Wednesday, 12 December 2018

MAY'S BRITAIN... Part One: 'Moderation' Island

"The Conservatives must not be a single issue party. We are a party of the whole nation - moderate, pragmatic, mainstream; committed to reuniting our country and building a country that works for everyone; the agenda I set out in my first speech outside this front door; delivering the Brexit people voted for; building a country that works for everyone." - Theresa May, Downing Street, London, 12 December 2018, c. 08:50am
What's 'moderate' about enabling more homelessness and food banks in Britain? What is 'moderate' about 14 million being in poverty? More than one in five of the population. What is 'moderate', fair or reasonable about building an economy around a powerful constituency of multiple-home owning rentiers as opposed to tenants of social or private housing, the young or anyone who audaciously just wants to own one home?

As in the 1980s and 1990s, what is 'moderate' about flogging off the public realm and its public goods and utilities that are good and have utility for the public?

I would be impressed if anyone could persuade me of Theresa May's wise 'moderation' in leading Britain towards an absurd Brexit countdown, when she has indulged the "No Deal" fantasies of the "European Research" Group ultras every step of the way. Despite failing to win a majority in June 2017 for a "Hard Brexit". Despite the inevitable realpolitik of the UK being one country ranged against 27 kicking in. Terry Hall, Neville Staple and Lynval Golding had it right 37 winters ago, but could they ever have imagined the rise of such grotesque Thatcher sprogs as Boris Alexander de Pfeffel Johnson, Priti Patel and Jacob Rees-Mogg?

As Philip Alston of the United Nations reported in November, this government's domestic austerity programme is 'patently unjust and contrary to British values'. This government's foreign policy programme is shambolic and is fashioning a new, enfeebled, disgruntled Little Britain - or is that England? Cameron and May's Brexit will go down in history as the most ill-advised foreign policy since Blair's Iraq War of 2003, or even Eden's Suez Crisis of 1956. Our international self-belittlement is thoroughly interlinked with austerity: the mendacious, 'necessary' and national suffering visited upon us over the past eight years.

12 December 2018
Newcastle upon Tyne

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Have-a-go zeroes, Brexit dreamers and a tribune emerges: the UK General Election of 2017

‘He would probably have to move to Downing Street. He says: “I am very happy where I live. Others may wish me to move. I did not become leader of the Labour party to get a new house. There are going to be pressures. Security issues, no doubt. But I like where I live. My neighbours like me being there as well, most of the time.’[1]
So, election 2017... A weird, surprising experience; an entirely unnecessary party-political ploy by the Prime Minister, but one the left have made use of. If Corbyn wins it or (infinitely more likely) if there's a hung parliament, it will be the biggest political upset of... surely any!? The thing is, each day the prospect seems a bit likelier. Could events in Chris Mullin and Alan Plater's superb 1988 Channel 4 drama A Very British Coup actually come to pass...?

This has been, viewed objectively, the most incompetent Tory campaign you could imagine. In 2001 Hague-led, they were underdogs. Now, in 2017, they were massive, media-boosted favourites and yet... now face an entirely new political landscape. Labour will now surely at least gain 33-34% of the vote. All accounts point to a highly significant swing to the left among younger voters. The Labour manifesto and campaign has dragged the political "Overton Window" to the left. This refers to Joseph Overton’s theory of which policies are publicly considered acceptable within a given political context.[2] It can be argued that May’s duplicitous left-ish rhetoric also engages with the reality that neoliberal right-wing policies are now less acceptable than in their 1990s-00s heyday, and Corbyn’s manifesto will surely cement a general leftwards trend in which policies will be seen as not just desirable but possible.  

Whatever you think about Jezza, you simply cannot imagine Owen Smith or Liz Kendall pulling this off. The most important test for progressive politicians is how they affect the political centre of gravity. The affable but uncharismatic Ed Miliband's caution just did not work. This more cerebral leader hedged his bets on everything, didn't seem genuine. He lacked passion. Corbyn is now showing these qualities and it seems they may even advance beyond "shoring up the core vote"... Whatever happens, it is good to see that this is now not a walk in the park for the most arrogant, laughable politician in my lifetime, my namesake: T. May. In this, she may beat stiff competition from Michael "something of the night" Howard, Billy "14 pints" Hague and even the pathetic "Quiet Man" of British politics, IDS!
The mind-numbing political language of cliché and sound bite has, yet again, dominated. But, it has been good to see “Strong and Stable” widely mocked. “Magic money tree” needs to be as widely reviled – but then, public understanding of the complexities of economics is so low that such arguments may not easily find purchase. A telling moment in the debate was when Paul Nuttall decried Labour’s manifesto as set on taking the country “back to the 70s”. There was some scoffing and laughter, if not quite as much as when Rudd boasted of “our record”. Surely, a large number who lived through the 1970s would say it was a better time than now, in terms of a shared common culture, but also the diversity of subcultures and the power that working people had. It also saw the most significant developments in British feminism and environmentalism.
Worst of all has been May’s “no deal is better than a bad deal”, winning idiotic right-wing cheers for a paradox: no deal actually being the likely most punitive and economically devastating situation conceivable. In the Paxman interview, May was vastly more at ease talking about Brexit than domestic policies; this has been the Tory mantra this time, replacing the "maxed out credit card". It is believed. Many voters are willfully deluding themselves that an independent future will be rosy. They can kid themselves, as we won’t leave until 2019 at the earliest… They can still, somehow, cling to their own idealised visions of what “Brexit” will entail: a return to the 1950s, a return to metric measurements, more deregulation, more nationally focused regulation, fewer bendy bananas…
Therefore, it is the right-wingers in this country who are the dangerous dreamers and the next few years will make this amply clear – this wouldn’t be a bad election for Labour to narrowly lose, as dealing with Brexit is the ultimate poisoned chalice. These voters are ultimately deciding to focus more on their imagined “Brexit” panacea than thinking deeply about frankly absurd policies such as the expansion of grammar schools at the expense of the majority of children. Sadly, for a great many voters, the power of simple appeals to patriotism will outrank critical thought about the Tories' remarkably sectional domestic agenda: class war on behalf of the already sharp-elbowed and prosperous.

A more gratifying aspect of the election has been UKIP’s overdue eclipse. Unless they are able in the future to claim some sort of ‘betrayal’ of the Brexit ‘promise’, they are finished for good. Paul “Eddie Hitler” Nuttall is the most singularly unimpressive political leader the party has had, this year. My funniest moment of the campaign was when Andrew Neil questioned the pro-capital punishment scouser, following his reported comments claiming he’d like to pull the lever on those convicted of the death penalty: “do you want to be an MP… or an executioner?” I'm not usually a fan of Neil, but here he encapsulated Nuttall's have-a-go zero nature in one stroke.
Hopefully, the Corbyn campaign has engaged young people in politics - a vastly important development regardless of exactly what happens tonight. From this week's Gateshead rally to anecdotes within my Further Education workplace, there is tangible engagement – seemingly entirely on the Labour side. This could bode well for future elections if people react to the probable Tory victory in the right way – avoiding becoming disheartened and getting even more active.
The campaign has been ‘won’ by Labour, with even the more pessimistic polls from a left-wing perspective seeing a swing of around 6.5% since the start of the campaign with its 24-point Tory margins. They have presented an agenda that clearly entices voters after seven years of austerity. It is an interesting fusion of Corbyn’s ideas and the PLP’s; while a compromise, it is more radical than would have been probable with another leader, e.g. Cooper or Burnham. As John Harris argues, ‘an entire way of doing politics – deadened, arrogant and often absurd – is dying in front of our eyes. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party has revealed that the received wisdom of the past 15 years was wrong, and that talking in plain-spoken, moral, essentially socialist terms about the condition of the country need not entail political disaster.’[3] Corbyn's humility is key; he is just one of the people himself, who genuinely likes listening to and learning from people. He is more interested in tending his allotment than in wielding power for its own sake. His tribune-like giving voice to the crowd will be a much more winning way of doing politics than the old devious bullshit, if only Labour will learn from it.
While the Guardian seems to have recanted its Corbyn scepticism, the New Statesman’s leader article last Friday tortuously triangulates – ironically, given its reference to Ed Miliband’s ‘tortuous triangulations’. It acknowledges Labour’s increased support – due to ‘a spirited campaign’ – but ultimately asserts the conventional New Labour rhetoric: ‘a leader who cannot command the support of his parliamentary party is no leader at all’.[4] This fails to see that much of Corbyn’s appeal is in his break with conventional Labourist attachment to parliament and elections as the be-all and end-all. QUOTE MILIBAND. The NS asserts its politics as ‘liberal, sceptical and unpredictable’, in no way engaging with arguments about the Overton Window.[5] They instead ‘believe’ we should take Theresa May at her word regarding these declaratives in her manifesto: “We do not believe in free markets. We reject the cult of selfish individualism. We abhor social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality.’[6] Somehow, they do not castigate such statements as being as divorced from real objective policies and conditions as Blair’s ‘belief’ in the rightness of his actions over the Iraq War. Peter Wilby forwards wiser words, seeing it as plausible and beneficial for Corbyn to come close to Blair’s 35.2% in 2005: ‘We may then hear less from Blair, Mandelson and their ilk about how Labour can’t win on a left-wing manifesto.’[7]
Yet, editor Jason Cowley focuses on a likely ‘shattering’ defeat, based on apparent conversations with Labour MPs in marginal seats, and ends up advocating a sort of Blue Labour approach, quoting Orwell: “Patriotism and intelligence will have to come together again” – and arguing than ‘an era is passing and the right is once more in the ascendant in these unsettling new times’.[8] It reads more like an intervention in a putative post-election leadership debate than a deep analysis of where the UK is at ideologically.

Of course, a Tory win of 50+ seats will necessitate a reckoning for Labour: for future advances to be made, both left and right will have to give some ground. The leftist’s perennial vice, embroilment in myopic sectarian squabbling, must be avoided. It is Labour’s challenge to harness the  novel positives of the Corbyn campaign and not retreat into 'politics as usual', 'austerity-lite' or the comfort zone of New Labour nostalgia. Even if May ends up winning, this win will be pyrrhic.
However, complacency would be folly. As Tufecki claims, there are ‘historically low levels of union membership and workplace militancy, along with the continued electoral fragmentation of Labour’s ‘natural’ base in the working class […] a Labour allied working-class movement […] appears largely absent today’.[9] Much of this can be laid at the door of Labour under Blair and successors, who did not challenge the Thatcherite settlement. The unenviable challenge is to advance within parliament and also outside it – this latter process has been begun, but has an immense way to go. A wider socialist culture won’t easily transpire without a radical government able to legislate – e.g. removing Tory laws restricting the practices of trade unionism. However, the election of such an intentioned government just won’t happen without greater pressure from the public. Dissatisfied working people – as well as the young – are going to have to get organised.
Key policies for medium-to-long term strategy that need relentless focus, to shift public discourse to move towards a more interventionist, socialist place: housing, wages and holidays, local democracy and the NHS.
The Labour campaign has effectively used the perception of its underdog status – as fostered by the media and polls – to build support, and increase scrutiny of the Tories. Aided, as Joe Brooker has argued, by the greater air-time an election campaign gives to opposition parties.[10] It has tapped into a notable anti-establishment mood – tellingly shown by the laughter in the TV debate when Amber Rudd made a ‘look at our government’s record’. Just how widespread the angry, naysaying public mood is remains a key moot point. Even if it turns out to be limited, we will likely see evidence of a larger left-wing ‘protest vote’ than in living memory – the switching to the Liberal Democrats over the Iraq War in 2005 may be the only comparable moment. If Labour manages to gain over 11 million actual votes cast, as is possible, this would be a good result: their highest total since 1997!

This does not feel like an election where the Tories are going to match or better the popular votes of 42-44% won by Thatcher and Blair in the 1979-87 and 1997 elections. Those campaigns largely saw those victorious party leaders controlling the agenda and featured only very minor 'wobbles'. Contrastingly, this has been the campaign of “weak and wobbly” May. The question is how damning the voters will be towards her presidential-style campaign…
Probably not so much, knowing this country’s entrenched political culture… The British public have a predilection for self-punishment. They go for an abstract idea of ‘safety first’ and endanger their own and our futures. They complain about things getting worse in their local areas, yet many of them vote in the party least committed to local democracy. On this, Tom Crewe’s excellent, depressing piece from December is worth quoting at length:

‘The establishment of a neoliberal consensus in Britain has been, in its essence and by necessity, an anti-municipal project. Austerity is Thatcherism’s logical end-point, effecting simultaneously the destruction of local government as a potentially rivalrous state-within-a-state, and the marketisation of nearly every aspect of public policy. Since 2010 the Conservative leadership, following the example of Thatcher and Blair, has diminished local democracy in order to entrench the gimcrack democracy of the free market, with the all-conquering mantra of ‘choice’ relied on to produce its own virtuous aggregations of opinion and activity: it is indicative that the Conservatives have not only brought back Right to Buy but also sought to expand the Free Schools programme so that councils would no longer have any role in the education system. Local government will soon be brought into line with its national counterpart: both limited in their essential functions, outsourcing the greater part of their responsibilities to the private sector. Private companies are now partly or fully responsible for the parole service, schools, roads, prisons, GP surgeries and walk-in centres, hospital services, the Royal Mail, tax credits, care homes, welfare assessments, refugee and detention centres, deportations, the provision of court interpreters, government pay rolls, broadband roll-out, IT programmes and government security. Most of these outsourced services are handled by four firms: Atos, Serco, Capita and G4S, who between them receive around £4 billion a year from taxpayers. (When the Tories won the general election in 2015, Serco’s share price rose by 5.95 per cent, Capita’s by 6.72 per cent and G4S’s by 7.35 per cent.) Mooted for future privatisation are the student loan book, the land registry, child protection services and the law courts. This isn’t to mention our privatised rail, gas, electricity, water and nuclear energy networks.’[11]

The Tories promise five more years of this deadening, unnecessary austerity – and are now even unable to credibly argue it has been in any great economic cause: deficit and debt have grown more than previously when spending was higher.
Also, the electoral system now thoroughly favours the Tories, even more than in the past – they get votes where it counts. If Labour won’t back PR after this, it will be off its electoral rocker.
The polls offer something for all; for the pessimists, yes, but also the optimists: some are showing 1-4% leads for the Tories. If this transpired, a hung parliament would be definite. While May’s party would likely be the largest, it would be a fatal blow to the Prime Minister and a dent to the Tory agenda. YouGov’s seat-by-seat model currently shows the Tories ahead of Labour by 42-38% and with a narrow 33-seat lead: 302 to 269. It claims to contain a heavy focus on exact seat demographics, Remain-Leave and is said to be based on the current polling and factors in higher youth turnout. It also has the Lib Dems on 12 seats and Vince Cable winning by 18% in Twickenham (53-35).

On the cautious side, I am sensing YouGov’s model may be missing something. While I sense that Electoral Calculus is much less seat-specific and will be widely out in some areas, its caution is generally a bit more persuasive, given the ‘shy Tory’ factor clearly at play in elections like 1992 and 2015. On EC, you plot a 7-point Tory lead and the majority is nearly fifty. Some polls are showing 10-11 point margins. While many of these polling companies bizarrely cap youth turnout at 2015 levels, they may factor in some probable Tory – and status quo – “swing-back” (as the jargon has it).
The Tories have clearly had more money to spend on the campaign, and while the media has become increasingly critical of May’s campaign, the previous idolatry of the “Strong and Stable” One engendered too big a lead in perceptions than this campaign could fully overcome. In addition, the Tories have been deploying dark advertisements using social-media, untracked by the law or election authorities. These have been micro-targeted to specific demographics and specific marginal seats, in addition to a big spend on propaganda within local newspapers.  The Bureau of Investigative journalism have revealed that nine out of ten such Tory ads personally attack Corbyn.[12]
The Tories’ attention to electoral geography gives them a massive advantage. Even if there’s a Conservative to Labour swing in the national popular vote (perfectly possible), there could well be a counter-swing in the marginal seats. There unquestionably will be such a pro-Tory swing in narrowly held Tory seats that are not in London or bastions of Remain voters, as basically Labour have not focused on campaigning in Tory-held constituencies. 
Some key seats to watch:
1. Twickenham – will social democratic slaphead Vincent Cable win, against a Remain-leaning Tory?

VERDICT: not quite. Photo-finish, with the Tories just edging it.
2. Vauxhall – as focused on in John Lanchester’s LRB piece. Will Farage associate and pro-fox hunting and grammar schools Tory in all but name Kate Hoey hold off the anti-Brexit Liberals?
VERDICT: No. Liberals lose out, as Hoey wins by association with Corbyn-led Labour.

3. Hartlepool – Mandelson’s old coastal seat epitomises the disillusionment with metropolitan pro-immigration New Labour politics. This seat, in an isolated, deprived and insular part of the north-east, has seen massive UKIP votes in recent General and European elections. Just how much of that vote goes to the Tory will decide who wins in 2017…

VERDICT: Labour to hold with 5-10% lead over Tories. Quite a lot of the UKIP vote will actually go to Labour – I think you’ll see this in quite a few more seats than expected. A 3:1 Tory:Labour ratio?

4. South Thanet – Tory Craig MacKinlay has a 2,812 majority in this Kent seat, over second-placed UKIP, and was around 7,000 ahead of third-placed Labour. All so straightforward, until CM was charged with election spending offences from the 2015 election…

VERDICT: a Brexit heartland, so surely an increased Tory majority, of around 9,000 ahead of Labour, who will easily beat UKIP. I don’t think the voters will care that much about his being charged, though it may reduce the majority more than I am positing.
5. Hastings and Rye – Coastal Sussex seat, with Hastings a left-leaning town, but Rye and rural wards in-between solidly Tory. In Netherwood, within this seat, there was once a Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) guesthouse, in the post-WW2 era. This seat is now held by ‘magic money tree’ fabricator Amber Rudd, with a 4,796 majority. YouGov have Labour ahead 48-42%.

VERDICT:  I see a result almost exactly the other way around as probable. A slightly reduced majority compared with 2015, due to there being less of a UKIP vote than other such seats.

6. Halifax – now it’s this sort of seat that is absolutely crucial to whether the Tories fail to win a majority, scrape home similarly to 2015 or rack up the sort of 50+ majority that the odds surely point to. The northern and midlands marginal seats, held by Labour with small majorities under Miliband, will be key. This seat was won by Labour’s Holly Lynch by a mere 428 votes. The New Statesman had an article last Friday suggesting it’ll fall to the Tories. However, there isn’t a massive UKIP vote for the Tories to stockpile – they only got 13% last time, like in Hastings and Rye. What the NS failed to highlight is the inexorable decline of Labour’s majority in each and every election since 1997. This is exactly the sort of traditional Labour seat – see Wakefield too, in the same region – that feels massively let down by New Labour. Viewed logically, it would be curious for the seat to go Tory considering ‘there is dissatisfaction here, particularly with public services’.[13] Yet, there is little logic in politics and thus it’s little surprise that Theresa May unveiled her manifesto here – it’ll be interesting to see if even that cack-handed document will stop a Tory gain here… If it does, we would be in hung parliament territory.

VERDICT: knife-edge Tory win by 200 votes. I think the post-1997 pattern won’t quite be turned around. But it will be close.
My overall election prediction:

CON 43.5% (351 seats)
LAB 36.5% (225 seats)
LD 7% (4 seats)
GP 1.5% (1 seat)
UKIP 4% (0 seats)
SNP/PC 4.5% (51 seats)

Tory majority: 52.

A result that Labour would certainly have taken a few weeks ago! But also one that the Tories would have taken in the early days of June, and that, sadly, will give Theresa May a boost – even if it will now clearly only be a short-term one. We have seen her mettle – or lack thereof – and know she’ll be devoured by Brexit.

To quote Antonio Gramsci, this election is, more than any, about “optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect.” It has to be about maintaining and nurturing that hope for the long haul, without any illusions regarding harsh realities.

[1] MacAskill, Ewen (2017) ‘Facing the political fight of his life: on the road with Corbyn’s campaign’, The Guardian, 3rd June, p.7
[2] Lehman, Joseph G. (2010) ‘An Introduction to the Overton Window of Political Possibility’, Mackinac Center for Public Policy, 8th April [online] [accessed: 08/06/17]
[3] Harris, John (2017) ‘Corbyn has shown there’s a new way of doing politics. Straight talking is back’, The Guardian, 3rd June, p.33
[4] Leader (2017) ‘Labour and the common good’, New Statesman, 2-8 June, pp.4-5
[5] Leader (2017) p.5
[6] Leader (2017) ibid.
[7] Wilby, Peter (2017) ‘Corbyn’s bung to the middle class, the true causes of terror, and a musical’s off-key message’, New Statesman, 2-8 June, p.7
[8] Cowley, Jason (2017) ‘The reckoning’, New Statesman, 2-8 June, p.28
[9] Tufecki, Baris (2017) ‘’Politics of containment’: The (Ralph) Milibandian critique of the Labour Party’, Socialist History 51, pp.65-6
[10] Brooker, Joseph (2017) ‘Election Campaign 2017’, Reeling At All, 6 June [online] [accessed: 08/06/17]
[11] Crewe, Tom (2016) ‘The strange death of municipal England’, London Review of Books, (38)24, 15th December, pp.6-10
[12] Anon (2007) ‘Tories ‘using fake news to attack Corbyn’’, The Guardian, 3rd June, p.7
[13] Lewis, Helen (2017) ‘Unhappy valley’, New Statesman, 2-8 June, p.32

Thursday, 1 June 2017

David Edgar's 'Destiny' piece on British Television Drama website

"An ideology red white and blue in tooth and claw"

I am delighted to return here to announce that I have a three-part epic post on David Edgar's 1978 Play for Today, 'Destiny', currently being published on British Television Drama website. This is a significant play (currently viewable here) that dramatises the insurgent far-right and British national identity in the late 1970s. I have been researching this TV play for eight months and have included e-mail interviews with the writer and producer, as well as extensive use of the BBC WAC in Caversham (thanks to Matthew Chipping).

Thanks go to David Edgar and Margaret Matheson for their detailed e-mails with their memories of the play and conscientious answers to my questions. Thanks also to David Rolinson for his tireless work in editing this juggernaut of a piece (originally 20,000 plus words!), as well as Mark Sinker*, Justin Lewis**, Ian Greaves and John Williams who have assisted with queries and research.

Part 1 (David Edgar, the theatrical Destiny and British historical context)

Part 2 (production of the TV play, its broadcast and its reception)

Part 3 (analysis of the play and its afterlife and Edgar and Matheson's subsequent careers)
to be published 2 June 2017

*Who knows much more about English Baroque music than I.
**Who knows much more about UK chart history than I.

Tom May
Newcastle Upon Tyne
Thursday 1 June 2017

Friday, 27 January 2017

Poems for the moment #2

Trident cry

19th July 2016

Your three-pronged spear
Of Christ lifespan minus two.
In last-resort letter,
Game of one:
Set off eight Hiroshimas;
Multiply a conflagration
Built in Aldermaston
Born in a bloody union jack
Leased out to Lockheed
Corporation of Sunnyvale, CA.

Narcissistic suited juveniles buy seat at
472 of 'em, top adults.
117 are for the bottom table.
Relegation awaits Cleggster and Jezza!
And canny Mhairi, the best and youngest.

It's Britannia's attribute:
She needs sixteen.
She needs sixteen!
To threaten incineration
At 7500 miles' reach;
Culture obliteration we're okay with (in theory)
And the Iron pose
Nostalgically re-enacted
From days of Joe and / or

In your studied clam, be able to
Go ballistic.
Gan proper radgie!
Or at least appear to.
And spend thirty-one billion pounds.

Postscript: 23rd January 2017

Sir Michael refused to give details,
Sir Michael, Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath.
Sir Michael refused to give details.
Sir Michael has 'absolute confidence' in the system.
So, that's all right, then.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Beyond the ‘one-size-fits-all scapegoat’, what? Britain and the ignominy of ‘Brexit’

In a speech on 19 April, which was hailed by most of the Brexiters as definitive, Michael Gove finally made it clear that Out means Out. Not tagging along like Norway or Switzerland, not seeking a new and complicated relationship like Canada, not a country member or a candidate member, but OUT. Gove, looking more than ever like a gleeful hamster on steroids, announced that Britain would leave the Single Market, would not seek to be part of EFTA (the organisation that includes Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein), and would remain a member only of ‘the European Free Trade Zone that stretches from Iceland to the Russian border’. Alas, despite this grandiloquent description, the EFTZ exists largely in the imagination. The UK would be as Out as Bosnia, Serbia and Albania (the signal difference being that Bosnia, Serbia and Albania are all trying to get into the EU). We would be launched on a journey to become a Greater Albania. […] Albania has no EU passport for financial and other services and no access to EU deals with the outside world. [1]
Yet, before the Second World War, the phrase “Britain and Europe” was much less prevalent, and there are good historical reasons why. In messy historical reality, as distinct from much present-day polemic, “Britain” and “Europe” have rarely followed entirely distinctive paths, any more than they have ever – either of them – been monolithic structures. [2] 

So, "we" voted for ‘prolonged turmoil and stagnation simply for the exhilaration of being on [our] own at last’[3]. As Ferdinand Mount argued, this was not so much the Garbo ‘I want to be alone’ option as the ‘Third Division’ Millwall option: ‘No one likes us, we don’t care’.[4] This piece seeks to understand why Britian left the EU and to critique the discourses used by both the Leave and Remain camps. As Neil Kurkarni has argued, the level of debate was leagues below 1975. This is a more considered approach than I took to the issue in my review (with Adam Whybray) here of The Legendary Pink Dots' dystopian The Tower (1984), written on 24th June. I seek to make a pro-European intervention, and synthesise some of Britain’s wiser counsel that didn't prevail.

To counter a first myth, this vote wasn’t necessarily about the old stitching up the young, so much as the media and political establishment (generally those born in the 1950s-70s) misleading everyone. Those of pensionable age have generally been the most eloquent: Ferdinand Mount (b.1939; 76) and Bernard Porter (b.1941; 75) in the LRB, Neal Ascherson (b.1932; 83) in the New York Times, Linda Colley (b.1949; 66) in the New Statesman, Anthony Barnett (b.1942; 73) in Open Democracy and John Major (b.1943; 73) on the BBC.

Why did I vote to ‘Remain’, against the 3.8%-margin “tide”? No great matter of consistency or principle, due to the EU's treatment of Greece, for example. However, philosophically and geo-politically: being on your tod and being an increasingly angry little England is not a good idea. Global issues such as climate change and terrorism cannot be dealt with locally. And it would be England, as “Brexit”, rather than being a naff breakfast cereal, risks the future of the UK as well as endangering the legacy of 1998’s Good Friday Agreement. In addition, Farage and Johnson were a disgrace: their campaigning pandered to the lowest human impulses. Paul Mason spoke pointedly about the degradation of our political system and national culture that Boris Johnson embodies:
“Let me be clear about what I’m saying about the Conservatives. We now know what a £35,000 a year education at Eton buys you. It’s that ability to stand up, slag off your opponent. If you’re not winning the argument, stand up and raise ludicrous points about the EU banning banana bunches more than three.

If that doesn’t work, you tussle your hair and you grin in an inane manner. If I spent £35,000 a year and sent somebody to Eton and they came out saying that, I’d be disgusted.

I’m talking about Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, who is debasing the rationality of this debate, and you should be very worried that this guy could be leading your party if he wins the referendum.”

Speaking to Andrew Marr, ex-PM and retired Tory John Major also weighed in against the Leave tactics and rhetoric:
“What they have said about leaving is fundamentally dishonest and it’s dishonest about the cost of Europe. And on the subject that they’ve veered towards, having lost the economic argument, of immigration, I think their campaign is verging on the squalid, and I’ve said so before and I’m happy to say so again.”[5]
Porter argued that the Leave campaign did not articulate what they wanted for the future, apart from coveting ‘woolly abstractions – ‘control’, ‘freedom’, ‘greatness’, ‘the good old days’ – and some totally inappropriate models: Canada, Norway, Switzerland’.’[6] The problem for those of us who will have to live through ‘Brexit’ is that it is far from assured we will get as good a deal as a Norway or Switzerland, and the likes of Gove do not even want such actually existing beneficial trade deals, as they would still have to abide by EU regulations, as Mount has explained.[7]

As Mount explained, for the ‘Brexiteers’ ‘it isn’t about economics’; former Tory Chancellor Nigel Lawson gave him no economic arguments but emphasised ‘self-government’.[8] Few commentators will know more about Tories than ex-Thatcher adviser Mount, and he elaborates a pointed critique of the Tory ‘Brexit’ mentality as inherited from Enoch Powell: ‘Powell had not only a passionate attachment to his own nation-state but a chilly indifference to everyone else’s. He thought the Cold War was a delusion […] He insisted that the Republic of Ireland be treated in all respects as a foreign country. Other countries, other minds have no meaningful existence. Weapons-grade solipsism.’[9]

Mount argued that the Powell tendency persisted in today’s Tory euro-sceptics whom he described as ‘incurably chilly, sometimes abnormally intelligently, often physically awkward and requiring a good deal of personal space.’[10] He contrasted their paranoia about the EU as a ‘deep-laid plot to undermine and eventually to extinguish the nation-state in general and Britain in particular’ with the ‘energy and farsightedness’ of Wellington, Aberdeen and Palmerston in maintaining the Concert for forty years after Waterloo.[11] He could also have mentioned Churchill’s integrationist credentials. Johnson is always up for claiming Winnie’s mantle but descended into characterising this organisation which, in its infancy, his idol had actively supported into an ‘out-group’, a ‘them’ against ‘us’.

Linda Colley mentioned the fact that other EU states such as Denmark, Holland, France, Germany, Portugal, Belgium and Spain, all had maritime empires, like Britain, and yet they don’t have a national self-image as ‘exceptional’.[12] She argued against the constant placing of “Britain and Europe” as oppositional binaries, and points to many deep historical connections. She identified the ‘overly iconic’ myths of WW2 as primarily causing the British to see themselves as ‘different’, not having experienced defeat and invasion. This lack of humility is our Achilles heel.

Many of the Leave camp exhibited a myopic view; as Mount argues, all of the ‘frictions of modern life’ were blamed on the EU, whereas most ‘excessively fussy regulations’ are due to our parliament, and, I might add, our hegemonic ideology of neo-liberal capitalism is behind present frictions.[13] All of these stunted ‘arguments’ apparently justify the set of massive risks that Mount identifies: recession, trade deal difficulties, a flight of capital, unemployment, the Union with Scotland and the ‘morale of the rump EU.’[14]

Considered economically and pragmatically then, “Vote Leave” simply did not articulate a case to leave or any viable future vision. ‘Brexit’ will leave us prone to a needlessly destructive period of difficult bespoke negotiations – Christopher Chope MP’s ‘WTO option’ is not being ruled out – that will harm British businesses and freedom of British people to travel and work in EU states. It is no surprise that all world governments and a vast array of academic analysts say that it is, on balance, much better to stay. 80-90% of scientists backed Remain for the reason that it was the better option for British and European science, which should know no borders.[15]

There is a fundamental dividing line in the Tory Party and the Right in Britain, and it concerns immigration: the Cameron-Osborne position of being generally relaxed about it, according to the neo-liberal capitalist ideology vs. the Gove-Redwood-IDS position of pulling up the drawbridge, favouring old-school nationalism and specious ideas of ‘the Commonwealth’ welcoming us with open arms. Ascherson discussed the con of Boris Johnson, who claimed he would have his cake and eat it, leaving the EU but remaining in the Single Market, before Gove and others advanced ideas of a glorious isolation, further ‘out’ than even Norway or Switzerland.[16] The City of London financial sector, and the broader UK services sector will lobby intensely for retaining access to the SM; will the Tories be able to resist such calls, especially if public opinion turns even more decisively against Brexit than it has thus far?[17] As Porter argued, four days after the referendum result, the ‘government has been all too willing to disregard the popular will in the case of ‘austerity’.’[18]

Who were the arguers? What authority did they have? Remain had Barack Obama and virtually all world leaders. Leave had among the worst specimens available in the fields of politics, business and ‘punditry’ in 2016: not merely Katie Hopkins and Donald Trump, but also Nicholas Ridley – who, as Mount acidly recalled, showed the same ‘flamboyant optimism’ in his previous role as chairman of Northern Rock.[19] Then there was the supposed bright spark Michael Gove, someone worth listening to above ‘expert’ opinion, apparently…

I would rather listen to academic and world opinion than to Ian Terence Botham on an issue of this magnitude, seemingly many millions did not.

I am unsure quite how the distrust of ‘experts’ fits in with the national characteristic of trusting empiricism over ideas… Many in England clearly have felt starved of emotional and atavistic attachments to identity – and this arrogant sense of national grandiosity has overridden concern for data or fact-based arguments. As Ascherson argues, ‘Behind Brexit stalks the ghost of imperial exception, the feeling that Great Britain can never be just another nation to be outvoted by France or Slovakia.’[20]


How did Leave voters justify their gamble? Channel 4’s interviews with Barnsley Leave voters revealed a sentiment important in the result: "It's all about immigration". They were no doubt further riled up by the scaremongering claims about Turkey joining the EU, rightly dismissed by John Major as ‘nonsense on stilts’.[21] I feel sad for the deluded people of Barnsley. As Hanley has argued, they were expressing that ‘the way the modern world works was not working for them.’[22] In reality, they are clearly not going to get what they want – unless the anti-single market isolation mania of Gove wins out – and, either way, they will face more austerity as EU Regional Development money goes towards corporation tax cuts, or just goes. Will they be open to learning about what the actual, complex situation with immigration is? Will they be open in attitudes to the world and the 48% of their country who took a different view? Or will they just have to accept their part in our sliding backwards in outlook towards the sort of brutality depicted in Oi for England and Tales out of School: ‘Made in Britain’?

"I think it's put England back on the globe again, and I feel very proud!"

Yes, but as an infinitely sadder, poorer, more isolated island, with the prospect of a "brain drain" of a much larger scale than the mythical 1960s/70s one. As Ascherson explains, the USA would turn from London to Berlin.[23] As he states, ‘isolation brings out the worst in Britain’ and giving a detailed example of its ineffectiveness when peddled by Chamberlain in the 1930s; then, how we learned the lesson and got involved in a unifying Europe, post-WW2.

A problem for Remain was, of course, the lack of positivity in the message they articulated. But could the likes of campaign-leader George Osborne credibly offer ‘positive’? Would the media allow such a case to be heard? Labour, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats were all marginalised by a pathetic, Johnson v. Cameron-framed media perspective on the referendum. As Tom Ewing has argued, there was sadly no popular voice of pro-Europeanism around like Charles Kennedy.

Mount stated the major unarticulated positive of the EU; it being designed to ‘retrieve the nation-state from ignominy and demoralisation after two catastrophic world wars’; a ‘worthy’ purpose in exchange for an ‘ultimately retrievable […] sacrifice of day-to-day sovereignty and a piffling contribution from national revenues’.[24]

The arrogance of Leave was in its assuming that all EU countries want to be ‘freed’, just like an over-entitled Gove hamster. As Mount argues, ‘there are still plenty of nations that regard membership as the best guarantee of peace, stability and prosperity and are clamouring to get in. They may be deluded, but who gave the gleeful hamster [Gove] licence to set about demolishing the shelter they are struggling to reach?’[25] Colley argued that we in Britain have become ‘cosseted’ and ‘blissfully forgetful about the prospect of military conflict’.[26] She also stated that both NATO and the EU (and its predecessor organisations) have ‘played an essential role’ in keeping the peace. She warns of US isolationism under a possible President Trump and the possible US drift from backing NATO – ‘Europeans […] will need to collaborate ever more closely to defend themselves’.[27]

Nobody in the Remain camp saw fit to counter the myths of anti-democracy in the EU, but conceded the argument. Mount refers to how the European Parliament ‘gives democratically elected representatives from the whole EU an opportunity to help frame the rules, which British MPs don’t really have’. He also defends the European Council of ministers, as ‘itself an elected body’, with its dinners and wrangles thrashing out a consensus in the style of an Indian panchayat: perhaps ‘a more appropriate method of seeking a way forward for such a vast and heterogeneous community’.[28]

So, 17-odd million people on this self-mythologising island have thought in a meagre, limited way and not about the impact on the future of the UK itself or on the impact on the rest of Europe. They have regarded the Daily Express, the Daily Mail and Boris Johnson MP (the most odious politician ever, as grinning superego to Farage's id) as more worth listening to than academic experts. These sadly myopic attitudes will mean 23/06/16 will be an infamous day in world and UK history, instead of some equivalent of American Independence Day for the people of Barnsley.


[1] Mount, F. (2016) ‘Nigels against the World’, London Review of Books (38)10, 19th May [online] Available at:[accessed: 01/07/16]

[2] Colley, L. (2016) ‘An island, but not in isolation’, New Statesman, 10-16th June, p.35

[3] Mount, F. (2016) ibid.

[4] Mount, F. (2016) ibid.

[5] Major, J. (2016) ‘Sir John Major’s Interview on the Andrew Marr Show’, The Rt Hon Sir John Major KG CH, 5th June. [online] Available: [accessed: 28/06/16]

[6] Porter, B. (2016) ‘Historic failure’, LRB blog, 27th June [online] Available at: [accessed: 01/07/16]

[7] Mount, F. (2016) ibid.

[8] Mount, F. (2016) ibid.

[9] Mount, F. (2016) ibid.

[10] Mount, F. (2016) ibid.

[11] Mount, F. (2016) ibid.

[12] Colley, L. (2016) ibid., p.35

[13] Mount, F. (2016) ibid.

[14] Mount, F. (2016) ibid.

[15] Galsworthy, M. (2016) ‘Angry scientists must fight to pick up the pieces after Brexit’, New Scientist, 27th June. [online] Available at: [accessed: 28/06/16]

[16] Ascherson, N. (2016) ‘From Great Britain to Little England’, New York Times, 16th June [online] Available at: [accessed: 01/07/16]

[17] Dearden, L. (2016) ‘Brexit research suggests 1.2 million Leave voters regret their choice in reversal that could change result’, The Independent, 1st July [online] Available at: [accessed: 04/07/16]

[18] Porter, B. (2016) ibid.

[19] Mount, F. (2016) ibid.

[20] Ascherson, N. (2016) ibid.

[21] Major, J. (2016) ibid.

[22] Hanley, L. (2016) ‘Divided Britain’, LRB blog, 24th June [online] Available at: [accessed: 01/07/16]

[23] Ascherson, N. (2016) ibid.

[24] Mount, F. (2016) ibid.

[25] Mount, F. (2016) ibid.

[26] Colley, L. (2016) ibid., p.35

[27] Colley, L. (2016) ibid., p.35

[28] Mount, F. (2016) ibid.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Who closed down the Community Centre?

DieHard Gateshead
Written by Ruth Raynor; Directed by Neil Armstrong
Caedmon’s Hall, Gateshead Library
Thursday 16th July 2015


It wasn’t quite Byker Grove meets Brecht, but while that is a pleasing notion for the noggin, this was tangibly necessary: a humane, subtle drama about austerity and its impact on community. Not placard-waving, confrontational agit-prop but a demonstration of what our people are like; this is who you are trying to do down and what you are trying to take away, Mr Osborne.

There is a place for political theatre, and the time is surely now. We’re faced with an arrogant government, on a low-turnout 37% vote-share ‘mandate’, that looks to further curb trade unionism, cut back legal aid, turn education into solely a financial transaction, close libraries and open up the countryside to the moot practice of fracking. An administration that is seriously considering making people save up for their own sick pay. 

Raynor has spoken of being inspired by the writing of the likes of Alan Plater and Tom Hadaway; the influence shows; something of the jovial, egalitarian spirit of Plater is transposed to the inexorable treadmill of austerity Britain in 2015. She sets the piece in a Gateshead Community Centre, which has just about kept going through already harsh financial ‘economies’ in previous years.

The Gateshead parliamentary seat has the 92nd highest unemployment rate in Britain (5.9%) and the 26th highest seat with constituents who are in very bad health: 2.07% 34.45% live in social housing – also 26th highest out of 600+ constituencies. 30.47% of people have no qualifications. 22.55% of people hold no passport. While UKIP did well here in the last General Election, finishing second with 17.8% of the vote, this was considerably less well than in Tory seats in Essex and Kent or coastal north east constituencies such as Blyth Valley and Hartlepool. Only just over one in ten of the 'Heed' electorate voted UKIP. This play does not engage in the media habit of assuming that this vocal minority therefore demonstrates that the people of Gateshead have a resentful, insular mind-set.  

Raynor has commented that her play ‘was built with the kindness of a Tyneside women’s group. Participants took part in a range of workshops and interviews and gave feedback on two drafts of the script. Because of cuts and changes to the terms of funding the group is no longer running.’ 

There is a complex dissolving of hierarchies within the Centre's women’s group, which is not homogeneously this or that (working-class, middle-class, underclass), but is carefully pitched and realistic to the locale. The older community centre worker Lesley, with her beliefs in Noel Edmonds – false-consciousness subtly and funnily highlighted – and the feint but palpable class memory coming out in Sandra when she talks about the ‘New’ Jarrow March and its Facebook group. The strong women of this play - chiefly Lesley and Sandra - mirror Heather Wood of Easington Action Group, who I saw speak forcefully and eloquently of practical community campaigning at the recent Durham Moot event.

Lesley (Judi Earl) is the convenor of the group, unpretentious and grounded, yet with odd ideas about self-help. Katie (Christina Berriman Dawson) is morose, glowering and reluctant mother of six, but who grows into the action and with the group. Sandra (Jessica Johnson) is the most forthright and belligerent, with a rough way with words, and who is incredibly articulate. Julia (Arabella Arnott) seems like she'll be an overly stereotypical materialistic middle-class lass, but isn't quite so clear-cut. Rosie (Zoe Lambert) is the theatre project leader, idealistic and driven, if less worldly than she might think. The cast is uniformly excellent, able to veer seamlessly between gags and pathos.

The play mixes and contrasts high and low cultural references – the ancient Greek Orpheus myth with Die Hard and Crinkly Bottom. This is necessary to take the audience with the action, and weave in the political ideas. What does this say to me about my life? You feel that Raynor is pondering and addressing this question for a wide range of local audiences – the play was also staged at Newcastle’s Alphabetti and the Washington Arts Centre. Music is shrewdly used: from a looped intro from recent-ish pop that I cannot place, to two Crowded House tracks, including the apt melancholy of ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ to close. 

She also astutely includes a mixed lexical register of “shite”, “asset management” and “wifey” and the ace wordplay of “Start Arts”. As well as posing the comical interrogative: ‘Remember Blobbyland?’ There is some sense of language being contested, while the financial parameters are set from Westminster.

Ruth Raynor’s play is more Mhairi Black than Liz Kendall. It is controlled, funny and tender and yes, it is angry. There is class consciousness and compassion for disparate people. We need this sort of thing on telly, and a better BBC to produce many new and proudly low-budget single plays in place of high-cost adaptations and costume serials.

In post-Chavs era, we should have seen the back of grotesquely stereotypical representations of the working or under-classes. I don’t think we have. Nor does Raynor, who knows that current snobbery is the path to decay; she doesn’t just see the best in people, but sees that drawing lazy or prejudicial distinctions is not the way to live your life. The play carefully displays human differences and foibles, but implies that only in acting together – metaphorically and literally – can we laugh and connect, or indeed achieve anything of lasting worth.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Edinburgh 2014: in the present age, they take sarcastic minutes...

So, Edinburgh, 2014: four nights, five days, twenty-five shows, shared with a friend who was a Fringe neophyte. There was unwise traipsing around on an inevitable rainy day. There was wise staying-put around the venues with free shows. There was a geographically handy B&B with a helpful proprietor. There was some planning - but not too much! There was inadvertent incongruity in hearing, but not seeing comedy from a 'have-a-go' Geordie comic in an Open Mic night at a random bar. His 'so-so' routines were played through the PA and speakers right by our table, which was in a completely different part of the bar to the performance. His thing was a vaguely Viz-esque quoting of working-men's club 'non-working' regulars and the older north-east generation: 'Me granda said: "they ran onta tha field like a pack o' gays!"' Which was weird without seeing facial expressions and further de-contextualized by our missing the first part of the gag! If it was a gag.

The Edinburgh Festival is a sixty-odd year institution with the emphasis on odd. At least its oddity will reveal itself, if you let it.

Such an expedition has to include some familiar figures, venues and personal institutions. So it was that we took in Richard Herring: Lord of the Dance Settee (Assembly Square, Sunday 10/08/14). A good, if much more ragbag show than his previous ones I've seen that touched on sex, death and the male member. He had an amusing teenage holiday story, a right-on demolition of those on Twitter who oppose International Women's Day and told of odd goings on in a wood (a disturbing doll placed in a rustic window, looking out at passers by!). All pretty good; a mix of the serious and utterly silly - yet the Sunday night audience's spirit seemed quelled - either by that day's torrential weather or by sheer lack of humour! Quite saddening to witness, really, as it had the sort of amateur charm and sense of arcane absurdity alien to the bland McIntyre-and-assorted-Russells school of comedy. 

"We have freedom of speech. We should have freedom of thought..."

Then there was Simon Munnery Sings Søren Kierkegaard (The Stand, Saturday 09/08/14). Munnery has, in many ways, got me 'into' stand-up. I'd liked Bill Hicks - who didn't, 
who was at university from 2001-4 and who had anything approaching a counter-cultural mindset? But most of the comedy I'd loved was on the box - Chris Morris, Alan Partridge, Steptoe, Fawlty etc., plus a late-night BBC-2 dose of absurdism called Attention, Scum! This 2001 series was where I first encountered Munnery; I went to my first Edinburgh Fringe in 2007 - if just a day trip, featuring his show at The Stand, which involved improvised routines based on the audience's suggestions placed on a rock by the stage. It was another five years before I actually made a fuller Fringe pilgrimage. In 2012, I 'saw' - or was involved in - the immersive La Concepta: perhaps the funniest live comedy I've yet experienced, where Munnery attended to an audience of 12 'diners' in a surreal virtual restaurant. Since then, he'd done variants on his winning Fylm template - which I'd seen both in Edinburgh in 2013 and in Newcastle twice (most recently, 08/04/14).

This new show on Kierkegaard - its title referring to Arthur Smith's Leonard Cohen themed show, which my parents saw last year in Edinburgh - was more autobiographical and political than usual; Munnery will never deliver the expected and repeat himself. This involved not just a thoughtful attempt to derive comedy from the dour Danish Christian philosopher Kierkegaard's words, but a dissection of Munnery's university experience at Trinity College, Cambridge and the class implications of The Jam's 'The Eton Rifles'.

Compared with my last two Fringes, I saw relatively little theatre. Altamont (C Nova, Monday 11/08/2014) was an impressive one-man show - with John Stenhouse telling the story and enacting the characters connected with that disastrous venture. The amorality and shoddy organisation of the event seems to symbolise the limits of what rock 'n' roll could achieve. Could an emancipatory movement be forged with the participation of violent hell's angels or the market-liberal figurehead Jagger? Stenhouse conveyed chaos and crushed dreams in a well-paced, impressionistic show.


Jessica Spray's I Need a Doctor! The Whosical (Pleasance Above, Sunday 10/08/14) was a very affable mainstream musical take on the great British institution of Doctor Who. Perhaps overplaying the postmodernist card - repeated references to avoiding copyright-infringing use of 'iconic' DW names - yet with a sense of knockabout timing that beguiled. You entered to the strains of the Timelords' 'Doctorin' the TARDIS'. The audience consisted - oh that cliché! - of all ages and the show was enjoyed. Spray was a clever, sassy, spectacled companion - far preferable to Clara. There were some witty lines for different sections of the audience - a hard one to be able to please, potentially. It did get me thinking of how I could write a more eccentric, out-there musical on the same theme ('Corridors and Air Ducts'? 'Sweet Skarasen', anyone?), but then such a venture wouldn't be a large crowd-pleaser like this was.

The more niche DW related show was Richard Tyrone Jones: Crap Time Lord (Pilgrim, Tuesday 12/08/14); Jones, a self-styled 'ginger Nigel Havers of the spoken word scene'. We were late to this, due to an overlap with the previous spoken word show at the Labyrinth, so instead of interrupting, sat in the bar listening to the show - which was behind a curtain. RTJ (sorry, it's a Doctor Who thing!) most pointedly does need a Doctor, and his erudite, absurd show explored his health issues through the DW lens. A hospital's heart monitor screaming in time like Bonnie Langford. A frame of exophoric reference that takes in W.H. Auden, Catullus, Lovejoy, Thaksin Shinawatra and coming "back to my TARDIS, to see my Terry Nation". Wonderful mix of euphemisms and bathos; I must actually see his full show - and not just what was an in-effect audio version...

He made the best reference to the nature of the Free Fringe: "Don't put any coppers in... As when they hit the bucket they sound like a Cyberman's tears."

Free shows included John Kearns' Shtick (Voodoo Lounge, Friday 08/08/14). Kearns, in gormless headpiece and teeth get-up, was affectingly melancholy and rambling. He had a great way of debunking frozen register language: "I think I'll be found dead..." His central story about the old couple in the pub was touching and sad and spoke of habit, ritual and aggravating banality. There is deadpan darkness in attempting to lead an audience in a singalong of Sting's 'Fields of Gold'.

Immediately following this show was John-Luke Roberts: Stnad-Up (Voodoo Rooms, Friday 08/08/14), a Newcastle Upon Tyne-born comedian with some stock gimmicks that, in defiance of explanation, just work: reeled-off insults addressed to the front few rows of the audience (mine was "You're Mork and Mindy, without Mork, without Mindy... and with you as a COCK!") and inventive, bizarre appropriation of twenty-first century standards such as 'Somebody That I Used to Know' and 'Hurt'. It was a show concerning the break-up with his long-time girlfriend, and was winningly melancholy and deranged.

Trevor Lock: Special Mouth Noises (Bannerman's, Tuesday 12/08/14) was impressive, a smaller-scale Stewart Lee-type deconstruction of 'comedy' and, primarily, 'the show'. This improvisational show was constructed from the audience's foibles rather than gags; we were in a small room in Bannerman's pub and laughs arose from how people acted in the claustrophobic setting, as well as Lock's handling of the audience - two people were assigned to take minutes and he took a 'register'. Lock was very observant but not in the smugly observational sense. Constructed rituals, inability to follow instructions, the slants and interpretations we place on things. It was somehow thoughtful and unaccountably funny. With no more than one straightforward 'joke' for the fifty plus minutes of the performance.

Dave Nelder's show Scotland's Referend...uhm? (Laughing Horse @ The Counting House, Monday 11/08/14) was a lightly enjoyable morning show. Not uproariously funny, but since when is comedy just about laugh count? Nelder is a self-styled Gladstonian liberal - isn't Scotland unique in its ability to generate such political affiliations? His other evening show was based on Voltaire's Candide, which we couldn't quite fit in. He had an excellent gag about reintroducing the Merk, Scotland's pre-Union currency, inaugurated around 600AD - which paid off in reference to German economic aid... Staunch feminist and humanist Kate Smurthwaite's The Evolution will Be Televised (Ciao Roma, Monday 11/08/14) was similar in effect, with a larger audience, seemingly comprised of scientific boffins with more knowledge in the noggin than I have on matters Darwinian.

The very last show we saw was Andrew Watts' Feminism for Chaps (Laughing Horse @ The Counting House, Tuesday 12/08/14). Watts resembled a forty-something Jonathan Meades: suit and tie, distinctly RP tones. He was somewhat less acerbic, but pretty much as intelligent as that great TV fusionist of the lecture hall and the music hall. His 'chaps' guide' to feminism deftly educated on the variety of divergent feminisms and indulged in a sense of the absurd and numerous cricket metaphors. The juxtaposition of his patrician, gentlemanly style with the content made for an enjoyably fresh and thoughtful perspective on the subject. Observations of how men are treated in maternity wards mingled with discussions of feminist porn. A wonderful scene was conjured of Watts on a Feminist march in London, being photographed 'cringing' while Kate Smurthwaite was shouting "WHAT DO WE WANT!?" into a megaphone just behind him and there was the most brilliant story to invoke Penfold from Danger Mouse I'd heard all Fringe.

Another PBH Free Fringe show was Pornography and Heartbreak from American slam poet David Lee Morgan (Banshee Labyrinth, Sunday 10/08/14). This explored the sexual psyche - and all the darker irrationality entailed. I'd seen Morgan in 2013, with a much 'lighter' show that distilled his beat-influenced communism. This was intense and compelling; not all shows have to be easily accessible and such truth-telling isn't always going to 'please'. Nor should it.

We frequented the spoken word-specialist part of the Banshee Labyrinth: the 'Banqueting Hall', an excellent little room that is anything but its name - its many free shows are both economical and mind-expanding. You can try out free comedy and spoken word shows with no upfront cost and then pay a fiver or so if it is enjoyed. One we actually wandered into by mistake, looking for Chris Boyd's Ben Target-directed show: 300 to 1 (Banshee Labyrinth, Sunday 10/08/14). This featured poet Matt Panesh playing a teenage boy in his bedroom performing the action film absurdity 300 - while watched by the ghosts of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. A properly odd Fringe show, with Panesh an imposing physical performer, in a show that emitted wisdom as the Edinburgh skies were about to emit great quantities of certain other stuff that day...

On our last day, we had been looking to see The Philosorap Cabaret, but that wasn't on, so we just moved rooms in the BL and saw a compilation show of spoken-word; all really engaging, ranging from onomatopoeiac travel pieces to reflections on Buddhism to words from the Mancunian Zach Roddis, with his inventories of mundane, banal details and assaults on facile cultural clichés:

Grave Invaders (Banshee Labyrinth, Friday 08/08/14) was a 'slam poetry' performance, consisting of three poets with differing yet dovetailing styles: Mark Grist, MC Mixy and Tim Clare. It was loosely based on the premise of a road trip visiting the graves of dead poets, but largely was a showcase for their styles and flow; a mix of the acerbic, bawdy, heartfelt and debunking. There were some excellent puns. There were also deft parodies.

Clare's 'Portishead' assailed not the excellent band but the limited, Tory mindset of the south western town in which he was born in 1981. Grist had a humanist, illusion-less poem about the 'perfect marriage'. The show ended with an agreeably silly 'poets' death match', with the three dressed as a winged man-bee type thing, a 'space unicorn' and a hapless maths teacher.

Shows not enjoyed? Pointless to dwell at much length, but our first was a very mild stand-up show in the Sportsters bar that at least didn't last over half an hour. I didn't take to the storytelling show in the Banshee Labyrinth, Rebranding Beelzebub; just not imposing or original enough. Will be enjoyed by those literally into anything Gothic, but I found the tales and the delivery monotonous; inexorable in the wrong sense. I had perhaps hoped for something surreal and weird in Shakespeare's Avengers Assembleth (Greenside Royal Terrace, Saturday 09/08/14), but it was merely predictable am-dram panto. Some of the actors were broad, others were frothing at the mouth ham-dram. I'm not 'AVING A GO really, as there are far more deserving candidates for vitriol among the most popular comedians. SAA was fundamentally harmless - provided it isn't the only sort of theatre the audience ever thinks to see. 

Nothing I saw this year was anywhere near as bad as a non-PBH Free Fringe free show of two years ago, with several comics on the bill 'essaying' a rancid, outmoded strain of humour - aggression, misogyny, homophobia; irony less (not that that's a way-out, Mr Carr & Co.). 

I don't like gongs, baubles and awards for the arts... Yet, here's an exclusive 'TOP FIVE SHOWS OF THE EDINBURGH FRINGE 2014'!

5: Hooray for Ben Target! (Banshee Labyrinth, Saturday 09/08/14)

"Hey, easy, asbestos fingers!"

I saw Ben Target (pronounced 'TAR-ZHAY')'s last Fringe show in 2012, which was a revelation to me in how it played with conventions and barriers between audience and performer. And, in its sheer hilarious, unhinged absurdity. This was almost as good, and similarly Dadaist in its free-form splicing of different registers and comedic styles. He presented a fictitious (?) slideshow about his ancestors and grandfather. He had the whole audience assist in making a virtual 'cake'. He had us jumping to the strains of Van Halen in tribute to the 'death' of the band's bassist. Later, Target instructed us to throw our right shoes at him, while he was standing in front of an archery target. Then he produced a riot shield to fend off the flying footwear and finally collated the shoes in a bag and walked off.

4: Free Gaza (Gilded Balloon, Tuesday 12/08/14)

"I thought it was something about a footballer..."

Edinburgh in August can be an education in politics, humour and inform your cultural capital - or sense of yourself, who you are and what you like. Your habitus, in Pierre Bourdieu's terms. Edinburgh might give the discerning 'left-liberal' personality a sense that a lot more is possible, politically and culturally, than might seem to be the case in non-Fringe everyday life.

This was a heartening show; arranged at short notice by the Jewish Socialists' Group and with probably the largest crowd of the 25 shows we saw. All four comedians on the bill had different styles, yet it converged into conveying a humanist message. The Peace Bloc in Israel was alluded to. Money was collected at the end. Josie Long was sparky and charming. Andy Zaltzman was pointed and irreverent and unafraid to be arcane: "You've come a long way for a Graham Gooch". He was just the right side of mainstream. Chris Coltrane, who oddly resembled a work colleague of mine, was a righteous, bald-headed, left-wing activist comedian. He mined the absurdity of how police deal with demos against UK Uncut, and spoke from personal experience.

Then, for Daniel Kitson. A seemingly effortless stand-up style; bantering but with an underlying intellect and comic judiciousness. Like a more rapid fire Trevor Lock, he made comedy from his interactions with the audience and produced a rich humour from the deliberately avoiding mention of the political reason we were here. This was a sort of demonstration of what it is about to be human: not monolithically fixated, but interacting. Trying things out. Improvising. All the better to respond to complex situations - such as Gaza is.

There was even a Leith pun, relating to the decline of their Docks.

3: A Slight Ache (Pleasance That, Monday 11/08/14)

"You could call the police and have him removed. You could say that he's a public nuisance. Although I can't say I find him a public nuisance..."

Tremendous to see Pinter staged, and played with such vigour and understanding. I've seen his work staged just once in Newcastle at the Gulbenkian (now Northern Stage) in 2001: those not living in London don't often get the chance to see the Hackney playwright's comedies of menace. This is an intriguing radio play - staged as a wonderfully absurd sexual power struggle and satire of middle-class pretensions. What it loses in utter bizarre ambiguity, it gains in humour, with Munnery's corporeal presence and inscrutable gaze as the balaclavaed 'match-seller'. Catriona Knox is Vivien Merchant-esque in suggesting reserves of strength and sensuality beneath Flora's seeming primness and Thom Tuck is a megalithically pompous Edward. I had recently watched the 1970s TV version of No Man's Land, and this is similarly evocative in its writing: cricket as perennial exophoric reference, language as chief tool for human dueling. It increasingly strikes me that Pinter is equally and subtly concerned with politics, language and anthropology and shows their inter-relations within a contested culture. 

Edward's speech about surveying the local land with a telescope suggests the desire for 'mastery', 'ownership' and the 'rational'. So much else suggests a focus on physical territory and the human concept of property: so embedded in British culture, law and politics since John Locke. Wonderful stuff this play, and I haven't even got to the 'Barnabus' scene!

2: Lippy (Traverse, Saturday 10/08/14)

"It takes more than rooms and chairs to make a home..."

My favourite theatre show of 2012 was the participatory and political piece about the Covent Garden Old Price Riots of 1809: Kemble's Riot. In 2013, it was was the inventive, physical and auditory spectacle of The Secret Agent, incisively adapting Joseph Conrad.

This year, I'd tried to book for several things at the Traverse - but too late, and with no luck. Other than this Dead Centre production, which was directed by Ben Kidd - who I later realised was behind Headlong's excellent production of Spring Awakening, which I had seen at Northern Stage earlier this year (and mentioned towards the end of my last piece here).

Like Spring Awakening and the work of Dennis Potter and David Lynch, there was an enveloping use of music: as something which beguiles and haunts, in equal measure. The end-section - with its Joycean dialogue emitted from a Beckettian mouth - was somewhat too conventionally modernist, in contrast with the rest of the play. It opens with a funny 'post-show discussion' that circuitously and deftly introduces the play's themes of lip-reading and the incommunicable. Then it shifts into 'depicting' the unimaginable circumstances surrounding four Irish women's decision to starve themselves to death, barricaded in their Leixlip home and erasing all traces of their identities. This was a news-story from 2000 - and the play makes clear the difficulties associated with finding meaning in such an act with limited 'evidence' on hand. 

There is barely any discernible dialogue, for the most part. And that is vital.

This experimental production will necessarily divide critics and spectators: isn't that rather better than bland consensus? I certainly prefer theatre to challenge ideas of life and the world and make use of unusual staging techniques and, most of all, sound, in order to do that. Rather than be some pleasant 'pastime' viewed from behind the proscenium arch and thoroughly compartmentalized. The place 'to be' to keep up social appearances? Or a place to shape your world? Is it merely all about nice dialogue and 'life-like' acting? Or stage craft to fashion 'fantasies' or expose 'realities'?

Gilbert Adair's piece on Tom Stoppard's play Travesties (1974) in Myths and Memories comes to mind. As does the thought of such productions from before my birth as the Theatre Workshop's Uranium 235 (1946) and David Edgar's Destiny (1976).

This production troubled me and made me think, and was brave enough to offer no answers or definitive, didactic interpretation of the Mulrooneys' hauntingly inconclusive story.

1: Nathan Penlington - Choose Your Own Documentary (Gilded Balloon, Monday 11/08/2014)

I won't say too much on this, other than the imperative: go and see it. This has deep pathos and is uplifting like you wouldn't think possible. It demonstrates the need for fictions, myths and stories as well as Jonathan Gottschall or Joseph Campbell. It is innovative and interactive, in a way deeply relevant to the heart of the show. And, yes, there is the heart that we need.