Question Time: Being Your Self In Front of Ugly Celebrities

Question Time, that stablemate of political Thursday nights on British television can be said to have several purposes. No doubt in its original radio format (which still exists as Any Questions) it was devised as a ‘method’ of democracy; a way to get politicians from the broad strata in front an audience of ordinary people. And I use ordinary in a very loose term ( a study on the demographics of an audience might be interesting). The problem though is when that transition to television happened. It gave politicians more air time, more time to get their face in prime time slots to promote their party. Plus, in the transition to television, a fifth member of the panel was added from four, which now usually comes in the form of a devil’s advocate, somebody not aligned to any political party: Famous examples include Ian Hislop, Jarvis Cocker, John Lydon, and a recurring figure in recent times, making his most recent appearance on last nights show (26/09/2013),Will Self.

Will Self, a writer, named on Granta’s list of 20 ‘Best Young Novelists’, also has journalistic roots. Infamously, he was caught taking heroin on John Major’s jet whilst covering the 1997 election campaign, and now claims to clean. Most recently he was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2012 for his novel Umbrella, and is Professor of Contemporary Though at Brunel University, where last nights Question Time, in Uxbridge was broadcasted. Joining him, or who Self was joining was, Michael Gove (Con), Douglas Alexander (Lab) standard, and then Patrick O’Flynn (an abhorrent mix of Express columnist and UKIP member) and Louise Cooper (Journalist of CooperCity, her own enterprise, on financial news).

Will Self was in typical, contrarian mood, best encapsulated on Newsnight when he ripped into Tessa Jowell about the expense of the Olympics, likening Ed Milliband to something from ‘Aardman Creations’ after being asked whether he would vote for them, and lamenting politicians finding it ‘physically painful to listen to discussions dragging it down to this domestic, political battlefield’ on the subject of the recent terrorist attacks in Kenya. Michael Gove was on particular form who was actually crediting opposition policies and being positive about Ed Milliband, which Will Self played right into his hands because Gove was trying to play the good politician all night.

Will Self was being overtly cynical about politicians. In the end it became Self himself against Gove like a unionist leader of good politicians; Michael Gove was standing up for all politicians. Gove in an audience winning outburst to Self said “Will, well you’re well known for playing to the gallery, populist position taking and for trying to denigrate politicians. I’m standing up for a politician from a different party, against the sort of cynicism that you pedal in the hope that will make you popular with this audience who will buy your books…” to which the audience, after siding with the advocate in the form of Self were now persuaded to side with Gove. Self’s applauses now were reduced to something like an avant-garde of breakaway clappers, the minimalist opposition. And this is what Self was warning the audience about. The politicians essentially owned the debate and rhetoric. Gove was extremely clever and won the argument becoming this owner of the rhetoric which reflects western society today.

Now, this Is the problem with ‘democracy in action’ masqueraded on shows like Question Time, because it gives the politicians more time to perform. Self was representing a portion of society that has had enough with the carefully controlled discourse and speech that politicians use. Question Time Is a format in front of an audience that politicians struggle to receive, 2.7 million viewers is a lot in a society that reluctantly admits to engaging with politicians, and in doing so, they are performing. Granted, Self is performing in a way to distance himself from the politicians. His trademark sesquipedalinism apparent with ironic humour, but it is not done in such manner like Gove says it is. The inadvertent affect would be that people search on Google, find out he is a writer, read some of his columns, and buy some of his books like Gove says, but it is not in a manner that the politician does to promote himself and his party. Self is openly a writer, but the politicians like Gove or conceited, and devious to conceal their true purpose, using their rhetoric to hide the true meaning of their policies and ultimate self-promotion, and promotion of their party’s leader. Gove’s job is on the line by appearing on these shows where Self’s isn’t. A great example is how the Tories use the economic debate as showing that the deficit has gone down and there does seem to a recovery for our economy, but living standards are going down. The rich are rich and the poor are poorer. We are not better off as a result of the economy and we are indeed worse off.

It all came to a head in the aforementioned terrorism debate. Self was essentially saying that he, and we should have, had enough of politicians using the terrorism debate as a way to promote their party and colonialist desires to invade other countries. Patrick O’Flynn audaciously said ‘The birds are coming home to roost” about warnings of Londonistan”. UKIP viciously anti-immigration, and adding the suffix of ‘-istan’ to London, implies that countries that end in ‘istan’ are the source of terrorism. If London was flooded with people from Pakistan then it would be a source of terrorism is what he seems to be saying. The politicians reinforced their arguments by referring all terrorist activity to Islam and talked of the policy that centred on targeting and implicitly surveying Islamic communities to find sources of terrorism, which Self rightly said is wrong, we already live in a heavily surveyed and monitored society. When Self said this, Gove then imbued his argument with extreme, fear inducement in the form of 9/11; how can Self talk about terrorism in such a way that he seems to dismiss 9/11/? Its the oldest rhetorical trick in the book; a strong emotional point to add guilt to the opposing speaker and completely undercut his argument. When Gove told Self that they had all had enough of him, the audience rapturously clapped to which Self remarked in a Wild-West accent “well lets take this outside then”.

Louise Cooper conforming to typical journalistic devices said that she ‘wouldn’t want her child dying’ as a result of not believing the governments measures to stop terrorism. It is nausea inducing and its another old, used trick. Self – ‘lets not speak from the high moral ground of your anticipated future loss’ in an effort to debunk Cooper’s inflated, unneeded claims. Her speech was comical, full of dramatic pauses, coming across like a red top journalist as opposed to an intelligent financial commentator.

To encapsulate the hypocrisy on show, a member from the audience, of Kenyan nationality said that ‘these people [terrorists] are evil, they don’t represent any faith on this earth’, and i must clarify that he was on about the terrorists. This inspired in a weird reversal of roles the politicians clapping to his response. The audacity and ludicrousness of it all; Where the politicians and the journalists had claiming that Islam was a source of terrorism were now clapping a man saying that terrorism has nothing to do with Islam and is pure evil.

It all comes down to this horrid debate of race which is shaping up to be the key debate at the next election. UKIP are anti-immigration, claiming that a crime wave will hit us at the expense of a Romanian/Bulgarian invasion when they join the EU.The Conservatives are sending vans around London telling people of ethnic origins to ‘go home’. The Labour party however is using the slogan ‘One Nation’ which they took from the Tories favourite Tory Benjamin Disraeli, which rather than a clever piece of political rebranding, just reflects the parties occupying the centreground . One Nation, now, implies one homogenous mass of peoples prescribing to the same values and beliefs, the belief in being British. A lovely piece of implicit nationalism.

It shows the extent to which our politicians ‘own’ rhetoric, jostling for the centreground, despite many commentators claiming that Ed Milliband was trying to take the party back down the left. But what is more homogenising than being ‘one’? Question Time does nothing but to give them more time to spew their image and policies and buff up their image. Audience participation is reduced to pre-selected, usual banal, open ended questions that allow the politicians to talk at the length and try and diminish the other parties on the panel. T.V is celebrity world; it is heavily edited and regulated, as the producers select the questions before the show, and there is some time raising hands, and the audience gets to add its input by either clapping or not clapping. That is all they are reduced to. The origins of the quote ‘Politics is show business for ugly people’ is disputed, but Self borrowed last night, and it encases the argument.

So the likes of Self are reduced to jesters, people who fool around and play jokes, wind up the politicians, which often, can put the politician in a bad light. But in the case of last nights show, it can put the politician in a good light. I’m not saying that all politicians are bad, what i’m saying is that in shows like Question Time which hides behind a façade of democracy is anything but that. It is a T.V show hinged on entertainment and allows the politicians to influence the rhetoric and discourse on how we view them and ourselves and other people like the immigration and race debate, because the audience are not clapping when something Is right, they’re clapping when something sounds good, when somebody seems to be taking a moral high ground, like in the case of Gove vs Self.

In the end we all come away feeling nothing like ourselves, warped into this world of propaganda, protecting a dangerous, concealed truth. Completely Self-less.

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Everlasting Lane: A Review.

How a child constructs narrative of their lives is a hotbed for developmental psychologists, but in the literary sense Andrew Lovett gives us a curious example of storytelling and narration.

Lovett gives us clues as to what he is letting the reader in for with the first part of the book titled ‘A Game of the Imagination’. What ensues is a game; a game constructed by the narrator “I was nine years old the night my father died. Or ten. I don’t remember”, and these are the rules. His father is dead, and he is one of those ages, but that little ounce of doubt or question sets the tone for the rest of the story. And story is the operative word; a part mystery and part bildungsromman as Peter must come to terms with his father’s death, the mystery identity of ‘Alice’ and his own identity. Adding to this it is quoted by Lovett that it is partly based on his childhood which adds the sense of Lovett reconstructing that childhood adding more doubt and unreliability into the equation.

Peter’s mother decides to take her and Peter back to Amberley; a place where she apparently grew up in, that Peter has faint memories of. Peter’s mother also now becomes Aunt Kat with a ‘K’ that Peter at first struggles to comprehend. Anna-Marie Liddell, a resident of Amberley soon becomes a sidekick, or more so, Peter becomes the sidekick of the brazen and remarkably articulate girl. Their relationship constantly intrigues and something about it never seems to be realised. Her dominance over the male figure extends once Tommie starts to make up this triumvirate.

Their activities centre around a conspicuously named street, also lending itself to the title of the novel, Everlasting Lane. Despite claiming to be centred around Lovett’s childhood experiences, the name Everlasting Lane was surely intentionally and poetically named. Not necessarily the central metaphor for the characters choices they are required to make ( the predictable two paths they must choose to go down, left or right, does happen). There seems to be an underlying quest to get to the end of it, which they don’t seem to be able to do.

Behind the facade of sweetness and innocence, Peter’s unreliability is a devilishly brilliant piece of narrative device. This is not to say he is corruptibility bad in any way, but like behind the sepia tinge of a Polaroid photo lies the reality of being a child. The unnoticed and noticed dilemma’s, moral choices when you don’t even realise as moral and the mastery of an imagination; when to infer from reality and the need to lose all reality. When the mystery of trying to find out who Alice is, like an adult Enid Blyton Famous Five escapade, Peter’s world is full of narrative and fiction blurring his reality. Peter constantly visualises  that moment of been half awake and half asleep as “Half-awake, half-asleep. ‘what is it? Like the moon: half sunlight, half midnight. All moon” like this splits his worlds. Still early in the novel, Peter then looks at the sun on the way back from Everlasting Lane “I felt as if i’d woken in one world and crossed into another and never even noticed the two meeting at the border”.

As a result, his worlds (worlds that he has ultimately constructed) become mixed up. Peter’s actions suddenly become embellished in famous fictional worlds but he still is controlling with constant references to famous fictional characters (Robin Hood and Columbo to name an eclectic two). If stabilising his imagination which the story is essentially reliant on – Peters imagination – emphasised when Peter looks at the tree’s and the physical world “There was something frightful about those woods: but it wasn’t the trees, threatening though they were. It was the shadows squeezed between them.” Peter goes onto to describe himself stumbling over the branches like ‘Frank Spencer’. But regardless of that irony, it is not the physical objects Peter is scared of, the trees which Anna-Marie warns to him as being ‘vicious’, but the non-physical elements – the shadows that the physical world creates. Peter’s fears, as if in a Freudian sense, what leaks through. Those shadows could be made to be anything at the power of his imagination.

With moments of bathos, and pathos in equal measure Peter continues to operate behind a veneer of naivety. War and death ultimately overhangs the whole novel with the death of Peter’s father and the games that Peter likes to play. Peter manages to construct a rather vivid scenario of a war game with Tommie, complete with other characters and dialogue
“Tommie and I had long suspected that Monsier Merdeux was nothing but a Nazi stooge and whilst we knew that Marianne was both brave and resourceful (and resourceful and brave) we had sworn to prevent her from walking into a fiendish –
‘What the hell are you doing?’ inquired Mademoiselle Le Dell In flawless English ‘Creeping up on me!’”.
Mademoiselle Le Dell transpires to be Anna-Marie, and their game descends into a genuine fight between Tommie and Peter. There seems to be a fine line between war as fun and war as war, shown here where they actually begin to physically fight, and the ever increasing want of the child to have a mastery of that adult world, because war is where they get their heroes and villains from which in turn informs their actions.

With Peter being ten years old, language plays a big part in the novel. Peter seems to have a grasp of an internal language ‘And yet, something of them remains, for sometimes when i’m drying I think i’m awake; and although my eyes are closed I believe them open’ and then in relaying his thoughts to Anna-Marie ‘The best I could was a kind of grunt.’ This dialectic between the inner and the outer language, like the Wittgenstein maxim of ‘the limits of my language are the limits of my world.’ is one of many dichotomies. Peter is in a world of people who have a greater mastery of language over him, and thanks to some interesting cameos from the many adult figures in his world (interestingly a lack of individual children apart from him, Anna-Marie and Tommie, and even Tommie comes across as an one dimensional) who shape Peter’s world. Two interesting cases exist in the form of Mr Merridrew and Mrs Carpenter.

Mr Merridrew is the Dawkins type figure of evolutionary reductionism, “In brief, although the concepts certainly exist there are no such things as good or bad in a Godless universe. There are merely shades of moral ambiguity…He looked at me, his eyes cold dark craters ‘You are so cock-sure that you are right and I am wrong, yet without God neither even exists. There is only chaos.” The antithesis of him, Mrs Carpenter, the domineering head teacher inspired with Christian doctrine, an evangelical who uses religion as a means of scaremongering children into order. In a fierce reprimanding for Anna-Marie “Your destination is not in doubt. I am confident’ she spluttered, fingering the crisp stitching of the leather strap, ‘that Lucifer is already sharpening his pitchfork” because without apparent faith as the religious like to tell us, “How can you live, child? Spluttered Mrs Carpenter. ‘How can you bear a life so…devoid of meaning?’” No wonder Peter and Anna-Marie struggle to make sense of this world. Narrative guides our lives, and we proscribe narrative to our life events but Mrs Carpenter represents the problems with religious narrative as a form of social order and why it deserves to fail as such

These dichotomies, plus the other characters thoughts and ways leave Peter in a kind of an abyss. With WWII what emerged was a world of extremes, and it essentially comes down to the relation between Lovett and Peter, like in a Spinozan kind of dualism. The narration allows Lovett to get away with things that wouldn’t have worked in third person, like using the abhorrent word ‘guesstimate’ which also might be an example of anachronism in the text.

At the other end of the novel Alice in Wonderland seems to inform the text. The unreliability of Peter comes to a head as the world he is constructing for the reader takes on an edge that I didn’t think was fully convicted and Lovett backed out of – almost a failed twist. There is also a lot of moralising. As Peter continually tries to make sense of the world, there are a lot of conversations that use lots of similes and metaphors to conceptualise the world for Peter, that do become slightly tiresome. I also didn’t particularly get the ending.

However it should not detract from a very good piece of fiction, handled with maturity and precision and another addition to the intriguing roster of Galley Beggar Press. The world is chaos, and as Everlasting Lane shows us, narrative and fiction helps us to add order to this chaos especially in the developing mind of a child. It keeps our brimming worlds in order, as long as we keep a foot In the real world. This is Peter’s world, and it is his world that you enter, finally,  on his terms.

Everlasting Lane by Andrew Lovett, published by Galley Beggar Press is out now (£11). Thank you to them for providing a review copy.