Coarse Art

By Paul Halas

The democratisation of the image

Art is everywhere, whether it’s highbrow gallery art, pulp, throwaway art, or the vast array of moving images available to us. Perhaps because my parents excelled in the production of animated films – possessing talents I sadly didn’t inherit – I was always fascinated by the incredible amount of visual images – art – that were part of family life. As well as creating animated films in a wide variety of styles, my mother and father surrounded themselves with drawings, paintings, an incredible number of artsy, newsy magazines, and books of drawings, cartoons and comic strips. In our home there was an extravaganza for the eyes, and I gorged myself on it. And somewhere in among all that visual overstimulation I developed a taste for the coarse, the weird, the knockabout, and the sort of stuff not intended for little children. Maybe most kids would do the same, but alongside the Beano and Dandy I had the chance to thumb through Lilliput Magazines, Aubrey Beardsley prints, innumerable gallery catalogues, L’il Abner comics and art books… Which leads me to a personal look at people’s art – from an aficionado who’s very far from scholarly.


One of the first artists to captivate my sister and me was Peter Breughel the Elder. At the time I suppose we were drawn to the colour, the bustle, the unfamiliar landscapes and buildings of the 17th Century Lowlands… and above all the affection shown for the ordinary people depicted in many of the works. Which after my wayward preamble brings me to the point of this article.

Breughel the Elder was probably the first painter (whose work survives) to make common men and women the subjects of this paintings. Others – such as Caravaggio, Albrecht Durer and Da Vinci – had used ordinary people as models, but Breughel made them the subject matter of many of his later paintings. Hitherto painting had been either religious in subject matter, or vanity projects to flatter the rich and powerful. It was exclusive and expensive, not for the hoi polloy. But by the 1550s and 1560s, when Breughel was at his peak, the Reformation was in full swing and also Humanist ideas were gaining ground. It was against that background that Breughel’s genre painting emerged. It was art of the people – but not yet for the people. His illustrations for books gained a lot of popularity, but they would certainly have been expensive, and his paintings were still only possible through the patronage of wealthy collectors. But the fact that collectors wanted to possess pictures of peasants and tradespeople and the lower orders living very real lives reflects the germination of societal change.

Breughel the Elder – celebrating ordinary people’s lives.


Art about the people for the people still had to wait a while. Until the 18th Century was underway art was generally about nobs for nobs – with perhaps the honourable exception of some of our Dutch genre friends. Lorraine, Gainsborough, Fragonard, Constable, El Greco, Titian and company were true masters (even if Fragonard elongated ladies’ thighs a tad), but the swains and milkmaids that appeared in their paintings were little more than background decoration. What began to set art before the masses was the evolution to the printing process. As the 18th Century progressed there was a proliferation of affordable news-sheets, pamphlets and posters, and an illustration industry was born. William Hogarth (and others such as Goya) had already started using ordinary people as subject matter (ie, The Shrimp Girl), but it was the reproduction of his illustrations, most notably the Rake’s and Harlot’s Progress, Gin Lane and Beer Street, that gained him great and lasting fame.

Memorably Hogarth.

Many wonderful cartoonists and lampooners made full use of the craze for prints and magazine illustrations, with artists such as Thomas Rowlandson, George Cruikshank and James Gillray (and many, many others no longer remembered) producing a vast number of the most scurrilous and frequently obscene images.

This contains an image of: "King George IV as the Prince of Wales" by George Cruikshank, 1792-1878
Lampooning George IV, by George Cruikshank.

Many were political, but others simply humorous slices of life of the great, the good and the common with no deference to rank or station in life whatsoever. My favourite of these scandalous illustrators is Thomas Rowlanson, whose enormous volume of obscene works is wonderfully funny.

Thomas Rowlandson bawdiness.

(As an aside, it’s noticeable how many people of colour appear in these cartoons, and how seldom they do in the literature and histories of the time. Odd, that.)


Throughout the 19th Century books and magazines frequently contained illustrations. Even Charles Dickens’ work, which was frequently concerned with social problems and people on the edges of society, carried accompanying pictures. It seems odd to mention Gustav Dore here, whose work was mainly far from coarse, but his London prints of the early 1870s show the plight of the English poor as few other artists had (even if retrospectively some silly arses have accused the works of being poverty porn).

Dore’s London. Poverty porn?

At the common end of the market were the cheap, sensationalist publications, Penny Dreadfuls, macabre tales, titillating horror, horrendous true crime… nearly all with wonderfully lurid illustrations by often very talented artists – who were doubtless paid a pittance and have been long forgotten.

Penny Dreadfuls – wonderful pulp.

Having spent most of my life penning a different form of pulp, but pulp nonetheless, I have a great affection for these god-awful publications. They are the precursor of the absolute avalanche of 20th Century throwaway publications, much of it trashy art, but still containing multiple gems.


Many fine illustrators emerged in the late 19th Century and early 20th. One, whose work centred on working class people and the social conditions of the day, was Heinrich Zille. In late 19th Century Germany there was a mass migration of people into the cities, particularly Berlin. People lived in cramped conditions, the hoped for jobs frequently failed to materialise, and poverty was rife. Zille drew it all, the tragedies and the joys, the passions and the agonies, warts and all. He was sometimes accused of being a pornographer (I’d say he simply had an eye for real life), but during the heady days of the Berlin Secession his work became celebrated.

Heinrich Zille. Intimate social commentary.

He found a sympathetic home with the Simplicissimus Magazine, a left-field publication specialising in satire, politics and the arts, which continued to support him right through to the 1920s, by which time he had become a national institution. Heinrich Zille was the consummate artist of the people.


If any medium can be considered coarse art it’s the Ninth Art – comics. At their best, comics are of course art of the very highest calibre, but for the most part they’re ephemeral, disposable, lightweight entertainment. And from an early age I’ve loved them (and spent forty years of my life writing them).

Like the telephone, many nations lay claim to inventing comics. And like the telephone, comics became widespread in the USA before anywhere else. But just to be contrary, I’m including the British “Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday”, simply because to the modern eye it looks so very weird. About an idler who’ll do anything to avoid work or making an effort, Ally expends an enormous amount of effort in his “sloping”. First appearing in the 1880s, Ally Sloper is reckoned to be the first recurring character in comics. Whether or not that claim is true, Ally gained an enormous working class following – and also gained cult status among the artsy-fartsy, bohemian middle classes.

The very strange Ally Sloper.

But across the Atlantic is where comics really took off, especially newspaper strips. Newspapers helped comics gain a wide audience, and boy did comics bump up newspaper circulation figures. Comics fans have great reverence for the finest of the old strips, such as Crazy Kat and Little Nemo in Slumberland – brilliant, surreal art of the highest order. But most of the popular comics reflected the lives of the working class people who read them, populist art, strips such Mutt and Jeff, Gasoline Alley, Moon Mullins, Blondie, Li’l Abner…


The 20th Century was also a golden age for the newspaper political cartoon. Few represented the concerns of the common man (and woman) in the middle of the century than the American Bill Mauldin. He gained fame for presenting the real lives of American soldiers – the dogfaces – in the Second World War, drawing from the front lines where the bullets were flying in both Europe and the Pacific. He also followed the fortunes and misfortunes of de-mobbed GIs in the post war period and never pulled any punches. His stance on social issues, racism and the hypocrisy of politicians landed him in trouble with the McCarthyist witch-hunt and many newspapers were forced to drop him, his work retained a mass following.

Willie and Joe – America’s favourite dogfaces.


While endless forests were felled to satisfy the demand for pulp reading, an even bigger revolution was taking place with celluloid. Moving pictures. According to one movie mogul no one ever lost money by underestimating public taste, and while the medium produced art of the finest quality in both live actiand animated films there was also a conveyor belt of instantly forgettable mediocrity that the public couldn’t get enough of.

Artist inspired by Betty Boop & Fleischer Studios - on the Betty Boop blog
From low to high art. A matter of generations.

The old animations from the first half of the 20th Century are very much in vogue, but at the time most were looked down upon by the arty intelligencia and therefore qualify as coarse art. Wonderful coarse art.

There were mediocre movies, B movies, downright bad movies and absolutely terrible movies – and the latter category has gained quite a following. Of course they number thousands, and we Spotty Herberts all have our favourites, but I’ll just mention the obvious: Edward D Wood’s immortal “Plan 9 from Outer Space”. As a dreadful movie it ticks all the boxes and is truly memorable.

When trash gains immortality.

Before leaving moving images there’s TV. The medium that bewitched the masses. No need to mention more, just switch the bloody thing on. And quickly off again.


Before winding up I’ve got to plug underground comix, a largely American medium (and very much a reaction to America) with notable contributions from Europe, that sprang up in the mid 1960s. They were independent, scurrilous, violent, obscene, fantastic, political, surreal, very funny and above all brutally honest. From the first time I clapped eyes on a Zap Comix in around 1969 I was hooked for life. They changed the way I looked at life far more than any drug, politician or textbook. They epitomise coarse art, and if more people had read them I’m sure the world would be a much better place.

The master. Crumb goes political.


Finally I suppose I have to catch up with the age of the computer, the mobile phone and social media. And memes. They’re bloody everywhere – and they’re certainly coarse art and art of the people. And a few of them are really quite good.

A meme that sums up the great political hatchet job.

Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.

A lifelong buddy

Tench: always there for me, even after years of neglect

by Paul Halas

Most anglers have a favourite fish, even if, like me, they don’t spend their entire lives obsessing about a single species. I’ve fished for well over sixty of my seventy-plus years, and a great affection for the first “serious” fish I ever caught has stayed with me. It was a tench; not a very bright one.

A quick internet search shows that tench are incredibly widespread worldwide – found across most European countries, parts of South America, the Antipodes, swathes of Asia, the USA, southern Africa and even Alaska and Mongolia. Allegedly. Although the last two sound like tosh to me. In most of these countries the tench is an introduced, non-native species – valued presumably for its sporting prowess because only masochists would ever eat them. They’re laconic, sedate, hard-fighting, summer-loving, grub-eating, still or slow moving water dwelling – and sometimes prone to contradicting all of those generalisations. They don’t grow to a vast size, I still find a six pound fish a real thrill, while the rod caught record (British and worldwide I believe) stands at a little over fifteen pounds.

(Although the UK went metric around fifty years ago anglers still use pounds and ounces as units of weight. To my surprise I’ve frequently heard French carp anglers talking about their fish in livres too – British carp fishing has been very influential over the past few decades. The Academie Francaise would be apoplectic if they knew.)

tench are incredibly widespread worldwide

My first attempts at fishing were absolutely dismal. As a nine-year-old with no one around to teach me, I’d make my way to the ponds on Hampstead Heath (North London) with a midget rod and reel bought on holiday in Cornwall and catch nothing. Everything I was doing was wrong. Eventually, a kindly adult angler gave me a fishing float and some hooks appropriate for the task and one or two small roach came my way…

Hampstead Heath ponds

Then, one day, fishing my bait at a depth of eighteen inches in six feet of water, I somehow managed to hook a tench, and by some fluke I even landed it too. (It may have been feeding in amongst some dangling willow twigs. Everyone knows they feed on the bottom… except when they don’t.) There at my feet, all chunky, olive greeny-brown with tiny red eyes, was a tench of perhaps a pound and a quarter. God, it was absolutely enormous! I was instantly surrounded by a crowd of admiring kids, my fifteen minutes of celebrity.

They [the tench] are laconic, sedate, hard-fighting, summer-loving, grub-eating, still or slow moving water dwelling – and sometimes prone to contradicting all of those generalisations. 

That bolt from the blue set me on a path. I cajoled better tackle out of my parents. I tried to figure out how to catch bigger fish than the tiddlers I’d been content with before, and became a vestigial “specimen hunter”. I started catch the odd bream, up to maybe a pound and a half, and some magical roach of maybe up to twelve ounces. It was a long time before I caught another tench, but when it came it was deserved. And tench were the fish I aspired to, the rarely attained pinnacle of fishing on the Hampstead ponds in the late 1950s and early 1960s. (Carp were present, but regarded with such reverence no one presumed to fish for them. Captures were incredibly rare, and always by accident.) I spent years trying to crack the three pounds barrier, but in those far off years I never did. A friend boasted of a four and a half pounder he’d landed – the stuff of dreams – but a couple of years later he confessed he’d lied.

There at my feet, all chunky, olive greeny-brown with tiny red eyes, was a tench of perhaps a pound and a quarter. God, it was absolutely enormous!

When I was around sixteen my parents bought a weekend cottage in Wiltshire. I loved it. Within cycling distance there were a few small farm ponds, which contained roach, rudd and tench – all of which had a liking for bread. Now I was catching three and four tench in a session, plus roach to over a pound, but that magical three pound tench just wouldn’t appear.

Small water heaven

That didn’t happen until I spread my wings a little wider and discovered the gravel pits of the Cotswold Water Park. The club book declared the “specimen weight” for each species present, and the threshold for tench was four whole pounds.

(To anglers now a four pound tench is pretty meagre pickings, but in the early 1960s it was a serious fish. For a variety of reasons many species have been growing far larger over the years. There’s numerous factors, including excessive nutrients entering the water system and global warming – but while some fisheries have improved dramatically many others have gone down the pan.)

Tench inflation. Between the 1960s and the 1990s the record almost doubled

Float-fished bread caught us all a stream of tench, and over the years anglers’ personal bests improved steadily. When the tench didn’t fancy bread they hoovered up maggots and casters (maggot chrysalis), and sometimes lumps of spam or pork luncheon meat. Or worms. Or sweetcorn.

(In the 1970s sweetcorn fever swept across the British coarse fishing scene (freshwater, excluding trout and salmon) like the Golden Horde. That was one of the very rare times I was ahead of the game. I’d holidayed by Lake Balaton in Hungary, where cooked, exploded maize was a favourite bait for carp and rudd. Back home I experimented with tinned sweetcorn and caught tons of tench before the trend caught on. While the going was good I’d be catching ten fish to other anglers’ one. Did I do the decent thing and share my secret? Did I balls!

While the going was good, I’d be catching ten fish to other anglers’ one. Did I do the decent thing and share my secret? Did I balls!

For most of my life the gravel pits of the Cotswold Water Park were my home venue, especially after moving from London to the West Country in 1980. Waters change over time, and for a couple of wonderful decades one of the lakes became a superb winter tench fishery. Tench aren’t supposed to feed in cold weather, and while people made the odd surprise catch in winter only a nut would set out to catch them. Except in this lake. At the beginning of a cold snap they’d go off the boil, but after a few days’ acclimatisation they’d bite again even in horribly bitter weather. We would fish with two rods, one for pike (noted winter feeders) and the other for tench. (One time my brother-in-law hooked a fish on his whole sardine bait intended for pike and yelled it was fighting like a tench. I told him not to be soft in the head; everyone knows tench aren’t carnivores. It was a large tench that evidently hadn’t read any textbooks.)

Later, as carp fishing fever gripped the country – the Cotswold Water Park was no exception – carp methods crept into my tench fishing. Using scaled down carp rigs and baits I caught an awful lot of tench, and bigger ones. For a while this new wave fishing outperformed traditional methods in the same way that sweetcorn once outfished bread. But fish wise up, nothing lasts for ever.

As carp have taken over more and more fisheries, tench have been outmuscled and forced into the background. At the same time I fell out of love with the Cotswold Water Park. Scandalously sold to a leisure company by the county council for £1 (perfidy at least on a par with Pearl Harbour), it became commercialised, corporatised, fenced in and hideously expensive (a parable for the UK). I stopped going there.

Cotswold Water Park, paradise lost


While I’ve gone through long phases of fishing for other species – lots of carp fishing, barbel, chub, trout, pike, zander, perch, grey mullet, bass, roach, eels, catfish… I’ll dangle a line where I’m able) – tench have always tended to be nearby.

I lived for a year in Ireland during the late 1970s. The lakes of County Clare were a happy hunting ground for tench, as was the Grand Canal in County Kildare and the River Shannon, especially at the famed Lanesboro power station outlet hot-spot. There was something very alluring about tench and Guinness.

Using scaled down carp rigs and baits I caught an awful lot of tench, and bigger ones. 

I’ve spent a lot of time in the south west of France, and of course I fished. Carp mainly, but that’s because the tench fishing was never very good. I’ve caught tench in the Rivers Garonne, Baise, Lot and Gers, plus several stillwaters. I’d spend sessions of several days fishing one large public lake, which held carp to fifty pounds plus. I caught carp to over thirty pounds and giant roach of over three pounds that somehow picked up my big carp baits. I also pulled in a tench of around four and a half pounds. This, astonishingly, drew much admiration from some nearby French carp anglers, with gasps of “ooh, la belle tanche!” I’ve had to conclude south west France and tench aren’t an entente cordiale.

The mighty Garonne. Raging floods, vast catfish, impressive carp and some very modest tench


With advancing age my fishing world has contacted somewhat. I’m now a fair weather angler because I can no longer withstand the cold – no matter what I wear. I can’t afford expensive fisheries any more, nor a big petrol bill, so I stick to a couple of local club cards and fish a modest carp lake and a big canal. The lake produces carp any month of the year you choose to go, plus a few other species too. When I catch a tench, even if it’s only the same size as the first once I landed at Hampstead Heath, I’m overjoyed. It’s a very old friend.

Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.

War on wokies

Is “our” culture in peril?

By Paul Halas

The right wing press doesn’t pull its punches: an army of do-gooders, snowflakes and lefty killjoys are out to rob us of our freedoms and force us to abandon our cherished traditions. Our history is being re-written, monuments are being torn down, our favourite books, films and TV programmes are being censored. Comedians daren’t tell jokes any more, inclusivity has hijacked the airwaves.

They seem to be everywhere now – gaggles of painfully-sincere, well-meaning folk cavorting in support of some cause or other, unwashed-looking people daubing buildings with paint or sitting and blocking thoroughfares, and all manner of other nuisances. Even to many of us on the left, some highly worthy forms of expression can come across as pretty ridiculous. Pan pipes for peace, macrame against the cuts.

May Day, 1920 (Clement Moran)
Raised consciousness or silly and out of touch?

When people start singing at the end of demonstrations I’ve often thought how effective it is at clearing the streets. Wokeism isn’t to everybody’s taste, but is it a threat to our national culture?

If our national culture is under threat, maybe we need to reflect on what that culture is and how it evolved…. and what parts of that culture are in urgent need of further evolution. For a start, the UK’s national culture is predominantly white. (And that goes for the rest of Europe as well, and the countries taken over by white people. Britishness has its own individual flavour, but it has a great deal in common with the other European cultures – especially those with a colonialist past.)

In recent years the UK has begun to embrace multiculturalism and made a start at owning some of its past. And even the progress that has been made is met with resistance from large sections of the media, and the population at large… Which isn’t surprising when you look at hundreds of years of “our” cultural history.

Art, entertainment, literature and more recently cinema and TV all reflect a society’s values and also shape them. And our cultural values have an awful lot of baggage – racist baggage, class based baggage and misogynist baggage.

Racism and the assumed superiority of Europeans goes back to the Crusades and probably considerably before. We come across it in Shakespeare. If Othello wasn’t an outright racist play, it certainly was about racism, and The Merchant of Venice was overtly antisemitic. (It’s a moot point that nearly all productions of Othello until very recently involved white actors in blackface.)

Thomas Keene in Othello 1884 Poster - Vikipedi:Seçkin resimler/Eğlence, kültür ve yaşam tarzı/Tiyatro - Vikipedi
Blackface production

Concurrent with Shakespeare was the birth of the East India Company. Envious of the Dutch and Portuguese, who were raking in fortunes via the spice trade in the “East Indes”, the British and French set up their own East India companies in order to grab a slice of the pie. I find the British East India Company fascinating. It was the first example of modern multinational corporate capitalism – a trading company formed on modern lines with a board of directors and shareholders, which grew into a ruthless colonial power – and set a template for exploitation on a truly massive scale.

While British enterprises had joined in the lucrative slave trade between Sub-Saharan Africa and the New World, and had quickly come to regard their “cargo” as less than human in order to be able to carry out that shamefully inhuman business, the first European traders to set up shop in India tended to regard the Indians they dealt with on a much more equal footing. That was hardly surprising, as the Mughal Empire far surpassed its European counterparts in wealth, power, opulence and learning. Indeed, the Europeans were regarded as somewhat uncouth and lacking in manners. “…A handful of traders who have not yet learned to wash their bottoms.” The Europeans were tolerated, however, because the trade they brought was mutually beneficial.

Through chicanery, good fortune, military prowess, brutal repression, treachery and sheer ruthlessness the British East India Company gradually became a force to be reckoned with, and in time the dominant force in India. To begin with the main source of discrimination between all the players was class rather than ethnicity. Europeans deferred to powerful Indians and vice versa. Intermarriage was common (although it’s doubtful whether many European women married Indian men).

The East India Company. A shift in the balance of power

Without doubt the expansion of the East India Company’s power was driven by commercial greed, but what had started as a trading venture turned into out and out colonialism, and, realising how wealthy and powerful the company had become, the British government muscled in and gradually took over. The Raj was born. Indians increasingly laboured for British overlords rather than Indians – and of course that made them inferiors. The caste system was nothing new in India, but now the top caste was all white, and the humblest of colonists considered themselves superior to anyone with brown skin. The remaining Indian potentates and maharajas were now mere puppets. Intermarriage was forbidden; miscegenation took place behind locked doors. As so often through history, the implementation of racism came about through exploitation and money-making.


It’s impossible to underestimate the extent to which colonialism has shaped British culture. And that goes for the various cousins across the Channel. Our wealth grew from it, people went to the colonies to make their fortunes, it contributed enormously to our sense of self-importance. The subjugation of other peoples was painted as philanthropy, the theft of their wealth and resources was bringing development and civilisation, the obliteration of their religions and cultures was our sacred duty. You might have laboured in a factory in Manchester or stoked the boiler of a new-fangled steamship, you might have been the bottom of the heap but at least you weren’t black. And you could always prove your worth by taking the Queen’s shilling and joining in the carnage.

What was painted as heroism was frequently genocide.

Racism, snobbism and misogyny are deeply entrenched in British and the white world’s culture. As a baby boomer I’ve seen these traits perpetuated through every decade that I’ve lived through, and although we’re starting to acknowledge and admit to them a little more nowadays they’re still part of our cultural fabric.

One of the more demeaning parts of the prejudice engrained in society is the use of stereotypes. They’ve been a constant.

With the Chinese Labour Corps. NCO. "Don't yer know er own bloomin' number yet?" Chinaman (proudly). "One - seven - six."
In humorous magazines
Punch Magazine’s affectionate view of the Irish
See the source image
In advertising
This contains an image of:
In political publications
In pulp magazines
Image result for Casablanca Movie
In much loved movies
See the source image
In sitcoms that should be forgotten
In sitcoms that should be dead and buried

As well as demeaning and patronising people of colour, our culture also strove to keep women in their place.

Buy the right bread to keep your man

The lower orders had to be kept in line too. And anyone who didn’t conform – vegetarians, teetotallers, intellectuals, left-wingers…

H M Bateman’s brilliant observations were usually about snobbism – but they were also usually very snobbish

My own field, comics, has not been immune. Comics I have grown up with and loved have been guilty of some pretty crass stereotyping. Two in particular spring to mind.

See the source image
Tintin. Herge evolved a bit in later life. Even so…
See the source image
I always adored Asterix comics, and while much of the humour derived from affectionate stereotyping this crosses a line

Most of this imagery is pretty old, but it’s part of the white world’s legacy; maybe more mine than younger generations’, but if anyone believes we’ve outgrown such primitive attitudes they should think again. Our culture, our media, our education have all been fuelled by such attitudes. We have become multicultural – but there can be few people from families that immigrated to Europe at some point who haven’t been made painfully aware of our cultural failings. There may no longer be signs on doors saying no dogs, no Irish, no blacks, but we haven’t eradicated snobbism, we haven’t eradicated inequality, we haven’t eradicated misogyny and we certainly haven’t eradicated racism. Just ask the young English footballers who failed to score their penalty kicks in the Euro final last year.

As a society we are evolving, or sections of society are. But there’s a large rump who remain entrenched in the old attitudes. The consumers of right wing news, the Daily Express readers, those who believe the BBC is dangerously left wing. Those who think colonialism was a good thing and that exploitation by the rich and powerful somehow benefits us all. Having been a political activist I’ve locked swords with them countless times on letters pages, at street stalls and on doorsteps. We have a long way to go.

So, getting back to the subject of wokeism, and whether or not it’s imperilling our culture, I’d say I bloody well hope so. Let’s keep the good – John Betjeman, larks ascending, parish churches, the Mersey Beat, cream teas, J M Turner… – but let’s not kid ourselves that we don’t still have a toxic legacy to address. So when it comes to clog dancers against climate change, or foot massaging to save the rainforests, or basket weaving for world understanding, I’ll do my best to swallow my cynicism and be supportive. They’re on the side of the angels. War is being waged on wokies, and we have to support them or the dark side wins.

Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.

the apathetic nation


By Paul Halas

They partied and broke their own rules; they’ve been rumbled but will there now be a reckoning? The whitewash is already underway, Allegra Stratton is the blood sacrifice and an inquiry, of sorts, is to be held – led by someone who allegedly attended one of the parties in question.

Social media is buzzing with tweets by disaffected lifelong Tory supporters swearing they’ll never vote for the Conservatives again, the Fib Dems even stand to win a by-election or two. The political landscape is shifting, the penny is at last dropping that the current shower in charge make the scammers trying to con your gran out of her life’s savings look like Mother Teresa. Or is it?


Never has the nation been saddled with such a mendacious, morally bankrupt ruling party. The only area in which they excel is funnelling vast sums of public money into the private sector, most specifically the very richest corporations and individuals. The majority of the Cabinet have the excuse that they’re of very limited ability (how the *%~# did Raab, Williamson and Truss ever gain responsible posts, let alone make it up to big school?), but to achieve all the mayhem they’ve wrought they have to have some brains behind the scenes making sure they don’t inadvertently achieve anything beneficial.

There is something grim and sinister driving the Tory Party. Their policies are designed to make the less well off poorer, to deny the young a route to meaningful work, to suppress lower-end wages, to erode working conditions, to make education unaffordable, to make housing unaffordable, to drive inequality ever upwards, and, when people decide to express their anger at all the ordure they’re expected to swallow, to criminalise dissent – with absurdly Draconian penalties. By any marker, we’re several furlongs down the track to fascism. Many of the prerequisites are already in place: a rocky economy, a government that has realised it can get away with rule by edict, a widespread willingness to attack designated scapegoats, and a general air of helplessness and apathy.


close up photo of skull
There is something grim and sinister driving the Tory Party. Photo by Mitja Juraja on

Public trust in politics has been lost. People have always complained that politicians are all the same, and it doesn’t matter who you vote for. But mostly such sentiments were simply venting. Whatever your political allegiance, there was a feeling that governments and opposition were expected to conduct themselves with a certain degree of decorum. It’s not that skulduggery and dishonesty in high places was unheard of, but at the very least, when you were found out, you fell on your sword.

That no longer happens. British party politics has lost any semblance of shame. Johnson and his cronies are constantly being rumbled. They defraud the public, lie, cheat, shag, snort, boogie and blunder without a care in the world. Sometimes an acquiescent media actually reports on their shenanigans, but it makes no difference. A mild slap on the wrist here and there, but nothing that means a damn. And the public has grown completely blasé with it. That’s just how it is. Let them get on with it. Screw politics anyway. People just don’t care any more (apart from a small minority whose voices are increasingly being silenced). Politics more than ever has become a happy hunting ground for the very worst people in public life and their backers.


I’m not alone in seething with rage, but I recognise my rage is impotent – emasculated. How to affect matters, effect change, is beyond my ken. Of course, if the country had an effective opposition, a serious alternative to the toxic status quo that’s been in charge for the past generation or three, there would be a shard of hope to cling to – but there isn’t.

Much as I despise Johnson and his ilk, they are what they are and one wouldn’t expect anything different from them. They’re the enemy, always have been. But my real venom is reserved for Sir Keir Starmer. He has done more than anyone to destroy whatever hope I once clung to.

Sure, for most of its existence the Labour Party has been fronted by centrists, self-seekers and establishment stooges, but there was always a healthy leftist faction within it that frequently managed to make its voice heard. The Atlee government achieved great things, the Wilson governments had their moments, and even Tory Blair and his gang failed to silence all the left wing voices – but Starmer… oh boy!

Sir Keir has been the death of Labour as a serious political alternative, and for that I can never forgive him

The only real alternative to the ever right-ward march of the nation was Labour under Corbyn – even if the PLP and the majority of the party apparatchiks conspired with the establishment and media to bring the party leader down – and with him the chance of a Labour government.

Corbyn has gone, but had the policies he put before the nation been retained by the Labour Party people would’ve had the possibility of a real alternative – something to inspire some real hope. The Tories have become such a rank cesspit that sooner or later people would opt for genuine, radical change. That option has been denied to us. Starmer has broken all his promises on policy and is conducting a witch hunt of the left, which must have Tony Blair purring with a mixture of admiration and envy. Sir Keir has been the death of Labour as a serious political alternative, and for that I can never forgive him.


The country is sinking deeper and deeper into a pained but apathetic morass. Many of those worst affected by the Tories’ evil policies are either too immersed in the day to day to bother with politics or have been suckered into taking their frustration out on the sanctioned scapegoats. Those somewhere in the middle strata, those who are just about getting by but are keenly aware that things are getting progressively tougher, just don’t see how anything will change. And those doing rather well just close their eyes and hope that things won’t change because they’re Thatcher’s children and they’re all right, Jack. We’ve become the apathetic nation. “If voting changed anything they’d ban it.” Hell. I’m starting to agree with that. How do we prevent what is effectively an elected dictatorship from lurching into full-on fascism?

Maybe I’ll be proved wrong about Johnson and maybe he’s toast. Maybe the Tories are. (Though I doubt it.) Maybe Starmer will become our next prime minister because people finally tire of Tory sleaze and maybe we’ll avoid the final descent into fascism. The trouble is, I can’t see how Starmer’s Labour would dramatically improve many people’s lives. The sleaze would probably be a little less in your face, but the oligarchs, hedge funders and magnates would still sleep soundly in their beds, the money launderers would still launder, the gig economy workers would still be exploited, the utility companies would still favour shareholders over customers, the NHS would still be fragmented and flogged off and the homeless would still be homeless…The current neoliberal system breeds inequality, and that won’t be challenged under New New Labour.


On a personal level, I’m afraid I’ve fallen into the national malaise. Not through acceptance of the status quo, but because I can no longer see an effective way for me to challenge it. In the Corbyn era I could, with bells on. My activism of the past six years, which had been pretty full-on, has dissipated, my energy drained. And I don’t blame Johnson and company for that. Kier Starmer, J’accuse.

Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.

The Labour Party – sifting through the wreckage

Will activism become a cottage industry?

By Paul Halas

The news that the selection process for prospective Labour candidates is to be changed to allow yet more Tories to represent the party will surprise no one. It is only the latest increment in Keir Starmer’s drive to make the party a safe place for venture capitalists, oligarchs, tax-dodging corporations and those who deliberately confuse the distinction between criticism of Israeli apartheid with prejudice against Jews. If anyone reading this article actually believes Starmer is doing a good job stop now: you’re either complicit in his charade or terminally gullible.

The idea of Labour as a force to bring about democratic socialism is a wonderful fantasy, an illusion, albeit one that many of us dared to believe in between 2015 and 2019. But in spite of saying democratic socialism on the tin, it ain’t in the contents. The party of the working person has always been infiltrated and occupied by the right, even although there have been a few glorious examples of socialist advances being forced through – despite all the obstacles. The post-war Atlee government gave us a wonderful legacy (that the neoliberals have diligently destroyed over the past forty years), but following him was Hugh Gaitskill and a sharp swing back towards the centre. Harold Wilson’s centre leftism was always under attack from right wingers in the party, as well as the establishment, and he ended up sidelined by Sunny Jim and Bushy Healey. Michael Foot fought a constant battle against his own party plus the weight of the media (Private Eye’s nickname for him, Worzel Gummidge, certainly caught the public imagination), while Neil Kinnock declared open warfare against the left.

There was a national sigh of relief in 1997 when the tired old Tories were swept away by Tony Blair, whose dynamic platform of not being a Tory produced a sense of national euphoria… until of course the penny dropped that actually he was a Tory. Okay – one could argue that he was at least a One Nation Tory, that we got Sure Start centres and some more dosh went into health and education, but creeping privatisation continued unabated, cronyism was almost as rife then as it is now, we were lumbered with PFIs here, there and everywhere, and inequality, which had been rising since 1979, just carried on rising. We all know the quote, Tony Blair was Margaret Thatcher’s proudest achievement. He was, and is, a Tory.

As is Keir Starmer. Surely any illusions about him have now been swept away: he represents the establishment 100% and is making absolutely sure that the Labour Party is a socialism-free zone – even at the expense of bankrupting and sinking the party out of sight. The sorry mob at the helm now resemble a low budget caper movie, getting the old gang of bastards back together: Blair, Mandelson, David Miliband, Campbell, and given the chance I’ll bet they’d dig up Margaret Thatcher too. Add to that many of the kindly apparatchiks who helped scuttle two general elections and you have to conclude that the dark side has won. Good friends of mine are still saying stay and fight. Sorry. It’s over.

A great many activists and former members, especially those like me who joined the party because of Jeremy Corbyn, now find themselves disenfranchised, rudderless and quite frankly depressed. From having no faith in party politics, to becoming highly energised, card-carrying party workers, to losing that faith again, all in a few short years, is a hulluva trip. For a while we believed a mainstream political party could and would usher in a fairer, more sustainable society. But it turns out that was just a dream some of us had (to quote Joni Mitchell).

For many like me becoming a party member was something of a culture shock. I’d never been part of any sort of organisation, having led the sheltered life of a freelance story-writer, and entering a hierarchical, structured set-up like the Labour Party was a strange experience. But I quickly got with the espirit de corps, did my best to be a team player, was happy cannon-fodder. What always struck me as odd, though, was that in amongst all the fund-raising, leafleting, arranging lifts, meetings, getting stuff printed, all the activities part and parcel of belonging to a CLP, nobody seemed to be talking about politics. Yes, politics in terms of personalities, myriad rues and regulations and various snippets of gossip and personality clashes, but not political ideas – not the big issues. The only times we were officially sanctioned to talk politics was when we were out canvassing or running stalls – a wonderful and eye-opening experience. It’s as if that stuff was above our pay grade. Sure, those of us on the left socialised and discussed these matters (and boy, so did those on the right), however, such talk never seemed to be an integral part of CLP life. Bureaucracy rex. But still, we were buoyed by the idea that as members our voices counted, and collectively we could steer the party towards our goal of a more equitable society. Ha! Now look where we are.

So, sifting through the wreckage, what are we left with? The ideas Jeremy Corbyn represented are still in our hearts and minds. I’m a bit mistrustful of the sainthood that’s been conferred on him by some on the left, as I’m sure he is, however, in spite of his flaws I’m still very much a Corbynista. But no longer having a national, mass membership political party to fall in with, we have to look at other ways of achieving change. The Peace and Justice Movement is a very positive step in the right direction.

Belatedly I’m bringing up the subject of climate change, as it certainly should be the first item on any agenda (even if I’m 900 words into this piece). It’s such a major deal that many people – and governments it appears – react by throwing up their hands, emitting an existential scream and then carrying on doing exactly what they were doing before. Yesterday the media was screaming we’re all going to die; today it’s back to who’s shagging who on Love Island. It’s as if it’s too much to take in… except it’s really happening. Nationally, the Tory government grunts and makes vague noises about sustainability (while slyly trying to open new coal mines and investing yet more billions in fossil fuels), while Starmer’s alternative Tory Party rounds on the government for its inactivity with all the ferocity of a comatose teddy bear. Internationally we wait for action by India, China, the USA, Brazil and others with great interest. A benevolent world dictatorship could maybe bring about some meaningful changes, but we don’t have that luxury. China could perhaps implement the right kind of draconian measures, but they’d have to drop their “it’s good to be rich” mantra first.

The big elephant in the room, climate wise, is capitalism. A cynic might say that unless going green becomes a bigger revenue source than continuing to screw up the environment the outlook is not kosher. Technology will no doubt play a big role in any solution to the climate change problem, but my faith in this is tempered by the fact that most R&D is now largely funded by the corporate sector, and those people by and large aren’t motivated by a love of humanity. Add to that the fact that we’ve already passed a number of tipping points, and millions of lives are already in jeopardy from the ravages of climate catastrophe, it’s all very, very scary.

Where do we go from here? Governments can and should do far better than they’ve managed thus far. Some are better than others. The EU member states tend to be a bit less crap than we are, Brazil and India are worse (though not on a per capita basis). The question is how much worse do things have to get before meaningful (and I mean serious) action is taken? How many more millions will perish? Will Bangladesh slip beneath the waves? Will the grain-belts turn into dust-bowls? Will melting permafrost unleash billions of tons of methane? Will the Gulf Stream seize up and deep-freeze northern Europe? Will Parliament be any less complacent when the Thames barrier is overwhelmed? I don’t see the end of humanity on the horizon, but I do think we’re going to see a succession of seismic changes – not the least for all the other life-forms that inhabit the planet. People have been warning about this for more than 100 years. We can be awfully slow on the uptake.

Normally doom and gloom articles try to end on a positive note. We don’t want people jumping off cliffs or becoming troglodyte survivalists up in the Boondocks. Many people are becoming more aware that actions have consequences and there are better ways of running societies. Cooperation is growing within communities, and we’re becoming more conscious about how wasteful we are as people and as a society. Green new deals are at last on people’s lips, and at some point it is to be hoped that the great and the good are coerced or shamed into more responsible behaviour. Of course those with a few horses, multiple gas-guzzlers and a darling hideaway in Dorset, who think of themselves as vastly over-taxed and on the verge of penury, will take some convincing, but they’ll have to be made to toe the line.

With the demise of the Labour Party many are taking direct action to improve people’s lives. Community schemes proliferate, (some) unions battle for progress, collectivism is on the rise. Some of the smaller political parties, such as the Socialists and Communists, less tainted by corporate corruption, have powerful voices. We cannot control what takes place in governments worldwide but we can do better on the ground, here. As Candide said, at the end of Voltaire’s classic fable, “…but we must go and work in the garden.”

It would be wonderful to have a Labour Party that battles with the people, for the people and for the environment. That has a grasp of the issues at stake and will take on the might of big business. For the many, not the few. But we don’t – that party flickered brightly and was then extinguished. So we just have to do the best we can. Maybe for now cottage industry activism is our best choice.

Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.

the fishing question

You need to add a widget, row, or prebuilt layout before you’ll see anything here. 🙂

Is there a place for angling in the 21st Century?

By Paul Halas

I’m going to declare an interest, because I’ve been a keen angler for over sixty years, but during that time angling has been the subject of its fair share of controversy. My more Woke friends know I practise “the gentle art” and I’m guessing they’re too well-mannered to take me to task – but the odd askance look hasn’t gone unnoticed.

One time at junior school a group of girls tied me up with a skipping rope to teach me what a worm feels when it’s on a hook. It wasn’t that enjoyable an experience, but even remembering something that happened to me aged eleven demonstrates I’m aware that the sport has many opponents.

On the face of it, trying to stick a hook into a living creature – for our pleasure – doesn’t sound too good. I’ve read plenty on whether fish feel pain or not, and as far as the scientific consensus is concerned neither the ayes or the nays have landed a knockout blow. Research has shown that fish have very limited cognitive abilities, and function largely through instinct and learning from repeated experiences. (There is, however, a fascinating exception: an African freshwater fish called the Mormyrdae, which communicates what appear to be quite complex messages via electrical impulses, and have consequently developed a proportionally very large cerebellum. This makes the Mormyrdae the Brain of Fishdom, but otherwise nearly all fish, including the revered carp, have a brain that would make a chicken look like Einstein.) I’m not a scientist, but as for knowing what happens when you catch a fish I have a fair bit of experience. When hooked, a fish usually does its utmost to swim away from the direction it’s being pulled in, or it heads for the nearest cover. Once landed and returned to the water (unless you decide to eat it), it swims off and quickly resumes what it had been doing.

Sometimes a fish appears to be unaware that it has even been hooked for several seconds or longer. A sizeable catfish I caught in France behaved like a sack of flour until after a minute or so I really started heaving at it, whereupon it decided to make a rush downstream towards the Bay of Biscay. Most anglers who fish for large specimens have experienced something similar. It seems it’s the pressure on the line rather than the hook that is producing the reaction.

Silurus glanis 02.jpg
Catfish. A 56 lbs (25 kg) specimen didn’t know it had been hooked.

Fish that are caught and released don’t tend to suffer too much from the experience. The most outrageous example was in the 1980s, in one of the lakes at the Cotswold Water Park. A perch of around two pounds (approximately 900g) used to hang around in the margins of a couple of fishing spots, waiting for odd maggots or worms to come its way. You could see it hovering in about two feet of water, saying “c’mon, feed me!” We called it Muggins or something similar. It was too easy to catch, and anglers would actually go out of their way to avoid its attentions. It didn’t appear to mind being hooked at all, and after every capture it would resume scrumping maggots without a care.

Perch, photo by Dellex, Wikimedia commons

Repeat captures are commonplace. Last month I caught the same 11.5 lbs (just over 5kg) mirror carp twice within a half hour. A few years back I managed to lose a small lake’s largest inhabitant, a 25lbs (11.4kg) koi carp, only to return the next week and complete the capture. The angling club’s log book recorded that the gullible koi would come out around four times a year – and certainly showed no sign of ill-effects.

Here’s the odd thing that non-anglers simply don’t get. We fishermen and women absolutely adore fish. We think they are the most wonderful, beautiful, enigmatic, fascinating creatures on the planet. Just look at almost any photo of an angler holding a specimen-sized fish and see the ecstasy and wonderment in their eyes. It seems an anomaly to be besotted by them and at the same time want to catch them – but when you’ve got the bug it’s the most natural thing on Earth.

Carp fishing. Catch and release. Lucky fisherman holding a big common carp. Freshwater fishing. Catch of fish stock photo
Object of obsession and desire.

Look at the world fish live in, under the water’s surface it’s the law of the jungle – squared. Most fish lay a lot of eggs; a mature roach will spawn around 200,000 eggs, which compared to other species isn’t at all unusual. For a water’s roach population to remain stable 199,998 of those little roachlets are going to perish, nearly all of them violently. There are very few fish that at some point in their life cycle are not cannibalistic. A good bait for catching a big pike is a much smaller pike. Big fish eat smaller fish, as do grebes, herons, kingfishers, cormorants, mink, otters… It’s underwater warfare, a daily ritual of massacre and be massacred. Fish are chomped, maimed, impaled and gulped, and viewed through the distorting lens of human sentiments – which habitually anthropomorphise the natural world – Mother Nature is endlessly cruel and wasteful. Angling is pretty small beer compared to what fish experience throughout their lives. And compared to commercial fishing, where billions of fish are hoovered up by giant trawlers and left to suffocate in the holds – a mere bagatelle.

While Mother Nature holds sway under the water, most of our UK waters are far from being natural. Human development has dammed, drained, polluted, abstracted, re-channelled and generally degraded our watercourses to such an extent that we have virtually no waters left that aren’t affected by our activity. I was going to make an exception for some northern lakes and lochs, but then climate change is killing off some of their native, and in a few cases unique, fish populations, so we can safely say we’ve acted like a bunch of egotistical, insane ecological terrorists, and fish have suffered more than most from our actions.

Polluted River. Green Polluted River in urban environment stock photos
Ecological terrorism

So isn’t angling fanning the fires of our pressured fishes’ problems? Well, quite the opposite in fact. A few years ago a spokesperson for Friends of the Earth was asked how the organisation viewed angling. It has a positive effect on the environment, was the answer, anglers act as guardians of our rivers. While the Environment Agency carries out much valuable research and helps with numerous conservation schemes, it often has a far too cosy relationship with the (privately-owned) water companies, which get away with polluting and unsustainable water abstraction on an industrial scale. Fish in our rivers have to contend with diminishing water levels, industrial effluent, poorly-treated sewage, agricultural run-off and hormones, fertilisers and in some cases an imbalance of predation. (Where fish populations are already under pressure, the reintroduction of otters has had an adverse effect on the fish, small aquatic mammals, waterfowl and ultimately otters themselves.) It was found in some rivers that fish not only had deformities caused by hormones entering the water, they also contained a shocking amount of cocaine. Coked-up carp – amazing.

The most effective protectors of fish are anglers. There are over three million of us, and that creates a powerful voice. Angling organisations such as the Angling Trust take the fight to the polluters and despoilers in the law courts and by applying pressure to politicians. Angling is a major boost to the economy, and while those in high places may only shed crocodile tears over the environment a deficit in the balance book, not to mention credibility, concentrates minds wonderfully well. And if Lord Snooty McBooty uses his wealth and privilege to keep his salmon beat on the River Spey pristine and pure, well and good… I’ll come and have a go for the salmon after the Revolution.

The beautiful river Itchen is the preserve of wealthy anglers, photo Phil Hall

Back to the original point: is there a place for angling in the 21st Century? Some people will always have misgivings about it. But for the way it brings us closer to nature, for the peace of mind it can give us, for the thrill us getting close and personal with the most wonderful creatures, for the sense of achievement of catching a personal best, for the feeling of well-being produced by leaving the rat race for a few hours, for the well-being of fish themselves and the environment, yes, it definitely has a place.

Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.

a socialist at number 10…

…but how long would they stay there?

It could happen – not soon, and probably not for a very long time – but let’s indulge ourselves and imagine a Labour Party that’s rediscovered its soul, led by a true socialist, someone trusted by the people and trusting in the people, winning a general election. And let’s go one step further and fantasise that there are sufficient left-wing MPs to push through a truly radical, transformative programme. The stuff of dreams, but isn’t that what many of us would dearly love to see? What would “The Establishment” have to say about that? How would the grandees of the Civil Service, the heads of industry, the aristocracy, the media, Global big business, the military, MI5, the CIA, shadowy organisations such as the Ditchley Group, the dark money brokers, the Trilateral Commission, the City, the Chipping Norton Set, the hedge funds, the oligarchs, and all the other unelected holders of power react to a socialist UK? They have an absolute belief in their entitlement, something akin to the divine right of kings – democracy be buggered.


The first Clem Atlee government (1945-1950) is rightly lauded for ushering in a programme of reforms that changed the face of the nation. It’s overlooked that that in winning its landslide election victory, the Labour Party was not only opposed by the Tories and a press that was promising Bolshevism and Soviet tanks on the streets if it won, but also by a centrist rump within the party that was distinctly lukewarm on socialism. By the time Atlee won his second short term (1950-1951) the rot had set in; the Establishment was reasserting its authority.

Few prime ministers have aroused as much mixed feeling as Harold Wilson (1964-1970 and 1974-1976), and few such controversy. He was that horrible little man, or a Soviet agent, or a milksop centrist, depending on where one stood. His premiership was enabled by a Conservative Party, low on intellect, that had simply run out of steam, and an Establishment that had been caught with its trousers round its ankles too many times. Sleaze is nothing new. It was a time of great change and it was time for a change.

Harold Wilson

Elements within MI5 believed Wilson had been a Soviet agent. He’d certainly been to Moscow on occasions in the 1950s, fulfilling roles within the shadow cabinet – as had many others. Soviet defector Anatoliy Golitsyn maintained that Wilson was a Russian agent planted expressly to take over from Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell, who’d allegedly been poisoned. Although Golitsyn was soon discredited, the theory about Wilson proved to have a lot of staying power.

(In his novel Midnight Swimmer, the novelist/historian Edward Wilson tells of a diplomat making a covert mission to East Germany in 1963 to help diffuse the Cuban Missile Crisis. That diplomat, he maintains, was Harold Wilson. Fiction, yes, but maybe HW is owed a brownie point or two.)

The 1960s brought in the Beatles, Swinging London, a World Cup victory and what Wilson termed “the white hot heat of the technological revolution.” How left-wing was the Wilson government? It oversaw advances in education, health, housing, gender equality, price controls, censorship, divorce, child poverty, pensions, the decriminalisation of homosexuality and the abolition of capital punishment. It increased taxation (to a top rate of 98%) and kept the UK out of the Vietnam War. Could it have done better? Absolutely! But… The Establishment hadn’t simply gone away. Indeed, it was seething and doing its utmost to block left-wing reform at every turn. Maybe Wilson was a very canny operator, maybe he was pushing as hard as he dared.

The Establishment certainly plotted against Harold Wilson. Numerous sources, including the very mainstream TV dramatisation “The Crown”, tell of the 1968 meeting between Hugh Cudlipp, newspaper editor (the Mirror among others), Cecil King, head of the International Publishing Corporation, Sir Solly Zuckerman, Chief Scientific Advisor to the British government, and Lord Mountbatten. King was the leading advocate for the removal of Harold Wilson and the implementation of an interim government – comprised of industrialists, bankers, aristocrats and the military. The country had clearly gone to the dogs under Labour and only a coalition of the great and the good would be able to save it. While intrigued and evidently sympathetic, Lord Mountbatten thought the scheme a tad undemocratic and refused to be part of it. The plan lost its impetus, but it was typical of the Establishment’s mindset at the time.

After stepping down from office in 1976 Wilson was convinced that he’d been the subject of constant surveillance and dirty tricks. Both he and Marcia Williams, his political secretary and confident, revealed information to BBC journalists Barrie Penrose and Roger Courtiour that pointed to both continuous MI5 bugging of Number 10 and military plotting against him and the Labour government. A litany of dirty tricks and black propaganda. The two journalists describe that episode as “the British Watergate” and retrospectively deeply regret not following up on what they later became convinced was compelling evidence. The incoming 1974 Labour government was greeted by an unsanctioned military exercise at Heathrow Airport involving numerous troops and tanks. This was taken as a warning shot fired across Labour’s bows, although the given explanation was that it was an anti-terrorism rehearsal. There are numerous reports of ex-SAS Colonel Blimps gathering clandestine paramilitary groups to claim the streets in the event of an insurrection. And numerous high profile military figures privately and not so privately believed Wilson’s centre-left government was led by Communists.

Peter Wright, ex-MI5 and author of “Spycatcher”, talks of colleagues spelling out “We’ll have him out this time,” and labelling Wilson “a bloody menace.” Wilson and his close colleagues were also also hit by over ten burglaries in two years, in which only sensitive files and documents were taken. Was Wilson bugged? It seems highly unlikely that he wasn’t. MI5 went to the extraordinary length of issuing a public rebuttal of the spying accusations; that could be seen as the most compelling evidence that they’d been up to no good.


In the excellent Channel Four film “A Very British Coup”, 1988, adapted from Chris Mullin’s 1982 novel of the same name, adapted by screenwriter Alan Plater, a genuinely socialist Labour leader, Harry Perkins, is swept into Number 10 by a landslide election victory.

See the source image
Harry Perkins

Implementing a policy of re-nationalisation and open and honest government, along with withdrawal from NATO and unilateral nuclear disarmament, the new government is soon under attack from the media, MI5, the CIA, the Civil Service, right wing union leaders and fifth columnists within the party (one is actually dead ringer for Andrew Adonis). When a campaign of increasingly desperate and unscrupulous dirty tricks only leads to a snap election and another Perkins landslide, the Establishment falls back on its last resort: sending in the military. Although fiction, the film has an absolute ring of authenticity about how the Establishment reacts to threats to the status quo.


Since Wilson we’ve had Labour governments led by Blair and Brown, but evidently the Establishment didn’t see them as at all threatening. Because of course they weren’t. Since then there just happened to be a brief beacon of hope in the form of Jeremy Corbyn.

Image result for jeremy corbyn images
A four year beacon of hope.

While there’s little doubt that in his heart Corbyn is a democratic, humane socialist, the programme on which he tried to get Labour elected was far from firebrand socialism. It was pretty mainstream social democracy – a European-looking mix of public ownership, constrained capitalism and the building of a greener infrastructure. But the Establishment is so far to the right, so confident that it can get most of the population to swallow its messaging, that it succeeded in painting Corbyn as some sort of Red menace. He was hung out to dry by all and sundry, including his own party. What the Establishment would do to a real life Harry Perkins would turn “A Very British Coup” into a documentary. We now have a Labour leader who’s a paid-up member of the Establishment, and the prospect of a transformative, socialist government is farther away than ever… And if we did get one, it would face the very worst the Establishment could throw at it..

Where to go for the left? Maybe there’s a chance that the nation’s ever growing inequality will rouse people from their selfies, TVs and reassuring certainties. Maybe as things get tougher people will begin to see the value of community action and projects a bit more. Maybe local, micro-economies will make inroads into the hegemony of the big corporations. Maybe people will want to have more control over their lives and also decide to look at worthier representatives. Only by seeing socialism in action will a majority of the people come to see the benefits of socialism. Hopefully at some point there will be a groundswell of people power, because as things stand the Establishment is sitting very pretty and conventional party politics is a busted flush.

A socialist in Number 10? Someone trusted by the people and led by the people? A fervent hope. Would that tenure be cut tragically short? A mass, populist movement willing to take to the streets might just deter the forces of reaction – but we underestimate the Establishment’s reach, lack of scruples and malevolence at our peril.

Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.

A bas le fast-food


Jacques Chirac famously stirred up a hornet’s nest of indignation when in 2012 he had the temerity to criticise British cuisine. “We can’t trust people who have such bad food,” he said. “After Finland, it’s the country with the worst food”.

At once the British media was aflame with outrage at such a jibe, with Andrew Neil, ex-newspaper editor and right wing TV pundit, apoplectically leading the charge. To paraphrase his outburst, Johnny Foreigner has absolutely no bloody right to diss our food when we have some of the very finest restaurants in the world – thereby, as ever, missing the point entirely.

How does one evaluate a nation’s cuisine? Certainly not by fixating on a handful of restaurants that only a tiny percentage of the population could ever dream of eating in. You have to look at how people actually eat, how different sections of the population eat, how different regions eat – what your neighbour, your aunt, what the banker and the postmen are popping into their mouths. The food that’s being prepared at home, that’s served up in cafes, in works canteens, in hospitals and schools and take-ways and pubs and… wherever people eat. Posh restaurants for the One Percenters don’t loom large in such an assessment.

Of course, as well as Andrew Neal entirely missing the point Chirac was being deliberately disingenuous – and his jibe had exactly the desired effect. He must have loved the reaction. We Brits have served up some truly gruesome fare over the years, especially in our institutions, but there has always been a core of fine British cooking and there is no doubt we are getting a bit better at it. Leave aside the fetishism of TV nonsense such as Masterchef and top end culinary onanism, most people, where they can afford to, are eating better food. But this piece is not about the British relationship with food, it is about our neighbours across that strip of water.

French cuisine ain’t as good as it used to be. The rot set in well before Chirac made his famous remarks, and seems to be accelerating. As someone who has visited and stayed in France frequently over the decades, I chart this decline with great sadness. French cuisine has always been celebrated for its excellence and variety, and has been inextricably a big part of my seventy year bout of Francophilia.

I have early memories of family holidays in France. When I was four I recall our car being hoisted onto the deck of the channel ferry by crane, the Hotel Tamise in Paris where I lost my favourite soft toy, and the endless drive through rural France: the numerous stops for punctures, the heat and the din of crickets, waiting for trains at level crossings, stopping in creaky, shadowy hotels in small towns and eating in gloomy restaurants with nicotine brown wood panelling and colourful gingham tablecloths. The British had austerity, the French had food – although at that age my tastes didn’t run much beyond steak-frites, and meats were often hidden under baffling sauces. Fortunately, children’s menus were still several decades in the future; little by little my horizons were broadened, it was eat what the grown ups are having or chew on bread.

At some point I learned about the distinction between countries and continents. France seemed so vast to me, my parents could not convince me that it was not a continent. Looking back I see we were really privileged to be taking holidays abroad, in an age where they were still the province of the few. Not that I knew it at the time; your family is your normality.

The next phase in my relationship with France and its food began when I was seventeen, when in pursuit of a doomed romance I found myself staying for a summer’s holiday in a working class quarter of Paris with Uncle Ladis and Aunt Henriette. Henriette, a formidable cook, set about repairing my broken heart and bruised ego with some of the best food I have ever tasted. It was good, honest, inexpensive cooking, and I became fascinated by the alchemy involved in its preparation. In her hands even a mushroom omelette was a work of art. My mother by that time worshipped at the altar of Elizabeth David, but it took Henriette’s omelette to kindle my desire to learn to cook.

My romance with the young lady had not worked out, but my romance with France only intensified. The next year found me staying with my cousin and her husband just around the corner from Ladis and Henriette. They too were talented cooks, and took my culinary education seriously. Did I like horsemeat? Jacques asked me when I was half way through a steak chevaline a la sauce d’armagnac. It was too late for squeamishness, I finished my plate.

Despite having fought in the Algerian War of Independence, Jacques had plenty of Algerian friends in the neighbourhood, and I was introduced to couscous and other North African dishes in many of the cheapest, noisiest and best restaurants. They had become part of French eating habits in the way Indian food established itself in the UK. On an Easter visit I tagged along with Annie and Jacques to the wedding of Jacques’ brother, in a small town near Tours. The three day eat and drinkathon was exceptional, but one dish sticks in my mind to this day: brochet du Loire a la sauce moutarde. Here’s a stolen recipe (which is even better for the dodgy Google translation):


See the source image
Brochet a la sauce moutarde


1 2 kg pike 1 onion bouquet garni 2 cloves pepper salt 0.5 dl white vinegar lemons parsley For dijonnaise sauce: 4 egg yolks 400 g butter 1 tablespoon white mustard salt pepper 1/2 lemon


The preparation of the short broth and the cooking of the pike: Boil in a large saucepan 2 l of water, white vinegar, onion stung with cloves, bouquet garni, salt and pepper. Let it boil for 20 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the short broth cool.

Place the pike in a fishmonger at its waist, and water it with the short broth passed in the fine sieve.

Bring it to a gentle boil; When the liquid boils, turn down the heat to maintain a slight simmer. Cook for 30 minutes.

When the fish is cooked, it can wait in the short broth for the time of serving.

Dijon sauce: Allow the butter to soften at room temperature.

Put the egg yolks, salt, pepper and a small knob of butter in a small saucepan. Place this pan in a double boiler and whisk the egg yolks until they thicken. Add the butter in small pieces, whisking constantly and always in a double boiler, until all the butter is incorporated into the sauce. Add mustard, lemon juice. Whisk vigorously, always in a double boiler, until the sauce is foamy.

Presentation: Take the pike out of the fishmonger; place it for a few moments on a folded cloth, then slide it onto the serving plate. Decorate with parsley and half lemons. Serve hot and place the sauce in a saucepan.


I’ve never cooked a fish in a fishmonger, but you probably get the idea.

In a previous existence I had a French girlfriend who came from Normandy. On visits to her family in Le Havre we were indulged with a wide variety of seafoods, plus the usual Normandy dishes swimming in butter, cream and cider. Delicious. It’s no wonder that traditionally Normandy had the highest rate of heart disease in France. But one dish that was new to me, which was soon rolled out for me whenever we appeared, was Langue a la sauce piquante. I simply loved it, although it’s a slight faff to prepare – more in terms of time than difficulty. Here’s how:

See the source image
Langue a la sauce piquante


1.7 to 2kg beef tongue, 2 small glasses alcohol vinegar, 1 glass dry white wine, 1 onion studded with 5 cloves, 1 bouquet garni (thyme, bay leaf, parsley), 3 cubes broth, salt & pepper, 2 shallots, minced, 60g butter, 4 tablespoons flour, 120g gherkins, chopped, 1 tablespoon tomato paste,1 teaspoon mustard, Sugar.


Soak tongue in refrigerator for 24 hours. In a large pan, cover with water and add glass of vinegar. Boil for two minutes. Drain tongue and discard water. Return tongue to new boiling water. Pour in second glass of vinegar then onion with cloves, plus the stock cubes and bouquet garni. Season. Cook for 2-3 hours (when cooked the skin comes away from the tongue). Remove the tongue from the broth and remove the skin. Keep broth. Make the sauce: Soften the onion and shallots in butter. Stir in the flour for 2-3 minutes, then add tomato paste. Stir in the white wine and add 1 to 1.5l cooking stock, allow to thicken, then add chopped gherkins and mustard and sugar. Slice tongue, arrange in oven dish, pour on sauce and then reheat.


In the early 1970s my sister very kindly moved to Paris, where she was to live and work for the next twenty years, giving me a convenient base whenever I visited. Being a fellow foodie, she had an intimate knowledge of where to buy the best ingredients and which restaurants to go to without busting the bank.

Visits continued fairly regularly, with young family in tow, until in the late 1990s I inherited a lump sum of money that enabled me to indulge in the bourgeois fantasy of buying a modest holiday home in Gascony, deep in South West France. A new cuisine awaited us – very heavily reliant on duck and heavy, hearty flavours. I won’t include a duck recipe, however, because where duck is concerned it is too easy to gild the lily. To over-complicate cooking duck is a mistake, simple is best. Instead I’ve included a treat I’ve loved since childhood, Raie au beurre noire, skate in black butter sauce. In any of the ports we arrive in or depart from in France, it’s what I try to order.


See the source image
Raie au beurre noire

Serves 2

2 servings of skate wings
4 tbsp white wine vinegar
1 onion
1 carrot
1 stick of celery
1 bay leaf
6 peppercorns
pinch of salt
60g/2 oz butter (ideally fine, unsalted butter – don’t stint – it is the co-star of this dish)
juice of 1 lemon
1 tbsp capers
1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley (leaves only – no stalks)

Use a large pan big enough to take the wings side by side. Add enough water to cover them, but not yet the wings. Chop the onion, carrot and celery roughly and add to the water with the bay leaf, peppercorns, half the wine vinegar and the salt. Bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes.

Add the wings. Return to a boil then turn down to a simmer. The water should be barely bubbling. Cook for 10 minutes.

While that’s happening, melt the butter in a frying pan. Watch it carefully, stirring a little. It should go brown, not black. When it does, add the lemon juice, capers, parsley and the rest of the wine vinegar. Stir until blended.

Drain the fish, transfer to plates. Pour over the sauce.

Simple, wonderful.


So where has it all gone wrong? I think even Mr Chirac would have conceded that for a long time the French have been losing their culinary mojo. There’s still wonderful food in France, make no mistake, but there’s less of it. What has been happening?

I think one can trace the decline to the start of the 1980s, when in France and well as the UK business became more cutthroat, leaner and nastier. The French two hour lunch started to be frowned upon, le fast-food arrived. Working practises changed, family dynamics changed, people had less time to prepare food lovingly. Globalisation had arrived, and with it the big food manufacturers. In France convenience foods may have a Gallic flavour, but look at the small print on the packaging and the same global, mega-corporations keep cropping up.

I am an inveterate supermarket trolley snoop. And a quick peek in an average French supermarket trolley is a depressing experience. So many pre-packed, convenience foods. And quite often the quality of the fresh food isn’t all it should be. If you want better produce go to the food markets, but you had better have deep pockets.

Of course – the charcuterie is still wonderful, there are still hundreds of fantastic cheeses, the average patisserie is still a wonderland compared to poor old Greggs. But where good food was almost universal once in France, and I mean decent, well-prepared bourgeois nosh – not the frou-frou poncey stuff that only hedge-fund managers and Andrew Neal can afford – it is getting much harder to find.

It is still a treat to meander through small-town France, looking for the kind of unassuming hotel/restaurant whose menu (whatever was best at the market that day) can cost more than its inexpensive rooms. There are still restaurants that serve escargots and coq au vin (when they’re good they’re very very good). There are still lunch only joints where working people can get an affordable three course meal with wine and coffee compris. In the corner of Gascony we frequent there are still a few restaurants serving authentic cuisine Gasconne. But more and more they are turning into pizzerias or Vietnamese restaurants or fast food joints. Leave the countryside and go to the cities and tourist resorts and good, middle-range restaurants and brasseries are giving way to clip-joints selling homogenised Euro-cuisine, burger bars or high end establishments whose menus make your eyes water. What the French truly excelled at, good regional cooking, is being throttled out of existence.

I think Jacques Chirac was very well aware if what was happening to French cuisine when he uttered his little provocation. He would certainly have eaten in in the most frou-frou of restaurants, but he still would have seen the way the wind was blowing – he was a Frenchman. But for getting Andrew Neal into such a lather, I can forgive him almost anything.

Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.

The case for a coalition of the progressive left

The dust has settled after the recent electoral battles. While local elections should be about choosing local people to deal with local issues, pretty well the world and its brother looks on them as a barometer for showing which political parties are ascendant or otherwise.

For Labour it has not been a joyous occasion – decent results in Wales and many of the mayoral elections not withstanding. The obvious lesson to be learned is that for the most part the more left wing candidates have done better and the centrists, notably including Keir Starmer’s parachuted-in choices, have fallen flat on their faces. So how has the nation’s media responded?

The more extreme right wing press has rejoiced in “Boris’s” triumph, while the “liberal” newspapers have echoed the response of the centrist Labour grandees in blaming the Labour’s shellacking on the left. The BBC even repeated the nonsense about the “long Corbyn effect” – without the inverted commas!

There’s no need for me to repeat all the statistics demonstrating Labour’s decline since the 1997 landslide – and of course the Corbyn phenomenon bucking that trend – if you’re reading this piece it’s a sure bet you know all that. For all Alastair Campbell, Peter Mandelson and Margaret Hodge’s bleating that Labour cannot thrive as a left wing party, it’s pretty damn obvious that the public has no interest in a “middle of the road”, “neither one thing nor the other” party either. That way oblivion lies. The SDP breakaway party quickly withered and died. The TIGGERS evaporated even faster. Yet Keir Starmer and a majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party (but a distinct minority of the party membership I’d be willing to wager) appear hell bent on the party following that self-destructive course.


For maybe the first time in my life I’m going to agree with something Tony Blair has said. “The Labour Party needs total deconstruction and reconstruction to revive.”

Hear hear!


The party faces a paradox. In order to bring about change it needs to win power, but it cannot win power while it’s riven by division. The obvious elephant in the room is that it isn’t the much quoted “broad church” so many politicians blather on about, it’s two separate parties sharing little more than a name.

I jumped ship after Keir Starmer sacked Rebecca Long Bailey. That was the final straw for me, though in truth I feel rather ashamed for not leaving when the party’s duplicity about the anti-Semitism issue came to light. I know so many good people who have remained members to fight the good fight and reclaim the party for the progressive left – but for me, I believe the party’s fortunes have to get a lot worse before they can get better again.


Like so many, I joined the Labour Party almost as soon as Jeremy Corbyn became leader. There were all sorts of reasons why, as a distinctly left-leaning person, I had never been a party member before that. Why? Well, you could reel off a long list of Labour Party leaders going all the way back to Harold Wilson (who actually had my grudging respect). Not being political party-savvy, I didn’t realise quite what a phenomenon Corbyn becoming leader was. What an utterly freakish alignment of heavenly bodies brought that about. And I also didn’t quite grasp that in spite of Corbyn becoming leader that actual party was very much the same as it had always been. Same rules and regs, same control freakery, same apparatchiks.

Organisations cannot function without a certain level of bureaucracy, but from what I could see that was frequently being used to thwart change rather than enable it. Maybe factionalism and personality clashes are endemic in any political organisation, but having successfully avoided working in organisations all my life I wasn’t prepared for what I’d stepped into – albeit on a very low rung.

To all those doing great work in different tiers of councils, and keeping CLPs ticking along, great respect, but to all those determined to maintain the status quo, fie upon you. Things must change.


But first things will continue to deteriorate. It’s monstrous that the Tories are able carry on their orgy of destruction with the assent of a large portion of the public, but Starmer and his associates are doing precious little to oppose them. Meanwhile, eyes on the ball, Campbell, Mandelson and Hodge… and all their cheerleaders in the PLP, are urging a continuing shift to the right. I don’t think they can be stopped and maybe they shouldn’t. Maybe Labour has to slide into irrelevance before a credible left wing political force can rise from the ashes.

One thing that a few commentators are belatedly pointing out is that Labour needs to reconnect with its voters. Duh. Which is why Angela Rayner is being mentioned in dispatches all of a sudden: a bona fide Red Wall person! Well, she’s blotted her copybook as far as the left is concerned, but there’s a lesson to be learned. Make politics relevant to communities, don’t talk down to people, and don’t take voters for granted by head-office beaming down completely unsuitable candidates from the other end of the country.

(Labour’s tenuous connection with working class people – however one wishes to define that – must be rebuilt. I come from a bohemian middle class background, that’s obvious as soon as I open my mouth, so it sometimes felt odd my canvassing in traditional working lass areas – such as Newport West a couple of years ago. The only time is was mentioned was when I was given the nickname “Champagne Sherpa” (a posh-sounding old man willing to climb steep hills to knock on doors) by my fellow canvassers; it isn’t that Labour needs fewer people like me, but it needs more people not like me.)


I see Labour sinking, the powers that be are all colluding with that, but what happens when it reaches ground zero? When the centrists have good and properly ****ed it? That should give the left, and I mean the broad left, the opportunity to regroup.

Rebuild with a coalition of progressive voices. The good parts of what had been Labour, minus the likes of Jess Phillips, Stephen Kinnock, Andrew Adonis… plus Socialists, Greens, Communists… anyone willing to support a grand coalition of the left in order to get the Tories out of power and bring about a complete realignment in British politics. Tribal loyalties put aside. Change politics and change the voting system. Make votes count.

That would naturally be in the face of a media onslaught, but what if all the activists the left has lost were reanimated, plus more inspired to joint their ranks? Jeremy Corbyn has the right idea with the Peace and Justice Project, but bring it to people’s streets and doorsteps, about issues that affect their day to day lives. People going out in their neighbourhoods to talk about what’s important to people in their own communities? I know various groups are doing that now, but maximise it. Coordinate it. Multiply it.

Some people are completely lost to the left: many of those who bought their council houses, started their own businesses, or learned to play the stocks and shares embrace the neoliberal economy. They’re all right, Jack. Some remain content to blame minorities for their poor living standards, and some will always be susceptible to stories about square fruit and red buses and actually believe the advent of food banks is a great achievement.

But communities helping themselves, breaking free from corporate tyranny, building sustainable, more localised economies, getting representatives who actually represent them rather than vested interests – now that should be one hell of a draw.

A coalition of the left might achieve that. But if Labour is ever to be reborn, it will have to shed the centrist dead wood and learn to live with like-minded progressive groups. Ditch first past the post. Cooperate.

Stroudwater Magic

Everyday natural wonders.

By Paul Halas

ON THE TOWPATH of the Stroudwater Canal a curious woman stopped and asked what I was staring at so intently. Across the water from us, perched on a twig, scanning the shallow water margin for tiddlers and tadpoles, was a kingfisher. Suddenly aware of our presence it flew off, a flash of blue, quickly disappearing upstream. The woman was amazed. She explained she had walked along the canal for a number of years but that was the first time she had ever seen a kingfisher. It occurred to me that a great many people have little awareness of the wonderful habitat on their doorstep.

Actenoides concretus.png
Look – and you will see.

The Stroudwater Canal, otherwise known as the Severn and Thames Canal, was completed in the late Eighteenth Century, and as the name illustrates formed a link between the country’s two main rivers. It was an impressive feat of engineering, involving what was at the time the longest ever canal tunnel, under the Cotswold escarpment, at a little over two miles in length. There were always issues with the water supply for the canal. Its lower sections were fed at its western end by the river Frome and in the east by the rivers Churn and Coln, but the main problem was at its summit stretch (which encompassed the tunnel), where the springs at Thames Head proved inadequate for the task – with much of the water seeping into the porous Cotswold rock. A number of ingenious pumping schemes were tried, with none really solving the problem satisfactorily.

The canal was never the success its designers and backers anticipated. As well as the problems with water supply, the River Severn at its western end was prey to unpredictable and often treacherous currents while the Thames to the east was difficult to navigate due to the narrow and bendy nature of the river’s upper reaches. The canal suffered a gradual decline, which was exacerbated by the spread of the railway network. The eastern section of the canal was closed in the 1920s and the rest of it abandoned by 1941. A couple rock-falls in the tunnel only served as a gratuitous coup-de-grace.

For some years now there has been an ambitious scheme to restore the canal – which deserves an entire article to itself. In short, however, the good folk at the Cotswold Canal Trust are working wonders to revive the waterway, with the backing of the Lottery Fund, Stroud District Council, the Canal and River Trust, Gloucestershire County Council and many other organisations. While to the east of the tunnel the task of restoration remains dauntingly vast – much of the old canal course has been obliterated – work to reconnect Brimscombe and Stroud with the Gloucester-Sharpness Canal at Saul Junction is well underway.

See the source image
An old map, but it shows the navigable section of the canal..

In the next few years Stroud, a smallish market town that nestles into the side of the Cotswolds, will be back on the national waterways network, which will certainly boost the local economy. As things stand around five miles of canal are now functional, with Stroud at its centre. The old towpath has been restored, and serves as both as a useful link for pedestrians, joggers, dog-walkers and cyclists – and a wonderful resource for nature spotters.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and the Stroudwater Canal is a magnet for all sorts plants and animals – far more than at first meets the eye, but you have to look out for it. It is possible to spot a kingfisher on most days, but they tend not to show if the towpath is busy. Seeing one actually fishing is a rare treat, so cold, wet, beastly days are best.

Dippers and wagtails have an affinity with moving water, and are often seen that the canal’s weirs and water spills. Along the reedy margins it is quite common to see a statuesque heron waiting to skewer some unwitting prey: small fish, frogs, and the odd duckling at this time of year. Swans, moorhens, coots and mallard are plentiful, along with occasional visitors mandarin ducks, all playing out their quotidian dramas oblivious to the passing humans.

Pair of mandarin ducks.jpg
Mandarin ducks – colourful visitors.

Coots are known for their feistiness, moorhens can be vicious to one another, while serene and disdainful swans can have what in human terms would be described as a distinctly nasty streak. I have seen swans trying to kill ducklings and young Canada geese, and on one occasion, in the stretch of the canal at Stonehouse, a fight to the death between two young cobs in front of a horrified collection of onlookers.

In the trees and shrubs that line some sections of the canal one spots bullfinches, tits, wrens and treecreepers, along with the blackbirds, thrushes, sparrows and robins you see in most gardens.

At this time of year the waterside vegetation is growing at full throttle. The bullrushes and reedmace in the margins are shooting up with the speed of tropical bamboos, the weeping willows cascade magnificently, and below the surface patches of water lily leaves, looking like shimmering cabbages, are reaching for the air.

See the source image
Cascading willow.

The different varieties of waterweed, which have never really died back due to the absence of harsh winters in recent years, are motoring: milfoil, mare’s tail, the ubiquitous Canadian pondweed and, in the faster stretches, streamer weed – all providing cover for emerging insect life and shelter for fish. Back on the verges, nettles and cow-parsley are taking over, along with patches of wild garlic, while soon flag-irises will produce spectacular clumps of yellow. Later, when summer is past its prime, the campions will will turn the bank-sides crimson.

Many varieties of insects are now hatching out, but what the canal does best – damsel- and many varieties of dragonflies – await the warmer weather before showing. Hot sun, vivid red and blue dragonflies, the sound of miniature buzz-saws as they zigzag past. Magic.

The delicate damsel-fly.

Aquatic mammals seem to be something of a rarity in the Stroudwater. I would love to have spotted water-voles but I haven’t (however they can be found in the River Frome, which dovetails with the canal). I have seen otters on a couple of occasions. I expect they were in transit, as the canal probably doesn’t contain an adequate head of large fish to sustain resident otters. With insufficient fish to feed on they turn to wildfowl, eggs and any other available sources of food. I have yet to see any mink – but I would be surprised if they were not present.

Being a lifelong fisherman, I’ve saved what I consider the best until last. The canal is full of fish – or rather there are fish in most sections of the canal, and loads of them in some. But I am pretty sure that most people seldom notice them, if ever. You have to look, and be practised at looking. Polarising sunglasses are very useful as they can cut through the water’s surface glare. Be still, no sudden movements, and look very hard. If you see no fish move on a little and repeat – until you do. You will be surprised.

The canal abounds with tiddlers – minnows and sticklebacks. But the most common fish you are likely to spot is the roach, the most common fish in English waters (not so widespread in Wales and Scotland), and certainly the most common fish in the Stroudwater Canal. When the water is clear – and it often is in warmer weather, due to the very low volume of boat traffic – they can be seen in their thousands, mostly fish in the three to six inch bracket, with a few bigger ones, up to around eight or ten inches maximum. A handsome, silvery fish, with reddish fins – but mostly they appear grey in the water. They grow bigger in other waters, as do all the species found in the canal: the size of fish is mostly determined by the size of their watercourses and availability of food.

The humble, dainty roach.

Those great shoals of roach will be whittled right down over the course of the coming year. Spawning fish will each release many tens of thousands of eggs, filling the canal with hundreds and hundreds of thousands of fish fry, 99.9% of which will meet a violent end. Under the surface it is the law of the jungle – squared. Poor roach: pike, perch, herons, cormorants, grebe, otters, mink, the whole damn lot have it in for them. Nature is not cruel – that is a human construct – but it is highly brutal.

Apart from roach you may be lucky enough to spot some rudd. They look very like roach but are rarer, a little bigger, their fins are ruddier and they are a gorgeous burnished golden colour. Stripy perch are quite common. They hunt in packs and eat bugs, worms and smaller fish. They in turn are likely to be eaten by pike, which have the deserved reputation of being freshwater sharks. (There was rumoured to be an outsized pike of twenty-seven pounds resident at the Ryeford Basin of the canal. How anyone knew it weighted twenty-seven pounds is a mystery as no one ever caught it, but of course it was just another of those fisherman’s tales – no fish of that size would be possible is such a small, shallow canal. Most waters have their own bit of folklore, and the twenty-seven pounder is far from the most outrageous I have heard.)

See the source image
Streamlined assassin – the pike.

Another opportunist predator in the canal is the eel. I’ve only ever seen one in the Stroudwater, quite a big one, but then eels are expert at not being seen. As are tench: laconic, olive/bronze flanked, paddle-finned, with tiny red eyes, bottom feeders, which none-the-less show in late spring and summer by the weed-beds and lily-patches (I have a very soft spot for tench. So do most anglers).

The much loved tench.

Last in the fish parade is the brown trout. Not a species associated with canals, but several streams feed into the Stroudwater, and it is connected to the River Frome via several small weirs and a convenient fish ladder. Some sections of the canal look more like a river, with water flowing at a moderate pace over streamer-weed, and that’s where you see the trout rising.

See the source image
A compulsion to gaze at water.

I am always drawn to any water, be it canal, beck, creek, river, pond, lake or sea, and each habitat is populated by wonderful animal and plant life – where humankind has not completely screwed it up. But I count myself as very lucky to have the Stroudwater Canal a very short walk from my door. These places are sheer magic when you take the time to look.

Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.

“Though cowards flinch…”

If not Labour, then who?

In football you write off teams that miss open goal after open goal, and that is precisely what Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has done for the past year. Remember the centrists’ mantra during the Corbyn years, “with the Tories making such a mess of things Labour should be at least twenty-five points ahead in the polls.”?

Just consider the Tory shenanigans over the past twelve months: botched Covid response, multi-billion PPE scandal, Dominic Cummings scandal, record-breaking inequality, Carrie Symonds’ Marie-Antoinette impersonation, below inflation wage rise for nurses, Robert Jenrick property scandal, Brexit bungling, Priti Patel, Gavin Williamson, Liz Truss, Dido Harding, Matt Hancock… The list of disasters could go off the bottom of the page, yet Labour has failed to make any capital from them.

Leave aside the fact that Starmer has by and large supported most Tory measures over the past year (or otherwise abstained), one would think that just not being the Conservatives would be enough to gain support after the pigs’ breakfast Johnson and his chums have made of running the country. But a look at current polling shows that Labour are slipping further and further behind the Tories, and Sir Keir’s personal rating is also in free-fall.

Whether Starmer is setting out to destroy the Labour Party on purpose or whether his poor showing is down to a mixture of misguided personal ambition and muddled vision I don’t know, but the party’s lurch to the right clearly isn’t having the desired effect. My own opinion is that Starmer is probably simply power-hungry and morally bankrupt rather than a deep state plant (in spite of belonging to the Trilateral Commission), but his leadership has only exacerbated a trend that was set in motion in 1979.

A recent poll has shown that among working class voters over fifty percent back the Tories while only twenty-seven percent are for Labour. Among middle class voters the split is nearly even, with a majority of Labour supporters being graduate level city-dwellers. Even taking Brexit into account, this is a shocking reversal of the demographic that existed prior to the 1980s.

Created to further the cause of democratic socialism, and borne of the trades unions’ struggles, the Labour Party oscillated over the decades of the Twentieth Century between democratic socialism and social democracy, carrying the working class with it. Its mandate was to serve the interests of the working class and promote greater equality. As a rule one’s politics were determined by one’s class. Of course there were always exceptions: working class Tories in the Alf Garnett mould, and upper class socialists such as Tony Benn (not to mention my father). But if you were working class you probably voted Labour.

So what changed all that? I would suggest the influence of neoliberalism is the chief factor, with Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair as its figureheads. Wrecker Thatcher destroyed industries, blitzkrieged unions and devastated working-class communities. At the same time she dangled the carrot of a stakeholder society (a word she detested) in front of anyone with two brazoos to rub together in the form of shares in the public utilities that were being flogged off. She also began the selling off of council houses. The grand plan was to create a nation of shareholding homeowners, each clamouring for their little portion of crumbs from the proceeds of Great Britain plc. The exponential expansion of Little Britain. And if you couldn’t afford take part in the clambake, tough – you didn’t matter anyway.

Traditionally the Labour Party had always (supposedly) represented the interests of working class people. Thatcher said you too can aspire to more – believe in better – and plenty did. Many of the old communities either no longer existed or became neglected backwaters of no consequence. While still considerable, Labour’s working class base was shrinking. And while Thatcherism created victims – by the million – it succeeding in creating a more aspirational, materialistic Britain. The price of everything and the value of nothing.

With the shrinking of traditional working class support, Tony Blair and the New Labour architects rumbled that in order to take power Labour needed to woo a new demographic. The nation had tired of the Conservatives, the wheels had eventually fallen off a party that had run out of ideas. With shiny teeth and slick publicity Tony Blair, and his seductive brand of social democracy, wooed the middle classes. The message was: we’ll create a better society, and what’s more we’ll do it without redistributing your wealth or upsetting the City oligarchy. For all those who found voting Tory a bit of an embarrassment, New Labour was a godsend.

We all know Thatcher regarded Tony Blair as one of her proudest achievements. Under New Labour inequality continued its relentless rise, and the shift from manufacturing to service and high-tech industries continued unabated. And in the process Labour became the servant of Capital and continuously ignored the needs and aspirations of working-class people. In the areas where industry had once flourished and provided real jobs, there was a shameful and myopic lack of investment and regeneration. No longer could it be said that Labour was the party of the working class.

As stated at the beginning of this piece, polling shows that 27% of working-class voters are still loyal to Labour. In recent years I’ve canvassed for Labour in three very different constituencies – Stroud, Swindon, and Newport West – and that statistic is borne out by my personal experience at least. Brexit had an effect on voting intentions in 2019, but the number of people who stated that they no longer voted Labour because they felt it was a middle class party was startling. I often met real hostility, only slightly tempered by the fact that I’m an old man with glasses. And although there was always a core of working class socialists, most of the Labour supporters I met were middle class.

(Mea culpa. While canvassing in Newport West I earned the nickname Champagne Sherpa. Sherpa because I was happy to ascend the steepest hills to knock on doors, and Champagne because as soon as I open my gob it’s very easy to place me. I’m an idealistic Corbynista – shoot me.)

The wheels should have fallen off the Conservative Party bus by now (not the least because of that big red bus), but this time it isn’t happening. Keir Starmer is making his pitch at the middle classes because one thing he has got right is that working class support for Labour is poor. But it isn’t working a second time. His more Tory than the Tories strategy has gone belly-up. His boast that he’d unite the party is deader than a kipper. His purge on the left has been so toxic that floods of members have torn up their cards – including me.

See the source image
Steve Bell nails it.

Those of us in our various political bubbles are frequently out of touch with what the rest of society is thinking. That’s why canvassing and running street stalls is such a valuable insight into what people really feel. Again, Starmer has half understood problem, insofar as he appears to rely very heavily on focus groups. The trouble is, his apparatchiks only seem to draw the most crass conclusions from the results. What his focus groups won’t tell him is that what people are missing is vision, the prospect of a society that doesn’t just meet their aspirations, but which is fairer too.

The Tories hold sway by appealing to people’s more selfish instincts. It has worked for forty years, and Starmer’s instinct to buy into the same mindset offers little cause for optimism. If that’s the best our two main political parties can offer us then we’re in deep trouble. The Project for Peace and Justice understands the problems we face and offers a range of non party-political solutions. But surely Labour should be better than it is now, surely we should have a major political party that actually offers some hope. Under Corbyn the party was blitzed by a hostile media and subverted by many of its own MPs and party workers. The cunning plan to lead it back into the “safe” centre ground is failing miserably, and probably condemning it to many more wilderness years.

I’d be interested to know more about the idealogical make-up of the party membership, ie, what is the proportion of genuine left-wingers? It’s easy to lose perspective when one’s in one’s own bubble, and to complicate matters further some people have a distressing habit of telling fibs. Is a member-led revolt remotely possible (not me any more, sorry), or would it be stillborn in the face of lumpen party machinery control-freakery?

The country is in the hands of the most morally corrupt brigands to have ruled since Henry VIII and it appears there is no real party political opposition. Labour in its present incarnation is impotent, but if not Labour then who?

Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.

Jeremy Corbyn is dead – long live Jeremy Corbyn!

The Peace and Justice Project could kick-start the renaissance of the left.

The end of Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure as leader of the Labour Party left many left-wingers in a state of mourning. When Keir Starmer took up the baton he pledged to stick to the democratic socialist principles the party had been pushing for five years, but a great number of us had little faith that he would keep his word. I expected a watering down of the party’s left-wing stance, but boy – I was not prepared for how quickly and how far Labour has been steered to the right. How naive I was.

For over sixty years I’d managed to steer clear of any political party that would have me as a member, but in 2015 Jeremy Corbyn changed all that. Up until that point I’d regarded Labour as the least dodgy option – mostly – but still not pursuing the kind of democratic socialist policies I wanted to see. That situation reached its nadir with Tony Blair’s governments, which, as any fule no, were effectively Margaret Thatcher and Nicholas Ridley’s love child.

Corbyn changed all that. When his leadership was threatened by insurrection I joined the party in order to vote for his retention, and of course that quickly led to branch meetings and various junior positions within my local CLP. I became immersed in the party, and while I found the level of bureaucracy overwhelming – especially for someone who’d spent his working life being left alone to do his thing – there were plenty of tasks I was able to do. I was one of a large intake of Corbynistas; we knew that many of the long-time members – those accustomed to running things – were not of a like mind, but we had a common purpose, and that purpose was getting Jeremy Corbyn elected. Ha!

Hindsight is a fine thing. During those five wonderful, energising years we believed the party was following a road map to democratic socialism, albeit via Scandi-style social democracy. We knew Corbyn was a phenomenon, but not quite to what extent. Seeing how quickly Labour has been taken back into the market economy-friendly, establishment fold, I now see the advent of Corbyn as party leader as an almost miraculous occurrence, a one in a thousand shot, not to be repeated in my lifetime anyway.

So where do socialists turn now? We are fragmented. Some have remained in the Labour Party, there are the Socialists and the Communists, and some well-intentioned souls have thrown in their lot with the Greens. Just as many have given upon party politics altogether. Although Jeremy Corbyn is taking legal action to bring about his full reinstatement in the Labour Party, his founding of the Peace and Justice Project is clear evidence that he sees developing solutions to the many problems we all face – the UK, the world and the planet – transcends party politics.

(I strongly suspect Corbyn’s action to regain the party whip are motivated by his obligation to his constituents. They voted for him as a representative of the Labour Party. He is a lifelong member; I found quitting the party after just five years was a wrench.)

For those not yet familiar with the Peace and Justice Project, details can be found at:

Briefly, its aim is:

“To bring people together for social justice, peace and human rights, in Britain and across the world.

“The Peace and Justice Project will back campaigns, commission reports and develop progressive networks across the world.

“The Peace and Justice Project will work with labour and social movements and provide platforms to those campaigning for change for the many, not the few.”

The project had its online launch on Sunday 17th January, with speakers that included Noam Chomsky, Ronnie Kasrils (ANC), Len McCluskey, Yanis Varoufakis, Zarah Sultana and of course Jeremy Corbyn himself.

Image result for Noam Chomsky
Noam Chomsky. One of the excellent speakers.

They outlined many policies the project would be promoting, but particular attention was drawn to four major areas of campaigning: Climate Justice, a green new deal; Economic Security, and pandemic solidarity; Democratic Society, and media reform; plus International Justice, and vaccine equality. Details are given on the website about how to get involved.

There was no media fanfare to greet the launch, and where the project merited a mention in the mainstream media it was regarded as either an irrelevance or Quixotic. It would have been surprising if its reception had been any different, which underlines the need for media reform.

Image result for daily mail front pages images
A free and fair press?

Jeremy Corbyn was adamant that Rupert Murdoch and Andrew Neil’s plans for new TV “news” channels must be resisted tooth and claw – things are bad enough as they are.

The project has already drawn criticism from some on the left. One train of thought is that it’s going to be nothing more than a talk-shop, with plenty of laudable ideas but no teeth, and inevitably it’ll die a lonely death. On the other hand, large numbers have lauded its its birth and declared it should form the core of a brand new socialist political party – a True Labour Party. That, I think, is missing the point entirely.

During the pandemic we have seen a renaissance of community action. Support for the elderly, food preparation and distribution, educational help for those stuck at home, people coming together to support those less able to. Regardless of whether the government should be doing more for society (of course it bloody should), people have been stepping up. It has nearly all been a non party-political effort, and has been all the stronger for it.

Similarly the Peace and Justice Project gains from not being party political. It stands for humanitarian socialism, but without capital letters. It is international. It seeks to influence and inform, and hopefully gain sufficient momentum to steer political parties and nations along a more sustainable and equitable path. I believe Jeremy Corbyn has recognised the limits of how much can be achieved within the Labour Party – especially given its current direction of travel. This movement gives me some hope that at the very least there will be a groundswell of like-minded people, here and worldwide, aiming to bring about something better.

Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.

Vive les BDs!

Bandes dessinees (comics) – the French do it so much better.

Most of my working life was spent churning out comics scripts for the Disney characters, but much of my comics background was shaped by a culture on the other side of the Atlantic from “the evil empire”. I read and was influenced by French comics from a pretty young age. The examples I’ll write about are very much a personal and far from exhaustive selection of those that that fed my addiction.

The first comic book to tempt me away from a diet of Beanos and Dandys was King Ottakar’s Sceptre starring the boy reporter Tintin. (Okay, Herge was Belgian, but Tintin fits right into the francophone comics tradition.) Hitherto all the comics I’d read were one or two pagers, with gags rather than stories, and pretty inconsequential ones at that. Although I couldn’t understand the French text, the Tintin books were feature-length stories with proper plots and well defined characters. I could sort of follow the stories; they were so much better than anything produced in England. I do wonder how many others found Tintin their gateway drug to better things?

What more is there to say about Tintin? In the UK he has to be the best known of foreign language comics characters. The main criticism of the books has to be creator Herge’s racism, which is unfortunately all too apparent – especially in the earlier titles, such as Tintin au Congo.

See the source image
Tintin au Congo

He eventually came to accept there was a problem, although in his later, more “aware” books there was still a tendency towards racial stereotyping. There was also criticism of Herge for continuing to work for a Belgian newspaper that allegedly followed a collaborationist line during WWII. I’d a say a lot of people did worse; and more generally I think one just has to concede that Herge’s comics were of their time and brilliant with it. After all, it wasn’t until the late 1960s that some comics started to move ahead of society at large in terms of enlightened sensibilities. (Yes, I can defend that sweeping statement, but not here.)

When I was seventeen I started spending some of my school holidays with relatives in Paris. This opened me up to a ready supply of French cigarettes, fascinating alcoholic drinks, blues records… and a new vein of comics to mine. The first that grabbed me was Asterix the Gaul.

Image result for asterix the gaul images
Asterix and Obelix

I was an instant fan. The simple, cartoony characters belied the wit and humour of the writing; they were wonderful stories and helped me enormously in learning French. The books are well-known in the UK, and in spite of the fact that many of the original puns are untranslatable from the original French, the translators have done a very good job of replacing them.

While the creators, Goscinny and Uderzo, are guilty of a degree of racial stereotyping, they do it in a typically French chauvinistic way. They’ve got it in for everybody, and that includes themselves.

See the source image
A stereotype or two

In 1949 the French government had brought in measures restricting the import of American films and comics in order the maintain the purity of French culture. DeGaulle must’ve been delighted with Asterix. As an aside, at the height of Asterix’s popularity, an earnest journalist asked Rene Goscinny, the books’ writer, whether Asterix was a metaphor for the French A Bomb. No, Goscinny answered, it’s about Gauls bashing up Romans.

See the source image
Gratuitous Roman-bashing

Another discovery during my Paris visits, more of a slow burn initially, but subsequently of greater import, was Pilote magazine. Unlike Tintin and Asterix, which appeared in full-length, album format, Pilote featured comics of varying lengths by a variety of creators. Initially, in the early 1960s, Pilote catered for a predominantly young readership, but with the passage of time it carried comics for a more varied range of ages. Asterix was serialised in it, as was Lucky Luke, but from the late 60s and through the 70s many “grown up” comics appeared. Artists such as Philippe Druillet, Claire Bretecher and Jean Giraud (Moebius) published in Pilote before going onto grander things – plus a long, long list of others.

Image result for pilote magazine images
A breeding ground for talent.

Pilote was another gateway drug for me – transitioning from the comics of my youth to the adult fare I’d unknowingly craved. It paved the way for the seminal moment in my comics history: seeing my first American underground comic, “Zap” (which had a similar effect on me to my first acid trip). The beauty of Pilote, along with much of the French comics scene, was that it didn’t set out to be overtly “counterculture”. Underground and overground meshed seamlessly together. Pilote eventually fizzled out in the late 1980s, but I remember it with great affection.

After leaving school my periodic visits to Paris continued. By then my sister had moved to the city (where she lived for over 25 years, working as a graphic designer), so as well as staying with my French relatives I could impose on her hospitality. One of my first ports of call in Paris would be the Left Bank book and comics shops, trawling for fresh discoveries. I was never disappointed.

Bookshops were crammed with comics albums of all sorts, for all ages. Several adult comics magazines sprang up during the late 60s and 70s, such as l’Echo des Savannes, Hara-Kiri, Psychopat, Charlie, Fluide Glacial… which featured a miscellany of characters and creators. In terms of content they could be humorous, violent, satirical, obscene, political…

See the source image
Underground comix overground.

They were underground comics but unlike in the UK, where you had to search out the few underground comics available in one or two well-hidden head-shops, here they were on display in virtually every book shop and news-kiosk across the land.

The variety was staggering, and what made the best of them stand out was that unlike the overground factory-comics system in the UK and USA , French publishers often allowed their creators complete artistic freedom. A favourite of mine was a “superhero” (I detest superheroes) called Superdupont, dedicated to the elimination of all un-French influences, who was born in Pilote and continued in Fluide Glacial, jammed by various creators.

Image result for superdupont images
A bas les etrangers…

Another was Nikita Mandryka, who managed to combine surrealism, grotesqueness, cuteness and obscenity in one homogeneous mess.

See the source image
Cute, huh?

Reiser and Georges Wolinski (murdered in his 80s in the Charlie Hebdo massacre) combined deceptively crude drawing styles with slice o’ life short strips about the human condition and very incorrect sexual politics. I absolutely loved them. Their strips appeared in all the monthlies plus in collections of their own work.

See the source image
The incorrect world of Georges Wolinksi

I have to put in a mention for fantasy comics as well. They’re not my natural habitat, but the French have been immensely strong in that area and to this day fantasy fans are spoilt for choice in France. Initially a quarterly, Metal Hurlant first appeared in the early 1970s, the brainchild of Philippe Druillet, Jean Giraud and the writer Jean-Pierre Dionnet. It went on the showcase the very best in sci-fi and fantasy comics, and subsequently appeared in a USA version called Heavy Metal.

Image result for metal hurlant images
For all fantasy and SF addicts

I’ve been a frequent visitor to France right up to the present, and I don’t suppose Brexit will stop that. I always look out for new material, but also keep an eye open for any old favourites cropping up. Anything illustrated by Jacques Tardi I grab; I simply adore his work. His career got underway in the early 1970s, but I believe he’s still working. His genres are historical and detective fiction, mixed with some fantasy, steampunk and surrealism. His hard boiled gumshoe series Nestor Burma I love, with its wonderfully evocative period backgrounds…

See the source image
The Parisian answer to Philip Marlowe.

but my favourite of his works is Ici Meme, written by Jean-Claude Forest (oddly of Barbarella fame), but uniquely Tardi’s vision. 90% surrealism and 10% political satire, it involves a displaced man who lives on top of the walls of the properties he believes he’s been cheated out of. It is both quintessentially French and other-worldly at the same time – and I’ve read it God knows how many times.

See the source image
The enigmatic Arthur Meme.

How is it that 22 miles of water separates two such utterly different comics worlds? Grudgingly I suppose it’s getting a little better in the UK. Waterstones now has small sections for graphic novels. But compare that to French bookshops and news-stands, which have comics by the train-load.

I think a main part of the difference comes from the French tradition of making album length books out of any comics character that’s learned to walk. That involves writing longer and more intricate stories. Even children’s characters such as Pif and Becassine were involved in longer stories in France, whereas in the UK kids subsisted on a diet of one and two pagers in the Beano etc. I believe that has led to a high level of comics illiteracy in the UK, plus the attitude that comics are just for kids.

See the source image
Even Becassine (nee 1905) appeared in properly structured stories.

Sure, there has been a constant supply of American material to these shores since the early 1950s, of mainly superhero-type comics (did I mention I detest superheroes?), but in my humble opinion they only add to the popular UK view that comics are for kids and overgrown spotty Herberts who will never have girlfriends. Okay – attitudes are slowly shifting – but in France comics are far more intellectually acceptable and the choice is staggering.

Worldwide, there are three major comics festivals: Comiket in Tokyo, the San Diego Comic-Con and Angouleme – a small city in south west France.

See the source image
Mecca for comics freaks.

I’ve tried to attend the Angouleme festival, but it appears you have to book at least a decade in advance to get accommodation. I’ve visited the city though, and it’s an eye-opener. It has a vast comics museum that I could happily get lost in for days, there are independent comics publishers dotted all over the city and its university runs several different courses on comics creation, illustration, history and theory… It is the city of comics…

In the land of comics. Vive les BDs!

Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.

What has the EU ever done for us?

Most of the problems people have, which caused them to vote Leave, are created by our own governments and NOT the EU.

By Wanda Lozinska,

Wanda Lozinska, a stalwart of Stroud Labour Party and ardent Remainer on the left, responds to James Tweedie’s article: “Don’t Remain in Denial about Brexit”

“The UK’s trade with non-EU countries is greater than that with the EU, and has been growing ten times faster over the last decade.”

James Tweedie

RESPONSE: But I fear that we can only deal with these counties while we are EU members, as it’s the EU that has trade agreements with them, not us. Once we leave we will have to trade under WTO rules until we can negotiate our own separate agreements with each one, which will take many years. And we don’t even have experienced trade negotiators, as the EU has been negotiating on our behalf for over 50 years.

Under WTO we could scrap import tariffs, but would have to do so for ALL countries. This would put our own companies out of business. Also, countries would still apply tariffs on our exports, making them uncompetitive.

Brexiteers are blinded by their vision of “freedom” but don’t seem to understand how international trade really works.  The EU has a market of 500m people so can negotiate far more favourable trade agreements than us, with 66m (many of whom are impoverished).

“Trade with the EU 27 will not just stop in the event of a no-deal Brexit and tariffs being applied, it’ll just be regulated by tariffs and duties like that with most other nations.”

James Tweedie

RESPONSE: But tariffs mean a lot more extra documentation. Extra costs and custom’s delays which are crippling for perishable goods and problematic for goods that need urgent delivery. Many industries work on a ‘Just in time’ basis. Even if tariffs were to be waived, there would still be customs checks to see that our exports complied with EU standards. The EU could alter these and, as non members, we’d have no say in this.  So we’re losing the powers we previously had as members.

This won’t just affect exports. People like musicians, photographers and TV/film crews will have to show documents proving the origin of every single piece of their equipment both going into the EU and again on leaving. It will be a nightmare for them.

“Five out of every six grass-roots Conservative Party members – small and medium business owners, professionals, farmers and so on – are Brexiteers. So are the great majority of Tory voters, and all those habitual Labour voters in the north and Midlands of England who help give BoJo his 80-seat majority.”

James Tweedie

RESPONSE: But many of these are now getting cold feet as they see the true economic implications of Brexit.  Had we had a 2nd vote a year ago Remain might have won. More people voted against the Tories and Brexit parties as a whole, in the 2019 general election. 

As some Leavers are now finally waking up to the reality of how Brexit will impact on their lives they are saying they would have voted differently.  And the majority of people are against a No Deal exit.

“But the EU is in fact the monolithic fortress of the status quo, of class dictatorship by big capital and neo-colonialism.”

James Tweedie

RESPONSE: This is why people like Tony Benn voted against the EU in 1973. But this was almost 50 years ago and the EU has changed since then. Nowadays there is much greater emphasis on consumer and workers’ rights and protections.  That’s why Jeremy Corbyn supported Remain and Reform.

“Most ordinary people voted Leave because they’d never seen any personal benefit from EU membership, and many lost out from it. Remember when they used to make Ford cars in Dagenham, London?”

James Tweedie

RESPONSE: Sadly, the benefits weren’t widely publicised and our own government often took the credit for some of the things that were due to the EU. For example a lot of the efforts that went into cleaning up our waters.

I expect that had Ford and other companies decided to move production out of the UK they could still have done so even if we weren’t EU members. Ford is an American company.

Now, after Brexit, more manufacturing companies are likely to leave the UK as they can deal tariff and customs free with the 500 million people in the EU and export to countries around the world with which the EU has trade agreements, and with which we don’t.

“The EU rules that the provisions public services must be “contestable”….. ie must be put out to public tender, and any company in any of the 27 member states can bid for it.”

James Tweedie

RESPONSE: Labour’s Alan Simpson gave an excellent presentation to one of my local groups.  He’d travelled around the EU and picked up on the many tricks they use to keep contracts within their own countries.

On his visit to my area John McDonnell personally assured me that their lawyers had been through the documents “with a fine-tooth comb” and there was nothing in the EU treaties and regulations that would have prevented any of the things Labour wanted to do, such as nationalisation, had we remained members.

“The EU enshrines a particular model of neoliberal capitalism, dubbed the “Four Freedoms” – freedom of movement of goods, services, capital and labour across borders without restrictions.”

James Tweedie

RESPONSE: Freedom of Movement works both ways. Many British citizens benefit from this, from students to workers and tourists: those who want to live, work, marry and raise their families in any EU country, pensioners who benefit from wintering in warmer climates.

Moving goods and services freely around the 27 countries that make up the richest trading bloc in the world is of great benefit to the UK.

“it does let employers undercut nationally -agreed wages”

James Tweedie

RESPONSE: During the EU referendum campaign Jeremy Corbyn often mentioned the “Posted Workers Directive” which would have prevented UK companies exploiting EU workers by preventing employers from bringing workers to the UK and paying them less than the going rate.

“The wealthiest EU member states of north and west Europe treat those in the south and east of the bloc as nurseries for migrant labour.”

James Tweedie

RESPONSE: My mum lived in Italy and had a series of live-in carers from ex USSR countries. She couldn’t afford to pay them very much but they were still able to send money home which enabled their sons to build their own houses there!  Both sides benefited.

“The EU’s price tag for a post-Brexit free trade deal is perpetual obedience of all those rules and regulations – including any made in future – and the continued plunder of 90 per cent of the catch from our vast fishing waters.”

James Tweedie

RESPONSE: Had we remained full members we would have had a say in making these rules and regulations.  Together with France and Germany the UK was one of the” big three” countries with the most influence.

Michael Heseltine recently explained that the EU had given us generous fish quotas which WE then sold off to other European companies.

Lord Heseltine said: “The UK got a lot of licenses to fish in our own waters when we joined the European Union… and then we sold those licenses to the Europeans, and that’s why they have a bigger share than us.”

Most of the problems people have, which caused them to vote Leave, are caused by our own governments and NOT the EU.

A tale of two rivers


I have little time for The Guardian these days, but when it comes to reporting on the state of the environment it ain’t so bad. Several articles in recent years – such as “How clean are our rivers?”, “Migratory fish populations plunge 76% in past 50 years” and “Pet flea treatments poisoning rivers across England” – have drawn attention to the sad state of our rivers.

As a lifelong angler I have a particular interest in the state of our rivers, but I shouldn’t think that anyone who cares for the environment will feel any comfort about what’s happening to our – and the world’s – watercourses, and the life that should be teeming in them. The two rivers I refer to are those I’ve spent many years fishing: the upper reaches of the Bristol Avon in England, and the middle stretches of the River Garonne in south-west France; very different in nature, both with big problems.

The Bristol Avon is a middle sized river by UK standards, rising in the Cotswolds and making a wide loop to where it enters the Severn Estuary close to… Bristol. The upper reaches, the part I’m most familiar with, are enchanting. Where it runs through Malmesbury and the Somerfords in Wiltshire, it’s much more a stream than a fully-fledged river – an ideal setting for Hammy the Hamster, Ratty and company. In places it rushes over gravel-beds, in others it meanders through rushes and under willows, it’s a very intimate little river.

Decent barbel from a tiny river.

The fishing is – or rather used to be – a pure joy. No need for mountains of equipment, just a rod, reel, bait, landing net and an extremely stealthy approach. It’s very mobile fishing, you cover a lot of ground. First, a handful of bait into a number of likely spots over a mile or more of stream, then go back and fish them one by one, spending no more than a quarter of an hour in each if there isn’t a bite. A quiet approach is the key, in order not to spook fish in the tiny watercourse. There’s a variety of fish there: roach, dace, perch, chub, trout, grayling, pike, eels, bream… and barbel. Big barbel from small rivers are the great prize for many of us. Bites that wrench your arm off and a fight that leaves your knees trembling.

There are barbel in the Garonne too. It’s one of the major rivers of France, rising in the Pyrenees and flowing north east to Toulouse, before swinging north west to where it eventually joins the Lot and the Dordogne to become the Gironde and flow into the Bay of Biscay. The stretch I know is the mid part of the river, one third of the way from Toulouse to Bordeaux, which lies at the head of its estuary. There’s a wide range of species in the Garonne, or at least there used to be: barbel, roach, carp, crucian carp, perch, zander, pike, bream, grey mullet, allis shad (an endangered migratory species that’s like a cross between a herring and a sea-trout), salmon, sturgeon and… European catfish.

Here an atomic power station enters the story. The Centrale at Golfech is important to the narrative not because it’s dastardly atomic power, but it has a part to play in the study of fish in the river. (As an aside, the power station has already entered local meteorological folklore. You can forecast the weather by looking at the behaviour of the steam plumes from the station’s twin cooling towers. Flatlining means prepare for rain. Better than a mushroom cloud I guess.)

See the source image
The Centrale at Golfech.

Of importance fish-wise is the large volume of water taken from the river via the Canal de la Centrale to cool the reactors. Many migrating fish tend to ascend the canal outflow, perhaps due to the warmer or high volume of water, so, in order to ensure their progress upriver, a fish lift, or elevator, in the form of a wire trap into which the fish swim, takes them up a level and then safely past the power station installation and back into the upstream section of the canal. This ingenious scheme allows fisheries scientists to monitor all the fish passing through it, so fish populations and migrations can be charted. It doesn’t give a complete picture, because many fish still use the existing fish ladders to ascend the main river via a series of weirs, but its shows trends. An observation point in the power station allows one to observe the fish passing through lift system, but being in France it’s closed to the public precisely at the time of year when the largest volume of fish is passing through. The findings of the fisheries scientists don’t tell a happy story.

Moving house eight or so years ago a meant what had been a fifteen minute drive to the upper Bristol Avon fishery increased to forty. That’s not why I stopped fishing there. Over the decade or so that I fished there the fishing had declined dramatically. Barbel came out far less frequently and smaller. Chub, which I also love catching, were smaller and scrawnier. It wasn’t just a case of me losing my angling mojo, all the other fishers reported the same thing. Something was going wrong. A detailed fish population survey report in 2016 by the Environment Agency, taking samples from a number of stretches in the river, corroborated what anglers had been finding. Not only were barbel in serious decline, the river’s biomass was reducing as well. It wasn’t just that there were more smaller fish and fewer large ones, the river was supporting less fish-life. The Environment Agency gave a few possible reasons for this, omitting some others, and went on to report that a restocking programme of introducing several thousand immature barbel had failed to make any impact.

I had a long conversation with a fisheries scientist at the Golfech Centrale. She didn’t mention if the Garonne’s biomass had changed to any degree, but she did recount how populations of migratory fish had plummeted in recent years. Salmon, down to a trickle; shad, critically endangered; eels, endangered; sturgeon, borderline extinct. I’ll mention another. Grey mullet, an estuary-loving sea fish, ascended the Garonne in their hundreds of thousands, making their way as far up the river as Golfech, at least 100km above the tidal stretch of the river. Four years ago they simply disappeared. From one year to the next they simply stopped coming. The fisheries scientist couldn’t offer an explanation.

See the source image
European catfish. Voracious predators.

One major factor affecting the Garonne, and many similar rivers, is the spread of the European catfish, Siluris glanis. Introduced into many western European river systems during the 1970s by some congenital idiots, the non-native species has spread like wildfire, chomping up everything in its path. They grow big – in the Garonne they reach above 200 lbs, and bigger still in some of the other major rivers – and they’re not fussy about their diet.

A couple of years ago the Depeche du Midi newspaper reported that a couple’s dog, swimming in the river at Lamagistere (a kilometre downstream from Golfech), was engulfed by a large silure.

A ‘Kitten’

You never see ducks or swans on the Garonne any more. The reason is catfish. I used to catch a lot of big carp at Lamagistere, great powerful, torpedo-like things, but they’re now a memory. The reason is catfish. For those equipped for it, the catfish fishing on the Garonne is great. I’ve caught a few smaller ones (of about half a hundredweight) on carp gear, but it’s exhausting. Like twenty minutes with Mike Tyson.

Are catfish the reason for the catastrophic decline in migratory fish in the Garonne? The fisheries scientist couldn’t give a definitive answer, but her feeling was that no, that couldn’t be the entire story. After all, there are still barbel, chub and zander present, but certainly their numbers have dropped.

Thankfully there are no catfish in the Bristol Avon. That’s not to say that predation isn’t at least a part of the problem facing the river’s fish stocks. Leaving aside the creatures that feed on immature fish, the beasties gobbling up mature fish are pike, cormorants, mink and otters. Mink are a pest nowadays, cormorants have come farther and farther inland in recent years, maybe due to overfishing at sea, and eat their own weight in fish every couple of days. Recently re-introduced to many river systems, otters have a definite cuteness factor, but their effect on under-pressure fish populations can be dramatic. When the fish become scarce they feed on other water mammals and birds (a quiet concern of the RSPB). But again, predation only forms part of a far bigger, gloomy picture.

The Guardian, bless its cotton socks, has drawn attention to many of the problems that face these two rivers, and the same applies to countless others across the developed world. These problems include agricultural slurry, human sewage, industrial effluent, invasion by non-native species, heavy metals, sundry chemical waste, growth hormones, antibiotics, even cocaine – there really are accounts of fish getting high from nose-candy in sewage effluent! But perhaps the most intractable problem facing our rivers isn’t what we put into them – that should in theory be controllable – but what we take out of them: water.

Catching Barbel in the Gironne

Our need for water grows and grows. Domestic, agricultural and industrial demand is on an ever upwards trajectory, and climate change is only exacerbating the problem. In the UK the Environment Agency is very coy about the subject. There’s an awful lot of monitoring of water abstraction from our watercourses and aquifers, but precious little action to mitigate the damage done to the environment during times of drought – which no one appears to have any answer to.

In dry summers the upper Bristol Avon is a sad trickle, and even the mighty Garonne becomes very shallow, clogged and sluggish. The Garonne valley below Toulouse is one of the great fruit, vegetable and wine growing areas of France, and all that produce needs a lot of irrigation. Farmers are meant to adhere to quotas… but no one even pretends they stick to them. Those water pumps chug by night. Humans need water, but if our rivers and the rich biodiversity they support are going to survive we’re going to need to find some dramatic and ingenious answers to satisfy our ever increasing thirst.

See the source image
The future of our rivers?

As for us anglers, it seems we’re some of the only people fighting a rearguard action for our rivers. Where the Environment Agency should be pitching in, it’s the Angling Trust and similar organisations that are taking legal actions against polluters up and down this country. The (privately owned) water companies are some of the chief culprits for poor water quality, and the Environment Agency frequently appears toothless. Hardly surprising when their chief honcho has just taken off to head one of the major water companies. His insider knowledge should be most valuable.

For most anglers without deep pockets, such as me, most fishing now takes places in lakes and canals, with so many rivers no longer offering the kind of sport we seek. Or being the kind of environment the greater public is entitled to expect. I still love my fishing as much as I did when I first wet a line in the 1950s, despite aches and pains and an inability to withstand the cold, but I miss my small river fishing like crazy. If my grandson ever becomes a fisherman, how I’d love for him to experience the sudden pandemonium of hooking a whopping great barbel in a pristine, tiny river.

See the source image
Will he still have healthy rivers to fish in when he grows up?

Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.

Labour – The end of the affair

Or, “I really think we need to take a break”.

By Paul Halas

After several months of running on empty I’ve finally decided to leave the Labour Party. It’s a wrench, to put it mildly. For the past few years the party has been very central to my life, occupying much of my time and providing a circle of friends and comrades I value greatly and who’ve broadened my horizon immensely. So leaving the organisation, even if it doesn’t automatically entail losing contact with a host of great people, doesn’t come very easily.

I was one of the Corbyn influx. Up until his accession as party leader I’d never been part of any political organisation, always finding some reason or other not to engage with the process. In the 1970s the true left was too fragmented (and in truth I was probably too stoned much of the time), in the 1980s I couldn’t see beyond my visceral hatred for Margaret Thatcher, in the 1990s none of the Labour leaders ignited any sort of enthusiasm in me and in the Noughties New Labour fulfilled its remit of slyly continuing Thatcher’s neoliberal (a word not in general circulation back then) crusade… God, for a while even Charles Kennedy’s Lib Dems advocated a more radical platform than Blair and co. Fast forward another five years and the advent of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader coincided with my being found surplus to my publisher’s needs as a comic strip writer (in fairness I’d had a pretty good, forty year innings), meaning that not just was there a political leader I truly believed in, I now had the time to devote myself to the cause. Of course I rushed to join.

Image result for photo jeremy corbyn

Corbyn arouses mixed reactions, to say the least. But for me and thousands like me he represented a storm-force blast of fresh air in politics. He had his flaws but he was sincere, he cared, he stood up to the Establishment, he convinced us that even within our tired old parliamentary system we could actually achieve something better – something far better. Until the media concocted an evil narrative against the man he was derisively known at “Saint Jeremy”. Within my local party the influx of Corbynistas received a mixed reception.

Here a tip of the hat to all those who’ve worked for years – decades – within the Labour Party to keep the wheels of society turning and strive for the betterment of all. Leaders have come and gone, but indefatigable Labour councillors and activists have put their all into their roles and we’re far better off for it. I have no doubt the vast majority of them have done far more for their fellow humans than I ever have. Locally, some of them welcomed the newcomers with open arms, others took a dimmer view of all the “entryists”.

I had no experience whatsoever of functioning within any sort of organisation, and had no expectation of “upward mobility” within the local party. Having been a scriptwriter I was useful as a “messager”, writing a stream of press letters and leaflets, and I took to activism like a duck to water. But those newcomers with far greater political and organisational ability than me, who could have made a real contribution in more executive posts in the party, frequently encountered a high degree of resistance. In the local party things were done a certain way and by certain people. The newcomers were useful as activists, fetchers and carriers, but to go any further than that they had to adhere to a very well established template – one that pre-existed the Corbyn phenomenon. And that, in microcosm, appears to encapsulate most of the Labour Party machinery.

While the Labour Party can and frequently does work to improve matters at local level – even under a kamikaze Tory government – the evolution and ethos of the party at national level is of paramount importance, but how often that appears to be ignored at CLP and branch level. For over two decades, and some would say far longer, the Labour Party has adhered to the neoliberal consensus that underpins the economies of much of the developed world. A system that’s been shown to be increasingly dysfunctional, unless you’re a hedge fund manager or oligarch. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour rejected that path (well, not the PLP and a whole bunch of party workers, as we now know) – and that’s why so many of us loved him… or certainly what he stood for. In a world where everything and everyone is viewed as a commodity, he wanted to put human beings before the sacred market.

He had to go, and he was dealt with.

In the run up to the 2019 general election we campaigned with feverish intensity. For nearly six weeks I helped run a high street Labour stall in all sorts of beastly weather, fielding all sorts beastly comments from a public versed in beastly anti-Corbyn invective by a beastly media. Perhaps our intensity was fuelled by a subconscious foreboding that we were dead men walking, or maybe that’s just hindsight speaking. Certainly we can now look on that time as Corbyn’s last stand, because we knew that if he lost he’d inevitably stand down, and there was no natural successor. The feeling of numbness from that defeat has stayed with me ever since.

In the Labour leadership ballot my vote was unsurprisingly for Rebecca Long Bailey – by default really. For me the other candidates were unthinkable. At the CLP meeting in which our membership chose Keir Starmer by a two thirds majority my post election gloom grew several degrees darker. I didn’t trust Starmer and I didn’t like him. Maybe I could’ve given him the benefit of the doubt – many did and many are now having second thoughts – but I didn’t want to give him the time of day and for once I was right. For all his “forensic” intelligence, I saw him as completely untrustworthy, as often on the dark side as on that of the angels. That probably marked the death knell of my party membership, the intervening time just an agonisingly long farewell.

Going into yet another bout of Starmer-bashing is probably pretty boring by now, so I won’t go too much to town on it. I think anyone still believing he’ll stick to the Labour Party’s ten core pledges is living in Narnia – his “direction of travel” is crystal clear and he has another four years to dilute them further. His conduct over the whole antisemitism issue is deeply dishonest and shameful. The loss of freedom of speech within the party is shameful. The party’s purge of the left isn’t going to stop until the notion of democratic socialism is a whimsical memory. And as if all that ain’t enough, he is deeply and completely enmeshed in “the Establishment”. You don’t have to be a conspiracy nut to realise that no member of the Trilateral Commission – an international neoliberal “think tank” founded by David Rockefeller in 1973 – could ever hold socialist views… and Starmer belongs to that very elite group.

Neoliberalism hasn’t provided any answers for society, but then that was never its aim. Rampant disillusionment with the status quo along with an increasingly meagre trickle of trickle-down is what helped fuel right-wing populism in a host of countries, and a swing back to centrism – underpinned by a continuing adherence to the same old tried and failed economic framework – is only a recipe for more of the same, and in all probability still worse, in the future.

Starmer is desperate to occupy the “centre” ground to boost his much vaunted electability, and he sees ditching the left as his means of achieving that. Quite possibly he’ll win the next general election, although the proposed boundary changes may well jam a spoke in his wheel. But if he wins I don’t believe his new New Labour will provide any answers. The corporate elite will still hold sway, inequality with continue to grow, the environment will continue to be ravaged and resentment will continue to fester – ripe for the unscrupulous with their gruesome easy answers. That’s how fascism takes root.

Plenty of friends and comrades – most – have urged me to stay in the party and fight, but for me the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn was the final straw. Except of course for Starmer that was just another step along the way. My feeling at the moment is that staying and fighting for the soul of the Labour Party while Keir Starmer is leader is like trying to bail out the Titanic with a teaspoon. It’s a painful decision, and I’m aware that for many the idea of leaving the party is unthinkable – like a Catholic choosing excommunication. It’s just a matter of how much one can bear to see the party one has loved move away from its core ideals. George Monbiot recently said the best hope for the left is a populist movement harnessing the same degree of passion and simple messaging that so invigorated the right. It nearly happened in 2017. But I don’t see how that’s going to be repeated while Starmer and the current PLP are in charge (whatever the make-up of the NEC); the powers that be are absolutely determined that no such thing should reoccur. Maybe a mass rebirth of the left will have to take place outside the Labour Party, at least initially. However, if I’m completely wrong and the party veers back to the left I’ll recant my apostasy and happily beg to be re-admitted, pretty please. In the meanwhile, I remain an ardent Corbynista. I’ll be happy to help out with volunteering for this and that (such as leafleting), but I really cannot continue my membership while Keir Starmer leads the party.

A last thought. Would I want to join the Labour Party as it is now? The answer is a definite no.

Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.

French working class noir

The birth of a genre, French noir 1930 – 1960

When thinking of “film noir” the names that spring immediately to mind are Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, Orson Welles, Raoul Walsh, Sam Fuller… Humphrey Bogart, Edward G Robinson, Barbara Stanwyck, Lauren Bacall, James Cagney, Robert Mitchum… But across the Atlantic the genre was also gaining momentum in French cinemas. Long before India and China entered the arena, France was the world’s second most prolific film making nation behind the USA – with as strong a national identity as its cuisine.

Two seismic events shaped the evolution of cinema in the 1930s: the advent of sound recording and the Great Depression. In the USA the main cinematic themes were the lavish escapism of Busby Berkeley, Astaire and Rogers et cetera, and the countless gangster movies involving the likes of Paul Muni and James Cagney, both genres catering to the wish fulfilment of an impoverished audience that still still flocked to the movies.

Image result for Cinema queue 1930s
1930s packed movie theatres

Even during the Depression Hollywood films were produced with budgets their European counterparts could only dream of. Wanting to preserve the French film industry, and no doubt la culture francaise as well, the French government introduced a quota system that reduced the amount of American imports and also gave domestic film-makers modest financial incentives – but in the main film making in France remained a relatively low-budget industry.

While escapist musicals and costume dramas certainly featured in 1930s French cinema (many of them interestingly co-produced with German companies), audiences flocked to see films that reflected their own lives and backgrounds too. A genre of films that showed working class lives became mainstream. Perhaps in part due to budget restrictions, and possibly due to the influence of left wing ideas amongst many writers and directors, much of the cream of the French classic cinema concerned itself with working class lives. Below I describe some of the films that help define French noir and French cinema’s portrayal of working class life.


Image result for l'atlante movie stills
Jean Daste and Dita Parlo

Jean Vigo’s “Atlante” (1934) tells the story of newly-wed barge skipper Jean (Jean Daste) and Juliette (the wonderful Dita Parlo), and Juliette’s compulsion to escape the tedium of ship-board life to taste the pleasures of the big city, only to find it’s not the paradise she’d imagined. The film counterbalances the simple drudgery of life on the canals with a great depth of emotion. The stars are not just the young couple, but the flat industrial landscapes of northern France… and the crusty, enigmatic old first mate, le Pere Jules, marvellously played by character actor Michel Simon.

Image result for pepe le moko film stills
Gabin and Mireille Balin

Pepe le Moko” (Julien Duvivier, 1937) stars French cinema stalwart Jean Gabin as Pepe, a notorious French gangster hiding out in the Algiers casbah. He knows that as long as he remains in the honeycomb of dives, hovels, shops and brothels that form the casbah, among the thieves, beggars, traders, prostitutes and other locals whose company he keeps, he’s safe from the pursuing Inspector Slimane (Lucas Gridoux). Trouble arrives with the appearance of alluring Parisienne Gaby (Mirelle Balin), who reminds him of the life he’s left behind. Almost inevitably, and against his better judgement, he allows his feelings for Gaby to lure him from his sanctuary. While the casbah may appear a little romanticised, the feel of the film is classically noir.

See the source image
Gabin and Areletty

Marcel Carne was a master of French noir, and one of his best remembered films is “le Jour se Leve” (1939). Jean Gabin stars as Francois, a factory worker, holed up in a top-floor apartment, with armed police closing in on him. Told in flashback, the film recounts Francois’ attraction for young florist Francois (Jaqueline Laurent), and her reluctance to commit to him due to her mysterious liaison with seedy, older musical hall performer Valentin (Jules Berry). Things get more complicated as Francois takes up with Valentin’s ex, Clara (Arletty), while still having eyes for Francoise. Things come to a head when Valentin taunts Francois with details about his dalliance with the younger woman, leading to a scuffle in which Valentin is fatally wounded. As dawn breaks, Francois chooses to die in a hail of bullets rather than at the end of a rope.

Image result for quai des orfevres film stills
Suzy Delair and Louis Jouvet

Next I include Henri Georges Clouzot’s “Quai des Orfevres” (1947), not because it’s one of the best of the genre – it isn’t – but because it’s so typical. Jenny (Suzy Delair) sings in a music hall, accompanied on the piano by her unassuming husband Maurice (Bernard Blier). Maurice, mistakenly believing the vivacious Jenny of having an affair with with a lecherous old businessman takes a gun and goes to have it out with the would-be lothario – only to find him dead. Jenny, who had earlier clobbered the businessman with a candelabra whilst fighting him off, mistakenly believes she has killed him, but Maurice offers to carry the burden of guilt to save her. It’s left to Inspector Antoine (Louis Jouvet) from the Quai des Orfevres to unravel the mess and find the real culprit, but the film is memorable for its portrayal of the seamy side of Paris. It’s also notable for its treatment of Jenny’s lesbian fiend and would-be lover, and Antoine’s adopted black son, as utterly un-notable facets of the film.

Image result for porte des lila film stills

Not many of Rene Clair’s films could be described as noir, but “Porte de Lilas” (1957) certainly does. This film dates from the twilight of the classic period and benefits from the presence of Georges Brassens (his only cinematic appearance), who acts as a kind of musical narrator to the film. Juju (Pierre Brasseur) is a drunk who falls for Maria (Dany Carrel) and renounces the bottle. He gives shelter to fleeing hoodlum Pierre (Henri Vidal), and even keeps him out of harm’s way when he takes up with Maria. When he gets wind that Pierre is about to abandon and betray Maria, however, he snaps and kills the hood. Left with nothing, he takes refuge in alcohol once more. Again, a working class area of Paris takes centre stage, along with the characters of the quatier.


Class is a theme that runs through much of the cinema of the classic period. Moving away from noir, Rene Clair’s “A nous la Liberte” (1931) is about the corrupting influence of money and power (and the dehumanising effects of the machine age), shown in a deceptively light-hearted manner.

Image result for A nous la LIBERTE Stills
A nous la liberte

Many say Chaplin plagiarised the movie in his classic “Modern Times” (1936). Some of the similarities are indeed remarkable.

Image result for la grande illusion stills
Gabin and Dita Parlo in La Grande Illusion

In two of Jean Renoir’s finest films, “La Grande Illusion” and “La Regle du Jeu” (1937 and 1939), a main theme is the absurdity and increasing irrelevance of the ruling classes. While many people cite Regle du Jour as Renoir’s finest, I prefer Grande Illusion by a short head. The aristocratic de Boeldieu sacrifices himself to aid the escape of working class Marechal (Jean Gabin) and the bourgeois Jewish Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) from a forbidding German prison (which uncannily foreshadows the Colditz Story), thereby acknowledging that they are the future and the aristocracy a dying breed.

Image result for la femme du boulanger stills

Lastly country folk should not be forgotten. Several French films centred on country life, many of them comedies starring the incomparable Fernandel. Just to give a flavour, I’m including the Fernandel-less “La Femme du Boulanger” (Marcel Pagnol, 1937), which is many miles from being definable as noir, but as an affectionate mirror of Provencal villagers’ lives it is an absolute gem. The premise is simple: Aimable the baker (Raimu) is married to gorgeous young Ginette (Aurelie Castanier), who promptly runs off with a handsome young shepherd. The villagers are at first amused by the inconsolable Aimable’s plight, but when he refuses to bake any more bread they realise the situation is serious and mount a village-wide campaign to bring young Ginette back to her senses. The details of village life are beautifully observed, and the villagers portrayed with great humour and affection.


I’ve limited the above selection to films I know and love. It goes without saying there are glaring omissions, and my choice is absolutely personal. None the less, I think I’ve given a flavour of those wonderful film-makers’ achievements.


The end of the 1950s marked the end of the classic period. Auteur film-makers such as Francois Truffaut, Jean Luc-Godard, Alain Resnais, Agnes Varda, Eric Rohmer (et al) were ushering in a new wave.

As an angry young film-maker Truffaut wrote in Les Cahiers du Cinema that the future of film lay with the young, that cinema had to go out onto the streets, and that the old cinema classique was dead. In later years he retracted that statement and declared that he and his colleagues owed a great debt to the old film-makers. That goes for all cinema.


Paul Halas is a writer of Jewish heritage whose escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader. He is a self described Corbynista. As a result he has been a Labour activist for the past five years – and most of his current writing is political. He is currently hoping to find something funny to write about.

Wilderness years for the Labour Left, by Paul Halas

Keir Starmer, photo by Rwendland, Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Halas

With the Labour Party once more appeasing the “Establishment”, can it still be home to left wingers?

Like many, I’m one of those who has found the past year thoroughly dispiriting. Leaving aside Covid, these have been dark days for the left. Keir Starmer’s virtual opening speech at the virtual Labour Party Conference was both revealing and demoralising.

Is this going to be yet another Starmer-bashing piece? Well, not entirely.

My first reaction to Starmer’s piece was to think back to Peter Sellers’ wonderful all purpose party political speech parody from 1958, but the subtext was of course very serious (unlike Mr Johnson so we’re told) and underlined the party’s clean break with Corbynism. The party is under new management. That’s so important it’s become the new party slogan. The party deserved to lose the last election in spite of the combined might of the news media, the City, the corporate sector, a vast and sinister tsunami of venom via social media, and many within the Labour Party itself, telling the electorate that Jeremy Corbyn was a danger to the British way of life and would lead the country to ruin. By the same token, I assume Sir Keir must be implying that Boris Johnson and his cronies deserved to win, despite all the above, and by appealing directly to people’s very worst instincts.

Starmer was very keen to emphasise family values and patriotism, having no doubt been told by various advisors and focus groups that the folk oop north who’ve trickled away from the party over the past twenty years are xenophobes who love their motherland and dote on their tight-knit, populous families. It’s a bit like Marechal Petain banging on about famille et patrie. He wants us all to be proud of our country, differing slightly from Jeremy Corbyn, who wanted to build a country to be proud of. The message is that Labour is trying to appeal to traditionalists from all classes who mistrust politics tainted by radicalism.

What was lacking in Sir Keir’s speech was a vision for the future, any hint as to what the Labour Party’s policies might entail in the coming years; all we got was an assurance that they’d be groundbreaking and super. Except for a few cursory mentions about public services and a couple of afterthoughts about the environment, there was nothing about the party’s adherence to the Ten Principles he’d sworn to uphold when campaigning for the leadership. I get the feeling that at some point in the future, once the left has been further weakened by expulsions and demoralised members quitting the party, we’ll see an Animal Farm type moment: “Four legs good, two legs bad” will morph into “Four legs good, two legs better.”

In his speech Starmer said it’s full speed ahead to winning the next election. He and the Labour Party will do whatever it takes. Did I mention that the party is under new management? Part of the strategy for becoming electable is acknowledgement of the received wisdom that you cannot win without having at least some of the media onside. And of course the same goes with institutions such as the CBI, the City and Whitehall… I think it’s telling that Starmer has used the Times and the Sunday Times as platforms for making his major pitches. Rupert Murdoch is renowned as an Earl of Warwick figure – a king-maker – and I believe it’s only a matter of time before the Sun proudly announces that Starmer is the man… Helped of course by Johnson and company being such shite. It would be a Faustian pact, but then where Sir Keir is concerned I think he crossed that Rubicon a few decades ago…


When she first entered Parliament last year, MP for Coventry South Zarah Sultana was taken aback by the volume of lobbying pressure she was immediately subjected to. A few hampers from transport groups and Heathrow Airport are small beer, but of course they’re only opening gambits in a much bigger game and the tiny tip of a vast and for the most part utterly amoral iceberg.

See the source image
The piranhas lie in wait

The corporate sector has always tried to buy influence and favours from politicians, and of course it usually succeeds. If it didn’t, hundreds of potential lobbyists would’ve had to find more wholesome employment. The usual procedure is to reward politicians – from all parties – for services rendered with cushy, highly paid non-executive directorships or “consultant” roles in high power corporations as soon as they step down from their political roles. All done very discreetly, nudge nudge, wink wink, that’s the way of the world.

That has always been the way in politics, so commonplace that apart from the occasional outburst of pique the public is pretty accepting that it’s normal procedure. What is not appreciated, however, is the extent to which elements from “the Establishment”, or the “dark state” – whatever one wants call them – hold influence over the political process.

Little by little it’s becoming obvious that the political process is not only no longer being controlled by democratic means, in fact it’ s no longer following its own rules. The Judiciary is losing its independence, the Civil Service is in the hands of a right wing cabal and Parliament, already the plaything of a supine, talentless Tory Cabinet, is increasingly bypassed and made irrelevant. This has not come about by accident; it’s a process that has been taking place over decades.

Who is the “Establishment”? Who are the shady figures that pull the strings of our political and economic system? They are a chosen few political grandees from past and present, from all parties. They are media tycoons, top civil servants, they are lords and ladies, minor royalty, top civil servants, bankers, hedge fund managers, industrialists, an oligarchy of powerful influential people who don’t want us to know what they’re doing. They come from the UK, from the USA, from Canada, from elsewhere in Europe, from the wider world of capitalism. They are a network of organisations and think-tanks that exist to covertly promote and propagate a worldwide neoliberal consensus which guarantees an ever increasing concentration of power and wealth.

This tangle of highly influential groups is truly international and embedded in the politics and economics of several countries. They don’t just lobby, they set the agenda. They pay little heed to the need for sustainability or equality, because the dogma central to their existence doesn’t recognise that the planet has limited resources and populations have breaking points. This runaway neoliberal monster has no moderator.


Where does this take us with regard to Sir Keir? I’m almost done with trashing him. In amongst all his ties with the establishment I’ll mention just one. He’s a member of the Trilateral Commission. It’s so important it should be mentioned again and again. This select group was founded in 1972 by David Rockefeller and exists to promote establishment hegemony worldwide. It wields great power. That a Labour Party leader is part of such organisation should be unthinkable.

For the past half century the UK has oscillated between Labour and the Conservatives, with neither proving too much of a threat to the Establishment, or Dark State, or whatever one wants to call these charmers. Meanwhile the influence of Parliament has been diminished, the state has been shrunk, the Judiciary diminished and traduced, social services and the health service ravaged and inequality has grown ever greater. Power has never been further from the people. And all the while the majority of the population have been convinced to look elsewhere for people to blame for their increasingly restricted and impoverished lives.

The one fly in the establishment ointment was Jeremy Corbyn. Under his watch we were promised a government that would roll back the neoliberal tide. That would put a cap on corporate greed and reverse inequality. No wonder he had to go. He nearly made it in 2017; the Establishment was going to make bloody sure there would be no repeat of the fright it had been given.

See the source image
Bane of the Establishment

With hindsight we should’ve known that 2019 was a doomed endeavour. I think many of us kind of did, but were deeply in denial about it. And if Corbyn had won in 2017 what’s the betting the Establishment would have made absolutely sure the country was ungovernable.

So what now for lefties? We’re stuck with a leader who still enjoys considerable support amongst members, and a government that’s so inept and badly-run even its staunchest backers will probably give up on it soon. Cue Sir Keir in shining armour, backed by Earl Murdoch. The trouble is, with the changes happening in the world today, particularly environmental and virus-related, continued adherence to the neoliberal consensus will no longer be viable. The system was bust years ago; Trump and Johnson are symptoms of that.

It will be up to the left to supply sustainable and just answers. Left wingers will have to come out of the woodwork and members who’ve left the Labour Party will hopefully rejoin. Hopefully we’ll be able to emerge from the wilderness. Another leader who’s unafraid to confront the Establishment would be a boon, but for all those who despair of ever finding one, who would’ve thought that a bolshy backbencher in his autumn years would be plucked from obscurity, command such a following and come so agonisingly close to capsizing the Establishment boat?

See the source image
Could she be the answer?


Paul Halas is a writer of Jewish heritage whose escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader. He is a self described Corbynista. As a result he has been a Labour activist for the past five years – and most of his current writing is political. He is currently hoping to find something funny to write about.

They drew the 20th Century

By Paul Halas

Cartoons that were art.

Growing up in a family that was immersed in the visual arts – chiefly in the form of animated films – it’s little wonder I had access to all kinds of books filled with the most wonderful illustrations. From children’s illustrated books, to old “Punch” almanacs, ditto New Yorker, to collections of offbeat cartoons and drawings, to fine-art illustrations… I was always dazzled by the skill and wit of those putting pen to paper, and in retrospect I’m immensely grateful to all the publishers that sold so many beautifully produced works of art – which certainly cannot have sold in sufficient numbers to make them a pot of money. They heyday of such publications was the middle part of the century (excluding of course the war years and the immediate austerity following them); and while I have no doubt there are legions of wonderful illustrators at work today, the wonderful, whimsical books of cartoons I grew up with don’t seem to be produced any more.

See the source image

Old collections of cartoons and illustrations can still be found in antique and bric-a-brac shops – for a price – and also if one is lucky at car boot sales. Specialist book sellers can source them too, but again they don’t come cheap. I’m lucky in that I inherited a small collection of them; others are simply indelibly imprinted in my memory. With no attempt to present these artists in any sort of order of merit, here is a collection of some of those I’ve thumbed through innumerable times.

H M Bateman will forever be known as the creator of “The Man Who…” series of cartoons, depicting the foibles and social mores of his contemporaries. As a child I was attracted to his attention to detail and the accuracy with which he depicted contemporary fashion, décor and incidental detail. Growing up, I went through a period of thinking he must have been the most outrageous snob, given that so much of his humour was based on social faux-pas – but then he was simply reflecting the society he was a part of. The Britain he inhabited was probably the most snobbish, class-obsessed nation on Earth; H M Bateman reflected that with considerable genius.

See the source image

Most young boys of my vintage went through a period of loving railways and trains, and none were quirkier or more original than the creations of Rowland Emett. Emett’s way-out inventiveness was on a par with W Heath Robinson (who should get more of a mention here but doesn’t), creating a parallel universe in which the laws of physics did wonderfully impossible things. He was known for cartoons lampooning bureaucracy and quirky reflections on life in war-torn Britain, but for most people he’ll chiefly be remembered for his wonderful railways and trains – the stuff of dreams. Eat your hearts out Thomas the Tank Engine and Ivor the Engine.

See the source image

A book of my parents’ that intrigued me as a nine or ten year old was “The Half-Naked Knight” by Andre Francois, not that I had any great interest in semi-dressed men. Francois (Ne Farkas) was a French cartoonist of Romanian origin who specialised in visual humour. His style was very contemporary 1950s and 60s, and I imagine had he not progressed to fine art paining he would have also made a superb graphic designer. His themes were predominantly adult, yet I found the drawings oddly compelling.

See the source image

Ronald Searle is remembered by most as the creator of the notorious St Trinians School characters, which were published in a range of magazines such as “Lilliput”, as well as being immortalised on celluloid by the likes of Alastair Simm and George Cole. But type-casting Searle as simply the creator of St Trinians does him a disservice. His unique penmanship made him highly collectable as a fine artist, a renowned book illustrator and highly-regarded sculptor. He produced a series of drawings during and after his time as a POW in a WW2 Japanese prison camp that are both moving and distressing, which had a similar effect on me to the few images I had seen of the Holocaust. That said, I was a huge fan of Searle’s provocative schoolgirls.

See the source image

Just as Ronald Searle cannot escape his St Trinians legacy, Charles Addams will forever be associated with the Addams Family, of both TV and silver screen fame, but in his case with more justification. I always loved a book of his drawings entitled “The Groaning Board”, which contained a mixture of Addams Family and stand alone macabre cartoons drawings. It may be apocryphal, but it is said that Addams’ first job was for “True Detective” Magazine, where he had to retouch photos of corpses to make them appear less gruesome. He is alleged to have said he preferred them in their original state. It was the macabre nature of Addams’ cartoons that appealed to me.

See the source image

One couldn’t really describe Frans Masereel as a cartoonist, in fact apart from woodcut-maker it is hard to pigeon-hole him, but as creator of wonderful surreal images I wanted to look at again and again I had to include him in this list. (I could also have included the great Lynd Ward, who also created wordless stories in woodcuts, but as Ward was greatly influenced by Masereel it is the Flemish artist who has pride of place.) I was captivated by his book “The Idea” from an early age – not simply because it featured an odd naked woman floating around – and sought out his other woodcut illustrated works later in life. His dreamlike images, similar in mood to the best of German Expressionist cinema, are all admirable works of art.

See the source image

Michael Ffolkes was an astonishingly prolific cartoonist who supplied illustrations to nearly every magazine on British news-stands for nearly fifty years. He had a dry understated wit, and I think my parents liked his work because it succeeded in marrying a playful decorativeness with an unerring sense of design. His drawings are exceedingly easy on the eye – which apparently didn’t mean that he was easy company. Apparently at “Private Eye” magazine’s 21st birthday bash the cartoonist Martin Honeysett became so exasperated he threw a large, gooey cake over the “notoriously pompous” Ffolkes’ head.

See the source image

Another artist who is difficult to categorise is the great Saul Steinberg. Born in Romania, a naturalised American, Steinberg was both a stalwart of the gallery scene and an in-demand magazine illustrator/cartoonist, his work appearing in countless New Yorker magazines. His subject matter varied from surrealism, to whimsy, to visual gags and to hard political satire; his visual style both absorbed and parodied almost every artistic movement of the 20th Century, always with an immaculate sense of design. Anyone labouring under the delusion than cartooning cannot be great art needs to look at Saul Steinberg’s work.

See the source image

Highly controversial, not the least because of some questionably anti-Semitic remarks (his defence was that he was supporting the Palestinian people. Hmmm), Sine (Maurice Sinet) married a deceptively simple drawing style, scribbles almost, with subject matter that could be witty, outrageous, obscene, or highly contentious. His politics were far left, to the extent that he was even banned by l’Humanite, the French Communist newspaper, and tended to fall out with nearly every periodical or publisher that took him on. Latterly he found his natural home with the satirical Charlie Hebdo magazine – although his life was claimed by cancer rather than terrorists’ bullets.

See the source image

I’m aware this list is highly subjective and probably owes more to my parents’ tastes than anything else; I’m also very aware of the absence of any women cartoonists. Given that my mother was a highly gifted artist/animator/illustrator I find that pretty shocking, and can only surmise that in the middle part of the 20th Century women cartoonists were very thin on the ground. My mother always remarked that she lived in a man’s world, and while there were always a number of excellent women film animators they were always overwhelmingly outnumbered by the men. But if anyone knows of any outstanding women cartoonist/illustrators working earlier in the 20th Century, I’d love to know more.

Paul Halas is a writer of Jewish heritage whose escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader. He is a self described Corbynista. As a result he has been a Labour activist for the past five years – and most of his current writing is political. He is currently hoping to find something funny to write about.

TV situation comedy – a Tory secret weapon?

By Paul Halas

A favourite saying amongst Tories, not least the late demented Margaret Thatcher, is that the Conservatives are the natural party of government in the UK. Simply in terms of incumbency that statement is just about correct: since the end of the Second World War, when regular TV schedules really began, the Tories have been in power for 47 years to Labour’s 30.

Has television played a part in maintaining the status quo? Although this post is not limiting itself to discussing the BBC, it’s useful to take a look at the key points of its charter:

  1. To provide impartial news and information to help people understand and engage with the world around them.
  2. To support learning for people of all ages.
  3. To show the most creative, highest quality and distinctive output and services.
  4. To reflect, represent and serve the diverse communities of all of the United Kingdom’s nations. and regions and, in doing so, support the creative economy across the United Kingdom.
  5. To reflect the United Kingdom, its culture and values to the world.

Those with an interest in politics and the arts would probably say the corporation has very mixed success in achieving those aims, particularly with regard to impartiality and quality of broadcasts.

Certainly the first fifteen years of TV viewing following the war was deeply establishment-orientated, plummy and patronising. Classical music, earnest discussion programmes, the Reith Lectures, documentaries typified by the Hans and Lotte Hass undersea exploration films, Armand and Michaela Denis “On Safari”… middle- and high-brow tastes were well catered for; while for the plebeians there were dramas such as Emergency Ward Ten and Dixon of Dock Green, entertainment in the form of the Black and White Minstrel Show and the Billy Cotton Band Show, and comedies such as The Army Game and The Larkins… A diet of safe, reassuring content, during a time of peace and economic growth (the Korean War, Suez, the Kenyan liberation struggle and many other conflicts notwithstanding). We’d never had it so good. And what we watched on TV backed that message up relentlessly.


See the source image

Swinging London

Then the 1960s happened. The Cuban Missile Crisis, CND, disclosures about the Cambridge Spy Ring, James Bond, the Profumo Affair, the Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity trial, Swinging London and Harold Wilson. The stuffy UK started to loosen up and consequently a small portion of television content became a little more daring; TV satire was born. That Was The Week That Was, TW3 and the Frost Report trod a virgin path, discussion programmes grew teeth, and politicians and the great and the good were shocked to find the customary culture of deference no longer applied when they were grilled by such sharp-fanged interviewers as Bernard Levin and David Frost.

See the source image

Bernard Levin

That “golden age of satire” was short lived, and interviewers have since been reined in, although over the years certain TV journalists – such as Robin Day, Brian Walden, Jeremy Paxman and even Andrew Neil – have enjoyed a reputation for giving politicians a rough ride… particularly those on the left wing of the divide.

A small fringe of television output has striven to push the boundaries in every decade since the 1960s, notably the Dennis Potter dramas, Spitting Image, The Naked Civil Servant, Boys From The Black Stuff, Clocking Off, Auf Wiedersehen Pet… all part of a minority of TV programmes that commented on the human condition and questioned the status quo of the day.

Meanwhile, from Ken Tynan’s first utterance of “fuck” on TV (1965), attitudes to on-screen swearing have relaxed enormously, while similarly since Frank Finlay’s almost innocent gaspings in Casanova (1971), sex and nudity have become standard fare. What is in much more limited supply is not so much quirky TV, or cutting edge TV, but TV that not only states something about our lives in our increasingly dysfunctional society – the unhealthy status quo in most western nations – but raises a voice about our ovine acceptance of it.

Television at its best stimulates the grey matter, but the reality is that for the most part it has the opposite effect: it is a heavy sedative. And nowhere is that more true than in situation comedy, the shows we all grew up with and clustered around the box at the same time every week to devour. I thought I’d take a closer look at some of them.

I’ve taken the British Comedy Guide’s top 50 sitcoms as my source. Naturally it’s not exhaustive, but all of them have evidently been much loved by large portions of the UK’s population. They are:

Allo Allo

2.4 Children

Absolutely Fabulous

Are You Being Served

As Time Goes By

Birds Of A Feather





Dad’s Army


Drop The Dead Donkey

Father Ted

Fawlty Towers

Gimme Gimme Gimme

Goodnight Sweetheart



I’m Alan Partridge

It Ain’t Half Hot Mum

Just Good Friends

Keeping Up Appearances

Last Of The Summer Wine

Men Behaving Badly

My Family

One Foot In The Grave

Only Fools And Horses

Open All Hours

Phoenix Nights


Rab C Nesbitt

Red Dwarf

Rising Damp

Some Mother Do ’Ave ’Em

Steptoe And Son

The Brittas Empire

The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin

The Good Life

The League Of Gentlemen

The Likely Lads

The Office

The Royle Family

The Thin Blue Line

The Vicar Of Dibley

The Young Ones

Till Death Us Do Part

To The Manor Born

Waiting For God

Yes Minister

Therein we should be able to see a portrait of how we’ve lived during the past sixty or so years, and in a way we do. Many are distinctly middle class, about dentists and solicitors and bored stay at home mums, who have multiple cars and clutches of kids at uni, but just as many other are about working class families, dads who are plumbers, refuse collectors, out of work, mums who are shop assistants and caterers, kids at the comprehensive… But while many of their lives are portrayed with sympathy, their realities are almost invariably trivialised.

Image result for to the manor born images

To the Manor Born

Maybe we shouldn’t expect too much from such programmes. To The Manor Born, a down on her luck aristo falling for a gauche new money magnate, of foreign extraction too! A set of ready-made tensions drawn out week after week, which could hardly have any sort of bearing on any real lives. The Last Of The Summer Wine, harmless old buffers up North who indulged in hilarious slapstick, episode after episode. The Vicar Of Dibley: horror of horrors, a female curate in a staid, sleepy, quintessentially English village, where scandals didn’t get any worse than unexpected changes to the skittles team. In all fairness, no one would really have tuned into any such programmes in the expectation of seeing any real life drama. They were the televisual equivalent of a mug of Ovaltine.

In others, however, could we have expected more? Sitcoms in which lives were supposedly slightly less cosy? In Bread, Only Fools and Horses and the Royle Family, stories often revolved around bucking the system. The crafty fiddlers, the grandiose little entrepreneur whose schemes never bore fruit, the work-shy paterfamilias who considered everyone else bone idle. Ricky Tomlinson, a real-life socialist, starred as the larger than life Jim Royle in the Royle Family, yet writers Craig Cash and Caroline Aherne created a lovingly-drawn working class family without speaking of many of the more worrying issues a family near to the breadline would inevitably have faced.

See the source image

The Royle Family

With only a few exceptions, disturbing reality was always kept at arm’s length in the sitcoms listed above. In The Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin writer David Nobbs created a superb satire involving a man crushed by a stultifying suburban existence and an absurd corporate world. Phoenix Nights lovingly recreated Northern Clubland, and Drop The Dead Donkey hilariously exposed the cynicism of the news media. But perhaps the most biting on the list is Till Death Us Do Part, Johnny Speight’s portrait of a working class East End family and lumpen, racialist, bigot-in-chief Alf Garnett, wonderfully played by Warren Mitchell. This was thought provoking comedy at its best and aroused a great deal of controversy – not the least because some brain-dead viewers actually regarded Garnett as some sort of role model. But such programmes form a very small minority of TV sitcom output.

Is it fair to single sitcoms out in a medium that as a whole appears to be increasingly hell-bent on reducing our brains to a pottage-like mush? Perhaps not, but their overall effect is to facilitate an uncritical acceptance of the nation’s status quo; whether that is by design or just a by-product of having timid, acquiescent programme commissioners I couldn’t possibly say. But one thing is sure: the vast majority of situation comedies act as the TV’s audience’s comfort blanket. The characters in them will have their minor trials and tribulations, but they exist in a thoroughly safe world where they’re largely insulated from the harsher realities of life, a make-believe land that the Tories would love us to believe we most of us share. I’m certainly reminded of Margaret Thatcher and her notion of the Conservatives as the natural party of government, and I can’t help thinking that TV helps foster that illusion.

I’ve left one of the best until last, the immortal but sadly mortal Tony Hancock, a small time Everyman with deeply Conservative instincts, forever brought back down to earth by his working class mate Sid James – wonderful character-led comedy written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. This is from The Blood Donor:

See the source image

Tony Hancock and June Whitfield

Hancock: I did not come here for a lecture on Communism young lady!

Nurse (June Whitfield): I happen to be a Conservative!

Hancock: Then kindly behave like one!

Paul Halas is a writer of Jewish heritage whose escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader. He is a self described Corbynista. As a result he has been a Labour activist for the past five years – and most of his current writing is political. He is currently hoping to find something funny to write about.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: