Book review: Modernity Britain Book Two A Shake of the Dice 1959-62, David Kynaston

kynaston

Book review: Modernity Britain Book Two A Shake of the Dice 1959-62, David Kynaston. Published by Bloomsbury.

They sometimes say that if you can remember the nineteen sixties, you weren’t there. Well, I genuinely wasn’t there, I know this for a fact. But after reading this, the second part of the third volume of David Kynaston’s masterful collection of books spanning the period from the Attlee victory in 1945 to its bitter denouement in May 1979, I sort of feel like I lived through it.
Or at least the first part of the Sixties. For this book takes us to the half way point in Kynaston’s saga. It is a nation in transition. The colossal changes of the Sixties have not quite began at the end of the book. The Beatles are no longer The Quarrymen. They have been to Hamburg but they have not fully taken off yet. Dudley Moore and Peter Cook’s names are getting mentioned but the satire boom has not yet really got going either. John Profumo is still just another minister in the government. Harold Macmillan is still in office although his hold on power looks less secure by 1962 than it did when the book starts after his General Election triumph of October 1959. Labour’s Hugh Gaitskell meanwhile survives a party crisis, a challenge from Harold Wilson and a brief Liberal Party revival after their sensational 1962 Orpington by-election win. But neither Mac or Hugh will turn out to be leading their parties by the time of the 1964 election.
This is a nation poised between the “Never had it so good” years and the “white heat” of another Harold’s technological revolution. Big important issues such a immigration, slum clearance, tower block building and the issue of British decline are being faced and in some cases botched. But it is Kynaston’s mixture of the lives of the stars, the stars of the future (new Tory MP Margaret Thatcher of Finchley begins to make her presence felt), the perfectly ordinary which makes these books such a delight.
In 1961, for example, rising Carry On star Kenneth Williams (then in his mid-thirties) complains of the heat. On the same day, the future Princess Diana is being born. In 1960, Labour politician Michael Foot asserts boldly (and probably wrongly) that “Like it or not, the most spectacular events of our age is the comparative success of the Communist economic systems…the achievement by any reckoning is stupendous”. Barbara Windsor, the 23 year old star of Joan Littlewood’s “Fings Ain’t What They Used To Be” scoffs at the idea that she might return to the Theatre Royal shreiking: “Are you kidding? I’m finished with all that ten quid a week lark. I’m not in this business for art’s sake, you know – I’m in it for the money. Besides, I’ve got too many expenses to keep up. I’ve just bought a telly.”
Beloved Dixon of Dock Green actor Jack Warden has an easy solution to the “problem” of a group of teenagers he sees loafing on the street. “Bring back the birch,” he says.
This is a marvelous book. Roll on the undoubtedly still more eventful next volume.

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DVD review: The Honourable Woman

Hon Woman

DVD review: The Honourable Woman
BBC Worldwide
When not laying into any of our other more successful institutions such as the National Health Service or our history of successful gun control, the dimmer elements of the British right wing often like to attack the BBC. Why can’t be as impartial and balanced as something like The Sun or The Daily Mail they ask? Sometimes they attack it for declining standards.
And guess what? Just as they are generally wrong about everything from the brilliance of Michael Gove to their dislike of the working classes, they are wrong about this too. Just when you think they might be right (perhaps during the preamble to an episode of Strictly Come Dancing), something like The Honourable Woman comes along and reminds everyone how great TV can be on the BBC.
Make no mistake: The Honourable Woman is serious high quality stuff. A gripping eight part drama which aired in July and August on BBC 2, some of Hugo Blick’s edgy subject might in fact have made it unsuitable for normal scheduled viewing had it been aired a month later. For this is a story of the Middle East albeit one set mostly in the UK. US actress Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Nessa Stein, a Briton and a leading figure in the pro-Israel lobby awarded a peerage for her tireless work in the Middle East. But the Steins are a family with a dark past and plenty of secrets. As children, Nessa and her brother Ephra (Andrew Buchan) witnessed the brutal murder of their father by an assassin involved in the Palestinian cause.
But this is clearly only the beginning of the family’s problems. What exactly is the nature of the relationship between Nessa and Atika, the nanny of Ephra’s children? Indeed, what exactly us Atika’s relationship with Ephra himself? What happened to Atika and Nessa on a visit to the Middle East eight years ago? Why are the secret services (notably Sir Hugh Haden-Hoyle played by the ever brilliant Stephen Rea) so interested? What has the death of a Palestinian man got to do with anything? Is Nessa’s sister in law Rachel (Katherine Parkinson) right to feel the family are in danger?
This is exemplary stuff, expertly written, frequently harrowing and well served by a superb cast which includes The It Crowd’s Parkinson in a major straight dramatic role and sees Hollywood actress Gyllenhaal (Secretary, Donnie Darko, The Dark Knight) delivering a flawless British accent and performance. Along with Line of Duty this is one of the best British TV dramas of 2014 so far.

General Election memories 2: 1983

Margaret Thatcher, Dennis Thatcher

Peterborough, June 9th 1983
I was six by the time of Margaret Thatcher’s second election victory in 1983.  I certainly remember the year if not the election itself.

I remember going to the Isle of Wight on holiday and falling over outside the saloon area of the Wild West Zone of Blackgang Chine (all now, apparently, under the sea). I remember my older brother (then 17) dragging me to see Return of the Jedi. I remember Bananaman, Danger Mouse and my teachers at Queens Drive Infants School. I actually remember being conscious that it was the year 1983, the first year I think where this ever happened, even though my memory banks seem to start in 1980. But other than noting that Labour leader Michael Foot’s surname was “Foot” and that this was, of course, funny, I don’t remember anything political at all.

This is perhaps a good thing.

thatcher 1983

Conditions were ripe for a landslide Labour victory. The Thatcherite monetarist experiment had failed dramatically. 1981 had been a good year for my family: my father got a new job, we moved from the then modern and acceptable area of Longthorpe to a big house in a more central and very nice part of Peterborough (no, this last bit isn’t an oxymoron). My younger brother was born and I started school, both developments that doubtless delighted me at the time. Helped by the Trotskyite adventurer known as “Roger Redhat”, I soon learned to read.

But aside from Charles and Diana’s wedding, 1981, seems to have marked a major low point in the fortunes of the country as a whole. Margaret Thatcher became one of the most unpopular leaders on record as a major recession kicked in. Unemployment surged to a post-war high, inflation went nearly as high as it had in 1974. Callaghan’s predictions of rioting on the streets if Thatcher won, were soon vindicated in Brixton and Toxteth. Alan Moore predicted a Labour victory (as well as a second Kennedy presidency) in V For Vendetta. Chris Mullin predicted a Tory-SDP Coalition in A Very British Coup.

Two years later, Margaret Thatcher led the Tories to their largest ever post-war election win. Labour were smashed. The Tory majority of 144 was smaller than Attlee’s in 1945 and Blair’s in 1997 and 2001, but was basically huge. What on Earth happened?

200203031254019Basically, the Falklands War happened. As Andrew Rawnsley has pointed out, Thatcher would definitely have had to resign had she not re-invaded the South Atlantic islands. But her strong war leadership gave a boost which effectively kept her in power for the rest of the decade.

But it wasn’t just that. The economy was starting to recover. And crucially 1981 was also the year Her Majesty’s Opposition pretty much collapsed completely.

Put simply: Roger Redhat proved too “red” for some, so Jonathan and Jennifer Yellow Hat broke away and formed their own group. But this weakened both, enabling Billy Bluehat to win.

Or put a bit more plainly: Labour coped very badly after their 1979 defeat. Labour has a tendency to go into a state of civil war after leaving government (and to Ed Miliband’s credit this didn’t happen at all in 2010. 2017 update: Ahem…) and in the Eighties this happened worse than ever. With the increasingly troublesome left winger Tony Benn opting out, the 1980 party leadership election was between two men Michael Foot and Denis Healey. Both were sixty something intellectuals first elected in the great landslide of 1945. Both would live into their late nineties (Healey is still alive. 2017 update: he died in 2015 age 98). But the left-winger Foot won unexpectedly, beating the more populist Healey. Many on the Right (some of whom may have sneakily voted for Foot to strengthen their own argument that Labour had slid into the loony Left) jumped ship forming a new centrist party, the Social Democratic Party (SDP). By the end of 1981, they were more popular than the “evil” Thatcherites on one side and the “Loony lefties” of Labour on the other. The SDP’s allure quickly faded after they unwisely allied with the Liberals.

1983 michael-foot

The practical upshot of this was that three parties went into the 1983 election.

Mrs Thatcher’s Tories were less popular than in 1979 (their share of the vote fell). But boosted by the jingoistic fervour of the post-Falklands War mood, a slick campaign and the keen support of the Murdoch press, they won handsomely. The only awkward moment of the campaign for the Tories was the public grilling the Prime Minister received during a TV phone-in over the sinking of the General Belgrano. But this was not from Labour but from a member of the public.

Labour’s campaign, in contrast, was a gaffe-prone shambles. Michael Foot was a thoroughly decent man, intellectual and ultimately less of a “loony” than Thatcher would prove to be. But he looked terrible and scruffy on TV. Labour were furthermore undisciplined and all over the place. It is obligatory to repeat Gerald Kaufman’s remark that the manifesto represented “the longest suicide note in history” at this point and I will happily do so as it is very clever. The manifesto was indeed unusually long and supported unilateral disarmament. The world has only occasionally been closer to nuclear war than it was in 1983 but only a fifth of the UK saw full nuclear disarmament as a solution.  Labour came close to coming third behind the SDP vote-wise but the unfair electoral system ensured the SDP barely won any seats.

1983 everett

Would Thatcher have been re-elected without the Falklands War? I actually suspect she would have been, though the margin would have been narrower. Did the SDP deny Labour victory? Again, I suspect the answer is “no”. Labour were heading for defeat anyway. Had Healey been elected leader, Labour wouldn’t have split, the defeat would have been smaller. Labour may have recovered earlier, perhaps returning to power in 1992.

1983 Blair

As it was, the election was a disaster. New Labour MP Anthony Blair surely observed that Labour had a long way to go policy and presentation-wise but to his credit never seems to have considered joining the SDP. Tony Benn lost his seat.

And for me this is the most recent General Election I have no memory of.

And frankly, I think I was lucky to miss it.

London Tony Benn

 

Ten people you WILL meet if you go speed dating

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Whether you on a serious mission for love or just fancy a bit of a laugh, speed dating can be lots of fun. But don’t be surprised if you bump into one or all of the following…

1. The no-nonsense type

“Do you want to get married? How about children? How many children do you want? Do you want to start a family?”

Er, not this minute, no. Granted you only have three or minutes to get some basic info but sometimes a “hello” or a “how’s your evening so far?” can work wonders. There will be time for them to find out the rest later. Or, in this case, probably not.

2. The total nonsense type

“If you were a colour, what colour would you be?”

The exact opposite of the above, some people seem to think asking the most obscure questions ever will unlock some deeply hidden doorway into your personality while asking silly questions like: “what is your name?” or “what job do you do?” will not. In reality, these types usually end up revealing very little other than that you don’t want to spend any more time in their company.

3. The time traveller

Three minutes is not a long time but like Doctor Who some people are capable of stretching it to apparently infinite lengths. Admittedly, this works both ways. A good speed dater will make three minutes last three seconds. A bad one will leave you feeling like you’ve been trapped in an awkward loveless marriage for thirty nine years.

4. Er…haven’t we “met”?

Yes, it’s surprising how often speed daters bump into someone they’ve met before. In fact, sometimes they’ve done more than just “meet” them before. This can be awkward.

5. The sex seeker

Let’s face it: some people are looking for an enduring permanent relationship. But some people just go speed dating in the hope of easy sex. Perhaps you are the same? Perhaps you both like each other? In which case, perhaps dispense with the box ticking formalities and go for it. But be warned: they may well be at the same speed dating event next month (see point 4).

6. The special interest

A surprising number of people are only capable of discussing one thing and will bore on all night about their specialist subject. This may range from; why the new Doctor Who is great, why astrology is actually not stupid at all to the ups and downs of their most recent relationship. Which turns out to have been in 2006.

7. The friend

Speed dating is a lot more fun if you go along with a friend of the opposite sex. This gives you a welcome respite as you both get a few minutes to catch up on the evening from an alternative perspective. On the other hand, this probably isn’t the best time to reveal your long standing undying love for your friend, should you harbour any such feelings.

8. The interloper

Although they are not really supposed to do it, some people intercept these events as a means to promote some other social event or organisation. Clue: they are sometimes about twenty years than everyone else.

9. The joker

Some people just don’t take these things seriously. Be wary of anyone who is clearly drunk or otherwise intoxicated (some people have been known to take the “speed” bit of speed dating a bit too literally). Also watch out for anyone who attempts to do the ice bucket challenge during the evening. Or any girls who have chosen to hire a wedding dress for the night just to freak all the men out.

10. The norm

Despite all the above, most people who go speed dating are relatively normal. So, relax and enjoy your evening.

General Election memories 1: 1979

Politics - First Female Prime Minister - Downing Street - 1979

Peterborough.   May 3rd 1979.

I’ll let you into a secret. I don’t actually remember the 1979 General Election at all. I was born in December 1976 so was not even two and a half years old n May 1979. I’m not sure I even knew an election was going on, let alone one of the four most pivotal General Elections of the 20th century. Had you asked me, I doubt I’d have had any clear views on either the merits of monetarism, the impact of the Winter of Discontent or even on who should succeed James Callaghan as leader of the Labour Party.

I was basically an idiot.

Instead, I wasted my time with such trifles as learning to talk (something I’ve still not entirely mastered), filling time between episodes of Jamie and the Magic Torch and throwing tantrums. I lived in Peterborough with my parents (who were both then about the same age that I am now), an older brother who was just entering his teens and a sister who was nearly ten.

I’m not convinced I would have enjoyed the election much anyway. I have grown up to be a Labour supporter and 1979 was to prove a bad year for Labour. Labour had been heading for victory only a few months before with Prime Minister Jim Callaghan always more popular than his opponent, the eventual victor, Margaret Thatcher. This fact suggests to me in itself that Labour’s stint in office was not the unmitigated disaster some have subsequently claimed it was. But the series of crippling strikes dubbed “the Winter of Discontent” wrecked Labour’s chances. The Tories fought a slick campaign. Thatcher held a calf in public at one point. Tory posters depicted long unemployment queues (in fact portrayed by Young Conservatives) proclaimed “Labour isn’t working”. Some might think this a bit of a cheek in retrospect. Unemployment was at 1.3 million and falling in May 1979. By 1980, under Thatcher, it had hit two million, a new post-war high. By 1982, it was at three million. By 1986, 3.4 million!

labour-isnt-working

At any rate, Labour lost. Peterborough’s Labour MP Michael Ward fell to Tory Dr Brian Mawhinney. An unknown named John Major would win his neighbouring seat of Huntington for the Tories. Mawhinney later revealed had been inspired to stand by a divine voice speaking to him on a visit to Peterborough Cathedral. At any rate, although no one knew it then, he and the Tories would hold power until 1997 (when Mawhinney cannily switched seats), then a tremendously futuristic science fiction year by which I, then a toddler, would be old enough to vote myself. Michael Ward died in 2009, but his daughter Alison Seabeck is an MP and Shadow Minister today. Her husband Nick Raynsford is also a Labour MP.

The Tories won a majority of 43. Labour got a bigger share of the vote than David Cameron’s Tories did in 2010. Callaghan (who, if he were still alive, would now be 102, lost despite being personally more popular than his opponent Mrs Thatcher. Ed Miliband please take note: the least popular of the two main party leaders has never won a General Election in the thirty-five years since. 1979 was unusual.

James_Callaghan

Britain thus had its first woman Prime Minister albeit one who didn’t agree with Women’s Lib and didn’t even seem to like any other women very much. The Sun went Tory for the first time ever in 1979 and many followed its election day headline’s suggestion to “Give the girl a chance!”

I was blissfully unaware of all this, too afraid of fictional witches as portrayed in storybooks and on TV to worry about real life ones.

“Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is despair, may we bring hope,” the new Prime Minister said on arriving in Downing Street, claiming to be quoting Francis of Assisi.

In fact, St. Francis never said any such thing and we would soon learn that as an introduction to the Thatcher era, these words would prove staggeringly inappropriate.

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A century of George Brown

Brown Streisand

September 2014 marks the centenary of the birth of one of the most eccentric Labour politicians in British political history. George Brown was a leading figure in Harold Wilson’s government and deserves to be remembered as more than just a drunk. He was, however, an erratic sometimes aggressive figure who will always be associated with Private Eye’s famous euphemism ” tired and emotional”.
Like the “unwell” in “Jeffrey Bernard is unwell”, tired and emotional was usually taken to mean “pissed again”.
Although he rose to be Foreign Secretary and almost became party leader, Brown’s career was blighted by his tendency to get drunk on very small amounts of alcohol. Ironically, Harold Wilson, Brown’s chief rival who ultimately bested him by becoming party leader and then PM is now known to have been effectively an alcoholic while in office. But he concealed it much better than Brown did.
Here are some of the highs and lows of Brown’s career (he is no relation to Gordon Brown):

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1914: Brown is born in Lambeth. He will prove one of the few genuinely working class figures in Harold Wilson’s Labour cabinet of 1964-70. His father is a van driver who is beaten up during the 1926 General Strike.
1945: Is elected MP for Belper in the post-war Labour landslide.
1956: Has a row with Soviet leader Khrushchev during a special private dinner in honour of the Soviet leader’s visit. Khrushchev is later quoted as saying that if he were British he would vote Tory.
1950s: Brown launches a physical assault on colleague Richard Crossman after the latter criticised him in the press. Crossman is physically larger than Brown and ends the assault by sitting on him.
1963: Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell (a Brown ally) dies suddenly. Writing in his diary, Tony Benn expects Brown to be elected as his successor. In the end, he is beaten by Harold Wilson, something Brown never gets over, partly because if concerns about Brown’s private behaviour. Some see the choice as between “a crook and a drunk”.
Brown famously humiliated himself on the evening of President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963. https://chrishallamworldview.wordpress.com/2013/11/20/the-strange-case-of-eli-wallach-george-brown-and-the-death-of-jfk/
1964: Labour return to power with Brown as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economic Affairs in charge of the National Plan.
Brown’s car breaks down on one occasion as he attempts to transport the only copy of the Plan. He flags down a bearded man and a pretty young girl in a Mini (leaving his driver behind) ordering them to take him to Whitehall, rudely insisting that he is on “important government business”. Rather surprisingly, they agree to do so. On being dropped off, Brown realises he has left the Plan in the backseat of the Mini. Luckily, for him the couple return it before morning.
1968: Brown finally resigns as Foreign Secretary. During his tenure, he has threatened to resign eighteen times, a post-war record. He attempts to retract his resignation but fails, effectively marking the end of his political career. He remains Deputy Prime Minister until 1970.
1970: Brown goes down fighting in the 1970 General Election, his defeat after 25 years in Belper inevitable, not because of his behaviour but actually due to boundary changes (Labour unexpectedly lose power in the election anyway, returning in 1974).
During one speech in Norfolk, a pretty girl in the audience shouts “Never!” Brown breaks off to say:
“My dear girl, there are some big words which little girls should not use and “never” is one of them.
Later in an early version of the 2001 “Prescott punch” Brown punches a long haired student heckler to the ground. Bizarrely, a number of journalists assist Brown. “I left one long-haired young man…very surprised indeed…” Brown later wrote “when he found himself lying on the floor as the result of the accidental collision of his chin with my fist.”
Brown loses Belper and never returns as an MP. He changes his surname to George-Brown to ensure that on receiving a peerage both names are included in the title Lord George-Brown.
1976: Brown resigns from the party. The Times reports “Lord George-Brown drunk is a better man than Harold Wilson sober. Brown falls over during the announcement, widely assumed, wrongly in fact, due to drunkeness.
By coincidence, Wilson resigns suddenly as PM only a few days later.
1981: Like many right wing pro-European Labour politicians, Brown joins the fledgling SDP.
1982: Brown, aged nearly seventy, leaves his wife after thirty five years, to move in with his personal assistant, then in her thirties. He does not change his will, however, and Lady George-Brown inherits the estate on his death.
1985: Brown converts to Catholicism shortly before his death from cirrhosis of the liver, aged 71.

Brown and JFK

Book Review: Joss Whedon: Geek King of the Universe by Amy Pascale

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Review: Joss Whedon: Geek King of the Universe

Amy Pascale

Published by: Aurum Press

Joss Whedon was born to be a writer. Not only were both his father and grandfather, successful writers of radio and TV but he even managed to have an unhappy childhood. How could he fail?

As one of Whedon’s colleagues puts it: “if Joss had had a single happy day at high school, none of us would be here.” He proved equally socially awkward in the UK as well as the US, attending Winchester School in Hampshire the early Eighties. In short, he was geek long before it was fashionable

As an adult, Joss Whedon would become one of the most accomplished TV and movie writers of the last twenty years. But he’s certainly had his ups and downs as Amy Pascale’s wonderfully thorough biography reveals.

His first job, writing for sitcom Roseanne was generally frustrating with only one of his scripts really getting to the screen, albeit in a particularly good episode in which cynical daughter Darlene (Sara Gilbert) has a poem read out at school. Whedon’s first film also had a neat twist: what if one of the dippy high school girls (a “Buffy”) typically killed off in horror films asserted herself and became a vampire slayer herself? But Whedon was young and lost control of the project. The end result in 1992 (the film Buffy the Vampire Slayer starring Kristy Swanson) was technically a hit but pleased few people who watched it, least of all Whedon himself. Something similar happened with Whedon’s later attempt to revive the Alien franchise, Alien Resurrection. Whedon’s script was good but the directors, the Jeunet brothers went their own way.

Whedon’s attempts to save Waterworld from disaster also fell on deaf ears largely due to resistance from star Kevin Costner. Whedon found the production of the 1995 sci-fi film in disarray “This guy has gills man! What on Earth were you guys thinking?” Whedon recalls thinking on his arrival.

However, when Whedon’s script doctoring has been given full rein as in the cases of Toy Story and Speed, Whedon not only “saved” both movies, but made them amongst the most memorable films of the Nineties. Actress Sandra Bullock to some extent owes her career to Whedon’s love of strong female characters for her winning turn in her breakthrough role.

It was the return of another such character Buffy, now played by Sarah Michelle Gellar now on TV which brought about Whedon’s most perfectly realised project and the main topic for much of this book. Building on the foundations of groundbreaking mid-Nineties teen dramas My So Called Life and Party of Five, Buffy was never massive ratings hit but nevertheless changed TV forever. With the characters speaking in their own witty highly sophisticated lingo reflecting Whedon’s love of Shakespeare, Buffy also spawned classic episodes Hush (in all of the main characters are temporarily rendered speechless), The Body (in which Buffy’s mother dies suddenly, echoing the death of Whedon’s own mother ten years earlier) and Once More With Feeling (the hugely acclaimed musical episode).

Buffy also spawned the successful spin off Angel. Yet Whedon’s career faced a setback in 2003 and 2004 when he suddenly went from being the master of three series – Buffy, Angel and sci-fi drama Firefly – to the master of none when all three shows ended. Just as Whedon revived the failed film of Buffy for TV with huge success, acclaimed but short lived TV show Firefly was revived for the big screen as Serenity. But though good, the film too failed at the box office.

Although clearly a huge Whedon fan Amy Pascale never shirks from dealing with Whedon’s failures (TV show Dollhouse flopped, various projects such as an animated series of Buffy never got made) to his successes which include a production of Much Ado About Nothing to the current TV series Agents of SHIELD as well as the recent huge smash hit movie Avengers Assemble. Amy Pascale has produced an essential guide to one of the greatest screenwriters of our time as he enters his fiftieth year.