Monday, June 30, 2008


God has had an interesting week. Robert Mugabe, unexpectedly re-elected by a grateful nation for a sixth term as leader of the flourishing and happy land that is Zimbabwe, explicitly put himself out of reach of democracy ahead of the presidential run-off in which he was the only candidate: “only god who appointed me will remove me,” he assured us, “not the MDC, not the British”. And, though he didn’t say so, not the votes of his own people either.

I hadn’t realised until his campaigning speech that his eminence the Zimbabwean president was in office by divine decree. But indeed the oath of office he took yesterday goes like this: “I, Robert Gabriel Mugabe, do swear that I will truly serve in the office of president, so help me god”. That neither the word ‘truly’ nor the word ‘serve’ sticks in his craw is an indication of just how deep Mr Gabriel Mugabe’s devout and pious conviction runs.

Of course, religious people across the world and throughout history will understand exactly where the president is, as they say, coming from. No one knows better than the religious what it means to exterminate, murder, rape, pillage, mutilate, oppress, torture and terrorise. By such means has religious superiority been expressed and clerical writ run since long before the lives of any of the prophets. Of course Mugabe is a religious man. The vast majority of dictators, oppressors and tyrants have been guided by a belief in their own divine right. Religion itself is a tyranny, a system of imperatives and obligations designed to keep the masses quiescent while the leisured classes plunder the riches of the planet without guilt or fear. That’s what religion is for.

Meanwhile, the Anglican communion is imploding across the world. A group of reactionary bishops, many of them representing African sees, announced this weekend the formation of the exquisitely named FOCA. This acronym (which clearly requires to be spoken in a Brooklyn accent) stands for The Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans. Though the organisers demur at the suggestion, this is of course a deliberate act of schism. The Archbishop of Canterbury will be forgiven if he mishears the new organisation’s name as FOC-U.

And what is the great issue upon which the Anglican church is foundering? Murderous tyranny, perhaps? Famine? Poverty? Terrorism? Climate change? None of the above. Never mind the matters that affect the safety and survival of human beings and indeed of the planet itself. It is the wicked and irreligious practice of love. The miserable old gits who make it their business to interfere in the lives and arrangements of others in the name of supernatural mumbo-jumbo are prepared to destroy their ancient church over the love that now dares to speak its name.

All religions are homophobic. Many of them declare same-sex love to be a capital offence. They wash their hands of the persecution that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people suffer in all societies to some degree. You might think that a Christian of colour would know something of persecution and feel some human sympathy for those who suffer it. You might well imagine that their scriptures, that are allegedly so suffused with goodness and holiness, would instruct them not to cast a stone until they are themselves without sin or to attend to the beam in their own eye or to turn the other cheek or to forgive the sinner. This guidance evidently only suits when it is convenient. Scripture is a cut-and-come-again cake and you eat what you fancy and leave the rest. Like all rules and regulations, they only apply to other people.

Archbishop Jensen of Sydney, the likely king over the water of FOC-U, can feel very pleased this week that history has twinned him with someone almost as kindly and sensitive and inclusive and sympathetic as himself, Gabriel Mugabe. If we rationalists turn out to be wrong after all, then no doubt these two dear men will enjoy eternity together, burning in hell. Because, god knows, they’re wrong.

Sunday, June 22, 2008


It just hadn’t occurred to me that Cyd Charisse would die. The death any time soon of Kirk Douglas (her co-star in Two Weeks in Another Town) or Mickey Rooney or Olivia de Havilland or Olivia’s unbeloved sister Joan Fontaine wouldn’t be a surprise, but then they are all from an earlier Hollywood generation. Even Doris Day and Shirley MacLaine, respectively three and thirteen years her junior, do not look like they’ll go on forever (though of course Shirley will come back). Charisse’s close contemporary Jane Russell is increasingly frail. Paul Newman and Tony Curtis are both being treated for cancer. And Elizabeth Taylor? Whoever guessed she would get to 76? Yet at 87 Cyd Charisse floated away on that endless bolt of chiffon that she wore for the clouds sequence of the ‘Broadway Melody’ ballet in Singin' in the Rain. It defies reason; more important, it defies romance.

Charisse seemed too ethereal, too much of a fantasy figure to be mortal. “She came at me in sections” drawls Fred Astaire’s private dick in the ‘Girl Hunt’ ballet in The Band Wagon. “She had more curves than a scenic railway”. Her legs made Marlene Dietrich and Rita Hayworth look bowed and, even after childbirth, her wasp waist, that ideal of the 1950s, was only emulated by Gaye Gambol. Her face was flawless yet not, at the same time, sexless, as perfection in humans can so often be. Curiously, her chronic inability to deliver a line made her seem even more remote. She didn’t even try to act. Beside her in Band Wagon, dear Nanette Fabray looks like a wind-up toy, signalling wildly.

Cyd Charisse: an impossibly glamorous, romantic, exotic name. Yet it had such prosaic origins. She was born Tula Ellice Finklea. Only in America do you get such preposterous names and only in America can you hope to recover from such a start and go on to conquer Hollywood, as did Lucille Fay le Sueur and Spangler Arlington Brugh (respectively, Joan Crawford and Charisse’s Party Girl co-star Robert Taylor). ‘Sid’ was supposedly her kid brother’s attempt at ‘sis’, respelt to look feminine and foreign by MGM. Charisse was the surname of her first husband Nico. Like so many women – Susan Sarandon, Shirley Williams, Janet Street-Porter, Tessa Jowell, Antonia Fraser – she retained the name, even through subsequent marriages. After Nico, she married the mediocre crooner Tony Martin and they stayed together like few other Hollywood couples (Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson). What did she see in him? When last sighted, he was a malign old toad.

She didn’t sing. She was said to be quite tone deaf. Mostly, a woman called India Adams dubbed her voice. In some of the melodramas in which MGM later cast her, notably Party Girl and Two Weeks in Another Town, she proved to be a rather more accomplished and convincing actress than had been thought. Professionals do get better, more adjusted. Fred Astaire’s first movie audition elicited the notorious judgment “Can’t act, can’t sing, can dance a little”. Turned out he could do the first two to alpha level and the third beyond the stratosphere. And dancing up there with him was Cyd.

We watched again (for the umpteenth time) The Band Wagon. The ‘Dancing in the Dark’ number is perhaps the most rapturous ever performed on screen, right up there with – indeed, ahead of – Fred and Ginger in ‘Let’s Face the Music and Dance’ and ‘Cheek to Cheek’. The setting, a sound stage version of Central Park, helps, as do Mary Ann Nyberg’s elegant costumes and Vincente Minnelli’s wonderful direction of the camera, informed both by his design background and by his instinctive feel for choreography. And it’s one of those dances where Astaire ‘accompanies’ the woman, so that he directs you to her even while you can’t help but watch him and she rewards you amply for accepting the presentation of her. And it’s so sensual. Dance is more than anything a metaphor for making love and here it is as transforming and bewitching as it can be. Now she’s gone, it made me cry more than ever.

That’s not to say that Charisse was Astaire’s “best” partner, whatever that means (it used to be asked whenever a new Astaire picture was released). Ginger Rogers was of course his best-known and most regular partner and strong enough to match him often. For my money, the most perfect of Fred’s dances with a woman (rather than solo) occurs in that piece of fluff, The Broadway Melody of 1940. Eleanor Powell really was as fine a hoofer as Fred and she was a threat in every department (Charisse didn’t do tap, for instance). The big number in the movie, led by Astaire and Powell, is ‘Begin the Beguine’ but the one that does it for me is a little throwaway routine in rehearsal togs called ‘The Juke Box Dance’. With its improvised air, it encourages Powell and Astaire to raise each other’s game in delighted competition and the sheer pleasure they take in each other’s skills is certainly not acted.

Looked at severely, Cyd Charisse was not so much a great dancer as a great storyboard upon which an imaginative choreographer could sketch. I saw her at the Palladium in the early 1980s. She was 60-odd then but she came to give a show and give a show she did. She didn’t sing of course and, when you concentrated, you saw that she didn’t exactly dance either. Mostly, she was lifted by young chaps in leotards and, hoisted up and smiling prettily, she posed and flashed those extraordinary gams and we all thought we’d seen a fine show from a great star. Actually, of course, she doesn’t do very much more than that in the ballet sequence in Band Wagon, whereupon Astaire and Oscar Levant tell us that she’s an incredible dancer and we buy it.

So she really was an illusion. A sort of imaginary woman. No more real than Jessica in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? She hasn’t really gone because she was never really there yet she will exist on film as long as film exists because she is one of the indelible images of movie-making: sitting arch-backed in that shimmering green shift with Gene Kelly’s straw boater dangling from the elongated point of her right shoe at the end of a hundred yards of sheerest-nyloned leg. Or sublimely dancing with Fred in the park in the dark.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


Each day, another breach of security is reported. Everybody tut-tuts and says that the government is hopeless. The government says it is enquiring into the breach and such things will not happen again. But they do.

This needs to be put in context. The security services have always been terrible at … um … security. We have a friend who worked at the Admiralty in the 1970s. He says that everybody was wholly cavalier with secret information. Filing cabinets of classified files were routinely left unlocked and unattended. Papers from restricted files would lie on desks for days on end. It sounds like the Ealing Comedy version of Whitehall but the reason that Ealing Comedies were so convincing is that they were true.

In those days, the professionals may have been lax but the climate was otherwise. To risk the disclosure of state secrets was thought to be the gravest of crimes. The newspapers operated a self-denying ordinance called the D-Notice whereby editors agreed that they would not publish any classified material that came into their hands. Reporters like Chapman Pincher who specialised in covering intelligence work were more likely to cooperate with the authorities than to embarrass them.

Whenever any material covered by the Official Secrets Act did leak out, the government of the day would invoke extraordinary powers to seal the leak and punish those journalists thought to wish the authorities ill. The latter would routinely be hauled before some specialist court of law and be expected to defend themselves without the prosecution being obliged to disclose fully of what they were accused.

It will be noted that the emphasis then was on the receipt rather than the delivery of classified information. For sure, “passing secrets” was a grave – at one time a capital – offence. But accepting such material, especially for the purpose of embarrassing the government, was usually considered the more heinous sin, at least by successive home secretaries.

The climate is very different now. We have become so jaded and cynical that we believe the state has no secrets worth keeping. The laxity of civil servants and jobsworths in the intelligence and other public services is now what catches the media eye. I feel sure that highly sensitive paperwork has been left on trains since Brunel’s time, but now it is reported and thought lamentable. This is primarily because a great deal more of the data now held by the authorities concerns the innocent citizenry rather than the threatening spooks. We want government to look after those interests that are more obvious and urgent to most of us than the security of the nation. What is to be done?

One thing suggests itself immediately. Make the failure to carry out the duty of care that falls on all individuals handling classified material a prosecutable offence. The nitwits who not only took home stuff that should never have left the office but forgot it when they alighted from their commuter trains should be appearing in court very soon. Let’s see who they are and be told what wince-making penalty they will suffer for their stupidity. This would certainly have a swift effect, not least pour encourager les autres.

Better yet, it would make the government appear decisive and tough-minded. Rather surprisingly, given his previous reputation for bullying and bluster, Gordon Brown has been more a mouse than a lion since receiving the keys to no 10 Downing Street. Rather too much hand-wringing – whether over Burma and Zimbabwe or the economy and the incompetence of civil servants – has been indulged. It’s high time that the government made someone a whipping boy before that role falls to the prime minister.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


The Conservative Party has always had a penchant for political theatre. From Quentin Hailsham’s futile offer at the party conference to renounce his peerage so that he would be available to lead the party, to Enoch Powell’s “Tiber foaming with blood” speech that so angered Edward Heath, to Michael Heseltine’s petulant walk-out from the Thatcher cabinet over Westland, to John Redwood’s quixotic tilt at John Mayor’s leadership (eliciting one of the most damaging of all brutal headlines in The Sun: “Redwood versus Deadwood”) and now to David Davis’ gallant resignation to precipitate a by-election, Tories certainly know how to get the Westminster pulses racing.

Mr Davis has earned my astonished admiration. That he took everyone, not least David Cameron, by surprise was evident as the news broke during The World at One. What surprises me even more is how courageous and principled his decision seems, at least on the face of it. I had thought – admit it, so had you – that this was one of the most devious, calculating politicians of the present generation. Yet no one, including him, can begin to guess what will be the result of Mr Davis’ gamble. He may lose his 5,000 majority at Haltemprice and Howden, especially if, as conventional wisdom has it, voters resent what they see as unnecessary by-elections and if, as some claim, Gordon Brown has widespread support for his desire to put on the statute book a provision for terrorism suspects – or indeed anyone else of whom a police officer happens not to like the look – to be held for up to 42 days.

The MP will surely not lose the seat, however, because the party leader of his chief challenger, the Liberal Democrats, moved very quickly to announce that there would be no candidate under his colours at the by-election. Nick Clegg moved so quickly, indeed, that one wonders whether he consulted the local party or whether this was a fait accompli handed down from central office. If the latter, he may come to regret it. As I write, there is strong speculation that Labour will not field a candidate either. That would leave Mr Davis’ gesture looking rather empty. Indeed, there might be a danger of the turnout being so low for an election that has become a foregone conclusion that Mr Davis loses credibility; or even gets beaten by a minor party candidate. What a disaster it would be if the British National Party were to capture the seat by default.

We may discover in the fullness of time that Mr Davis has badly miscalculated. For this is the kind of unforeseen event that can change the political weather. We may find ourselves looking back and feeling that we can date the moment when Labour turned the corner and won the 2010 general election to this one.

But whatever the outcome, I take my hat off to David Davis. He has put himself in great jeopardy – in particular, perhaps, within his own party where there was always a residue of suspicion that he has a maverick temperament – in order to take a matter of great national importance to the electorate. The contrast to the government’s squalid scramble to save itself from a humiliating defeat in the vote is there for all to see. While Davis raises his standard and dares democracy to deny him, the prime minister tells a press conference with a straight face that no deal was done for the nine votes of the Democratic Unionist Party that secured his victory in the house by nine votes. As an SDLP member said unarguably after the vote, instead of a humiliating defeat, the government got a humiliating victory. The fact that nobody believes Brown when he denies any deal renders it immaterial whether there was a deal or not. As I’ve written before on this blog – and as Brown is smart enough to know – how it looks in politics is very much more important than how it is. And Brown emerges looking like a liar.

Meanwhile, David Davis is absolutely right to make libertarianism a cause worth politically dying for. As a libertarian socialist, I watch in horror as a Labour government dismantles the freedoms that we have taken for granted for centuries. If Brown does survive to 2010, we may yet see a British equivalent of Guantánamo Bay. And where will that be sited? I humbly suggest the Falkland Islands.

Thursday, June 05, 2008


The Guardian has lately been running a long correspondence in which readers cite admired examples of rhyme in song – usually pop song – lyrics. I fired off my inevitable letter, conscious that it was a mite long for the letters page’s purposes, a view confirmed by the letters editor who kindly suggested that I send it to the “comment” editor. He in turn rejected it for “lack of space” (by which he means that he would rather run error-strewn pieces by Mark Lawson) and suggested I submit it to the on-line comment editor. This I did and have heard nothing. Today the paper includes my short letter correcting recent misattributions but it’s hardly the same.

In case my reader is at all interested, I reproduce the article below. It draws heavily on the chapter about theatre in my book Common Sense (still available as a free download from the link in the right hand column) and it still of course may surface in Guardian On-Line.

“On this newspaper’s letters page, an extended correspondence has been vying for the accolade of most deft rhyming couplet. The generality of the suggestions makes it clear, however, that the nature and rules of rhyme are poorly understood. Many of the examples offered are, rather, false rhymes, near rhymes and non-rhymes (spouses/trousers, rainbow/lumbago, language/sandwich, Sweden/read them, tour/before).

Ben Elton, lyricist to Andrew Lloyd Webber on The Beautiful Game, told a radio interviewer that he was “very proud” that he had managed to rhyme ‘vegetables’ with ‘testicles’. He might as well claim to rhyme ‘idiot’ with ‘garbage’. There is no rhyme for the word ‘vegetables’. Nor is there a true one for ‘testicles’. You could reasonably pair the singular ‘testicle’ with these three adjectives (which you can hardly pluralize): ‘majestical’, ‘anapaestical’ and ‘catachrestical’.

As it happens, the second and third of these are peculiarly appropriate to the matter in hand. ‘Anapaestical’ means having “a metrical foot of three syllables, the first two short, the last long” (which means of course that the noun ‘anapaest’ is itself nicely anapaestical). ‘Catachrestical’ pertains to “the incorrect use of words”. To write successful lyrics or verse, you need to use words correctly. You need a finely tuned ear for sounds as well as an awareness of nuance and a willingness to hone the line until it flows naturally. Deftness is a basic. Cleverness is a bonus. And the syllables that the metre determines must rhyme should do so exactly, and no others.

If you seek cleverness in rhyming, try this as a cause for pride. It’s by Lee Adams to the music of Charles Strouse for the song ‘Put On a Happy Face’ from the musical Bye Bye Birdie: “Take off that gloomy mask of tragedy,/It’s not your style./You’ll look so good that you’ll be glad you de-/cided to smile”. The rhyme is delicious and the stress is in just the right place.

Or how about this by Stephen Sondheim to the music of Richard Rodgers in the title song of Do I Hear a Waltz?: “Do you hear a waltz?/Oh my dear, don’t you hear a waltz?/Such lovely Blue Danube-y/Music, how can you be/Still?” That rhyme puts me in mind of Tom Lehrer’s own mischievous contribution to the 3/4 time genre: “I remember the night I held you so tight,/As we danced to the Wiener Schnitzel Waltz./Your lips were like wine (if you’ll pardon the simile),/The music was lovely and quite Rudolf Friml-y”. Rudolf Friml, I dare say, is not much remembered now but he did write the score for Rose Marie, the movie of which draws fans of Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald to the telly whenever there’s an afternoon screening.

Here’s another breath-taking piece of wordplay from the Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along in a song about planning a soirée at the Kennedy White House: “Evenings of the Budapest playing Vivaldi/And Munch doing bits of Ravel./I’ll get Leontyne Price to sing her/Medley from Meistersinger/And Margot Fonteyn to dance Giselle” . The joke of the Pryce-to-sing-her/Meistersinger rhyme is nicely enhanced by knowing that Ms Price has almost certainly never sung a note of Wagner in earnest in her entire career. This is grown-up rhyming, correct and yet so free-flowing that you hardly notice that a rhyme has slipped past. I suggest that Ben Elton take a few lessons before he blows his own trumpet again.

One of your correspondents reckoned that “only Ella Fitzgerald could get away with” the pairing of ‘spoil’ and ‘goil’. But everyone who has ever sung ‘Manhattan’ has “got away with” that rhyme because it was of course created by the lyricist Lorenz Hart, who was guying the accent of Manhattan’s neighbour Brooklyn (goil = girl). Singers generally enhance a lyric if they find the jewels within it rather than bringing their own supposed pearls to it.

Fitzgerald was a great exponent of lyrics because she understood them and delivered them as written. Her version of Cole Porter’s ‘I Get a Kick Out of You’ is rapturous. Porter loved internal rhyming and that number contains a world-beating rhyme scheme: “Flying too high/With some guy in the sky?/Is my idea of/Nothing to do”. Frank Sinatra ruined it by substituting ‘gal’ for ‘guy’.

The great Broadway lyricists also understood feminine rhymes, wherein the stressed syllable (the one that rhymes) is not the last and the subsequent syllables do not change. The first three lyrics I quoted above are feminine rhymes. Lorenz Hart provided some of the finest examples throughout the song ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’. Dorothy Parker’s front of me/lobotomy rhyme, quoted in the correspondence, is not a proper feminine rhyme but the elegance of the wordplay helps to excuse her.

In ‘On the Street Where You Live’, Alan Jay Lerner (Broadway’s most overrated lyricist) paired ‘bother me’ with ‘rather be’, an attempt at a feminine rhyme that simultaneously breaks the rule and tortures the vowels. Bear in mind that the argument of My Fair Lady is the opening line of the refrain of the first song we hear: “Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?” Professor Higgins’ irascible entry sets the bar pretty high for the pin-accuracy of Lerner’s lyrics and of his ear for idiomatic English (rather than American) expression.

Consider the song whose rhyme I deplored above. The very title is a solecism: in Britain, if you’re “on the street” you are homeless, with perhaps the suggestion that you are a prostitute. The singer should be ‘In the Street Where You Live’. Anyone interested may apply to me for my rewrite of this entire lyric in proper rather than mid-Atlantic English [see pp 189-190 of Common Sense, the book].

You don’t get Lerner’s sort of looseness in lyrics by Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Oscar Hammerstein, Noel Coward, Porter, Hart or Sondheim. But it has become standard in pop songs, which is perhaps why so many listeners think they’ve heard a brilliant rhyme when what they’ve heard is an approximation.”