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Off The Fence

Dear Readers,
 
Good afternoon, and welcome to Off The Fence – a newsletter so broad and diverse that it can be described in a slightly different way each and every edition. This week, we’re on the final stretch for Issue 12, flowing the writer’s texts next to the illustrator’s daubs, which is a surprisingly challenging task – even if you’ve done it lots of times before. In exciting news, we’re delighted to announce that we’re open for submissions on a permanent basis. Whether you’re an old vet, a first-timer, a media mogul or a cabinet minister, we’d love to hear your pitches; if you’d like to write for us in the future, then do read this updated pitch guide, and then whack an email to this address right here.
 
Today, we’re foraying into theatre criticism, paying a small tribute to Brian Sewell, and baselessly postulating on a new vaccination company, but first up, we lead with something rather more serious, in which we try to work out what exactly the Prime Minister is doing with all these visits to Kyiv.
 
On a Wing and a Prayer
 
What is Boris Johnson really doing in Ukraine? Is he up, late at night, poring over maps of the Donbas? Or is he just making a cynical ploy to stay in power, and deflect from multiple crises at home? We spoke to a number of sources at different levels within the government to find out more. 
 
One picture that emerged was that he is actively approving the donation of the weapons systems to the Ukrainian Army. Only the Prime Minister, we are told, has the power to sign off on the supply of high-tech machinery. The gift of the M270 multiple-launch rocket systems are, in the words of Jack Watling of the RUSI, ‘precisely what Ukraine needs’ to out-range Russian artillery. Whether it is Ben Wallace or the Chief of the General Staff, Sir Patrick Sanders, suggesting a quota of weaponry, it would require the PM’s signature to leave British hands.
 
The rocket-launcher systems, known as HIMARS, are not arriving in the numbers that the Ukrainians require, but Western efforts are broadly equal to one another, despite yawning disparities in capability – the UK is sending three, the Americans are sending four, and the Germans are sending three (which lack precision strike capabilities). The Ukrainians have asked for 40 HIMARS systems: at least.
 
Compared to America’s fantastic depth of resources, the British efforts to arm Ukraine are comparatively significant, and that is perhaps why Johnson is hailed by Zelenskyy and his citizens. Indeed, one source relays that the confidence vote in the British Parliament was being tracked throughout Telegram across Ukraine. It may be strategic, ideological or even simply convenient, but the Prime Minister does have steadfast support from the Ukrainian government. 
 
The efforts to ensure these weapon systems are used properly are extensive: there is a fear in Whitehall that they fall into the ‘wrong hands’, which doesn’t mean the Russians per se, but people who aren’t able to use them properly. We are told that training takes place through ‘proxy forces, partner forces, videos and leaflets’.
 
The Ministry of Defence is being uncharacteristically forthright with their daily briefings as to the state of war in Ukraine. This is, we are told, to amplify Ukrainian successes, and also to lower Russian morale. But The Fence can only wonder at the level of secrecy needed to deliver victory in this long drawn-out war of attrition. Boris Johnnson, who will be privy to the unreported efforts of the MOD and the secret services, has previous form in this: when, as Foreign Secretary, he made a slip of the tongue regarding the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
 
All the while, the Russians fume at what they regard as British excess: this clip from state TV in which the presenter denounces Liz Truss (and Henry VIII’s lust) while praising Lord Byron and William Shakespeare would be funny, if the consequences were not so significant.
 
For the time being, we can only know so much about what Boris Johnson is doing to help Ukraine, but the taxpayer should only be left in the dark for so long. There is an acknowledged understanding of a long war ahead, and the British public should know the costs – and the possible risks – involved.
 
Another Jolly Little Adventure
 
A few newsletters back, we covered the adventures of Gwythian Prins, Richard Dearlove and Crunchie the Horse after their unlikely escapades were leaked by a hacker. Now a friendly reader brings a fascinating nugget of information our way: Prins, Dearlove and John Constable (not that one) have partnered with an esteemed professor of oncology to set up a company called OmniVaxx, a name which seems almost purposefully designed to tickle Max Blumenthal and his pals over at The Gray Zone. But don’t fear too much: if their efforts to covertly microchip the population are as successful as their plans to force out the Prime Minister, we won’t all be talking in binary by Christmas. 
 
A Dose of Nitroglycerin
 
Over the last fortnight, we’ve been delighted to see that our feature on what Nobel Prize winners do and don’t know about their job, life and everything else besides go great guns online – it’s now been shared by many international outlets, and is currently sitting pretty on 40,000 page views. It’s by some distance the most popular thing we’ve published this year, so if you haven’t had the chance to read it, you can do that right now.
 
And if that piece has led you to this newsletter, or our site, or even a friend’s battered copy of Issue 11, we would be remiss not to say: treat yourself to a full subscription! It’s only £25, and unlike the rapidly depreciating currency markets, we maintain our value, delivering four fresh issues a year to your doubtlessly well-manicured doorstep. Subscribe today and be among the first to get your hands on Issue 12 – which, like all the issues preceding it, is the best yet. 
 
Lord of the Dance
 
Michael Flatley, the tap-dancer, flautist and dedicated Instagrammer, made an unlikely foray into the world of action-adventure cinema, with a film that he starred in, directed and produced. And yet Blackbird has never been on general release. As the years have passed, many Irish film fans have joined the hunt for this elusive cinematic jewel. Luke Dunne joined the chase in a lovely little short piece you can read here. According to one report, the project has already cost £3.5 million – so one can only wonder why the jiggly impresario hasn’t made more of an effort to recoup his investment.
 
No Interval No Chaser
 
One thing we can all agree on: the theatre in London is pretty damn good. We missed it dearly for a good two and a half years in the midst of COVID chaos, so now every time we see a great play, we’re going to share a little review with you. First up, a dispatch from our in-house design guru, Alex Christian, who ventured to the Old Vic last week to catch Jitney:
 
August Wilson’s first play is about a minicab office. All of black society in 1970s Philadelphia society passes through – cab drivers, local characters, girlfriends, family – and it’s about their lives, too: but it’s really about the institution that keeps them together.
 
I saw Jitney on its second night, and it had something of the early run about it. The performance, just like the drama, started slowly: some of the actors were posing with the squishy-stiff affectation of a Grand Theft Auto cutscene. But, after the first 20 minutes, the loosely-spooled characters drew taut, all sense of conceit disappeared, and the gripping human reality of their entanglements pulled into a Gordian knot that only tragedy – or, just as shockingly, forgiveness – could slice through.
 
Wil Johnson’s Becker, the owner of the cab office, is the moral heart of the play. As poverty, racism, family breakdown and addiction fray his employees and tug them in myriad directions, he sacrifices everything he can to maintain his community as the day of judgment looms.
 
Wilson was, by his own admission, neither a political nor a Christian writer, but Becker’s character expresses solidarity and Christ-like compassion to an extent that few didactic playwrights could manage. (Indeed, Jitney achieves the aims of Brecht’s Good Person of Sezuan in precisely the affecting and effective manner that the German writer would never dare use.) 
 
But Becker is no Son of Man, he is just the son of a man. Still, you believe in Becker. And, because Becker believes in his cab office, you believe in the people around him too. And if, as you should, you catch this play before it closes, you will share in the hope against hope that Jitney’s utterly perfect final line represents.
 
Jitney is running until 9th July at the Old Vic in Waterloo. Get yourself a ticket here – seats are available throughout the rest of its run. 
 
In Case You Missed It

For Gawker, Patrick Marlborough makes a convincing case that the rest of the world should be allowed to mute America.
 
Vice’s Anne Merlan takes us on a maddening journey to confront a serial harasser who’s spent two decades tormenting women online. 
 
What’s new in local news out of Halifax, Nova Scotia? Kaija Jussinoja and Matt Stickland  lead us down a quietly absorbing rabbit hole of intrigue, fraud and funny twitter takedowns related to a purported Titanic museum.
 
In ‘interviews we all wish we’d landed’ news, hats off to Ashifa Kassam, who’s spoken to the The Worst Person You Know to see what life is like for an unintended meme superstar.
 
Examining the chronic underfunding of the so-called ‘forgotten service’, Isobel Thompson constructs an unflinching study into the horrors of HMP Nottingham . (Should we say something like ‘You can find her next feature in Issue 12’?)
 
Jacqueline Rose and Sam Frears critique nearly four decades of melodrama, femicide and agitprop  in possibly the best piece ever written about EastEnders
 
And Finally
 
Summer is here, it’s really genuinely here, and while that means small children and media workers can dress in shorts for the sweltering weather, for the rest of you, it’s a commitment to dressing in suits for the office, and occasionally, dressing in suits to sit in the baking sun for Wimbledon and the like. It’s oppressive: especially when you’ve been roped into it. In that spirit, allow us to share a clip for the ages, in which the late Brian Sewell is compelled to don his finery for a masked ball in Venice. Needless to say, he does not enjoy himself. It’s six and a bit minutes of magic from the art critic who famously described as Damian Hirst as ‘fucking dreadful.’
 
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That’s it for this week. If you’d like to talk to a member of the editorial team, then do reply to this email. And a reminder that we’re open for pitches, too. And sales. And subscriptions, sponsorships, branded content partnerships, and Web3 integrated multi-platform collaborations. We’ll even open your village fair, for the right price. Catch you next Monday. 

All the best,
 
TF

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