Monday, 25 April 2016

Brexit reflections #3 - Boris and Barack, Nick Cohen and the dim-witted censors.

Much fury on Twitter in the last 48 hours about Boris Johnson's anti-Obama diatribe.  A lot of writers I admire have poured scorn, mostly from the Left, on Boris's suggestion that Obama's stance on Brexit might be influenced by his Kenyan background. In particular Boris suggested that Obama might have been instrumental in the removal of a bust of Churchill from the White House.

Principal amongst Johnson's accusers was Nick Cohen, who wrote in the Spectator ("Boris Johnson's attack on Barack Obama belongs in the gutter") that the Mayor of London was "a man without principle or shame.  He is a braying charlatan, who lacks the courage even to be an honest bastard . . . but instead uses the tactics of the coward and the tricks of the fraudster to advance his worthless career". Cohen continues, "I'm not someone who throws accusations of racism around . . . But, come now, the fantasy that Obama is the heir of the Mau-Maus with no right to govern is a racist lie" which Johnson "perpetuates".

Golly. Is Cohen right? Certainly the Twitterati thought so. I wasn't so sure, and plunged into the 140 character mosh pit to try and establish what exactly Johnson had said which was racist. Interestingly, the responses tended to dry up on the second or third exchange of views. Typical was the Blairite hack John McTernan, who could manage no more than "It's racist.  Pure and simple".

(Update - the following day McTernan elaborated on his views.  He wrote, "It is sneery, de haut en bas, touch of the tarbrush, straight down the line English racism". I replied, "So you keep saying.  But you don't say why.  Forgive me for finding that a little lame."  Nothing back from McTernan so far.)

So what exactly did Johnson say which was so offensive? Cohen quotes him thus. "Some said (the removal of the Churchill bust) was a symbol of the part-Kenyan President's ancestral dislike of the British empire - of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender".

"Who are the ‘some’ who say that Obama is a Kenyan at heart?", demands Nick Cohen.

Inconveniently for him, one of the most vocal is Barack Obama himself, who, er, devoted a large part of his book Dreams of My Father to his Kenyan heritage. And rather awkwardly for Cohen and his fans, Obama went to Kenya on a state visit in July 2015, and began a speech there by saying, "I am proud to be the first American president to come to Kenya, and of course I'm the first Kenyan-American to be president of the United States". Kenyan-American. There you have it.

When the journalist Iain Martin tweeted these remarks there was some furious back-peddling by Cohen's supporters. You could almost hear them thinking, "Shit, Obama thinks he's part-Kenyan too. What are we going to say now?"

Obama is entitled to be proud of his ancestry (even though his Dad comes across as an utter flake in Dreams of my Father), but on the other hand is it really beyond plausibility to suggest that a man whose father was born in a British colony and whose grandfather was, apparently, imprisoned by the British, might not, well, be too keen on Britain? And yet to suggest that is, for Cohen and his supporters, to step into the gutter.

A much more fruitful avenue for Cohen to explore might have been to wonder whether Johnson was actually right. He might also have pondered what the consequences of Presidential anti-British bias might have been. After all, a President who disliked Britain would surely want the worst for us; and yet here's Obama firmly advocating Remain. Surely Boris missed a trick here. He should have been trumpeting that Obama's anti-British bias must mean he secretly felt it would be best for us to Leave. What an endorsement for Brexit that would have been.

But this is all too subtle for Cohen. "The fantasy that Obama is the heir of the Mau-Maus with no right to govern", he writes, "is a racist lie that appeals to deep, dark traditions in the US. From slavery, through the Civil War, the backlash against Reconstruction, and Jim Crow, the argument has been the same: blacks have no right to vote, and black politicans have no right to rule.  Johnson perpetuates the fraud".

It's worth noting that Cohen not only makes no attempt to demonstrate that Johnson is racist, but also doesn't try to justify his association of Johnson with these repellent manifestations of US racism.

If I were Boris I'd be rather peeved. Even if Kenyans were a race, which they're not, and even if Boris were wrong about Obama's hostility to Britain, which we can't know, where is Cohen's evidence that the remarks were motivated by hostility to Kenyans (or even Kenyan culture, for heavens' sake)?

Boris is not even suggesting that Obama would be wrong about any anti-British antipathy he might have. He's simply wondering whether it might have influenced Obama's views on Brexit. The answer to that might be a very short "no" (and that would probably get my vote), but it is a very very long way from that to suggesting, as Cohen does, that even to ask the question makes you a racist.

You may accuse me of overthinking this, but I'm simply baffled why a journalist and commentator of Cohen's calibre should get this so thoroughly wrong.

One last point. Nick Cohen has an honourable record as an advocate of free speech. And yet his dog-whistle cry has brought out the dim-witted censors in their droves.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Brexit reflections #2 - the Government's leaflet

At last the Government leaflet on the EU referendum has popped through my door.

Should the HMG have spent the best part of £10 million on it? Possibly not. But a genuine attempt to cut through the lies and distortions of both sides of the campaign would have been welcome and, who knows, might even have bolstered the Remain side if waverers had seen it as being candid and even-handed.

So I turned with interest to page 1 of the leaflet, where the following statement appears - "We will keep our own border controls".

We will keep our own border controls.

The mind flaps at this statement like a goalkeeper trying to grasp a spinning ball on a rain-sodden pitch. In what way can it possibly be true?

We, or rather the British electorate of forty years ago, signed up to free movement of people (at a time when the EU had only half a dozen countries, few of whose citizens had any economic incentive to come and live in the UK). We have to let EU nationals come and go freely because of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, and unless we leave we are stuck with it.

So we "keep our own border controls" only in the sense that the British government operates, administers and pays for its "own border controls". The substance of those border controls however is determined by the 1975 British commitment to the EU. The leaflet says we have "the right to check everyone, including EU nationals, arriving from continental Europe". The weasel words there are "check" and "arriving", because although we can "check" them to make sure they're EU nationals we can't put any limits on the number of EU nationals who "arrive".

If a British government elected by the British people in (oh I don't know) 2015 decided to introduce tighter border controls it would very swiftly find itself in front of the European Court of Human Rights. And it would have no defence. There is no better illustration of the powerlessness of the British government than David Cameron's election pledge to reduce net migration to the "low tens of thousands". He failed in that pledge precisely because we don't "keep our own border controls". If we had been able to maintain an immigration policy the Tories said they wanted, net migration would not now have been in the region of 300,000 annually.

"We will keep our own border controls" is then an outright lie.

Why does the Government do this? There is a case to be made for free movement (I don't agree with it, but many do). It is also arguable that post-Brexit a British government would have to accept free movement as the price of a trade deal (some countries have to, although not Canada). Why not make those arguments instead of just lying to us? Is it because they think we're stupid?

I can only assume so. After all, these statements don't appear in expensively printed leaflets by accident. Well-paid people sat for a long time drafting this missive, and at some point someone said, "What are we going to say about borders and migration?" And there was then a good deal of pencil chewing because everyone knows that migration is one of the two political issues (the other being the economy) which poll after poll shows the British people are concerned about most. These apparatchiks knew they had to say something. It had to be appear on the face of it to be true. So someone said, "Well in a sense we do keep our own border controls because we operate and administer them", and this statement, conflating slipperily the execution of border control and its substance, was greeted with relief all round the table.

It is a deliberate, contemptuous and cynical attempt to deceive. I very much hope it doesn't do so, because no Government should lie to its own people.

It's a shame the leaflet is so glossy.  I might have found a use for a cheaper, more absorbent version.

Monday, 11 April 2016

David Cameron, tax and the Guardian

Alastair Campbell once said that if a story about you is still on the front page after a week you're in trouble.  David Cameron is in trouble then.  The story about his father's Panama investment fund rumbles on.

Cameron has handled this badly.  First the stonewalling, then the partial revelation, then the more complete divulgence, then the tax return. The method doesn't look good, and it encourages journalists to think about what another layer off the onion might look like.

To be clear, I hold no brief for Cameron. He is a managerial centre-right type, capable, privileged, although not on the whole an ideologue. He has, I think, royally messed up the chance to extract concessions from Europe which would have enabled undecided voters like me to opt to stay In with a clear conscience. But when I look at the furore surrounding the leaked papers of Mossack Fonseca, I see only the malice, stupidity, confusion, opportunism and hypocrisy of his opponents.

You can cut to the chase quite simply by asking, "What did Cameron do wrong exactly?"

"Ah", comes the reply, "he invested money in an offshore fund".

"That's legal", you counter.

"That doesn't make it right".

"So why is it wrong then?"

"It's wrong because it's a way of avoiding tax".

"Putting money in an ISA is avoiding tax.  So is investing in a pension.  Why is using an offshore fund morally different?"

At that point the conversation tends to peter out, or relocate to the idea that David Cameron is a rich Tory bastard, as if that, even if true, were the clincher.

It's worth pointing out that the Cameron will have paid UK tax on the dividends that his investment paid each year, and would have paid capital gains tax when he sold it in 2010 on the gain the investment accrued if that had been big enough (it wasn't). The purpose of offshoring the fund seems to have been that the lower tax rates payable in Panama enabled the fund to grow more quickly, giving investors higher rates of return. If the fund had been domiciled in the UK it would have paid more UK tax on the growth but the Government would have received less from individual investors (whose dividends would have been lower).

That people don't understand this is not Cameron's fault.  That Cameron's opponents choose not to is understandable, if not exactly the "new kind of politics" that Jeremy Corbyn promised.  That the media flog the story to keep it running is also understandable, though forgivable only if one takes as read the cynicism with which the vast majority of journalists ply their trade.  That the Guardian in particular should have pursued Cameron with the zeal of a Witchfinder General is downright hypocrisy when you consider the offshore company acquisition deals which the paper used in the sale of EMAP publishing group in 2008. No wonder I stopped buying it.

Unlike his pursuers in the media, David Cameron was elected by people who almost without exception will have known that he was a toff and came from a moneyed family.  Since those are qualities which on the whole don't enamor an individual to the rest of us who don't share them, I think we can assume that most people don't care, and will conclude that Dave's persecutors belong to the ranks of the ignorant and spiteful.

PS  The publication of Cameron's accounts reveal how badly the PM is paid relative to most professional people of similar stature. Cameron gets £100k or so. This compares badly to most consultants and barristers of a similar age, never mind what they get in the City of London for snorting coke off a hooker's embonpoint. Bright and ambitious people (and yes, politicians need to be personally ambitious) are not going to go into politics for £150k. The Director of the Royal Opera House was getting nearly £700k last time I looked (quite a lot of it from public funds, incredibly). Which job do we think is more demanding? I think I know the answer. And now the press and the opposition want our leaders to publish their accounts? Jesus wept. I'd have resigned already. Chapeau to Cameron just for hanging on in there.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Wordsworth and James Rebanks: blood-and-soil provincialism

I don't know if Manchester has such a thing as a Great and Good, still less whether I am amongst its gilded number, but last year a friend of ours who sits on the board of the Portico Library invited my wife and I to the annual dinner at which the Portico Book Prize is awarded.  Lots of smartly dressed people sat in a big room, eating and drinking while the likes of Michael Wood and Val McDermid dished out awards.

Our table was divided between lawyers and writers.  The lawyers bought most of the wine and the artists did most of the drinking; the lawyers gazed benevolently on, perhaps thinking that although they led less glamorous lives they at least could afford to stand their round.

One of the prizes was given to a man called James Rebanks, for his book The Shepherd's Life.  Six months on I have finally got round to reading it.

Essentially Rebanks' book tells the story of his upbringing on a Cumbrian hill farm, his exile to a History degree at Oxford and subsequent return to his roots.  It is a description of the hill farmer's year and and an encomium to his farmer forebears.  Rebanks loves the land, and having sampled the bright lights of academic glory (a First, no less, and this from a man who went straight into A Levels without having any GCSEs) he tells us that country life is best.

I didn't particularly warm to Rebanks (not that that will bother him one jot), and not merely because he tells us in the opening pages that at his school (Workington or Keswick, I'm guessing) he and his classmates competed to smash the most expensive piece of equipment they could, or that a boy they bullied killed himself many years later. Hats off for confessing.  It would have been easier not to.

Rebanks tells us pretty early how much he dislikes the Wordsworthian view of the Lake District, and later makes clear his contempt for tourists, so lacking in true comprehension of the way of life sustained by Rebanks and his neighbours.  More than this, he has a sense of rootedness in the landscape, mirroring perhaps the heftedness of his beloved Herdwick sheep to their ancestral hillsides, which would not shame the most ardent Israeli West Bank settler or 1990s Serbian militiaman.  You would call it a blood-and-soil nationalist argument, although relating as it does to a modest part of northern Britain you'd probably have to call it blood-and-soil provincialism instead.

It's about as charming as it sounds.

Rebanks is clearly a formidable character.  He can write, and his book is absorbing and interesting. It's also, when you stop and think about it, rather unpleasant.  Here are some things he gets wrong.

1. The original Wordsworthian view of the Lake District is one rooted firmly in reality.  No one who has read Dorothy Wordsworth's diaries could be in any doubt about the hard life the poet and his sister led in Grasmere.

2. Moreover it is the widespread resonance of the Wordsworthian view (however inaccurately shared) which led to the Lakes being made a National Park, thus preserving it from the urbanisation which Rebanks despises.

3. The people who gave Rebanks the Portico Prize and bought his book were neo-Wordsworthians to a man and woman, and no doubt if and when his agents sell the film rights (Tom Hardy would make a very good Rebanks) it will be because the money men calculate, correctly, that there are enough Wordsworthians to keep the multiplexes busy.

4. The people who, Rebanks says, leave his gates open and allow their dogs to chase his sheep are also ultimately the customers for the lambs he sells.  The preservation of his livelihood (in sofar as it's viable at all) depends on them (I suspect that must hurt).

5. Without the Wordsworthians the Lake District would be in terrible trouble.  Tourism is the only successful industry the region has.  If Rebanks has any doubt, he should go to the less glamorous parts of rural Wales and see what sheep-farming without tourism looks like. Tourists may be inconvenient to Rebanks, but they bring money to other Cumbrians not so fortunate as to live on the family farm.

6. When I caught the drift of Rebanks' argument I started looking out for the word subsidy and wondering whether it would crop up.  It appears (on p.77) in the context of his grandfather hoodwinking a Ministry of Agriculture official over biodiversity (we're invited to conclude this makes him something of a card), but elsewhere is strangely absent.  Rebanks admits that his lifestyle is only viable because he does a bit of work for UNESCO on the side, and so you'd have to imagine that without the Single Farm Payment sustaining it would be considerably more difficult. Where does the SFP come from? Ultimately from taxpayers who eat Rebanks' produce and walk across his land.  Subsidy is the elephant in the room and Rebanks ignores it.

7. Rebanks would have the reader believe that his ilk are uniquely responsible for the condition of the landscape, and that without them it would return to wasteland.  What nonsense.  Without the overgrazing of sheep farming, the fells would quickly return to their natural state of scrub and forest. Much of Cumbria is a wet monocultural desert at present. Wildlife would flourish. Cumbria would probably be even more richly beautiful.

I have an interest to declare here, in that I'm part-owner of a house in Cumbria. It's in the middle of a working farm which must at one time have employed a number of men, but in the age of mechanisation gets by with just one plus the occasional help. Blood-and-soil provincialism is much in evidence there, but the house, let to visitors most of the time, brings in tens of thousands of pounds of income to the north west every year. That's almost certainly more than the farm does.

Rebanks is right that the image of the Lake District is a chocolate box one, and I can testify that farming all year round is a gruelling job requiring a hardiness and resistance to the elements of which most of us are not capable.  It's also true that the average visitor's notion of its beauty is perhaps a factitious one (although no more subjective than that of the farmer himself).

But what Rebanks doesn't seem to grasp is that the existence of his way of life is the result of the complex interaction of economic and social forces, an interaction which depends for its success on a thoroughgoing engagement with the wallets and aesthetic preferences of people he alternately sneers at and patronises (that's you and me, by the way). He paints a picture of his life which, for all its purported mud and gore realism, is a just as much a fantasy as the picture-postcard view of the Lakes he despises.

Far from Rebanks' much-vaunted rugged individualism, Cumbrian sheep farmers are in fact profoundly dependent on the consumers, holiday makers and taxpayers of urban Britain, without whom his "always been here, always will be" is just a few muddy fields and a mortgage to pay.

(I said that Rebanks wouldn't care one jot what was written about him, but I'm glad our house is on the other side of the Lakes. Judging by his jacket photo I'd say he wields a useful right hook.)

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Farewell to Peter Maxwell Davies

Last week a great musician passed away, a man who brought pleasure to millions and had an incalculable influence on 20th century culture.

But that's enough about George Martin. What about Peter Maxwell Davies?

Opposite my parents in Manchester lived a girl who went to the Northern College of Music (as it then was).  She later played the viola in the Halle.  My mum remembers a young man coming round to her house.  That was Max.  I never saw him.

Twenty years later Maxwell Davies had become Britain's pre-eminent composer, along with Harrison Birtwhistle.  In the year before I went to Trinity to study with John Tavener I remember borrowing Maxwell Davies' first symphony - both score and vinyl - from a library, and struggling desperately to extract any pleasure or enlightenment from the experience. Faced with such incomprehensibility it is common to cringe; I'm rather proud that I thought instead, "Christ this is a load of shit".

A year or so later the RCM put on a performance of Maxwell Davies' A Mirror of Whitening Light at which the composer rehearsed the chamber group and discussed the piece. I was in the audience. At one point he had written something for the first violin which was actually off the instrument's register. "Here", he twinkled, "the player has to imagine the right notes even when he is actually unable to play them".

Adding to the faint but palpable atmosphere of bullshit in the room, he revealed that the piece's material was derived from the musical equivalent of a magic square, in which notes were laid out on a grid and the composer could choose which direction around the grid to travel. I remember thinking, "But since the listener can't hear that this process is going on, the point is what exactly? So that the composer doesn't have to think up any notes himself?"

Afterwards Tavener and I discussed this gloomily. He commented, "It's a beautiful title.  But what's the point of writing the piece when the title's so descriptive?" John was unimpressed by Maxwell Davies. Around the same time I went to a performance of the 3rd Symphony, which Kent Nagano conducted from memory.  I found it turgid.

To be fair, a number of the Orcadian exile's middle period pieces are quite likable (although Elliott Carter does something similar much better).  I always thought Maxwell Davies had a good ear for texture which the spare writing for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra concertos brought out. And I was at the first British performance of the 5th Symphony (under Simon Rattle); it was mightily impressive.

In his later years Maxwell Davies's star faded somewhat. The people who run classical music discovered Mark Turnage and then Thomas Ades. Maxwell Davies was apparently up north carrying on doing what he'd been doing in previous decades. Then a couple of revelations. First I heard his Orkney Wedding With Sunrise. It was a dreadful piece of Brigadoonery. And then on the radio, Farewell to Stromness, a solo piano piece which attempted the trad style. It was even worse: plodding, dreary, lumpen, unimaginative and - perhaps worst of all - incompetent.

Like many a modernist (although, to give him credit, not the recently deceased and unrepentant Pierre Boulez), Maxwell Davies suddenly appeared to grasp late in life that he had written almost nothing that anyone would want to listen to twice, and was flailing around to rectify the situation before the Reaper called. So far so unsurprising. What I found horrifying was the revelation that here was someone who couldn't even do the simple things properly. Was Maxwell Davies a fraud all along?

Well not necessarily. Any competent trad musician would have been able to write a much better piece than Maxwell Davies's faux-Jockery; but they couldn't have put together his 5th Symphony. I contend however that a really good classical composer should be able to do both. Everything, in fact. Davies couldn't.

(Incidentally I came upon a performance of the 7th Symphony last year without knowing who it was by, and my first thought was "This bloke has no idea how to write for orchestra". It was a further foray into a kind of late Romanticism, and I found it wretched. The discovery that it was by Maxwell Davies wasn't a surprise - it fitted the narrative of someone belatedly discovering that out there is something called an audience, but running out of time to learn the technical skill required to write the kind of music which might connect with it).

It will surprise readers to discover that I don't think Maxwell Davies was a bad composer.  Not so much bad as typical. My friends have heard repeatedly the thesis that most composers outside the first rank only write half a dozen really good pieces. That's likely to be as true of Maxwell Davies as anyone else. If you put Bach, Beethoven, Mozart et al in the first rank however, and people like Sibelius or Mahler in the second, where does that leave Davies?  In the third row with people like Percy Grainger? I would have said not. Music lasts because the quality of the invention, and because people want to listen to it. No doubt Davies will be all over Radio 3 for a few days, but the test of durability is a cold and ruthless one which I think his music is likely to fail.  Ironically the pieces most likely to survive are ones - like Orkney Wedding - which reveal the limits of his talent most starkly.

Davies was lucky to have been working in the years after the second world war during which to be Northern and working class appealed to the inverted snobbery of the time. He was lucky to be a modernist in a period when modernism was the height of fashion, and - for that reason - to attract the patronage of William Glock at the BBC.  He was also lucky to be living in a period when his sexuality was no longer the personal millstone and professional block it might have been only a few decades previously (perhaps the reverse in fact). But above all he was lucky to have made a long career out of a very modest talent.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Brexit reflections #1 - freedom of movement

"But freedom of movement - which, let's not kid ourselves, is the throbbing heart of the EU issue - doesn't benefit everyone equally.  If, for example, Romanian citizens who earn four or five times less than British workers are allowed unfettered access to our jobs market, people lose out.  But who cares: they're already poor."

So writes Janice Turner in today's Times, under the headline Confessions of a lonely, left-wing Brexiteer.  I agree with almost every word of it.  Ms Turner continues:

"In Ben Judah's startling book This Is London, he describes the British builders who once earned £15 an hour but, after waves of migration, are down to £7.  He notes the minimum wage is a fiction when Romanian labourers stand outside Wickes in Barking at 6 a.m. beating each other down to get a day's work, just like dockers in the pre-unionised 1930s."

"In broken northern industrial towns, companies such as Next, Sports Direct and Amazon, not content with an already cheap local workforce, prefer to recruit migrants via employment agencies because they have fewer rights.  They, along with Lincolnshire's agricultural towns, will vote overwhelmingly to leave the EU and not because they are stupid. A 2015 Bank of England study showed net migration has driven down pay for the lowest paid. Across the economy, although employment is high, wages have stagnated because the pool of labour is almost infinite  . . . The well-off transcend community so care nothing for cohesion. They remain untouched by culture clash, overcrowding or fights for limited resources. Yet they condemn those affected - if they dare to complain - as bigots. . . . we will need 880,000 more school places by 2023, 113,000 in London alone. As for housing, the ONS reckons we need an extra 68,000 homes a year just to accommodate net migration assumptions. Is that okay? How will Europhiles tackle this? And can we at least discuss - honestly for once - if this is the society we want."

I can't remember having read such a vivid exposition of the consequences of unlimited migration by anyone in the media, let alone a Left winger like Ms Turner. Just today I heard the dear old BBC deliver a lengthy report about the school places shortage without once mentioning migration. Yes, we'd rather avert our eyes than have our comfortable assumptions exposed to reality. And yet the points Ms Turner makes are blindingly obvious to anyone who cares to use their eyes and ears.  Astonishingly, the British liberal middle-classes (and I should know, I'm one of them) prefer to display their virtue by approving the EU's free movement of people rather than condemning its effect on the British-born underclass, many of them with brown and black skins.

None of this necessarily means we should vote to leave the EU. Personally I haven't made up my mind, and I'm concerned about what might happen to our economy if we did. But God knows a withdrawal from the drip feed of Turner's "almost infinite" pool of labour would begin to reverse the inequality it has caused.

Freedom of movement - an unassailable shibboleth of the Remainers - was a principle agreed to forty years ago by a British electorate which is now largely dead. At the time the EU had only half a dozen member countries, all of them enjoying similar levels of prosperity. Now there are nearly thirty members, some of which are dirt poor courtesy of the wrecking ball that is the Euro. Very significant proportions of those countries now have the incentive to try their luck in one of the only EU countries whose economy is growing. Circumstances have changed utterly since the day Britain signed up.

It's not just that unrestricted migration is damaging the life chances of Britain's underclass. Our inability to change the migration rules is undermining trust in politics and politicians. How can we respect our representatives when, on the issue which time and time again the public names first or second on their list of concerns, the EU freedom of movement rules prevent meaningful change?

Monday, 29 February 2016

It's Grimsby up north

Last week I went to see Rams, a film about a dispute between two sibling Icelandic sheep farmers.  It was great.

Last night I went to see Grimsby, Sacha Baron Cohen's film about a lairy underclass northerner, Nobby Butcher, reunited with his long-lost brother who just happens to be a spy in trouble.

Variety is the spice of life, after all.

Grimsby has been very largely panned.  "Witless rubbish", wrote one critic. "Cohen comes unstuck", wrote another. "Class libel", fulminated the New Statesman.  The tone of the reviews has been that the film isn't funny and that anyway it's unfair to pick on the working class.  Baron Cohen did not dare to film in Grimsby itself, and the residents of the preferred location, Tilbury, are apparently outraged that their town was chosen as a convenient Grimsby-alike.

Oh my.

Grimsby is not subtle.  It is broad, crude, violent, uneven and about as hit and miss in its humour as Baron Cohen's northern accent.  But boy did I laugh.  It takes a particularly sensitive soul not to find funny the scene (is that even the right word?) in which the two brothers take refuge in an elephant's vagina - bad enough you might think - only to discover that a line of he-elephants are lining up to take advantage of her.  The (half-empty) cinema was united in its helpless distress.  Other scenes are similarly difficult to watch.

I guess if you are offended by the shameless (or more plausibly Shameless) lampooning of the Northern working class it must be hard to find Grimsby that funny.  But I can't help feeling that the metropolitan sophisticates united in their disdain for Baron Cohen's film would pay quite a lot of money to avoid going anywhere like Grimsby, and as for mixing socially with the working class, well surely those are the people one moves to London to avoid, darling.  There's something funny in itself about people whose disdain for the provincial proletariat is matched by their desperation to be seen defending it.

It's true that the film's McGuffin - a sub-SPECTRE cabal called Maelstrom is going to wipe out the world's underclass by releasing deadly toxins at the World Cup final only to be defeated by Nobby and his Grimsby mates - is perhaps just an excuse for satirising the squalor and fecundity of the protagonist's home life.  But firstly there's a measure of truth in Baron Cohen's portrait, and secondly Nobby is likeable as well as feckless, and the scenes in and around his home have a liveliness and enthusiasm which are touching as well as funny.

I hope Baron Cohen makes a shed load of money out of Grimsby and that his critics disappear up their own fundamentals.  Where it would be diverting to imagine them being assailed by a herd of elephants.