Friday, 25 December 2009


Go on, admit it, there’s nothing you like better over the Christmas holiday season than to sit down with a steady supply of sensory stimulants and get stuck into a good old detective story.

The trouble is that it’s sometimes hard to reconcile books with titles such as Ten Little Niggers (written by a woman with a deep prejudice against ‘sallow men with hooked noses’) with the PC protocols of our day.

Enter my friend and erstwhile collaborator Mat Coward, who has just published a socialist detective story set in ‘London in the near future: transport is horse-drawn, food is rationed, fuel is scarce and wastefulness is illegal.’ As well as providing the requisite gripping yarn, Acts of Destruction is both witty (‘Is it a murder?’ ‘Well it’s a crime, if only illegal disposal of a body’) and wide-ranging in its incidental detail.

Just as you’d expect from someone who moonlights as the Morning Star’s gardening correspondent, an indefatigable pro-smoking campaigner (who once sent me a 100,000-word anti-anti-smoking tract when I was a couple of days into an attempt to stop), and one of the elves (that’s what they’re called) who provide the material for Stephen Fry’s QI programme.

You can buy the book on Mat Coward's website

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

McElderry and the Machine

I’ve been engaged in a series of heated debates following my coming out in print as a fan of The X Factor (see Plattitudes, Dec 2009). Some people now approach me with the sort of ‘sorry but you’re soiled’ look that they’d normally reserve for Trots-turned-Tory or people who pull the whiskers off pussy cats. It’s no use telling them that when it came to the choice between Rage Against the Machine or X-Factor winner Joe McElderry for the Xmas Number One, my political colours were nailed firmly to the mast.

What surprised me more was the friend who turned on me with the sort of venom I’d last witnessed when her boyfriend slept with her sister. When I punched the air in delight at the Ragers’ improbable triumph over Simon Cowell’s pop machine, she rounded on me: ‘I thought you liked The X-Factor?’ How could I possibly take pleasure in ‘a bunch of privileged hippie college kids posing as anti-capitalists’?* Didn’t I care that they were spoiling it for working-class Geordie sweetiepie McElderry by denying him the same Xmas Number One status as the previous four X-Factor winners?

That was before I was mugged by the Alexandra Burke fan club. The 2008 X-Factor winner, she lives a short walk from me and half the neighbourhood takes it as a personal affront if you don’t think she’s the best singer since at least Leona Lewis. I made the mistake of saying to one member of the Burke posse that actually I prefer her mum’s music (she used to sing with Soul II Soul). This year I plan to be out of the country when The X-Factor comes around.

*According to the Privileged Hippie College Kids Monitoring Service, Rage Against the Machine score 68% (grade B-plus, borderline A-minus) on the PHCK index. Vocalist and lyricist Zack de la Rocha (who gets an extra mark for that so-Sixties’ hippie forename) is the son of a political muralist father, who was brought up by his anthropologist (Ph D, University of California) mother. Guitarist Tom Morello was brought up by his teacher mother; his (absent) father was the brother of Jomo Kenyatta and Kenya’s first ambassador to the UN. Bassist Tim Commerford’s father was an aerospace engineer and his mother a mathematician. Drummer Brad Wilk has said that witnessing how material wealth corrupted his father made him value the simple things in life.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Bigger than Christ

The most striking thing about the new statue on the fourth plinth at Trafalgar Square is how big it is. When the other 2,399 participants and I did our hours on the plinth as part of Anthony Gormley’s One and Other project last summer, a recurring feature of the experience was how small we felt – or looked – when we were up there. Not so with second world war hero Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park, who stands five metres high in his fibreglass feet, towering above the mere mortals passing by below.

I’m not sure why Sir Keith has been built so large, if not simply to bludgeon home his achievements in comparison with the plebs who stood there before him. The bronze cast statue of him that will be permanently installed in nearby Waterloo Place when his six months on the plinth are up will only be 2.78 metres tall – still larger than life but not quite so intimidating as the one that is currently making Lord Nelson look small in his own backyard.

One of the things I’ve liked about the use of the previously empty fourth plinth, since it first became home to six-monthly residencies of statues and other artworks in 1999, has been the human scale of most of what has been attempted there. My favourite remains Marc Quinn’s Alison Lapper Pregnant, a white marble carving of Lapper, who was born with no arms and shortened legs. Even at 3.6 metres and 13 tonnes, it seemed simultaneously small and vulnerable and beautiful and strong.

The first statue to appear on the plinth, in 1999, was Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo, a life-sized figure of Christ, dressed in a loin cloth and crown of barbed wire. It looked tiny, lost and lonely up there. We have come full circle with Sir Keith Park, brave and deserving of our attention as he may be.