Thursday, January 27, 2011


Am I an Islamophobe? A phobia, according to the OED, is “a fear, horror, strong dislike, or aversion; esp. an extreme or irrational fear or dread aroused by a particular object or circumstance”. Well, I certainly possess a fear, horror, strong dislike and aversion to the expressions of Islam that are routinely made in Britain and across the world and I probably experience an extreme fear and dread too. But I wouldn’t call it “irrational”. I think it is wholly deductive.

I have made it a rule in life to take people as I find them. Sometimes, I find myself disagreeing with a friend about a third party and being aware that our experiences of this third party have been our own and different. I don’t generally accept at face value someone’s assessment of someone or something else without verifying for myself and, as often as not, finding cause to dispute the offered opinion.

My aversion to Islam is pragmatic, able to be reasoned, a posteriori. It begins with Islamic homophobia. In Iran, Saudi, Somalia, Sudan and other Muslim nations, homosexuality is a capital offence. Mullahs and other influential men cite The Qur’an as justification. On the other hand, some Islamic cultures are more tolerant. The somewhat notorious practise of bache bazi – men fucking boys – is widespread in Afghanistan but will doubtless be suppressed when the Taliban return to power (or perhaps not; there are contradictions even in extremism).

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says hi to his friend; who knew?

Of course, opposition to being gay, more or less fiercely expressed, is common to all religions. The present pope believes that homosexuality is the greatest threat to the world today. He recites this belief while sitting in a dress on a throne surrounded by other old men in dresses and “protected” by a cadre of Swiss guards, also in dresses, among whom homosexuality is pretty much de rigueur. But as I say, extremism is no guarantee against contradiction.

As a consequence of homophobia routinely expressed by leaders and “teachers” of religion, I have a phobia of them all, a religiophobia. It starts with their hatred of me. But all religions embrace the irrational and I am a rationalist so I soon find myself rejecting all that religions stand for. For that reason, I prefer to use the term “supernatural superstition” rather than “religion”.

Baroness Warsi makes a characteristically subtle point

Sayeeda Warsi is the first Muslim woman to serve in a British cabinet. She is Minister Without Portfolio, a nonce term coined two hundred years ago to justify co-opting some pal of the Prime Minister who has no particular knowledge or skills. Not for the first time, MWP has been used as a device to bring a party appointee into cabinet. Lady Warsi is co-chair of the Conservative Party. I bet you don’t know the name of her fellow co-chair *.

The other day, Warsi made a speech at the University of Leicester on the subject of “casual Islamophobia”. She reckoned that this phobia has “crossed the threshold of middle-class respectability”, that “Islamophobia has now passed the dinner-table test”. I dare say that the “dinner-table test” is pretty easily surmounted. The kind of disobliging talk that has evidently cleared out a few dinosaurs from Sky Sports this week (and filled the pages of The Guardian to the extent that I thought it must be the result of a WikiLeaks revelation) is doubtless common enough at dinner tables throughout the land, once the ladies have withdrawn, the cigars are lit and the port is circulating. Islamophobia, homophobia, LibDemophobia, Milibandophobia and Beebophobia are probably just as generally aired in this unguarded, unbridled atmosphere.

Islamists enjoy free speech in London

My own lifestyle has little use for dinner-tables these days, but I often recall an Easter Sunday teatime passed around a large parlour table in north London some years ago. It was a very jolly and lively gathering, probably with a majority of women (I didn’t reckon it up), dominated by journalists and with extensive representation of Jews, non-whites and gays. What certainly united us all was that we knew ourselves to be articulate, informed and enlightened.

Quite suddenly and without warning, the general conversation took a markedly racist turn. I immediately recoiled from this, looked around the room and was astonished at the individuals who, one after another, ratcheted up this now nakedly racist chatter. Punily, I tried to raise an objection but I was quickly shouted down and slumped into appalled impotence. The rampant, excited expressions of group racism went on for some time and then segued into some other topic.

The all-knowing greybeards of Tehran; no prejudice at their dinner-tables

Does this surprise you? Perhaps not when I reveal the object of this racism. It was the Welsh. The hatred of the Welsh that has been indulged by the English for decades, even centuries, is a good deal harder to fathom than the even fiercer hatred for the English felt by the Scots, but it is palpable and there seems little prospect that it will decline soon. I find it very hard to understand. I have no Welsh connections, save that the mother of my oldest friend was Welsh and so he is half-Welsh. This fact does not impinge on our friendship or indeed make its presence felt very often. Equally, I have no unpleasantness, actual or imagined, upon which to found hatred or even disdain. But the Easter outburst was clearly a case of casual racism, indulged by people who, without exception, ought to have known better.

The Welsh are not suicide bombers. There was a period a few decades ago when Welsh nationalists set fire to the odd English holiday home in the principality. That was about the extent of Welsh anger at English exploitation.

London suicide bomber Shehzad Tanweer, making his witlessly brutal self-justifying video

Radical Islamists, however, are indeed suicide bombers, easily making up the majority of such kamikazes this century. They are going in for what they term istishhad, which is to say “martyrdom”. The point of this martyrdom is simultaneously to kill others at random. It is the cruellest, most brutal act of war imaginable, largely because it is utterly impossible to combat. Once the perpetrator is determined to “sacrifice” his – or, increasingly often, her – life, he becomes much more difficult to pre-empt.

The passage of the Qur’an most often used to rationalise this philosophy is this passage from the book called, in English, Repentance: “Allah has bought from the believers their selves and their possessions against the gift of Paradise; they fight in the way of Allah; they kill and are killed; that is a promise binding upon Allah in the Torah and the Gospel and the Qur’an” [from Arthur J Arberry’s translation for OUP, though I have changed his own term ‘God’ to ‘Allah’]. It is, of course, no accident that this verse is number 9:111.

In actuality, there is no Paradise and no existence after corporeal death. Islamists, like others who cleave to supernatural delusions, are determined that the utterly unverifiable notion of life after death is not only a fact but a sacred fact; Islamists further consider that those who refute eternal life or even question it are infidels who deserve to die. You might spot the odd paradox here but, as I say, extremism is no bulwark against contradiction.

Anjem Choudery, 7/7 apologist and Sharia advocate

The notion that life is readily disposable is one of the scariest aspect of Islam. Do you notice how close are the words ‘sacred’ and ‘scared’ – can it be a coincidence? Islamists happily kill their daughters if they disobey their fathers -– "honour killing" they call it, as if somehow there is some notion of morality involved in it – and they kill neighbours who have been accused – the accusation, however baseless and malicious, is sufficient – of blasphemy, adultery, sodomy and other relatively harmless and certainly not murderous activities. BBC News showed heavily edited footage on Wednesday evening of the summary justice meted out in a Taliban-controlled village in Afghanistan when a couple in their early 20s, accused of adultery, were tricked into returning to their village where they were trussed up and stoned to death. A Taliban spokesman told the BBC reporter: “There are people who say that stoning is inhuman but in doing so they insult the prophet”. Not much room for rational discussion there, I suggest.

There are Muslims in Britain – Anjem Choudery is one such – who wish to introduce Sharia Law into our system of justice. Such a nice idea, don’t you feel? We all look forward to the day when the high court rules that both the Poet Laureate and the Master of the Queen’s Musick are to be publicly beheaded for being gay and that the likes of Mrs Edwina Currie and Sir John Major are to be stoned to death for adultery.

Doku Umarov, leading advocate of terrorist attacks on Russia by Chechen Muslims

Other British Muslims, while not supporting the July 7th bomb attacks in London as Choudery does, do go in for special pleading about the imagined depth of Islamophobia. Ibrahim Mogra of the Muslim Council of Britain draws a parallel with “how the Jew was persecuted as a misfit … by the Nazis”. You don’t have to be Jewish to find that a wholly outrageous suggestion.

Britain is not a Muslim nation. It is fundamentally haram which means un-Islamic. It is, by and large and despite the existence of the BNP, a nation that tolerates all manner of in-comers. There are nearly two and a half million Muslims here and they may go about their business pretty much as they please, worshipping in mosques, observing their own dietary requirements, wearing the dress they choose, establishing their own schools and generally being thoroughly Islamic. I do not believe that the infidel – whether Christian, Hindu, Jew or rationalist – enjoys anything like such peace, freedom and security in any nation governed by Islam.

The surviving Muslim terrorist who struck at Mumbai in 2008

So, what are the arguments that should render me an Islamophile?

* You can’t name the other Tory co-chairman? I didn’t think so. His name is Andrew Feldman and he is a pal of David Cameron’s from Brasenose. Jobs for the boys, eh?

Friday, January 21, 2011


I’m truly sad that Alan Johnson felt the need to leave front-line politics. This was done, as some outlets are beginning to explore in lip-smacking detail, in order for him to try to save his marriage. I hope that, if and when he sorts that out, he can return. Johnson is too likeable and reliable a man to be spared.

At least his departure was unforeseen, is not the result of a clamour, does not damage Labour or its leader and has been smoothly and swiftly covered. Compare and contrast today’s resignation, after months of resistance, by David Cameron’s media advisor Andy Coulson, increasingly mired in the phone-tapping scandal at his former home, the Murdoch press.

Alan Johnson: leaving the shadow cabinet to pursue a career in rock

But it’s as odd that Ed Miliband has replaced Alan Johnson with Ed Balls as it was that Miliband overlooked Balls’ claim to be shadow Chancellor in the first place. If Miliband thought Balls’ economic arguments were at odds with his own when he constructed his first shadow team, what can have changed in the four short months since? What’s more, moving Balls from shadowing the Home Office, means that Miliband felt it necessary to reshuffle all his candidates for the “three great offices of state”, so Yvette Cooper (Mrs Balls) moves over from shadowing the Foreign Office and Douglas Alexander steps into her shoes from Work and Pensions. Alexander has been a great success since the general election. It would have been simpler to move him into Johnson’s role.

It is argued that Cooper was wasted and/or sidelined as shadow Foreign Secretary. I have certainly argued on these pages before that of all shadow posts, that one is the least powerful. I would not have put Cooper there in the first place. Now Alexander’s articulate, street-smart style will be less available for arguing the domestic issues that will preoccupy this parliament.

Ed and Yvette Balls shadowing economy and home

Commentators like to pretend that Ed Balls is Gordon Brown to Ed Miliband’s Tony Blair and that enmity will take root between the leader and the economics spokesman. Such parallels as may be found do not take us very far. Both Miliband and Balls were protégées of Brown but both have put distance between themselves and Brown’s policies, though on different issues and in different ways. Moreover, it seems highly unlikely that there could be any kind of a Granita pact for Balls to invoke when he thinks Miliband has been leader long enough.

What will change most is the dynamic of relations between government and opposition. Theresa May’s brief will give Cooper something immediate and palpable to get her teeth into. Douglas Alexander will be a good foil for William Hague. And where Cameron and George Osborne could scoff, not always without malice, at Alan Johnson’s feel for the economy (or rather lack of it), they won’t dare do that with Ed Balls. Indeed, I imagine Osborne will be waking up in a muck sweat at least every morning between now and the end of the debate on his next budget.

Miliband and Alexander apparently declining to give up their seats on the tube to Westminster

The trick – and it will be a trick for both Balls and Miliband – will be for the Labour team not to let any disparity between the two men’s economic instincts be detected by the government because Cameron will miss no opportunity to try to suggest that the opposition is divided. That Miliband initially shrank from letting Balls loose on Osborne will need to be parlayed into yesterday’s news rather more decisively than Labour has so far managed to shrug off the daily claim that all of the coalition’s unpopular policies are the fault of Labour’s irresponsibility.


This week’s ruling in the Bristol County Court by Judge Rutherford in favour of a gay couple who sued the owners of a Cornish hotel for excluding them as guests was a rare and enormously welcome landmark. Peter and Hazelmary Bull describe themselves as “devout Christians” and claim that their exclusion policy relates to marital status only and not to sexual orientation. Martyn Hall and Steven Preddy contended that as civil partners they were entitled to be allowed to share a room. The judge agreed.

Preddy and Hall: not married enough for acceptance

A spokesman for the Equality and Human Rights Commission said that “when Mr and Mrs Bull chose to open their home as a hotel, their private home became a commercial enterprise. The decision [of the court] means that community standards, not private ones, must be upheld”.

Being in thrall to supernatural superstition does not render bigotry any more acceptable or respectable than does the indulging of racial hatred. To deny accommodation to paying guests on the grounds that they have not celebrated a Christian marriage is as morally bankrupt as to deny them for being black or Jewish. The Bulls were justly found guilty of discrimination in this case.

On December 14th, The Guardian quoted Mrs Bull thus: “we accept that the Bible is the holy living word of God and we endeavour to follow that”. The Book of Exodus decrees that “whosoever doeth any work on the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death” [31:15, not my italics]. That is quite a severe sanction, you might think, and not to be lightly ignored. I have studied the hotel's website in vain for any evidence that it is closed on a Sunday. How are rational people to guess which particular cherries the devout will be picking from their holy scriptures?

The Bulls: no room at the inn

It’s just as well that William Hague has not had occasion to travel into Cornwall lately.


I am reading for the first time Trollope’s masterly novel of 1864, The Small House at Allington, in the Penguin Classics edition. Bethinking myself (as Trollope might put it) that, 550 pages in and with some one hundred to go, it was safe to do so, I happened to glance at the blurb on the back of the edition and damn if the upshot of the main story wasn’t there revealed. Why do publishers do this? One certainly doesn’t read a great book solely for the working out of the plot but, at least on first acquaintance, this aspect is apt to give much pleasure. I could not go so far as to say that the completion of my reading has been spoiled for me, but I much regret being denied the satisfaction of discovery at the author’s chosen pace.

Friday, January 14, 2011


I offer a few thoughts on the Oldham East & Saddleworth by-election, which Labour held with 14,718 votes (42.1%) against the Lib Dems with 11,160 (31.9%) and the Tories on 4,481 (12.8%). Phil Woolas’ narrow win at the general election – by 103 votes – was nullified by the court to which defeated Liberal Democrat Elwyn Watkins appealed, alleging that a Labour leaflet libelled him. Many were surprised at the court’s finding but an appeal by Woolas was denied so he faced the inevitable and stepped down.

The by-election was therefore precipitated by the Lib Dems to whom it fell to move the writ, They cannot complain if the actual timing of the vote – in the week that VAT went up – did them no favour. Elwyn Watkins, who told everyone prepared to listen that he funded his action against Woolas himself, has nothing to show for it.

Elwyn Watkins, no more an MP than is Phil Woolas

Labour have enjoyed their win but resisted the temptation to big it up. Andy Burnham’s cautiousness – “it would be wrong to read too much into it” – has been echoed generally. This is wise. Like Barack Obama, Ed Miliband has elected to play a long game and to ride out squalls and party impatience along the way. That The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail have both steadily ratcheted up their criticism of Miliband until it has fallen little short of vitriol demonstrates that their proprietors take him seriously and fear that he will indeed be Prime Minister in, at worst, four and a half years.

Miliband’s cool evidently comes naturally to him. Douglas Alexander (who ran the leadership campaign of Miliband’s brother David) has said that equanimity is Ed’s great quality, that after a (for Labour) triumphant Prime Minister’s Questions Ed is the least excited person in the room and after a rough ride at PMQs Ed is the least disheartened. It seems to me that this is a great strength.

Debbie Abrahams, Labour's new Oldham MP – or is it Lily Tomlin?

As always with by-elections, the losing parties are putting out as constructive an account of it as they can. Lib Dems loudly point out that their vote was actually higher than at the general election (by less than one per cent) on a rather smaller turnout and that predictions of meltdown (evidence for such predictions being thin on the ground) were wide of the mark. It’s clearly the case that Watkins was boosted by tactical voting among regular Tory voters. But it’s also evident that hitherto soft voters for both the Tories and the Lib Dems moved right over to Labour, which had a higher vote than at the 1997 general election (within a slightly different constituency boundary).

It has been widely alleged that the Conservative campaign was deliberately low-key in order to help the Lib Dem. Tory spokespeople uniformly refute this. That must mean, then, that the combative and ambitious campaign that they say they conducted was an arrant failure. They can hardly have it both ways. Tories rationalise it by pointing out that they were “always” third in this seat and that by-elections characteristically squeeze third parties. If so, they would be better to argue that they soft-pedalled the election because they expected to be squeezed, thereby more credibly acknowledging what so many asseverate, that for all the cabinet member visits to the constituency (not least that of David Cameron) they were not exactly fighting to win.

Miliband: something to chortle about

Both sides of the coalition also blame the result on the policies that they are obliged to pursue because, as they aver every day, Labour left the country’s finances in such a mess. The argument that it is all Labour’s fault has evidently had some traction and Labour have not countered it as angrily and persuasively as they might. But if the electorate were persuaded that the government is indeed following the best policies for dealing with the national deficit, they would not be voting against the coalition. If the government’s theory that the populace must bear some “pain” for the economy to be brought round were accepted by the populace, the coalition would not be lagging in the opinion polls. In reality, Miliband’s pressure on the issue of city bonuses is touching a nerve in the electorate, who begin to remember phrases like “the Tories’ friends in the city” and see no evidence that George Osborne’s mantra that “we are all in this together” bears any resemblance to actual government policies which, they perceive, hit the most vulnerable and the least Tory-supporting the hardest. My prediction is that Labour will keep their opinion poll lead for a very long time, perhaps through the next general election.

By the by, the next by-election will be at Barnsley Central where Eric Illsley has stepped down after admitting illegality in his expenses claims. Labour will certainly retain the seat but it will be fascinating to see how the Tories and the Lib Dems play that contest. At the general election, the Lib Dems came second, the Tories third. The margin between them was just six votes ...

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


In my previous posting, I noted that Republicans and Tea Partiers were reacting to the Tucson shooting by accusing anyone who questions the resurgent right’s virulent rhetoric of (to use the British term) “playing politics”. I shouldn’t want to understate the case. Here’s Tea Party spokesperson Mark Meckler in a telephone interview with The Daily Beast website: “To see the left exploit this for political advantage – some people have no conscience. It’s genuinely revolting ... I think it sinks to the level of evil. If these scumbags want to play it politically, let it be on their conscience ... Honestly, I guess I had more faith in humanity than to believe they’d politicise a tragedy of this magnitude. They’ve been trying for two years to use any smear they can to damage the movement taking place on the right”.

Well, it’s no smear to record truthfully that a common, powerful and persistent element of Tea Party protests has been a naked aggression in the sentiments both spoken by representatives of the movement and seen expressed on placards and posters. Republicans in general and Tea Party people in particular have indeed politicised and polarised the public discourse. To pretend either that such people do not have to take responsibility for their stances or that the Tucson shooting had no political resonance is as mendacious as it is witless.

Tea Party placards ... of the threatening kind ...

Rightwingers, vociferously led by Sarah Palin, have been using the language and imagery of gunning and killing off and destroying and taking out so regularly that they forget they are doing it. And it infects the whole body politic. In the same issue of The Sunday Times in London that initially reported the attack on Gabrielle Giffords, a story about the new Republicans on Capitol Hill was headlined “Sheriff of DC has Obama in his sights”. I think newspaper subs – as well as political activists – should be more thoughtful when resorting to such imagery.

In shrugging off the notion that their rhetoric played any part in the shooting, reactionaries are advancing the “lone wacko” theory that tidies the problem away from anybody but the killer being tainted by blame. But that raises another awkward question for the right – and not only the right – in the States. If a guy is a wacko, how come he is permitted to carry a lethal weapon? The answer of course is that gun control is deemed political anathema right across the political spectrum in the US, where “the right to bear arms” is deeply embedded in every American’s image of himself.

... of the racist kind ...

Twenty years ago, there was a huge sign on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles recording the rate of fatalities by shooting in the US as against the rate in Britain, Israel and other countries. The sign probably had a good shock value but clearly not a lasting one. I wonder if it still stands. On the same trip, walking through the residential canyons, I was appalled at the prevalence of neat little signs on the front lawns of most homes. The signs all read “Armed Response”.

The ubiquity of guns and the febrile nature of political discourse presently dominating America is a dangerous admixture. The important point for all sides to remember is that everyone is at risk, not only the brave liberals and progressives prepared to speak out against the rhetoric of hate. There will be individuals right now who want vengeance for the maiming of Gabrielle Giffords and others and the slaying of six innocent bystanders. They will be looking for someone to punish and Sarah Palin must know that she is now quite as much a target as the President himself. As her side has made crystal clear, it only takes one lone wacko.

... and of the illiterate kind (read your own sign, lady)

Sunday, January 09, 2011


It tells you everything you need to know about Sarah Palin when you learn that it was only after the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and others in Tucson, Arizona on Saturday that one of Palin’s websites took down its graphic wherein the states of a number of progressive American politicians (including Giffords) were portrayed in the crosshairs of the sights of a rifle. Any mention of this by Democrats (and others justifiably outraged) is being urgently dismissed by Republicans and Tea Partiers as “political point-scoring”. Well, there’s nothing dishonourable about making a political point. It’s certainly not worse than implying that your opponents would benefit from being shot in the head.

Gabrielle Giffords being sworn in last week by the new House Speaker, John Boehner

Assassination is a political weapon much more characteristic of reactionary than of progressive forces and therefore its victims are more apt to be progressives. Whether Lincoln or Kennedy, Gandhi or Mboya, Sadat or Rabin, Popieluszko or Palme, the politicians and activists thus removed have tended to be striving to make the world a better place for all of their fellow citizens. These are not the kind of people that the world can easily spare.

Only last week, the Pakistani politician Salmaan Taseer was murdered by one of those hired to protect him. Taseer made himself a target by speaking out against the sentencing to death of a woman under the country’s absurd laws against blasphemy. In the upside-down world of Islam, anyone can be summarily executed if some malcontent alleges that they have made a remark that may be construed as disobliging to the Qur'an, the prophet or the arbitrary tenets of Sharia law. Proof is not required. Yet the so-called guard who killed Taseer is hailed on all sides as a hero.

The website targeting Tea Party enemies

So according to fundamentalist Islam, expressing your opinion or being accused of expressing an opinion that some malevolent mullah considers incorrect deserves death, as does disobeying your husband (however brutish or deranged he may be), declining to marry the dickhead that your parents have picked out for you, being homosexual, having sex outside marriage or not covering yourself from head to foot when you can be seen by others (if you are a woman). But ending the life of someone else on the basis of some unproved claim raises you to heroic status.

Palin gunning for liberals

Do not imagine, however, that this account of Islam is essentially different from the value system of fundamentalist Christians in the south and west of the United States. There will be plenty of people who applaud the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, even if they carefully deplore the “collateral damage” fatally inflicted on six others including a girl of nine who was born, with astonishing resonance, on the very day that the Twin Towers fell. We live in an age when pure hatred is the motivating force behind how millions view the world and their fellows within it. I happened to pass through Fox News during its coverage of the Democratic Party convention that chose Senator John Kerry to run against the incumbent George W Bush in 2004. Interviewing some Republican commentator, the Fox anchor observed: “I’m hearing a lot of hatred at this convention”. This was so a) not true and b) nakedly partisan as to be laughable if it were not so malicious. Well, the followers of Fox are sure doing all the hating now.

Salmaan Taseer

The weekly arts column in The Guardian’s G2 supplement has a regular on-line poll inviting readers to choose between two simple positions on a topic of arts interest. The only time I ever troubled to register a vote was when we were charged to arbitrate as to whether it might be acceptable to top-slice the BBC licence fee in order to hive off funds for Channel 4. I am glad to report that an overwhelming majority deplored this proposition.

The current vote poses the question “Was Pete Postlethwaite the best actor of his generation?” I find this an appalling notion to survey. It would never have been asked in the present tense and only arises now because of the actor’s death at 64. Postlethwaite’s family must have ruefully regretted that the man was not alive to see the quite remarkable outpouring of admiration and affection that his death engendered. Did he always get such notices? I doubt it.

Of course, if you want a warm send-off, it always helps to die in harness. On hearing of the sudden passing of Truman Capote, Gore Vidal famously quipped: “good career move”. And your legend is apt to be sealed by leaving plenty of work undone. I do not for a moment demur at the extent of the tributes to Postlethwaite, a doughty player, brave and strong and always true to his material. But the best actor of his generation?

The young Pete Postlethwaite (billed as Peter in those days)

Judgments about performance, be it acting or singing or playing an instrument or indeed writing plays or music or novels, are a curious mix of the subjective and the objective. Objectively, of course, there is a chasm between the practised pro and the stumbling amateur and hence there are degrees of rational assessment along that continuum. The notion of a critical consensus around a work or a performance or a career is not without merit. It seems to me to be perfectly acceptable to argue that Keats is a “better” poet than the anonymous providers of doggerel in greetings cards and death announcements in local newspapers; that Jane Austen is a more significant novelist than Barbara Cartland; that Johnny Depp is a more accomplished and prodigious actor than Graham Seed, who has just been killed off in The Archers.

But whimsical taste and the accidents of what you might have seen come into it too. Many of those who vote on Postlethwaite will not have seen his television roles in The Paradise Run, The Muscle Market, Doris and Doreen and Afternoon Off as I have done (did you know he had so much Alan Bennett in his cv?); nor his stage performances in such plays as Magnificence (38 years ago!), Breezeblock Park, Having a Ball, Cromwell, The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, Flying Blind and a great deal of Shakespeare at the RSC. I honour, as who doesn’t, the work he did in later life as a leading player and I am pleased to report that even after all the years of watching him he could still surprise me, especially in Brassed Off and In the Name of the Father.

But the best actor of his generation? If it were refined to “the best screen actor” or “the best stage actor” or “the best British actor”, some of the curse might have been taken off it. And, given The Guardian’s house style commitment to eschewing the term “actress”, perhaps “the best male actor” might also have clarified the matter.

And then how big is a generation? Consider just some of those born the same year as Postlethwaite: Alan Rickman, David Calder, Brian Cox, Tim Curry, Stephen Rea, David Suchet, Tony Robinson, Nicholas Jones, Timothy Dalton, Struan Rodger, Stuart Wilson, Peter Egan, Tim Pigott-Smith, Alun Armstrong, Barrie Rutter, Mike Grady, Richard Heffer, Duncan Preston, Gavin Richards, Roger Sloman, Clive Francis, Roy Holder … not a bad list. The following year brought Jonathan Pryce, Frank Grimes, Miles Anderson, Patrick Barlow, Warren Clarke, Richard Griffiths, Dermot Crowley, George Costigan, David Yelland, Nicholas Le Prevost … you see the competition is fierce. The roll call born in 1948 includes Tom Wilkinson, Niall Buggy, David Hayman, Karl Johnson, Philip Jackson, Jim Carter, Joseph Marcell and Ron Cook.

This is still just the British men. If we look to the women and to other nations, the list starts to burgeon: Cher joins us, as do Liza Minnelli and Mary Beth Hurt and Tyne Daly, Tommy Lee Jones and Bruce Davison, Danny Glover and Ben Vereen, Eugene Levy and Hector Babenco and Joe Spano, Diana Quick and Brenda Blethyn and Alison Steadman, Judy Loe and Stephanie Beacham, Glenn Close, Joe Mantegna, Richard Jenkins. Kevin Kline, John Ratzenberger, Colin Stinton, Sinéad Cusack and Frances Tomelty, Lindsay Crouse, Mercedes Ruehl, Billy Crystal and Samuel L Jackson, Jean Reno and Gérard Depardieu. Oh, and Meryl Streep. If we spread back to 1943 to define this generation, who can deny Robert De Niro? If on to 1950, what about Daniel Auteuil?

Go back seventy years and there’s no difficulty reducing the “best actor of his generation” list to just two, certainly from a London and Stratford perspective, probably in New York’s assessment too. It was either Laurence Oliver or John Gielgud, the one a force of nature, a man who took the stage by storm and presence, the other the greatest speaker of classical language of this or any age, the vessel for the music of the spheres. Around them played a golden generation of actresses and actors but, though they both fell into and out of fashion over their long careers, Gielgud and Olivier were clearly the top dogs.

Harriet Walter, dame to be

What’s striking about the players in my lists above – at least the British ones – is the absence of knights and dames. Olivier was knighted at 40, Gielgud at 49, both were raised to the Order of Merit and Olivier gazetted in the House of Lords. Ralph Richardson was knighted at 45, Michael Redgrave at 51, Alec Guinness and Donald Wolfit at 55, Basil Rathbone at 57, John Clements at 58. Peggy Ashcroft and Sybil Thorndike were made dames at 49, Edith Evans and Flora Robson at 58. Postlethwaite’s generation – in their early 60s – have so far achieved only one knighthood, that of Antony Sher (born three years after Postlethwaite) and two damehoods, for Helen Mirren and, bestowed in this year’s New Year honours list, for Harriet Walter (born four years after Postlethwaite). Walter’s gong is certainly deserved although perhaps surprising. Though six years younger than Walter, Juliet Stevenson might have been expected to precede her in the honours. Postlethwaite’s contemporary Penelope Wilton – my choice for the best actor of this generation – should also be in the running.

But really what does it matter? Why reduce everything to “best of” lists? Just glory in the career that Postlethwaite enjoyed and the work that he got to do. Hug yourself if, like me, you were able to catch a lot of his stage performances. I’m smug that I’m so old that I got to see so much stage work by all the players mentioned in this posting, including even Wolfit and Thorndike. As Chairman Mao said so wisely (though he hardly lived by it): “let a hundred flowers blossom”.

But if you do wish to vote in The Guardian’s poll, you may do so at this address: