I’ve been reading up on early 20th century pacifism, recently, and spent today reading the works of W.T.Stead, who founded the Stop The War Committee in response to the Boer War. In 1912 he wrote “The Great Pacifist: an Autobiographical Character Sketch”, which you can find here.

Stead started the weekly newspaper The War Against War, which became The War Against War in South Africa after the beginning of the Boer War. He was one of the organisers of the Peace Crusade in 1898, which was to go to capital cities to spread the word about pacifism. One of its other organisers was Tsar Nicholas II.

 

He was an odd sort of pacifist. He believed that Britain needed to maintain a navy twice the size of any other in the world. He thought that Cecil Rhodes was one of the goodies. He thoroughly supported the maintenance of the British empire ar0und the globe (although he made it clear that this was for moral not ‘jingoistic’ reasons.

For a pacifist, his views are close to what we would think of today as “the Tony Blair philosophy of war”, or, as he described it “the imperialism of responsibility”. (As a side note, he also wanted to establish a United States of Europe as a stepping stone to a World State with an international High Court Of Justice, where states could be brought to trial).

But what caught me eye was what he had to say about Russia, and the Crimea. Bear in mind, he’s one of the West’s most pro-Russian journalists, and is personal friends with the Tsar when he says:

All my life long I have been a thoroughgoing opponent of the Russophobist war spirit which has plunged Europe into the Crimean War, and which has repeatedly brought about war both in Europe and in Asia. By advocating constantly the principle of the European Concert, and demanding the enforcement, if need be, by the armies and navies of Europe, of the treaty-guaranteed rights of the unfortunate Christians of the East, I was always more or less at variance with the orthodox Peace Party, whose one idea was non intervention and abstention from all European complications. I protested against this doctrine because I believed it to be an abdication of the responsibility which we owed to those for whose good government we had made ourselves responsible by the Treaty of Paris and the Treaty of Berlin; and whenever the chronic misgovernment of Turkey became acute in massacres and atrocities I never ceased to urge upon England and upon the other Powers to use the overwhelming strength which they possessed for the purpose of compelling the Turks to carry out their treaty obligations.

Being a man of encroaching middle-age and portlitude, last month I was asked to fill in a couple of times as an understudy department store Father Christmas.

Swathed in cheap velour, covered in itchy facial hair and home to a gurgling stream of acrid sweat, it was a magical experience, and one that taught me several important lessons. Lessons about how Father Christmas is making a list of who’s naughty and nice, but he’s making it about the parents. He’s also noticing who’s pushy, who’s overtired, and who’s been drinking heavily.

Father Christmas is judging you, parents. And here’s why.

You haven’t provided a convincing backstory – There are many wonderful tales about Santa Claus. He lives at the North Pole (or in Lapland) and is married (or single, or a large, asexual gnome), and makes all of the toys himself (or with an army of elf-slaves). When your child starts asking questions about the practicalities of being Father Christmas, that’s the point where you jump in and say something like “Well, we thought that Father Christmas did it like this, isn’t that right, Father Christmas?” It’s not your cue to stand mute, check your text messages, or to try to stare Santa out. This is especially true with the question “Are you the real Father Christmas?” which can be answered a number of different ways: “No, Father Christmas is very busy and has lots of helpers;” “Of course I am;” or “How dare you question my authority? You get nothing!” Unless you give SOME HINT as to the way you answered that question, Father Christmas may well end up contradicting you, and I’m pretty sure I know whom your children will consider a more reliable source. Play the game, people.

You’ve brought a toddler, good luck with the nightmares – For many children, meeting Santa is a HUGE deal. It would be like meeting George Clooney, if George Clooney also crept into your room and gave you whatever you wanted… No, scratch that. not like that. Anyway, for young children, this is their getting to meet Madonna, or the Queen, or Stephen Fry, knowing that they’re going to be assessing your behaviour while you do. Also there is a huge beard, music, garish surroundings, and probably an odd smell. There is no excuse for taking a child under 3 to see Santa. They ALL freak out. If you want a picture of a tiny baby with Father Christmas, fine, but to any child who’s vaguely sentient of what’s going on it’s going to be pretty traumatic. Congratulations, you’ve just queued for 45 minutes because you were determined to give your child nightmares.

You’re outsourcing your parenting – If you’re bringing your child just so that Father Christmas can threaten them, you need to take a good, hard look in the mirror. Then punch the mirror and use the shards to slice your own awful face off with. Yes, the promise of presents is part of the whole deal, but telling little Ciaran that Santa probably won’t be bringing him anything when Santa is sitting right there is a dick move.

You are just terrible – If your child asks for Grand Theft Auto V then Father Christmas probably wouldn’t be doing father Christmas’ job if Father Christmas didn’t point out that that’s a game rated 18, and your child is only 9. When he says he probably won’t be bringing that, it doesn’t help if you then add your voice to the pleas to bring it “He has been really good, though.” At this point, Santa reserves the right to think of you as a monstrous cunt. Just so you know. Santa isn’t saying it, but he’s thinking it. And he likes making lists.

You refuse to help your inaudible child – Sometimes it all gets a little much, and the intense emotion that comes with talking to Father Christmas renders some children utterly mute. At this point, you can help, by prompting or answering on their behalf. Anything but playing fucking Angry Birds, while Santa and your child experience a tense, Cold War standoff.

You keep referring to a letter Santa hasn’t seen – Let’s just be clear. The Father Christmas you’re going to get isn’t real. you’re the grown up. That shouldn’t need explaining to you. So when you say, “You remember the letter Lucy sent to you, don’t you, Father Christmas?” That’s fundamentally unhelpful, if there are going to be follow-up questions. And there ALWAYS are. “She really wants that thing she put at the top of the list, Father Christmas.” Fuck you. “It would be especially good if you could remember the instructions she gave you in the PS.” Up your stupid arse. “And of course you’ve remembered the password she wrote in it, so that she’d know she was dealing with the REAL Father Christmas.” May your head be full of the eggs of a false-widow spider, which will burst and flood all over your Christmas dinner, the resulting lack of pressure on your brain will give you a new appreciation of colour, but will also render you incapable of speech or unaided urination. Merry Christmas.

For the children, meeting Father Christmas can be a magical moment. For the adults, remember to be on your best behaviour…

Happy Yuletide, from Ian.

This Week is an odd programme. Only the unique way the BBC is funded can ensure that this shambling, incoherent mess of an hour’s telly makes it to your screens every week. Want to hear establishment platitudes whispered as if they are naughty, almost unbroadcastable, pieces of mischief? Watch This Week. Want to sit in baffled amazement at politicians sit grinning, dressed in a bizarre rainbow of unhealthy colours, like two-week old clown puke? Watch This Week. Want to know what Peter Stringfellow and Gyles Brandreth and Olly Grender think about things? Of course you do.

Last week, they were still upset about Russell Brand, almost choking with inchoate rage as they, a group of political insiders, decided that he was wrong when he said our political system excludes the views of millions. It was like watching a group of stranded puffins, hooting for rescue, slowly realising the island they live on is made entirely of bird-shit.

Their obliviousness to the irony of seeing a group of political leaders agree that the political system was fine, and then for the state broadcaster to pump it out to the entire nation was delightful. Less delightful was the fact that many people, and some of them my friends, seem to agree with them. Some people seem to find it physically possible to tick a box and pat themselves on the back at the same time, which is no mean feat.

There was a torrent of sneering articles about Brand, suggesting he “go back to Hollywood” or “stick to shagging”. People who feign concern at the fact that democratic politics fails to engage much of the young population could wait to stick their fingers in their ears as soon as anyone articulated what that young population might be feeling. Brand was ‘unhelpful’, ‘naive’, and possibly ‘a git’.

Lots of people – including lots of comedians – decided that not only should you vote, but you should probably have to vote. “You have no right to criticise is you don’t vote!” came the cry.

Of course you do. I don’t like football. I think it’s a pernicious, violent game that people around the country use to sublimate their frustrations with life. I think it idolises cretins and thugs, gives its viewers a chance to indulge in organised racism and homophobia every week, and its shallow, comercial values are a deep sickness in our public life. So what do I do? I don’t watch it.

However, I now realise the error of my ways. What I should be doing is joining a football club, watching it every week, and supporting it vociferously at every occasion. Because only then can I hope to change football from the inside.

All of the critics of Russell Brand, however, are guilty of making the same fairly large fallacy of composition. Parliamentary politics is not politics. It’s not even a relatively major part of politics. It’s possibly to be highly political, and not to participate in party politics, and – I would argue – the most successful politicians have been.

People fought for years to get the vote. They did, and they did so successfully. How did they do it? Not by voting for a party that promised it to them, because they couldn’t. If that teaches us anything, it is that it is possible to bring about huge political change even when you can’t use the vote to get it.

The serious point here is that extra-parliamentary organisations are much better at affecting what MPs do than voters are. From churches to trades unions to billionaires, if you want the ear of an MP you’d better be able to either offer them money (or the chance to retain their seat, and its attendant money) or be able to cause trouble for them. That is where parliamentary power lies.

But people have died for the vote! Yes, people have also died during childbirth. That doesn’t mean we should all have to have children out of respect for their sacrifice.

But… But… democracy! Is it, though? Seriously? It’s not what Aristotle meant when he described democracy. It’s not what the Chartists meant when they described democracy (remember annual parliaments?). The prime minister can use the royal prerogative to overrule parliament and go to war. The heir to the throne gets to pre-approve bills to see that they don’t affect his business dealings. The Queen gets to veto private members’ bills she doesn’t like. It’s a constitutional monarchy with pseudo-democratic trappings.

And remember, there’s a House Of Lords as well! A whole parliament full of people who can reject bills, amend bills, and over whom you have absolutely no say whatsoever. Remember kids, even if you vote, even if you win, even if your party honours its pledges and puts together a bill, there’s still no guarantee it will become legislation.

Because voting remains a sideshow. You achieve less politically by voting than you do by buying Fairtrade coffee.

And the fact remains, my best chance of unseating my MP in my deeply-Tory seat is to vote UKIP, and hope enough of the Conservative electorate in my constitutency feel its a safe enough seat to do the same. When my only hope of having my vote count at all is to vote UKIP, there is something deeply wrong with the system.

Ah, but the British public rejected AV, so we can’t reform parliament. Yes, we entrusted the parliamentary class to set up a vote on whether or not the system that elected them should be changed. And they won. Entrenched political power is entrenched. Hence the name.

Parliamentary politics has delivered MPs who are prepared to challenge entrenched power twice in its long history. Once in 1945, and once in 1645. And we shouldn’t have to wait another 300 years until there’s another world war or Battle of Naseby in order to try to make politics serve people.

People who say “they are all the same” are the problem. No. People who refuse to see that they are are. People who cling to the last shred of hope that the Labour Party isn’t the corporate, authoritarian, centre-right, managerial party it appears to be – and governed as from 1997 to 2010 – can sit in their attics like Miss Havisham, waiting for Tony Benn or Dennis Skinner or even bloody Michael Meacher (who looks and acts like he was left in the sink overnight to soak). Those figures are fig-leaves for the Labour Party to retain the support of the Labour movement.

Let’s look at most of what people like to complain about the Coalition for:

Tuition fees – Introduced by David Blunkett, Labour Education Secretary in 1998. The Dearing Report which had suggested introducing fees also advised keeping the grants system, something Blunkett rejected, getting rid of maintenance grants altogether.

ATOS – ATOS were first brought in to run work capability assessments by – wait for it – the Labour Party. If you want to read about the ways the Labour Party distorted evidence and victimised disabled people for years this paper is quite helpful.

NHS Reform – Let’s not forget that the party who started the creeping privatisation of the health service was Labour in 2002. Remember Tony Blair “not having a reverse gear”, and people who opposed privatisation of the NHS being “the forces of conservatism”? Fun Fact: the reforms Coalition’s Health and Social Care Act wouldn’t even have been legal without Alan Milburn’s 2008 reforms, and he remained committed to gutting the NHS even after stepping down as Health Secretary. Alan Milburn went on to become a consultant for Alliance Medical, a private healthcare company bidding for work in the NHS, and is now a Director of Bridgepoint Capital. Which invests heavily in lots of private health care companies. Those Labour conflicts of interest in full.

Free Schools – Introduced as ‘academy schools’ by Labour.

The Bedroom Tax! – Introduced by Labour for private tenants in 2008.

Um… Foreign Policy – I suppose we might have a government that at least expresses a little regret when it starts wars, but I doubt it.

The fact remains that if you want an unfettered, authoritarian, right-wing, corporate-friendly government that’s happy to demonise disadvantaged groups for electoral gain, you’re best off voting for the Labour Party.

And it’s not just MPs. It’s our entire political class, in which I include the police and the media. From expenses through phone hacking and Savile and Hillsborough and the Met’s collusion with reporters, there is nowhere for an honest citizen to turn. Our laws are made by the corrupt, presented to us by the corrupt, and enforced by the corrupt. The idea that political change will come from our law-making apparatus is fanciful.

So what do we do? If it makes you happy, vote. I do. It’s a habit I can’t break. I couldn’t wait to be able to vote, and being able to participate, in however minimal and nugatory a fashion, in the way governments are formed. However. I am well aware that this makes my complicit in a system that deliberately excludes, and rather than boast about the great democratic tradition I’m upholding, I know that voting is a weakness. It’s an essential naivety that I can’t get rid of.

But there are lots of things we can do, as soon as we stop waiting for politicians to do it for us. There’s relieving each other of debt. There’s homesteading. There’s protest. There’s organisation. There’s non-violent direct action. There’s publicising issues that affect us and those around us. There is doing what you can to make what you can better than when you found it.

We can join things. We should join things. We’ve lost the habit of being parts of political organisations that aren’t political parties. Trades unions have never been less powerful than when they have entrusted their interests to the Labour Party. Join a union. Join a church. Join an atheist congregation. Join an organisation that campaigns for what you are interested in, and give it your time. Start an organisation if one doesn’t exist. Get used to sitting through boring, frustrating meetings, and standing in the cold waving flimsy banners, because it’s only through engagement that things are going to change.

And, if you just can’t shake the habit, at the end of it, you can vote.

Voting has, in the last couple of weeks, become a currency of self-satisfaction, a shibboleth displaying how politically engaged we are, when quite the reverse is true. Voting is the twentieth century equivalent of signing an online petition, a quick, relatively painless way of convincing ourselves and others we are good, involved people, although it costs us very little, and means almost nothing.

It’s not the most important thing we do politically. It might well be most self-defeating thing. But really, who cares? Let’s not pretend the people who don’t are fundamentally unserious. They may be the most realistic of all of us.

So, just for a little while, let’s forget about voting. And do something political.

On the train the other day I was opposite a creature in thick glasses, who was talking to one of his friends in advertising about accounts he hadn’t landed. And how those accounts were ‘twats’.

When he got off, he left this behind him.

If you’re feeling like this year’s John Lewis ad could have done more to tug your heart strings, here you go:

INT. A DINING ROOM. AFTERNOON

Tinsel. Glitter. Wads of wrapping paper.

Sticky tape tuck to little fingers. Popcorn being strung. Glue spilled across a dining room table.

On the soundtrack: a slow, piano, 6/8 adaptation of a popular song. Perhaps “I Like To Move It Move It”, sung by a breathy contralto with a waver in her voice.

A dining room decorated with lots of pictures of family and pets.

Two children (4 and 6) sit at the table, making things. They are gluing, getting things stuck to their fingers, putting sticky stars on their eyelids, drawing, writing, arguing over the glitter pens. Both are deeply engrossed in construction.

From the kitchen a mother gazes on, smiling. Think Sarah Lund crossed with Linda Bellingham.

She looks out of the kitchen window, where:-

EXT. THE GARDEN. CONTINUOUS

A light frost has fallen. At the far end of the garden stand a little row of crosses. In front of each is a dilapidated tinsel ornament, obviously made by children.

Along the row, the names have been scrawled on the ornaments: Fluffy, Spike, Hammy, Peter The Fish.

INT. THE DINING ROOM CONTINUOUS

The mother looks back at the children, who are now finishing up. She looks across at a picture of the family: father, mother, children. In the corner is a cat.

She wipes a tear from her eye.

IN. FRONT HALL. LATER

The children are pulling on duffel coats, and getting into their wellies. The boy, younger, falls over, as he tries to get his foot in.

EXT. LATER

The children place their new ornament on some freshly dug earth.

We pull back to reveal that we are in a:

EXT. GRAVEYARD

And they are standing in front of a gravestone.

The little girl pulls at her brother’s hand, and they all walk away with the mother.

On the ornament is a sign saying: “Daddy”

CAPTION: Merry Christmas from John Lewis

Now, who wants to help me make this? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot this week, and here are some things that might be worth bearing in mind.

A couple of years ago we started seeing the edges of the what happens when politicians, the media, and the police collude together. That was the real scandal. That close relationship led to laws not being enforced, criminal activities going uninvestigated and on their being no will to create good laws to govern politicians, the police, or the media.

Many people will remember David Cameron telling Leveson that they wouldn’t find a smoking gun. That there were no emails detailing a deal done between the Conservative leader and the Murdoch papers. And we all howled at the screen “That’s exactly the point!”

The deep corruption of our public life didn’t need accompanying paperwork. The rules were implicit and understood by all. Pursuing the agendas of media conglomerates while in power came with substantial rewards. Looking the other way when the media broke the law also came with substantial rewards. Politicans deliberately made bad laws, the police didn’t enforce those, and everyone retired with a highly-paid column on law and order at the end of it.

Then the cracks started to show. We saw policemen in charge of the investigation into phone hacking taking champagne suppers with News International. Secretaries of State chummily texting those whose mergers they were meant to be overseeing. Prime Ministers going riding newspaper editors’ horses. Which came to them from the police. Every stone that was turned let loose a new waft of corruption.

And to root out the deep corruption at the heart of three of our fundamental institutions, what did we do? We split it up.

Leveson looked at press intrusion, and the failures of the PCC. Operation Elveden is looking at the police’s failure to investigate press criminality sooner. The MPs are pretending that because they put IPSA in place a few years ago they’ve already mead enough culpas

We heard how the mighty press dwarfed poor old politicans, who only had every arm of the state at their disposal. All that they could do was weep into their cornflakes, and wait to retire so that they could cash in.

The activities of the press weren’t the fundamental problem, though. The collusion of politicans with the media (not wanting to refer the Sky bid to the Competition Commission, say), of media with politicians (bumping a story about the Chancellor’s youthful cocaine use to page 5), of police with the media (taking them for champagne dinners), and of the media with police (reporting disinformation whenever necessary), and the manifest failure of any of those institutions to have any sense of duty to the public were the problem.

I’m not one who is going to shout about ‘a free press’. We already don’t have a free press. D-notices, some of the planet’s most-backward libel laws, and all sorts of laws about speech and communication make any idea that we have a free press laughable. (Also, it’s telling that here we harp on about ‘a free press’. Not ‘free speech’, something quantifiable that applies to all of us and is a fundamental right, but ‘a free press’, which is ‘freedom to speak as long as you own a newspaper’.)

However, the problem isn’t the newspapers. The problem was never the newspapers. The despicable actions of some newspapers were a symptom of the deep sickness that plagues this country’s institutions.

When the problem is bad laws made by bad politicans, and ones unenforced by the police, the solution isn’t more bad laws from more bad politicians, which we shall depend on the police to enforce.

image

The girl in front of me is about to cry, and I’m not really sure how to deal with this. It’s not often as a performer that what you do move people to tears (it’s certainly not often that what *I* do does) and I’m not sure of the protocol. Maybe I should have stuck to comedy…

Melmoth Darkleigh began his life as just as weird voice. When we were doing the In The Gloaming podcasts I wanted them to have a host, someone like Roald Dahl at the beginning of the early serieseses of Tales Of The Unexpected or the Cryptkeeper from Tales From The Crypt. He was a creepy voice and an excuse to some cackling over the theme tune every month. I can’t resist a good cackle.

The next year we were booked to perform the podcasts as a live show a few times, including in the delightfully spooky Arundel Jailhouse. In the couple of weeks before that show all of the cast dropped out. Some were busy, some were ill, some probably just didn’t feel like going to do a profit-share show in the wilds of the Downs. So, a couple of days before, when the last person got an advert, I was left with a couple of days to write a one-man In The Gloaming show. Which is where Melmoth crept in…

The show took the form of a kind of seance, where Melmoth would summon ghosts from the venue’s past. It was an excuse to wheel out a lot of dark, old character monologues, and hang then together with some new stuff. And the show did quite well, and I did it a few times over the next couple of years.

Magic was always a very minor part of the show. To add to the creepiness I always tried to have a couple of inexplicable moments in the show, to make it really unsettling. This ranged from a bit of cold reading to a Haunted Boggle, which would predict an audience member’s death. Usually ‘drowned whilst wanking.’

This year, however, I decided to raise the stakes. To see if I couldn’t really convince an audience that Melmoth had strange, occult powers. I started doing larger effects, and dropping the monologues. image

As I learned and studied more, however, about seances, NLP, hypnosis, mind reading, the occult, and all the other gubbins, a strange thing happened. I found that I had gone from being someone pretending to be a mind reader to actually being a mind reader.

I could reveal words people were thinking of that they had told no one, childhood memories, I could duplicate drawings they had done, and predict choices they were going to make. I became known in my local pub as ‘that weird guy who can read minds’. Which was an improvement on what they had called me before: ‘that weird guy.’

Melmoth would say that this only goes to prove the power of the dark and mysterious forces that surround us (the people of Nutfield and Merstham). I’m pretty sure it’s a combination of suggestion, framing, intuition, NLP, hypnotic language and some good, old-fashioned conjuring. Whichever of us is right, it has been a bizarre few months.

All of which will come to a head on Wednesday and Thursday. Why not come down and see what you think? It will definitely be a mind-f*cking, but I can also promise some mind-cuddles afterwards…

If you only see one comedy mind-reading horror seance musical this Hallowe’en make it THIS ONE…

Sir Ian’s back from conference. And he’s brought knob gags.

I neeed a DOP for a thing in the next week or two. They need to be awesome at shallow depth of fieldy things, good with single-point perspective, able to work with children, and willing to work for free for a day.

I know. Anyway, if anyone knows anyone, please do send them my way on Twitter or the old Facebook…

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