Twitter’s Pantomime

First published in December 2017.

If Twitter asked when it’s golden age was, the audience would shout ‘it’s behind you’. It’s now full of advertising, hate speech, self promotion and stupid people. It’s not open to developers creating innovation, but it is open to lazy journalists cobbling together reactions to any news story. It’s both ubiquitous and misunderstood, it’s probably dying. 

I joined Twitter late in 2006 the year of its birth, you could Tweet by text as there were no mobile phone clients and little mobile internet, you could tweet from the website; pretty much to no-one. So I Tweeted my first Tweet, an embarrassingly direct answer to the question ‘What are you doing?’ which used to precede the input box, and then nothing for at least six months. 

But almost exactly two years later, Twitter was alive with people and possibilities, with camaraderie and community, with news and not news. And with pleasure and pantomime: Twitpanto.

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Keep on Carrying On… 60 years of the best in British comedy

It’s 60 years this year since the first Carry On film – Carry on Sergeant. I’ve already done a deep dive into the classic early films, so in the second part of this look back let’s remember the classics from the last 30 years of risque postcard comedy.

‘Blue’ leader David Spam (Tennant) tries to avoid the press in Carry On Show us your Mandate (2012)

Carry On Emmannuelle (1978) – was the nadir of the famous series, when the overcooked attempt to sex up a saucy formula did nothing but make audiences uncomfortable it nearly ended a Great British institution. Thankfully however, flush from the success of funding Life of Brian, Beatle George Harrison (in return for a cameo role) found the money for one more go around.

That was a planned spoof of the popular US soap Dallas: Carry on Dallas. A script was written and casting offers made to Kenneth Williams,Charles Hawtrey and Jim Dale amongst others, but production was abandoned when Dallas’s producers demanded a royalty fee of 20 times the total production budget – too rich even for the world’s most famous lead guitarist.

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Love’s got the world in motion

I fell out of love with football a while back. It was the little things that start off as charming eventually became huge irritants: financial imbalances tipping the scales (when it was Blackburn for a season or two it was exciting, remember?), influxes of players from all round the globe no matter really their pedigree or connection to your town (when your team signed a Scandinavian for the first time, it was thrilling, wasn’t it?), sport on the front pages (once reserved for world cup wins and exits).

Once a season ticket holder at my club, a travelling England fan (two world cups, and one…) I had watched maybe three matches this year: and none live. Some commercial imperative lost us our seats at St Andrews a few years ago and I went increasingly sporadically, only to the bigger games, or when someone offered me a ticket. Embarrassed then, in conversations about how the team were doing as I didn’t have experience of watching them almost every week.

And England, they failed again and again, not gloriously but with lack of energy. From the passion and endeavour of our defeats in 1998 (a glorious time to care and be there), to the clueless jogging of a scrappy win in Barcelona against Andorra, where faced with Steve McClaren’s take on the ‘golden generation’ we chanted for nothing more than bringing Graham Taylor back.

TV rights reasons and moving further from Birmingham isolated me from the actual sport played by the blues, media coverage (apart from the breathless or angry local press and people) almost non-existent.  

Football fell back in my life in much the way cricket worked for me: fascination with the history, the identities, the culture and the position in the world; but precious little interest in what happens on the pitch.

Premier league games, when I saw them, looked not like football should: but something more pristine. Perfect grass, shining at you at the right colour,  the crowd static, the players all so universally healthy: so universally quick that the speed of the game is uniform and appears slow. Every game having the lustre of a meaningless pre-season friendly. It may be an age thing, all new bands look like bands created for a film, new TV shows lack interest, relying on plot twists and an infantile avoidance of ‘spoilers’, but it’s only football I’ve thoroughly withdrawn from.

This world cup, is a case apart. It’s marvellous, exciting and engrossing. There are skills and stories, and shocks. There is openness and fun, fun.

And it’s something about the shared experience, the sheer scale. Watching the stadiums filled with fans from South America, those from all around the globe embracing a particular type of togetherness: the self-parodic headgear, Sphinxes from Egypt, viking helmets from Iceland, Japan with Benny Hill kamikaze headbands and cleaning up the terraces.

The pundits become looser, there’s time to fill, there is a bank of shared knowledge, relationships and thoughts develop. While the skill – and the gulf in skills – is bigger, we are allowed to enjoy the drama.

Watching Iran attempt to better Spain, everyone behind the ball, time wasting and hoofing it was wonderful. It was thrilling to watch them boring us, pushing and tweaking armpit hair at corners. That’s the part of the game. That’s football: in an everyday context this isn’t fun. In a world cup it is.

Maybe it’s because they can’t be as well drilled as club teams, they can’t park the bus as effectively. Maybe tactics can’t work, pure organisation will fail. Goals (except in a game where no-one wants to break sweat, France and Denmark) are guaranteed, one lapse of concentration, one call on a video replay, one moment of skill will be there from pretty much any team in pretty much any match.

You don’t have to turn away because it’s always there, the rhythm of the games, gaps of an hour to relive or keep life ticking over. It’s on the radio when you’re driving, scores and updates fill the conversational gaps usually stuffed with weather and traffic.

You don’t need to know everything to be involved – because no-one knows everything. But you learn so much.

The drop from three games to only two successive matches live per day felt like a death, it’s the worst bit. Suddenly some of the games don’t matter quite so much, nothing will be as bad again until the first day with no matches, the gap between quarters and semi-finals.

For all the corruption and commercialism, for all the worries about football and its place in the world. For a time, football is the world, cynicism on the pitch even feels like an expression of love. A foul can bring a nation together with its foes, a goal can unite the world.

All England have to do is be OK and not spoil it for bit.  


Gig of my life: David Devant and His Spirit Wife

Tommy and I didn’t have that much music taste in common, weren’t that close, though we hung out a bit. He liked rock, had long hair, I liked indie and tracksuits and kept my hair short, but we both loved David Devant and His Spirit Wife. They played with props, with music hall, and with verve. They played with style and enthusiasm and anywhere at all. We went up from Birmingham to Coventry see them at a small club called The Planet. We were underprepared and had no real idea where it was, lost in the thick concrete trees beneath the ring road.

Eventually we found it, squashed against the city, up some steps, a thick brick box. It was small and we got right to the front when the band eventually came on. We drank furry lager from plastic glasses with rough edges, we talked the throat-burning talk of the not-well acquainted.

They were wonderful.I shouted for Life on the Crescent – a song played on the tiniest of organs and nothing else – they were about to play it anyway, I could see from the setlist. The Vessel, the singer who supposedly channeled the original David Devant a long dead magician, looked me softly in the eye, said, “Yes.”.

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Brexit and cultural identity: just taking sides is no longer enough

Patriotism is a funny thing, the attachment to flags and borders. But your country is your home (whether by an accident of birth or choice) and historically, culturally you can see why people identify with it. Patriotism need not be any more dangerous than community spirit, picking a team to support.

Patriotism for one’s continent seems a little further stretched, especially an amorphous one such as Europe. What are those shared cultural values? In Europe the shared history seems mainly about being at war with each other in different combinations. But for many, European is the acceptable face of patriotism: there are people who identify more as European than English. This happens in England more than the rest of Britain, because Englishness is confusing, fragmented, problematic and tainted by nationalism.

A little of that euro-love grew in the excitement and openness that Europe provided in the first years of easy and cheap travel around it, a little in the spirit of the original mods: signalling that you were voraciously absorbing new and smoother cultures, Fila and Fellini, rather than Findus fish fingers. But also Europe was used by many to signal that they weren’t party to the awful parts of English patriotism, which had come to be represented by the Union Jack.

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I’ll admit it: I was right about Jeremy Corbyn

I’ll admit it: I was right about Jeremy Corbyn. And he was right, about hope over fear, about kindness over hate and, although it took me a while, I believe he was right on Brexit too.

The membership were right, twice, too, and here’s a football metaphor about how that felt.

Do you remember the 1990 World Cup? Not how good it is painted as now, but how it was seen before that David Platt overhead kick? The headlines were about how bad things were, not how memorable. It existed as one of the great last sorties of English hooliganism abroad, we were shown constant footage of it raining plastic glasses and plastic chairs in picturesque squares all over Italy. There’s a great a book by Pete Davis called All Played Out which is a fantastic, if depressing, read about how Planet Football is divorced from all reality and the lives of the fans. Davis quotes a distressed Englishman — no doubt dressed in too-small shorts — after a disappointing draw against North African opposition: “Fight you bastards,” he says, “like we fight for you.”

And, do you remember, how the Labour Party seemed from about 2010 until the election as leader of one Jeremy Bernard Corbyn? They were terrified to stand up to austerity, to reject the idea that they had broken the economy, to stand up for wages, for benefits, for the people of the UK. Good people as they may have been (and some have proven to be since) they were beaten in thought and deed. They had no fight. No fight for us.

But with this campaign, and this manifesto, and this hope that has been fostered by this Labour leadership, the fight is there. We are all in it together. They fight for us and we fight for them. But, more than that, we fight for the many, not the few. And that many includes people who voted against their class interests on June 8th.

A Labour government will be better for everybody, not just those who vote for it.

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Jeremy Corbyn’s real gamble on the Article 50 bill

Jeremy Corbyn’s real gamble on the Article 50 bill was assuming that the remain voting Labour supporters — which should be the smartest of the lot — would be switched on enough to realise that any concessions on Brexit would not come in the commons where a heavily whipped Tory majority of 18 is bolstered by hard Brexit supporting UKIP, eight DUP MPs, the increasingly bizarre Labour Leave gang, and even the odd Lib Dem.

It was Jeremy’s hope that enough people would understand that the fight for workers’ rights, for free movement, for human rights and fair tax structures, would be a sustained campaign across the county, in and out of the media and parliament for the two years of the negotiations. And that it will continue after that: as it always has. Jeremy has gambled on people being able to see a slightly bigger picture than a vote that could not be won, and could not even be symbolically fought without hurting the wider fight: at the moment it seems he’s to be disappointed on that.

To those disappointed by Labour’s stance, you have to hope that people who oppose Brexit think about why they oppose Brexit: and in coming elections vote on those issues.

The left leaning amongst the angry remainers will need to vote for a party that can safeguard the best of the EU legislation, and they don’t need to vote for a party that is willing to get back into bed with the Tories.

Labour nationally needed to be seen to accept referendum result, which meant a party position. No whip, and the there was the ‘not respecting referendum’ stick for Tories, Kippers and their media pals to beat the party with. There’s scar tissue already all over where the ‘shadow cabinet rebellion stick’ beats Labour, most of that self inflicted for this

Don’t think the leadership will be judging anyone harshly for voting the against the whip, John McDonnell has even suggested that ‘rebels’ could be back in fold within months. This will be forgotten long before the next election. After all, there are bigger, and more winnable, battles to fight.

“There is no final victory, as there is no final defeat. There is just the same battle. To be fought, over and over again. So toughen up, bloody toughen up.” – Tony Benn

Going full canary: conspiracy theories are the way we understand inequalities

If the main voices in our public discourse are to be believed, tin foil sales have gone through the roof. To use their own phrase, many people have ‘gone full Canary’: and are expressing opinions that can be dismissed as them being willing to believe in conspiracies behind not only how society works but how it’s presented to them through the media.

The Canary, a left-leaning, clickbaity web publication, is having a moment in the sun — or at least Newsnight — and is the target of the ire, ‘well meaning despair’ and laughter of much of the journalism profession. It seems unafraid to push stories that other publications won’t touch, either because they aren’t verifiable or because they are otherwise uninteresting to Buzzfeed or the Guardian. They have become a shorthand for conspiracy, or things about which it can be said “the MSM (main-stream media) won’t cover this”.

But think about it calmly, the commentariat would say, there’s nothing going on behind the curtain.  And that may be right: the world is too complex, and people too fallible and factionate to think that there are often huge co-ordinated conspiracies. That does not mean, however, that all is fair and that motives are honest.

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Post-truth, post-fact, post-description: ponzi schemes of lies that are killing our debates

I think I was a few weeks ahead of some in calling the referendum campaign the triumph of post-truth politics that was just as much a fault of David Cameron as the referendum itself was. Jonathan Swift was much further ahead of the post-truth politics game, as in most things: “the greatest liar hath his believers,” he said,”and it often happens that if a lie be believed only for an hour, it hath done its work [ …] Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it.”

It’s no longer the case that the truth will eventually get its boots on and catch up. For a time it just seemed that the truth needed to up its game, get a pair of slip-ons, get a better narrative, frame the debate: the truth now is on a continuing 24-hour cycle of being shouted down and tripped up. There is only one truth, it’s sometimes complicated or nuanced, there are many more lies — as many as you have space for in the media and on the internet.

And you might think that there are a lot of column inches to fill in the newsagents, but that’s just peanuts to the internet.

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Labour can’t win back voters by championing the status quo

Labour does have a problem with reaching people.

The party made a decision under Kinnock, Blair, Brown and even Miliband to move away from being the party of organised labour. A change that also contributed to the decline of organised labour itself. That has left the party at the mercy of the media to reach the working class voters it depends on.

The ‘dispossessed’ that voted Leave aren’t likely to be union members: there are just over seven million now, dropping from 13 million in the late ’70s. The rise of insecure work and the restrictions on union bargaining power have made it more crucial — but paradoxically less attractive — to working class people to join and organise in the workplace.

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