She was only a grocer’s daughter, but she taught Sir Geoffrey Howe

I never voted for her.

No, not Meryl Streep. Margaret Thatcher. I wasn’t old enough to vote until the last two weeks she was in office, but I was certainly old enough to be aware of politics. I read newspapers, I had opinions, I wouldn’t have voted for her had the opportunity arisen. I didn’t vote for her successor, I’ve never voted for her party, I can’t imagine any circumstances in which I might be inclined to vote for her party, and my impression of her in what I suppose we must call her prime (an impression that was strongly reinforced when I worked at one of the book-signings for her memoirs and saw the haughty, dismissive way she treated her staff) was of a single-minded, imperious, ambitious, arrogant, generally rather unpleasant person whose wrong-headed social and economic reforms caused a great deal of damage.

I say this upfront because I’ve just seen The Iron Lady, Phyllida Lloyd‘s new film about Thatcher, and my response to it was not at all what I was expecting: I was moved.

That’s partly because the film presents us with a rather selective account of Mrs. Thatcher’s reign of terror. Screenwriter Abi Morgan shows us Mrs. Thatcher in present-day old age, struggling with memory lapses and the onset of dementia, never quite sure of the distinction between reality and recollection. The film offers a fractured chronology from which we piece together the influences that drove the young Margaret Roberts towards public service, the drive that propelled her into Downing Street, the defining moments of her terms in office, and, yes, the vicious arrogance that brought about her downfall.

Framing her political rise and fall in the context of the recollections of an elderly lady in less than complete control of her faculties has the interesting effect of ensuring that this is determinedly not simply a standard-issue one-woman’s-triumph-over-adversity biopic. Indeed, the film is written and directed by women, and takes great pains to position Mrs. Thatcher’s ascent as something other than a purely feminist narrative. Mrs. Thatcher famously disdained feminism, and during her years in office she surrounded herself almost entirely with male colleagues, promoting only one woman to the Cabinet; whatever your opinion of her, it’s impossible not to admire her achievement in breaking through the male hierarchy as she worked her way up through the party ranks, but she was not a feminist pioneer. She paved the way for herself, and only for herself, and women who have risen to the Cabinet after her have tended to find very different, less visibly combative ways of interacting with their male colleagues.

The use of this framing device also allows Lloyd and Morgan to give us what is probably the closest thing possible to an apolitical film about a woman who is now remembered as the single most divisive British political figure of the second half of the Twentieth Century. There is, for the most part, little sense of what Mrs. Thatcher’s platform was while she was in office, beyond election-stump soundbites about giving people the resources to help themselves/pull themselves up by the bootstraps/administer medicine to a sick economy and all the rest of it. We see rioting miners banging on the windows of her ministerial car, we get a brief explanation of the policy fiasco that was the Poll Tax, but we see little of, for example, the origins of the devastating 1984-5 miners’ strike, or of Mrs. Thatcher’s instigation of the wholesale privatisation of most of our nationalised industries, or the impact of the 1986 deregulation of the London stock market (a central strand in her programme of policy reform). We do see her decision to go to war with Argentina over the Falklands, and her giving the controversial order to sink the ARA General Belgrano, but there’s only the barest hint, here, of the massive fissures opened up in British society by legislation enacted by her government. Perhaps that’s as it should be in this particular narrative: Mrs. Thatcher once famously commented that “there’s no such thing as society”; in a film presented entirely from her point of view, it would be difficult to show the impact of her policies on something she was barely willing to perceive. And while the film certainly does not shrink from showing her almost messianic haughtiness, we are not shown the full extent of the irritable, demeaning way in which she treated her cabinet colleagues until very late in the film, in the bloodbath of a Cabinet meeting that prompted Sir Geoffrey Howe‘s notorious resignation speech.

What we do see, very strongly, is the root of Mrs. Thatcher’s steamroller-like ambition in her lower-middle-class upbringing, the single-mindedness with which she pursued her career, and the devastating, almost King Lear-like sense of loss that sinks in as she moves from a position of great power to a condition of great frailty. Meryl Streep‘s central performance is everything you’ve heard and more; she captures that distinctive voice eerily well, but her work here moves far beyond mere impersonation, and is considerably more than a simple above-the-title star turn, although it’s certainly a charismatic star performance. Through (or perhaps despite) the film’s fractured chronology, Streep offers an unflinching, astonishingly multifaceted portrayal of both the private and the public Mrs. Thatcher, and her performance, while appropriately cold where it needs to be, is surprisingly moving. She doesn’t act Mrs. Thatcher so much as inhabit her, there’s no sense at all of either caricature or satire (difficult to avoid when playing a controversial political figure whose vocal and physical mannerisms are as, let’s say, defined as Mrs. Thatcher’s), and the overall effect is quite breathtaking. Alexandra Roach as the younger Mrs. Thatcher matches Streep gesture for gesture; the best compliment I can give is that they are giving, essentially, the same performance, and that between them their performance has a depth that Morgan’s screenplay, strong as it generally is, sometimes slightly lacks.

But then, the rest of the performances are equally faultless. Aside from Streep and Roach, the acting honours go to Anthony Head‘s quiet, subtle evocation of Sir Geoffrey Howe,  and to Olivia Colman‘s shrewd, surprisingly sympathetic, slightly resentful take on Thatcher’s daughter Carol. Jim Broadbent, appearing entirely in flashbacks and as hallucinations as Mrs. Thatcher’s husband Denis, is absolutely charming and possibly slightly misused; he’s the closest thing the film has to comic relief (aside from one big laugh that comes in a scene in which Mrs. Thatcher rips US Secretary of State Alexander Haig a new asshole over his reluctance to support her Falklands campaign, then smilingly offers to pour him a cup of tea with the words “Shall I be mother?”), but the flashback structure means that there are limits to how far the film can explore the dynamic of their marriage, which I suspect had to have been considerably more complex than the picture we’re given here.

Overall? It’s an impressive film, but not a perfect one. Phyllida Lloyd, in only her second film, gets superlative performances from her large supporting cast as well as from her star. The camera moves far more confidently than it did in Mamma Mia, and she handles the transitions between the present, the flashbacks and the elderly Mrs. Thatcher’s confused hallucinations quite stylishly. If there’s the occasional directorial flourish too far – the carpet of rose petals and operatic soundtrack as Mrs. Thatcher leaves Number 10 for the last time as Prime Minister are a little much – this is still, overall, a very strong piece of direction, far stronger than I expected given her rather rudimentary work on her first outing behind the camera. The screenplay is occasionally a step or two behind what a British audience already knows about the events it portrays – when we see Airey Neave drive his car up the ramp of the Palace of Westminster’s underground car-park, we know exactly what is going to happen next – but that’s probably inevitable in any film about such a well-known political figure, and it does a far better job than, say, the BBC’s perfectly fine TV film Margaret managed in showing the astonishing inner force that enabled Margaret Roberts, chemistry graduate from Grantham, to turn herself into an iconic world leader. And while there are certainly significant omissions in terms of how much the film  chooses to show of the effect Mrs. Thatcher had on her country, that’s probably inevitable: there’s far more material here than could ever be packed into two hours or so of screen time, however talented the people involved. Lloyd, Morgan and Streep never sugar-coat their subject; they didn’t exactly make me like their Mrs. Thatcher, but their sensitive, compassionate portrayal of her plight in old age is certainly moving, and Streep’s amazing, possibly career-best performance must be seen by anyone with even a passing interest in screen acting.

Still wouldn’t vote for her, though. I mean Thatcher, not Streep. After this – I’m not always a fan – I’m prepared to believe Meryl Streep can do very nearly anything. If only she’d been in power during the miners’ strike.

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More Separated at Birth…

Warning: you may need a discomfort bag.

Fit the first:

Oh, sweet mystery of life, at last I’ve found you. And now I have to gouge my eyes out.

Fit the second:

One way or another, she’s gonna find ya, she’s gonna getcha getcha getcha getcha…

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.

Please wait while the machine checks which decade you’re in…

Meet Ben Nelson. He’s 69 years old, and is one of two Senators representing Nebraska.  He looks a little bit confused here, doesn’t he?

It’s not entirely surprising. The modern world, it seems, is a place in which Senator Nelson chooses not to live. There is currently, in the US, an ongoing debate about legislating a cap on ATM fees – the charges you pay when you use an ATM from a bank other than your own, or a private white-label ATM that’s unaffiliated with any financial institution. Senator Nelson was asked for a quote on the subject by a journalist from his local newspaper, the Omaha World-Herald, and his response, to anybody who lives a life that’s, well, anything resembling normal, will seem a little surprising. Senator Nelson, at 69 years of age, has never used an ATM. Ever. He says he understands the holograms, though… except by ‘holograms’ he means ‘barcodes’. Never mind.

His senate colleague Mike Johanns is almost as confused. At 59, he’s a decade younger; he admits to having used ATM machines fewer than five times in his life – an oddly specific answer, you might think, but I suppose if you engage in a particular activity that infrequently you’ll remember each time as if it was your first. Or something.

Quite how you get to age 59 having only used an ATM five times, though, is entirely another question. Getting to age 69 without ever using one beggars belief. Getting through life without ever using a bank machine constitutes the kind of exercise in avoiding dealing with the world that should win several awards and be made into a documentary. It’s the sort of achievement that those of us with normal, humdrum lives view with awe and wonder. I mean, really, being able to spend your entire life on a plane of existence that far removed from normality deserves at least a round of applause, if not a standing ovation.

Except, of course, they’re elected representatives, and their job is to represent the interests of their constituents in the Senate. Doing that job necessitates having at least a basic understanding of the processes of everyday life. If Senator Nelson is so out of touch that he’s managed to live almost seven decades without familiarising himself with something as ordinary as a bank machine, then he’s in the wrong line of work.