Thursday, November 6, 2008

What the Election Meant

"My polling place is at the fairgrounds in Southern Maryland, about 40 minutes from Washington DC...... When we got there, a 97-year-old black man was being wheeled out of the polls in his wheelchair. It was the first time he had ever voted in his life. When he came outside he asked if anyone could give him an Obama button. There were none left at the Democrat booth so I gave him mine. He was so proud and I started crying. He looked at me and said, 'Why are you crying? This is a day for glory.' I am still crying." Kate, Southern Maryland
Guardian, 5th. November, 2008

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

About America's Election

Text to Dan this morning: "thrilled about the election - what a triumph for America."
"A new dawn," he texted back.
Dan has American connections.
Later, I went out to get the newspapers.
"I'm always happy," said the big black man on Church Street.
I had been following him along and I'd wondered if he was drunk - he was talking to himself and dancing about a bit as he walked.
Now he stopped and I moved past him.
"I'm always happy," he said to a black lady, "this morning especially."
"Me too!" she said and I suddenly realised what they were talking about .
"And me!" I said as I turned and looked back at them and the smiles on their faces and their words will stay with me for a long time. I hope they remember my smile too. It came from the heart. It moves me to tears to think about that moment.
A black man has become the President Elect of the United States and, as a lady called Linda Slaughter said in America, quoted in today's Guardian:
"The day has come when anybody in America can be who they want to be."
I hope, with all my heart, that the same day will come to Great Britain, in the end.
Even if not in my lifetime.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Only 85 years ago

Twenty years before I was born, the Manchester Guardian sent a reporter out to investigate this very new-fangled thing called broadcasting.

"Within the last month" he wrote "some important speeches have been broadcasted (sic) ..... seeking to know what the "listener-in" is getting for his money (I) went to a house with a receiving set. There must still be millions of people who have never had experience of picking up news out of vacancy, so I will tell what happened." (29 October, 1923)

From that point to where we are now is an extraordinary arc of transition.

Now I can post this from my boat and could (if I wanted) use the little ordinary computer on which I am writing as a video-phone to communicate with Australia or America - from the boat, without any direct connection with anything at all - even if the boat were on the move at the time.

I can also read, view and download the opinions of extremists, bigots and idiots world-wide, at any time of the day or night and find monstrously grotesque and outspoken comments and materials on YouTube, MySpace and in other recesses of the net.

What happens next? What communication devices will my grand-daughter, Milly Ann, get to see and use? What freedom of expression will she enjoy?

And how will the debate about taste and sensibility in broadcasting be conducted in the future?

Can we control the flood of materials, sometimes unsuitable, which now swills around the world. And should we try to?

At the time I write this, there's been a huge fuss about broadcasting standards and free speech. By the time you read this, it will probably have been almost forgotten but it is important. It raises issues.

What should people be allowed to say on the radio and the television and how should their freedom of speech be rationed, controlled, moderated by their bosses or by the public?

Jonathan Ross (a well known British broadcaster) was at the centre of the affair.

Ross always reminds me of a comedian called Max Miller - loud suits, brash, gobby.

Max is dead now, but he was lovely - great fun to listen to and a lot of mischief in his voice and his patter. He liked putting people's noses out of joint and I always approve of that.

The beloved Max was often in trouble with the BBC. Bureaucrats agonized about everything he said and should be allowed to say, just as they are agonizing this week about what Jonathan Ross and that half-wit Russell Brand have done to the actor, Andrew Sachs (an old friend of mine, as it happens).

Typically, Max Miller would start to recite what appeared to be a harmless comic verse:

"When roses are red, they are ready for plucking
When girls are sixteen they are ready for ...."

And the band came in, playing loudly and suggestively, and the BBC practically had a corporate fit. That was Max Miller at his best, it was always your dirty mind that did it, that transformed his mild-mannered badinage into something naughty. It was nothing he actually said, it was what his words made you think. How could he be blamed for your wicked thoughts? The late and much lamented Humphrey Lyttleton (purveyor of high class filth to the gentry) got away with the same trick for years in a BBC radio programme called "I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue".

The genuine revulsion that people feel about Ross and Brand and their un-feeling and cruel and pointless comments on Andrew Sach's answering machine should not blind any of us to some very important issues:

a) "I hate what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Unfortunately, this applies to Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand as well as to more important people, topics, issues.

b) Everyone is banging on about how witless and unlicensed British broadcasting now is. But it is not, it is extremely tame. We have no equivalent to Spitting Image or That Was The Week That Was or even Monty Python. There is nothing with any genuine cutting edge being broadcast at this point, even if some of it is much ruder than it used to be and there are a lot more four letter words.

c) The BBC Trust is now going to review the 'trust and decency guidelines'. When I worked for the BBC I was unaware of any such things - common sense and enlightened self-interest were used instead. Refer upwards, if in doubt, to make sure that you weren't the one who got sacked if there were a problem. But referring upwards (of course) only works if your boss still possesses some backbone and integrity and is prepared to stand up to a highly paid presenter or performer on a point of principle and to support his or her more junior staff - this is not always the case, either within the BBC or elsewhere.

d) Many of the press comments pick up on Andrew's age - he is 78, which seems extraordinary. I can only remember him as that agile, inept and alarmingly lovable character, Manuel in Fawlty Towers and he will for ever be crawling under a restaurant table looking for a rat called Basil, in my mind at least.

So would the comments about Andrew's grand-daughter, aimed at hurting him and embarrassing her, have been any more acceptable if Andrew had been 48 or 58 and they had been aimed at his daughter or some other member of his family? What has age got to do with it?

The comments were rude, crude, thoughtless, hurtful and unnecessary. Public revulsion has been startling (and welcome). Nothing like that should be said in the first place or, still worse, recorded and broadcast without the explicit permission of the person at whom the abuse was aimed (and, in this case, the permission of the young woman whose name was bandied about). Surely that is clear enough, it is common sense and ordinary politeness. But it is crucial to remember one final point:

e) The presenters thought the remarks were funny and acceptable. So, apparently, did the young producer and at least one of his more senior colleagues. So did the audience at whom the programme was aimed, because there were only two complaints about it before the Mail on Sunday publicised the whole affair more widely. The gulf between Middle England (or perhaps most of England) and some members of the radio audience has never been more clearly emphasized or has led to a greater fuss about very little.

If Ross and Brand are chastened, so much the better. If mindless disk jockey chat is a little more restrained, very good.

But it is worth being be careful about encouraging censorship of any type, at any time - the next Spitting Image or Monty Python could be killed off by administrative caution even before the viewing public gets a glimpse of what might have been possible - Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand brought free speech itself into disrepute when they exploited it totally without regard to common sense or common decency.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

In Just One Lifetime

When I was young, in Britain, if I wrote a play, I was expected to submit it to the Lord Chamberlain for censorship before offering it to a production company for consideration. At that time, the word 'fuck' could not be printed in a newspaper or spoken on television. Homosexuality was illegal between adult males. A man's whole life could be ruined if he touched another man in a sexual way - even if both of them very much wanted it. Lady Chatterley's Lover could not be published. Far too rude. Roman Catholics, in Northern Ireland, were often done out of votes, jobs and housing to which they ought to have been entitled. Blair Peach was beaten to death in the street by a British policeman during the course of a political demonstration in 1979. Before I was a teenager (before teenagers had really been invented), it was a national scandal that the Queen's sister consorted with a man who had once been divorced. When I was very very small, Britain ruled India and huge chunks of Africa and other territories and denied self-determination to most of their peoples. Anyone who advocated free speech was thrown in jail (as Gandhi was, on several occasions.)

Britain was, in my memory, in my lifetime, a deeply repressive country, in spite of the gloss of liberty and anarchy which came (especially during the Sixties) to lap up over the authoritarian mechanisms on the beach like the tide rising towards high water.

Currently (October, 2008) - the tide is falling again. We are in for another dose of repression, with the added sophistication of computers to accelerate its spread.

The leopard does not change its spots. The British government is an extremely dangerous sort of animal, especially in hard times, which is what we have to look forward to.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Motes and Beams


The Beijing Olympics open today at 8.8 pm local time; some of the British athletes have written to the Chinese President asking him to brush up his attitudes on human rights. I am not very impressed - and I do not think he will be either. Our capacity to detect motes in other people's eyes while disregarding beams in our own never fails to impress.

It is extremely unwise to preach to Johnny Foreigner about freedom of speech and the need for unfettered political expression when we not enjoy nearly as much freedom as we talk about in Britain.

What follows is the draft of a letter that I did not send to the Editor of the Financial Times in June, 2008. The FT is a very conservative newspaper - I did not think the letter had much chance of being published. Also (let me be straight about it since I am laying down the law about hypocrisy) I wanted to submit a proposal for an article about sailing to the FT and I thought submitting a simultaneous political rant might queer my pitch. But the opinions, the points I am making, remain valid in spite of my own pusillanimous nature.

The Letters Editor,
"Life and Arts" section,
The Financial Times,

Rana Mitter’s excellent review of the Penguin History of Modern China in the Weekend edition contained the following words:

“ ... the killing of unarmed protesters, for whatever reason, tells us something fundamental and disturbing about any regime.”

The suggestion is that only brutal dictatorships commit such acts, as the Chinese did in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Has everyone forgotten about Blair Peach, beaten to death in the street in London by a policeman in 1979? Or about Peterloo a little earlier (1819)? Or about Kent State University and the students shot by the National Guard in 1970? Is it a coincidence that America, the land of the free, is now (as another of your excellent reviewers put it), "a land where torture is debated rather than outlawed"?

Of course we don’t have a ‘regime’ in Great Britain. Our unelected Heads of State are, ultimately, kept in office by unelected military forces but that somehow bears no comparison with the unelected Heads of State in Burma or Pakistan who are also kept in office by military forces. Those people wear uniforms. They serve in the armed forces ....

OK, the Queen wears uniforms and Prince Philip (and Prince Charles) are Admirals of the Fleet or something. And Prince William is currently doing a grand tour of the Armed Forces and used a military helicopter to fly himself to a stag night party. But of course they are not spoiled, opulent, idle, unthinking, insensitive figureheads (apart from Prince Harry). It is just a coincidence that the Windsors have more medals and military ranks between them than any Burmese General or President (ex-General) Musharraf of Pakistan.

No, there’s nothing significant about all that. It’s fine for Britain to have a Parliament full of people recruited from the privileged classes, judges and lawyers who were largely educated at private schools and exclusive universities, surveillance cameras on almost every street corner and a police force that can hold you without charge for 28 (soon to be 42?) days without cause and that managed to shoot an unarmed civilian on a tube train by mistake.

Who would want it otherwise?

Also it’s ridiculous to compare the political turmoil in China in the twentieth century with the turmoil throughout Britain in the Seventeenth Century. Isn’t it? Or the Gadarene rush to industrialisation in Britain in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries with what India has achieved in a fraction of the time during the last 30 years? Or the story of Britain’s colonial enterprises (especially in Ireland) with what China is up to in Tibet? Shipping native Chinese into Tibet? Disgraceful! Almost as bad as shipping Protestant Scots into what became Ulster.

I rest my case.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


My (grown up) son, Joshua, very much surprised me the other day because he seemed so unfazed by the idea of compulsory identity cards, ubiquitous close circuit tv and DNA tests for most or all of the population. I have always been very suspicious of the state in Britain and its overwhelming power and ruthlessness. I think we are nearly all horribly complacent about it and our complacency is very dangerous to individual liberty. Can it be right that we bang up more of our population than any other European country? That we have (many) more security cameras on every street corner? I thought a letter in the Guardian a few days ago was interesting. It suggested that we should try compulsory ID cards, iris recognition and centralised personal data stores on the MPs and all the senior civil servants before the rest of us have to endure this extraordinary level of intrusion! I love that idea! But I also remember the opinion of an eighteenth century judge, Lord Mansfield, who defended Britons' rights to think or even to intend anything - however horrible or wicked - without penalty. You shouldn't be sent to prison for having naughty thoughts. But Muslims now are being sent to prison merely because they talk about jihad, they talk about violent revolution and war against Western secularism and capitalism and they even go on the net and inform themselves about what they could do if they had the resources and the nerve. These are not (should not be) imprisonable offences and I find it very frightening to think that they are so. What it would do to any of our lives, to be held with out charge for 40 days or even more while the police rummaged our homes, dismantled our computers, frightened off our customers or suppliers, lost us our jobs and then took us to court and convicted us because of what we had chatted about, imagined or hoped. Or even - like that silly girl who worked at Heathrow - because we had written verses about glorious martyrs. Anyway, I have made my point. If you do not protest or object or even notice when the Muslims (like the Jews in pre-war Germany) are bullied by state authorities in your name, when are you going to protest or try to defend your remaining civil liberties? And when will the police come for you or yours instead of just for the people who have different colour skins and different habits and very different ideas?


I hate not liking London. I’ve lived here a lot, much of my life and although it never feels like home, it always feels that I belong; I never belonged in Paris or Milan, though I spent time in both; or Rome or New York, which I used to love to visit. I never belonged in Bristol, though I lived there. But London ....

Can be so frustrating and disappointing. It is not the big things that are disgusting. Litter, noise, traffic, complexity - these are the characteristics of all cities. But what happened to courtesy? What happened to common sense and competence?

Eight petty examples from one night out:

These all actually happened. All in one evening.

I was in a good mood, too. Before it all started ......

1) I alight from the tube at Waterloo and try to walk to the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Exit to South Bank closed - there are always concerts at the Festival Hall and QEH on a Sunday night but Transport for London cannot be bothered to let people out of the tube station the proper way. The music lover has to go the wrong way, the long way, making an unnecessary detour through the mainline station and across a filthy bridge back over the main road. There are no notices to explain why this is necessary (or that ‘The South Bank’ includes the Queen Elizabeth Hall at all - are people from abroad supposed just to guess these things? Does anybody who writes sign posts and notices up ever read or check them?).

2) I go to collect my concert ticket. Three human beings sit at three desks waiting to attend to me. There is no queue, there is no crowd. I approach the nearest and explain my mission. ‘There’s a machine over there,’ she says, dismissively, ‘for pre-ordered tickets.’ I lie immediately. (It is an instinct for a Londoner). ‘I have no idea which credit card I used,’ I say, grandly. (I haven’t got that many.) Unwillingly, she looks me up on the computer. We sort out which credit card I used and I wave it at her and she hands me my ticket. It takes about 25 seconds. ‘So why,’ I ask her gently,’ did you try to direct me to a machine? I much prefer to deal with a person.’ She seems surprised at my question and even more surprised at my statement. ‘It’s so much quicker,’ she says, without a smile or any apparent irony ‘on the machines’.

3) The foyer is stifling as I wait for the concert to start. I park my coat in the cloakroom but it is still unpleasantly hot. The weather is warm tonight. Three days earlier, the weather had been cold, the foyer and the hall exceptionally cold and drafty. I really regretted disposing of my overcoat. What is so difficult about central heating, aka climate control? Isn’t it supposed to keep temperatures constant inside buildings? It seems to work in other countries. Why not in London?

4) The concert is folk music. Folk music stems from the oral tradition. Folk songs are songs you can sing with friends in the pub or round the dining table. Folk songs are songs that tell stories. At this concert, the musical accompaniments are so loud that few of the words come across. Even the huge Steinway concert grand piano is amplified, for no reason that I can possibly imagine. It could fill the hall with sound without tinny and obtrusive amplifiers between it and the public. I try to work out how loud it all really is - objectively but not in decibels. I play an acoustic (nylon string) guitar. It is a good one, with a concert instrument’s tone and volume. I often play it on my boat, which is a small space. I sometimes (very rarely) play it to visitors or to close, tolerant friends. I reckon that if I played my guitar as loudly as I could, really thrashing it, within two or three feet of my friends, in the confined space of the boat, the sound would still not be as loud or as piercing as the instruments reproduced at the QEH. And, remember, this is not a rock concert (I take ear plugs to rock concerts) this is folk music in a concert hall. And even amplifying the singers’ voices above the (overloud) musical accompaniments doesn’t make the words audible and comprehensible. I miss half the fun of the story telling songs and almost all the jokes whispered into the microphone and I am afraid I sit and think rather ruefully: “if I’d wanted to hear amplified music uncomfortably loud, I could have sat on my boat and put my head phones on and turned the CD player up to its maximum.”

5) I go to the artists’ party afterwards and reach Waterloo station to get the tube at 1145. ‘Closed, nothing going your way,’ says the man trying, quite rudely, to close the gates in my face - and succeeding. No apology, no explanation, nothing to discuss. I resign myself to buying a taxi. So much for the 24 hour city. But of course, it’s Sunday, isn’t it. Everything still stops on a Sunday in London. I wonder why.

6) I trudge upstairs again to find the station taxis, delighted that there is no queue. ‘Good,’ I think. ‘ Thank Heaven for that. At least there’s no problem here.’ But the first cab on the rank has its doors locked when I try to get in. ‘A mistake,’ I think. I try the door again. Still locked. I try again, assuming the driver will open the door when he sees what I am doing. (He isn’t asleep). Still locked. The front window purrs down, as if reluctantly. ‘Why isn’t your door opening?” I ask politely. ‘Where you going?’ he asks aggressively. ‘Lisson Grove,’ I say - resisting the temptation to remind him of his obligations under the Hackney Carriage Act. It is still five minutes before midnight and his duty is to take any fare that is offered, wherever the punter wants to go. ‘Why isn’t your door opening? And what ...’ ‘You’re supposed to ask the driver first,’ he says fiercely. ‘You got to ask the driver.’ I resist the temptation to spit in his eye and move to the second taxi in the rank. ‘Well, I never heard that one before.....’ I mutter emolliently and climb inside wearily. I do get fed up with all this London shit. It seems so unnecessary.

7) In the cab, I get a pen and a notebook to make a note of the cab number. I am still tempted to have a major row with him. I try to switch the light on. Nothing happens. ‘Can you switch this light on?’ I ask, still politely. ‘It’s broken,’ he says, without apology or explanation. 'It doesn't work.' I write his number down anyway, in my diary. 88410 - a driver to be avoided. I carry a small torch in my pocket, for just such an emergency.

8) But I skip the row, when we get there. I content myself with under-tipping. The fare is £18, I give him £20 and accept his offer of a receipt. It would be unpleasant not to tip him at all and I would normally give him at least all the change, probably a few pennies more (the route he followed was quite clever). Instead, I take one pound coin back for myself and dribble the other, reluctantly, into his outstretched hand. He sees it for what it is - an insult. A very deliberate insult. It makes me sad. We part without salutation, just another discontented, discourteous, ill-mannered and ultimately self-defeating couple of grumpy and frustrated Londoners on a typical night out in March 2008.

I am left asking myself some questions:

Why didn’t that taxi driver treat me as he would want to be treated himself? Why didn’t the girl issuing the ticket? Why do central heating engineers not go themselves to check their draught ridden atriums in changeable conditions? Why don’t sound engineers ask their audiences how they like to listen to music? I haven’t even touched on the muddle with my change when I bought a soft drink at the concert hall (I still don’t know if I was under- or over- charged but it certainly wasn’t right) or the tragi-comedy of asking for a receipt when I bought a book that was on offer that night.

The very sweet girl serving me gave me my change immediately and then started to radio for help. ‘We got nothing for receipts,’ she said, ‘we don’t know about receipts’. I stopped her and said I would manage without one. ‘Oh dear,’ she said, the most compassionate response I got out of anyone all night.

‘Oh dear, I hope it doesn’t bother.’

Why on earth do people not test and check the systems that they ‘design’ and the people that they ‘train’, I thought of a close friend who used to run the National Theatre. He checked everything himself; the cloakrooms and toilets, the restaurants and the book stalls. He tested everything and trained all the staff to pay the attention to detail which he does himself. Mark you, he got horribly tired after a few years not only cleaning the Augean stables but making sure they stayed clean. I was very relieved when he went on to help to run Channel Four.

I suppose the senior staff of the South Bank Centre are too grand to worry about the soap dispensers in the gents which are so remote from the basins that you cannot wash your hands properly after micturating? Or the choke point doorway to the gents where every one bumps into everyone else because it's far too narrow? I wonder what the last occasion was when one of the very senior staff had a look round the place behind the scenes or had a personal friend attend and play the part of a routine concert goer and test all the systems? I shall send copies of this petty diatribe to the directors of the South Bank - but I don’t suppose I will get any satisfaction. That's another hobby horse! People who don't reply to letters when they ought to. Not just in London.