To be insulted by these fascists




‘From now on, I’m really going to speak my mind!’ declared Nigel Farage earlier today. In the long run this might be considered good news, given that it presumably means that from now on Mr Farage is going to be almost entirely silent apart from the occasional belch, but that’s for the future. This morning he certainly had plenty to say. I’m not here to talk about what he said – it was the same discourteous, self-aggrandising, weapons-grade arseblurting with which we are all wearily familiar – no, I’m here to talk about his choice of soundtrack. Because, for his farewell speech as Ukip leader, Nigel Farage elected to bow out on stage to the strains of David Bowie’s “Heroes”.

So now, like Mr Farage, I’m going to speak my mind.

For a xenophobic, misogynist, homophobic, anti-immigration extremist politician to appropriate the music of David Bowie of all people is so acutely grotesque, so extravagantly warped, so olympically insulting and so colossally stupid that it fair takes the breath away. Do you know anything about David Bowie, Mr Farage? Anything at all?

Hey, hang on a minute, says a passing ignoramus. Wasn’t the Thin White Duke himself a bit of an old fascist back in the day?

Er, no, actually, he wasn’t. However, in order to head off what will otherwise be an inevitable torrent of ill-informed comments from Ukip supporters, we must now pause for a moment to address one of the facts that people who don’t know about David Bowie think that they do know about David Bowie. That thing about him being fan of Hitler and doing a Nazi salute and all that. That’s true, isn’t it? Must be true, I read it somewhere.

Now then. I freely admit that I don’t know much about football or cars or telebiogenesis, but trust me, one of the subjects about which I do know rather a lot is David Bowie. So, just for the avoidance of doubt, here is a handy cut-out-and-keep guide to everything you ever wanted to know about whether David Bowie was ever a fascist, but were too afraid to ask:

  1. Was David Bowie ever a fascist? No.
  1. Did David Bowie ever give a Nazi salute? No.
  1. Did David Bowie ever voice support for the National Front? No.
  1. Did David Bowie ever say that he was a fan of Hitler? No.
  1. Did David Bowie ingest a prodigious quantity of cocaine in the mid-1970s and go extremely peculiar for a little while, during which period he spouted all sorts of nonsense including a couple of naïve and irresponsible comments about fascism which were blown out of all proportion in a tabloid feeding frenzy one week in May 1976, comments which he immediately disowned, revoked and apologised for, before unequivocally describing far-right politics as ‘an answer to an idiot’s dream’? Yes.

There we go. If you’d like to read a full and thorough account of the whole episode, you can find one in my book The Complete David Bowie, of which a new expanded and updated edition just happens to be due for publication next month. But for now, I think we can move on.

David Bowie is famed for his ‘changes’, but beneath that celebrated and ever-evolving experimentation in musical genres, his subject matter remained remarkably consistent. One of his pet topics was our disturbing tendency as a species to succumb to powerful and dangerous people and their twisted ideologies. Lyrics about the perilously charismatic lure of demagogues and dictators, tyrants and false messiahs, run like a seam through Bowie’s fifty years of songwriting. Have a listen to 1967’s ‘We Are Hungry Men’ (‘Why do you look that way at me, your messiah?’), or 1974’s ‘Big Brother’ (‘Someone to claim us, someone to follow’), or the ranting despot in 2013’s ‘If You Can See Me’ (‘I am the spirit of greed, a lord of theft, I’ll burn all your books and the problems they make’). Take a look at the baby-kissing, media-savvy politician on the rise in 1975’s ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’, a song so entirely about Donald Trump that one wonders whether that telephone box on the back cover of the Ziggy Stardust album was some kind of Tardis. And talking of Ziggy – ‘like a leper messiah’ – there’s another one. There are plenty more.

Bowie was never a party man, not of any kind – one feels that he subscribed to the old Marxist apophthegm (Groucho, not Karl) that he wouldn’t have wanted to be a member of any club that would have him as a member. He declined civil honours on at least two occasions – yes, the Dame turned down a knighthood – and he never made a secret of where his sympathies lay. He despaired of George W Bush and the Iraq War (at a UK concert in November 2003, during Bush’s behind-closed-doors ‘state visit’ to Downing Street, Bowie tartly dedicated his song ‘I’m Afraid Of Americans’ to ‘our visitor this week’ and earned a thunderous response), and in 2008 he greeted the election of Barack Obama as ‘a great day’.

David Bowie shone a light into millions of lives, and not just with his sublimely brilliant music. In the dark ages of the early 1970s he made life a whole lot better for gay kids. He spoke out about racism at a time when doing so was by no means de rigueur. He championed civil rights and equalities of every kind. He worked for HIV charities, homelessness charities, women’s shelter charities, refugee charities. He wrote a famous song about the possibility of harmony between Christianity and Islam (the inattentive thought it was a song about spacemen, because he called it ‘Loving The Alien’). In short, David Bowie was everything that Nigel Farage and his squalid cabal are proud to despise.

If you have four minutes, have a click on the link at the end of this paragraph. It’s not perhaps the most nuanced song that David Bowie ever wrote, but that’s the very point. He meant it to be direct, because he was angry. It dates from 1989, and it’s about the rise of far-right politics. It’s about the kind of people who end up joining the English Defence League, or Britain First, or Ukip. ‘Washing their heads in the toilet bowl, they don’t see supremacist hate / Right-wing dicks in their boiler suits, picking out who to annihilate…

So, Mr Farage, you go ahead and speak your mind all you like. Play “Heroes” again if you want to. It doesn’t matter. David Bowie had the measure of you.


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David Cameron: a balanced view


Regular readers of this blog may be aware that David Cameron hasn’t always been my favourite politician. However, at this difficult time I don’t think it becomes any of us to say anything in haste that we might regret later. This is a time for measured, balanced and mature reflection. So I’d just like to say something about Mr Cameron which, under the circumstances, I think is only fair.

David Cameron promised the EU referendum back in January 2013, not because he had actually given a great deal of thought to the possible consequences, but because he had temporarily got worried about Ukip and wanted a short-term stunt to boost his personal ratings and save his political ass. What he did was weak, selfish, cowardly, dishonourable and stupid. In the interests of nothing but his own short-term self-preservation, he set in motion the events which have enabled a cabal of chillingly ambitious extremists to convince the electorate, with economic lies and with racist propaganda, to take the UK out of Europe. His resignation this morning was also weak, selfish, cowardly, dishonourable and stupid. David Cameron is not just an inept, unintelligent, entitled, worthless, lying, corrupt, squeaky-faced pig-fucking twat-heart of a shit-fucking fuck-fucker; he is also the worst Prime Minister that Britain has ever had. The only thing to be said in his favour is that he is unlikely to hold that last accolade much beyond October.

And now back to some more footage of stupid old people cheering while their pensions and savings go up in smoke and their EU-funded fuel allowances evaporate.

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I believe in the power of good


I know I’m always going on about David Bowie, so forgive me if I’m being tiresome, but sitting quietly and thinking about the awful events of the last 24 hours has prompted me to dust off this remarkable piece of music, which sadly feels more apt today than ever.

Written and recorded in 1969 by a 22-year-old who was working out his anger and disillusion with the hippy movement with which he’d briefly dallied over the preceding months, it’s an extraordinarily complex and nuanced exploration of the process by which idealism can be corrupted and poisoned into stupid, self-serving extremism. It’s a slow burner, deceptively soft and tender in the opening act, before gradually gathering momentum until it plunges headlong into a furious diatribe against the madness of doctrinaire ideologies. ‘We can force you to be free, and we can force you to believe… I will fight for the right to be right, I will kill for the good of the fight for the right to be right.’

Bowie wanted to release it as the follow-up single to ‘Space Oddity’, but the record company refused point blank. I think it’s one of his greatest songs, and I’m not particularly embarrassed to say that it has just reduced me to tears.

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Just a little bit evil


You might be aware that I’m a bit of a David Bowie fan. If you share my remarkable good taste, you might also be aware that a couple of milestones have just popped up. Alarmingly, today is the 20th anniversary of the release of 1.Outside, the album that marked the pinnacle of the gloriously uncompromising avant-garde phase through which Bowie nonchalantly strode in the mid-nineties. Almost certainly the only concept album ever to be made about ritual murder, performance art, architecture and Minotaurs, 1.Outside sounds as fresh today as it did in 1995, when its experimental ambient leanings, its spoken segues, its juxtapositions of bleepy synths with jazz piano and thunderous guitar, and its downright confrontational weirdness elicited bafflement and hostility from some critics – in much the same way that albums like Diamond Dogs, Young Americans and Low were initially greeted back in the seventies. Like those classics, 1.Outside has since taken its place among the great man’s acknowledged masterpieces. If it’s not an album you’re familiar with, I urge you to rectify that situation without delay.

But we’re not actually here to talk about 1.Outside. Today also sees the release of Five Years (1969-1973), a lavish new box set containing remasters of eight albums from Bowie’s first golden age, accompanied by two discs of B-sides and rarities. For Bowie anoraks everywhere, present company included, the most enticing nugget in the new box set is the original single version of ‘Holy Holy’, a recording so obscure that it has been unavailable on any format besides crackly bootlegs since its short-lived vinyl release back in 1971.

And so, to mark this long-awaited reissue, here’s a piece I originally wrote last year for the liner notes of a single by the supergroup Holy Holy, a band which takes its name from David Bowie’s song and is headed by veteran Bowie collaborators Woody Woodmansey and Tony Visconti, together with Glenn Gregory of Heaven 17 on vocals, Steve Norman of Spandau Ballet on saxophone, and many more besides. My essay is reproduced here with thanks to producer Tom Wilcox and to all in the band. And thank you again, Holy Holy, for those fabulous gigs.

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Just a little bit evil: the story of Holy Holy

As 1970 dawned, David Bowie was teetering on the brink of success. ‘Space Oddity’ had given him his first hit the previous autumn, and there had been critical acclaim for the accompanying album despite its disappointing sales. To those in the know, Bowie was one to watch. But beyond the rarefied world of the music business, the word wasn’t really out: not yet, not quite.

Meantime, 1970 would be a year of mixed fortunes. Despite making no commercial impact whatsoever on its initial release, The Man Who Sold the World was a creative and critical triumph for Bowie: a truly remarkable album on which the ever-growing scope and ambition of his songwriting were matched by a series of dazzling contributions from the core team of drummer Woody Woodmansey, guitarist Mick Ronson, and bassist/producer Tony Visconti. Earlier in the year, before the album sessions began, Bowie had enlisted the latter pair and Woodmansey’s predecessor, drummer John Cambridge, to record the single version of ‘Memory of a Free Festival’ and to play a series of gigs under the band name Hype (just Hype, by the way – not The Hype. That’s a common mistake). Rocking out in lurex tights, thigh boots, silver capes and other outrageous superhero accoutrements long before anyone else had thought to do the same, Hype would be credited in retrospect with presiding over the birth of glam rock – but in February 1970 their outlandish stage gear was way ahead of the game, and Hype’s audiences were as much bemused as impressed. By the early summer, with work now completed on The Man Who Sold the World, the band went their separate ways, and things fell quiet… until ‘Holy Holy’ came along in the autumn and kick-started the next phase of Bowie’s career.

To unpack the story of ‘Holy Holy’, we must first leap ahead. Bowie’s most familiar version of the song – the one we all know from bonus tracks and compilation albums – is actually a re-recording, taped a year later during the Ziggy Stardust sessions and briefly slated for inclusion on that album. Dropped from the final selection, it wouldn’t see the light of day until 1974, when it became the B-side of the ‘Diamond Dogs’ single. As befits the Ziggy sessions it’s a superb track, crackling with energy, confidence and flair, and showcasing Mick Ronson and his fellow Spiders from Mars at their shimmering, coruscating best. And yet this version of ‘Holy Holy’ isn’t the original: the composition pre-dates the Ziggy sessions by 12 months, which might not sound like much, but at this particular point in Bowie’s sensationally rapid evolution as a songwriter, a year was a very long time indeed – and ‘Holy Holy’ is a song whose lyrics have less in common with Ziggy Stardust than with the darker psychosexual milieu of The Man Who Sold the World.

The first thing that hits you about ‘Holy Holy’ is, of course, the title. David Bowie’s writing has always been informed by a complex relationship with spirituality and religion: at the heart of many of his best-known songs there’s a nagging sense of existential anxiety, sometimes articulated via an interest in such systems as the Kabbalah or Tibetan Buddhism, but more often through his ongoing dialogue with the icons, litanies and rituals of his own suburban Christian upbringing. From the very earliest songs right through to more recent controversies, Bowie has always sung of God and man, of heaven and hell, of heathens and believers, of churches and cathedrals, of divine prophets and false messiahs. It’s a preoccupation which rears its head throughout his 1960s work, but the first album on which it becomes systematic – at times, perhaps, obsessive – is The Man Who Sold the World. From the wayward spiritual journey of ‘The Width of a Circle’ (‘when God did take my logic for a ride’) to the messianic super-computer of ‘Saviour Machine’ (‘They called it The Prayer, its answer was law’), the album finds David pushing himself into a series of uncomfortable confrontations with what he would later describe as the ‘devils and angels’ within himself. The theme of madness, a topic of great immediacy for David at the time owing to the mental health issues faced by his own half-brother, has been well documented; less so the fact that the album is steeped in religious imagery. There’s a recurring motif of journeying to a high vantage-point where a disturbing, apocalyptic or revelatory experience unfolds. It happens again and again, in song after song: ‘We met upon a hill’, ‘We passed upon the stair’, ‘It’s pointless to be high cos it’s such a long way down’, ‘Some say the view is crazy but you may adopt another point of view’, ‘He struck the ground, a cavern appeared’. In and among all this ‘mountain magic’, there’s surely an echo of Christ’s encounter with the Devil who, in Matthew’s Gospel, ‘taketh him up to an exceeding high mountain, and showeth him all the kingdoms of the world’ – before tempting him to become, in effect, the man who sold the world.


But Bowie was doing far more than just dipping into hazy memories of Sunday School; he’d recently been reading Nietzsche too, and a dash of Crowley for good measure. The introduction of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche into the faux-fairytale landscape already mapped out by Bowie’s earlier albums paved the way for the nightmare visions of ‘Saviour Machine’ and, more obviously, ‘The Supermen’. The album also marks the point at which the voice of the occultist poet Aleister Crowley, sometime member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, scourge of Edwardian decency and peddler of his own dubious interpretations of morality, begins to echo through Bowie’s work, most clearly in the sweetly sinister ‘After All’ with its imprecation to ‘live till your rebirth and do what you will’. Both Nietzsche and Crowley would return with a vengeance on Hunky Dory, and they’ve continued to crop up in Bowie’s work ever since.

It’s in the light of such themes that we should consider ‘Holy Holy’. For anyone whose childhood even remotely resembled Bowie’s, the song’s title instantly and ineluctably calls to mind the Christian hymn ‘Holy Holy Holy’, a ubiquitous fixture for English churchgoers since the nineteenth century – but, with a casually blasphemous swagger of the kind he would later hone to perfection on the Ziggy album, Bowie promptly subverts such associations with an opening verse that drips with sexual suggestiveness: there’s a palpable relish in his voice as he sings ‘slowly, we get good and holy’. The angels and devils are circling again, but the key reference is once more to Aleister Crowley: when Bowie likens himself in ‘Holy Holy’ to ‘a Righteous Brother’, he’s not referring to the popular Californian blue-eyed soul duo, but to an everyman character who appears in the texts of Freemasonry and was later adopted in the terminology of the Golden Dawn. Thus the lyric ‘I don’t wanna be angel, just a little bit evil, I feel a devil in me’ hints none too subtly at a journey into the arcane pseudo-religious practices of Crowley’s infamous ‘Sexmagickal’ system. In a few brief lines, ‘Holy Holy’ plunges us into dark, kinky, transgressive territory.


Bowie’s original version was recorded in November 1970, during that brief but significant fallow period between The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory. Poised midway between those two masterpieces, ‘Holy Holy’ captures a moment of transition: there’s something of both albums in it, and yet at the same time it belongs to neither. The songwriting, although distinct and evocative in ways unique to Bowie, can’t quite match the dizzying heights soon to be scaled on Hunky Dory – and sonically, the absence of The Man Who Sold the World’s studio personnel is keenly felt. Tony Visconti, whose visionary production style and pneumatically pumped-up bass guitar had lent the previous album so much of its energy, identity and power, was now out of the picture, busy working with Marc Bolan. In years to come he’d be reunited with Bowie many times over, but for ‘Holy Holy’ David had to look elsewhere. The single was produced instead by Herbie Flowers, another doyen of the bass guitar whose previous credits included not only ‘Space Oddity’, but such diverse pleasures as Blue Mink’s ‘Melting Pot’, Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection, and Clive Dunn’s novelty hit ‘Grandad’, the latter released just a week before ‘Holy Holy’ entered the studio. A distinguished career lay ahead for Herbie Flowers – among many other highlights he would later play on Lou Reed’s Transformer (that’s his brilliant bassline on ‘Walk on the Wild Side’), Bowie’s Diamond Dogs, and Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds, before becoming a founder member of the hugely popular classical-rock fusion group Sky – but few, least of all Flowers himself, have ever claimed that the original version of ‘Holy Holy’ was his finest hour. On guitar and drums, Flowers drafted in two of his Blue Mink colleagues, Alan Parker and Barry Morgan: fine musicians both, but the line-up failed to connect with Bowie’s music or to find that explosive alchemy so evident in the spectacular work of The Man Who Sold the World’s Visconti-Ronson-Woodmansey trio. Today, the seldom-heard original version of ‘Holy Holy’ sounds turgid and plodding by comparison with Bowie’s other work of the period. Released as a single in January 1971, it sank without trace.

Holy Holy single 1

But although the single flopped, its place in Bowie’s story is absolutely crucial. It was the original demo of ‘Holy Holy’ which, in the autumn of 1970, secured David his all-important new publishing contract with Chrysalis, a development which was of fundamental significance in the sudden and miraculous upswing in the quantity and quality of his songwriting over the coming months. By the spring of 1971, new songs were pouring from the young artist as never before: songs like ‘Changes’, ‘Queen Bitch’, ‘Moonage Daydream’, and many more besides – classic numbers which would go on to grace the Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust albums. ‘Holy Holy’ was the composition which helped to unleash that tsunami of talent.

And make no mistake about it: back in the day David Bowie believed in ‘Holy Holy’, promoting it to the hilt. Remarkably, there was even an attempt to give his new LP a last-minute change of name to support the single. David’s favoured title for his 1970 album had originally been Metrobolist, which the record company considered too abstruse, prompting them to change it – without consultation and somewhat to David’s chagrin – to The Man Who Sold the World. It was released in America in November 1970, just as Bowie was recording his first version of ‘Holy Holy’ – but unusually, the album wasn’t scheduled for release in Britain until April 1971. Such was Bowie’s enthusiasm for his new single, coupled perhaps with displeasure at having already seen the album’s title changed against his wishes, that he tried to persuade Mercury Records to rename the forthcoming UK album release Holy Holy – despite the fact that the song wasn’t even on it. In a letter to Mercury on 10 November 1970, David’s manager Tony Defries wrote: ‘if the single is a success then it will generally assist the album sales to have the same title, notwithstanding that the title track is not on the album.’ In the event, as we’ve already seen, the single was a flop, and the album remained The Man Who Sold the World on both sides of the Atlantic.

The failure of the single wasn’t for want of trying: on 18 January 1971, resplendent in an embroidered Mr Fish frock of the kind soon to be seen on the The Man Who Sold the World’s UK sleeve, Bowie performed ‘Holy Holy’ for Granada Television’s magazine show Six-O-One: Newsday. While in Manchester to record the performance (one of several TV spots from the period which are sadly long lost), David encountered a budding television writer called Roger Price, who admired Bowie’s work and shared his long-standing interest in UFOs, the paranormal, and all manner of things strange. Their conversation that day helped to light a spark under one of the new songs that Bowie was working on, a slice of Nietzschean sci-fi about a race of super-developed children called the Homo Superior. The song would shortly bloom into the classic ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ – while two years later Roger Price made his own mark on popular culture with the launch of his fondly remembered ITV children’s series The Tomorrow People… about a race of super-developed children called the Homo Superior.

‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ was destined to become David Bowie’s second hit, albeit in a version not his own: Peter Noone’s cover, featuring David on piano, reached number 12 in the summer of 1971, giving Bowie his most significant commercial success since ‘Space Oddity’. It was a good omen: by now the Hunky Dory sessions were in full swing, and at last the word was beginning to creep out that the singer-songwriter with the flowing hair, the striking clothes and the head full of books was a serious contender. ‘Holy Holy’ had played its quiet but vital part in the chain of events – and within a year, David Bowie would be a superstar.

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This article originally appeared in the liner notes of the 7” single ‘We Are King’ / ‘Holy Holy’, released in September 2014.

I can also recommend Holy Holy’s live album The Man Who Sold the World: Live in London, recorded at Shepherd’s Bush Empire on 22 September 2014.

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And now on Radio 4, it’s the Jeremy Corbyn Shipping Forecast.

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Dirty old mac

Faerie Queene

At the beginning of Edmund Spenser’s sixteenth-century allegorical masterpiece The Faerie Queene, a knight gets lost in a dark forest. He’s a knight errant, and he has erred – see, I told you it was allegorical – so it’s no coincidence that the fearsome monster lurking at the heart of the forest is called Error. Conjured into existence by the very act of erring, she’s a serpentine tangle of knots with a venomous sting in her tail, and before long she has our knight gripped fast in her snaky coils: ‘God help the man so wrapped in Error’s endless train’, observes the poet, just in case we haven’t quite got the point. But all is not lost! With his free hand, our hero grips Error’s throat and squeezes it tight, with spectacular results:

            Therewith she spewed out of her filthy maw
            A flood of poison horrible and black,
            Full of great lumps of flesh and gobbets raw,
            Which stunk so vilely, that it forced him slack
            His grasping hold, and from her turn him back:
            Her vomit full of books and papers was,
            With loathly frogs and toads, which eyes did lack,
            And creeping sought way in the weedy grass:
            Her filthy parbreak all the place defiled has.

Spenser wrote his poem more than 400 years ago, but nothing has changed. Error is still a monster that spews out sightless toads and half-digested books, incomplete gobbets and abused fragments of knowledge that defile the ground with poison horrible. Error takes on many forms. Error is religious intolerance. Error is Ukip. And Error is, most assuredly, the Daily Mail.

Yes, yes, I know. Having a go at the Daily Mail is about as useful as rising to the bait of a common-or-garden Twitter troll. It’s exactly what they want. It’s how they feed. From its wearisomely ‘controversial’ columnists to its grisly sidebar of shame, the Mail’s website is one great concerted exercise in trolling. Like Spenser’s allegorical monster, it feeds and it feeds and it feeds, gorging itself on our clicks and our outrage, consuming everything that’s good and kind and honest, chewing up decency and spitting out filth. Best to avoid getting wrapped up in those scaly coils in the first place. But there are times when the monster’s throat needs to be grasped. Yesterday I inadvertently wandered into the dark forest and came across something which stank as vilely as any vomit that ever spewed from Error’s maw. It’s a cartoon by the Mail’s veteran contributor Mac, and here it is:


It’s difficult to know where to start, isn’t it? Perhaps we should begin by noting that, across its many pages and platforms, the Mail has made a fine contribution to the outpourings of love and affection which, quite rightly, have greeted the sad death of Cilla Black. I could have sworn that the same paper took a slightly different tack the last time a pop singer died in Spain of natural causes, but let’s not split hairs.

Instead, let’s take the death of a much-loved entertainer and forcibly insert it up the rectum of a serious ongoing humanitarian crisis in the most grotesque, inflammatory, ignorant and idiotic way imaginable.

It scarcely needs saying that the cartoon is quivering with xenophobia, from that nasty neologism ‘illegals’ to those jaw-dropping blackface caricatures among the overwhelmingly white crowd of patiently queuing non-‘illegals’, their faces no doubt thoughtfully shaded in by the cartoonist in the time-honoured tradition of ‘I’m not a racist, but…’ (which, as anyone who isn’t a fool knows, is merely the sound of racism clearing its throat). Just take a look at those black cartoon faces again. Jesus tap-dancing Christ. This is 2015, right? Not 1915?

Setting aside the suppurating racism, how does the cartoon actually function? Where’s the joke? Well, let’s have a look. We’re at at the pearly gates of heaven, and we’re at the back of a queue of the recently deceased. They are waiting patiently while, in the distance, some ‘illegals’ are trying to scale the celestial barricades. An apologetic angel, wearing a riot helmet and carrying a truncheon, is explaining the situation to Cilla (who actually looks more like Margaret Thatcher, but let that pass). The only way that the ‘joke’ can possibly function is if we accept that we’re not just being asked to have a general giggle at the expense of those horrid ‘illegals’ down on Earth – we’re actually being asked to laugh at the dead ones. The men, women and children who have died by drowning, by malnutrition, by asphyxiation. The ones that Katie Hopkins says she doesn’t care about. And we’re not just being invited to laugh at them; we’re being invited to judge them too, like a vengeful Old Testament God, because the cartoon also relies on the assumption that we all agree that the ‘illegals’ don’t belong in heaven with Cilla and her friends.

Perhaps, in his touching portrayal of this archangelic queue and its undeserving queue-jumpers, the cartoonist is offering us a weighty Biblical point. Are we not all migrants through this life? And verily, is it not easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, and all that jazz? The unfortunate downside of this interpretation is the implication that Cilla might not get in – particularly when we consider the additional possibility that the cartoonist is subtly reminding us that Cilla was herself a migrant to Spain. Yes, surely that was intentional.

So who is this latter-day Goya, whose multi-faceted masterpieces unravel into eschatological meditations of such bottomless profundity? His real name is Stanley McMurtry. Born in 1936, he adopted the nom de plume ‘Mac’ while working for the Daily Sketch in 1969, and he has been drawing cartoons for the Daily Mail since it absorbed the Sketch in the early seventies. In 2003 he received an MBE for ‘services to the newspaper industry’.

Stanley McMurtry MBE has often said that he regards his work as apolitical. So, just to clarify, there’s nothing political about that Cilla cartoon, okay? Likewise, I’m sure we can all agree that this little beauty from 2010 is entirely non-political, and should in no way be construed as racist or homophobic or just plain frothingly mad:


And there’s definitely nothing iffy about this absolute charmer from 2011, swastika tattoo and all:


But when all’s said and done, it’s hard to beat the McMurtry cartoon which the Daily Mail published on 21 August 2001, in response to a story about the NHS recruiting doctors from overseas. Don’t say I didn’t warn you:


Unsurprisingly, the British Medical Association lodged a complaint about that one, and even extracted an apology of sorts from the newspaper’s editor – albeit an apology of the ‘I’m not a racist but…’ variety.

Yes, it goes without saying that we shouldn’t give the Daily Mail our clicks (you’ll never find a direct Mail link on this blog). And yes, of course they’re only cartoons. They can’t hurt us. But from time to time we, like Spenser’s knight, need to hold these excrescences up to the light and see them for what they really are.

            She poured forth out of her hellish sink
            Her fruitful cursed spawn of serpents small,
            Deformed monsters, foul, and black as ink,
            Which swarming all about his legs did crawl,
            And him encumbered sore, but could not hurt at all.


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The s-word


Once upon a time, not so long ago, it was perfectly respectable to call oneself a socialist. It was a badge that one might wear with pride alongside the likes of Albert Einstein, George Orwell and Bertrand Russell. Nowadays, for reasons we’ll come to in a moment, to call oneself a socialist is to risk being perceived as some sort of cartoon amalgam of Arthur Scargill, Wolfie Smith, Derek Hatton, and Rik from The Young Ones. I have a neighbour who thinks it hilarious to tell people as a matter of routine that I am a fan of Joseph Stalin. Happily, I know that you’re not that stupid, so here goes.

I am a socialist. By that I mean that I believe in the socialism of Bevan and Beveridge, the socialism that gave us nationalised utilities, the NHS and the welfare state. Over the past couple of decades, since Labour was colonised by the right, politicians and media commentators of every mainstream party affiliation have done a very good job of turning ‘socialism’ into a dirty word, a conveniently misunderstood word, more often than not a meaningless knee-jerk buzzword, synonymous with ‘communism’ in the minds of people who have no real idea what either of those terms mean. It’s been a long time since any mainstream politician has dared to describe themselves with the s-word.

Granted, there was a brief period in the early noughties when Charles Kennedy’s Liberal Democrats appeared to be repositioning themselves to present a credible left-wing alternative to the Blair government, but how long ago that seems now. Otherwise, the concerted demonisation of left-wing politics has continued unabated. By the time of the 2015 general election campaign, we had reached the stage at which a TV audience and, more damningly, various high-profile Tories, were happy to applaud a politically illiterate pop singer for describing Ed Miliband as ‘a fucking Communist’. Never mind that Ed Miliband, like Tony Blair before him, is a politician demonstrably more right-wing than Harold Macmillan; the idea that parties might drift this way or that is far too complicated for this sort of idiot rhetoric, and anyway it doesn’t fit the tribal narrative.

For twenty years or more, the political and media establishments have worked jolly hard to promulgate the notion that socialism is foolish, naive, hopelessly idealistic, and – best of all – dead. Socialists have become accustomed to being patted on the head and told that one day we’ll understand, one day we’ll grow out of it. As anyone will know who heard Tony Blair’s imperious intervention on the Labour leadership contest last week, or has ever had the misfortune to watch the likes of Andrew Neil and Michael Portillo pleasuring each other on BBC One’s macabre Thursday night Tory harlequinade This Week, there are many on the right who have become so accustomed to dishing out this condescending treatment that they appear to have quite lost sight of the fact that the left are not actually a bunch of amusing children. Turns out that some of them are really quite clever. It’s not that they’re wrong about everything, Mr Blair. It’s just that they happen not to agree with you about everything. Amazing, I know, but there it is.

Which is where Jeremy Corbyn comes in. I don’t happen to believe that Mr Corbyn is the answer to all the world’s problems. I disagree with him on many points. I’ll be surprised if he is able to win a general election. But I don’t think that any of that is tremendously relevant right now. What has been fascinating over the last week has been to watch the gradual realisation among politicians and pundits alike that there are an awful lot of socialists out there who’d really like to have someone they can vote for. That dawning awareness has become obvious in the remarkable savagery of the attacks launched on Corbyn by panicking grandees and careerists on every side, ranging from the inevitable ‘hard-left’ and ‘Communist’ nonsense to ad hominem abuse based on Corbyn’s age and appearance (both of which, as his popularity increases, appear to be counting in his favour: apparently there are plenty of folk out there who would rather take an experienced, principled politician over a young firebrand or a media-savvy marketing executive. Who knew?).

Yes, I’m a socialist. And I’m proud of that. Whatever one’s reservations about Jeremy Corbyn – and I have mine – I hope it’s understandable that those of us who have spent the last couple of decades being patronised and unrepresented by mainstream politics are perhaps finding all of this just a teensy bit exhilarating.


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