Monday, January 26, 2009


I have been reading Dreams from My Father. It seemed the right time to do it. Apart from the evidence that he could have carved a major career as a writer if he had decided against politics, what the book reveals is that Barack Obama is that rare thing in politics: a real human being who has led a useful life among ordinary people. I cannot think that, in the fourteen years since the book was first published when he was 33, he has wholly forgotten the ideals that fired him then or the practical lessons that he learned. I feel sure that the White House is in the keeping of a man who will know how to stay in touch with his roots for much of, if not for all of, his first term in office.

President Obama has begun well in many ways. He of course understands that everything about him is now different, while at the same time the Obama who toiled earnestly in obscurity still walks with him. He wears the dignity of office lightly yet with suitable solemnity. Compare and contrast with his immediate predecessor. His stony face when the garrulous Vice-President Biden attempted a risky wisecrack told its own story. He is not afraid to tackle head-on the grave crises that beset his nation and the world. We can continue to hope that, as a rule, he will be bold and creative, progressive and empathetic.

Yet he already has blood on his hands, in his first week. American jets have, at his order, attacked targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Civilians on either side of the border have died in these raids. The new American president immediately loses the moral advantage that he could have taken with him to meet Ehud Olmert. He too has killed children of a foreign land and he cannot even plead that he was defending his own borders. This is a pity. Was it avoidable? Yes, I rather think so.

No doubt during the campaign the then Senator Obama sounded an aggressive note in the matter of Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaida because he felt the need to do so. These are enemies that every American can agree on. To let Senator McCain run with the suggestion that a President Obama would be “soft” on these enemies might have been fatal to his chances. It was ever thus for candidates from the left and, as a result, governments from the left on both sides of the Atlantic have tended to be even more likely to become embroiled in war than governments from the right, as though anxious to show that, expectations to the contrary, they are not an easy touch.

But if President Obama is going to prove just as ready as Former President Bush to launch missiles without consulting other governments – in this case, either in Islamabad or in Kabul – we shall not feel that the change of government in Washington has been all gain.

Meanwhile, there has been plenty of speculation, much of it somewhat wild, about the future of the so-called special relationship between Washington and London. In some quarters, it has been mooted that Obama might downgrade Britain’s status because of the abominations of colonial rule that were visited upon his father’s homeland of Kenya during colonial rule, as described in Dreams from My Father. I think this is fanciful. Obama is nothing if not a realist. Every nation’s history is littered with atrocities and, if diplomacy were conducted always with one eye on past events, nothing would ever be achieved.

Then of course the press, ever ready to sneer at Gordon Brown, has been setting up the Prime Minister for what the papers will declare is “a snub” if he is not the first European leader to be welcomed to the Obama White House. Again, this is unrealistic. Of course Brown will want to feel that he is privy to Obama’s thinking on a regular basis and indeed Brown’s long experience of international affairs will not be superfluous to the new president. Brown has been on familiar terms with the evolving Washington scene all his adult life and it’s probably no exaggeration to suggest that he knows more key people in the American capital – certainly has known them for longer – than does Obama, if not Biden and Secretary Clinton.

What is more, Obama’s perspective is different from that of George W Bush and indeed that of Washington veterans. He is bound to put out feelers to a much wider range of nations than any president before him and with a different order of priorities. Brown need not feel overlooked – and, I suggest, nor will he – if Obama’s focus is more immediately on the middle and far east and then on Africa, Asia generally and Latin and South America, rather less on old alliances with Europe that perhaps do not require too much restating. In any case, Brown was the first European leader granted a phone conversation with the new president. That should suffice. I know – indeed, I say it often – that how it looks is often more important in politics than how it is but it’s also important to judge by results and, in that case, appearances sometimes have to go hang.

If Brown has a really useful function in the transatlantic relationship at present, it is to warn Obama that deepening the engagement in Afghanistan, even though he promised it during the campaign, is fraught with unanticipated danger. I have advocated it before and I will advocate it again. Keeping the peace in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq is much better done by UN forces than by the forces of nations that have vested interests in the outcome.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


Rewind thirty years and a few more. I was then working as television editor at Time Out, the London listings magazine. TO was at the absolute zenith of its success and the magazine had considerable influence in the corridors of television power because it was virtually out on its own – the boom in press coverage of the medium was still in the future. I was working alongside Patricia Williams who was on the section before my return to the magazine to take up the television post. By rights she should have become section editor but Tony Elliott, the proprietor and sometime magazine editor, was notably leery of politically articulate women.

Happily, Pattie and I hit it off and, with complementary qualities, quickly became a successful team. We built up the amount of insider information that the section ran. A BBC producer told me that each week Television Centre went silent for half the morning while everybody digested the new Time Out television section. Someone at the mag cut out a headline from The Guardian about Bruce Forsyth – “the most important man in television” – and pinned it over my pigeonhole in the mail rack. Heady times.

It got headier. After barely a year, I was invited to join The Observer, which was greatly expanding its coverage of broadcasting. All the national newspapers were looking at TO’s success and learning the lessons. I was, I believe, the first TO journalist to “graduate” to Fleet Street, as the industry was still called in those days – by no means all the national newspapers were located on Fleet Street even then; indeed The Observer was on St Andrew’s Hill at Blackfriars.

The obvious succession was for Tony to pick Pattie, but once again he flinched at the thought of an editor who, as he saw it, talked a different language from him. Pattie sportingly suggested that seeing her as “too political” was a slight upon me. At any rate, Tony made a totally unexpected move. He appointed a beanpole newly graduated from Oxford as the next television editor. His name was John Wyver. Pattie was rapidly scooped up elsewhere: she was offered the editorship of the trade magazine Broadcast, which she gladly accepted and of which she made a fine fist. We all felt that this was one in the eye for Tony Elliott.

In my own role at The Observer, I inevitably came across young Wyver immediately and then regularly. It was natural to me to treat him with decency – after all, he wasn’t the cause of Pattie being passed over and anyway he was a fait accompli. He was well aware that his appointment was controversial and handled it and himself with grace and poise. I gave him all the help I could to find his feet.

Now fast forward to rather more than a decade ago. I was about to publish my critical biography of the television playwright Dennis Potter. It seemed to me that a television programme off the back of publication would be a good idea, both for the book and for, say, Channel 4. I had appeared on television in a few fleeting capacities but had never fronted a programme. Still, I considered myself wholly capable of doing so. During the intervening years, I had worked as a television producer for the BBC and some independent production companies – I had hardly been at The Observer a year before I was headhunted by the BBC as a producer, surely the least qualified person (as I observed at the time) to be a producer since the pioneering days of some 25 years earlier.

Meanwhile, there had been a fracture at Time Out, the political contradictions at its heart inevitably coming to the surface. Many of the staff, including Wyver, had left to found a rival publication, City Limits. It lasted a while but was never distinctive enough and eventually folded. In the new television world after the birth of C4, Wyver had formed a production company, Illuminations, which carved itself a useful and evidently pretty lucrative niche in arts programming. So it was Wyver whom I approached with the notion of a programme about Potter.

We did lunch. I hadn’t seen him in a long time and I was astonished. The beanpole had turned into Robert Maxwell. A vast expense-account stomach sloped away from his still bony shoulders. Underneath this weird disguise, John remained the same slightly bashful, rueful boy I remembered, still looking slightly shocked to be having his career. We chewed over the proposal and John told me to put it down on a sheet of paper and drop it in. Then he took me back to his suite of offices and, less boyish now, showed me round with a proprietorial air. At one point, he introduced me to a woman working at a computer screen and murmured “Truly my mentor”. “Oh,” I said to her, “then I’m very pleased to meet you”. “No,” snapped John, rather irritated as he evidently suspected that I was sending him up. “You are”. It was a wholly genuine misunderstanding on my part. I hadn’t seen it coming and it’s often hard to tell if people hold you in high regard, even when they do. We all know those occasions when everyone is celebrating someone newly dead and we wish the departed could hear this and wonder if she or he would credit it.

I posted off my proposal the next day (the time had yet to come when all communication was by email). John called me to acknowledge receipt and said he’d look it over and call me by the end of the week. After a fortnight, I phoned to enquire if he’d had a look at it yet and he said he was really sorry, he’d been very busy and he’d be sure to get back to me by the end of the following week. That was fourteen years ago. I have neither heard from him nor seen him since. Just occasionally, when I’m feeling a little bruised, I wonder how, if that’s how he looks after his mentor, he behaves towards his enemies.

Now let’s come into this century. My partner and I had moved out of London and I had set about the task of attracting some income by writing what I wanted to write rather than what an editor – in journalism or book publishing – wanted. One day I got a letter from a chap called Simon Farquhar who was writing a book about television drama. He said he had read my play Circle Line and loved it. This play began my professional career. I was at university when the BBC announced a playwriting competition open solely to college students. I had been going to write the play anyway and it was about a student: what could be more suitable? The play won the competition, was put into production and, after a delay while the BBC decided to fret about certain of its content, was broadcast in the first season of Play for Today in January 1971.

Simon could only read the script because that is all that survives of it. About three months after its sole transmission, the annual list came round to BBC heads of department from which they were obliged to choose which of their output from the year should be archived. The Head of Plays, Gerald Savory (back in the 1930s the white hope of drawing-room comedy with his one stage success George and Margaret), looked down the list and didn’t check Circle Line. So the master tape was duly wiped. A friend had made an audiotape of the broadcast – characteristically he’d missed the first few seconds – and I had the copy of that … somewhere … in a box.

I found that Simon had an astonishing encyclopaedic knowledge of vintage teledrama, all of it broadcast before his time: he was in his early 30s. We took to swapping anecdotes, firm opinions, memories on my side for research findings on his. I had always intended to write a book of my own on teledrama, a field on which I reckoned myself a bit of an expert. Simon both drew on and bolstered my own knowledge. And he was clearly in earnest about his book and the place of Circle Line. Though he’s never completed the book and so of course never published it, he showed me the chapter that treats of the play and it was extremely gratifying, not least because it was such an intelligent assessment.

Meanwhile, Simon’s own writing career was blossoming. He had a couple of radio plays produced and then the Royal Court bought his play Rainbow Kiss and gave it a run at the Theatre Upstairs. He was in his element. Knowing that I had an unproduced stage musical kicking around, he persuaded his leading man, who had some track record in the field, to make off with a copy of the show. This was clearly a mutually beneficial friendship (though, not too surprisingly, nothing has come of the actor having my musical).

A different thread comes into my story here, but it will interweave, so be patient. Some eighteen months ago, I was beginning to feel that there might be a television programme in my own burgeoning disenchantment with the medium that I had championed so keenly in my youth. I alighted on the title British Television: A Dim View. After all, every programme title these days has to feature a colon. It would be what is called in the biz an authored piece, which to say a report that is shaped by the reporter’s opinion rather than a (supposedly) impartial documentary with voice-over by an actor. I kicked the idea around for a while and then tried it out on my old compadre Pattie Williams.

During the intervening years, Pattie and I had drifted a little but had connected up again in the 1990s when I sketched out an idea for a series about the history of television drama. By this time, Pattie had her own production company, Case Television, which was very effective across a wide range of programming. The series was offered to BBC Knowledge, the forerunner of BBC4, but eventually declined. Now Pattie had just wound up her company but that, it seemed to me, was an asset in my quest to make a really hard-hitting programme about the parlous state of British television. I had no ambitions of my own in the medium, Pattie now had none either, so we could both offend anyone we wished without fear of career damage.

Dealing with Pattie over the proposal became a long drawn-out business and it took me fully a year finally to get her to admit that her heart wasn’t really in it. While I was waiting for her to come to this realisation, I wrote a new stage play, a four-hander revisiting the student life of the late 1960s that had informed Circle Line. It was called Observations from a Hill, after a number by a rock group that we adored at the time, Family. I was pleased with it and the few people I allowed to read it (including Simon Farquhar) were complimentary and supportive of it. But I couldn’t get any theatre to take it on.

Finally, Simon told me of a friend of his who was stretching his wings as a director. He had an in at the King’s Head Theatre in Islington and if he liked the play he might be able to persuade the artistic director to take it on. His name was Jason Lawson. I duly met up with Simon and Jason at the King’s Head where we watched the current production together. Jason was charming and very polite. He was about to start work on a new production but as soon as that was put to bed he would take a look at mine. At the end of the evening, he made off with a copy of my play. Meanwhile, Simon had told me a tale about how he owed a large sum of money and had been faced with threats of violence. He seemed truly scared. I immediately promised to pay off the debt for him but gave him to understand that he would have to repay me by the end of that year, 2008.

Jason duly read the play, said he liked it and thought it was very doable. I had hoped to see the production that he had been working on but he had never given me the details and it finally emerged that he was only the assistant director so seeing it would have taught me little. But we had a meeting to talk it over and I felt very bucked up. He asked all the right questions and he put his finger precisely on what was needed to improve the play. I came home and did some more work on it and posted off the rewrites. I was not alone in believing that I’d made an important difference to the play but Jason was not very forthcoming about what I sent him. However, he said that he would set up a reading with some actor friends.

That was last June. Since then all communication between us has been at my initiative and at greater and greater intervals. Jason remains elusive and nothing happens concerning the play. I sent him a Christmas card, which he did not reciprocate, and now I have given up on him.

Through the summer, the subject upon which Jason was most forthcoming was that of Simon Farquhar. I had not seen him since that evening at the King’s Head in March. His emails, at one time arriving almost daily, dried up. It turned out that he had moved house, though this had always been a regular occurrence. Jason, to whom it seemed he also owed money, tracked him down to a pub on the Hammersmith Embankment where he was said to be working. After many attempts to reach him by email, phone and text, I finally had a phone conversation with Simon in the summer, during which he enthused about his new job as a barman and reckoned the publican had taken to him, was appointing him assistant manager and was about to install him in the pub flat. Pub life, he maintained, was terrific grist to the mill of his writing, which he intended to resume before long. We didn’t speak of his debt to me.

Since then nothing. The deadline for his repayment to me has passed. A friend familiar with Rainbow Kiss reminded me that the main character in that play had unpaid debts and was threatened. Was Simon perhaps testing me to see if I was paying attention? Were he and Jason in cahoots to rob me? Well, tomorrow I go to town for a social event at the weekend and I shall take the opportunity to trawl the pubs of Hammersmith Embankment and find this ne’er-do-well. He will not find me sympathetic on this occasion.

After Pattie passed on British Television: A Dim View, I sought out an old chum from television days, Paul Kerr. I knew that, like so many of our generation, he was teaching media to university students – or, as he put it, teaching them to read and write – but he still took a bit of raising. We finally made contact and then met up. To no surprise on my part, we were of one mind on the state of British television. I was also glad to learn that his college was keen for him to continue to make occasional programmes. We agreed that I should set out some more of the proposal on paper and that he would look it over. I sent it off on October 7th and, after some chiding from me, he promised to read it in the first week of November. At the end of the week after that, I wrote to him expressing my disappointment at his silence. There was a distinct snappiness in his reply and since then he’s gone completely silent. I feel as if I am being punished.

In the summer, as the prospects for Observations from a Hilll dwindled, I came to the conclusion that I was going to retire from trying to make a living as a writer. Nothing since then has done other than reinforce that conclusion. The fact is that there is really nobody in the business in a position to determine that I get work whom I trust or on whom I feel that I can rely. Those very few organisations that are willing to consider unsolicited work, be it prose or drama, do not have readers who know how to read. In the early 1970s, I was trained to read scripts in the BBC Script Unit, a whole department set up to process unsolicited submissions. But of course that department was closed years ago and nobody now learns how to read, they just cast an unpractised eye over the work and guess at a response. I know from the rejection letters I receive – those few that risk any sort of assessment – that the reader has really no idea what a script assessment is. And frankly what is the point of trying to forge alliances with like-minded people in the business who then don’t have the time to deal with you, the kindness or courtesy to tell you where you stand or the conscience that would stop them treating you shabbily.

It was a hard and a quite emotional decision to give it all up. After all, to paraphrase Ray Liotta’s character at the outset of Scorsese’s Goodfellas: “As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a writer”. I started to write my first novel when I was seven and I must have completed two whole, if rather short, chapters. That my first income from writing came from a play that I wrote at 21 was no surprise to me or to my parents. The surprise, I think, has been at how difficult it has been to sustain a career as a writer.

The rebuffs and disappointments over the 40 years since I was 21 are too long to rehearse in a blog posting and at present too painful as well. I have contemplated a book about failing as a writer – that’s not something I’ve read so I’m hoping it would have some prospect of at least being an original idea. I have its title – it’s from Stephen Sondheim’s wonderful song 'I’m Still Here', which the character Carlotta sings in Follies: “Then You Career from Career to Career”. But of course nobody will publish such a book. I’m not a comedian or a footballer or a graduate of the Big Brother house. And although such a book would be written out of my ever-sunny disposition, editors will reason that people don’t want to read about failure and the business doesn’t want books that suggest that those who run the business are less than brilliant. So I don’t suppose I will write it, even if I could afford to do so.

You see, I do have to earn. I am retraining, something that doesn’t come easy at my age but needs must. More about that can wait for a future posting. Meanwhile, I won’t stop writing the blog because it keeps my hand in. It’s just that the novels and plays and scripts and non-fiction books that are at various stages in my head will stay there, unwritten. I still have the pleasure of them and, if no one else ever does, that sure as hell ain’t my fault.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009


What in hell does the Jerusalem government imagine itself to be achieving in Gaza? When it first began its aerial bombardment of the densely packed towns and cities where the Palestinians live, it reckoned it was “applying pressure” to Hamas, a mealy-mouthed kind of word-spinning. Now it says it means to “destroy” Hamas, but, it adds carefully, only militarily. Hamas, after all, is the legitimately elected government in Gaza. Matters of sovereignty of course arise in considering Israel’s ten days of relentless attack on its tiny neighbour but nobody is about to invoke the law in this matter, nobody anyway who has any clout in the corridors of power.

Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s thoughtful Middle East editor, has daily asked what Jerusalem will consider “a victory”. It’s a good question. In the year before Israeli fighters began attacking Gaza on December 27th, Hamas had been periodically firing rockets into Israel. Jerusalem says that it was to stop this rocketing that it attacked Gaza. So it must be assumed that Jerusalem will consider victory achieved when the rockets cease. In the ten days since Israel stirred, four Israeli civilians have died from Hamas rocket attacks. And that compares with how many in the preceding twelve months? Precisely one. On that basis, then, Israel’s assault has been a four-fold catastrophe for Israel itself. Up until now, in all conscience, Hamas rockets have been but an irritant, at least compared with a full-scale air and ground invasion.

Now I don’t know whether Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, is an intelligent man or not. It isn’t very easy to tell. But he must have anticipated that Hamas would not just lie down and let the Israeli tanks roll over them. He must have had it pointed out to him that the likelihood was that, as far as they possibly could, Hamas would continue to fire rockets into Israel because every rocket sent is a message declaring that Hamas is still there. So he went into this knowing that civilian casualties in Israel must rise. And he must have gone in with a pretty good idea that, if he really wished to destroy Hamas as a military force, this would not be the way in which such an aim could be achieved. Did he learn nothing from the Lebanon debacle two and a half years ago?

For Israel has spent ten days ensuring that thousands upon thousands of Arabs right across the Middle East now have a new and fiercely burning desire to destroy Israel. Olmert has cut Israel’s security off at the knees for generations to come. You can be sure that terrorist attacks will return in full measure to the streets of Israel, that hundreds of new suicide bombers are already signing up to be trained to inflict mayhem on public transport and in the streets and markets and meeting places of towns and cities from Haifa to Elat.

And what has Israel done for its own standing in the world? At best, you can say that it has tested to breaking point the remarkable international support it has enjoyed for 60 years. The retiring regime in Washington has predictably washed its hands of the matter, ostensibly blaming Hamas. The incoming president has very properly cleaved to the mantra that, as far as international affairs go, there can only be one president at a time. It is be hoped, however, that his representatives are making clear to the Jerusalem authorities that the blank cheque Israel has been scribbling upon for so long is no longer to be mistaken for the support of naked aggression. Gordon Brown’s remark today, that this is “the darkest moment yet for the Middle East”, strikes a wholly different note from that of Bush. David Miliband and Condoleeza Rice will have conferred. Washington will have known that London’s stance would differ from Bush’s. And Obama had better be ready to take a constructive and firm position, otherwise his first crisis will set a bad precedent for the rest of his term.

For, in one of history’s bitterest ironies, Israel is in serious danger of committing genocide in Gaza. When it talks of destroying Hamas, it may intend to draw a distinction between movement and people. But its actions, which it describes as “targeted”, are comprehensive. Today, Olmert has reportedly agreed to cooperate in allowing some food and medical supplies into Gaza. This, says his office, is “to prevent a humanitarian crisis”. Does he not hear the contradictions in that statement? Whence does he imagine the humanitarian crisis arises? From the wickedness of Hamas governance of the territory?

Since Israel attacked Gaza, there have been five military deaths among the Israeli military. Three of those, the majority, were as a result of what is known as friendly fire. So Israel has lost a total of six citizens at the hands of Palestinian aggression, none of them (if you think this important) women or children. This is an agreed figure. No two people are going to agree about Palestinian deaths. The Israeli assessment will be on the low side inevitably, just as Hamas will put it high. But by any objective count, it must be 600. A lot more than six. A hundred times more.

Hamas accuses Israel of indiscriminately attacking homes, mosques, refugee camps and shops. Today, three schools were bombarded by Israeli tanks and so inevitably many of the casualties were children. Jerusalem says that Hamas is responsible for this because it locates its rocket launchers in residential areas. It says that it drops leaflets warning civilians to leave. This is cruelly disingenuous. If an armed bank robber grabs a baby and tries to flee the bank, does the police marksman calculatedly shoot the baby? And where would Jerusalem have the rocket launchers sited? On open ground? It is unusual for any participants in conflict to go out of their way to make things more clear-cut for the enemy. Hamas might say in response: bring the Knesset nearer to Gaza’s border and dismantle the security around ministers so that we can kill them, then we will not need to spray rockets around Israel. No less fanciful, I venture.

Israel has a choice here. It could forbear bombing and shooting up civilians. There is no imperative in its relations with Hamas that says Israel must murder hundreds of people in order to hit at a few dozen militants. Israel could resort to diplomacy. It does not do so because the government imagines that its credit with the nations that matter is bottomless. I hope President Obama stands ready to disabuse them.

And those three schools attacked today: all were UN-administered schools, flying the UN flag. Does Israel have no regard for any authority other than its own? I hope the general assembly votes to throw Israel out of the UN and institutes war crime proceedings in the international courts of justice. But no such thing will occur unless Obama proposes a very different approach within the security council.

When you take a position about an issue, you are apt to be accused of bias. I write what I do from this perspective: I have friends in Israel about whom I care very much and many more friends who have family and friends of their own in Israel. I have none in any Arab country. I have visited Israel, Egypt and Iran. Anybody who has read much on this blog or who cares to trawl back will know that I am Islam’s foe and would dearly wish to see that barbarous bigotry banished from the face of the earth. None of that persuades me that what Israel is now doing is right. Or – perhaps more importantly – is wise.