JOHN ARLOTT – BASINGSTOKE REBEL

Lately, for a reason that may be coincidence or the result of cosmic forces I don’t understand, there seems to be a renewed interest in a man called John Arlott. An old TV show of him in conversation with cricketer Mike Brearleys was repeated, a documentary about him was on Radio 4 and I even got to mention him in my radio series, in the show about his home town of Basingstoke.

Arlott is especially loved within Basingstoke. This may not be all that flattering as, on the Wikipedia page about Basingstoke, under ‘Culture’, it says “An episode of Top Gear was once filmed in Basingstoke.”

The town has its connections with celebrity. Liz Hurley is from there, and her mum was a primary school teacher. I spoke to someone who was in her class, who told how Mrs. Hurley proudly addressed the whole school in an assembly once, suggesting they all stayed up to watch her actress daughter who was appearing in her first television role that night. So Basingstoke’s 7-11-year-olds all got permission to stay up late, then stared in awe as Liz rolled around topless for a scene or two, after which Mrs. Hurley never spoke of the matter again.

Sarah Ferguson is also from the area, as is Tara Palmer-Tompkinson, so the place is almost a factory for posh useless women.

But even Mrs. Hurley would have to accept that the most compelling character to emerge from the town was Arlott, despite never being a celebrity, and who died 20 years ago in the Channel Islands.

I first encountered him through his cricket commentary, when I was about eight years old, fascinated by his voice, not just gravely but rattly, like a broken lawnmower or a washing machine on the spin cycle when a pound coin’s slipped inside.

In this croaky burr he once replied to a co-commentator who’d said “And as the sun sets in the West I hand you over to John Arlott”, by saying “And you can rest assured that if the sun sets anywhere other than the West, I’ll be the first to let you know.”

There was something in his tone that suggested he was aware with every ball he was describing, he was part of a wider world. It seemed he might say at any moment ‘So England are 125 for 3 and there’s just time to initiate a debate on the Vietnam War before Dennis Lille resumes from the Vauxhall End.”

You might assume a cricket commentator’s role in making an impact on international affairs would be limited. But later I learned of Arlott’s role in defeating apartheid. In the 1960s a South African player, Basil D’Oliviera, was classified under apartheid law as Cape Coloured. Despite, or perhaps because of playing on rugged patches of ground he was a tremendous batsman and bowler, but with no prospect of playing professionally due to the race laws.

So he was advised to contact an English cricket commentator known to be an anti-racist, who may be able to find him a place in the English game. Arlott read his letters and arranged for D’Oliviera to come to England, and secured him a place in the Lancashire League. Eventually D’Oliviera was selected for the England side, so all was cheery until England were due to play in South Africa. In England’s last game before the tour, D’Oliviera was impertinent enough to score 158 so his selection was secured, but the South African government made it clear they wouldn’t waive their apartheid laws to let him play in a whites-only environment. So the English selectors got round the problem by saying they weren’t picking him anyway, as they didn’t think he was good enough.

I’ve often wondered how the meeting went that decided this. “Hmm, his trouble is he tends to struggle when he’s on 158.” “Yes and he won’t be suited to playing in South Africa, coming as he does from South Africa, where the conditions are very different.” “Yes and you can never trust the temperament of a player whose first name is a herb. That’s why we never picked Oregano Duckworth.”

When the news came through that the English selectors had taken the decision to leave D’Oliviera out of the team, the South African parliament erupted into wild celebrations. The English cricket establishment wasn’t just acting out of cowardice, many of them were ardent supporters of apartheid. For example Alec Bedser, later the chair of selectors, became a member of the National Association of Freedom, that campaigned against the boycott of the apartheid regime.

Arlott wrote and spoke with fury about this behaviour, and eventually when the player selected in place of D’Oliviera became injured, the selectors had to pick Arlott’s man. The South African government announced they wouldn’t let him in the country, so the tour was cancelled and South Africa were banned from taking part in international cricket until the end of apartheid over 20 years later.

Arlott’s role in this episode was a reflection of his place as a strident English liberal. On the one hand, his journey through Basingstoke Grammar School, after which he became a policeman, journalist, commentator and then wine critic, suggest he was a dependable member of the establishment.

But one peculiarity of Britain’s history is the empire was justified as a method of exporting the British sense of fair play and justice to its colonies. This was a dubious claim, as if the whole project was undertaken to teach manners to the natives, but throughout the upper levels of the education system, from Grammar schools to Eton, some students took this at face value. For those like Arlott, if ‘fair play’ was flouted, they saw it as their duty to speak out and put it right, in the manner of the uniquely defiant English middle class rebel.

In Arlott’s case he became an official Liberal, campaigning for the party from his youth onwards. This may be why three programmes were made for the BBC in the early nineteen-eighties, in which Arlott and England captain Mike Brearley sat chatting aimlessly to each other while drinking wine in front of a pile of dusty books. Brearley had joined the SDP, the new party that broke from Labour, and at one point launched into a question that lasted around three minutes, along the lines of ‘Given that the hitherto perceived impregnable structural divisions in society…….. and reappraisal of…. advancing towards revised orthodoxy……., is this an apt moment, in your view, for a new party such as the SDP?”

Arlott stared into the middle distance for a moment, swirled his wine round his glass and said slowly “Chateau Mouton 1958 – very good wine for politics.”

He could employ a similar disdain in his cricket commentary. For a while he was on television, and seemed to work on the basis that as you could see what was happening there was no point in him saying anything at all. Once, when a player was bowled, the batsman walked off the pitch, was replaced by a new batsman, and Arlott said nothing. He said such nothing I was convinced the set had broken and started haranguing my mum to call the repair man and tell him the sound had gone. Then, as the new batsman was about to receive his first ball, came a barely audible gruff sound – ‘That’s bowled him’.

But if there’s one story from his life that by itself summarises his character, it may be the one I came across while reading his biography ‘Basingstoke Boy’ as research for the radio show. Arlott was asked, in his mid-forties, as a prominent broadcaster, to speak at a Basingstoke Grammar School Old Boys’ Dinner, and toast the health of his old headmaster, Mister Percivall.

Arlott was a little surprised, as he’d always expressed a dislike for his old master, and describes him as “A man who enjoyed caning, carrying his heavy bamboo cane, thick as his thumb and three feet long, down the hem of his gown. He would survey the offender through partly closed eyes, then order ‘Get down’, then administer three or four powerful strokes. Most victims would fall forward, staggering through the fifth-form room, where friends would run water over their heads or hold them as they vomited.”

But the secretary of the Old Boys’ Association was aware of Arlott’s feelings, and said “We’d like you to say what you thought of him.” So this was his toast, delivered to a packed room over dinner….

“Gentlemen, allow me to recall a single moment in the life of the subject of this toast. One day in 1929 I was sent to his room to receive the inevitable. In cowardly fashion I hid behind the coats. After a few moments I saw a frail, timid, twelve-year-old named Woodcock come into the room. It was clearly his first time. Presently Percivall’s asthmatic wheezing could be heard, and the door shook in its frame as he came in and slammed it shut.

He saw Woodcock and said ‘Why have you been sent here’?

‘Talking, sir’.

‘Then we shall have to teach you not to talk, shan’t we, Woodcock?’

‘Yes sir’.

‘Get down, Woodcock’.

The boy got down, Percivall gave the cane a few preliminary swishes and brought it down. Woodcock stood and the cane hit the back of his legs. ‘That didn’t count’, Woodcock, get down again’.

He got down and this time the cane landed squarely across his ass. Then more strokes across this wisp of a boy, who lay on the floor, weeping.

‘Stand up, I’ve told you already, that didn’t count’.

Eventually Percivall turned him over gently with his foot. ‘Get up Woodcock, you fool’.

I remained unseen, which meant unpunished. And that, gentlemen, is an accurate eye-witness account of a happening that, until now, neither of the people concerned were aware was seen by anyone else. That may remind you, gentlemen, of the headmaster whose toast is now proposed, Charles W Percivall.”

Arlott adds “The toast was drunk in a mutter, Mr Percivall did not reply, left hastily and never returned.

And at close of play England were 187 for 5.

WHETHER THERE’S A GOD AND STUFF

For some reason my column didn’t appear in the Independent today, so if your Christmas has been ruined by that, all is well as here it is……..

Having followed the latest debate about religion I’d say the conclusion is obvious, that the only thing as disturbing as the religious is the modern atheist.

I’d noticed this before, after I was slightly critical of Richard Dawkins and received piles of fuming replies, that made me think what his followers would like is to scientifically create an eternity in laboratory conditions so they could burn me there for all of it.

It’s not the rationality that’s alarming, it’s the smugness. Instead of trying to understand religion, if the modern atheist met a peasant in a village in Namibia he’d shriek “Of course GOD didn’t create light, it’s a mixture of waves and particles you idiot it’s OBVIOUS.”

The connection between the religious and the modern atheist was illustrated following the death of atheist Christopher Hitchens, when it was reported that “Tributes were led by Tony Blair.” I know you can’t dictate who leads your tributes, and it’s probable that when Blair’s press office suggested he made one to someone who’d passed on he said “Oh which dictator I used to go on holiday with has died NOW?”

But the commendation was partly Hitchens’s fault. Because the difference between the modern atheist and the Enlightenment thinkers who fought the church in the eighteenth century is back then they didn’t make opposition to religion itself their driving ideology. They opposed the lack of democracy justified by the idea that a King was God’s envoy on earth, and they wished for a rational understanding of the solar system, rather than one based on an order ordained by God, that matched the view everyone in society was born into a fixed status.

But once you make it your primary aim to refute the existence of God you can miss what’s really fundamental altogether. For example, the ex-canon of St. Pauls, presumably a believer unless he managed to fudge the issue in the interview, was on the radio this week expressing why he resigned in support for the protestors outside his old cathedral. He spoke with inspiring compassion, but was interrupted by an atheist who declared the Christian project is doomed because we’re scientifically programmed to look after ourselves at the expense of anyone else. So the only humane rational scientific thought to have was “GO Christian, GO, Big up for the Jesus posse.”

Similarly Hitchens appears to have become obsessed with defying religion, so made himself one of the most enthusiastic supporters for a war he saw as being against the craziness of Islam. But the war wasn’t about God or Allah, it was about more earthly matters, which the people conducting that war understood. And as that war became predictably disastrous they were grateful for whatever support they could find. And so a man dedicated to disproving GOD was praised in his death by the soppiest sickliest most irrational hypocritical Christian of them all.

So the only thing I know for certain is that I would become a Christian, if I could just get round the fact that there is no GOD.

Wheelchairs and coppers and stuff

This is the original version of my article about Jody Mcintyre being deposited out of his wheelchair, but it was a bit too long so the newspaper had to take a bit out (what a cheek, they could have not had a crossword that day instead).

The police like to set their public relations department a special Christmas challenge, don’t they?

Because the only explanation for them being filmed on the anti-fees demonstration, chucking a disabled man out of his wheelchair and shoving him along the road, is so they can enjoy telling their PR team “Stick a positive spin on that for us could you?”

Ben Brown of the BBC tried his best, when he interviewed Jody Mcintyre, the man who was dislodged, and said aggressively “There’s a suggestion that you were rolling in the direction of the police.” Now, let’s suppose this was the case (which I can’t help but doubt), how much physical force is needed, I wonder, to stop a man with cerebral palsy who keeps rolling, even when asked to stop?

Presumably the police turned to each other in shock, spluttering “Oh my God he’s rolling straight for us. These riot shields and helmets with visors offer woefully inadequate protection against such a persistent rolling machine. If we’re lucky our batons can buy us SOME time, but his momentum is terrifying, it’s like a cerebral palsy tsunami.”

Maybe this is how to win in Afghanistan, we recruit a Multiple Sclerosis battalion to roll mercilessly through Helmund Province and the Taliban will run away shrieking in fear.

Or perhaps a police spokesman will say “When we spotted Mr. Mcintyre we had every reason to believe he may have been Stephen Hawking, in which case he may have been planning to fiddle with time and send our officers back to the Battle of Trafalgar, which could have been extremely dangerous, so we took the precautions necessary to avoid that risk.”

Even as they showed the film on the news, Ben Brown said it “APPEARED to show Mr. Mcintyre being pulled from his wheelchair”, with a lingering ambiguous ‘appeared’, as if he was going to add “But it turned out to be a stunt staged by Derren Brown. We were misled by the power of suggestion, and when you look more closely you can see it’s a butterfly landing on a petal.”

This process started on the day of the demonstration, when live footage of mounted police charging into the crowd and swinging batons was accompanied by a reporter saying “It looks as if the crowd are getting restless.”

This is a common disorder amongst news reporters, that ought to have a name such as “Confused Baton Charge Back-to-Front Bashed and Basher Syndrome.” Sufferers would make novel boxing commentators, saying “Audley Harrison is lashing out with tremendous aggression there as he stares with a blank concussed expression into the paramedic’s torch.”

They might also consider Alfie Meadows, who was so restless he ended up in Chelsea hospital in a critical condition, having a brain operation after being whacked with a police truncheon.

It’s also emerged that when he arrived there, the police insisted he should be taken somewhere else as that hospital was only to be used by their officers. So there seems to be a misunderstanding of how hospitals work, with the Metropolitan Police under the impression they have the same system as restaurants. So you arrive unconscious, then a porter says “Do you have a reservation?” But if it’s busy you get told “I’m sorry sir, we’re fully booked this evening. The police have taken all three wards I’m afraid, but if you survive the night you’re welcome to see if we’ve a brain surgeon available tomorrow.”

And yet most coverage of the demonstration has surrounded the violence of the students. Maybe this is because most reporters and politicians believe with such fervour the police are innately honourable, and demonstrators are troublesome, they can’t help but see such a one-sided view.

But imagine the uproar if a policeman had needed a brain operation after being hit by a student, or if students announced that following recent events they were investigating getting a water canon, or that a reporter might angrily ask Camilla “But there’s been a suggestion you were rolling towards the demonstrators.”

Or maybe the incident with Jody Mcintyre is nothing to do with students, and this is the new test for anyone on disability benefit. The police sling you on the floor, poke you about a bit, and if you manage to roll anywhere there’s clearly nothing wrong with you and you get your payments cut.

How I Spent an Afternoon

The Guardian Guide asked me, in that way these publications do, to write a list of ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’ this Christmas. So I wrote them out as little verses to fit the original song. And that is the magnificently pointless way I dribbled an afternoon away. So here it is…..

This Christmas, there are….
Reasons to be cheerful – one, two, three

Shaun Ryder looking splendid
The boiler getting mended
X Factor has ended,

Student demonstrations
Thatcher’s palpitations
Graham Swann’s variations

Stilton smelling rotten
Palace off the bottom
James Naughtie’s moment that he’d wish forgotten,
Reasons to be cheerful part three

Dawkins not believing
Ricky Ponting seething
Shane McGowan still breathing

Blair getting hounded
Camilla so astounded
Nothing Gordon Brown did

A single malt’s aroma
A ‘Hmmmmmmm doughnuts’ from Homer
Ariel Sharon still in a coma
Reasons to be cheerful one two three…….

Those pesky people from the IDF

Somehow, the Chilcot Inquiry has become like Big Brother. About once a month it pops up as a small item in the news and you think “Oh blimey, I didn’t realise that was still going on.”

Even when John Prescott described the evidence his government went to war on as “Tittle-tattle” no one took much notice. Before long, like Big Brother, they’ll come up with stunts to try and revive some interest. So they’ll reintroduce contestants from previous inquiries such as Martin McGuinness and Christine Keeler, or make some witnesses complete a task of finding hidden ping pong balls in the room or they have to give evidence blindfold.

So it might seem these procedures are pointless, in which case it makes no difference that the Israelis have agreed to co-operate with a United Nations inquiry, into the episode in which nine people died after the Israeli Defence Force went aboard the Mavi Marmara as it sailed towards Gaza.

But it seemed to matter to the Israelis, because until this week they insisted their own inquiry was sufficient, and that was already under way.

One fact emerging from this process was that the victims, according to ‘Sgt. S’ who shot six of them “Were without a doubt terrorists.” And he produced evidence to back this up, which was “I could see the murderous rage in their eyes.”

This matches the classic definition of a terrorist according to international law, as someone “With murderous rage in their eyes”, and shows the key witness in any terrorist trial isn’t the forensics expert or explosives analyst but an optician. If they’re trained well enough they can shine a light at the iris and tell whether you’re short-sighted, long-sighted, Hamas or Basque separatist.

But there was more. According to the Jersusalem Post the IDF told the inquiry the group on the boat were “Well-trained and likely ex-military” because “Each squad of the mercenaries was equipped with a Motorola communication advice, so they could pass information to one another.” A Motorola communication advice? So these so called peace-activists were armed with mobile phones! It’s a wonder the whole Middle-East wasn’t set alight. And to think Motorola and other sinister arms dealers such as Nokia and Orange go round trading in this deadly merchandise quite openly.

If the IDF were asked to police a rock festival, at the moment when everyone used their mobiles to take a photo they’d open fire on the whole crowd, then once 3,000 were dead Sgt.S would say “Well done boys, if we hadn’t been so careful that could have turned quite nasty.”

One possible difficulty in proving the optically murderous gang’s intent could be that none of them had guns. But the IDF dealt with that by saying the ‘mercenaries’ preferred to use “Bats, metal bars and knives, since opening fire would have made it blatantly clear they were terrorists and not peace activists.”

So this was another cunning trick of the terrorists, to disguise the fact they were terrorists by not doing anything terrorist. My neighbour’s much the same; disguising her terrorism by being seventy-four and spending all day peacefully doing the garden without ever shooting anyone, the evil witch.

Even more blatantly, the inquiry was told the group did have guns on board, but “The mercenaries threw their weapons overboard after the commandos took control of the vessel.” Because that’s classic guerrilla training, to carry guns right up until the moment when the enemy arrives, and then throw them away. This is the strategy of all great military thinkers.

That’s why Nelson, at the Battle of Trafalgar said “Men, I see the French, and so let every Englishmen do his duty, and chuck all our weapons in the sea. That’ll teach the bastards.” On and on this goes, with Prime Minister Netanyahu making it clear he agrees with it, himself calling the victims “Mercenaries.” Because these mercenaries were trying to get goods such as medicine to an area that’s under a blockade, which is typical mercenary behaviour, except instead of gun-running they were inhaler-running.

But bit by bit Israel is finding it has to answer for itself publicly, and the old excuses are not so easily accepted. From now on they’ll have to put a bit more thought into their bollocks, which has got to be for the good.

THERE’S NO NEED FOR THAT

I swear these are the words I just heard, from a woman sat behind me on the train from Victoria to Crystal Palace. She’d just finished a phone call, and said to her friend in a VERY loud and shrill voice “Every time he sees his ex-girlfriend there’s trouble. She’s only gone and hit him on the head right where he had the operation. Then because he couldn’t have sex she’s got him viagra and it’s made him have a fit. I’m sick of her.”

STRANGE MESSAGE IN THE MAIL

Occasionally I find a message has been sent to this website from an unexpected source, and curiosity gets the better of me. A while ago I was invited to a conference in Kazakhstan to a debate on the world economy with John Bolton, the man with the bushy moustache who was chief of something or other for George W Bush. This was so magnificently surreal that if I didn’t have a family or a radio series to attend to I’d have been straight over there, hastily swotting on the effects of the free market on Tanzanian farmers as we chugged over a desert on whatever spluttery contraption was offered as the pride of Kazakhstani Airlines.

A few weeks ago I was invited to speak to a group of humanists in the Isle of Man, and there was an offer to debate that men were better than women on Qatari television. So at times my messages appear to be the transcript of a dream. I wouldn’t be surprised to find one saying “Dear Mark, my name is General Custer and I would love you to knit a sweater for my porcupine as it got eaten at the battle of Little Big Horn. You’ll recognise me as I look like your old headmaster.”

This morning I find someone called Richard Waghorne has written to me “I am getting in touch from the Daily Mail and I am hoping to speak to you about your Glastonbury appearance in 2005.”

Anyone with a notion of common sense would have immediately deleted this message, gone to make a pot of tea and forgotten it had been sent by the time the kettle boiled. But that bastard curiosity got to me. What can have emerged about my show from five years ago at Glastonbury festival that has upset the Daily Mail? Are they under the impression my show was a diversion so we could use the tent to smuggle in 150,000 Lithuainian asylum seekers who posed as the audience? Have they been told my show included a series of extended pirouettes and yet at the time I was claiming invalidity benefit?

So I rang Mr. Waghorne, told him I was calling as he’d asked me to ring and he said “Ah, remind me what it was about. I’ve been rather busy today.”

“Glastonbury”, I said, “You asked me about my appearance at Glastonbury in 2005. I’m intrigued as to why this is of any interest.”

“Oh yes”, he said, “You were on a platform with Derek Simpson of the Unite union were you not?”

This changed matters for several reasons.

Firstly I can only vaguely remember being on some sort of panel in the Leftfield tent, which I think was organised by Unite Against Fascism but I’m not sure, and have no idea whether Derek Simpson was there or not. And secondly because huge beeping noises and red flashing lights went off in every corner of my head while a blinding neon sign screamed “DAILY MAIL – UNIONS – DANGER – GET OUT NOW!”

And also because I wanted to scream “Why are you only interested in that event – I did an hour to a packed crowd that year and went down a storm as I remember, you cruel beast?”

“I really don’t recall much about that event”, I said cautiously but honestly, “And I have no idea whether Derek Simpson was there or not. Why do you ask?”

“I’m writing a piece about the UNITE union”, he told me, and I notice they have held events where they’ve tried to appeal to young people.

In my head I see an article that starts “Holiday-wrecking cabin crew union leader once appeared at hippy festival at which drug-taking and sex has taken place and layabouts openly admire long-haired heroin addict Jimi Hendrix who famously killed himself with drugs and is a favourite of people who claim housing benefit.”

I didn’t answer, so he said “Can you tell me what sort of an event this was?”

I said “Are you asking what sort of event Glastonbury was?”

“Well I’ve, I’ve er heard of Glastonbury”, he said, and I wondered whether I could wind him up. I could probably have told him Derek Simpson played guitar that year for Janis Joplin, and the Yorkshire Ripper was his backing singer and their encore was their hit single, that goes “My life will be complete when you’ve booked your airline seat, but you can’t even leave your street ‘cos I’ve fucked your trip to Crete.”

“But I’m especially interested in this event with Derek Simpson”, he persisted. I told him again that I couldn’t recall anything about it and he said “Really?”

“Well it was five years ago”, I said, “And you couldn’t remember what you’d asked me in an e-mail you sent an hour ago.

“Hmm” he said sheepishly. And then he asked again what sort of event it was, and how many people were there and how many of them were young people and I wouldn’t have told him if I could remember but I honestly couldn’t anyway. So I told him I felt certain he was trying to write an unfair piece denigrating the union and he told me I’d been very useful, which was slightly disturbing, and we parted company.

A brief inquiry alerted me to how Richard Waghorne, on his own website, tells us he works for Joint Force Quarterly, a journal of the US defence department, and while he greatly admired President Bush, he became frustrated at his work in Washington on privatising social security as his schemes moved too slowly.

So my guess is that soon an article will appear in the Daily Mail that informs its readers of the history of the UNITE union, which will amount to an incoherent series of concocted tales, one of which will be that, in an effort to seduce young people into their wicked trade union plot, they sent Mr. Simpson to peddle his extremism amongst the dope-addled gullible youth of Glastonbury.

Then in five years’ time I’ll receive a message from Mr. Waghorne, asking “Mr. Steel, I’d like you to contact me with regard to an invitation you once received from a bunch of humanists in the Isle of Man.”

I SEEM TO REMEMBER TORY RULE ONCE BEFORE

This was written (and amended as the day unfolded) on the day David Cameron became Prime Minister, for the Independent, but didn’t go in the paper.

The mayhem of the last few days seemed as if it would go on and splendidly on. I’m still half-expecting that by tomorrow morning the Lib-Dems will be holding talks with the Portuguese Social Democratic Party on an offer of a three way coalition with the Hell’s Angels.

The best solution might have been to keep the chaos going for four years, when it would be time for another election. So every day the news would say something like “This morning William Haig offered the Lib-Dems two places on the British Council of Buddhists, and the job of England football manager to Simon Hughes, but in a dramatic twist at 3.00 pm, following pressure from Paddy Ashdown, Peter Mandelson appeared at the treasury office and hung himself, thus removing a crucial obstacle to a pact with Labour. But further talks were stalled at midnight when David Blunkett threatened Chris Huhne with an axe, so negotiators have now offered the SNP independence for Stenhousemuir.”

Even when there appears to be an agreement they don’t mean it. So when the Tories say they’re willing to consider electoral reform, you know for some that means we should get one vote each for every field we own.

And it still seems as if the most important clause in the Tory offer to Clegg is “We pledge to do exactly what we were going to do anyway, but if you can find a spare chair we’ll let you watch.”

One consequence of these games is the Tories don’t know each day whether they’re supposed to flatter the Lib-Dems or denounce them as Euro-loving lefty scum. For example, the headline on yesterday’s Daily Mail said “Brown quits but cynically bids to keep Labour in power by guaranteeing two-faced Clegg voting reform,” which seems slightly tetchy. If the next talks had broken down the headline would have been “OOOO Clegg you make me MAD you bloody double-crossing ARSE that’s what you are an ARSE.”

At one point today a deal appeared equally likely between the Lib-Dems and either Labour or the Tories, and it seemed probable the winner would be announced by Davina McCall, saying “The government for 2010 will be (ten thumps of bass drum) – THE CONSERVATIVES.” Then glitter would pour over George Osbourne’s head while Cameron covered his mouth and shrieked “Oh my Gooood.”

But despite all the entertainment, one lesson of the week is how all wings of the establishment unite to prevent any real change, no matter who wins an election. Senior civil servants insisted a change in the electoral process would take “At least the length of a full parliament.” So bringing in an Alternative Vote system would take roughly as long as it took to defeat the Third Reich. I’m sure the civil service would say “Indeed, but the relatively minor difficulties entailed by our engagements with the Axis powers should not and must not be compared to the more rigorous complications posed by alterations to the standard ballot paper.”

And throughout the process has been the cry that we have to find a solution to satisfy the markets. Because to solve the economic crisis caused by the people who run the markets, we must pick a government that doesn’t upset the people who run the markets.

So a consensus is created that the deficit must must MUST be cut, as if to oppose the cuts in welfare and public spending this entails is as futile as trying to stop the laws of physics, and if we don’t do it we’ll all catch leprosy or evaporate. And throughout the negotiations not one voice was raised to suggest the bulk of the population should maybe not be entirely made to pay for the unprecedented growth in wealth of the richest one per cent in recent times.

In the end, the final moments for Labour came when they were presented with a chance to cling on, but many of their own side preferred to give up. This seems fitting, as the history of New Labour is one of giving up. It was born because their members, bruised by defeat, gave up on radical change. They spent their years in office handing power to the bankers and invading Iraq because they’d given up on the more equal peaceful world that attracted most of them into Labour. Exhausted, and with no sense of purpose, they’ve ended up saying “What’s the point? Can’t we just go home?”

Which is why the best hope was that in the middle of the confusion Caroline Lucas of the Green Party might nip to the palace to say to the Queen “Tell you what, I’ll take over shall I?” and run the place while the other parties didn’t even notice.

Now – who can think of the best way of making “Conservatives and Liberal Democrats out out out” scan properly?

SOME RANDOM INCOHERENT THOUGHTS ON ELECTION MORNING

Aaagh, what am I supposed to do?

Some things I’m clear about. It’s obviously a farce. Cameron staying up all night so he can run around saying ‘Hello, and what are you making?’ to shift workers is a splendid way for the upper class to waste their time. If there was any justice he’d have been investigated by the Drugs Squad to see whether he was out of his head on Es and whizz. There’s probably footage being hidden by Sky News of Cameron saying to a security guard “Hi I’m Dave I’m a great leader my dad’s got an orchard have you seen my wife great arse I could do security I’ve got terrific muscles Woah I’m coming up ba-ba-ba baaa dida dida dida don’t forget to vo-o-o-te for me me me.”

Instead the others tried to copy him, with Brown insisting he was only having two hours sleep, and I expected Clegg to announce he was proving his energy by doing 36 hours non-stop campaigning on a trampoline.

So much of an election campaign involves the ridiculous being presented as serious debate. The ‘highlight’ has been declared the incident in Rochdale with Mrs. Duffy, who, amidst her complaint to Gordon Brown asked him the challenging question “These Eastern Europeans, where are they flocking from?” It’s true he’d have done better to respond by saying “Barnsley, love. Eastern Europeans all flock from Barnsley. One bit of Barnsley’s called Poland where they breed cheap plumbers, they’re like ants, you can put powder down but they walk straight over it, where do you THINK they flock from?” Then if he’d put his arm round her and gone “I’m only teasing love”, it would all have been laughed off.

Even so, grumbling she was a “Bigoted woman” isn’t the worst thing anyone’s said in private after an argument. But from the media reaction you’d think he’d said “Right – get onto Big Tony, I want her FUCKING house burned down.”

I’m also clear that the Tories are still Tories. This means more than Cameron is a toff, it means they represent the rich and powerful and stand for their values. They’re the party that opposed the minimum wage and whose goddess called Nelson Mandela a terrorist. They’re the preferred party of almost all of big business, even after New Labour’s efforts. For all the wisdom that class no longer dominates our choice of party, it’s still true that the richer an area is, the more likely it is to vote Conservative.

And now it’s supported by Murdoch again. While waiting at an airport I watched an hour of Sky News, that repeated on a loop a short clip of a man heckling Gordon Brown, with a big flashing caption saying “BREAKING NEWS” while commentators appeared as experts to say “Brown’s campaign just keeps descending into more and more chaos, this is another calamity” etc. They might as well have shown him drinking tea and put up “BREAKING NEWS – BROWN, AND A MUG, CATASTROPHE.”

It was all an obviously crude attempt to make Labour appear useless and attached to disaster, because Sky is run by Murdoch whose interests will be served by Cameron. Therefore any reasonable person must feel a shaking chilling hollow sickness bordering on self-combustion at the thought of Cameron winning.

So it should be easy – vote Labour to stop them. Brown is the only person who can realistically be Prime Minister apart from Cameron, so even after Iraq, Mandelson’s delight at the ‘Filthy rich’, after the achievement of extending the gap between rich and poor at a faster rate than any time in modern history, even then you have to vote Labour. They may be the lesser of two evils, but 5 units of evil is surely better than 12 units of evil. (Those are accurate figures though I’m not sure how to convert them into metric).

But it isn’t so simple. Until 1997 I was always desperate for Labour to win elections, regardless of their specific policies. Wilson supported the Vietnam War, Callaghan went to war with the unions, Kinnock wouldn’t back the miners, and Blair had proudly removed socialism from Labour’s agenda before his election as PM. But despite this a vote for Labour was always a vote for the idea of a more equal society, for a notion that we should organise our lives collectively, as opposed to the Tory values of looking after yourself and sneering at the worse off.

And Labour was tied to those aspirations to some extent by their roots. They were founded by the trade unions, and became a mass party after the First World War by promising the working class their own representatives in parliament.

After the last thirteen years does that still apply? The first problem with applying the same formula now comes when you compare Labour’s outlook to that of the Liberal Democrats. To argue with someone who’d campaigned for a fairer society that you should vote Labour rather than Lib-Dem in this election, is to ask them to back a man who was crucial to sending us to war with Iraq, against a party that opposed that war. It’s to back the party adamant we should spend billions on Trident, against those who say we should scrap it. It’s to back the man who enthusiastically boomed “Your policy will open the gates to a flood of immigration” in a TV debate, against the party supporting a more humane attitude to asylum seekers.

On almost every issue the Lib-Dems appear more social, humane and collective than Labour. But, the reluctant Labour voter could argue, Labour is still tied to its working class roots and is therefore open to influence from socialists in a way the Liberal Democrats never could be. But how true is that now? Under Blair the flawed democracy of the party was extinguished, and now an ordinary member has virtually no influence on that party. So the membership is at its lowest for 100 years, and the branches barely exist.

Even after the disastrous 1983 election there was a vibrant Labour Party in most towns, attracting the young and enthusiastic. They were the core of the miners’ support groups, backed local campaigns and mobilised in their hundreds during elections.

During this election, where I live in Crystal Palace, for the first time I can remember there have been no Labour supporters visible during an election. In the area where they have always run a stall, there has instead been a Liberal Democrat stall. One woman there told me “I was in Lewisham Labour Party for years, but Labour abandoned social housing, reneged on their promise to reform the House of Lords, supported the Iraq war and handed the country to the bankers, so now I’m with these.” The following week another of their activists told me an almost identical story of how, she feels, she’s had to change parties to stick by her ideals.

I suspect the Liberal Democrats will betray fairly quickly the hopes of those who flock to them for egalitarian reasons, not because of the personality of Nick Clegg but because their base is spread amongst people who desire opposite values. In some areas they attract those like my Crystal Palace friends, but in Conservative areas they promise an agenda to appeal to disaffected Tories. This may explain why Clegg became so defensive when he suddenly found, for the first time, the whole country listening attentively to him at once. The radicalism was downplayed, and became unsure even of his most long-standing policies, such as backing a referendum on the Euro, if they could be considered vote-losers in the Tory suburbs.

So then what? The easy way out for a socialist is to declare the election is not an important issue, as all parties are promising to make the mass of the population pay for the crisis caused by the greedy few.

And it is true that, while commentators insist the election debate has been ‘thrilling’, the boundaries have been pathetically thin. There’s been hardly a mention of troops in Afghanistan, no one would dare suggest renationalising transport, and they all agree we have to accept massive cuts, as if to oppose this is to dispute the laws of physics.

But the world in which those cuts, and the resistance to those cuts takes place, will be shaped by the outcome of the election. For example, a thumping Cameron win will give his friends absolute confidence in cutting whatever they fancy. And Cameron, despite the repulsive Obama-esque front page in the Sun, represents the nastiness of fear far more than the others. But something else makes me feel melancholy on this morning, which is that after 13 years of a Labour government that has exceeded almost all predictions of how conservative it would be, most notably in Iraq, no force has been built that can challenge it from a socialist direction. Attempts have been made, with some fleeting success. The Scottish Socialist Party won seven per cent of the vote across Scotland, but then disintegrated in spectacularly hilarious fashion. Respect won a seat with Galloway, looked ready to become a force and decided to celebrate either by going on Big Brother or tearing itself apart in a row about fuck-all.

So this morning I arrive at the polling station to find as well as the major parties, the Greens, Respect and the Communist Party are all standing in my area, to make sure the meagre left vote is split three useless inconsequential pointless ways.

It’s not just a trick of the memory. That day in May 1997 was gloriously sunny. Despite the smarmy Blair it represented a rejection of greed as a virtue. So much seemed possible. The sadness for me is not just that Labour betrayed that hope, as it seemed likely they would, but that it’s not been possible to construct a credible force that can take that hope forward. But the hope’s still there. None of the leaders have dared to be honest about the scale of the cuts they’re planning, as they know there would be widespread revulsion when it’s obvious whose avarice has caused this mess.

And in the odd place where a sustained attempt has been made to build an opposition to the idea that big business should rule every aspect of our lives, it’s been rewarded. Caroline Lucas in Brighton and Salma Yaqoob in Birmingham could well win in their areas for the Greens and Respect, and this is an extraordinary achievement.

So the task, I feel, is not just to stop Cameron but to build a process whereby eventually a genuine alternative can be offered to his view of the world. I voted Green for that reason, but I’ll admit to cowardice because if I lived in an area where the Tory might scrape in I’d have voted for whoever could have stopped them.

Now – even if that smug Tory fucker wins, the agenda should be a) Ten minutes spitting and swearing b) Pledge to get a million on the streets when the bastard tries to cane us.

And if Brown wants to be remembered fondly, if the moment comes when he has to concede defeat, he’ll put his head in his hands and say “Oh well, thank fuck that’s over. At least I don’t have to pretend to like that arsehole Clegg any more, mind you that Spanish wife of his is a different matter, ay? Oh shit this bloody microphone, I’ve done it again haven’t I?”

A new series and rabbits and Chas ‘n’ Dave

A few weeks ago I began the awkward business of starting work on a second series. This is always a frightening moment, as you’re told when the recordings are being held, and when the tickets are going out and when it’s being broadcast and you’ve got nothing, absolutely nothing. It seems possible, or even probable, that on the night of the first recording I’ll walk on stage and say “Good evening. I’m afraid I couldn’t really think of anything. I hope you haven’t had to come far. I’ve brought a box of Quality Streets to share so I hope that makes up for it a bit.”

Somehow the start of a second series is more daunting than the first. I reckon that when Dickens started writing his first novel he set off with a carefree demeanour, unaware of all the complications that awaited him. But years later, after a deal was signed, he’d sit there with a blank sheet, thinking “What the fuck is there to say about Christmas?”

The series is called ‘Mark Steel’s in Town’, for Radio 4, and I have to go to six more towns, and do a show about that town to any of its inhabitants that come along. The last series ended on the Isle of Portland in Dorset, where amidst the quarries it turns out there’s an insistence that no one says the word ‘rabbit’, as this is deemed extreme bad luck. At first I assumed this was a quaint jokey custom, like the law in Hereford that you can still fire an arrow at a Welshman if he’s in the church courtyard. But as I went round the place it turned out they mean it.

The local historian, whose book on the island was otherwise splendid, referred to ‘underground mutton’. When the Wallace and Grommit film ‘Curse of the Were-rabbit’ came to town, all the posters had to be re-written to read ‘Curse of the Were-bunny’. Kids have been sent to detention for saying the word (so if a kid says it and the teacher barks “WHAT did you just say?” they’d be better off replying “I said ‘cunt’, miss.”)

The marvellous part is how quickly you become tuned to this fear of a word. You sense the horror in the same way you know not to say ‘fuck’ if you’re on live radio, especially on Thought For the Day. So at the end of the show I said I felt the series had been a celebration of community, and for that reason we should finish on an old-fashioned sing-along, of a classic old Chas ‘n’ Dave song, and I started singing the chorus of their Rabbit song, the bit that goes “Oh she won’t stop talking, why won’t she give it a rest.”

And they gasped. The Weymouth people and the immigrants to the island shrieked with anticipation, but one of the islanders stood and thrust his middle finger, with a rage that reminded me of the Serb militia under Milosevic. I glanced at the producer, who gave an expression that suggested it might be advisable to not do the ending we’d planned.

“Oh come on Portland”, I said, “This is a show about bringing towns together, I’m not really going to ruin the whole series by coming to Portland and enraging you all by saying ‘rabbit’.”

And the middle finger man hurled a pound coin at me with impressive force, so that if I was a footballer my team would have been led off the field.

Once it had all calmed down, a waitress from the restaurant that was attached to the theatre told me she’d been warned she could be sacked for saying the forbidden word. And an elegant man in his seventies wearing a silk cravat told me he was delighted with how cross the word had made some of them, and then walked across the restaurant and started playing ‘Run Rabbit Run’ on the piano.

So now I’ve got to find the craziness in a new batch of towns. But whereas for the first series, a bit of me imagined this was just a bit of fun and no one would actually listen to it, this time I know that some people will. For example, a butcher in Lancashire told me that after listening to the show about Skipton, he and his wife went on a weekend break there.

This is the sort of power Nigella Lawson has, when she mentions gherkins as a possible side dish and the following day the world supply of gherkins is bought by five past eleven.

The first of the new series is in Dartford, the Kent town alarmingly near to the town of my upbringing, the charming Swanley. So I went to the library to take a glance at some of their local books, and an endearing bubbly man came over to tell me he’d heard the first series and ask what I was doing there. And when I told him I was doing one of the programmes in Dartford, and the date of the recording, he said he wasn’t sure he could come because he’d recently broken up with his wife and wasn’t sure when he was having his kids and then he burst into tears while lying on the table.

So I sat with him for a bit in a pathetic attempt to console the poor man, and I have to hope my programme wasn’t somehow the trigger for his divorce.

The recording is this Friday, 15th January, and to add to the tension I know at least thirteen of my old school mates will be there who, as much as I know this can’t be true, I’m convinced will still all be fifteen.

I’ve also visited the magnificent Cheshire town of Alderley Edge, where Alex Ferguson and Wayne Rooney and Andrew Flintoff live, along with Aston Martin showrooms and an off license that sells more champagne than any other in Britain, and about sixty beauty salons and a charity shop full of stuff from Gucci and Prada that doesn’t have the prices on its clothes. In the Post office, amongst the cards in the window that would normally say ‘Pram for sale’ or ‘Carpenter available – no job too small’, was an advert on a card that said “Ring me if you need a butler.” I think by the time I’m half way through the recording there, I’ll be wishing for the amiable charm of the rabbit moment.

Tickets for the recordings are available from the BBC ticket unit, which has a website, I believe. And they will be in Dartford on 15th January, Wilmslow (by Alderley Edge) on 12th February, Dumfries on 26th February, and then in Gateshead, Penzance and, if you fancy it, the Orkneys, sometime in March.

Also, it seems the BBC is making the first series available to download in March, which is as technologically advanced as I’ve ever felt since my Dad bought a TV that could get BBC2. The shows will go out in March and April, assuming that I’ve written the bloody things.