Saturday, August 28, 2010


Is it a libel if one describes a person as gay when he or she is not so? If it is indeed libellous, why would it be so? Homosexuality is not against the law in Britain, so long as it is between consenting adults in private. In what would consist the libel? Is being gay a stigma in the eyes of the law, even though it is not illegal?

And are there degrees of liability in such a case? Would a false accusation of homosexuality still be held to be defamatory per se or would the plaintiff now need to show that it was defamatory per quod, that is to say that actual damage was caused, whether directly financial or indirectly financial – in the sense of adversely affecting the plaintiff’s career? These are shifting sands and no juridical toe has been dipped in them since the end of 2005 when Robbie Williams was awarded substantial damages against The People newspaper for carrying an allegation that he was secretly gay and that his then imminent autobiography would perpetrate a deception upon the public by accounting him heterosexual.

Clearly an important ingredient in the matter is the direct accusation or veiled suggestion within the supposed libel that the subject is a liar. This is a further fraught area. Is it defamatory to accuse someone falsely of being a liar? In the world of politics, mendacity is taken very seriously. In neither house are you permitted to call a fellow member a liar or to imply as much. Alan Clark famously described himself as having been “economical with the actualité”, a thrust that he would have made against a fellow politician at his peril.

All these questions arise in the light of today’s lead story in The Daily Telegraph, headed “Cabinet minister may act over false claims of gay affairs”. You can read the piece at

The very headline raises a number of questions. Is something that “may” happen legitimately a news item? Shouldn’t the newspaper take a more even-handed line with the story, for instance by placing the word “false” in quotation marks? To state falsity baldly implies that the paper accepts without question that the claims are false. Putting the word in quotes would more properly and appropriately indicate that the cabinet minister in question holds that they are false. But if the paper does not believe that there is any fire under the smoke, why is it running the story at all, let alone as its lead?

Coyly, the paper never hints at the identity of the cabinet minister. Such fastidiousness is unusual in the press, including The Telegraph itself which, in repeating rumours in the past while denying or questioning them, has not been backward in naming those touched by the rumours. Simultaneously, the paper today carries the news, shared with all its fellows, of the statement by the junior minister Crispin Blunt that he has separated from his wife and has “decided to come to terms with his homosexuality”. On another page, the paper repeats the “gay rumours” concerning the MI6 operative whose body was found earlier in the week. These rumours it roundly denounces as “smears”, seemingly picking up the term from the dead man’s family. I will not have been alone, immediately the story first broke, in suspecting that we would sooner or later hear of a real or imagined gay angle to this bizarre killing.

The cabinet minister story has been circulating on the internet and it is the work of but a moment to identify the subject, if one couldn’t already guess. It is William Hague, the Foreign Secretary. In truthfully asserting that he is the subject of rumour, I do not, I think, commit any offence against him. I am not crediting the rumour. It is not for me to judge whether it be true or false.

William & Ffion Hague

But William Hague is a grown-up and a politician in the public eye. Indeed, he has been in the public eye for more of his life than any of his peers – 33 of his 49 years – because he famously scored a hit with the Tory Party and the then leader Margaret Thatcher when he addressed the party conference at the tender age of 16. So it is reasonable to examine his behaviour and to ask whether he might have avoided the possibility that rumours of homosexuality might attach themselves to him.

Hague married Ffion Jenkins shortly before he himself became leader of the Tory Party. He was then 36, young to be leader, old to marry. Bachelor MPs inevitably provoke questions. When he appeared on Desert Island Discs, Gordon Brown was asked by then host Sue Lawley: “are you gay?” He said “no”. He didn’t appear to take umbrage. Nothing more was made of it. Brown finally married at 49 but I have never heard the whisper of a suggestion that he was gay or thought to be gay by anyone. (Someone once told me, laughably yet earnestly, that Tony Blair was gay; not a belief shared by many, I suggest).

Thatcher with her 16 year-old fan

If he wanted to avoid any suspicion about his sexuality, William Hague went about it in a decidedly cavalier fashion. At Oxford, he was befriended by Alan Duncan – they both became President of the Union, a customary rung on the ladder to a political career. They subsequently shared a Battersea flat and both became management trainees at Shell Oil. Duncan then swanned off to make his fortune in business. Duly achieved, some of the fortune was ploughed into a swanky house convenient for the Commons and Hague became Duncan’s lodger at the rent of a monthly case of champagne. The street in which they played house, they may perhaps have enjoyed telling people, was Gayfere Street.

Hague became an MP at a by-election in 1989 and Duncan joined him on the government benches in 1992. When John Major stood down after the 1997 election defeat, it was Duncan who persuaded Hague to stand in his own right rather than as number two to Michael Howard. Hague somewhat unexpectedly won the ballot. But his time leading the party was unhappy, partly because Duncan was initially his advisor and gave lousy advice. Hague had made Duncan his parliamentary political secretary, a post that had never existed before and has not been reinstated since Duncan stepped down from it and from being Hague’s press advisor.

Akan Duncan with his civil partner James Dunseath

After the Tory failure at the 2001 election, Hague was replaced as leader by Iain Duncan Smith. It was only a few months later that Alan Duncan publicly acknowledged for the first time what everyone at Westminster and on Fleet Street had always known: that he was gay. What wasn’t remarked at the time - though it certainly occurred to me – was that the reason why Duncan had passed ten years in the house before coming clean was that it might have occasioned questions about his relationship with Hague. Now that Hague was yesterday’s man, it was of no interest to anyone.

But Hague is now Foreign Secretary and questions about him appear to bear renewed pith. What has sparked this particular flurry is the appearance in the Daily Mail of pictures of Hague with one of his aides, a 25 year-old called Chris Myers. Ostensibly, the paper was running the picture sequence in order to mock Hague's reversion to the baseball cap that did his image such damage when he was first Tory leader (he is clutching the cap in the picture I reproduce below). But of course the real interest lies in his choice of strolling companion. Myers has recently become Hague’s third special advisor. The government has undertaken to cull the number of special advisors, but no Labour foreign secretary required more than two such.

The man of the people down the pub

To describe Hague’s appearance with Myers as “informal” would hardly be to overstate. Admittedly these photographs were taken last year, when Hague was only shadow Foreign Secretary. On the other hand, it illustrates that the pair were at the very least on matey terms before Myers’ elevation.

Now I must make clear that I neither make nor intend any innuendo about this relationship. All I submit is that Hague has been reckless with his image, knowing as he must do that the press will put two and two together and make 180 if given half the chance. If he wants these rumours to be stilled, he needs to govern his behaviour. And, if I were he, I wouldn’t submit myself to media interview for a good long time. Because if someone asks Sue Lawley’s question, he will have to say a blunt, simple and entirely truthful “no”. Anything else would bring him down. That is why the per quod action is pertinent to any libel suit he may decide to pursue. But of course he won’t be resorting to the courts. The precedents for such action are not encouraging.

With aide Chris Myers

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


A month tomorrow, we shall learn the result of the ballot for leadership of the Labour Party. The consensus among observers has been and remains that the winner, probably in the first vote, certainly after subsequent rounds when runners-up are progressively eliminated, will be David Miliband. The only rival thought to have a chance of upsetting that coronation is Miliband’s younger brother Ed. I find it hard to depart from this consensus.

Inevitability is not necessarily desirability. Gordon Brown’s elevation to prime minister was inevitable – and indeed formally unopposed – once Tony Blair agreed to step down. Would a contest have benefitted either party or country more? Would Brown’s authority have been reinforced by his having had to fight for his position? In the long run, probably not.

Presumably none of the five current contestants will be seen to have done other, by running, than enhance their respective standing in the party. The public may have different ideas. Those casting votes need first to consider who is most likely to carry sufficient swathes of the public in a general election to restore Labour to power. All else is academic if the party cannot be led into government. Once holding power, having it is worthless unless what is done with it is constructive and lasting. So the tests for each of the candidates are: is this person a credible, electable prime minister? Will this person use power to help make the world a better place for significant numbers of its citizens, both at home and abroad?

Not a prayer

The candidate upon whom the largest lorryload of doubt falls is Diane Abbott. She is the oldest candidate – 57 two days after the vote – and the longest serving in the house – 23 years. She is the only one to have had a real career outside politics but also the only one never to have held office. As a regular broadcaster, she is probably recognisable to a larger number of people than any of the others, possibly than all of the others put together. And of course she is distinguished from the other four in two dramatic ways: she is a woman and she is black. It is largely because of these distinctions – in her own account, indeed – that she is standing at all.

It is not inappropriate to discuss these attributes. Being a woman and being black both carry advantages and disadvantages. It is to be doubted if there is any such thing as “the women’s vote”, though that possibility is often posited. There is precious little evidence that Margaret Thatcher was either elected or re-elected by virtue of dominating the votes of women but not of men.

There may be a more coherent ethnic constituency. Barack Obama clearly did register deeply among non-white voters in America in November 2008. Such hostility as there was towards him within the white vote was nowhere near sufficient to deny him victory. But it is instructive and troubling that racist instincts, though expressed in a round-about manner, have surfaced in the American electorate in recent months. They inform a renewed notion that Obama is a “secret” Moslem and that his birth certificate was doctored to qualify him for office as a US citizen. These are notions redolent of paranoia. They also speak to the infantilism of much of public discourse in the US, a discourse simultaneously far more elevated (at its best) and far less (at its worst) than that in Britain. That a politically illiterate cartoon character like Sarah Palin can be widely seen as preferable to the most intellectually gifted individual to occupy the White House since Jack Kennedy and the most strategically cunning operator to do so since Lyndon Johnson tells a great deal about the power of myth, rumour and the raised voice in American public life.

Diane Abbott, let me quickly aver, is no Sarah Palin. She is clearly smart and experienced and she rarely trims to please anyone. In the house, she has become a genuine star performer, admired and valued on all sides – two years ago, she won the Parliamentary Speech of the Year Award, bestowed by the Tory periodical The Spectator.

But she has alienated people on some important issues. Educating her son privately has caused and continues to cause her a deal of grief, which she has perhaps not ameliorated by her evident inability to find a definitive, consistent and coherent defence of her decision. She also made a foolish error in neglecting to disclose BBC earnings to the parliamentary authorities, earnings made in a very public arena.

All this aside, however, the most damaging perception of her is the least articulated, most nebulous. That is that nobody believes that she could be elected over David Cameron. She is just too idiosyncratic, too unpredictable, too undiplomatic. Could she run a government? What has she done that suggests she could? Perhaps if she wins a seat in the elected shadow cabinet, we might have a better idea of how she might run a big department. I’d love to see her mettle tested by shadowing Teresa May at the Home Office, indeed by being Home Secretary herself.

I doubt, however, that she will be eliminated in the first round of voting. Though she scraped onto the ballot paper by virtue of John McDonnell dropping out, I suspect that MPs will now want to show their enlightenment by keeping her in at least longer than Andy Burnham. The former Secretary of State for Health seems destined to be the fall guy. In many ways, it is a pity. Burnham looks to have fought a brave and determined campaign, articulating positions that make the other male runners seem less populist and even more the policy wonks that in reality they are. Like Abbott, Burnham learned at least some of his politics in the school of hard knocks rather than all at the knees of party frontbenchers. His identification with “ordinary people” is perhaps overworked – there are plenty of Labour members with stronger ties to the working movement – and maybe emphasises the unalterable fact that nobody sees him as a prime minister.


Whether Burnham is genuinely a lightweight or just contrives to look like one is maybe too dull a question to pursue. His Bambi-like features certainly tell against him and as he gets older – he’s now 40 – they probably will fail to dwindle into a look that is any more reassuring. In interview, he has an unfortunate habit of hesitating long enough before replying to sow the doubt that he has anything thought-through to say. Ultimately, you picture the moment when the Labour Party next decides to turn in on itself, you picture the house in full cry at PMQ’s, you picture the world stage and you wonder if it’s at all credible to imagine Burnham being PM within it.

Then there’s Ed Balls. He raises another ticklish question or two: does anybody really like Ed Balls? Does anybody really trust Ed Balls? I’m sure he would answer, quick as a flash: “yes – Gordon Brown”. And that, you see, Ed, may be the problem in a nutshell.

I’m sure the nation would get over the embarrassment of having a leader with that name. Ed himself has of course heard every “balls” joke ever invented and has even added one or two of his own. No politician can credibly make a joke of it now. Long, long ago, Michael Heseltine mocked the then shadow chancellor’s latest policy proposal (revealed as a brainwave of his most loyal lieutenant) to a delighted party conference – always Heseltine’s favourite audience – with the line: “Now we know the truth about this policy. It wasn’t Brown’s. It was Balls’.” That deftly killed the necessity ever to josh him for his name again.

Like Burnham, Balls has made some canny adjustments to Labour’s positions on several policies since the election. Any new leader will need to do no less. But why would anyone vote for Ed Balls when they could have Ed or David Miliband? Even Yvette Cooper – Mrs Balls, who many regret didn’t herself run – might be hard pressed to offer the conclusive answer to that question.

Shyster lawyer

So, will it be Miliband major or Miliband minor? David has a great many advantages, not just over Ed but over the whole field. He has served three years as Foreign Secretary. He has been a player on the world stage and patently comfortable in that spotlight. Hillary Clinton is weak-kneed with adoration of him. Such profile and such support is not to be discounted. David Cameron has a lot of catching up to do, still.

Miliband D is also clearly a skilful player at politicking. Offering Diane Abbott his own support if it helped her onto the leadership ballot paper reflected on him in good and bad ways – generous, patronising, self-confident, imaginative, tokenistic, embracing, hubristic, sharp-elbowed – but probably more pluses than minuses.

If Burnham looks like a Disney creature and Ed Balls looks like a shyster lawyer, the Millibands are pretty funny-looking too. Sadly, these things count nowadays. Ed Miliband is a disconcerting cross between Ken Dodd and Bernie Winters. It’s not a look this will wear well, especially if (as seems inevitable) he grows jowly. Brother David bears a disconcerting resemblance to Alfred E Newman, but then so did Tony Blair and it seemed to do him little harm. In any case, everybody takes a bad picture or two and those in politics – once dubbed Hollywood for ugly people – are photographed so regularly (and usually when they are speechifying or argufying) that the portfolios are packed with horrors.

Young Ken Dodd

David M is never going to live down those press pictures of him brandishing a banana and looking a dork but such a millstone is preferable to the still unresolved matter of Britain’s implication in the murky business of extraordinary rendition and the question mark over his own candour on the matter. Along with Andy Burnham, he supported the government’s position on all votes concerning the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and he has maintained his support since, though with the important rider that his support was garnered by the belief that Iraq held “weapons of mass destruction”.

Diane Abbott consistently voted against the Iraq strategy. Neither of the Eds was yet in the house in 2003; both now say they opposed the invasion and would have done so as MPs, a claim that not all can find it in themselves to credit.

Ed M may claim an international profile of his own, particularly after last year’s UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. In his policy statements during the leadership campaign, he has made the most intriguing proposals, shifts and commentaries, perhaps mindful that only by positioning himself in a less guarded place than his brother will he be able to prevail. Indeed, the greatest enemy to David Miliband’s chances of succeeding is probably the perception that he is being too conservative in both policies and tactics.

Looking across the field, however, it’s hard not to feel that Labour has a good prospect of emerging from this too drawn-out leadership selection with combative and broadly attractive leadership. Both Milibands are plainly strong and nimble in intellect. Not for nothing are they the sons of Ralph, the Marxist historian and propagandist of the highest order.

Is there a question over their Jewishness? There shouldn’t be, but any “difference” from the proscribed “norm” can be a liability. A century before David and Ed Miliband were born, Benjamin Disraeli was the first and only Jewish prime minister of Great Britain. The only other Jewish party leader in Britain has been Michael Howard, David Cameron’s immediate predecessor. There have been far more Jewish MPs on the Labour benches than on the Tory – and indeed far more women – but oddly it has been the Tory Party that has proved more enlightened in its choice of leaders.

Alfred E Newman

No Briton has ever entered Downing Street denying the supernatural. Either of the Milibands would do so and, to make matters “worse”, Ed would be accompanied by a partner – the mother of his son – to whom he is not married. Would the Labour establishment see a problem with that? Andy Burnham is a member of the Roman church and no such has ever been British prime minister (Tony Blair did not embrace Rome until after stepping down). Ed Balls is safely Anglican. Diane Abbott is unforthcoming about her beliefs but clearly understands that religion is relatively important in her constituency. But Abbott is also a divorcee, which would be another Downing Street first.

I would suggest that the British public is pretty relaxed on such issues. The party hierarchy may be less sanguine. But that may be just as true about policy. And if it were down to policy alone – which in an ideal world it would be – I think my vote, if I had one, would go to Miliband … Ed.

Saturday, August 21, 2010


Two events this week – the annual ritual of ‘A’ level results and the death of my old professor – have taken my mind back to my own fraught days of trying to get into and then surviving at university. By the by, we never used the horrid term “uni” in those days. We were most apt to say “college”. I recall a pair of elderly and very proper maiden sisters, the Misses Parsons, speaking to me in the street towards the end of my time at school: one asked in her fluting high soprano, “And will you be going up to the varsity?” You see why “uni” offends my ear.

My experience of gaining a university place makes, I like to think, for a diverting yarn, but you, dear reader, are at liberty to stop me at any moment that you should grow bored. Forty-five years ago, what is now called UCAS was known as UCCA but it served pretty much the same function of processing college applications.

My UCCA form, however, fell foul of the zeal of a new headmaster. My parents had sent me as a day pupil to the local fee-charging educational institution, a four hundred year-old establishment of little distinction – what in the biz is known as “a minor public school”. Its best-known graduate, Andrew Loog Oldham (who first discovered and managed the Rolling Stones), once described it as “the kind of school where the parents turned up on Speech Day in Land Rovers”. Those splendid off-road vehicles were not, at the time he made that remark, the fashion accessory that they have subsequently become.

During my middle years at Wellingborough School, the headmaster was a handsome, dynamic man called Humphrey Bashford. He came from a distinguished family – his father, Sir Humphrey, was a highly regarded physician who, to our delight, was quoted by Richard Dimbleby in his commentary to the BBC’s coverage of the state funeral of Winston Churchill. With his stylish wife and pretty children, Bashford’s tenure was held by us pupils to be our own glamorous version of the Kennedys in Washington.

But there was another aspect to Bashford that singled him out. Possibly uniquely among public school heads, he was a Socialist. So when Labour came to power in 1964, he decided that it was time to move on. The new government had as its stated aim the banishment of the independent sector in primary and secondary education. Of course, this was never achieved.

The Bashfords left at the end of the calendar rather than the academic year. At the beginning of the Hilary term – our school favoured the Oxford terminology but to any normal school that would be the Spring term – John Sugden began his tenure. He represented a very different philosophy. At the time, my assessment of him was that he was in all things essentially a Victorian. One of his first acts was to avail himself of the souvenir programme my mate Tony and I had designed for the annual school show, held at the end of every Michaelmas term. The most recent, largely created by Tony and me, had been a raucous celebration of the Bashford years, couched in the satirical mode that was at that time all the rage. Sugden wrinkled his nose and decreed that no such abomination would be perpetrated again.

Not that Sugden had no feel for the live stage. Indeed, he was quite an authority on the work of Gilbert & Sullivan. In his retirement from education, I believe he picked up a lucrative second career lecturing in the States on G & S. You may imagine, then, his delight when he discovered that the best actor among the pupils of his new school rejoiced in the name of WS Gilbert. Moreover, this boy was a tenor in the school choir. It was just too good.

JGS welcomes Her Maj to Wellingborough School: photograph by Tony Coult

I can relive the moment at the end of Trinity term (summer) when JGS summoned me to his study. I knew I was to be house captain and hence a school prefect for my final year. Was it possible, after Sugden and I had sized each other up as an obvious deadly enemy and skirted each other warily for two terms, that he was going to make me head boy? Of course not.

His behaviour was most odd, though. He stood in the middle of his study, kicking first one, than the other leg rather high in front of the remaining leg. He was like a bashful suitor. “Now then, Gilbert”, he said in that pinched nasal drawl that we all mimicked to perfection, “you are going to play Sir Joseph Porter for me next term, aren’t you”. This was the first I had heard of his grand plan to mark his first year as headmaster at this (or, it had transpired, any other) school with a production of HMS Pinafore, directed by himself. I was well aware that this put the kibosh on the school show but I said of course I would be interested to do it. “Though”, I said, ever diligent, “I do have Cambridge scholarship entrance exams next term …” but JGS jumped in to pre-empt my objection. “Oh, there’s no danger that it will clash with those”.

The Michaelmas term was wholly dominated by preparations for this grand production. Those of us who were cast were excused the ordinarily mandatory military training in the so-called Combined Cadet Force (formerly the Officer Training Corps), in which I had by then risen to the rank of sergeant with my own squad. From half term, we were taken off games as well. Rehearsals came thick and fast. Sugden assembled a small semi-professional orchestra at a rumoured cost – an outrageous sum – of £300. The musical director, one Alan Hemmings, was a short-term replacement for the school’s high-flying music master, Derek Clare, who was away on some jaunt that term and who, the following year, went onto the staff at Eton College. Hemmings was a juvenile gadfly, a sort of Danny Kaye character, and never likely to form a good working relationship with the driven and demanding Sugden.

As you will have anticipated, the dress rehearsal and three scheduled performances of Pinafore coincided precisely with my Cambridge exams. Perhaps a less stage-struck teenager than me would have stood up to his headmaster and dropped out of the show but, truth to tell, I was perfectly cast as Sir Joseph Porter, the dilettante “master of the Queen’s nav-ee”, and I was having the time of my life.

At the dress, when I had already spent two mornings sitting exams, Sugden and Hemmings’ simmering enmity boiled over in a furious row and Sugden, summoning all his authority, sacked Hemmings from both his function as music director and his job as music master in front of the entire cast and the hired musicians. I don’t remember now if he took over the baton himself or conscripted a member of the orchestra. I do remember that several of us sat up till after two that night, smoking and drinking wine and chewing it all over. Not very surprisingly, I walked out of my exam the following morning after about fifteen minutes.

Sugden was clearly dismayed that his monomania had had such a far-reaching effect and undertook to write to the Cambridge authorities. Whether he did so and in what terms I have no way of confirming. At any rate, I didn’t win a scholarship to Cambridge. But Pinafore was a huge hit. Mrs Sydney Cook, a revered local actress and stalwart of the cast of The Archers, let it be known that she considered it the best amateur production of a Gilbert & Sullivan she had ever seen. We even cut an album of the numbers and my copy still sits in the ‘shows’ section of my vinyl collection.

Having stayed on at school primarily to try for Cambridge, I now had two terms with not much to do but make sure I got into university somewhere else. I had sat an ‘A’ level in French the previous summer as a dry run, with the undistinguished result of a D. Happily, my results the following year were perfectly adequate to the task. You didn’t need to achieve an A-grade pass in everything like you do now but, along with three other good grades, I did get an A in English, my chosen subject, and applied to both Oxford and Cambridge to read English. Sugden, ever determined to show that he was on top of the game, collected our UCCA forms from us so that he could enter our results as soon as he received them and get our forms in at the earliest opportunity. It was disappointing, then, that I wasn’t even called for interview at most of the colleges on my chosen list of six.

I did get an interview at King’s College, London. It went pretty well and I was feeling good as I got up to go when the interviewer observed: “I think you’re a strong candidate in interview but I don’t think you have much chance with just a D in French”. “No, no”, I protested. “I have an A in English, a B in History and a B in British Constitution”. “Oh really?” said the man. “I can only find a D in French in the list of results … oh wait … ah, I see … your headmaster has put your other results in the body of his personal report. Well, you need to speak to him about that”.

Next morning, I phoned Sugden’s secretary, a charming woman but a fierce gatekeeper, and asked for an appointment with the head. “I can’t fit you in today” she said. “May I ask what it’s about?” “Yes,” I said. “I want to tell him he’s a bloody fool”. Without missing a beat, she said “He can see you at 10.00.”

Sugden was plainly mortified at his mistake but he couldn’t admit it to me. He hummed and hahed and said he would write to all the colleges to which I had applied but my faith in his ability to help me out any further was gone.

At the end of the admissions process, I was one of the many – though nothing like the thousands today – left to the tender mercies of the clearing scheme. I could see myself ending up in what a teacher at another school called the lowest form of academic life: “reading geography at Hull”. As my trust in authority was now at rock bottom, I decided to use my initiative and wrote to many departments in many universities across the country, explaining my circumstances. I finally landed an interview in the Philosophy Department at University College, London. In our VIth form game of collecting and dropping splendidly obscure but exotic references in English essays, my chum Tony and I had turned up the names of many a forgotten philosopher and, though I’d not exactly conned much actual writing in the field, I thought the subject must be at least interesting.

My interview was with the head of the department, Richard Wollheim, who spoke with the exaggeratedly precise English you normally hear in someone European to whom English is not the first language, though in fact Wollheim was English. In any case, it was the substance rather than the accent of his questions that I found baffling. Nevertheless, I was offered a place and took it gratefully.

Richard Wollheim

But I didn’t much enjoy my time at the tiny depart ment on Gordon Square. Many of the students were older – what is termed “mature students” – and when one of them opined that those of us who were still teenagers were too young to read philosophy because we hadn’t hit any brick walls yet, I felt inclined to agree with her. I didn’t make any lasting friendships in the department nor anywhere else at college because, getting my place so close to the start of term, I was too late to secure a room in hall, the preferred residential arrangement for freshers. I was rescued by the grandmother-in-law of one of the younger of my schoolmasters who took me in as a lodger, but stuck out in Tooting I grew somewhat lonely and felt that my best years were being spent as a recluse.

What’s more, I found the course itself very taxing. Wollheim, who took several classes himself, was always talking about “the essential charrrrracter” of things and I began to feel that I didn’t much care. There were some brilliant lecturers: Americans like the charismatic Jerry Cohen, who died just a few months ago, and the intense but laid-back Trotskyite Ted Honderich both stood out for me; we also had as a visiting lecturer the astounding Iris Murdoch, who came dressed like an old washerwoman, and a Dutchman whose name I forget but whose wild gesticulations I remember well – his favourite word was “myth” which he pronounced “muth”.

After the hour that we spent with Wollheim exploring whether the essential charrrracter of a table was the same seen from above as from five yards away, I decided that I had to apply to swap to the department I had wanted to join in the first place: English. This was permitted after a certain amount of investigation but it was too late in the cycle to be effected for the next academic year so I had to take twelve months out, which I spent earning my living teaching prep school boys.

Randolph Quirk

The English Department was large and its staff packed with stars. Among them was a strange and swarthy-looking dandy called Grey Ruthven (said ‘Riven’), who became known by his hereditary title, the Earl of Gowrie, when he later served in Thatcher’s cabinet. There was the statutory big name from the practice of creative writing, Stephen Spender, made up to Professor for the occasion.
His lectures were mind-bogglingly dull which, considering the astonishing adventures of his life, was seriously disabusing. And there were the two professors who jointly headed the department, Frank Kermode and Randolph Quirk, Manxmen both and equally electrifying characters.

Stephen Spender

Quirk and Kermode: they sound like a dubious firm of solicitors out of Dickens. I wrote of Lord Quirk, as he now is, in an earlier posting (see the labels list to the right of the text: scroll down to R for Randolph). Sir Frank, as he became, died on Tuesday in his rooms at Cambridge. He was 90 and writing until the end.

At the opposite extreme to Sir Stephen Spender, Kermode was a bobby-dazzler of a lecturer – elegant, graceful, witty, nimble, modest, comprehensively gifted. Truly, he was the Fred Astaire of academics. I could listen to him for hours, charmed, enlightened, bedazzled. Books poured from him and he became, as the obituaries agreed, this nation’s foremost literary critic.

Though a serious academic, he was not so aloof that he wouldn’t write for the newspapers and periodicals. One piece he published while I was a student, probably for The Listener, was about the pleasure of anagrams; en passant, he mentioned his sadness that he could make nothing coherent of his own name. I dropped him a line, proposing “modern freak” as a particularly apposite rendering of him, given his championship of contemporary literature. He wrote back a charming note of thanks. He was too kind and too classy to point out that I, clumsy oaf, had summoned a ‘k’ too few to make my anagram.

Frank Kermode

I enjoyed my time in the UCL English Department but. thanks to John Sugden’s impatience and certainty that he always knew best, I was half-way through my 20s before I graduated. I have no idea how many other university entrance attempts he screwed up during his time as a headmaster. But, as we know, there ain’t no justice in the world. Humphrey Bashford, Richard Wollheim and Stephen Spender are all dead, now along with Frank Kermode. Despite the curse of Gilbert – a dreaded imposition of premature passing on so many who have thwarted me and my interests over the years – John Sugden, at 97 or 98, as far as I know still lives.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


A hundred days of coalition government. Have you had enough yet?

It occurs to me that we get the worst of all worlds by having the Liberal Democrats shacked up with the Tories and pretending that everything’s entirely civilised and efficient. Had the Lib Dems thrown in their lot with Labour, even with the asking price that Gordon Brown stand down, there would have been considerably more credible agreement between the coalition partners. Indeed, there might have been some actual liberal policies in the government’s programme. Had the Tories formed a minority government, the combination of Labour and Liberal Democrats in opposition would have forced David Cameron to trim to the left in order at least to establish a platform upon which to go to the country in the autumn, by which time Labour would have a new leader and the circumstances would have been very different.

But as it stands, Nick Clegg is obliged to pretend to accept a programme almost the whole of which he and his party opposed up until May 7th. By any objective assessment, the Lib Dems have precious little to show for their decision to join the Conservatives in government, save the diminishing returns of the thrill of actually being in government. Wholly predictably, support for them in the opinion polls has slumped and, when the shine comes off the government as a whole, it will surely dribble away further. Perhaps next month’s party conference will be too soon for the rumbles of disillusion among the rank and file to break into open revolt. The conference in thirteen months’ time might be a different story.

There is discontent among the Tories too, particularly among those who never bought the Cameron philosophy in the first place and who see their leader’s easy camaraderie with Clegg as conclusive evidence that he is no son of Thatcher, rather that he is wet, wet, wet. Once the results of the spending review begin to kick in, the Tories will lose all hope of holding onto the support they won in May from the working classes and other erstwhile but disaffected Labour supporters. And the cuts will have a discernible effect on the Tory grass roots, sufficient perhaps to stimulate protest.

The many and varied self-satisfied smirks of Jeremy Hunt

There is no question that the cuts in services and benefits will affect those least able to bear them disproportionately hard. Cameron has begun to try to drive a wedge between the dependent society and that part of the public that subscribes to the views promulgated by the Daily Mail by declaring war on so-called “benefit cheats”. It’s a soft target lined up to play to the gallery and Cameron knows full well – if he doesn’t, he should do – that he could make far greater savings by waging war on the inefficiencies of the benefit system and far more still by plugging the gaps that allow the higher earners to evade their full taxation duties. He and the Mail may think that saying that everyone knows somebody who’s fiddling their benefits strikes a chord but pretty soon everyone will know somebody who genuinely can’t work but whose benefit has been stopped. Expect a huge increase in the numbers of people living on the streets, many of them suffering from disabilities.

George Osborne’s refrain that “we’re all in this together” will come back to haunt him as the perception spreads that real hardship is settling across millions who were already struggling to make ends meet, while city slickers are still paying themselves multi-million bonuses and managing to avoid paying proper tax on them.

Moreover, as the spending review begins to express itself in thousands of job losses, the government’s priorities will begin to seem to run against the grain of what the electorate believes is needed. Cameron has already committed an additional expenditure of £67million to the unwinnable war in Afghanistan. The grimly reiterated rationale for this – that it protects British people against terrorist attacks at home – will seem to increasing numbers the unproved theory that it is, especially if, as can hardly be ruled out, there is another outrage on British soil. Meanwhile, British troops and, in far greater numbers, innocent Afghani civilians die for no discernible gain. Those of us who always opposed the invasion of Afghanistan have far more recruits to their position than does any other view of the conflict. The conviction is taking root that Cameron is willing to destroy livelihoods at home in order to be able to destroy lives abroad.

Wouldn't it be fun if the Royal Court were owned by the Telegraph?

Come the winter, with prices strongly up, benefits strongly down, unemployment figures skyrocketing, government agencies closing down, unanticipated holes opening in provision, strikes breaking out and Cameron’s “big society” dwindling by the day, the chances of the Con-Dem coalition still commanding public support look pretty slim. And that’s assuming we don’t fall into the widely feared double-dip recession. By the time winter’s depression arrives, the government’s preferred explanation for every imposed hardship – “it’s all Labour’s fault” – will be falling on stony ground.

An unexpectedly key figure in the government’s determination to rebalance the books at whatever cost is the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt. Like all ministers, he has been instructed to find a minimum 25percent cut in the funds his department disburses and to posit how, if required, he would deploy a 40percent cut. Hunt has gone at it with indecent relish. He has already despatched the UK Film Council, to cries of anguish from across the movie industry, even from Clint Eastwood himself. He has told the arts nexus that it ought to reconfigure itself on the American model of private and corporate sponsorship and donation. Unfortunately, there is in Britain neither a tradition nor a community of idle multi-millionaires who imagine that they buy respectability by supporting galleries and theatres and orchestras. Long before such a community and tradition can grow here – even if there is the private wealth to make it feasible – many galleries, theatres and orchestras will have gone.

And what sort of a culture will we foster if, say, Telegraph Media Group buys the Royal Court Theatre in order to make a permanent home for rotating productions of the work of its favourite playwright, Ronald Harwood, knighted by the government at the earliest opportunity in this year’s Birthday Honours list? Or what if the Victoria & Albert Museum is sponsored by and obliged to carry the identity of that faux heritage brand, Crabtree & Evelyn? It’s naïve to imagine that every benefactor has only benevolence in his heart. Look at the visual disfigurement of sport by advertising. Do we really want the London Symphony Orchestra to give concerts in teeshirts bearing the logo of some far-east electronics company? And what will that sponsor tell the orchestra when it wants to commission a new work from, say, Mark-Anthony Turnage or Thomas Adès? Won’t he ask “what’s wrong with that nice piece by Vivaldi? The Four Seasons, is it? That was very popular last month. And the month before”.

How the sponsored V & A might look, with a crab-apple tree in the street outside

The outlook is gloomy, my old friend, right across the landscape. Cameron is credited in some quarters with hitting the ground running, with slipping quickly into his role as premier, with making the coalition work better for his party than anyone could have anticipated. It’s all very reminiscent of the first days of Tony Blair and we know where that led us. But the period before the spending review was always going to be the calm before the storm.

And meanwhile the somewhat unexpected evidence that Cameron knows a lot less than he pretends and speaks without preparation hardly makes for confidence. I’m referring to the examples of what Downing Street is pleased to call his “misspeaking” when, for instance, he essayed that Britain was the junior partner to the US in 1940 – that absolutely outraged anyone over 75 – and that Iran is a nuclear power (though perhaps he knows something that we don’t). His disobliging words about Pakistan shortly before the visit of that nation’s president were hardly taken from the short primer to diplomacy that any in-coming prime minister needs to have read. If Cameron means to persist in shooting from the hip, he’s likely to get gunned down himself.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


“A cheap publicity stunt” Courtenay Griffiths the defence counsel called it and you saw what he meant. He was referring to the prosecution gambit in the war crimes trial of the former president of Liberia, Charles Taylor, a gambit that has brought the trial headline news and top bulletin story status all around the world for the first time in its three years’ duration.

Taylor is charged on eleven counts: terrorism, murder, “violence to life, health and physical or mental well-being”, rape, sexual slavery, “outrages upon personal dignity”, “cruel treatment”, “other inhumane acts”, conscription of children, enslavement and pillage. There’s no suggestion that he committed these acts personally, rather that he caused and enabled them to be carried out. The charges relate to the civil war that ran through the 1990s in Sierra Leone, in which Taylor allegedly funded the Revolutionary United Front, agent for countless atrocities. This was one of the several wars to which Tony Blair committed British troops, on this occasion in Operation Palliser of 2000 and the subsequent, celebrated, SAS hostage rescue operation dubbed Operation Barras. You might think there was plenty of news value in the rehearsal of such an eventful war and the bringing of such a catalogue of war crimes charges.

The prosecution gambit was to sprinkle the proceedings with a little celebrity dust. The fashion model Naomi Campbell was subpoenaed to give her account of a dinner in 1997, hosted by Nelson Mandela, at which she and Taylor were both guests. She told the court in The Hague last week that she had never heard of Taylor or indeed of Liberia before that evening. She claimed that she had been awoken during the subsequent night by two men who presented her with what she deemed “a bag of dirty stones”. These proved to be so-called blood diamonds.

At the notorious dinner: the Imran Khans, Campbell, Taylor, the Mandelas, Quincy Jones with date, Farrow, actor Tony Leung

Blood diamonds, also known as conflict diamonds, were a major source of funding for illegal and illicit activity until the mining industry and a coalition of African governments decisively tackled the issue in 2002. Until this point, trading in blood diamonds was not in itself illegal. What the prosecution in the Taylor trial is seeking to demonstrate is that Taylor dealt in these gemstones as a means of funding the brutal uprising in Sierra Leone, evidence that he empowered the atrocities carried out by the RUF.

Charles Taylor in his presidential days: butter wouldn't melt

Campbell’s recollection has this week been flatly contradicted by two other guests at the Mandela event, the actress Mia Farrow and Campbell’s former agent, Carol White. Their testimony suggests that Campbell flirted with Taylor and knew perfectly well that she was receiving diamonds from him. Given Campbell’s track record for volatile, high-handed and unbridled behaviour, loose sexual morality (she allegedly screwed the boxer Mike Tyson in the back of a chauffeured limo), self-centredness and carelessness with facts, the world is rather inclined to disbelieve her.

But Farrow is arguably hardly less flaky than Campbell. Her New Age enthusiasms and the strident righteousness with which she takes up causes – about which, it’s tempting to suspect, she knows precious little – put her reliability into question. I wonder too how anyone can be quite so categorical about what was said over breakfast thirteen years previously, especially when she probably didn’t care for the person saying them and she was fussing – as Mia certainly would have been – over her children who, it seems, were with her on the trip.

Naomi Campbell in one of her trademark encounters with the press

A different question hangs over White’s testimony because she is in dispute with Campbell concerning money. Defence council Griffiths not surprisingly pressed her on her motivation for testifying. It’s hard not to feel that the trio should be cast away on a small island for a few months and left to sort themselves out. No doubt it would end with the voracious model eating both the others.

Casual observers could be forgiven for imagining that it was Naomi Campbell who was on trial here. Given the contradictory quality of the three pieces of testimony and the lack of credibility any of these witnesses could command, the prosecution may well be wishing that it had never opened this particular box of tricks.

Mia Farrow sports a snappy if debatable slogan

On the other hand, if the whole sorry episode does anything to reduce our culture’s puerile infatuation with celebrity, it will have achieved something. Many individuals have come forward to bear witness during this long trial, people who were bereaved, who were raped, who were brutally beaten, who lost their homes and all their possessions, who had limbs hacked off – a macabre detail that characterises the RUF’s taste for cruelty. They have not been rewarded with media attention. Perhaps now some of them will be.

Celebrity fan Taylor entertains FIFA president Sepp Blatter in 1999 and appropriately bestows upon him the Humane Order of African Redemption

If not, we may be moving towards a time when only celebrities are able to enjoy any of the benefits of the world and its society, when public spectacle will determine who works and who does not, when all but the most dull, workaday activities are pursued by public figures and those voted into celebrity who will enact on our behalf the pleasures of travel, of eating a varied diet, of indulging gourmet sex and of singing and dancing and taking pleasures of all kinds, while we – the “little people” – gawp at them on our VDUs and cell phones and otherwise keep out of sight. Oh happy day.

Thursday, August 05, 2010


Le tout Belfast turned out for Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins on Monday. The snooker player was found dead in his sheltered accommodation, aged 61. It was the biggest funeral in the city since that of five years ago for another self-destroyer, George Best, then two years younger than Higgins.

The Higgins funeral, an understated affair

I use the term “self-destroyer” advisedly. Higgins’ life was continuously chaotic. Frequently “of no fixed abode” – even at the time he first won the snooker title that is absurdly called “the World Championship” in 1972 – he was an alcoholic, a chain-smoker, frequently involved in fights and domestic violence, totally unreliable and self-centred. It’s a litany that makes Best’s “mere” alcoholism seem rather tame, though Best’s addiction undoubtedly killed him.

Higgins partakes

What is it that propels such a nightmare character into the affections of millions? Is it that we timid, “ordinary” people get a vicarious thrill from some “genius” making all the reckless moves that are ruled out for us by our humdrum circumstances, not least our sense of responsibility to those close to us? Certainly, in all the fields that produce so-called “stars”, the unstable, impossible ones attract a particularly fierce loyalty – Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Judy Garland, Lenny Bruce, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Pete Doherty, Amy Winehouse. Maybe that is changing, though. Nobody seems to care much about the dreary and self-pitying Lindsay Lohan, while Mel Gibson has become so nasty in his seeming spiral into personality collapse that nobody extends him any sympathy. And Paul Gascoigne is just a pathetic bore.

Two Belfast bad boys

Back in 1992, a much respected political commentator, Peter Jenkins, died very suddenly. He was only 58. Several of the obituaries I read at the time referred to Jenkins’ liking for “the good life”. This teasing phrase was never explained. Was he a devoted exercise enthusiast who practised various nourishing mystical rituals and lived on a simple, organic diet, giving all his – no doubt substantial – income from journalism to the poor? I rather doubt it. I suspect what “the good life” meant was slap-up meals, fine wines and large cigars. Not a very good life at all, in truth.

Higgins: an example to us all

But self-destructive behaviour is readily mythologised. Two fine writers died recently – Alan Plater and Beryl Bainbridge. Neither was ever without a fag on the go – though Plater was smart at avoiding being photographed smoking – and both died of cancer in their 70s which, these days, you have to count as premature. I am not in a position to say if smoking was responsible for their respective deaths. According to a mutual friend, Plater made a typically wry remark to his doctor: “I bet you’re pissed off that my cancer isn’t smoking-related”. But in his Guardian obituary, Michael Coveney described Plater as “heroically cigarette-smoking”. I simultaneously do and don’t know what that means.

Plater, ciggies out of sight

Objectively, there’s nothing admirable about addictive self-abuse. God knows, we’ve been informed comprehensively enough about the many ways in which smoking can kill us. Of course, secondary smoke does harm too. The entertainer Roy Castle, a life-long non-smoker, died of lung cancer evidently contracted in the smoke-filled clubs where he worked. David Hockney, wholly admirable as a painter, is the most colossal pain in the arse when knocking on about his precious “right” to smoke wherever he likes, never mindful of how that smoking affects others.

Whether or not Alan Plater or Dame Beryl was carried off by their filthy habit, they will have obliged others to ingest their smoke. Alex Higgins was certainly killed by cigarettes and it took a hell of a time. He was diagnosed with throat cancer twelve years ago, having already had mouth cancer twice in the previous four years. His treatment deprived him of all his teeth and, living alone in a caravan, he was unused to looking after himself even in conducive circumstances. It was hardly a noble passing.

Bainbridge and the customary gasper

Death can certainly be romanticised. The most famous painting by Henry Wallis is also one of the most saccharine: The Death of Chatterton. You can bet that his passing looked nothing like that. Nicholas Ray’s movie Knock On Any Door of 1949 grotesquely romanticised juvenile delinquency and put a line into the language: “Live fast, die young and make a good-looking corpse” – it is usually misquoted as “a beautiful corpse”. The myth of the beautiful corpse persists. Five years later, Ray made one of the most mythologizing of all movies, Rebel Without a Cause. The leading young actors in that movie all died young but not beautifully – Natalie Wood drowned, Sal Mineo was murdered and of course James Dean crashed his automobile. Supporting players lived longer. In the last three months both Corey Allen and Dennis Hopper died, the latter one of American cinema’s most self-destructive characters.

The Death of Chatterton

I do not mean to be pious about all this. Disease and illness are lotteries. At any age and in any condition, anyone might contract cancer or indeed any other terminal condition. A much admired dentist in our town collapsed and died while road-running, “doing what he loved doing” in the customary phrase. He was barely 50. His brother and partner in the practice frequently disappears on holiday to pursue his particular passion, mountaineering. Is there a more dangerous hobby? Perhaps only smoking and drinking.

Dennis Hopper in custody

I had a great friend at university, a lovely man called John Furness. He too was a climber. By his early 20s, he had lost several climbing mates on mountain faces, including his best friend: this guy died in a fall while tied to John, who had to make a viciously difficult climb into a crevasse to free himself and retrieve the body. John survived all his climbing scares, only to die of a brain tumour. He was 33. There are no guarantees about our longevity, our survival or our luck.

But I do question the culture that elevates the roaring boy or the car-crash girl. Few of us would last very long in a family or friendship tie with Mickey Rourke or Britney Spears or Charlie Sheen or Joey Barton. Cracking them up as somehow “heroic” suggests that our sense of values is due for a reappraisal.