Tuesday, May 29, 2007


The Cannes Film Festival has occasioned another brief revival of that old favourite: Is There a British Film Industry? There doesn’t seem to be much of it evident on the Riviera this year, save that the blessed Stephen Frears is chairman of the jury, only the second person from these shores to be so honoured in its 60 years.

When I was last in London long enough to see any movies, I finally and a little reluctantly caught up with one of the most successful of recent native efforts, produced by DNA Films, among the very highest-profile of British production houses. It was a movie that needed the support of the National Lottery, the UK Film Council, the BBC, a Hollywood producer and a distribution deal with Fox in order to get made. I thought it was an utter dog’s breakfast.

I am writing of Notes on a Scandal. I’d read a little about it before I saw it and I knew of course that Dench, Blanchett and dramatiser Patrick Marber had all been Oscar-nominated. What none of this had prepared me for was to find that it was a piece of soap opera, about as penetrating and contemporary as an episode of Peyton Place. Flimsy, platitudinous and rooted in no level of reality, it seemed to me to be one of the most dishonest films I have seen in years. This is what passes for cutting-edge British movie-making?

It must begin, I guess, with the novel, which I haven’t read. It’s by Zoë Heller. I remember not reading her columns in The Sunday Times in the 1980s, largely because Jack Trevor Storey had done that kind of inconsequential diary so much better twenty years earlier. The novel was short-listed for the Booker Prize so I suppose people must have liked it. I hear that Marber’s screenplay changes the ending but what else is new in movie-making?

The tale is simply told. A young woman teacher is discovered by an older woman teacher to be screwing one of the pupils (a boy). The older woman manipulates the situation. Everybody gets hurt. There is a large measure of implied lesbianism in the manipulation. At the end, the “monster” is getting her talons into another young woman. All the lesbians of my acquaintance roared with laughter.

Though far less explicit than Frank Marcus’s play, Scandal bears comparison with – and is certainly no more enlightened than – The Killing of Sister George which (nobody else seems to have noticed) was dramatised for the big screen by Lukas Heller, Zoë’s father. He also wrote the screenplay based on the novel Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Overheated views of predatory women clearly course through the Heller genes.

The movie of Scandal is directed by Richard Eyre. I’ve known him for 30 years or more; not well – we don’t exchange Christmas cards, I’ve never been to the house(s) – but well enough for him once to agree to give me a job reference, even though we never worked together. When he first started making feature films, I wounded and perplexed him by writing in a review that he made wonderful drama for television but couldn’t translate the knack to the bigger screen. I cleave to that view. For television, he directed Comedians, Country, Waterloo Sunset, The Imitation Game, Past Caring, The Insurance Man and Tumbledown, among others. For the cinema, he has done The Ploughman’s Lunch, Stage Beauty, Iris, Laughterhouse and Notes on a Scandal. There’s really no comparison.

It’s hard quite to pin down what goes wrong for Sir Richard when he’s shooting a movie rather than a telefilm, but I think it boils down to a matter of pitch. The first thing that hit me when sitting in the cinema watching his latest film was the music. He had hired Philip Glass. This is so wrong. Glass is fine for an arty movie – something by Peter Greenaway, say – but his kind of mercilessly florid minimalism makes soap opera seem just pretentious. Something as deeply old-fashioned as Scandal needs a much more traditional palette of sound to confirm its familiarity. (Needless to say, Glass was also Oscar-nominated).

Cate Blanchett’s new-girl teacher – she has the cat’s name of Sheba – arrives late for the inaugural staff meeting, allowing Michael Maloney’s Central-Casting headmaster to discomfit her. This is all meant to make her seem interesting, unconventional, maverick but all I thought was that she was unreliable. What kind of nit turns up late on the first day of a new job? Blanchett’s performance is quickly a pain: ingratiating, generalised, loose. Who is this woman? And why does she risk so much with this boy? Why this boy?

Bill Nighy does his crumpled, whiny turn as her husband, requiring no acting on his part. Eyre shoots and cuts it so that you only ever see Nighy doing the parenting, implying that Sheba is a failure as a mother. Is it because of an emptiness in the marriage that Sheba takes up with the schoolboy? Or is it because she is a dumb bitch?

The boy is a further puzzle. Apart from his cheek, he has no attractive qualities and the boy playing him is very ordinaire. There is a ludicrous scene in which they get down to it beside a railway line, lying across her coat. Not this woman, you feel. As for him, there is a strand of reaction, encouraged by the playing and the editing, that suggests he is just making use of her and then will drop her unceremoniously. This, of course, is exactly what the film does with the boy who ceases to be of interest to Eyre or Marber once the storm breaks. Shallow stuff.

Something that goes horribly wrong in the film is the depiction of the media stance to the breaking scandal. Neither cinema nor even television drama ever seems to understand what a press stakeout looks like or what constitutes its dynamic. It’s as if no director ever bothers to slide along to one and have a shufti. Their take is always what they glimpse on television news, which gives no true idea. In Scandal, a small knot of rhubarbing extras hangs out around the fronts of the teachers’ respective homes and then shouts incoherently. It’s deeply unconvincing.

It would help if the story were not set in London. There’s no reason why it should be. A small provincial town would imply more parochial attitudes and a more stifling moral ambience. Also the press interest would look more like what is depicted here. I get surprisingly resentful of the London bias in film and television. If there’s no specific reason for a story to be set in the capital, set it somewhere else. Londoners watch less telly than residents of any other part of these islands and Scandal will have its largest audience on television.

There’s also a distinct air of cosiness, of an old-pals rather than a small-town kind. An abruptly truncated scene, seemingly set at a party in an old folks home, presumably depicts the father of Barbara, the older woman teacher, and his fellow inmates, but we’re not told. The scene appears to be redundant but it has to stay in some form because it introduces Barbara’s sister Marjorie, who later on has one key scene that, if it came out of left field, would seem even more contrived than it does as used. Marjorie is played by the great Julia McKenzie.

Also in the old folks’ home scene is Marjorie’s daughter. I couldn’t place the actress, while admiring the resemblance she bore to McKenzie. Only when I saw the credits did I realise that it was someone whom I have long cast in my mind as McKenzie’s daughter, Debra Gillett. Gillett has always been blonde but here she’s a brunette and that threw me. She played alongside Cate Blanchett in the 1990s West End revival of Sir David Hare’s play Plenty. She is also Patrick Marber’s long-time partner. Lady Hare also gets a name-check in the screenplay: she is otherwise known as Nicole Farhi. Marber got his theatre break during Sir Richard Eyre’s tenure as artistic director of the National Theatre. Eyre has also directed plays by Hare. As Bob Hope used to say, “it’s not how well you play golf that matters, it’s who you play golf with”.

There remains Dame Judi. She of course elevates almost everything in which she appears, even soggy BBC sitcoms. It was good to see her playing a nasty piece of work for once. A London friend, whose take on Notes on a Scandal mirrored mine, had recently seen her in the musical version of The Merry Wives of Windsor at Stratford and reported that “she was so fucking winsome, I wanted to run onto the stage and slap her, and it’s so not right for Mistress Quickly”. Well, she ain’t winsome as Barbara in the movie. Eyre sometimes shoots her so unflatteringly, it almost becomes gothic. And there’s a shot of her in the bath that, simply because she does it, is so very telling and worth any number of unresolved dialogue scenes.

But Dench is wasting her time and talent doing thin stuff like this. The great mystery is how so many evidently self-aware, thoughtful, demanding, intelligent people – Eyre, Dench, Marber, Blanchett, Glass, Nighy – could be bothered with such a trivial piece of shlock. Perhaps they were all in thrall to the Hollywood element, producer Scott Ruden. If somebody crass threw money at you and told you not to worry your pretty little head about the quality of the work, you might close your eyes, hold your nose and jump too.

The Guardian today (May 29th) seems packed with straws in the wind, small examples of how disordered the world has become. A woman appointed by the Polish government to guard the rights of children has accused a British television import, The Teletubbies, of “homosexual propaganda”. Evidently one of these fabric creatures that entertain toddlers carries “a lady’s purse” even though he’s “a boy”. I imagined they were sexless fantasies but there you go.

Quite how insisting on gender stereotypes helps to protect children escapes me. And how exactly is the term “propaganda” being used here? If a “boy” carries a “purse” without it exciting comment among his peers, what is that propagandising for? Tolerance? I do wonder what this busybody is doing to protect the rights of Poland’s children who are themselves homosexual.

Skipping west to Holland, we find the latest gruesome entry in the base world known jocularly as “reality television”. A terminally ill woman is to choose which of three patients who are waiting for transplants should receive her kidneys when she dies – which she presumably will do during the programme. Needless to say, viewers will be invited to offer their own opinions, medically qualified as they all so clearly are. What a sweet idea! I wish I’d been a fly on the wall when they pitched that to the programme commissioner. And what’s next? A mother choosing which of ten homeless drug addicts should get to fuck her six year-old daughter? Why not? Admit it, you’d watch that.

In Brighton, police have backed off from their stated intention to apprehend all those taking part in a mass bicycle ride on June 8th and 9th to publicise climate change and other similarly important causes. “Why pick on cyclists?” I hear you cry. Ah, but all these are going to cycle naked. I don’t understand this spreading desire to fling your clothes off and join a crowd. The great majority of people look even worse unclothed than they do clothed. And the very least a mass of naked cyclists is likely to do is to cause a snarl-up. So I do think the police should move them on. And is there an offence of riding a bicycle naked while in possession of an erection, I wonder?

Back in the wacky world of the goggle box, our own dear Channel 4 has been fending off justly outraged attacks on its plan to screen footage shot at the Diana, Princess of Wales death-crash site in Paris. C4’s spokespeople are downplaying the explicit nature of the images but there is no justification for revisiting this story in any form, however mindful of public and private sensibilities the channel claims to be. Guardian columnist Michele Hanson quotes Channel 4 – presumably from a written press release – as referring to “a genuine public interest”. I guess this is as opposed to the mendacious claims for public interest that are usually cited as justification for an otherwise morally bankrupt programme idea. What the channel really means is that it expects to catch viewing figures comparable with those for Ugly Betty. I commend to them my reality television notion alluded to above. There’d be genuine public interest in that, as there would be in relays of dog-fighting, public executions and hard core porn. Its genuineness could be measured in the ratings figures.

Channel 4 is in a bad place just now. It is a bit like a football team that is sliding towards the relegation zone with everybody saying that the manager is a wally. C4’s chief executive is one “Andy” Duncan. Yes, he does sound like a presenter of children’s programmes, doesn’t he? If only he dressed like one. Mr Duncan wears “informal” attire rather than the suit and tie traditionally favoured by television executives. This really is a grave mistake, a palpably misapplied attempt to present himself as a free spirit. A certain amount of sport was had at the expense of President Bush recently when he appeared as shifty as a bird-dog in full evening dress to entertain HM the Queen, unimaginably the very first formal dinner of his presidency. Your impression that Bush is just playing at being a public figure was once again confirmed in spades. Mr Duncan ought to pay attention and notice how important dress codes are when you’re in a position of power (as he surely is).

If he presented himself like Hamlet, as “the glass of fashion and the mould of form”, that would be just dandy. Tragically, Mr Duncan appears to amass his wardrobe at Asda. He is not just casually dressed, he is cheaply, shoddily, crappily dressed. Not surprisingly, he gives the impression that he looks unimpressive because he is unimpressive. He must get mistaken for a second assistant director twenty times a day. C4’s founding father was Sir Jeremy Isaacs, an elegant, forceful, charismatic character who always had a ready answer delivered with wit and punch. He looked the part. It is as though the job has finally passed down to the boy in the post room.

Andrew Duncan – I refuse to pander to his meretricious demotic – used to be head of marketing at the BBC. Well, there’s a surprise. No, I mean it. How could someone who looks as though he just popped out to check the barbecue before the arrival of the guests he met in an internet chat-room land so influential a position in the present market-led broadcasting ecosystem (to revive a notion Peter Fiddick coined back in the 1970s)? Now, what with the ham-fisted handling of the Big Brother crisis – and make no mistake, this was a crisis – and the easily dropped ball of the Princess of Wales programme, Duncan is increasingly exposed for what he is, an over-promoted lightweight.

Oh yes, gentle reader, we live in disordered times. And what shall we do about it?

Sunday, May 20, 2007


Today, May 20th, is Eliza Doolittle Day and, around midday, I shall complete 60 years of independent existence. I told the butcher so yesterday morning when he called me, as he often does, “young man”. “Some of us have already passed beyond that,” he said, without much show of sympathy as he selected the shoulder of lamb. He’s 63. When he returned from out the back with the bones for the dogs, he said “oh, it’s only a number, sir”. Then he gave me a quizzical look. “Mind,” he added, “it’s a big number”.

For years I’ve taken the view that it’s only a number. I remember the sensation, when I turned 33, that I had never thought of being that old. After that, I took it in my stride and was short with friends who groaned about getting older. Hell, the alternative is worse.

But this one seems like a rite of passage. There’s the bus pass, for starters. Not that I’ve actually got my bus pass yet. I thought I’d applied in good time. I asked my favourite woman at the post office for the form and, when she said nothing, I cried “you’re supposed to reel back in shock and amazement”. She came back quick as a flash: “Well, I assumed you were getting it for your mother”. But I forgot to feed into the calculation that I was dealing with the local council. So the paperwork is no doubt mired on some jobsworth’s desk. I expect I will have to pay unnecessarily for a few bus rides before I finally have the priceless pass in my hand.

If were a woman I’d be a pensioner from today. Not long to wait. Five years will zip by if the last 27 or so be any guide. In society’s view, I am formally old. If I am the victim of some crime or public incident, the press will describe me as “an elderly man”. At least I don’t have grandchildren which is just about the most defining fact the press grabs hold of if you’re over a certain age: “Local grandmother wins Lottery jackpot” – you know the kind of thing.

And there’s a sort of expectation about lifestyle that, if you’re not careful, you begin to take on board. I don’t think we’re about to start taking Saga holidays and going to Darby & Joan Clubs (are there still Darby & Joan Clubs?) But take last weekend, for instance. We caught a lunchtime train to London for two 60th birthday parties. One was an informal afternoon-drifting-into-evening drop-in do in a north London garden and living room. The other was a catered affair in the Conservatory at the Barbican Centre, for which the witty invitations were fold-out versions of a bus pass. This was firmly designated as 6.00-8.30pm so that anyone who wanted to would still have evening left in which to go on to something else. We got the train back west and were home soon after 10.00. Now, what sort of people under the age-range of 55-upwards go to two Saturday parties and can still have an early night? Only the religious, probably.

Of course, we are by and large a good advert for our years. When Jack Nicholson turned 60 ten years and a month ago, he said that he was a lot younger than his father had been at 60. I feel the same. In our parents’ generation, there was a vivid fear of being thought “mutton dressed as lamb” but nobody pays that any heed any more. There are “young” clothes, of course, but you really can’t wear those unless you’re 17 and thin as a wand. For the rest of us, we fight against age discrimination while wearing the kinds of clothes we wore in our twenties, dyeing our hair and having “work” done to make our ages more mysterious. There is much less evidence of youth culture now than when we invented it and many of the heroes of our youth are still working and are the heroes of the present young. There was a “generation gap” between us and our parents. Now we’re all Jack and Jill, whatever age we are.

The downside is that it’s downhill. In your 50s, I discovered – because certainly nobody warned me – that the aging process really takes hold. Run for a bus and you’re winded for the whole journey. Work in the garden and you can’t get out of the chair you just sat in for five minutes. Stay up late and you’re nodding off all the next day. Aches and pains become part of the warp and woof of daily life. Recovery from any extra effort takes far longer than when you took most things in your stride.

And if you didn’t have health problems before, they begin at least to threaten to hang about you now. My eyesight has become gradually compromised and it isn’t clear yet whether any surgical procedures will be recommended or even practicable. For someone whose home is bursting with still-to-be-read books and still-to-be-watched videotapes, this is gloomy stuff. And my lifelong disinclination to exercise is coming home to roost in various subterranean and not so subtle ways. I don’t suggest that turning 60 brings unfamiliar intimations of mortality. I never lacked for those. The playwright David Mercer, a largely forgotten figure now, was born 19 years before me and said, when he turned 45, that being that age made him aware of his mortality. At the time, I found that unaccountable for, at 26, I felt well aware that we pass this way only once and then not for long. Mercer died only seven years later, the same year as John Lennon. I hope to savour the full and rich old age that those two giants were cruelly denied.

But there are no guarantees in these matters, whatever age you are. In the late 1970s, a Sunday Times Magazine survey of acting talent picked out one man and one woman tipped to go a long way. They were Richard Beckinsale, who was to die of a heart attack in 1979 at the age of 31, and Susan Littler, who died of cancer in 1982 at 32. So you just have to hope for the best and try to present a moving target. There are no rules about these things. John Gielgud gave his last television interview to a rather probing Jeremy Paxman who wanted to know Sir John’s attitude to death, which Paxman evidently thought a man in his mid-90s should be daily expecting. I wish Sir John had snapped that, unless the interview were saved until after his death, he would certainly see out some of those watching and perhaps, who could guess, even Paxman himself. And of course, as I write in the small hours of May 20th, there is actually no knowing if I will indeed reach the full 60. I could pass in my sleep, still a quinquagenarian.

Monday, May 14, 2007


Is there any child presently missing whose name is not Madeleine McCann? I ask because the media – print and broadcast, daytime and evening, tabloid and ‘serious’ – seem locked in agreement that the fate of the Liverpool girl evidently abducted in Portugal is the most compelling story of the day. The fortunes of Gordon Brown are lucky if they get to share the limelight and even he felt the need – or was advised – to utter a few mawkish platitudes on the matter.

Other parents, worried sick about their own missing children, must wonder what they should have done to commandeer such a stupendous level of publicity. Or perhaps some of them had the good taste and good sense to deny the media access to their grief. The McCanns, walking unseeing through the days and the throng, appear as though participants in some macabre reality show: I’m Available for Photographs – Get My Kid Back.

Why this child, these parents, this story? It would be unkind to suggest that the Portuguese setting allows reporters and crews to jet off to the sun and get paid for it; or that it presents the opportunity for more glamorous shots than would, say, the streets of Liverpool; or that the probability that the perpetrator is some kind of filthy foreigner takes some of the dread out of whatever the denouement proves to be and permits a barely discernible subtext of xenophobia.

How these child-horror stories select themselves for maximum coverage invites close study. Sarah Payne, the Soham girls and now this case suggest that somehow the sex of the victim is a deciding factor. With the deaths of James Bulger and Jason Swift there were other factors that weighed. The Moors Murders – long ago but still a benchmark for crimes against children – were more notable for the murderers (names that still resound) than their victims (can you name any of them?) That football can be dragged into the mix also helps to glamorise the story. If you want your missing child to be on everyone’s lips, you’d better get yourselves in good with a world-famous sports star quick.

Madeleine McCann – inevitably dubbed Maddy by scores of reporters and their readers who know nothing about her, including whether the diminutive has ever before been used of her (cf “Jamie” Bulger) – may still be lucky and be returned to her parents. No doubt there will be services of thanks in Liverpool Cathedral (both of them) at such a resolution. But in some horrible way, working to its own momentum, the tragic end is now the expected and almost the willed one. Newspapers and increasingly populist news bulletins thrive on tears and grief – “every parents’ nightmare” – and cannot but present a reprieve as a sort of anti-climax.

I suppose it must be because people want to suffer vicariously that this case, with its stark and simply understood facts, plays so strongly. Richard Bilton, the BBC1 6.00pm bulletin editor’s favourite reporter, was doing vox pops over the border in Spain the other day, showing people photographs of the McCann girl. There was an implication in his manner that anyone who didn’t recognise her was mysteriously uncaring or ill informed, this last possibility also reflecting badly on the local police (Spanish or Portuguese, it hardly mattered which). I would like to suggest, in the gentlest possible way, that declining to be bullied into obsessing about a hitherto unknown child missing on holiday is not evidence that one is a bad person. I’m sorry for the McCanns, just as I am sorry for the families of those killed in last week’s anti-government riots in Pakistan and today’s suicide bombings in Iraq. But quite frankly it doesn’t have much to do with me and if I never again see that woman clutching her child’s favourite toy, it won’t be too soon.

PS: In ‘BLAIR – REST in PURGATORY’, I forgot to mention that his first Cabinet also included a blind man, a remarkable first (I think) in politics anywhere in the world. But it didn’t include anyone who wasn’t white and, though Paul Boateng was elevated in 2002 and Baroness Amos thereafter, Britain has some way to go yet before its government is as integrated as several have been in the USA.

Saturday, May 12, 2007


I sent a letter to The Guardian that concluded the same way as does the previous blog entry (BLAIR: REST in PURGATORY) but they didn't publish it. A little suspicious, I wrote the following letter to the Readers' Editor of the paper:

Dear Madam,

I have had my fair crack on the letters page of The Guardian over the years – before that as a freelance journalist in the paper’s columns – and I do not complain (aloud, anyway) if a piece of banal, barely literate fluff is preferred over an argument of substance that I have carefully crafted. But I am provoked that my most recent letter has been overlooked and I wonder whether its conclusion -– that Mr Bush and Mr Blair should be tried for war crimes, found guilty and publicly executed – has damned it in the eyes of the letters editor.

After the massacre of schoolchildren at Beslan, I wrote to The Guardian advocating that, among other courses of action, the Russian government consider executing the Chechen terrorists it then held in jail, to prevent such prisoners being again used as bargaining chips against the release of innocent civilians taken hostage. It did not seem to me that such a suggestion was quite as morally bankrupt as the philosophy of the supposed freedom-fighters who had visited such grief upon that community.

The (then?) letters editor (I do not know if the same man still holds the post) telephoned me to satisfy himself that I was indeed advocating killing by the state. He did not use the phrase “judicial murder” but I sensed its presence. “We do not” he said (I summarise) “publish the advocacy of killing by anyone”.

That is not exactly so, of course. The Guardian has run pieces advocating, supporting or rationalising warfare and invasion. Warfare and invasion encompass killing. Any invasion or waging of war that did not result in loss of life would hardly merit the description. In electing to invade Iraq and visit war within its borders (a policy by no means universally supported in their respective countries, either among the populace or among the ruling elites), Mr Bush and Mr Blair ensured that tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians and hundreds of military personnel on both sides of the conflict who would otherwise have been alive today are dead. Whatever alternative scenario may be offered, that is inescapable.

The lives of Mr Bush and Mr Blair are not, in some mystical way, more sacrosanct than those of obscure individuals who have no power over their own fate. These two men, wielding power unimaginable to their victims, conducted an invasion that was itself a breach of international law and thereafter oversaw many breaches of the international conventions that govern the prosecution of warfare and the care of detainees. In suggesting that there is a case for a war crimes trial, I merely reflect a comparatively widely held view. Many crimes – not all of them necessarily entailing the deaths of others – are punishable by execution across the world, not least in several of the United States. To contemplate such treatment of those found guilty ought not to be thought beyond the pale in a mature forum such as The Guardian.

The world has changed unutterably since the time when capital punishment was abolished in Britain. Even as a child, I instinctively recoiled from the hangman’s trade and I advocated abolition, much against the views of my parents, long before it came to pass. In those days, the whole conduct of war was an official secret. Such barbarities as were visited upon civilians and prisoners went unreported. The notions that journalists might be “embedded” with front line troops and rank-and-filers sell their stories to tabloid newspapers were perfectly unthinkable. Moreover, terrorists did not take civilian hostages and bargain for the release of their fellows. Suicide bombers did not inflict carnage upon city streets. Teenagers did not roam their neighbourhoods armed with guns. It was extraordinarily rare that the equivalent of something as paltry as a mobile phone or a pair of trainers would be the occasion for the slaying of a passer-by.

Perhaps my letter has been discarded because it is indeed the paper’s policy to avoid explicit, particular advocacy of death. Perhaps the lawyers feared there might be some response that would do the paper no good. Perhaps the letters editor merely disappeared under that convenient cloud of mist wherein editorial judgments are made about what is “appropriate” and what is “good enough” and anyway there were a lot of unexceptionable letters to chose from.

But I would be interested to know your own view … and indeed whether you can tease out a coherent editorial position,

Thank you for your time.

Yours faithfully,

W.Stephen Gilbert

I will inform my blog readers of any response.

Monday, May 07, 2007


The prime minister is expected to announce his resignation in a day or two. I don’t imagine that there will be actual dancing in the streets. After all, we’ve been awaiting this day for an awfully long time and we got bored months ago. Rather than throwing popular celebrations, I think a criminal trial would be more in order. Blair, along with Bush, should be found guilty of war crimes and publicly executed. That would be a fitting end.

You may get the impression that I won’t miss him. It’s true that there was a moment when I thought he might turn out to be quite a good thing. It was when he was shadow energy spokesman during Margaret Thatcher’s last government. By the time he was opposition leader, junking Clause IV and proclaiming “New Labour” (i.e. non-Socialist Labour), I feared he was going to be a disaster. It wasn’t – but it might as well have been – the Labour emblem of which Blake wrote: “O Rose, thou art sick!/The invisible worm,/That flies in the night/In the howling storm,/Has found out thy bed/Of crimson joy;/And his dark secret love/Does thy life destroy” [The Sick Rose]. Blair has been an all too visible worm and the Labour Party, as anyone aged over 20 knew it, has been deadheaded.

But there was a bright morning just over ten years ago when all things looked possible, even with Blair and his ghastly wife in Downing Street. His first Cabinet had more women in it than ever before, plus one out gay man and four (four!) men with beards. There were many more women in the House (“Blair’s babes”, god help us), among whom was a profoundly disabled member. It all looked like a quiet revolution, like the government might actually represent us.

Not for long. It was Tam Dalyell, the Labour backbencher and Father of the House up to the 2005 election, who described Blair as the worst prime minister during his 43 years in parliament. A mere voter, I wouldn’t dissent from that. As I wrote in my book Common Sense (freely downloadable from the link to right of screen), I didn’t vote Labour in 2001 because I thought Blair had already taken us to war too often – and this was before both Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq that overthrew Saddam Hussein.

Blair has acknowledged his admiration of Thatcher whose own record in office is hardly more neo-conservative than his own. Reportedly, Blair volunteered a list of ten great British prime ministers from which his four Labour predecessors were conspicuously absent. He has some nerve. Clement Attlee’s government implemented the Butler Education Act and carried through the creation of the NHS that had been proposed under Churchill, as well as nationalizing the mines, railways, iron and steel and the Bank of England to the benefit of all. Harold Wilson’s lasting achievements may all have been in the narrow area of social justice – the same could be said for Blair – but at least Wilson kept this country out of the Vietnam War and never became Lyndon Johnson’s or Richard Nixon’s poodle. Wilson, James Callaghan, Ramsay MacDonald and Attlee, the last at great cost in replenishing the defences after World War II, kept this nation at peace throughout their terms. Blair has taken us to war on five separate occasions. On that ground alone, he is the most morally bankrupt prime minister of my lifetime.

It is as Labour supporters that we have most to begrudge him. Apart from George W Bush, his closest allies on the world stage have been Silvio Berlusconi, Angela Merkel and José Maria Aznar, all of them far to the right of – to pluck a name at random – David Cameron. He has had precious little time for Romano Prodi, Gerhard Schroder or José Luis Zapatero, the leaders whose terms abut those of his friends. Even Jacques Chirac, that Conservative opportunist, has been too idiosyncratic for Blair’s taste and the PM’s office made no secret of his hope that it would be Nicholas Sarkozy rather than Ségolène Royal with whom he would do French business in his last weeks of power, never mind that Mlle Royal is a left-centrist and Sarkozy a deep-dyed neo-con radical. It is an extraordinary thing to be able to say of a Labour prime minister that the only party that could succeed his in government and pursue more reactionary policies and more reactionary allies than his would be the BNP.

And what is left for his successor? The current Private Eye cover, showing Blair peering through a magnifying glass and crying “Oh look – it’s my legacy!”, gets it just right. The words ‘chalice’ and ‘poisoned’ spring to mind. Labour’s support is in free fall, not just in opinion polls but in votes actually cast in the local authority and the Scottish and Welsh assembly elections. Gordon Brown has a hideous situation in Scotland where Alex Salmond, hating Labour as only a natural ally can hate, has nothing to lose from doing Brown a power of no good. Tam Dalyell’s famous “West Lothian question” about Scottish MPs voting on matters that only concern England and Wales is not a question that concerns the SNP which doesn’t aim to send members to London. A national Tory revival makes no never mind in Scotland; indeed, it would only take votes from the SNP’s rivals. If a Tory government arrives in Westminster, Salmond will have a more natural springboard from which to prepare for Scottish independence. He’s in a win-win position.

Prime Minister Brown needs comprehensively to repudiate the Blair programme if he is to creep out from under the dead weight of ten years of disillusionment, even if it means him having to deploy rather frequently his deprecating mirthless smile and claiming that it seemed better to stay at the Exchequer for a decade and fight (in vain) for what he believed in. No one will believe him for the first few months so he will have to demonstrate the will to follow new policies. An early task will be the extrication from Iraq and Afghanistan with the most honour he can finagle. The fact that, unlike Blair, he has cultivated numerous contacts in the Democratic Party in the States (beyond any no-brainer pals’ act with Bill Clinton) ought to help him to build a different kind of transatlantic understanding. But his hardest task of all will be the long-term shrugging off of his share of blame for ten years of deepening dismay. I don’t envy him.

Thursday, May 03, 2007


During the near-month that I was thwarted from going on line by BT Broadband’s tardiness, arrogance and incompetence, there were many developments in the real world that made my blog finger itchy. The capture of a group of British sailors by Iranian forces, their videotaped humiliation and the self-inflicted wounds by which they handed Tehran the moral victory once back home would certainly have drawn me to the keyboard.

The misjudgment of allowing members of the apprehended party – inevitably in practice the two dumbest sailors, Mr Bean and the chain-smoking mum – to sell their accounts to the tabloids made both the military and the government a laughing stock around the world, especially in the Middle East. Which of us wouldn’t volunteer to spend a fortnight relaxing in the custody of a foreign land if the reward were a six-figure sum for confirming a tabloid editor’s prejudices? (Not me, actually, but then I’ve been to Tehran and I have no wish to return, especially not in its present volatile state).

Meanwhile there has been a will-he-won’t-he fracas – it hardly merits the word “debate” – concerning HRH Prince Harry and his loudly expressed desire to get himself killed in Iraq, either in an explosion or by beheading as a captive. When the inevitable happens, remember how I warned you that the media would hail him as a hero, whatever he was actually doing at the time of his demise.

The establishment’s need to dress up the playboy princeling’s behaviour (past, present and future) in myth-making terms is very germane to the larger point I want to make. That concerns the military’s most ill-advised accommodation with the media’s unsubtle voyeurism about any matter that can be passed off as “human interest”.

There was a time, not so long ago, when all military matters were deemed secret, confidential and not for public discussion. To report even quite banal aspects of military management was a breach of the Official Secrets Act. Of course, the culture of confidentiality allowed all manner of ills to be winked at in service life and I certainly deplore such unaccountability. Indeed, I remain of the view that no profession, including the military, should be allowed to act as judge and jury in examinations of breaches of the rules, especially where the civil law ought to take an interest.

But inevitably the pendulum has swung too far the other way. Now top brass are becoming familiar spokesmen on news bulletins, ready with their sound bites and their pat answers. Successive prime ministers and home secretaries used to hold to the line that upon military issues they never confirmed nor denied any proposal or rumour. Mr Blair still says as much on intelligence questions but we already know a great deal more about the workings of MI5 and MI6 than any previous generation did.

As far as military operations are concerned, it is now standard practice that both print and broadcast journalists talk to military personnel on the front line, before, after and sometimes during engagement with hostile forces. A new term has rapidly established itself to describe journalists who accompany troops in war situations over a sustained period: those reporters are “embedded”.

It’s hard to figure why the commanders should believe that, on balance, more is gained than lost by this dubious accessibility. War is characterized by dehumanizing tendencies. Individual combatants are rather more likely to be seen in an alarming or shaming light than in an inspiring one, even when the unheroic is only expressed in the banality of their language.

Doubtless the front line equivalent of paparazzi will hound 2nd Lieutenant Windsor – or is he a colonel by now? – to ensure that plenty of pics are seen back home. I can see it now: “Prince Wazza!!” as the poor boy makes use of the latrine he has just dug in the sand. I imagine his majestic grandmother would have preferred it if the first intelligence of Harry’s tour of duty in Iraq had emerged upon his return. On the other hand, the Palace is no doubt advised to go for the headlines just as avidly as the rest of the establishment.