Michael Palin : Thirty Years


pre-show at the Town Hall

Middlesbrough, Michael Palin once claimed, was a place that had remained univisted in his many travels. Last night that situation was rectified. And seemingly he rather liked it (or at least didn’t break into outright shrinking disgust).

Middlesbrough Towm Hall was pretty much full (of people of a certain age it must be said). Perhaps, he mused, all the younger folk had decided to forego him for the Peace gig at the neighbouring Empire.

I will admit to MP being a bit of a hero of mine. When I launched my abortive teenage bid to assault the bastions of Oxbridge privilege, Brasenose College Oxford was the one I chose, purely on the grounds that it was Palin’s alma mater. and when Peter Ustinov passed away, I submitted a nomination for Palin to be chancellor of Durham University, on the grounds that he was a man of the world (not in the Nudge, Nudge sense, but in the internationalist one). So seeing him alone, after seeing the Pythons last year, seemed an obvious thing to do.

Most of Palin’s schtick, if one can call it that, seems grounded in the idea of him being the ‘nice’ Python, and certainly the one who is most diffident and self-effacing. If anything, this show seems to reinforce that image. There are lots of great stories, some about Python, some of his travels, but all delivered in the beautifully low-key style of a man who really can’t believe his luck that he’s made a living getting paid for things he loved doung, and that he’s got away with it for so long. A key theme always seems to be the self-doubt that, at the start of most projects, anything he does will ever work, matched only by the surprise that it did, and the wonder at how bad he is at predicting it.

The stories are interspersed with clips, taking in early Python, through the movies, Ripping Yarns (time to break out that DVD again, methinks) and memories of worling George Harrison, Spike Milligan and Kevin Kiline among others, as well as being pranked by Cleese while filming in Finland. He is rightly proud of other work, such as his role in GBH, his film American Friends amd his recent role in Remember Me (which comes up in the brief Q&A at the end of the evening).

In fact, when you look back, the 71 year old Palin has had a wide and varied career, but its all related in such a beautifully unprepossessing way that’s its not until you’ve got to the end of proceedings that you realise what a talent he really is, and what a body of work he has

It was a wonderful night: funny, thoughtful and in keeping with the man. I didn’t really want to drag the “National Treasure” cliche out here but, well, he is.

English no more

The latest in an occasional series of doggerel from my own diseased hand.

And, yes, I know that this is “English”, but I’ve just come back to this after finding a fragment I wrote last year, around the time of the IndyRef, so the idea of Englishness was foremost in my mind at the time. Given recent events, the reactionary, brutish part of the British nation seems to be be more English than anything else, so I thought it was appropriate to leave it there.

What’s happened to England?
The tolerant and free
Now you’ll sing when you’re told to
Then dance on TV

You’ll read what they sell you
You’ll watch what you’re told
Then they all cry “press freedom”
And hack people’s phones

So, screw the poor!
Hammer the weak!
These are the habits
the new English keep

The banks took our money
We’ll be paying for years
We’ve mortgaged our future
They’ve preyed on our fears

To the unions they said,
“Boys, you’ve had your day!
How dare you strike
for a fair day’s pay!”

So, screw the poor!
Hammer the weak!
These are the habits
the new English keep

The “poor” are whining
The system’s in tatters
But no one is poor –
at least no one who matters!

You’ll know your place
And bow to your betters
And they’ll try to convince you
“All in it together!”

So, screw the poor!
Hammer the weak!
These are the habits
the new English keep

And then there’s the cripples
Who just won’t shut up
You’re all fit for work, now!
Why don’t you get up?

Never mind if you’re dying
Never mind if you’re dead
You’re all workshy skivers
You’re not worth your bread

So, screw the poor!
Hammer the weak!
These are the habits
the new English keep

England’s full!
There’s no room here!
They’re overrunning us
Year on year

Send ’em all back!
The bombs aren’t that bad!
They’re here for the money
Send them back to Assad!

They’re screwing the poor
And hammering the weak
These are not habits
the English should keep

They are not my people
This is not my land
I am English no more

Stewart Lee: A Room With A Stew

Only a week late, but finally the chance to sit down and write some stuff.

I’ve liked Stewart Lee for a long time, back from the first Fist of Fun episodes I heard on Radio 1 in the early 1990s (I wasn’t really aware of goodies like Lionel Nimrod or their work on On The Hour then), but this was the first time I’d actually managed to see Stew in the flesh. Just a week before I’d seen his erstwhile partner Richard Herring for a third time (very funny as per, incidentally), so was looking forward to a bit of slightly trainspotter-y completism.

This show was all about working up material in half-hour or so chunks for the fourth series of Comedy Vehicle, which is due to air later this year, As a result it differed fairly markedly in pacing and structure from a usual stage show. But in many ways this was not too important. The only real test was: was he funny. Well, yes, Yes he was. Very, very funny indeed.

If you’ve listened to any/much of Lee’s material before, you’ll realise that it’s a fairly complex, dense multi-layered affair. There are several layers of irony and misdirection, starting with who this “Stewart Lee” person is in the first place. Most of the time, he is “the comedian Stewart Lee”, an avatar of all the imagined neuroses and petty prejudices both we and he imagine he lives with. When he puts this carapace on he deals in rhythm and repetition, so that a riff about the infamously splenetic Rod Liddle is strung out into an hysterical list of stains (trust me, it works). At the start of each segment, there’s a brief glance to the watch to check timing, and he’s off, goading the audience at their inability to laugh at the correct jokes at the right times, and missing all the best bits.

Between sequences, he breaks the fourth wall a bit and stops being “the comedian Stewart Lee”, to speak to the audience in more relaxed terms, talking about the last time he was in town (at an open air gig with Jack Whitehall), the theatre space in the Spa complex, and also the jackets in the dressing rooms for Billy Pearce’s summer season. It looks like he’s actually enjoying the experience. The audience certainly is, and is in on the joke of this confrontational persona he creates, constantly telling us it’s not supposed to be funny, and that he doesn’t want laughter, he wants knowing nods and sardonic chuckles to measure his worth. It doesn’t work; we laugh like drains. It’s great to see a true craftsman at work, someone who is properly, properly good at what he does. It’ll be interesting to see how much the finished material differs from what he showed us. I look forward to it.

Mass Debating

Another day, another election debate story. This time, it appears as though the Dear Leader has insisted that he’s only going to take part in one of the so-called election debates. Inevitably all the other Westminster chimps have reflexively accused him of being “scared”, and of being, at heart, a wet and a weed, chin chiz.

Unfortunately, again, few come out of this very well. First is Cameron, who clearly doesn’t want to do any debating at all. And that’s because he’s Prime Minister. In 2010, as leader of the opposition, he could stand and take pot shots at an incumbent PM because he didn’t have a record to defend. But now he does, and frankly it’s not altogether stellar. It is pretty arrogant to start laying down the terms under which he will deign to participate in something he said was so central to democracy back in 2010. But it’s also fairly mystifying. For a while now, the Conservative election machine has been seeking to make the leader of the opposition look like a hopeless dweeb, and the press for the most part have followed that narrative. But if Miliband is so useless, why won’t Cameron share a platform with him? Is it because, in spit of the bluster, and Miliband’s obvious lack of telegenic charisma, Cameron is scared stiff that Beaker might actually be intellectually too good for him in the long form debates, without a bunch of braying half-wits in the Commons to drown out any form of incisive exchange. If the fiasco of PMQs has show us nothing else, it’s that Cameron, for all his much-vaunted  PR oll-slick smoothness really struggles to keep up when he gets off-piste. There have been times where that has been excruciatingly obvious over the course of the Parliament.

Of course, now Nick Clegg has said that he will happily take the Prime Minister’s place and represent the Government. But Clegg would happily turn up for the opening of an envelope right now, if only to try and remind people that he’s still there. He’s an irrelevance and should be forgotten. Miliband’s team have of course seized on this and are playing the usual ad hominem card to make their man look good (for a given value of good).

And then there are the broadcasters. They’re having a beanfeast! Lots of lovely coverage to fill up all the rolling news channels! One of the principal problems with the debates as they stand are that they continue a process of turning what is essentially a collective endeavour (Cabinet Government) into a US-style presidential circus freak-show. Actually, what would be more useful, if we’re going to do this, is strip the idea back a bit. By all means have debates, but focus them on issues. So, for example: take the economy, or education. Instead of hauling the leaders up, get the party leads on the issues to take part in individual debates. It spreads responsibility through the parties, and allows for individual issues to be given appropriate consideration. But won’t happen. Why not? Ratings, dear boy. Ratings.Who’s going to sit through all of that crud?

So instead, what we’ll be saddled with is the usual: showbiz for ugly people, performing a set of rigidly defined rituals to a watching audience who will hope for more enlightenment than they’ll  actually get, and where everyone’s job is to not answer questions as artfully as possible so as not to alienate anyone.

No thanks, I’m not going to watch any of them. Life’s too short.

Policy Meeting

GCSE Politics syllabus. Section 27.”How Policy is Made”.

Conservative Central Office, late September.

A number of eager, bright-eyed, floppy-haired young SpAds, are hunched around a table in discussion. They’re clearly here for the long haul, because there are numerous cups, saucers & half-empty plates of biscuits on the table. In short, this is the detritus of a meeting that has been in progress for some time. These young guns work for Iain Duncan-Smith, and they’ve been wracking their brains trying to put together a compelling offering for his upcoming turn at the Party Congress Conference.

“Well, clearly, baldy’s speech at conference is in a few days. We know the Chancellor’s going to cut benefits, and he is going to want something that will grab the twinset and blue rinsers in the audience. Now, we already have the pre-paid benefit card idea, but I’m not sure that’s going to be enough.”

“It’s a start though, isn’t it? I mean, Ollie there was at school with one of the chaps who put together the tender for the preferred bidder for the card contract. Bloody good bloke, isn’t he Olls?”

“Totes. I even got a go on his sister at Henley, last year. I had to give him my sister’s number, though. Don’t think she was all that pleased, tbh.”

“Still, the point of the benefits card is to make claimants visible, and to stigmatise them into getting a job. It might make paying them easier, but what we really want is for being a benefits claimant to be properly shameful again, just like the old days when the unwashed knew their place, Indolent feckless layabouts that they are. The card is a start”

“Maybe we could make them wear a uniform too?  I love those orange ones the Yanks use. Lovely colour. And a friend of Pa’s supplies them to the US government. Maybe you could give him a call?”

“Nice idea, but no. Too pricey right now. The redtops would have a field day; We’d never get it to float with the austerity story we’ve been told to hammer home, even if we try to go with the Law & Order line.”

“How about hi-vis tabards, like the ones the DoJ use with offenders?”

“No then you wouldn’t be able to tell a feckless scrounger from a parking attendant. Wouldn’t want to risk your F-Type now, would you?”

“I didn’t know you could tell the difference anyway.”

“Nice one, Gyles!”

“How about badges? They’re quite cheap and we can make them fairly big, can’t w?. Maybe we can embed a chip in them too, so they can wear their payment card for easy use? And that way they’d need to wear it all the time, too.”


“So what will this badge look like?”

“Well, apparently, some awful bright science spod at a dreadfully dull drinks party was telling me that human eyesight is better with certain colours and frequencies. We supposedly have best sensitivity somewhere around 540nm or something. I didn’t get it all, but he sounded terribly sure when he said it, so it must be true.”

“So what colour’s that then?

“Green, or yellow. somewhere round there, anyway.”

“Oh dear . Green’s a big no-no at the mo. Apparently DC’s not so keen on anything green any more. Says it sends the wrong message.”

“Ok, so green’s out. That leaves us with the yellow. Bit LibDem for my liking, but it’ll have to do. What about shape?”

“It needs to be distinctive, and fairly simple.”

“We could do round. Put a smiley on it?”

“Hmm. Possibly. Though that might send out mixed messages. You know, that they’re happy to be the way they are, or that we’re just, you know, taking the piss somewhat. Might annoy Owen Jones, though. Fun, yes, but possibly awkward for IDS to explain on the TV with Brillo-pad Neil”

“Well, seeing as the proles are all obsessed with the X-Factor and being a pop star, why not make them star-shaped, so they can all be ‘stars’?”

“Brilliant, Alex! Tap into the popular culture vote, and they’ll even want to wear them too!”

“So, chaps, we’re agreed:  our conference proposal for IDS to make the new pre-payment cards for benefit claimants big, yellow star-shaped wearable contactless payment devices. It’s a winner! Lunch everyone? There’s a really amazing chi-chi place just over in Hammersmith”

[meeting adjourns due to Godwin’s Law]

The Morning After

I stayed up until the bitter end, only giving up once the actual result had been confirmed.

The feeling, quite honestly, was one of relief.

I had hoped that the Scots would vote to stay in the union, but I couldn’t honestly have blamed them for voting “Yes”, given the decades of frustration they (and we) have experienced at the hands of what seems to be an increasingly kakocratic Westminster.  What is abundantly clear is that the one thing that really isn’t on the cards any more is no change at all.

And the Prime Minister is still in danger of blowing it. Even his promises this morning seems timorous and backsliding. The demands, not just in Scotland, but in Wales and in the English regions (Yorkshire has a bigger population than Scotland, for example) fir change are getting louder and louder.  And then people like John Redwood keep asking about who is speaking for England might wish to ruminate on what they think they mean when they say “England”, and whether there is even a single English voice at all. The thought of Westminster retrenching and folding in on itself, leaving the regions in exactly the same hole they are in now, makes me sick to my stomach.

Perhaps this is the time for the English regions to assert their own powers, just eight months from an election and approaching the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta,. Now perhaps is the time when we can push for the real reform of the constitutional settlement. And not cosmetic, but a real change in the balance of power, returning it to the places where it is best exercised: nearest to where it is needed.

This morning, David Cameron talked about “the settled will of the people”. Well, the only thing we truly know of that will is that is demanding major change. Anything else will not do, and failure to deliver it will cost.

“For a’ that, an’ a’ that..”

Well, haven’t the last 48 hours or so been…interesting?

As soon as the first poll putting the “Yes” campaign ahead in Scotland hit the media, you could almost see the smoke trails left by the Westminster politicians (most notably our not much esteemed Chancellor) sprinting their way into the TV studios to mount an impassioned defence of the Union and talk about all those powers that the Scots would get if they would only do the sensible thing and vote, “No”.

Unfortunately, it’s at least six months too late.

It would be easy to mark the scramble as a sign of an unorganised panic, but I’m not convinced it’s the case. It’s think it’s a make of something worse: complacency. I think that the options presented since Sunday have been on the table since almost the start (in fact, it’s pretty much a racing certainty they were). It’s just that members of the establishment didn’t think they needed to be aired, simply because the Scots were going to fall into line and vote “No” anyway, and comfortably too. Sunday’s (solitary) poll putting “Yes” in front was perhaps the dog whistle that roused the troops, and perhaps seeded just a little alarm.

As far I am concerned, however, the roots of this whole problem lay earlier, and with the Prime Minister. It was David Cameron who made the serious tactical error (as some, including me, thought it was at the time) to insist on a binary referendum. Not allowing the third DevoMax option from the start has allowed the debate to polarise in the way it has. The third option would, likely as not, have been preferred. There is no appetite for the status quo, but there is disquiet about a full split. But now, the way the vote is constructed now forces voters to weigh the risk of going it alone against, not simply a Tory government, but an entire political establishment that appears to be unmoored from what Scottish (and, while we’re at it, Northern English) values have historically been. “No” campaigners have tried to claim that the main impetus in the “Yes” camp is against a current administration in Westminster, but it isn’t. It’s deeper. It’s al about a political system that is disconnected from us, and receding. This disconnect is not just a temporary one, but an evolving divide.

That divide in Scotland is just one manifestation of a wider schism within the UK as a whole. Whichever way the Scots vote, change is coming. Many in the North of England, and in the South West, for example, feel much empathy with the Scots. The mood of these regions is not captured by an electoral or political system that appears to ignore and demote their concerns to that of more adjuncts to what is perceived to be the “main” business of the country. And that business is increasingly concentrated in the metropolitan South East. Most of the major capital investments that are being proposed (and which we will all subsidise) look to be mostly serving those regions: the arguments about a London airport, Crossrail; Crossrail 2; HS2. Osborne’s tardy cheerleading for investment in the North seems to be entirely motivated by the rush of an oncoming election, not by any real long-term desire to invest. And just as likely to vanish again afterwards.

I remain conflicted. On the one hand, I do not want to see those with whom I feel the most kinship leave us. It would be hard to lose friends such as those. bUt, at the same time, I can easily why they would want to go. Only they can decide.

However, even if the Scots decide to vote to remain in the union on September 18 (and I think they might, but it’s going to be very close indeed) things are going to change. The DevoMax being offered might not even be enough, and it may even provoke the unloved regions to finally make a move to seize some control of their own destinies too. Whichever way the Scots vote, this is a moment for all of us to push for the values that that Burns poem extols, and changing the way we go about it. We have to take it.