The critic in The Times (I won’t dignify them with a name) complained that there were “too many Wings and solo songs”, which just about sums up the grudging four-star reviews you’ll find in the likes of that news outlet and The Guardian, an organ at which I’m convinced they’ll only let you work if you’re the kind of dork who claims not to like The Beatles.
Immersed in Beatles Twitter as I am, it can be a shock to the system to see that there are still people out there in the comments sections ready to dismiss McCartney, either because he’s not Bob Dylan or Neil Young, or because he’s not John Lennon. You want to take these people aside and whisper, you don’t have to choose, but it’s certainly not worth entering the arena.
The lesson, as always, is don’t read the comments.
I’ve become so fragile when it comes to Macca that I only have to think about “Hey Jude” and I start welling up, so it was slightly odd, watching the BBC’s time-delayed Glastonbury coverage last night, to find myself feeling every bit of the 125 miles of road between there and here. I’ll stick on a YouTube video (a recent example: Paul’s appearance at Roger Daltrey’s cancer charity concert) and watch through a veil of tears. But last night: not a wet eye in the house.
The problem is not Macca but Glastonbury itself, the very thought of which fills me with an eldritch horror. Everything I hate about crowds, big gigs, extroverts, and camping is there. Bodies pressed together: check. Crowdsurfing: check. People blocking the view of those behind by being on someone’s shoulders: check. Fucking flags, bleeding banners: check. Staying up past bedtime: check. People enjoying themselves late into the night: yuck. I read something in the Guardian earlier today in an article about couples who have dragged young children to the festival. One of the blokes, talking about his kid, quipped, “She was made here.” To which the only sane response is, ew.
There’s something so soulless about music at festivals, the visible paraphernalia of scaffolds and truckloads of gear, the tackiness of glittery pianos, purple microphones, the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd. I get double vision: I see trampled grass and trash cleanup crews at the same time as the 100,000 crowd and the sun setting behind the Tor.
Also: I cannot rid myself of the image of the bloke at the back of the stage apparently aiming his iPhone camera up the short skirt of the 19-year-old pop singer.
So Glasto leaves me cold and keeps leaving me cold, and I couldn’t help noticing things like the poor sound mix and the patchy lighting, but Macca’s set was very special. Those journalists who complained that there was too much non-Beatles material really need to have a word. He played “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five”! He played “Let ‘Em In”! He played “Junior’s Farm”! “Maybe I’m Amazed!” And he played “Love Me Do”, “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window”, and (a bit of) “You Never Give Me Your Money”. All this plus Dave Grohl and Bruce. It was odd, though, wasn’t it? The lighting on the stage wasn’t very good, especially when Springsteen was there. You could barely detect his presence when he emerged for “The End”. And (I guess because of the fucking flags and the bleeding banners) the television cameras kind of missed a lot of things, like Abe the drummer dancing. You just couldn’t really see him back there in the dark, and you barely saw Rusty and Brian who are such an important presence.
As to the voice: it was fine. With a little lift from his bandmates, it was all right. Better than Dylan’s vocal has been for the last thirty years or so. It compares well to Springsteen’s similarly shot voice. It’s not insignificant that McCartney is still playing the songs in their original keys, and his musicianship remains undiminished. I did wonder how his little chats to the crowd worked at the venue itself, but that was just me being distant: 125 miles away.
It has been interesting to note the approbation towards RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch on the Twitters over the past couple of days and compare him with the deliberately lacklustre Keir Starmer, who has been under fire recently for being quote boring unquote.
While I do not accept the narrative that a leader should be exciting, or even much of a leader (who needs ‘em, fuck ‘em), I do think that the leader of the opposition should, on occasion, when weather allows, all things considered, by and large, oppose the fucking government.
To see Lynch straight batting the obviously biased media questioning and using actual words that ordinary people might use in dismissing the attack lines was to find oneself wondering why Starmer’s Labour party finds it quite so difficult to hold a coherent position. I also wonder at the sheer front of these journalists, who are surely members of a union themselves, in acting as mouthpieces for their billionaire owners. Fuck ‘em all. Of course, all their kids are at private schools, so you can’t trust any of them.
For every floating voter (floater) who is not actually repelled by Starmer, at least half a dozen natural Labour voters are facepalming their way to a spoiled ballot or a vote for the Greens. I cannot say it clearly enough: why should I, a person who wants a more equitable society with justice for all, vote for this mealymouthed empty suit? He reminds me of that horrible man Ian Duncan Smith, remember? When he was leader of the Tories in opposition, he was accused of being too placid, too quiet, like Starmer. And he came out at a Tory conference (2003) and embarrassed himself by strutting across the stage and pretending to TURN UP THE VOLUME.
It was embarrassing, and you get the feeling Starmer would be exactly the same if he tried to climb out of his aardvark suit and show a bit of passion. But as I said: I don’t need an exciting leader. I just need someone who will appear in front of the people of this country and stand up for something. Give us something to vote for, Keir! Instead of just something to vote against. Standing up for striking transport workers would be a start, but no. Instead he warns his own MPs not to openly support them, even though most of the public do. That he’s not willing to speak the words that Lynch does, when he points out the excessive salaries of Britain’s bosses, the greed of the rich, the massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich that has been going on for decades, is simply bewildering.
If he cannot stand up now in support of ordinary working people against the rapacious profiteering and wealth accumulation of the rich, he’s worse than useless. He’s helping Johnson stay in post, and he’s helping the Tories win the next election.
Having now watched the fourth episode (of six?) of Sherwood, I return to say that it becomes less impressive as each hour passes. The fourth was particularly poor, I thought, and showed all the signs of that dreaded mid-season dip that besets so many otherwise good shows, from Star Trek Discovery to Game of Thrones.
In the case of Sherwood the dip manifests itself as a kind of treadmill of unexpected new characters and unlikely scenes, viz:
Half a million Met officers arrive (sleeping like refugees on campbeds in some vast hangar?) to sweep the forest, but there is precious little evidence of them in the actual forest.
Meanwhile, two campers (?) walkers (?) seem to lack all awareness there’s a murderer in the woods. Even if we accept they are there in the first place, why would they walk off leaving food in the skillet and a mobile phone in an (open) tent?
At least two previously unheard of characters appear in order to deliver convenient (and clumsily executed) speeches.
Matriarch of crime family with no school-age children is a school governor.
So it goes. As I said: a treadmill. Because although there are many convenient arrivals, coincidences, and expositionary speeches, the plot doesn’t really move forward. It’s the illusion of things happening. The whole nursing home scene, for example, gets us nowhere that the “restricted” records search hadn’t already reached. And I’m reminded that Sherwood is on in June, not October. The BBC must be cock-a-hoop that a show with so many flaws got such glowing reviews.
Meanwhile, I’ve been bingeing the fourth season of The Rookie on Now, and this throwback to network cop shows of the past is such a pleasure. As I think I’ve said before, it’s a show with its heart in the right place that really tries to address questions of justice rather than just crime.
I also dipped into The Lazarus Project (Now), which is okay. The premise is there’s a top secret group that uses a time resetting mechanism to undo catastrophic global events. It’s not awful, but it isn’t Travelers (Netflix), in which a group of time travelers attempt to undo a catastrophic future. If you’re going to watch one time bending catastrophe avoiding thriller, make it Travelers, which like The Rookie is a show with a good heart.
I was reading the headlines last week about the so-called ‘cost of living crisis’ and in particular the cost of filling a car with petrol or diesel. And it struck me that newspapers like The Guardian, who were punching the government about not doing enough to help, were wrongheaded in their approach to this issue. Because the fact is that this government’s freeze on the fuel tax accumulator over the past 10 years has kept prices artificially low. And if we want to encourage people (including the people writing these words) out of their cars and onto bicycles and public transport, then the cost of running a car needs to get higher, not lower. And then yesterday, when the remaining electric car purchase subsidy was lifted (finally!), we should be cheering from the rooftops because private car ownership is not the answer. Doesn’t matter whether we’re driving electric or diesel or petrol: we need to be consuming less. Of everything.
And this has been the problem really, since the privatisation of the utility companies in the 1980s. A for-profit privatised electricity generator and distributor has no incentive to encourage consumer economy, fuel parsimony. Since 1986, nobody has been telling us to switch off lights, have showers instead of baths, turn the heating down a notch or rely less on electrical gadgets. (The logo above comes from a UK government energy saving campaign in the early 1970s.)
Which brings us to Sherwood (BBC iPlayer)
As time has passed, the stand-off between the British government and the coalminers in 1984-5 looms larger and larger in our national psyche. The more remote these stakes are from the lives of subsequent generations, the greater its significance in legend. At the time, it seemed both like a fight to save a way of life and a form of brutal, petty vengeance that had been a long time coming. How long? *cracks knuckles*
In 1910, Winston Churchill (then Home Secretary), sent troops to break a 10-month long strike in Wales by charging striking miners with fixed bayonets. The consequence of this was eventually a national strike in 1912 (referenced by J B Priestley in An Inspector Calls, natch), with over a million coalminers flexing their industrial muscles. The government of 1914-18 then tried to use the excuse of war to attack miners’ pay and conditions (a classic play they repeated in 1939-45), and the fractious relationship between the government, the mine owners, and the miners led to the General Strike of 1926. While the national version of this strike was short-lived, the miners were out for seven months.
The disputes and confrontations continued into the hungry 1930s, with miners’ pay and conditions continually under attack. In Nottinghamshire, where a breakaway (‘Spencer’) union had formed, pay was the lowest in the country (because that’s what you get when you undermine solidarity). Miners loyal to the main national trade union (then called the MFGB) were victimised. Sound familiar?
After the Second World War, the government nationalised the coal mines, and the new National Union of Mineworkers was formed. This powerhouse union had the ability to bring the country to a standstill: and did. But not straight away. This country was, frankly, a socialist paradise between 1945 and 1966, so it wasn’t until 1972 that the first strike of the modern era happened. It only lasted a month or so, and the miners achieved an improved pay offer from the Heath-led Conservative government. That’s what strikes are for.
Following the 1973 oil shock, there was another miners’ strike in 1974, after an overtime ban had reduced coal stocks. In response to the coal shortage, the Heath government introduced the three-day working week (yes please!) and anyone old enough to remember those days will recall the heady thrill of nightly power cuts: candles at the ready! ITV and BBC took it in turns to stop broadcasting at 10:30 pm. Bed time, everyone! Oh, and SAVE IT.
With the miners now voting to strike, Heath went to the country, asking the electorate to choose who was running the country. Voters (narrowly) chose Harold Wilson’s Labour party (and then again in the October 1974 election).
Humiliated, the Conservatives brooded like trolls until they were back in power. Thatcher’s 1979 government was perhaps not secure enough to take on the miners, so she waited until after the 1983 election to have the showdown her party had been waiting nearly 10 years to have. And it was brutal.
Nominally, this was a dispute over the future of the industry. Nowadays, I have mixed feelings. I didn’t want communities all over the country, from Kent to Wales and Nottingham to Yorkshire and Scotland, to die. But nowadays I know that we really should have stopped digging coal out of the ground a long time ago. All those Tomorrow’s World etc. segments about wind and wave power, from the 1950s onwards, should have been taken more seriously. But Thatcher’s project of closing down the coal industry wasn’t about the environment and climate change. She wanted to put the mines down so she could put the miners down. Revenge was her dish, and she had been prepared so long that it was indeed served cold.
Even though the miners were on strike for a year, there were no power cuts; there was no three-day week. Coal had been stockpiled, a lot of power stations had converted to gas, and the government was importing coal from the continent. The miners were fucked.
This didn’t stop the Nottinghamshire miners, who had a history of this kind of thing, from forming a breakaway union and continuing to work (they were not alone, actually: the strike was never solid). It didn’t save them: they betrayed their comrades for nothing.
As a young union organiser at the time, in the tax office union, I did my bit to support the strike. Organised raffles, raised money to pay striking miners. Because of this activity, I was definitely blacklisted by the government, and my own working career blighted (I’ve written about this before).
The miners were defeated, the unions and the trades union movement broken, and (as such), we were all damaged. The hedge fund managers, the Tory spivs, moved in, the Labour movement was enfeebled, heavy industry was hollowed out, and debt took over as the means people use to make ends meet. The average credit card debt per household in March this year was £2,173. It now takes 26 years, at average savings rates, to put aside enough money for a deposit on a house. Average debt per UK adult is now 108% of earnings (source).
Many communities have never recovered. For our Oxford and Cambridge educated political and media elites, the wild country North of Watford Gap is a blasted wasteland of hoodies and deprivation. People up there put cheese on their chips.
This is all background to Sherwood, the BBC’s new drama about a murder in a former coal mining community (a former community is the best way to put it) in Nottinghamshire.
A friend asked me if I thought it was realistic that someone would (nearly 40 years later) be called a scab, as one character was in the first episode. I replied, I would.
I’ve often said on here how I look out of the window and seethe with dislike towards my Tory neighbours. The flag wavers across the road, the white-haired, red-trousered old men I see around the neighbourhood and in the local supermarkets. I’ve also said on here that Thatcher was my Vietnam. The fact is, my anger and resentment towards the people who live around here (and who have consistently returned a Conservative MP to Parliament at every single election) does date back forty years. And, yes, I’ll still mutter fascist under my breath when I see that union jack draped outside the house opposite. It’s not as if these are the people benefitting when London is turned into the world’s money laundering capital. But they’re the ones who keep voting for it. Nothing worse, as I often say, than a working class Tory.
So Sherwood does seem quite authentic, as far as the social background goes. The Guardian awarded five stars and was fulsome in its praise. The Times, true to form (as the newspaper of the spivs), offered a more grudging four stars.
Me? I think it’s all right, but nothing like this will ever wholly win me over. Too many clichés of the form. The opening aerial drone shot of the forest (see every Scandi noir, and any other rural-set thriller); the local cop who grew up in the community and is now semi-detached from it because s/he’s one of the few with a steady job; the lock-up full of surprising evidence; the raft of familiar faces, from that woman who always plays the slightly less well off sister to the guy who always plays the hard-headed class warrior, and the other guy who always plays the haunted-looking geezer you wouldn’t want to encounter in the dark. I can never really get past the small pool of talent that British TV producers draw from. But even the “working class community fallen on hard times and divided against itself” theme is a hoary old trope. The same critics were surely gushing about the same idea in Mare of Easttown just last year.
Anyway, it’s watchable, it’s on the iPlayer, and it’s another reminder that our country and its assets was stolen from us. If you need me, I’m over here: the human face being stamped on by a boot—forever.
I sat through Pistol and quite enjoyed it — far more than I ever did the actual music the actual first time around. Of course, this based-on-a-true-story television drama suffers from the same problems of all rock biopics, which is that it tries to compress (into episodes, or the length of a feature film) events which inevitably took place at different times, in different places, with different personnel, expressing themselves differently, so that there are moments of pure cheese and exposition. As David Hepworth said on The Word podcast, sooner or later there’s a scene in which someone says, “Oh, look, it’s Chrissie Hynde,” or “Ugh, it’s Nick Kent, the NME journalist who fancies himself as Keith Richards.”
Which of course it does. But ignore all that, and you’ve got a story that does have some kind of shape, neater than many other rock biopics, because it is in itself a very compressed story with at least one ending that might have been written for the screen.
But, oh, what if. What if the director and writers had been brave enough to have nobody say, “Oh look, it’s Chrissie Hynde,” and leave it up to the audience to either know (because they know) or realise at that sweet moment when Steve Jones hides around the corner as she rehearses with the Pretenders that that’s who she was all along?
But then this series would have been more explicitly about what it does seem to want to be about, which is to say that its purpose seems to be to elevate Chrissie Hynde as the real talent of the King’s Road Sex shop scene and London Punk/New Wave era. And she probably was.
As to punk rock, I never bought any of it, myself, and I still don’t buy the hype that the Pistols revolutionised anything, or were anything other than a simulacrum of significance. Like all youth movements, there were a bunch of people wearing fancy clothes and an awful lot more people on the periphery looking pretty much the same as they ever did. And their music: that one album was so slickly produced, with its layers of compressed guitars, but it did not match the chaos and ineptitude of the stage act. It always smelled a bit Milli Vanilli to me.
And a lot of the fandom was simulacrum. People went to punk gigs looking for a fight: that was the whole point. It was just football hooliganism relocated. And there may have been a couple of people wearing safety pins through their cheeks in that London, but the people I knew would carefully position the safety pin so it looked as if it was breaking the skin, shortly after they’d applied the Vaseline to their hair after leaving their mum and dad’s house. And they’d take it all off again before stepping through their parents’ front door.
When Rotten/Lydon finished their final gig with the words, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”, my response – even back then in ’78 – was not really, because I never believed it in the first place. I always saw Malcolm McLaren as a Tesco Value Warhol, and the Kings Road/Sex scene a Tesco Value Warhol Factory, with the Sex Pistols playing an even more volatile version of The Velvet Underground.
As I said, though, this is a tale for an accelerated culture, with everything building up and falling apart in a far more compressed amount of time than even The Velvet Underground. As such, it’s a fairly entertaining watch, although it could have lost the length of an episode. There’s less than two years between Glen Matlock leaving the band and the deaths of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. In terms of the band, that particular line-up lasted less than a year. I have a vivid memory of walking through the Priory Church grounds in Dunstable with a few people from school. I remember one of them having a transistor radio and getting excited by “Pretty Vacant” being on, and then mentioning Glen Matlock being kicked out of the band for liking the Beatles. We would have been no more than 13, going on 14. I didn’t feel part of this at all, and although it was a myth put about by McLaren, I secretly sympathised with Matlock because I too liked The Beatles.
And the point about Chrissie Hynde is: as soon as that single, “Stop Your Sobbing”, was released in January 1979, we were back to normal. The revolution hadn’t happened. I don’t know what you’re hearing on the original studio recording, but I’m hearing a cover version of a 60s heritage act, complete with jangly guitars, which is always rock’s default position. Left to its own devices: jangly guitars, here she comes.
My OH was talking this morning about how the school where she works used the government “catch up” funding. Last year, they ran summer schools for the new intake, and paid staff who volunteered to run sessions. This year, they want to do the same — but there’s no more money, so they’re asking staff to do it for free.
Now, I’m no mug, and I would never do this in a million years. I’ve fully taken on board the idea that I should act professionally at all times — and professionals get paid.
But one of the problems with the teaching profession is that there will always be people who will — for whatever reason — feel obligated to volunteer. Naiveté? Perhaps, but probably, mainly ambition.
The whole country knows by now what it’s like to be subject to somebody else’s ambition. The Prime Minister, who was never a person suited to high office, has achieved the top job by any means he deemed necessary: cheating, lying, backstabbing, more lying, bumbling, reality distortion (i.e. lying), and so on. And he is, because of course he is, determined to hang on to the job as long as possible, even though he’s terrible at it, even though he’s not that interested in even trying to do it properly, and even though it doesn’t pay very well in comparison to his old job.
Teaching is like this too. You get individuals in senior roles who are the very definition of The Peter Principle: promoted at least one level above their natural competency. So you get years of having to put up with them running meetings, making speeches, introducing initiatives, none of which have any impact or relevance. Ironically, the only way you get rid of them involves them getting another promotion, which means they will now be working two levels above their natural level. Good luck with that.
You might be one of those people who thinks ambition is a good thing. In the same way, perhaps, that people have got used to thinking of pride as a virtue rather than a vice, which is what it is. But ambition is a terrible thing: it’s simply an effect of pride, which is the worst of all the cardinal sins. I mean this in a secular way: but Christ, those who want to set themselves above others are the absolute worst. And you can spot them early: because they volunteer to work for free during the school holidays.
In education, ambition manifests itself as people “going for jobs” they are unsuited for. And in order to get those jobs, they have to suggest, at interview, all the things they will do if they get it. New initiatives, for example, which usually translates as some fad or trend they read about on the internet. And then, when they get the job, the rest of us are subjected to the new initiative they promised at interview. Which means, making the rest of us sit and listen to them as they witter on in meetings, and often fill in forms and bits of paper as a result. Everybody loves admin, don’t they? Never mind that they read about it in someone’s blog, or saw a thread on Twitter. Never mind that it’s almost certainly a load of wank, will be dropped inside a year, and will never bear what you might call fruit.
Teaching is mostly great: the bit where you’re in a classroom actually teaching, that is. And the holidays. And the pension, sort of. But like all jobs, teaching has some terrible aspects — and these are usually the bits where you’re subject to the results of somebody else’s ambition. Attend this meeting, do this thing, fill in this form, attend this other meeting, get in a group and sit for 45 minutes and wish to die, fill in the feedback form…
So it goes. And here we are, all of us, subject to the Downing Street parasite-toddler’s ambition: waiting 17 years for a doctor’s appointment; being struck off our dentist’s list; paying a million pounds to fuel our cars; growing old, dying and actually becoming a decayed corpse while we wait at passport control; waiting for the worst people in the world to do the right thing.
Although all science fiction tends to be about the context of its creation, the classics can transcend their eras and their malleable meanings can speak to different generations. Invasion of the Body Snatchers might have been a straightforward reds-under-the-bed political allegory in the 1950s, but by the 70s it reflects the political cynicism of the post-Watergate era; even later, it reflects (post)modern fears about personal identity and authenticity. “I feel like a pod person,” as one of Douglas Coupland’s characters says in Generation X.
From pod people to brood people: the brood parasites of The Midwich Cuckoos. John Wyndham’s 1957 novel was a British take on the “enemy within” genre — with a patriarchal slant — as civil servants and dutiful military officers take charge of a small English village when all the women of childbearing age become pregnant with alien babies.
Sky Max’s television version immediately reflects the times we live in. The quaint village of the original has become the “historic market town” of 2022: complete with new-build cul-de-sacs and far weaker community bonds. The well-meaning officials of 1957 become the slippery technocrats and compromised law enforcement officers of 2022. The white people who all have blonde haired children in 1957 become the ethnically diverse melting pot de nos jours. And so it goes. At least the wigs remain reassuringly, distractingly bad.
The reviewer in the Guardian wasn’t keen, awarding two stars and complaining that this new version was a missed opportunity, post #metoo, to talk about women’s reproductive rights and the rest. A classic case of reviewing the show it isn’t rather than the show it is. As it stands, this is a fairly faithful adaptation (although I haven’t seen it to the end) that allows Wyndham’s allegory to work its magic. Of course, there is a reproductive rights angle, but these telepathic babies put a stop to any such terminations from inside the womb, and there’s not much more you can say. They’re a telepathic hive mind: a new kind of human, or something else altogether.
So what does it all mean, in 2022? My mind couldn’t help drifting to thoughts about Generation Z and snowflakes, and Twitter pile-ons, and the lack of tolerance for any kind of offence or discomfort. I was thinking of it today when a colleague was surrounded by aggrieved teenage girls in a classroom when she attempted to introduce a new seating plan. You get this vibe from the Midwich children: how dare you make us feel bad?
More straightforwardly, Midwich in 2022 is about how you can’t trust the government, or the police, or your kids, or your spouse. But the wigs are perhaps the most disturbing element; and that baby cuckoo’s mouth in the title sequence looks like a vulva.
[Insert joke about blonde-haired, blue-eyed parasite in Downing Street here.]
As always, I struggled to sleep on our last night in France, knowing we would be travelling the following day — but not for the usual reason. Somewhere after 2 a.m., everyone in the village was woken by a colossal crash. To me, it sounded like it was right outside my bedroom window, as if someone had slammed the metal door to the old chicken shed with the force of a thousand angry teenagers.
In the split second between hearing the crash — an earthquake? an intruder? the roof coming off? — and the resulting roll of thunder, I had time to hope that it was only lightning. So strange, the working of the human brain. For example, I distinctly remember being awake to hear the bolt of lightning, and yet I was also clearly woken by the bolt of lightning. And the time between lightning and thunder can only have been a second or so, and yet I had time to imagine all the less welcome things it might have been.
It was lightning, and the house circuit breaker tripped out, not just for us but for the whole village. We were all up in the middle of the night, using phones as torches (I actually have a bluetooth speaker that is also a lamp) to switch the electricity back on.
In the morning we discovered that, far from being right outside the house, the lightning had struck a few hundred metres away, “on the Haute Saone side” of the mountain (we live in Territoire de Belfort, which is celebrating its hundredth anniversary, according to a roundabout on the way into the city).
So it was just lightning, but if I’d been wearing my Apple watch in bed, I would most certainly have had one of those concerned messages about my elevated heartrate when I was just lying down.
Couldn’t sleep after that, which meant business as usual as we started the long drive home. A friend texted to ask if the thunderstorm had cleared the air, and the answer to that was, not really. It was hotter and more humid the following day. Two hours in, we stopped at the fortified town of Langres for (expensive) diesel, and the temperature outside the car was over 28°C. It was as hot as July, and you got that same feeling: the one you get when you’re on your way in the summer and get out of the car at a service station and hit the solid wall of heat. Yes:we’re on holiday. Except, cruelly, we were on our way home.
I was nervously counting the UK numberplates on the Autoroute des Anglais, but when we reached the terminal at Calais, it wasn’t too bad really. But Sod’s Law applied throughout. The queue for check-in was short, but when we stopped at the machine, it immediately developed a fault and wouldn’t print our hanger. We paid £30 for an earlier crossing, but by the time we got the hanger printed and went around to join the queue for passport control, it was already touch and go.
The French passport guy did a swift check and waved us through with a “Bon courage!”, as if he knew what was about to happen. We approached British passport control. There was a line of eight (ish) lanes, all with a similar length queue, and all showing a green arrow meaning open. We were in the second lane along — the one on the left being for the fast-track “Flexi-plus” passengers.
Now, I don’t mind if people want to pay through the nose in order to board the next available train when they arrive. In normal times, fair enough. But times have not been normal since 2016, and — frankly — they’re wasting their money because the trains are not the hold up. Getting your passport checked is vexatious and stressful, and nobody gets through the process quickly.
Here’s what happened.
First of all, the green arrow in the first lane turned to a red cross. This meant that the traffic in that lane was now being filtered across into the next (and others, I think). Then, 10 minutes later, the green arrow in our lane turned to a red cross. And now we were being filtered across to join the next lane over. So that’s now three into one. And then the next lane turned red, and the next. Apparently, British passport control were closing lanes without warning the Eurotunnel staff who were directing traffic. Staff were told “fifteen minutes” but an hour later all the closed lanes were still closed.
By the time we inched our way to almost the front, we’d been sitting there well over an hour and had missed the train we paid £30 for. And then some joker suggested I give up trying to filter in and instead turn around and join the back of another queue. LOL. I refused.
Seconds later, one of the red crosses turned to a green arrow again and I managed to be third in line.
It still took an age to get to the booth, at which point the passport officer decided to make a fuss — for the first time in 20 years — because my OH and daughter were travelling on their French passports. “The rules are different, you see,” she said. Now, both OH and daughter have two passports, but while one was in the boot of the car, the other is at the US Embassy (we hope) waiting for a student visa. So we were stuck there, arguing with the passport officer for another 10 minutes. I’m sure the people behind us were delighted.
In short (and I’m sure anyone who travelled anywhere this half term will join me in this): fuck this country, fuck its government, fuck the flag wavers, fuck the jubilee, and fuck anybody who voted for this fucking shitshow.
This second volume of diaries has a different tone than the first, Theft by Finding. That earlier (2017) volume covered years (1977–2002) during which Sedaris wasn’t yet a successful essayist and public speaker. In that first volume, the younger Sedaris spent indigent years as an addict and odd-job person before finding his voice in Santaland. This second volume covers the years in which the hugely successful Sedaris flew around the world signing books, giving public readings, and shopping.
And everywhere he goes, he collects outrageous stories. Whether they come from his people, or are simply his observations of the terrible things human beings do, they are all grist to his mill. At one point, he ruefully mentions one of his pieces being “fact checked” by The New Yorker. He writes non-fiction, but not really. His main subject has always been himself, and these diaries give you access to the base material before it is honed.
His people are the ones who stop him on the street to share an anecdote or off-colour joke, or attend one of his readings, or line up in a book store to ask for an outrageous dedication in the front of his latest publication. Be careful what you wish for, by the way: one man asks for such a dedication in a book he planned to give to his mother. Sedaris wrote, Your son left teeth marks on my dick. Don’t come here if you’re the type to take offence.
A Carnival of Snackery takes us from 2003 to the end of 2020; it’s not so much a day-by-dayaccount of that time as a quick-fire tour, edited highlights, not even week-to-week as it is month-to-month. It’s still a hefty read: 562 print pages, giving each year (on average) just over 30 pages. Sedaris writes in the foreword that he has missed out the multiple entries about mice infesting their house in France, for example.
It comes across as a restless, magpie existence. The flat in Paris, the house in Normandy, the London pad, the apartment in New York, the beach house in North Carolina, the house in West Sussex. And this doesn’t include the hotels, the airports, the bookshops, the cars and coffee shops in which Sedaris encounters his people. He enjoys the fruits of his success: the first class seats, the five star hotels, the VIP treatment. At the same time, he’s not remotely squeamish or standoffish, and has made a career out of his willingness to “go there”, whether “there” is a swimming pool someone just took a shit in, or a slightly dodgy neighbourhood in Bucharest, or the roadside verges of West Sussex, where he famously picks litter.
Sedaris’ lack of squeam is his brand, which means that some parts of this are a bit gross for someone like myself. You might also end up horrified at Americans in general, as almost everyone he meets seems to hold views that are beyond the pale. And Sedaris collects all these stories because he is able to withhold judgement — or at least appear to at the time.
Reading these diaries might mean that you decide never to swim in a public pool again, and you will certainly wonder about every surface that you touch in a public building from now on. It’s ironic for such a globetrotter to have ended up locked down in New York City in 2020. Of all the places he could have landed, this surely must have felt the most claustrophobic.
Pre-pandemic, I would drive to and from my OH’s house in France six times a year. In recent times, we’ve been using late night crossings and driving through the night. This has generally been a little less stressful than crossing during the day— or delay, as it might as well be called.
I’m a little out of practice making this journey, although I’ve been keeping up with my insomnia, so being awake in the middle of the night is no real challenge. This time, in a bold experiment, we decided to cross in my new car-shaped car. This is not something we’ll do often, as my OH prefers her brick-shaped car. But I was looking forward to the journey because I nerdishly wanted to see if we could make it on one tank of fuel: the car-shaped car being more economical than the brick-shaped one, even though they both have (more or less) the same engine.
But the problem these days, even crossing in the middle of the night, is that the French are punishing us for Brexit. As anyone who has made this crossing regularly knows, passing through French passport control used to be a non-event. Often, there was nobody in the booths; even when there was, they would wave you straight through. Since Brexit, though, they’ve taken to checking every passport. Add this to the thorough checking the British have been doing since 2005 (no Schengen Zone for us), and we’ve got ourselves a capacity problem.
Hence the overnight crossing habit. Peak times have become unbearable. Big holidays, like this Whitsun half-term, can still be a bit slammed, but it’s usually a bit quieter in the night.
Little did I know that there was a football match on. I have no understanding of what would drive someone to want to put themselves through this experience in order to watch tiny people kick a tiny ball around a distant pitch rather than just watch it on TV, but fanatics gonna fanatic, I suppose.
I was pre-warned in the sense that I saw the headlines about the Port of Dover being gridlocked, and I read about the 21 planes that left Liverpool airport, but how many more might there be at midnight in Folkstone? This of course, is on top of the closure of motorway lanes necessitated by so-called Operation Brock (Operation Brexit, as it should be properly called).
So the queuing began just off the M20, as we sat waiting to move forward to check-in. We were surrounded by the usual massive SUVs, but also a high number of Transit vans and mini-buses, one of which disgorged a dozen or so speci-men (of bullet-headed, over muscled or beer gutted British manhood) to piss at the side of the road. It’s a rookie mistake to drink anything when you’re likely to be sitting in a queue of cars for any length of time, let alone huge quantities of lager. One particular chap emerged three times from the same van in the space of 40 minutes. Cystitis?
Needless to say, forty minutes was barely scratching the surface of this Hell in the South. The authorities were allowing a few vehicles at a time through check-in, in order to manage traffic flow on the other side. So it took us a couple of hours to get through. One of the pains of check-in is that – first of all – two lanes of traffic turn into 8 or 10 check-in lanes; and then these 8-10 check-in lanes turn into one lane of traffic to get to the car park.
So it took another 40 minutes or so to reach the terminal car park. Nobody was really parking, however. They were just driving round the car park in order to join the queue for passport and customs control. We did have to park, however, because we had the cat with us, bless him. So, we got to pee in a toilet like civilised people, drink a swift coffee, and then join the queue again.
This took a while. We were up to four hours in total when we eventually reached the queue for boarding. I was taking everything in what stride I have left. Sure, the French are now checking passports as thoroughly as the British, and are even trolling us by building additional border control lanes – another five or six, over the six they already had. But not opening them, of course. But then we get to the part that, no matter how much of a talking to I get or give myself, always stresses me to the max.
All we are doing is sitting in a lane, in a car, waiting for the barrier to lift at the end, so we can go round and board a train. We have been here (literally) a hundred times. And a hundred times, people wind me up.
Having done this a hundred times, I know that the time between turning off the engine in the boarding line and the lifting of the barrier can vary between 60 seconds to 60 minutes plus. So you just don’t know. You just don’t know whether you’ll be waiting a minute or over an hour. So here’s what you shouldn’t do:
Leave your car
Leave your car then fall asleep
Fall asleep then leave your car
Listen: we’re all tired, we’ve all driven a long way. We’ve all, at various points, had children (or cats) in the car with us. We all want to shut our eyes and sleep. BUT: if we needed to pee, you know what we did. We PARKED at the TERMINAL and used the TOILET in the TERMINAL. And then we got back in our car and joined the queue.
So I sat there for an hour. And I watched them, doing all of the above, and more. The performative male stretching and walking about. (If you were really the old hand you’re pretending to be, you would know that the barrier could literally lift at any moment*.) The kids running around even while cars were driving into lanes at inappropriate speeds around them. (Imagine the paperwork if one of them got killed.) The trips to the toilet. (There were toilets in the terminal, you cunt.) The rummaging in the boot. (If you thought you might need it on the journey, don’t put it in the fucking boot.)
The deadbeat French dad in front of me had three small children with him. He came out to rummage in his chaotically packed boot three times, clearly looking for something. Took his children for an endless toilet visit. Came back, rummaged in his boot three more times, each time closing it as if it were the last time. Then he opened it again, retrieved a plastic can of oil, and opened his bonnet to perform an oil change service while his children played musical seats in the car. And then?
Then he got into the car and fell asleep.
So that when the distant barrier lifted and I could see all the cars in front of him go through it, he didn’t move.
I drove around him, but not before a cheeky Skoda driver in the next lane along took the opportunity to sneak across and ahead. (This is unnecessary, by the way — the trains are long and there is plenty of room.)
Having got all that off my chest, I’m pleased to report that I made it to Auxelles with over 200km of range after an 800+km drive. As it turned out, because FIVE HOURS of the night was wasted at the terminal, I didn’t get to drive much in full darkness, but I did enjoy the clever headlights and the pretty interior lighting. And for the first time, I got my dream, which has always been to be able to push a button or throw a switch to adjust the headlights for driving on the wrong side of the road. Sure, it was in a menu within the infotainment system, but still. Right hand driving? Check the box, et voila. I appreciate this more than I can say, so I now forgive all stupidly bright adaptive LED headlights for being stupidly bright.
As for every other human being on the planet: you are not forgiven. Stay in your vehicle.
*Yes, the matrix sign might say something about when boarding will commence. But sometimes, they discover a bit of room on a train that’s about to leave, and they’ll count 5, 10 cars through the barrier to fill it to capacity. I’ve shared a spare spot in a carriage with a coach before now.