Just Above Sunset
November 6, 2005 - The Blind and the Drunk

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Our Man in London is Mike McCahill. Note: Mike McCahill was born in Warwickshire, England in 1978. He currently works as a film critic for The Scotsman, The Sunday Telegraph and the BBC, while trying to string together novels, screenplays and travel guides for places he's never actually been to. Mike divides his time between the Midlands and London, where professional duty requires he spend at least the first part of every week sitting in small dark rooms. With a couple of exceptions, he is open to offers.

Resignations in the U.S., resignations in the U.K.. In fifty or so years' time, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be flicking through the latest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, and will doubtless stumble upon the following entry:


Blunkett: (verb) to blunder into and out of positions of high office; (noun) someone who blunders into and out of positions of high office. As in: "I've blunketted that up," "I've made a complete blunkett of that", or: "That Scooter Libby - he's a total blunkett".


The case of David Blunkett, who was forced once more to resign this week from the Blair administration after a second media scandal, would almost be sad if it wasn't so farcical. Blunkett was a unique presence in British politics, most obviously for his being blind, and thus accompanied into debates in the House of Commons by his guide dog Sadie.


The son of a father killed in a workplace accident, Blunkett was about as "old Labour" as New Labour got; indeed, his constituency, Sheffield Brightside, lies at the heart of what used to be (and, to some extent, still is) Labour's industrial heartland in the North of England. Here, so the spin would have us believe, was that rarest of beasts: a contemporary politician who could also convincingly pass for a man of integrity.


The problem lay, as it always seems to do with modern politicians, in precisely that word "pass". For all his shows of political integrity, Blunkett kept, well, blunketting around. Not once, but twice, the M.P. failed to declare extra-curricular business activities. The first time, after a leave of absence to let the stench of scandal subside, Blunkett was readmitted to Blair's cabinet in the lesser role of Minister for Pensions. The second incident, news of which broke this week, was, it now seems, the final straw.


There has been other scandal, much of it personal. The dying ashes of Blunkett's previous "disgrace" - which involved a paternity suit and the pushing-through of a visa for his Filipino nanny - were stoked again in a recent TV movie, A Very Social Secretary, which replayed key events in the Blunkett story as all-out farce. Worse still, the film was selected as the opening night's viewing for a new digital channel. Blunkett's failings had become the business of prime-time entertainment, fun for all the family, and for everyone but the M.P. himself.


The truly intriguing thing about Blunkett's resignation this week is where it leaves Tony Blair's government. Blunkett has long been regarded as one of Blair's most trusted political allies - which explains why he was recalled the first time around, and suggests he must really have had to go this time - and one of the last signifiers of old Labour values. New rumours emerge of rifts and splits on the Labour backbenches, and the latest piece of anti-terror legislation passed this week did so with by a margin of only one vote. Considering Labour's majority in the House is 66, that's a substantial rebellion.


Speaking of television movies, one of the televisual highpoints of the week on this side of the Atlantic - and, considering this week took in the final episode of Six Feet Under and the first of Rome, standards were pretty high - was a TV movie on one of the pressing subjects of our age: alcohol.


Legless (the title British slang for "drunk") was a multi-stranded drama that unfolded over one Friday night in an unnamed city somewhere in the UK. Underage drinkers - barely capable of handling one pint, let alone five - tried out their fake ID cards on apathetic bouncers who waved them in; a group of twenty-something women did their best to persuade another in their group to get another round of drinks for herself; an ambulance woman attempted to come to terms with a violent, alcohol-related attack on her colleague; and the city's chief of police went out for a swift pint with a councillor keen to change the local licensing laws.


It was, to say the least, timely and compelling viewing. Last week, the Government announced its (compromised) plans to regulate smoking in public places. This week, news broke of a scheme to prevent drinking on trains and buses. These last measures have been brought in as awareness grows of the UK's culture of "binge drinking", which sees young men and women going out on the weekend with the specific objective of getting not just merely merry or tipsy and having a good time, but absolutely, blindingly, fall-over-in-the-street-and-hurt-somebody-else-if-not-yourself drunk.


True, Britain has always had its pubs, just as much of Europe has had its café culture. But even in just the five years since I was a regular out on the town, the entire atmosphere of many British city centres have changed on a Friday and Saturday night - and not entirely for the better. The frustration many people feel with their office jobs - the deadening grind of corporate life - has resulted in a situation where workers feel an obligation to go out and drink excessively on their nights off, if only to feel more than they would, say, standing over the photocopier.


The breweries and pubs haven't helped matters, either. Extraordinarily potent alcopops - lurid cocktails of alcohol and sugar, targeted at the young - are offered for sale at knockdown rates. "Happy hour" - that point in the evening where drinks are traditionally sold at half-price - now goes on for two or three hours. Behind it all, as always seems to be the case these days, is the desire to bring in even more money. In certain establishments, it's cheaper to buy alcohol than it is to buy a bottle of water.


Looked at with suitably sober eyes, Legless was rather too reliant on dramatic contrivance. For a multi-stranded drama, it seemed a bit too convenient that matters should be tied up within one family, and that the family in question should have a chief of police as a father, an ambulance woman for a mother, and an underage drinker for a son. But its atmosphere of dread - the sense that, sooner or later, someone was going to get badly hurt - was never less than convincing, and the details - the splatters of vomit and trickles of urine that blight the UK's urban landscape on Saturday and Sunday mornings - were persuasive indeed. Are these, the film seemed to be asking, all our civilisation has to offer by way of a legacy?



Mike McCahill

November 4, 2005



Copyright © 2005 – Mike McCahill

Email the author at mikemccahill@fastmail.fm






Editor's Note: British spelling and punctuation retained here.




Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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