Thursday, June 28, 2007


One of the earliest vivid memories I have is of the flood along the east coast of England on the night of January 31st 1953. I was five. We didn’t live there and we were yet to have a television, so the only images in my head must emanate from press coverage on February 2nd or, even more likely, from my imagination. The vividness comes from the fact that Uncle Bob and Auntie Pat were caught up in it. They lived in King’s Lynn with their little daughter and at least one elderly parent. When we learned that people were being drowned in the town (in the end 15 people there lost their lives), we had to cling to hope of good news. At last we learned that they were all alive and in reasonable spirits, given that their home was overwhelmed by the waters. Later that year, they moved to a new place out of town.

Two thousand people in King’s Lynn were made homeless that night and, along the coastline, 32,000 were evacuated. The deaths in Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex totalled 304, with a further 177 – two lifeboatmen, 45 fishermen (we had a fishing industry then) and a ferry full of passengers – lost at sea. In the Netherlands, as many as 1,835 drowned. At King’s Lynn, the sea level rose more than eight feet. Sea defences on the east coast were breached in 1,200 places. In 2003, the cost of this disaster at then values was estimated at £5billion [information from Benfield Hazard Research Centre and Flood London websites].

Of course there have been infinitely worse floods in other parts of the world. In August 1931, the Yellow River in China overwhelmed dozens of townships and an estimated 3.7million perished. Half a million drowned in the cyclone-driven floods of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), images of which I still recall 37 years after the event. The same area suffered lesser but still murderous devastation 16 years ago [information from The Hutchinson Factfinder, an indispensable volume].

The floods in the North-East, the Midlands and the West are to such vast calamities as a chimney blaze is to The Great Fire of London, though not of course for the families of those individuals who lost their lives. In Texas and other southern and mid-western states, there has been far worse flooding this week than anywhere in Britain. Nonetheless, to have floodwater accompanied by raw sewage cascading through your home is a vile and heart-breaking blow and the cost of making good the damage will be eye-watering. Happily for us, our household was not affected by this week’s flooding. When there were extensive floods in our area three or four years back, a friend asked if we had been caught up in the deluge. “No” I said. “We’re 600 feet above sea level here”. “Ah,” came back my friend, “that’s what they said in Atlantis”.

It’s true that climate change and global warming mean that those places that have always felt safe from rising water have less cause for complacency. But the Yellow River and Bangladesh floods demonstrate that weather can bite deep without any need of help from the carbon emissions endgame. Even so, projections of threat to low-lying areas (starting with the Maldives and great swathes of the Indian subcontinent and the low countries, moving on to New York and London) are real enough. Those of us now dry will not remain unaffected by such developments then – millions will move to higher ground – just as we are not unaffected now: the costs will hit us all.

There has been widespread criticism of government and local authorities on the ground that we were “not prepared”, that cutbacks have postponed attention to flood defences. This is a how-long-is-a-piece-of-string issue. As with the NHS, even if you throw the whole of the GNP at the target, it will still not be enough. Where are the areas in Britain that you can point to and declare with total conviction: “There will be never be flooding here”? How far up the predicted level of rise in the seas can you plan before the whole enterprise is beyond our ability to contemplate? In addition to the cost of attempting (increasingly Canute-like) to hold back the waves, what expenditure can you calculate to be earmarked in order to deal with millions of refugees?

Well, you may say (as I often do) “expenditure is all down to political will. When a government says ‘we can’t afford this’, what it means is ‘we want to spend the money on something else’. Whatever the calls on public finances, prime ministers who are determined to go to war will always manage to find and spend the vast sums that war consumes, however futile that use of the money might seem to everyone else”. But the colossal cost of making every community in Britain safe against any eventuality of freak weather and against any conceivable result of climate change is way beyond a simple matter of rebalancing the budget, however creative Alistair Darling may turn out to be as Chancellor.

I have one of my modest proposals. Let the Brown government commission the most exhaustive study of Britain’s requirement for flood defences in any credible future scenario. Let the exercise be fully costed. Let the rise in the rate of income tax required to finance the building of these defences be calculated. And then let the House have a free vote on the matter so that the people may see what each member feels is the correct response, regardless of calculations about party advantage, having canvassed her own electorate. The voter could not then argue that the government or local authorities were to blame if his home were awash with foul water because his representative would have reflected his view, constituency by threatened constituency. As well as proving an interesting experiment in determining the degree to which short-termism and self-interest inform the electorate’s thinking, the exercise would also provide an unprecedented overview of Britain’s readiness, both physical and psychological, to face a very uncertain future.

A brief PS to the previous entry: I happened to be required this week to record my postal address on a hitherto unvisited website and, as usual, was obliged to click “United Kingdom” as the country of residence. However, when the information was re-presented to me for confirmation, the nation had been magically altered to “GB”. There is still hope.

Thursday, June 21, 2007


What it means to be British is on the agenda yet again. Me, I’ve always viewed myself as a citizen of the world, though admittedly there are more than enough parts of the world of which I would not care to be a citizen. There may be some who consider our move nine years ago from London to the English West Country to be only one up from going to live overseas. But I can’t imagine emigrating for any reason, especially any of the usual ones – climate, cost of living, favourable tax levels. I remember friends of my parents selling up and moving to the Caribbean after the husband was told by his doctor that he would never survive another British winter. He died anyway and his widow was then stuck on an unfamiliar island, knowing no one, divorced from her own history.

Of course, the union of nations in which I live is an area of the world uniquely fraught with uncertainty (and even dispute) about its own nomenclature, long before we get onto what it “means” to live here. I am perfectly happy to describe myself as English and to announce that I live in England. (Tom Sutcliffe, the new chairman of Round Britain Quiz which returned to Radio 4 on Monday, told us that this week’s contest was between Scotland and the Midlands, and it occurred to me that he should have used the term “the English Midlands”, thereby avoiding any implication that Scotland is in some way a region of England – not, I think, a notion that would be readily embraced by Alex Salmond).

But few now are prepared to humour me on this point (about being English, I mean). When, while sitting on a plane, I fill in a landing card, I find that my answer to the identification of “country of residence” – England – gets crossed through by the cabin staff who substitute “UK”. This makes me want to ask for the card back so that I can alter my answer to the identification of “destination” from “USA” to “North America”.

In my childhood, our country was usually known as “Britain” or, if you wanted to swank a bit, “Great Britain”. Formally, “Britain” is a short form of the precise and correct identification of our united nations as “the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”, the term “Great Britain” specifically excluding that part of the island of Ireland that cedes to the House of Windsor as furnishing the Head of State. I rather deplore the standardization of “UK” as my homeland’s identity. It smacks too much both of the US and of the EU. It embraces the fact that we are still a monarchy (“Kingdom”) in a way that seems irrelevant and futile. It’s an ugly coinage too, suggesting a rhyme with “yuk” and worse. And we’re called Britons, the British, “Brits”, not Yookayians or Yukites.

The International Organization of Standardization designates us “GB” which is therefore what appears on, for instance, vehicular plates registered in Britain. The internet calls us, ipse dixit, “UK” and I’m not allowed (anywhere on the net, as far as I can see) to call where I live anything else. On the other hand, the Americans (who established most of the verbal conventions of the net) to a large extent refer to the whole of the UK as “England” (as in “the Queen of England”, “the Prime Minister of England”). Of course they also frequently say “America” when they mean “the USA” – as in the politician’s banker, “I love America!” – and (correctly, I’m sure) assume that no one will wonder why they should apparently so sweepingly embrace Canada, Panama and Bolivia.

So if I wanted to declare what it means to hold the nationality that I do – and indeed to say that I was “proud” to do so – I would first have to establish what I was calling my nation. Most people – Mexicans, say, or Mongolians or Malawians – don’t have this difficulty. Many people, however (if not particularly from those three countries), seem to want to come here and wrestle with this problem. And one of the motors of this debate about national identity is the delicate subject of immigration.

It ought to be possible to discuss immigration without buttocks being instantly clenched and battle lines drawn. The sociologist Robert Putnam has greatly assisted in the drawing of the teeth of this issue. Interviewed on The World at One today, he spoke of some of the findings of his rigorous study into multi-culturalism on both sides of the Atlantic, including the interesting conclusion that “the only two things that rise in more diverse communities are protest marches and watching telly”, that in every other way, neighbourhoods where there are mixed communities are not thriving as they ought in the west. His solution is not to put controls on immigration but to construct more centres where “people can learn to have an identity other than their racial identity”.

That Putnam is American greatly helps his argument to be accepted as rational here. Immigration into the States over the last 150 years has been proportionately far higher than into any European nation. Though almost all of them are ultimately immigrants, Americans have certainly not always been free of racism or xenophobia. The urgent need of a civil rights movement is only forty years old. That both Bush’s Secretaries of State have been black demonstrates how far that issue has been blunted by good sense all round.

But immigration is at present a fiery issue in the US, concerning both the waves of illegal workers into California and the remarkable influx of economic migrants from Asian and Arabic countries, to the extent that the demographic that determines that no presidential candidate can ignore the Jewish vote will soon be superseded by the need to attend to the Muslim and indeed to the anti-Israel votes.

The Muslim penetration of Britain has its own difficulties but the present flashpoint here is the immigration from the new member states of the EU. It amazes me that the European authorities cannot regulate this matter better. There are certainly concentrations in some British towns of Poles, Romanians, Slovenians and other eastern Europeans that have stirred long-buried prejudices. It’s not a prejudice to note, however, that these economic migrants have significantly taken over the kinds of jobs that students here need in order to keep themselves solvent while completing their studies. If the government will not regulate the level of EU immigration, it needs urgently to reconsider the matter of student grants before it produces a generation that is educated to the highest level but financially bankrupt. Moreover, there ought to be a presumption in any kind of local waiting list scheme that priority will be given to those who are demonstrably “local”, which is to say those (of whatever racial origin) who have lived all their lives in the community and whose families have done the same. Incomers – whether from city or country or abroad – ought not to expect that their particular economic imperatives necessarily carry any weight with the host community. I don’t think that is at any level a discriminatory argument.

There has been talk of the French building “another Sangatte” to accommodate those who gather near Calais in the hope of smuggling themselves across the Channel to seek income in Britain. I ask what I always asked when the original Sangatte operated: why don’t these guys want to settle in France? What is it about Britain that makes it the Shangri-La for economic migrants and asylum seekers? I’m trying to avoid the expression “soft touch” here, but if Britain and France are comparably liberal, civilized members of the EU, why do not all of these people, who have often travelled huge distances in appalling deprivation, throw their hats in the air with delight because they are already in a European country?

At the current European summit, Mr Blair is leaving behind a bad odour because he is refusing to sign up to most of the provisions of the “this-is-not-a-constitution” compromise prepared by Angela Merkel and supported by Nicolas Sarkozy. The EU President, Jose Manuel Barroso, made some pithy and pertinent comments about the British position. It is hard to see how we can continue to play a meaningful role in the European Union if we are to continue to refuse to accept any of those provisions that are designed to bind us together. Many people here doubt that Turkey ought to be allowed to join the EU because, it is feared, its Muslim “bias” would be called on as a reason for the country to be exempted from the observation of some of the Union’s rules. If Britain thinks itself too important to bow to the consensus, why should it expect quiescence from a newly European Turkey? It’s perfectly understandable that Blair, with his record on both world and domestic stages, would not be amenable to any degree of shared foreign policy or extended rule of law and justice from Luxembourg. That doesn’t make it a virtuous position.

But it is a curious union in which all the poor of the new member states aspire to residence in Britain and only Britain. Why not go to Finland or Belgium, Portugal or Greece? Here is a matter on which we really should sue for parity. Let all the existing member states do their bit and make their provisions just as enticing as ours. Why shouldn’t there be an Estonian enclave on the Algarve? And what should the Estonians do when they get to Faro? Why, what all immigrants should do: integrate, learn the language, tailor their own culture to the host culture. One of the greatest problems the British have with Muslims, both immigrant and native, is that their primary allegiance is so often expressed as being to Islam rather than to Britain. As St Ambrose counselled: “When in Rome, live as the Romans do”.

There are Muslims in Britain who advocate that Sharia law should take precedence over British law. In so doing, I would maintain, they forfeit any right to live here. I understand perfectly that, when in other countries, I am expected to observe the laws of those countries even as a tourist. As one who is, by his nature, an outlaw in certain areas of the world (being a homosexual), I am acutely conscious that local law is powerful. Some of those who come to Britain – and some of those born to people who have come to Britain – make the mistake of assuming that their own traditions and beliefs are due a special dispensation. They are not. So-called honour killings – murder in the name of supposed family honour – may be overlooked in some nations, but in Britain they should be and are treated as crimes of barbarians.

Moreover, the knighthood bestowed on Salman Rushdie is a domestic matter and no business of any Muslim country. These knee-jerk reactions from monumentally self-important people who have never seen – let alone read – a copy of The Satanic Verses should be dismissed with the contempt they deserve rather than kowtowed to as if they constitute due sensitivity. The so-called minister for religious affairs, who implied in the Pakistani parliament that the award would justify suicide attacks in Britain, should be hauled before an international court and tried for sedition. At the very least he should be relieved of his post, denied any influence over impressionable people and told to maintain a discreet silence for the rest of his days. If he had been a Hamas minister denouncing (say) Amos Oz, the Israelis would immediately have bombed the Palestinian Legislative Council.

The antics of football fans aside, we in Britain seem rather shy of proclaiming our nationality. Quite right too. The unthinking nationalism and factionalism that has riven so much of the world for so long is the last ingredient we need in our culture that has already taken on far too much of the global decline since the Second World War (see my book Common Sense, freely downloadable from the link in the right margin). So I still cleave to the notion of being, first and foremost, a citizen of the world. Perhaps if we all thought like that, we might help each other just a little more and shout witless slogans a little bit less.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007


Ahead of the grand final this coming Saturday, I have over the last day or two been watching the ten previous legs of BBC1’s Saturday night ratings banker, Any Dream Will Do. This is the follow-up to last year’s How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? in which Connie Fisher was chosen to lead a revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music by “you, the public”. The production company owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who can just about afford to run such risks as these, was mounting that revival and, seeing a fine chance of three months’ worth of free prime-time publicity courtesy of the licence-fee payers, Lord Lloyd Webber allowed himself to be cast as the Sir Alan Sugar of this particular endeavour. Any Dream Will Do is a further knockout competition to cast the eponym in Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. It is even more welcome free publicity because m’lord is its composer – it was his first show to be produced almost forty years ago – so he will receive many more handsome royalties from the revival’s take.

The first two episodes, screened before the series went live to allow viewers to vote for their favoured Josephs, showed the process of rounding up and then whittling down the winsome boys who would compete in the knockout stretch. There was much loose talk about how showbiz works – “this is the harsh reality of auditions” cried presenter Graham Norton in his pastel silk suit/silk shirt combo. I have auditioned a good few actors in my time and I can tell you that the real audition process is very little like this.

Initially, the judges were selecting a finite group of candidates so it made nonsense to tell the first and then the second and then the third auditioner that he was in. You can’t sensibly start selecting until you have seen the whole field. Moreover, the criteria for choice seemed random and highly subjective but then only one judge – producer Bill Kenwright – is regularly in a casting role (ALW took a back seat at this stage).

It was quickly clear that departures from industry practice were all to do with winding up the tension of the television series. In professional auditions, no one gets short-listed just because they beg to be included, nor by apparently cornering Lloyd Webber in his office and insisting on a second chance. Nor are there contrived “sing-offs”.

The level of emotion displayed by the boys was extraordinary. I don’t know which drew the more tears, being selected or not being selected. You do wonder how so many young lads who are, with a few rather surprising exceptions, wholly amateurs can be claiming suddenly that to play Joseph is all they’ve ever lived for. “I felt ashamed to be in the bottom two” one boy declared, the week after he survived a vote and a sing-off. Oh please! That kind of emotional overload doesn’t augur well for the prospects of starting to build a career in music theatre, which is presumably the true reward for winning this competition.

I may not have put myself up for audition since university dram soc days but I’ve been through many job interviews, several times as a short-listed candidate and as a runner-up (“the other guy was just hungrier”). You have to learn to maintain a healthy equanimity about the process. I once lived with a boy who was starting out in showbiz and he would feel personally slighted when he failed to land a job and would pester people for explanations. I tried to explain to him that there’s only ever one explanation for why you don’t get a part or a job: someone else got it. Except in cases of obvious unsuitability, the rejection isn’t about you, it’s about somebody else. Any Dream Will Do never tried to inculcate this important default position in any of the boys who wept their way back onto the street.

Amid all this emotion and hugging and clutching, one aspect of the music theatre world was conspicuously absent. Those contestants with girlfriends were allowed – indeed encouraged – to mention them and to have them at the live shows for cheering on purposes. Those with boyfriends remained undeclared. While judge Denise Van Outen flirted outrageously with several of the boys, neither Norton nor judge John Barrowman chose to or was permitted to allude to his own gayness. Indeed, Barrowman “accused” the contestant who seemed the likeliest to be gay of being “too camp” in his delivery of one song, a curiously inapt and catty criticism.

Once the candidates had been reduced to twelve, the viewers got to vote to reject one each week. This made for a tortuously drawn-out business but it also meant that the boys all acquired the fame that television bestows. Showbiz is packed with young strugglers who would do anything for a fraction of so much exposure; even sleep with Andrew Lloyd Webber (there must be one or two who would do that, though, to use a favoured phrase of Norton’s, “it’s a big ask”. During the Maria series, a Guardian reviewer described ALW as “a horrid toad” and, while that’s not what you’d call kind, it’s not inaccurate. I hasten to add that I have absolutely no reason to imagine that Lloyd Webber has ever resorted to the casting couch. His early writing partner, Tim Rice, did have an affair with Evita leading lady Elaine Page, however).

Another way in which the series has not reflected reality has been the extent to which the aspirants have been permitted to argue with the judges. I would have slapped that down at the outset. Whatever you may think of Lloyd Webber’s œuvre – and I wouldn’t cross the road to see one of his shows – you can’t argue with his experience, his power or his astuteness.

And these kids know nothing. They may have an idealised image of themselves as Joseph in their heads but that’s largely where it stays. Conveying that self-image to others on stage is the trick and the performers are not qualified to judge their own success at any level. Wanting it is not to be confused with earning it. Moreover, this “knowing” that “I can be Joseph” is predicated on a fantasy performance before their families, friends and fans (like in the BBC studio). Being Joseph at a Thursday matinee in February when two uncertain understudies are on and the house is dominated by dozing pensioners and restless school parties is a bigger test of their ability to sustain a career in music theatre.

As the contestants fell away, you wondered who was monitoring the vote count. Lloyd Webber, while embracing this eleven-week prime-time promotion, would have wanted to do everything short of naked manipulation to ensure that the Joseph the viewers handed to him was one who wouldn’t lose him money. In Saturday’s final, the viewers will (allegedly) decide which of the three last survivors wins. In each previous programme, ALW has been permitted to choose to “save” one of the two candidates with the lowest votes, thereby jettisoning the other. When the oldest, smartest guy went out, he boldly claimed that the phrase “conspiracy theory” was going through his head. Norton deftly palmed that aside but I hope some alert showbiz reporter followed this up in case there was any visible fire behind the smoke.

Elsewhere, the youngest contestant eliminated took defeat the best. The boy who was clearly the best singer and had received consistent rave reviews from the judging panel was still eliminated as soon as Lloyd Webber had the chance to ditch him, even over the 17 year-old whom the lord knows is least equipped to play a West End company-leading run (ALW saved him also in the semi final, this time against the contest’s most natural song-and-dance man who had foolishly oversold his own case). The decision about the fine singer was right though. He was born to play the hero’s friend, especially one who perishes nobly in the second reel. “Nice guys finish last” baseball-player Leo Durocher is widely credited with coining and, while this one got to the top six, he was never going to win. True stars have a discernible bastard streak.

My choice for Joseph was the mouthy song-and-dance man, a natural mover who possessed the stage, not least because he was the only kid we saw all series who actually was sex on legs. But he lived perilously all through the knockout and finally succumbed last Saturday. The one who’s surely been topping the vote every week – apart from the bottom two, the results are never disclosed – is the Scots shrimp who stacks supermarket shelves but who has a fabulous voice and knows how to project his slim charm. He has the sex appeal of a gerbil which of course tells you a lot about the demographic of the show’s audience: middle-aged mums. It’s not a bad projection for the musical’s natural constituency either. I expect him to win it easily.

But Any Dream Will Do has had none of the fine detail and much greater showbiz realism of Musicality, the Channel 4 competition of a couple of years back that partially recast Chicago, which is the natural mother of this show (assuming Pop Idol is the father). Where are all the Musicality kids now, one wonders? Where indeed is Sheena Easton, whom Esther Rantzen’s vehicle launched into The Big Time almost thirty years ago? Showbiz is a tough racket and anybody who thinks that one night of glory is the precursor of a glorious career is living in cloud cuckoo land. As Bryan Protheroe said judiciously in the green room of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane when my song-and-dance man asked what his attitude would be to some competition winner playing alongside him on a West End stage, “I’d be very wary”.