Anatomy of a punchline

Viral videos are unpredictable creatures. Who knew, back in my school days, that Rick Astley would have a cult status around the world as the ‘go to’ for merking friends and message board regulars alike? How did putting mints into bottles of cola develop from High School science trick to YouTube ratings winner?

The viral video we’re all waking up to this morning is a delicious slice of British humour – it’s deadpan, plays on class (an ever present ingredient in British humour), and is frankly absurd (and from the earliest Goon shows to The IT Crowd, there is always room for the bizarre in comedy here.)

It is simple, short, effective – a lesson for sketch show writers everywhere who don’t know when to stop. A man has lost control of his dog, and the dog is having a right old time chasing deer through Richmond Park. It could be The Fast Show and plays out like an alternative comedy show from a lost age. Helping the joke along is the accent – the heavy rounded vowels, deep in panic, undeniably middle-class. Who calls their dog “Benton”? People with a sense of comedy, that’s who. “Jesus Christ!” is never more funny than when shouted by a well-to-do country gent legging it through fields. This is Downton Abbey with a laughter track.

Danny Baker is always quick to criticise those who analyse jokes – to investigate the beauty of a  flower, one must rip it up by the roots and thereby kill it. Jokes are fragile and honest creatures, they don’t always need insults and swear-words and sarcasm. Sometimes they just need the beauty of human life, the ridiculousness of ordinariness.  “It’s all in the tag!” Kenneth Williams used to say, and this is exactly what “The Benton Incident” has in under 50 seconds.

You couldn’t – quite literally – write this stuff.

Right to Recall

Remember the expenses scandal? Hazel Blears waving a cheque around, duck ponds and trouser presses (“It’s a bit Alan Partridge”, said Chris Huhne, who probably wishes that was the end of the word association game connecting “MP for Eastleigh” with “controversy”.)

The aftermath flushed out all suggestions and attempts to clean up politics as though the establishment was blowing down the garden hose that had been stuffed on the tallest ledge of the shed for the best part of the year. “PR! Smaller House of Commons! An independent expenses regime! Dealing with lobbyi….Stuff!”

One of the bright ideas coming through all of this mild panic was the “right to recall”, a mechanism through which people could get their MP off the green benches and into the Job Centre…Or at least an enforced by-election of some sort. The Labour Party love “right to recall” so much that they still put it on their website – look, it’s here in their manifesto section.  And the Tories thought it was a good idea too – in April of last year they explained how right to recall might work.

Deputy PM Nick Clegg described plans for a right to recall in a Q&A session in August last year.  And now….Well…

…it’s not easily found anywhere.  The usual websites tend to fall silent on the matter, and Hansard is not an easy stamping ground for looking at where the proposal has landed. Just how long is the long grass?

“Right to recall” is a messy process if handled incorrectly, which it might just be if the proposals are given the same treatment as those to reduce the number of MPs by 50 (which I support, though the specifics of the legislation has created some absolute howler constituencies ).

Would the trigger be an official Parliamentary review? In all cases? Would Liam Fox, for example, be subject to a recall by-election if the good burghers of North Somerset were able to organise enough signatures on a website? If Parliament or an independent review decides that Mr or Mrs MP has not committed an offence even though the “court of public opinion” thinks otherwise, would a petition still be allowed?

There’s all the usual lines in the background about “turkeys”, “christmas” and “the voting for”, and of course professional troublemakers will be in their element attempting to deselect the Prime Minister for looking at them funny. (I notice the NUS has now gone very quiet over its ill-fated recall attempt for all those nasty Liberal Democrat MP, maybe the take up of their wacky scheme didn’t match their lofty ambitions?).

I hope that someone can bring back the recall scheme where it belongs, because as a powerful tool it is one of the most effective. But it needs to be properly configured, and not open to the kind of nutter magnet tendencies you see in the (otherwise flawless) e-petition scheme. Members of Parliament have not been whiter-than-white….ever…..but the mood music at the moment has no patience for wrongdoing amongst our elected masters. “Right to recall” is not a very British policy and would take a while to slot into our mindset. (It has not moved from “shouldn’t grumble” to “Whose Streets?! Our Streets?!” without any intervening period, despite the over-the-top self-promotion of the Occupy ”movement”).

“Right to recall” byelections would open up political and democratic debate, and Lord knows we need a bit more debate recently. They would be rare, of course, because the rules would require a structure that ensured it was used properly by both Parliament and the electors. Those MPs who slipped through the expenses scandal with only nips and cuts to their pride need to feel the heat of the “recall” threat – I’m a democrat, that’s my default position, and recall triggers fits very comfortably into a democratic model.

The age of the local referendum and devolved power is approaching – the Localism Act is a great tool and one which the Liberal Democrats should be rightly proud of producing. This might not be a sexy subject, but it’s important and relevant today as it was during the depths of the expenses scam.

But until someone pokes the Cabinet Office to remind them about this policy, one wonders if it’ll ever be enacted? What’s that people say about the more things change…..

Adventures in Groundhopping

The football website BornOffside is just over one year old and from Shamrock Rovers to the stadia blueprints in Qatar, it’s been quite a journey. There’s a lot of exciting things to come from the BornOffside lads in the coming months, so if you’ve not checked the site out yet, be sure to do so.

As I noted a few months ago now, this current football season is one where I’ll be hopping around the lower and non-league grounds (…within affordable public transport reach, natch), and scribing about the experiences for BornOffside.

It’s been two months already and I’m ticking off some great little games and cracking grounds, but much more than that, I’m enjoying people watching, comparing pies and noticing how all right-backs are frustrated centre midfielders who just want a CHANCE IN LIFE DAMMMIT.

By way of a catch-up, here’s the run down of my adventures thus far. There’s  more to come, hope you enjoy the ride as much as I do….

A day trip to Squires Gate, and then to Lancaster, covered in The First Weekends.

An early FA Cup qualifier saw Prescot Cables take on Warrington, all scribed up as Prescot Punch

Trying out plucky little Flixton against the “phoenix club” AFC Liverpool in Flawed Phoenix

Taking the 30-minute walk from my house down the road for Bamber Bridge in Bridge Too Far

Making my way to North Wales to take in the beautiful game from the vantage point of the Welsh First Division, which I hope was translated accurately as Y gêm hardd

Down the West Coast Main Line for the charms of Wigan, only without the threat of bumping into Gary Caldwell, which was all a bit all pastry, no filling

Last weekend I found myself on a park in Radcliffe for the lowest level of non-league football I have ever watched. It should be up on the site later this week, so check it out.

Scot Free

Later today, the results of the Scottish Conservative Party Leadership contest will be confirmed. All the smart money, and some of the maverick pounds too, has backed Murdo Fraser, the man who will win the Leadership, thank the men and women and cake bakers and raffle ticket sellers for all their hard work, and then announce the immediate termination of the Scottish Party’s existence.

Murdo thinks the only solution to the “Scottish Problem” which has infected the Conservatives with pox marks and scars is to rip it all up and start again.

And the man has a point.

In terms of brand awareness, word association plays a huge part in ensuring your target audience stay with you. “Labour” brings to mind so many thoughts and considerations, as does “Liberal Democrat” (and post-Coalition, heaven knows how many swear words amongst the images, but that’s for another thread….).

In Scotland “Conservative” is essentially a swearword. At the 1997 General Election, the Party fell   to a complete collapse north of the border, and to this day the Tories have but just one Scottish Member of Parliament. In the Holyrood elections this year, even with a proportional voting system, the Party musters fifteen members, a minority grouplet in one part of the United Kingdom where the current Prime Minister is one of their number. When Murdo Fraser points to the reputation issue as justification for wanting to rebrand the Party, you can see his point.

 At the core of Fraser’s concern is an issue more substantial than changing the letterhead and choosing a decent typeface (though, if the leaked document discussing names is accurate, “The Caledonians sounds like a novelty act on the X-Factor and Scotland First is a discount travel agents).  Fraser complains that the need for a real centre-right party in Scotland is hindered by the negative connotations attached to the words “Conservative” and even “Unionist”. His victory later today would draw a thick black line under the history of the Party going back centuries; Scottish politics would move further away from its already semi-divorced status to the rest of the United Kingdom, becoming ever more European in its political structures. The  new Party would take the Conservative whip, but would form independent from the Cameron-led Conservatives in its policies and practices.

There is danger in this radical idea (and for the Conservatives, this is about as radical as things get). Scottish political culture is a distinctly different place to the English equivalent; at the last Westminster election the swing was to Labour, conversely  at Holyrood the Labour Party was wiped out of its heartlands. Pinning a new badge on a lapel is not enough. For the Conservatives need to combat a distinctly Scottish problem without having the Oak Tree logo and David Cameron’s face moving into frame, to combat the SNP without the connotations of doing so with an English accent.

The influential Conservative blog, ConservativeHome, recommended the strategy in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 election. As Unionists it might come as an unusual tactic to deploy but when everything else has failed…

I am no Tory, though I am certainly no lefty-leaning apologist either. The Labour Party is a walking, talking economic disaster zone, one which has proven itself adept at persuading great swathes of the electorate to support its candidates despite taking those voters for granted. Scotland is going through an unusual two-tier electoral development, pro-Labour at Westminster, creating a built-in Labour bias regardless of circumstances, whilst rejecting the Labour model at Holyrood. The consequences for other parties, including the Scottish Liberal Democrats, is the political equivalent of patting your head and rubbing your belly. There is nothing to suggest the SNP have coherent policies beyond “independence now, oil profits for a brighter tomorrow!” written in North Korean-style poster boards.

I live in Northern England, where “brand Tory” is devalued in some major population centres. Whilst it is true that Conservatives have many councillors in Cheshire, Trafford and even Salford, their numbers in Manchester and Liverpool can be counted…er….in thin air. Whatever repair job is achieved by Fraser in Scotland will need to be carefully watched by the English party.

All democrats need to accept the vibrancy and urgency which comes from a multi-party system. The Labour Party has an attitude of entitlement which is drawn from years of lacklustre opposition; if the Scottish Conservative rebrand fails, it might mean opposing the Labour Party on both sides of the border becomes even harder.

red faction

November brings cold nights, dark skies and the perennial tabloid topic; “How shall we fill 500 words on Remembrance Sunday?”. For as long as I can recall, there is never a bad time to start complaining about wearing a Poppy too soon, in the wrong lapel, or if wearing one at all is distasteful. Recently, Facebook and in the Internet generally has fostered a form of nationalistic hubris which mixes the remembrance of our fallen war dead with twisted nationalism and barely hidden racism. “You’ll never see Muslims wearing a Poppy!” screams the copy-and-paste status updates.

For every group where users speak in general terms – such as “Poppy’s {sic} show our gratitude to our boys injured and killed for our freedom and should be promoted by companies not banned” – it does not take long to find prejudice of a very unsettling kind. One status update in a Poundland group, hastily set up in the heat of the “Poundland ban the poppy” controversy, reads “Disgusting! I’m not racist in any way but if Great Brittain’s {sic} traditions and morals offend you ”Vistiors” then PISS OFF and don’t come back!!!”.  Some mouse clicks further and I find “The shop manager in question was probably some Muslim extremist let into the UK after claim political asylum from Pakistan or somewhere equally horrific.”

As a symbol of war and remembrance, the poppy has always been easily hijacked, adopted by those who push a very different message than that of peace and understanding. Its colour is vivid and unromantic, the blood of the fallen, the setting of many suns on the bodies of men and women who will never see loved ones again. It’s the colour of sacrifice and of England. Associations which would always attract disquiet and those who would like to cause disquiet. In an age where nationalism beats close to the surface of the news agenda, particularly the extremist English nationalism with its football hooligan connections, the poppy sits with the cross of St George and lions in Trafalgar Square as adopted symbols of a mindset completely at odds with the peace and understanding the end of armed conflict is supposed to promote. Yes, the burning of poppies by Muslim extremists is an incendiary act, but the anti-everything English nationalists who would rather smash up a town centre than engage in debate are extremists too. Ignorance and prejudice anger me more than the absence of a poppy on a suit-jacket.

The politics of the poppy has been tackled by two very different blog posts in recent days. Laurie Penny wrote last year an article in New Statesman which was reproduced at the start of this week in which she decries the “hypocrisy and showbiz” of poppy day. In an otherwise considered article – and there’s not often when Penny can be described like that – she spoils everything with a jarring paragraph on politicians “cheerfully author[ising]” cuts to jobs and education “in order to defend Britain’s military spending.”  Her attempt to tie the sacrifice of the fallen to “the sacrifice…of working class people” in a political diatribe is unfortunate and misplaces her anger.  Blogger “Stackee” brings Penny to task – objecting to the way Penny has chosen to use working-class people as a way to score crass political points.

In the middle of all this  are valid points teetering on the edge of hubris. The sight of Tony Blair at the Cenotaph every year did stick in the throat, his reasons for war so tenuous and weak, the justification for invading Iraq nothing less than a false prospectus. In the two minutes of silence on 11 November, how many prayers and thoughts can realistically balance the perfunctory orders which sent men and women to fight? 

Wearing a poppy is not a right. It is neither a symbol of piety. Armistice Day is not primarily a date to mourn the deaths of men who fought under our flag. Laurie Penny is right to feel awkward at the sight of politicians wearing poppies though her substantive point is way off the mark. 

Would any of this be resolved if the White Poppy was more readily available? It would certainly get the nationalists talking…