What if you died tomorrow?

It’s a question that was dragged into my thoughts as I read recently about the sad story of Sheila Seleoane, the medical secretary who died in 2019 in her fourth floor flat in Peckham, but whose body was only discovered more than two years later.

Nobody had noticed she was missing.

It’s hard to know what’s most disturbing about this story.

Early reports homed in on the sordid and macabre nature of the discovery. The Metro newspaper ran this headline:

The Mail Online reported the ‘macabre claim’ that footsteps had been heard in the flat many months after the occupier had died, supposedly alone.

Other reports focused on attributing blame:

The negligence of the Peabody Trust housing association, who had continued to collect Mrs Seeoane’s rent for the whole period, but had not had any contact with her, despite repeated concerns raised by residents worried about the overpowering smell.

The incomprehensible incompetence of the local police. Prompted by another neighbour’s concerns, police were first persuaded to visit the flat in October 2020. According to this neighbour, officers then reported they had ‘made contact’ with the occupant and established she was ‘safe and well’. The report is confirmed by Peabody. This certainly raises some questions.

But surely the most disturbing angle to this whole sad tale is what it tells us about the world we are creating. Automated systems now allow the rent to be paid automatically, for our bills to be paid, for every element of our lives to continue seemingly as normal – even when we are no longer there.

Perhaps if I get clever with ChatGPT I’ll be able to set posts to this blog to automatically appear well into the future, so you won’t know if I’m here or not. Or if I’m still here now.


Permissive society my arse

Hey you, Whitehouse
Ha-ha, charade you are

You, house proud town mouse
Ha-ha, charade you are

You’re trying to keep our feelings off the street

You’re nearly a real treat
All tight lips and cold feet
And do you feel abused?
You, gotta stem the evil tide
And keep it all on the inside

Mary, you’re nearly a treat
Mary, you’re nearly a treat, but you’re really a cry

That’s Roger Waters’ take on moral campaigner Mary Whitehouse. Somewhere between a hate figure and a ridiculous caricature during my childhood in the English midlands. It seemed extraordinary in a world where people were enjoying ever greater freedoms, she managed to see “utter filth” in everything. To teenagers like me, she epitomised everything that was wrong with the out-of-date, regressive, quasi-religious establishment.

Happily those days are largely behind us. The 80s, 90s and 2000s saw a new consensus emerge, where people swear on TV and occasionally get naked, a bit like they do in real life, and for the most part, nobody needs to apologise for it.

Or so we thought.

I was entertained and horrified in equal measure by this story emerging from America recently. The Head of a school in Florida was forced by the school board to resign, after parents complained that the image of Michelangelo’s David, shown in class, was pornography.

Sorry, should I have issued a warning to parents or to the highly sensitive before I included that picture?

Initially, I hesitated to take this further because these days, taking pot shots at stories like this from America is like shooting fish in a barrel. There’s just so much crazy shit emerging. On the other hand, we in Britain are hardly immune to batshit crazy stuff popping up and quickly becoming normalised.

So here’s what happened:

A sixth grade class at Tallahassee classical school in Miami was shown various classical renaissance images as part of the lesson plan. Unlike previous years, no ‘content warning’ was sent in advance to parents stating there might be ‘nudity’. After complaints from parents, the Head, Hope Carrasquilla was given the choice of resigning or being fired.

Let’s just think about that for a moment. Does The Louvre or The Smithsonian have a warning for parents, where there are nudes depicted in the art on their walls? I assume you’ve seen Michelangelo’s David. Pornography? Seriously? What kind of parents are these? What kind of educationalists are listening to them?

Well maybe a slightly different perspective would be helpful on this. Let’s take a broader view.

There is a disturbing volume of sexually explicit content all around us. We may have become desensitised to this because it is everywhere.

Exhibit A. David Attenborough’s much loved nature documentaries on animals, including some no-holds-barred footage of mating rituals and sex acts a plenty.

In ‘Wild Isles’ we are shown explicit footage of the demoiselle butterfly unloading sperm. Other sequences prompted eagle-eyed observers on Twitter to call out ‘slug porn‘.

As the great woman might have said: “absolute filth”.

It gets worse. I recently visited Wisley Royal Horticultural Gardens and some of the trees were blatantly displaying blossom. “Come and shag me” they might just as well have been shouting. The plant world is shameless. Throughout the gardens, there were plants with their stamens and sex parts flagrantly on display.

Even the insects are at it.

Tits oot for the boys’ or what?

Have they no shame? It’s patantly obscene.

Gotta stem the evil tide. Damn right.

Where is Mary when we need her?

The age of rhetoric

My good friend bob (not his real name) voted for Brexit. He says nobody can possibly know if the economy will be better or worse afterwards so the economic consequences wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) influence him.

He’s completely wrong of course.

Everybody with any knowledge of the UK economy knew that Brexit would have severe negative economic implications. If people tried to say otherwise they were – let’s be charitable – mistaken or self-interested.  Many of these ‘hidden’ or ‘unintended’ consequences came to light later on, but if it was your job to know these things, you would certainly have known them at the time.

And that’s one of the problems. Who do we believe when so many of our authority figures have shown themselves to be untrustworthy?

It rather suggests a broader shift in the source of authority.  Not just on issues like Brexit, but all around us.  It began with nature.  Then came religion.  Next was science and rationalism.  But it now appears we have gone beyond that and we’re entering an age of rhetoric. As Michael Gove famously said, “this country has had enough of experts”.  We have it seems replaced them with the uninformed blatherings of Z-list celebrities, snake-oil salesmen and PR companies.

Or should we call it ‘the age of total bollocks’.

It’s really not a thing

J. Walter Thompson, Maureen Lipman and BT famously exclaimed “You’ve got an ‘ology; you’re a scientist”.

That’s got our ‘ologies sorted.  Now what about our ‘isms?

Racism is a bad thing, right? It means that black people (or whatever you choose to call people who aren’t white, this season) get a bad deal.  That often means they are under-represented in the most privileged places in society and their voice is not heard.  They don’t earn as much as white folks, their health outcomes are worse, they are more likely to be victims of crime, they stand the highest chance of dying in custody etc.etc.  You know the kind of thing.

Sexism is a bad thing right?  I could reel off a similar list of ways in which women are disadvantaged in society, by virtue only of the accident of birth that made them female.

There’s another dimension too – isms often overlap with ‘phobias‘ like the ‘hate’ issues – homophobia, islamophobia and so on.

Which brings me (by a questionable logical twist) to the issues facing the British Labour Party right now.  And anti-semitism.  According to The Jewish Chronicle, Jewish News and Jewish Telegraph, the prospect of a government led by Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn would be “an existential threat to Jewish life in this country”. Various Labour figures are up in arms about Corbyn, and the British press has perpetuated a picture of his behaviour, his past and his associations as somehow anti-semitic.

Please can we be absolutely clear about one thing here:

Racism in the UK is a thing.  Sexism in the UK is a thing.  Homophobia is a thing.

Anti-semitism is not a thing.

Run down the earlier list of the ways in which non-white people are disadvantaged in the UK and try substituting the word Jewish for non-white (or black or whatever is your preference).

Under-represented in privileged positions in society?  Nope. Voice not heard?  Nope.  Earn less money?  Nope?  Worse health outcomes?  Nope?  Deaths in police custody?  Nope?  Is anti-semitism more like sexism then?  Are Jewish people subject to domestic abuse?  Nope.  Is there a kind of weird Jewish glass ceiling?  Nope.

It’s simply a cheap and spurious attack on this particular Labour leader.  I’m not a massive Corbyn fan either, but all this anti-semitism rhetoric is clearly nonsense.

Anti-semitism not a thing in the UK today.

Please stop talking as though it was.

Worse that that.  One of my favourite authors recently wrote that saying something is a thing’ is no longer a thing. So this post may look quite badly dated in the not-too-distant future.

Sorry about that.

And to my Jewish reader(s). No offence.

Like bumping into old friends; some you like….

I recently revisited some of the fiction, I really loved as a teenager, with mixed results.

George Orwell, who I found inspirational as a youth, strikes me now as pessimistic to the point of debility.  Yes, of course, he makes some killing observations about the system being too powerful and too grim for any of us to resist.  I come away with a feeling best described as “don’t hate the player, hate the game”.  So overall,my response is now mixed.

I also revisited Graham green’s Our Man in Havana.  My younger self found this a harmless, whimsical jaunt, which was particularly nice because Greene’s other books – typically the ones you had to read for school – were a bit heavy.

Happily, my grown up self loves Our Man in Havana even more than before.  It was an absolute joy, with all the jaunty tumble into inevitable disaster so beloved of the best sit-coms.  The writing also reminds me of the ironic style that became popular among the alternative comedians in the 1980s.

“Shut in his car, Wormold felt guilt nibbling around him like a mouse in a prison cell.  Perhaps soon the two of them would become accustomed to each other and guilt would come to eat out of his hand.”


The Future’s Orange

Interesting presentation this morning by Matt Locke of ‘Storythings’ at Brandwatch’s NYK Conference.  Among other things, Matt tells how media has transformed from ‘The Schedule’ to ‘The Stream’ rejecting the shift from mainstream to social media, among other trends.

The Schedule was characterised by four qualities: it” synchronised, homogeneous, regulated and scheduled.

The Stream on the other hand embodies different qualities: it’s personalised, mobile, de-contextualised and endless.

It’s the de-contextualised nature of social media in particular that makes fake news such a threat and so insidious.

My favourite observation was that FDR was the first president who “got” TV.  He understood the nature of The Schedule.  You know where this is going now.  Similarly, Donald Trump is the first President who “gets” The Stream.

The futures not bright.  The future is orange.  Be very afraid.


Brands with purpose; the story do far

‘Brands with purpose’ were all the rage for about twenty minutes or so.  Unilever said it was the right thing to do.  So obviously it was the right thing to do.

Then came Pepsigate.  An overzealous attempt to appropriate a world of virtuous resistance against all the evil in the world, while simultaneously calling for world peace, racial harmony and please can we all just start being nice to each other again.  Remember the anti-Vietnam war poster with the girl putting the flower in the barrel of the soldier’s gun?  Except Pepsi misjudged the popular mood and was ridiculed.

My own view is that, while Pepsi’s attempt to tap into this ‘purpose’ was pretty woeful, it wasn’t so much worse than a lot of other work from other brands who just about got away with it.  Pepsi didn’t have any credits in the bank here (as opposed to Coke for example who do) so once social media turned against them, the hole just got deeper and deeper.  Before they knew it, they were a laughing stock and had to withdraw the advertisement in question.  This in turn made them headline news and so doubly a laughing stock.

Harsh but fair.

This debacle has spawned a host of ‘told you so’ coverage.  Most of it is simply accountable to people wanting to score points by dancing on Pepsi’s grave (who wouldn’t?)  I’ve seen lots of other corporate pap which is equally risible, but escaped with barely a word of censure (special mention here for Hewlett Packard’s corporate video).

But I did quite enjoy this:

Moving on, in the wake of Pepsigate, brands should be getting very wary of doing the vision thing.  This idea for Heineken was, presumably, too far advanced to pull out.  In a worlds where Pepsi is ridiculed, this shouldn’t work either.  But it does.  Why?

Two reasons:

  1. Heineken is a brand we like.  It has a history of entertaining us and being witty.  It’s not explicitly a crusading brand (like say, Dove whose influence is very evident here) but it’s well-meaning enough to be credible.
  2. The craft.  It’s very nicely done.

That’s my opinion today.  If it gets lambasted and withdrawn tomorrow, I will of course disown all of this and claim I was being ironic.

And you fell for it right?

National Treasure

I was lucky enough to attend a talk last night by Tony Hall, Director General of the BBC entitled ‘Why I love the BBC’.  If the boss of any other organisation was billed under such a title, it would appear at best sycophantic, at worst deluded.  But for the Beeb it’s the most natural thing in the world.  It is simply the most loved brand you will ever come across.

Bizarre then that the last few weeks have been riddled with news stories about how the authorities (Ministry of Culture and stuff) was keen to make fundamental changes, increasing government control, slashing funding and so on.

Happily, the White paper announced yesterday appears to have missed most of the main demands of the attack dogs.  But it’s weird that such a revered institution has seemingly been under fire in this way.

Martin Kettle wrote a nice piece in the Guardian, in which he says:

Be very clear about the BBC white paper. In almost any other country in the world this would not be happening at all. Beyond Britain the BBC is universally revered. It stands for excellence and independence; and because of that excellence and independence, it stands above all for reliability. There is no other engine of soft power to touch it on the planet.

There’s only one country in the world where the idea that the BBC needs shaking up, taking down, and kicking around has any serious currency. That country, to the disbelief and consternation of much of the rest of the world right now, is Britain.

“I must be dreaming”

HONOR BLACKMAN  Character(s): Pussy Galore  Film 'JAMES BOND: GOLDFINGER' (1964)  Directed By GUY HAMILTON  17 September 1964  SAF21145  Allstar/UNITED ARTISTS    (Goldfinger, UK 1964)    **WARNING** This Photograph is for editorial use only and is the copyright of UNITED ARTISTS  and/or the Photographer assigned by the Film or Production Company & can only be reproduced by publications in conjunction with the promotion of the above Film. A Mandatory Credit To UNITED ARTISTS is required. The Photographer should also be credited when known. No commercial use can be granted without written authority from the Film Company.

We’re very much looking forward to the publication in September of a new James Bond novel, Trigger Mortis, penned by Anthony Horowitz.  Not least because Horowitz has a fine record in these ‘approved’ additions to established genres.  His Sherlock Holmes  books, House of Silk and Moriarty, were officially sanctioned by the Conan Doyle estate and they are excellent.

Horowitz professes to be sticking closely to the spirit of Ian Fleming’s originals:  “My aim was to make this the most authentic James Bond novel anyone could have written.”  Lucy Fleming, the niece of Ian Fleming, said “it was almost as if Ian had written [Trigger Mortis] himself … It does feel like a Fleming book.”  This is good news.  The Fleming books are brilliant.

The news has raised some eyebrows because Trigger Mortis features Bond Girl Pussy Galore, played memorably in the film of Goldfinger, by Honor Blackman.  Back in the 70s, the choice of her name was very much in tune with Bond spirit – though it’s reported that the US film authority took some persuading to allow it even then.  In these more enlightened times (special prize here for blurting a choked “political correctness gone mad”) the whole franchise has been accused of mysogyny.

This does raise another interesting debate – should we judge historical behaviour and references by today’s criteria?  Do today’s standards of equality also apply to previous ages when gender roles were very different and the world was a different place?  And how will our current standards be judged by future observers?  It’s a dangerous principle to start to apply without some serious nuances.

I like to imagine that Sean Connery’s heavily accented voicing of “Poossey” was a subtle attempt to deflect attention from the offending word.  A kind of 70s equivalent of “Sorry my dear I don’t give a damn”.

The context is crucial.  After all, if you throw a punch in the ring, you get paid, but if you do the same thing in the street, you could go to jail.

Trigger Mortis