A little local difficulty

In the audience for a public meeting on the proposed closure of Radlett Fire Station, Radlett Centre, 31 October 2005
Local politics round my way is getting more interesting daily. An exciting and incendiary public meeting in the village tonight was about the nastiest and noisiest assembly I’ve seen since Heseltine swung the mace. The County Council is using a risk-based statistical method (provided by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) to trim fire stations from the county’s capacity. Our own mini West Lothian Question means the closure of our little part-time fire station has been approved by dozens of county councillors who’ll never visit, let alone represent, Radlett.

Although we’re now in what the local authority calls a ‘consultation period’ the whole thing smells like a done deal. The statistics are in and the council’s decision has already been made. I have a feeling that the only hope now is for a lot more of tonight’s deliberate and bloody-minded street politics.

Since the only way I got into the over-crowded hall was by pretending to be a photographer, I felt obliged to take a few pics.

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You can call me guv

Detail from a letter informing parents of Fair Field School in Radlett that I've been elected as a Governor, October 2005
Democracy is alive and well, if uneven as to outcome. The Iraqis have – heroically – produced something approaching a viable constitutional basis for the next round of elections. Morgan Tsvangiri has succeeded in splitting and thus crippling Mugabe’s only opposition in Zimbabwe. In Britain, Labour’s proposed changes to electoral law look like a win for the nutcases and extremists and, in Radlett, the doughty parents of Fair Field Junior School have elected (by a majority of 16) a new Parent Governor: me. Bloody hell.

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Ancient practices

The Trafalgar bicentenary beacon at Tabard Rugby Club in Radlett, 21 October 2005
There’s something about a big fire in a big field. In Britain we retain an atavistic taste for making a pile of wood and setting light to it. On Friday night in Radlett the parish council lit just such a big fire and fifty or sixty people came along to watch it burn. We were marking Trafalgar Day but we were also, if you ask me, quietly honouring fire itself… Practically a Pagan rite (and comfortably inside the M25 too).

More pics of the big fire here.

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The Tories’ Messiah?

The Tory leadership fight is the best political entertainment for a decade – and I don’t like saying that because it suggests they’re closer to a come-back than they’ve been for all of that decade. I’m hardly an insider but it’s obvious to me that the party must elect Cameron. They must elect him for the same reason that a business in terminal crisis must pick the oddball for Chief Exec – the third or fourth on the shortlist, not the superstar at the top of the list or the finance guy in second position.

Cameron is young enough and brave enough to tip the Tory party on its head and he’ll either succeed spectacularly and lead the revived party back to power or he’ll decisively demonstrate the party’s final irrelevance on his way to a job running Glaxo or Marks & Spencer or something. I admire his pig-headed resistance to the print media’s phoney-baloney piety and I think he feels the weight of history in a way that Blair must have done in the middle of Labour’s wilderness years. He’s the nearest to a Blair/Messiah figure the Tories have produced since Thatcher herself – and that’s thirty years ago.

The official position of the Labour leadership is relief that the only authentic heavyweight has been knocked out of the race but, if they could be honest (which they can’t right now) they’d acknowledge that Cameron gives them the first shiver of recognition they’ve had since the 1997 victory.

There’s something gripping about this moment in British politics. If things go the Tories’ way (God forbid) this will be remembered as the moment the circuit was closed and the strange convergence of left and right in Britain completed. Say the Conservatives get this one right and say they’re able to convince the electorate of their relevance at the next election (or the one after), in a few years we’ll be hearing things like: ‘I can’t tell the difference between Cameron and Blair. The Tories are just a Labour clone. They’re not the real Tories…’ blah blah.

Labour has unequivocally owned the middle ground for eight years but we may be surprised to learn, once the Tories are back in power (stay with me here…), that, in the long run, the biggest movement on the left-right spectrum will have been from the Tories. To get back to power their social agenda will have to be sharply liberalised, their antipathy to the public sector pragmatically softened and their economics almost totally reversed. Only Cameron can start this process. God I hope they pick Fox.

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Harry Potter: the verdict is in (in case you’ve been waiting)

I know I’m late to this discussion but I’ve managed, somehow, to fail to connect with the Harry Potter phenomenon entirely. Until now. I’d never read the books nor seen the movies (although the house seems to be half-filled with Potter merchandise). So, this week, I’ve been reading the kids (well, the older two) the first Harry Potter book at bedtime and – I’m sort of unhappy to confirm – it’s not very good.

We’ve just finished the first three Narnia books and the comparison is not a happy one (tough act to follow, I suppose) and, although I think I’d have been happy to plough on through Rowling’s charmless, deliberate prose, the kids have actually vetoed Potter and yesterday we had to rush over to Borders to buy the next Narnia book (Prince Caspian) instead. It makes me feel a bit sad because I really wanted to like the book and I’ve written before in defence of Rowling against the various whingers (I do love the fact that we can occasionally produce our own super-wealthy global media superstars over here in the drizzle).

Of course, my objections come a bit late – Harry’s mystical realm has already expanded to consume pretty much the whole of popular culture. On the radio the other day I heard that the once-huge UFO sub-culture has been practically wiped out by the wizards and elves – conventions that used to book the biggest hotels are now lucky to fill a room above a pub (tip: file that Roswell script you’ve been working on since you left University).

The painful lesson for Brit Media is that, although the books are 100% British, the larger Potter phenomenon is not a British creation at all – it’s a solid-gold creature of American media capitalism and, in fact, there’s something crappy and amateurish about the British end of the thing. Luckily, though, credulous American exploitation experts were suckered into promoting it on the basis that there was something quaint and British about it.

And there’s worse news. We rushed – like you, I bet – to the preview screenings of the Wallace & Gromit feature the other day and – this is quite hard to say – it’s no good either. It’s half-baked. Neither one thing nor the other. Running a pretty good Dreamworks short based on Madagascar beforehand is a huge mistake to begin with – the contrast is unsettling. By comparison with the near perfection of the American product Were Rabbit looks like something the cat dragged in. British eccentricity (or amateurism or contrariness or whatever) must not be summoned in justification of this mess either.

The characters are as beautiful as ever (although I’m suspicious about the prominent big close-up thumb prints on their cute plasticine faces – overdoing the ‘authenticity’ if you ask me) but the barely adequate script and practically incoherent direction are unforgivable. I feel terrible saying this sort of thing with the ashes barely cool in Bristol but there’s no point coddling the film-makers. If mainstream British animation is doomed to this kind of second-rate execution then the future looks grim. We’ve reduced ourselves to a subservient craft economy capable only of providing services to the shiny perfection-factories of the American industry but without the ambition to produce finished masterworks ourselves.

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Cameron’s drug hell

I honestly wouldn’t have dreamt of getting my oar in here (private grief and all that…) if the Tory Party leadership contest hadn’t become so God-damn entertaining. Cameron’s refusal to confirm or deny is the only politically acceptable response to the drugs question. Everyone (I mean everyone – we are all, after all, sophisticated political semioticians these days) knows that a refusal to confirm or deny is effectively an admission.

Everyone knows that an actual admission would have torpedoed Cameron’s campaign with the league of blue-rinsers who control the fate of the final two. Everyone knows that everyone of Cameron’s generation has at least tried drugs and everyone knows that his carefully executed strategy is intended to protect him from both the wrath of the Tory grassroots and the risk of a run of ‘Cameron always hogged the bong’ or ‘David rolled an awesome spliff’ Sunday newspaper stories. Give the man a break. No politician of Cameron’s age could do anything else.

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Dodgy country reports send refugees back to their doom

Important journalism from Dominic Arkwright on the BBC’s Broadcasting House Sunday Morning news show. It turns out that the ‘country reports’ produced by the Home Office on which immigration service deportation decisions are based are partial and inaccurate. Arkwright says:

“Some of the so-called Country Reports are so flawed, it’s said, that they’re virtually useless as a source of information for the caseworkers who have to decide whether it’s safe to send people back. Some reports are so selective in their use of materials that critics say they paint a deliberately positive picture, justifying the removal of asylum-seekers.”

I’m shocked. The officials responsible for making these life-threatening decisions have almost nothing to go on and, once a case is before a judge, these flawed country reports have the weight of independently-produced evidence, although they’re really anything but.

People are being returned to dangerous places on the basis of inaccurate and biased information and, presumably, so-called bogus applicants are being given leave to stay on the basis of equally useless information. It’s a genuine scandal that warrants immediate attention but I’ve seen no mention of these dodgy ‘country reports’ anywhere else in the mainstream media.

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Saving Radlett Fire Station

Radlett Fire Station
Radlett, the nice Hertfordshire suburb in which I live, is famous for many things – swinging, prostitution and credit card theft, for instance – but it also has a fire station and rather wonderful one too. It was built in 1907, paid for by a local subscription, and it’s staffed, to this day, by a band of retained (part-time) fire fighters who can often be seen sprinting from their homes or their day jobs to the station to attend a fire.

My kids visit the station for open days, the cubs and brownies try out the hose in the yard and the descendants of the station’s founders still live here. This is a profoundly important community resource with psychological as well as practical value. Naturally enough, the local authority now wants to close Radlett fire station and the community has risen against them.

I suspect that the local Fire & Civil Defense Authority has picked the wrong prosperous, connected and media literate suburb, though: the web site is up, the PR agency appointed and the village festooned with nicely printed banners and posters. I think we’ll be keeping that fire station.

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Real cowboys and Indians

Before Riding Snake, Round-up 1915, W. S. Bowman, 1915
Bruce McCarroll Collection of the Bonnie & Frank McCarroll Rodeo Archives
Before Riding Snake, Round-up 1915

I bookmarked the National Cowboy Museum’s amazing rodeo history archive at del.icio.us (now defunct) but the site has many other amazing assets, including a library of photographs of native Americans by late Nineteenth Century European photographers.

(I updated this post because the old links were all dead. The new links are approximately correct. All very sad).