Saturday, July 25, 2009


In London last week, I caught up with friends, shopping, the germs that inhabit public transport, and a bunch of plays and movies. I also visited an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. It was called Gay Icons. The object was to ask each of ten “prominent gay figures in contemporary culture and society” to name six people “whom they personally regard as inspirational, or an icon for them”.

Scope for confusion, dissatisfaction and idiocy is already well laid in this rubric. To begin with, we have the dog-eared term ‘icon’. It was only as recently as 2001 that the following ‘draft addition’ was added to the meanings of the term in the Oxford English Dictionary: “A person or thing regarded as a representative symbol, esp. of a culture or movement; a person, institution, etc, considered worthy of admiration or respect. Freq. with modifying word”. This is a gallant attempt to arrest the tsunami of generalised gunk that has assailed a previously harmless term, one that once minded its business and proudly boasted very specific and narrow meanings.

Gerard Manley Hopkins – bigger than at the NPG
(from Google)

In today’s degenerated discourse, anything can be ‘iconic’: a joke, a news headline, a fart. ‘Iconic’ is just another loose description – along with, say, ‘classic’, ‘fantastic’, ‘awesome’ – of something the speaker (and increasingly the writer) approves. There is no distinction of meaning or degree – and certainly not of either substance or subtlety – between these interchangeable positions.

Clearly there is nothing to be gained by insisting that an exhibition with the word ‘icons’ in the title should exhibit anything of the religious or the statuesque. But I would have thought that at least the chosen ‘icons’ might betray some connection to the legendary, the totemic, the idolised. Only one of the “prominent figures" asked to choose did so, or so it seemed to me, in that spirit. Waheed Alli’s six choices were David Hockney, Lily Savage, Jeff Stryker, the Village People, Diana Princess of Wales and Will Young. The late princess, whom I believe to have been heterosexual, was indeed a gay icon in the sense that gay men in particular adored her. Other such women – enormously famous stars who had or have a predominantly gay male following – include Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Tallulah Bankhead, Bette Midler, Madonna and Kylie Minogue, none of whom is cited in the show. But this is what I understand by the term ‘gay icon’. Lord Alli’s other choices have all created strong images of themselves as gay, if very disparate, men. And that seems a fair enough alternative (but secondary) reading.

At the other extreme are such doltish choices as Elton John’s of Rostropovich and the football manager Graham Taylor, and Billie Jean King’s of Mandela and her own family. Such choices are by no sense of any imagination – save that of a numbskull – gay icons. These participants are simply choosing people who reflect back on themselves, without reference to the thrust of the actual exhibition. They should have been excluded from the jury in favour of self-aware choosers.

Most of the icons cited by others have an identifiable gay penumbra but what they really are – for the gay community, as represented by the choosers – is not icons but heroes (I am using the term ‘heroes’ to encompass ‘heroines’, much as we are now enjoined to call women who act ‘actors’). This is fine and dandy but it does not make up a show of icons. Indeed, many of the choices are of figures who are more or less obscure, which surely wars with the contemporary understanding of what an icon is. The professional writers among the choosers inevitably haul in worthy but widely ignored fellow writers: Ronald Firbank, Denton Welch, Bryher, Sylvia Townsend Warner. As it happens, I have read the first two of these and I still contend that they are far from any generally recognisable iconic status.

Another, rather different problem cuts across the choices. This is, after all, a show at the National Portrait Gallery. But rather too high a proportion of the subjects throve before photography was widespread and were not esteemed sufficiently to merit the painting of portraits. Accordingly, the images available of (for instance) Walt Whitman, Edward Carpenter and Audre Lorde are very restricted. The only image of Gerard Manley Hopkins evidently to be had is about the size of a postage stamp. This makes for a pretty fitful visual show.

Paul Rudd not in character but indistinguishable
(from Celebrity Dream Cameo site)

At any rate, there was a healthy turnout prepared to pay a fiver for one of the NPG’s weediest efforts and they certainly weren’t all – or even a little bit – screamers. So I suppose one should be pleased at some level. I would have liked to have found the exhibition a little bit interesting, informative, challenging or unpredictable, however.

I saw three movies, one that I adored, one I detested and one that perplexed and disappointed me. The last of these (though the first that I saw) was Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. Naturally, I am drawn to any work whose title doesn’t need to be explained to me but clearly does need explaining to most punters, even if they know how to pronounce it (“sin-neck-dock-ee” – it is that part of speech that conveys a whole by citing a part, as does the word ‘hands’ in “all hands on deck”, and is used here as a gloss on the up-state town in New York, Schenectady). The movie’s opening line boded well too: “Harold Pinter’s dead”. Cultural allusions put me at my ease, among characters with whom I may hope to have plenty in common. The cast list is further encouragement : Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Dianne Wiest, Michelle Williams, Hope Davis, thoroughbreds all.

But the movie gets away from Kaufman. Because his story is not anchored in reality – especially a temporal reality – the story-telling disciplines start to go hang. The difficulty you give yourself by throwing out the rulebook is that your audience loses its bearings. I do not ask for the Aristotelian unities but I do need Kaufman to show me a world whose functions I recognise. He doesn’t do that and so, although I have gladly placed myself in his hands, I feel cheated and grow restive and eventually bored and recalcitrant. So ultimately the movie, for all its intelligence and thoughtfulness, is a failure.

Sacha Baron Cohen is, I think, an enormously talented man and a fearless one too. I hope, once he has become an established fixture on the international scene, that he does not follow the career trajectory of so many original comedians and humorists by taking increasingly dull and undemanding character roles in increasingly vapid and unnecessary movies. Nonetheless, the two vehicles that have raised him to supernova status leave me cold. In recognition of the rogue umlaut assumed by Cohen’s Austro-fashion fag figure Brüno, Universal Pictures styles itself Üniversal at the top of Brüno. And that was the last time I laughed throughout the whole picture. (Oh wait, I did smile at a gag at the expense of, severally, Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kevin Spacey but that hardly counts).

Well, my old friend, we shall get nowhere engaging an argument about what is funny. I merely insist upon my entitlement not to be amused. It does seem to be necessary to insist upon this. In The Sunday Times, Cosmo Landesman declared “There’s no denying how funny Brüno is”. Mr Landesman evidently brooks no dissent. I am reminded of Penelope Gilliat’s famous thrust that “it would be unfair to suggest that one of the most characteristic sounds of the English Sunday is the sound of Harold Hobson barking up the wrong tree”; I only ever read Mr Landsman on a Sunday if I am quite sure that I am completely ready to embrace a diametrically opposite view to my own commonsensical one, which is to say an unutterably wrong view.

Philip French has forgotten more about film than Mr Landesman ever knew but he too appears to lose his critical edge when Master Cohen heaves into view: “his satire seeks to create chaos as a way of exposing the absurdity and fragility of society and life itself”. I am not at all sure that this Observer observation means anything at all but it is certainly ill expressed.

Critics generally credit Cohen with a mission a little less elevated. They think he wants to make fools of people, especially pompous and bigoted people – he “delivers a few genuine stings to people who deserve it” reckons Kim Newman in Sight & Sound – but I would argue that he achieves nothing of the kind. A sequence in the earlier movie, Borat, did effect a kind of cathartic exposure of the self-regarding shallowness of a trio of frat boys and what was notable about that sequence was that Cohen was called upon to do almost nothing in the way of setting the boobies up – they lead themselves eagerly to the slaughter. But throughout Brüno, as through the rest of Borat, Cohen confronts innocent civilians (whether they “deserve” it or not) with increasingly manipulated situations. The dupes are hoaxed. How not very surprising. What is remarkable and rather encouraging about human behaviour – contrary to Philip French’s intimations of existentialism – is how gamely and how politely these poor mutts deal with someone who has torn up the social rulebook. Mind you, this all assumes that a large proportion of what makes it into the cut is authentic and not a put-up job and it is, I submit, quite a large assumption. It’s a movie, after all. Why waste expensive man-hours and film-stock when you can fake it very professionally and nobody is any the wiser?

Much has been made of the supposedly “outrageous” sequence in a hotel bedroom where Brüno starts to come on to Ron Paul, the septuagenarian candidate for the Republican Party presidential nomination. Let’s be brünoly frank: the sequence doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. Paul does not react in any way different from the way any elderly heterosexual man would react in this rather unlikely and tiresome situation, whether or not (and it really doesn’t signify) he knows that there are cameras on him. Paul keeps polite while increasingly frosty, then sees the need to scoot and does so complaining loudly. Well, of course he does. If Cohen and his team think they bagged anything of any interest there, they’re insane. The only residual glimmer of anything is the mild amazement we might feel that Cohen has the chutzpah to carry it through, staying in character.

Mark Rylance in Jerusalem
(from The Independent)

Nevertheless, it’s a thin achievement. As is testing the patience of hotel staff to destruction. Any drunken teenager can achieve that. However good a show he puts on for the camera when he is called upon to release Brüno from the partner to whom he is supposedly affixed by sex toys, you can bet that the hotelier has seen it all before, and worse.

I cannot help but feel that all this is rather low-grade and juvenile. Grown-up critics, confronted by Cohen, are apt to collapse into helpless giggles like six year-olds when someone farts. The very fact that relatively well-connected players in the politics of the Middle East allow themselves to be persuaded to go in front of cameras with Brüno – if indeed that is who they are and indeed they do so unknowingly and indeed it is not all a phoney – suggests that the most interesting aspect of these encounters is very much not their awkward and doomed brevity (what a lot of wasted footage must have been shot) but rather the nature of the preliminary negotiations that set up these encounters. Did nobody film those?

I Love You, Man is a modest comedy of manners in which a couple air and tackle the problem that the bridegroom-to-be cannot raise a pal suitable to stand as best man. That’s about all there is to it and it would come off as flimsy fare indeed if it were not for the fact that John Hamburg’s movie, building from a story by Larry Levin, never puts a foot wrong. In particular, he has cast it in the way that the great tradition of romantic comedy was always cast, seeking maximum charm. Paul Rudd and Rashida Jones are simply gorgeous as the engaged couple and Jason Segel – as the new buddy who, clearly unsuitable though he is, is equally obviously going to fill the bill – complements Rudd perfectly. But it is down to Rudd to carry the movie and he is pitch perfect. I have liked his work ever since Clueless, naturally fell in love with him in The Object of My Affection and have seen him several times on the London stage (though brought up American, he is the son of immigrant English Jews). Rudd’s comic timing has become one of the contemporary screen’s great delights and it is impossible to picture any living actor playing the lead in I Love You, Man with more deft charm. This was the movie I saw that I adored, a completely unassuming crowd-pleaser.

I live in decreasing hope of ever seeing a play by Jez Butterworth to top his first, Mojo, which is now 14 years old. He’s back at the Royal Court with his new one, Jerusalem, which I saw on the eve of its press night so with no preconceptions. It was therefore a delightful surprise to find it set round our way with many name-checks for places we know. A portrait of the English non-conformist tradition as it survives on the fringes of society (Jerusalem as in Blake), the play was more entertaining than substantial but still provocative and admirable. Butterworth was lucky, moreover, in his director (the faultless Ian Rickson) and his leading man: Mark Rylance giving a toweringly charismatic performance as a doomed rebel who still serves as a rallying point for the disaffected local youth. If Rylance doesn’t hoover up all this year’s stage acting awards, it will only be because he is appearing in a new play.

All the other plays I saw were on the National’s big stages. Richard Bean’s England People Very Nice was, I had understood, quite an inflammatory piece but I found it just an extended soap opera – the reference to EastEnders towards the end seemed rather reckless. Bean’s play-within-a-play format purports to tackle waves of English immigration and the way the increasingly mongrel native population assimilates them. But it really offers no more than anecdotal evidence and plays to received ideas. The conclusion appears to be that everyone hates the newest arrivals until they too become part of the scene – so the Somalis are the latest to suffer prejudice and rejection. To suggest that this is schematic and reductive is no more than stating the obvious. Bean’s vision is like a cartoon, which is perhaps what spurred director Nicholas Hytner to introduce some animation into the mix. It makes for a lively but very long evening – all four plays I saw were comfortably over three hours.

My remaining NT visits were to revivals of “problems plays”. Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well has traditionally been so designated. Priestley’s Time and the Conways is, as its title suggests, one of his exercises in the manipulation of time (I wonder if Charlie Kaufman has studied Priestley). Generally these days I avoid revivals on the argument that, when my London theatre visits are so limited in number, I really don’t need to see another production of The Cherry Orchard or She Stoops to Conquer. The Priestley was one I had unaccountably never seen, however, and All’s Well is very rarely put on – I reckon it’s more than 35 years since I last saw it.

Both plays were superbly staged and each director had found a means of taking the curse off the respective play’s problem. Rupert Goold employed some rather beautiful effects so that a couple of the Conway siblings were able to seem present in both their young and their middle-aged manifestations (Acts I and III are set in 1919, Act II in 1938). Marianne Elliott played a look of abject terror over the faces of the promised couple at the conclusion of All’s Well, cleverly distancing the general welcome for an arranged marriage that, in the play’s world of fable and court etiquette, was accepted as a proper reward for service.

Each of these two plays is superbly crafted by a dramatist in his around-40 prime and I was very glad of the opportunity to see them. That they both propose unacceptable takes on the world is beside the point. The National under Hytner is really fulfilling its brief.

Monday, July 13, 2009


Not before time, the government’s conduct of the war in Afghanistan is beginning to be questioned. Those of us who questioned it from the get-go welcome the late converts. Lord Lamont made a particularly astute and well thought-through survey of the problem on Any Questions? at the weekend. What he had to say contained phrases that have not emanated from Tory mouths very often over the last eight years: “foreign invaders” (by which he meant us), “the mission is very ill-defined”, “we need an exit strategy”. Lamont believes that withdrawal can only be achieved through a deal being brokered. He believes – something which is self-evident to me but apparently unthinkable to many politicians and brass hats – that we are very hard pressed to talk with any credibility about a military victory.

Warfare has its own sort of momentum, its own remorseless logic. The moment it is engaged, what is at stake seems to be dominated by the face that politicians need to save. That is why so much is made of the troops themselves, of national pride in them, of the need to safeguard them and of the terrible overweening fear that their blood might appear to have been spilt without national benefit.

With so many deaths of British soldiers in so short a space just lately and such a head of steam building over perceived shortcomings in matériel, it may be that perceptions of the Afghan escapade have reached a tipping point. The Guardian today claims what it calls “firm” public support for the war, though in fact the poll commissioned for it and Newsnight reports approaching seven out of ten respondents as wanting the troops home either immediately or within six months; the government of course has no such plan. The pollsters interviewed 1,000 randomly chosen adults by telephone on Friday and Saturday; in other words, it was a small sample, not weighted by profile, not spoken to face-to-face and there is no record of how the questions were framed. Accordingly, it is best to treat such a poll with utmost caution (which is not of course how The Guardian treats it when looking for a lead story on a Monday).

Gordon Brown and David Miliband, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton all say that prosecuting the war prevents terrorism here in the west. This is a highly debatable proposition. Which of terrorists and what Norman Lamont calls “foreign invaders” is the chicken and which the egg? How many Afghans are recruited to the Taliban by ideological pressure and how many by resentment at occupation? As Lamont put it on Friday, “if you are foreigners, civilian casualties are held very, very heavily against you”.

Those who would continue the war on this basis may be acting on conviction but it is still a gamble. No one can prove that fighting the Taliban reduces rather than increases the incidence of terrorism. No doubt they have links with al-Qaida – links surely born more from tactical convenience than from strategic ambition – but it is unarguable that the Taliban’s mission is to prevail in their own country rather than to extend the war beyond their own borders. So the west’s war is explicitly about control of Afghanistan. To continue George W Bush’s “war on terror” would require a different theatre, across the badlands of north-western Pakistan rather than in Helmand province. The argument about terrorism sits better on that war (which is not currently being fought by any other than Pakistani forces against Islamic fundamentalists) than on the Afghan war.

What the west is doing in Afghanistan is prosecuting an old-fashioned colonial war of the kind the British fought with utter futility several times in the same country in the 19th century. Neither geopolitically nor economically is such a war remotely justified. It is another expression of western hubris just like Iraq and it is just as futile.

The wave of doubt over the war in Britain seems to have been wholly occasioned by the accelerated casualties among the military and the sense of frustration and despair that these deaths engender. Civilian casualties do not seem to signify. Why is this? The deaths of British soldiers make the news. These casualties are usually named, their likenesses shown and, as a strange ritual over the last year or two, their biers go a progress through the market town of Wootton Bassett, which is not far from where we live. The way they are presented to us is as “our boys” (now “our boys and girls”) and it has been so since World War I. Hence the banner slogan seen so extensively in the marches against the Iraq war: “not in my name”.

In the global age, many of us think of ourselves not as citizens of a particular arbitrary territory bordered and characterised as a separate sovereign state but as citizens of the world. All those caught up in war are our sisters and brothers, our children and parents, whatever their national origin. So as I see it the death of a sapper at the hands of a sniper or a tank driver hit by an IED does not diminish me any more than does that of a market stallholder caught by an explosion or a bedridden geriatric whose hovel is shelled.

We sometimes hear estimated numbers of such “collateral damage” casualties and, if cameras can get there, we see generalised images of carnage. Sometimes a photogenic child is recorded lying injured in some (often make-shift) hospital. But generally these casualties are anonymous – safely so, you might observe. The way we relate to them is oddly like the way we relate to the animal world. Any harm to our pets and domesticated beasts hits us hard; the constant visitation of death and injury to wild creatures in the world just beyond is something we ignore or at best notice in passing.

But of course those civilians are much more vulnerable than the military. They do not have weapons for protection or pre-emption nor armour against attack. They don’t have a choice to be other than where they are because they are poor – the comfortably off tend not to live in war zones. They have no recourse but to sit it out and hope that the next bomb falls on someone else. Unlike the soldiery, they are not there because they love it, as the bereaved soldiers’ families so often say. They don’t have a choice.

Politicians seem not to take these factors into consideration. In his first week in office – his first week – Obama ordered an air strike over the Pakistani border that not only violated that nation’s sovereignty but also killed civilians. He seemed to take it in his stride, like swatting a fly. I was very disappointed.

Perhaps long in the future – not in my lifetime, surely – someone will run for office in the States who takes the view that war is merely futile and destructive, that scarce resources need to be invested in construction rather than destruction, that jaw-jaw is better than war-war, that sufficient nuclear weaponry to destroy the planet once is more than enough and that all the rest is superfluous to requirements. And perhaps such a candidate will take the view that all such interventions in the affairs of other nations should be conducted through a body that represents a plurality of nations rather than the vested interests of a few rich economies, a body like the United Nations. And perhaps a future British government, having made such a continuous fuss about the bravery of our troops and the necessity to eschew any expression of an opinion that might be construed as critical of them or doubtful about the value of their deployment, will be the first since at least Victorian times to take proper care of those troops who come home injured in either body or mind and not do everything possible to avoid giving them adequate recompense for the injuries they sustained in “our” name.

Friday, July 10, 2009


Oh dearie me, how the world has changed in my lifetime. When I was no’but a lad, a line you heard in the playground every few minutes or so was “mind your beeswax”. This was universally considered to be an unanswerable rebuke. Those thus apostrophized would back off at once, almost certainly displaying a degree of shamefacedness. To be a “nosey parker” (possibly an allusion to a 16th century Archbishop of Canterbury who kept stringent tabs on the clergy toiling under his auspices, according to Brewer) was to be as much a pariah then as being a paedophile is now (being a paedophile then was considered little more than a harmless joke).

Nowadays, everybody is employed fulltime minding everyone else’s business. It is already established as a Fact known to us all that Britain has more CCTV cameras per head of population than any other nation on earth. Relatively large audiences – including among their number some otherwise evidently intelligent individuals – apparently watch dry-mouthed as people they do not know interact artificially in an artificially created and manipulated television environment for hours on end. And necessarily sedentary and hence overweight journalists – or their outsourced delegates -– listen jadedly to hour upon hour of mobile phone traffic between inarticulate “celebrities” gossiping about others without benefit of the protection afforded by being conscious of any need to observe the laws of libel.

Data-collection, surveillance, eavesdropping, flies on the wall – it’s the polar opposite to the world in which I grew up, where privacy and confidentially were sacrosanct, where what adults did behind closed doors was only of interest to anyone else if the law of the land was being egregiously broken and where there were certain things one just didn’t talk about in public: sex, money, mental problems, insecurity, the failings of relatives and the workings of the human body in particular.

Now the Murdoch press has been “exposed” – there’s a resonant term – as having paid a king’s ransom to hush up the evidently multitudinous occasions on which it broke the law by hacking into the private phone calls of public individuals. I fall to wondering how much salary I would require to be paid for the task of listening to the off-duty conversations of, say, Vanessa Feltz or Alan Shearer. I don’t choose to listen to such people when what they have to say is planned, edited, scripted and (theoretically, at least) to some point. How bearable could it be to take on an indefinite listening brief as they bitch about Arsène Wenger (Feltz) or decide what to eat at Pizza Hut (Shearer; I think I have that the right way round)?

This indeed raises one of the most perplexing aspects of all this surveillance: it’s so expensive. The capital investment is minimal. What it must be really heavy on is that most costly of ingredients, man power. Some mutt has to trawl through all that closed circuit footage trying to find the car that might match the car that might be in another camera’s collection. Some other mutt has to wade through all the empty but serrated-edged bean tins and the swine flu-infected tissues in the celebrity’s rubbish bin to find that clinching receipt that confirms that the celebrity recently paid the Priory. It’s a dirty job and … um … nobody actually has to do it.

Here’s another aspect of this depressed, depressing and depressive culture that addles the brain. The British are uniquely useless at maintenance. We install things with a flourish and then disappear five minutes before they cease to function (Terminal 5, anyone?). You only have to clock the public clocks that stopped or became unreliable years ago and never got corrected to see how lackadaisical we are in this area. Or listen to the “music” – almost impenetrable pop or synthesised baroque – that telephone systems inflict upon you while you’re on hold. You listen but nobody from the enterprise on whose system you are held has bothered to listen to the “music” loop since it was installed, so they have no idea how distorted the sound has become. The chances are that when you walk past a CCTV camera, the image of you that it harvests will reveal only a fuzzy shape who could be you or equally could be the Incredible Hulk.

So, put together the ingredients of the hacking of a phone call by The News of the Screws. The celebrity – relaxed, unguarded and believing the only pair of ears into which the chatter goes belongs to a trusted friend – talks (shall we say?) loosely. The hacker is exhausted and bored and, being a journalist, almost certainly the worse for drink. The equipment on which he listens is unreliable, the signal distorted and fitful. The editorial pressure is on him to deliver something in some way juicy. Who imagines this to be a worthwhile, dependable, authoritative, let along a legitimate exercise?

And even if the whole shebang were not festooned with incompetence, how dare, how bloody dare these low-lives watch and listen as we go about our innocent – and even our not so innocent – business. It’s not as if much of this nosing is for any particular purpose. They do it on the off chance and because they can. We have let this happen because we have lazily collaborated in our own subjugation, by not protesting vigorously and continuously against the growth of databases and electronic checks, spying devices and so-called security sweeps. “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil” Burke should have observed, though never quite did, “is that good men do nothing”.

We can get back at them if we bend our minds to it. Rupert Murdoch – I say nothing here that is not already in the public domain – has a fondness for a drink. Any journalist will tell you that the quickest way to get under a quarry’s guard is to give him a drink. To hack into Murdoch’s inner sanctum of communications ought to be a relatively simple matter. Go to it, boys. But don’t ask me to come too.

Monday, July 06, 2009


I knew for certain sure that The Guardian would not run the letter I emailed on Saturday. It went: “73 years of hurt” (front page July 4). Are you serious?

I quite often write to the paper about its sports coverage, which I find both meretricious and ubiquitous. Last summer I complained about the frequency with which both the main illustration on the front page of the paper and the cover-feature of the G2 supplement are sports-related. After all, there’s a dedicated sports section every day, 10 or 12 pages all week and 16 on Mondays. Today it’s the same: the front page has Roger Federer kissing the Wimbledon trophy and some yob of a cricketer is the cover star of G2 and interviewed inside. What do sportspeople ever have to say that can be of interest even to fanatics? “Yeah, I thought I played really well”. Oh, how bloody fascinating …

But clearly The Guardian considers sport a significant part of its appeal and suppresses criticism of either the amount or the tenor of its coverage. Although I regularly point out that the photographs of sportsmen that the paper favours almost never depict them doing the actual sport but instead roaring out aggression or pouring out emotion, nothing changes. Today’s edition carries five shots of Federer but in only one is he playing a stroke.

The “73 years of hurt” line referred to Andy Murray’s defeat in the Wimbledon semi-finals and the fact that Fred Perry won the men’s title as far back as 1936. “N years of hurt” has become sport’s banal way of referring to a period without trophies. Perhaps “N years of uninspired players who make so much money that their appetite for winning is dulled” would be more appropriate.

Why does it matter so much whether Murray wins the title? It’s not as if he’s an Englishman. The Wimbledon venue is formally called The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. Membership is limited: 375 enjoy the benefit of full participation. Past singles champions and “distinguished servants of the game” (which presumably refers to the game of croquet as well as that of tennis) are invited to join and a further hundred places are reserved for active members elected on an annual basis. The patron of the club, HM the Queen, has not attended the championships since her Silver Jubilee in 1977 when Virginia Wade won the ladies’ singles title, the last singles winner who was English.

As a Scot, Murray must count as a foreigner in the eyes of some of the crustier AELTC members. But really his nationality is irrelevant. He is not playing for his country but as a freelance individual, just like golfers in the Masters or the Open. If he were playing in the Davis Cup or the Ryder Cup or the upcoming Ashes cricket series, one could perhaps better understand some of the nationalistic nonsense that attaches to his progress through the championship. This nonsense is promulgated by the media, both press and broadcasting. Last Monday, Murray’s match under the new Centre Court roof dragged on until 10.45 at night. BBC1 carried it and later crowed about a 12 million audience. I am here to say that not all that audience was watching the tennis. Some of us were waiting with increasing outrage for the 10.00 o'clock News, the start of which was delayed until the match ended, despite the fact that, from 10.00 until 10.30, BBC2 was showing an old episode of Have I Got News for You?, a programme neither significant nor date-tied. It beggars belief that the tennis was not switched to disrupt the BBC2 rather than the BBC1 schedule.

The BBC gives blanket coverage to Wimbledon but has never shown much interest in the other three grand slam tournaments, even before live transmission rights were snapped up by satellite stations. This year just the finals of the French Open were covered on BBC2. By contrast, the Corporation gives a decent showing to those of the golf grand slam events to which it can get the rights – the Open and the Masters – and raises very little fuss about the respective nationalities of the participants. Of course it makes a difference that dozens of players are on the course simultaneously and that golf’s longueurs (walking between shots) do not lend themselves to the continuous following of one or two players. In golf coverage on both sides of the Atlantic, there is a disproportionate amount of interest in Tiger Woods because he is disproportionately gifted compared to the other players: still ranked world number one, even after being out of the game for eight months with an injury. Perhaps it is a relief, though, that he is not a British golfer.

At Wimbledon, one of the women players who went out in the first round was asked at the post-match press conference if she hadn’t “let the country down”. She burst into tears. It’s a pity she didn’t instead tell the stupid journalist to fuck off. As I say, “the country” doesn’t have any stake in what happens at Wimbledon. The supposedly serious media ought to take a more objective approach to sport, including its relative importance in the scheme of things.

One of Andy Murray's lovely ground strokes (from The Guardian website)

Saturday, July 04, 2009


The Neil Sedaka gig last night was absolutely fascinating. The audience in Colston Hall Bristol was not young. Even taking dye into account, I’d say the dominance of grey hair over not grey was three or even four to one. On this evidence, Sedaka’s constituency below 50 is negligible, below 30 virtually non-existent. There was a youngish-looking claque in the front row who were first on their feet at the end and who were rewarded with hand shakes from the man. Another youngish woman presented him with an inexpensive bunch of flowers and got a mouth-to-mouth kiss. But they were atypical. Generally we were sedate, though we certainly clapped and cheered our weight.

Now, let’s not beat about the bush. With obvious exceptions (my friends, for instance), men of East European Jewish origin are apt not to age well. And Sedaka looks like shit. He’s finally given up the piece, which is good in principle, but a bald run through the crown fringed by oiled hair that goes white where it’s too long at the back is not a good look. His distinct jowliness gives his head the shape of an inverted pear. I didn’t mind a bit sitting fairly far back.

Sedaka doesn't look like this

A passing comparison he claimed with Cary Grant was the most preposterous moment of the evening. Even when young, Sedaka may have been glittery glamorous in his Brilliantined, slightly exotic appearance but he was never, even remotely, sexy. (He actually dances better now than he did back then). Otherwise, though modesty, false or the other kind, is not one of Sedaka’s traits, he doesn’t pretend that longevity is not his strong suit. The second half began with a priceless Scopitone video of Calendar Girl from 1961. Sedaka says it was the first ever pop promo and if he wants to believe that I ain’t gonna argue. Each month is illustrated by a “girl” (as they of course were characterised then) parading in a supposedly appropriate outfit; this was a movie gambit for at least the fifteen years before that time. Neil himself has four (four!) changes of clothes in two-and-a-half minutes. It was shot in Rome in gloriously garish ‘60s colour. You can watch it here

but the print doesn’t begin to do the hues justice. Sedaka reports that he and his wife were sitting outside a Rome café when a woman came up and said “I was in your video. I was January”. Sedaka says “I didn’t believe her …” [perfect pause] “… she was old, old, old”.

Sedaka does look like this (from

But here’s the thing. His voice is simply miraculous. It was always exceptional: those pristine top notes, as true as a bell, and the perfect taste with which it was deployed. His material could be icky but his delivery never was. And it’s still exquisite. No man of 70 should be able to sing like that. My partner David was at a gig by Crosby, Stills and Nash in mid-week and he reported that their voices took a couple of numbers to warm up and get into their stride (and Stephen Stills looked at death’s door, though Doctor Theatre kicked in pretty much as soon as he first attacked his guitar). At Bristol, I concentrated on Sedaka’s tone when the initial impact had passed (and my short hairs had lain down again) but the wear on it, even on sustained notes, was minimal. And the truth of his pitch never faltered through a two-hour set. When we were encouraged to sing along, I noticed that those early hits had been transposed down quite a few semi-tones. Fair enough. I also noted that not so many of us knew the lyrics to the verses as well as the choruses. He only did Oh Carol!, Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen and Breaking Up is Hard to Do, interspersed with more recent stuff, but I could have joined him on at least a dozen others of nearer 50 than 40 years’ vintage, word-perfect. Was I alone? (At one point in a more recent song he introduces a piano riff from an early B-side called One-Way Ticket. I hoped he might ask if anybody knew it but of course he didn’t. He never leaves such things to chance).

That’s one of his great strengths. His back catalogue is really vast. He’s recorded a few standards by other songwriters in his time – astutely chosen, beautifully done, even the tricky ones – but his stage act is all self-penned material and I swear he could play three or four weeks of gigs and never repeat himself. Not that repeating himself is against his nature; far from it. I know of no Sedaka album the content of which is wholly unique. He’s a compulsive recycler. Amazon lists 223 CDs over 19 pages, dominated by ‘Best of’ type compilations. Avoiding yet another copy of I Go Ape or Little Devil becomes a consideration when purchasing Sedaka.

Even so, he’s one of those songwriters who is simply full of music. The baroque composers – Vivaldi, JS Bach, Mozart, Handel, Haydn, Telemann, the Scarlattis – were like that. In our time, Leroy Anderson, Stevie Wonder, Elton John and now Rufus Wainwright are others, perhaps McCartney (you don’t have to like their stuff to acknowledge the fecundity).

But musical composition is his thing. Howard Greenfield was his lyricist for twenty years and he had a marvellous gift for the succinct, telling line. Greenfield only gets one look-in among the copious programme illustrations and an elegant tribute to him came quite late in the proceedings, followed by an emotionally restrained version of Our Last Song Together. Sedaka worked with Phil Cody for some years and also does his own words (all the new lyrics on the latest CD, The Music of My Life, are his). Both Cody’s and Sedaka’s are typically somewhat bloodless and generalised. If there’s a story to tell it is done smartly but most of these later lyrics are nearer the quality of Tim Rice or Don Black than Stephen Sondheim. There’s no arresting phrase, only banalities.

It doesn’t matter. The creamy, easy but fresh melodies are what carry him forward. Sedaka has never extended the form or created a masterpiece, a truly original song. He works within his comfort zone. His control – of the shape of a song and, just as surely, of the contours of his stage act – is absolute. And within that compass, he achieves a kind of perfection again and again. His early hits were perfect pop songs of the kind known as bubblegum. His mature works are completely crafted, wholly successful pieces of very palatable vin ordinaire. Some – Solitaire, Laughter in the Rain (“Michael Jackson’s favourite of my songs”), I Found My World in You, Standing on the Inside, Love Will Keep Us Together, That’s When the Music Takes Me – are rather more than that.

And just as surely Sedaka knows his audience. The selection of numbers was exactly right, the balance and contrasts unerringly plotted. His last encore took the roof off. Of course it did: it was Amarillo. Every face leaving the hall was shining with pleasure.

Thursday, July 02, 2009


The Right Hon the Baron Mandelson of Foy in the County of Herefordshire and of Hartlepool in the County of Durham, First Secretary of State, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and Lord President of the Council, has got lost in the post. As my regular readers will know, I am no fan of the way Royal Mail is presently run – my dispute with its managers about “guaranteed delivery” continues – but I am even less a fan of privatisation, either in part or whole. Mandelson blamed “market conditions” for the government’s withdrawal of its attempt to sell off about a third of the national postal operation but that is clearly not the whole of the story.

The unpopularity of (part-)privatisation within the Labour Party clearly played its part. The government may well only have managed to get the legislation through the Commons with opposition support. Peter Mandelson knows how damaging that would have been. He may come off as a meritocrat and pragmatist, inured from the electoral battle by his unelected membership of the upper house, but his roots are firmly in the party. Herbert Morrison, a legendary figure to anyone over 60 with any feel for British politics, was Mandelson’s maternal grandfather. Young Peter left the party for a time over the Vietnam War and, more than thirty years ago, was part of a Labour movement delegation to Cuba along with Arthur Scargill. The Blairite fixer who played such a central role in making Labour look electable again is a man whose nose for both strategy and tactics is still sensitive.

But it’s a pity that the government isn’t better at pre-empting the charge, levelled by both opposition and media, of a climb-down. The new Home Secretary Alan Johnson, another minister with an astute sense of what the party will wear, has effectively killed off the long campaign for mandatory ID cards. But this too is widely seen as a defeat for Labour in general and Gordon Brown in particular. Why is it not within the wit of Downing Street spin doctors to present these adjustments as a response to a different charge routinely made against this government: that it doesn’t listen?

It is at such levels of impression made upon the voters that elections are won and lost. On both these matters, the government is made to look weak. Mandelson’s shadow in the Commons, Kenneth Clarke, will certainly not become First Secretary of State if David Cameron gives him a cabinet post in any Tory administration, but Clarke easily and confidently dismissed the whole government in his scorn for the bitter pill that Mandelson was swallowing. Clarke has a great facility for appearing on top of his brief and yet affable and clubbable at the same time. He scores his points in the same way that any chap would while standing in the bar at the local cricket match. Brown’s advisors ought to pay attention.

The frontman of choice for Brown since his reshuffle has been Liam Byrne, Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Byrne is the sort of man the cut of whose jib would, if you took a free newspaper from him, make you still check your change. Ken Clarke may very well lie as comprehensively as Byrne appears to do but it never occurs to me that Clarke is lying whereas I wouldn’t believe Byrne even if he told me that the economy was in a worse state than the government had anticipated. With spokesmen like this, Brown doesn’t need enemies.

I’m not entirely persuaded that the Lord Mandelson is much of a vote-winner either. I’m very willing to believe that he deserves his high reputation for competence in management, diplomacy, administration, foresight and the black arts. But that doesn’t translate into the common touch. I suspect he does have one skill that, in the cliché, characterises gay men: that he’s good with old ladies. I dare say Baroness Thatcher rather likes him, as she liked Norman St John Stevas, whom Mandelson somewhat resembles in manner. But I doubt it plays well on the council estates where everyone believes Neil Kinnock’s shameless joke that Mandelson, while in a Hartlepool chip shop, pointed to the mushy peas and said he’d have some of that guacamole. A story like that doesn’t have to be true; the truth lies in the fact that it is told at all.

Mandelson’s elevation to the position of First Secretary of State was widely derided and the title scorned as if it were some kind of nasty unconstitutional innovation. In fact the title has been bestowed on a number of senior cabinet ministers as far back as Rab Butler and as recently as John Prescott. Having been elected deputy leader of the party by the party, Harriet Harman might have reason to feel peeved that Mandelson has been elevated to the position prima facie of deputy prime minister. But as neither of them is likely ever to rise to the top job, it hardly signifies. What they should all be concentrating on is doing everything to ensure that Gordon Brown is still prime minister in twelve months’ time. Getting rid of unpopular policies is a start. Finding ways to make a virtue of a U-turn would be better. Not introducing hard-to-sell policies in the first place would be best of all.