Monday, June 8, 2009

Hal G. P. Colebatch, the bowler hat, color television and the fall of empire


(Above: the good old days of British politics when a piece of crumpet was a piece of crumpet).

The joy of a long weekend is complete. Not so long ago I was in despair as the tawdry emptiness stretched before me, forced even to head off to The American Spectator for my hit of Hal G. P. Colebatch (see below the fall of empire).
I just had to have a hit, a slash of sugar on the sweet tooth, a shot of heroin right into the vein. Oh it's strong the rush, and then you float and see things clearly, just like Tommy did in The Who opera.
But think of the indignity - trudging to an American rag to read an Australian writer bemoaning the state of Britain. What had gone wrong with newspaper publishing in the colonies?
Rest in peace, fellow Colebatchians. The Australian has come to our aid with Crooked houses of power. Now it's true it's not so good a rant as his work for the American mob - as fine flowering and as full blooded a rage as you'd expect from any right thinking son of empire - but it has its moments, even if it repeats motifs and themes in the manner of a Beethoven stealing from earlier works.

Not least is Colebatch's determination to see the End of English Civilization - and therefore of course the world - in the tea leaves at the bottom of the current tragic embroglio of MP corruption and British government misdeeds. And worse, it's not just those ruffians from the Labor party. The disease has affected Tory grandees, like Douglas Hogg, who allegedly had his moat dredged at taxpayers' expense:

His grandfather and father, the first and second viscounts Hailsham, were among the most universally respected men in British politics, both serving as lord chancellor, his father being lamented by some as the best prime minister Britain never had. What happened to a sense of standards and traditions?

Oh indeed. But tracking down the source of the disease is easy, and here you must pardon Colebatch a little repetition, because truth to tell it's all to do with the abandonment of bowler hats and umbrellas:

In a sense this degringolade was predictable. The government has seemed bent on destroying Britain's public culture and values. At the start of his prime ministership, Tony Blair claimed proudly that Britain was no longer "living in the world of a hundred years ago, when guys wore bowler hats and umbrellas, all marching down Whitehall".


Ah but what a fine word we get as a bonus in degringolade, though for all that, it must be said, it has to be said, the word's a trifle foreign - even gasp - French. Is this another sign of the decline of Empire, that we must turn to the French for a word to describe the full horror of English misdeeds?

Etymology: French, from d├ęgringoler to tumble down, from Middle French desgringueler, from des- de- + gringueler to tumble, from Middle Dutch crinkelen to make curl, from crinc, cring ring, circle Date: 1873

: a rapid decline or deterioration (as in strength, position, or condition).


But back to the curious affair of the bowler hats and umbrellas:

Yet it was those guys with bowler hats and umbrellas who had given the British public service a reputation for incorruptibility, or at least for corruption being rare and exceptional (David Lloyd George sold honours, and there were the Marconi scandals in 1912). William Gladstone was one PM who would not use government stamps for his private letters. Winston Churchill, despite his long political career, the enormous sales of his books and his unparalleled network of high-level contacts, was never enormously wealthy. He was only able to live at Chartwell after the war because a group of friends bought it for his use.

Yes yes and Gladstone helped the prostitutes of Victorian Engand while John Profumo had other thoughts in mind in the presence of Christine Keeler, but really I'm thinking color television might explain the drop off in the standards and values of the past. After all, what's wrong with decent black and white?

Blair also claimed: "I am a modern man. I am part of the rock 'n' roll generation. The Beatles, colour television: that's the generation I came from." Such words implied, if they did not specifically state, a rejection of the standards and values of the past. If there were once things that it was felt a gentleman, or lady, did not do, such as lie, cheat and steal even when the rules allowed it, Stockport College in Greater Manchester, in deference to political correctness, made the use of the words lady and gentleman a sacking offence for staff or students. The government condoned this, or at least did not put a stop to it. The treatment of the Gurkhas until Joanna Lumley's campaign was another signal that the government or the policy-making elite had simply ceased to care about honour as a public value.

Yes, you'd peg Blair for a Beatles man rather than the Rolling Stones, The Who, Cream or The Yardbirds. Typical.

But I say old chum that wouldn't be the Joanna Lumley who was in the New Avengers in color with that cad Steed who wore his bowler hat at a rakish, insolent tilt? Long after the glory days of Honor Blackman in leather and black and white? Or even sweet Diana Rigg as Emma Peel? 

Just goes to show you can never tell exactly how or when the rot set in and the empire sank like the sun beneath the seven seas. Especially as The Avengers always had a taste for - gasp - females in bondage.

The type of literature, theatre and art the establishment condoned and often subsidised could be seen as tending towards a valueless conception of life. As for the Church of England, the guardian of British morality, columnist Melanie Phillips has written: "For years, the church has spinelessly gone along with this wider non-judgmental culture of self-gratification which has turned morality on its head and undermined the cultural foundations of this nation."

That's right, the woman who stood up for the Gurhkas came from sordid, low rent, rough trade television, thereby symbolizing the downfall of England. QED.

And oh yes it's also the church. Most definitely! Yes, there's a strong argument that Britain's never been the same since that wretched Dawn French embarked on The Vicar of Dibley, promoting the idea of a fun-loving, fresh-thinking, liberal female cleric, making fun of that fine upstanding grumpy right winger played by Gary Waldhorn. Truly, it was there the degringolade started.

But to be fair she was balanced over time by Derek Nimmo, as fine an example of English masculinity and English clerics as ever graced the screen, not to mention his wonderful work in The World of Wooster.

Oh well maybe we've been a bit too hard on the Beatles and colour television. Maybe we should look to Europe and those cheese eating surrender monkeys and their ever so fancy words:

There is also an argument that the rot started for parliament when the John Major Conservative government began handing British sovereign power over to Europe, and the Blair government continued to downgrade parliament, handing more and more powers to the EU, to qangos, judges and "kitchen cabinets" of ministerial cronies, advisers and spin doctors. It was not, according to this argument, power that corrupted Westminster but lack of power: there was less and less worthwhile for MPs to do, or to attract or retain people with an ethic or tradition of public duty.

Yes, that must be it. Handing all the power over to Europe, so instead of tending to Britain (which curiously still retains the pound), all the wretched politicians had to tend to was their moats and their expense accounts.

And there you have it. Another wonderful guide to British culture and the downfall of empire, as refracted through the incisive mind of Hal G. P. Colebatch. Why it's better value than Punch in its heyday, and I'm thinking of getting up a petition to The Australian demanding that they publish the man at least once a week.

Then I can settle down to writing a letter to The Times each week: Dear sir (bugger off if you're a madam), it occurred to me as I read Hal G. P. Colebatch while munching my cucumber sandwich that it was perhaps the decision to film The Avengers in color for the American market that finally signaled the end of empire ...

(In the middle and below: Joanna Lumley, who might have saved the gurhkas but I'm assured by my partner failed to save the Avengers after Diana Rigg left)

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