Saturday, January 30, 2010


If, like me, you’re only really familiar with the sophisticated cities of the east and west coasts, you doubtless find that it’s very easy to underestimate the depth of conservatism in the United States. Across great swathes of the mid-west and the deep south, attitudes that to you and me would seem absurdly primitive, grotesquely xenophobic and profoundly ignorant are seemingly the common currency of the day.

Much of this philosophy – if philosophy is not indeed too weighty a term for what is hardly above an animal instinct – must stem from the Puritan ancestry of rural and small-town white folks. Those non-conformist Anglican sects who would have no truck with any accommodation with “popery” – Anabaptists, Unitarians, Quakers, Congregationalists, Calvinists, Ranters, Muggletonians and all – constituted the Pilgrim Fathers who landed at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts in 1620 and began the second successful settlement of the New World, following that at Jamestown, Virginia. These were clearly “enough is enough” people.

The precipitate decline in support for Barack Obama by the end of his first year in office is hard to understand unless you accept that his very election in November 2008 was even harder to fathom. Americans elect Democrat presidents rather less often than they elect Republican ones, and liberal Democrats almost never at all. When the Democrats nominated their previously most liberal candidate since World War II, George McGovern in 1972, he won only two states against Richard Nixon: those havens of the east coast intelligentsia, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. McGovern – evidently hale and hearty at 87 as I write – couldn’t even take his home state of South Dakota. In the electoral college votes, the ones that actually secure the presidency, McGovern won just 17 to Nixon’s 520. In the modern era, only Ronald Reagan twelve years later gained more (525 to the not very liberal Walter Mondale’s 13) but, by a statistical quirk, the popular vote (ballots counted as totals rather than reckoned by distribution) was then very much closer than the electoral college difference suggests.

Presidential authority sealed

Moreover, once elections are done, support for Democrat incumbents usually falls away much more quickly than that for Republicans. Just as Obama has experienced, so support for Bill Clinton and for Jimmy Carter dropped below 50 percent by the end of each man’s first year in office. Obama’s current approval rating is lower than the lowest ever recorded during the administrations of either Dwight D Eisenhower or Franklin D Roosevelt, the latter of whom was elected to as many as four terms of office.

The astounding Senate win ten days ago for the Republicans in the same Massachusetts that voted for McGovern nearly four decades ago has rewritten the balance of power. In the curious Washington system, a party needs not merely a plurality but a twenty-seat majority in the Senate in order to carry its legislation. Below that dominance and the minority is allowed to filibuster – that is to say, to delay, harass and obstruct with impunity – until the administration either offers a compromise that the minority can accept or admits defeat and withdraws the measure. This is now the position on Capitol Hill. The joke is headlined thus: “Republicans win 41-59 majority in Senate”.

That the Republicans took this particular seat is a measure of how penetratingly the opposition to Obama has got its act together. This was Teddy Kennedy’s old fiefdom, and had been held by Democrats since Jack Kennedy took it from Henry Cabot Lodge Jr in 1952. The new senator, Scott Brown, is no box-checking party creature. He is pro-choice on abortion and even supports universal healthcare (though only for his home state where it is hardly needed), but he will not support Obama’s health insurance reform bill that was within a whisker of being passed into law and now is imperilled. On the other hand, he advocates waterboarding of terrorism suspects and opposes legislation to reduce carbon emissions. (I was sorry that the Democrat lost; although she was reportedly very uninspiring politically, she does apparently possess an encyclopaedic knowledge of Broadway musicals).

Logo of Fox News

Despite at least one headline about the senate result that will have gladdened hearts in Downing Street (“Big Win for Brown”), Barack Obama remains the hope of the whole world beyond the boundaries of the United States. This is a mirror image of the status of his predecessor. George W Bush was considered a bozo from the get-go right across the planet (especially in Europe) but remained hugely popular in the States, certainly until his response to Hurricane Katrina and the devastation it caused in and around New Orleans, a domestic miscalculation that began the erosion of his authority.

For the foreseeable future, Republicans are likely to continue to benefit electorally from any significant level of disenchantment with the Obama administration. But it is certainly not the GOP that has marshalled the opposition. The party is still in disarray and no one can guess which of its several strands will prevail in time to lead the campaign for the mid-term elections in November.

Dissenting version of the logo

Rather, the opposition has been sharpened by vested interests, particularly those in the media. Whatever their particular political inclination, media outlets continue to be fascinated by Sarah Palin and afford her endless free publicity. Palin is at best a semi-detached representative of the Republicans and, were she to begin seriously positioning herself for a presidential run in 2012, you can bet your boots that the Grand Old Party would be looking hard for a rather more mainstream alternative. Meanwhile, she acts as a lightning rod for inarticulate, ill-informed rage (always a potent ingredient in politics).

In another part of the forest, the phenomenon of The Tea Party has galvanised populist reaction – though doubtless quietly funded by vested interests – against the present administration. Naming itself after the legendary revolt against the British tax on exports of tea that broke out in Boston harbour (Massachusetts again) in 1773 and became the pivotal event in the campaign for American independence, the modern Tea Party was launched in 2006, originally as an independent libertarian movement. In the last year, the incidence of Tea Party gatherings has gathered pace, concentrating its attack on what it characterises as the “Socialist” and “big government” policies of Obama.

A billboard rewrites the tagline

The Tea Party is a natural for a media looking for colourful images of disaffection from government. The lately crowned leader of such media outlets is the satellite and cable channel Fox News. Founded as recently as 1996, Fox News has made remarkable advances in influence by rewriting the rulebook of broadcasting’s coverage of news, current affairs and politics. Fox’s owner Rupert Murdoch has noted the popular appeal of radio’s “shock jocks” – Rush Limbaugh and his kind – and gradually unleashed a similar approach on a television station that purports to report the events of the day. (By the by, a measure of the success of such approaches may be that my spellchecker always questions ‘Obama’ but has no problem with ‘Limbaugh’, and that’s not because ‘limbaugh’ has any separate meaning as a noun – the OED does not recognise it).

Traditionally, western media has carefully positioned itself in a non-partisan stance, at least in party terms. (Only utterly blinkered media apologists would suggest that even the most diligent media outlets are wholly agnostic on every issue. One only has to recall the occasion in the polarised 1970s when BBC newsreader Angela Rippon read out the phrase “trade unionists and other extremists”). Republicans and other extremists have always chastised this even-handed stance as “liberal bias” because, to them, straight reporting can only be the kind that reinforces all their prejudices. This is the kind of reporting that Fox News gives them by the bucketload. Straightfaced, the two slogans most used by Fox are “Fair & Balanced” and “We Report. You Decide”. You don’t need to watch much of the Fox output to be able to decide.

Once more the essential conservatism of middle America was dramatically illustrated in a survey of attitudes to news coverage conducted last September by Sacred Heart University of Connecticut (New England yet again). Since the first such research in 2003, Fox News has decisively overtaken CNN as the US’s “most trusted” television news channel, garnering a rating of 30 percent. The context, though, was a “significant decline” of general belief in news reporting to 24.3 percent. One of the survey’s most revealing findings was that 59 percent of respondents reckon to choose their news source for its “objective reporting” against 19 percent because that source reflected the viewer’s own outlook. If ever there was poll evidence that depended on the respondent’s subjective rather than objective view, this was it.

Fox promotes The Tea Party

What should we make of all this? The Sacred Heart survey was conducted by telephone with 800 individuals. The Guardian’s report of the poll (January 28th, but written as if the findings were new) differed in many details from the information that I found on Sacred Heart’s website, including its report of the number of respondents: 1,151, described by the paper, but not by the website, as “registered voters”. Either way, it is a vanishingly minuscule sample in a voting-age population above 231million. How much weight can we possibly give such a poll?

That disenchantment with Obama is widely felt in the States is, however, clear. My gut feeling is that it will pass, that Obama is very shrewd and understands exactly what is at stake and how to play it. At this point in the electoral cycle, it only matters insofar as the Massachusetts aberration shifts the balance of power. But the new balance could well prove to be a bear-trap into which the Republicans easily fall. If the electorate feels that the recession is not ending quickly enough but also sees that the President cannot get his programme through, it may well take out its frustration on the obstructive senators. Obama is playing a long game and he still holds a strong hand. November in the US – even more than May 6th in the UK – is still a long way off.

Another survey of news channels


Yesterday will surely have been the last occasion on which anyone can have hoped to call Tony Blair to account for throwing in his lot with George W Bush and invading Iraq in 2003. Facing the Chilcot Enquiry, the former Prime Minister and (let’s not forget) barrister was masterly after a tense start; this was clearly a dry run for the definitive account that will furnish the centrepiece of his forthcoming autobiography.

More significantly for the present purpose, he was allowed to be masterly. Even though the enquiry members must be well played in by now, they seemed greatly overawed by this political superstar. On two crucial aspects of his perception of the choices that faced him, they failed to press Blair: the matter of the legality of invading a sovereign state (much explored in previous sessions with Lord Goldsmith and other members of the Blair cabinet) and the notion of a connection between the regime in Baghdad and the operations of al-Qaida.

On the second of those issues, Blair was allowed to get away with the smart retort that “the crucial thing after September 11th was that the calculus of risk changed”. In other words, anyone whom we didn’t trust was capable of committing unimaginable outrages against our citizens (noting that Blair also said “I never regarded September 11th as an attack on America. I regarded it as an attack on us” and his definition of “us” might have been usefully challenged). This begs the question: why did we/do we not invade Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, China, the Yemen and, if regime change is itself a legitimate objective, why exclude Myanmar, Zimbabwe or Kyrgyzstan? While we are at it, Russia is clearly embarked on a systematic elimination of dissident and irritating journalists. As Ronald Reagan once proposed when he thought mics were off, “let’s bomb Russia”. The world, Mr Blair, is your lobster. As it happens, it seems from his testimony that, were he still PM, we would have attacked Iran by now. And you thought you were worse off under Gordon Brown.

Coat of arms of the British government

But the key to Blair’s self-justification lies in his brilliantly simple formula that, I have no doubt, will go down in the lexicon of all-time political sayings: “This is not about a lie or a conspiracy or a deceit or a deception. It’s a decision”. Oh, that’s deathless. That’s worthy of Richard III, Macbeth, Milton’s Satan. With that one bound, he is free. He made a decision. You can of course debate whether it was a correct decision. But whatever you decide, it is intrinsically legitimate. It is what politicians are elected to do. You cannot now impugn his morality. He did his job.

The closing question – as to whether Blair would proffer anyone any kind of apology – seems to me to be fruitless and infantile. In all humanity, I cannot comprehend the grounds upon which the families of service personnel who died imagine they are entitled to some kind of mea culpa. Blair clearly believes with all the fibre of his being that he did the right thing. So did Churchill in leading the nation against Nazi Germany for most of the duration of World War II. So did Thatcher in sending the fleet to the Falklands. That military people lost their lives is what happens in war. At perfectly comprehensible levels of perception, that’s what they’re for. Of course the families of people sent to the front line hope that they will return alive and unmaimed but they can ask for no more succour than that. (Care of invalided service personnel is an altogether separate and historically shaming issue that I have addressed before).

If Blair is content that the invasion of Iraq was morally and politically defensible, he has nothing to apologise for. If any apologising is to be done, I would rather it be offered to the civilians who were injured and the families of those civilians who perished. They had none of the advantages that the invading military took for granted. If Blair has blood on his hands it is that of innocent Iraqis.

Saturday, January 23, 2010


How many of your rights would you be prepared to forgo in order to assist the attempts of the authorities to foil terrorism? I ask as one who was, for many years, a member of the National Council for Civil Liberties (now known simply as Liberty) and who has always argued that to surrender our freedoms to security forces is no better than to surrender them to supposed enemies of the state.

But let us cleave to the principle that motivates this very blog, that of common sense. Some of the rights that we like to holler after barely deserve the term. So don’t let us mistake a few moments (or even a few hours) of inconvenience and/or indignation for a loss of our precious heritage.

Take the increasing controls and filtering processes being introduced at airports. There are those who argue powerfully that body-scanning devices are intrusive, and that being confined to one’s seat for the hour before touchdown is an imposition. Moreover, some argue that Muslims and others of Arabic origin or appearance are apt to feel that immigration officers and airline officials discriminate against them.

I find myself unsympathetic to these objections. Boarding a plane is not some god-given right. Of course if you are turned away or gravely incommoded, you should be recompensed. But the airlines and the airports have every right to refuse entry to anyone of whom they entertain suspicion. Further, they have a duty to monitor and, where it seems prudent, to exclude any would-be traveller against whom questons are raised. If you don’t like it, go by bike. You don’t have a right but you do have a choice.

Given that searches and restrictions are advertised in advance of check-in, travellers should be responsible for making provision for whatever delays and deprivations they may endure. Anyone who has ever passed through an international airport knows that a propensity for delay is endemic to the process, even on routes that are unlikely ever to attract political trouble.

The restrictions presently applied seem to me to be entirely commensurate with the threat, the perceived level of which has been raised in the UK in the last 48 hours to “severe” – which translates as a situation in which an imminent terrorist attack is thought to be “highly likely”. And why is now an appropriate moment to raise the supposed threat level? Well, it’s pretty obvious: this week, London will host a summit on the future of Afghanistan. President Karzai, Secretary Clinton and several other juicy quarries will be here and the whole event naturally presents itself as a target. If London at least didn’t go on heightened alert, you’d be a bit surprised.

If anything, the conditions that apply to air travel err on the side of laxity. There is no earthly (or mile-high) reason why cigarette lighters should be allowed in hand luggage: what useful purpose could such implements possibly serve on a flight and, if such a purpose can be identified, why cannot cabin crew be furnished with lighters for supervised, temporary loan to passengers who have need of them? Nonetheless, lighters are still permitted at a restriction of one per passenger. Anyone wanting to convey his invaluable collection of rare lighters of the world from one country to another needs to stow them in the hold or make arrangements to have them shipped. Tough. If it were up to me, I would not permit either cigarette lighters or matches in anybody’s hand luggage.

Are Muslims justified in complaining that their rights are compromised if they are seen to be more liable for more comprehensive physical searches and passenger profiling than others? No. It would be an absurd system wherein a retired Anglican vicar and his wife, returning from visiting their daughter and her family in New Zealand to their home in The Wirral, were given the third degree, while a single man in his twenties with a Muslim name and Arabic appearance, stopping over at LHR on a flight from the Yemen to JFK and presenting a passport containing evidence of substantial trips to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, were waved through. Those who target planes are Muslim fundamentalists. Is anyone dissenting from that summary?

I know that it is maddening to feel that one is being tarred with a brush that applies to others who only bear a superficial resemblance to oneself. For years from the early 1980s, I detected an arms’ length treatment from many people – even some who knew me and trusted me, as I thought – because I was a gay man. The suspicion, perhaps only subconscious, that I might somehow be a conduit for Aids undoubtedly lurked in many minds. I hated it but, even at the time, I understood it. Though not HIV+, I duly destroyed my donor card and I did not press kisses and other intimate attentions upon any in whom I sensed some residual reluctance. One has to live in the world as it is and be realistic. It doesn’t help to act in a self-righteous manner.

Detailed and, at times, unexpected security is essential to the safety of every passenger and of others on the ground who are not even aware of any threat from above. We do not want to find ourselves in the position of saying “yes, it’s awful that all those people died when the flight from Mogadishu exploded as it circled over Chicago but thank goodness none of those passengers died feeling that they had been affronted or inconvenienced; and of course the people who died on the ground had no grounds for complaint, so that’s a mercy”.

The problem, as always, is the egregious advantage that the security forces – most especially the police – are inclined to take of our acquiescence in the erosion of our rights. From the shooting dead by Met marksmen of Jean Charles de Menezes on an underground train at Stockwell station to the wounding of Mohammed Abdulkahar in the police raid on the Forest Gate house he shared with his brother, the police have not only exceeded their authority and basic standards of good practice but have sought to absolve themselves of blame and, supported in this aim by the structure of enquiry and internal discipline, protect themselves from any deleterious upshot for the police in general or the officers involved in particular.

Clearly, if the populace are to accept that greater and more intrusive powers are to be ceded to police and other security services, the control of those powers and its own policing must be taken away from parti pris committees and given to genuinely independent bodies with wide and penetrating dispensation. It is not good enough for self-righteous police authorities to exonerate officers and commanders who have clearly exceeded their brief, any more than it is acceptable for the Army to find nothing amiss at Deepcut Barracks.

By the same token, I confess I am not sanguine that the Chilcot Enquiry will achieve any more than the effective exculpation of those who ought to be in jail for their responsibility for the illegal invasion of Iraq. The establishment commonly takes care of its own.

In this unstable world, our rights and freedoms are a bulwark against creeping dictatorship. But we shall enjoy no rights or freedoms at all if we dare not go about our business for fear of suicide bombers breaching a defence that is too light and too scrupulous to risk putting any of us to inconvenience.


Votes and comments on Irritating and Overrated Public Figures are still welcome: see the immediately previously posting. We are a tad short of the 1,500 responses I had aimed for. It’s up to you …

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


The list of “greatest television dramas” constructed by The Guardian last week (see the immediately previous posting) got me thinking about the compelling need for yet more lists. So here I propose one that all of us can enjoy: The Twenty Most Overrated and Irritating Figures in the Public Eye.

Having dibs on the notion and, what’s more, proprietorial rights on this particular corner of the world wide web, I shall herebelow propose my own list of overexposed underachievers, but I do urge my readers to join in the sport and to add to, amend, reinforce or excoriate any or all of my choices (and do tell your e-familiars; who knows, we may together begin a thread that eventually topples a star and gets a mention on BBC Breakfast).

There are those “celebrities” who, were I to encounter them on any kind of regular basis, would, I feel sure, propel themselves into the lists. Sensing that they are emphatically not for me, I simply skirt their manifestations. As a result, I would argue that, in all good conscience, I should not include them if I cannot begin to essay any account of why they are to be publicly humiliated. Others are welcome to sketch quite what it is that makes them so compellingly dispensable. For the record, I will here list these also-rans alphabetically but in the manner we are perforce accustomed to on the net (as illustrated in my index of subject labels to the right of the site), to wit, in alphabetical order of their forenames: Ant & Dec, Chris Evans, David Gest, Gordon Ramsay, Katie Price (whoever that is), Paris Hilton, Richard & Judy, Sadie Frost and Simon Cowell. These are people who – I am relieved to admit – I simply do not feel competent to describe.

A complete winker

Unlike the following, the real list:

Andrew Lloyd Webber: Crossover artists are always deeply suspect and His Lordship has been crossing over these 40 years. His father William was a distinguished if not especially individual composer, particularly for the organ (his instrument), his mother was musical too and his brother Julian is of course a renowned cellist (if not a very arresting one). Andrew was a published composer at nine and went on to study at the RCM. His long career as a composer of musicals has continually brought an ersatz operatic style to the form, most obviously aping Puccini (I have traced the main theme of one of his most popular and most recorded songs, ‘The Music of the Night’ from Phantom of the Opera to a passing phrase in La Fanciulla del West: “e provai una gioia strana,/una nuova pace che dir non so!”, the last two lines of Dick Johnson’s ‘Quello che tacete’ in Act One. It’s a barefaced lift). Lloyd Webber has worked with the three worst British toilers in the field of writing lyrics – Don Black, Ben Elton, and Sir Tim Rice – but his shows, especially Phantom, have enjoyed vast, unprecedented success and have made him seriously wealthy. My sense of it is that he has brilliantly tapped into the shallowness of the age and that, like Chu Chin Chow and the shows of Ivor Novello (which were comparably popular in their day), his work will not stand the test of time.

Anne Robinson: In truth, I see The Weakest Link very rarely. As a quiz, it’s hardly at a level comparable with University Challenge or BBC4’s Only Connect. Even so, the simplest questions appear to defeat contestants, whether obscure or famed, on a regular basis (see Private Eye’s regular selection under the title ‘Dumb Britain’). Robinson’s preposterous Nurse Diesel act may make some viewers long for her to meet her match but it just turns me off. Much of the reason for that repellent quality is that it is patently phoney, a not very well applied mask for the purposes of stirring up the contestants. And how her producer can permit her to perpetrate a wink at the end of every edition beats me. Winking is a peculiarly naff form of communication at the best of times but anyone who, like Robinson, cannot actually perform it properly should be soundly beaten until she stops. It astounded me that the US took her to its bosom when the show was launched on American television but at least her star fell there as swiftly as it had risen. I don’t imagine it hurt her pension fund, however.

"That barbeque's in Birmingham – and that's your weather"

Daniel Corbett: Modern weather forecasting is a debased endeavour, with a curious, florid meta-language of its own. But Corbett is the only one I actually have to switch off before hearing his forecast. He thinks he’s a redcoat, I imagine. Certainly he believes that patronising his audience with matey references to “that barbeque” or “those umbrellas” is endearing. It’s not. Just tell us the bloody weather, you prat. To discover that he learned his trade on American television, where he was a much prized (and, I imagine, much mimicked) token Englishman, explains a great deal about his style and manner. Come back, Bert Foord, all is forgiven (oh sorry, you can’t, you’re dead).

Delia Smith: This entry, I realise, could be the most inflammatory in the list. Delia has legions of devoted fans. Why? Talk about Little Miss Suburban. It always seemed to me that she has never had an original thought in her dreary little head and learning, as we have lately, that she “cheats” (her word) was no surprise to this viewer. Her descriptive powers are certainly not tested by her recipes – “nice” seems to be her most emphatic term of approval. Her idea of “a pinch” of some ingredient always looks as if it is in actuality about half a cup, and “a small cup” about a cauldronful. There are of course way too many television cooks, most of them wholly unnecessary and some not at all watchable (Tamasin Day-Lewis always looks to me as though she could do with a good scrub, either before or after removing all that finger jewellery that she repellently wears while at work). So Delia may stand as representative of a whole deplorable breed.

Esther Rantzen: This woman has been a major part of the British television landscape for more than 40 years. A great deal of her work has been dedicated to shoehorning serious and even urgent issues in alongside matters of stultifying triviality, as if to proclaim that it is all grist to her limitless mill. Eloquently enough, her most widely viewed vehicle (it ran for more than two decades) was called That’s Life. That show grew out of On the Braden Beat, a light consumer affairs magazine made by ATV that switched to the BBC and employed Rantzen as a researcher. When Bernard Braden was sacked after doing an ITV advert (a BBC contract breach), Rantzen got her chance. Not dissimilarly, her chat-and-issues show, Esther, was carefully modelled on Oprah. Such programmes gave her a succession of vehicles upon which to leap, preferably of a heart-on-sleeve, campaigning nature. (She must seriously wonder where her damehood has got to). It’s the trademark Rantzen smug grin that always gets me, the one that seems to say “and I brought you this heart-tugging story/colourful character/smuttily-shaped potato, I did, me”. Now she reckons to be standing for parliament as an independent anti-expenses candidate. The voters of Luton South should be sure to demand full disclosure of her BBC expenses.

Eyes up, please

Fiona Bruce: It’s not just Bruce’s faintly creepy and oleaginous manner that turns me off, it’s also that way she puts a surprised spin on certain words of a news story, like a junior school teacher trying to catch the kids’ attention. Don’t patronise me, Fiona. If it weren’t already worthy of my attention, it wouldn’t be on the news. And here’s another weird thing. Ordinarily, I don’t find myself looking at women’s breasts but Bruce always seems to wear clothes that draw your attention to her flat-chestedness, as if she’s making a virtue of it. This is most disturbing. Of course one looks in an appraising manner at people on the box, notes that one is overweight, another thin-lipped, another rather camp. Personally, I don’t feel that newsreaders need to be especially easy on the eye as long as their appearance isn’t positively distracting. I never wanted to watch that newsreader who had the look of a woman who appears in porn movies (you know the one I mean). I especially liked Moira Stewart who I thought was charming-looking, but more important had a deliciously authoritative voice that made me pay attention. I was astonished when she was “pensioned off” as too old. But if I’m squirming at Bruce’s vocal quirks and staring at her (lack of) tits, I’m not getting proper value from the news. And I think it must be significant that, without thinking about it at the time, I found myself drifting away (after many devoted years) from Antiques Roadshow pretty much as soon as she took over from Michael Aspel. I read that the figures have increased since she joined (though it also has a different transmission slot) so what do I know?

Gary Lineker: Not being interested in football, it should be noted that I haven’t seen the majority of Lineker’s broadcasting work and I am in no way qualified to assess his days as a player. But I sometimes watched They Think It’s All Over, mostly because I found the regular feature in which blindfolded panellists felt their way round a mystery guest was one of the most astonishing and captivating things on the box. The quiz part didn’t interest me (and I couldn’t stand Rory McGrath and other participants) but the way Jonathan Ross smelt Lineker’s blood and cruelly undermined him like a schoolyard bully made me think Lineker was a major wimp. It’s not that he’s just too "nice", because I feel sure that he isn’t at all "nice". Certainly the years he coined it fronting the ad campaign to push unhealthy crisps at kids undermined any claim he might have had as a role model. When Chris Morris stitched him up royally in his Brass Eye special, nominally on paedophilia but in reality on the stupidity of media coverage, Lineker was exposed as a fool who would do anything for cash and exposure. Sounds right. And serves him right.

Fifteen years older – than everybody

Ian McKellen: I have followed McKellen’s career pretty much from its outset, having seen him in the 1960s in the West End in The Promise, alongside two other young thesps of promise, Ian McShane and Judi Dench, then in the double whammy of the title roles of Richard II and Edward II that he played at Edinburgh, at the Mermaid and on tour, thereby sealing his reputation. By that time, those of us who sussed these things already knew that McKellen was gay, but it was another twenty years before he “came out” as we’d almost given up calling it by then and doing so, rather shamingly, only through the urgings of gay activists in the States. Knighted by a notably homophobic Tory government in 1991, he became known in the biz as Serena but hey, girlfriend, I prefer to call ‘er Damian. While not quite as pompous about his title as Sir Ben Kingsley, Damian is clearly proud of it and it is often included in his credit when he appears as himself. The London Lighthouse centre for HIV care has an Ian McKellen Room, dubbed before his elevation, but wouldn’t The McKellen Room have sufficed, if indeed his support really needed to be so acknowledged at all? All of that aside, McKellen makes my list for his acting, which I have never truly enjoyed. I have seen him enough to know all his tricks. And I have never witnessed a performance of his – not even his Macbeth, Iago or Richard III, and villainy suits him best – when I couldn’t detect the wheels going round. In that respect, he is like a parody of a stage-trained actor, a latter-day Donald Wolfit (whom I am old enough to have seen on stage), the opposite of an American movie actor. Mostly his screen performances are just too big for the medium – he hasn’t learned the obvious lesson that the camera projects to the back of the balcony for you. So while I concede that he has given his all to acting, especially in the classical repertoire, I think more rounded players have led the profession before and will do so again.

James Nesbitt: From the would-be sublime to the frankly ridiculous: most actors do not enjoy a career like Damian’s. These fifty years, television has provided a good living to thousands of jobbing actors, many of them very accomplished, some – like Michael Bryant who specialised in challenging television roles in the 1960s and ‘70s before leaving the medium altogether and spending some twenty years as the backbone of the National Theatre company – utterly brilliant. In recent years, casting directors (the curse of the business in my view but that’s an argument for another day) have focussed on a small group of supposed bums-on-seats actors to such an extent that dramas are hard put to get the green light unless at least one of these privileged people has signed up. What is so depressing about this system is the dreary quality of those players: Robson Green, Amanda Burton, Martin Shaw, you know the type. James Nesbitt may even be the best of them but, dear god, haven’t we seen everything he does over and over again? If the hands of directors and producers weren’t tied by know-nothing executives who can’t make a decision unless at least a dozen marketing people have done their “research”, we might get teledramas that were appropriately and interestingly cast. As it is, you know that if Nesbitt and his peers are taking the lead, it won’t be anything you haven’t seen before, probably better done.

Cheeky Chappie

Jeremy Clarkson: The American radio shock jock is evidently a force in that land and largely responsible for the otherwise inexplicable collapse in President Obama’s support. The nearest thing we have here to Rush Limbaugh and co is Juvenile Larksome, the all-mouth-and-trousers opinionist and climate-change denier. Needless to report, I have never seen a single minute of Top Gear which, I understand, is now followed on a global scale. Well, my old friend, we are going to hell in a handcart and no doubt the Juvenile is steering that handcart. Meanwhile, I suppose every age has to have a licensed blowhard bloke and at least until this one is rendered dead or quadriplegic by driving head-on into a bus queue at 130 miles-per-hour, we probably won’t have need of another one.

Madonna: Whatever one says about Madge, she’s certainly a world-beater at one skill – self-publicity. She persuades commentators and punters alike that she constantly reinvents herself and that the latest manifestation is even better than the last. As my partner puts it, she’s especially adept at catching every passing wave. A large part of that self-promotion is her aggressive projection of her own sexuality. But this kind of appeal is hardly new – think Clara Bow, Mae West, Eartha Kitt, Julie London, Marilyn Monroe, Lena Horne, Tina Turner, Pat Phoenix … As a performer, singer, songwriter, interpreter of a lyric, several of her contemporaries are or were superior: Annie Lennox, Bette Midler, Sade, Cyndi Lauper, Chaka Khan, Alison Moyet and Kirsty McColl for starters. I would rather bracket Madonna with Whitney Houston, Donna Summer and Cher – in other words, pretty limited performers whose natural constituency was quite small but who drew attention to themselves (and hence to varying degrees expanded that fanbase) by behaving in an ostentatious way. Cher in particular has a saving grace that Madonna signally lacks: Cher doesn’t take herself seriously, indeed takes delight in sending herself up. Madonna could profitably study Cher’s stance.

Mark Lawson: Soi-disant polymath and incorrigible swankpot (“my 45th visit to the States”), Lawson is the jack of all trades/master of none for the age. Following the Clive James/Charlie Brooker route from television reviewing to television appearing, Lawson has a view about anything and everything and, necessarily, makes a wealth of egregious errors of both fact and judgment in expressing his view. He is certainly no great shakes as an interviewer, never having learned the first law of interviewing: an interview is as good as the interviewer, not the interviewee, so you have to listen to the answers as well as prepare the questions. Lawson of course thinks anyway that it’s about him rather than them. He’s wrong. I would happily watch, say, a programme called Alan Bennett Talks to Mark Lawson but why in hell would I want to see one called Mark Lawson Talks to Alan Bennett? And who wants to look at Lawson, a face for radio of ever there was one? He’s fifteen years younger than me but he looks all of fifteen years older.

Before and after lunch: Winner eats all

Michael McIntyre: Has anyone come down the pike lately who is quite so pleased with himself as this chortling stand-up comic? I thought the Cheeky Chappie style went out in the 1950s but McIntyre appears to thrive on it. In that he seems terribly impressed by everyone else, he is perfect for hosting that show whose title I forget that’s been on BBC1 recently; and indeed perfect for showbiz in general. Surely he’ll be hosting the BAFTA Awards before too long, which would present another perfect reason not to watch them. With any luck, he would do a Jack Docherty and thereafter sink without trace.

Michael Winner: As for being pleased with oneself, no one exudes self-satisfaction more expansively than the alleged movie director and gourmet. At the time, I was quite diverted by a couple of Winner’s ‘Swingin’ Sixties’ movies (I’ll Never Forget What’s ‘Isname and The Jokers, though I can’t guess how they would look now), but nothing he’s made since is worth anyone’s time. The advertising satire of What’s ‘Isname sits awkwardly with Winner’s recent sideline as “an insurance salesman”. But his main showcase is playing restaurant critic for The Sunday Times. Winner earns his place in this list in part to represent all those non-journalists who have gaily taken the bread out of the mouths of bona fide journalists like me by writing (or, as often as not, merely putting their names to) columns in the papers. Not many movie directors do that. Roland Joffé had a general comment column in The Evening Standard for a while. The most common sort of celebrity columnists are novelists, sports people and stand-up comedians – is there any British humorist under 55 who has not at some point had a personal newspaper space? As a writer, Winner makes a competent lavatory cleaner at Kings Cross Station. I read the first third of his piece at the weekend and then flung the paper across the room.

Richard E Grant: There are plenty of actors whose careers are already a mystery and who then, as the parts start to dry up (or, like Simon Callow, they don’t after all get to play all the big classical roles), parlay themselves into a series of secondary careers as a personality-cum-cultural observer. While he seems to have clambered onto that track, Grant has also set off in other directions favoured by slipping actors, such as directing, writing novels and presenting programmes. A one-note actor if ever there was one, Grant got a seriously lucky break in his first movie role, playing the title character in Withnail and I. As a result of this, he can evidently do no wrong in some quarters. In others (like mine), he is the star of almost certainly the most overrated British movie ever made.

Simon Hogwash as a young lightweight

Simon Hoggart: Richard Hoggart, evidently in good shape at 91, is one of the great men of the age, having written several importanr books crowned by (almost certainly) the finest socio-cultural study since the War, The Uses of Literacy. There is no law that states that great men must have great sons and Richard doesn’t. Paul Hoggart is barely average in a field where mediocrity is the norm, that of television reviewing. The elder and wider-known son is Simon who has written for The Guardian for more than 40 years and did two stints chairing the radio News Quiz, a heavily scripted panel game. He writes parliamentary sketches, a lowly trade in which not very funny journalists (e.g. Quentin Letts) score easy points off politicians who work far harder and risk far more every day than such sketchers would dream of doing. He also writes a complacent diary column, frequently dependent on readers sending in stuff from which he has an unerring knack for selecting the least funny examples. He also fancies himself as a political sage, predicting a loss for Labour in the next election – how unusual – and lately setting himself up as a critic of Gordon Brown’s pronunciation, apparently unaware that the PM is a Scotsman. It’s way past time for a halfway good writer to replace him.

Stephen Fry: Fry can stand for all those Oxbridge graduates who arrived on the public stage bursting with talent and then frittered it away on frivolous, facile projects, so that the body of worthwhile work that they left was tragically and pitifully small, confined to the first decade or so of their working lives. I’m thinking of, for instance, Peter Cook and Richard Burton. John Cleese looks destined to accumulate a similar reputation. Like them, Fry appears unable to say no to any offer, especially if it’s easy money. Is there anything, one wonders, that he wouldn’t advertise? Fry provides another major source of irritation in that he is frequently accounted “the cleverest man on television”. Only someone who has never met anyone really clever would imagine such a thing. Then again, Fry is often not even the cleverest person on QI. And when I was a lad and television was bold enough to transmit programmes with intellectual content, programmes that actually dealt in ideas rather than trash, you saw people on the BBC every night of the week who would have eaten Fry for breakfast.

Steve Coogan: The last couple of decades have been marked by an enormous amount of overpraised television comedy, much of it heavily dependent on catch phrases that enthusiasts greet as uproariously on the five hundredth time of asking as on the first. I can’t list all the highly variable comedians to whom the strictures here apply but you know the kind of people I am writing about – Whitehouse, Lucas, Henry, Tate, Enfield – all of whom have done some work that is very nearly brilliant (usually more in concept and initial impact of execution than in any sustained level of working), but much more that is mere treading water. Coogan is the one who (along with David Walliams) interests me least. Alan Partridge seemed the dullest kind of running character with the weakest material – what kind of a show-stopping catchphrase is “Ah-ha!”? And if that’s (ah-ha) the point then it’s still only pointed the once and not exactly funny even the first time. You can perhaps argue on paper that Partridge always trotting it out is what makes it funny but only those who have willingly suspended belief (and critical faculty) can continue to enter into the spirit of the joke every time, behaving as if they are as deep-dyed wallies as Partridge is supposed to be. That is the definition of a comic dead end. Paul and Pauline Calf are less original creations and only intermittently successful, depending entirely on the script of the moment. Coogan is a passable actor but it’s hard to see him keeping his place in international movie-making unless he’s exceptionally lucky with projects that are brought to him.

Big Mc: News in Bun (Fry's not illustrated)

Trevor McDonald: Sir Trev always seemed to me to possess a sort of parody of gravitas, delivering the news as if at some level he heartily disapproved of most of it. Of course, he was the head honcho of News at Ten when it was in full decline, which was bad luck for him, save insofar as he contributed to that decline. What I couldn’t sanction was how, when editors had some grand occasion and put McDonald in as anchor, he consistently failed to rise to the occasion, neither able to improvise interestingly or authoritatively nor (worse) smart enough to conduct impromptu interviews with any degree of dash or resource. If he was cast as the Richard Dimbleby of the 1990s, he failed completely.

And who should be the twentieth candidate? How about Nick Ordinary, the man who brought blokeishness (and lists!) to the hitherto literary book? At one point in his highly-regarded novel High Fidelity, the hero describes the other guests at a dinner party vis-à-vis himself thus: “they have smart jobs and I have a scruffy job, they are rich and I am poor, they are self-confident and I am incontinent, they do not smoke and I do, they have opinions and I have lists”. This must be what commends these books to the kind of bloke who follows football, still has all his old vinyl albums and regularly throws beer down his neck in the pub, but who is sufficiently conscious that the nature of this life-style is unattractive to most desirable women that he actually reads books. Presumably, this too intrigues the women who seek to comprehend such a bloke. None of them has opinions but they do have lists. That the relationship between writer and reader should have dwindled so low makes me despair for the future of the novel. We want the legacy of Trollope and the Brontës, Arnold Bennett and Elizabeth Bowen, Ian McEwan and Beryl Bainbridge built on, not demolished. My edition of High Fidelity quotes that celebrated taste-maker for blokes, Tony Parsons: “Made me laugh out loud more than any book I can remember”. He’s not read Tristram Shandy, then.

Titchmarsh among fans

Or Alan Titchycock, the obsequious cardigan who virtually singlehanded invented the lingua franca of modern broadcasting – banter – and who slithers easily from gardening programmes to writing potboiler novels to conducting interviews with unchallenging guests while (so it is said) driving a certain kind of middle aged, myopic, housebound woman wild with lust?

Or Marathon Dimblebore, the longest-serving chair of Any Questions? I listen in spite of him. His style is highly interventionist (“hold on a second”). His verbal formulae are often curious; for instance, he ends his introduction of the guests, having summarised the last, with: “He’s the fourth member of our panel”. If it were me thus described, I would say, when first called upon: “I hardly have the temerity to open my mouth, having been firmly put in my place as the fourth member of the panel”. As is his wont, Dimbleby would then launch into a long-winded explanation as to why I should not feel less than an equal member of the panel and I should respond: “All that being said, the fourth is certainly not the first in any language or culture that I have encountered”. And Dimblebore would be off again.

There it is, a pretty persuasive list of dim stars, I’m sure you will agree. But do not, I beg you, feel that you are browbeaten into agreeing. Put in your twopenn’orth, do, by clicking on the Comment button just above the labels list that attaches itself to this particular posting, which requires the merest of scrolls downwards. In the few days after The Guardian’s teledrama list, there was a thread of some 1500 comments on the on-line version. I feel sure we can match that, maybe even trump it. Go for it.

And, while we do this, let’s remember good people – like Kate McGarrigle who died yesterday – and remember them for all the joy they have brought to the world.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


This morning, The Guardian unveiled its “50 greatest dramas ever made” for television. Cue apoplexy in the Gilbert household, predictably enough. The apoplexy was not exactly ameliorated by the on-line version of this exercise, which, unlike the newsprint original, was headed “The Guardian’s top 50 dramas of all time” [my itals]. Needless to say there was no “all time” about it. Television was first transmitted in Britain in 1936 but there was precious little on this list made before 1980. Here it is in full:

Michael Bryant, Judi Dench, Margery Mason and Maurice Denham in John Hopkins' Talking to a Stranger, which George Melly called "the first authentic masterpiece written for television"

1: The Sopranos
2: Brideshead Revisited
3: Our Friends in the North
4: Mad Men
5: A Very Peculiar Practice
6: Talking Heads
7: The Singing Detective
8: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
9: State of Play
10: Boys from the Blackstuff
11: The West Wing
12: Twin Peaks
13: Queer as Folk
14: The Wire
15: Six Feet Under
16: How Do You Want Me?
17: Smiley’s People
18: House of Cards
19: Prime Suspect
20: Bodies
21: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
22: Buffy the Vampire Slayer
23: Cracker
24: Pennies from Heaven
25: Battlestar Galactica
26: Coronation Street
27: The Jewel in the Crown
28: The Monocled Mutineer
29: Clocking Off
30: Inspector Morse
31: This Life
32: Band of Brothers
33: Hill Street Blues
34: The Prisoner
35: St Elsewhere
36: The L Word
37: The Shield
38: Brookside
39: 24
40: The Twilight Zone
41: Pride and Prejudice (1995)
42: Red Riding
43: Oz
44: The Street
45: The X Files
46: Bleak House
47: The Sweeney
48: EastEnders
49: Shameless
50: Grange Hill

There are some productions that are grossly – even grotesquely – flattered by this rating: A Very Peculiar Practice, House of Cards, This Life, 24, Pride and Prejudice, The Sweeney, Grange Hill. At least they omitted Doctor Who. There are several that I happily confess I am not qualified to judge: How Do You Want Me?, Bodies, The Shield, The L Word, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica, the last two of which make me distinctly dubious even without the benefit of exposure. I don’t understand a rating for St Elsewhere but not for ER and, though they’re obviously hobbled by falling into the ill-favoured category of comedy-drama, I would put Desperate Housewives and even Ugly Betty ahead of some of these desperately serious American shows. I have no beef with The Wire but it would never have achieved half of what it did achieve if Hill Street Blues hadn’t done it (rather better) nearly thirty years earlier.

David Rudkin's marvellous one-off drama Penda's Fen which Alan Clarke directed for BBC Birmingham (in colour, despite the still)

Now, of course, the whole modern “list” movement is a load of what the Irish call bollix. It’s comprehensively meaningless to start tabulating like against not-like in some cockamamie attempt to measure their respective value. Anyway, as soon as anyone puts any two items in a one-two order, 20 percent of commentators will say “that’s fine”, 20 percent will say “the other way around” and the other 60 percent will say “oh no, two other things entirely”. So I say: “don’t do it, Deirdre”.

But it’s done. So okay, let’s play. Let’s assume that this is not a totally idle exercise. In that case, first of all we have to excoriate the exclusion of one-off drama from the list. It’s easy to see why this was decided. One-off teledrama is effectively dead. Nobody commissions it any more and so nobody is writing it. But in the golden age of television drama, which extends roughly from the late 1950s to the late 1970s, dozens of fine writers were creating original one-off plays for both the BBC (The Wednesday Play, Theatre 625, Play for Today) and ITV (Armchair Theatre, Plays for Britain) and young, ambitious directors were realising those scripts both on location and (a forgotten drama resource, these days) in the studio.

The fabulous and important thing to note about these one-off scripts is that they weren’t genre pieces nor were they dramatizations of pre-existing fiction or of the lives of the dead, lightly or (more usually) heavily fictionalized. This is almost entirely what passes for teledrama today.

It seems extraordinary that the assembled Guardian critics can knock out an "all-time great" list of teledrama that lacks any work by David Mercer, Ken Loach, Harold Pinter, Julia Jones, John Hopkins, Alan Clarke, Mike Newell, Nell Dunn, David Rudkin, Nemone Lethbridge, Jack Rosenthal, Charles Wood, Trevor Griffiths, Jim Allen, Stephen Frears, Mike Leigh, Moira Armstrong, Alun Owen, Philip Saville, Rhys Adrian, Mike Apted, Howard Schuman, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Jeremy Sandford, Troy Kennedy Martin, John McGrath, Roy Battersby, Arthur Hopcraft, Rudolph Cartier, John Bowen or James Cellan Jones, to name a very few. And don't get me started on the creators of single drama in the States – Paddy Chayevsky, Tad Mosel, Sidney Lumet, John Frankenheimer, Reginald Rose ... But then I guess it must be conceded that they pre-empted this objection by ruling out single drama. You may feel that is legitimate. I don’t.

Howard Schuman's dazzling Rock Follies, made by Thames and one of the last serials to be shot all on tape

Even given their own criteria, however, the list is nowhere near something that merits the description “of all time”. Here are a few pre-1980 dramas not listed that ought to be on any British telly-watcher’s “all-time” list: Z Cars, Talking to a Stranger, The Quatermass Experiment, Days of Hope, Diary of a Young Man, Roads to Freedom, Rock Follies, Gangsters, The Houseman's Tale, Law and Order, The Mayor of Casterbridge, The History Man, I Claudius, Thérèse Raquin, The Avengers, The World of Gurney Slade, Tutti Frutti and Minder, this last of which must surely be self-recommending if The Sweeney is thought worthy.

The lack of any of these candidates goes to an age-old problem with television criticism. Television is a vast subject (the BBC alone must sponsor more new work each week than the Arts Council does in a year) but newspapers have always insisted that television reviewers be generalists, which means that their ignorance is vast. No serious newspaper would employ a movie critic who didn't know Griffith, Eisenstein and Murnau or a theatre critic who lacked Shakespeare, Molière and Chekhov (though even this may be less true than it was). But writers on television are not required to know anything before last week. And it shows in lists like these.

And here we come to the central dichotomy of such exercises. Do the organizers of these lists seek to reflect popular support or expert assessment? Some years ago, Channel 4 – in one of a long series of cheap pull-together compilations that purport to construct authoritative accounts of quality – gave us its list of 100 Greatest Musicals, voted by the viewers. Unlike (I am sure) the great majority of voting viewers, I must have seen at least a hundred musicals, being an aficionado of the form. Indeed, I suspect that a great many voters will barely have seen ten musicals in their lives and probably (at the time of voting some years ago) considered Buddy, the biography loosely draped around Holly’s songbook, as what a stage musical was meant to be. So what did these C4 viewers vote as the greatest musical of all time? Yes, it was Grease. Can you (or anyone else) even name the creators of this mediocre piece of opportunism? No, neither can I.

Grease wouldn’t make my top hundred musicals at all. I am loath to settle on a single all-time great musical. After all, there are two quite distinct forms and the stage musical (or musical play as they call it on Broadway) cannot properly be compared with the film musical, by which I mean the musical conceived from scratch for the camera. The hybrid form used to be the filmed musical play but in recent years, as theatre finances have become more precarious, the reverse hybrid has grown up, the staged version of a movie musical. Most who voted for Grease will, I feel sure, have been thinking of the movie version. I have seen both the stage original and the screen rendition and do not care to arbitrate between two such uninteresting pieces of work. Among my top-rated stage musicals would be several that appear nowhere on the C4 list – Sondheim’s Follies, Company and Merrily We Roll Along, Rodgers & Hart’s Pal Joey (not the ghastly movie version) and On Your Toes, Porter’s Out of This World, Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun, Adler & Ross’s Pajama Game, Rodgers & Sondheim’s Do I Hear a Waltz? and, perhaps my first choice, Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures, the premiere production of which I was lucky enough to see on Broadway in 1976 and three or four revivals of which I have seen since.

Stephen Sondheim's stage musical Pacific Overtures of 1976 – though this is almost certainly a shot of a revival

Movies being more accessible, many of my preferred film musicals make the list (though rather low down) but among those missing are Golddiggers of 1933, Swing Time, The Gay Divorcee, Evergreen, The Band Wagon, Finian’s Rainbow, Victor/Victoria and – admittedly not a choice that many would make – At Long Last Love (a very underrated confection).

But my own lists, were I to trouble systematically to make any, would be subject to change over time, even quite precipitate change. I reckon my Desert Islands Discs eightsome would never be the same two days running. Is there really any value in such a pastime, or is it just exercise for the blood pressure?

Sunday, January 10, 2010


There is no sanctimonious little twerp anywhere in these islands more deserving of a come-uppance than Peter Robinson. The former estate agent became First Minister of the Northern Ireland assembly some eighteen months ago in succession to his mentor, Dr Ian Paisley. He also sits in the Commons where he is the longest-serving Belfast MP (31 years) in the history of the province. His wife Iris, to whom he has been married for rising 40 years, is also a member both at Stormont and Westminster. They like to be known as “the first couple” in Belfast, but in London they are more often referred to – due to the extravagance of their expenses claims, their combined income from various sources (above half a million per year) and their ostentatious expenditure – as “the Swish Family Robinson”.

"It's a little secret, just the Robinsons' affair" [Paul Simon]: Just after Christmas, Iris Robinson announced that she was withdrawing from public life “for mental health reasons”. Last Wednesday, aware that a BBC Northern Ireland current affairs reporter and producer knew a good deal about the circumstances of her withdrawal, she issued an emotional statement, admitting to an extramarital affair that she blamed on her mental state. She had, she declared, tried to take her own life back in March. Ahead of the broadcast of the programme (in Northern Ireland on Friday evening; available throughout the UK on BBC iPlayer until next Friday), the notion was put about that Mrs Robinson’s lover had been “a local businessman”.

Iris Robinson not (I think) from her own campaign literature

Thereafter, Iris Robinson went to ground, or was put to ground. The Sunday Times reports her holed up in the French ski resort of Chamonix where, interestingly, Elin Nordegren repaired in face of the unfolding publicity about the affairs of her husband, Tiger Woods. Peter Robinson now took control of the story, decided to play it as if all were open and above board and invited the BBC’s camera and other selected reporters to his study where, dressed in studiedly casual clothes (the kind an estate agent would affect), he unburdened himself of his own statement.

The pearl at its centre is this passage: “I love my wife. I have always been faithful to her. In a spirit of humility and repentance, Iris sought my forgiveness, she took responsibility upon herself alone for her actions and I have forgiven her. More important, I know she has sought and received god’s forgiveness. I only ask, if people feel they must judge her, that they find within themselves, as I have done, the gift of doing so with mercy and compassion”.

The Elin Nordegren of Stormont

"Jesus loves you more than you will know" [Simon}: That the almighty turns out to be liberal on adultery is clearly to the enormous advantage of the Robinsons. What has been historically a bull point for the Unionists in the perceived wisdom of said almighty is that he is reliably supportive of moral superiority. Moral superiority has ever been the central plank of Unionism in Ireland, politically as well as spiritually. Peter Robinson, as may be detected in his statement, is so in thrall to moral superiority that, even in her agony, he cannot forebear publicly to score moral points off his wife (“I have always been faithful to her”) as well as off everyone else (“I only ask … people … [to] find within themselves, as I have done … mercy and compassion”). As I say, a sanctimonious little twerp.

Darragh MacIntyre’s report for Spotlight, produced by Mary McKeagney, appears to pull no punches. What Peter Robinson called “Iris’s inappropriate relationship” was with someone who only became anything resembling “a local businessman” as a result of Mrs Robinson’s connections. He is Kirk McCambley, the son of Iris’s butcher, a boy she had known since he was nine. In 2008, Bill the butcher died and Iris took Kirk under her wing; there is no mention in the story of Kirk’s mother. They became lovers. Iris was 59, Kirk 19, so she was well old enough to be his grandmother.

Local businessman, aged 19

The Bible story of the woman taken in adultery is the source of Christ’s admonition “let him who is without sin cast the first stone” and we shall occupy no moral high ground concerning the sexual aspects of this story, save in this regard. Iris Robinson, rather inconveniently for her present circumstances, has been most widely known until the present shemozzl for a thoroughly unforgiving stance on the sexual morality of others. On the very morning that her husband was succeeding to the post of first minister, Mrs Robinson was telling BBC Radio Ulster that homosexuality was “an abomination”. She advocated that gay people should seek a cure for their condition. On another occasion, she told BBC Radio 5: “I have a very lovely psychiatrist who works with me in my offices and his Christian background is that he tries to help homosexuals, trying to turn away from what they are engaged in”. In the Commons, she announced that “there can be no viler act, apart from homosexuality and sodomy, than sexually abusing children”. It would be instructive to know whether Mrs Robinson’s “very lovely psychiatrist” has been able to winkle out at what age, between nine and 19, the butcher’s boy first became sexually alluring to her.

"Coo, coo, ca-choo, Mrs Robinson" [Simon]: Iris Robinson is a born-again Christian, unlike her husband who is a life-long evangelical, but as we know it is frequently the converts who become, metaphorically or otherwise, the suicide bombers. Iris’s deployment of the term “abomination” in describing gay people has its origin, as you might guess, in The Bible, specifically Leviticus 20:13: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them”. Most unfortunately for the sainted Iris, we find this in Leviticus just three verses earlier: “And the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death”.

Peter Robinson tries out an AK-47, Israel 1986

Such death is not sanctioned by scripture if it is administered by one’s own hand. Here is the First Book of Corinthians 6:19: “Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body”. In other words, Iris, suicide isn’t smiled on much in the scriptures either.

On the morning of the night in March when Mrs Robinson attempted to do away with herself with an overdose, Mr Robinson ascertained that she was conscious, phoned her aide, Selwyn Black, and then left for Stormont. She was hence alone until Black and paramedics arrived, the latter determining that she ought to be hospitalised. While others took care of her, Robinson was making jokes at the despatch box – "Going to the candidates' debates" [Simon]. He rationalised this callous behaviour in his statement thus: “I’ve never allowed my personal life to interfere with my work”. A sanctimonious little twerp, as I say.

"We'd like to know a little bit about you for our files" [Simon]: So far so simple. Now it grows murkier, as these things will. Using her political power, Iris solicited £50,000 start-up capital from two local entrepreneurs, so as to set up young Master McCambley in a restaurant in a fashionable riverside development. McCambley won the contract for the enterprise against some competition, despite having no experience in business or as a restaurateur. Iris Robinson sat on the council that awarded the contract. Having secured his situation, Iris then demanded a ten percent facility fee in cash. In every detail itemised in this paragraph, she was either breaking the law or breaching government regulation or both.

Iris and Peter hear of the sad death of Stephen Gately

Not surprisingly, the relationship with McCambley soon broke down. “Just cut links with Kirk” she texted Black. “God’s word was very clear on it”. You might think it a pity that the almighty didn’t find it within himself to be a bit more upfront at the outset of the relationship. Has he not heard of stable doors and horses bolting? Iris’s reaction was to demand the return of the £45,000, partly to clear her own debts, partly to be donated as conscience money to the church; as it happens, in this case, to the church run by her sister-in-law. The church never received any payment. At this point, the Robinsons were holidaying at their Florida flat so all the arrangements had to be conducted by Selwyn Black who, understandably, began to object that, as a former RAF chaplain, he didn’t think that looking after an adulterer’s financial affairs fell within his sense of what was proper, let alone his job description.

"Where have you gone, Ken Maginnis, oh?" [after Simon]: Back in Belfast, Iris Robinson began blatantly lobbying for contracts on behalf of the surviving creditor who had bankrolled McCambley’s business. It was at around this point that Peter Robinson became involved (and she attempted suicide). Discovering that his wife was misusing funds, contacts and contracts, he ought to have made a full breast of it to the committee overseeing propriety or otherwise in ministerial dealings. But he did not. “They both knew the consequences of what they had been involved in,” Black told Spotlight at the programme’s conclusion, “and did nothing to address that circumstance. It goes right to the heart of credibility in Northern Ireland”.

Marilyn (aka Peter Robinson but perhaps a different one)

At least one section of the community is having a deserved good laugh at the expense of the Robinsons. A correspondent wrote to The Guardian on Friday: “May I be the first homosexual to genuinely wish Iris Robinson MP a complete and swift recovery?” And the gay monthly magazine Attitude, in a spirit of merry satire, has invited Kirk McCambley to pose as its next cover pin-up.

"Ev'ry way you look at it, you lose" [Simon]: In sum, this lurid affair pans out as a curious mirror image of the Tiger Woods scandal, this time with the wife dallying with the parochially Irish equivalent of a nightclub hostess and the husband playing the martyred, wronged but vindictive partner, so it is poetic that Mrs Woods and Mrs Robinson should flee to the same glamorous refuge. So far, Elin Nordegren has emerged in rather better shape than Peter Robinson whose political future is very much in the balance. Whether, with its tradition of moral superiority, the Democratic Unionist Party will continue to support him must be in doubt. Perhaps they will say to him, as they have already said to his wife, what Christ said to the woman taken in adultery: “go, and sin no more”.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010


Today two retiring Labour MPs have texted their parliamentary colleagues urging upon them a secret ballot to determine once and for all whether Gordon Brown commands the authentic support of the party. Those MPs are former health secretary Patricia Hewitt and former defence secretary Geoff Hoon and one can only think that they are receiving secret payments from Lord Ashcroft on behalf of the Tory Party. In the six hours since the texts went out, the only publicly voiced support for such a ballot has come from Charles Clarke, Barry Sheerman and Frank Field – in other words, the usual suspects. (Incidentally, when you see the name Frank Field, do you, as I am apt to do, think “I Remember You”?).

For the Parliamentary Labour Party to undertake a secret ballot on the Prime Minister’s support four months from a general election would be wholly self-destructive. It must do severe damage if – at the behest of two members, neither of whom has any constituency within the movement or anything to boast of in their respective ministerial careers – MPs run around like decapitated hens when the prevention of a Cameron government, either of a majority or a minority nature, is their sole mission. Party unity does still matter to the electorate and, even more so, to the party faithful at local level on whom the PLP rely. It is fanciful to imagine that a wholly unprecedented and unpredictable exercise can somehow make the party look more electable.

The febrile atmosphere at Westminster is stoked by the media, in whose interest crisis and hysteria is always to be preferred to calm and statesmanship, and by members who are unduly influenced by correspondents telling them what they have heard (or what they think sounds provocative). All this reporting of off-the-record briefings and “private” opinions (not so private if told to a journalist, I suggest) is deeply suspect. The right wing press necessarily want a change of regime. The Guardian has evinced a depressing level of glee at the Prime Minister's supposed plight, reinforcing a conviction shared long ago among its commentators that Labour would fall. If Labour does lose, nobody will be able to take any credit for pedalling a self-fulfilling prophecy. But MPs need to close their ears to this hubbub and concentrate on the vital task at hand. If there is a Labour prime minister as a result of the election, it will be Gordon Brown and no one else.