Friday, August 31, 2012


Tomorrow, September 1st, is “officially the first day of autumn” according to someone on BBC1's Breakfast this morning. The office referred to is the Meteorological Office, which – uniquely, as far as I can see – determines that the seasons begin three-monthly on the first day of, respectively, September, December, March and June.

This is not what I was taught, nor what most websites aver if you put “first day of autumn” in Google. To the rest of us, autumn will begin at the equinox, which varies a little from year to year but this time falls on September 22nd. However, television being as powerful as it is and weather forecasters being put forward as “stars”, the Met Office ruling is beginning to take hold far beyond. Thus the political parties hold what they call their “spring conferences” during the winter.

Some years ago, the forecaster Penny Tranter referred to that day, March 1st, as the first of spring. I wrote to her querying this. My letter evidently had some impact. Tranter duly wrote back, accepting that it was a Met Office thing. A day or two later, Michael Fish did a little detour from his forecast to explain that forecasters measure the quarterly seasons from the first of the month (though not why they do so). Every viewer but me must have wondered what had brought this on. Subsequently “officially” started to be routinely attached to the matter.

Well, I don’t accept that the whim of the Met Office counts as officialdom. I shall continue to cling to summer for another three weeks and I shall not be counting 2012 as featuring “the wettest summer in a century” until I see statistics that measure that season from June 20th (this year’s summer solstice) to the autumn equinox. It may be convenient for forecasting but the weather is not so critically important that it trumps tradition.

It’s a function of growing old, of course, that one deplores change and deems it increasingly often as “change for change’s sake”. But insofar as it is coherent to argue about particular changes, I don’t see that objection to them necessarily can or should be dismissed as old-fashioned or fogeyish.

It seems to me to be a great pity that we are replacing our own traditions with those that belong to others. Bonfire Night, also known as Guy Fawkes’ Night, has all but vanished. When were you last asked for a penny for the guy? Fireworks, like Easter eggs and hot cross buns, are sold all the year round. As with fruit and vegetables, there is no seasonality any more. In the 1950s, it would have been sacrilege to let off fireworks before or after November 5th or, at a stretch, the nearest weekend to that date. Now the bangs – shop-bought firecrackers today consist of little else – begin in earnest in October and go on well into the week after Bonfire Night; indeed, they can break out at any other time of year.

This nice old celebration, Britain’s last outdoor party before winter sets in, has been displaced by that end-of-October junket from the US, Hallowe’en. But British kids aren’t versed in the workings of “trick or treat”, so little actually happens, save the watching of spooky films on television or DVD. In any case, kids aren’t allowed out unchaperoned after dark any more, except to sit in groups in a shopping precinct and get smashed on alcopops.

My partner spent his 1950s childhood in Dundee and he recalls the old Scottish custom of ‘guising’ on Allhallows Eve; and strictly on no other night. This entailed children dressing up, usually en travesti or with outer garments back to front. A boy might wear his older sister’s dress or a girl her father’s coat buttoned behind her. Thus attired, the kids would troupe round the neighbourhood knocking on doors and announcing that they were ‘guisers’ or players in disguise, like medieval mummers.

If the troupe was turned away, a favoured reprisal would be to secure a length of thread with a drawing pin to the wooden window frame of the curmudgeon’s family room and slip a button onto the thread. From some distance away, the button could be agitated against the pane, bringing puzzled householders to their windows.

But most people would invite the kids in, request their various party pieces (songs or recitations) and then send them on their way with cake or sweets or apples. In some houses, there would be an evolving party going on, packed with guisers at various stages of their tours of duty. David says that the Hallowe’en sequence in Meet Me in St Louis, led by the wonderful Margaret O’Brien as little Tootie (“I killed him!”), gives a good – if necessarily way too dressy – impression of what guising was like, bearing in mind that it is a 1940s Hollywood re-imagining of the first decade of the 20th century.

Another festival hijacked by US commerce is Mothering Sunday. In Britain this used to be a religious festival, held on the fourth Sunday in Lent: “Jerusalem which is above is free; which is the mother of us all” (Paul’s Letter to the Galatians 4:21, the epistle for the day). The mother originally celebrated was the mother church. On this day, young people working away from home were excused to return for worship with their parents. Hence, their own mothers were honoured too. A marzipan confection, called a simnel cake, was a traditional offering, roguishly used here by the poet Robert Herrick:

“I’ll to thee a simnell bring
‘Gainst thou go’st a-mothering.
So that, when she blesseth thee,
Half that blessing thou’lt give me”.

This is one of several short poems, called a canzonet, written by Herrick to one of his many mistresses, Dianeme, and entitled, for reasons now obscure, 'A Ceremonie in Glocester' [published 1648].

Now it is routinely called Mother’s Day, is held (in the US) on the second Sunday in May (after Lent is done) and, like all other religion-derived festivals, has been rendered secular and commercial.

There is a matching Father’s Day on the third Sunday in June, an invention of commerce with no basis in religion or tradition. All the businesses that depend on such compulsory events – greetings cards, gift shops, phone companies, florists, confectioners – must get on their knees and praise the media that gives them free promotion, reminding us constantly that it is this or that meaningless Day.

Of all cultures, it is bound to be that of the US that erodes ours most thoroughly because it is in the States that capitalism is most successful and valued. We have bought deep into Yankee style. So we wear baseball caps as if that most impenetrable of unexported American games is something we value. We applaud ourselves – why did Americans ever start doing that? We high-five each other in a graceless parody of inner-city American blacks. We whoop and holler at sports events and rock gigs and even at more sedate gatherings: at an intimate concert at the Donmar Warehouse in the 1980s, the distinguished American chanteuse Barbara Cook had to shush a pair of over-enthusiastic boys on the front row. Mind you, my gang was no less vocal at Bette Midler’s first big London show in 1978 – but it was at the Palladium and she did bare her breasts at the royal circle.

Americans value certainty above all else. They stare frankly at everything but they cannot detect the shadows. “It’s morning again in America” Ronald Reagan assured his besotted electorate. (He didn’t of course. His writers did, in a television commercial for the 1984 re-election campaign ). And Americans assume that everyone else agrees. “We love your Mrs Thatcher” they would beam when visiting us in the 1980s and then be astonished that one harrumphed and demurred. ‘Dissent’ for most Americans is an alien concept, something ‘Commies’ do, something un-American (unless the government is Democrat). No wonder British politicians are so comfortable in the States.

I don’t know if the banishment of the term “actress” derives from the US. At any rate, most of my actor friends bristle if I use the term and The Guardian has made it a house-style matter. Occasionally, this can cause confusion, as in the paper’s notorious obituary for the Italian movie producer Carlo Ponti who, it was suggested, “had an eye for a pretty young actor”. This, many of us noted, must have been a real eye-opener for his widow, Sophia Loren.

Encouragingly, a multi-authored letter in today’s paper includes Joanna Lumley and Judi Dench, each self-described as “actress”. The subs evidently baulked at “correcting” two such formidable women. But therein lies the nonsense. If it is acceptable to deploy the word “woman”, wherein lies the objection to “actress”? One answer routinely trotted out to that question is “well, you wouldn’t say ‘poetess’ or ‘comedienne’, would you?” and honestly, I don’t see any good reason why I shouldn’t. As in the Ponti obit, there are times when a sexually neutral term critically alters the sense. Imagine how quickly the business of a dominatrix would collapse if she were obliged to advertise her services as a “dominator”: she would be for ever faced with angry clients claiming they’d been misinformed.

Evolution can be as dismaying as change. I could write a book on the fraying of the English language – perhaps I will. People tell me that I should accept that language develops, but if those developments are rooted in ignorance and misuse and if they denude the tongue of subtle distinctions and useful nuances, what is the gain? Several words are losing their particular meanings through constant distortion on television and radio and in the press. “Literally”, for instance, is now widely used as if it means the opposite: metaphorically. “Disinterested” – which means objective, non-partisan, literally without an interest in the sense of a vested interest – is dwindling into a synonym for “uninterested”. “Ironically” is loosening and widening to mean inter alia coincidentally, unexpectedly, amusingly, interestingly, by chance and as it happens.

Meanwhile, pronunciations are changing. Schedule is becoming skedule instead of shedule; forehead is now fore-head rather than forr-ed; the emphasis in words like research and resource has moved from the second syllable to the first, as if they respectively mean “search” or “source” again, as the emphasised first syllable indicates in rewrite or reconsider. Pretty soon we shall doubtless have to re-member, re-main and re-cruit.

I don’t expect the world to stand still. I don’t even want it to do so. Much that has changed in my lifetime has changed for the better. But where we can, we must resist changes that bring deterioration. Or should that be re-sist?

Monday, August 20, 2012


The culture sets great store by anniversaries and so it is not surprising that my thoughts have recently been turning to melancholy events thirty summers ago. To rehearse this narrative, though, I need to go back yet further, another four and a half years.

Early in 1978, I had just begun a stint as a producer of television plays at the BBC’s Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham. A chum was appearing in a production at the Rep and had met a young man who would be needing a base in town later in the year. I was short of a lodger at my London flat, to which I repaired every weekend while at Pebble Mill, and was persuaded by my chum’s conviction that this lad would appeal to me.

We met at some social event. He was twenty, ten years my junior, and was called Phil Taft. His family lived on the Kent coast and he was one of three or four brothers, I don’t now remember which. Phil was soon to go on a European tour as part of a skating troupe. I was to learn that he was game to have a go at anything and that he could persuade people that he was just the person they were looking for. But we genuinely took a shine to each other and quickly agreed that, upon his return from the tour, he would present himself at my door.

I don’t know if Phil was expecting to be installed as my live-in lover. As I got to know him later, I found that he was very apt to fall for potential daddy figures. He was also perfectly secure and happy in his homosexuality. Ten years after the change in the law, being gay was still not generally accepted in society though the gay liberation movement had made great strides.

The first Gay Pride march through London had been organised in 1972, when I was still trying to convince myself that I was heterosexual or at least bisexual. A number of factors led me to embrace my nature, not least of which was a relationship with the writer and actor Drew Griffiths, whom I met in 1975 when covering for Plays & Players the launch of the theatre troupe Gay Sweatshop. By 1976, I was out in my journalism and joining the Gay Pride march.

A decade younger, Phil Taft hadn’t spent his teens as an outlaw. He had no need to pass through the period of adjustment that so many of my own contemporaries experienced, though of course for every happy gay teenager there was then – and there still is – a fearful one, just as for every innocent child there is another chomping on the bit to be out and doing.

While Phil was touring Europe, another man came into my life. I have written before about my “meeting cute” (as they used to say in Hollywood) with Aziz Yehia at the Edinburgh Festival: see Lying Fallow December 20th 2010 below. So when Phil showed up at my door in the autumn, his nose may have been put out of joint. But I cannot be sure of that; we never discussed it. At any rate, he moved into my spare room and soon made himself at home, both in the flat and in London.

Over the next four years, Phil was a charming flat-mate. He was my little brother, occasional date and fuck buddy. My friends adored him and he made his own friendships among them and beyond. He was young and bold and confident and soon clocked up a string of lovers, including Derek Jarman and Bruno Tonioli. He didn’t seem to be looking for a regular squeeze, though I know he carried a torch for one of my pals who certainly returned the feelings for a while.

He tried to make a go of showbiz, particularly as a dancer, but he hadn’t had the training and wasn’t competitive. But he could certainly turn his hand to anything and, by the summer of 1982, he was an adored carer for several regulars at a centre for those with various disabilities.

There was an awkward moment early in the year when I hadn’t seen Phil for a few days and then he turned up rather sorry for himself and complaining that no one had come to visit him in hospital. Eventually I got from him the intelligence that he had been knocked off his bike, on which he zoomed around the city in skimpy clothing and no protection. I also got from him the concession that as he hadn’t let anyone know of this accident – which seemed to have done no lasting damage – he could hardly expect us to guess what had happened (we had no mobiles back then). In any case, I hadn’t worried. Phil led his own life and days often went past without our paths crossing.

Then there came the weekend when I started to fret about his absence. His mail by the front door mat indicated that he’d not been home for a week. I phoned around but no one had seen him. I consulted my mother and followed her advice to alert his parents who also had had no word. After another week with no sightings, I got in touch with Gay News who, to my surprise, ran Phil’s disappearance as its front-page lead. But this stimulated no further information.

At some point after this, I reported Phil’s disappearance to the police. Predictably, they were not unduly concerned. Phil was 24. He was free to go as he pleased. The concern of his friends was not sufficient to spark the commitment of police time.

Weeks passed with no news. Everybody continued to make enquiries. Gay News published Phil’s photograph again. A friend who reckoned to be psychic communed with whatever psychics commune with and declared that he was safe but “over the water”. Dutifully, I reported this to his Mum.

Early in 1983, fully six months after Phil had last been seen, the police began to show an interest. It emerged that they were looking into a case that involved several missing young men. By degrees, the grisly story came out. A man called Dennis Nilsen had been arrested. The remains of several young men had been found in the drains of the house where he had the top flat. The address was Cranley Gardens, at the bottom of Muswell Hill, about ten minutes’ walk from my flat. Nilsen had evidently picked up his victims in town. It was perfectly feasible that Phil might have gone home with an articulate stranger in his late 30s.

The police circulated Phil’s dental records. They also conducted a minute search of his room, untouched since he disappeared. In a plastic bag of rubbish hanging from the door handle, they found a balled-up sheet of paper on which Phil had sketched out what was evidently a suicide note. “I hate myself so much” was the phrase that stays with me. It was unimaginable. Everybody loved Phil, the sweetest, kindest boy. Why would he hate himself?

Some time later the dental records found a match. The police passed on what they had pieced together. Phil had evidently taken himself off to Dover, a place that the family had visited several times when he was a child. He had plunged off the white cliffs. I don’t know how much later his body was recovered from the sea but, having hit the rocks head first and then been washed away, he doubtless would not have been identifiable by conventional means. It seemed that he had been buried in an unmarked grave and, heartbreakingly for his parents, the authorities would not permit them to have him exhumed and buried closer to home. One dismal day, they came to the flat and picked up his few possessions. It was the first and last time I met them and there was so little I could tell them. I always maintained that, had I been given the opportunity, I could have talked Phil out of his plan in five minutes. Impulsiveness was one of his most marked traits.

Perhaps even more dismal than the parental visit was my duty to phone people who had been waiting for news. Several of them were uncontrollably distraught or insistent on my easing their perplexity. Meanwhile, something about the whole story dissatisfied me, a tic that was not stilled for another six months. Then a small jiffy bag arrived. The franking label revealed its sender as the police in Dover but there was no covering note. All that the bag contained was a front door key. It was green. I immediately saw that the colour was as a result of being in the sea. And now, in this mute fragment of evidence, I knew that the story was complete.

Of all the images from my friendship with Phil, the one that comes back to me most often is from a party in Battersea. Phil came to it with Aziz and me. As we bowled along the pavement towards the party venue, arms linked and with me in the middle, Aziz laughed. “You think you’re something, marching along with two cute boys”, he said. He wasn’t wrong.

At the party, I introduced Aziz to Drew for the first time, my current beau to my ex. They were delighted to meet and they hit it off at once. In the image I retain, we stand in a square, Drew to my left and Aziz to my right, smilingly meeting. Phil is opposite me, also enjoying the moment.

I treasure this image because they are all gone now, gone within six years. Aziz, then exiled to Switzerland, was astounded and dangerously intrigued by Phil’s suicide. I knew such an end was always on his agenda and he carried it out in the spring of 1984. Meanwhile, Drew had run into a spiral of craziness, something that had always been part of his make-up – at the aforementioned party, we had found him in floods of tears in the kitchen because someone had guessed his age at two years too many: 33 instead of 31. By 1984, I hadn’t seen him for many months but word had it that he was running around south London, getting barred from pubs and picking up the most disreputable and sleazy men he could find. One of these stabbed him to death in his flat.

This was a couple of months after Aziz had died. And I could not but feel that it was a demise as willed as those of Aziz and Phil. The police came to take my fingerprints, having found me in Drew’s address book. The word from them was that they were pretty sure who the perpetrator was but, by the time they had narrowed their theories to him, he was already serving a long sentence for another violent crime and they decided to drop the matter.

As if all this did not suffice, the party from which I carry that image like a wounded bird was given by Martin Panter. Martin was a member of Gay Sweatshop after Drew’s time, and he and I had shared a night of tumultuous sex in Amsterdam a year or two earlier. He was a charming boy and a brave one, having come out while at school and enjoying the fierce support of his mother who strode in to give the head teacher a piece of her mind when it was suggested that Martin was letting the side down. And Martin was the first to take his own life, some few months after the party.

This self-inflicted carnage, not unknown among the young in every generation, is all the more poignant in retrospect because the full impact of Aids had yet to fall on us. And that scourge carried off many, many more dear friends from our circle.

Monday, August 06, 2012


I have been digging out some of the primary instruments that shaped the BBC and its remit to provide a service of news. The founding charter of 1926 charged the Corporation “to collect news of and information relating to current events in any part of the world and in any manner that may be thought fit”. There speaks the authentic voice of John Reith, consciously knowing best for all.

Nine years later, on the occasion of the first renewal of the charter, the Ullswater Report on the Control of Broadcast Content declared that “we think it right that the Corporation should refrain, as in the past, from broadcasting its own opinions by way of editorial comment upon current affairs … It is … of the utmost importance that the news distributed by the BBC should be a fair selection of items impartially presented”.

The then 80 year-old Viscount Ullswater would be astonished at the television news service that the BBC has been providing over the past ten days. Born 92 years after the noble peer, I am astonished by it too. For the bulletins are wholly partial and dominated by a single topic that may only by means of a liberal interpretation of the notion be deemed to be either news or current events.

London Olympics icon

Naturally enough, the fact of London hosting the Games of the XXX Olympiad provides a matter of legitimate public interest and broadcast attention. But the Olympics is not the sole event in the entire world this August. This sports festival is not even the only planned event of national, let alone international, significance. To tune into the BBC’s television news bulletins, you could be forgiven for wondering what meaning, if any, the BBC’s editors now attach to the term “news”.

I write as an incorrigible news junkie. If I am home – and at my age I usually am – I endeavour to listen to The World at One on Radio 4 and to watch the BBC1 bulletins at 6:00pm and 10:00pm. Unlike the great majority of my engagé friends, I do not tune in to the Today programme. Breakfast is for reading The Guardian and anyway I dislike hectoring interviewers (for the same reason I rarely watch Newsnight).

These unprepossessing things are evidently Olympic mascots

I have many bones to pick with the editorial policies of broadcast news, some of them no larger than the caudal skeleton of a minnow, some nearer the dimensions of the jaw-bone of a blue whale. These on-going protestations will have to await another occasion. But the wholesale surrender of the BBC’s news-gathering operation to the promotion of the Games is unprecedented in extent and in degeneracy.

Five days before the official opening of the Games, the BBC’s television news operation moved bag and baggage to the new Olympic park in Stratford East. The newsreader is perched for the duration in front of a panoramic view in a glass studio on the 22nd floor of Lund Point, a block owned by Newham Council, which plans to demolish the tower when it has completed evicting the tenants and leaseholders. In its first days, the temporary studio suffered from intrusive external noise and a malfunction of air-conditioning. Moreover, the weather forecasters, gratuitously obliged to stand on an adjacent exposed balcony, have perforce endured whatever the forecast weather has to throw at them.

Tower Bridge promotional

The bulletins at 6:00 and 10:00 are given over predominantly to updates on the events at the Olympics. No, that is not accurate – far from accurate. The bulletins are given over predominantly to updates on the progress of the home competitors, known for short as Team GB. There is no pretence to show any concern for the wider Games. Of course, there are reports about the organisation and husbandry of the extravaganza. But with rare exceptions – such as when someone as world-famous as Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps has been expected to achieve some new pinnacle of speed – the general drift of the updates is that a home competitor winning a bronze at shove-ha’penny is of greater import than some foreigner winning gold in a new record at a traditional, recognisable, track, field, water or road contest. The BBC is completely biased in favour of home progress, however obscure or peripheral.

Let’s shovel all the shit about cynicism, grumpiness and party-pooping out of the way. Working oneself up into an over-excited state about sport is not mandatory. The thing that you are doing is not somehow better or more worthwhile than any other thing just because you are doing it. For myself, I have never been drawn to watching grown women and men running or cycling round and round a track or firing at targets or steering boats between buoys or trying to knock a ball over a net. These things may well be more exhilarating to do than to watch, but I have never been attracted to doing them either.

I cannot be and should not be expected to manufacture enthusiasm where none exists, just because thousands of strivers from all over the world have come to contest these things in London. No doubt many people who have never bothered about javelin or parallel bars or synchronised swimming before have convinced themselves that these things are of sudden consequence, but the proportion of those new enthusiasts who will be following these arcane pursuits twelve months hence will be small, you can bet the house on it. Similarly, many people whose lives stop for Wimbledon every July have never watched five minutes of the French, American or Australian tennis majors. Being a kind of fair-weather fan – a home-event fan – is not really fandom at all. If you’re truly interested in, say, judo, you will want to see it at an elevated level whenever possible and – a crucial point, surely – you will want to see that cream of the sport whatever the nationality of the champions.

A London gold medal

What the BBC is furnishing and doing everything in its power to whip up is brutal, banal jingoism of the crudest, most indiscriminate kind. Whether such blanket emotion is truly finding an echo in the populace is difficult to judge. There’s no trick to scaring up vox pops of over-hyped Games visitors who anyway will be even more out of control about suddenly being invited onto the nation’s telly than they already might be about beach volleyball. And the constant repetition of the mantra “all eyes are on …” does not by itself raise the watching figures to 100 percent of the population.

I cheerfully admit to having viewed the opening ceremony, some of it anyway (it fell to me, during the central portion, to take the dogs round the field). There are two explanations: we had houseguests, and my partner and I are suckers for camp spectacle and indeed admirers of the previous works of Danny Boyle. The opening ceremony anyway only really has a glancing relationship with sport, until the various national teams start their endless parade. But even this unprecedented national celebration, shrewdly crafted and deftly executed as it certainly was, was only viewed by 27 million in Britain. The rest – a nearly two-to-one majority – had better or different things to do. They had lives to get on with. So don’t let the BBC’s propaganda that “the whole nation” is glued day and night to the broadcast get any traction. It’s a lie.

Of course, the BBC wants its Olympics coverage to be seen as a great corporate triumph. After all, it paid £60m for the exclusive home rights. And I am perfectly content for it to give over the entirety of both BBC1 and BBC3 – along with a host of on-line extras – to the coverage. I cannot even frame more than a token complaint at its dropping of the BBC Parliament channel for the duration. After all, the Palace of Westminster is presently deserted.

But to turn the news primarily into a potted version of what has already been broadcast to the devotees is not to be endured. A brief rundown of the major medals at the end of each bulletin, irrespective of the national origin of the winners, would be quite sufficient. Instead of that, we have the shaming spectacle of precious news time being consumed by pat-ball interviews with the parents of competitors, for crying out loud. That such family are proud and excited and will be celebrating when they get home is light years away from anything resembling news. And what I can promise is that, next February, Sophie Raworth will not be patronising the parents of British winners of Academy Awards, because of course the arts are not as important to the BBC as sports.

Raworth atop Lund Point

As it happens, tonight’s 6:00 bulletin was the most sensible since the Games began, though Nick Robinson couldn’t resist what I took to be a sport reference that I didn’t understand and George Alagiah had the nerve to refer to Olympic “hype” with a straight face. But important stories about the collapse of the coalition government’s Lords reform and the defection of Syria’s prime minister relegated Olympic tittle-tattle to eleven minutes into the bulletin.

Doubtless the Games will retake its place as the lead story before long. And the BBC should be ashamed of itself for cynically tearing up its historic undertaking to provide a fair selection of items impartially presented. Indeed. the politicians should be considering seriously whether the BBC deserves to have its charter renewed in 2016. Except of course that no one jostles to bask in the imaginary reflected glory of the Olympics as keenly as politicians.

Sunday, August 05, 2012


Over several months, most of the postings on this blog have also appeared on a website called London Progressive Journal. This is a non-profit site, freely accessible and free of advertising. It also necessarily pays nothing to its contributors. Writers and contributors generally appear on the site by invitation and either write new pieces for it (which I have done once or twice) or recycle material from other outlets (as I have generally done from this blog and as, for instance, George Monbiot does with his Guardian columns).

Recently, I have come into conflict with the duo who edit the site in their spare time. I thought the issues over which we disagreed were important, especially in a context that calls itself progressive, and so I wrote a piece that attempted to address those issues and submitted it on July 22nd. The editors have declined to engage with the matters I raised and have shown no inclination to publish the piece. So I present it below, on the assumption that it bears some interest beyond the narrow confines of LPJ. I have altered nothing from the original submission, save to add references in square brackets:

‘This is a piece about editorial policy on London Progressive Journal. That you are reading it may indicate that the editors have addressed or are willing to address the issues that I raise herein and the implications of those issues. Of course I cannot know in advance if they will have reproduced it exactly as I submitted it. That you, gentle reader, may know the answer to that question, I will post a comment on the matter once the piece is on-site.

How LPJ works is that postings are submitted, read by the editorial staff and transcribed to suit the technical requirements of the site. These requirements can be frustrating; for instance the site’s program cannot read my iMac’s italics and so I have had to devise a strategy for indicating where I mean words to be italicised that does not confuse the editors or cut across other print conventions. It also means that the text does not go blind onto the site. It is read and processed first and therefore there is scope for the introduction of unintended typos and other errors, for subbing and for other editorialising, even for mischief.

Readers without experience of journalism may not be familiar with the phenomenon of subbing. This is usually the work of an in-house assistant called a sub-editor but, in situations where staffing is tight, the task often falls to editors themselves. The sub-editor goes through the texts of articles, correcting unwonted errors by the writer: typos, spelling mistakes, factual inaccuracies, grammatical infelicities and other obvious blemishes. But the sub also has the power, often exercised, to change the text. This may be necessitated because of pressure on space (if, that is, you believe that the accommodation of surrounding advertisements and/or visual material related to the article’s subject matter is a necessity). It may also come about because the sub thinks he can improve the piece by cutting, by re-shaping, even by rewriting, perhaps because he doesn’t comprehend a particular point being made or thinks he can write better than the columnist or reporter. I have done masses of subbing myself but I never felt that it was any part of the job to alter what the writer wanted to say or how she wished to say it.

Intrusive subbing is one of the banes of the print journalist’s life. During my time as television previewer on The Independent some 25 years ago, I had occasion to make an appeal to the paper’s overall editor because the listings editor – a legendarily dreadful man called Elkan Allan (now deceased) – had broken this particular camel’s back by completely rewriting my preview of a documentary about the treatment of Aids. I had two advantages over Allan in the matter: I knew a lot about Aids and he knew nothing, and I had seen the programme and he had not. “To fit the headline” that he had chosen for the piece – a headline so banal and beside-the-point that I have not remembered it – he had changed everything that I had written, in the process ascribing to my by-line the assertion that Aids is a disease (it is a syndrome), that HIV is a virus (HI is a virus, the V stands for virus) and that Factor-8 is a drug (it is blood plasma). This nonsense made me look like an ignorant fool who had paid no attention to the film that I was previewing.

The editor of The Independent remained carefully noncommittal about what he clearly thought was a little local difficulty, but he also evidently discounted the outrageously untrue slurs that Elkan Allan levelled against me and my work in order to justify his egregious subbing. Nonetheless, Allan departed abruptly within the week and I was duly hailed by the other toilers in the listings section as a hero of the people.

But that’s all by the by. Star names in the press – I might suggest as examples John Pilger and George Monbiot – are not, I think, much troubled by subbing being applied to their much-desired work. It’s more obscure scribblers like me who have to fight for every word.

In the eight months or so that my stuff has been appearing on LPJ, I have had little cause to beef about subbing of the intrusive kind. But my two most recent submissions have raised some issues of editorial control that I think need to be addressed. This site is presented as an open forum and therefore it seems to me only proper to discuss these matters openly.

My most recent submission (last week) was entitled ‘A Word In Your Shell-Like’ [July 17th, below]. The version that was posted had three subbing errors that I quickly pointed out to the editors. But there was also something unprecedented added to the piece: a disclaimer at the bottom. It read: “The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the LPJ”.

I was completely bemused by this. What had occasioned it? Had I stepped over the line by demurring at Rory Bremner’s hoax? Was it an offence against progressive opinion to suggest that the Freedom of Information Act might make the practical business of government more tricky? Had I strained editorial patience by twitting Kelvin MacKenzie? How was I – or the reader – to tell?

To my email concerning subbing errors, I added this sentence: “As for the disclaimer at the bottom of the piece, I am absolutely hopping mad about it and, feeling as I do at present, am resolved that this will be my last piece for LPJ”.

One of the editors replied thus: “Thank you for your comments. We have made the requested amendments” (actually they have only made one of the three) “but I'm afraid that we won't be budging on the disclaimer below the article.

“We have great respect for your ideas and writing abilities and aim to ensure the LPJ expresses a broad range of opinions from its authors, including those that we, as editors, may personally not agree with.

“I'm afraid that neither of us feels that Assange or Manning is in the wrong and we didn't want to risk our readership feeling that we thought so.

“Hence, in the spirit of free speech - whilst sticking to our editorial policy and opinions - we felt the need to mention that the opinions in the article are the author’s and not necessarily ours. We have done this with articles from time to time, and even gained praise for doing so from authors who respected our decision to maintain our own views whilst allowing freedom of ideas.

“We hope you will reconsider your decision not to submit any further articles to the LPJ” (I have subbed quite a handful of typos and grammatical and other errors out of this email so that the editor may not be publicly embarrassed).

So that’s it. It’s what I wrote about WikiLeaks that has stuck in the editorial craw. You, gentle reader, will not have my piece to hand, so let me repeat the words with which I introduced the subject of WikiLeaks into the argument: “I may have missed something here but I have always struggled to understand the fine moral distinction between the publication of private conversations intercepted by hacking telephones and the publication of private conversations intercepted by a variety of other breaches of the law”.

I think that is a pretty explicit invitation to apologists for Assange and Manning to engage on the matter, to offer an argument that will enlighten me and soothe away my scepticism. To hand my piece to the readers at arm’s length, the other hand holding the editorial nose is, frankly, an insult both to me and to the reader.

It’s worth reacquainting ourselves with the site’s mission statement. LPJ, we are assured, represents “a non-sectarian left wing perspective” and “aims to provide an intelligent, critical and accessible discourse on the key issues”. It “is not affiliated with any political party or lobby group and therefore has no constraints over what it can publish. As such the range of opinion contained within the pages of the journal is relatively diverse”.

So we can be clear from this that the agenda of LPJ is not – or at any rate not necessarily – Marxist-Leninist, not Trotskyite, not Maoist, not anarcho-syndicalist, not libertarian Socialist, not situationist, not impossibilist, not old-Communist and indeed not (not necessarily) Assangist. Nevertheless, the editors do not “want to risk our readership feeling that (the editors think that) … Assange … is in the wrong”.

There is a rather large presumption here. It is presumed that the LPJ readership as a body subscribes to a consensus that the works of WikiLeaks are beyond question and that I alone am out of step with this happy union. Even were that true, by what editorial sleight of hand does my supposed maverick stance put me outside the tent pissing in rather than inside pissing out? Is there no longer any scope for discussion in self-proclaimed progressive circles? Is the sanctity of Julian Assange a fait accompli?

That the opinions expressed in LPJ do not, as a matter of course, chime consistently and unfailingly with those of the editors ought to go without saying. Progressive opinion, like Harold Wilson’s Labour Party, is “broad church”. There is not and cannot be, on a wide-ranging site like LPJ, an orthodoxy about every topic. Nor is progressive opinion a monolith that admits of no discussion or dissent. By all means let the site as a whole carry a disclaimer about all the material carried on it not necessarily reflecting the particular opinions of the editors. But to single out one posting and announce effectively that LPJ thinks it’s rubbish is not to be countenanced. Let one of the editors – or some other contributor, or Julian Assange himself (he is patently kicking his heels at present) – make the case for WikiLeaks in a complementary article. That is the mature and confident editorial response. To disassociate the site from one piece without any word of explanation is, at the very least, a discourtesy to everyone.

But this is the second successive posting of mine that has fallen foul of an editorial decision that greatly troubles me. The earlier piece was called ‘Bad Sight Of The Week’ [June 26th, below]. In it I deployed the word “cunt”. I did not do it gratuitously. I was quoting somebody else who used the word as a generic term for women. As it happens, perhaps as a semi-conscious test, I did use the emphatic “fucking” gratuitously in the piece and that was left alone.

The on-site version showed the quoted word as “c***”. I queried this. I was informed that one of the editors “hates the word”. I did not argue the toss further but it seemed to me to be no argument. There are plenty of words that I dislike for myriad reasons, but we are mature people, and language, in all its variety and multifariousness, is the tool that we use as writers and readers.

For an editor to blank a word because it is “hated” is a subjective and, I rather think, emotional use of editorial power. And – to give a dog a name – it is nothing short of censorship. I imagine that quite of lot of contributors to LPJ would not want to risk our readers feeling that we all thought censorship is acceptable.

These are fit matters for discussion, for god’s sake, not for indisputable editorial fiat. (By the by, I never capitalise the first letter of the term “god” because there is no god and so something that does not exist cannot possess a proper name. In LPJ, the “g” is routinely capitalised without discussion).

It is in the nature of the case that these words will be read by the editors before they are laid before the readers. So I say this to the editors – and I want the readers to know that it was said: do not refuse this contribution. There is no credible ground on which it may be refused. Let there be debate. Engage it yourselves but do it on the site, not out of the view of the readership. Remember that the piece that occasioned this debate was itself about freedom of the press. Do not fall into the trap of replicating the unyielding control over free expression in an open forum that has passed for editing in the capitalist press. It will be a struggle for you to reconcile a stance of intervening editorially in a free discussion with your fear that you may be thought opposed to Assange’s own purported quest to liberate information and open debate.

And I invite readers and other contributors to engage with these matters. Keeping channels open for uncensored debate is the most important function that LPJ can perform’.

P.S.: I no longer submit pieces to London Progressive Journal.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012


I have been asked to give an account of why I have withdrawn my novel from the longlist issued for this year’s Man Booker Prize. I am content to do so.

In the first place, my publisher did not extend to me the elementary courtesy of asking me whether I would approve of my novel being put forward for this award. He assumed that it was a given that I must necessarily be delighted to be considered and to have this so-called longlist consideration known. He was wrong on both counts.

Were I remotely drawn to the notion of receiving a literary award, I cannot imagine that I should derive much joy from being included in a list of twelve titles and then perhaps dropped along with five others when the shortlist is unveiled some weeks later. Worse still would be the tenor of the media coverage which, if past form be a guide, is apt to treat of such notions as “vintage” and “non-vintage” years, the “betting” on the composition of the shortlist and the eventual winner, the absence from the longlist of certain celebrated authors – frequently described melodramatically as a “snub” – and the supposed unworthiness of some of those listed, perhaps including my own work.

The original Booker trophy

This kind of treatment is not to be endured by anyone of any reasonable sensibility. There is no objective or consensual hierarchy of new fiction and, if there were, then it would certainly not be reflective of pure and wholly literary judgments. Those works that are deemed to be “important” are rarely so deemed on grounds of writing alone. If they were, the Booker Prize would be an infallible guide to the quality of writing in the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth and the Republic of Ireland over some forty years. But it is not.

If you consider the roll-call of Booker winners and shortlists, the almost total absence of fiction emanating from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is very striking. But neither could the list of prize-winners reliably supply one with the pick of English literature over the same period. Anyone imagining that Ian McEwan’s Booker-winning Amsterdam is superior to either Saturday or Atonement, for instance, would be greatly mistaken.

PH Newby, the first Booker winner

The habit among prize juries of picking the right artist but the wrong work is well established. Look at Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning The Departed, markedly inferior to Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and Goodfellas, none of which won. The directing Oscars awarded to Vincente Minnelli, George Cukor and Carol Reed for, respectively, Gigi, My Fair Lady and Oliver! reward mere organisation of unwieldy, stagy musicals rather than the directorial judgments, fine and personal, that their much tighter projects allowed.

One of the few things that Booker juries have got admirably and consistently right is their underlining of the international pre-eminence of JM Coetzee, whose two most accomplished novels both won the Booker. But who is to say that Coetzee’s work as a whole is more important or worthy than that of the authors whom he “defeated” in his Booker wins, among them Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai, Ahdaf Soueil and Graham Swift?

Ian McEwan in the 1990s

Simply put, it is mendacious nonsense to compare and rank works of art as diverse as contemporary novels. People write fiction out of many private and public instincts, some of them perhaps not even conscious. How may a large, multi-voiced panorama, aspiring to weigh the state of a nation and/or culture, be coherently compared with an interiorised contemplation of a single relationship? Who can say which of them, fifty years hence, will be more widely thought to have pinned down some essential insight about how we live now? Will Booker winners who are presently out fashion – Keri Hulme, PH Newby, Bernice Rubens – ever come back into favour? And were their awards necessarily “wrong”?

If judgments upon art are not pure, the financial support of awards is as tainted as may be. Commercial sponsorship has just two motivations: self-promotion and tax-avoidance. There is no organic relationship between the companies that offer funds to award-giving bodies and other enterprises. How is the involvement of McDonald’s relevant or appropriate to the current Olympics? Athletes at the top of their game pay meticulous attention to dietary needs. None of them shovels down her gullet the abattoir slurry that passes for “a meal” in a fast food outlet.

JM Coetzee in the 1980s

Forty years ago this year, the Booker Prize (as it was then called) was awarded to John Berger’s polemical historical novel G. In his acceptance speech, Berger delivered a fierce assault on the Booker McConnell company that then sponsored the award, excoriating its manipulation of sugar interests in the Caribbean and announcing his decision to divide the (then modest) prize money between the Black Panther movement and his own research for a project on migrant workers.

Ten years ago, the prize was hived off into a new entity, the Booker Foundation, a unitary charity “supporting a diverse range of activities which promote and foster literature”. Its mission statement mentions libraries a great deal, but its website gives no clue as to what role, if any, it has played in the campaign to save the nation’s libraries from closure.

At the same time that the charity was launched, a new sponsor came on board, the investment management company, Man. This outfit deals in what its website calls “investor splutions” [sic]. It currently manages $52.7bn-worth of emerging markets, credit and convertibles, equities and futures. Patently, then, it is financing the prize out of the goodness of its heart.

John Berger in 1972

But if sponsors are chiefly interested in profit, the Booker administrators and many of the writers whose novels appear on the various lists seem no less motivated by money. Time and again, the hike in sales concomitant upon Booker attention is cited as the great benefit to literature and writers. This strikes me as shabby and shallow. Cash-in-hand has never been a realistic aspiration for writers. For every JK Rowling squillionaire – and there is anyway only one JK Rowling squillionaire – there are the 95 percent of writers who need to subsidise their writing by other means. No doubt a five-figure cash prize is a bit of a help, though of course it barely registers against the seven-figure sums paid to major winners in such sports as golf and tennis, let alone the advertising deals that ride on the back of such recognition. No doubt, though, the day will soon be upon us when novels carry advertising on their covers just as sportspeople bear sponsors’ liveries on their clothes and equipment.

But increased sales cannot be seen as an unalloyed benefit. The books-do-furnish-a-room attitude that motivates the purchasers of novels specifically because they have been promoted by Booker can hardly be said to furnish any writer’s ideal readership. As a novelist, you want readers who do actually read your book and who, while doing so, have the empathy and intelligence to appreciate at least something of what you were trying to do. In that sense, the only truly desirable promotion for your work is word of mouth. Book reviews are hopelessly compromised by so many extraneous factors. For instance, Fight and Kick and Bite, my critical biography of Dennis Potter that was published in 1995, was given a miserable review in The Sunday Times, most of whose readers will not have known that a regular reviewer for the paper, Humphrey Carpenter, was then working on the official Potter biography. Other reviews were considerably more supportive.

Any novelist who says that she unequivocally welcomes the extra sales that Booker listing brings reveals thereby that her own prime motivation is income. Rather as the injection of sponsorship and broadcasting dollars has utterly corrupted all sport, so the cash waved at novelists – though clearly on a far more modest scale – has corrupted literature. There is no getting away from it.

Accordingly, I do not intend to play this game. I want my novel to be read by those most likely to appreciate it for what it is and if that means it loses sales to non-readers and those who take instruction in what they should buy, so be it. That may be my small loss in remuneration, but I hope it is literature’s small gain in self-respect.

Please note: the foregoing is an example of metafiction. No novel of mine has ever been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Indeed, it is 21 years since a novel of mine was published.