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I blame the scapegoats, p.2

I blame the scapegoats, page 2

 

I blame the scapegoats
 


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  There are some cynics who suggest that the Tory leadership contest has failed to grip the public's imagination; that it might have worked as a one-off show, but a long-running series was stretching the idea too far. But everywhere else the British people have been animatedly debating who'd be next to go. Will it be the gay one, will it be the asset-stripper, will it be the ex-soldier? And then it all got so confusing that one IOC delegate said he had voted for the 2008 Olympic Games to be held in Kenneth Clarke.

  The Tory Party has an even greater problem looming on the horizon in that the final decision will be made by its dwindling ancient membership, the majority of whom are completely mad. These die-hards are still fuming about the fact that back in the 1970s Britain adopted the duvet and abolished good old English sheets and blankets. 'British bedding is being dictated by Brussels . . .' they say. 'Continental quilts were introduced without a referendum, and the value of togs is outside Westminster's control.' They hate foreigners and they hate homosexuals and these are the very voters to whom Michael Portillo has to appeal. If they find out his dad was an asylum seeker he's really in trouble.

  In the second ballot Portillo managed a net increase of just one, which is exactly what the Tories managed at the last election, so it doesn't bode too well. David Davies has jumped before he was pushed, but he only got this far because some MPs were under the misapprehension that he was the bloke who used to present World of Sport. Ken Clarke was doomed from the outset because he would actually increase the appeal of the Conservative Party and that is the last thing on their mind at the moment.

  They say that the issue of Europe is causing even deeper division within the Conservative Party than the Repeal of the Corn Laws, but this isn't too surprising because you hardly ever hear any Tories talking about the Repeal of the Corn Laws these days. Iain Duncan Smith is the most anti-European, which is why I think he will get the most votes from those nutty party members. Having had a disastrous election result under William Hague, they will decide that what they need now is a bald right-winger.

  As someone whose hair is disappearing faster than the Tories' chances of winning the next election, I know I shouldn't go on about this bald thing, especially after the last time when it prompted letters to the Guardian from poor defenceless individuals like the editor of the Sun. But in the beauty parade of politics, first impressions are important. It's always been like this, I'm afraid; when Charlemagne's grandson became king of France he was immediately dubbed Charles the Bald. And King Charles went round saying to his advisers, 'Forsooth, do the peasants see how I have made Gaul strong once more? Do they say, "There goes our king, Charles the Unifier of the French"?'

  'Er, not exactly, your majesty.'

  'Do they call me "Charles the Architect of the Treaty of Verdun"?'

  'Not really, sir. You see, your brilliant statesmanship and wise counsel just aren't the first thing people notice about you . . .'

  Unless the Tories choose someone with a fringe, the fringe is where they will remain. Duncan Smith is William Hague without the moderation and charisma. He is the continuity candidate, a vote for more of the same. The good thing about this is that if the Conservatives continue to increase their representation in the House of Commons at the present rate, they will not achieve a Parliamentary majority until the year 2593. So the very best of luck, Iain, even if that's still far too early for my liking.

  Brickbats and mortar

  21 July 2001

  This week members of the Welsh Assembly sacked the architect of their new building, the famous Richard Rogers, due to soaring costs. As they say in Wales, they 'Englished' on the deal. They have decided to go for something cheaper and now may be forced to buy a 'Welsh Self-Assembly': £79.99 from B & Q Or, even worse, get Carol Smillie and Handy Andy to throw together a parliament building over the weekend using some MDF and a bit of crazy-paving.

  Many of the building problems were caused by political constraints. Assembly members insisted that when the scaffolders shouted offensive remarks at passing women, the same abuse should then be repeated in Welsh. And there was always the worry that if the Welsh Assembly building was to be built by an Englishman, it would be burnt down as soon as he headed back to London. (Actually the 'Sons of Glendower' haven't burnt many cottages lately - one of them got caught and a furious Glendower had to bail them out of the youth court in Aberystwyth, saying, 'Just wait till I get you home.')

  Maybe the problem is having the Welsh Assembly in Wales. If the English Cup Final is held in Cardiff, why not have the Welsh Assembly in London? Richard Rogers' last great building was the Millennium Dome. So there are all these Welsh politicians with nowhere to meet, and a huge empty building in the middle of

  Greenwich. Any day now someone in Whitehall is going to say, 'Are you thinking what I'm thinking?'

  The farce of the new Welsh Assembly building follows the pattern of recent architectural commissions by national and regional governments. Portcullis House was beset with scandal and delay. MPs were furious that the builders took longer than expected to finish the job -they didn't want any working-class people in Westminster for a moment longer than was necessary. The estimated cost of the Scottish Parliament has risen from £40 million to £109 million, which would have been severely criticized by Scottish Conservatives if there were any. And another great British Architect, Sir Norman Foster, fell out with his political clients when he got the commission for the Reichstag in Berlin. Personally, I was surprised to discover that it had taken the Germans so long to rebuild the Reichstag after that fire. I suppose it took ages sorting out the insurance claim. Apparently under 'Cause of Fire' the claimant, a Mr A. Hitler, had written 'International conspiracy of Bolsheviks and Jewish bankers', when most people had thought it was just down to some dodgy wiring. In any case, Nazi Mutual Insurance Ltd must have finally paid up because Sir Norman finished the job a couple of years ago, only to have the Germans withhold the final payment till the builders came round and removed that pile of sand from the drive and finished the little wall at the front.

  Every time a new major government building is commissioned, we end up with a political scandal. It must be a really hard issue for the tabloids to call. Imagine the extended editorial conferences at the Sun as they agonize over which side of the fence they should come down on: 'So - politicians spending millions of pounds of taxpayers' money on their own offices employing the latest modern architecture. Hmmm, are we for or against this?' and they all scratch their chins and wonder.

  When we are constructing new centres of government we have to be clear what these buildings are actually for. The word 'parliament' comes of course from the French 'parler' which means 'to ask sycophantic planted questions in a desperate bid for eventual promotion'. The building of great debating chambers is a throwback to the days when the debates changed things. These days most decisions are quietly fixed by a couple of civil servants who happen to bump into each other at the urinals. Maybe in recognition of this fact the centrepiece of a new parliament building should indeed be the urinals; great marble bowls could majestically sweep down from the wall containing beautiful hand-carved, scented disinfectant bars. There could even be the televising of the urinals so we could hear the crucial discussions of the day.

  Of course by sacking Richard Rogers and showing so little ambition for the new Assembly, the cheaper new building in Cardiff will probably be a bit of a toilet anyway. We're lucky to have great architects in this country, and our centres of government should be exciting and bold statements about the type of country we are. But the members of the Welsh Assembly are still reeling from the fact that, shock, horror, a major architectural project has gone up in cost during construction! Yet this happens every time. And the angry politicians round on the builders and scream, 'You said you'd be finished by now. You said it wouldn't cost so much. I can't believe it - you haven't kept any of your promises.'

  And the builders just shrug and say, 'Well, you started it. . .'

  After you with t
he trough

  28 July 2001

  This week a survey revealed that the average British chief executive now takes home half a million a year, not including bonuses, share options and those Post-it notes that he nicked from the office stationery cupboard. Defenders of the very rich say that the criticism of these enormous boardroom salaries is based on envy and class hatred. And they say it as if this is a bad thing.

  Boardroom salaries first soared after the famous Company Directors' Strike back in 1982. Who can forget those dramatic scenes as an angry mob of pin-striped businessmen fought pitched battles outside the Stock Exchange? Food convoys were organized to bring them four-course lunches from L'Escargot. Violence erupted as they got their chauffeurs to overturn cars. Mounted policeman rushed up to the strikers, saying, Are you all right there, sir?' After months of bitter struggle a complex pay settlement was agreed and executive salaries are now decided on the following criteria: the chairmen say to themselves, 'What's the most outrageous and exorbitant pay rise I can give myself? Right, I'll have that much then.'

  Even companies that are laying off staff still seem to find the money to pay huge bonuses to the board. A director of Marks and Spencer's just decided his bonus was the wrong size, so he took it back and got a bigger one. Last year the chairman of Vodafone took an award of £13 million. I know it sounds like a lot, but really by the time you've paid the accountants and the tax man it's actually only around £12 million. And now the only good causes that are getting more money from Camelot are the directors' own bank accounts. It leaves you wondering why these greedy people need so much money. If I was a multi-millionaire, I wouldn't want much more than I have now. All I'd buy is a nice house with a bigger garden and that would be it. And I suppose if I've got all that garden I might as well have a swimming pool in it. And a tennis court, and there could be, like, a little stream with a bridge and a path that leads down to the orchard. But apart from that - oh and the cars, and the flat in town and the villa in Tuscany - my needs would be modest.

  There is an unhealthy fascination with the lifestyles of the super-rich that needs to be countered with some positive publicity for the people at the other end of the pay scale. As well as Hello I, there should be a magazine called Wotcha! in which skint ex-squaddies invite the cameras in to see their cockroach-infested bed-sit. And the colour supplements should publish a 'Sunday Times Poor List' - 'this week we list Britain's 100 most impoverished plebs. At number 57 is Fat Degsy of Urine Towers, Rotherham, whose assets include half an ounce of Old Holborn and a beard. Total value: 34 pence. But he's still much richer than the couple who've just gone straight in at number one: congratulations to Neil and Christine Hamilton.'

  Just as Britain's poorest have formed an underclass, so the very rich are excluded from society as an 'overclass'. They do not use the schools, hospitals, trains or anything else which might involve the horrors of mixing with ordinary people or, even worse, queuing. These poor people are outcasts from society; they need all the help and support we can give them so that they can start to live normal lives once again.

  What is needed is a new windfall tax to be levied on Britain's fat cats. This suggestion is based purely on economic grounds and is certainly not prompted by any sort of left-wing bitterness. Anyway, the so-called 'Rich Bastard Tax' would involve a £10,000 tariff on anything that the newly appointed 'Toff Tsar' deemed to be 'vulgar, ostentatious or just annoyingly wealthy'. Personalized number plates would be a good place to start - I don't see why these don't just all say '2 MUCH MONEY'. There'd be a surcharge for anyone driving a Porsche with a sticker in the back saying 'My other car's a Porsche'. Second homes would be another good target, and the tax would be doubled if the owners were overheard referring to them as 'just a little bolt-hole in the country'. Rolex watches, automatic garage doors, Moschino handbags, or any clothes bought from a shop where you have to ring a bell to be let in - all sorts of things would warrant the extra duty. I'd like to put in a personal plea to surcharge the owner of that £100,000 cabin cruiser I saw on the Thames that was called Just A Whim.

  'Ah, but it's not that simple . . .' say the government. 'Tackling these fat cats is a very tough job indeed. It's going to need the very best people to see it through, a cabinet of the highest calibre, who won't be tempted to get better-paid jobs elsewhere. So we're all agreed then, ministers: we'll just award ourselves a massive pay increase before we get started . . .'

  Product placemeNt sIcKEns me

  4 August 2001

  This week saw the biggest row in Hollywood since ET quit the movie business claiming he was always being typecast as a lovable alien.'I am a serious actor! I can do Shakespeare, look: "To be, or not beee goood, Damn! Damn!"'

  The latest scandal to rock Tinseltown is over a product placement deal for the film American Pie 2. You may have been unfortunate enough to catch the original that is endlessly reshown on the Sky Godawful Movies Channel, which was famous for a scene in which an adolescent boy has sex with an apple pie. Obviously this is not something any normal person should ever attempt, as I said to that doctor at the burns clinic next door to McDonald's.

  In the sequel, the teenagers actually graduate to having sex with each other and, to the film-makers' credit, the sex is safe. No condoms were featured in the original film, which led to criticism that the boy could have been infected by one of the apple pie's previous lovers. This time round the money men at Universal Studios thought they'd spotted the chance for some lucrative product placement, and struck a deal with the manufacturers of Lifestyle condoms which would feature prominently in the movie (presumably before they were put on, or that PG certificate would have been a real long-shot). The studio also undertook to promote the Lifestyle brand in the adverts for American Pie 2, but instead of honouring the deal, Universal pulled out prematurely which, as we all know, is no substitute for using a condom.

  It turns out that American regulations prevent condoms featuring in any commercials that might be seen by a general audience. Car chases, shoot-outs and robberies are fine, but mention contraception and you have crossed the boundary of good taste. Which is bizarre because sex has always been used to sell films. Although at least in Last Tango in Paris they didn't feel the need to establish what brand of butter it was.

  The controversy has highlighted the whole issue of product placement: the prominent featuring of brand names as a form of oblique advertising. Somehow you sense that the great films of the past would not have had quite the same impact if directors like David Lean had depended on covert advertising. When Alec Guinness staggers out of that baking little cell in Bridge on the River Kwai he does not say: 'Well, thank goodness I had my Right Guard double protection.'

  'Why "double" protection, sir?'

  'Because it protects your noses and your clothes-es.'

  'Yes, and I should add, sir, that this prison camp is much better since it got taken over by Club Mark Warner.'

  'Indeed, the men's morale has been greatly lifted by the pedalo race down the River Kwai.'

  Some might argue that the opening of Bergman's 1957 classic The Seventh Seal, in which Antonius Block encounters the figure of Death, might have been improved if instead of embarking on a game of chess they had played with the free plastic toys now being given out with McDonald's Happy Meals.

  'If your little clockwork turtle goes across the table quicker than mine, I shall release you.'

  And if I lose?'

  'Then . ..' says Death, 'you'll have to let me finish your Chocolate McMilkshake.'

  Or what about the moment in Casablanca when Ilsa walks into Rick's place. All the agony of Bogart's broken heart is written on his face when suddenly the silence is broken by a waitress saying to Ilsa, 'Hello, have you been to a Harvester before?' And only Sam knows who this beautiful woman is, but he acts normally, saying, 'Do help yourself to as much as you'd like from the salad cart.'

  The trouble is that some films are easier to get sponsors for than others. Few were surprised when P&O ferries de
cided not to have their name splashed all over Titanic. Of course art needs financial backing - this has been going on ever since the cigar manufacturers persuaded Shakespeare to rename his latest hero Hamlet - but product placement can only diminish the integrity and quality of a film. Furthermore, if a studio has been paid millions of dollars to show the hero drinking Budweiser, then the editor is duty bound to leave in that scene however bad it is and however it affects the rest of the movie.

  So now you go to the cinema and you are jolted out of your enjoyment of the film every time a global brand is shoved in your face; every time the star pointedly pulls on his Gap sweatshirt and Nike trainers or the camera lingers on his bottle of Miller Draft or his new Nokia communicator. But there's a reason that the corporations have to promote their wares so crassly within the body of the main feature. It's because before the film proper you have to sit through a dozen arty, pretentious commercials and at the end of each one you turn to your friends and say, 'What was that an advert for?' And they reply, 'I haven't the faintest bloody idea.'

  Send in the clones

  I I August 2001

  The Bible says that God made man in His own image, but really this is just not specific enough. Does God look like Leonardo DiCaprio or like David Mellor? If God made John Prescott in His own image then frankly you'd have to question His judgement. There are certain personalities that make you want to rush through a bill preventing there being any more of them. One Donald Rumsfeld is already more than enough.

 
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