Friday, April 3, 2015

Britain’s coming election — the wiseacres are weighing in, so why shouldn’t this wiseacre weigh in, too, to announce: they’re all wrong about everything! As for that Terry Pratchett, he ensured I got one of my many, many bollockings

The first part of this - rather long entry - was written before the ‘leaders’ debate’ on TV last night. I didn’t watch it as I could see no point in spending two hours listening to seven stooges mouthing the platitudes they think their supporters would want to hear. Come May 7 I shall be voting – or not - in my 11th general election.

It will not actually be the 11th of which I was aware – the first was in 1963 when Britain was doing well enough economically to venture another term of Labour. Broadly – very broadly – Britain votes Labour when things are going well, people feel their pockets are full and life is sweet; and then they vote in the Tories again (the ‘Tory bastards’, according to some, but I am well beyond the age of taking all such slurs, whether aimed left, right or centre in the slightest bit seriously – if you don’t sooner or later work out for yourself that life is just a tad more complex and nuanced than such barroom gibes allow, God help you) when they feel the pinch.

As a general rule – again, I stress a general rule, Labour fuck it up, Tories clean up the mess afterwards. Or put another way, the Tories create an efficient working economy, then Labour come in and fritter it all away. But it is worth also recording that while Labour are fucking it up, those with rather less to rub together than you are I, tend to do a little better; and while the Tories are repairing the damage, those at the bottom of the pile are re-acquainted with what misery is and just how awful misery can be. It is usually at their expense that ‘the economy is repaired’. And, of course, a great many shysters take every opportunity to make hay while all the repairing is going on.

That last observations might make me sound like some unreconstructed pinko. Or, if you like, my claim that as a rule Labour fuck it up again marks me down as an unreconstructed reactionary. Well, I like to think I’m neither, but I do like to call a spade a bloody shovel, and sadly the
Tweedledum/Tweedledee routine is the way things are stacked. In 1963 at the first election of which I became aware Labour were elected after, in the buzzphrase used by the incoming Prime Minister Harold Wilson (left), ‘13 years of Tory misrule’. The ‘Swinging Sixties’ were getting underway, Britain was loosening up, young chaps were slightly growing their hair and it was the years of the coming of age of young folk who couldn’t actually remember the war. That was important: if you were born up to around 1938/9, you might still, in the Sixties, have distant memories of ‘the war’, ‘dad not being around’ and general deprivation. For those born in the years after, your first memories would probably have been of the years after the war. By 1963 these young were in the late teens and early twenties, hormones were raging as only hormones can range and none of them was in a mood dutifully to take the high road to Dullsville, a place which had been such a comfort to their parents once the war years had ended. I became aware of the 1963 election because my father - ‘Der Spion’ of previous blog entries and man by then of increasingly right-wing views - mournfully declared one night and, I now know in retrospect, more than just a little theatrically, ‘this country will be Communist within six months’.

Well, it wasn’t. In fact, and as I found out five years later when as a very wet-behind-the ears public school boy I washed up at Dundee University, for many idealistic young folk Labour weren’t red enough. No, sirree! But by the time I was released from school and ventured forth into grown-up land to grow my hair, find out what this ‘pot’ thing was and, most crucially, lose my cherry, it was 1968, the year of ‘student revolution’ - remember when students were still idealistic? By then perfectly middle-class chaps and chappesses were affecting a kitchen-sink, working-class accent to prove their credentials (while, perfectly working-class chaps and chappesses who didn’t manage to crash out of their ‘class’ by virtue of acting and taking fashion photographs were encouraged to carry on watching their Ps and Qs when in the company of their ‘betters’.

. . .

Since then elections have had the usual mixed result - Labour in, Labour out, Tories in, Tories out - and the fortunes of the country have risen and fallen and changed for the better or worse much like the weather. In fact, it might be worth the time of some smartarse PhD student to make an in-depth study of how the economic health of a country correlates to its weather patterns over several decades, because the weather seems to have as much or as little bearing on the matter as whoever is in government.

This year, we are told, promises to be different. This year is the year ‘when the voter no longer trusts their politicians’. This year ‘the voter is more informed’. This year ‘will see an upset’. Oh, yeah? Why? Well, this year, in Scotland, the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) seems well on its way to ousting Labour as ‘the party of conscience’; further south in England the anti-EU UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) seems - or seemed - to be well in reach of making dangerous inroads

By jiminy if you want jam tomorrow,
you’ll get jam tomorrow — I promise!

into the Tory vote; the Greens are - or were - claiming more and more support, and the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, who are never afraid of making mischief, have declared that in the event of a ‘hung’ parliament (one in which no party gains an overall majority in the House of Commons) says it is prepared to do a deal with anyone - even Labour! Well! What a state of affairs! Plenty to waffle about there!

Given this mixed bag (tonight on TV seven political parties are holding a ‘debate’ - fun for someone, no doubt, but I will make damn sure I have something else to do) it is ‘pretty certain’ no party will have an overall majority - i.e. neither Labour nor the Conservatives will - and the incoming government will most certainly, once the dust has settled by some kind of coalition.

Actually, it isn’t even that simple: Labour has been forced to deny that it would be prepared to form a government with SNP and - I hope I’ve got this right - UKIP have unequivocally declared that it will not form a coalition with anyone who has even a hint of foreign blood (except, of course, for those neo-British Asian carpetbaggers who are UKIP members and living proof that UKIP ‘isn’t racist’. To be honest, Labour had no choice but to rule out a coalition with the SNP given that all the political wiseacres are predicting that its vote in Scotland will be wiped out by the nationalist and that the number of seats it has in Hibernia will be reduced from 756 to 3.5. But will Labour be wiped out? Possibly. Possibly not.

The Liberal Democrats, we are told, will also be decimated, being reduced from their current 54 seats to their - more usual - 11/12 (15 in a good year. Incidentally, the Lib Dems, then just the Liberals when it all happened, are the only party we know of which in modern times had a leader who took out a murder contract on a former lover).

The Tories, those same wiseacres assure us, will feel the wrath of the shire little Englanders who are fed up to the back teeth with them for ‘deserting Conservative values’ - last year they brought in legislation to all homosexual couples to marry, which didn’t go down at all well, not least with Conversative-identifying gays and lesbians up and down the land - and ‘sucking up to Brussels, and will desert en masse to UKIP. Or, of course, not.

Me, I don’t think any of that will happen. I think the whole ‘we’re going to shake up the whole system ‘cos you really can’t trust any politician’ election will turn out to be a damp squib. Under the circumstances I think the Tories will, much to everyone’s surprise, scrape home and get a small overall majority, Labour will lose some seats to the SNP, but not as many as the wiseacres predict, so the SNP will not, as expected, be in the position to call the shots, and Labour won’t look as bloody daft as the fear they might. I think that because the SNP is becoming rather smug lately and already its eminence grise Alex Salmond, who recently retired as party leader, is somewhat at odds with his successor, Nicola Sturgeon - it’s always difficult to take second place when you have been top dog for so long - it will not do quite as well as it hopes to; UKIP are oddly and suprisingly peaking well before the event; and I suspect there will be the usual rush to ‘safety’ - the Tories.

One thing I think the wiseacres will get right is that after their high-flying of recent years, gaining a number of seats they could once only dream of, the Lib Dems will crash and burn and be reduced to those seats on the out fringes of Scotland and the far South-West which don’t really matter to anyone. But see what happens. Mystic Meg has spoken.

PS This might sum it all up well:

Britannia between Death and the Doctors
. . .

The world no doubt weeped deep and bitter tears over the recent death of one Sir Terry Pratchett, comic fantasy novelist of these lands. I didn’t, because his schtick of whimsical bollocks has never appealed to me. For example, everyone raves, but raves, about The Hitchiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, but I don’t get it one little bit. And that isn’t even a pose adopted to be different. I really don’t get it. But back to Sir Terry.

Sir Terry once, when he was still Terry, unknighted, unknown and not at all rich, dropped me in it. At the beginning of the Eighties I left the Birmingham Evening Mail and took a job as a sub-editor on ‘Power News’, the in-house staff newspaper of the ‘Central Electricity Generating Board’ (CEGB). I was seduced by the money - my salary went up by 30 per cent, from £8,500 to just over £11,000 - and didn’t know at the time just how extraordinarily dull life is on a staff newspaper. That taught me a very valuable lesson: never do anything just for the money. The paper came out monthly and preparing it every month involved as much work as was done daily on the Evening Mail. It was excruciatingly boring. There really was very, very little to do.

The reason we were paid so well was that as the national electricity generating board, the CEGB was at the heart of a vital industry and no government dare allow any of its employees even to consider strike action. And the best way to buy them off was, to use Nye Bevan’s phrase about buying off the possibly troublesome consultant doctors when the National Health Service was being set up, to stuff their mouths with gold. Admittedly the paper had only five staff - the editor, his deputy and three of us sub-editors - but we were staff and so were equally well rewarded. The paper had eight editions and I was allocated the Midlands and South-West editions, which meant that I liaised with the area’s press officer who provided copy and laid out and subbed the my two editions.

Within hours of starting my job there, I realised that working there would no be plain sailing, though there was little chance we would be overoworked. On the Mail you would be promised copy on something or other and it could turn up between ten minutes and 3o minutes later. On Power News you would be promised copy ‘next week’ sometime. Until then - well, there was all too often quite literally nothing at all to do.

The CEGB worked flexitime and we clocked in very morning and out every night. We could clock in at any time between 7.3o in the morning and 6 at night. Naturally, there being so bloody little to do and work being so ineffably (I suppose I should say ‘effably’ - geddit?) boring, I took to turning up as late as possible and fucking off as early as possible.

The trouble was that as we were contracted to work a certain number of hours every month, towards the end of the month I was always ‘short’ and so had to start turning up at 7.30 in the morning and staying till 6 at night and being thoroughly bored for far longer every day. The company was based in Shirley, Solihull, and I lived just a short few miles away in the Maypole (the area was named after a huge pub there, since demolished) in the south of Kings Heath, Birmingham, so is it any wonder I drove home most lunchtimes for a cup of tea and a joint? No, it isn’t.

In addition to the very generous wages we were paid, we also got an extremely generous mileage allowance, so the number was to arrange whatever trips we could to ‘our areas’ simply to run up mileage and make a mint in expenses. For example, the paper was printed at Goodhead Press in Bicester, near Banbury, and we three subs and the deputy editor would spend a two days there every month reading proofs etc. The deputy editor lived in Cheltenham, but we subs all lived in the Birmingham conurbation area, and it would have been simple to arrange to meet up and go in one car - simple, but then none of us would have been able to coin it in expenses, so we all went in our own cars.

When I joined, one of my trips out was to meet the press officer of the South-West region in Bristol, and this was on Terry Pratchett. The press officer for the Midlands region was in the office next door, so sadly there was no huge sum in mileage to be claimed by seeing him. Terry was a year and a bit older than me, but we were both in our early thirties. He was already bald but in that young man way some men lose their hair very early on so their baldness doesn’t make them look old. The hat he always affected later as a well-known novelist would, I suspect, have been suggested by his publisher’s PR department to hide the baldness a little but also to give him some kind of ‘brand’ trademark, and if that was the case they certainly succeeded.

Terry and I were different types, from different molds. I thought him at the time something of a company man, a bit of a geek, the kind you wouldn’t be surprised had a wank every night playing his electric train set. I’ve never read one of his novels but I have gathered what they are about and it is no surprise.

In a way, while still working and before he took up writing full-time, he was born to be a press officer, and this hack doesn’t mean that much of a complimentary way. But he seemed decent enough at the first of our two meetings, though what he made of me I really don’t know. He was already writing on the side, but was not yet well-known and had only had two or three novels published by some small outfit.

About a year later (I was only with Power News for about 18 months, and couldn’t get out fast enough) we carried a story about how ‘the CEGB’s press officer in the South-West region has signed a big book deal with a bigger publisher and although he didn’t leave the CEGB until a few years later, that was the beginning of his career. I said Terry ‘dropped me in it’, though I’m sure it wasn’t malicious. It’s just that we lived on different planets. It happened like this.

Around that time one of the smaller old-fashioned power generating plants the CEGB owned was in Mary Tavy on the edge of Dartmoor in West Devon. It celebrated its 50th birthday in 1982, so there was a lunch for staff, retired and current. Terry, as the local press officer went along, of course, as did I, although there was no reason at all for me to go except to cream up in mileage expenses on the 396-mile round trip - I can’t remember the mileage rate, but if it was, say, 20p a mile, that trip

A good lunch

would have made me £80, a very respectable sum in 1982. (Christ, was I really ever that bloody venal? Yes, I believe I was.) There was also the lunch and I am one of those chaps - not at all fat, mark you, that must be established - who really can’t resist a free lunch. I can’t remember what we had for lunch, though I’m sure it was good and it went on for some time and, pertinently, the wine flowed very freely. And where there’s a free flow of reasonable wine you’ll always find me with an empty glass handy.

I didn’t get roaring drunk, that I can assure you, dear reader, but I most certainly didn’t stint myself, either. And that was it really, until the following week when I was called to the editor’s office to face him (he was called Dick someone or other, who drove an Austin Princess - well, someone had to - and preferred living in ‘new towns’ - again, someone has to) and his deputy (John Shaw a nice chap who was very heavily into rugby and highly suspicious of me - often arriving back at work after lunch quite obviously stoned wouldn’t have helped). They asked about ‘my behaviour’ at the Mary Tavy lunch and had been told ‘I had drunk quite a good deal’.

Well, yes to the second claim, but I really can’t at all remember doing anything out of order and pride myself on being quite polite when, as occasionally they do, needs must. In fact, I was rather baffled by what amounted to a bollocking because I didn’t feel I had done anything amiss. And for some reason it was only many years later that it dawned on me that Terry, later Sir Terry, Pratchett, was the source of the editor and his deputy’s ‘concern’. Had I attended that lunch working for and on behalf of a regular newspaper, any ‘behaviour’ I might have exhibited would never have merited comment. But it wasn’t bad, honest.

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