Not simply names on a list

The New York Times has rightly been commended for yesterday’s stunning type-only front page. Blogging great Jason Kottke has a nice piece about it:

In the past five months, more Americans have died from Covid-19 than in the decade-plus of the Vietnam War and the death toll is a third of the number of Americans who died in World War II. When this is over (whatever that means), the one thing we cannot do is forget all of these people. And we owe to them to make this mean something.

Tree of the week revisited

The moment I saw this picture in The Guardian a couple of weeks ago I knew exactly the place from where the shot had been taken, before I had even looked at the caption. It’s in the Phoenix Park near the Magazine Fort car park. Although I’ve now changed my usual starting point for my daily dog walking route, this tree is only a few dozen yards from the car park which I used to use. The tree’s shape, along with the worn-down path and the curve of the two small hills, are unmistakeable. It must have also made a real impression on the photographer, Finn Richards, because although in real life it’s quite small he describes it as standing “guard over the hill that it sits in front of.”

Because of the restrictions, I wasn’t able to get to the location to check whether my memory was accurate until today. All the smaller gates to the Phoenix Park are currently closed to cars, so I had to leave mine outside and walk in – but there the tree was, just as I recalled.

I haven’t got quite the right angle – it’s difficult comparing the screen of an iPhone with a scrumpled sheet of paper, especially when a dog demanding that a ball be thrown is also present – but I’m sure it is the same tree. I took another shot from a different angle, which shows its position relative to the Magazine Fort.

Looking more carefully at the Guardian’s shot today, I was slightly puzzled by the state of the grass – long, dry and sun-bleached. However, when I checked Finn Richards’s page on Instagram, I see that it was taken in July 2018, which explains it.

There is a reasonable chance that exercise and other restrictions will be relaxed slightly more next week. This could mean more regular trips to the park – something that both the dog and I are already looking forward to.


Culture as class performance

From Normal People by Sally Rooney:

“He knows that a lot of the literary people in college see books primarily as a way of appearing cultured. When someone mentioned the austerity protests that night in the Stag’s Head, Sadie threw her hands up and said: Not politics, please! Connell’s initial assessment of the reading was not disproven. It was culture as class performance, literature fetishised for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about. Even if the writer himself was a good person, and even if his book really was insightful, all books were ultimately marketed as status symbols, and all writers participated to some degree in this marketing. Presumably this was how the industry made money.”

[page 221]

Other articles which have used the same quote:
Nathan Goldman, The Baffler
Lonesome Reader
Maks Bookshop Cafe
A Purple Onion
Eats Reads Rambles

What’s in a name?

I’m not the Charles Foster who wrote the Story of the Bible.

I’m not the Charles Foster who writes about living as a badger or a fox.

I’m not the Charles Foster who was on Death Row in Florida for 35 years.

I’m not even the Charlie Foster who was the “second second assistant director” on The Sopranos.

And now I’ve just found yet another namesake. The Wikipedia front page for Easter Sunday 2020 has yet another chap with my name as today’s featured picture. A governor of Ohio and US Treasury Secretary no less. Fame at last.

Just puntastic

Back in the days when The Guardian had a separate pullout Media section (on Mondays, if I recall correctly) there was an occasional feature called I Wrote That: A (very) occasional series in praise of the sub-editors’ craft.  This was launched on 14 February 2000 with an interview with the Scottish Sun sports sub-editor, Paul Hickson, after he came up with a classic headline which has since found its way into any number of books and online articles dealing with headline writing. The headline appeared on a report on the Scottish Cup defeat of the mighty Celtic FC by the Third Division part-timers of Inverness Caledonian Thistle, topped with the line “Super Caley Go Ballistic, Celtic Are Atrocious”.

As Hickson explained in the article, this was an adaptation of a headline which allegedly appeared in the 1960s in a Liverpool paper, “Super Calli Scores a Hat Trick, QPR Atrocious”, although no one has actually tracked the original down.

This week saw an Irish Daily Star front page which would surely be a contender for another entry in the Guardian’s “occasional” feature. To head a report on how the Gardai are getting extra powers to stop people setting off to enjoy the current good weather in their holiday homes, an anonymous sub came up with the great line, “Go Out Your Back and Tan”. In doing this he or she has referenced a well-known (in Ireland) song “Come Out, Ye Black and Tans” which has enjoyed a couple of unrelated boosts to its popularity over the last year. The first was a parody version written for a TV ad for Bradys Ham, “Come Out, Ye Other Hams”. The second was its use by Steve Coogan appearing as an Alan Partridge impersonator in an episode of This Time with Alan Partridge, the “TV moment of the year”, according to RTE News. When Sinn Fein used the same tune in a TV ad, and some of the party supporters sang it at the recent General Election count, the irony quotient went up to 11.

Great stuff. And here, just for the record, is Paul Hickson’s original effort from twenty years ago, in a picture I found on the Troll Football website.

Labour’s four-time winning habit

Front page of the West Midlands edition of the Daily Mirror, Friday 23 March 1990. The proprietor, Robert (Captain Bob) Maxwell, ordered a special late edition for the region with a front page update containing the result of the Mid Staffordshire by-election, which was declared at about 4am. The story appeared under the byline of the then political editor, Alastair Campbell. The photograph had in fact been taken earlier in the day. Back row, left to right, are London Labour activist Cathy Deadman, wife of Alan Deadman, the print union official mentioned below, and Sylvia Heal’s son and daughter, Gareth and Joanne. The young woman in the middle row was an American student working as an intern in a Labour MP’s office. Front row shows Sylvia Heal’s mother, Ruby Fox, Sylvia herself and her husband, Keith Heal. 

Today, Sunday 22 March, marks the thirtieth anniversary of Labour’s historic victory in the Mid- Staffordshire by-election, the day in 1990 when Sylvia Heal overturned a Tory majority of 14654 from the previous general election to win by 9449 votes. The swing of 21.4% from Tory to Labour was a record at the time. I’m proud to say that I was there, doing my small bit to help the campaign.

This was actually the second of the four Labour gains from the 1987-1992 Thatcher/Major Tory government, which had a dismal record in by-elections. Altogether in that period, there were 21 contests and the Tories only won one, which was the very first seat they defended at Richmond in Yorkshire. This was caused by the appointment of Leon Brittan as a European Commissioner, and resulted in the election of William Hague. His majority was however slashed from 19576 to 2634.

The Tories went on to lose all seven of the other seats they defended over the following three years – four to Labour and three to the Lib Dems. The four Labour gains are shown below in pink in this screengrab from Wikipedia, and I played a part in all of them.

At the time, I was working at Labour Party headquarters in Walworth Road, London. My job title was nominally campaign writer/sub-editor but in effect, because of the advent of the new-fangled technology of desktop publishing, I was also a designer of campaign material. When a by-election occurred it was the practice for Head Office to post a number of staff to augment the regional team who ran the campaign. These usually included a press officer, a researcher and someone like me, whose job was to produce the campaign literature and other publicity material. Depending on the amount of effort the national party thought necessary, a number of staff from other regional offices would also be deployed as local organisers, computing staff, campaign aides and other roles.

My first outing in this job was actually in February 1989 in Richmond, where I succeeded in spending quite a lot of the party’s money for very little reward when the Labour candidate trailed in a distant fourth with only 2591 votes. The Vale of Glamorgan by-election followed a few months later, in May 1990, but because it coincided with the local elections and the run up to the Euro elections, a freelance was sent off to work on this instead. However, he had to come back to London over one weekend and because a local Sunday newspaper was going to publish an opinion poll, which we expected to be favourable to Labour, I was despatched to Wales to write and produce an instant overnight leaflet. This I did, and it was printed on a small litho machine operated in a back room by an NGA official called Alan Deadman, who had also been seconded for the campaign. Labour’s John Smith (not that John Smith) won the by-election with a majority of 6028.

Seven months later, shortly before Christmas, the Tory MP for Mid Staffordshire John Heddle committed suicide, which meant there would be a by-election in his seat. At first sight, this didn’t look particularly promising for Labour: a Tory majority of nearly 15,000, based on the prosperous cathedral city of Lichfield. But there were areas where Labour could expect to do well, such as Rugeley, a town with 20,000+ voters, which still had a colliery (although it would close less than a year later) and a power station. Also, the Tories under Margaret Thatcher were proving ever more unpopular, and seemed determined to push through with their disastrous Poll Tax proposal.

Neil Kinnock and the leadership decided to push for maximum effort in this campaign, and were backed by the Shadow Cabinet and the party NEC. I asked my boss, Peter Mandelson, if I could take the publicity material job and he agreed. So I packed up one of the only two computers we had in my department and set off for Rugeley. The local party had little experience in running a big campaign but were keen, and they selected an excellent candidate in Sylvia Heal. She wasn’t local –Welsh born, and now living in Surrey – but she had the kind of personality that would go down well with the voters.

So it proved. Labour members flooded in from all over the country. We had excellent support from the unions, the European Parliamentary Labour Party and MPs from the House of Commons. The candidate’s minder was Peter Snape, the West Bromwich MP, a legend in his own lunchtime, who successfully prevented a potentially hostile Daily Mail reporter from asking difficult questions by getting him so drunk that he had to flee back to London to recuperate. The agent was the ever urbane Fraser Kemp, a Sunderland native who was the party’s West Midlands organiser. He went on to become the MP for Houghton and Washington East. I was kept busy producing leaflets and publicity material, much of which was printed in the back of the headquarters by the same Alan Deadman of the NGA.

The campaign went like a dream. The Tories were in complete disarray, trying to defend a Poll Tax which they obviously didn’t really believe in. The newly-formed Liberal Democrats were hampered by having a rival candidate from the rump SDP. Two opinion polls predicted a stomping majority for Sylvia Heal. Neil Kinnock arrived, and a local supporter flew him and Sylvia around in a helicopter. I was deputed to escort Labour supporters Prunella Scales, Timothy West and a then very popular EastEnders actor (whose name I have now forgotten) on a celebrity visit. We eventually won by almost 10,000 votes and Sylvia went on a walkabout the following day. I was able to buy a copy of the special West Midlands edition of the Daily Mirror, shown at the top of this post, and I pinned it up over my desk when I got back to Walworth Road.

Thatcher’s time in office did not have much longer to run. In the autumn, there were several more by-elections. The Lib Dems took a seat off the Tories in Eastbourne in October and then I was involved in a tricky defence of a Labour seat in Bradford North, where the MP who had died was in Militant. The party selected a respected moderate councillor, Terry Rooney. He took his seat on 13 November 1990, the day Geoffrey Howe made the resignation speech which precipitated Margaret Thatcher’s downfall.

John Major became Prime Minister and although the Tories dropped the poll tax and got a bounce in the polls they continued to do badly in by-elections. The Tory MP for Monmouth died in March 1991, so another one was called. Labour selected a candidate called Huw Edwards (not that Huw Edwards) and we won the by-election relatively easily. A Tory majority of 9530 was converted to a Labour majority of 2406. Once more I produced all the party literature, some of which can be seen in this Youtube video compilation. 

Finally, in the autumn of 1991, we were plunged into another by-election campaign when Richard Holt, the Tory MP for Langbaurgh on Teesside, died suddenly on 20 September. The local party had already selected a Middlesbrough councillor, Ashok Kumar, as its candidate for the forthcoming general election. He was confirmed as the by-election candidate and duly triumphed with a majority of 1975, overturning a Tory majority of 2088. This film on Youtube by reporter Steve Richards was part of the BBC coverage of the result. It’s nice to see my friend the late Annie Longley from Chepstow, who later worked for the Co-operative Party, in the Kumar entourage on the campaign trail. It was very sad to hear of the death of Kumar himself at the early age of 53 in 2010.

A few months later, in April 1992, Labour lost all four of these seats in the General Election. All four MPs, however, returned to the house in the Blair landslide of 1997. The Mid Staffordshire seat had been abolished by then, but Sylvia Heal won the target seat of Halesowen and Rowley Regis.

Mid Staffordshire was a great experience, and probably the most exciting campaign I ever worked on. Labour’s by-election total gain of four in the 1987-1992 parliament is second only to the five gains it made between 1959 and 1964. It’s a winning habit the party could well do with today.

Sign of no Butey

Pic: The Herald

The ongoing court case involving sometime Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond has led to the use of a number of external shots of Bute House, his official Edinburgh residence when he held the post.

Am I the only one (© “Angry of Tunbridge Wells”) to notice the appalling line break on the big brass sign fixed to its railings?

Official Residence of The
First Minister

There would have been a stern red correction mark on the proof if, in the 1970s, I had ever sent a page in this style to my old Folio Society boss Tim Wilkinson. He would also have tightened the leading.