Thursday, December 20, 2007


I spent a merry hour yesterday evening searching for and downloading Christmas carols. Not that we lack for piles of CDs and indeed LPs of traditional favourites in this house, but the beauty of iTunes and other sites is that you can cherry-pick what you want; you don’t have to acquire the whole album and hence a bunch of duplications.

I had been especially missing ‘Adam Lay Ybounden’, an anonymous 15th century madrigal most widely known these days in its 20th century setting by Boris Ord. We used to sing this one when I was in the school choir and I was always moved by the way Ord caught its medieval spirit without being either unduly pious about its age or unsympathetic in his own modernity.

A second favourite unaccountably missing from the CD compilations was ‘The Boar’s Head Carol’, another 15th century lyric that was later published in the collection of Christmasse Carolles by Wynkyn de Worde, great ally of William Caxton in the fledgling business of The Print and possessor of one of the most enviably distinctive names in fame’s history. ‘The Boar’s Head’ is so rumbustious a crowd-pleaser that it warms up the most perishing congregation, even in the bleak mid-winter.

Despite my knowledge that there are no supernatural powers, beings or states of being, I have absolutely no difficulty in appreciating carols or, come to that, hymns from all through the calendar of ‘Ancient and Modern’. Music is music and poetry is poetry and one doesn’t need to be put off by the illusory nature of its inspiration. A huge proportion of art of all kinds is expressive of fantasy and none the worse for that. What’s more, low-church music is very redolent of my childhood and so has a powerful claim on my emotions.

Brought up in the Anglican tradition – by which of course I mean a calm, benign and very nearly agnostic approach to worship – I was well able to distinguish between the theatre and the propaganda from an early age. Had I been a Catholic, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Jainist, a Jew, a Parsee, a Zoroastrian, a Mennonite, a Sikh, an Amish or a member of any of the other faiths, I would doubtless have had a bloodier battle to escape. As it was, once I was confirmed by the then Bishop of Peterborough, I rapidly moved from being a daily reader of selected passages of the Bible (“that boy’s going to be a vicar” said my Dad, who never possessed the gift of prophesy) to the warm embrace of apostasy. In my book Common Sense (see the link in the right column), I wrote about my rationalism, but it wasn’t until this year, when I started to read Richard Dawkins and then Sam Harris (the latter of whom is nearer to my own position), that I discovered that the battle against the dangerous power of religion is at last being joined in earnest. The site has been the year’s best discovery for me and I have been greatly stimulated by the range of (often heated) discussions among people who are, at the level that counts, like-minded.

In an unusual declaration, Nick Clegg answered the question of whether he believed in god, posed on Radio Five Live yesterday, with the word “no” (at least that’s what The Guardian says; I listened to the entire phone-in on the BBC iPlayer and the matter never came up). It is rare indeed for party leaders anywhere in the capitalist world to reveal such things and Clegg was instantly transformed from being the least promising-looking Liberal Party leader since Clement Davies to a bold and interesting chap. Alas, as politicians are apt to do, he blew it immediately. “I have enormous respect for people who have religious faith,” he ‘clarified’ later in the day. “I’m married to a Catholic and am committed to bringing my children up as Catholics”. So, rather as his website cites “Jonny [sic] Cash” as his favourite singer, Clegg looks like another disingenuous opportunist saying what he hopes is the ingratiating thing rather than what he knows is the true thing.

In another part of the (same) forest, year’s end is the conventional time for the computation based upon the names given to the year’s new-born (not, one assumes, that there will have been no more over the remaining twelve days before January 1st). The Office of National Statistics – whose data, you imagine, could hardly be expected to extend beyond, say, June (say, 1994) – reckons there were 6,772 Jacks joining us this year. Thomas was the next most popular name with 5,803 votes; that is unless you count together those christened – to use entirely the wrong word – Mohammad, Mohamad, Muhamet and Muhammed, in which case Thomas is relegated to third, the M guys registering 6,368 hits.

What this demonstrates is the alarming penetration of Islam into British society. Will our children or our children’s children find themselves constrained under Sharia law in Britain? It will surely occur sooner in France, where more than five million Muslims have settled and where they are widely expected to become a majority before 2030. That’s France, our nearest neighbour on mainland Europe. In due course, Nick Clegg may find himself saying that he is “committed” to his grandchildren being brought up as Muslims. And, by the way, Islam is a faith that promises suicide bombers the attentions of the curiously precise number of 72 virgins in paradise (I don’t think the Qur'an specifies that they should be attractive or female or even indeed human virgins) and that routinely countenances murder for the 'sins' of adultery, homosexuality and being an infidel, which is to say not being a Muslim. By the time the first Muslim government is sworn in at Westminster – and don’t doubt that it will assuredly be an all-Muslim government – Adam will certainly lie ybounden.

Monday, December 10, 2007


The Bali summit is a waste of time. Maybe some accommodations will be made between China and India, Europe and the US, but even unprecedented, unimaginable concessions will be vastly too little, years too late. Face it: we can’t now save the planet from its fate. Probably not in my lifetime, perhaps not in the lifetime of my friends’ children but surely in the time of my friends’ children’s children, all life will be obliterated on the planet. The seas will rise sufficiently to displace millions of people, not just on the islands of the Indian and Pacific oceans but first along the coasts of all countries and the flood plains of all continents, then penetrating quickly and deeply inland. The refugees will overwhelm those on higher ground, all government and administration will break down and terminal anarchy will spread across the earth. With national boundaries gone and law and order forgotten, the rule of the jungle will obtain, except that we have lost the skills to be self-sufficient. Indeed, there won’t be any actual jungle to learn from by then. The planet will have lost its capacity to feed its inhabitants because climate change will have destroyed the world’s agriculture. Disease and strife, starvation and despair will finish off the last survivors.

Does this seem too apocalyptic, too Cassandra-like? I don’t think so. Climate change is already irreversible. Since the end of World War II, this catastrophe has been growing and shaping and there has been no power to stop it. Our will has been wholly sapped by the relentless rise of capitalism, a philosophy that cements the rich into place and protects their investments to the detriment of all else. Communism could not resist it. Keynsian economics could not hold it back. Now liberal democracy has been fatally undermined everywhere. No government is as strong as the leading multi-national corporations that can act independently of all national and international legal frameworks. Except in a few no-account South American and African countries, it is no longer possible for anyone to get within a popular vote of office without the approval of world capital. These multi-nationals have promoted the twin deities by which we all live and which will prove fatal to us: expediency and short-termism.

The capitalists are behind the flat-earther-like reaction to climate change, which is to pretend that it isn’t happening. But even if the predictions of disaster were exaggerated, which position do you want to go with: a pessimism that turns out to be wrong and costs a few billions in safeguards that prove unnecessary or an optimism that turns out to be wrong and condemns all life to oblivion? Is it a difficult one?

Every new declaration by the thousands of scientists across the globe who are monitoring this crisis amounts to the same short message: it’s worse than we thought. The political leaders, all controlled by their capitalist paymasters, play a game of dare with each other about who can hold out longest against doing anything meaningful but they’re all to blame and they’re not even the first generation of political leaders to blame. They, however, have been given the facts, the data, the projections and the worst-case scenarios that were not available to their predecessors. They squabble about reducing carbon emissions by 0.001% by the year 2150 as if that makes a ha’p’orth of difference. Not one of them is willing to give a decisive lead on the matter by making profound change mandatory at home and calling on all others to do the same, even though what is at stake is not the outcome of their next domestic election or their “place in history” but the very survival of life on earth.

The States ought to have been the nation to take a lead, of course, but it has been humanity’s misfortune to have at the helm of that most powerful nation for these eight crucial years the most vacuous waste of space ever to occupy the oval office. It’s not a matter of whom Bush listens to. Bush doesn’t listen to anybody. He has no intellectual capacity to discriminate between subtle or even wide divergences among his advisors. So he takes his line – his “orders”, you might say – from the global oil interests who have funded his whole public career and whose mouthpiece in government is Vice-President Cheney, the most influential man ever to hold that office. It isn’t in the interests of these oil barons to make sacrifices during their years of preposterous wealth so that their own great-grandchildren can hope to have any life at all. They don’t care if the next generation but one is the last.

It would be encouraging to hope that the next US president would be astute enough to figure that something fundamental might be called for. Don’t bother to hope. The cockamamie American electoral system is infinitely manipulable and capitalism has myriad options available to ensure that somebody it can live with is elected.

In any case, nothing any politician can do now will save us. What the Bali summit ought to be addressing is the increasingly urgent matter of meltdown management. Plans should be in development now for handling the crisis when it begins to unfold in earnest. We have seen enough post-apocalypse books, movies and plays to know that there is an instinctive consensus about how humans will behave when they know that the game is up. Global agencies need to be constructing models of the various ways in which the rising seas will overwhelm us and plan accordingly. Perhaps they are indeed doing that. If so, the futile and farcical “negotiations” over minuscule pointless gestures are even more cynical than I thought.

Thursday, December 06, 2007


On Tuesday, I went to Golders Green crematorium for the funeral of the television producer, Verity Lambert, whom I had known and adored for nearly 40 years. It was the starriest affair I have attended for a long time. Not just the whole of the old school teledrama world but many women in public life (like Helena Kennedy and – looking fabulous – Katherine Whitehorn: Verity had been due to receive a Women of Merit Award next week).

The service was presented by a woman from the British Humanist Association and that's just what I would want. She had done a huge amount of diligent work on getting an authoritative account of Verity's life and style together and it was fine except a bit heavy on the generalized grief counselling – her congregation was hardly callow enough for that – and rather too long (we could all hear V in our heads shouting for a script editor).

Lots of good friends told sweet and funny stories. Somebody enumerating the things she loved began "1: friends, 2: cooking, 3: dogs ... " so I knew why I liked her so. In fact I'd already remembered that the first Great Dane that David and I both fell in love with was Verity's some 25 years ago. He was called Arthur after Arthur Daley and he was just adorable. Now we have our own Great Dane, a daily (Daley?) reminder of Verity in our lives. At Golders Green, Alan Davies told a lovely story about Arthur (I think V had a succession of Danes called Arthur) and another about a Jack Russell who was supposed to savage Jonathan Creek and who simply refused until V stormed onto the set and the Jack Russell immediately knew, as Davies put it, "whose pack he wanted to join".

The most moving tribute was given last by Dame Eileen Atkins. She also told us that V had originally wanted the filing-out music played as we all passed the coffin to be ‘My Way’ on a 30-minute loop. Thankfully, she'd been persuaded that this was a terrible idea so she elected instead to have a piece of music that would make her feel that we all embraced her: it took us a moment to recognize because there was an unfamiliar twiddly bit of introduction but then it was unmistakably the theme tune to The Archers to which, we'd learned, V was devoted. After that came the Dr Who theme (her first hit) and then all her other theme tunes.

Later at The Groucho I caught up with some old friends I hadn't seen for years and managed to avoid several more I didn't need to be reacquainted with. The trouble was that there was so little finger food – and it was an hour appearing – and, as we'd been standing at the crematorium from 12.00 until 2.00, and then made our way into town, I for one was ravenous so I finally fled in search of sustenance. Verity certainly wouldn't have approved of that. She always kept a full table.

What struck me forcibly was that, while almost all of these people were in their 50s, 60s, 70s and indeed 80s, hardly any of them had had an on-screen credit in years. The best they can do now is lecture and teach on some fantasy-orientated “media course”. Of course they all talked of “projects in development”, the purgatory through which programme-makers have to suffer these days before they are consigned to the flames of damnation. Yet here was the cream of British television drama of the last 50 years. Apart from the mysteriously all-licensed Stephen Poliakoff (who wasn’t there; his sponsors in television are people who know almost nothing of drama), there are no questers after originality in teledrama any more. When any of these people puts up an idea, they get no special hearing because none of the commissioners has any knowledge of anything broadcast earlier than last Easter.

But of course nobody in any field wants experience, coherence or cogently argued points of view. I wrote the following letter to The Guardian at the weekend:

Dear Sir,

I am often asked why I no longer write letters to The Guardian. Would you be kind enough to publish this explanation: I indeed still do write to The Guardian with my accustomed alacrity but my efforts are no longer favoured to the extent that they were favoured by the present letters editor's predecessors, as may be gleaned from the new edition of the collected letters to the paper.

Yours faithfully

W Stephen Gilbert

Needless to add that they haven’t published it.