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Michael Moore – the not very awful truth

I come not to praise Michael Moore, but not to bury him either. There’s a fair few things I don’t like about Moore. I don’t like his tendency to regard his every saloon bar utterance as being worth writing down in a book, and some of his fact-checking makes him a bit of a liability to his defenders. But his heart’s in the right place, and he makes good films and tells a few important truths.

Any road up, we all know that the finest sound in the world is one’s own voice shouting “HYPOCRITE!”, and the right wing internet appears to be beginning to buzz a little with stories of a petulant, diva-like Moore, complaining about not being paid enough and, horror of horrors, “abusing low-paid workers”. Because anyone who has remotely left wing politics is, of course, intrinsically a hypocrite if they ever get angry, or indeed if they are not poor. If they’re poor, of course, they’re just acting out of jealousy.

Here’s the story. The first thing that I want to say is that the headline is misleading. I saw Moore’s stage show (which is the only reason I’m writing this; I have local knowledge), and he emphatically did not “mock the Sept 11 passengers as scaredy-cats”. He was trying to make a point about the docility of the middle classes, and about the fact that middle class people tend to expect others to do uncomfortable jobs for them. He mentioned black people, but also mentioned poor whites, football thugs and (topically for London at the time) firemen as members of dispossessed classes who in their daily lives did not typically have the option of letting other people handle their problems. He also made a rather moving tribute to the white middle class passengers on Flight 93, and I have no reason to believe that he wouldn’t have done the same thing on the night which is being written about. His bit on this subject came immediately after a tortured piece of self-questioning about his Columbine film, asking what it was about a police tape that made the parents of the Columbine children hold back from running into the school after their children. I thought that it was an interesting idea, but a bit half-baked. I also thought at the time that it was a mistake to try and conflate the point about conformity with a point about the fact that you don’t see many black faces on aeroplanes, and not in the best of taste, but the “scaredy-cats” remark is an unfair precis. Only a columnist as unremittingly stupid as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown could have interpreted it in the way she did, as glorifying black people for being violent.

(For American readers who may thank their lucky stars that they aren’t exposed to the media presence of Ms Alibhai-Brown, suffice to say that she has made a profession out of being offended by everything; mainly by white people, but also by everything else. She also has a sideline in pretending that her own experience as a favourite daughter of the most prosperous and successful immigrant community in Britain gives her a unique insight into the lives of anyone with a skin darker than Pantone 469. I’ve occasionally noted in the past that she’s the least credible Alibhai since Lord Lucan’s).

Now on to the more substantive charge of hypocrisy. The key paragraph in the linked article reads:

“He stormed around all day screaming at everyone, even the �5-an-hour bar staff, telling them how we were all conmen and useless. Then he went on stage and did it in public,” IMDb quotes a member of the stage crew as saying, adding Moore complained during the performance he was making just $750 a night.

OK, a few facts.

First up, I find it pretty unbelievable that Moore was getting paid $750 a night. Even if it was �750 a night, that’s still fuck-all. Due to the inexplicable taste of roundhouse.org.uk for massive great unskippable flash intros, I haven’t been able to confirm the figures, but I would be very surprised indeed if there were fewer than a thousand seats in the building for his performances. There were three big blocks of seating, plus two smaller blocks at the side of the stage. They were all sold out, and they weren’t bloody cheap. I paid thirty quid for my ticket; there were cheaper seats, but not many of them. If we lowball the estimates and guess 1000 seats at �25 a shot, he got 3% of the takings. That’s pretty low.

Second up, does this ring true? “Moore complained during the performance he was making just $750 a night”. Quite apart from the fact that either a British stagehand has forgotten the difference between pounds and dollars, or Moore’s fee is �468.75, is it even remotely likely that he said it in the way that this article say he said it? Is it not possible that there was some degree of self-deprecation, humour or what have you? As I say, I was there, and Moore regularly went off on quite entertaining little rants about the minutiae of his life. The night I saw him, he was banging on about the singing at the Tottenham/Arsenal match, and his visit to the Oxford Union.

Finally, and most importantly, the “�5 an hour bar staff” at the Roundhouse are bloody useless, and it’s about time someone told them so. Five quid an hour for bar work in Camden is really not bad money (Yanks: it’s $8/hr, albeit that UK bar staff don’t get tips), and they do a terrible job for it. On every occasion I’ve been there, the staff have been fingers and thumbs; they’ll look at a bottle of beer as if it were some strange alien object that washed up on the shore with no clue as to its purpose. It is not a well-run venue from an operational standpoint; it’s a great space and it books some great acts, but the logistics do not appear to me to be any good.

What I think is more likely to have happened is this. Promoters in North London are a pretty tough lot. It’s an extremely competitive market, and it’s in general dominated by veterans of the Irish music scene; the most famous one is Vince Power of the Mean Fiddler organisation. I’ve no idea who’s in charge of managing bookings at the Roundhouse at the moment (someone working for the Roundhouse Trust), but whoever they are, they’re unlikely to have got where they are by being a milquetoast. Moore got into a dispute with the promoter about money (there are always disputes between performers and promoters about money) and threw a bit of a tantrum. The operational setup of the Roundhouse as a venue, on the basis of my casual empiricism as a punter, offers a wealth of material for someone to get cross about. The next night, he decided to incorporate some of this material into his act. The promoter threw a strop of his own, and decided to play a few of his own mind games the next night, and stirred trouble with the staff. Happens all the time. I’d also note that on the night I went there it started about an hour late too, so I’m not entirely convinced that the delay on the last night was due to a “strike” by the staff. Then the whole story was embellished about a dozen fold and fobbed off on a credulous reporter.

The moral of the story is that when you’re dealing with promoters, count your fingers, and that fat Yanks shouldn’t pick fights with tough North London Irish. Nothing to see here, move on.

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