Read this letter…

Posted on February 27, 2013

…and tell me if anyone could do so and still think love between two people of the same sex isn’t the same as “normal” love, or that it shouldn’t be recognised just as much through marriage as love of any other sort.

The letter, republished by the excellent Letters of Note blog, was written from one World War Two GI to another, his lover, on their anniversary:

Dear Dave,

This is in memory of an anniversary — the anniversary of October 27th, 1943, when I first heard you singing in North Africa. That song brings memories of the happiest times I’ve ever known. Memories of a GI show troop — curtains made from barrage balloons — spotlights made from cocoa cans — rehearsals that ran late into the evenings — and a handsome boy with a wonderful tenor voice. Opening night at a theatre in Canastel — perhaps a bit too much muscatel, and someone who understood. Exciting days playing in the beautiful and stately Municipal Opera House in Oran — a misunderstanding — an understanding in the wings just before opening chorus.

Drinks at “Coq d’or” — dinner at the “Auberge” — a ring and promise given. The show 1st Armoured — muscatel, scotch, wine — someone who had to be carried from the truck and put to bed in his tent. A night of pouring rain and two very soaked GIs beneath a solitary tree on an African plain. A borrowed French convertible — a warm sulphur spring, the cool Mediterranean, and a picnic of “rations” and hot cokes. Two lieutenants who were smart enough to know the score, but not smart enough to realize that we wanted to be alone. A screwball piano player — competition — miserable days and lonely nights. The cold, windy night we crawled through the window of a GI theatre and fell asleep on a cot backstage, locked in each other’s arms — the shock when we awoke and realized that miraculously we hadn’t been discovered. A fast drive to a cliff above the sea — pictures taken, and a stop amid the purple grapes and cool leaves of a vineyard.

The happiness when told we were going home — and the misery when we learned that we would not be going together. Fond goodbyes on a secluded beach beneath the star-studded velvet of an African night, and the tears that would not be stopped as I stood atop the sea-wall and watched your convoy disappear over the horizon.

We vowed we’d be together again “back home,” but fate knew better — you never got there. And so, Dave, I hope that where ever you are these memories are as precious to you as they are to me.

Goodnight, sleep well my love.

Brian Keith

Has Shami Chakrabarti actually read George Orwell?

Posted on January 29, 2013

“In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing”, wrote George Orwell in his famous 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language‘.

Imagine his disappointment at learning that this statement still holds true 67 years later. He would have been frustrated to find that one of the worst examples of bad political writing was an article in praise of his own essay on the subject.

The offending piece appeared in the Guardian last Thursday, written by Shami Chakrabarti. It was so bad, that it leads me to suspect that she hasn’t actually read ‘Politics and the English Language’ – or that she hasn’t read it all the way through.

Had she done so, at the end of the essay she would have found Orwell’s six rules for writing good English:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

They are an excellent guide, to which I try to stick – though not always successfully, as I’m sure at least one reader will point out in the comments.

Shami, however, utterly disregards them in her Guardian article. Let’s run through them one by one:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

“While [Orwell] illustrated this powerful theory with examples of ugly, unclear and ultimately misleading prose, today the Orwell prize, established in his name, positively celebrates work that speaks truth to power and shines a light on the darkest distortions of fact and argument.”

Oh dear. “Speaks truth to power” is perhaps the most tired phrase still loping around Westminster, like a much-hunted fox that refuses to die. As for “shines a light on the darkest [insert negative concept]”, to describe that as something we are “used to seeing in print” would be the understatement of the year. To combine the two in a sentence which claims the Orwell prize as the heir to his principles is embarrassing.

Nor are those the only breaches of Orwell’s first rule. Others include “spins in his grave”, “as old as the hills” and even an apparently straight-faced deployment of “Orwellian”, only two paragraphs after she described is as an “over-used adjective”.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

I am going to give you one quote: “securocrats”. The verbal equivalent of swallowing a Full English Breakfast made out of Lego.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

“positively celebrates”

Can you celebrate something negatively?

“creeping cancer”

A breach of rule (i), compounded by the author’s inexplicable decision to make cancer more creepy.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

Hooray, a rule which survives unscathed!

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

“Is that proportionate justification for building legal and physical architecture requiring cameras and microphones in every living room and bedroom in the land – just in case?”

That sentence would work as well – or even better – without the words “building legal and physical architecture”. After all, what is “legal architecture” other than “laws”, and what is “physical architecture” other than “architecture”?

“Is that proportionate justification for requiring cameras and microphones in every living room and bedroom in the land – just in case?” is still far from the world’s prettiest sentence, but it’s more accessible and direct than the jargon-bloated original.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Whether the article would descend into barbarism without the quotes I’ve selected is for others to judge.

What is certain is that the man the article praises would have been infuriated by the English used to compose it. If Shami intended to write a tribute to him, shouldn’t she have read his work and understood what he believed in?

Culture at the Commentator

Posted on January 24, 2013

This is just a swift post to let you all know about a new branch of my writing that I intend to expand this year . While CrashBangWallace will continue to be the outlet for my political writing, the team over at the Commentator have kindly agreed to feature my work on the culture front. So keep an eye out there for pieces on the arts, film and wider cultural commentary.

Here are a couple of recent pieces to whet your appetite:

Kate and the Curse of the Royal Portraits

Wanted: Adventurous female to give birth to Neanderthal

I hope this new content will be as well received as the political blogging I do here – your feedback, comments and support are very welcome, as ever.

Exclusive: that new Kate portrait put right

Posted on January 11, 2013

The National Portrait Gallery have just unveiled the first official Royal portrait of Kate, Duchess of Cambridge. As a portrayal of  famously beautiful woman, it’s received what could politely be called a mixed reaction:

Kate portrait

Personally, I think the most amazing thing is that way that only one of her eyes follows you round the room. How on earth have the NPG managed to commission a painting so iffy that it has already been nicknamed #CrosseyedKate?

As a public service, courtesy of @MrAndyBoy, can present an exclusive reworking of the portrait, putting it right with a tender combination of sensitivity and expertise.

At last we have the image in the full glory that it deserves:

Kate Portrait corrected

That’s better.

How high taxes killed our belief in helping others

Posted on January 08, 2013

When all factual and economic arguments have failed, Britain’s proponents of high taxes fall back upon philosophical justifications for their position. “Tax is the thing that makes us civilised”, they declare, “It brings us together as a society”.

Such arguments are dragged out to perform again and again, like those 1960s pop acts who were fleeced of their retirement pots by unscrupulous managers. Of course, there’s no actual evidence for them – that’s the point, they are declarations of conveniently unmeasurable truths.

But even such intangible claims are starting to look shaky. As the debate about cutting benefits for the better off intensifies, it is increasingly clear that high taxation has killed our national sense of helping others, of the well to do making sacrifices to help those less fortunate than themselves.

Just look at the row over Child Benefit. There was a time when people recognised that if they earned a good salary, they didn’t really need welfare to top up their income – whereas others who were barely getting by did.

Now, the letters pages and radio phone ins communicate a very different world view. Those who have been squeezed over and over again by successive Chancellors grabbing at their earnings, their savings, their pensions, their petrol bills and their pasties want something back in return. The idea that just because they might be earning £50,000 a year then they shouldn’t get Child Benefit enrages large numbers of people – the payment is one of the few things they get back from the large amounts they have to pay to the Exchequer.

That is a remarkable shift from the widespread sense of “middle class oblige” that once existed to the far less attractive sight of well-heeled parents defending their right to be welfare recipients.

But people who want to hang onto their payments cannot be blamed for feeling that way. It’s a natural reaction to want to get at least a bit back when you are shelling out a small fortune every year through constant, multiple taxation. It is our politicians, and particularly the high tax lobby, who are responsible for the near-total erosion of that sense of sacrifice for the greater good.

Of course it is an absurdity to pay welfare benefits to the well-off. It is a perverse interpretation of a welfare state that was intended as a safety net – particularly at a time when there are plenty of families who can only dream of earning £50,000 a year. Worse, it means cycling cash through a wasteful tax collection and benefits payment system, only to return some of it to the pocket where it originated.

The welfare bill must be brought down, and the just way to do that is to withdraw benefits from those who need them least. High taxation has driven out the sense of responsibility which would once have made that the obvious and natural thing to do for most Britons. Far from making us “civilised” or “bringing us together”, overfeeding the tax man has made us selfish. Taking more and more money from workers has made them grip what they have left all the tighter.

The moral case against high taxes must be made or – counter-intuitive as it may seem – the moral case for helping others will continue to fall on deaf ears.

After G4S, the 5 Worst Corporate Music Videos Ever

Posted on July 13, 2012

As I’ve written before, the lifetime of any scandal – no matter how serious – is largely dependent on the absurd props that have cameos in the story. Rebekah’s Horse is a case in point.

And lo, almost immediately after the G4S Olympic scandal was revealed, the G4S corporate song was discovered. It’s a cross between a low-rent Bon Jovi cover and the kind of lyrics you might hear in the background in a gig scene from American History X, offering up such gems as:

Because the enemy prowls, wanting to attack
But we’re on the wall, we’ve got your back


24/7 every night and day
A warrior stands ready so don’t be afraid

It’s truly special, so in celebration of the long history of awful corporate songs, I’ve put together a Top Ten Worst Corporate Music Videos Ever.

5) Ernst and Young: “Oh Happy Day” – a particularly happy day for the bearded man at 12 seconds in, and for the lyricist, whose workload was evidently limited.

4) Starbuck’s: “We Built this Starbucks…On Heart and Soul” – and on the absurd insistence of replacing “small”, “medium” and “large” with our own terms. Full-fat venti awfulness to go.

3) KPMG: “A firm you can’t touch” – yes, auditors doing MC Hammer, with attempted rapping. About KPMG.

2) Bank of America: “One” – what U2 would be like if they were middle managers in an American bank.

1) The Gazprom Song – undoubtedly best purely on the beautiful scenes of hydrocarbon extraction, and the winning lyrics:

Let’s drink to all the Russian gas
That it never comes to an end,
Though it’s so hard to obtain

Feel free to sing along:

(Thanks to @mattholehouse, @hwallop, @willardfoxton, @ToryTattler, @Adam_Grant_Bell for their nominations).

Why I love the Shard

Posted on July 06, 2012

I love the Shard.

Yes, the opening ceremony last night was more than a bit underwhelming – resembling nothing more than an 8-year-old Sauron playing with a laser pen – but the building itself is magnificent.

Just look at it. This is arguably the most ambitious and radical building London has put up since Parliament was rebuilt in the 19th century. It is bold, sleek and a remarkable technical achievement all in one building.

As well as its external appearance, there is the mind-boggling scale of the experience it offers those inside. It is so tall that it will provide London’s first ever sea view. That’s remarkable, an achievement which reconnects us with the unlimited engineering dreams of the Victorians.

The Shard is also a confirmation of our welcome return to sane modernity. The 1960s and 1970s saw architecture kidnapped, locked in an abandoned warehouse and ritually tortured by a clique who were convinced that being modern meant knocking down beautiful historic buildings and replacing them with ugly, brooding concrete boxes. The Shard is a stake through the heart of architectural nosferatu like Euston station.

There will always be criticism – happily, we live in a populous and opinionated society, where all have access to digital loudhailers, so that is inevitable. Tastes differ, but there is genuine absurdity in the cult which seems to have developed around the design of St Paul’s cathedral.

For some, it seems, no large building is acceptable in London unless it is St Paul’s, or a carbon copy thereof.

The Guardian glowered that it can be seen “towering over St Paul’s” in a picture that implied they are next door to each other, rather on different sides of the Thames.

The Telegraph’s normally excellent Ed West similarly objected that from Parliament Hill, the Shard can be seen “dwarfing St Paul’s”.

It is as though some imagine St Paul’s as a great, stone censor, Mary Whitehouse carved in Portland stone, tut-tutting about anything that might offend her stately sensibilities.

This is wrong-headed: St Paul’s itself was, in its day, a radical departure from the norm. Nothing of its sort had ever been built in England before, and it shocked and repulsed many contemporary observers. In that sense, the Shard is a descendant of St Paul’s, not its usurper.

Wren himself had to battle for years to be able to go ahead with his revolutionary new building, fighting against those who said the new cathedral should be exactly the same as the buildings that had gone before. Thank goodness that he stuck with it and prevailed – and thank goodness those building the Shard did the same 300 years later.

The real problem with Laurie Penny

Posted on April 30, 2012

It can’t be easy being Laurie Penny.

For a start, being the self-appointed voice of the young must be a heavy responsibility – particularly when so many of the young keep thinking things you don’t agree with.

Then there’s the difficulty of carving out a media career in New York, a place somewhat less vulnerable to the British Left’s obsession with appointing new Messiahs of the Media every 6 months or so.

Even when you give in to the temptation to abandon your RiotGrrl anti-paternalism and write a traffic-hunting piece swooning over a Hollywood star who, you claim, saved you from death-by-traffic, irritating bloggers crop up pointing out that your story bears remarkable similarities to the plot of a Natalie Portman film.

Now, having inherited the seat left vacant by Johann Hari’s ignominious demise as the previous pen-wielding star of the young left, people start snooping around suggesting you have perhaps polished reality or even made things up to fit your articles. There’s even a hashtag, #pennygate, set up a couple of weeks ago by the guy who brought Hari down.

I must confess that as all of these things pile up, I can’t get too excited about whether Laurie is the new Johann or not. There is speculation, there are undoubtedly people hunting through her past works for fabrications or plagiarism, and who knows if they will find anything.

It’s true that Laurie is almost unique among journalists in always happening to overhear the quote that perfectly and precisely proves her point, regardless of whether she’s in the middle of a riot, trapped in an alley by the EDL or having her bum pinched on a sweaty dance floor. Indeed, I questioned a couple of years ago whether all of her quotes, which tend to read like a poor Grange Hill script, are genuine. Maybe she’s just immensely lucky, all the time; maybe she has remarkable hearing superior to that of ordinary humans; or maybe there’s something more scandalous to it.

It would be interesting to know, but even if the worst was proved it would not be the most fundamental problem with her journalism.

The problem with Laurie is far more important than that.

Laurie’s journalism is flawed because of her worldview.

There’s nothing wrong with biased journalism. Whether you read the original gonzo journalists or, you believe truly balanced journalism is an impossibility, bias has plenty going for it. It is human nature.

Laurie’s worldview suffers not because it is biased, but because it is so hypocritical and so inconsistent.

For an investigative commentator who paints a picture of herself as a kind of war correspondent on the streets of London and New York, she has a remarkable dedication to double think. On Planet Penny, everything is a bit topsy turvy.

Those who loot shops are excused, having been forced into their crime by a wicked society; those who go to work or stay at home watching TV are bad, and by daring to enjoy the fruits of their own labour are personally responsible for forcing those looters to nick flat screen TVs.

Those who use violence against the police are protecting themselves and epitomising the beautiful flame of youthful rebellion; those policemen who hit back are not protecting themselves or others, they are simply autobots carrying out the personal orders of David Cameron/Rupert Murdoch/Andy Coulson to smash what is beautiful.

Those who are on the Left are well informed, have made their own minds up and base everything on evidence; those on the Right just think what they are told by their parents and have obviously never read any history. At worst, the Left are just keen on serving good; at best, the Right are genetically incapable of disobeying the master class.

Those are just some of the peculiar distortions that she embeds in her work. We can also consider the factual distortions inherent in her argument.

Take, for example, the idea that the West is at war with itself. To read Laurie’s work, you’d think every family is riven by violent generational hatred, every student is planning the downfall of the state, every relationship is one of power struggles, and every Primark lies empty because its ethos is so corrosive to the human soul that anyone entering a shop immediately tears at the hair and vomits uncontrollably.

This is, put simply, balls.

But you knew that, because you only need to hold up Laurie’s picture of the world next to the reality that you see every day to realise there is a remarkable discrepancy between the two. As much as she may hate the idea, most families are pretty happy, most people would like a successful career, most consumers enjoy the ability to buy new ipods or to prettify their house. Whisper it, most people are even willing to believe that their partners really do love them, rather than viewing them as foreign ambassadors negotiating a temporary inter-gender armistice.

I suppose it must be deeply frustrating to have to struggle every day to uphold an ideology that, no matter how strongly you promote it, keeps running up against inconvenient fundamental human emotions like aspiration, pleasure, loving one’s family and that kind of thing. Laurie has let that frustration disconnect her writing from reality.

In short, the problem with Laurie isn’t that some of her reported quotes or experiences may (allegedly) be untrue. It’s that all the things she asserts so strongly about human nature are untrue – and no journalism course can set that right.

A response to Will Self: Twitter’s glorious anarchy is to be admired

Posted on March 29, 2012

Last week, I found myself forced to buy something from a newsagents in order to get change to access a station toilet. Browsing the shelves, I happened across the New Statesman – Britain’s most absorbent weekly political publication, and chose that.

I confess, and I hope Mehdi Hasan and Laurie Penny will forgive me, that I had never bought the NS before. It’s never really fallen into the “interesting enough even if I disagree” or the “so effective an enemy I can’t miss it” categories.

Leafing through, I found a piece by Will Self, gaunt king of the art of using obscure words just to show off, critiquing Twitter. In pursuit of payment and his disdain for free media – sorry, new media – the article is not on the NS site, though it can be found here.

There have been numerous attempts to bemoan Twitter, some (such as attacks on the mobbish nature of some debate) with good reason. As Self is a clever man, if not often a correct one, I thought I would explore his case.

The article resided in the “Critics” section of the magazine, alongside reviews of books, theatre and other arts. I was surprised, therefore, to find Self declaring that he had never, ever actually looked at Twitter.

How odd. Have the NS film reviewers watched the films in question? Or do they simply guess, informed only by second hand rants and uninformed assumptions?

For that matter, can their book reviewers read? Do they need to, if not having experienced the subject of your review is apparently a qualification for penning it?

Perhaps the New Statesman’s Editorial team would accept my tourist review of the surface of the Moon. It would be gripping, vivid and heartily opinionated. It would also be lacking foundation and essentially made up – on which counts, judging by Self’s piece, it fits their criteria perfectly.

There is of course a reason why reviewers tend to prefer to experience a thing before writing its review. Without doing so, they cannot start to assess or understand it.

All of which explains why Self’s “review” is wrong on the detail, mashing up Twitter terms with irrelevant references to Farmville and Facebook pictures.

But it also explains why his assessment of Twitter’s social impact is mistaken.

Twitter, he posits, is the same as a 1970s dinner party, full of people who want to show you holiday slides and drone on incessantly. No advance, no improvement, just a “new home for old bores”.

I won’t pretend Twitter has revolutionised the quality of human conversation. There are undeniably boring accounts – Katie Price and Polly Toynbee, to name two.

However, unlike being stuck at a dinner party, users are not forced to listen to anyone. Indeed, as well as tuning out the undesirable, they can listen to whomsoever in the world that they might wish.

Had he ever used Twitter, Will Self would know that it’s not a dinner party at all. It’s a supermarket, where you can put whatever you like in your basket and leave what you don’t like on the shelves.

And this is where Twitter brings its real value. As well as instant access to any famous person of their choice, anyone can become famous on the merit of their thoughts and content.

In so doing, the platform is a leveller – indeed, it’s a Leveller with a capital L. Now anyone can rise, if their content is good enough, and anyone can fall, regardless of their fame.

There are many other aspects of Twitter which one can find beautifully new.

The productivity and even genius that springs out of its utter chaos is inspiring.

The speed with which a great mass of people can learn, influence each other and act is terrifying.

Forcing oneself to be concise but clear is a refreshing mental exercise, and a great way to rediscover the reach of the English language. This whole article, for example, is written only in tweet-length sentences of 140 characters or less, an enjoyable test in itself.

Most important is its impact on the way our media works and what it produces. Twitter gives equality of opportunity to those outside the old commentariat elite. It allows people to tailor their media intake for themselves, and for free. It prizes real value over the conjuring of a pompous façade. Bit by bit it is pulling down old, sputtering stars and raising up new ones. For all those reasons I not only love it – I realise why Will Self loathes it.

In memoriam: Ronald Searle

Posted on January 04, 2012

Ronald Searle, the cartoonist who has died aged 91, may be most famous for his creation of St Trinian’s, but I will always remember him for his creation of Nigel Molesworth, the constantly mis-spelling, ungrammatical 1950s schoolboy and self-proclaimed “goriller of 3B”.

If you have never read a Molesworth book I can’t recommend them enough – and you can get a taster from the online version of the books here.

In memory of Ronald Searle, and in celebration of how his art is truly timeless, here is a Molesworth cartoon which applies as much to today’s Euro crisis as it did to Nigel Molesworth’s frustrations with his visiting French exchange student, Armand.

The caption, in the original (mis-)spelling: “It seem that Fr. and Eng. are divided by more than the Chanel”