George Bernard Shaw, Hillaire Belloc and GK Chesterton

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The Pointlessness of the Party Conference

or: Why we should all listen to Radio 3 in September

Recently, I have been having breakfast to the sound of BBC Radio 3. There are a number of reasons for this. The first is that I like classical music. The Radio 3 breakfast show is not for die-hard purists though, playing single movements and shorter pieces, making at least some concession to the time of day. (No one’s got the best part of an hour to listen to Mahler’s Fifth while eating cornflakes. That many cornflakes is very unhealthy.)

The second reason is that I have small children, and being a middle class parent, I am keen to make my four-year old and two-year old appreciate The Arts whilst they have no choice in the matter.

But the third reason is that the show is mostly music, and very little talking. In particular, there is very little news. Radio 3 would always rather talk about a composer who died in 1871, than a politician who’s desperately trying to get us to eat healthily or vote for them. On Radio 3, one can avoid the tedious, playground taunting that passes for interviews on Radio 4. One can avoid the incessant reading out of knee-jerk texts and emails from uninformed listeners on Five Live. It’s lovely.

Radio 3 really comes into its own in September, when party conferences are in full swing. The Media loves to give these events their full attention and hours of coverage and analysis, but they are completely self-defeating. A party conference can only have two real purposes.

Pic by  Maarten Dirkse
The first is a feel-good knees-up with back-slapping speeches where politicians queue up to offer their praise to each other. The party faithful get to feel like they’re part of things and everyone goes home happy, inspired and unchallenged. A bit like a Sunday church service when it’s not quite doing its job. (It’s fine to be inspired, but we all know there’s more to it than that.)

The second more useful purpose of a party conference is an introspective search for the party’s soul. Difficult questions should be asked. Deep philosophical issues should be raised, and then examined, discussed and debated well into the night with a single malt (with someone sober taking notes in case the single malt wins the argument on the night).

The problem, as we have said, is that party conferences are open to the media, and frequently broadcast to the nation – or at least the parts of the nation whose TVs are stuck on BBC2 and can’t seem to get their Freeview/Sky box to change channel. Because the politicians feel under the glare of the nation’s gaze, they act on their mistaken view that the nation likes to see parties united.

In the past, for example, Tories have thought people won’t vote for them if they appear divided on the issue of Europe. In fact, those who don’t vote Tory do so for a variety of gut-felt, prejudicial or intellectual reasons, good and bad. Division over Europe is not really one of them. Divisions within religions usually look bad, especially when they end in obscene and hateful language or bloodshed. But everyone expects politicians to at least resort to the former, so why the big deal over presenting a united front over everything?

The result is a self-defeating party conference in which every speech given is designed to have four qualities; vague acceptability to the people in the room; a blandness that it appears is part of mainstream policy and therefore makes the party look united; a lack of gaffes to avoid the attention of the journalists who will report verbal slips with pathetic childish glee; and an appeal to the people who aren’t there and were never going to vote for them anyway. In short, it’s like trying to conduct a Presbyterian church service, in a synagogue, live on Al Jazeera. It is, at best, a waste of time.

Party conferences should be private affairs, with doors closed and the press excluded. Politicians, SPADs and wonks should lock themselves in a big room and work out what they’re about and why – while the rest of us listen to Mahler’s Fifth eating cornflakes, which can’t be any harder work than watching The Daily Politics during conference season.

This article, and many like it, can be found in my book, Death by Civilisation, available on Amazon, and as an e-book, here.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Just Another £10 Billion

pic by born1945 via Flickr
This High Speed rail link that will shave minutes off your journey time from London to Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester is going to cost an extra £10 billion. Yes, £10 billion. Nearly the same amount that the Chancellor just had to cut from the Budget in the latest Spending Review.

Listening to a politician talk about other people's money is always fun. They don't get bogged down by facts, reality or every single past experience of government spending and budgeting for the last hundred years. This is why Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin's recent trip to the Commons was laughable. He said the  new projected cost of £42.6bn, up from £33bn, included "contingency" money. Even though they budgeted wrong before, they're pretty sure they've got it right this time.

And then there was the big gag. Mr McLoughlin said contingency money was built into the London Olympics budget but the cost ended up "below the price that had been set by the government". Ha ha ha. The Olympics was under budget? Okay, let's talk about this. And to do so, I'd like to refer to something I wrote a little while ago, which is now in my book, Death by Civilisation. It wrote it after MPs were taking exception to G4S charging the government £57 million for their services in the London Olympics, which they were all very pleased about.

It’s always galling when politicians club together and start clubbing private companies for wasting money. MPs have been calling on G4S to forgo their £57 million fee after their high-profile Olympics blunder in which they failed to recruit enough security staff and had to be bailed out by the Armed Forces. But G4S’s main error is that they weren’t anywhere near clever enough to get away with wasting such a small amount of money. The politicians, masters of misdirection, know how to waste so much more with much greater subtlety. 
So let us remember two numbers. When the games were won for London, the budget was £2.4 billion. Bafflingly, VAT and the security costs were omitted from this. But when the games were held, the budget was £11 billion. £11 billion. Not £2.4 billion. You have to admire the cheek. In June 2012, the government had the nerve to announce that the games were under budget by £476 million, omitting to mention the original budget had been inflated by £9 billion. And then there’s the imaginary economic benefits that they always claim, and yet have not one shred of evidence for...
The same goes for this rail link. There's no decent evidence of the effect this rail link will have on jobs, but the politicians plough on, courageously spending other people's money. Sadly, any right thinking MP who can see trying to vote this idiocy down was defeated. 325 MPs vote for this white elephant.

Death by Civilisation is available in paperback or as an e-book. It's a book of articles about this sort of thing. A toxic mix of politics, money, media and religion. With jokes.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

The Girl Guides Go for Nietzsche

 Girl Guides of Canada via Flickr
The Girl Guides are good eggs. They get girls to do stuff, mess around, run about and learn how to sew, bake, hide, spot constellations, recycle and make tea.

But now they're teaching them to be little Nietzscheans. They have killed God, expunging Him from the pledge. Or at least that is how the Christian press are sure to spin this latest development. But let's not panic just yet. I'm not sure the Girl Guides was ever a truly Christian organisation. It's not affiliated to one particular church or under kind of religious authority. It's just when it was set up, God was part of the package, along with King and Country.

Except the Country bit has gone too, replaced with the word 'community'. The Nation State is dead to the Girl Guide movement. Call off the UN delegation. It's all about the local now.

So God's dead. The Nation has vanished. But the Queen remains in the pledge - majestic and proud. After all, the Guides are blue-dressed helpers, not red boiler-suited revolutionaries. It seems odd the organisation is happy to swear allegiance to an inherited monarchy rather than the Nation or The Supreme Being, but these are strange times we live in.

The new pledge goes as follows:
I promise that I will do my best: to be true to myself and develop my beliefs, to serve the Queen and my community, to help other people and to keep the (Brownie) Guide law.
You might have felt queasy as you read the middle part of that pledge. It might have struck you as you read the words 'To be true to myself'. Alternatively, at point you might have felt like bursting into song and singing 'A Whole New World' from Walt Disney's Aladdin. (See below) 'Being true to myself' is the gospel of Disney. I am who I am and I'm fine with that. It's okay but it's not exactly aspirational. At least they stopped short of having to pledge 'to be true to myself and everyone else can just deal with it, yeah?'.

It's not the beginning of the end. Girl Guides are a voluntary coming together of children from all creeds and backgrounds to do interesting, fun and useful things. Enforcing some kind of oath of allegiance is not just dumb, it's anti-Christian. I'm with Jesus on this one, who says "Do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one."

So there it is. Don't drop God from the oath. Just drop the oath.

If you'd like to read more of this sort of thing, why not buy my book, Death by Civilisation, full of articles about the sacred and the secular? Also available for the Kindle.

Anyway, I'd like to finish with a song...

Monday, 17 June 2013

Why Dads Are Still Funny

By Allen Ang via Flickr

Dads aren’t funny any more. That seems to be the latest development in the media this Father’s Day. We’ve always known that dad’s aren’t funny. They tell terrible jokes, and chuckle to themselves why we all roll our eyes. They pick you up from friends’ houses wearing unfashionable clothes listening to power ballads on the car’s achingly unhip CD player. Dads aren’t funny.

But they’re not funny on television either. The joke has worn thin. We don’t want any more incompetent dads messing it up, getting it wrong, failing to dress or feed their children properly, maiming pets or setting fire to sheds. The stereotypes are not helping.

There are two reasons for this: A report and a survey. Let's look at each in turn:

The Report
The ‘Fractured Families’ comes from the Centre for Social Justice, claiming that single parent families we growing at a rate of 20,000 a year. Useless fathers who are so useless that they are absent are no laughing matter. Ever keen to take a moral stance, the report points out this breakdown costs around £46 billion a year, or £1,541 for every taxpayer. Forget the pain and anguish of broken families. Someone’s got to pay for all this. And it's you. The taxpayer.

The Survey
And then the real story: an online survey from the mighty Netmums said that dads were all too frequently stereotyped as “lazy or stupid” on TV shows, adverts and in books. Out of 2000 (self-selected) parents asked, almost half “slammed books, adverts and children’s TV shows like Peppa Pig, The Simpsons and the Flintstones.” Yes, I know. Almost half is less than half. And The Simpsons isn’t not a children’s TV show. But that is not the point here. With Father’s Day only days away, this briefly became a story. The Times editorial said the image of the hapless dad “has gone from gag to cliché to ubiquitous slur”.

The message is clear: Dad’s aren’t funny any more.

Why are fathers such easy targets for comedy?
And why is so hard to subvert the current narrative of useless dads? There is an easy answer to this. Comedy exploits surprise and subversion. Fathers are authority figures. Anything that makes a traditional seat of power look ridiculous is subversive and therefore frequently funny. It’s why jokes about politicians, princes, bishops and bankers are easy to do – because these people have tended to get their own way so we don't need to feel sorry for them. Technically, it's satire.

In the same way, everyone used to assume the father was ‘in charge’, the key bread winner, decision maker and law giver. Patriarchs have pretty much been the narrative in most households in almost all societies across the world for the last 6000 years. Reinforcing this is not artistically all that interesting.

All Change
The fact is that dads are no longer the authority figures they once were. This means that jokes about not knowing how to cook or change a nappy means that lots of these jokes have worn thin – to my generation, at least. For my parents, who are nearly seventy, the old way is still lodged in their minds. This is why Jim Royle still works as an old-fashioned stereotype. He still exists. But the Jim Royles are dying out. Fathers who are involved with their children are expected to do more and more.

The way I am involved in bringing up my children looks very different to the way my parents brought me up. I regularly get my kids dressed, cook their dinner, give them baths, wash their hair and put them to bed, much to the amazement of my mother. I try to explain to her that I don’t do these things because I’m an exceptional father. I’m not. In fact, if I didn’t do them, many people (including my wife) would think considerably less of me. It’s just that fathers do this stuff now. And so the some of the stereotypes will have to change, purely because the old ones will no longer ring true. And comedy is about truth.

We should not be surprised that TV shows and adverts perpetuate stereotypes. Audiences like stereotypes (see Death by Civilisation, Part 1: Chapter 11). Stereotypes are easy to understand quickly – so we can get on with the story and do the jokes. And then they can be subtlely subverted if time permits. But time does not permit in adverts in which they have 10-30 seconds to sell you toothpaste or wood stain. Ronseal’s view of fatherhood is limited to encouraging men to feel man enough to defend their castle by putting wood preserver on their fence.

Redressing the balance and showing ‘positive role-models’ is comedic death, especially if it feels preachy or untruthful. Even when it’s realistic, it’s not cool. Family sitcoms like My Family or 2.4 children have never been hip. And the mainstream domestic comedies that have felt fresh and subversive sidestep children – and fatherhood – altogether. There were surprisingly no children in The Good Life, Ever Decreasing Circles. Or One Foot in the Grave. Even Terry and June managed to avoid their grown up children most of the time.

But there is one show which has pulled off a very need trick: Modern Family, which has a patriarch in Jay, an old-school beer-drinking my-word-is-law I’ll-be-in-my-shed kind of dad. He keeps learning that these ways don’t always wash, especially with his grown-up gay son, Mitch, and his extraordinarily precocious step-son Manny. And then there’s his son-in-law, Phil Dumphy, who is a hands-on, I’m-your-friend kind of dad. It’s toe-curling, but he’s doing his best. And that’s what we want to see dad’s do. Because it's the truth. Dad's do their best. It's just their best is often lousy. And if they get hit in the face with a rake or covered in goo in the process, so much the better.

If you want to read more articles like this one, buy Death by Civilisation, available as a paperback or an e-book on Amazon here.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Jerk By Association

It is said that you can know a man by the company he keeps. This worries me because the company I keep would suggest that I am a jerk. But not just a jerk. Many different kinds of jerk. Allow me to explain.

Here is the problem. I live in two worlds. World One is the secular media. I’m a professional comedy writer, mostly for BBC. World Two is the Church. I’m a Christian, mostly C of E. In World One, I hang around with wiseguys and wisegals, where most are Lefties and plenty are atheists. People are socially liberal, pro-choice and defer to The Guardian. No joke is off limits. Having said that, this world is every bit as moralistic and judgmental as the other world I live in. In World One, I’m the kum-by-yah, insufferably naff, tragically gullible Christian guy.

In World Two, I hang around with people who really like the Bible, believe that Jesus came back from the dead, and is coming back one day to sort everything out. In World Two, people are socially conservative, pro-life and defer to The Daily Telegraph. This World doesn’t quite get jokes or irony. In this World, I’m the guy who writes those shows on the idiot-box TV that pollutes our living rooms with filth, swearing and strong sex references. (They’re kind of right in that I co-created and co-wrote Bluestone 42 for BBC3).

In both worlds, I’m the jerk by association with the other world.

These worlds are now converging because of a book I’ve written called Death by Civilisation. It’s a light-hearted paperback in which I'm going to look like an even bigger jerk since it’s a collection of articles (originally from Third Way magazine) about politics, media, money and anything else that comes to mind. All mixed with religion. That’s one heady toxic mixture guaranteed to bring any dinner party conversation to a grinding halt.

When you espouse opinions on politics, people associate you with other people with similar views. And these views tend to come in pre-ordained, clearly-labelled packages. People on the left tend to be anti-market, anti-foxhunting, anti-rich, anti-nuclear, pro-state, pro-tax, pro-immigration. Espouse any one of these leftie views and people will associate you with Polly Toynbee, Billy Bragg, The Guardian and Brighton. Espouse the reverse and you’re with Peter Hitchens, Jim Davidson, The Daily Mail and Tunbridge Wells.

So What's the Problem?

The problem is that I don’t feel part of either tribe. I’m most at home on the Right, which puts me in the company of David Cameron and George Osborne and therefore highly suspicious to most of my work colleagues – and my ‘right-on’ Christian friends. But I remain deeply unimpressed by the Tory party, not least because I’m not really a conservative. More of a libertarian. Oh dear, more unfortunate bedfellows can be found here. And in this country at least, people associate that libertarianism with two different groups of people, neither of which are very flattering.

Group One is slack-jawed, slow-witted religious extremists who stockpile canned goods and guns in their shacks in the Nevada desert in readiness for the apocalypse and rapture (because Satan and his demons can of course be repelled by legally available assault rifles). I’m not really that comfortable in this group.

Group Two is the over-educated, sharp-suited angry urban Neo-cons who demand deregulated markets and quote Ayn Rand to anyone who’ll listen. (Don’t listen.)

I’m suspicious to all of the groups listed above. I’m in favour of a small state, which makes people assume I thinks the Market will fix everything. I don’t believe the market will fix everything. The market is brutal. It should be policed. By the police. Properly funded police. Not private companies. The government should not be privatizing prisons – since the state’s main function is the protection of property and the punishment of criminals. The state gets to have guns. They should have the monopoly on violence. Citizens should not be allowed guns, so now I’m suspicious to the Neocons and hicks.

So I’m with the Left on guns. I’m also fine with immigration. I’m not much of a royalist. But I also think progressive taxation is immoral, so there goes any support from the Billy Bragg Brigade.

Despite being personally conservative in my own morality and sexual ethics, I’m reluctant to impose those views on others who don’t share my evangelical convictions. I’d like to quote the apostle Paul (I don’t call him Saint Paul, because I’m not a Catholic. See? This is not easy.) In 1 Corinthians 5, the apostle Paul writes “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?” I agree. If you and I disagree on why we should even listen to what the Bible says or what Jesus teaches, we’re going to struggle to have a useful discussion about morality. But conservative evangelical Christians get very worked up about public morality and standards. Clearly these things are important when there’s legislation at stake, but as a rule, I generally prefer to mind my own business. Which makes me suspicious to them too.

So, I can’t win. All I can do is cite people whose books I admire.

So Who Do You Want To Be Associated With?

An obvious starting point is PJ O'Rourke, the acceptable face of Republicanism in Britain. But I’ve never felt close affinity with him since he’s doesn’t seem to have any overtly Christian convictions.

I’m left with two inspirations. The first is William Wilberforce – a politician of great Christian faith, courage and principle. A gifted orator and popular parliamentarian, he could have been Prime Minister. But he wanted to do something far greater than lead his party and govern his country. He sacrificed his life and career for the liberation of slaves. He also wrote a book, which is almost as long as the title: A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes of This Country. It’s brilliant. He is brilliant. And I would be proud to be associated with him.

My other hero is also dead. He is the essayist and playwright, GK Chesterton. He appeals to me because he defended Christian orthodoxy in such an unorthodox way. He regularly sparred with the famous atheists of his day, like George Bernard Shaw, doing so with sharp wit but good grace. He was a preposterous figure – but no-one was more aware of it than the man himself. He also made a virtue of being impossible to pigeonhole and so I flatter myself that I identify with him. Not only that, I’ll finish by quoting him on the subject of politics and what happens when people gather into groups and parties:
The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have two great types -- the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins.
I couldn’t have said it better myself. And I haven’t. You really should read Orthodoxy by GK Chesterton. And if you have time, do please consider Death by Civilisation by confirmed Chesterton-wannabee, James Cary. You can read the book's introduction here.