Sunday, November 29, 2009


As my devotees will readily testify, low gossip and idle speculation are unknown to me. But oh boy, how can one resist Tigergate?

Hot off the net is the news of fall-out from the “scandal”: the entire writing team of Late Show with David Letterman have today resigned in protest at the host’s rejection of all their Top Ten list of gags about Tiger Woods and his insistence on penning them himself – his team agree that they are “not funny”. So you see the Tiger Woods “scandal” is a big story.

“What’s Tigergate?” some may ask. Here’s the bare bones of it. Eldrick Tont Woods is the world’s most successful sportsperson in history, certainly if you measure it by income. Of course his sport is an especially lucrative one. Whenever you see men playing golf on television, you can be sure that not one of them is less than a dollar millionaire unless (and golf is one of the few sports where this is still possible) he is an amateur. Well on the way to becoming sport’s first billionaire, Woods has been ranked number one golfer in the world for 575 weeks to date (more than ten years in total) and continuously for nearly four-and-a-half years, despite having been out of action with an injury for eight months during that period.

By no means all of his wealth derives directly from playing golf. Tiger Woods is a highly marketable brand because he is highly popular and brings a huge following to his sport, both on the courses and on worldwide television. He also has always appeared squeaky clean, something PR people look for. Shrewdly, he has subscribed to the writer JM Coetzee’s philosophy of handling public attention: “I don’t perform cartwheels for the media”. It is twelve years since Woods granted an extended interview. He has remained private, aloof and therefore largely untouchable. So he is able to command top dollar for advertisements and endorsements.

This weekend’s incident has blown much of this out of the water. According to the official version, Woods drove his Cadillac Escalade 4x4 out of his driveway shortly before 2.30 on Friday morning. Almost immediately, he collided with a fire hydrant and then a tree. The car’s speed was not sufficient to engage the airbags. Both Woods’ lips were cut in the impact. His wife, Elin Nordegren, following on foot, tried to open the automobile, then smashed a window with a golf club and dragged the semi-conscious Tiger from the vehicle.

Mrs Woods in her modelling days

Police were summoned and determined that “no alcohol was involved in the accident”. How this finding was reached is not revealed. Can you effectively use a breathalyzer on a semi-conscious driver who has lip lacerations? At any rate, by around 3.00 Woods was being treated in hospital from whence he was discharged shortly thereafter. Later on Friday, Nordegren denied police entry to their home, saying that her husband was resting.

The internet duly heaves with theory and rumour about this sequence of events. An already running tale about Tiger and a woman described as a “nightclub hostess” suddenly acquires much greater significance. If that story may be accessed by you and me, it may be accessed by Mrs Woods. She wouldn’t be best pleased, goes the theory.

For what it is worth, I have my own take on this event. It has the merit of tidying up those elements in the official account that seem somewhat unconvincing. First I ask this question: did the cops breathalyze Elin Nordegren? Because, you see, my theory is that she was driving the Cadillac (damn it all, Tiger endorses Buick). She hit a hydrant and then a tree because, you know, she’s a girlie. Oh no, wait, that’s completely wrong (sorry, just twitting my women readers). She hit a hydrant and then a tree because she’d had a couple of bottles of vino. Concerned about her rushing out of the house and jumping in a car, Tiger pursued her on foot. She stepped out of the car, having picked up a stray golf club – I expect David Hockney has paintbrushes lying around in his car too – and slugged him in the face. He fell down. Aghast, she wondered what to do and decided to smash the Cadillac’s window so that she could claim she had done this to release the central locking and pull her husband from the wreck. “There is no blood in the car” screams The Hollywood Gossip site in italics (that’s how I know it was screaming). You bet your ass there’s no blood in the car.

Tiger – he means it

If my theory is what the Irish call bollix, Mrs Woods is free to sue me. I doubt her husband would welcome the further publicity of such a case. After all, while the matter is not sub judice (and it will remain so for at least as long as the Woods decline to talk to the Florida Highway Patrol), we are all free to speculate without prejudicing justice.

Meanwhile, if Tiger Woods still wants to reach that magic figure of a billion dollars, he had better come up with a convincing account of what transpired in the early hours of Friday morning. Otherwise, the endorsements might prefer to go to … um … John Daly.

Thursday, November 26, 2009


On the cover of the new issue of Private Eye, Herman Van Rompuy and Baroness Ashton are embracing each other under the headline “European Union: It’s the Kiss of Death!” His speech bubble says “ I love EU …”, hers “… and I love EU too!” and along the bottom runs the legend “On Other Pages: Who are EU two?”

It’s a long way from the magazine’s best effort, combining a Sun-type gor-blimey pun with a very conventional take on the news. The press – in Britain, at least – have united in scoffing at the European Union’s appointments to the new posts created under the Lisbon treaty. The consensus is that these two new officers of the union are at best lightweights and unknown quantities.

I find this at best presumptuous, insulting and more informative about the nature of the consensus than about the individuals in question. If political commentators in London have not heard of Cathy Ashton – and an Express leader headline managed to call her Margaret Ashton – that merely shows how little notice the British press takes of European politics generally.

The new EU stars

But of course most of them have heard of her. Belittling her name recognition is just an affectation, all part of the anti-Labour stance now widely embraced in what used to be called Fleet Street. If for no better reason, they know her as the wife of Peter Kellner, long one of their own and in recent years the frontman for the psephological organisation YouGov. But on her own terms, Ashton was Labour leader in the Lords before going to Brussels to succeed Peter Mandelson as Commissioner for Trade, a role in which she evidently impressed. She is amply qualified for her new job.

Much more press fuss has been made about the supposed obscurity of Ashton than about the supposed obscurity of Van Rompuy and paradoxically that is of course because he really is an unknown to the British press, being merely the prime minister of a nearby country. What could be duller for a British newspaper than to concern itself with the politics of Belgium? Indeed, the anti-Europe bias in the press is as evident as the anti-Labour bias. The egregious columnist of The Daily Telegraph, Simon Heffer, considers himself a card for referring to the new Chairman of the European Council as “Mr Rumpy Pumpy”. Do you see what he did there? Eh? Do you see? My long-time name for the columnist is Syphon Effluent. It’s a damned sight more pertinent than Mr Rumpy Pumpy.

The narrative here is really too obvious for the commentators to bother expounding. Van Rompuy and Ashton got the jobs because of a stitch-up between the wicked Germans and the slimy French who needed patsies whom they could boss around so that they would be able to arrogate all the power to themselves. This Ruritanian vision of Europe is made plausible by the absence of any substantial on-going coverage of Europe.

Let’s try to make some sense of it. There is certainly history here. When the presidency of the European Commission fell vacant five years ago, France and Germany wanted the then Belgian premier, Guy Verhofstadt, to have the post. But Verhofstadt’s strong criticism of the invasion of Iraq and his opposition to any mention of god in the European Constitution predictably alienated Tony Blair and his Catholic-and-invasion ally, José Maria Aznar of Spain. After protracted negotiations, a compromise candidate was found, one whose name meant little in Fleet Street: José Manuel Barroso. No doubt Barroso’s name is still obscure to most voters and even to some journalists (who, I bet, need to check his spelling when they have call to use it) but the former prime minister of Portugal’s first term was generally considered a success among those who count – pro-European politicians – and he easily won re-election.

Blair’s opposition to Verhofstadt, almost as much as his role in the Iraq war, ensured that any aspiration he might have entertained to be EC chairman would be futile. Serve him right. David Miliband’s attempt to talk up Blair’s chances by describing him as one who would “stop the traffic” in Beijing was never seriously a consideration. The office itself opens the necessary doors if not the jams. Van Rompuy and Ashton can get anyone they wish to consult to the phone in minutes and to a meeting at short notice. Just because the Sunday Express doesn’t know who they are, it doesn’t mean that Washington, Beijing, New Delhi, Jerusalem, Pretoria and all other homes of key players did not bone up within minutes of the appointments being confirmed.

And there’s another bone of contention artificially worried by the dogs of Fleet Street and beyond. Oh gosh, these people weren’t elected, goes up the cry. Quick, what are they paid? Who, if anyone, are they answerable to? Lots of powerful people have not submitted themselves to any electorate. Billionaire newspaper proprietors who live in tax exile, just for starters. The British prime minister for another, and several of his ministers (notably Peter, Lord Mandelson). But don’t let’s get too carried away about that. Two of the last four Tory prime ministers arrived in Downing Street without benefit of a popular vote. John Major made himself more legitimate by winning an election in 1992 – as against the odds as Labour will do if they win next year. But Sir Alec Douglas-Home was a hereditary peer when the Tory suits decided he should succeed Harold Macmillan (who also was never elected) as PM in 1963 and he had to renounce his earldom and fight a by-election in order to join the Commons before he could take up office. Surely it couldn’t happen now.

In the States, everyone down to city dog-catcher gets to be on the ballot paper when voting time comes round, but the government in Washington is made up wholly of appointees, many of whom have never sought elective office. The argument that people should all be elected only really starts to be pregnant in a comprehensively informed electorate. Ours is far from being even moderately informed. It’s clear, after two mayors of London, that only someone known by his or her first name has any chance of being elected to the position. That seems to make Camilla, Esther, Stelios, Kylie, Ant, Dec and Brucie the front-runners to succeed Boris.

Head teachers, chiefs of police, magistrates, chiefs of staff, chief executives of strategic health authorities and any number of other key wielders of power are appointees rather than elected tribunes. The primary advantage of appointing someone to a position of power is that the considerations that inform the appointment centre on suitability, skill, contacts, quickness of study and ability to manage a team. These are not qualities that the electorate looks for, let alone is competent to judge. Being good on the telly may weigh with a lot of voters but what it tends to put into office is George W Bush.

The supposed desire for figures stepping onto the world stage to be already “household names” is in any case rarely heeded. My mother, a reasonably well-informed woman, died in summer 1988 and I have often reflected how strange it is that the man who became British prime minister only 16 months later was someone of whom she probably had not heard and certainly would not have recognised from a photograph.

In The Guardian recently, that prize ass Mark Lawson wrote a supposedly comical piece set five years hence in which the American president was Sarah Palin and the British prime minister Boris Johnson. Were I a betting man, I would wager that he’s completely wrong. After all, he might have bet on Gordon Brown five years ago but he wouldn’t have anticipated President Obama. Who did, back then? After his famous speech at the 2004 Democrats’ convention, people certainly said “one day that man will be president”. Not many would have thought he would be the next one. Fame in politics is a fast-moving phenomenon. Can you hazard who, at the outset of 1990, was the hot favourite to succeed Thatcher? Not John Major, obviously. I’ll tell you at the foot of the posting.

The electoral process generates much more chance and unpredictability than any other system (which is why I keep saying that the triumphant election of the Tories next May cannot be seen as a foregone conclusion). Appointment is designed to control events, smooth the way for successful government and head off unpredictability. Those who sat down to dinner and thrashed out the deal that led to the appointments of Van Rompuy and Ashton knew their candidates and believed them able to carry out their duties to the European Commission’s advantage. Whatever horse-trading went on, it is hardly in the interests of President Sarkozy or Chancellor Merkel to saddle themselves with team leaders who are not up the job. Let’s just be grown-up about this.

Oh and the anointed successor expected to become Tory leader after the dreaded Margaret was none other than Kenneth Baker. Oh yes.

Friday, November 20, 2009


I have just read Netherland. It is very much the livre du jour, or rather the literary-novel-now-out-in-paperback du jour. I don’t generally feel any compulsion to read fashionable books, especially if I know in my bones that they aren’t going to be for me (viz Dan Brown). Who can say what leads one to read one book rather than another? The Origin of Species is now atop my pile, a little because Professor Dawkins has re-piqued my interest (I have had my Pelican edition since the 1960s) but mostly because I feel it would be “nice” to read it in its anniversary year; indeed, if I were to miss this occasion, I doubt that I would ever get around to it.

But back to Netherland. I am not unduly surprised to find that it has been absurdly over-praised. So many literary novels are hyped with a degree of desperation that beggars belief. Certainly Joseph O’Neill is an enormously intelligent writer and his command of his material and of his style are both enviable. And I liked it more than I had expected.

I was braced to be repelled. After all, it is marketed as being “about” cricket in New York. Indeed, the HarperCollins paper edition, which includes an interview with O’Neill and other sidebar material, focuses on this aspect of the book. Well, I can think of few subjects better calculated to bore me to tears than cricket and had the book featured that dreary pastime in, say, Birmingham, Perth or Mumbai, I doubt that I would have purchased a copy.

As it turns out, cricket is no more than a textural ingredient. There is a partial account of one match. And the great character of the book, the Trinidadian Chuck Ramkissoon, is ostensibly attempting to establish a proper cricket ground in Brooklyn. But cricket here is what Alfred Hitchcock used to call The McGuffin: a set-up or mechanical device that kick-starts the plot and serves as a surface attraction for getting the punters in. The main traffic of the novel concerns an unravelling and then reknitting marriage. This, at any rate, is how I read it and (though I haven’t discussed it with any of them) I bet that’s how my women friends would read it too. But this – it seems to me – foregrounded story is not even alluded to, let alone discussed, in the aforementioned interview. It is as though O’Neill has written one novel for (straight) men and another for women and for men bored to tears by cricket.

I’m perplexed that Sam Mendes is in development with a movie of Netherland. As I read it, it’s a discursive, reflective, internalised narrative, the kind that routinely defeats those who try to dramatise such novels. But of course Mendes will make the version that is “about cricket in New York” rather than the one about Hans and Rachel and their growing apart and then back together.

Perhaps this is all a measure of the novel’s excellence. Some months ago, I read another well-regarded contemporary novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid. This shares much in tone and material with Netherland, depicting another immigrant highflier in Manhattan and displaying a hugely intelligent grasp of the way the various sensibilities of different nationalities rub against each other. And I found that a (woman) friend who liked the book as much as did I had read it from a very different perspective and so had a very different take on it from mine. This elusive novel too was planned for filming (by Mira Nair) but that plan appears to have been shelved.

Just as well, I think. Excellent novels deserve to be known for what they are, rather than being forever supplanted by routine movie versions. The best outcome for the writer of an exceptional novel is for a producer to pay out serious money for the rights and then make a movie so bad that it is soon forgotten. Thereafter, the novel regains its status as the only widely known work bearing that title. This is what happened to the lucky Louis de Bernières with Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, another hugely popular literary paperback.

The overhyping of novels, especially by new writers, can be quite destructive for the future of the writer so marketed. Donna Tartt has been unable to meet the expectations that The Secret History raised. Alex Garland, now evidently a fixture in the lucrative world of writing unmade movies, must miss the attention that The Beach attracted. I thought both these hit books so bad – derivative, ill-written, poorly imagined – that they made me quite disproportionately angry.

Another preposterously overpraised first novel was A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka, which critics and others fell upon as if no novel like it had been written before. I wonder how many of those fans can name either of her subsequent efforts.

Two more highly fashionable reads that I succumbed to were Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and What a Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe. I dare say I enjoyed both of them very much but in all good conscience I can recall not a thing about either of them. Perhaps they indulged too many characters. So many novels, if not written by someone as smart and fecund as Dickens or Joyce, are prone to dribbling away into a crowd of nonentities. Another novel that made me cross was Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson, which I thought unfunny and incredibly sloppy. I’m assured that her headline-grabbing first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, is worth reading but I’m inclined to be once bitten, twice shy. It served me right for buying a book purely because it had a nice dog on the cover.

The fashion for writing comedically about a large cast of characters has always had its attractions for novelists but it is incredibly hard to make work. It defeated Gore Vidal in Duluth and I don’t expect writers lower down the pecking order to bring it off either.

Let me not come off here as an old curmudgeon. I can certainly think of one novel that was in every other traveller’s hands on the tube for several months back in 1986 and that, when it was in my hands, would not allow itself to be put down. The McGuffin of that book was highly unpropitious too: chemical elements. It was Primo Levi’s wonderful The Periodic Table, his first (I think) to be published in Britain but the fifth he wrote – happily all the others have followed in translation.

At the back of Netherland is Joseph O’Neill’s “Capricious XI of Favourite Books”. I always spurn favourites, “best-of”, “greatest”, “all-time tops” and other such reductive lists but simultaneously cannot resist being provoked by them. Of course as soon as I began my own capricious XI, I remembered the absurdity of it. If you arrange such a list alphabetically, most of us wouldn’t even make it out of ‘A’ before our number is up: The Age of Innocence, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, All the Pretty Horses, The Ambassadors, American Pastoral, Animal Farm, Anna Karenina, Ape and Essence, As I Lay Dying, Atonement, At Swim-Two-Birds and that’s not to mention À la recherche du temps perdu. By the time you get to The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy or even Disgrace, let alone The Tin Drum or Ulysses, you are hundreds over your quota. And then what of those writers whose canon you’d want to include, never mind the horror of choosing one: Austen, Flaubert, Trollope, Zola, Dostoevsky, the Brontës, Balzac, Gaskell, Hardy, Lawrence, Wells, Maugham, Fitzgerald, Greene, Steinbeck …? How long is a string of literature?

Given that there is such a cornucopia of great books, it really doesn’t signify if a passing sensation escapes your clutches. And that doesn’t even begin to consider the vast other library of fiction, the so-called “popular” rather than literary novels: all those writers like Catherine Cookson, Barbara Taylor Bradford, Wilbur Smith, Bernard Cornwell, Danielle Steele, Jackie Collins, not one volume of whom you and I (or at any rate I) will ever have in our hands, let alone read.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

To the TOWER with THEM

For anyone asked to speak about popular culture who then launches into a diatribe about something that he calls “Man You”, the Crown Jewels would not be likely – as I understand it – to refer to the treasures kept on semi-public display in the Tower of London and pressed into service for that rare event, a coronation. No, sir. What that dunderhead pictures when he hears the phrase “the Crown Jewels” is a menu of sporting events. Hard to credit, I know. But that is the barrel-bottom-scraping state of our culture.

My devotees will be aware that sport is not one of my subjects; though I am surprised to note how often the words “sport” and “football” and the names of sportspeople appear in the link list on the right of this page. In the narrow and self-regarding world of sport, the phrase “Crown Jewels” apparently has come to refer to a list of events that are considered in some sense “nation-uniting” – like the coronation itself, perhaps – and therefore worthy to be kept available for viewing on free-to-air television rather than being subject to acquisition for exclusive transmission by fee-charging broadcasters (i.e. the non-UK-tax-payer Rupert Murdoch). I couldn’t give a tuppenny damn whether people watch, say, some rugby match on BBC1 or on Sky Sports, always providing that programmes that I want to watch are not delayed, displaced, postponed or cancelled. The most imperilled fixture in the schedules at those times when sports events march all over them is the main evening news bulletin. God help the broadcasters if there is extra time being played in a “vitally important” game of tiddlywinks when news is breaking of the passing of the sovereign (or – worse – Madonna). Some sports producer will certainly be in an agony of indecision as to whether to hold out till the end of the game,

I am only interested in this matter because I am interested in – or, to be more accurate, I used to be interested in – broadcasting policy. Nowadays, British television by and large bores me to tears when it is not appalling me by its vulgarity and speciousness. One of the factors that has destroyed television is its own developing treatment of sport which, in its turn, has destroyed those qualities of sporting prowess and achievement that once could credibly be called honourable.

Permit me to explain. Not so very long ago – in my lifetime, at any rate – much of sport at national and even international level was played by amateurs. The last bastion of amateur sport, the Olympic Games, only fell to the inevitable as recently as the beginning of the 1990s and Olympic boxing is still restricted to non-professionals. In golf, tennis and boxing, “turning pro” remains something that competitors do only after becoming regulars in international competition and the major tournaments in the first two sports continue to reserve a limited entry for non-professionals who are on the verge of crossing over. When I was young, the Wimbledon champion often did not return to defend his or her title because he or she had turned pro during the interim. In 1968, the championships were finally declared open and prize money allowed for the first time. Professionals not seen there for some years promptly returned to the fray.

The professionalizing of sport coincided with its growth in importance to television schedulers. After years of the indefensible duplication of, most notably, the FA Cup Final simultaneously live on BBC and ITV, competition for exclusive coverage rights took hold in earnest. The administrators of the various sports saw that there was a lucrative market here and encouraged competitive bidding. But the innovations and refinements introduced by the broadcasters to make their coverage more exciting and therefore more attractive both to potential audiences and to the owners of the rights had a significant downside.

Action replays, repeated highlights and so-called analysis of incidents and decisions by referees and umpires distorted the natural arc and the internal rhythms of each game, not to say the very nature of the respective sports. What’s more, it undermined deeply the authority of those charged with controlling the players.

And advertisers saw an easy way of reaching huge captive audiences. Gradually, merchandising has swamped all sports, so that leagues and tournaments have to be identified by a brand name, players enter the arena festooned with logos, arenas pulsate with animated advertising and greenswards are painted with logos only readable from camera positions, all specifically designed to draw the eye from the sport itself.

And of course the television and marketing money has raised the salaries and fees that sports stars can command to stratospheric heights. Sport now outbids movie and rock music fame as a means by which working class boys and, to a lesser extent, girls can climb into major wealth. Not surprisingly, then, every sport – there are now no exceptions as far as I am aware – is subject to cheating and financial corruption, some of it on an industrial scale.

The whole culture of sport has been transformed in a couple of generations. Now Sky Sports dictates the day and time when events will take place, in order to maximise its own options for coverage. Never mind if the local fans are inconvenienced or the clubs find fixtures bunching or clashing with other plans. Meanwhile, in many sports, playing for your country is now considered more of a nuisance than an honour. Football managers in particular would rather not risk the limbs of their phenomenally expensive star players in international duty. Indeed, football managers lead the way in systematically undermining the authority of referees. That’ll be the day when Sir Alex Ferguson concedes that the opposing team got an unlucky break.

Predictably enough, the recommendations of the panel – charged to re-examine the Crown Jewels and chaired by former BBC sports journalist and Football Association executive David Davies – have been condemned on all sides. Giles Clarke, chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, told The World at One yesterday that cricket would be reduced to “extreme poverty” if the Ashes Tests played in England were obliged to be shown free-to-air. Before Mr Clarke uses such a foolish phrase again, I suggest he make a trip to sub-Saharan Africa. The people there have to eat their cricket bats.

On the other hand, administrators of events like the Derby – which, Davies recommends, should not be considered a “Crown Jewel” – are equally outraged by a sense that they have been downgraded. The fat-arsed executives who sit in offices and count the money brought in by their respective sports want it both ways: they want broadcasters to cough up so much for the rights that every other area of broadcasting is impoverished, but they also want the big audiences that only free-to-air transmission can deliver: evidently 2.4 million watched the 2005 Ashes on Channel 4 but only a bit over half a million paid to see this year’s live coverage on Sky.

How the FAE’s rationalise their two-pronged complaint is that their respective sports “at grass roots” will be the component that is impoverished if Murdoch’s riches are denied them; as if they mention the grass roots at any other juncture. I have a proposal for the seeding of the grass roots in any sport, that could be taken up whatever the outcome of the Crown Jewels proposals. Let every participant in any sporting field, whether player or administrator, who makes more than, say, £75,000 per year from the sport and its associated endorsements pay a levy of, say, 50 percent of earnings into a fund for the sport’s grass roots. I think that’s fair. How many helicopters does Michael Owen need, for Pete’s sake?


Another broadcasting matter currently exercising commentators is that of the kind of so-called joke that gives great offence to certain sectors of the audience. As someone brought up on the traditions of wit, humour, drollery and wordplay, I cannot but find these sorts of “jokes” pretty poor at best. But then I am considerably more radical than those self-proclaimed “edgy” comedians who believe they are … erm … pushing the envelope. After all, I can be offensive without even having to use the dodgy excuse that I am being funny. Unlike that cunt Jimmy Carr.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Recently, I was asked a small favour by the younger of my partner’s delicious nieces, Gaby (not her real name). She had written a letter of application for a sub-editing post and wanted me to run my eyes over it. I readily agreed. As Gaby is a terrifically smart cookie, widely read and highly articulate, I anticipated that this would be the work of a moment.

Not so. Indeed, I found it a ticklish assignment. I didn’t want to recast the letter in the words I would have used – no help in that – but I did feel some of her phraseology struck the wrong tone, both for a job application and for someone needing to be seen as rigorous in the matter of language. In my computing incompetence, I managed to delete the annotated version of her letter that I had prepared from her email attachment, so I rang her and talked it through instead.

It was a few days later that I finally realised what was wrong with the application. It was simply that no one knows how to write a proper letter any longer. No shame on Gaby, for whom epistolary style is as archaic as ploughing with horses. How often has she been required to put pen (or even keyboard) to paper in a formal manner?

When I was a boy, early in the reign of Queen Victoria, we were called upon to write letters rather frequently. Letter-writing modes were taught at school and, unless one were unlucky with one’s parents, at home too. We all understood the important distinction between “Yours faithfully” and “Yours sincerely” and we knew what the strange terms “inst” and “ultimo” meant. I still favour those terms in business letters and use them scrupulously (especially when I am writing a letter of complaint), even while expecting that the recipient will be puzzled. (For the record, “Yours of 3rd inst” means “your letter to me of the 3rd of this month” and “Mine of 25th ultimo” means “My letter to you of the 25th of last month”).

All givers of birthday and Christmas presents had to be thanked by post, carefully set out by hand in fountain pen on headed notepaper. We had to write everything at school in ink too; hence the proverbial pre-computer schoolboy with stained fingers. Now we have Mrs Janes, the bereaved mother to whom Gordon Brown wrote, complaining that the PM should have typed it. In days past, the idea of typing a personal letter would be unthinkable.

The telephone was used much more sparingly in those days. People would write to each other with news. Anything sent through the mail in a business or retail transaction would have a personal covering letter. Compliment slips were thought too sloppy and informal. Letters of acknowledgment were a matter of course – now they are an unexpected occasion for pathetic gratitude. And of course there was no email or texting.

These last two developments have played a great part in the destruction of writing style. I have no doubt that their spread has meant that many more people do actually write to each other than hitherto. But the conventions of these two modes have grown up spontaneously and therefore in an unstructured way. I still am uncertain whether to address somebody whom I do not know or to whom I am emailing for a business reason as “Dear” and to sign off with the usual “Yours sincerely” (if I know their name) or “Yours faithfully” (if the address is to “Dear Sir or Madam”). “Hi”, “Hello”, “Best wishes” and “Kind regards” seem to be the usual style in emails but I cling to older ways.

Texting, by its comparatively laborious method, is more informal and abrupt still. I have yet to learn the common abbreviations that young people bandy about. Only recently did I discover that “lol” is “laughing out loud”: I had assumed it to mean “lots of love”, a rather different sentiment.

What is everywhere apparent in the explosion of writing onto screens is that most people have no idea how to spell (and cannot be arsed to check their spelling with a dictionary) and/or that few of us look over what we have written before we send it. For a positive festival of bad spelling and worse expression, you need look no further than eBay. But I have several friends whose emails are frequently more or less incomprehensible, largely because they hit “send” as soon as they have written what they want to say and do not, as we were enjoined to do at school, “check your work”. We all make mistakes, of course, and those of mine that come to my attention are suppurating wounds for days (sometimes even years) afterwards – did I ever tell you about the phrase “a cheque shirt” that fetched up uncorrected in the published version of my first novel? (Cheque your work, indeed).

Gordon Brown’s letter to Mrs Janes has caused him enormous grief, both in the sense of his own unmistakeable anguish that his unavoidable shortcomings – crap handwriting, compromised eyesight – should have let him down in a way that has been made so public and in the sense that he has been mercilessly harried by a woman with an agenda and a newspaper with an axe to grind. I feel for him. My own penmanship is terrible, ruined by the years of taking scribbled notes as a student and then as a journalist, so now I type a letter unless it is really unavoidable: condolences for a bereavement provide just such an occasion. My eyesight is compromised too, though not nearly as profoundly as Brown’s. And like him I favour felt-tips over nasty biros.

Brown’s effort – which evidently now ranks with the Zinoviev Letter in the annals of political mischief making – was clearly thoughtful and well-meant. Mrs Janes was outraged that he misspelled her name, though it seems to me that, in his hand, it could quite as well have been read as Janes rather than James. Nick Robinson, speaking on BBC News, referred to her at one point as Mrs Jane. Surely that gives The Sun new ammunition in its campaign against the BBC too.

Mrs Janes went to The Sun in the first instance – whether by way of Max Clifford or on her own has not been revealed – and says that she has not been paid by the paper. Not everybody believes her. When Brown telephoned her to apologise in person, she recorded the conversation. The Sun says it had nothing to do with this recording. Not everybody believes it. The Sun of course has very publicly turned its back on the Labour government and is now doing everything in its power to ensure a Tory victory at the general election. There is little doubt that the Tories will go out of their way to please Rupert Murdoch by hobbling the BBC, allowing Sky to take a larger stake in ITV and doing nothing to force non-residents (example: R Murdoch) to pay tax on their income earned here.

Of course, The Sun has never made an error, be it of spelling, of fact, of judgment or of taste. Indeed, the mounting evidence that, on the matter of the Brown letter, it has wholly misjudged the public mood may very well be the first miscalculation that it has ever made.


The other day, the son of my oldest friend turned 21. I sent him a message – “welcome to big school” – that he probably didn’t appreciate. But to the generation of his pop and me, born within ten days of each other in 1947, 21 will always be the age at which one attains one’s majority. Back in the 1960s, that’s when everything came to you, all the rights and responsibilities (save for sex, which was permitted five years earlier, as long as you were a heterosexual or a lesbian). So Tony and I could not vote in the 1966 general election, when we were 19. As it happens our respective partners --– Tony’s wife Tricia and my civil partner David who, spookily, were born on the very same day – both could vote in the 1970 election when they were 19, because the Wilson government had betweentimes changed the law and allowed 18 year-olds the vote. I always felt a tad deprived by this change, voting myself for the first time at the same 1970 election, although the Labour Party that I would have voted for in 1966 did get back into power.

Sunday, November 08, 2009


While I was away in London last week, the most interestingly developing story was that of the sacking by Home Secretary Alan Johnson of Professor David Nutt. A psychiatrist and long-time researcher into alcohol and drug abuse, Nutt was chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. The ACMD – no longer 31-strong since others have resigned in sympathy – is an NGO made up of scientists and other experts in the field.

From 1971 (when it was enacted) until 2007, the Misuse of Drugs Act had always followed the ACMD’s recommendations in the way recreational drugs were classified. Indeed, in 2004, the then Home Secretary David Blunkett followed ACMD advice and downgraded cannabis to Class C, carrying lesser sentences for possession and dealing. The so-called drugs czar, Keith Hellawell, disagreed and accordingly resigned. But since Gordon Brown became PM, the ACMD has been sidelined. Former dope-smoker Jacqui Smith restored cannabis to Class B (the then chair of the ACMD, Sir Michael Rawlins, immediately stood down). Then, in February, she overruled the ACMD’s recommendation on ecstasy.

Last month, Prof Nutt wrote a paper, Estimating Drug Harms, for the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at his academic base, King’s College London. The newspapers picked up on the press release, particularly Nutt’s personal reclassification of various addictive substances, including alcohol and tobacco. That he ranked these respectively fifth and ninth – as against amphetamine at eighth, cannabis eleventh and LSD fourteenth – got the commentators steamed up. It was also brought to the attention of Johnson who duly sacked Nutt by email.

I couldn’t find Nutt’s full list anywhere in the press, so finally called up the CCJS document which you can read here:

And here is the table Nutt constructed to reflect his view of the comparative harm that various substances cause:

To read this chart, I suggest copying it onto your desktop and then zooming in

Since his sacking, Nutt has been very visible and very voluble. Clearly he senses a ministry that may be confidently kicked when it is down. He has said that the Brown government has “systematically undermined” the work of the ACMD; that politicians “distort” and “devalue” research evidence (and in this he includes those opposition politicians like Ann Widdecombe and shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling who have supported Johnson’s action); that ministers drastically overlook the “time-bomb of alcohol”. An ally, former ACMD secretary Jeremy Sare, referred to “pesky irritants like scientific evidence”. Those who will lambast the government with any material they can get have written scornfully of successive Home Secretaries’ self-trumpeted desire for “science-based” decisions that are then disregarded.

If only to be not on the same side as the likes of Melanie Phillips, one would not be attacking David Nutt. But the issues are not clear-cut. Defending his decision, Alan Johnson wrote to The Guardian that Nutt “cannot be both a government adviser and a campaigner against government policy”. On the face of it, that seems reasonable enough. But Johnson also described Nutt’s “horse-riding analogy” – Nutt had earlier pointed out that a hundred people a year die in incidents while on horseback, as against thirty linked to ecstasy – as “a political rather than a scientific point”. Well, so is Johnson’s earlier thrust.

It is understandable if advisers feel angry and frustrated when their advice is not taken. Equally, ministers have to administrate and make policy choices and they cannot be hidebound by the apolitical advice of non-political analysts. How helpful is it for Nutt to compare drugs that are illegal with drugs that are not and are deeply embedded in the culture? If ministers were going to act on all recreational drugs – including nicotine and alcohol – in an equal manner, they would not want to start from where we are. The gradual marginalising of cigarette smoking has been highly controversial and, in some quarters (think David Hockney), very unpopular. What politician would be rash enough to embark on such a path with booze?

But then it seems absurd to many that cannabis, ranked by ministerial fiat as Class B, can attract five years in jail and/or an unlimited fine for, as Nutt puts it, possession of sufficient for one joint. In practice, no one, I would suggest, gets five year for such insignificant possession. But, as a matter of good public policy, the statute book should not be packed with penalties that are never going to be handed down.

And experience and anecdotal evidence supports Nutt’s contention that cannabis is “significantly less harmful than alcohol”. Take into account accidents and incidents and fights that have arisen out of drunkenness, along with the liver disease that is rapidly growing in our booze-sodden culture, and alcohol clearly has many more victims than other – perhaps all other – addictive substances on Nutt’s list.

Do we want recreational drugs decriminalised? Which companies would start to dominate the capital investment in such a new free market? What kind of a culture would develop in Britain if many or all recreational substances were decriminalised before other countries followed suit?

On the other hand, the illicit drug market is a notably nasty one, dominated by laundered money and brutal gangs. Many people who think they are snorting coke are imbibing no such thing. What does it do to your body to ingest Harpic or some other noxious chemical? How damaging is skunk? Maybe a proper commercial trade in these drugs would clean them up.

It is often argued that taking cannabis inevitably “leads on” to hard drugs. I always thought this fallacious. The connection between dope and heroin is simply that they are apt to be offered by the same suppliers because they are both illegal. If cannabis is downgraded, it is in practice psychologically and physically separated from coke and crack and the rest. It cannot be insignificant that, while cannabis was classified as C rather than B, its use among teenagers declined, according to the government’s own figures.

So the whole issue is complicated and prone to the taking of none-too-consistent positions. Nutt told The Observer that he thought the ACMD could well become “unviable”. There have been some resignations among its members but rather fewer than Nutt would probably have hoped for. As the days pass, his martyrdom will be forgotten and Alan Johnson will get on with his other tasks until the election. There are, one feels sure, very few votes in drugs policy.

But there are some interesting ideological ramifications, or so it seems to me. In very broad terms, the left has always favoured regulation, the use of law and governmental powers to protect the vulnerable and keep the rich and powerful in their place. In its extreme form, that becomes state dictatorship and oppressive interference in private matters. The right clings to the free market, deregulation, getting government out of people’s lives, even where some go unsupported to the wall. In its extreme form, this becomes a breakdown of law and the spread of pre-revolutionary anarchy.

Paradoxically, right-wingers are more likely to advocate fierce rules for others, particularly concerning their private lives (sex and drugs, for instance). And people on the left tend to be those who want less regulation in some fields, notably those of recreational drugs (which left-wingers perhaps are more liable to use) and, say, the internet which left-leaning rather than right-leaning libertarians are given to look upon as romantically free and outlawish.

With its stern, son-of-the-manse puritanism (small ‘p’), the Brown government not only wants more regulation of drugs and the internet, it also is almost as deregulatory in instinct, when it comes to capitalism, as the Tories. All of which goes to reinforce the opinion that most of us former Labour-voters have entertained about successive Blair and Brown governments: that (with a few exceptions) it’s been much like living under Thatcher and Major.