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"My sympathies have always been with the bullied rather than the bully."

Graham Linehan on comedy writing, politics and Twitter.

When you think about the current state of TV comedy, do you feel optimistic or pessimistic?

I'm never pessimistic because something always comes along. Every dry period gets shaken up by something like The Office. In fact, it could be said that dry periods create programmes like The Office, which often start as rejections of the current fashion. But they're black swan events, so when everyone tries to copy them they just create a new, dreary status quo to rebel against. I can't bear the mock-doc format now.

How do you personally decide if a joke goes too far or is too cruel?

I love the challenge of covering a taboo subject in a way that can't offend anyone. My favourite comedies do this -- the famous example is the Seinfeld masturbation episode -- and I'm always on the lookout for things that, at first glance, seem impossible to transpose to a comedy setting. I did the episode about Armin Meiwes, the German cannibal, on The IT Crowd because, horrible though the facts of the case were, I heard there was a previous guy who chickened out, so he and Armin went to see Oceans Eleven together instead. I found that hilarious and oddly sweet, so I thought I could do something with it.

Also, Twitter provides a means by which the people attacked in a particular joke can easily get in touch with you. These days, I think: "If the person I was making fun of contacted me, would I be able to defend it?" If the answer is yes, I go ahead. If the answer is no, I ask myself if I like the person. If the answer to that is no, I go ahead.

You said in Mustard magazine that you find it hard to write female comic characters. Do you think audiences still have trouble accepting that women can be funny?

Absolutely not. There may be writers out there who blame their own shortcomings on women but I hope I never become one of them. It's just a little more effort for me to get inside a woman's skin. One thing I have always tried to do is make the female characters as venal, corrupt and silly as the men. Being equally hard on my characters, male or female, is my pathetic little contribution to feminism.

You were a journalist in Dublin. Were you good at it -- and did you enjoy it?

Also here in London, for Select magazine. I enjoyed it very much but I was never a proper journalist. I would write humorous pieces and try and make my subject fit them, rather than the other way round. I was so young. I shudder when I read any of that stuff now. In fact, I shudder when I read things I wrote a month ago.

Are there any journalists you admire?

Plenty! Too many to list! I think the Guardian under Rusbridger has been amazing. I think the Guardian's work over the last decade, especially with WikiLeaks and phone-hacking, has been extraordinary. Literally world-changing. I love the way people like Ben Goldacre give you not just the story but the tools to understand the story and the issues and processes behind it. As a bonus, the Guardian understands what engaging with readers really means and the paper is all the better for it.

How do you think journalism should be funded once print doesn't pay any more -- advertising, paywalls or something else?
Paywalls seem a typical old-worldy example of trying to remake the web in the image of something less efficient, less useful, less shareable. I don't see it working long term. Until people stop resisting the fact that the world has changed utterly, this transition period is going to be longer than it should be and everyone will suffer. I don't have any bright ideas on how to pay for journalism -- if I had, I'd be writing this from my yacht -- but I do know that people will always want it and if you give them a convenient way to pay for it, they will.

You often call out media organisations for their bad behaviour. Are you ever afraid it might damage your career?

I wasn't until now.

How much has Twitter changed your day to day life?

It has totally transformed my life. It has given it an extra dimension and I would miss it terribly were it to disappear. I have daily conversations with people from all walks of life, whom I would otherwise never have known -- human rights lawyers, Egyptian IT Crowd fans who protested in Tahrir Square, policemen, Tories (yes, even Tories!), journalists . . . If ever I see something I like, I immediately find out whether the writer is on Twitter and if so, I'm able to send a note of thanks. A lot of friendships with people I hugely admire have started that way. I get very frustrated when people don't see what a miracle it is. The famous six degrees of separation has been reduced to zero and every day we're feeling the repercussions of that.

Do you think that Twitter-led campaigns -- such as #welovethenhs -- are effective at swaying public opinion and at motivating people to action? Or is Twitter, as its critics suggest, just a cosy lefty echo chamber?

Ask the News of The World. Or Carter Ruck. Or Jan Moir. There wasn't anything cosy about those campaigns. And they got results. I doubt Jan Moir will be tut-tutting the recently deceased any time soon and as for the News Of The World . . .

#welovethenhs wasn't so much a campaign as an attempt to fight propaganda with propaganda. I wrote the first tweet in a Starbucks while waiting for a coffee and a few months later Gordon Brown had inserted the phrase into a speech. That was pretty dizzying but I think the fact that it was so easily co-opted by politicians probably ended up being a fault rather than a feature.

As for the left-wing echo chamber . . . Twitter is made of individuals, so it can't be left or right any more than an individual is purely left or right. There is a problem, however, in that there are a lot of very clever people out there who have decided for whatever reason that they don't want to have anything to do with the internet. Their absence is a problem. They're being left out of the conversation and the conversation is the poorer for it.

You've talked about playing video games (your line about being a dick in Call of Juarez still makes me laugh). Do you think they would be an interesting medium to write for?

Yes. In fact, I did a little work for Little Big Planet 2. It's difficult though, because games often serve the gameplay rather than the story and the stories suffer terribly as a result. Some games with a narrative are so poorly written that I just can't play them. Alan Wake, Red Dead Redemption, even LA Noire . . . I just couldn't bring myself to listen to another good actor delivering terrible lines.

How would you describe your politics?

My sympathies have always been with the bullied rather than the bully so I guess I'm left-wing. I do believe that the internet is giving us a chance to move on from these limiting definitions, though.

You were critical of the Today programme's "dishonest, binary style of debate". But is there a place for adversarial debate in politics/journalism -- for example, Prime Minister's Questions?

Prime Minister's Questions . . . Is there a less edifying spectacle? Point-scoring. A football match. Not even a football match -- the early computer game Pong would be a better example. PMQs might be many things, but I only tune in expecting to see the government fighting a rearguard action. You never expect to see anyone getting shit done.

As for the Today programme, there is absolutely a place for this kind of debate, but it shouldn't be the default mode. That's lazy. It's almost a way of farming out the job of research to a third party. And in my case, it led to what I still think is a breach of ethics in that the only way they could get me on the program was by giving me a false brief. I was told in an email I'd be talking about "the challenges and excitements of adapting a film for the stage" and that was just a flat-out lie. Michael Billington had been briefed accurately because he was working from a few pages of notes, he had been allowed to prepare. My anger stemmed mainly from the fact that I hadn't been afforded the same courtesy. They still haven't apologised for it.

Do you vote?

Yes. It's good for us to feel powerless once every four years.

Is there anything you'd like to forget?

I was very bad at being single. Lots of regrets there.

Was or is there a plan for your career?

No, I just float from project to project.

Are we all doomed?

How many more times can we read "It was the hottest summer on record" before the newspaper bursts into flames in our hands?

Follow Graham Linehan on Twitter: @Glinner

Defining Moments

1968 Born in Dublin
1994 Begins writing for TV with The Day Today. Later writes for Brass Eye as well as Black Books, Big Train, Hippies and Jam
1995 His co-creation Father Ted premieres
2006 Launches his "old-fashioned sitcom" The IT Crowd, filmed with a live audience
2009 Launches Twitter campaign to support the National Health Service
2011 Perpetrates Twitter hoax that Osama Bin Laden was a fan of The IT Crowd

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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