Thursday, May 31, 2012


From the audience at BBC1’s Question Time the other week, a man in a Max Miller jacket delivered himself of the opinion that “I look at people talking sometimes and I know that they’re lying, right? You can see that they’re lying. And talk about pulling the wool over your eyes, they try to do it. I’m glad I came here today to say that, because when I watch it on telly it’s like a film, d’you know what I mean? It’s not real. But I’m just saying – people want to be more truthful. If not, bring out lie detectors, d’you know what I mean?”

This barely coherent sentiment elicited a low rumble of approval in the hall, but none of the parliamentarians on the panel – Sir Menzies Campbell, Iain Duncan Smith and Harriet Harman – rose to the challenge, though they must have assumed, as I did, that this was the self-consciously sober version of the pub sentiment: “these politicians, they’re all fackin’ liars, d’you know what I mean?”

No doubt in his own dealings, Max Miller Man is veracity personified. But his aperçu is one that many evidently recognise; or rather, one that many lazily embrace, because politicians are easy targets and scoring points off aunt sallies is a national sport. Ever since the 1950s, when television put public figures into our homes on a regular basis, the deference shown by previous generations to the elites – of class, power, wealth, achievement, fame, intellect – has melted away. Now, anyone who tiptoes into, strides into or is thrust into the limelight is riding for a fall from the off.

It’s flying in the face of fashion, conventional wisdom and even perhaps common sense, but I want to suggest that politicians as a class are poorly served by the commentariat and the court of public opinion. Of course I disagree politically with practically all of them, there being very few parliamentarians, now or in history, holding, voicing and maintaining genuinely radical and progressive views. If a chap sees the world in a way diametrically opposed to how I see it, then naturally it follows that he is a cad, a shyster or a fool. But MPs as a breed are not significantly less honourable, scrupulous or altruistic than, say, postal workers, composers, solicitors, cricketers, interior decorators, farmers, travel agents, firefighters or bookies; and rather more so, I venture, than journalists and press barons.

Inextricably mingled with that falling away of deference has been the ever-increasing scrutiny inflicted by the media on the minutiae of day-to-day – even minute-to-minute – politics. Tony Blair’s nose hair, Gordon Brown’s fingernails, David Cameron’s incipient bald patch, nothing is too insignificant or too personal to escape the discourtesy of commentators. There is an unarticulated consensus that every politician has the hide of a perissodactyl and hence cannot be embarrassed, crushed or wounded, however presumptuous or disobliging the assault.

Of course, compared with actually being a politician, the likes of Quentin Letts, Andrew Rawnsley, Richard Littlejohn, Will Self and Simon Hoggart have a laughably undemanding function, tossing off a few hundred words of scorn and prejudice every few days. Any jerk can stand on the sidelines and jeer, as we see every week on Have I Got News for You?. Stanley Baldwin’s famous rejoinder, supplied by his cousin Rudyard Kipling, ought to have killed off for ever the readiness of newspapers to carry political comment: “What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power, and power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot through the ages”. Eighty-one years later, the paper tarts are still there.

Consider the chasm between the accountability of political diarists and columnists and that of MPs. If Melanie Phillips’ latest passionately held conviction is totally at odds with what she wrote ten years ago, who cares? But politicians are expected to square the circle about every issue every day and woe betide any minister rash enough to suggest that he might have modulated his thinking, or that differing contexts might require nuanced responses. The coalition is on a hiding to nothing just at present because there has been some tinkering with policy detail. Their party opponents, naturally enough, cry “U-turn” but so does everyone else. Yet if ministers didn’t trim out tax and other adjustments that look more hindrance than help, the chasing press pack would howl that they don’t listen. So they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Of course, the real answer is to get policies right in the first place. But there are no medals for being wise after the event.

Consider another impossibility we have been tutored to demand of our politicians. This is that each of them echo, word for word, everything that everybody else in their own party ever says about anything. As soon as any individual falls short of this ridiculous litmus test, the commentariat whoop and holler like children on a sugar rush.

Oddly enough, here in the real world, intelligent people find that they may make congenial alliances even with other intelligent people with whom they discover profound and wide differences. This is not permitted in British politics: every member of a political party is expected to parrot every party line. In a more sophisticated democracy – Greece, say, or Israel – it is a given that if there are twenty people in a room, even though they all be members of the same political alliance, there will be twenty separate views about pretty much everything more significant than the weather. We might learn something from that.

Because British politicians are under continuous pressure to subscribe to orthodoxy, the concept of “collective responsibility” is highly significant for cabinets and shadow cabinets alike. The effect of this constraint is that front-benchers – and, by association, loyal party supporters – are obliged to subscribe vociferously and regularly to policies and (more uncomfortably) statements to which they may be, at best, indifferent. This frequently requires the deployment of a talent that is rarely mastered, that of persuasive circumlocution. This talent is also called upon when some aggressive interviewer demands a yes/no answer to a question that lends itself to no such bald simple-mindedness. Politics, m’lud, is a subtle business, and monosyllabic, unstructured answers are usually no answer at all. Columnists and opinion-makers are never called upon to jump through this kind of hoop. It would be instructive to see them required to do so.

I suggest that we are setting the bar impossibly high for our politicians, individuals who, with few exceptions, have chosen to submit themselves to a role that offers relatively modest and certainly unpredictable personal rewards. It is always possible that day-to-day political manoeuvrings at Westminster are quite as corrupt as in Chicago or Kiev or Palermo, though I beg to doubt it.

It is in the nature of becoming a legislator that you are going to find yourself encountering, socially or in the way of business, billionaires and other highly powerful people. As an MP, even as a minister in a cabinet proverbially of millionaires like the present one, you may well find yourself at a reception where your personal wealth cannot hold a candle to that of fellow guests like Bob Diamond, JK Rowling, David Beckham, Damien Hurst and Richard Desmond. They know that quite as well as you do. Aware that they could buy you several times over, they may not be about to extend to you the condescension that your status as a legislator might be thought to merit. This is a pretty uncomfortable tightrope to walk.

It is hardly to be wondered at if, in the big-willie world of power and dealing and high finance, mere politicians feel in some degree inadequate. What is very surprising is that many more of them are not corrupted than the small number that gets found out. And what is so dismally revealing is the lack of ambition, the petty degree of corruption that does get uncovered. When The Daily Telegraph began its long and deeply relished dance-of-the-seventy-veils that was the great MPs’ expenses scandal, you could picture the Barclay twins, to whom falls the not terribly onerous task of owning The Telegraph, scoffing at the pathetic level of graft that their reporters uncovered – flat-screen tellies and duck houses indeed! – as they read the revelations on their island of Brecqhou where they enjoy their wealth untroubled by the tax man because they get away with being registered in Monaco.

Another proprietor whose organ routinely disdains politicians of all colours is Lord Rothermere, inheritor of the Daily Mail titles. Rothermere lives in practice on a fine estate in Wiltshire but, for tax evasion purposes, is a citizen of Paris. Thus do Baldwin’s harlots continue to wield power without responsibility while enjoying wealth without contributing to the public purse.

Something else about politicos that is routinely derided is their custom – a requirement of party managers – to shine a flattering light on every manifestation of their efforts. I have news for you: this instinct is not peculiar to MPs. Talking up is as old as language itself. But commentators would have you believe that this gambit was born in the Blair era, when it gained a powerfully evocative name: spin.

Well, you know, we all employ spin. The still-extant ancestor of the aforementioned Question Time is Radio 4’s Any Questions, chaired these many years by Jonathan, the younger brother of the television programme’s host David Dimbleby. In recent years, Dimbleby Minor has taken to referring to the lunchtime repeat of his vehicle as “the Saturday broadcast”, but for many seasons before that, he was content to account the repeat as “the Saturday edition” as if, in some mysterious manner, it differed from the original live transmission on a Friday evening. This, boys and girls, is pure spin. Indeed, “the Saturday broadcast” is not significantly less a piece of spin than “the Saturday edition”. We all, constantly and in our daily lives, attempt (often unconsciously) to put the best … er … spin on everything we say and do. And why not?

But be fair: spinning is not lying. And giving a comprehensive answer, even if it inclines to the tortuous, is not lying. And avoiding a candid declaration that you feel a lot more sanguine about some of your party’s policies than others is not lying. A politician may twist and turn and temporize, but if she tells a lie to parliament she will surely sacrifice her career. Max Miller Man would do well to remember that.

Thursday, May 10, 2012


Today my oldest friend turned 65. Later this month, I shall catch him up. If you know your musicals, my naming Eliza Doolittle Day as the date in question will give you the day that this event takes place. If indeed it is An Event.

Certain birthdays do have a resonance and a number of implications in our culture as well as in our body of English law. The very day of one’s birth, of course, goes on resounding throughout one’s life. One’s 13th birthday marks the start of those difficult, momentous teenage years. A number of changes in one’s legal status kick in on one’s 16th birthday and more at 17, the two most significant of the latter being the eligibility for a driving licence and the freedom to give blood.

Key of the door

In my day, you formally became an adult at 21 and there was a great fuss about reaching that milestone. “Key of the door” was the cant phrase and frequently the greetings card icon that went with turning 21, signifying the freedom to come and go like an adult. The general election of 1966 was the last at which 21 was the qualifying age to cast a vote and my generation missed out. Since then most of the rights that we could not enjoy until 21 have been granted on the 18th birthday which hence became “the new 21”.

How a pension book looked

There are just three joys still denied to those younger than 21: the rights to supervise a learner driver, to drive a bus and to adopt a child. Everything else applies at 16 or 18.

After that, “significant” birthdays are really only made so by their heralding new decades in one’s tally, the most sonorous, I suppose, being 30 and 50. For women 60 and for men 65 have traditionally marked one’s formal induction into the status of Old Age Pensioner but these transitions are losing their power, much as 21 lost its relevance, because the age at which the pension kicks in is to change. After 65, every five years carry the threat of being celebrated as another earnest of staying alive, until the Queen adds her greeting when one makes 100 (I don’t imagine that, if I become a centenarian, it will be the present monarch from whom I hear, determined to stay on the throne though she evidently is).

If you manage to survive to your late 90s, I imagine that a primitive desire to achieve “the ton” must kick in, if you haven’t completely lost your marbles by then. The great songwriter Eubie Blake, celebrating his centenary in 1983, declared “if I’d known I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself”. He died five days later and maybe he knew it was coming because it then emerged that he was in reality only – ha! only – 96.

Eubie Blake

I don’t obsess about my age. One may as well accept that, from the moment of birth to the moment of death, one is perpetually the oldest one has ever been. Where’s the use in getting to 45 and wishing you were 35 again when, ten years on, you’ll just wish you were still 45? Better to live the present to the full, whatever the number of rings through one’s core. The only time my age really hit me was when I turned 33 and I remember reflecting to myself: “I never thought about being this old”. The killing of John Lennon in December of that year felt deeply like a symbol of the end of my generation’s youth.

As presenting a moving target seems a good philosophy in most of life’s endeavours, so avoiding a sense of being hemmed into a particular age group feels like a smart way of fending off the curse of age – any age. I’m pretty incompetent, in any case, at accurately guessing people’s ages. The passing of the years leaves its mark in so many varied ways. Superficially at least, some people seem to alter hardly at all over long periods. Others metamorphose into someone who appears to be wholly other. The rock star Jack Bruce, for instance, bears no discernible trace of his 28 year-old self who was world-famous as part of Cream and yet he remains a remarkably spruce-looking 68, certainly not the Falstaffian ruin that the yet unmistakeable 70 year-old David Crosby has become.

Bruce then and now

An old friend told us recently of how she renewed acquaintance with someone she had not seen for 40-some years. He became uncomfortable at the way she was gazing at him and elicited from her this unguarded explanation: “I’m trying to find the face I remember”. The rest of their reunion was understandably marked by a certain froideur.

Crosby then and now

Anxious not to acquire, with Congreve’s Lady Wishfort, a “face like an old, peel’d wall”, increasing numbers of both men and women go in for cosmetic surgery and other drastic interferences with nature. This is always and without exception a mistake. Plastic surgery and botox turn one’s face into a more or less immobile mask and rob it of character, which is predominantly the very quality that made it attractive in the first place. In any case, attempting to pass off one’s face or one’s figure as that of a younger person is only ever a partial denial of the years. There are so many other clues to one’s true age: one’s hands, one’s eyes, one’s skin, one’s bearing, one’s walk and – perhaps the greatest giveaway and the most difficult to rejuvenate – one’s attitudes.

To appear younger is widely thought to be the next best thing to actually being younger. It’s a myth. I write as one who, for years, has routinely been taken to be younger than he is. I suppose my features have not changed all that much. I have kept my hair, the greyness of which is only really apparent under certain light. Like almost everyone except the ill, I weigh rather more than I did at 17 but I could not be termed, I think, in any way obese. I like to say that, though Mark Lawson is fifteen years my junior, he looks fifteen years older than I do.

50-somethings – Morrissey and co

But if ever someone rather ruefully remarks this Peter-Pan-ishness, I swiftly head it off at the pass. There is a down side too. Whereas I might be said to be a 64 year-old who is in fairly good shape, I am instead inclined to be taken for a 50-something who has let himself go. You decide which is preferable.

Not that everyone has found me so young-looking. One time I was striding up the stairway at the National Theatre. I could hear a woman calling “Michael, Michael” behind me but knew of no reason to turn. However, the calls got nearer and more urgent and I stopped and let her catch up whereupon she presented herself, rather flustered, and said: “Michael!” But already, before I could disabuse her, a pleat of doubt had crossed her face. “It is Michael Frayn, isn’t it?”

Michael Frayn

Now, Mr Frayn’s resemblance to me extends no further than our both being fair and bespectacled. He is at least half-a-foot taller than me. And – and here I found my pursuer losing my sympathy – he is not only balding but fourteen years (fourteen years!) older than me. And – I hope he will forgive – he rather looks it. Still, Mr Frayn is both an admirable writer and an admirable man. Rather more credibly, I fear, I have more than once been mistaken for the voice-over actor Enn Reitel, not a resemblance I would eagerly seek, even though he is a few years younger than me.

Enn Reital

The changes that the years bring are a matter of endless fascination and not a little emotion, the main reason (I am sure) why I am so looking forward to 56 Up next Monday. Initiated by Denis Forman’s Granada Television back in the days when that ITV company had the programme-makers to challenge the BBC’s creative and intellectual clout, 7 Up gathered a group of seven year-olds chosen primarily in the expectation that the class differences between them would prove to be unassailable – a very ‘60s preoccupation. Reuniting most of them at seven-year intervals ever since has been one of British television’s most potent and stimulating projects, generating spin-off versions in several other countries that do not seem to have lasted the course (or at least are no longer shown in Britain).

It will be instructive to discover whether the Granada guinea-pigs have found traversing their 50s as revealing as I did. The element that I had not anticipated was the extent to which one became so aware of the ageing process. Any kind of exertion, even the mildest, began to take considerably longer to get over than hitherto: while I could still run for a bus – and, up to a point, can still do so – it would take the whole bus journey to recover. What’s more, I found myself making the identical grunting and wheezing noises to accompany almost any physical action that my father used to emit in his latter years. Perhaps this is the most disheartening aspect of being a quinquagenarian: one becomes one’s parents.

Denis Healey, photographed in 2006, will be 95 in August

In one’s 60s, I have learned, the evidence of physical deterioration that is surely going to preoccupy and even overwhelm one in old age begins to define itself (unless, of course, one has had the misfortune that such conditions made their presence felt rather earlier). The heft of the phrase “one’s declining years” begins to be rather more apparent.

And the view of society adds to this awareness. If I get myself knocked down by a car or arrested for a drunken affray in the street, the local newspaper will doubtless now describe me as “an elderly man”. I have no friends or acquaintances under 80 whom I think of as remotely “elderly” but the language has settled on its distinctions. Even more bizarrely, people probably need to be at least 45 before the demeaning adjective “ageing” – and it is meant to be demeaning – is used of them. Show me someone who isn’t ageing and I’ll show you a corpse. You may as well make “alive” a term of scorn.

The OED locates the late ‘60s as the time when the term “ageism” first appeared; it is now certainly part of everyone’s everyday vocabulary. Doubtless, the aggressive self-confidence and presumption of my generation, the baby boomers, has reinforced the notion that to be past one’s youth is not in some mysterious way a sin or failure or disability. Nevertheless, there is clearly an unexpressed prejudice against older workers in the employment market, if only because employers believe that they can get away with offering lower rates of pay to youngsters.

When it comes down to it, though, every phase of life has its pluses and its minuses and the clichés about those phases remain potent: “young and foolish”, “to be young was very heaven”, “youth is wasted on the young”, “Youth is full of pleasance,/Age is full of care”, “older and wiser”, “anecdotage”, “the lean and slipper’d Pantaloon”. And, curiously enough, the most banal of such saws may be the most penetratingly pertinent of them all: you’re as old as you feel.