My last blog on the 12th December – It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas, I had intended being my last until the New Year, but so much has happened since then, well okay – apart from Christmas, there have been just two major events, a new COVID tier and a Brexit deal, both pretty momentous! So, I felt compelled to write another blog.
At the end of October, I wrote a blog entitled The Times They Are A-Changin’. It wasn’t so much about things changing instantly, but more about things developing … CND demos evolve into extinct rebellion demos, flights over oceans pave the way to land a man on the moon and from telephones being an item owned only by the better-off, morphing into a prerequisite for all to carry round in their pocket.
This blog is more about those events that changed things in such a way, that things will never be the same again.
So first – what about this shitty virus? How annoying has that become. When it first made its sneaky entrance onto the world stage, I don’t know about you, but what came into my mind was mountain … mole hill … what’s the big deal … and who’s doing something so dodgy they’ve created the mother of all smokescreens. And what a pisser – it was for real.
Obviously for a great number of us, things went from being tits up to being totally fucked up. Then just days before Christmas – bang! – Tier 4. Now this event might not change the world, but it certainly changed Christmas for millions of people in England. It changed ours to such an extent that for the first time in both our lives, Jan and I spent Christmas Day with just the two of us. When I was kid it was always the ‘family Christmas’ and it continued that way, in some form or another, since then. I’m not losing sleep over the fact that this was a totally different Christmas. We enjoyed it! Our daughter prepared the meal for us, Jan and I cooked it between us, our son-in-law cooked and carved the turkey, Wanda a good friend, provided Christmas pud, Christmas cake and mince pies – it was all there. But there was something in both of us yelling – Christmas is for families! And there is no doubt we missed everyone around the table, we even missed trying to sort out what to cook for the veggies, vegans, pescatarians, lactose free and for every manner of allergy stricken individual with reactions to shellfish to peanuts to Brussels sprouts.
So this Christmas was a huge change for us, and maybe one that will create a huge change for society. Hopefully, by adhering to the Tier 4 regs, society will recover from this tragedy sooner rather than later.
To catalogue the changes that have happened in my life, would be impossible, most of them have probably been either cosmetic or harmless. What are important are the changes that affect the quality of life (good or bad) and the changes that affect progression of society (again good or bad).
As George Carlin the comedian once said: “Just when I discovered the meaning of life, they changed it.” Don’t you just know how he feels.
My favourite quote about change connected to my work is from Steve Martin: “I handed in a script last year and the studio didn’t change one word. The word they didn’t change was on page 87.”
Every writer knows that feeling. When I first started writing one of the great things I learnt early on, was that the majority of most editorial staff have an inherent compulsion to change what you’ve written (be it good or bad); to such an extent it’s more endemic than any virus. But like the virus – it’s not personal, it happens to everyone. If you don’t want it to happen, then don’t write.
I suppose the first massive change in my life that I was aware of, was the demise of the wool trade. Bradford, where I was born and spent my formative years, had from the 19th century been an international centre of textile manufacture and specifically wool. The industrial revolution made it a boomtown, with it becoming known as the wool capital of the world. The easy access to coal, iron ore and of course soft water were the natural ingredients that propelled Bradford into the annals of manufacturing history. Yeah – Go Bradford!
With this industry came wealth, but it also generated massive pollution. At the height of the wool production there were over 200 factory chimneys belching out smoke. They were still there when I was a kid and bizarrely, I liked them. They felt powerful. They felt real. But of course, the smoke that was continually spewing from these brick stacks was black, sulphurous smoke and soon Bradford became known as the most polluted town in England. In the 19thcentury cholera and typhoid were rife and only 30% of children born to textile workers reached the age of fifteen. Amazingly at one point, because of the amazing death rate in infants and the youth, it was estimated the life expectancy for Bradford residents was just over eighteen.
Even when I was in senior school, there were times that I had to walk home, because the smog was so thick all public transport had stopped. You literally couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.
Now I’m not sure what the pollution levels are, but they are undoubtably a lot less and life expectancy is now 77.5 years for males and 81.5 years for females. A big difference.
The wool industry started to go into decline in the 60s and it seemed in no time at all the belching smoke had disappeared, along with a great number of the chimneys. Things had changed. But so did the employment figures. Bradford now has one of the highest rates of unemployment in the UK and it’s still rising. In June of this year, unemployment in the city stood at 30,495, with 9.2% of the working adults claiming unemployment benefit.
That of course is a massive change. The industrial revolution was huge, but so was the collapse of industry. I don’t know how you could ever statistically compere the two, damage versus benefit or wealth versus poverty? Take you choice.
Some changes of course weren’t as huge and as apocalyptic. I used to go to school on the other side of the city to where I lived. This meant walking from our house to the bus stop, catching a bus into the city centre, which was a couple of miles, a walk across the city centre and then catching another bus which took you to the school itself, about another mile. It felt very normal, most people travelled those sorts of distances to their schools. I must have been about 12 when one morning, as I waited at the bus stop for my bus into the city centre, a car pulled up. A dark green Cortina. At the time my family didn’t own a car, so jumping in and out of cars was not something I did, transport was virtually exclusively on buses. It became obvious the driver was waiting for someone and eventually my bus arrived and so on I hopped. The next morning the same car pulled up again. That morning I was the only person at the bus stop, it didn’t take me long to figure out that I was the reason why the car had come to a halt. I walked to the car and opened the front passenger door, no electric windows, no central locking, not in those days, and there, behind the wheel, was my geography teacher, Mr Pearson. He was quite a stern, gruff sort of a character, not at all approachable. He had grey hair, wore glasses with thin frames, had an old-fashioned Yorkshire accent, broad but not slovenly, and I considered him to be old. In retrospect he was probably only in his 50s. At school he would always where a suit, which you couldn’t describe as crumpled, but couldn’t say it was pristine either, this was always topped off with a gown. All our masters wore gowns, which was a subtle way of reminding you, a university degree was what was expected. That first morning he drove me to school I was apprehensive about anyone seeing me. I was pretty certain I would get some stick, verbal stick that is, for having a master drive me to school. But strangely all anyone wanted was confirmation that I’d been chauffeured to school by our geography master.
At first the journeys were conducted in virtual silence. Strangely enough this didn’t make them strained, and as the days and weeks went by, we chatted to each other more easily. We talked about football, I discovered he was married, I found out where he lived and other minutiae. The conversation never turned to school or geography. It was as if he just liked the idea of having someone there to break up his repetitive journey. And as for me it saved me getting on two buses and having to walk across the city centre. That Christmas he bought me a present. That was about geography. A book about Africa. I had for years, it might still have it somewhere, for some reason I hope I still do.
I’m sure Mr Pearson will be well dead and buried, but I often think about his generosity, a generosity of spirit that was buried under an inexpensive suit and a gown, but without warning just blossomed one day whilst passing a young pupil waiting at a bus stop. And the reason I mention it now is because like it or not, whether you have that generosity lurking in your soul, the situation has changed so much I doubt any teacher would, without first getting written permission from a parent, and having it sanctioned by the school sexual councillor, and stamped by the head teacher, stop and pick up a pupil, male or female, young or old. There was never a second of impropriety on any of those car rides and in class, I was just another pupil. But it did make me take more notice of geography as a subject and gave me an insight into the humanity that lurks in most people.
And more importantly the change is now so deeply entrenched in our society, that there seems to be a pervading belief that every male who walks the street is a predator – trust is an instinct that is becoming extinct.
And that is not the only change that has become embedded in our day-to-day lives. Other changes are in the same insidious way, in the process of invading our society as surely as poison fed to us through cannulas would invade our bodies. And what I’m referring to, of course, is the freedom of speech. How often to do you hear people say, “Am I allowed to say that now?” What they’re normally referring to is either a turn of phrase or a single word. Rarely is it a declaration outlining the overthrow of the government with tanks and AK rifles by some extremist party, intent on impaling Boris’s head on a spike. And if it they were saying just that, strangely enough, no action would be taken. I haven’t been to Speakers Corner for some years, and I’m guessing now’s not the best time to go, but I was wondering if people are still allowed to speak freely there?
In other areas of society, which were traditionally places where people were often offended or listened to observations that they personally found distasteful, have on the whole disappeared.
“Did you hear the one about the comedian who got fired from Saturday Night Livefor making offensive comments before he ever set foot on the show? It’s no joke.”
Whilst at college I was part of a review show – TATBOYG. It stood for ‘Theatre At The Bottom of Your Garden.’ I have no recollection how this company of eight actors came to form this little venture, but I do know why. In our first couple of years at college, we did little performing and we were all performers. We wanted to get out there and do it … to see what would happen when we stepped out in front of an audience that were not partisan. Between us we purchased an old London Taxi, five would sit in the back the two others and the driver would squeeze into the front, and off we would go to do some prebooked gig, quite often at a colleges or university. In those days the majority of those higher educational facilities had entertainment on a Saturday night, organised by the student union, normally a big named rock band, supported by some unknown folk singer – we replaced the folk singer.
If we were to take the same show out on the road today, we would not pass the ‘acceptable taste tachometer’ that seems to be in lots of establishments. We did various sketches and songs that today would simply be classed as ‘not on.’ If I were to say that one of the songs we did was our own take, written I think by John Vine, of Billy J Kramer’s Little Children, I don’t think I need go any further. We knew then it was close to the mark, but that’s what art has to be at times.
Let me make it quite clear that I was never a lover of Bernard Manning, nor did I never switch on the TV to watch Benny Hill cavorting around. I never got the camp humour of the Joan Collins Fan Club, alias Julian Clarey, but it seems lots of others do, because he’s been a very successful entertainer and Mrs Brown’s Boys leaves me cold. Did Bernard Manning’s racist jokes offend people, probably; did Benny Hill’s sexist sketches offend people, probably; did Julian Clarey’s camp innuendos offend people, probably; did Mrs Brown’s Boys offend people – yeah me. But getting offended is part of life – you’ve got to just suck on it. Over the years lots of people would have liked to have seen these acts banned and in some cases I wouldn’t have objected to it, but is it the thin edge of the wedge. Where does the banning stop? In this climate would Paul O’Grady be allowed to do his drag act, or is it offensive to transgenders? There’s an interesting documentary called The Last Laugh which asks comedians like Mel Brooks and Sarah Silverman, as well as Holocaust survivors and anti-racism activists whether the Nazi death camps are an appropriate subject for humour. Some people have no problem with it, some believe it’s about degrees and others find it impossible to hear jokes about the Holocaust and I really do get that. But I fear if we continue in the direction we’re going, then making a documentary like The Last Laugh will be censored.
In 1986 I wrote a radio play called Son From Soho. The gist of the plot was a woman meets up with a man who persuades her to believe he’s Jesus. She is naturally sceptical to begin with, but she really wants to believe him. He asks her, just so he can prove his point, to kill him and he will rise again in three days. What more proof does she need? Whether she goes through with the request we don’t know, until a police officer arrives making enquiries about complaints from neighbours about anti-social behaviour. As the woman relays her story to the police officer, who listens, not sure whether to believe her or not. The play ends with the police officer opening a cupboard and uttering one word – “Jesus.” Being a radio play we are left to make up our own mind what she’s found in the cupboard. All that would have been fine, except it was deemed by the powers-that-be at the BBC, that “Jesus” is blaspheme and would offend some listeners. The line was changed to “Oh my God.” For me – missed the impact.
I thought we’d moved on from those days, but I fear we may be going backwards. We are jumping into the arena of curtailing the freedom of speech. If I want to say something about a religion, any religion, then I should be allowed to. If I want to make a comment on a politician or a policy, I should be allowed to. You can’t cherry pick who or what I’m talking about. I don’t think I’ve ever deliberately set out to offend – shock definitely, it’s my job, but offend no. If you don’t like it don’t listen to it, don’t watch it, don’t read it, but don’t deny me the right to say it.
This unusual Christmas won’t, I hope, cause the same disruption as either the industrial revolution or the demise of the British manufacturing industry. It was a change that we had to get on board with. As yet nobody has a clue if these Christmas restrictions have made any difference and also, as yet, the outcome of the Brexit deal is an unknown quantity. But whatever – humans are brilliant at adapting. Of course, things will change, evolve, words unacceptable forty years ago are now totally acceptable. What I find offensive, you might not. History tells us that the minute you step into a regime that limits the freedom of expression, then walls are built, and travel visas rescinded. If the change you’re looking for is a totalitarian state, that’s the way to go. But there will always be changes and instead of taking a draconian approach or a revolutionary stance, it’s best to let them evolve. What may be unacceptable today, can be totally natural in time. It’s hard to believe that homosexuality was illegal in my lifetime. Big named stars lost their careers, sometimes lives, when they were ‘outed.’ But people who would have been appalled by homosexuality fifty years ago, now totally accept it.
I guess the trick is to argue your case, but don’t expect everyone to change overnight. The chances are the majority will get on board … eventually.
Andy Warhol once said: “When people are ready to, they change. They never do it before then, and sometimes they die before they get around to it. You can’t make them change if they don’t want to, just like when they do want to, you can’t stop them.”
And always remember – Change is inevitable – except from a parking machine.