The divided land of 'woke' and Tory | Stewart Lee

The rightwing press is practised at poisoning our politics with confected outrage

Writing last weekend on the scandal surrounding the Proms’ absence of patriotic songs, the former minister of fun David Mellors opined, “the person I feel most sorry for is Edward Elgar”, the composer of Land of Hope and Glory. Not black Britons offended by Rule, Britannia!’s references to slaves; not black Britons annoyed by people taking offence on their behalf; and not the blameless female Finnish conductor suffering death threats for, in Mellors’s words, “uttering a load of woke nonsense about Black Lives Matter”. No. Who’s the most oppressed minority in the world today? Dead, white, male Victorian composers! And Laurence Fox!!

I felt sorry for Elgar too. In 1998, I worked with Keith Harris, the ventriloquist famous for Orville the Duck. But Harris told me he now hated “that bloody bird”, regarding it as an albatross even though it was a duck. By 1918, according to unsubstantiated “diary” extracts published in the Daily Mail in 2018, Elgar hated Land of Hope and Glory too, writing, “I went to the Coliseum and they played Land of Hope and Glory not once, but twice; the whole audience joined in. I could not. I regret very profoundly how this song has become an anthem to war… I am awfully tired of it.” Elgar would have been delighted to see his piece abandoned, just as Harris would have liked to see his puppet duck dismembered by a puppet fox, perhaps Basil Brush, violent when drunk. I hope Elgar and Harris, haunted by their Frankingsteins, can comfort each other in heaven somehow.

I read of Mellors’s misguided sympathies in last weekend’s Mail on Sunday, in the Coach and Horses in Pinvin, Worcestershire. I had walked the Malvern hills alone on my final Covid summer expedition, Elgar undulating on my iPod, saturating the landscape he loved. I tried to understand the Great Proms Patriotism Scam, a turbo-charged Brexit era version of the Great Winterval Hoax of 1997-1999, when the rightwing press falsely claimed Birmingham city council would chemically castrate any white people who wished anyone a Merry Christmas. The Winterval Hoax later featured in the Leveson inquiry into newspaper ethics, an Elastoplast on a severed artery. The Tory press poisons our discourse as deliberately as Russia poisons politicians. Both escape justice.

Marxist meddling aside, the words of Land of Hope and Glory and Rule, Britannia! weren’t going to be heard at the Proms this year because there could be no audience there to bray them. But a few sacrificial singers will now spit Covid particles into each other’s eyes to placate the stick-poked mob. If they die, so be it. Greater love hath no man. It’s too late anyway. The right swiftly weaponised the non-troversy as part of their fabricated and eminently winnable culture war. The PC BBC is a useful straw-person of indeterminate gender.

Sir Robin Gibb became Theresa May’s director of communications shortly after his death saw him leave the Bee Gees. On Saturday, Gibb quickly announced his proposed BG News channel, a “fact-based” alternative to the “woke, wet BBC”. Gibb, a wing-shod dancing man, is rumoured to be recruiting Julia Hartley-Brewer, the Twitter-thread silkworm, and Andrew Neil’s hair, as a distinct entity from Andrew Neil himself. The Great Proms Patriotism Scam conveniently accelerates Gibbs’s plans.

The new BBC boss, Tim Davie, is best known for deputy chairing Hammersmith and Fulham Conservatives and failing to scrap BBC 6 Music 10 years ago. Early in the week, he announced that on Thursday he would be announcing the BBC was to “deliver outstanding and unique value to all audiences”. Then, the Daily Telegraph, a part-work of Conservative press releases given away free with Buxton water at selected branches of WH Smith, attempted to kickstart a culture skirmish, saying “senior sources at the BBC” claimed Davie would be clamping down on “leftwing” comedies: Mock the Weak, Sarcastic Voice Time, Rising Inflection Hour, Middle Class Revolt and Have I Got News for You? The last mentioned had naively paved Boris Johnson’s path to power at the turn of the century, and in December 2019, it made a joke linking the Labour party with Holocaust denial, doing the Brexit-Covid government’s work for it. Damn those lefty comedians!

If the Great Leftwing Comedy Scam causes Davie to further appease the Conservative masters his news teams already kowtow to, he’ll be like Neville Chamberlain, getting out of a plane and announcing “I have in my hand the P45 of Mock the Weak’s Marxist firebrand Hugh Dennis.” But Netflix already pays the world’s top anti-woke standups millions of dollars more than BBC rules would allow. We will have to train new talent to identify as inanimate objects and call their wives fucking bitches. In the end, when Davie’s speech emerged on Thursday, the idea that he would axe “leftwing comedy”, predicted by the Telegraph and Tory commentators generally, was notably absent. “I’ve no idea where that came from,” he said, surprisedly. But the Conservative propaganda machine created a three-day window to muddy water and fan flame.

Driving home through moonlit fir trees, suddenly too drunk to steer, I pulled over in the hamlet of Powick. It was at the asylum there, in 1879, that Elgar taught inmates blackface minstrel music. Seventy-three years later they were dosed with LSD, and in 1968 , TV footage of their suffering changed health policy. The building lay on a lichway, a route that bore the dead to burial. Traumatic imprints render Powick’s veil. Time flows uphill.

I climbed out into the dark to urinate. Penda, one of the last pagan Saxon kings, coalesced in my steam and embraced me, pungently. The sound of spattering droplets became the voice of Elgar. “AC Benson, the manic-depressive horror writer, penned the words to Land of Hope and Glory,” Elgar confessed in liquid sonics. “I wanted it to go, ‘We hate Nottingham Forest. We hate Arsenal, too. We hate Manchester United, but Tottenham we love you’, but Sir Henry Wood overruled me.” “We are not pure,” King Penda whispered in my ear, “we are mud and flame. We always were, and always will be.”


Stewart Lee

The GuardianTramp

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