Thursday, January 24, 2008


My thoughts keep being drawn, rather unexpectedly, to the poignant death of the film actor Heath Ledger on Tuesday. Many public figures die every month, including (lately) some whom I have admired enormously (Karlheinz Stockhausen, Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman), some I didn’t care much for (Alan Coren, Boris Yeltsin, Bernard Manning), some whom I personally encountered (Ned Sherrin, George Melly, Sheridan Morley) and some whom I knew quite well when I was in the business (Verity Lambert, Tony Holland, Claude Whatham). But I suppose there is a particular sadness about the loss of someone so young, so full of promise and with so clear a path to achievement beckoning him.

Ledger appeared in his full share of execrable movies. Actors don’t set out to perpetrate twaddle, any more than writers, producers or directors do, though they no doubt accept some roles knowing that the rewards therein offered are not primarily those of artistic satisfaction. Ledger gave two performances that will have stretched and matured him and that demonstrated his seriousness, ambition and daring as an actor. In Monster’s Ball he took a relatively small role in a small movie, a decision that many an agent would have advised against but that he clearly (and rightly) saw as a gesture that would speak of his determination to do good work and that might bring him more nourishing offers. That nourishment came in Brokeback Mountain and he painted himself into cinema iconography. With his career abruptly terminated, this last will forever stand as his defining role.

Most people interested in cinema as art rather than candyfloss will have recognized the quality of Ledger’s performance as Ennis del Mar in Ang Lee’s movie of the Annie Proulx short story about two cowboys who fall into a love affair. It has been suggested in some quarters that old-school Hollywood homophobia denied the Academy Award to both actor and film (director and adapted screenplay did both win, however). The argument may hold for the best film award (which went to the relatively meretricious Crash – and I certainly don’t mean the remarkable David Cronenberg movie of that name). But the actor award that year was justly won by Philip Seymour Hoffman for his no less gay and certainly no less achieved assumption of the role of Truman Capote.

Perhaps it is only for a gay man like me that Ledger’s achievement in Brokeback can hold such resonance. I am acutely reminded of another premature death in American cinema, more than 14 years ago now, that of the hauntingly beautiful and unknowable River Phoenix. That shocking departure inevitably played second fiddle to the death, on the same day, of Federico Fellini but in time it came to be seen as a major loss.

Five years younger than Ledger at his death, Phoenix had already established a range and depth – in Stand By Me, The Mosquito Coast and Running on Empty especially – that spoke of a thoughtfulness beyond his years. But his signature role was that of Mike Waters, the narcoleptic rent boy in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho. Like Ledger’s Ennis, this performance was wholly authentic and intensely moving. Both actors, it seems clear, understood the overarching socio-political significance of the material.

So we gay men are grateful – pathetically so, because we don’t get all that much to celebrate in (relatively) mainstream cinema (and by roadshow standards these of course were minority projects) – to these actors for taking us so seriously and going in to bat for us. I could have done without Ledger’s callow performance at the 2005 Oscar ceremony when, in introducing the nomination of Brokeback as best film in tandem with his much better behaved co-star Jake Gyllenhall, he lapsed into giggling and squirming more befitting a 12 year-old. But you can’t have everything. Ledger did the full promotional circus on the movie’s behalf and was properly short with the more stupid questions.

To leave a lasting mark on the world before you are 30, let alone a mark that does you credit, is some achievement and Ledger’s family in Australia, stoically insisting that his death was an accident, are understandably determined not to let that achievement be tarnished by rumour and speculation. The immediate autopsy has proved inconclusive. Whatever cause of death is finally determined – if indeed one can be – is of far less true interest than the actor’s small body of work. It will be Ledger’s fate, like Eddie Cochran, Arthur Rimbaud, Franz Schubert, Joe Orton, Keith Haring and so many others, to be defined, at least in part, by living for a short time. But at least they all got the chance to leave something by which they are remembered.

Monday, January 21, 2008


There is, to be sure, a sufficiency of candidates for the title Most Baleful Development of the Last Half Century: the marketing culture; the revival of religious fanaticism; the death of modesty, kindness and respect for oneself and others; the worship of convenience; the spread of noise and light pollution; television advertising; the decline of literary culture; the despoiling of the countryside; the power of celebrity; global tourism; the rise of the supermarket and the retail chain; climate change; and that which promotes and underpins all those horrors: the triumph of capitalism.

If I cite the ubiquity of the mobile phone as an especial bête noire of mine, it is in no way to discount or downgrade the egregiousness of the other candidates. But the mobile is in so many ways the type of what is so unhealthy in modern society. Far from bringing people together more easily, it in practice drives them further apart. From the vanishingly few occasions when I have talked into a mobile while, say, walking along the street or sitting on a bus, I know that one is immediately cocooned in a virtually impenetrable void. One’s awareness of the world beyond one’s nose and inner ear declines almost to nothing. People yakking on mobiles bump into each other, step off the curb in front of traffic, fall down open manholes and generally are as cut off from their immediate surroundings as if they were sealed in a time machine.

When you consider that we have been using telephones for more than a century, it seems extraordinary that people generally still find them mysterious. We have all undergone the experience of having someone else in the room trying to talk to us while we are on the telephone. They – and we too when we in turn do it ourselves – seem incapable of remembering that it is physically impossible simultaneously to attune one ear to a voice coming down an optic fibre and the other ear to a voice in the wholly different aural ambience of a room. Yet there is probably more domestic unpleasantness deriving from just such insensitivity than, say, arguments over child rearing and housework combined.

The voice in one’s ear fundamentally erodes one’s awareness of everything else, even what one sees. Listening to such a voice requires a high level of concentration and focus that, say, listening to the wireless does not emulate. That is certainly why using a mobile while driving, whether hands-free or not, is a truly criminal example of irresponsibility. New penalties for this offence come into force in the spring in Britain. Anyone who causes a fatality while simultaneously driving and using a hand-held mobile will be liable to a jail term of between four and seven years, or between two and five years if they were “briefly distracted”, whatever that may mean. Nothing like enough punishment, of course, and I never understand why anyone who has been responsible for killing or maiming in any circumstance while driving is ever allowed a licence again.

Mobile phones bring out the insensitivity in people. If, in the middle of a conversation with a friend, I suddenly picked up the newspaper and started reading it, my friend would be justly aggrieved. I, though, am expected to countenance as perfectly acceptable behaviour my friend breaking off in mid-sentence to take a mobile phone call. What’s more, my friend will, as like as not, raise her voice considerably above the decibel level at which she had hitherto been addressing me. This is another of the abiding mysteries of the phone, that it seems to require – although it doesn’t really, of course – much greater projection in order that the voice travels the distance, maybe of hundreds of miles, between the speakers.

My partner pointed out this quote, used to recommend a book on Amazon: “You become absorbed in the plot within seconds of opening the book … It will make you think twice before using your mobile phone!!!!” He found this an appalling criterion to apply to the appeal of a book and I would agree if I didn’t already suspect that the use of four exclamation marks indicates a poverty-stricken mind. But the psychological dependence on the mobile that so many have developed is an earnest of the poverty of imagination and character that is eroding the human race. We are certainly breeding a generation of teenagers who cannot sit still or walk along for five minutes without reaching for the mobile and swapping cries of “whatever” with a friend. Being interested in their surroundings or – I am about to employ a blasphemy – reading a book is too daunting a project. So I suppose the anonymous Amazon customer was onto something.

Some train services – First Direct, which serves the west of England, is one such – have understood that the mobile phone is as noisome an intruder as the leaking iPod and have designated one carriage per train as “quiet”, which means that the use of phones is barred. For having the temerity to wish to sit in such a carriage, you are duly punished by being obliged to walk the length of the platform because the quiet carriage is always at the extremity of the train.

This arrangement would, you might think, work tolerably well but it is rare in my experience that such a journey passes without some breach. On the train home from Cheltenham last week, my reading was interrupted by the ringing of a mobile across the aisle. The mousy, mature and respectable-looking woman who took the call was entirely and even somewhat abashedly apologetic afterwards when I pointed out to her (in my customary formula) that the sign forbidding the use of mobiles applied to her as well to everyone else. “I’m afraid I forgot to switch it off,” she said. “I will do now”. I didn’t pursue it but I could reasonably have suggested that she either switch off the mobile directly it rang and determine later who had made the call that she missed or get up off her arse and walk to the next carriage to pursue her conversation. I also didn’t observe drily: “I take it you won’t now object if I smoke just the one cigarette?”

The trouble with these provisions and their abuse is that one is obscurely made to feel in some way in the wrong when one speaks up, as if I’m making a fuss about nothing. As David, who frequently catches a doze on a train, points out, if a ringing phone or a voice raised in conversation has roused you, the damage is already done so you’re then trying to put down a marker for the next time. But as I observe frequently in my book Common Sense (see link in right margin), NOBODY COMPLAINS ENOUGH and it is left to the civic- (if bloody-)minded like me and David to make a stand.

Do not, I beg, misconstrue me. I do indeed own a mobile. So does my partner. When we added a large dog to our household, David pointed out that we ought to be able to call each other if, say, one of us were in our field with this dog that neither of us could lift on his own and the dog – perish the thought – were to collapse.

For that reason and none other we went into Bath one day in 2001 or 2002 to purchase a brace of mobile phones. We chose our moment carefully, timing our quest to coincide with an “important” football match involving the national team. Bath was not exactly deserted but it was striking that all the young men out shopping were paired with wives or girlfriends (or boyfriends). Our plan paid off inasmuch as we were able to have the undivided attention of a mobile phone saleswoman for above an hour. I did have to return my phone quite soon, however. I couldn’t stand it that every time I switched it on I got a display on the screen that read “How are you?” To eliminate this absurdity, I had to settle for an older and less capacious Sim card but that was no great hardship.

We elected to go with a plan that rolled over unused time and charged a monthly fee. I recently changed the arrangement to pay-as-you-go. In practice, my mobile is usually switched off from one month’s end to the next, aside from an occasional switch-on to send or look for a text. David gets more from his mobile but neither of us finds much use for it. The only time I have mine in hand with any frequency is when I am in London where having it avoids the need to look for a phone box. Even then, the mobile is switched off a lot because I spend so much time in cinemas and theatres and I won’t have it switched on if I’m lunching with a friend.

To change the phone plan was not straightforward. I telephoned – always an elaborate business these days, involving punching in numbers in response to options none of which quite fits your case – and finally thought I had secured a change of plan. But the next bill repeated the previous formula so I telephoned again. It emerged that my instructions should have been put in writing (rather undermining the point of an arrangement about a phone) although I had not been told this. I was excused the task (out of compassion, perhaps, for what was perceived as my great age) and assured that the next bill would reflect the new arrangement. That bill arrived today and is indeed lower by some 65 percent. We have been paying through the nose until now.

People say “I don’t know how I managed before I had a mobile” without recalling that once people managed without computers, central heating, television, the motor car, flushing lavatories, reading glasses, credit, separate dwellings, the wheel or even a spoken language. We didn’t have a dishwasher until we moved to our current house less than ten years ago but now that it has broken down I find (as washer-upper to the household) that I cannot imagine we ever did anything else all day but wash up. The dishwasher, though, is a far less destructive intruder than the mobile. Indeed, it makes time for one to do more useful things, rather than filling such time with useless chitchat.


A word about Gordon Brown in China: the PM has been criticized in some quarters for not attacking his hosts ferociously for their appalling record on human rights. I find this criticism unrealistic. It would be at best uncomfortable to find fault with a regime with which one is seeking to establish at least a rapport. Far better to develop a strong relationship with the Chinese government and then, from the vantage point of being seen as a candid friend, seek to influence the Chinese to do better. At the present stage of relations, such a criticism would merely be discounted in Beijing as posturing for the domestic audience. And not without reason.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008


The United States has enjoyed some striking names among its presidents – Millard Fillmore, Ulysses S Grant, Grover Cleveland, Calvin Coolidge – and perhaps even more among its vice-presidents – Aaron Burr, Eldridge Gerry, Hannibal Hamlin, Schuyler Colfax, John Nance Garner, along with two recent ones we’d all rather forget: Spiro Agnew and J Danforth Quayle. But though the world’s media and the political chattering classes had all but crowned Barack Obama as the 43rd president 24 hours ago, the absurd presumption of that éclat has suddenly been tempered by reality. Between now and the Nevada primary (for complex reasons, Hillary Clinton is the only candidate at the intervening vote in Michigan where the Democratic Party has ruled that no delegates will count towards the national total), Mr Obama may find himself no longer expected to be the next chief executive with a funny name. His campaign will perhaps be dismissed as having “peaked too soon”. Like Senator Clinton, he should be patient. The convention, which will finally endorse the official candidate, is all of seven months away.

It’s odd how the media and the chatterers never learn anything. Today’s lead story on the front page of The Guardian and the cover of the new issue of Private Eye were already as dead in the water before they reached the shops as they thought Mrs Clinton was. Perhaps the letters editor of The Daily Telegraph (to whom I wrote because The Guardian seems no longer prepared to run my letters) will regret that he did not publish this on Monday:

Dear Sir,

Two observations on the Iowa caucuses: first, the results may well have no significance in the long term. In 1988, Vice-President Bush got 19% of the Republican vote to Bob Dole's 34%. Mr Bush went on to be President, Mr Dole to be the defeated presidential candidate eight years later. Even more strikingly (and resonantly), Bill Clinton won only 3% of the Democrat vote, as against Tom Harkin's 76% in 1992. Mr Clinton became President, Mr Harkin a mere footnote in presidential history.

Furthermore, I note that commentators were united in their pre-caucus view that both parties' races were "wide open", "too close to call" and so on. Had Dennis Kucinich or Duncan Hunter won their respective caucus votes, the exclamations that the results produced might be justified. But in a "wide open" race, it seems curious that either actual result should be thought so earth-shattering.

Yours faithfully,

W Stephen Gilbert

The paper might have been unique (come on, I couldn’t check them all) in having a view dissenting from a consensus that proved wide of the mark. Indeed, the consensus had been so clamorous that the Clintons had begun to believe it themselves (if – and it’s a big if – those same media outlets are to be credited at all). And who could blame the Clintons for feeling written off when the BBC Washington correspondent is yelling at you “Will you withdraw if you lose New Hampshire, Senator?”?

I adore elections in the US, precisely because they offer such a switchback ride. I’ve watched fascinated some astonishing campaigns: Jack Kennedy’s white-knight charge to a White House that became Camelot; Barry Goldwater’s campaign, the most right wing in American history and easily shrugged off by Lyndon Johnson, though we now know that Goldwater was in favour of gay rights before more than a handful of people knew they might want them; Eugene McCarthy’s thrilling student crusade of 1968; the strange and disruptive interventions of George Wallace, Ross Perot and Ralph Nader; the inevitable disaster of the most liberal candidate ever, George McGovern, still serving at 85 as the United Nations’ global ambassador on hunger; the bitter humiliation for those would-be second-termers thrown out of office by the electorate (Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George Bush); the serial runners who didn’t make it – George Romney (the father of Mitt), Robert Dole, Jesse Jackson; the candidates who, though clearly not up to the job, still reached the White House (Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George W Bush, the last two twice).

The one thing I feel sure of this time is that there is no Republican candidate, even the standing-by and credible Michael Bloomberg, who can win the presidency. There may be Democrats who can lose it and they may include Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. But, as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright astutely observed in a World at One interview the other day, all candidates have negatives but Senator Clinton has the undoubted advantage that hers are already all known. Senator Obama may bristle at the questions that Mrs Clinton has asked of him but they are very small beer compared with what the Republican attack machine would unleash, were he to win or to be drawing near to winning the nomination.

There is no doubt, however, that Mr Obama has caught a wave. In states as virtually all-white as both Iowa and New Hampshire, it is wonderfully reassuring that a man of colour can draw such levels of support right across the electorate. The respective races for the nomination – but especially the Democratic race – have attracted unprecedented numbers going out to vote in the snow that traditionally accompanies these primaries and caucuses.

Whether Obama’s wave will peter out cannot be predicted. If it doesn’t (or even if it does), Mrs Clinton would be smart to invite him to be her running mate. He would then be in a very good position to run as the Democrat candidate in 2016 (as Vice-President Obama) when he would still only be 55. That way the Democrats could be looking at a healthy prospect of providing the administrations until 2024, by which time no doubt Jeb Bush’s half-Hispanic son John will be ready to carry the Republicans back to the White House. As he will no doubt be known officially by his current nickname of Jebby, he will be able to extend the run both of previously unrepresented demographics in the Oval Office and of unusual names on the presidential roll.


This blog is not the only task (or friend) neglected by me since yule. The internet of course is the greatest time-waster and displacement activity since the spread of television and I have lately been much exercised by debate and discussion on the site wherein those who know that there are no supernatural powers, beings or states of being hammer out their differences. Furthermore, I have (rather late in the day, characteristically) discovered the enormous pleasure of repairing errors and omissions on Wikipedia. I shall endeavour to do better. (After all, I have a play that I’m supposed to be writing).