…and (nearly) all that jazz!

 

(Note – I wrote this a week ago, and then promptly forgot to post it. Oops.)

Praise be, this time they’re not just wearing underwear. It’s very easy to forget that the massively successful revival of Kander and Ebb‘s Chicago, which closed in the West End last year after a roughly 15-year run and is still going strong on Broadway, began life as a streamlined concert presentation. The show – only a moderate success in its original Bob Fosse staging in 1975 – has become familiar almost to the point of ubiquity, even discounting the 2002 film (which messes about with the material in ways that mostly do it no favours at all), but it’s become familiar in a staging that employs almost no conventional scenery, and in which nearly everyone has only a single (black, skimpy) costume. Seeing the show, then, in a staging where there’s an actual colour palette on view (rather than fifty shades of black) is a welcome surprise.

And this, thank God, is a really good production. With the closing of the long-running revival in the West End, the rights to the show have once again become available to regional theatres; more than one has it scheduled for the upcoming season, but the Oldham Coliseum is, I think, the first to get a production up and running. It’s not the first time they’ve done it; they staged the show in the late 80s in a production that starred Caroline O’Connor, and while I did see it, I can’t honestly say I remember a great deal about it. I imagine their earlier staging did not use actor-musicians; this one does (or rather, three full-time musicians plus the cast), and I admit my heart sank when I realised the actors would be doubling as most of the band because all too often the result is simply that the score gets short-changed. This cast, however, pull it off triumphantly. The music sounds good all the way through, the playing is impeccably tight, there are no audible bum notes, and under Kevin Shaw’s assured direction the cast find all kinds of witty ways to incorporate the instruments into scenes – one of the reporters outside the courtroom, for example, uses a trumpet’s mute as the earpiece of a telephone.

The acting performances, too, are good right across the board. Yes, pretty much everyone is about twenty years too young for the role they’re playing, but that’s hardly unusual in a production of this show. Special honours go to Adam Barlow’s sad-sack Amos Hart – he nails the Bert Williams act in ‘Mr. Cellophane’, white gloves and all – but the singing is all good, the zingers all land, and this company is giving a thoroughly entertaining account of the show. Yes, some of the American accents are a bit wonky; yes, putting Helen Power and Marianne Benedict (Roxie and Velma) in wigs and costumes that make them look like Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones, who played their parts in the movie version, is a strikingly unimaginative choice; and yes, it’s fair to say that not all of the choreography is executed quite as slickly as you’d have expected in the West End revival, but it really doesn’t matter: this production is not as cool or as sexy as the show has sometimes been in the past, but the show has possibly never been more fun than it is here. This, first and foremost, is a musical comedy. It’s sharp, colourful, strikingly performed, and very, very funny indeed, and the cast – all of them – are clearly having a wonderful time.  Yes, it’s very definitely a scaled-down production, but the gains far outweigh the few losses.

It’s also – and this is a bigger achievement than you might think – accomplished with a fraction of the resources available to a commercial West End or Broadway production, and has tickets on sale at just one-third of the average top price for a West End musical. In terms of bang for your buck, when it comes to musical theatre in the UK, this Chicago is just about as good as it gets.

Any criticisms at all? Just one, and it’s of the theatre rather than the show. I love the Coliseum. I’ve been going there, off and on, since I was a very young child – it’s at least 35 years since I first set foot in there. I think they’re great, I think they’re Oldham’s most valuable cultural institution, I think the recent renovation is terrific, I am impressed that they refuse to overcharge for drinks and programmes, and their box-office staff are unfailingly helpful. They’ve now introduced a print-at-home facility for online bookings, and unlike some gougers ticket agencies, they don’t charge an additional fee for it  … but the receipt you print off in lieu of a ticket, although it does include your seat number, makes no mention at all of whether the seat you’ve booked is in the stalls or the circle. I knew what seat I’d booked, but that’s an argument waiting to happen, and it needs to be changed.

 

 

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On the Buses

83

This is a photograph of the front of one of the buses I took to get home this evening, taken so that I could get a record of the vehicle number. What you can’t see in this photograph is the driver – clearly one of First Manchester‘s finest – giving me the finger through the windscreen. Presumably this is what they mean in their customer promise when they pledge to provide “helpful, friendly driving staff”.

It hadn’t been a very successful evening. I’d got to the bus stop at the top of Oldham Street in Manchester at about 8.40pm, hoping to catch a bus towards Oldham. Between the 83 and the 183/184 services, there should, at that time on a Sunday night, be a bus every ten minutes. Nearly thirty minutes later (!), an 83 arrived (this kind of interruption in this particular service, unfortunately, is not at all unusual) – destination Sholver, so this was the 9.10pm service (God only knows what happened to the 8.50pm 180 or the 9.00pm 83, but that’s all part of the joy of travelling with First Manchester). There was quite a crowd waiting to board this service – this stop is the terminus – and as I boarded, there were a lot of people behind me who were also trying to get on the bus. In front of me, there was a woman who was trying to buy a ticket from the driver. In order to avoid creating a bottleneck at the door, I stepped around her while showing the driver my pass. You’d think this would be the sensible thing to do, right?

Wrong.

The driver didn’t like it. Oh no, he didn’t like it at all. He started shouting at me – I hadn’t said a word to him at this point – telling me off as if I was a naughty schoolboy. The best gem in his stream of invective was the part where he told me he couldn’t bloody multitask because he wasn’t a bloody woman. Now, yes, there is a way of delivering that line that would put a (sexist) comic spin on it – but no, he was deadly serious. It was a full-on tempter tantrum – one which other passengers commented on – and it was provoked by nothing more than my trying to step aside so that other people could step onto the bus. Since there were a lot of people trying to board behind me, I said nothing and took a seat; a couple of people behind me, though, did tell the driver he was out of order.

When the bus arrived in Oldham about thirty minutes later – I connect there to another service – I had a choice. I could get off the bus and say nothing, which would probably have been the wisest move, or I could tell this driver that I found his behaviour unacceptable and ask for an apology. On the one hand, given his temper tantrum when I boarded, clearly there was no way any complaint about his behaviour would end well. On the other hand, I am a paying customer, and I am not prepared to be yelled at for the heinous crime of stepping to one side while holding up a bus pass. I do, though, understand that sometimes people snap in the heat of the moment (because, really, my holding up a bus pass while simultaneously stepping aside to allow space for other people to step up onto the bus must have been so excruciatingly stressful for him that it’s a wonder he didn’t end up with PTSD), and I think it’s only fair to ask for an apology directly before putting in any kind of complaint – if he’d said sorry, that would have been that. There was, sure, probably also an element of my having just Had Enough after enduring day after day after week after week after year after year of appalling service from this company. And anyway,  First Manchester‘s complaints process, more often than not, is a waste of time – either they don’t bother to respond, or they send an insincere and sometimes badly-spelled letter of apology, and then three days later the exact same thing you just complained about invariably happens again.

So, when the bus had stopped at Oldham bus station, I went to the driver, told him I’d found his behaviour unacceptable, and suggested he owed me an apology. I didn’t raise my voice. I didn’t use bad language. I did, I suppose, offend him simply because I refuse to be bullied, but that’s not my problem.  The predictable result: more yelling. He doesn’t come to my workplace to tell me how to do his job, apparently, and I could bloody get off his bloody bus. During this rant – which went on for rather longer than those couple of sentences – he was pink and shaking with rage, and repeatedly jabbed his finger at me. Nice.

Again, let’s go back to First Manchester‘s pledge to provide “friendly, helpful driving staff”. This particular gentleman was so friendly and helpful, he must have undergone intensive training. When you encounter this level of rudeness, the management deserve at least some of the credit. This driver would not have started shouting in the first place unless he knew he could get away with it.

I got off the bus – I was getting off there anyway – and stepped in front of the vehicle (which wasn’t going to be leaving for a couple of minutes, there was a line of people waiting to board), and got out my BlackBerry to take a photo of the vehicle number on the front (on First Manchester‘s newest buses, this number is not clearly visible anywhere inside – it’s somewhere up above the driver’s head, and given that he was yelling at me and shaking with rage, asking him to move his head a bit so I could see the vehicle number was probably a non-starter). Guess what? More yelling, loud enough that I could hear it through the windscreen. I wasn’t going to take his photograph (I wasn’t trying to), and if I didn’t put my ****ing phone away he’d call the… whatever, that’s when I stopped listening and walked away. As I walked away, he gave me the finger; he’d already done so once as I was taking the photograph. Again, nice. Presumably there’s a page in his training manual which outlines in detail under exactly which circumstances that gesture may be employed.

Now, OK, asking for an apology, given his previous volatility, was probably “asking for it”. But this is a company whose front-line employees, again and again, seem to be under the impression that they are entitled to treat their customers like dirt (it speaks volumes for First Manchester‘s management that the vast majority of drivers can’t even manage basic courtesies like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’), and really, enough is enough. His original behaviour was thoroughly unacceptable, and I don’t have to stand there meekly and accept being yelled at for no good reason by some arrogant jerk in a tatty uniform who gets off on treating his customers like crap, just because he can. This evening’s experience, granted, was particularly bad, but it’s not as if rude drivers are at all unusual. Polite drivers are the exception, and they’re rare enough to be worth remarking on. This evening’s driver, though, was something else. For a start, somebody that angry is probably not fit to be in charge of a vehicle on the public highway, much less any kind of vehicle carrying paying passengers.

So, yes, I’m still waiting for that apology. I won’t be holding my breath. For First Manchester, awful customer service is simply par for the course, and unless they start employing people who know the difference between customers and cattle, that isn’t going to change.

Note – credit where it’s due: over the past week or so, the weather here has been dreadful, and has caused significant disruption on the roads; First Manchester have done a much better job, this year, of keeping services running through bad weather and keeping their customers informed than they ever have in the past, and that’s an encouraging sign. But today the snow was mostly gone, and services were running normally, and their impressive work over the weekend does not excuse or in any way mitigate the treatment I received this evening.

Weather 1, UK 0

It snowed a bit here today. And I do mean just a bit – three or four inches on high ground, maybe half that lower down. That’s a light snowfall, as far as I’m concerned. Judging by the news here, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s Armageddon. More fool me, I went out in it… and it took me pushing three hours to travel about ten miles to get home.

I probably shouldn’t be surprised. This was the scene in Manchester city centre at about 6pm:

That’s a light dusting of snow, nothing more (to be fair, there is more here, ten miles to the north-east). Note the complete absence of salt or grit on either the road or the pavement. This was far from the most treacherous place in the city centre – the pavements in front of Debenhams in Market Street were slick with ice and very slippery (and no, neither Debenhams nor Manchester City Council had put any salt down). The Market Street Metrolink platform was just as bad – there had been no attempt to clear the lying snow, which had been compacted to ice under passengers’ feet, and nobody had put grit down.

Where I live is fairly high up, a few hundred feet higher than the city centre, and it’s not all that unusual for the public transport system here to experience some disruption when snow falls. I grew up here, I know what the weather can do, and I have the bus and train company websites bookmarked on my BlackBerry so that I can check for service updates if I go out when there’s snow on the ground (it slightly irritates me to do this, given that I’ve spent a big chunk of my adult life living in Toronto, a city that deals with far larger snowfalls every winter, usually without anything like the level of disruption snow causes here). I checked First Manchester‘s service updates page regularly; for most of the day (until some point after I got home, in fact) it showed only a bland message saying that there may be some weather-related delays. In the past, when there have been problems, this page has carried a fairly extensive list of specific services that are cancelled or diverted due to the weather. Since no such list was displayed, I assumed I was OK, and didn’t rush to come home.

The fun started when I went to catch a bus out of Manchester. There were no departing buses to be seen at my stop. Inbound buses (it’s the terminus) were dropping off passengers then going out of service, which isn’t a good sign (there’s supposed to be a bus between Manchester and Oldham town centre every ten minutes at that time of day). Rather than wait, I went to catch a train. The train departed exactly on time, and arrived at my station exactly on time. The station, however, was a mess:

That’s the platform, stairs and footbridge at Greenfield station. Nobody had made any attempt to clear the snow. No salt had been put down anywhere, even on the stairs. The station is staffed on Saturdays until 3.30pm, and sees one train an hour in each direction, timetabled to leave at more or less the same time. Aside from a window of about 15 minutes before both trains depart, it’s never that busy, so the lack of any salt anywhere on the platforms, staircases and footbridge basically comes down to laziness. It’s not as if this snowfall was unexpected. It was forecast 72 hours in advance, and arrived more or less exactly on schedule – and yet, obviously, the station’s staff (and their managers) didn’t bother to take even the simplest steps to mitigate the effect of the snowfall. I don’t know why this surprised me – I use Northern Rail regularly, and they’re committed to excellence in customer service in roughly the same way as the Communist Party of China is committed to promoting democracy – but it did. They usually make at least some effort, but they didn’t today.

The fun, for me, was only just beginning. The road outside Greenfield station is on a steep hill; it’s treacherous in ice, buses are often diverted away from there when there’s snow or ice on the ground, so I walked up to the main road (by now it was about 9pm, and the snow had long since stopped falling in any quantity). There was perhaps three inches of snow on the ground; usually, OMBC does a reasonably efficient job of clearing snow from the main roads, and you’d expect one of the borough’s major routes to be reasonably clear nine hours after the beginning of a snowfall that left an accumulation of only three or four inches. Not tonight:

It had probably been gritted, but not for several hours, and it hadn’t been ploughed. First Manchester’s mobile website still – again, nine hours after snow had begun to fall – showed only a bland message about possible snow-related delays, so I waited. Half an hour after my bus was due to arrive, I caught another service into the next village (easier place to pick up a taxi, and the bus shelter there has a seat). I asked the driver whether the service I was waiting for was running or not, and he didn’t know; he couldn’t be bothered to use his radio to try and find out. It wasn’t that cold, and the road was clearly open, so I waited… for three quarters of an hour, at which point a bus came along that would deposit me within a mile or so of home. Rather than ring a taxi, I caught it and walked. This bus ran more or less exactly on time; there was no sign at all of the service I’d been waiting for. The driver of the bus I caught thought it probably wasn’t running, but didn’t know for sure (and, again, couldn’t be bothered to get on the radio and find out); First finally got around to updating their website with a list of services that weren’t running at some point after 11pm, and the service I waited for for over an hour and a half is not listed there.

The walk home – mostly uphill through uncleared streets – was lovely.

And all of this for three or four inches of snow! It’s pathetic. More than that, it shows the management of a mostly privatised transport system on which the bottom line is corporate profit holding their paying customers in absolute, unyielding contempt. This was a minor snowfall, forecast days in advance – but the snow was forecast to fall at the weekend, which means that deploying additional personnel to clear platforms and bus stops of snow, put grit down, and keep passenger information systems properly updated with details of service disruptions would have meant paying overtime, which would eat into profits (never mind that we’ve had above-inflation fare increases on both the buses and the trains within the last month, in both cases without even the hint of a promise of any improvement in services in return). The snow falling at the weekend probably accounts for the state of the main roads as well – to be fair to the council here, on weekdays, with this amount of snow, they usually do a better job than they did today. Presumably they too wanted to avoid paying out too much overtime.

Beyond that, the prevailing mentality here does seem to be that clearing snow is somebody else’s problem. Toronto has a fairly strict bylaw outlining when and how snow must be removed from sidewalks, pathways etc following a snowfall, and this level of snow clearance is the responsibility of the owner or occupant of each building. We don’t have any such law here, so nobody bothers – including city centre businesses (and, really, it’s not as if putting salt down on the pavement in front of, say, Debenhams would have eaten up more than about 20 minutes of someone’s time – I repeat, we did not have a major snowfall today, and there was far less snow in the city centre than there is here). The snow on the pavements either piles up to the point where it gets into your shoes, or it compacts into ice, because nobody takes responsibility for clearing the pavement in front of their own property. Indeed, there’s an obnoxious perception that clearing snow and gritting in front of your home or business can get you sued if someone slips and falls on the section you cleared. And no, don’t worry, I’m not going to list every single revolting thing this says about British society.

And then there’s the private cars. When snow falls here, it’s as if parking regulations suddenly no longer apply. People bring their cars down from side roads (which, admittedly, are often steep, quickly become impassable, and are never the first to be cleared) and park them on the main road – anywhere on the main road, including on double yellow lines, around blind bends, and in front of bus stops, reducing two-lane roads to a single car-width of carriageway. Since that’s too narrow for two buses to pass, the result is severe disruption – like I experienced this evening – for anyone trying to get around by bus, even after a relatively minor snowfall. These cars, of course, are never ticketed or towed, despite being parked illegally. If we put in place a system of designated snow routes that became absolute no-parking zones after a snowfall in order to facilitate snow clearance and enable traffic to move freely in both directions, and enforced it, an awful lot of this disruption would be avoided.

Unfortunately, that would require planning, and common sense, and when snow falls in this country both of those things magically disappear. We had three or four inches of snow, and it was forecast days in advance. Some delays are understandable; letting chaos result from such a minor snowfall is not.

And the Northern Rail and Metrolink managing directors – I’m looking at YOU, Ian Bevan and Chris Coleman  – who failed to put protocols in place to ensure that station platforms would be gritted ahead of a snowfall should be fired. Even given the generally pathetic way we deal with snowfalls in the UK, that takes a special kind of incompetence.

Genius in action

I voted yesterday. It was very exciting. Borough council, Parish council, referendum on the alternative vote. Democracy in action – at least, for the 41% of the electorate who could be arsed to show up. Perhaps a lot of people had to wash their hair yesterday, or spend a lot more time than usual sitting on the toilet reading Heat magazine. Sorry, people, if you can’t be bothered to get off your backsides to complete the incredibly arduous task of ticking a box on a piece of paper, you don’t get to gripe about the results, whatever they might be. For all of the interminable talk all over the news channels today about the electorate delivering a clear message to the coalition/Nick Clegg/Kerry Katona David Cameron, the biggest story, I think, is how few people took the trouble to show up, given the level of cuts that our current Coalition of the Damned is trying to push through parliament at the moment.

The vote itself, however, was more or less eclipsed for me by the comedy genius in charge of the grounds at my local polling station. My local polling station is a school – actually, the junior school I went to myself, once upon a time. And yes, the thought of Mrs. S*********** still gives me the creeps to the point where attempting to type her name makes me shudder… and, regarding Mrs. S***********, digressing for a moment and apropos of nothing, I can’t imagine how on earth you can do an effective job of teaching a class of 9-year-olds while wearing elaborate makeup, high-heeled boots and inch-long false nails. She presumably can’t either, because she didn’t. Do an effective job of teaching a class of 9-year-olds, I mean*. She did wear the makeup, the boots and the false nails. She still does, I think. I saw her at the supermarket a few weeks ago, which was a reminder that it’s not safe to go out around here without a wooden stake and a couple of heads of garlic in your pocket. Brrrrr.

ANYway.

The part of the building used as a polling station has an outside door that can be reached via two paths. One path – the shorter one –  has flat, step-free access from the street, and the other one has three steps down from the entrance (the building is on a slight slope). There is now  a fairly heavy-duty metal fence around the property (there wasn’t 30-odd years ago when I went there), with big, lockable gates at the pedestrian entrances. The gate to the path with the steps was open. The gate to the flat, step-free path to the polling station door was padlocked, with a disabled access sign hung on it with a notice underneath saying ‘FOR DISABLED ACCESS, ASK INSIDE’.

You know, after having manoeuvred your wheelchair/invalid carriage/zimmer frame down three big concrete steps first. If you had any kind of mobility impairment, and you turned up to vote alone, you were basically screwed until someone else either entered or exited the building.

I’m impressed. Really, really impressed. It takes a special kind of genius to do something that stupid. Presumably whoever locked the gate and wrote the sign imagined that any disabled people who showed up would somehow be able to levitate over a five foot high metal fence. It’s things like this that make you realize Darwin can’t have been entirely correct.

* Favourite Mrs. S*********** memory – she made us do silent reading for half an hour, and had previously issued me with a reading book that was several levels below the kind of stuff I was reading at home. I finished it in about ten minutes and took it back to her desk to ask for another book – and without looking up, she told me I couldn’t have finished it, and to go and read it again. Dreadful, dreadful woman.

Civilisation

The price of bread has shot up recently. Have you heard? It’s all the fault of the Jews.

You just did a double-take, didn’t you? So did I. That was the thrust of a conversation I overheard a couple of days ago. The conversation was not taking place at, say, a rally in Nuremberg in 1936. The two participants were a married couple in a Co-op supermarket in suburban Greater Manchester, and they were not whispering. In the interest of accuracy – and only in the interest of accuracy, since it demonstrates how absolutely repellent and stupid these people must be – the gentleman’s exact choice of phrase was “fucking Jews”. In public, loudly, in a busy supermarket on a Sunday afternoon, within earshot of, well, anybody else who was shopping there, which included a number of families with children.

In the same week, we’ve seen a surprisingly minor furore erupt in the press about the Unholy Trinity – Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond – and their witless, racist evaluation of a  Mexican sports car.  The BBC’s apology managed to be both grudging and startlingly insincere, citing a long-standing British tradition of humour based on national stereotyping – because, really, what could be funnier, edgier or more worth defending than three white, overpaid, conservative motoring journalists poking fun at people with a different skin colour who are poorer than they are? Only comedian Steve Coogan, writing in the Observer, has, as of this writing, responded to the incident with the venom it deserves, pointing out at some length and in some detail precisely why the moronic racial stereotypes paraded onscreen by Clarkson, May and Hammond are not remotely funny.

Coogan’s piece is startling in the way it thoroughly, systematically demolishes the three presenters – he doesn’t just cut them off at the knees by pointing out the absolute childish vacuousness of passing off offensive racial stereotypes as ironic humour on an internationally-syndicated television programme, he kicks them when they’re down by pointing out how much the onscreen dynamic between them resembles two wimps (May and Hammond) hiding behind a school bully (Clarkson). It’s a devastating hatchet job, but it misses a trick: Top Gear is shown on the BBC, and is therefore funded by the licence fee.

Yes, that’s right. We’re paying for these idiots and their crass, schoolboy attempts at “humour”, to the tune of £145.50 per household per year.

The thing is, the racist comments on Top Gear and the racist comments in the supermarket are twin symptoms of a common disease. Casual racism, in this country, is widespread, fed by hysterical headlines about immigration, Muslims, asylum seekers and all the rest of it in the Daily Express, the Daily Mail and the like (sorry, I won’t link to them – I’m not wearing latex gloves and I don’t have a paper bag handy). It’s sobering to note that during our last general election, when Gordon Brown referred, in private but with a lapel microphone still live, to a woman he’d met on the campaign trail who had confronted him with a borderline-racist question about Eastern European migrants as “bigoted”, our national media – more or less all of it, including the broadsheets – crucified him and deified her, despite the fact that, given her line of questioning, “bigoted” was a fairly accurate description.  It was also sobering, during the last general election campaign, to note the absolute reluctance of any politician from any party to get up and say, unequivocally, that immigrants who are here legally, work hard and pay their taxes – in other words, the vast majority of them – make a positive contribution to our nation and our society, which of course sends an absolutely poisonous message to immigrants who are here legally, work hard, pay their taxes and all the rest of it. Immigration has become a toxic subject – all the more so, unfortunately, when the immigrants under discussion have any skin colour that’s further up the colour chart than light pink. And that’s without getting into things like BNP campaign leaflets, which are offensive on a level that actually makes me feel physically ill. During the recent by-election campaign here, one dropped through my letterbox bearing the charming headline ‘YOUR DAUGHTERS ARE NOT HALAL MEAT’. These people got something over 2,000 votes.

And, of course, when this stuff is splashed all over the front pages of “newspapers” like the Mail and the Express, which enjoy very wide circulation (largely because they pander shamelessly to the most bigoted fears and prejudices of their base demographic), when our politicians routinely characterise immigrants (and by ‘immigrants’ they mostly seem to mean people with darker skin than theirs) as scroungers, and when racial stereotypes are apparently considered fair game as a source of humour by the presenters of one of our more popular television programmes, it’s not at all surprising when you hear someone spout the sort of foul, offensive racist crap I heard at the supermarket on Sunday, and do so quite matter-of-factly and in a public place. I’m not saying, of course, that Top Gear caused the moron I met in the supermarket to spout racist bullshit in public – actually, thinking about it, ‘moron’ is too kind, he had the sort of intellect that makes an amoeba look like Stephen Hawking – but the casual acceptance, espousal and even endorsement of racist attitudes as a source of headlines (the gutter press) or humour (Top Gear) at least gives the impression that it’s somehow once again acceptable to say outrageously racist things in public. And, certainly, in this part of the country, in a town in which seething tensions between different ethnic groups lie very, very close to the surface, you don’t have to look very far to find the kind of attitude I encountered on Sunday. The letters page in the local newspaper is usually a good place to start.

Well, sorry, we’re all to blame. One of our national characteristics, true, is that we are, as a group, somewhat reticent. We’re often reluctant to stick our heads above the parapet – with good reason, since confronting the kind of brain-dead thug who would seriously attribute the rise in the cost of a loaf of sliced wholemeal to any specific ethnic or religious group is likely to result in, at the very least, a stream of obscenities and insults – so we say nothing, ignore it, and hope it goes away. It isn’t going to go away because by saying nothing, by not standing up and saying loudly and clearly that such attitudes are vile, hateful, offensive and thoroughly unacceptable, we’re effectively giving permission for public hate speech.

I told the oaf in the Co-op to shut up. I’m apparently a fucking cunt who’s going to get his fucking head kicked in. The Co-op staff, of course, just stood there and gawped, as did my fellow citizens, most of whom had looked shocked and appalled as they heard this semi-evolved chimpanzee spout the kind of putrid filth that wouldn’t have been out of place at a Third Reich campaign meeting. I suppose this ape could have hit me, although from his point of view, in a busy supermarket where there were both witnesses and security cameras, that could have ended up being some kind of own goal – and in any case, he probably didn’t have quite enough coordination to breathe and scratch himself at the same time, so the likelihood of his a) finding his fist and b) getting it to connect at any kind of velocity with any part of my person was probably relatively remote. Nevertheless, I imagine it might have been more prudent to keep myself to myself. I heard one person – shamefully, a member of the supermarket’s staff – say loudly that I was making too much of a fuss.

Sorry, no. The profoundly sad thing about what happened when I went shopping on Sunday is precisely that versions of that experience, in today’s Britain, are not at all unusual. They’re not at all unusual because most of the time we don’t make enough of a fuss. We’re de-evolving rapidly into something quite unpleasant – a society in which casual racism is not shocking, common courtesy no longer exists, and the words ‘fuck’ and ‘cunt’ have apparently replaced the comma and the semi-colon. Those of us, myself included, who stand on the sidelines tut-tutting at the offensive behaviour we see in the streets every day are complicit, because we allow it to happen. Unless we learn to stand up and say no, we are effectively giving permission, but by standing up and saying no, we put ourselves in the firing-line.

That’s not a world I want to accept. It’s 2011. We’re supposed to be civilised. We’re supposed to be better than this. We pretend that we’re better than this.

We aren’t.

Election II: The Misguided Revenge of Elwyn Watkins

This time it’s personal.

Oh, wait. It was personal the first time too, and that’s the problem.

It’s been all over the news all day. My MP, Phil Woolas, is apparently no longer my MP. I have no MP. Oldham East and Saddleworth is rudderless. My sakes, how on earth will we cope?

A specially-convened election court has found Mr. Woolas guilty of breaching the Representation of the People Act 1983. He’s been suspended from the Labour Party; there will apparently be a statement on Monday about his status as MP, but in the meantime his election has been declared void. He’s seeking a judicial review of the ruling, but the likelihood is that we’ll have to suffer another election. Apparently, one wasn’t enough. In the meantime, he’s barred from standing for parliament for three years. The odds are that his political career is effectively over.

He’s been found guilty of making false statements about the character and conduct of his Lib-Dem opponent, Elwyn Watkins. The charges were brought by Mr. Watkins, who was beaten in May by a margin of just 103. And, for all sorts of reasons, it’s troubling.

On the one hand, yes, the election campaign in this constituency was brutally negative. This was a Lib-Dem target seat and Mr. Watkins and his team pulled out all the stops to claw it from Mr. Woolas. Indeed, the Lib-Dem pamphlets and mailings were the first to get personal in their attacks on their opponents (God help me, I read all this stuff when it came through the letterbox). The Lib-Dem campaign, in fact, went negative less than 24 hours after the election was called. Among other things, they more than implied that Mr. Woolas’s parliamentary expenses claims were fraudulent, and that he was, therefore, a criminal; there were certainly a couple of claims made in error, but they were more or less certainly genuine mistakes. As the campaign went on, the accusations from both sides became wilder and wilder (since the Tory candidate was never going to win this seat – he finished trailing a fairly distant third – he managed to remain mostly above the fray.)  Mr. Woolas – and this is inexcusable – cynically played the race card in a constituency in which there is a very real racial divide, and tried to play on white fear of Muslim extremism by presenting Mr. Watkins as a candidate who had allegedly tried to woo the extremist vote, whatever that is. Disgusting and distasteful, yes – and I didn’t vote for Mr. Woolas – but also no less vicious than the crap printed by Mr. Watkins’ own team.

Beyond that, I have a bigger issue with the way all of this has played out. We had an election campaign, and it got very nasty indeed. Both sides sailed too close to the wind. We cast our votes, the votes were counted and then recounted twice, and there was a result. And then the loser – who had, himself, behaved appallingly badly during the campaign – lodged £5000 with the court himself to trigger the challenge. If anybody else had put up the money, I’d have less of a problem with it. As it is, whatever the rights and wrongs of who said what about whom, more than anything else this smacks of a bad loser throwing a fit because he didn’t win the prize.

And, in the end, it’s hard not to feel at least a little sorry for Phil Woolas. He fought a dirty campaign – but he did so against an opponent who also played fast and loose with the rules. He sometimes seemed to be out of his depth as a minister – Joanna Lumley wiped the floor with him over the Ghurka issue (justifiably, the government’s position was wrong, and insupportable – if we’re prepared to send people into battle on our behalf, we should be prepared to let them live here afterwards) – but he’s been a good, committed and genuinely caring constituency MP, and it shouldn’t give anyone any pleasure to see his career end in humiliation. It’s been particularly nauseating to watch the Labour Party drop him like a hot potato, and it’s been just as nauseating to watch Simon Hughes, the deputy leader of the Lib-Dems, effectively gloating on national television, as if his party’s candidate’s behaviour during the campaign was above reproach.

The big question now, of course, is what’s going to happen next. Mr. Woolas is seeking a judicial review, yes, but it’s more or less certain that we’re going to have another election, a prospect which I’m sure absolutely nobody, apart from Mr. Watkins, views with anything even slightly resembling joy. The Tories will have to pay for another campaign they’ve no hope of winning. Labour will have to find another candidate, who will have to run in a seat where the last Labour MP’s personal reputation has been shot down in flames in the national press. The Lib-Dems will have to run a by-election campaign when they’re rating far, far lower in opinion polls than they were in April, and try and sell their platform to an electorate that, in the centre and on the left, is increasingly mistrustful of the coalition that they themselves engineered. Mr. Watkins lost in May, and it’s by no means certain that he’ll win the rematch, whenever it’s called. He certainly won’t be getting my vote – and, yes, this time it *is* personal. There’s a certain delicious irony in Mr. Watkins using his own money to lodge a complaint that will lead to a by-election in which it’s very likely that he’ll be far more roundly defeated than he was the first time. Whoever Labour puts in to stand in Mr. Woolas’s place is quite likely to be returned to Parliament with a substantially increased majority. Sometimes, in politics, it’s better to let sleeping dogs lie.

103. Or, Elwyn Watkins: Big Girl’s Blouse

Just when you thought the election was finally over, and it was safe to look at the news again without keeping a barf bag next to the television, along comes this gem:

Losing candidate challenges Oldham election result

“Liberal Democrat Elwyn Watkins came second in Oldham East and Saddleworth on 7 May following two recounts. But he claims Labour leaflets contained misleading claims about his reputation and campaign and has begun a High Court bid to have the result quashed.”

Unfortunately, some of the story is missing from the BBC piece above. There’s a word for Mr. Watkins, and it isn’t “dignified”.

Since this is happening on my doorstep, I saw the campaign material that’s the bone of contention here – it came through my letterbox, along with leaflets from the Conservatives, UKIP, and a bunch of lobotomised baboons the BNP. In terms of demographics, this is an unusual constituency – a mixture of inner-city deprivation and wealthy rural villages/commuter belt, with a narrow strip of middle-class suburbia separating the two. The Conservatives, since the boundaries were redrawn 15 years or so ago, are never going to win this seat because the staunchly left-wing inner area core more than counterbalances the pockets of Tory loyalists further out in the villages. UKIP’s role in the election was essentially to inject levity by enabling us all to laugh at their touchingly delusional party leaders, and the BNP are a group of offensive, racist thugs whose party literature, when it dropped through my letterbox, went straight into the recycling bin (unfortunately their leaflets were printed on glossy paper, so I couldn’t flush them down the toilet where they belonged). So the contest, here, is between Labour and the Lib Dems, who hold a significant number of seats on the borough council, with the Tories placing a distant third.

This was not, in fact, one of the top thirty Lib Dem target seats this time around, but the campaign here, nevertheless, got very nasty. In the end, it was one of the ten closest election races in the UK, with Labour incumbent Phil Woolas holding on to the seat by just 103 votes. There were two recounts because the numbers were so close; this seat usually calls a winner at around 3.30am the morning after the election, but the results were not called until around 11.30am. At that point, one would have hoped that Mr. Watkins would at least have known how to lose gracefully – and indeed it seemed he did, for about ten minutes. But apparently the honeymoon period of his defeat is now over, and he’s suffered the hideous torment of not seeing his name printed in the Oldham Evening Chronicle (a newspaper so dire that they probably couldn’t get a camera to the Second Coming if it happened on Union Street outside their office building at lunchtime on a quiet Wednesday) for four whole days in a row. For as loudly mediocre a publicity whore as Mr. Watkins, that’s like crack withdrawal. Imagine what he’d be like if his name started appearing regularly in papers people actually read, that contain actual news. We’d have to build a new planet to house his head. If he succeeds in getting the result thrown out (unlikely, I would have thought), we’ll have to have a by-election. Whoopee.

I know, I know. I sound angry about this. I am angry about this. You see, I voted for Elwyn Watkins, holding my nose as I did so, and after having sworn, in the first week of the campaign, that I would not. I voted, for once, for a party far more than a person, as a deliberate statement, because I am convinced that this country needs major electoral reform, and I hoped, since it looked as if we would be heading for a hung parliament, that the Lib Dems would be in a position to force a referendum. And the reason why I held my nose as I voted for Mr. Watkins is, well, Mr. Watkins himself – he’s basically a gob on legs – and the election materials sent out by Mr. Watkins’ own campaign, which were downright obnoxious. As I said, the campaign here between Labour and the Lib Dems was nasty. Mr Watkins’ own campaign leaflets made some very unpleasant insinuations about Phil Woolas, particularly regarding Woolas’s parliamentary expenses claims, making a great deal out of minor irregularities in Woolas’s claims that were almost certainly the result of Woolas simply forgetting to highlight specific items on a couple of supermarket receipts. Not necessarily admirable, but it’s not as if Woolas claimed for a floating duck island, or mortgage interest on a loan that had already been repaid. The sums involved were minor, and Woolas’s claims were essentially within the rules that were in place at the time, with a (very) few minor aberrations which were probably genuine mistakes. And yet I got three separate Lib Dem campaign leaflets through my letterbox, each of which stopped just short of calling Mr. Woolas a criminal, and each of which was a masterpiece of half-truth, negative spin and innuendo.

And now Mr. Watkins – who, evidently, has approximately the same level of self-awareness as, say, Jeffrey Archer or Zsa Zsa Gabor – is loudly whining to anybody who will listen that Woolas’s win was unfair because Labour’s election materials in this constituency “contained numerous misleading and erroneous claims regarding my personal character and reputation, and that of my campaign”, which would be in contravention of the Representation of the People Act (1983). The righteous anger is impressive. Prick him with a needle, and you’ll get enough hot air to heat most of Lancashire for a couple of years. The act might even be convincing if he hadn’t shown us on the campaign trail that he’s all mouth and trousers.

Because hot air is all it is. I read all of the campaign material that came through the letterbox. Masochistic of me, I know, but I did. Labour’s leaflets pulled no punches, particularly regarding Mr. Watkins (they paid little attention to Kashif Ali, the Tory candidate, because the chance of his ever winning was similar to the chance that Simon Cowell might be human), but the most borderline-defamatory, vituperatively negative materials, bar none, that I received came from Elwyn Watkins and the local Lib Dems. And now he’s crying foul and trying to force a by-election, because he lost. There’s a word for that. There are lots of words for that, most of them quite short.

I suppose it’s too much to hope that the Lib Dem central office will step in and squash this idiot like a bug. He got my vote once. He won’t get it again.