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Trying to decide which Brexit outcome is least likely to encourage the Far Right? It’s too late. Far too late.


The UK is often being told that “disrespecting” the 2016 referendum will result in the resurgence of the Far Right.  Trouble is, at this point I can think of absolutely no Brexit outcome available right now that won’t profit the Far Right.

Here goes…

Remain:    In the event of a “People’s Vote” resulting in a vote for “Remain”, most people will just get on with their lives, but the extreme right will be gainfully apoplectic.  This third EU referendum will be regarded as the product of political betrayal and scaremongering (a form of “surrender”) and its result discredited.  The occasion in June 2016 when 37% the eligible electorate voted to leave the EU will continue to be presented as the only sacred expression of The People’s Will once and forever and ever amen.  The extreme right will organise and expand on this basis.

Some New Deal:    This seems increasingly unlikely to happen, but in the event of some in-betweeny arrangement being cobbled together following an extension of the Article 50 deadline, the extreme right will do very well out of any such fudge.  Whether it’s “May+1” or “Canada + 1” or “Norway + something or other”, the British economy will still suffer, at least in relative terms.   Nobody will be “happy” with such a compromise and the argument about the UK’s longer term relationship with Europe will rumble on indefinitely.  While some will suggest that the UK should reapply for EU membership, many others will suggest that as a “rule taker not a rule maker”, Britain has been reduced to a state of vassalage that is actually worse than membership.  The overall mood of betrayal will empower those who want a “cleaner break”.  The extreme right will organise and expand on this basis.

No-Deal Crash Out Brexit:    There are some on the left as well as the right who are keen on catastrophe.  Slavoj Žižek is pro-Brexit and even pro-Trump in a spirit of “bring it on”.  I’ve heard this attitude described as “libidinous accelerationism”.  Or, as Lord Petyr Baelish notes – “chaos is a ladder”.  Any form of disaster is perceived as a means of giving the dialectic a bit of a stimulating kick.  My own sense is that the extreme right will do very indeed out of disaster.  There may be some who think that if the UK is confronted with the full consequences of its folly, then it will be scared into salutary sanity.  But honestly, does anybody really think that the powerful xenophobic persuaders in the UK mix are going to suddenly start exclaiming “Mea Culpa!”  Will the Daily Express really start running the headline “WE WERE WRONG – CATASTROPHICALLY WRONG!”?  There will be no first person plural in Hardbrexitia.  There will be no “we” who suffer. No “all in it together”. The ordeal of Hard Brexit is going to be a fiercely divisive one in which familiar scapegoats will be sought.  Day to day privations will be blamed on a conspiracy of malign foreigners.  These foreigners will include not only an array foreign powers but also people who look or sound foreign to “frightened” and hateful imaginations.  The extreme right will organise and expand on this basis.

The far right will flourish under every conceivable Brexit scenario, it seems to me – which leads me (from a neighbourly distance) to suggest that perhaps the pressure to placate the Far Right has thereby been removed.  It’s almost as though placating the Far Right doesn’t actually work.  You might almost say that appeasing fascism has been pretty much discredited.

If you are a fascist (and let’s face it, many people are), it’s truly a wonderful time to be alive.  And so extreme nativism looks like to form an entrenched feature of the British political landscape for decades to come.  This will come as a surprise to those who have long cherished an exceptionalist fantasy involving the idea that “Britain” has been magically innoculated from the normalisation of extremism prevalent in a place called “the continent”.  These exceptionalists have been fond of pointing out that unlike France, Italy, Hungary and Poland etc. etc. – the Far Right has never come close to government. in the UK.

The real paradox is that the legacy of “British Exceptionalism” may have resulted in Britain becoming, in this important respect, more European than ever.  The rhetoric of all forms of “Mycountryfirst” political movements is strangely interchangeable and utterly predictable.  The unexceptional quality of exceptionalism deserves some study.

In the meantime, the UK, like the rest of Europe, is going to have to spend the next few decades fighting confident fascists.

It’s going to be nasty and its going to be hard work.

There will be casualties.


Happy Birthday to my fave Bronte. Happy Birthday Anne.


Yes, Anne Brontë was born OTD in 1820.  She was the youngest.  I have various reasons to be well disposed towards her.  She had, like her siblings, an umlaut in her real name and she chose as her pseudonym the part of London where I grew up.  And she wrote a very loving poem about Cowper.


SWEET are thy strains, celestial Bard;
And oft, in childhood’s years,
I’ve read them o’er and o’er again,
With floods of silent tears.

The language of my inmost heart,
I traced in every line;
My sins, my sorrows, hopes, and fears,
Were thereand only mine.

All for myself the sigh would swell,
The tear of auguish start;

I little knew what wilder woe
Had filled the Poet’s heart.

I did not know the nights of gloom,
The days of misery;
The long, long years of dark despair,
That crushed and tortured thee.

But they are gone; from earth at length
Thy gentle soul is pass’d,
And in the bosom of its God
Has found its home at last.

It must be so, if God is love,
And answers fervent prayer;
Then surely thou shalt dwell on high,
And I may meet thee there.

Is he the source of every good,
The spring of purity?
Then in thine hours of deepest woe,
Thy God was still with thee.

How else, when every hope was fled,
Couldst thou so fondly cling
To holy things and holy men?
And how so sweetly sing,

Of things that God alone could teach?
And whence that purity,

That hatred of all sinful ways
That gentle charity?

Are these the symptoms of a heart
Of heavenly grace bereft:
For ever banished from its God,
To Satan’s fury left?

Yet, should thy darkest fears be true,
If Heaven be so severe,
That such a soul as thine is lost,
Oh! how shall I appear?


It’s a very Cowperian poem about Cowper.  It reads like many of Cowper’s own hymns in terms of its slow end-stopped inquisitiveness and the very sparing use of imagery.

Anne Brontë loved Cowper’s verse before she learned of his tragic autobiography.  Then she loved it even more.  It was the experience of reading Cowper and reading about Cowper that help reinforce her tendencies towards Christian “universalism”, the belief that ultimately, God’s grace is going to extend to pretty much everyone.  In other words, she can’t handle a God who would send Cowper to Hell.  If he’s doomed, then what am I?

Anne Brontë nursed her sister Emily through her last illness and then took ill and died herself at the age of just twenty nine.  She is buried in Scarborough in that church perched up on the promontory that divides Scarborough’s two bays.  I visited it when I was about ten or eleven.  I’d like to go back.

She wrote two novels – the brief but haunting Agnes Grey and the substantial and fascinating  The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848).  After Anne’s death, Charlotte seems to have wanted Tenant to fall into oblivion as its palpable rage seemed at odds with the gentle, pious and sacrificial image of the sister she wished to preserve.  I rather think that rage and sacrificial love are wholly compatible character traits.

Tenant is now well established as a feminist masterpiece.  The young Gilbert Markham, a well-intentioned, ignorant and insensitive correspondent, is gradually vouchsafed the character and circumstances of his new neighbour – “Helen Graham”.  It is slowly revealed that she has fled her former husband, bringing her young son with her.

In the mid-nineteenth century, a novel that vindicated a woman who slams the bedroom door in her husband’s face and abandons her Lord and Master was making a very inflammatory statement.  The Tenant of Wildfell Hall stands alongside Ibsen’s Doll’s House in terms of its staging of door-slamming feminist intent.  Crucial to this decision is alcohol.  She can stand any amount of personal abuse but she can’t stand her husband trying to turn her son into a violent boozer in his own image.  She runs away to save her son from alcoholism, from spiritual as well as physical harm.

When people use the phrase “wife and mother” in the context of marital fiction, it’s too often lazily assumed that these two identities are continuous.  To be shackled and over-determined as a domestic paragon suggests “wifeandmother” as a stable self-reinforcing concept.  What Anne Brontë does is prise this identity apart.  What happens when being a mother becomes incompatible with being a wife?  What happens when the basic biological and spiritual need to protect your offspring conflicts with the legal duty a wife owes (in the nineteenth-century) to her husband?  What happens when “wife and mother” becomes “wife or mother”?

A century earlier, in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela Part II (don’t bother), a young wife and mother has to give up breastfeeding because her husband resents any part of her person being regularly available to anyone other than himself.  Richardson can’t allow this young wife to flee the house, but Anne Brontë insists that hers can.

Anne Brontë’s version of feminism is driven by the imperatives of higher love.  If this feminism involves self-actualisation then it is a version of “self” that only exfoliates in the context of a sacrificial generosity.  Perhaps Judith Butler’s meditations on Antigone are relevant in this context.  In the meantime Anne has been given the most Brontë-esque resting place of any of the Brontë siblings.


A New Gibbon Year. Rereading Decline and Fall may be the only good thing 2018 has to offer…

Reposting this from last year. Gibbon died OTD 1794



Ars longa, vita brevis.

I don’t think any of us have a chance to inhabit, fully inhabit, more than one really really long book in a lifetime.  But I think everyone should have this kind of a relationship with a book – a book that you feel moved to revisit at regular intervals.  The book you choose to swim in.  There will be other neighbouring similarly sized swimming pools that you try out every so often – but there will be one that is yours you will always return to.

Some years ago (though sadly not enough years ago), I read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and determined that I would re-reread it on a five year cycle.  Today, this cycle has begun anew and I will start rereading it today.  I’m already a bit tingly just thinking about it.

It doesn’t matter that I know…

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Hinterland… OR… “Why we fight…”



ASSUMING we all get through the next few years more or less intact, I like to imagine grandchildren (entirely hypothetical at this stage) gathered round me, wide eyed and eager for historical exposition.

“Tell us Oh Grandad” (they will ask in eerie unison) “… during the time of Trump and Brexit, why wasn’t everyone screaming all the time?  How could people waste time discussing the deluxe fiftieth anniversary reissue of the White Album, or the Stan and Ollie movie?  What were people thinking?  What weren’t they thinking?  What weren’t you thinking Oh Grandad?”

I will have to say something truthful about the fact that trying to think about Brexit in the years 2016-2022 invariably gave me severe chest pains and I needed to think about other things for the sake of my health.  And then I’ll have to try to sound a bit clever and refer to the concept of “hinterland”.

Denis Healey is famously associated with the term “hinterland” although he himself attributed it to his beloved Edna.  Healey was, as is well documented, an exceptionally cultured man who could spend his “free” time when not campaigning, strategising, and legislating – bathing in an ocean of literary and musical possibilities, as well as taking a great many photographs.  The Healeys were always troubled by the fact that Margaret Thatcher appeared to have nothing to come home from work to, nothing outside the urgently political to live for.  Other hinterlandless politicians can be historically identified such as David Lloyd George and William Pitt the Younger.  Donald Trump plays a lot of golf, but since he’s notorious golf cheat I think it’s clear that he has no inherent respect for the game and therefore has no hinterland either.  He’s not “playing” – he’s “being seen to be winning”.

The term “hinterland” has been both overused and misused in my opinion.  It’s being used to describe any activity that distracts someone from politics – the necessary “apolitical”.  This is not the definition of “hinterland” that I recall from actual geography lessons.  Here’s a technical definition of “hinterland” that is actually rather more useful in terms of its political application:

Hinterland, also called Umland, tributary region, either rural or urban or both, that is closely linked economically with a nearby town or city. 

George G. Chisholm (Handbook of Commercial Geography, 1888) transcribed the German word hinterland (land in back of), as hinderland, and used it to refer to the backcountry of a port or coastal settlement. Chisholm continued to use hinderland in subsequent editions of his Handbook, but the use of hinterland, in the same context gained more widespread acceptance. By the early 20th century the backcountry or tributary region of a port was usually called its hinterland.

So assuming the port or the city to represent political activity, the one thing a hinterland is not is some distraction completely removed from politics.  A hinterland is defined by a necessary relationship with a hub.  It can describe a relatively calm region that is some distance from frenetic urban activity, but this calm region still depends on that activity.

Does this mean that the Healeyesque cultured hinterland is a misleading and unhelpful notion?

Not necessarily.

Ever since classical antiquity, the notion of a domain removed from politics has been central to a cult of political virtue.  Ever since Plutarch’s version of Cincinnatus left his plough to save the state (and – even more importantly – subsequently resign government to return to his plough), that which is “not” political is meant to stabilise and legitimate a version of political participation.  In other words, political authority is best conferred upon people who do not live exclusively for politics.  The Horatian trope of “retirement” becomes important here.  Someone who lives only for politics lives only in the esteem of others.  Someone with no garden to tend or music to listen to is lacking the kind of interior life that creates a personality stable and (in the best sense) “disinterested” enough to trust with really big decisions.

Mind you, Healey never became Prime Minister and Thatcher did.  More’s the pity.

Music, gardening, poetic composition, televised cricket  etc. etc. are not just distractions or escapes from politics, anymore than a dependent hinterland is detached from centripetal power of the port city that defines it.  These things, however, reflect a kind of “why we fight”.  They demonstrate repositories of ultimate value that cannot and should not be converted into easy and transferable political capital (though they too often are).  Without such things, a kind of ego-weakness emerges whereby the relativism of immediate political struggle forces people to live and breathe only in the esteem of others – a state of utter dependency that is equivalent to friendlessness.

“What do you see when you turn out the light?  I can’t tell you – but I know it’s mine.”

George Washington, the Cincinnatus of the eighteenth-century, became immortalised not because he wielded supreme power, but because ultimately supreme power was not what he wanted or needed.  He was his state’s servant, not its master, and he had other things to live for.

The problem with people my age, and the reason why I think any actual grandchildren are more likely to be throwing rocks at me than looking to me for wisdom, is not exactly that we fiddled while Rome burned, not that we distracted ourselves with culture while Brexity and Trumpy forces triumphed, but rather that we failed to adequately demonstrate a dependent relation between culture and politics.  We failed to politicise the apolitical cleverly enough.  We failed to demonstrate that the stuff that makes everyday life worth living should be a precondition for urgent engagement, not a flight from it.  We failed to love the stuff we love loudly enough.



Revolution in the Head and England’s Dreaming



Every year I reread Revolution in the Head by Ian Macdonald and England’s Dreaming by Jon Savage. It’s become a ritual, but not an unprofitable one.  I consider the paired reading of the books as a therapeutic exercise in mood realignment.

The real paradox is that the book about 1960s optimism is a bitterly depressive read, taking a view of the decline and fall of human civilisation that seems to owe a deal to Theodor Adorno – while the book about 1970s nihilism is written in a spirit of utopian celebration.

Macdonald is magnificently and sometimes offensively grumpy.  He says much that I disagree with – or rather – says much that I wish I knew how to disagree with better.  When he says that “Let it Be” has achieved a popularity way out of proportion to its artistic merit – that’s just a way of saying “a lot of…

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Do we really need that trunk? “Stan and Ollie” Reviewed.



Consternation spread from tent to tent as word of this film was announced.  Sons and Daughters of the Desert, the “stanandolliverse” if you will,  were excited and frightened in roughly equally measure.  Because loving something oh so very much makes you protective.  What will Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly and Jon S. Baird and Jeff Pope do to our boys?

I saw the movie last night and now I’m happy.  Are there some points that need to be clarified for people who haven’t seen every single Laurel and Hardy film?  Indeed there are.  But even the distortions, conflations, omissions and inventions represented in this film are clearly to serve a larger and more important purpose – to illustrate a relationship and a craft.  It’s not a black and white film but it is a sort of sepia one.  It sums up a particular mood.

There is one scene in which Stan and Ollie make a completely impossible train journey over the river Thames.  Nobody has ever had that view of Tower Bridge from a train.

The logic of drama demands that love be tested and threatened.  In order to illustrate the triumph of love, some internal rather than just external threat needs to be presented.  Accordingly, there is a “dark” scene in the middle of the film where Stan and Ollie have a bitter argument and where it is suggested that Stan was still cherishing a profound grievance against Ollie because Ollie had made Zenobia (1939) without Stan and with Harry Langdon.  In fact, there’s no record of Stan ever resenting Ollie for this.  As the film itself acknowledges, Hal Roach deliberately kept Stan and Ollie on asynchronous contracts in order to thwart their collective bargaining power.

The plot of the film is very straightforward.  There is a brief prologue that shows Stan arguing with Hal Roach during the filming of Way Out West (1937).  Stan wants to play hardball – Ollie, not so much.  Their respective characters are thereby illustrated.  Stan always wants complete control whereas Ollie (“Babe” as he is affectionately known) takes the path of least resistance, avoiding conflict wherever possible.

The film then quickly leaps sixteen years and treats their British and Irish tour of 1953.  (No references is made to all the films they made with Fox and MGM in the interim or the nightmarish experience of making their final film Atoll K.)  It suits the pathos of the film to have most people assume they’ve retired.  The tour is managed by Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones) who promotes them poorly and seems more interested in Norman Wisdom.  Even when playing to half empty houses in second rate venues, however, Stan and Ollie give the audiences their very best and a mixture of word of mouth appreciation and strategic personal appearances means that the tour becomes progressively more and more successful.  Stan discovers, however, that the funding for a new Robin Hood film he’s been pitching, has not materialised.  He has not he heart to tell Ollie.  Meanwhile their hilarious wives show up at the Savoy Hotel in London creating (as Delfont notes) “two double acts for the price of one”.  Ollie collapses at a bathing beauties pageant in Worthing and a doctor subsequently pronounces his performing career at an end.  Stan and Ollie nevertheless complete the Irish leg of their tour, with Church bells playing “Call of the Cuckoos” upon their arrival in Cobh. Everybody wills Ollie to gather the strength needed to finish this show.  The End.

So it’s not complicated.  The central performances could not conceivably be bettered.  Steve Coogan accurately performs Stan Laurel as an obsessive perfectionist who never stops thinking about the craft of comedy, who was forever imagining new jokes, new scenarios – new ways of making people smile.  John C. Reilly portrays a “Babe” whose essential geniality makes everyone around him happy.  Acting from within a truly impressive prosthetic disguise which never looks fake, Reilly’s “Babe” is as elegant as it is cherubic.  As well as the love between Stan and Ollie, we constantly experience a generous love for the paying and even non paying public.  They constantly get into character when meeting people for the first time, constantly revert to type because, one senses, both Stan and Ollie felt that anybody meeting Laurel and Hardy had a right to have happy memories of this experience.

When the enormous packing case slides down the station steps, it’s not just The Music Box that’s being referenced, but also the whole idea of getting rid of baggage.

Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda excel as Lucille and Ide.  Oliver Hardy and (especially) Stan Laurel had romantic lives of dizzying complexity.  They worked on the principle that if you fell in love with someone then you married them. This meant that they got married a lot.  Lucille and Ide play beautifully off one another and perhaps deserve a movie to themselves.  The idea of two characters who have to have a relationship with each other because the men they are married to have a more necessary relationship with each other than ether of them do with any of their wives is itself funny.

Is “Stan and Ollie” a funny movie?  Yes, intermittently, though I cried more than I laughed.  Actually I cried a lot.  Actually I cried more than my wife did at the end of Titanic.  The boy really enjoyed their “double door” routine, which is surely clowning refined to a state of almost geometric purity.  He didn’t really understand why people were laughing at the dancing, and I had to explain that the dance is much funnier in context.  The scene with eggs and nuts from “County Hospital” is constantly being replayed in sketch form.  It’s a reminder of just how funny it can be to watch someone slowly eat a boiled egg (and watch someone exasperated by the slowness of the egg eating), if the people on stage (or on screen) have complete faith in one another.

In fact, there is no separating the love between Stan and Ollie from a love for the craft of comedy.  This is not just a film about two dear friends who happened to be a double act.  This is a film about exquisite timing, about how two people making room for one another and playing off one another offers the most delicious exhibition of inter-personal co-dependence imaginable.  Stan and Ollie do not have to waste too many words expressing their feelings for one another because when on stage, the singing and the dancing and the arse kicking and the anticipations and the reactions and the pain and the pity and the shapes of the contrasting bodies in the limelight perform all the loving communication necessary.

Incidentally, according to Stan, it was live performances rather than filmed ones that created a real bond of friendship between them.

Laurel and Hardy created the most lasting comedy because exquisitely timed clowning simply doesn’t date.  At the heart of this clowning is understanding and at the heart of the understanding there is love.

I will be very surprised, and I suppose delighted, if I see another film with quite so much love in it in the next twelve months.

More importantly, of course, it’s a film that will make people want to watch actual Laurel and Hardy films.

Such as the following:

Atoll K:

The Bullfighters:

The Big Noise:

Nothing but Trouble:

The Dancing Masters:


Air Raid Wardens:

The Tree in a Test Tube:

A Haunting We Will Go:

Great Guns:

Saps at Sea:

A Chump at Oxford

The Flying Deuces:


Swiss Miss:

Way Out West:

Pick a Star:

Our Relations

On the Wrong Trek:

The Bohemian Girl:

Bonnie Scotland:

Thicker than Water

The Fixer Uppers:

Tit for Tat:

The Live Ghost:

Babes in Toyland

Them Thar Hills:

Going Bye Bye:

Hollywood Party:

Oliver the Eighth:
Sons of the Desert

Dirty Work:

Wild Poses:

Busy Bodies:

The Midnight Patrol:

The Devil’s Brother

Me and my Pal

Twice Two:

Towed in a Hole:

Their First Mistake:

Pack Up Your Troubles


County Hospital:

The Chimp:

The Music Box:

Any Old Port:


“On the Loose”:

Beau Hunks:

One Good Turn:

Come Clean: 

Pardon Us:

Laughing Gravy:

The Stolen Jools:

Chickens Come Home:

Be Big:

Another Fine Mess:

The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case

Hog Wild

Below Zero:



Here is Night Owls:

Angora Love:

The Hoose Gow:

They Go Boom:

Perfect Day:

Men O’ War:


Unaccustomed as We are Are:

Bacon Grabbers:

Double Whoopee:

Big Business:

That’s My Wife:

Wrong Again:


We Faw Down:

Habeas Corpus:

Two Tars:

Early to Bed:

Should Married Men Go Home?:

Their Purple Moment:

You’re Darn Tootin’:

From Soup to Nuts:

The Finishing Touch:

Leave em Laughing:

Battle of the Century:

Putting Pants on Philip:

Hats Off:

Call of the Cuckoo:

The Second Hundred Years:

Flying Elephants:

Sugar Daddies:

Do Detectives Think?

Sailors Beware!:

With Love and Hisses:

Love ‘Em and Weep:

Slipping Wives:

45 Minutes from Hollywood:

Duck Soup:

The Lucky Dog:

“Better (other people) Dead than Red (tape)”. Boris Johnson and Mayor Vaughn and Mayor Quimby.



Here in Ireland, a lot of people are reeling from accounts of a speech that Boris Johnson gave in Dublin just a few days ago.  Initially people were reeling from the news that there are people in this country prepared to pay upwards of 800 euros to be in the same room as Boris Johnson.  Having been revived with lavender water, many of the same people were reeling from the news that among other random bits of unsubstantiated waffle, Boris Johnson expressed his admiration for the mayor of Amity Island from Jaws, one “Larry Vaughn” as played by Murray Hamilton.  You remember?  The guy who refuses to believe that any great white shark represents any significant threat and insists that a tourist economy like Amity keep beaches open at all costs.

(Incidentally, Boris was just recycling old material this week.  This little rhetorical jeu d’esprit is more than a decade old –  It turns out that an 800 euro ticket doesn’t buy you any new material.)

On reflection, within the opportunistic Europe-baiting world of Boris Johnson, the perverse vindication of Larry Vaughn makes perfect sense.  It helps things somewhat that the guy more conventionally regarded as the hero of the film, Police Chief Brody, has only moved to Amity Island comparatively recently.  Brody is trying to dictate terms to a proud island community.  He is regulatory “health and safety gone mad” and an easy surrogate for the kind of anonymous Eurocratic commissar Boris loved to denounce as a journalist.  (You’ll be aware that Boris got himself fired as a journalist for making up patently untrue stories about fictitious Eurocrats.)  Brody, in the Bojo imagination, is someone who stands in the way of people’s right to live on the edge if they want to.

(The plot of Jaws of course owes much to Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen.)

It should be noted that bold Mayor Vaughn does not go into the water himself.  Nor does he join Brody, Quint and Hooper and Brody on the Orca.  These three other men save the island, save its citizens and thereby ultimately save its long term economy by putting their lives on the line.  Quint does not survive.  Boris Johnson admires what he calls Vaughn’s ability “take a calculated risk” but Vaughn does not risk his neck personally.

This attitude to “risk” has wider and more representative implications.

In the real world, those who most eagerly deploy the rhetoric of deregulated “buccaneering” economics are not themselves the people who will be jumping on board enemy ships with a sabre between their teeth.  They are not actually the people engaged in anything resembling a life or death struggle.  They are, rather, in an office, hundred of miles away, having already insured themselves against the possibility of privateering failure.

And this is the most sinister aspect of Boris Johnson’s depressingly successful piratical rhetoric.  It’s an exercise in “othering”.  “Better (other people) Dead than Red (tape) because the lives lost will be other lives, expendable lives.  Let those who are too poor and tired to purchase anything other than the quickest and unhealthy food poison their own families.  “We” can purchase healthier and more expensive nutrition and “we” can insure ourselves against all manner of societal ills.  Nobody “we” know lived in Grenfell Tower.

Poor people must die if rich people are to get even richer quicker.  This brutal maxim underpins all of Boris Johnson’s deregulatory speeches and he’s not that keen to conceal this logic from audiences who have already fully embraced this cruelty.  It is not just Boris Johnson who has “jumped the shark” when it comes to just not caring.

Boris Johnson is like Larry Vaughn in another very instructive respect.  It’s worth considering the idea that Vaughn is the most brilliant politician ever depicted on screen BECAUSE HE’S STILL MAYOR IN JAWS 2!

Just think about it… at some point between the events of Jaws and Jaws 2, Mayor Vaughn must have stood up in a crowded town hall and addressed a crowded meeting roughly as follows:

“Listen people, I have to admit that during my term of office I did deliberately suppress evidence of shark attacks so as to keep the beaches open as a direct result of which a number of your children were, regrettably, eaten.  But I think you should re-elect me, and here’s why…”

Mayor Vaughn must have then given the most extraordinary political speech since the death of Cicero.  If I could even begin to imagine what such a speech was I certainly wouldn’t be giving speeches away for free on the internet.

Like Mayor Vaughn, Boris Johnson is not only a serial liar, but he’s a proven serial liar.  One thing he’s learned is that he can lie as much as he can and always bounce back, as popular as ever.  He has no incentive ever to stop lying.

There’s another mayor who Boris Johnson deserves to be compared with… Springfield’s own Mayor Quimby.

The relevant bit comes about half way through this clip.  Quimby declares “I admit I used the city treasury to fund the murder of my enemies, but as Gabbo would say – I’m a bad widdle boy.”  With a sheepish grin and the strategic deployment of a popular TV ventriloquist catchphrase, Quimby not only evades prosecution but is re-elected by a landslide.  Boris Johnson has been saying “I’m a bad widdle boy” for decades now.  Most of us stop getting away with sheepish self-infantilisation after we turn twelve but it’s still working for Boris Johnson in his mid fifties.  He’s not going to give it up.

Chief Brody is prepared to sacrifice short term economic and political expediency in order to save lives.  Larry Vaughn is prepared to sacrifice human lives in the name of short term political expediency.  We should not be remotely surprised at Johnson’s admiration for Vaughn and understanding this admiration explains a deal about what’s wrong with the world today.

“Straight Outa Esher” OR “An Embarrassment of Rishikesh”. The Beatles’ Esher Demos reviewed.

Yes, the hints worked in the run up to Christmas – or rather, the same repeated hint did.  For several weeks in October and November, I spent every Sunday afternoon doing the ironing while listening to The White Album.  As a consequence, on December 25, I became the proud owner of the special six disc expanded remastered version of the same.

But it’s taken time to absorb.  As a family man, I did not feel able to exclaim to my loved ones “Begone! – leave me alone to consort with the deluxe edition white album!” at any point during the festive season.

I am going to have to think about this thing that I own in segments.  And it seems to me that Disc 3 – “The Esher Demos” is, in many ways, a discrete segment – an album in its own right.  The Beatles Unplugged.

One thing about these ditties, recorded in May of 1968 on George Harrison’s four track machine, is how complete so many of them are.  These are not just ideas for songs, they are – for the most part – the songs themselves.  Many of these are melodically, harmonically and lyrically entire.  The instrumentation and sometimes orchestration that has yet to be added follows lines that are already implicit in the Esher recordings.

An exception is “Happiness is a Warm Gun” which is not yet a song in Esher.  Sections of the song exist, but it’s not clear that there’s an intended order for these bits that have been left uptown in May of 1968.  One bit has wandered off altogether and shows up in the middle of “I’m So Tired.”

There are a few absentees.  “Birthday” was put together collaboratively in the studio at a later date.  It is slightly sad to reflect that while the very best songs on Pepper (“With a Little Help”, “Day in the Life”, “She’s Leaving Home”) involves significant co-authorship, the most co-authored composition on The White Album would be “Birthday”.

“Back in the USSR” is fully formed in Esher and stands simply as a pleasant acoustic version of a familiar song.  “Dear Prudence” is pleasantly vandalised by John’s spontaneous sounding narrative intervention.  “Glass Onion” is rather less nasty in Esher, largely because it’s so obviously jokey and John’s descent (or ascent) into actual gobbledygook removes all the sting from the conspiracy theory promptings.

“Blackbird” on the other hand could have appeared on The White Album in its Esher form and nobody would have batted an eyelid.  It’s ever so slightly faster in Esher.  That’s about it.  Other songs like “Julia” just need to be rehearsed a few more times.

And then there are the songs actually sound better in Esher than they did subsequently.  Yes, there are a few.

My least favourite song on The White Album has long been “Rocky Raccoon”.  For a long time, I could never understand why the Beatles ran with “Rocky Raccoon” instead of something like “Junk”.  Listening to the Esher recordings now makes everything clear.  “Junk” in May of 1968 was in a state of improvisatory vagueness, and missing a whole bunch of lyrics.  The Esher demo of “Rocky Raccoon” on the other hand offers a shorter, brisker version of the song that actually showcases some fairly nifty guitar playing.  In Abbey Road, this novelty song is elongated and slowed down and its jokeyness exaggerated and beaten to death.  Also, Abbey Road introduces Paul’s faux western accent just to make the whole thing more annoying.  I find the Esher demo rather jolly and entertaining by comparison.  Some people may also prefer the looser, shaggier version of “Honey Pie” recorded in Esher to the studied genre piece recorded in Abbey Road.  I don’t really mind studied genre pieces, so I’m less bothered either way.  I’ve always preferred “Honey Pie” to “Rocky Raccoon” because I always felt that Paul had a stronger familial investment in the world of “Honey Pie”.

In addition, I prefer the Esher version of “Yer Blues” to any other version I’ve heard by the Beatles or by Plastic Ono Band or any other Lennonian configuration.  Experienced as folk-blues rather than as blues-rock it is funnier, lighter, and more intimate.  Because he’s not actually screaming, John has to go falsetto to get to the high notes, which adds to the satirical knowingness of the song.  This “Yer Blues”, in line with the rest of the Esher record, is essentially happier than its November counterpart.  There’s also something to be said for the very eccentric vocal stylings that accompany the Esher version of “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except for Me and my Monkey”.

I think Esher has revealed my absolute favourite recording of “Revolution”.  I always preferred the proper loud version you hear on the B side to Hey Jude to the slow doowoppy version you get on the White Album.  There can be, of course, no definitive version of “Revolution”, because John was incapable of figuring out his final attitude to revolutionary violence.  I think Ian MacDonald (and others) are right and his commitment to non-violence was probably more settled and assured than his periodic barricade storming contributions.  But even when he’s singing “count me out” you can sense another voice in his head accusing himself of wussing out.  Oddly enough, acoustic revolutionary anthems can be more threatening than heavily amplified versions, since acoustic versions evoke a plebian and democratic point of production.  If the revolution is to be confined to those with access to state of the art multi track recording facilities, then the Powers That Be have little to fear.  What Esher offers is a campfire singalong in favour of non-violent change on the basis that violence corrupts and disfigures change.  It is sung happily and confidently and the repeated refrain that everything’s gonna be all right seems to mean more than in any other version I’ve heard.  Esher also showcases what seems to me the optimal temp to communicate the dominant sentiment of the song.  The only weakness in this recording is a verse without actual words, but even the badabada vocal fill ins have their charms.  Also the handclaps are really well timed.

And then are those Harrison songs.  Three of these songs are better than two of the Harrison songs that made it onto the November album.  “Sour Milk Sea”, “Not Guilty” and “Circles” are more interesting, more expressive, and more enjoyable songs than “Piggies” or “Savoy Truffle”.  “Circles”, which eventually showed up on a Harrison album 14 years after its composition, startles me as just about the most early Pink Floyd sounding thing the Beatles ever (sort of)  recorded.  Harrison here comes closer to Syd Barrett than Lennon ever did.  I can imagine “Circles” appearing on Piper at the Gates of Dawn or Saucerful of Secrets.

Notably, of course, we have an acoustic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” which functions as a “WMGGW” for people who’ve never liked “WMGGW”.  This does not sound like a song that could ever have accommodated an Eric Clapton solo or indeterminate length.

We’ve all (I hope) given up on the idea of an optimal 14 track single White Album.  A more reasonable exercise might be an optimal 14 track Esher Demo album.

The overall effect of listening to “Embarrassment of Rishikesh”, a jokey self-deprecating title for the Esher Demos that I just came up with and I want everybody to use, is of happiness.  In terms of “The Beatles” story, the effect of listening it is to further truncate the portion of the narrative where they were actually unhappy.  When you know things are going to go wrong, you look for foreshadowings, warnings and portents.  To listen to Embarrassment of Rishikesh is to listen into people who had no idea that stuff was about to become unhappy.  The lack of instrumentation is often supplied by scat singing, which is always demonstrates a fairly uncomplicated love of melody for its own sake.  John Lennon keeps spouting complete gibberish, which is always a sign he’s in a good mood.  And thanks to Donovan’s Rishikesh tutelage, these three people are really enjoying their own guitars again.  In the longer term, Donovan can be blamed for helping John in particular to become less co-dependent on the others for the realisation of his ideas – thus weakening The Beatles as a collective unit.  But nobody in May 1968 in a lovely house in Esher seems to know this yet and a sense of cosy collectivity is audible throughout EOR.

Mind you, I can’t help wondering what Ringo was doing in Esher.  Was he even there?  And if so, what was he doing? Percussive notation seems to be provided by handclaps and slapped packing cases.

Sadly, the acoustic version of “Revolution #9” as originally sung around the camp fire in Rishikesh, remains an undiscovered lost treasure.



No Pain and No Gain. Fintan O’Toole on Brexit and Heroic Failure


You’ve all read this already, haven’t you?  I mean, it’s selling really well.  And the only reason why I delayed reading it so long was a sense that I felt I knew what was in it already.  So much of it has already been anthologised and so much of it quoted in review literature.  And of course, I’d heard Fintan O’Toole present much of the content of the book at a live event here in Maynooth a few weeks ago.  It was one of those occasions after which one’s head feels tired with incessant nodding.

I eventually bought the book at the airport in advance of a rather short flight between Dublin and London (appropriately enough).  I finished it long before the plane was anywhere near touching down.  To be sure, we were delayed in Dublin for a while while ground staff took photos of a small dent on the luggage doors to send to engineers to see whether we could take off or not.  But still, this reading project lasted me a very few hours.

I don’t think I skimmed or skipped anything, but those two hundred pages went down very easily indeed.  Perhaps there’s something about reading something that you are 100% in agreement with that speeds everything up.  At times, I was almost wanting Fintan O’Toole to say something I disagreed with, just so that I could slow down a bit.  “Fintan – give me something I can chafe against!”

The originality of the book consists in its illustrations and examples.  This is a book about selective and inaccurate collective memory.   It is a work of social psychology that charts the debilitating recycling of certain mythologies.  It describes the close relationship between dominance and subjugation in a certain kind of national self-fashioning.  It describes England rather than Britain and not all of England at that.  It describes an electorally pivotal critical mass of English sentiment in the early twenty-first century.  This Englishness suggests an essentially sado-masochistic paradigm that is unable to live on terms of equivalence and equality with other comparable countries.  Evoking, brilliantly, the imagery of 50 Shades of Grey, O’Toole describes the dyad of dominant-submissive in terms that illustrates how the rhetoric, staging, and costuming of weaponised “victimhood” hold a perverse appeal for those long convinced of their own innate superiority.  At the heart of the Brexiteering imagination there is a sort of punk rock determination never to “settle”.

Not all Leave voters fit Fintan O’ Toole’s psychological profile, as he would be the first to admit.  But enough did – I’m sure of that.

There is plenty of scope for a bitter book about Brexit written from an Irish perspective.  But this isn’t it.  This is, in essence, a neighbourly book – if you you assume that pointing out that a next door neighbour’s house in on fire is a neighbourly act.  Of course, you can’t escape the fact that fire is no respecter of property lines and the fire is likely to destroy your own house next.  The book is always funny and authentically satirical, but it’s not Swiftian.  There is no schadenfreude on offer here and sorrow is a more dominant register than anger.

The prose is beautiful.  Is it possible, that cultural historians a century hence will conclude that perhaps the profound trauma of Brexit might have been “worth it” just to have inspired writing of this quality?

No.  No it isn’t.

I thought I didn’t need another reason to dislike  Boris Johnson.  I really thought I was full to the brim with obvious bold type reasons.  But then I read the story of Boris Johnson and the hospital toast.  Apparently his Henley constituency powerbrokers absolutely adored his “naughty boy” tale of eating all his prone wife’s toast and being disappointed that he wasn’t allowed to buy more for himself.  The speech was the parliamentary making of him, apparently.  However, if you’ve ever watched your severely weakened partner struggle to consume a piece of toast so that she can persuade a doctor that she’s strong enough to go to visit her child in the neonatal intensive care unit on the day he was born, you’ll be unable to treat this cruelly frivolous maternity hospital toast scoffing anecdote with anything resembling indulgence.



William Hartnell would have been 111 years old today. Which is remarkably young when you stop and think about it.



William Hartnell’s film career was prolific and distinguished.  To turn in memorable performances in films that are as strange and powerful as Brighton Rock and Odd Man Out would be achievement enough.  In these films he adds a sinister dimension to already sinister films, and connoisseurs of 1940s British cinema would still be name-checking William Hartnell appreciatively even without his subsequent time and space traveling career.

He was also well known for playing tough guy military types.  His role in WW2 propaganda classic The Way Ahead was so memorable, that his subsequent success in the title role of the inaugural Carry On film – Carry On Sergeant can be read as a quotation and commentary on it (much as George Raft was quoting his own serious gangster role image while parodying it much later in Some Like it Hot).

It is said that Verity Lambert first thought of Hartnell…

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