Sunday, November 30, 2008

MUMBAI’s 9/11

Almost ten years ago, we stayed at the Taj Mahal Hotel in what was then just beginning to be widely known as Mumbai rather than Bombay. We were lucky to be in the old part of the building and very splendid it was. We ate a few times in its restaurants, including the one into which guests were barricaded during the siege this last week. I can vividly picture the cavernous foyer that has now been gutted by fire.

At one point during our stay, we had some small reason to complain – I no longer recall about what. As a conciliatory gesture, the manager had sent down to us a dish of the mangoes to which he alone had access. These proved to be the nonpareil of mangoes, the like of which I had never dreamed of before and can never hope to experience again. They were sheer magic. If the same manager oversees the Taj today, I hope he came through the ordeal unscathed.

It is a strange sensation seeing a place you have known being forced into a new and unwelcome role. Yesterday we were watching footage of stun grenades being fired at the hotel’s first floor windows in an attempt to flush out the last of the occupying terrorists. Many rooms and suites have been burned out, many others damaged by automatic weapon fire and besmirched by the blood of innocent guests. Had we been staying there when the attacks began, we would surely have been most vulnerable. I imagine myself having the presence of mind to shout “Deutsch, ich bin Deutsch” but that’s being wise after the event. Who knows how one would behave in a real situation like that? And anyway, would a German necessarily have been spared?

In the spring of 2001, we were on the viewing floors of the World Trade Center in New York City. No doubt some of the staff we glimpsed working there were to perish there six months later. How small the world is. Who imagines they are safe anywhere from modern terrorism? When the inevitable meeting of fanatics and nuclear weapons occurs, we shall all be in the firing line, wherever we hunker down.

Some hotheads in India are now calling for war with Pakistan as a response to the presumption that the terrorists emerged in the madrasahs and training camps of that country. Those who plan and direct these attacks will be delighted at this result. They will imagine Islam sweeping through a defeated India and overthrowing the Hindu hegemony. Though they will not achieve this aim, the attempt will profoundly destabilize the entire subcontinent. The Indian government, not the most far-sighted or imaginative in the region, will surely resist this impulse. Of course, more militant factions may come to power in New Delhi.

It’s important to keep hold of the knowledge that the world is wracked by a propaganda as well as a guerrilla war. The immediate conventional wisdom is that the one terrorist taken alive will yield much useful information about the origin and methods of the attackers. But he might as easily bamboozle the interrogators with well-rehearsed and plausible lies, lies that the authorities may be very ready to invest with credence. These fanatics are trained in psychological as well as urban warfare. The western media and the politicians who believe they must keep the insatiable media beast fed are very apt to get carried away with a theory based on little or no evidence, witness the flurry in some parts of the press about whether some of the Mumbai terrorists were British. “No” seems to be the conclusive answer. But what real difference would it have made if any of them had been British? Evidently the can of worms opened by such an idea is ugly, resonant but not quite articulated. Is it another twist to the image of Londonstan, the supposed western capital of Islamic fundamentalist recruitment?

Whatever precise national borders contained these young men when their ideas were forming, what is unarguable is that those ideas centre around Islam and jihad. Once again, religious bigotry rocks the planet and brings death and misery to random civilians, some of them no doubt themselves law-abiding Muslims. How we counter, reduce and finally eliminate that blind, righteous hatred is the $64,000 question that will not wait for a definitive answer.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


I love dance and I love to watch it, from Fred and Ginger to Fonteyn and Nureyev, from Torvill and Dean to the Nicholas Brothers. So of course I have never seen Strictly Come Dancing, any more than an aficionado of song bothers with karaoke or a barbeque draws a gourmet. I gather from the extraordinarily extensive media coverage of recent days that Strictly Come Dancing is a pro-am ballroom tournament shown as BBC1’s riposte to the “talent” tourney, The X Factor, on ITV at peak on Saturday nights, in which capacity the BBC evidently loses out, in ratings if not in the extent of publicity.

As I say, I have not seen any part of any edition of this particular “entertainment”, some of the reason why I come late to the discussion. You might argue that, given this lack of homework, I should shut my trap and forbear the expression of a view. To which I respond: grow up. No commentator, pundit or columnist, pro or am, allows innocence of a detail to prevent airing the “wisdom” of experience in the larger matter. I have seen enough evidence of this exhibit on the television news and in the papers to form a view. As was once remarked by Clive James (my least favourite television critic but he was sound in this instance), it isn’t necessary to eat the whole apple to know that it is sour (or at any rate words to that effect, and he certainly wasn’t the first to remark it, the proverbial curate’s egg being a variant of the same observation).

The “am” in this mix are not merely amateurs but, in the modern requirement, “celebrities”. So, part of the premise of this programme is understood to be that contestants are being gallant or, in the phrase enshrined in a Saturday night title of a generation ago, “game for a laugh”. Gallant indeed has been the focus of the recent media interest, one-time BBC News political correspondent John Sergeant. Sergeant has been competing as one of the “celeb” dancers, despite the – one might hazard – distinct disadvantage of being possessed of the physical grace of a hippopotamus that has contrived to emerge from the water on its hind legs. The judges in the studio – dance professionals all, I believe, one of whom used to step out with a flat-mate of mine – evidently have noted this departure from traditional ballroom practice and accordingly marked down Sergeant’s performance. However – ay, there’s the rub – the viewers get a say in the matter too. And the viewers, most of whom of course could not tell Ann Miller from Darcy Bussell, have been taught by television itself to be more captivated by celebrity than by ability.

So here is the contradiction at the heart of this particular enterprise: the experts and the lay viewers have differing expectations, differing requirements, differing judgments. There is indeed nothing strictly about it. And television, by gradually but decisively ridding itself of all reliance on gravitas, knowledge, experience and wisdom in favour of the culture of celebrity, has exactly set up the conditions in which its chosen experts in any field, however doubtful, are not going to be given any credit by the viewers. In this face-off, John Sergeant is the hero, the man of the people, the victim, the popular choice and the celebrity, all rolled into one. He has gallantly done what the judges could not: he has removed himself. However they play it, the judges are bound to come across as ungracious, churlish, pedantic and not in the spirit of the thing (I am surmising wildly here but you will tell me if I miss it by much). Sergeant, the while (and no surmise needed) can write his ticket as a celeb for years to come, opening fêtes, switching on Christmas lights, making after-dinner speeches, advertising anything he wishes to (footwear, perhaps) and entertaining customers on cruise liners. But I don’t think I’d cast him in a revival of Rodgers and Hart’s On Your Toes.

All this was perfectly well adumbrated in the most recent run of the various knockout series (BBC1 Saturday nights again) in which performers who aspire to a career in the stage musical undergo repeated auditions for a role in an actual production in the West End. I have watched and been caught up in these entertainments because I love musicals (and genuine musical talent is at a premium in these contests), because something is genuinely at stake and because the contestants are not celebrities. Nevertheless, in the casting of a Nancy for Sir Cameron Mackintosh’s latest revival of Lionel Bart’s Oliver!, the final viewers’ vote did not favour the auditioner whom Sir Cameron and his ally Andrew Lloyd Webber wanted. The production, which opens early next year, is stuck with a Nancy whom Mackintosh would not have cast. You wonder whether Sir Cameron or Lord Lloyd Webber will agree to risk such an outcome again.

So there was an authentic talent contest going on in those series. Strictly Come Dancing would appear to be a whole other kettle of fish. It’s merely another celebrity survival contest. We live in a time in which any observation, sentiment, opinion, assessment, stance or philosophy – however vapid, commonplace, ignorant, malicious, oppressive or dangerous – is rendered somehow significant and valuable if uttered by someone who is deemed to be a celebrity. By the same token, any contribution made by an expert, someone with knowledge and experience, is dismissed out of hand if that expert has never appeared in a sitcom or soap, “competed” in some such farrago as I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here! or had sex with somebody famous and then talked about it for money.

In a somewhat tenuous way, John Sergeant has been deemed a celebrity. His fame was sealed by a Moment that has become the stuff of telly-clip legend. This was the occasion when, as a political reporter, he was addressing the BBC news camera live on the prospects for Margaret Thatcher’s survival of a challenge against her by Michael Heseltine as party leader (and hence, at the time, prime minister) when the PM herself emerged from the building behind him and descended the steps with a gleam in her eye that betokened that she had something momentous to impart. Sergeant was obliged – you might think significantly – to execute a not particularly nifty sideways shuffle and utter some bromide along the lines of “here’s a microphone”, that he might play any further part in the scene. As a Great Telly Moment, it hardly bears much examination but it is thought – at least by BBC mandarins – to be up there with Michael Fish discounting the possibility of a hurricane.

You do fall to wondering who chose Sergeant for the dancing contest and why he was chosen. Was it perceived that his inability would indeed become a selling point, that he would prove an Eddie the Eagle of the Palais de Dance? Well, Sergeant now has his second claim to fame, his voluntary departure from the dancing fray so that he might avoid the absurdity of actually winning the thing. He could not resist, so the news clips revealed, a sly dig at the judges; former colleagues from the Westminster lobby have not been slow to account his demeanour in those days as less than collegiate and indeed inclined to the waspish. This is of no consequence to the celeb-loving viewers for whom Sergeant has become a Chaplinesque lightning rod, a little man against the world.

This is all very well but it is a further nail in the coffin of anything truly authoritative ever again being uttered on the broadcast media. If the BBC had wanted a programme wholly dependent on a popular vote, setting it in a world of accomplishment was bound to raise a brouhaha. Equally, there is little point in installing experts to give their opinions based upon long professional experience if the outcome does not require this input.

I appreciate that the matter of who governs us is determined by the lay vote but government and leadership are not solely about a particular skill and/or artistic presentation. Barack Obama appealed to a wide skein of responses, drawing support from many different constituencies and on the basis of many different expectations. Don’t rule out, however, the possibility that in the future prime ministers will be determined by a Saturday night knockout contest on television, featuring a panel of expert judges whose views may be discounted by the voting audience. I doubt somehow that John Sergeant will be invited to sit as a judge, though.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


There seems no end to the current media frenzy over the child, known as Baby P, whose death at the age of 17 months more than 15 months ago only came to national attention last week. His identity and that of his natural father and mother, his younger half-sibling and the mother’s live-in bloke (who, along with her, has been convicted of his killing) are being withheld “for legal reasons”, though the names were briefly revealed on the BBC’s website. These legal reasons are never explained. If, as has been widely speculated, it is to protect the identity of the sibling, it seems unnecessarily punctilious. The sibling will certainly have been taken into care and can perfectly well be given a new name.

Despite this safeguard, cameras have been allowed into the flat where the child died, now stripped of its furnishings, and photographs showing his likeness have been widely circulated. ITV News has bought the rights to at least one of these pictures. I cannot but wonder who has been paid. There have also been distressing graphics of the injuries the child received during his short life. This is just the kind of 6 O’Clock News story that drives me to Eggheads on BBC2, in front of which I would ordinarily not be seen dead.

Armchair pundits, among whom I readily number myself, have turned their special venom on the hapless social workers of Haringey. Because Baby P died on their watch, they have, in an inimitable headline from The Sun, ‘BLOOD ON THEIR HANDS’. Being wise after an event that they didn’t even know had happened until they read about it in the news columns is the special talent of armchair pundits. Columnists who couldn’t find Haringey in the London A-Z (let alone their arses with both hands) profess to know better than seasoned social workers what constitutes a palpable risk. Columnists whose entertainment expense accounts are higher in a week than a social worker earns in a month demand that heads roll.

Social work is a vocational career. You need infinite patience and human sympathy. You have to be ready to work anti-social hours and be poorly paid. And you are immediately made aware that it is an art rather than a science. The decisions you make are based wholly on impressions and assessments that are subjective. There will be people whose casework you take on who will tell you what they think you’ll want to hear; others who will have few means of articulating what their situation is; and most of them will be in some degree desperate and not all of them can be saved from self-harm or harming others. Nobody pays you any heed until something “goes wrong” and then a bunch of scandalised know-alls in London, whose knowledge of social deprivation derives almost entirely from an occasional look at EastEnders, start writing about you as if you yourself are a serial killer.

I honestly don’t understand why cases like this are taken up by the media at all. They have no news value. Editors prate about “human interest” but if viewers, listeners and readers are “interested” it is because the media does its best to make them so. It’s mere prurience. The day after the Baby P case went large, there was a brief story, played almost as big for a day or two, of a mother who had been sectioned after killing her two small children. Tragically for the pundits, there was no evidence of social workers stoking the fire of this particular case so it fell off the news agenda. That didn’t prevent the BBC Television News bulletins from carrying a vox pop with a neighbour who was too emotional to be able to contribute anything useful. What is the value of this kind of coverage? Do the editors believe that we need to be shown someone upset before we can understand that the case is upsetting? And what are we supposed to do with this knowledge? Wring our hands? Take to the streets? Perhaps write to our MPs – not least the prime minister and the leader of the opposition – and ask them to stop uttering the word “families” as though it has a religious connotation when all the media evidence suggests that families can actually be fatal for children?

Going through the courts at present is the Shannon Matthews kidnap case. This is of course sub judice and, besides, I deplore lofty conclusions drawn from cases by those who weren’t in court and/or haven’t read the comprehensive transcripts. But if it turns out that the jury finds an attempt was made to extort money as “reward” by the faking of a kidnapping, I hope the media will not be too slow to draw some inferences about what such a scam says about its own conduct. Even the people around Matthews – who between them would be unlikely to muster an intelligence quotient to rival that of a mayfly – might perceive that sucker-punching the media with a plausible kidnapping tale ought to be pretty easy and, the media being the route to instant celebrity, potentially rather lucrative. And of course the media does love a “human interest” story. Don’t rule out the possibility that, whatever the outcome of the court case, some level of media interest in these feckless people will survive in one form or other. “Based on a true story”, anyone?

Friday, November 07, 2008


Now that my body clock is back to something like normal, after an electoral night the emotion of which overwhelmed me in a way I hadn’t wholly anticipated, here are some lingering thoughts on the Obama revolution.

Looking at the demographic breakdown is fascinating and instructive. White America remains profoundly conservative: only 43% of whites supported the Democrat as against 55% for John McCain but that is nothing new, only a one percentage point difference from 2004. It would have been fascinating to see how the white vote broke if, as was mooted at one time, Condoleeza Rice had been the Republican candidate or if Colin Powell had been prevailed upon to run in 2000.

Breaking in almost identical proportion was the Protestant vote, while white evangelicals voted three-to-one in favour of McCain. This too is resonant for I think it is fair to say that religion seems more attached to Obama than to McCain. Of course there was the deliberate diversionary tactic of the proposal that Obama was a “secret” Moslem but you didn’t have to dig very deep to find that his Christianity is of a noticeably more active kind than McCain’s. As Martin Kettle observed sharply in The Guardian, “the white churches are too often racial division’s best friends”.

Race is still a big factor in America’s image of itself. However creative, sensitive and embracing President Obama is able to be, there will remain millions who will not be reconciled. You can picture the good ol’ boy leaning on his picket fence, chomping on the chewin’ tobacco and vowing laconically: “He may be President but if he ever shows his face here we’ll run him outa town”.

Does the race issue cut both ways? Obama won 95% of the black vote, but the black vote is the most unswervingly Democratic of any demographic and Obama’s support was only five percent more than that given to Al Gore, Michael Dukakis and Walter Mondale in elections of the past quarter-century. Interestingly, Bill Clinton was the Democrat who won the lowest proportion – 83% and 84% respectively in his two successful runs – yet Toni Morrison, the Nobel prize-winning black writer, famously called him “the first black president”. Back in January, a CBS News poll gave Obama only 28% of the potential black vote against Hillary Clinton’s 52% at a time when Clinton was still widely expected to win the nomination. And again, you wonder how this split would have fared with a Rice or Powell candidacy for the Republicans. Which allegiance runs deeper, race or party?

Of course many blacks who voted for Obama have no more in common with him socially or economically than they do with McCain, and probably considerably less intellectually. That the candidates had advantages that large swathes of the electorate don’t enjoy only really began to tell when the financial crisis deepened and McCain’s tally of – he thought but he wasn’t entirely sure – seven homes played its alienating part. The strip cartoon Doonesbury, admittedly preaching to the converted, had some fun with the notion that McCain be obliged to “lose” one of his homes so that he could “feel people’s pain”.

There was some discomfort, expressed with trepidation in the media, about just how black Obama truly is, what with his white mother and grandparents. A column in January in the New York Daily News was headed ‘What Obama Isn’t: Black Like Me’. In the same month, Joe Biden, still half-heartedly running himself for the nomination and having no way of foreseeing that he would duly find himself on the bottom half of the ticket, notoriously described Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”.

There will many who will not forget or forgive that. The deep, mellifluous rumble you hear is coming from the grave of Paul Robeson, as towering a figure as any in the 20th century in America, a man only prevented by the colour of his skin and the tenor of his times from achieving anything he set his mind to and "nice-looking" enough to have broken more hearts than Joe Biden would dare to dream of. And I won’t even mention Dr Martin Luther King. But Biden’s crass comment speaks to that subtext that Obama is not as truly black as those blacks who would never get entrée to the Democrats’ high table, men like Jesse Jackson (weeping freely in Grant Park, Chicago on Tuesday night, despite an earlier nasty dismissal of Obama) or Al Sharpton.

In exit polls this time, one voter in five said that race was a factor for them and more who said so voted for Obama than for McCain. Twice as many mentioned age and a large majority of them felt that at 72 McCain was too old rather than that, as a one-term senator, Obama was too inexperienced. Aside from the blacks and the (relatively) poor, Obama performed best among the young and first-time voters, seeing off McCain by at least two-to-one.

There is nothing to say that these demographics would not have favoured Hillary Clinton or any other Democratic candidate equally well, for it was the party as much as the Obama team that built and maintained the registration drive. Howard Dean was the candidate who, in the early months of the 2004 campaign, established the party’s reach through the internet and galvanised the party’s ability to raise funds. For almost four years, he has been the famously hands-on chairman of the Democratic National Committee and Obama owes a great deal of his victory to Dean’s organisational nous. Exit polls on Tuesday suggested that Clinton might have outpolled McCain by an even greater margin than did Obama.

It is idle of course to dwell on might-have-beens because if you change one ingredient you need to re-examine all. Had Clinton been the nominee, would McCain still have picked Palin? Would the GOP have been readier to let him go with Joe Lieberman, the Democrat renegade last seen in international profile as Al Gore’s running mate, on the ground that the (dis-)connection – Gore was her husband’s VP – would help to undermine Hillary, even if only obscurely? Could Hillary possibly have bettered Obama’s 56% of the women’s vote, given her hard-to-shake reputation as a divisive figure? And, in a nation where misogyny is every bit as immortal as racism, would McCain have won considerably more than his 48% of the male vote?

At bottom, it was hard not to feel that the factor that swung it most strongly for Obama was the one I, like the candidates, have failed to mention. That factor is George W Bush. Anybody following him under the same party colours would have been hobbled from the start. McCain made as insistent a case as he could that he was out of step with the neocons whom Bush fronted, but Obama had the vast advantage of lacking all taint of the Bush years. To his great and unexpected credit, the outgoing president has been as gracious and non-partisan as anyone could ask since the election and offered the president-elect congratulations and undertakings of support (both notional and practical) that seem wholly sincere. Perhaps, great reader that he is, he remembers Macduff’s line in Macbeth, that “Nothing in his life/Became him like the leaving it”, though of course Shakespeare meant “life” not “office” by that last “it”. Bush no doubt does remember how the Clinton team left a nasty taste by metaphorically trashing the place before leaving the White House.

Whatever the demographics demonstrate, imply or presage, Obama starts on a mighty task with more international good will than any president in modern times. He’ll need it. What goes up can soon come down, as the Scottish National Party found in yesterday’s by-election in Glenrothes. This was a sensational result, a bounce-back that absolutely nobody expected, not even the Labour party. Gordon Brown, who represents the neighbouring constituency and who broke with tradition by visiting the campaign twice while serving as prime minister, had been told soon after the polls closed that the seat was lost. This would have been in line with Glasgow East in July, where the SNP overturned a considerably larger Labour majority. Yet Labour not only held the seat, the party actually increased its vote since the general election by over 500 votes and its share of the poll by three percent. What contributed most to this victory, apart from the SNP not increasing its vote sufficiently, was the halving of the Tory vote and the vertiginous collapse of the Liberal Democrat’s support – both these parties lost their deposits.

I’ve said it so many times before and I’ll say it once again: a week is a long time in politics.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


With glorious hindsight, one can of course see that it was perfectly inevitable. John McCain’s campaign was a disaster. The mass of contradictions weren’t all his fault but he couldn’t begin to bridge them. He was running against his own party whose leader for eight years had been the least equipped and most maladroit and – which does not necessarily follow – the most unpopular chief executive in almost everyone’s memory.

McCain could not develop a theme, Barack Obama already having annexed change and hope, so he cast about and appeared indecisive and bumbling. In settling on questioning Obama’s fitness for office – the age-old technique of the GOP – McCain again and again asked the electorate to look at his opponent rather than himself but this only helped Obama more than it hindered him. Those fearful Republican voters talking of Socialism sounded like paranoiacs.

In the third television debate with his young opponent, McCain looked tired and old and, as tired, old men do, he repeated himself and waffled. His pick of a running mate was a nine-day wonder, filling in the gaps in enthusiasm that he himself had left in the party’s core support but alienating the middle ground he needed if he was going to be competitive and neutralizing his attack on Obama’s inexperience.

But Obama was never going to win merely by default. His victory is positive and constructive because it reached far beyond his party’s base – and most significantly he too barely ever mentioned his party. He was on a mission and the mission drew adherents in ever-increasing numbers from the very outset. The long bruising struggle with Senator Clinton only honed and focussed his appeal.

His specific commitments have been few because he is a realist. His inheritance is as inauspicious as any in-coming head of state has faced since Roosevelt. He knew perfectly well that promises he wouldn’t be able to keep would quickly tarnish his value. At this moment, he is the most inspirational figure on the world’s stage since Mandela and he knows it and he knows that the real hard work lies ahead. His presidency will fail on many fronts because that is the nature of politics but if, like Mandela, Kennedy, Reagan and Clinton, he can rise above those failings, he will leave office as beloved as those men did.

The astonishing aspect, I think, is not really that he is black, or rather “of colour” as they say, in his case more appropriate because he is of mixed race. One of the precious few unalloyed achievements of his immediate predecessor is that, on his watch, nobody white represented the USA’s foreign policy, a quite remarkable occurrence that could not have been anticipated even after Andrew Young’s showy but short participation in the Carter administration. Of course Obama’s coronation is a defining moment in America’s story because of his colour and the history behind his ascent. As a contributor to last night’s coverage on the BBC pointed out, the first sixteen US Presidents could have owned Obama.

On the other hand his election does not say that there will be other presidents in the foreseeable future who are not WASP men. Margaret Thatcher’s entry into 10 Downing Street has not advanced, as far as can be judged, the prospects for a second woman prime minister in Britain, though it may have helped the cause of women leaders elsewhere. I hardly expect in my lifetime to see a president or a prime minister who is atheist or disabled or gay or even Jewish, despite a Jew (Michael Howard) having recently led the British Tory Party.

No, the astonishing aspect is that it’s the serious guy rather than the affable guy who won. (On the basis of this dichotomy, I anticipated a McCain victory in this blog on September 14th – Sit Down. You're Rocking the Boat – before the global financial crisis that McCain played so impetuously and unconvincingly). Obama patently has a fine intellect and the intellectual resource to field and answer unexpected questions fearlessly and frankly. He gives full rather than glib responses. He can be wryly witty but he is primarily a grave and dedicated politician. McCain and Palin appeared (separately) on Saturday Night Live but Obama did not. All of that, I felt, militated against his chances of success. Hitherto, the genial guy – Reagan, Clinton, Bush Jr – always beat the earnest guy – Carter, Mondale, Bush Sr, Dole, Gore, Kerry. But something has changed and now McCain’s winsomeness – and his concession speech was a model of grace and modesty – actually seems to have alienated elements of the Republican Party who want more attack dog and less fair dealing. If that means Governor Palin survives and thrives in the reduced GOP, so much the better. Four years of the Obama presidency will convince many of the more thoughtful Republican voters that their fears that Obama was Socialist or Moslem or a friend of terrorists or somehow “un-American” were misplaced. Enough Americans have seen the state of things and embraced seriousness as a political philosophy that suits them to give Obama the strongest mandate since LBJ’s in 1964. And, always accepting that LBJ is not a good precedent, being a good man brought down by uncontrollable events, one still may dare to believe that a lot will have to have gone wrong for Obama to fail to win four more years.

Incidentally, can anyone answer this: does history record who exactly it was that fixed it for Barack Obama, then a novice senator, to deliver the keynote speech at the Democratic Party National Convention in Boston in 2004? That creative and far-sighted person surely paved the way for America's wonderful leap of faith today.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008


Our Los Angeles friend Jane wrote overnight and gave an account of driving 30 miles on Monday to a polling station where early voting is permitted. She was heartened to see so many African-Americans queuing – the wait was about two hours – though she feared that many of them would be voting “yes on 8”.

It’s an idiosyncrasy (a fabulous one) of the electoral system in the States that many posts and issues are up for a vote at the same time as the presidency: delegates to either or both of the houses on Capitol Hill, state officers including governor, attorney general and on through sheriff and even city dog-catcher, depending on the state constitution; and also specific proposals for changes in state law.

Proposition 8 on the California ballot paper this year is entitled “Eliminates Right of Same-Sex Couples to Marry” and would add to the golden state’s constitution the clause that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California”. It was in May of this year that the California Supreme Court voted 4-3 in favour of permitting same-sex marriage. Less than a month later, Proposition 8 was accepted for the ballot paper. In the five months since the court’s ruling was enacted, some 16,000 couples have availed themselves of the dispensation.

For myself, I have never embraced the desire to be married, which is why I was so satisfied with the British invention of the civil partnership – all the legal, economic and social rights that go with conventional marriage and none of the cant – and why David and I entered into a civil partnership two-and-a-half years ago. Being a rationalist, I never felt the need for some kind of superstitious ingredient in my primary relationship. By the same token, I never quite comprehended why gay people would want to enrol in the police, the military, the city, professional sport, parliament or any of the other bastions of homophobia. Life is too short to waste it being a crusader in a lost cause. I’m thrilled that so many uniformed police joined the Gay Pride march in Manchester this year – about 300, supposedly (and believably) the largest gathering of gay fuzz in the world’s history – but I would still feel more comfortable in the company of a straight actor, care-worker, teacher or nurse than a gay prison warden, club bouncer, priest or asset-stripper.

Nonetheless, if lesbians and gay men want to be “married”, they should have all the joy and security of it that it allegedly brings to straights and without the fear of being retroactively outlawed. The proponents of Proposition 8 are the usual suspects in such matters: reactionaries and the espousers of fairytale delusions. But among the nay-sayers are all six Episcopal diocesan bishops in the state, a large number of Jewish organisations including the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and many education organizations and boards. Governor Schwarzenegger’s careful position is that he doesn’t believe that a Supreme Court ruling ought to be open to being overturned by a popular vote. The hopeful signs are that the proposition is not all that popular. The no faction had a significant lead in polling until very recently but there is the danger that Jane identified, that Obama voters will not necessarily oppose the proposal; and Obama himself has taken much the same position as Schwarzenegger.

Musing on this has oddly reminded me of a documentary I saw when it was released thirty years ago. Word is Out was, I believe, the first to gather views from lesbians and gay men to tell, as the movie’s subtitle had it, “stories of some of our lives”. It was wonderful but it quickly seemed to drop from view. Searching on the net just now, I learn that its producer Peter Adair died of Aids in 1996 and that a 30th anniversary DVD has been released (actually a year late) and was shown in June, very properly, at a film festival in the Castro district of San Francisco (which I visited myself a couple of years after the filming was done).

All of those interviewed in the film were adorable and memorable, perhaps none more than George, a camp version of Oliver Hardy with a quiff. George reminisced about his discovery of the gay community in San Francisco in the early 1950s and, heartfelt and weeping, he told of the way groups would put their arms round each other at the end of meetings and sing ‘God Save Us Nellie Queens’.

Our friend Jane and her guy voted early because they plan to spend 14 hours today working to maximize the no vote on Proposition 8. She doesn’t have to do this but I love that she wants to. And of course she sees it as a matter of decency and politics and comradeship, supporting those who, though embracing a different sexual orientation, are still her sisters and brothers. Though they live in a different part of the world, the lesbians and gay men of California are also my sisters and brothers and I send them my love and support. Deliver all of us Nellie queens from oppression, marginalizing, stereotyping and the denial of full and equal rights everywhere in the world. And please don’t forget to elect Senator Obama while you’re about it.

Sunday, November 02, 2008


The time zone difference ensures that events unfolding in the late afternoon and evening in the United States occupy the small hours here in Britain. In years past, I could take in my stride sitting up all night, even on a pretty regular basis. But not any more. Even the Oscars now have to wait until next day.

Four years ago, I went to bed after Bob Worcester of the MORI polling organization had “called” the presidential election on ITV. I was staying at a friend’s house at the time and, had I been at home, I would surely have dallied a little longer. Sadly, Sir Robert (as he was able to style himself the following year, having by then taken British citizenship, which rendered his honorary knighthood “substantive”) had called the election for Senator Kerry. I awoke to the dismaying news that George W Bush had won a second term. It will be interesting to see whether ITV repeats its invitation to Worcester to add his supposedly expert take on the vote this time. Perhaps, if it does, I shall email an embarrassing comment.

Eight years ago, needless to say, the dawn found me still glued to all the American channels that our satellite dish could reach as the astonishing dead-heat drama played itself out in Florida. It went on, as you will recall, for several weeks (though I did go to bed betweentimes), thanks to the “hanging chads”, a phrase that veterans of that saga will forever utter with hushed reverence.

On the night of Britain’s 1997 election, thousands retired exhausted and exhilarated after the proverbial “Portillo moment”, the unexpected taking of a major Tory scalp by a charming and sweet gay man who was a lot more “out” than the defeated minister. But I lasted much longer and enjoyed many announcements almost as sweet. Bliss was it in that near-dawn to be watching live.

Every election of which I have been aware in my lifetime has been “the most significant for a generation”. Whatever the outcome, however, the race this time is especially compelling and I am already pacing myself for an all-nighter, unconvinced though I am that my dwindling stamina will permit me to last the course. The media on both sides of the Atlantic called it weeks ago for Senator Obama, save for the BBC, which includes a health warning in all its election reports – sometimes the health warning is the report. For the last few days, it has suited both Senators McCain and Obama to talk up the former’s prospects. Both want to motivate their base and nothing gets the vote out like a conclusion that is not foregone.

But I still fear that McCain really is in with a shout. And there must be a worry far beyond the Democratic Party that this is a possibility. For if the Republicans were to pull a victory from the jaws of defeat, there would assuredly be an explosion in the cities and maybe not confined to the cities. Black America has suffered so many reverses. For it to be denied now its moment to furnish a president with so much potential for good would be unthinkable as well as unacceptable. Many would cry “fix”, for remember that it was the Republicans who, with the help of a Bush relative in the Fox camp in Florida, pre-empted the knife-edge result in that 2000 poll and hung onto the election even though Bush had lost the popular vote to Al Gore.

More likely – and more significant – than suspicions of political chicanery would be what it would say about the American electorate. The hidden, unspoken issue in this campaign is race. It surfaces in the innuendo that Obama is, in an unspecified way (but you know what they mean), not a “true” American, whatever the hell one of those is (Governor Schwarzenneger, perhaps). The unprecedented drive to register blacks to be eligible to vote and the evident high turnout of blacks in the early voting that the system now allows may very well be offset – even overwhelmed – by voters who, though they would have voted even for Hillary Clinton (a woman!), cast their vote for McCain for no better reason than that he is the white candidate. These voters – and there may well be hundreds of thousands of them – will largely not have told polling organizations of their intention because, even in the deep south, racism is only rarely something you shout from the rooftops these days. Some who vote for McCain, kidding themselves that he is the “better” man and that Governor Palin would make a perfectly adequate replacement if he were to fail to complete his term, will feel a residual, secret shame for their action, especially if he has a narrow victory.

Can the States be that racist? Oh yes. Everywhere can be that racist. Look at the ugly abuse aimed at Lewis Hamilton on a website in Spain, abuse sparked by his close rivalry for the Formula One world title with an Hispanic driver, Felipe Massa, but shaped by the fact that Hamilton was the product of a white mother and a black father. Sports fans in other European countries (especially in the newly communitaire east) reserve their most hostile receptions for black football players. And, by the way, that Spanish website, now closed down, turns out to have been owned by TWBA, an advertising agency whose HQ is in New York.

And even here in the blameless West Country of England, prejudice can raise its head more readily than one might expect. 18 months ago, there were local elections in the town to which our village is attached. In this town, where live a number of families of Asian and oriental origin but few of African or West Indian descent, a councillor was elected on the BNP ticket. It was said that this was by default, that the major parties omitted to put up candidates and so the man got in without a fight. Looking at the results on the council’s website, it was hard to see how the BNP man had garnered sufficient votes to have taken a seat in any permutation of the results. The town’s good name was restored a little when the new member came to the town hall to take up his seat and the demonstration against him was sufficient to bring television cameras to the high street. But of course it was too late to stop him sitting in council, reminding us of Burke’s adage that “all that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing”.

The Democrats, I feel sure, are savvy about the submerged racism in the electorate and will be working right up to the moment that the polls close to maximise their vote, bussing people to the ballot who have never made the journey before and may never do so again. But if it turns out that the issue that determines the result is the one that no one has frankly addressed throughout this seemingly endless campaign, I fear for the safety of businesses, properties and even people in white neighbourhoods on Wednesday. I earnestly hope it doesn’t come to that and the way to be sure is to elect Barack Obama with the handsome majority – in both houses too – that he deserves.