Tuesday, 24 March 2009

St. George's Day doesn't have to be all about football and skinheads

I was struck the other day by an extraordinary, though admittedly rather odd similarity between two characters that will be familiar to Britons of all ages. Giants of popular culture; they're both yellow, rather portly, a little thick, have an obsession with snacking, and manage to be somehow both annoying and lovable at the same time. Who could I possibly be referring to? Yes I'm afraid it's my old friend Winnie-the-Pooh. And Homer J. Simpson.

Well don't look at me, I told you it was odd. But it does go beyond them both being fat, stupid and yellow... trust me. Consider this. Like Homer, Pooh's gluttony frequently gets him into tight spots (such as Rabbit's rabbit-hole), and he often breaks off, mid-conversation, to fantasise about or look for food. In Eeyore Loses a Tail (1926), for example, Pooh is in Owl's house, who is devising a plan to help find the missing appendage...

"We write a notice to say that we will give a large something to anyone who finds Eeyore's tail".
"I see, I see," said Pooh, nodding his head. "Talking about large somethings," he went on dreamily, "I generally have a small something about now - about this time in the morning," and he looked wistfully at the cupboard in the corner of Owl's parlour; "just a mouthful of condensed milk or what-not, perhaps with a lick of honey-"
"Well then," said Owl, "we write out this notice, and we put it up all over the Forest."
"A lick of honey," murmered Bear to himself, "or - or not, as the case may be".

Pooh then proceeds to follow Owl's conversation without a single clue over what is being said, giving generic responses along the lines of 'yes' and 'no' intermittently. Remind you of anybody?

In another story, Piglet and Pooh decide they are going to catch a Heffalump, using the last of Pooh's honey as bait in the trap they have set. In the middle of the night however, Pooh decides that he can't take it anymore and proceeds to get his honey back. Finding the jar, he realises that actually, he'd eaten most of the honey anyway so sticks his head into it to get to the bottom. The next morning, Piglet goes to check on the trap, believing he could hear a Heffalump inside. Scared, he calls for Christopher Robin, who in a fit of laughter realises that - in typical Simpsons style - the 'Heffalump' is in fact Pooh, ramming himself into a tree root, desperately trying to remove the honey pot from his head.

Am I seriously suggesting, I hear you cry, that Matt Groening subconsciously stole Winnie-the-Pooh's character? Perhaps. Winnie-the-Pooh was probably fairly popular in America to have been adapted at all. Pooh is, of course much more well-spoken than Homer, despite also being, by his own admission, "of very little brain"; but then that's because he's English, not American. And that's just the point isn't it? The world may be more familiar with Walt Disney's corruption of Milne's creation, but this giant of children's literature, in his original form, encapsulates so much of that traditional Englishness. Bumbling, well-mannered, a bit on the cheeky side perhaps but overall a lovable scamp... Not entirely unlike the current Mayor of London in fact, who I incidentally have already compared to Winnie-the-Pooh on these very pages.

Yes, you were right to have faith. This piece had to be moving somewhere. Boris Johnson has of course announced that he's going to give St. George's Day a proper send-off this year in London with a boon of official events celebrating hundreds of years of English culture throughout the week. And it's about time. We seem to be curiously cautious about our identity here in England at a time where our fellow islanders in Scotland and Wales are seeing a renaissance in theirs. And yet, in doing so we've enabled the crazies and the ruffians to hijack this rich and diverse tapestry, and in no way more than the cross of St. George itself. The English flag may adorn the top of every single Anglican church in the land, but somehow we've allowed it become more representative of football hooligans and knuckle-scraping racists. The very fact that even Billy Bragg is in agreement with me here demonstrates the urgency with which this needs to be addressed.

In fretting over ridiculous things such as whether muslims might be offended by a symbol of the crusades (which frankly, has to be offensive to the good sense of English muslims) we've forgotten that England, and its flag, can be just as much about Winnie-the-Pooh and Gillray, Elizabeth I and Shakespeare, Christopher Wren and Charles II, Jeeves & Wooster, Gladstone & Disraeli, Dickens and Darwin, Morecambe & Wise, John Lennon and Jarvis Cocker. Not only is England the absolute mother of all parliaments, not only did we bring trade and prosperity to the far corners of the earth and risk it all to free Europe from tyranny (twice); but it's hardly a stretch to say that we damn well have the finest comedians and musicians on the globe right now. The Americans would certainly testify to that - English bands and sitcoms have seldom seen such a enormous wave of popularity in the States, in a climate which we've become far more accustomed to it being the other way round. Cultural hegemony my fanny.

So I say break the habit of a lifetime everybody and stick St. George's Day on your calendars this year. It's April 23, which you'll of course already know happens to be William Shakespeare's birthday (I knew none of these things before today). After all, England's given a hell of a lot to the world, and we've very openly received a lot in return. So I think it's about time we started to feel good about the fact. All of us. And maybe even have a barbeque or something to celebrate. Yeah, barbeque. Cumberland sausage, anyone?

Monday, 9 March 2009

The surveillance state we're in

This Saturday your correspondent laid back after work - feet up, shoulders relaxed, and a plate of feta by his side for a quiet peruse through the Guardian weekend edition. And he was angry. Real angry. You know, blood pressure high, heart doing star jumps, steam out of the ears...the whole shebang. Hellenic dairy products were flung, plates crashed against the wall in the tradition of this fine cheese's home turf... Okay I didn't quite go that far. But what was it that so infuriated this laid back, jazz-tapping model of Tory serenity? Arthur Scargill dribbling tripe about the Miner's Strike? Polly Toynbee shrieking half-baked demands for proportional representation? (I do actually support the latter, but only on the provision of a strong executive - yep, that means a president folks!).

No, these trivial yet irritatingly mistaken points illicit only chuckles, or withering despair at best. What really ground my gears, as I imagine it did many a Guardian hack, was the story burning through the front page. It's a perfect example of the kind of issue that ought to unite both left and right of sensible British politics, though in practice it rarely does - namely, Labour's wholesale destruction and mangling of our civil liberties.

The investigation launched by the paper allegedly reveals that 'Police are targeting thousands of political campaigners in surveillance operations and storing their details on a database for at least seven years'. Now, I say allegedly, but this writer remembers very vividly, back in his half-arsed lefty-student days, watching police videorecord and photograph protesters at the 2005 May Day march whilst deliberately spooking kids they'd already 'looked into' by using their first names in speaking to them. Naturally, wise marchers like myself wore bandannas over our faces for that very reason, which gives me hope that I myself am not filed away on this assiduous exercise in voyeurism.

But that is not the most shocking revelation of the report. That the police are so diligently cataloging scruffy, idealistic lefty types is sadly not all that surprising - these people fit the bill perfectly for 'potentially dangerous' individuals to the narrow-minded and paranoid mindset the police so frequently employ. After all, they don't look quite right do they? And why are they out on the streets marching when they could be doing it on the Wii at home?

What does, however, really send shock-waves thundering down to the very foundation of our democracy is that the police appear to be specifically targeting journalists in their observations. Whether these people are part of the protest or merely doing their job and investigating activists' views, they somehow manage to command the full attention of the force whenever they waver into the view of that sinister lens, according to the Guardian's report.

What's so angering and just plain old nail-bitingly scary about all this is that both journalists and protesters are being treated as social deviants and potential criminals simply for engaging in 'activities' that are (a) accepted and (I had thought) encouraged in a healthily functioning democracy and (b) part of the very fabric of human nature itself. Yet here we see the journalist's natural sense of curiosity questioned, their inquisitive role in the workings of the free press treated with suspicion. For the protester, their very need to express themselves on issues which concern them is given a disapproving eye, treated almost as though it were an abomination to the species. It makes one think, childish as it sounds, that perhaps the police are not so satisfied in enforcing the law as much as social conformity and thought processes. After all, if you've nothing to hide you've nothing to fear, right Jacqui? Yeh Blunky?

It's interesting that I find myself speaking out on this issue much as I would have all those years ago - that red moaning minnie that I've come to loathe so much. But this really is something that affects us all. Under Labour, this country seems to have become increasingly enthusiastic about treating good, law-abiding citizens as though they were dangerous threats to national security. These recent revelations come shortly after Jacqui Smith - the very latest in New Labour's long pedigree of nut-job, Stalin-esque Home Secretaries - announced her dream of an enormous government database storing text messages, emails, internet traffic and phone calls. All with the appropriate safeguards in place, you must understand.

But the central point to all this madness is thus - whether or not you believe these 'appropriate safeguards' actually mean anything (and let's face it - given the incompetence of our civil service they equate to precisely d**k), irrespective of whether you think Labour are mutilating our constitution with the best possible intentions, and entirely disregarding whether or not you think they can be trusted with this god-like responsibility upon their shoulders; the very nature of a democracy - hell, any state - is that there is absolutely no way of knowing for sure who is going to inherit all that information in the future.

How pleased do you think Hitler would have been to have found all leading 'trouble-makers', protesters and journalists conveniently gathered together with their personal details in one government database when he took office in 1933? Or how much bother do you think we could have saved the Bolsheviks and their army of Cheka spies if the Provisional Government had left them a handy device recording peoples' every correspondence when they seized power in 1917? I'm sure Ayatollah Khomeini would've had a far easier time butchering his opponents in 1979 if only he'd had all that at his fingertips. They included anyone who happened to disagree with him by the way - from revolutionary communists to moderate Muslims and middle-class democrats.


It only takes one crisis, with only one group of well-organised and fanatical nut-jobs willing to exploit it (one of which is making remarkable electoral progress in local British politics) and then that's it. It's over. Your rights, your freedoms, your very ability to think for yourself. Gone. You may even be one of the many that find their way into a concentration camp or simply shot dead where they stand (a ride on the Tube, anybody?).

In Russia, as in Germany and more recently Iran, these seizures of power brought forth human tragedies on an unprecedented scale. With the surveillance powers currently enjoyed by the Government and security services, these people would have been able to eliminate any opposition overnight. The 'Night of Long Knives' and Kristallnacht would have looked like nativity plays in comparison. With the mind-bending proposals Jacqui 'Insanity' Smith is currently putting forward, they could ensure that it never, ever, ever surfaces again. And that, my friends, is what you call a real Orwellian Nightmare.