Monday, March 30, 2015

Six weeks of misery begins here

When I left Britain 16 years ago for a new life abroad it was hardly an emigration to the farthest ends of the Earth. It was, in fact, to Amsterdam, which meant I was only a 40 minute flight away from those things I still held dear - my family, my friends, and Stamford Bridge, where I'd prudently taken out a season ticket some years before.

A couple of years later, I moved further afield, to California, but yet thanks to the Internet and its world-shrinking prowess, I was hardly disconnected from the home island for long - an eight-hour time difference the only real physical barrier.

Now I'm in Paris, and in principle, a two-hour train ride from London, if I miss anything at all, it's not that big a deal. In fact, it's probably easier to get to London than it is from Birmingham. Or, for those who still commute into London to work, its outer suburbs.

One thing, however, I can say - H on H - is that I haven't missed British politicians. They're no worse elsewhere in the world, of course, but I say that in the comfort of having been kept well clear of local politics elsewhere thanks to constitutional restrictions.

But now, as the countdown to the 2015 General Election has officially begun (even though it feels like it's been dragging on for months), I find myself oddly disenfranchised from the country of my birth, and one in which I have been entitled to vote for almost 30 years. Because, having lived outside of the UK for more than 15 years, I am, apparently, no longer eligible to vote.

I could get seriously up in arms about this, but, frankly, it's just not worth it. I know that sounds democratically irresponsible - my parents' generation fought for such freedom, and all that - but by being formally refused the vote, I have been freed of the responsibility of worrying about sending a boob to 10 Downing Street. Or No.11. Or whatever arrangement they came to last time.

It must be said that I have long held a healthy and underlying disregard for politicians. All of them. In fact, they are my least favourite species to this Earth born, after rapidly mutating viruses, mosquitoes and salesmen. I have yet to encounter one politician - either via the media or in person - with whom you'd willingly wish to spend any time with.

I'm sure there are some perfectly decent politicians, earnest individuals seeking the best for their constituents via worthy deeds, but unfortunately, those who rise to prominence or, even worse, the top, seem to be cast from the same mold of narcissistic, self-serving ego-maniacal weasels who have taken up politics in response to some deep childhood issues.

So, back to the election. Britain faces an impossible choice on May 7. Because national politics has descended into the same vanilla mediocrity as Saturday night television. Even the means of electing a future government has taken on the superficiality of American electioneering, with a lot of fuss about TV debates turning the whole process into The X Factor (or should that be Britain's Got Absolutely Zero Political Talent - arf!).

I don't wish to come across as dewy-eyed and nostalgic, but British politics has lost its personalities. Even Margaret Thatcher - as much as I loathed her doctrine - stimulated discussion, debate, anger, hatred, a rise in blood pressure or, for those who adored her, a figurehead.

And today? If the primary options are Cameron, Clegg and Milliband, you have three virtually indistinguishable versions of each other. Bland, bereft of charisma and more intent on saying what they've been instructed to say rather than any discernible conviction, lest they upset the grandee factions that hold together the fragile structure of their respective parties.

After the last general election Britain ended up with an absurd forced marriage of a government, run by two such ideologically mismatched parties I'm surprised they didn't install relationship counsellors from the off. But to make it work, we were treated like dumbasses and made to believe that the Conservative/Lib-Dem coalition was a beautiful "partnership".

The best take on this came from the brilliant American comedian Rich Hall. Spreading his time between rural Montana and a home in the UK, Hall returned to Britain after the last election to be surprised to find the country being run "by a couple of gay antique dealers”.

As Prime Minister and deputy, they have been the 'taupe' premiership (though, to be fair, the PM does change hue for his annual summer holiday, when he can be seen pointing at dead fish while wearing a considerable amount of navy casualwear). Undistinct, uninteresting, uninspiring.

"Call me Dave" Cameron has done little to dispel his Harry Flashman image, leading an obsequious gang of elitist throwbacks who have ended up in a coalition with all the ridiculous contradictions, compromises and conveniences these tend to generate. That includes making Nick Clegg the second-most powerful man in the country. I've met him, and can vouch say that, even for politicians, he is one of the dullest you could ever encounter. Seriously, charisma-free and, apparently, equally under-endowed on the policy front, too.

Don't, however, think for one minute that I'm letting Ed Miliband off, either. Has there really been a less electable leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition since Michael Foot? Blair might have sold Britain down a river of deceit with his misadventure in Iraq, but in 1997 Labour - under him - reversed 18 years of Conservative misery. He was a truly viable opportunity to revitalise a moribund Britain and its political life. And, yes, he had charisma. All that Cool Britannia nonsense did, partially rub off. Britain felt good again (though I do have to acknowledge that I left it two year later...).

Can anyone truly see Milliband as Prime Minister? Does he really have the chops to represent the UK at the highest level, as a statesman and political equal? Sorry, but no. Britain doesn't need a leader who comes across like the head prefect of a progressive North London comprehensive school.

I have, I note, been alarmingly traditional so far. What about other parties? No disrespect intended to those who fall under the 'Other' category, but the only other party to consider, in the interests of balance, is UKIP, especially as it is currently third in the latest opinion polls. Which is remarkable, when you consider how much dysfunction Britain's self-appointed loony right have within its ranks, no sooner weeding out one nutjob for another to appear, foot - or worse - in mouth.

Much of that dysfunction must be attributed to Nigel Farage, UKIP's bug-eyed, ale-supping, nicotine-stained, tweed-clad, Home Counties golf club captain of a party leader.

He is more caricature of himself than anything else: all clubhouse bonhomie, a posh spiv always ready to be pictured with a pint like a "regular Joe", as they'd say in America.

Farage's aim may be to challenge the apparent domination of British politics by a metropolitan elite, but this Middle England-orientated self-image masks a danger.

And here's why: "It took me six hours and 15 minutes in the car to get here [Port Talbot in Wales]. It should have taken three and a half to four. That has nothing to do with professionalism. What is does have to do with is a country in which the population is going through the roof, chiefly because of open-door immigration, and the fact the M4 is not as navigable as it used to be."

For the record, the UKIP leader, a Eurosceptic MEP, is married to a German, is of Huguenot-French descent, and had a German great-great grandfather. I suppose he's entitled to his opinions. I just wish he didn't forced it down the throats of the rest of us.

So, if I were still able to place a vote that would, somehow in the UK's arcane electoral system, elect the next government of my home country, the world's sixth largest economy, I would be truly stumped: a choice between the taupe twins, Gromit's erstwhile human friend, and a man constructed largely from Benson & Hedges and Greene King IPA.

Forgive me, then, if I can't help feeling like Britain is screwed. Leave the Tories in power much longer and, like starving lions, they will soon turn on each other. A mess, a power vacuum and then what? Elect the Lib-Dems? Wet paper bags are more adept at governing. Labour? Even they've reduced themselves to an homogeneity of windy rhetoric that varies as far as bland and blander. And UKIP? Vote them in and the lunatics really will have taken over the asylum.

So what is Britain left with? Not much, really. Come May 7, the country will trudge off to church halls, libraries, school gyms and all the other venues that double as refuges in times of natural disasters to place a tick next to the name of that baby-kissing, eager-to-please reformed (or partially reformed) bed-wetter who came to your front door one evening, or you ran into handing out stickers in the high street. And here's where the bizarre crapshoot begins. The candidate you actually vote for might not make the slightest bit of difference to who actually walks through the door of 10 Downing Street on May 8.

Between Britain's batshit-mad electoral system, and the array of blandness on offer as eventual beneficiaries of it, I could be forgiven for giving a cynical sneer to the next six weeks and its outcome. Knowing that I have no say in it, and not much if I had, has left me in a state somewhere between calm and caustic. It will be nigh on impossible to avoid the coverage and the glorified circus that the parties will run as they present themselves as governing material. But I will soldier on. Happy in the knowledge that a Netflix subscription will see me through until the fuss has died down (though I will, for obvious reasons, be avoiding House Of Cards...).

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

You say "fracas", I say "punch-up", let's call the whole thing off

And so, an alleged incident last week gets reported by the Radio Times (didn't it used to be a TV listings magazine?), and before you know it, BBC upper management has the excuse it has been waiting for to formally discipline Jeremy Clarkson.

Curious. And on the day after Rona Fairhead, head of the BBC Trust, came under fire for her relationship with the scandal-hit bank HSBC. Seeing as Clarkson's alleged "fracas" last week was only reported by the BBC's own publication yesterday, with the corporation suspending him soon after, you could forgive the suspicious for thinking they'd caught a whiff of conspiracy.

It was, though, Or, at least, a bit of a joke, given the Beeb's choice of "fracas" to begin with. How very British. How very PR. A fracas is defined as "a noisy, disorderly disturbance or fight", so no doubt lawyers came up with the word as a polite catch-all.

The facts of the case, however (and despite apparent chapter-and-verse details reported in today's newspapers), are not yet fully clear. Stories vary from Clarkson merely remonstrating with the assistant producer, Oisin Tymon, over, apparently, the absence of catering at the end of a Top Gear shoot in Newcastle, to Clarkson "aiming a punch at" him, to Clarkson actually hitting the producer. No doubt there is a span of reality between all three.

All of this reminds me of the incident many years ago in which two Sky News presenters, Chris Mann and Scott Chisholm, got into a proper fight. This was no "fracas", no "disagreement", "brief exchange of opinions" or any other PR euphemism. Even "altercation" sounds like Victorians observing Queensberry Rules. No, this was an actual punch-up. A Ron Burgundy-style face-off. A burly scot and a burly Scott (and both colleagues of Kay Burley) rolling down an Osterley corridor like clothed versions of Alan Bates and Oliver Reed. The pair were suspended with immediate effect, but not without Sky enduring ceaseless ridicule from every newsroom between London and Sydney.

If the Sky dust-up had taken place in any other office, it would have barely bothered the pages of a local rag. And to be honest, at the time, Sky was still in its infancy, and neither Mann or Chisholm were big names outside their own self regard.
Clarkson is different. He is, to all intents and purposes, Top Gear. And Top Gear, in the 'new' format he and executive producer Andy Willman created 12 years ago, has become a global hit making oodles of money for the BBC from show syndication, DVDs, iTunes downloads, Stig toys and all the other Christmas-bound detritus that has built up around what is essentially Last Of The Summer Wine with cars - three blokes "cocking around", as they like to describe themselves.

I can understand those who don't like Clarkson, Top Gear or both. He is/it is decidedly blokeish, at times painfully scripted, 22 seasons in, very formulaic, and in Richard Hammond, televises some of the most exaggerated mannerisms in the industry. But I also get its appeal: its high production values make for some genuinely excellent television. The specials, challenges and longer-form films have been brilliant. And, no, it doesn't take itself seriously. If you're going to be offended by the things Clarkson says, you're going to be offended by Alf Garnett, which means that you're missing the joke entirely.

That said, clearly Clarkson - for it is almost always him - knows how to get dangerously close to the line, one that - like guard fences in World War II POW camps - has a minefield either side of it. The "slope" joke during the Borneo special was appalling and actually offensive, and the excuses made by the BBC in its wake were just as bad. And I'm still hugely suspicious that the 'H982FKL' number plate of the Porsche driven by Clarkson in Argentina was no accident.

It's exactly this sort of thing that divides opinion so. Much - if not most - of Top Gear's personality is Clarkson himself. And readers of his weekly column in The Sunday Times will see no difference, either. He is partly a caricature - public schoolboy (Repton), politically incorrect, probably a Tory, hangs on to being a professional Yorkshireman saying shocking things to scare old ladies, not, for effect, either, and has spent the better part of three decades (since his first appearance on 'old' Top Gear) nurturing this image of belligerence.

Some say, if I can use those words, that it is calculated. It's not. Clarkson is Clarkson. For every tweet calling for him to be reinstated there have been those congratulating the BBC for finally calling their "vial" [sic] cash cow to account (an ironic typo given the toxic associations of such a vessel).

If the BBC does sack Clarkson, his somewhat sanguine banter on Twitter last night suggests that he's not bothered, and nor are co-stars Hammond and James May who have been anchored around him. Even though Clarkson and Willman sold the rights to Top Gear back to the BBC, lawyers will no doubt find a way to move it to Sky, who would kill to have such a property. ITV, too, could do with something to replace the Champions League for advertisers seeking to reach the sort of demographics Top Gear connects with on BBC2.

All this, though, does dangerously detract from the core of the issue. It doesn't matter who you are, or what you do for your employer, you can't go around punching colleagues. The 'don't fire Clarkson' campaign seems to be worryingly overlooking this fact. It might have held true for some of the near-knuckle things he's said in the past, but if his fist did connect with Tymon, there is no justification - Top Gear's commercial importance, a tired and famished presenter, even incompetence - that can stand in the way of punitive action against Clarkson, who might also face a chat with Inspector Plod, too.