Read Will’s latest Evening Standard column about McDonald’s latest attempt to ‘crawl back to respectability’ and why he won’t take his children there.
To Video City in Notting Hill Gate, a fine emporium for the rental and purchase of videocassettes and DVDs. During my brief incumbency as this newspaper’s film critic I often called on them to obtain some obscure early Kurosawa. The same staff are behind the counter as when I joined 20 years ago and they offer the same olde worlde service: on this occasion heading into their musty vaults to disinter an ancient Tom Sawyer for my young shavers.
As we trolled away, one of the boys remarked on the incongruity of the name “Video City”, and I observed that, yes, the establishment did indeed antedate the invention of the DVD. Honestly, to think that Video City now seems as august as Trumpers, the barbers, or Rigby & Peller, the corsetry specialists, it’s enough to make one feel, well, old.
I Cede ground to no one in my admiration for Jeremy “Rottweiler” Paxman but I fear he’s scored an own goal with his leaked email to the chief executive of M&S regarding what he terms “widespread gusset anxiety” among British men. Paxo believes that M&S pants no longer offer the support they once did to the crux of his matter, but it may be his own assets that are on the slide. It’s a touching foible of us men that while we are as sharp as a terrier when it comes to recognising the ageing process in others, we remain curiously unobservant about our own wrinkles and sags. Ask not for new pants, Jeremy, but rather new balls.
The Home Secretary is being castigated for stating the truth: most women in London feel uneasy walking after dark and given the choice a cab, a private car or a police protection squad will avoid doing so. That it is the policies pursued by Ms Smith’s government that have led to the deprived areas of London becoming more so is the real reason she should be pilloried. And whatever she may bleat about crime clear-up rates, most rapists are not even brought to trial.
Still, why should London be tarred with the paranoiac brush? After all, women may feel uneasy walking mean streets alone but they’re also uncomfortable on the Pennine Way. Indeed, so successful have we been in terrifying ourselves with media-created bogeymen that the old Irish saying could be paraphrased thus: “There are no strangers, only psychotic killers you haven’t met yet.”
Wet outside it may have been, but for many Londoners January has been a dry month. Lots of people, after the excesses of the festive season, make a point of renouncing alcohol for the first gloomy part of the year. Some will find abstinence unutterably tedious and stressful, others will experience it as a mild drag, still more will be pleasurably surprised by how easy it is.
For all the public health blether that gets spouted, it remains surprising how level-headed most people are when it comes to their boozing. Most understand fine well when they’re drinking too much without having to count units. Speaking as a recovering alcoholic myself, I often think I have little useful to add to the debate. But from my own eight years’ clear-eyed observation of the tipplers that surround me, I can distil a few drops of wisdom.
First, there is the widely acknowledged truth that it’s not the quantity that is drunk that defines whether you have a problem. Mostly the reaction of the individual to what he or she drinks is the key test: alcoholics abreact to booze. On one occasion they’ll sip sherry in a civilised fashion, on the next — seemingly without rhyme or reason — they’ll end up under Hungerford Bridge swigging fortified wine.
This unpredictability is also what distinguishes the true alcoholic from those who are alcohol-dependent but haven’t yet bought the whole pathological packet. There are huge vats of such people in this country — how could it not be otherwise? Ninety per cent of British adults drink, many every day of their lives. We are an alcohol-dependent culture, relying on it as the lubricant for births, marriages, deaths and everything in between. But for the most part these citizens are not significantly more likely to develop a full-blown problem than others who barely sup.
Which brings us to the Mayor of London, who was accused last night, in Channel 4’s Dispatches programme, of drinking scotch at his Mayoral Questions at 10am one morning. A tad louche Mr Livingstone’s behaviour may have been, but there’s no way, in and of itself, that it means he’s an alcoholic. Alcohol-dependent, perhaps, but that’s quite a different thing.
Indeed, I’d suggest that the overpowering urge that some feel to judge others’ drinking habits is itself a far more alcoholic trait than mere tippling. It’s alcoholics who constantly seek to compare themselves in this way, usually selecting some skid-row type against whose excesses their own transgressions appear minimised. It’s alcoholics who are obsessed by the minutiae of units and not drinking before X o’clock — because it’s they who are unable to control themselves once they get started. Indeed, overall, the accusations against the Mayor — and the wider culture that they reflect — seem to suggest that some commentators shouldn’t merely abstain from alcohol during January but all intemperance.
The rehabilitation of Chris Langham is well under way. On Sunday, The Observer ran a searching but evenhanded interview with the disgraced comic actor and his wife, Christine, and Langham will shortly appear on Pamela Stephenson’s More4 show, Shrink Rap, to be comprehensively grilled by his former Not the Nine O’Clock News colleague, now turned psychotherapist.
This is not the behaviour we expect from a man who has loomed large in the public eye but then been convicted of downloading child pornography. If there is a profile for the celebrity paedophile, it’s exemplified on the one hand by Gary Glitter, pursued by the redtop vigilante squad from one Cambodian brothel to the next and on the other by Jonathan King, bumptiously continuing to maintain his innocence to all-comers.
But Langham says he has a right to be considered as different: he has never denied that what he did was wrong, he has said that he himself was abused, and that he only wanted to bear witness to the degradation of child pornography in order to research a character for Help, the TV series he co-wrote with Paul Whitehouse.
In court, experts testified that he was neither a paedophile and nor did he pose a risk to children.
So why is it that the Langham rehab arouses such uneasiness in me? In part, it’s because of the inconsistencies in his explanations. Langham said that writing about paedophiles brought his own memories of abuse to the surface. But even if you believe in the phenomenon of “recovered memory”, why on earth would such an unpleasant revelation send you looking for more unpleasantness? Yet I also have a grudging sympathy for him. I used to see him about a bit in the 1980s and he always seemed a decent cove. I was as shocked as everyone else by his arrest. Beyond this, there’s a savage and overweening need in our society to shovel as much opprobrium as possible on to the heads of those convicted of child abuse, and the reason for that, I suspect, is because so many men like Langham himself are avid consumers of “adult” porn.
Langham came to the attention of Operation Ore because he’d used his credit card to access porn sites. If you’re reading this on public transport, and you tossed your paper away, it’s very likely it would hit a man who’s done the same thing. Pornographic websites account for approximately 12 per cent of all sites globally, and there are 372 million pornographic web pages. Most male consumers of porn convince themselves they’re doing nothing wrong, and even if they are that it’s a victimless crime, but the line between a drug-addicted 17-year-old being manipulated in front of a webcam and 16-year-old being raped seems to me so thin as to be specious.
I think it’s this male denial about the festering charnel house of “adult” porn that makes them go in a pack for the likes of Langham: with his long, lugubrious and no longer funny face, he makes the perfect scapegoat.
To the London Weekend Television studios to record an episode of Have I Got News for You (HIGNFY). The production runner, as is their wont, reminded me as he showed me to my dressing room that I was the long-running show’s most frequent guest, with 10 appearances notched up over the past decade or so. Sadly, I think last week’s was my last.
In its heyday, HIGNFY was in the very cockpit of British satire: a prototype kind of reality TV in which unwitting politicians were parachuted into a jungle full of backbiting repartee. The combination of a witty dissections of the week’s current events and an opportunity for viewers to see their rulers or wannabe rulers excoriated in front of a live studio audience was a must-see, and for some years the programme formed part of the political discourse, as well as provoking myriad belly laughs.
The show’s regular panellists, Ian Hislop and Paul Merton, remain just as funny, and as committed to cocking a snook at the Establishment as they ever were, but inevitably, age and success have mellowed them. It’s difficult to believe in them as angry young men, when they’re so manifestly middle-aged and rather comfortable men. It’s hard to credit them as effectively wielding what is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful, when they’re so clearly part of an elite.
Meanwhile, the political class has got wise to the show’s format. No serving or aspiring politician can “win” HIGNFY the best they can hope for is to not lose. If, like Boris Johnson, they succeed in making a TV audience laugh, they’re never going to be regarded as truly serious ever again. If Johnson loses next year’s mayoral election, it will be HIGNFY that did it for Ken.
I’m afraid that without the reality element, the programme has become just like any other pseudopanel contest, where funny fellows sit behind desks cracking jokes. Moreover, in the post-Hutton era, the BBC seems to have lost its bottle so far as edgy satire is concerned: the sharpest crack I made all evening and the one that received the most audience laughter was cut for transmission.
I’d like to think there’s some other TV show that’s taking up the satiric mantle once sported by HIGNFY and by other programmes before it, stretching all the way back to the revelation of That Was The Week That Was in the 1960s, but sadly I doubt this is the case. On the one hand there is the Balkanisation of television itself, which means that no one programme can ever attract quite such high ratings on the other hand there’s politics itself.
Hunter Thompson once said that satire became impossible when reality itself was too twisted and I fear that’s become the case.
Standing in the offie last night I witnessed a happy interchange between the proprietor, who I assumed to be from Pakistan, and three, blonde, giggling customers who I assumed to be Polish. The proprietor had very little English and the Polish girls hardly any at all, yet they all seemed to get along just fine. Of course, I doubt these are the kind of “skilled workers” who, the Prime Minister announced yesterday at the TUC conference, will henceforth have to learn English before they’re allowed to permanently settle in Britain. For a start, the new rules only apply to those from outside Europe, and I doubt the offie proprietor pitched up at immigration with a business plan in broken English: he’s somebody’s son, father or husband.
The Government is touting its new rules as what’s needed to avoid “ethnic polarisation”. Jacqui Smith putting a more mumsie face on the new rules has said they will help migrants to both integrate and benefit Britain. But at root I think she and her boss are playing to Middle England, which is the only thing Gordon Brown really understands by his much-touted “Britishness”.
Since from now on low-skilled migrants are not going to be allowed to settle, I suspect the actual impact on numbers will be slight. No, this is about playing to the white gallery in the shires, while attempting to construct an immigration policy that will seem all things to all shades of colour and opinion — an impossible chimera.
Here in sarf London we only have to go to the offie to see how complex the reality of immigration is on the ground. I completely agree that speaking English is the best way for newcomers to integrate in our city, but in my neighbourhood, known as “Little Portugal”, the worst monoglots to maintain a bigoted, clannish outlook aren’t the East Africans or the East Europeans but the Portuguese, and possibly even the native English, white or black.
London, free of the bigoted girdle that constrains the provinces, and always a window on the world, has absorbed more migrants, more quickly, than any other region of the country. As global polls show that our city is regarded as second only to New York in the cool stakes (whatever they are), we Londoners understand that our receptivity to migrants is key to our economic expansion.
There’s a downside to this, of course. But it’s difficult to convince Londoners who know fine well there’s a vast black market of illegal migrants toiling away right in front of them that it’s the increased pressure on public services: most of the capital’s hospitals are run by migrants. No, the downside is inextricably mixed up with the upside: it’s sweat-shop labour and cheap drugs, ghettos and gangs, road congestion and exhaust fumes. But while the PM may be a skilled migrant from the far lands of the North, and his English may be fairly good, there are Poles and Pakistanis down my way who speak cockney better than he ever will.
A Q&A about Will’s home town, from the Evening Standard, 8.11.01
What a strange little community Harlington is. The village, just off the Heathrow peripheral road, is a bog-standard interwar development, with pebble-dashed semis ranged down drowsy culs-de-sac. Only when the flight approach into the airport switches to the north do you realise you aren’t in some still sleepier part of the ‘burbs.
The only reason I even know what Harlington looks like is because a few years ago I walked to Heathrow from my house, along the Grand Union Canal then across Hounslow Heath. Otherwise I would’ve remained in the same blissful ignorance of the airport’s surroundings as the rest of its 20 million annual users.
Now a protest camp has been set up between Harlington and the adjoining village of Sipson, and already there are fears that the peaceful environmental campaigners have been infiltrated by eco-warriors and anti-globalisation protesters. Instead of waving their little banners ineffectually at the thousands of holidaymakers who will be being thrust over their heads by carbon-dumping jet engines, these hardcore elements are going to provoke security emergencies and generally try to disrupt the running of Heathrow.
I would say “smooth” running, but this would be an oxymoron. BAA, the company that has a monopoly stranglehold on London’s airports, is determined to have another runway there, and, as yet, the PM has shown no more inclination than his predecessor to stop it. Soon, he’ll be mouthing the shibboleth that restricting Heathrow’s growth is tantamount to putting a bomb under the entire British economy.
It’s nonsense, of course. Heathrow is, was and always shall be a disastrous airport for London: it’s too near the capital, it operates at way over capacity, and has no high-speed rail link to the rest of the country. Building more runways and terminals is simply putting a sticking plaster on this wound, which continues to fester with more and more traffic.
I don’t doubt that there is already a hardcore element at the camp that wants to screw things up for BAA and British Airways, which benefits from an equally monopolistic position with its landing slots. I have no more time for these quixotic Luddites than I do their opponents: they’re the lineal descendants of every bellowing Trot and febrile class warrior it’s ever been my misfortune to attend a demonstration with. I don’t think their “direct actions” will be any more effective in galvanising the Government over climate change than the pop poseurs of Live Earth.
Nevertheless, I can’t help but have a sneaking hope that they will screw things up and this despite the fact I’m jetting away from the airport myself, this coming Saturday. If my flight is grounded by eco-warriors, I’ll take it as a divine signal, and spend my time at their camp, perhaps delivering a few stiff lectures about the economic implications of the Stern Report on climate change. At the very least, I can help familiarise the protesters, most of whom probably arrived by road, with the local area.
One hundred days after Madeleine McCann’s abduction, paedophile hysteria continues in Clapham. At the playground on the Common, I was accosted by a park-keeper: “I just wanted to warn you, your son was trying to go into the public toilets, but …” and here his voice went tremolo with self-righteousness, “… I stopped him.” I pointed out that the predatory men in Clapham were more interested in sex with each other, and he recoiled as if I’d propositioned him. Was he really saying we should be on general alert for paedophiles? If this nonsense persists, with nine-year-olds being barred from the gents, we really are in trouble.
I was up in Edinburgh at the weekend for the Book Festival, and had dinner with assorted literary luminaries at a fancy restaurant in the New Town called Orosola. There were spectacular views: to the south, the Castle mound and to the north, the Firth of Forth and beyond.
However, the political perspectives were narrower. One pro-SNP Scot pronounced: “I wish Salmond would get on and have the referendum. There’s always a dip in the economy after a country becomes independent and I’m worried about my pension.” A second, more sceptical Scot was even more to the point: “If they vote for independence, me and my pension will be on the next train to London.” With patriots like these, who needs a homeland?
Tony Wilson, the impresario and TV presenter who has died aged 57, was the founder of Factory Records and the Hacienda Club in Manchester, which nurtured bands like Joy Division and the Happy Mondays, while continuing to present pawky little current affairs items for Granada TV.
Immortalised by Steve Coogan in the film 24-Hour Party People, Wilson was egregious, insufferable and a tireless promoter of his home town.
I only met him once, in the early Nineties, when I went up to Manchester to do a chat show he was presenting. John Hume, then leader of the SDLP, who had just received the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with David Trimble of the Ulster Unionists, was also a guest.
The air of sycophancy surrounding the Great and hefty Irish Peacemaker was beginning to nauseate me, until Wilson whispered in my ear: “No wonder it’s going so well, it looks to me as if he’s eaten Ian Paisley …” We won’t see his like again …
I like a maverick and I like Brian Paddick, the ex-Met Assistant Commissioner, who has now thrown his hat into the ring to become the Lib-Dems’ candidate for London Mayor. They don’t come much more maverick than Paddick: the youngest area commander in the Force’s history, whose softly-softly cannabis policy on his Brixton manor caused a furore, the openly gay copper who rapidly rose up the greasy pole of this once most arch-homophobic of institutions.
Yes, Paddick, who went on internet chatrooms, not to chat up male escorts like some Tory “family values” hypocrite, but to express understanding for the actions of anti-capitalist protesters. Frankly, he makes Boris “Dizzy Blond” Johnson’s antics look positively staid by comparison. I hope the Lib-Dems will select him: unlike Simon Hughes, he’s potentially an arthropod of a politician, with all the skeletons on the outside already.
However, a few words of warning to the wannabe Mayor. Paddick, narked at the way he was sidelined from even more police power, began spinning against the Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, before the smoke had cleared from the Jean Charles de Menezes shooting. Now Paddick has published a full account of that fateful day from his perspective.
I happen to believe in the veracity of what he says, and while the IPCC Report on the shooting may have cleared Sir Ian of wilfully misleading the public, there are grave questions still dangling over the Commissioner’s head. As for the Mayor, he is being naive when he suggests that Paddick should have chimed in at the press conference where Sir Ian maintained the investigation was still live.
Either Sir Ian was woefully out of touch with his beat, or his own account remains incomplete. In person, the Commissioner does a very good job of convincing you that the business of policing the Great Wen is so scary that your average citizen would be better off just letting the professionals get on with the job.
Frankly, it’s a far better shtick than the one wielded by successive toughguy Home Secretaries, of whom Jaqui Smith is only the latest. But ultimately, the London electorate have a limited appetite for the he-said, he-said of these two battling Woodentops. If Paddick wants to make more political capital out of the Brazilian electrician’s death, he’ll have to tackle the awkward questions about the legality of the shooting itself, and the sense that many of us have, that the Met’s tactical firearms units, for purely operational reasons, you understand, are in danger of viewing themselves as above the law.
And beyond that, having ditched his own uniform, it’s up to this particular contender to remember that we don’t live in a police state. We don’t much care that you were once a tightly-buttoned copper, Brian: we want to see your other policies.
Criticisms are being lodged against the winsome Ricky Gervais, tickets for whose Fame stand-up show at Edinburgh Castle have retailed for nigh-on 40 smackers, hardly the going rate for a gag-merchant. His spokeswoman shrugged them off, observing that it was an 8,000-seater venue and it’s sold out. Is this what’s become of your satirical thrust, Mr Gervais, a blunt instrument that will batter away at whatever the market will bear? You were great when you stuck to playing losers, but the price of your fame sucks.
To Brockwell Park for a little splashing about in the paddling pool, a delightful, sylvan spot on the Tulse Hill side of this quintessential London open space. Frankly, if you’re a parent, and you aren’t Roman Abramovitch, you see a lot of park life in the summer holidays. But what could be finer? All of human life is here, young and old, wet and dry.
Now Transport for London is trying to shave 1,000 square metres off the Herne Hill end of Brockwell Park for a new traffic scheme, while there are also dark mutterings that the paddling pool itself is to be moved. I definitely wouldnt fight for Queen and country but Londons parks are worth defending to the ice-cream-smeared, sunblock-dashed hilt.
Bolstered by the runaway success of his book The God Delusion, which, according to a survey, is favoured reading even in the corridors of power, Richard Dawkins, Britain’s favourite atheist, is turning the laser-beam of his reason on assorted crystal-danglers, ley-liners and other New Agers.
Presumably Dawkins’s documentary, scheduled for the autumn, will tell us that these people, too, are dreadfully deluded, possibly dangerous to the credulous masses and that their cherished views lack even a jot of scientific proof. Big deal.
You would have thought a scientific thinker of Dawkins’s calibre might turn his attention to original thinking, instead of banging on about what doesn’t exist. It strikes me he doth protest too much — atheists who believe fervently in no-God are quite as intemperate as their deist opponents. It’s up to us agnostics, who believe in the real comfort of doubt itself, to preserve the status quo in our multi-faith society.
There’s nothing like being personally connected to loop one into the progress of a natural disaster. I have very close friends who live between Tewkesbury and Evesham, in the epicentre of the floods devastating central England. I was going up there for the weekend, but when I received a succinct email: “We are an island”, my determination to go in contrast to the waters evaporated. I stayed in London, watching politicians on the rolling news up to their mouths in raw sewage, which they vainly attempt to stem with sandbags full of rhetoric. David Cameron in Witney, Oxfordshire, the worst-affected part of his constituency, seized the day to pour his tepid scorn on Government preparedness.
Meanwhile, Hilary Benn swam to the surface of Worcester to rebut the claim that the Environment Agency’s budget for flood defences had been cut last year. Then, yesterday, the Great Helmsman finally appeared: Gordo himself. Perhaps wisely, the Prime Minister didn’t take to the flood waters himself. He’s no Gerhard Schroeder, whose splashing about during the 2005 German floods was credited with restoring his image as the Captain of the Fatherland. Instead, Gordo performed his usual “I’m too serious for my office” shtick, and ensured there were only dry eyes in the drenched houses. Whatever the situation on the sodden ground, we don’t need a public inquiry to tell us that the determination to indulge in political point-scoring remains in full spate.
It’s all very well for Hilary Benn to say: “We just have to recognise the intensity of the volume of water that’s come down and that has resulted in f looding that even with the best defences in the world would in some cases have been overtopped.” But what he dare not do is join the dots so that Middle England has to look upon the waters of the deep, and face up to the change in our climate and its disastrous results.
We have ceased to be a country where our temperate climate is matched only by our equanimity of character. Gone are the days when we could lightly mock our light London rains and dull skies: the past few years have made it abundantly clear that we’re living in the era when extreme weather events take their holidays here. And that shows up the vulnerability of our modern, high-tech country and our ability to deal (or not) with the consequences of extremity.
The Government doesn’t want to connect the floods to global warming tributes to the dead for fear of being exposed in the itsy-bitsy bikini of its own halfhearted environmental policy. Instead, we’re doomed to more building of new homes on flood plains, higher insurance premiums and a steady drift of politicians struggling to keep afloat in midstream who continue to think it’s only aprés them that the deluge will really get bad.
Where would we be without Amy Winehouse, the troubled soul diva whose antics are covered in one of the celebrity-gossip rags under the heading: Where’s the Wino? It may not ultimately be possible to help someone with a drink problem but you can sure as hell hinder them. And that’s what the bulk of the media seems intent on doing with poor Amy. Every skinny inch of her is being given maximum coverage, as the prurient vultures circle. Even notionally intelligent commentators enthuse about the ballsiness of her singing which they attribute to her increasing mental disintegration as if the only alternative were Cliff Richard. I’d like her to be happy, well-adjusted and carry on singing great songs, but then I suppose I’m so square I’m cubic.
While my poor friends in Worcestershire were moving their furniture upstairs, I took my kids downstream for some mud-larking. Courtesy of the Museum of London, we fossicked about on the foreshore at Canary Wharf in the company of a proper archaeologist. We may not have found the hoard of Roman gold my nineyear-old was anticipating, but Andy the archaeologist was able to identify 18th-century glassware, a 16th-century musket ball and a shard from a Tudor pot.
I myself came up with a more contemporary artefact: a BlackBerry. Andy conceded it was an interesting discovery, but suggested I chuck it back in the river: “It’s the archaeology of the future,” he admonished me. Quite so…
I know violent crime in London is falling, but it’s hard to see it from where I’m typing, at the epicentre of sarf London’s murder square-mile. Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell Tube, the young woman strangled in the shower at Vauxhall, the kid shot over a crack deal at Clapham North, the woman “honour” burnt in Larkhall Park over the past few years there’s been a killing at every point of the local compass.
Now comes the doorman shot dead outside the Bell pub on the Wandsworth Road. I passed by the other morning and saw the now commonplace Cellophanewrapped flowers and a stranger funerary gift: two bottles of white wine. Are we perhaps regressing to the mindset of the Ancient Greeks? For clearly, these were carry-outs for the afterlife …