Bulkshit: (noun) political chaos; situation in which everything has become unremittingly awful.
Forget ‘omnishambles’ we are now living in the era of ‘bulkshit‘.
You don’t need to come here to learn what bulkshit means. Open your eyes and look about you people – it is everywhere.
Bulkshit is the new (Sue) Gray.
And its origins can be found in that old favourite – Brexit. A wholly unneccessary, obviously destructive, political decision, foisted on this country by a bunch of nationalist wingnuts, harking after a Spitfire-neverland and a bunch of Machiavellian fellow travellers, who thought it might get them the throne (spoiler it did). Millions of Britons were essentially duped into backing something that could only do them harm while a bunch of rich enablers grew powerful off the back of it.
The referendum unleashed years of misery on the nation but the worst bit is – it’s only just begun.
Boris Johnson promised to “Get Brexit Done” but like his promises at the altar it meant nothing. Brexit proper will mean years of chaos and bulkshit to come and with Britain cut apart from its closest allies, its biggest trading partners and its favourite holiday destinations we ordinary people will feel the pain most of all.
And then – and again this is not exactly breaking news – we’ve had the Coronavirus pandemic. At least 165,000 lives lost and millions more left mourning the dead and/or recovering from their own encounters with the virus whether physical, mental or professional. That has added to the bulkshit in any manner of ways from the rise of the anti-vaxx movement to the government’s catastophic mishandling of the crisis and the fallout from it.
But the icing on the bulkshit birthday cake has been that throughout this public health crisis we have had a clown at the wheel of SS Britannia. And not even one of those rare funny ones. This is a scary clown, a cosplaying Pennywise in hi-viz make-up, who is too lazy to turn up in the squall and too distracted to consult the rest of the crew on the course that has been charted.
For twenty years Britons were sold the line that ‘Boris’ was a fun-loving, man-of-the-people who was destined to one day fulfil his destiny and become a fabulous Prime Minister.
That too was a lie. Nothing in his CV ever suggested that he would be anything less than an unmitigated disaster. His career has been peppered with inadequacy, failure and dishonesty.
As party-gate has rumbled on, as excuses have shot out of Downing Street like the effluent from a rusted sewage pipe; as the extent of his entitlement has become ever more apparent and as the ‘he’s doing his best’ line has worn ever more thin, Johnson has been shown up for what he is. He stands naked before us all as a self-serving incompetent who shouldn’t be trusted with a plate of jelly let alone the destiny of a people.
And it’s not just him. Whether it’s Truss jetting off on a £500,000 round trip to Australia, or his SPADS, sipping Rioja in the midst of lockdown in the Westminster sun; whether it’s the Sue Gray report doing its best impression of Beckett’s Godot or the PM’s official spokesperson laughing as she thinks up some excuse to explain a party away, this is government of the elitists, for the elitists and by the elite creating more bulkshit with every passing day.
It may finally be hitting the fan – but unfortunately it is us, the British people, who are caught in the crossfire.
Growing up in semi-rural Essex in the Seventies and early Eighties I was obsessed with two things: Star Wars and war wars. Of the two the latter won out by a head.
It wasn’t particularly unusual back then. Films glamourising the events of WW2 were a staple of our very limited afternoon TV choices and comics like Victor and Warlord were the preferred reading material of many a boy.
In the school playground we would play ‘Germans’ and it was always the least popular kids who ended up on the other side.
I was given my first cap gun at about the age of five and my arsenal grew from there. Plastic weapons filled my bedroom. In addition to my array of guns I had hundreds of toy soldiers. Miniature plastic British Commandos, Desert Rats, Germans with weird shaped hand grenades and – incongruously – Napoleonic troops with muskets. I would spend hours setting them up – arraying the opposing forces against each other.
And having done so, like some pubescent God, I would then choose who died.
Sometimes I would dress up. I had bits and pieces of my father’s and grandfather’s old uniforms. An Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders cap badge from Grandad and my own Dad’s Sam Browne and belt combination. I’d don them – and creep forth into the farmer’s fields – and stalk along the river bed of the brook that ran between the back of our garden and the warehouses on the edge of Harlow New Town.
To fuel my imagination, I would try to extract tales of heroism from my family members who had been there.
Grandad had been in France in the Great War and there was a fabulous story my Mum would tell, about how he had fallen out with his own father in 1914 and run off to join the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. But when encouraged to tell me about events himself, he would fail to deliver. As he listed the names of the friends that he had lost he would sometimes start to cry. As I set out in the opening chapter of my book – Fake History – it was clear in retrospect that he was suffering the effects of PTSD – but all I saw was a crying old man.
My dad, who was in his fifties when I was born, should have been able to deliver the goods instead. He had been on active service during the far more glamorous Second World War, meaning that he potentially had wealth of stories to tell me. I longed for him to describe all thrilling and exciting ways in which he had killed the enemy.
But Dad wouldn’t play.
He was happy to talk about climbing the Great Pyramid at Giza and the invasion of Italy – but the rest of his reminiscences were rather at odds with what I was watching on television and playing out on my bedroom floor.
He recalled swinging drunkenly on a rope – and another time when he was eating a sandwich only to realise that someone was taking pot shots at him. He had a hilarious anecdote about the time his friend Richard’s Bailey bridge collapsed and another one about helping three Italian women escape across into British lines. But like my grandfather, the stories were tinged with sadness too. The great romp of war was punctuated with his parent’s divorce and the separation of his family. It had been painful for him. He had lost an eye to illness and admitted that he had often been afraid.
His best friend from school – Sandford – had died during the North Africa Campaign and the memory of him would make my Dad cry. The totality was nothing like my Victor Comics at all.
He also had some frankly weird stories. In particular the one in which Winston Churchill visited the 8th Army in 1943 – only to be greeted with uninterest verging on contempt.
My father was a Tory his entire life but curiously – he never really lauded his party’s most famous leader and again a story I thought potentially fascinating – the time ‘my dad was in North Africa with Churchill’ was a bit of a damp squib.
At this distance of time, I cannot accurately remember Dad’s version – but it went along the lines of “we thought he was trying to cash in on our efforts.” Dad was quite adamant about it – the mood in the ranks was that they had all been obliged to line up and cheer to make him look good.
There’s a Pathe newsreel of the visit – which I have spent a happy hour scanning for sight of Dad and evidence of his tale – but to no avail. What’s striking however is that everyone does look a bit subdued – but then that could simply be the heat or me reading my own remembered version of my Dad’s into it.
As I grew up, I put away my childish things. As an annoyingly left-leaning, politically minded, twenty-something drama student, I never mentioned my childhood obsession with war to my friends. His war was – to me – was now ancient history and no longer something that particularly interested me.
I remained proud of him. Very proud indeed. And I was lucky to have him because we were very close considering – or perhaps because of the age gap. He was everything you’d want your dad to be.
But to my shame when he and his comrades marched through London for the last time in 1995 – I didn’t go along to watch or cheer or even meet him and my mother afterwards as they wanted. I had a date on the other side of town and that seemed far more important at the time.
“Oh, come away, why do you stand there Listening open-mouthed to the talk of old men? Haven’t you heard enough of Troy and Achilles? Why should they bore us for ever, With an old quarrel and the names of dead men We never knew, and dull forgotten battles?”
Dad died in 1998 and subsequently his friends would tell me other stories. Stories that would have made me proud as an eight-year-old boy – but ones that he was far too modest to share.
In the years since – his old army friends and most of that generation have faded away. Their lived experiences are now the unreliable second-hand reminiscences of their children – and not entirely trustworthy. We all bend the narratives of our families and forge our own personal mythos in the process.
Perhaps I have done that here.
Perhaps I have cherry-picked the parts that serve my own agenda – the bits where Winston is not greeted as a hero in Africa for example. My father died more than twenty years ago after all – so is my own memory entirely trustworthy or am I too indulging in fake history in the way I tell it.
There’s evidence to support my father’s rather dim view of the wartime PM’s morale boosting visit to Tripoli.
There’s footage demonstrating that Churchill was booed on several occasions during the war. It happened while he was inspecting bomb damage in 1943 and again while campaigning prior to the 1945 General Election.
In that remarkable archive material – a clearly shaken Churchill is roundly jeered by people in the crowd – including several in uniform who chant:
“We want Labour!”
Presumably these are those ‘woke warriors’ about whom one hears so much.
We don’t think of Churchill being booed do we. Any more than we think of Churchill losing two general elections as leader of the Conservative Party. Or Churchill opposing the idea of the Normandy landings. Or Churchill being viewed by his contemporaries as a self-promoting braggart.
That’s in no small part down to the massaging of his legacy – by himself and latterly – others.
He has been adopted as our national hero and we are expected to respect him and not question it – or his place in history as our greatest Prime Minister. To suggest that he was anything other than the legend is to go against our national group.
Politicians and many a popular historian would like us buy into the simplistic narratives of ‘our’ past because they prefer it that way. Britain – alone – as noble bulldog saving the world from the menace of Naziism. It makes us all feel good about our nation. We can all slap ourselves on the back for the good job we did even though hardly anyone alive today was actually there.
Goodies versus baddies. The stuff I played in the fields of Essex as an 8 year old boy.
I think it’s a bit more complex and interesting and human than that – which is why I wrote my book.
I suppose in truth I’ve written this – because with it coming out this week – I suddenly find myself missing Dad.
Late in the evening of 5th of December 2013 Nelson Mandela, the former President of South Africa, died at his home in Houghton, Johannesburg.
Shortly thereafter, condolences began to pour in from around the world. Barack Obama declared himself “one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela’s life”, Oprah Winfrey put out a statement saying that he was “everything you’ve ever heard and more”, while in London, Prime Minister David Cameron called him “a hero of our time.”
Mandela was 95 years old and his health had been ailing for years. While the news was met with some sorrow, it was hardly surprising – for most people – but not all. Because it turned out that an awful lot of people thought that he had died already – over thirty years before.
Trawling back through 2013 Twitter, it’s jaw-dropping to see just how wide-spread this belief was. Hundreds, if not thousands of users took to the platform to express their disbelief. Somehow, large numbers of people around the world had missed out on Mandela leaving prison in 1990 and becoming President of his country – twice.
A term already existed to explain the phenomenon. In 2009 Fiona Broome, an ‘author, innovator and paranormal investigator’ had coined the ‘Mandela Effect’, to define “powerful memories that don’t match our recorded history” after herself mistakenly believing that the former President had died. Broome went on to launch a website where people could share other similar fake and distorted memories of the past.
Subsequently, she has distanced herself from some of the more outlandish theories behind the Mandela Effect and especially the one that holds that the only rational explanation is that we are all living in a Matrix and that this is evidence of a glitch.
Whatever its origins, the term is useful short-hand for ‘people who misremember the past’ and you don’t have to look far to spot the Mandela Effect in action.
Take the on-going brouhaha over Walkers crisp packets. Everyone knows that back in the day the salt and vinegar ones were blue and the cheese and onion ones were green and that in recent years the manufacturer seems to have switched them around – for no good reason right? Wrong. Because they haven’t.
The colours have always been that way and despite Walkers putting a statement on their website stating:
“Our Salt & Vinegar and Cheese & Onion flavour crisps packs have always been the colours they are today. Contrary to popular belief, we’ve never swapped the colours around, not even temporarily. We’ve no plans to change these designs, as they’re signature to our brand.”
People still refuse to believe it.
The confusion may arise from ‘Squares crisps’ another Walkers brand that has green for cheese and onion and blue for salt and vinegar but that’s not stopping very many Britons feeling affronted about something that never happened.
Most of the more celebrated examples of the Mandela effect revolve around similar glitches in remembrance of popular culture.
Ask most people what colour legendary Star Wars droid C3PO was and they’ll tell you with some certainty, that he was gold from top to bottom – despite that silver leg.
Similarly, everyone remembers that Snow White’’s wicked step-mother, in the Disney classic, says:
“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”
Even though she actually says: “Magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?”
Some of these misremembered cultural tropes might be down to conflation. It is possible in the case of Mandela, for example, that people have (depressingly) confused him with the activist Steve Biko who was murdered in 1977 and whose story was made into a celebrated film in the 1980s.
The more trivial examples might be down to wider culture simply repeating the mistake until it becomes reality and sometimes, anyway, we simply prefer the alternative truth.
Take the commonly held belief that 1960s British children’s TV show, Captain Pugwash, had characters called ‘Seaman Staines’, ‘Master Bates’ and ‘Roger the Cabin boy’. Despite this being an urban myth, easily disprovable in the internet age, the notion persists – because it’s funny and because many people like believingit for the lolz.
Misremembering characters names in Pugwash, the colour of C3PO’s legs or well-known lines in famous films are not issues likely to threaten the fabric of our society – but the ‘Mandela Effect’ is equally common in our collective recall of recent history. And that is potentially a very significant problem indeed.
I stumbled on the term during an online discussion around the siege of the Iranian Embassy in 1980.
I have a very clear childhood memory of the event because I was watching a John Wayne cowboy film that was interrupted as the cameras went live to Princes Gate in Kensington and it ruined my Saturday afternoon.
Sharing this moment on twitter, I was delighted to find that others remembered it too. Several correspondents even offered the title of the film. It was Chisum (1970) and a Google search threw up blogs and articles that confirmed it was so. A couple of people even suggested that the live cut-away to the Embassy happened during a climactic scene in which Wayne and his friends took on some bandits and as I searched up the clips on Youtube it all started to come back to me.
Only I wasn’t remembering that Saturday afternoon in May 1980 as it happened, because the climax of the siege came on a Bank Holiday Monday evening and the film was not Chisum, but another John Wayne film called Rio Lobo.
Of course this was not evidence of a parallel Matrix-type universe but instead a very clear reminder that what we ‘remember’ – is not necessarily what happened and that our memories are suspect at the best of times.
My mother used to tell me the story of how she crept downstairs in June 1940 and sat on the bottom step as her parents listened to the famous broadcast in which Churchill declared that we would ‘fight on the beaches’. If you can find a 90 plus year old who recalls the war you might manage to coax a similar tale out of them – because many people of that era clearly and collectively remember it.
Only they cannot possibly do so, because Churchill delivered the original speech in the House of Commons and did not record it for another nine years.
The audio version with which we are all so familiar was made in 1949.
So, what had my mother heard? Well perhaps it was the radio announcer reading excerpts from the speech (which happened), or perhaps she had heard nothing at all and later confabulated the memory of the event into her reminiscences of war. The speech is fundamental to the Churchill legend and our nation’s experience of the ‘darkest hour’ but like so much reminiscence of that sacred set of events, it did not happen as it is widely and popularly remembered.
To misquote Eric Morecambe, ‘this is all the right history, but not necessarily in the right order.’
It’s not unusual. Much of what most of us think we know about the past is jumbled, or only half true – or wrong. Indeed, while writing my book, Fake History I was taken aback to find quite how many times the ‘things we take for granted’ were more than simply bad takes – they were myth.
Now you might rightly consider that someone who has been asked to write a book called Fake History in the first place would already have made that calculation, but as I hammered out the text, my loud exclamations of “Fuck me that’s not true either!” could probably be heard half way down the streets of Glasgow – and I live, in South East London.
Fake History persists in part because, like the Mandela Effect – people prefer the fake version. Human beings after all love ‘a good story’ even if they are a menace to the truth. Depressingly it also suits the narratives of those in power. It enables the likes of Boris Johnson to perpetuate myths of exceptionalism and wage his silly statue wars.
Of course, people are entitled to believe in the myths of Dunkirk or Culloden or even Alfred burning his cakes – but to do so is no different to believing in Seaman Staines or that curious parallel Matrix where Nelson Mandela died in 1983. One would hope we could do better in the internet age.
My Bookis out on June 10th – and I hope to be blogging more about it and the themes around it in the weeks ahead.
Hannah, my mother, who died last week after a long illness, loved fish and chips and she loved to travel. She loved France and tennis, cream teas, curries, chocolate and sherry. She loved to gossip and she loved to laugh. She loved to tell stories and she loved people – but most of all – she loved us.
Some people fizz with life – Hannah burned like a comet. She lit up everything. At any event she would home in on people and disarm them with her gregarious nature and very un-British and distinctly un-Southern manner. It didn’t matter if you were a Prime Minister – of whom she met several – or a casual acquaintance on the train, or an eight-year old in the back of her car. Everyone got the same treatment. The same jokes, stories and insights. She turned the morning school run into an impromptu classroom. My fellow passengers, captives on the good ship Hannah, were bombarded with questions and bits of information she’d heard on the radio – it was less a car journey, more a seminar.
She turned the dull monotony of life to light; Hannah lived in technicolour.
Born in a Staffordshire pit village a few years before the start of the war she was the sixth child of seven. Her father was a veteran of the so-called Great War – and in retrospect – damaged by it. Hannah aspired to a different life.
‘She was always too good for us!’ Her sisters used to say to me. But she never thought she was. It wasn’t so much airs and graces that she had, more drive, energy and ambition.
She passed the 11 plus and got a place at grammar school in the midst of war. Her father told her it would be impossible to go ‘because I can’t afford the bus fare’ so she said she’d walk.
“I’m not letting you walk either. It’s too far.”
And a tug of war ensued – which she won – she usually did.
From school she went to secretarial college and changed the way she spoke – because back then people who wanted to ‘get on’ had to sound like a plummy announcer on the BBC. And at the same time, she began to broaden her social circle.
By the early 1950s she was engaged in politics and campaigning for the local Tory candidate. Soon she was being pursued by a young Geoffrey Howe, who followed her all the way back to that tiny hill village and sat by the gate looking sorry for himself until my grandfather came out to tell him that she wasn’t interested – as Mum hid behind the curtains.
Photos show an impossibly glamorous woman – with a twinkle in her eye.
“She was like a movie star, your mother,” people used to say.
Eventually she moved to London and worked as a secretary for a Tory MP. On New Year’s Eve 1961, she met my father at a party. Mum loved parties – and was always – and I mean always – the last to leave
My parents were lucky to find each other. They fell in love and married. Three years later my sister was born and I came a few years after that.
And for most of my life I took what followed for granted. I thought it was normal for people to tell you they loved you 15 plus times a day. I assumed everyone’s parents fought their corner. I guessed everyone had broadly open minded, tolerant people in their lives who didn’t really care what you did as long as you were happy. And as I got older, I thought everyone sat around the dining table and debated politics and life and the meaning of things and laughed and told stories and invited other people to come and break bread and drink wine and join in.
They were not perfect – far from it. They argued like any couple and could be irrational like any human beings. Mum had a propensity to worry and boy could she hold a grudge. Although in truth those didn’t last much longer than the next social event, where she would meet the object of her irritation and soon they would all be laughing again.
She also suffered from perpetual imposter syndrome. She affected to be a sort of Home Counties Tory housewife, but it never really worked. At heart, she was always Hannah from Staffordshire. And thank God for that.
“I’m turning into that bloody Bucket woman,” she would say to me sometimes when awareness kicked in and start to laugh uproariously.
Such idiosnycracies made us love her more. And anyway, all of Hannah’s flaws were cancelled out by her inherent decency. She looked for the good in the world.
Later in life she ran a charity for refugees – and developed a deep regard for the people she helped and the stories they told. They loved her back – and their gratitude was palpable in the emails and piles of thank you notes she received. Her staunch and vocal defence of the rights of migrants and refugees was frequently at odds with the broadly Conservative people about her. Some old friendships didn’t survive the cut. She hated bullies and was never afraid to speak out when she thought it needed being said.
At a Conservative party function, in the early 2000s where Ann Widdecombe was speaking, my mother interrupted the then Tory MPs populist tirade against refugees and reminded her that she was talking about people.
“Are you a Communist?” Widdecombe fired back when she had finished. And my mother put her right on that as well.
Later life brought its trials. The loss of my father was raw and the 20 years of widowhood that followed were peppered with despair. But it didn’t stop her putting on the parties and when my children came along, she subjected them to the same torrent of jokes and stories and questions that my sister and I had had 30 plus years previously.
“I’m no good with babies,” she would say, but she was very good with children – because she didn’t treat them like idiots.
And then one day – about eight years ago – as I stood in the kitchen of our family home, wiping dishes and watching her through the window as my daughter brought her flowers – the curtain on her life’s story, slowly began to fall.
“Isn’t that a lovely scene!” My cousin declared, as she handed me a plate, “they both look almost child-like.” And I realised that something was wrong.
As Alzheimer’s took her from us, it was to be death by a million cuts. Well-meaning people would sometimes say to me:
“The old Hannah has gone” but this was still my mother. That glint in her eyes remained – long after words had faded away.
I have been so very lucky to have had this remarkable individual in my life – and luckier still to have had her as my mother, my staunchest ally, my stoutest defender, my harshest critic and my greatest inspiration.
“You’ll get there in the end,” she would say and strangely, even as she retreated from us – that began to happen. She never knew of all the things I wrote about her – or witnessed her beloved grandchildren grow into the remarkable young people they are.
But why dwell on what might have been? Hannah may have finally left the party – but how lucky we were that she came.
As Leader of the House of Commons, it has fallen to oneself to smooth our return to Mother Parliament and one is resolved to ensure that as we do so, things are kept as straightforward as possible.
The last three months have been intolerable and tedious for us all. Trapped in our manor houses, unable to show off our knowledge of obscure historical precedents or debate even the most inconsequential of bills, many of us have been obliged to do little more than field tiresome correspondence from ‘constituents’ and affect an interest in their concerns.
For one’s own part, being cooped up in a pokey 18 bedroom country pile has very much tested the mettle. At times the tapestries in the East Wing felt as if they were closing in and it was almost impossible to ostentatiously catch up on the life of Livius Andronicus, as one’s concentration was frequently distracted by the sound of one’s children laughing merrily in distant out-buildings.
As with so many other ordinary people across the country, this ghastly pestilence has brought considerable personal tragedy to the Rees-Mogg household. For almost three weeks Cook was unable to get goose fat and we were obliged to furlough the under valet as one simply didn’t need the usual quantity of starched collars. Worse still, in March two shipments of Chateaux Margaux ’86 were delayed and on one desperate Sunday afternoon, we came perilously close to running out of sherry.
But we are through it now and with life returning to normal it is time for Westminster to lead the way forward before the hoi polloi start getting ideas.
Of course one does not wish, in so doing, to put the lives of one’s honourable friends at risk and so it is imperative that everyone is up to speed on the new guidelines.
Contrary to what you may think, one has long been an enormous fan of social distancing as one has been practising it for most of one’s life. The only difference is that these new measures apply to us all, regardless of our standing in the social hierarchy. Yes, even you Mr Blackford!
Officially we are being advised to remain (ghastly word) “two metres” apart but frankly one does not wish to sully the oldest and greatest parliament in the world with Napoleonic metrification. So MPs are politely requested to maintain a distance of six feet, five and three quarters of an inch from each other at all times.
Debates will continue as normal, but Labour and other opposition MPs fearful for their health and the risk of tipping us all into collective lassitude, are welcome to stay away.
The new system for voting is so simple that even members of the Liberal Democrats will be able to grasp it.
MPs will form an orderly queue of 60 chains from Westminster Hall, to the statue of Cromwell on the south side of Parliament Square. When everyone is assembled I shall blow my whistle thrice to get your attention and then eight times more to signal that it is time to move. Thence members will form in two lines, one quarter of a furlong apart and proceed at a speed of two knots towards the tellers. It is imperative that as you do so you maintain straight backs and a distance of 78 and a quarter inches from each other. If one has socialist inclinations – or a beard – I would request that you increase that measure to eight yards.
I have arranged for members of the household cavalry to position themselves two chains apart and beat a solemn marching pace on their drums as we proceed to our constitutional duty.
Having voted, MPs are asked to hop on their left leg to the nearest washroom wherein to cleanse their hands while singing all six verses of ‘God Save the Queen’ including the one about decapitating the Scots.
I have been repeatedly asked if the hopping and singing is really necessary, to which the answer is “Yes”.
One is very much looking forward to seeing you all during the new parliamentary term. If you have any questions do please pop them in one’s pigeon hole and I shall endeavour to deign to read them, but only if they have been correctly punctuated and written on vellum.
The exclusive that really is not very interesting.
Back in 2011 my mate Paul and I were chatting on the phone and he said: “You know you really ought to go on twitter. You’d love it because it’s right up your street. All that bollocks you make up and ranting you do – it’s the perfect place – twitter.”
It was true that for about a decade – indeed ever since I’d gone online I’d been making up stuff and posting it on the internet. And it was mostly bollocks, a minor diversion from my serious writing and full-time job. My background was in theatre and a bit of TV and I was churning out yet another play in 2011 that was never to see much of the light of day.
I’d always enjoyed a bit of pranking on the side and did it to fill in the time in between everything else. Among other sins, I’d created a Henry Rootish American student who wrote emails to the BNP trying to open a French bank account and I’d become a popular figure on an American poetry website, posting earnest doggerel under a fictitious name. I found it entertaining and useful to make this stuff up and I liked Peter Cook and Joe Orton’s work in that vein and this seemed to be in that tradition.
So I followed Paul’s advice and opened a twitter account – in the name of a famous person. And after a bit I realised that people really thought I was this famous person – which freaked me out – but being an irresponsible individual I decided to up the ante. I ‘killed off’ the account in a live tweeted dalek attack on a croquet lawn and turned it into Jacob Rees-Mogg. Back then Mogg was not hugely well known and this played right into my hands. My job involved a lot of moving about and a lot of time on buses and trains and it became a joy to ‘create’ this character. Jacob himself was initially unamused and threatened to do something (but never did).
Mogg was perfect satirical material in 2011. Like Cameron he was an Old Etonian, but unlike Cameron he wasn’t hiding it. I could ridicule this return of the old guard by using its own weapons against it.
I was also writing bits of TV satire and it became a bit of a calling card.
But then things began to get out of control. After writing a blog on Rees-Mogg’s behalf, arguing that there should be tax relief on Mansions I was gobsmacked to see the real Mogg turn up on Newsnight discussing that very subject. Private Eye later reported that this was because someone had read my piece, which literally contained the phrase ‘A Modest Proposal’ and taken it to be the real McCoy.
After tweeting the word ‘floccinauccinihilipilification’ I was taken aback when the real Mogg, some weeks later, deployed that very word in the House of Commons. It was apparent – bizarrely – that the target of my mockery was not only reading my tweets but apparently plagiarising my satire for his own ends.
One day I got contacted by the BBC Broadcasting House programme asking me if I would be prepared to meet the real Rees-Mogg on air. I was very wary of doing that, preferring my anonymity and also aware that if I did it I may subsequently struggle to take the piss. We had also met briefly, several times, a few years previously and I was worried that he might recognise me. Anyway after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing and quite a bit of flattery I agreed – on one condition – that I do it under a pseudonym.
“Well what would you like to be called?” The nice man at the BBC asked.
So I said ‘Otto’ – and then ‘English’.
My real name is Andrew Scott and I’d like to say it was a clever and well thought out juxtaposition playing on the idiosyncrasies of my own name – but that would be a lie – it was spontaneous. And it stuck.
I opened a twitter account in that name and started to tweet as myself and express my own opinions and even do a bit of blogging. After a bit, I had a few thousand followers, after a bit more I found people offering me stuff and asking me to write articles. If I had planned any of it or given it the amount of thought I gave the many unproduced plays, pitches and film scripts I wrote in my twenties and thirties I suspect none of it would have happened this way.
Since 2016 and Brexit I have plugged away and written (far too many) tweets and articles and as my profile has grown inevitably some people have begun to ask who ‘Otto English’ is. For the most part I have enjoyed my anonymity and comforted myself that many of my heroes from Eric Morecambe, to George Orwell and David Bowie used pseudonyms to write or perform. (And I am not comparing myself to any of those people – you should hear me sing.)
In further mitigation – in the meantime another problem has arisen – namely ‘the other Andrew Scott’. That brilliant actor has taken all the SEOs and as there is some crossover between the two of us – in that I still occasionally dabble in theatre and the arts – it has seemed sensible to stick with Otto rather than get confused with Moriarty.
But you can’t go about the place calling other people out when you yourself are not being transparent. More and more I’ve felt hypocritical attacking the likes of Tommy Robinson for hiding behind pseudonyms when I myself am using one. In recent months it has also led to some people trying to use it as a stick against me – despite my real name being prominently displayed at the bottom of my Politico articles.
So in short my name is Andrew Scott, hello. I live in London. I am a fairly boring person who hasn’t had to struggle much in life. I’ve worked in TV and theatre and education – and I now (finally) make a precarious living by writing things – so please send me work and failing that fine wine. You can call me Andrew, Otto, or even ‘wanker’ if you prefer.
Oh – and thank you Paul – you were right and remind me to buy you a pint sometime.
Before I could do anything, I had, like common people everywhere – to be born. In my case it was on the 9th of October 1966. On that cold morning, as my mother cradled me in her arms, nobody could have predicted that I would grow up to become one of the top five Prime Ministers of the 21st century.
After dismissing the names Quinton, Euripedes and Aubyn – my parents decided to call me Dave.
My early childhood was typical of most boys in the early 1970s. I played with Action Men, I watched Starsky and Hutch on the television – and at the weekends we’d chase foxes across the fields on horseback whilst my father shouted ‘Tally Ho!”
At the age of 13 I was sent away to Eton. Much nonsense is written about that establishment but it’s a perfectly ordinary place really. Certainly no different from any of the other major public schools founded in the 1440s by King Henry VI with fees in excess of £40,000 pa. Indeed in many ways it was far more meritocratic than the secondary moderns where my parents’ staff sent their children. Everyone was obliged to wear the same tailored uniform and starched collars and we all had to carry our own top hats; we played soccer football like other ordinary boys and there was even a black child there. Although none of us ever bothered to learn his name.
We were all sports crazy back then and it was on the playing fields of Eton that my lifelong love of the Arsenals was formed. I have followed that team’s progress ever since.
It was not always a smooth ride. In the months prior to my O’levels I was caught smoking cannabis while listening to the musical stylings of The Shadows on my Sony walkman – behind the tuck shop. After a bit of fuss and an apology to the beak I was gated. My other chums were not so lucky and one or two were even expelled. Although I deeply regret events – it did at least teach me a valuable lesson. Namely that no matter what you do wrong, if you keep your head down, give an insincere apology and stay quiet long enough – people might forget all about the mess you have made.
From Eton I went to Oxford and it was here that I became a member of the Bullingdon Club. My membership of that notorious dining society has been much criticised. In my defence being part of a gang of very rich boys, who smashed up places, laughed at poor people and then threw money at the carnage – before walking off into the sunset – was wonderful training for my later political career.
In between my studies I still had time to watch my team ‘The Aston Villas’ playing soccer and sometimes I found myself smoking marijuana once more. While I do not condone the use of drugs I do not entirely regret it – not least because it has managed to fill out some of the 750 pages of this book. Marijuana intensifies experience and I confess that when ‘high’ I could discover things in the lyrics of ‘The Bananarama’ or ‘Chicago’ that most ordinary people might miss.
Having left ‘college’, the time had come to find gainful employment. I was determined to make my own way in the world and so my father rang up some old school chums and asked them to give me a job. As luck would have it, I was immediately offered a position at Conservative Party HQ. Within five years I had become special adviser to Chancellor Mr Norman Lamont and was his key aide when Black Wednesday forced us out of the ERM. Mr Lamont is now considered to be one of the worst post-war Chancellors and a man who single-handedly destroyed the economy – but that is quite unfair. It was not all his own work by any means and it’s important to stress that I played a significant part in that legacy.
Soon I was part of the famed Notting Hill Sect (surely set?). In between the endless rounds of cocktails, lunches at Kensington Place and society balls I still had time to get in touch with my ‘common side’. Sometimes I would go to the soccer stadium to watch my team The West Hammers play the beautiful game. Once when we were very squiffy on sherry, we ordered a take-away pizza! And on a hair-raising occasion I rode on the Underground Tube between Lancaster Gate and Queensway – just like other ordinary people.
Around this time I was also to meet Samantha, who was later to become my wife. These were hedonistic times, but having bonded over our mutual love of Elton John’s greatest hits and the film ‘Sliding Doors’ we decided to settle down and buy some more stocks and shares.
But I felt frustrated and worried about my country and its place in the world. Britain – so long in the grip of happiness, economic prosperity and progress needed someone to really fuck things up. My destiny was calling and I decided that it was time to become a Conservative MP.
In the late afternoon of the 28th September 1918, in the final weeks of WW1, Private Henry Tandey of the Yorkshire Regiment had an encounter which might otherwise have changed the course of human history.
This was the end-game of four years of poisonous, vicious warfare that had slaughtered millions, upended the lives of many more and laid waste to thousands of square miles of Europe. In August, the Allies had begun the 100 Days Offensive – a massive assault that aimed to punch a hole through German defences and end the stalemate. By the 27th of September Tandey’s unit had reached the Hindenberg line and seized the strategically important village of Marcoing that straddled the Canal du Nord.
But the following morning as the Yorkshire Regiment were securing their positions, the Prussian Guard launched a counter attack.
Soon, Tandey found himself in the midst of a major engagement that was to define his life. During a day of close quarters combat and despite being seriously wounded in the head, he personally led an attack on an enemy machine gun post, secured one of the vital bridges across the canal and commanded a bayonet charge that forced the enemy back – turning the course of the battle.
His gallantry under fire was to win him an immediate Victoria Cross, but it was a separate event late in the afternoon, that secured Henry Tandey’s place in posterity; for as he rounded a corner on the outskirts of Marcoing, he came face to face with a wounded and disorientated Austrian born corporal by the name of Adolf Hitler.
Now of course in October 1918 nobody had yet heard of Adolf Hitler. That afternoon, he was just another man, in battlefield grey, fleeing across the Canal du Nord in fear for his life. But in that moment, all of that was to follow – spun on the decision of a 27 year old boiler engineer, from Leamington Spa.
Tandey raised his rifle, took aim – and paused. He had killed a lot of men that day and maybe all the death he had witnessed and meted out stopped him pulling the trigger once more.
Whatever his motive, Tandey lowered his gun and gestured to the corporal to flee.
Hitler mouthed ‘thank you’ and ran.
“That man came so near to killing me that I thought I should never see Germany again,” the indebted veteran was to recall in September 1938, as he pointed Tandey out to Neville Chamberlain in a painting that hung in his study in the Berghof in the Bavarian Alps – “providence saved me.”
The art-work was a copy of a piece by Italian artist Fortunino Matania depicting British soldiers at the Menin crossroads in 1914. In the bottom right hand corner Tandey can be seen carrying a wounded comrade on his back. The original still hangs in the Green Howard’s museum in Richmond, North Yorkshire and the tale of how the print came to be on the wall of Hitler’s Bavarian retreat is serendipitous.
At some point in the 1930s a postcard of it was sent to a member of Hitler’s Staff, Dr Otto Schwend, by a British soldier he had befriended at the end of the war. Schwend had shown it to his leader who immediately recognised Tandey as the man who had chosen not to kill him in 1918.
So a copy was commissioned and hung in pride of place as a reminder that Hitler’s life had once been spared – by the most highly decorated soldier in the British army no less.
“When you return home, please convey my thanks to Mr Tandey!” Hitler begged of the British Prime Minister. And Chamberlain was as good as his word. Having flapped the Munich agreement in front of the cameras and declared “Peace in Our Time” the British Prime Minister phoned Tandey to pass on the thanks of the most hated man in the world for sparing his life in the late summer of 1918. Unfortunately Tandey was out – and his nephew took the call.
It’s a great story. It has inspired books, newspaper articles and a whole industry of alternative history. Michael Morpurgo’s novel ‘An Eagle in the Snow’ is based on the event. The History Channel made a documentary about it. There are plays, articles, biopics and a thousand ‘what if’ threads on the internet dedicated to it.
There’s just one problem. It never happened.
The two men never met.
For while Tandey was fighting at Marcoing, Hitler most definitely was not; nor was he anywhere near. German state archives reveal that on the 27th of September 1918 his unit, the 16th Bavarian Reserve regiment, was 50 miles north – and Hitler himself was on leave.
Hitler had seen the postcard, had claimed to recognise Tandey, had commissioned the painting – but the encounter itself was entirely fabricated. And the person who made up the story was most probably Hitler himself.
So why did he do that?
In the spring of 1943, the U.S. Office of Strategic Studies, fore-runner of the CIA, commissioned psychoanalyst Walter Langer, to create a ‘psychological profile’ of the German leader. With a team of researchers, over a period of eight months, Langer threw himself into the task. He studied everything Hitler had written along with every available interview the Nazi leader had ever given. In the resulting ground-breaking summary, Langer concluded that from 1924 onwards: “It became clearer that he (Hitler) was thinking of himself as the Messiah and that it was he who was destined to lead Germany to glory.”
The Nazi leader believed he had been sent to the German people to deliver them from the humiliation of Versailles and lead them on to their destiny. Nazism was a cult and cults need doctrine, prophesy and creed. The events in Marcoing created a perfect narrative. Hitler bewildered, broken and beaten, like Germany itself – had faced down the greatest warrior in the British army and been delivered from the battlefield to save his people and lead them to greatness.
The painting was a ‘momento vivere’ and Henry Tandey VC was the angel of deliverance.
Truth played second fiddle to the propaganda – and quite quickly, the same story came to suit the British too.
Approached by the Coventry Herald in 1939, Tandey was at first wary and dismissive of the story – quoted as saying: “According to them, I’ve met Hitler. Maybe they’re right, but I can’t remember him.” A year later however and having been bombed out of his own home, Tandey had miraculously come to recall the events of September 1918 saying:
“When I saw all the people and women and children he had killed and wounded I was sorry to God I let him go.”
Tandey’s earlier caution had gone – and with good reason. The bombing of Coventry in November 1940 had claimed 600 lives and destroyed thousands of homes. It didn’t matter that Tandey was now recalling something that had never happened. The story arc of an honest British Tommy showing mercy to the German dictator, only to be repaid by having his home town reduced to rubble – neatly demonstrated the contrast between the two sides. This ‘happy breed’ of straightforward British folk – played by the rules, believed in fair-play – showed honour in the field of battle and spared the lives of wounded men. The German ‘volk’ had returned the favour, by murdering innocent civilians in their homes.
By embracing Hitler’s lie, Henry Tandey unwittingly turned Nazi propaganda into a parallel reality and one that would unfortunately come to eclipse his own heroic deeds. It didn’t matter that the story had been concocted by one of the most diabolical individuals of the 20th century, to serve his agenda. It had value of its own. Indeed, it resonated so strongly that it persists to this day.
Take a 2014 episode of BBC local magazine show Inside Out broadcast in the Midlands. An item on the life of Tandey focusing solely on his fictitious ‘encounter’ includes a historian, David Johnson, roundly debunking the myth. But despite that the piece concludes with the journalist saying:
“True or not it’s a fantastic story and one that people are happy to continue debating.”
Really? Debate something that didn’t happen.
An encounter that never happened and a phone call that was never made have become an alternative truth.
Tandey’s fate might seem almost trivial in the wider context of the slaughter of the 20th century – but it neatly illustrates a wider crisis facing us in the 21st – and one that becomes ever more prevalent in the digital and mass information era.
The advent of the web opened up the potential for a brave new meritocratic age of information. For the first time in history, most people have a device in their pockets capable of accessing resources that could match those of the world’s great libraries. This still has the potential to be the most democratising moment in the modern age. Here is a chance for anyone with a smart-phone to fact-check, enquire, improve and to make the world a more transparent place.
And yet, for the most part, people have instead chosen to use this incredible tool to share pictures of cats or their private parts. Why waste half a day reading up on the life of a long dead Private in the Yorkshire regiment when you can like a video of a man falling over? Why bother to check how much nations pay to the European Union when you can swipe left or right on somebody’s face?
Instead of embracing truth many continue to fall back on the comforts of prejudice and fake news. This has left societies prey to the curse of populist politics and the mendacious interest groups that increasingly run merry. For whether it be ‘taking back control’ or ‘making America Great again’ or the perpetuation of the dangerous lie that individuals who share geographical spits of land have a shared past, shared values or a common destiny.
If we are going to progress towards a better future and avoid a repeat of the horrors of the two terrible wars we must first be liberated from the false narratives of our past – and present.
In the last months I’ve been writing a series of articles for Byline Times about the Brexit Party. Last week I filed two pieces about the selection process for potential MPs and questions around the fee that has to be paid for the online application. Since then a number of registered supporters and activists have approached me with concerns. This email from a woman I have called Anna sums up how many are feeling and I reproduce it here with her permission in full (although I have made two small changes to protect her identity). If this email is indicative of wider feeling among Brexit Party activists who have been fobbed off by Farage, Tice and their cronies – the party has a major problem.
I am another qualified and experienced potential candidate who was summarily rejected by Tice’s mass email. I’m a professional, intelligent woman with a strong connection to a key Brexit Party target constituency, but I didn’t get an interview.
I became concerned a couple of weeks ago when I heard that interviews were due to conclude so I started to chase up my application – all my emails were acknowledged by the general enquiries team who told me they had passed them on to the Candidate team who then completely ignored me.
When I found your bylinetimes pieces (5th and 10th July), they made a lot of sense so I highlighted them to a Brexit Party Contact and a mate of Nigel I’d met on the campaign trail. Neither were interested (but Nigel’s crony got an interview…). I then sent a further email to the Candidate selection team, requesting specific reasons why I had not been interviewed given the strength of my case – this time I didn’t even get an acknowledgement.
All the elements of a contract seem to be present in the Brexit Party open offer to candidates (offer, acceptance and £100 consideration) so we should get what we paid for or they risk breaching contract. However, I’ve just checked my Statutory Credit Report and no checks have been made, I sincerely doubt whether my application received more than a cursory glance.
Are you aware that all applicants were strongly advised to help campaign in Peterborough, the inducement being that it would greatly help our chances of being selected? Yet no record was ever taken other than the general sign-in. Everyone I met in Peterborough was an applicant, keen to improve their chances and all at our own expense.
Farage emailed us all on the 8th July with the same fake promise if we went to Brecon for the by-election, despite selection having more or less concluded.
When the 650 are revealed, I expect they will consist of rich, mostly male businessmen, minor celebrities and lots of ex-UKIP cronies of Nigel – with the odd working class stereotype thrown in. If 50% aren’t female (as I expect) it won’t be due to a lack of suitable applicants… These people will be allocated constituencies where they have tenuous connections and they will expect to be adored. I doubt my fellow Northerners will be duped for too long. So much for changing politics for good!
I’m still a dedicated Leaver but I won’t be helping the Brexit Party again. I hope that fellow rejectees who believe they’ve been misled will use all that energy, passion and intellect to expose the elitism and cronyism at the heart of Nigel’s organisation.
I do hope you won’t mind me remaining anonymous for the moment and I sincerely thank you for your expose. Could you please acknowledge receipt and do keep up the good work!
I’m a dead man walking. Except I am not actually walking. I am in a van. So I am a dead man being driven. But it’s all the same thing at the end of the day.
They take me into the prison and I am led to an interview room. There’s a woman and a man and you can tell immediately that neither of them is patriots. I ask them if they know the words to God Save the Queen but they just ignore me and start asking a load of questions. I ain’t playing their game. I give my name, age and number. I ain’t got no actual number so I give them my shoe size. I’ve read the Genevieve Contention and I know my rights.
“I am seeking Aslan in the first country I land in.” I shout and they look at me like the Muppets they are.
“The Lion from the C.S Lewis books?” The woman pipes up after she’s stopped laughing. She won’t be laughing when the fucking Muslams has taken over and forced her to wear full hijab. And anyway what’s she doing here? It’s late and here she is in a Prison surrounded by men. That’s not right. She should be home cooking her husband’s tea and looking after her kids.
“I demand to be taken to the United States under the protection of Donal Trump!” I say. That’s what Katie Hopkins told me to do and she has got an A level. They don’t know how to respond. Not one of them has read the British Constipation. I’ve got these twats over the barrel.
“But you are in a prison Mr Yaxley Lennon!” They say and start laughing again like a bunch of hyenas. “You are serving a prison term for breaking the law. Why would we take you to the United States.”
“Because I’m a journalism!” I shout over their noise….“you ever seen the BBC outside of the courts? I was journalising and I been stitched up by the establishment for exposing the paediatrics. If I was an Aslan seeker from Africa you’d be doing what I demand. And then give me a council home and a holiday in Spain and 5 g.”
“But Mr Yaxley Lennon!” That woman starts again – and I’m not having that. I’m not letting her finish. With that attitude she’ll be living under Sharia law.
“Zip it woman!” I say “You call me a racist. Tell me one thing I ever said that was racist! One thing. Go on. One thing.”
She stares at me blankly.
“I didn’t call you a racist.” She says. Typical. They’ve never got an answer for that one.
I am led to my cell. Banged up for journalisation is bad enough – but the state of where I am expected to sleep. The fellas in Colditz got better than this.
“What’s this?” I demand – pointing at the TV.
“It’s a TV.” The clown who has brought me up says.
“I can see that chum.” I says “but it’s not a flat screen is it. It’s not even HD ready. Take it away.”
That fucking showed ‘em.
I sleep badly. Only two pillows and neither of them is goose down.
In the morning I’m brought a bowl of cereal, some hot coffee and bacon in a bun. I get what they are doing – I got their number. I demand to see the Governor.
That same woman from last night turns up.
“I said I wanted to see the Guvnor.” I say.
“I am the Guvnor.” She shoots back.
So I pick up the bacon and wave it in her face.
“What’s this?” I ask.
“A piece of bacon?” She asks innocently.
“Yeah and what is its year in provence?” I ask – “how can you tell me that it ain’t halal?” She’s not smiling any more. That’s got her. “I know what you is doing!” I shout. “Trying to convert me on the quiet. Well it ain’t working. Take it away. Take it all away. And bring me some proper fucking pillows.”
They leave and I am alone in my cell without a pillow. Tomorrow I will write to President Donal Trump and ask him for Aslan. Then they’ll know who’s the boss round here. Then they’ll see.