John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for December, 2011

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The year of the networked revolution

Tuesday, December 13th, 2011

From the Occupy movement to the Middle East, calls for political and personal freedom were aided by social media

Midway through October, when the Occupy movement was at its peak and the New York police department was keeping its distance from Zuccotti Park, I was in Berkeley, California. Outside a branch of Bank of America, a compact local Occupy camp had sprung up, apparently drawing on a mixture of battle-scarred lefties, students and the sizeable local homeless population. Their line of argument was captured on A4 flyers that were pasted on to every available surface in the surrounding streets, the most direct of which read: “Are you pissed [off] yet? You should be! No taxation of the rich. Endless war. Bankers not held responsible. Corrupt politicians. Destruction of the planet due to politicians’ and corporations’ greed. Can it get any worse than this?”

On a table lay small piles of a leaflet credited to the “Bureau of Public Secrets”, which quoted Kalle Lasn, the editor of the Canada-based countercultural magazine Adbusters: “We are not just inspired by what happened in the Arab spring recently. We are students of the situationist movement. Those are the people who gave birth to what many people think was the first global revolution back in 1968 when some uprisings in Paris suddenly inspired uprisings all over the world.”

Looking at the shabby camp in front of me, any talk of Paris in 1968 seemed absurd – but then again, subsequent events in nearby Oakland, where thousands of Occupy supporters took to the streets on 3 November – perhaps suggested that such reference points were not completely misplaced. The 1968 reference also chimed with an article, not from any anarchist leaflet, but from the Financial Times, titled 2011: The Year of Global Indignation, and written by the paper’s foreign affairs columnist, Gideon Rachman. “Many of the revolts of 2011 pit an internationally connected elite against ordinary citizens who feel excluded from the benefits of economic growth, and angered by corruption,” he wrote. “The creation of a global mood is a mysterious thing. In 1968, before the word ‘globalisation’ or the internet were even invented, there were student rebellions around the world. The year 1989 saw not just the fall of the Berlin Wall but the Tiananmen Square revolt in China.” And then a tentative question: “Perhaps 2011 will come to rank alongside 1968 and 1989 as a year of global revolt?”

This year has so far seen convulsive events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria and Yemen. Mass protests against economic breakdown and austerity in Greece, Italy and Spain. Marches and protest camps in Chile and Israel. The arrival of Occupy Wall Street – which was cleared by police, though it will surely return in some form – and a movement-cum-meme that quickly arrived in London and beyond. And all the time, from Arab dictatorships, through to the world’s banks and the Murdoch empire and now the vast edifice of the EU, the sense that interests and institutions that once seemed invincible are either cracking or being questioned as never before, while mainstream politics is left looking bereft not just of answers, but even ideas.

But what connects the crowds who are making all the noise? What could link a student camped outside St Paul’s Cathedral to Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian vegetable-seller who, having set himself on fire, died on 4 January, and thereby set in motion the events we now know as the Arab spring? How to draw lines from the Spanish indignados to the student protesters responsible for the so-called Chilean winter?

Sometimes, the answer seems to lie in actual links between the people at the centre of events. On 26 October, for example, Occupy Wall Street was visited by a group of activists drawn together by the Egyptian Facebook-based 6 April movement, who blessed the camp with the spirit of Tahrir Square; then demonstrators outside St Paul’s conducted a live video linkup with pro-democracy activists in Syria. Such moments highlight the kind of people who have taken the lead in spreading the message of protest and dissent: a new political breed, unlike their politicised predecessors in some respects, but in others, remarkably similar.

“They all looked alike. They would immediately recognise each other. They seemed to possess a silent but absolute knowledge of certain issues, but to be totally ignorant about others. Their hands were unbelievably skilful at pasting up posters, handling paving stones, spraying on walls … all the while calling for more hands to pass on the message they’d received, but not completely deciphered.” So runs a passage from Chris Marker’s documentary A Grin Without a Cat, about the rise and fall of the forces let loose in 1968. It popped into my head back in February, when I was reading a brilliant blog by BBC Newsnight’s Paul Mason, titled Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere, which remains among the most incisive analyses of this year’s events.

“At the heart of it all are young people, obviously: students; westernised; secularised,” he wrote. “… a new sociological type – the graduate with no future … With access to social media, they can express themselves in a variety of situations ranging from parliamentary democracy to tyranny … They are not prone to traditional and endemic ideologies … They all seem to know each other … I was astonished to find people I had interviewed inside the UCL [in London] occupation blogging from Tahrir Square … The common theme is the dissolution of centralised power and the demand for ‘autonomy’ and personal freedom.”

Speaking from an international summit in France, Mason has expanded on that thought, which he has now poured into a book to be published in January. His travels this year, he explains, have hardened his belief that what ties together 2011’s tumultuous events is tangled up with new(ish) means of communication, and a new sense of what it is to be politically organised. Once you’re networked via social media, he says, you are open to profound changes in “who you are and what your personal space is”. The idea of any seemingly arbitrary authority standing in the way of all that can easily become an affront – and at the same time, your means of communication offers you a method of opposition and resistance: online, in the real world, or both. This is the essential story of, say, the hundreds of thousands of people who responded to the 2010 death of the young Egyptian Khaled Said by joining the massively influential We are all Khaled Said Facebook group, or the summer’s Direct Democracy Now! protests in Athens, said to have been organised solely through social media.

For Mason, all this is also pretty clearly manifested in the tent community: this year’s most iconic archetype, which springs up in the midst of the city, usually home to the flickering blue light of laptops and the incessant hubbub of intense conversation. “One thing that there has been in common between the Arab spring and the European and American events is this drive – which is almost pathological – to secure space, and live in it,” he says. “In one sense, it’s a meme … and I think it does satisfy a desire. Once you’ve lived and experienced this sort of spontaneous, communal, utopian sort of existence online, which is what you do if you’re a net-savvy young kid … well, put it this way: if you were to ask yourself, what is the real-world equivalent of being in a 200-strong World Of Warcraft horde? It’s probably sitting in a square, in a tent.”

And what of all those historical comparisons? Might 2011 be another 1968, or 1989? Mason’s favoured comparison is a much more distant year, when abortive revolts spread across Europe at speed, and two fired-up German radicals wrote The Communist Manifesto. “I think it’s going to be seen more in terms of 1848,” he says. “1968 was a cultural thing: it only came to street fighting in Czechoslovakia, the black ghettoes of the US and Paris. In 1989, apart from Romania, there was as much coming from above, through diplomacy, as there was from below. Only in 1848 have we had an explosion that goes from one country to another as fast the mode of communication of the time, and then doesn’t stop, and feeds off a zeitgeist that is about freedom, which crosses borders, and involves people identifying with each other from very different cultures.”

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Europhobia’s no swivel-eyed Tory monopoly | John Harris

Tuesday, December 13th, 2011

Support for the anti-EU lobby in Britain has risen from 19% to half the population in 10 years. Labour ministers feel trapped

David Cameron’s early burst of touchy-feely decontamination distracted us from Conservative Europhobia; the likes of Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine remind us that once it didn’t have nearly as much purchase on the Tory soul, and it was Labour’s ranks that feared the clutches of Brussels. No more: whether it’s manifested in an unconvincing belief that Britain can somehow drastically renegotiate its place in the EU, or more straightforward support for complete withdrawal, the vast majority of Conservatives now view the EU with profound antipathy, so ingrained that it arguably forms the most fervent aspect of their creed.

And with good reason. The essential tension in post-Thatcher Conservatism is between, on the one hand, an embrace of economic liberalism and globalisation; and on the other, the enduring self-image as the party of tradition and patriotism. The idea of Europe constantly threatening Britain with – as Margaret Thatcher put it in her legendary Bruges speech – “collectivism and corporatism” is the buckle that fastens one to the other.

But fair play to the Tories: on Europe, a huge share of the public and those the liberal-left scorns as swivel-eyed freaks are in accord. Moreover, if anyone thinks this is a phenomenon restricted to the Thatcherite heartlands, they should have a look at the polling numbers.

In October a Guardian/ICM survey presented its respondents with the scenario of a referendum on staying in, or getting out. For all that swaths of Britain outside the south-east have benefited from EU funding, the figures for those who “definitely” or “probably” wanted out were fairly consistent across the country, and totalled around 50% in the north, the Midlands, Wales, and even Alex Salmond’s supposedly quasi-Scandinavian Scotland. Presumably thanks to London, only the south registered anything significantly lower, with 46%.

On Cameron’s return from last week’s Brussels summit, all this was spectacularly illustrated by the chasm between liberal-left opinion and the wider public. Consider a rapid-reaction poll published in the Mail on Sunday. Was Cameron right to use the veto? 62% said yes. Is it time we got out? Yes, by 48% to 33%, with 19% undecided. More polling in Monday’s Times fleshed out the same picture. No matter if those red lines on the City now look like a flimsy pretext to leave the room at whatever cost, or that the prime minister’s spokesman was reduced to answering questions about whether Britain will allow the 26 countries that signed up to the eurozone treaty to meet in EU buildings: even half of those who voted Lib Dem in 2010 support the Cameron position. Set against what being so peripheral is likely to mean for our economic prospects, that may suggest a massed deathwish, but there it is.

Now, this could be put down to an age-old belief in splendid isolation and mistrust of continentals. But when ICM asked a similarly worded question 10 years ago, 68% of respondents said that Britain should stay in, against 19% wanting out – a lead of 49 percentage points for pro-Europeans. So what happened?

Clearly, this story fits with the great global corrosion of trust in big institutions that defines the early 21st century, pushed ever onward by such episodes as Iraq, the crash, and now the eurozone crisis. For all that the UK now finds itself in a minority of one, it’s worth bearing in mind that the EU is not exactly titanically popular in even its core countries. But there is a specifically British story here, and it needs to be unpicked.

The ever-more hostile tone of the rightwing press, whose hatred of the EU now seems to verge on the psychotic, is so central as to barely need mentioning. Neither can one ignore a huge fillip given to their side of the argument by New Labour’s dreadful mishandling of migration from accession states. Try extolling the benefits of the EU to a construction worker whose hourly rate has come down by £3 because of the arrival of eastern Europeans. I have tried: it is a complete non-starter.

Then there is the question of Labour’s failure to make the European case when in office. Even with Britain outside the euro, boom times surely presented a good opportunity to begin to convince people of the benefits of Britain enthusiastically playing as full a role as possible – but the case was never truly made. Tony’s Ten Years, Adam Boulton’s Blair biography, crisply sums up his record: Blair was “a pragmatic and competent manager of Britain’s membership of the union without ever committing himself fully to it and … without winning, or even entertaining, the argument in favour of membership with his own electorate.” There were perhaps sinister reasons for that: the Downing Street insider Lance Price used his diaries to claim that any changes to Labour’s European policy were always subject to discussion with Rupert Murdoch.

As in so many areas, once Gordon Brown was in Downing Street Labour’s confusion was laid bare, heightened by its contortions over the Lisbon treaty. In the Guardian archive I found a news story from the doomy autumn of 2007, claiming that Labour ministers suddenly wanted to “speak more positively about the benefits of the EU in the face of the threats of terrorism, globalisation and a more aggressive Russia”. It never happened; by that point Brown was so discredited it would have probably made things even worse.

Now, with the euro’s woes apparently offering the Europhobes a slam dunk, the legacy of those failures is obvious. Worse still, with the public mood apparently hardening, Labour understandably feels trapped. Watch any interview from the past few days with an opposition frontbencher: they tend to carpet Cameron for his failure, while seeming to agree that Brussels is to be mistrusted.

So, look where we find ourselves: crawling along in the slow lane of a newly three-speed Europe, with no clear idea of where we might be going. There is speculation about the possibility of a general election much earlier than 2015, with Europe as the all-consuming issue. Eventual withdrawal is being talked about as a real possibility. With very good reason, business people of all kinds are crowding on to the airwaves, warning of dire consequences, but the public mood may well prove to be immovable, not least if the euro falls apart. I’ll end by quoting Orwell: “The insularity of the English, their refusal to take foreigners seriously, is a folly that has to be paid for very heavily from time to time.”

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The euro no longer floats the boat of Metallica and the Red Hot Chili Peppers | John Harris

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

Once Jay-Z liked to handle wads of euros. But now top US acts find Europe increasingly uncool

To truly understand the gravity of the eurozone crisis, you need to look not just at oscillating stock markets and national credit ratings, but at decisions being taken some distance from trading floors and international summits – by the rock bands Metallica and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Or rather the two-man team that sees to their management, and has now decided that the prospect of Europe tumbling into economic chaos is enough to entail a drastic rewriting of their tour plans.

Both groups are managed by a company called Q Prime, commanded by the music business veterans Peter Mensch and Cliff Burnstein. The former is the husband of the Tory backbencher Louise Mensch; back home in the States, the latter used the Wall Street Journal to serve notice this week that Metallica and the “Chilis” were now set on visiting Europe next year as opposed to 2013, lest they lose millions if the euro goes even further south.

His case is simple enough: “Over the next few years, the dollar will be stronger and the euro weaker, and if that’s the case, I want to take advantage of that by playing more of these shows now, because they will be more profitable for us.” Burnstein also says he is pushing acts into countries where strong currencies and insatiable audiences mean that there are altogether more dependable fortunes to be made.

In other words, the ideal modern touring itinerary is increasingly not built around such legendary stop-offs as Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw (referenced in Paul McCartney’s 1975 anthem Rock Show) or the Forest National Arena in Brussels (where the Rolling Stones recorded a famous 1973 performance, finally released officially last month), but Sydney, São Paulo and Jakarta.

What’s telling about Q Prime’s manoeuvre is twofold. First, there is a neat pop-cultural subtext. In 2007, when the dollar’s value against the euro was falling fast, the rapper Jay-Z made a point of waving around bunches of €500 notes in the video for a song titled Blue Magic, while the Wu-Tang Clan set the online price of their CDs in the currency, and the model Gisele Bündchen insisted on being paid the same way. No more: to use Marxist language, machinations in the economic base have rippled out into the superstructure, and euros – and by extension, Europe – are just about the least fashionable things imaginable.

Second, for those Europeans fearing the worst but being comforted by, say, the Chilis’ rather underwhelming latest album, I’m With You, the likely projections seem simple: if you live in such comparative pop-cultural deserts as Italy, Spain, Greece or – pardonnez-moi, but they’ve never been much good at rock music – France, 2013 may mark the beginning of a long period of frustration.

For the British too, a large-scale American no-show will have serious consequences. During festival season in particular, US musicians tend to bundle up their European and British engagements into one big busman’s holiday, and then return home with enough money to tide them over till Christmas. If big acts decide to stay away, the silence – particularly at the metal and hard-rock end of the market – will be deafening.

So what to do? The last time the UK was in a period of economic stagnation, we were treated to something called the new wave of British heavy metal, aka NWOBHM (or “new-wob-bum”), whose plebeian, no-nonsense music and aesthetics were perfectly suited to the wider moment – and caught the attention of the young Metallica. Thirty years on, if that band and their ilk spurn these shores for lucrative treks around the southern hemisphere, it may again be time to apply jump-leads to home-grown rock. If so, as the saying goes, I’ll see you down the front.

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This Christmas’s best celebrity memoir? We put the stars head to head

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011

Evans or Grylls? Corden or Brydon? Ayres or Johnston? Let the book battle begin …

Many great British things appear only at the year’s end: I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, chestnuts, the downside of Seasonal Affective Disorder, lengthy tours by Status Quo. The same applies to a part of the annual literary(ish) whirl now so embedded in the cultural calendar that Christmas would surely be unthinkable without it.

We all know the drill: come October, bookshops begin to fill up with celebrity autobiographies, to be sold at discount prices, dutifully given to friends and relations, and then often barely touched. Last year, the top contenders included Simon Pegg, Alan Sugar, Dannii Minogue and Susan Boyle; this year, we’re faced with such names as Rob Brydon, Stephanie Beacham, Bear Grylls and James Corden, with a characteristically bashful biography titled May I Have Your Attention, Please?

Maybe it’s down to the recession; perhaps the long shadow cast by Walter Isaacson’s huge-selling biography of the late Steve Jobs has done its work. But the Bookseller magazine recently reported that sales of memoirs and biographies were down year-on-year by almost 45%, with only three selling more than 20,000 copies over the whole of October: Corden’s, comedian and actor Lee Evans’s Life of Lee, and the boy band One Direction’s Dare To Dream: Life As One Direction (”100% official”, it says here).

How to push one’s way through all this wonderment? Last year, G2 forced me to skirt the edges of madness by reading 11 celeb memoirs and concluding that Gok Wan and Paul O’Grady had delivered the best of the bunch. This year, they were after something more conclusive, which led to an enticing wheeze: the staging of an eight-author Celeb Memoir tournament, to be decided over three knock-out rounds by one increasingly miserable journalist. Reader: I did this so you don’t have to.

First round

Lee Evans, The Life Of Lee v Bear Grylls, Mud, Sweat and Tears

“I’ve always been odd,” writes the bendy-limbed Evans. “I’m just not part of the system, the mainstream, the establishment, the norm.” He makes himself out to be a kind of one-man Sex Pistols – though in fairness, compared with globally renowned “survival” specialist Edward ‘Bear’ Grylls, Evans is indeed a punk outsider.

He grew up on a Bristol council estate; Grylls, by contrast, is Eton-educated, the son of a Tory MP, and embedded in the national consciousness as a former member of the SAS – though close reading of his book confirms he was briefly confined to its Reserve, the same part of the Territorial Army that once included Tory maverick David Davis.

Like just about all of these books, I digress. The class factor has me initially rooting for Evans, a feeling only heightened by what he says about his club-singer dad: a volatile, somewhat sinister presence in the text, whom Evans describes as akin to “an angry traffic light”, and a man whose anger “went from nought to sixty in about two seconds”.

“No wonder I grew up a nervous wreck,” he confesses, though getting close to any kind of hard truth is rendered difficult by the gloopy sentimentality that defines just about every page.

Grylls writes in a staccato, palpably macho register whereby every page evokes a primal scream from deep inside his presumably giant man-soul. Weeargh! “Old frostnip injuries never let you forget. I blame Everest for that.” Aiiieeeugh! “Tentative [sic] holds no power: sometimes you have just got to take those mountains head on.”

He evidently wants us to think of him as the man Gareth from the Office imagined himself to be: a black-belted Nietzschean adrenaline freak, whose pain threshold is located somewhere near the moon.

Here, though, is the tragic but unavoidable thing. The two-part nub of the Grylls book, in which he does SAS selection in the Brecon Beacons, subsequently breaks his back in a parachuting accident and then climbs Everest, is more compelling than most of the workaday ordinariness Evans describes.

Yes, my mistrust of Mr Survival is only compounded by three exquisite minutes watching him kill a moose and then eat its heart on YouTube, but at least half his book races along, much like that animal was presumably doing before he stuck a knife in its head and pronounced it “brain dead”.

Winner: Bear Grylls

James Corden, May I Have Your Attention Please? v Stephanie Beacham, Many Lives

With his customary breathless innocence, Corden has managed to write the celebrity memoir that deconstructs itself. He begins thus: “I’ve just realised you may not have actually purchased this book and are doing what I do when buying a book, and reading the first page to see if you like it.” He began writing the day after the birth of his son – and 300 pages later, says this: “The publisher has just told me that I’m already 5,000 words over the required amount, which I can’t quite believe.”

Corden pours huge amounts of detail on to the page, including a roll-call of his schoolmates, the torment he endured thanks to his GCSE options, and his non-affair with Lily Allen. Throughout, a recurring theme is the tension between self-evident talent and lack of judgment, as proved by, say, Lesbian Vampire Killers, the infamous Corden/Matthew Horne sketch-show and their co-hosting of the Brit Awards (”I was bad, really bad”). He is evidently a lovely fella with a big heart but I think his recurring problem is this: “For some reason, my whole life, I’ve always wanted to be around the cool guys.”

On the face of it, Corden has almost nothing in common with Celebrity Big Brother alumnus and star of The Colbys and Dynasty, Stephanie Beacham. But then again: like most of the authors of these books, both have the distinct air of people who live in an ethereal universe, in which no one thinks about public-spending cuts or petrol prices. Beacham’s world is defined by a strange mess of new age stuff which includes Buddhism, Nordic Runes, the dregs of her spell as a ’60s hippy, and reincarnation (hence the title, see).

In past lives, she claims to have been a pre-revolutionary French courtier, a Native American, and an enslaved Israelite. In 1991, she starred in an American production of Noel Coward’s The Vortex, after which she “took a trip to Sedona, Arizona. I wanted to spend some time in a terrestrial vortex”. I cannot argue with that.

It is presumably part of her countercultural sorcery that she spurns any kind of linear narrative. Still, among the high(ish) points are her memories of starring in feminist prison-camp drama Tenko, some stuff about Marlon Brando, and the setting out of her basic life-code, which she has reduced to the acronym GREAT: “Give, Relate to others, Exercise, Attend to the world, and Try something new.” I have been applying this to my life for four days now and, let me tell you, round my house, it is Christmas already.

Winner: James Corden, by a whisker

Pam Ayres, The Necessary Aptitude v Sue Johnston, Things I Couldn’t Tell My Mother

The draw results in a somewhat awkward contest between veteran poet and alleged British institution Ayres and Brookside, Waking the Dead and Royle Family star Johnston. And fair play to the latter: her 341 pages begin well, with a description of her mother’s last moments, and an arresting opening sentence: “Ena Sharples [old-school Coronation Street mainstay] famously said of her mother’s death, ‘She just sat up, broke wind and died.’”

Johnston quickly promises a memoir that pivots around a difficult mother/daughter relationship, but doesn’t quite deliver, tumbling instead into the usual this-happened-then-that-happened narrative, and regularly dispensing thoughts that are not exactly revelatory – Liverpool, for example, “has always been full of life and energy”, and “the people there know how to have a laugh”.

Still, her life-story brims with plenty of diverting material: a spell working for the organisation commanded by Beatles manager Brian Epstein; recollections of hanging out with Paul McCartney; depression; single parenthood; bulimia; valium; and lots of political activism (her political hero, she claims, is Labour bigmouth and quaint throwback Dennis Skinner). And on the whole, I just about fall for Johnston’s tale, because 1) I was a 1980s Brookside junkie, and 2) by page 50 or thereabouts, I find myself really liking her.

Pam Ayres’ effort is a less joyous experience. There is almost nothing about what happened to her once she became a regular on TV, but plenty about the fine details of her childhood. Such as this bit, which has me briefly considering self-harm: “Resident in the front room was Mum’s budgerigar Joey who was bright green. He lived in a cage where boredom was not an option. In addition to a seed dish and water container, he fought his way through a combined hanging mirror and bell, a small swing, a thicket of millet chunks, a life-sized, weighted, green effigy of himself, the whole underslung by an elasticated shower-hat arrangement to catch debris.”

Oh lord. Taxi for Pam Ayres!

Winner: Sue Johnston

Jason Manford, Brung Up Proper v Rob Brydon, Small Man In A Book

A confession: before plunging into the last purgatorial week of intensive reading, I did not know who Jason Manford actually was. Now I do, and as well as being massively knowledgeable about this former One Show presenter who suffered a career wobble thanks to “sex texts”, I feel obliged to salute one quality almost unique among celebrity memoirists. Manford, it seems, may have some sense of the grim predicament of millions of his fellow Britons. Certainly, his book begins with an account of the way in which his family ended 1990, cancelling Christmas, and hoping for better times, which gives it a grimly zeitgeisty resonance.

Unfortunately, that’s probably the only thing in its favour. It is, says the dust jacket, about ” being part of a big, northern working-class family” – which entails endless pages about people who crash-land on the page and then leave again at random: “Nora was very fond of her father but didn’t get on well with her mother … She met my granddad, Dennis Ryan, with whom she had eleven children … My Auntie Kathleen is a great country and western singer.”

By comparison, I am expecting Rob Brydon’s autobiographical ability to equal that of Peter Ustinov (whose iconic 1977 memoir Dear Me is to most modern celeb memoirs what the Velvet Underground are to Frankie Cocozza). It doesn’t quite work out like that: the prose is a tad more elegant, but until page 170 or so, I am once again held prisoner in a world of ephemeral school memories, irrelevant aunties, and anecdotes redolent of Christmas round robin letters: “In the spring of 1977, Mum and Dad bought a large static caravan on a site in Lawrenny, West Wales.” The odd mischievous sentence later in the text sends me back to such passages in search of possible ironic intent, but unless he is prone to a po-mo archness so subtle as to be almost invisible, he seems to largely play it very straight indeed.

What gives him the edge over Manford is a fascinating and detailed evocation of his life pre-success, at the back of the showbusiness panto horse: presenting a Sky TV show called The Satellite Shop, doing voiceovers for about half the UK economy (”Sainsbury’s, Somerfield, Tesco … British Gas, Sky … The TrainLine, Bounty, Renault”), and reaching a nadir with a gig for Canasten, the makers of the UK’s leading treatment for thrush.

With such memories always lurking in his mind, when he does reflect on overnight success at the age of 35, Brydon seems touchingly grateful for everything. As an example, try this: “If someone had told me when I was back at school … that he’d one day be standing next to me on my TV show miming his heart out, I wouldn’t have believed them.” This memory perhaps deserves to be used in a pub quiz. To whom does it refer: Gary Barlow? Michael Bublé? Morrissey? No: past-prime Welsh Elvis impersonator Shakin’ Stevens. Funny people, actors.

Winner: Rob Brydon

The semi-finals

Bear Grylls v James Corden

It’s worth noting that both these stories contain sizable Christian themes: Corden was raised by parents devoted to the Salvation Army (”It’s a church, but also a charity that helps many people in need,” he explains, helpfully), and Grylls remains an enthusiastic follower of Jesus: a matter, apparently, of being “held, comforted, forgiven, strengthened and loved”.

But where does that get us? It could be more helpful to consider the passages that may speak some great penetrating truth about their authors. So, over to Grylls: “Mum, still to this day, says that growing up, I seemed destined to be a mix of Robin Hood, Harry Houdini, John the Baptist and an assassin.” Nice. Now, Corden: “I was in love. There’s a wonderful song by Snow Patrol called Give Me Strenth [sic] which sums up what I’m trying to say far better than I ever could.” I’m no nearer to picking a winner.

And then inspiration strikes. An awful anecdote from Corden about going out on the lash with Steve Coogan that involves the words “ample breasts” and ‘A-HA’ gives us an own goal in extra time. Not even the fact that Grylls has called two of his sons Huckle-berry and Marmaduke will reverse the scoreline. 1-0 to the posh man.

Winner: How did this happen? Bear Grylls

Rob Brydon v Sue Johnston

Another tricky one. Both books are at  least partly bound-up with the grim(ish) realities of life well away from the apex of showbiz success and evenly split between fascinating bits and outbreaks of complete tedium. So what to do?

In the tie’s dying seconds, the result is decided on the basis of Brydon being almost absurdly complimentary about absolutely everybody he encounters, whereas Johnston takes against at least one of recent history’s pantomime villains. In the mid-90s, she offended Peter Mandelson by going off-message at a Labour party fundraising event, and eventually wrought slightly anti-climactic but righteous revenge when she ran into him in the audience at Strictly Come Dancing. “I gave him,” she recalls, “a vinegar look my mother would have been proud of.”

I know, I know: this is not exactly a story that suggests high intrigue and huge dramatic tension, but this is modern celebrity autobiography, not Ibsen. Johnston wins: a victory equivalent to going through 5-4 on penalties, but it’ll do me.

Winner: Sue Johnston

The final

Bear Grylls v Sue Johnston

At this point, logic and sense have to be binned, as the woman who found fame playing Sheila Grant in “Brookie” is forced to take on a man who eats still-twitching moose hearts on TV. My only hope is to shamelessly play the class card.

What does Bear Grylls’s story really describe apart from the singular life of a brazen posh fella who went to the University of West England, thinks giving up is for softies, and now boasts of hosting “among the most watched shows on the planet”? Nowt, as they perhaps say in Johnston’s native Warrington.

Her story, by contrast – and I’m trying hard here, but bear with me – gives off the appealingly musty smell of real life. The more I think about it, the better it gets. It’s social history! It’s a misery memoir! It’s got the Beatles, Neil Kinnock, the Queen, and Trevor Eve (obviously) in it! Plus, of the grim old 1980s, she says this: “There was a real feeling that the government had no idea what it was like for real working people to make ends meet. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?” It really does, and given that we’re in the midst of grim times for which all right-thinking British people blame Old Etonians, it’s only right that we should deny Grylls the trophy, and hand it to an alumnus of Prescot grammar school for girls. So: all hail the victor, and if you’ve got £18.99 to spare and you know someone with an appetite for both behind-the-scenes stuff about mainstream TV drama and the flotsam and jetsam of an upbringing on the Merseyside/Cheshire borders, there you are.

Alternatively, it’s perhaps worth acknowledging that you can buy the Penguin Classics edition of Madame Bovary for a fiver, and then spend the remaining £13.99 on booze. and chocolate.

Winner: Sue Johnston

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Public sector strike rookies in a tangle of emotions and convictions

Thursday, December 1st, 2011

The day’s abiding spirit was complicated: defiant, at times celebratory, but also slightly sad

Had they arrived at Entrance B of Salisbury district hospital on Wednesday, anyone looking for a cartoonish re-run of old-school trade union stereotypes would have soon given up and gone home. Instead of flaming braziers, protection against the gnawing cold was provided by vacuum flasks and Danish pastries, lined up in neat rows on the pavement. Rather than trying to convince any strike-breakers to turn round and go home, the essential point of the picket line seemed to be to attract as many supportive honks from passing cars as possible, and briefly cheer when any were forthcoming.

The last time there was industrial action here was back in the mid-1980s, in a dispute over pay: a few gnarled veterans seemed to quietly rue the arrival of a more decorous style of action, but they were in a very small minority.

Elsewhere, as 29 trade unions brought their members out across Britain, there were occasional signs of people willing the day to resemble some camped-up hybrid of the winter of discontent and the general strike. Some parts of the great British strike script were followed to the letter: the unions hailed a day of action that they said had involved 2 million people; the government reckoned that 38% of schools had remained open and a third of civil servants had reported for work, and thereby suggested that David Cameron had been right when he predicted “a damp squib”.

What was fascinating, though, was that the day’s abiding spirit was much more complicated than the usual blasts and counter-blasts suggested: defiant, for sure; occasionally celebratory, as people took heart from the fact that a labour movement long said to be on its uppers could still mount such a protest; but also slightly sad. Contrary to Michael Gove’s characterisation of the strike’s motivating instincts being reducible to militancy and the desire for a scrap, few people I spoke to seemed to be joyously withdrawing their labour, let alone glorying in any kind of seditious fight. But their essential complaint seemed unanswerable enough: the simple unfairness of suddenly being required to “work longer, pay more, and get less”.

In Salisbury, as in Swindon and Gloucester, what was perhaps most striking was the large number of strike rookies, still getting used to picket-line etiquette, and tentatively explaining the tangle of emotions and convictions that had brought them out. “I feel terrible about being on strike,” said Megan Williams, called to withdraw her labour by that renowned Bolshevik front organisation the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists. “But you put every ounce of yourself into your job, and you keep getting knockbacks, all the time. You’re just not appreciated.”

She and three of her colleagues mentioned the endless expectation to deliver the same levels of service with dwindling numbers of staff, but repeatedly returned to the day’s big issue – the prospect of having to perform their jobs in their late sixties. “I just won’t be as strong,” she said. “Sliding people up and down beds, supporting them while they walk … I’m not sure you can do that when you’re 67.”

An hour away in Swindon, 500 or so people had filed into a new town-centre venue, MECA – the Music Entertainment Cultural Arena –taking their place in among the Christmas decorations. There, another recurrent feature of the day’s events was present: a crowd that seemed to be 75% female and looking distinctly like representatives of that fashionable demographic The Squeezed Middle. A rep from the Public and Commercial Services Union was the platform’s star turn: the preceding speech from an NUT officer had been all leftie blood and fire, but he opted for something much more human. “I’m no different to you,” he said. “And I’m sick of being demonised in the press. We’re just ordinary people trying to get by. But I’ve had a pay freeze for the last two years, and now I’ve got 1% for another two. And you know what? I’m bloody annoyed.” The crowd stamped their feet in approval; at the back of the hall, someone blew a very incongruous vuvuzela.

Outside a spurt of vox-popping confirmed that the strikes were Swindon’s main subject of conversation. Finance manager Mark Woods and his wife Liz, a digital communications specialist, were in town with their eight year-old son Sam, whose school had decided to keep their doors open for years 2, 4 and 6, but keep years 1, 3 and 5 at home. Both voted Conservative last year, and said they remained convinced the coalition was right to be so mercilessly cutting back. “I don’t agree with what the unions are doing,” said Liz. “I work in the private sector, and our pensions are much worse.”

Her husband cracked a thin smile. “Well, I think they have got something to complain about,” he said, rather unexpectedly. “If you sign a contract and agree to certain conditions, people shouldn’t be able to suddenly change them.”

“That’s what happens in the private sector,” said Liz.

“It doesn’t make it right,” said Mark.

By late lunchtime, I was in Gloucester: another superficially unlikely place to find a gathering of hundreds of strikers, but the view from 300 yards away proved that was exactly what was afoot. A speaker presumably intended to be the warm-up man was doing his best to wind up a crowd that had streamed into the city’s main park, but a delicious kind of English reserve kept getting in the way.

“Do we get gold-plated pensions?” he asked.

“No!” they chorused back.

“Are government ministers talking a load of rubbish?”


“This is the largest march in Gloucester ever,” he said, and then paused. “Well, perhaps not ever, but in many years. The police say there’s 2,000, so there must be about 4,000.”

In fact, the lower estimate seemed more like the truth, but plenty of people still seemed somewhat stunned by the multitudes who had showed up, to be entertained by a speech from the GMB’s general secretary Paul Kenny, equal parts righteous indignation and end-of-the-pier repartee. “I wouldn’t send George Osborne to the supermarket to get a trolley,” he said. “He’d come back with an elephant.” He managed to find better form for his finale: “You’ve got the fight, you’ve got the might, you’ve got the right,” he said. More applause; another burst of parps from the obligatory vuvuzelas.

Towards the back of the crowd, Susan Turner, a librarian and Unison member, emitted a smirk when I mentioned supposedly cushy public-sector pensions: having paid in for 19 years, she told me, she was currently looking at not much more than £10,000 a year. Back in Salisbury, I had spoken to someone who made her sound like someone blessed by remarkable luck: Sheena Cobb, a college catering assistant, told me that her 35-hour week and 39-week working year meant she counted as part-time, and was therefore in line for an annual pension of under £3,000. As with so many people, she had never been on strike before. “But I’ve got to make a stand,” she said. “How can I not?”

Over by the slides and swings in Gloucester, Sarah Tinkler and her sister Sabrina, both full-time mums, were doing their best to entertain their kids who were evidently rejoicing in the day off school.

“The people on strike have got to do what they’ve got to do,” said Sarah. “I think they should fight for what they want. The government’s taken enough off them already.”

“That’s what it’s like now, isn’t it?” said her sister, whose words could have been taken as a sharp critique of Tuesday’s autumn statement. “Every time I hear about this government, it seems like they’re going to end up taking everything from everybody.”

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