30 September 2006

MY ADVENTURES IN A GORILLA SUIT WITH JEANETTE WINTERSON

The news that the novelist Jeanette Winterson is to appear on the platform at the Tory conference next week marks a first in my life. Never before, as far as I am aware, has an old friend addressed a Conservative conference.

OK, I mean old friend in the sense of friend from some time back: I haven’t seen her since the launch of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, her first novel, more than 20 years ago, and I still think of her as Jan. But at university and for a while afterwards we were good mates. I shared a house with her, her then partner and a couple of others in Crotch Crescent (after Mrs Crotch the hymn writer, I believe) off Marston Road in Oxford in 1979-80, and I have fond memories of going to Staithes, near Robin Hood’s Bay, with her and another friend for a holiday.

She also gave me a bit part in a student production of Cabaret she directed, which ended up on the Edinburgh fringe (without me, I hasten to add).

For this spectacular, which as I remember was very poor apart from the singing of the lead characters, I had to do a dance in drag in a gorilla suit while peeling a banana.

Well, actually, it wasn’t a gorilla suit, because we couldn’t afford more than the mask: I had to fake an all-over suit by sticking black fur to an old pair of wellies and making a rudimentary pair of arm-length black furry mittens. (The dress covered up the rest.) The problem was that it was impossible to peel the banana with the mittens on – which I discovered only on the first night, as the audience howled in derision.

But I digress. The point is that the dancing gorilla in drag was being set up for something nasty. As I pranced like Walter the Softy and desperately attempted to peel the banana, the MC sang a song that started: “If you could see her through my eyes, you wouldn’t wonder at all…” and ended: “If you could see her through my eyes, she wouldn’t look Jewish at all!”

This was the cue for Nazi stormtroopers to invade the stage, rip off my gorilla mask and kill me. I then had to play dead while everyone else got on with the show, for what seemed like a lifetime.

I hope Jeanette has better luck with the Tories next week.

THE CAMERON TWITS PROJECT

This is laughable. Vote chump! Why has the Guardian led with it?

29 September 2006

HOLD THE FRONT PAGE!

I think it must be a slow news day in Ipswich.

HEADLESS CHICKENS NOT SHOOTING THEMSELVES IN THE FOOT – 1

Congratulations to the Labour Party on a successful conference. I'm with Anatole Kaletsky here, who makes several pertinent points about the outbreak of unity in Labour ranks – and about the extraordinary vacuity of the party's thinking on just about everything. Alice Miles, whose picture byline is the sexiest of anyone's in the national press simply because her glasses are not on straight – total geeky babe or what? – adds to the case here. Call me what you like, but the Murdoch press is increasingly the place where the Labour story is being told as it is.

26 September 2006

GORDON WAS OK

The boy done Gordon as we've always known him. He's as clumsy as ever as a speaker but sincere and serious. "Freeedom, decency, fairness ... common standards of citizenship and common rules ... and I've met many of them ... a shared national purpose for our country ... and let me say this ... I'm proud to be Scottish and British ... and I've met many of them ... together we defeated fascism and built the NHS .. . and let me say this ... thousands of chances to expand young people's horizons ... we, the Labour government share your concerns... and let me say this ... we are doubling public investment in social housing ... no longer a Britain of them and us ... and I've met many of them ... but a Britain of we the people working together ... the empowerment of local councils is what we must now do ... and I've met many of them ... and let me say this ... Britain cannot lead the world by standing still ... all the talents of our country ... a progressive future that is still to be built ... and let me say this ... poverty of opportunity and poverty of aspiration ... and I've met many of them ... there is a vision of the good society ... more prosperous and secure ... and I've met many of them ... we will never lose sight of your aspirations ..."

He'll do.

22 September 2006

COLUMNIST OF THE CENTURY

Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 22 September 2006


No British writer of the past 100 years has a greater reputation as a journalist than George Orwell. His three great books of reportage, Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia — although not perhaps as ubiquitous as his two best known novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four — are the only examples of British journalism from the 1930s now in print in popular editions. Every other journalist I meet, from foreign correspondents to sub-editors, says that Orwell was a major inspiration.

Yet Orwell’s journalism, or at rather his everyday journalism, is not as widely read as it deserves to be. Unless you have worked your way through the final ten volumes of Peter Davison’s magisterial 20-volume Complete Works of George Orwell, published in the late 1990s, you are unlikely to have taken in more than a tiny sample of the journalistic writing Orwell did in the last 20 years of his life.

Everything is in Davison, of course, but it is spread through more than 5,000 pages, interspersed with letters and fascinating ephemera. There was a generous selection of Orwell’s journalism published in four volumes in the 1960s as Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, edited by Ian Angus and Orwell’s widow Sonia, but Sonia kept out a lot because it was too political for her tastes. In the 1980s, the New Statesman produced a slim pamphlet of Orwell’s contributions to its pages and the writer W. J. West edited two volumes of Orwell’s broadcast scripts for the BBC in 1941-43. And a couple of years ago came a collection of his reviews and reportage in the Observer.

Until this week, however, there was a glaring gap. The routine journalism on which Orwell’s reputation is primarily based is not his work for the BBC or the Observer, let alone his half-dozen reviews for the New Statesman, whose editor, Kingsley Martin, he hated. Rather it is his columns for Tribune, 80 of which appeared under the rubric “As I Please” between 1943 and 1947. And now, thanks to Politico’s Publishing, they are all available in a single volume, Orwell in Tribune: “As I Please” and other writings, with a foreword by Michael Foot and an introduction by me.

I first realised they would make a fantastic book 20 years ago, when I started working as Tribune’s reviews editor. I was already a big Orwell fan — one of the main reasons I went for the job was that Orwell did it from 1943 to 1945 — and my office at the paper contained the bound volumes of back issues. I spent hours poring over the yellowing pages, admiring Orwell’s direct demotic writing style and his extraordinary range of subject matter.

But simply to transcribe all the columns would have taken money Tribune didn’t have or time I didn’t have, and I never got further than dreaming. Ten years ago, after the New Statesman sacked me, I suddenly found myself with time on my hands and even got a proposal together — but then another job turned up. It was only last year I decided to try to get a publisher. Chris McLaughlin, the Tribune editor, mentioned the project to Politico’s, and all of a sudden I had a contract and a deadline.

I underestimated how much time the book would take even with accurate optical character recognition software: I spent the heatwave in July proofreading rather than sitting by a pool. But now it’s out, all the effort feels worth it.

Despite the diversity of their subject matter, Orwell’s Tribune columns form a single coherent body of work. In the words of the critic D. J. Taylor in his recent Orwell biography: “One of the most engaging features of the column, read sequentially, is the sense of dialogue, points taken up, conceded or refuted, continuity rather than a trail of pronouncements which the reader could take or leave as he or she chose.”

The columns are also still remarkably relevant. If there is a single theme that runs all the way through them, it is that the left needs a more nuanced conception of politics. And this emphasis on the things the left habitually ignored — books, sport, popular racism, the sensationalism of the popular press, the slipperiness of political language, religious intolerance — rather than the programmatic core of 1940s democratic socialism or the week-by-week flow of events, makes Orwell’s Tribune columns more accessible than anything written by his contemporaries.

I’m also hoping that the book will make a bit of cash for Tribune. The paper holds copyright on the Orwell it published but has never made a penny from it, giving away permissions to republish whenever asked. Now, with a bit of luck, it should at long last benefit materially from its greatest contribution to the world of letters.

Orwell in
Tribune: “As I Please” and other writings, compiled and introduced by Paul Anderson with a foreword by Michael Foot, is published by Politico’s at £19.99. You can buy it here.

18 September 2006

THE BRITISH INFIDEL COUNCIL DOES NOT REPRESENT INFIDELS!

The blatant opportunism of the renegade jihadist lapdog Harry in launching a so-called organisation to represent British infidels can only outrage all true infidels! He and his cronies are lickspittles of the jackboots of imperialism, a clique of rabid Papist-Zionist jackals unconnected to the militant infidel youth! The sole legitimate representative of Britsh infidelism remains the Infidel Association of Britain!

17 September 2006

GIVE HIM A COMPLETE IGNORAL (AFTER THIS POST)

Iain Dale has set himself up as the arbiter of the Brit political blogosphere and too many people are taking it seriously. I'm only number 50 in his Labour bloggers list and I just don't care. He represents nothing whatsoever apart from the insignificant gay Tory West-Ham-really-but-Norwich-City-on the-doorstep lobby. As a straight Labour Tractor Boy I know just where he's coming from...

16 September 2006

ORWELL AND SUFFOLK

The obvious connection between George Orwell and Suffolk is the surname the aspiring author Eric Blair adopted as a pseudonym in 1932: the River Orwell is the tidal estuary that links Ipswich to the sea. But his Suffolk connections go further than that.

As a 17-year-old schoolboy at Eton, he spent much of the Xmas holiday of 1920-21 with cousins of his father in Burstall, a small village just west of Ipswich, where – as we know from a letter written to a friend – he picked up a large cage rat-trap, which several biographers suggest was the prototype for the cage full of rats that finally breaks Winston Smith’s resistance to torture in Orwell’s last novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

A year later, after he left Eton, he and his family – his father Richard, a retired colonial administrator then in his early 60s, his mother Ida, nearly 18 years younger than her husband, and his younger sister Avril – moved from the home counties to the small Suffolk coastal town of Southwold, to a rented house in Stradbroke Road near the lighthouse. (His elder sister Marjorie, five years his senior, had married and left home the previous year.)

The young Eric spent six months at a crammer in the town swotting up for imperial police service exams which he took and passed before going off to Burma as a colonial policeman. Not much is known about this time in Southwold apart from the fact that he got into trouble for sending a dead rat to the borough surveyor as a joke birthday present.

He came back from Burma on leave in 1927 and after a couple of months announced to his parents, who had by this point moved to another rented house, in Queen Street, right in the centre of town and near South Green, that he had decided to quit his job in Burma and become a writer. For the next eight years, Southwold was his main base – though he spent a lot of time away.

In late 1927 he moved to lodgings in London, where he experienced for the first time the poverty of the East End, then the next year went to Paris, where his aunt lived, in an attempt to make it as a freelance. But he ran out of money and turned to working as a washer-up to try to make ends meet – an experience that eventually made its way into Down and Out in Paris and London – before admitting defeat and returning to Southwold just before Xmas 1929. Feeling a failure, he took a job looking after what he called “an imbecile boy” in the nearby village of Walberswick.

The job did not last, but he didn’t leave the town for good until late 1934 – though he often went off in 1930-31, dressed as a tramp, to do the research for what became Down and Out; and in 1932-33 he worked in suburban west London as a teacher, an occupation he was forced to give up by illness. Not only Down and Out (published in 1933) but also the novels Burmese Days (1934) and A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) were written largely in Southwold. A Clergyman’s Daughter starts and ends in a Suffolk town, Knype Hill, at least partially based on Southwold.

His family had been living in genteel poverty until the early 1930s, but an inheritance and Avril’s success at running a tea room made them comfortably off. They bought a house in the High Street and became pillars of respectable society – Orwell’s father a familiar figure in the posher of the local golf clubs and his mother a doyenne of the ladies’ bridge circuit.

Orwell said he didn’t like Southwold, and the best bits of A Clergyman’s Daughter – a novel he later dismissed as “tripe” – are a vicious satire on the parochialism of provincial small-town life, including tea rooms. The chief protagonist of the novel, Dorothy Hare, is the dutiful daughter of a rector, and her reputation is destroyed by a malicious gossip.

But he had lots of friends there, including one woman, Eleanor Jaques, with whom he had an affair, and another, Brenda Salkeld, the gym mistress at St Felix girl’s school, whom he wooed unsuccessfully for several years and on whom Dorothy Hare was loosely based. And his distaste for the place did not prevent him visiting it regularly after he left, the last time in early 1944 after the death of his mother. (His father died in 1939.)

People apart, there was something about the bleakness of “the low, barely undulating East Anglian landscape” that Orwell liked. Although it was “intolerably dull in summer”, it was “redeemed in winter by the recurring patterns of the elms, naked and fanshaped against leaden skies”. Seventy years later, I feel much the same way. It's just a pity all the elms have died.

POPE BENEDICT XVI - WHAT A BASTARD!

The Pope's lecture in Regensburg last week was an outrage. He had the temerity to attack atheism and irreligiousity in a manner more fitting to the middle ages than to the 21st century. As an atheist I am so deeply offended that I am going out immediately to burn down a church.

13 September 2006

HEADLESS CHICKENS SHOOTING THEMSELVES IN THE FOOT - 3

Peter Hain declares himself a candidate for Labour's deputy leadership; Alan Johnson is already up for it even though I can't remember him having said so; you could add Jack Straw, Margaret Beckett, a Campaign Groupie and A. N. Other and we've got a bit of contest on for a non-job.

The big question, however, is whether anyone is going to take on Gordon for the leadership. And – please forget McDonnell – I don't believe there are any takers.

Meanwhile, Blair put on a stunning performance at the TUC Congress today in his question-and-answer session. Nervous he might have been, but he dealt with a hostile audience with panache. And he was right about public services and about globalisation.

12 September 2006

HEADLESS CHICKENS SHOOTING THEMSELVES IN THE FOOT - 2

David Aaronovitch is on the ball. I think I'm a Milibandite too, incidentally, though I can't see David M making it to Number Ten quite yet. Little-known fact: he used to turn out for the Tribune cricket team. Miliband, that is, not Aaronovitch.

11 September 2006

HEADLESS CHICKENS SHOOTING THEMSELVES IN THE FOOT – 1

OK, now I’ve read all the papers and – well, it looks to me that Labour did a pretty good job last week of ensuring that it loses the next election.

No one comes out of this smelling of roses. Blair has been forced to admit he is a dead man walking and has lost it with his party. Brown will forever be suspected of attempting a coup, particularly after the revelation that Tom Watson, the instigator of the letter demanding Blair’s prompt resignation, visited Brown at home the day before the letter was leaked. And Charles Clarke was “stupid, stupid, stupid” to have attacked Brown as he did, even if he was spot-on about what is wrong with the Chancellor.

Looking on the bright side, Clarke's intervention might just be seen in retrospect a year hence as the wake-up call Labour needed to stop it electing Brown as leader. But the chances of that are remote, because it’s still very difficult to imagine anyone mounting a credible challenge to Brown, for all his dunderhead incompetence (at best) this week.

John McDonnell won’t get the nominations required to run (and anyway he is not credible, for the rather obvious reason that he is a Trot headbanger). Clarke himself would get my vote, but I’d be amazed if he crossed the nominations threshold either. Either John Reid or Alan Johnson might do better, but neither has significant support either in the trade unions or among Labour’s individual members – for many of whom Reid is a hate figure. David Miliband is too young and inexperienced and has no political machine behind him of any description. The momentum is still all with Gordon, and that in itself means anyone with an eye on a future career will probably keep his or her powder dry.

So my money – for now – is on an uncontested leadership election, Brown becoming PM, continuing bickering from his many party critics as he fails miserably to claw back the Tories’ opinion poll lead, a Tory victory in 2009 or 2010, then 15 or more wilderness years for Labour as this week's protagonists try to take their revenge on one another.

Welcome to the progressive century, comrades!

GOT A BLACK CAT BONE, GOT A MOJO TOO

Been on R&R for the past week so nothing on the Labour crisis until I've read everything. In the meantime, many thanks to Emily C for turning me back on to the Blues Bar, which is still as marvellous as it was before the good friends I used to meet there — er — died. Fantastic jamming and some belting renditions of the standards. Don't go, because it makes it difficult to get a drink if there are too many people around.
'Cos I'm the hoochie-coochie man
Everybody knows I'm here

4 September 2006

DRINKING OPPORTUNITY

I've got a launch party on Wednesday 4 October in the Wheatsheaf in Rathbone Place, London W1, to celebrate publication of Orwell in Tribune: 'As I Please' and other writings, which I've edited. All Gauche readers welcome, but don't expect very much free beer. Kick-off 6pm in the upstairs bar.

1 September 2006

BOOK MEME

Just to prove I'm not lazy, just busy, here belatedly is my take:

1. Name one book that changed your life
Modern Capitalism and Revolution by Paul Cardan (pen name of Cornelius Castoriadis).
2. One book you've read more than once
English for Journalists by Wynford Hicks.
3. One book you'd want on a desert island
The Economist Style Guide.
4. One book that made you laugh
Scoop by Evelyn Waugh.
5. One book that made you cry
Waterland by Graham Swift.
6. One book you wish you'd written
Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell.
7. One book you wish had never been written
Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? by Sidney and Beatrice Webb.
8. One book you're currently reading
Israel: A History by Martin Gilbert.
9. One book you've been meaning to read
Great British Bus Journeys by David McKie.
10. Now tag five people
Everyone else has done it.

IKEA SUCKS

I went to IKEA's Edmonton branch today to get two Billy bookcases to match the dozen others I've collected over several years of bibliomania — and made the mistake of not persuading a friend or family member that he or she needed to buy some furniture too (I don't drive).

It must be easy to get there by public transport, I thought, and they've got a delivery service.

Wrong on count one: Angel Road station, which opens for two hours every day, is a mile-and-a-half away, as far as Neasden tube from the other north London IKEA. I did manage to avoid the horrible experience of the showrooms by going to the exit and walking straight into the warehouse, and I got through the till with my 2m tall Billy flatpacks at £29 each within 20 minutes. Hey, success, I thought, and I've beaten the IKEA hard sell! I've left without cushions, picture frames or rugs I don't need and I've not wasted a whole day!

Then came IKEA's revenge. I went to the delivery counter, where a young man solemnly told me it was going to cost me £90 to have the stuff delivered. I thought about telling him to stick it. I looked at him. He looked at me. And I realised I the only alternative was abandoning the bloody things and walking out, which would cost me £60 and leave me without the bookcases I need. So I coughed up. But never again.