The Plastic Hippo

April 30, 2010

Take me to your leader

Filed under: Media,Politics — theplastichippo @ 5:34 pm

“This is the voice of the Mysterons,..we know you can hear us, earthmen.”

According the national press, the general election is over and we can all get back to concentrating on Britain`s got talent. But the novelty of the televised leaders` debates seems to have produced a level of hysteria in the printed and broadcast media that is not reflected in the electorate.

An average of 7.5 million people watched the final debate compared to an average of 9.5 million that tuned in to the first. This drop in ratings must have been expected as the prime ministerial game show was up against Corrie, the snooker and the attempt by Liverpool to overturn a one goal deficit against Atletico Madrid.

Nearly 7 million watched Coronation Street and 3.5 million watched the football on Channel 5. Two goals from Yossi Benayoun and an extra time winner for Madrid were of more interest to some voters than the level of National Insurance. For some, Inheritance Tax was not a priority compared to the love tussle between Audrey and Rita over, of all people, Nigel Havers playing a male escort. Brown, Cameron and Clegg sharing a stage proved less attractive than Tracy Barlow and Gail sharing a prison cell. Perhaps immigration policy would attract more interest if Lionel Messi could be persuaded to leave Barcelona and join the Saddlers on loan.

If, as some are claiming, this election has been won and lost on television, what does that say about our political future? The lighting technicians and make-up artists on all three debates managed to give the leaders a waxy, polypropylene complexion reminiscent of Captain Scarlet and his Spectrum colleagues. Those characters were operated by Supermarionation, which involved solenoid motors in puppet heads making the mouths open and close as the words came out and we could not see the strings or, as ever, the people pulling them.

The press sent themselves into a feeding frenzy over the leaders` performances and were offering instant verdicts on who had “won” probably written the day before after a memo from the newspaper proprietor. The following morning, fans of Coronation Street and Benayoun reading those papers that openly support Cameron, might be forgiven for expecting a report that witnessed Dave walking on water and raising the dead.

To back up demands for sainthood, opinion polls were quoted seconds after the debate ended proving victory. Sadly, the details of the demographic of those polled or the questions that were asked were not included in the reports. They may have been something like this:

Answer only one question

Clegg
A: Did Clegg loose the debate?
B: Did Clegg loose the debate badly?
C: Did Clegg insult the Queen?

Brown
A: Did Brown punch somebody?
B: Did Brown beat up a pensioner in Rochdale?
C: Is Gordon a moron?

Cameron
A: Did Dave win the debate?

The opinion polls therefore prove that we will have a new Prime Minister on May 7 based on three television performances rather than on substantive policy. Policies which, mysteriously, were given very little airtime amongst the point scoring, back biting and “I`m a celebrity” stage-managed confrontation. The presidential style of this campaign takes much away from the process of democracy and parliamentary representation. Unless you live in Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, Witney or Sheffield Hallam, you will not find these guys on your ballot paper.

Instead you will find some folks who parrot what their party leader says, shying away from what is relevant to the local electorate and some other single issue minority parties and independents who do not own a nice suit or face paint.

If the press, and not the people, decide the election, then it looks like the days of Brown, Rafael Benitez and Nigel Havers as an escort, are numbered. Thunderbirds are go.

April 28, 2010

Blair Peach

Filed under: History,Politics — theplastichippo @ 7:22 pm

On Saint George`s day, April 23 1979, a New Zealand born special school teacher attending an Anti-Nazi League demonstration in Southwark was hit over the head and subsequently died of his injuries. 31 years later a report in to the circumstances of his death has finally been made public. No prosecutions are likely.

Blair Peach stood up to the National Front, but fell at the hands of the Metropolitan Police. Commander John Cass undertook an internal investigation of the killing and concluded that is was “likely” that one of six Special Patrol Group police officers was responsible for the killing. The report, kept secret for more that 30 years, said it could “reasonably be concluded that a police officer struck the fatal blow” and recommends that officers involved in the subsequent cover-up be charged with perverting the course of justice. No charges have ever been brought.

Two weeks after Blair Peach was killed, Margaret Thatcher came to power in a general election and it didn`t take long before social unrest was burning the streets of Handsworth, Brixton and Liverpool 8. Those of us old enough to remember and be a part of Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism events will recall running the gauntlet of police lines with some officers openly supporting the National Front. The use of the police as enforcers of political policy became more overt during the miners` strike of 1984 and terrible lack of control of the poll tax demonstration in 1990 led to the Met deploying armed response teams against protesting British citizens. Nine months later, Mrs Thatcher resigned and then, in his first speech as Prime Minister, John Major announced the end of the poll tax.

The police service has moved on and we are now in the position of being able to laugh at the antics of DCI Gene Hunt in Ashes to Ashes and Life on Mars but thirty years ago those TV shows would have been considered fly-on-the-wall documentaries. The increased use and sophistication of surveillance and intelligence gathering sees pensioners and parents pushing prams to anti-war demonstrations photographed and indexed by the police. Arrests have been made under anti-terrorism legislation of people wearing tee-shirts that dare to criticise the Labour government and the G20 protests last year led to another loss of life.

Ian Tomlinson was not a G20 protestor but was the victim of an unprovoked assault by a masked police officer who had removed shoulder ID tags from his uniform. The officer, a member of the present-day Special Patrol Group, now called the Territorial Support Group, has not been identified or charged with any offence. The difference between this and the Blair Peach killing was the presence of cameras that recorded this and other assaults by the police.

Whatever the outcome of the election, one thing is certain. Whoever is trusted to govern us will find it necessary to make cuts in public services and jobs are likely to go. We may be in for another winter of discontent and possibly further civil unrest. It remains to be seen if the police will be used to impose politically difficult decisions and control, rather than serve the public.

We can only hope that the law does not consider itself to be above the law and that they remember people like Blair Peach.

April 24, 2010

Some you win…some you lie about

Filed under: Media,Politics — theplastichippo @ 2:51 pm

We now seem to be in a three horse race and a hung parliament will no doubt be claimed as a triumph by the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Minor parties are likely to pick up votes as well and it is likely that some areas will be represented by individuals even more barking mad than the present incumbents. For the power crazed and self-obsessed narcissists running for office in the local and general elections, it is a win-win situation. But there will be losers, and not just the electorate. With less than two weeks still to go, the campaign has brought about the onset of the final death throes of the fourth estate.

The decision to stage live televised debates between the three main party leaders was always going to be risky, almost as risky as opening up the House of Commons to press reporting in 1787 and the televising of parliament in 1989. There were those, 223 years ago, who felt that journalists in the gallery writing stuff down was a very bad idea and a lot of their successors still feel the same way. Labour and the Conservatives resisted the idea of a threesome on camera because they felt that the Liberal Democrats were too insignificant to participate. Ironically, after pressure from Sky News proprietor Rupert Murdoch, with an eye on ratings and a desire to be considered as an equal to BBC News and ITN, the plunge was taken.

The first television debate resulted in Nick Clegg rocketing through the national zeitgeist becoming Nick Clegg, not Nick who? After the first debate, Clegg was being compared with Barak Obama. Not since the Liberal Party were called Whigs and the non-existent Labour Party were considered as serfs, have the Liberal Democrats headed the opinion polls and that was in a time before opinion polls were invented. This was all too much for certain sections of the old printed media who, remembering the time when all Liberal MPs could comfortably be transported to the commons in a single Hackney cab, reacted with characteristic hysteria..

On the morning of the second television debate, the Times, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, Daily Express and the Sun ran anti-Clegg front page smear stories. One suggested that he was a Nazi, another pointed out that his father was half Russian, his mother was Dutch and his wife is Spanish. Without any verification, one paper reported alleged payments to his private bank account from donors but just about stopped short of calling him a paedophile. Clegg has certainly rattled the right wing press and the editors and proprietors of those worthy organs have reverted to type by promoting negative stories aimed at preserving the status quo. Clegg was now being compared with Hitler.

The morning after the second debate, which was generally considered to be a draw but with Clegg still ahead in the polls, the headlines screamed victory for whichever political party the newspaper proprietor favoured. “Cameron nicks it” claimed the Times. “The Cam back kid” bellowed the Sun. “Cameron wins with passion” oozed the Express. The Telegraph gave us “Cameron fights back”. On the left we had the Guardian giving us “Clegg weathers the storm” and the Mirror went for “One foot in the Dave”. The Independent said that “This time it`s personal” but it was left to the Daily Star to sum up the concerns of the nation. They ran “Jordans lust for Pete`s fab abs”. Perhaps a fourth lectern should be installed to accommodate Pete at the next and final election debate.

The old print media have got this election totally wrong. They do not seem to realise that the electorate today are much more sophisticated than their predecessors and any attempt to smear party leaders will only generate sympathy and therefore support. The ridiculous attacks on Clegg actually increased his popularity and left the credibility of newspapers, particularly the Murdoch owned News International titles, in tatters.

Nearly 10 million people watched the first debate on ITV and Sky News achieved a record 2 million viewers for the second debate with another 2 million watching online coverage on the BBC news website, which kept crashing due to the high levels of traffic. The third debate on April 29 will be held in the Midlands and will focus on the economy. This time, the BBC will be the broadcaster and David Dimbleby will be the moderator. Sky TV boss James Murdoch will not be in the control room, literally calling the shots as he did in the second debate when the camera cut away to a member of the audience yawning as Gordon Brown was speaking. Dimbleby and the BBC are likely to be more impartial but the former newspaper proprietor may be able to share anecdotes with David Cameron in the green room about their memories of trashing restaurants as former members of the notorious Bullingdon Club when they were, at different times, undergraduates at Oxford.

Before the next and final debate, we can expect more rubbish from the expiring printed media and the mercenary hacks that produce slurs on behalf of media moguls who are intent on telling the electorate who to vote for. The panic that is sweeping editors offices is reflected in the coverage that newspapers are giving to opinions expressed on Twitter and Facebook. They realise that their influence and power is on the wane and have no idea what to do about it.

There is a market for Pete`s fab abs and Jordans lust, but when it comes to factual reporting and balanced information, forget it.

April 20, 2010

Living on the fault line

Filed under: History,Politics,Walsall — theplastichippo @ 9:22 am

When a couple of divergent tectonic plates decide to have a falling out, you know there will be trouble. As a no-fly zone Europe basks in warm sunshine under an allegedly impenetrable cloud of ash, a great big lump of pumice called Iceland is being torn apart by both continental drift and some rather shoddy banking. The North Atlantic might have its faults, but Walsall has a spectacular fault of its own. This fault, however, is more geo-political than geological. The result, though, is the same. Walsall is being torn apart.

The schism starts very close to where some gold was recently found, then runs west and to the south of Brownhills. It arcs around Pelsall and then heads toward the town centre. At the accident-waiting-to-happen ring road junction, it turns left up the Broadway between Chuckery and the Arboretum. At the Boundary, it hangs a left and goes up the Birmingham road and terminates to the south of Park Hall near Merrions Wood. Like all complex faults, there are many rifts, fissures and fractures, all of which lead back to a large, ornate building on Lichfield Street.

About 450 million years ago, the area we now call Walsall was part of a huge super continent that geologists have named Pangaea. In that epoch, the present day Black Country was a near neighbour of New York and Greenland and populated by the most primitive life forms ever to be discovered using fossil evidence. Trilobites, brachiopods, crinoids and corals clung to life in the shallow seas that covered the area. These simple organisms went about their business, desperately trying to evolve into something better. Walsall Council should really try and emulate their endeavour.

The line that divides Walsall is more than a geographical divide. Those fortunate enough to live east of the fault line are likely to be more affluent, better educated and have better opportunities to access health and social care. Those to the west, who also pay council tax, will experience higher levels of crime, illness, failing schools and will actually die at a younger age than those who reside in the affluent east.

One might expect a responsible administration to make some effort to balance this disparity but the current council seem intent on making the chasm between the haves and the have-nots even wider. Brownhills, Darlaston and Willenhall have been allowed to decay into ghost towns even as our political masters talk of regeneration. Okay, Brownhills got a tin miner sculpture, Darlaston is having its park taken away to build a Christian evangelical school and Willenhall got some new signs pointing to a leisure centre that is about to close along with all the other leisure centres which, interestingly, are mostly west of the great divide. Any regeneration that is planned in those communities is coming from property developers who intend to build “executive” dwellings that local people cannot afford because they have lost their jobs.

Walsall operates a cabinet system of local government and it is worth taking a look at the councillors who make the important decisions and which wards they represent.

Leader of the council, Mike Bird, deputy leader and portfolio holder for regeneration, Adrian Andrew and Christopher Towe, the guy in cabinet who looks after finance and personnel, represent Pheasey Park Farm. This is a Birmingham suburb reserved for the ruling Tory Walsall elite. None of the three councillors live in the ward.

Former mayor and cabinet member for transport, Tom Ansell represents Aldridge Central and South. So does current mayor and former leader of the council, John O`Hare.

In Aldridge North and Walsall Wood we have Anthony Harris for Leisure and Culture and Mike Flower for Environment.

In Pelsall we have Garry Perry who is charge of Communities and in Rushall Shelfield we have Rachel Walker in charge of Children`s Services.

St Matthews is very interesting. The town centre is part of the ward and is one of the most crime ridden and poorest wards in the borough. Boundary changes made some years back lumped mansions together with dreadfully inadequate housing which resulted in a skewed electoral result. Barbara McCracken is cabinet member for Social Care, Health and Housing. Mohammed Arif looks after Business Support Services in cabinet but did not manage to look after a warehouse he co-owns. He was duped by some entrepreneurs that turned his empty building into a cannabis factory.

Having 10 members of cabinet and the mayor coming from 6 wards in the well-off east is not exactly a true reflection of the Walsall electorate . If you live way out west you can forget about having your health, education, safety and quality of life cared about by the executive, they are more concerned with good old fashioned profit.

After May 6 this cabinet will certainly change. One hopes that too many sphericals have been dropped for this lot to remain in place but there is always the danger that Tweedle dee will be replaced by Tweedle dum. As the east and the west in Walsall continue to separate with seismic consequence, we can only hope that Walsall can survive not only the recession, but the mismanagement of our council. The choice is yours, brachiopods, crinoids or simple bi-valves?

The volcanic ash cloud that seems to be hanging over us has produced some amusing moments that will not be appreciated by those who are grounded at airports. British Airways claimed that a one-day cabin crew strike would ruin the airline. No BA flights have flown for five days. Other mischievous wags suggest the earth goddess Gaea is demanding the sacrifice of the Pope because he is, after all, a virgin.

But the funniest moments for me is hearing the tremble in the voice of radio news readers and the panic in the eyes of television correspondents when they realise that the word “Eyjafjallajökull” is about to appear in the script or on the autocue.

That same tremble and panic might just be replicated by cabinet members when the Audit Commission comes to town to ask about the missing millions and cuts to services. We will have to wait a long time for the dust to settle.

April 16, 2010

It was 50 years ago today…

Filed under: History,Music — theplastichippo @ 9:41 pm

Just before midnight on April 16 1960, a Ford Consul taxi travelling on the A4 near Chippenham had a tyre blow-out and spun backwards into a lamp post. The driver and three of the passengers survived but a fourth was thrown from the car. About four hours later, he died at St Martin`s Hospital in Bath as a result of massive head injuries. Aged only 21, Eddie Cochran was dead.

Described as James Dean with a guitar and even Elvis with talent, Cochran had the bad boy good looks that typified manufactured teen idols of the nascent rock and roll era. In those pre-Beatle days, when mediocre Presley clones from the Larry Parnes stable with names like Vince Eager, Jonny Gentle, Marty Wilde and Billy Fury dominated the British charts, Eddie Cochran was something else.

Apart from having a great rock voice, he was almost unique during that period as he wrote his own material. As a guitar innovator, he introduced techniques that still have resonance today. The full tone bend on an unwound third string, the use of overdubs and power chords are the legacy that can still be heard in music that is created by guitar players today.

His importance as a songwriter, singer, guitar player and, more potently, as a rebellious youth, marks him as a touchstone that has reverberated across the intervening five decades since his death. As the first guitar hero, Cochran was a major influence on players like Hendrix, Clapton, Beck and Page and bands like The Who, The Faces, The Clash and The Sex Pistols. More recently, The White Stripes, Elbow, Muse and The Arctic Monkeys owe a debt of gratitude because they play just like Eddie. The young John Lennon invited an even younger player to join his band, The Quarrymen, because McCartney knew the words and the chords to 20 Flight Rock.

Whenever a prodigious, young talent is snuffed out, one is left with the thought of unfulfilled potential. If he had lived to see technology catch up with his ability, what would Cochran have done with a 1965 Stratocaster and an effects consol driven through a Marshall stack? Eddie had it all; talent, looks, youth and attitude. We will never know if he would have taken the self-destructive route of Hendrix or, like Elvis, head for Vegas in a white jump suit. Perhaps he should be best remembered for a single line that summed up post-war teen rebellion:

“I`d like to help you, son, but you`re too young to vote.”

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