh; to me, as to many of his fans, he is an almost mythological creature. To discover that he has, for example, bad breath and a post-nasal drip would make him human and that is one thing that I cannot afford to acknowledge.

No, even as an old geezer with a career that spans 45 years, Bowie has to retain that air of inscrutability and exoticism that has epitomised his personae since the beginning and with Where Are We Now he has proved that he retains his seductive air.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Analyse this!

Recently a friend lent me a copy of Caroline Knapp’s memoir, Drinking: A Love Story, which recounts, in painful detail, her love affair with alcohol and her decision to give it up because it was ruining her life.

Although I have never had the remotest desire to drink to excess and have only once in my life drunk enough to gain a hangover (following a violently eventful Christmas party at the Top of the Carlton in Johannesburg, in case you’re wondering), my father’s side of the family had more than its fair share of addicts. Whether their poison was booze, gambling or prescription medication, I’m afraid that the Elsdons and Halls were a pretty rackety crew, with the Howells dropping in an interesting side order of mental instability for good measure.

Having been born into a middle-class family in Britain in the 1960s, alcohol was part of my parents’ hectic social life. Every party they attended was prefaced by a discussion about alcohol – if we’re going round to Huw and Ceinwen’s tonight we should buy a decent bottle of red – and any party that they threw necessitated even more detailed discussions. Bill drinks Johnnie Walker, while Freda favours Campari, Gareth won’t drink anything other than Carlsberg and Nesta will start the evening with sweet sherry and move onto white wine later. Have we got enough?

There was always enough, however much was consumed. Despite living in a West Wales backwater there was always plenty of money swooshing around, thanks to the major oil multinationals having set up shop just down the road at Milford Haven and other nearby towns. My Dad, who had an ironmonger’s shop and two home decorating stores in the area, happily accepted the oil companies’ money even as he cringed at the blots on the landscape.

Of course, all this relentless socialising and alcohol consumption meant that some of the guests went over to the dark side, drinking way too much, disappearing into the bathroom with someone who wasn’t their spouse, neglecting their children and not functioning properly at work the next day. Marriages imploded, livers exploded, families fractured and divorces resulted.

Fortunately for me, my mother was virtually a teetotaller due to the fact that she became virtually narcoleptic after two glasses of wine and my father, being as much of a wimp about hangovers as me, generally knew when to stop. I was one of the lucky ones, but even at a young age I could see how much harm alcohol could cause.

As a teenager it became necessary to decide on a social drink; my choice was Southern Comfort and lemonade, surely the most disgusting combination to be requested at any rugby club in Wales; ever. Also, unlike Caroline Knapp’s favourite tipple of dry white wine, it singularly failed to provide the warming glow of self-confidence that she so brilliantly describes in Drinking: A Love Story. Southern Comfort left me feeling stone-cold sober and deeply socially inadequate, as I sat with my group of friends in the dimly lit surroundings of the bar or dance hall. Only when exposed to bright light (for instance, when visiting the ladies) did I realise that I was over the limit and, while my mind remained razor sharp, my legs refused to carry out the orders from my brain.

So, Southern Comfort was either a poor choice or a good one, depending on one’s genetic predisposition to alcohol abuse. I consider myself one of the lucky ones, too unsophisticated ever to take up drinking with enthusiasm.

So, I never became an alcoholic and have never experienced the sensation of waking up unclothed in a strange bed, never puked all down myself or lost control of my bowels, bladder or any other part of my anatomy in public, never found myself bawling down the phone to an ex-boyfriend at two in the morning in the alcoholic ritual familiar to many and dubbed “drink and dial” by Knapp.

And, because I never took up drinking, I never had to give it up.

Over the years I have had alcoholic friends and have noted the ways in which they gave up their addiction. One friend became an enthusiastic member of AA, another went cold turkey on her own because she could not accept AA’s insistence on a higher deity, yet another took up exercise and healthy living as a substitute addiction. All can now truly consider themselves ‘recovering alcoholics’. However none of them, even in their darkest moment, considered psychoanalysis as a possible solution.

Of all the constants that characterised Caroline Knapp’s descent into alcoholism and her emergence from it, the thing that struck me most forcefully was her reliance on the management of her mind. Near the beginning of her memoirs, she even mentions “a therapist” as one of the pillars of a liveable life, along with a good job and a decent place to live.

Maybe this is one of the aspects of American East Coast culture (Knapp, the daughter of a psychoanalyst, grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts) that most baffles Brits. While it is true that, for instance, London NW3 probably has more therapists per square kilometre than anywhere else in Europe, the concept of paying a Daddy (or Mummy) figure obscene amounts of money to listen to our stream-of-consciousness rants about our feelings and failings seems incredibly self-indulgent to most Brits, me included.

Naturally, if there has been some massive damage caused by a life-changing incident, the opportunity to speak to a neutral professional can be valuable but, for most of us, the term ‘psychoanalysis’ sounds like a very expensive way of getting things off your chest that can far more cheaply be achieved by inviting a few mates around for tea. Just for the record, Knapp’s addiction to visiting her therapist every time her life went tits-up did not seem to result in any improvement to her well-being, but probably wreaked havoc on her bank balance.

In the end, Caroline Knapp beat the bottle and reclaimed her life, albeit only after spouting a shed load of Freudian truisms and analysing the life out of her very existence. Maybe it’s because I lived in Africa that (although I am as guilty of enjoying a good whinge as anyone) Knapp’s complaints and incessant desire to make a bloody great drama out of the most innocuous incident seem very self-indulgent. At times, the desire to rip one’s hair out is overwhelming, as she bangs on for chapter after chapter about her problems, when it is perfectly clear that, compared to about 99 per cent of the world’s population she is living a charmed existence.

Sadly, Caroline Knapp died of cancer in 2002; she was still clean and sober at the time of her death. Maybe her battle with the demon alcohol, anorexia and a number of other addictions demonstrates that ultimately the source of and answer to our problems lies within ourselves.

And that the ‘talking cure’ is a very expensive red herring.  

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Top of the Creeps

The Paellataffy Award for Best Comment On The Whole Sorry Jimmy Savile Business goes to Mark Steel, comedian and Independent columnist: “… of all the revered institutions that were clearly up to no good, none was more obviously sinister than Jimmy bloody Savile. I felt abused by him when I was 13 and I only saw him on the telly.”

Like all the best witticisms, this observation has the ring of truth about it. I am almost exactly the same age as Mark Steel and also feel moved to ask just what it was that we did to deserve being exposed to the horrors of Savile on TV almost every week?

“This is Top of the Pops and those were the Nolans. How’s about that then, guys and gals? What a cracking bunch of young ladies! (Makes manic noise that sounds like the result of a random sexual encounter between Tarzan and a duck) Now, what have we got next? Well, it’s Gary Glitter and who wants to be in his gang, guys and gals?”

Pass the sick bag.

Savile’s presence on a myriad music shows was always something of a mystery, given that he lacked any deep interest in pop and rock and never exhibited any of the almost insane enthusiasm displayed by his contemporaries, Alan (“Fluff”) Freeman, Paul Gambaccini, John Peel and even Kenny Everett. All Savile seemed interested in was getting his gurning boat-race on TV as much as possible. You could as easily imagine him volunteering to host Crufts or a series about caravanning – anything as long as he remained in the public eye.

 Jim’ll Fix It was no less one giant enigma of a programme, with those who knew Jim claiming that his desire to “fix it” for kids was a total mystery to them, given that he had always purported to dislike them.

Now we know that when he was slipping his Jim’ll Fix It medals around the necks of the “lucky” children for whom he had fixed it to ride in a tank with the army, eat their lunch on a rollercoaster or meet some fleetingly famous celebrity or other, he was actually making his selections, like an elderly aunt lingering slightly too long over a Yuletide box of Black Magic.

Savile could almost be described as a sort of human double bluff; surely nobody who seemed so creepy and unsavoury could actually BE creepy and unsavoury?

The other inspired comment about the BBC paedophilia scandal was made by Craig Brown in The Daily Mail, who described Savile as hiding “in plain sight”. This is an excellent summation of the situation, since the man himself actually confessed to some of his least acceptable sexual tendencies in his autobiography.   

In one peculiarly vile anecdote, Savile admitted that he was interrupted by a knock on the door while ‘entertaining’ a runaway from some type of young offenders’ institute. A pair of police officers had arrived to ask him whether he knew of her whereabouts (and what, I wonder, made them beat a trail to that particular door?) Savile said that he hadn’t seen her, but if he did he would invite her to spend the night with him, which would be his reward for ‘finding’ her. According to dear old Jim, the police officers seemed perfectly satisfied with that and, instead of searching his apartment and feeling his collar, there was a nod and a wink and an understanding between consenting adults. For who, given a clearly disturbed teenage girl, would pass up the opportunity to get his leg over? Anyway, think of all the millions raised for Stoke Mandeville.

My hatred of Savile can be ordered into a fairly neat three-tiered system, consisting of:

1.      The acts themselves, which do seem to have been particularly horrific and, for the most part, involved some of the most damaged and powerless members of society in institutions such as Stoke Mandeville and Broadmoor.

2.      Bullying his victims and colleagues into silence. Apart from the initial paedophilia claims, Gambaccini claims that Savile was also a necrophiliac, who used his status as a volunteer porter at Stoke Mandeville to visit the inhabitants of the morgue. All I can say is that he would have been laughing on the other side of his knighthood if all of this had emerged when he was still alive. Yet the fearless, “I couldnae gi’ a fuck” Scottish comedian, Jerry Sadowitz was very vocally pursuing the “Savile is a paedo” line as far back as 1987. “Jimmy was The Guvnor,” says Gambaccini. “You didn’t mess with him.”

3.      Making me feel like one of the rabid “hunt him down and cut off his knackers with a rusty knife” crowd who put a Newport paediatrician out of business because they didn’t know the difference between a children’s doctor and a kiddy fiddler. Having never been a “there’s one on every street corner” paedo-hysteric it gives me little pleasure to feel some perverse sense of self-satisfaction that my belief in the essential grubbiness of human nature has been justified.

Worst of all, though, is that Savile is dead and his scores of victims will never receive the justice that they deserve.

Friday, 10 August 2012

A Private Matter

Given the massive medal tally that has characterised the 2012 London Olympics, one would imagine that the British talent for finding a cloud in every silver lining would be given a well deserved rest but, no.
Apparently too many medal winners are emerging from private schools. This, at least according to one hilarious letter in The Daily Mail, is because private educational establishments house their own yachting facilities, shooting ranges, equestrian centres etc. I was educated at a private school in Cardiff which, at the time, accepted boarders and I can assure you, dear reader, that the most exotic thing that we enjoyed was access to a swimming pool. Admittedly this was more than many state schools could manage, but given the fact that otherwise we would have had to be bussed to the Empire Pool in town, this ultimately represented a saving. The pool was, in any case, in a state of very poor repair and desperately needed a makeover, which could not be afforded, at least not during my 1972-1979 tenure.
Of course, I cannot speak for all private schools; perhaps riding to class in a golden coach and having to muck out the unicorns as punishment is, in fact, common in Eton and Marlborough. I doubt it, though.
The whole point is that, in most cases, at least, what being privately educated teaches you is a sense of discipline. Those who know me will confirm that I am built for comfort, not for speed, but as a boarder I was expected to play sport sometimes three times a day; after breakfast before assembly, during the lunch hour and after school for a further 50 minutes. Not being very good at it was no excuse.
During the winter we played lacrosse, hockey, netball and table tennis and if the weather was so foul that even our formidable Head of Games, Miss Bates, agreed that it would be lunacy to venture out, we were subjected to a peculiar form of torture known as Wet Games. Despite its somewhat Hustleresque connotations this involved congregating in the school hall in our games kit and learning ludicrously archaic dances like the Gay Gordons and Stripping the Willow. Believe it or not I actually didn't mind Wet Games, because it at least involved music, albeit not the kind of thing that I would normally listen to, being a Bowie and Prog Rock gal. In the case of waterlogged pitches we were prescribed a long walk over Llandaff Fields. Apart from these outdoor activities we were expected to take to the gym for PE once a week.
Due to my lousy attitude, disinclination to attack and inability to defend in both lacrosse and in hockey, I was generally stuck in goal where it was believed that my bulk would prove useful. This was problematic, since as a dedicated specs wearer I was unsure what to do about the eyewear. Should I take them off and be partially sighted or leave them on and risk getting broken glass in my eyes? In the end it was easier to leave them on and abandon my post when the opposing team loomed too near.
So, sport and me - not a good combo.
Summer was easier; cricket, tennis and rounders were kinder, since being exiled to the margins when fielding meant that I could, to quote Stephen Fry, spend my time making daisychains and reading Dornford Yates. The warmer weather also meant that the boarding houses could not help but be about 10 degrees warmer than their wintertime average of far-too-cold-to-sustain-human-life.
Yet, the emphasis on sport did not mean that we had superb equipment. One of my lasting memories about playing cricket, for instance, was that all of the shin pads were in a ridiculously poor condition and house matches were generally characterised by batters having to adopt a curious stance when running in order to hold them in place.
Fortunately music was deemed as important as sport and eventually I managed to persuade the Head of Music that my presence in the choir was more important than on the playing fields.
Admittedly, this was during the 1970s, but the whole point about playing sport at school is that, however lacking in talent an individual might be, it at least teaches the body to expect to have demands made upon it. The other point is that most (if not all) private schools subscribe to the concept of mens sana in corpore sana. Boris Johnson has revealed that, when at Eton, he was expected to undertake two hours of physical exercise per day, a custom which he has obviously decided to continue, with his enthusiasm for cycling and running.
While many will argue that some state schools have been forced to part with playing fields to balance the books, it is not necessary to have mountains of expensive equipment to improve state schools' chances of producing more Olympic contenders. So what CAN state schools do to help themselves?
1) Expect pupils to participate in some physical activity every day. "But I don't want to" does NOT constitute an excuse.
2) Come down hard on bad behaviour. If parents send children to school who haven't been taught to belt up when the teacher is speaking or that time-keeping is a valuable life skill, then react with actual punishments like doing various janitorial jobs around the school or keep them in late after school. It worked when I was a nipper!
3) Make them realise that nobody achieves anything without hard work and effort. I doubt that Jessica Ennis would have won gold if she'd spent every Saturday morning lying in bed until noon.
4) Stop imagining that life would be so much better if you were at private school. Being woken up at 6:45 by someone switching a bright, overhead light while ringing a bell when you're experiencing your first morning away from home is something that will change your life forever - and NOT in a good way.
5) Stop wasting money on pieces of modish and totally unnecessary technology and plough the money into sports equipment instead.
Ultimately, private school is a lot more about hair shirts than popping over to the stables to select one's polo pony for lunchtime games.
You want to be privately educated? You'd better be tough enough.