Friday, April 18, 2008


The Olympic torch passed through India yesterday, occasioning further protests and ever-elaborating security for this supposed symbol of sportsmanship and global friendship. What an absurd spectacle it is. And what a fistful of conflicting questions it raises.

In the first place, what nation on earth could hold the Games and confidently anticipate no protest? Is there any whose present standing on the matter of human rights or recent record of benevolence towards its fellow regimes would render it acceptable to one and all? Imagine if the 2008 Olympics were due to be held in the USA. There would be massive protests across the globe. I feel sure I would join them. And what about the London Olympics in four years’ time? Will they pass off without a squeak? I doubt it.

My own squeak can barely be heard but I have always been bitterly opposed to the grotesque spectacle coming here at all. Don’t say I didn’t warn you when the whole nation, let alone Londoners, finds itself paying for the Games in one way or another for decades to come. That is even assuming that the event does not turn out to be a Terminal 5-type humiliation. And don’t get me started on capitalism’s plundering of sport, rendering it the happiest of hunting grounds for cheats, asset strippers, druggies, gambling sharks, self-promoters and celebrity leaches. Oh, and politicians.

The obvious resolution of this problem is to establish a permanent home for the Games. History points to Greece but that nation cannot be guaranteed to keep itself uncontroversial (remember The Colonels). Instead a custom-built site might be set up in some newly-created autonomous city-state, comparable to Monaco or the Vatican. Perhaps it might be funded through and its administration be placed under the purview of the UN or a reconstituted UN (but to that matter I will return).

Unrealistic people complain angrily that governments such as Britain’s stand idly by while China oppresses Tibet. Not many people – publicly, at least – advocate nuking Beijing. What else can be done? Gordon Brown, some argue, should denounce the Chinese government. What this would achieve, apart from giving the Prime Minister a self-image as a stern and principled moralist, is hard to imagine. Britain is anyway in a uniquely delicate position in face of China’s unpopularity because she is the next host of the Games. Any trouble we make now can be revisited upon us a hundredfold in 2012. Significantly, Brown “received” the torch in Downing Street the other day but didn’t actually touch it. He’s trying to keep all sides happy. I’ve argued before that he would do best to establish a strong relationship with Beijing and then gradually assume the role of candid friend. Maybe that is what he is indeed trying to do.

Zimbabwe is a very different proposition. It is not a nuclear power, it is not a member of the Security Council, it is not in the running to stage any kind of global event and it holds precious little interest for international capital. It has a long-established leader – whose road to power was eased, if you can remember that far back, as almost her first act when Margaret Thatcher entered Downing Street – who has grown arrogant and detached in his ivory tower. Zimbabweans are a peaceful and docile people. They have watched more bemused than angry as their standard of living has slithered back to medieval times. They know that Mugabe’s raggle-taggle army can inflict much misery upon them but they lack the gumption to spawn a resistance. Had he been president of many another country in Africa, Mugabe would have been assassinated long ago. He is hardly the best protected of the world’s leaders.

The Ealing farce of Zimbabwe’s elections ought to have fomented revolution within the country and angry protests beyond at both street and diplomatic level but everyone seems to have been stunned into indifference. The Olympic torch has provoked more pandemonium than the crass illegality practised by Mugabe. The increasingly ineffectual South African President, Thabo Mbeki, pretends that little is amiss. Not until Gordon Brown’s forthright if hardly elegant address to the Security Council on Wednesday has anyone done much more than wring their hands.

The UN is the proper forum to deal with this affront to democracy. UN troops should go into Zimbabwe, arrest Mugabe and put him on trial before the International Court of Justice. But the UN doesn’t do things like that, for all the disapproval of Harare expressed by the new Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon. (Thank goodness Tony Blair didn’t get that job, by the way. It would be a shame for the UN to break the habit of its lifetime and appoint a Secretary-General with a dull name).

The UN is in dire need of an overhaul. I argued in my book Common Sense that “We must give the United Nations actual power and that of course means power greater than that of any one member. The UN charter, still almost exactly as written in 1945, needs substantial revision. The permanent members of the Security Council must agree to surrender their veto, the prerogative of the bully over the powerless. No member can be allowed exemption.

“The veto means that the UN has no muscle to flex against the US or China or the other elite nations. Which of them will volunteer to forego a veto? It would need a visionary party leader or presidential candidate to carry the case with his own electorate, so as to take a mandate to the other Security Council members; a diplomat of rare persuasive power, who implicitly understands the global gain of a truly powerful UN, to convert even one of the holders of the veto. But someone needs to attempt it. What is political power for if not to change the world? Meanwhile, the remit of the UN’s International Court of Justice needs to be widened so as not to depend on the consent of those states that are party to a dispute, another tough sell.

“The UN should assume the power to order the immediate cessation of hostilities between member states. Waging war must be against the UN’s bedrock principles. Any member visiting warfare on another should be suspended forthwith from UN membership. In practice this must mean that all other member states, including those sympathetic to the miscreant’s cause, suspend all trade and other dealings with the suspended member. A blanket economic freeze would soon encourage a government to halt hostilities. The UN must then have the resources to assume control of negotiation of a settlement between the disputatious nations. Warfare must be a gambit that is made impracticable because it makes each of the warring nations an international pariah. If both sides are taken out of benefit of UN membership, the issue of ‘blame’ is largely futile. The UN negotiators can then begin with a level playing field.

“Whether the UN should have the power to intervene in a sovereign nation’s internal affairs is a more complex matter. The UN’s remit should be truly global and therefore probably cannot be parochial. Matters such as the suppression of a particular tribal or religious grouping within a nation state might be confronted on a case-by-case basis. But the UN could hold sway over issues other than warfare. It could wield its power, no longer fettered by national vetoes, to impose restrictions on the activities that contribute so catastrophically to the destruction of the environment” [see link in right hand column].

I stand by this analysis. But I would add a further recommendation to the UN’s new powers. It should have the authority, guaranteed unanimously by all member states, to monitor and if necessary oversee and even take charge of every member nation’s national elections. This would apply just as urgently to the US, France, Italy and Australia (to name recently voting nations where democracy is supposed to be transparent) as to Zimbabwe, Russia, Pakistan and everywhere else where political corruption is endemic. No nation is immune. Vote-rigging has occurred in Britain, don’t forget.

But Gordon Brown is clearly not the visionary to cajole the other veto nations into advocating a reconstituted UN. I doubt that Hilary Clinton or John McCain is either. Maybe Barack Obama is our best hope for such bold thinking. Brown is fundamentally a systems man rather than a visionary (I argue in a letter that The Guardian may publish later today that he puts me in mind of John Birt at the BBC, which may be the unkindest thing said about him in the present round of Brown-bashing, unkinder even than Vincent Cable’s devastating remark last autumn about Stalin metamorphosing into Mr Bean).

I had thought that Tony Blair was the worst prime minister in my lifetime, the first to induce me to abandon my adulthood habit of voting Labour in 2001 and again in 2005. But I fear Brown may be yet worse. At least Blair had the imagination to take on board some of what the voters yearned for. Brown seems perfectly oblivious to anyone but his trusted advisors who, like Robert Mugabe’s, tell him what he wants to hear. Nothing about his demeanour suggests that he has the capacity to learn and change. It doesn’t matter a tuppenny damn if he was upstaged by the Pope in the US this week – whatever the hell “upstaged” means when the star of the Holy See visits one of the most supernaturally-inclined nations on earth for the first time. Nobody scoffing at Brown’s lack of a rapturous reception is living in the real world. But in the real world, the policy on the 10p tax rate may well ensure that Brown is upstaged by David Cameron in a year or two’s time. And then it will be the Old Etonian Blairalike who gets to play guest of honour at the 2012 Olympics.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


Two great television drama serials have just ended their runs. The Sopranos, the New Jersey mob family saga, came to a formal conclusion after six seasons last week on Channel 4 (though it had already run on the satellite channel E4; see below). Shameless, the story of the Gallaghers and their successive neighbours on the fictional Chatsworth Estate in Manchester, finished its fifth run on Channel 4 this week and, while it gave every indication that all was wrapped up and that there was no more to say, a sixth series is evidently already in pre-production. I’m not sure if they shouldn’t call it a day while the going is still good.

In the British show’s finale, the remarkable parallels with The Sopranos were reinforced, quite possibly unconsciously. As Tony Soprano had done in a previous run, the flawed paterfamilias Frank Gallagher suffered a grievous accidental wound that left his survival in doubt. And he too experienced a strange vision of himself in different circumstances while comatose.

Frank and Tony are, along with Homer Simpson, the medium’s greatest modern depictions of family men. Flawed as they are, their characters compel attention and even – or do I mean “especially”? – empathy. All three (though only vocally in Homer’s case) owe a great deal to the acting as well as to the writing and original conception. All have developed in subtle, subterranean ways while staying essentially the same. That’s because they were conceived in a fully rounded state.

It’s the essential difference between, on the one hand, one-off drama and finite serials (what the Americans call mini-series) and, on the other, series (discrete stories about recurring characters) and continuing serials (soap operas and long-time open-ended dramas like the two under consideration). In the former form, a character needs to go on a journey of some kind and to be changed by it. In the latter, a character who is to stay the distance needs to be anchored in stable situations and characteristics. The Simpsons is an oddity here in that it appears to be built like a serial and yet the characters, being cartoons, don’t age and so it functions like a series (which means that in practice you can watch episodes in any order).

Shameless and The Sopranos (The Simpsons too, to a lesser extent) caught the imagination of a large public, I believe, because they both had as their macro-subject the most important and pervasive theme of the early years of this century: the need to take responsibility for what you do. This was never so true as in the last episode of Shameless. Monica, about to give birth, refuses to go to hospital because Frank has promised to accompany her and she believes it is his responsibility as the father to do so. Frank is in fact unable to be there because of the aforementioned accident, thrown from his barstool by an earth tremor, the publican and his wife washing their hands of his fate. Ian, Monica’s gay son by a man other than Frank, manages to be there for her and Frank, learning this and also influenced by his dream, finally embraces him as his own.

Meanwhile, Ian's half-brother Carl, rushing to the hospital, leaves his toddler niece with a girl he barely knows (but fancies) and then has to calculate how to handle the toddler’s mother’s murderous family when the girl absconds with the kid. All ends happily in the sort of expression of communality that, from time to time, Shameless has shamelessly but not over-sentimentally indulged, before a final outrageous joke. This run has contained some of its finest episodes along with some developments that teetered on the edge of being contrived and convenient. But I do feel, until the sixth (inevitably) proves me wrong, that five series have covered it.

How The Sopranos would end was the subject of endless speculation and then endless discussion. No show with such a reputation could possibly just peg out. Would it be a blood bath? Would there be a stunning twist? In fact, it ended at a family diner with daughter Meadow running late and Tony looking up, partly in expectation, partly in apprehension, every time something jangled on the soundtrack. In the last shot, we heard the street door thrown open and saw Tony look up, his face unreadable. We cut hard to black and bottomless silence and this was held long enough for one to begin to fear a break in transmission. Then the credits rolled in silence, though of course the linkman broke in with some irrelevant remark (actually, half the Shameless end-credits also passed in silence but mercifully without interruption; perhaps someone had spoken to Presentation).

Some viewers seem to have felt cheated out of a clear-cut resolution because the end of The Sopranos was, to them, ambiguous. In my view, it’s simple-minded to demand to know “what happened next”. The answer of course is “nothing: that was the end”. What it conveyed, at least to this viewer, was that Tony Soprano would spend the rest of his days looking up in expectation and apprehension every time an intrusive sound caught his attention. And that’s no life. As the credits rolled, I realized that I was rigid with tension. The exemplary editing of that last sequence had created a palpable sense of dread which, concentrated onto Tony’s face in the last shot, ought to have conveyed to all viewers what it conveyed to me.

The last season contained some magnificent episodes, none more than the agonizing scene in which Tony’s son AJ tried to take his own life and Tony, belatedly understanding what was going down, struggled to save him. The intertwining threads on the home stretch plotted Tony’s angry and reluctant withdrawal from analysis – where we started back in 1999 – against the long-awaited showdown with Phil Leotardo’s New York mob (caused by disagreements over asbestos waste: “waste management” was the job description Tony gave to his analyst at the outset) and the aforementioned crisis in AJ’s young life.

Season Six was shown in the States in two bunches with a gap of some months in between. Given how long British viewers had to wait for the beginning of the season, it seemed unnecessary to replicate the mid-season gap on either E4 or Channel 4. I would have watched on E4 where the first episode was screened twice but the second episode’s same-week repeat never materialized (it was listed in Radio Times) and, as I had not seen what would have been the first transmission, I decided to be extremely patient and await the C4 re-run, knowing that friends who were fellow fans would be months ahead of me.

This disruption of series runs is becoming epidemic in British television. ITV launched its new American-made mini-series Pushing Daisies last Saturday but today we learn that the second episode has been summarily dropped. ITV only has eight weeks of slots available before beginning its vitally important coverage of a football tournament that features no British teams. Pushing Daisies has the temerity to run to nine episodes, which ITV would of course have known when it made its Saturday night dispensations.

Naturally you would assume that if any episode had to be delayed it would be the last one. But you would be wrong to make the assumption that contemporary schedulers give a tuppenny damn about the audience. The second episode has been dropped from the schedules altogether. Given that the first episode did not perform as strongly as ITV would have required, the chances are not only that the second episode will never be shown (despite ITV’s vague undertaking to fit it in “in the autumn”) but that the show will anyway be moved out of its prime time slot in short order. In that case, it would have been possible for the nine-part run to be shown in sequence (after all, ITV has four channels to play with) but by then the hiatus will have already occurred. Broadcasters seem not to care whether they alienate their suppliers, never mind the pesky audience. I suspect that there will soon come a time when we will be looking back on the fact that British television showed the likes of The Sopranos and Shameless in any form as the last vestige of a last golden age of broadcasting.

Thursday, April 03, 2008


The weekly questionnaire in the Saturday Weekend magazine that comes with The Guardian includes, as one of its standard questions, “How often do you have sex?” It always strikes me as a preposterous impertinence to ask – my answer would be “Do you really think I keep count?” – but respondents generally answer it reasonably seriously, though few of them allow themselves to be precisely tied down. (Last week, Graydon Carter’s answer was “With other people, you mean?” but then, to the semi-literate question “Which words or phrases do you most overuse?”, he replied “Oh, really it’s not that big”, which is the witticism of a 16 year-old).

The Guardian compounded the offence this morning – or rather, looking at the clock, yesterday morning – with a cover feature on its daily magazine G2 under the heading “So, how many people have you slept with?” This was illustrated with agency photographs of individuals photo-shopped to appear to be holding up placards with numbers scrawled on them ranging from 0 to 35. Inside were an article and various quotes attributed to vox pops taken largely in London, Manchester and Sheffield. The hook on which this important sociological investigation was hung was a rather incoherent exchange between Piers Morgan and Nicholas Clegg in the magazine GQ wherein the Liberal-Democrat leader confirmed his reputation for unguarded remarks by answering “No more than 30 … a lot less than that” to Morgan’s harassment based on the question “How many women would actually know for a fact you’re good in bed?”

The “a lot less than that” part of the answer seems to have been discarded in the fallout from the interview. A pastily unattractive man, I would have said, with the look of a time-serving estate agent about him, Clegg is evidently thought rather a sport in some quarters, especially as he was married at 24. He’s now irrevocably marked as a 30-lovers man, as if somehow this makes him a more interesting politician. Mind you, this isn’t hard. So far, Clegg has seemed the least diverting leader of his party, certainly since World War II. He’d have to claim a lot more achievement than this to interest me.

Indeed, as a gay man I find the whole subject perfectly bewildering, like a report from another planet. To begin with, the numbers we’re talking about seem beyond comprehension until you note that there’s a big assumption lurking in the phraseology: “good in bed”, “slept with”. Of course, gay men have a huge proportion of their sexual encounters without recourse to a bed. On the al fresco cruising grounds, in the bath houses and disco or bar back rooms, in the public lavatories and across the furniture or on the floor in grabbed moments in houses, offices, hotels, shops and every other kind of meeting place, gay men couple (and more) on the wing. You don’t have to pursue that kind of sex for long before you rack up rather higher numbers than 30.

Back in the mid-1970s, before there was a big commercial gay scene but also before the spread of Aids, one of my gay friends was asked by a doctor at a clap clinic if he was promiscuous. You don’t hear that word much any more but back then it was bandied about, it carried an implied moral judgment and it was one of the sticks with which to beat gay men. My friend reasonably replied: “It depends what you mean by promiscuous”. The doctor gave her objective, professional assessment as an expert in sexually transmitted diseases: “we consider a gay man promiscuous if he has ten or more different sexual partners every week”. Now that’s going it some. Any active gay man, especially when young and blessed with stamina and full of his oats, will have sex with ten or more men one week in a while. If, in those years before London and other British towns became so gay-friendly, he was occasionally slipping off to Amsterdam or San Francisco or Berlin, he’d certainly see a lot of action in a short time. But every week? That suggests a certain application. You’re into four figures within two years,

That gay men have always had a lot of sex is clearly the case. When the big gay discotheques opened in the late ‘70s, I used to stand gazing at the hundreds of men bopping away and savour the atmosphere of supercharged sexuality and think how lucky we were. Straight men going to a straight disco looking to get laid would mostly go home dissatisfied. Even if the men to women ratio was as favourable as 60:40, the proportion of that 40 percent who were available would be low and the competition for their affections fierce. At a gay disco, everybody was a potential partner. No wonder straight men hated us.

There are certainly heterosexual men who pursue sex for its own sake the way most gay men do and, the evidence seems to suggest, far fewer women do, and do it far less. Georges Simenon, the creator of Inspector Maigret, notoriously claimed to need to get laid at least three times daily and to have pleasured more than 10,000 women. But by all accounts the Labour politician Tom Driberg, whose appetite was certainly the equal of Simenon’s, had no trouble finding on a daily basis men who were happy to be fellated through several decades before homosexuality was decriminalized in England and Wales in 1967.

The argument that men over-egg the pudding of their sex lives because they like to seem to be cock of the run and women downplay their experiences because they don’t want to appear too easy clearly has merit. Gay men, I can report with confidence, are blissfully happy to remain outside that sort of tension. Sure there are gay men – lesbians too, though I would never claim to speak for them – who prefer to be chaste or monogamous or modest, for whatever reason, all of them good ones except for fear of what people will say. But I can’t remember the last gay man I spoke to who was in any discernible degree competitive about his supposed conquests. To just about any gay man, the question “how many men would actually know for a fact you’re good in bed?’ simply wouldn’t compute.