Thursday, April 29, 2010


What an astonishing and misdirected fuss. Gordon Brown, boldly canvassing on the streets of the Lib Dem-held marginal of Rochdale, is caught up in a conversation with Mrs Gillian Duffy who, the press informs us, is a “granny” and a “pensioner” as well as a life-long Labour supporter. It seems a genial enough encounter, at the end of which Mrs Duffy takes Brown’s hand in both of hers. There’s been a slightly sticky moment when she brings up the matter of East European immigrants and wants to know how the foreign students can be afforded, even though her own grandchildren will have such high tuition fees; it emerges later, when Gordon (who’s remembered this detail) asks how old her grandchildren are, that they are still only twelve and ten.

In the privacy of his car, Gordon immediately turns sour, unaware that his radio mic is still on his lapel and broadcasting. He clearly isn’t satisfied with how the encounter went, surrounded as it was by what he later calls a mêlée of press, and, as one is apt to do, he sprays his irritation around, landing some of it on the innocent head of Mrs Duffy, whom he characterises as a “sort of bigoted woman”.

"That was a disaster"

So far, so what? What all changes it and makes it into the greatest political crisis since Suez is that the broadcasters fall over each other to get the overheard grumbling onto air. Not long afterwards, Brown is sitting in a Radio 2 studio for a phone-in and Jeremy Vine takes palpable delight in playing back the recording to Gordon and the world while the PM crumples into a dejected heap. The pundits immediately wheel in, announcing that the general election is over and that Gordon Brown is dead, buried and erased from the official record. Meanwhile, Max Clifford is on the blower to Gillian Duffy, offering his services at very reasonable rates.

This is a farce. Everybody – Cameron, Clegg, the editors of newspapers and broadcasting news, Andrew Rawnsley, you and me – says things that are unguarded, loose, disobliging, unfair and that pass no test of scrutiny when we fondly imagine that we are talking in private. The supposed insult to Mrs Duffy was perpetrated not by the Prime Minister, whose words were intended for no one but those in his car, but by the editors who decided to transmit them to the world, in the spirit of little boys ogling an oblivious woman in a state of undress. I wish Gordon had had the smarts to seize on that as soon as Vine played his trump card, that he had pointed out angrily that he didn’t say what he said for public consumption and that, if he gets back into government, he will instruct MI5 to install recording devices in every office (not forgetting the club) at the BBC so that, whenever anything is said that is confidential, it can be released to the public.

Poor Brown looked so pole-axed that maybe there is yet some sympathy mileage in it, similar to that sparked by the campaign in The Sun to discredit him over his handwriting in a letter to the mother of a killed soldier. But feeling sorry for the man is not much of a basis for an election victory.

"He called me what?"

What I found much more telling and much more of concern was how, in their public conversation, Brown repeatedly tried to steer Mrs Duffy away from actual politics, trying to get her to agree that “it’s nice around here” (not as nice as Fife, Gordon) or asking about her family. I know he doesn’t have much in the way of people skills or small talk ease; indeed, it’s his authenticity and lack of a silver tongue that distinguishes him from the slick slipperiness of David Cameron. After rewarding the latter style in a similar mismatch between John Major and Tony Blair in 1997, you’d think the public would be conclusively wary of a snake-oil salesman this time around. But it doesn’t do to try to avoid discussing issues with voters. The nettle of European immigration has to be grasped, both in word and in deed. None of the leaders wants to grasp it for fear of seeming ... well, bigoted.

Something else I thought ill-judged was Brown’s demeanour after he had come to Mrs Duffy’s house to have a conversation with her, a conservation that I hope will remain private. Perhaps they got on very well, perhaps he found a form of words that satisfied her, perhaps she graciously accepted what I do not doubt was a heart-felt apology. Brown emerged grinning, perhaps with relief, perhaps because he had been charmed. But it made him seem as though he felt he had had a triumph and that looked all wrong.

"I'm a penitent sinner"

None of this amounts to a hill of beans, of course, but you’d think from the coverage that Brown had at least killed somebody with his bare hands. The other parties will have hugged themselves with glee but it would be a mistake for either of their leaders to try to capitalise on it in the leaders’ debate tonight. They know very well to mutter: “There but for the grace of god …”

There remains the larger matter of the morality, responsibility, taste and judgment of the media. How skewed our values have become when an innocent expression of candid frustration is universally condemned while underhand and treacherous opportunism passes unremarked. I think this heartless roasting of the Prime Minister is only one up from Rory Bremner’s stunt, four or five years ago, of contacting Margaret Beckett, then Foreign Secretary, and convincing her that he was really the then Chancellor, one Gordon Brown. I thought that hoax the lowest of the low but this ugly compromising of the PM is nearly as shabby.

And really, does this silly episode, blown out of all proportion, signify when set against our solemn responsibility to elect a new government?

Sunday, April 25, 2010


I am far from sanguine about May 6th. I suspect the number who have made up their minds that they are definitely not going to vote Labour, even though they yet do not know what they will do, is going to prove decisive. It’s hard to believe that Gordon Brown will still be the prime minister come Ascension Day, which is a week after polling.

The pundits are now agreed that the days following the vote will be filled with horse-trading. I am not so sure. I would not be at all surprised if the Tory vote proved stronger than anticipated, strong enough to form an administration without having to go into a huddle with others. Or if there is a rough three-way split, I fear that Gordon Brown will figure he is justified in trying to cobble something together and will then spend several days in fraught mutual vituperation with other politicians (some of them surviving Labour ministers) before finding himself obliged to slink away abjectly and leave the mess for others to clear up, like Edward Heath did in the days after the first 1974 election.

Clegg as the Lib Dem emblem by Steve Bell 2008

The Tories are arguing hard against a three-way split, with Ken Clarke trying to frighten voters by talk of a hung parliament leading to economic meltdown. (We are at the stage, reached in most election campaigns, when parties try to stampede voters with dire warnings and, simultaneously, complain about smears). But of course “hung parliament” is not on the ballot paper and none of us will knowingly vote for stalemate. This is rather like appeals to the public to “stagger your journey” during transport disruption, as if one can stagger one’s journey all by oneself or, in rush hours on the underground, to “use all available doors”: how will I help to relieve the crush if I rush madly in and out of all the train’s doors one after the other?

Most of us will look at the ballot paper on election day and put our cross against either the representative of the party that we would most like to form the next government or against the representative of the party that we think will either benefit most from tactical voting or do the most damage to the party we hate. Some of us will do this knowing that our vote will be in vain, given that only the winner’s votes count in a first-past-the-post system. If the result is a hung parliament, it will not be by the will of the people so much as by the lack of a party and/or leader dominant in the public’s affections, coupled with the particular character of the way the votes are counted. If Ken Clarke and his mates would rather walk away than join with others to try to make one or more minority parties govern effectively, so be it. Cameron seems a little more circumspect on the matter than some of his lieutenants.

At several elections, the Liberal Democrats and their predecessors in the Liberal Party have dared to believe – and perhaps sometimes even had reason to believe – that they were on the verge of a significant electoral breakthrough. Notoriously, at his party conference in 1981, then leader of the Liberals David Steel, who had formed an alliance with the Social Democrats (a breakaway group from the Labour Party), called on his troops to “go back to your constituencies and prepare for government”. At the general election less than two years later, the Alliance won more than a quarter of the vote but less than one twenty-seventh of the seats, 23 in all.

The sudden rise in polling figures for the Lib Dems in the last ten days will not, I suspect, translate into many seats taken. The party has gained notional support at the expense of both the Tories and Labour, evidently more from the latter, though paradoxically this rise will probably hurt the Tories more.

Cameron the hoodie by David Parkins 2006

It is very hard to see why the rise should have come about. I know it’s because the Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, was widely said to have “won” the first of the televised debates; what I don’t understand is why he was so praised for his performance. Coming to it on-line a week late – I was away both on the night of the broadcast and subsequently – I watched in vain for this supposed star quality. I guess it was that most viewers had no sense of what Clegg was like before and were surprised that he was youngish, articulate and didn’t have two heads. As I had listened to him before, none of this knocked me sideways. All I can think is that it was, after all, just as well that the Lib Dems had unceremoniously dumped Ming Campbell because, sound and shrewd though he is, Sir Ming would have seemed even more antediluvian than Gordon Brown, and so David Cameron would have had the younger-than-59 vote all to himself.

In both televised debates so far, Cameron turned out to be unexpectedly ineffectual. In the first round, he barely laid a glove on Brown and left Clegg alone. In the second, he was a little more assertive, save that it came across a bit whiney. This is an objective assessment, not a party one. On a World at One phone-in the day after the second debate, I thought Cameron decisive, smart, nimble-footed, impeccably courteous and even quite sympathetic. If he’s going to make the last telly debate work for him, he’s going to have to up his game in that forum too.

Brown seemed largely in control in the second debate, even risking the odd joke (not always wisely) and riding roughshod over the debating points of the others. This seemed a good strategy but he still did least well in the instant polling so perhaps it is just that large numbers of people have already written him off. In the final debate, I wish he’d do two things. First, he should nail the issue of the increase in National Insurance rates, stop Cameron getting away with calling it “the jobs tax” and make the case for the rise that none of us knows (I certainly don’t), thereby refuting the Tory businessmen who wrote letters in Cameron’s support. As it stands, many viewers must be worrying about what this mysterious “jobs tax” is going to mean for them. The other need is for him to sound an upbeat note. At conference a year or two back, Brown gave a triumphant catalogue of Labour’s achievements in government that had the hall on its feet and gave the lie once and for all to “thirteen wasted years”. He should play that card again in his closing piece on Thursday. I wrote to him to pass on these two suggestions, but I doubt he will get them (in either sense of “get”).

Go Bro by Schrank 2009

Television news and the print media too have gone overboard for the television debates. They have also reinforced the sense that, the Chancellor and his shadows aside, the only politicians who really count are the three party leaders. Given the increasing likelihood that the next half-decade will be under a Conservative government, I think the electorate should have the chance to get a look what is certainly one of the lamest would-be government teams ever set before them. Even if Cameron and Clarke manage to make some sensible decisions between them, the rest will certainly make a hash of it. My prediction is that, by this time next year, the Cameron government will be one of the least popular this nation has ever had. That’ll be small comfort to Lord Brown of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath or Lord Darling of Edinburgh South West.

The emphasis on the battle for 10 Downing Street has squeezed out other aspects of the democratic process as well as other mere ministers and their shadows. I wrote this letter to The Guardian a few days ago: “Dear Sir, I am surprised at your lack of coverage of the important exercise in democracy taking place on May 6th. I refer of course to the local elections in various district and unitary authorities and mayoralties across England and all the English metropolitan and London boroughs. Yours faithfully etc”. Needless to report, the paper has not been pleased to publish it. I begin to wonder if we shall even find out what the local results are this time around.

In the contemporary world, we are told often enough how grave and significant is our democratic right and duty to exercise our voting power. One way and another, however, it seems that the democratic quality of the exercise is being squeezed out of it. Gordon Brown remarked jovially at the start of the second debate that it had the feel of a TV popularity contest and indeed that is just what the whole coverage has. It is the qualities that play well on television – facility, fluency, geniality, bantering without rancour, unflappability -– that increasingly determine the fate of politicians rather than those that used to count – authority, articulacy, forthrightness, reassurance, intellect.

Politicians like Michael Foot, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, Tony Benn, Tony Crosland, John Biffen, Ian Gilmore, Peter Carrington, Ian Mcleod, Jo Grimond, David Penhaligon, Menzies Campbell, John Mackintosh, Bryan Gould, John Smith and others would surely not have thrived in this chat-show culture. It is a culture that values George W Bush over Al Gore or John Kerry, largely because, to many unreflective folk, he seemed like the pleasanter guy to have a beer with. No wonder, then, that Cameron has seemed relatively plausible and that the new kid on the block, Clegg, seems acceptable to large numbers. What a way to run a democracy.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


I am going away for a few days, so this posting is by way of a brief holding operation. I wanted just to record my admiration for two long-running teledramas. I wondered if both Desperate Housewives and Shameless might be outstaying their shared welcome in pushing on to, respectively, a sixth and a seventh series. But both have been in outstanding form lately, each in its own way pulling outrageous stunts with complete confidence and confounding their audiences with clever and – in both cases – very moving resolutions. To turn comedy into tragedy and back again without betraying either form is much harder to do than it looks and the great virtue of both these shows is that the art is concealed by art. Each is now shooting a further series and I for one cannot wait.

Paddy Maguire and Marcia Van Der Camp, a lovely couple

Friday, April 09, 2010


I’m such an election junkie. For at least 18 months, I have been in training for the ritual of sitting up all night on May 6th. Not for me the weary trudge to bed after the Portillo Moment. Unless my crumbling body won’t let me, I shall see it through to the bitter end.

The only election in half a century the results of which I did not sit up for was that of 1979. Election day that year happened to coincide with the first night at the Royal Court of Martin Sherman’s epochal play Bent. I knew Martin, had read the play and, in my then role as a BBC drama producer, had declared that if the Court didn’t make up its mind to commit to a production I would do it on television. The designated stage director, Bob Chetwyn, was also someone I knew – he was (still is) the partner of my old pal Howard Schuman, author of Rock Follies. So there is reason to think that my view carried a little weight in the matter. Anyway, the Court made up its mind, a gang of us supported it on the first night and my reward was that I met there a very sweet young man with whom I began a nice little affair that night. So Margaret Thatcher’s wholly anticipated triumph was, frankly, no contest.

The Tories have often played the fear card

But it’s a big and important deal, putting one’s X on a ballot paper. It was of the 1979 election that the very sweet young man with whom I then shared my flat – a different sweet young man whom I adored and who pitifully died in 1982 – remarked that he had yet to decide to which candidate he was going to give his kiss. I thought that description delicious; deliciously camp too.

Posters for the 1945 election

At that election, our seat (but not my kiss) was won by Hugh Rossi, who went on to be a self-satisfied junior minister under Thatcher. He was finally beaten in 1997 by Barbara Roche who in turn became a junior minister under Blair. She lost to the Liberal Democrat Lynne Featherstone in 2005, by which time we were voting elsewhere, though I had already abandoned Labour for the first time in 2001, adding my kiss to the second largest swing to the Lib Dems in the country at that election. I thought that Blair had taken us to war too often – this was before the second invasion of Iraq and the first (by the West) of Afghanistan – and that the government’s immigration policy, which Roche then administered, was a disgrace. Happily, the local trend was to a liberal rather than a reactionary reaction on this issue.

BBC election studio 1950

My ballot paper in 1997 is not the only one I have ever dropped into the box that added to a winning total but it is rare enough that that has happened. None of us chooses where we live simply in order to take a decisive part in the democratic process (unless we are professional politicians) and it’s a function of wanting to live in relatively salubrious neighbourhoods that one is apt to find oneself represented in parliament by a Conservative. Such has been the case since we abandoned the capital for the West Country, where Labour members are like hen’s teeth. The old non-conformist traditions here, though, ensure that there is unusual strength in the Lib Dem vote.

Our constituency boundaries have been redrawn since the 2005 election. The largest town in the area, which is where the Lib Dem vote has historically been strongest, has become the centre of a new seat and so there must be a real chance that Clegg’s gang will take it. Happily we fall into this new constituency. The rural area that falls within the boundaries of the other new constituency is being contested by the Tory MP who habitually won the old seat and he must be a certainty to retain it. This is despite the torrent of bad publicity he has received, both for cheating on his cancer-stricken wife, like some John Edwards of the shires, and for the shabby nature of his role in the Great Expenses Scandal – he claimed for a Remembrance Sunday wreath: how cheesy is that?

BBC election studio 1966

The comprehensively bad press that the whole House has received over the last twelve months has been expected to influence the electorate’s response and, anticipating as much, an unprecedented tally of members is standing down this time. Some have been pushed rather than jumped, some have feared further humiliation at the ballot box and many Labour backbenchers listened too readily to the extraordinarily persistent consensus from the start of 2008 to the end of 2009 that the Tories were certain to win by a landslide and decided that someone else could lose their seat. The evidence of polling doesn’t especially reinforce the notion that members thought to be corrupt will be disproportionately punished. And of course the punditry’s expectation is now of a much tighter result.

Don't let this happen this time

One consideration that has been overlooked by the media is that the public’s trust in journalists is, if anything, even shallower than that in politicians. As one who worked as a journalist for thirty-odd years, I think the public is right to be sceptical. Asked to trust either Ann Leslie or Jacqui Smith, Alexander Chancellor or Ming Campbell, Simon Heffer or Chris Grayling, I’d take the politico every time. And if a parliamentary committee decided to investigate corruption and expenses-fiddling in newspapers and broadcasting, the results would be even more shocking than the revelations about the politicians, save of course that those revelations would have to be conveyed to the public by the very people being fingered and so the message might be subtly or nor so subtly altered.

John & Norma Major at the 1992 poll

By and large, British politicians are a pretty good advertisement for probity, certainly when compared to those of many other countries. There was an interesting piece in The Guardian this week by Sir Simon Jenkins explaining how Thatcher fatally damaged the Tories as an electoral fighting machine by failing to maintain the local nature of the party’s infrastructure, a system that (Jenkins suggested) was intrinsically corrupt in a Masonic sort of way but nevertheless was mightily effective at keeping the Tories as the dominant political organisation for most of the twentieth century: see

When I was young and living in the east Midlands, I saw at first hand how the Tories held onto local councils by putting up candidates in local elections as “independents” and thereby fooling the public that they were being represented by people who weren’t answerable to vested interests. There are of course local elections as well on May 6th but don’t hold your breath for any media coverage, even though the London boroughs are involved.

Looking back on elections of the past, I find impressions are very vivid. For the 1959 election, I was centrally involved in the conducting of a mock election at my prep school, simultaneously spearheading the Tory campaign and overseeing the ballot itself – no suggestion of corruption was ever made. I have a movie-like image in my mind of virtually the entire school population chasing me across the quad as I carried off the ballot box to count the votes.

By the 1964 election, I was 17 and rather more sophisticated. Though my chum Tony and I affected to deplore the throwing out of Downing Street after just a year of the erstwhile Earl of Home (pronounced Hume) – “a proper gentleman” we mourned – the prospect of a dynamic new government (“Let’s go with Labour” was the slogan, accompanied by a thumbs-up sign) was exhilarating. Harold Wilson, who had spent the campaign decrying “thirteen wasted years of Tory rule”, embraced “the white heat of technology” and promised a modern, progressive Britain.

Murdoch's boys crow in 1992. Maybe this time they haven't backed the winner

What I most remember of election night was an interview with Wilson’s deputy, the irrepressible George Brown, who addressed an outside broadcast camera at Labour’s Transport House HQ and was plainly quite seriously drunk. Six years later, watching the coverage of Labour’s defeat on a communal telly in a student rooming house, I joined in the sad groan that greeted the news of Brown’s defeat at Belper (where my maternal grandmother was born).

Another election night memory was probably from the previous election, in 1966. The BBC’s studio on that occasion was like the set of some trendy theatre production, all scaffolding and floated platforms. Cliff Michelmore, who was the main presenter, at one point handed over to Sir Robin Day (as he then wasn’t) – who was perched on a platform in the roof of the studio where he interviewed a succession of passing-through politicians – with a reference to the fact that Robin had once stood as a Liberal candidate. White with fury, Day leaned precariously over the scaffolding and bawled “I asked for that not to be mentioned”.

Pinning down the politicians has always been the aim of broadcast coverage of the campaign. The politicians know how to spar with professional journalists but can be thrown by persistent members of the public. The woman who bearded Thatcher during the 1983 campaign on the question of the sinking of the Belgrano sadly didn’t manage to swing the result by putting the PM on the spot but Thatcher never forgave the BBC for letting it happen. So that was a far-reaching consequence.

In 2005, Jeremy Paxman pitched an outrageously improper question to George Galloway who had just squeaked a win for his Respect Party over Oona King in Bethnal Green and Bow: “Are you proud to have thrown a black woman out of parliament, Mr Galloway?” Galloway was as gob-smacked by this as everybody else and mumbled a suitably combative answer in the circumstances. No doubt later – as an esprit de l’escalier – he will have wished he had come up with something along the lines of: “No, any more than I am proud that I am being interviewed by you rather than Zeinab Badawi”.

Politicians can be seen at their best and worst during elections. Having to get out of the Westminster comfort zone can be very good for them. Some of course truly relish campaigning. On The World at One today we heard John Prescott out on the road, not something he needs to do because he too is standing down but there he was being himself as only he could be: “Thank you for your support, son; if one finger means support”. You have to love him.

This election has been hailed as “the most important for a generation”. I have never lived through a single election that wasn’t hailed as “the most important for a generation”. But I hope that this one won’t feature a poor turnout or a significant drift to fringe parties, particularly those with racist and/or little-Englander policies. I hope the flow of results on the night is exciting and sometimes unexpected and that not too many follow the example of some returning officers who have abandoned the traditional count as soon as he polls close in favour of a next-day result. And of course I hope that we do not vote ourselves a majority Tory regime, full of PR types and smug gits. As it happens, my own fortunes have never prospered under a Tory government – the ‘80s and ‘90s were often a desperate time – and I can’t see any other than city fat cats doing well out of the baronet George Osborne’s budgets, nor Hillary Clinton hitting it off anything like as well with Hague as with her adored Miliband. Given the chance, Cameron will destroy our credibility in Europe without having a fallback position to replace that role. It’s a no-brainer. For all his flaws, we need to keep Gordon.

Monday, April 05, 2010


The bloody end of Eugene Terre’Blanche can’t have taken many by surprise, certainly not the followers of Christ who know their man’s words as spoken to Saint Peter and reported in the Matthew Gospel: “All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” [26:52]. Terre’Blanche certainly took the sword. The son of an officer in the South African Defence Force, a conscription outfit not noted for its progressive implementation of apartheid rule, he joined the South African Police. He rose to become a warrant officer in the Special Guard that protected government ministers. However, he came to feel that the policies of Prime Minister John Vorster were too liberal – ha! – and resigned to join the right-wing break-away movement, the Herstigte Nasionale Party.

In his attractive youth in the South African Police

When he failed to find elective office by this route, he formed his own grouping, the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (known as the AWB), a quasi-military pressure group that he would lead for 37 years. He chose as his group’s symbol a variation on the swastika, donned his bodyguards in black shirts and was always referred to as The Leader (Der Leier in Afrikaans, the precise equivalent of Der Führer). But the AWB was a tuppeny-ha’penny outfit by the standards of most militias. Even the sainted Ken Sara-Wiwa maintained a private army capable of more efficient despatch of renegades and apostates than were the AWB. Though (following the inaugural tarring and feathering of a white liberal academic) his goons were certainly responsible for some deaths in South Africa, Terre’Blanche customarily traded more in menace and bloodcurdling speeches than in systematic violence against perceived enemies of apartheid or civil disobedience in the face of what he claimed was the weakening of white supremacy successively by Vorster and PW Botha.

With fellow AWB stormtroopers

Perhaps Terre’Blanche’s most eye-catching stroke was the 1993 attack he and several hundred supremacists launched on the building where negotiations were in progress to end apartheid and introduce multi-racial elections. Having successfully disrupted the talks, however, the storm-troopers ran out of ideas as to what to do beyond pissing on the floor and painting slogans on the walls. They left with a promise of no legal repercussions and the multi-racial elections went ahead as planned, thereby electing Nelson Mandela as president.

Nick Broomfield’s celebrated 1991 documentary portrait for Channel 4, The Leader, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife, presented a man who worked hard at seeming ferocious but who had little coherent to offer in terms of philosophy or practical politics. This of course is the shortcoming of fundamentalists everywhere. “No surrender” is their cry and armed is their response. We can see this breaking out right across the States just now and truly unnerving it is too. Those barking defiance from the last redoubt are generally absurd creatures and Terre’Blanche played out the absurdity in full measure, strutting around like a Mussolini of the veldt and famously falling off his horse at a parade intended to burnish his legend.

AWB design style

It is the armed ingredient that stops these people existing only in a world of comic operetta. Last week, a middle-aged so-called “born again Christian” and “pro-lifer” was sentenced to fifty years in a Kansas jail for shooting dead a surgeon outside a church. The killer justified his action by calling the surgeon “a baby-killer”. It is the taking of the law into their own hands that is the logical outcome of the decision to bear arms. Just as the regulatory instincts of left-of-centre regimes can, when taken to extremes, turn into oppression so the “freedom” demanded by right-wingers soon gives way to anarchy and the law of the jungle. In that world, weapons are carried for “defence” but of course are used in practice for attack.

Menace and blood-curdling speeches

I do not doubt that there is lawlessness and vengefulness among both black and white communities in South Africa. White farmers clearly do get attacked – murdered, even – simply because they own land. It’s frighteningly easy to imagine a future government in Pretoria instigating a self-defeating campaign to drive the whites from successful farms as Mugabe has done in Zimbabwe with the same result that does no one, black or white, any good.

Equally, the poverty and resentment among poor urban and rural blacks is real and crippling enough. How they must wonder when the bright promise of Mandela is going to transform their little lives. That Terre’Blanche was hacked to death with pangas by young men whom he had cheated of their recompense for labour undertaken seems only too likely, both in terms of his indifference to their entitlement and their resorting to the only remedy they knew. If the murderous cruelties of the years of apartheid are revisited upon those whites who perpetrated them, it is hardly a surprise. Read the novels of the great Nobel laureate JM Coetzee who, with understandable discretion, has uprooted his family and moved to Australia. Among his works, Disgrace, In the Heart of the Country and Life and Times of Michael K provide as compelling a portrait as any of life for both black and white in South Africa.

Careful, Gene, you might fall off

Jacob Zuma – himself a figure of doubtful credibility with his wives, his enthusiasm for public dancing and his constant air of corruption – has a real challenge to keep this show on the road if he does not want his presidency to be remembered primarily for a Football World Cup marked by violence and crime. He has been shrewdly solicitous about the Terre’Blanche murder. He knows that the danger of a backlash is real and frightening and that he must contain it. The dead fool should be soon forgotten and, we must hope, will leave no movement or legacy that can last. But this is a moment to hold our collective breath.

Zapiro cartoon for The Jo'burg Mail & Guardian a year ago: not quite how it turned out


A most melancholy task that falls to us at this time of year is the removal of dead frogs from our pond. Evidently the females are exhausted and eventually drowned by the over-amorous males, some of whom are found to be still clinging to the corpses when they are netted out. On the night-time walks, I keep the dogs on tight leads and rake the ground with torches to ensure that we step on none of the creatures lurking and croaking to each other in the grass. But the reward of this care is the daytime dumping of bloated bodies over the hedge, as many as six or eight some days. It seems a very unproductive means of courtship. Does anyone have any suggestions as to what might be done another year to ameliorate this carnage?