Nobbut laiking: Ross Brewster

Date: Monday 26th March 2018

LOOK, we all do it. Complain about politicians and councillors. Often it’s justified, sometimes it’s plain unfair.

One Cumbrian council revealed this week it had spent over £100,000 investigating 76 complaints, 14 against one member alone, many of them frivolous. This same Copeland Council recently heard some members asking for protection against threats, although it’s virtually impossible when councillors are usually prominent figures in their communities outside council meetings.

Whatever the nature of complaints against local councillors, it’s true that people have become more aggressive, more threatening towards those who go into public life. Author and journalist Max Hastings recently asked “how can we hope to persuade able men and women to enter political life, without receiving some personal respect?”

Last year Labour MP Jess Phillips received 600 abusive tweets in a single evening, including rape threats, after she launched a campaign against online bullying. This is not “part of the job” as some suggest.

We are told that people who spit venom on the internet don’t pose a threat in real life, yet threats against people in public life are so common they could be from sad keyboard warriors or disturbed individuals who may just decide to carry out their threats. Remember how MP Jo Cox was shot and stabbed to death in the street while walking in her Yorkshire constituency.

The internet is awash with violence for those who seek it out. The anonymity it offers has allowed savage intolerance to flourish. The pregnant wife of a Tory MP who heckled Jeremy Corbyn was the target of a shocking Twitter campaign with one message saying “I hope your baby dies”.

The committee on standards in public life raised concerns over the levels of abuse faced by candidates from all parties at the last election, including rape and death threats. We are living in a political era which is characterised by hatred and fear.

Hastings, in his recent article, raised the issue of fantasists and attention-seekers bringing accusations against people in public life, now dead and no longer able to defend their reputations. Genuine victims deserve sympathy and respect, but accusers seem able to make devastating allegations against named individuals without risk or cost to themselves.

We are proud of our democracy which allows us to speak freely within the law. But the internet has opened the window to electronic mob rule. Menacing messages from fanatical hard-liners have created an atmosphere is which real violence becomes more likely.

It might only be local complaints against councillors. It might be more vicious threats on the internet against MPs. There is always a risk when politicians meet their public. “Why would anyone go into public life?” asks Max Hastings. Sometimes I ask myself that question — why indeed?

AN IDEA NOT TO BE SNIFFED AT

THERE’S a bit of a stink down our way relating to the fact that we’ve become officially a dog friendly town.

Keswick won’t exactly be coming up smelling of roses — but thanks to the creation of a unique job, some of our town centre shops are all set to take on a hint of lemon this summer. I bet there’s not another town in Britain that hires a chap to go round spraying shop fronts with citronella, a pleasant-smelling repellent to dogs that fancy wee-ing up the walls.

Keswick Community Asset Company, which owns toilet blocks near the Theatre by the Lake and Bell Close, is paying for the services of window cleaner Lee Gray in a bid to tackle the problem of premises that tend to pong a bit in dry weather.

The thing about dogs is they are Marmite. Dog lovers love ’em. Non-owners tend not to be so welcoming. Keswick has set its stall out to be dog friendly and now the 40p fees visitors pay to use the toilets will partly be devoted to helping the town smell sweet for those with more sensitive noses — canines and humans.

It’s one of the downsides of being dog friendly, explains the community interest company. But already there are mutterings that the town is becoming too dog friendly. Nothing, it seems, divides a local community quite like dogs.

Whether they’re barking up the wrong tree, or want to give dogs a genuine leg up in the world, I predict this tale (tail) has plenty more wagging to do.

WHAT WAS THEIR LINE?

TALKING of unusual occupations, hands up those of you who remember when the highlight of Sunday evenings on the telly was What’s My Line.

You need to be of a certain vintage of course. What’s My Line ran from the early 1950s,when few of us had TV sets, until 1967 when television was starting to become the opiate of the masses.

The panel game, which began even earlier in the United States, required four people to guess the occupation of guests, who could only answer yes or no to questions. There was also a celebrity guest who disguised his or her voice. Panellists were blindfolded for this part of the program. Gilbert Harding was the irascible chairman, later replaced by Eamonn Andrews, and regular panellists included Lady Isobel Barnett, Barbara Kelly, David Nixon and Cyril Fletcher.

That was when TV was something the whole family could watch. What’s My Line was a big favourite with my mum and dad. They would never miss a programme. You could look away while a caption on screen stated what job the guest had and play the game yourself and try to beat the panel. Simple pleasures, but my how we chuckled.

There was a programme on similar lines on Radio Luxembourg while a couple of times What’s My Line was revived, first on the BBC with Isobel Barnett and Kenneth Williams, and later on ITV when actor Patrick Mower could be seen leaving the set early during live broadcasts. He was starring in a West End play at the time and had to rush away.

But it was never quite as good as when Gilbert Harding chided guests and the panellists were like personal friends of the viewer. A man who sprays citronella on dog wee — now that’s an occupation they would never have guessed, not even perceptive Lady Barnett.

BANG GOES THOSE OLD CHEMMY SETS

AS we’re on about the “old days” in this week’s column, how many chaps of a certain age remember having a chemistry set when they were children, and quite probably having sufficient materials in their hands to obliterate the entire street?

I say men, because in those far off, unreconstructed times, we were not as aware as we should have been that girls might also have enjoyed experimenting with chemmy sets. They were far brainier than us dimwit lads anyway. I kept mine in the garage. I never did any good at chemistry and physics at school, but thankfully I managed to mix up the powders and potions in my chemistry kit without either poisoning any spies or dynamiting next door’s shed where the owner reared turkeys for Christmas.

Do they still sell chemistry sets? Or are they forbidden territory for today’s snowflake generation for whom risk is averse and mobile phones and video games are more damaging to health than a few dodgy concoctions mixed together in the garage?

Professor Stephen Hawking, who died last week, was raised in an “eccentric” home where they kept bees in the basement and made fireworks in the greenhouse. “Don’t try this at home,” was the warning just made for Hawking who was brought up in an era where health and safety were two words never mentioned in the same context. He and his sister made up games when they became bored. They expanded the boundaries of their imagination, something Stephen continued doing throughout his remarkable life of scientific and mathematical vision.

A national treasure, he was admired by millions. But one thing puzzles me. Thousands had copies of his book on our shelves. Thousands of us never actually read them through, nor did we understand anything very much Professor Hawking said. We were clueless what he was talking about, but we cherished him for his great mind all the same.

Last week, in juxtaposition in the obituary columns of the newspaper, were tributes to Stephen Hawking and Sir Ken Dodd. One amazed and puzzled us, one made us laugh. That they should be given equal billing on the deaths page shows what a wonderful, egalitarian world this can sometimes be.