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I blame the scapegoats, p.18

I blame the scapegoats, page 18


I blame the scapegoats

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  The alternative is having to face up to the unsettling reality that Labour is not doing enough to reward public-sector workers once it's in government. And I thought the 'Flaming Idiots!' headlines were a cliche! John Prescott should remember his roots and announce a decent pay rise for Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble and Grubb. And while we are being nostalgic, he might want to ask Jim Callaghan about the last time Labour took on the public-sector unions. Because if we thought having no firefighters was scary, you should see what follows next. . .


  23 November 2002

  This week a studio audience and various TV cameras looked on as the body of an old man was dissected and organs were removed and passed around. That'll teach that old bloke to stand up when the host asked for a volunteer from the audience. It was the first public autopsy in 170 years and apparently the viewing figures are way up on last time. The identity of the body in question has not been revealed, although there are so many desperate former celebrities who'd do anything to return to mainstream television that dying and being cut up would probably be considered a small price to pay to kick-start their comebacks.

  Demand for this particular TV recording was high, and many disappointed members of the public were turned away and had to make do with watching a recording of Kilroy in the studio next door. Some were physically sick and had to be helped out, but that's Kilroy for you. The lucky few who got in to the autopsy prepared to witness the most blood and bone seen in a television programme since Roy Keane's last tackle to feature on The Premiership.

  Professor Gunther von Hagens entered wearing a fedora and proceeded to demonstrate how to cut up a human body, giving a Delia Smith-type running commentary as he sliced away. His Home Autopsy Autumn Collection book should be in your shops for Christmas. Some people have accused Von Hagens of perhaps erring on the side of showbiz spectacle rather than sombre deference, particularly when he put Punch and Judy puppets over each hand, pulled out the intestines and squealed, 'Here come the sausages!' Then he removed the sternum and a few ribs and these were handed around in a bowl. Most winced and passed them on, though there was a bit of a mix-up when a bunch of drunk lads who'd wandered in on their way back from the Chinese take-away were overheard asking for a fingerbowl.

  Channel 4 have denied that the whole event was in poor taste and have just unveiled their winter schedules containing a batch of exciting new shows. Whose Spleen Is It Anyway?, Colostomy Big Brother and, more worryingly, Heartbeat. If there is any regret at Channel 4, it's that they only managed to get a single programme out of this. If they really wanted to make this idea run and run they should bring in the drama of elimination used so effectively in their most popular programme. 'Which organ is going to be removed next week? Will it be the pancreas? Or is the gall bladder Britain's least favourite internal organ? Remember - it's your votes that decide!'

  Other channels will soon be hitting back with 'surgertainment' shows of their own, including a new TV makeover series where you are given a general anaesthetic and your next-door neighbour chooses whatever major cosmetic surgery they think is required. Not so much Changing Rooms as Changing Sexes - 'Just watch the expression on Philip, or rather Philippa's, face when he uncovers his eyes in front of the mirror to see what Handy Andy's done with a hacksaw!'

  The trouble with TV surgery is that after a while we would become desensitized to it all. 'What a hideous sight!'

  'I know - a green hat with that coat - what was Von Hagens thinking?'

  There should be a plaque above the door of commissioning editors with the motto 'Use Shock Sparingly'. Channel 4 have got lots of attention by cutting up a dead body live on telly. A while back Channel 5 managed some publicity by having Keith Chegwin in the nude, but it is all cheap and easy shock. In his fine film Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore uses CCTV footage of the massacre at Columbine High School to make a wider point about guns and a society gripped by fear. Shocking but cathartic.

  In fact, the main objection to this week's TV autopsy has been about a lack of respect for the dead, which bizarrely seems to trump the novelty concept of 'respect for the living'. Yes, it is upsetting when an artist exhibits the body of a dead tramp in formaldehyde, but hey, not as disrespectful as it was to ignore that tramp when he was sleeping in the street. We now know from this week's showbiz autopsy that this particular man had drunk two bottles of whisky a day, and had not done a proper day's work for twenty years. Either he had been totally abandoned by society or he was a TV executive.

  The tabloids were appalled at this dissection of a real human being and splashed their disgust over several pages. They would have said more about this unseemly intrusion, but their papers were full up with so much else - 'Inside: Was Diana pregnant? Pages 2-7', 'Barrymore groped Royal Butler!', 'Wills slams media overkill, pages 2-24!' And perhaps this is why carving up dead people will never really take off as entertainment. Because at the end of the day dissecting living people is so much more fun.

  Weapons of mass distraction

  30 November 2002

  After four long years, the United Nations weapons inspectors this week resumed their search for those hidden Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. With their hands still over their eyes they breathlessly counted, '. . . nine million, nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine . . . TEN MILLION! Com-ing!' How Saddam giggled as he watched them peeking in the cupboard under the stairs and behind the curtains. 'Cold . . . cold . . . ooh, getting warmer; no, cold again. Freezing!' But after a while it got a bit embarrassing for the Iraqi President, having them snoop all over the place.

  'What's in this drawer?'

  'Ooh no, don't look in there!' And they pulled it open only to find a pair of old pants from Millets with 'Sex Machine' emblazoned across the front.

  'Look, they were a joke birthday present from my brother. I never wear them, honest.'

  The work of the weapons inspectors is supposed to be top secret, giving the Iraqis absolutely no warning about which sites are to be visited. So there was a mild suspicion that they might possibly be being bugged when the first location they visited displayed a big-banner saying 'Baghdad Fertilizer Plant Welcomes the UN Weapons Inspectors!' and a choir of local schoolchildren sang a specially composed anthem as the delegates were directed towards the buffet lunch. Would that explain the wires trailing from the large bunch of flowers that was placed in the middle of their conference table? Is that why they were given a free mobile phone with their car rental?

  First they had to decide where they were going to look. They tried driving around a bit, but despite all the helpful brown tourist signs on the motorway, not one said 'Nuclear Bomb Factory' next to a little picture of a mushroom cloud. They tried photocopying a picture of a missile and attaching it to a few lampposts with the caption 'Lost! Huge Chemical Warhead, Answers to the name of "Scud".' Of course, when you're looking for something you may never find it, but at least you come across a few other things that you thought you'd lost for good. So far the UN team have uncovered three Polly Pocket figures, a marble, the instructions to the tumble drier and a plastic clip which they think probably came with the micro-scooter. 'Oh look, a ten franc coin; is that still legal tender? Um, I don't think so, but put it back in the kitchen drawer just in case.'

  But George W. Bush needs no further evidence. 'Imagine if these items fell into the hands of Iraq's elite Republican Guard! You could have someone's eye out with that!' said Colin Powell examining the sharp plastic edge of the charger from an old mobile phone. The reporting of the inspectors' discoveries leaves us in no doubt of Saddam's guilt. They have found paper cups of a type that would be used to refresh workers making weapons of mass destruction. Also uncovered was an atlas which included detailed maps of the United States and Britain and a keyboard which could be used to type the letters 'B.O.M.B.' Whatever they find, the verdict is already decided. Even if they unearth no glowing vats of kryptonite it will prove that Saddam has hidden them all away in hi
s cousin's lock-up garage. The inspectors are there for appearances' sake, to give the impression of a legitimate process, like the 'review' of a pit closure or recounts in Florida.

  Since the UN team are completely wasting their time, would it not be more worthwhile to get them searching for something a little more useful? 'After two weeks' hunting in British shopping centres, the United Nations weapons inspectors have finally located som Beyblades at Toys 'R' Us, Merry Hill, Birmingham. Oh no -apparently they've just been sold.' Perhaps they could find us an unbreakable CD case, or the Marmite in Sainsbury's, or a programme on the History Channel that wasn't about the Nazis.

  Or maybe they could find that international law that says that one nation has the right to decide there will be a 'regime change' in another country thousands of miles away. The whole world would like to see Saddam Hussein overthrown by his own people, but Bush needs this easy battle to help him win the really big fight the following year. Dubya's only interest in foreign policy is what it can do for him at home now they're over halfway through the presidential electoral cycle. So if I was a UN weapons inspector, I'd go back to the hotel, empty the mini-bar and hope there were enough miniature Johnny Walker bottles to drown the realization that I was a diplomatic patsy for the US Republican Party. Only I wouldn't stay there too long because there'll definitely be plenty of weapons of mass destruction all over Iraq pretty soon. They'll be dropping from US bombers to mark the start of the American presidential campaign, to make sure there's certainly no 'regime change' at the White House. And if the inspectors can't see that, then frankly they're never going to spot anything.

  Miss World shows her age

  7 December 2002

  Tonight in London, around a hundred women will parade up and down in their swimming costumes until the judges finally select the most beautiful of them all. No, it's not advertising executives interviewing for their new receptionist, but the Miss World competition returning to Britain in the most controversial of circumstances. The original venue in Nigeria had to be abandoned after the event prompted rioting, arson and murder. Miss Wales commented, 'It is a shame that a small minority of people spoiled it for everyone else . . .' Well said that woman! It's always the way, isn't it? Just a small handful of troublemakers who have to go and murder over two hundred people and leave thousands injured or homeless. The Nigerian government had originally been very keen to stage the contest, as they hoped it would show their country in a good light. So that worked well then.

  There were no prizes for guessing which nation would step in at the last minute to stage the naffest, most anachronistic event in the international calender. Sydney got the Olympics, Germany gets the World Cup, but Britain has Miss World and the Royal Variety Performance.

  Obviously the logistics of getting over a hundred foreign contestants from Africa into Britain at short notice presented quite a few problems. The organizers were assured by that Turkish lorry driver that for just $200 and a big box of fags he could smuggle them all

  through the Channel Tunnel, no questions asked. But when it came to it he just turfed them out of the back of the truck outside Sangatte and told them to cling on to the Eurostar as it sped past. It's at times like this that one realizes that national costumes were not designed with practicality in mind.

  Eventually the girls were rounded up by immigration officials at Dover who asked them a series of tough questions, every one of which was met with the answer, 'I'd like to travel and work with children . . .'

  'Come on, tell us the truth, what are you hoping for?' snarled the officer.

  'World peace,' beamed Miss Uruguay, glancing left and right and looking slightly puzzled that there was no applause.

  Finally they were allowed to proceed to London, and as a hundred beauty queens boarded the train for Victoria, dozens of middle-aged businessmen were seen optimistically moving their briefcases from the empty train seats beside them. Some feared that the British girls might exploit their home advantage, but in fact they could not have gone further out of their way to assist their rivals. They helpfully advised contestants visiting our shores for the first time that the best way to get a really good agent is to stick your photo in telephone boxes with your mobile number clearly marked. Miss Croatia was given lodgings with a Hampstead family, but she's not being allowed to the contest this evening because she's got a huge pile of ironing to finish after she's picked up the kids from ballet.

  This competition is now fifty-two years old, and frankly the lines started to show some time ago. Despite the botox and facelifts, there's no denying that poor Miss World has seen better days. This year the PR could not have been worse if Miss USA had insisted that Miss Iraq could only take part with a bucket over her head. But despite all the controversy, the promoters have been doing their best to try to whip up some excitement. One bookie's advert proclaimed, 'Place a bet and win a phwooarr-tune!' Ouch, my ribs are still aching from this joke. (Miss England is second favourite to win at 20-1, and you can get an each-way bet on the winner marrying Rod Stewart.) There have been some people who have suggested that, with so many deaths in Nigeria, the event should be abandoned altogether, but these are probably the very same kill-joys who for some reason wanted to cancel the Soweto Black and White Minstrel Show. Muriel Gray said, 'The girls will be wearing swimwear dripping with blood.' That's the last time they get Damien Hirst to design the outfits.

  In fact, a few of the more sensitive contestants withdrew some time ago. Some have returned now there's been a change in venue, which is a disappointing setback in the battle against sexism and patronizing attitudes towards women - but then you know what they say about a woman's prerogative to change her mind. The original boycott was to protest against the sentence passed on Amina Lawal, a Nigerian woman condemned to be stoned to death for having sex outside marriage. And now that hundreds have died in Nigeria as a result of this competition, there is something distasteful about the remaining contestants claiming that what they want most is 'world peace'. There's only one way for the organizers to salvage any dignity out of this farce - tonight, in her absence, they should crown Amina Lawal and see if the Nigerians would dare execute a reigning Miss World. But tell Rod not to propose to this one . . .

  EU to include Narnia

  14 December 2002

  In 2004 the European Union will be joined by a further nine, or possibly ten, countries, depending on investigations currently under way to ascertain whether Slovakia and Slovenia are the same country or not. Most of the new EU members announced on Thursday come from behind what was the Iron Curtain, but after decades as part of the Soviet Bloc they finally broke free and now can't wait to sign up to the European super-state instead. And what better example of European co-operation could there have been this week as the Arianne space rocket was launched and then exploded into a thousand pieces, while the poor technician was still trying to thumb his way through an instruction manual printed in a dozen different languages?

  Each new EU applicant has to meet a number of criteria before they can finally be admitted. They must have a functioning democracy, they should have a market economy and elderly widows will be expected to do something about their facial hair. No more smoking on the tram or letting dogs ride on mopeds. Rear seat belts must be fitted in all cars and then ignored as in the rest of the EU. No doubt the xenophobes will paint a picture of hordes invading from the Balkans. 'These Eastern European girls, I mean they come over here and do all our hoovering! But that's not enough for them, oh no, then they have to change the duvet covers, walk the Norfolk terriers and do six hours'

  babysitting as well! And what's going to happen to the good old British bar worker? They'll all have to go back to Australia!' English language schools will close in their hundreds as Slovakian au pairs no longer sign up just to get their student visa. New fast-food outlets will open. The traditional British kebab shop and Tandoori take-away will be replaced by Polish restaurants such as 'Beetroot U Like' and 'Yo Turnip!'

  There was a gre
at deal of intense negotiating over which countries actually qualified for the EU, and eyebrows have been raised at some of the new members, such as Estonia, Lithuania and most of all Narnia. Some objected that Narnia is not technically in Europe, but of course part of it is (well, the wardrobe bit anyway) and so Narnia scraped in. Naturally there have been concerns about their human rights record, not to mention the rights of fawns and beavers, but Jack Straw rightly pointed out that the Snow Queen's record on turning her subjects into stone statues has actually improved in recent years. 'The Snow Queen is gradually moving towards a more democratic and less wintry society and it is important that Western leaders are seen to be keeping the wardrobe door open,' he said. Further negotiations could take years, but it will seem like no time at all once the delegation is back home again.

  The only other controversy was the application by the Turkish Prime Minister. He overheard Tony Blair saying, 'We're not having Turkey!' at which he immediately stormed out and attacked the racist elitism of the Western club. He should have hung around to hear the British PM continue '. . . No, we thought we'd have goose this year, but with all the traditional trimmings, you know . . .'

  But at this seasonal time, the Christians did not vote for Turkey, despite a most helpful intervention by that popular European leader George W. Bush. This isn't the first time that Turkey have sought to be part of a united Europe - the last attempt was known as the Ottoman Empire. And for some years now Turkey have been knocking on the back door of the EU by getting themselves into the Eurovision Song Contest and the Champions League. What greater natural friendship could there be than that between English football fans and those of Galatasaray? And if Israel and Morocco are in Eurovision, then it's time the EU opened the door to Ecuador,

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