Sunday, September 16, 2012


Across the Middle East, mobs have once again been invading western embassies, burning flags and calling for death to the infidel – indeed visiting death upon four American diplomats in Tripoli. The pretext on this occasion was a tin-pot movie entitled Innocence of Muslims that was posted both in trailer form and in a 14-minute digest on YouTube. It seems the feature-length version has only ever been screened twice, the first time in the Hollywood to which it perhaps aspires. A dubbed version of the trailer was spread by Coptic Christians in Egypt, where a clip was broadcast on the country’s equivalent of Fox News. The protests began three days later on the eleventh anniversary of the al-Qaida attacks on the US.

Muslim protesters

I want to ask a question that I have not heard or seen posed concerning this matter: has anybody seen the film? I mean really: has anybody sat down and actually watched the thing? Well, by now I guess a few must have done so. There are various versions and purported versions on YouTube, at least one of which appeared to have been “taken down” only moments after I first clicked onto it. Numbers of visitors vary – the version I started to look at reckoned to have had some 300,000 hits – but I suspect that the majority give it up pretty quickly. About 45 seconds was enough for me. You know at once what you’re in for. To western, rationalist eyes, what’s most offensive about it is that it’s the worst kind of lame-brained, amateurish rubbish. It makes the 1950s works of Ed Wood, the most notorious of Z-grade movie-makers, look like Martin Scorsese.

The offending work

As it happens, Wood used to raise the finance for his stupid films from various kinds of evangelical churches, assuring them that he was about their god’s work. Some of them may even have approved the finished articles. As more background has tumbled out about the present monstrosity, a few of the usual suspects have surfaced. Tub-thumping evangelical and Islamophobe Steve Klein has stepped up as a self-described consultant for the movie. Terry Jones, the Florida cleric who two years ago attempted the public burning of a copy of the Qur’an, also supports the movie, which he screened to his flock (its second outing) on September 11th. That probably won’t hurt his present presidential run, but Jones’s followers should remember that he’s not the messiah, he’s just a very naughty boy.

Ed Wood

Only a few dozen would have heard of this enterprise at all if mischief-makers hadn’t made it their business to use its existence for their own devices. What is certainly the case is that vanishingly few of those screaming and chanting on the streets of Arab cities have seen it. If an enlightened imam were to tell the protesters that all those who have not seen the film should go home, there would be no protests, no embassies invaded, no flags burned and no lives lost. But there are no enlightened imams. Indeed, it is the imams who are telling their dim-witted followers to go out and hate the infidel west. This is where blind faith leads.

Steve Klein, going in to bat for the movie

Of course we have been here before and we shall be here again. In 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie and the publishers of his novel The Satanic Verses, accusing him of blasphemy and calling for him and them to be killed. There is no evidence that Khomeini, then in the last four months of his own life, actually read the offending novel. He was merely reacting to protests whipped up by imams. No doubt he died content that a number of translators of the novel were killed and injured and dozens of the unconnected died in riots, assassinations and a related fire at a Turkish hotel. Rushdie was obliged to live in hiding for nine years before the fatwa was lifted by Khomeini’s successors.

Cartoons published in a Danish newspaper seven years ago sparked protests across the world and accounted for more than a hundred mostly random deaths. Again, it is unimaginable that above a handful of the thousands of protesters can have seen these cartoons published in a newspaper in a distant country. Where the hell can you get hold of a four-month old back number of a Danish newspaper in downtown Damascus? And who could translate the punch-lines for you? The desire to “punish” those deemed to have insulted the prophet needs no rational or informed basis. It is enough that a holy man has thrown his hands in the air.

Terry Jones, not the messiah

That imams are capable of astounding malice towards those they consider infidels is illustrated by the tragic and disturbing case of Rimsha Masih, a disadvantaged Pakistani child accused of burning pages of the Qur’an. After the child had been held in jail for several days under threat of the death penalty, it emerged that a local imam had planted the burnt pages on her, in order to blackguard the minority Christian community of which she is part. She has been released and her family given safe passage to a new location. But there will be implacable Muslims who will still wish to harm her and her family. In Islam, unsupported allegations are sufficient to mark anyone for martyrdom. What surprises me is that no one appears to be threatening the life of the imam, the individual who actually carried out the desecration of the Qur’an for his own vile ends. Even a disgraced cleric is better protected than an innocent infidel.

Try as I might to remain tolerant of the absurdities of religions, Islam does present a particular obstacle, largely because it itself is so comprehensively intolerant of other faiths and of none. At the height of the Danish cartoon outrage, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner permitted highly inflammatory protest marches across London. It is just as unimaginable that one could march down a street in Islamabad or Tehran or Kabul with a poster that yells “Islam Is The Cancer: Free Speech Is The Answer” or “Slay Those Who Insult The West” and escape being stoned to death, as it would have been for Jewish protesters to march in defiance of the Nazis in Berlin or Nuremberg in the 1930s. To feel that Muslims who publicly advocate violence to the host nation might exceed the bounds of the tolerance that they have a right to expect is not a fascist or even a nationalist response. It is a decent human response.

YouTube shows the trailer

There was something eerily familiar about those banners borne in London. They demanded “Kill/Slay/Behead/Massacre/Annihilate [and even] Exterminate Those Who Insult Islam”, “Be Prepared For The Real Holocaust!”, “Europe Will Pay: Demolition Is On Its Way”, “Europe Is The Cancer: Islam Is The Answer” and other thoughtful messages. What they irresistibly put into my mind was a certain kind of teledrama of the 1970s, wherein a protest march was depicted. And all the posters and banners seen in the drama had been written out by the same design assistant. As a veteran of protest marches, I can safely vouchsafe that proper posters and banners come in many and various hands. But the London Muslim signs were clearly all inscribed by one person. Who was that, then, Sir Ian Blair? Wasn’t your forensics team up to identifying the malicious designer?

Similar charmers in other religions claim that “god’s judgment” brings death to those they hate or despise. In the 1980s, many caring evangelicals reported from the theological front line that AIDS was the lord’s punishment on “sodomites” who “deserved” the visitation of this merciless killer. Now that the casualties of the pandemic are predominantly heterosexual, these wise commentators have moved on to other issues and other devil figures. Meanwhile, I must just ask: if god did not intend people to be penetrated anally, why did he, in his infinite wisdom, make the anus an erogenous zone?

In another part of the burgeoning forest of devout hatred, the kindly telly-evangelist Pat Robertson declared that the massive stroke suffered in 2006 by Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon was punishment for his policy of withdrawing Israeli settlers from Gaza (Sharon lives on still in a vegetative state). Robertson withdrew the comment – he is obliged to withdraw his comments so regularly that you cannot help but wonder whether the old varmint just says these things for sheer devilment, knowing that all of his flock will understand that the statutory withdrawal is only for form’s sake. Oddly enough, no claim about divine judgment is made when blameless believers perish as, every time there is a hadj or mass religious gathering of the naïve, hundreds die in stampedes.

Some demonstrators take a different view

The arbitrary nature of catastrophe can shake the faith even of the most devout. At the beginning of 2006, there was a collapse in a mine in West Virginia. After a long wait, the desperate families were given to understand that the men were safe. This turned out to be a false hope. The loss was the crueller for the earlier optimism. One woman said bitterly: “We don’t even know if we have a lord any more. We had a miracle and it was taken from us”.

Tolerance was never a religious virtue, despite the assurances of supposed liberal clerics. Right across the world, all through history, religion has provided the spark of hatred between people who otherwise have everything in common. In some cities and towns in Scotland and northern England (to say nothing of Ireland), to be Catholic is to be unwelcome in many neighbourhoods, pubs, places of work, even shops, to be Protestant just as unwelcome in others. From Sri Lanka to Nigeria, Sudan to Iraq, former Yugoslavia to Indo-Pakistan, people who are fundamentally in the same boat find religious reasons to kill each other. Forget nationalism, despotism, revolutionary movements and tribal warfare – religion has provided the pretext for more self-loathing, guilt, abuse, fear, persecution, dispossession, torture, execution, extermination and genocide than any other cause in history. From the witch-hunt to the auto-da-fé, clerics have imposed dogma on the fearful and vulnerable and called for the waging of holy war, crusade and intifada.

The flag-burning ritual

But before we comfort ourselves with the notion that Islam is the home of ignorant bigotry, let’s not forget the outcry in British Christian circles against Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee’s unbridled entertainment, Jerry Springer: The Opera. Mounted at the National Theatre in 2003 as an earnest of new artistic director Nicholas Hytner’s intent to get the place noticed, the show survived unscathed until the BBC decided to screen it in 2005. There can be little doubt that most of those who attempted to pre-empt this screening were doing so on the say-so of others, just as Mary Whitehouse, who brought an unsuccessful action against the same National Theatre 23 years earlier concerning Howard Brenton’s play The Romans in Britain, did so sight unseen.

In 2004, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Behzti was withdrawn by the Birmingham Rep after protests outside the theatre by members of the Sikh community disrupted the opening night. This was another occasion where the withdrawal of those only protesting on the basis of hearsay would have ended the confrontation.

What distinguishes Muslim protest from other kinds of accusations of blasphemy is the routine parlaying of such specific complaints into condemnation of broad cultural difference. It boggles the mind to see how taking umbrage at a poverty-row movie made by some bourgeois individualist in California can segue inexorably into the burning down of the German embassy in Khartoum.

Embassies and diplomatic missions do not as a rule enjoy complete territoriality anywhere in the world but, where local military and/or police forces are not adequate to protect them from being overrun, it ought to be acceptable for governments to defend their personnel with appropriate force and if that means shooting to kill when local people are bent on burning down the premises then so be it. What’s more, international law needs to consider drawing up legislation to punish incitement in all its forms, whether crude movie-making or hate-preaching in mosques. I am suspicious of analogies but that between incitement and arson has a certain merit. Whipping up resentment can seem as exciting as setting fire to dry tinder but once the flame, both literal and metaphorical, takes hold, the instigator is powerless to control its spread. This is why incitement is so dangerous and so in need of being discouraged. Whether it is a Danish cartoonist or a Californian Coptic film-maker or a bellicose mullah, these meddlers need to be made to take responsibility for the far-reaching results of their bile.

Sunday, September 09, 2012


There was a spider in the bath this morning. Not being Annie Hall, I had no need to summon assistance. I couldn’t initially see it but I knew it was there – on the enamel, I could feel cobwebby stuff and there were what looked like some scraps of mostly-consumed fly.

Our bath has three jacuzzi jets and spiders are apt to hide in those. I did what I always do before having a soak: I splooshed some cold water around the bath and into the jets. This usually flushes out the intruder. I have a clear plastic tub ready and I lower it over the spider. Then I slide an old postcard under the creature, being careful not to damage its legs, so that it is trapped in the tub. I lift the tub clear and deposit the spider outside. We do the same all summer for bees, butterflies, moths and hornets that become trapped in our conservatory and otherwise would soon succumb to dehydration. I’ve even been known to rescue wasps and flies in the same manner.

A house spider, your friend

On this occasion, the spider wouldn’t come out. I tried several times without success, then started to fill the bath with cold water. I figured the rising tide would drive out the spider, but by the time the water level had topped the jets nothing had emerged. I drained the bath again. Raising one of the jets with my finger, I found the spider in a bedraggled heap underneath. I guessed it had got trapped and had drowned. I was crestfallen. Spiders are completely admirable creatures. They perform a function useful to humans. They kill and part-consume flies and other insects that do not benefit us. I have no quarrel with any spider and, if I find one in a situation that endangers it, I will endeavour to catch it alive and convey it to a safer place. If a daddy-longlegs (that is, a harvestman or crane fly) puts in an appearance, I try to save that too but those spindly oddities are becoming rare.

I fished out the corpse on a loofah and dropped it onto the sloping roof below the bathroom window. Immediately it jumped up and scuttled away. My heart leapt. How smart of it to lie doggo and hope that I would not try to kill it. And how tough it must be to survive immersion in water.


The specimen in question was a common house spider. The species’ most active season is beginning and I had noticed that none had been trapped in the bath so far this year. Now I shall be on the lookout for others. I don’t want any to perish for my convenience.

It’s curious that people are so “afraid” of spiders. Like all such fears, there is no basis for it in rationality. Poisonous spiders are not apt to turn up in England. Arachnids have no designs on humans; indeed, like all creatures on the planet, they have far more reason to fear man than vice versa.

Those who have a thing about spiders and other small creatures crossly counter one’s rational points by retreating to their knowledge that their fear is indeed irrational and therefore cannot be addressed by reason. Fair enough, as long as I am not expected to sanction the gratuitous killing of innocent creatures in order that this irrationality be indulged. The logical extension of their position is that the irrational fear people feel towards those of another race, nationality, creed or sexuality is equally acceptable and should be “understood”. I don’t think so.

My partner’s niece declares gravely that spiders bite. No they don’t, not in Britain anyway. This is an old urban myth, refuted again and again by those who study arachnids and know of what they speak. In any case, our niece adores dogs and no one disputes that they bite and do so rather more significantly than any insect. I suppose it is that spiders scuttle that makes them unsettling. You can’t guess where they will get to next and, relative to their size, they make cheetahs look torpid. I used to be bothered by moths which, I guess, had to do with the combination of their fluttering (the airborne equivalent of scuttling) and their unpredictability. But I got over it.


There is an essay by Virginia Woolf, The Death of the Moth, as masterly as it is moving, that catches as I never could the microcosmic resonance of the fall of a tiny creature: “… it seemed as if a fibre, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body … It was useless to try to do anything. One could only watch the extraordinary efforts made by those tiny legs against an oncoming doom which could, had it chosen, have submerged an entire city, not merely a city, but masses of human beings; nothing, I knew, had any chance against death” [The Hogarth Press 1942]. That Mrs Woolf’s own fragile grasp upon life was to yield within a year of setting down those words only adds to their poignancy.

From that fine and delicate sensibility, born in Victorian England and nurtured in the hothouse of antebellum Bloomsbury, to the facile celebrity of contemporary telly and Sunday Times column stardom is a sheer precipice. Yet I know without need of a thought that I would rather the rare air than the foothill froth any time. On an edition of Have I Got News For You, the motor-loving broadcaster and wide boy Jeremy Clarkson once boasted that, while lately driving at night, he had deliberately run down a fox.

How can anyone but an insentient thug do a thing like that? And how could he then volunteer it about himself as though it made him a grand fellow? How could he know – would he indeed care? – that it was a clean kill, that the victim of his prank did not suffer a prolonged death agony? And not only did he gratuitously slaughter a beautiful, defenceless animal but, given that she might have been a vixen foraging for her pups, he may also have condemned her litter to slow starvation. A man who can commit such wanton cruelty would be capable of running down a badger. Or a deer. Or a cat. Or a dog. My dog.

I don’t take a Buddhist view of the sanctity of animal life, nor do I subscribe to the Blakean notion that “everything that lives is holy”. But I do think that living creatures should not lose that life merely for my convenience. I am not a vegetarian, so of course animals, birds and fish do perish on a daily basis for my consumption. I think this is a necessary process and – I have argued elsewhere on this blog – a practical one. The creatures that we humans would have eaten next week will not be free to relish long and productive lives if, tomorrow, the eating of flesh is declared unlawful. In such a circumstance, there would simply be a clearing-the-decks cull on an unimaginable scale.


I have told this tale before but it pertains. Some years ago I came across an earwig in the house. I had a formative experience of these rather alarming-looking little blighters when, playing in a friend’s garden, I stuck the end of a bamboo cane in my mouth and then found myself spitting out a nest of earwigs. Not nice. In the grown-up experience, it was winter and we had a log fire going. I gathered the intruder onto a sheet of paper and dropped it onto the fire, expecting it to be instantly consumed. Instead, it bounced on a log and secured a foothold, then ran about seeking means of escape. There was none. Nor could I help it, surrounded as it was by flames. Now I felt bad. As I watched, it clearly became increasingly desperate and then hopelessly pressed itself into a crevice in the wood where no doubt it soon braised to death. I know that, while my memory lasts, I shall not forget that earwig whose drawn-out death I needlessly caused.

I accept that, in the objective order of things, an earwig is nowhere near as “important” as a human. And yet I cannot say that its life is any less dear to it than mine is to me. Indeed, wild creatures perform a daily drama of staying alive, menaced by predators or threatened with starvation. They must have a more vivid sense of danger than we humans ever have, unless we live in a war zone.

Why are we fearful of and cruel to insects? It is true that the creature that has killed more humans than any other is not the snake, crocodile, rhinoceros, bear, tiger or water buffalo but a tiny insect, the mosquito. I have no compunction whatever about squishing mosquitoes whenever I encounter one – and, as we used to have an ancient pond quite near the house, I did so rather often on summer nights. I argue that skeeters are a special case – them and ticks.

Some years ago, in Kerala in southern India, I was just closing my book before bedding down in a hotel room when I spotted an unfamiliar insect on the wall six or eight feet from me behind a piece of furniture. It was a rather noticeable insect, highly coloured and on the large side – somewhere between the size of a dinner plate and a small family car. I regarded this beast quite evenly. I thought of my options: 1) run screaming from the room; 2) hit it with a chair; 3) smother it in an item of clothing and bundle it out of the door; 4) switch off the bedside light and go to sleep. It wasn’t very difficult to decide on option 4 and I drifted off in seconds. In the morning, the insect had gone without taking any of my limbs with it. I couldn’t guess how such a huge insect could have escaped the room. Had I swallowed it in the night? I think I would know if I had. Perhaps it was clinging to the underside of the bed. I didn’t bother to look.

Generally, I pursue a policy of live and let live with any living thing. Under the jetty that juts out over our ancient pond site, rats sometimes take up residence, unperturbed by the scent of dogs. Our little dog, before he lost his sight, loved to chase them. But there has been no sign of any rats for a year or two so they have perhaps moved on. I rather miss them. And I was never in the slightest alarmed by their proximity. The conventional wisdom has it that there is a rat within fifty feet of everyone on the planet (much closer in London). We are sometimes warned about the danger of diseases carried by rats but did you ever hear of anyone being made ill by the proximity of a rat? I think people who drive too fast are a much greater danger.

And that, finally, is the important point about creatures. None is remotely such a danger to us, to their fellow creatures or to the very survival of life on earth as humanity. It is man who is the creepy-crawly, the bug, the vermin, the pest, the spider in the bath.

Note: this is a refreshment of a piece (or, as my chum Simon prefers, a monograph) posted some three years ago.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012


Max Bygraves has died. I couldn’t stand the man. Talk about a jumped-up Butlin’s redcoat. He seemed to me to embody all that was awful about old-fashioned showbiz: reactionary in every way, sentimental in the nauseating sense, exuding complacency, never putting a toe outside the comfort zone, assuming entitlement over every audience.

Born Walter Bygraves, he took the name Max because his impersonation of Max Miller got him noticed. Miller’s was a long shadow in which to labour and I don’t see how Bygraves was ever worthy of the name, let alone of sharing it with the genius Max Wall.

Bygraves vintage 1956

And yet he was phenomenally successful. He had thirty gold discs – imagine that, One Direction – and he appeared in twenty Royal Variety shows. In his time, the London Palladium was the mecca to which all comedians and singers aspired, but for Bygraves it was practically a second home. He first scored there as a support act for Judy Garland, surely the greatest star ever to take the Palladium by storm. But apparently she adored him and got him a long engagement. Ah well; history relates that Garland had terrible judgment when it came to men.

The vein of golden recording that Bygraves tapped was the “singalongamax” gimmick: karaoke avant la lettre. The star would croon a familiar tune in an unhurried manner and tone-deaf listeners were encouraged to join in. You might think it would presage the death of music as an art form. Bygraves turned out dozens of these long-players. In 1974, when the concept album was the new thing, the satirically-inclined John Collis, music editor at Time Out, named Singalongamaxmas as “concept album of the year”.


How come Bygraves was so successful? I never saw him live and perhaps that is the key and perhaps it is my loss. Many stars thrive on an audience in a way that cannot be replicated on television. If you’ve only ever seen Ken Dodd on the box, for instance, you cannot know what an astonishing and unique act he has. Audiences reel from the theatre utterly exhausted.

In a BBC news tribute, Jimmy Tarbuck (another ghastly specimen in my book) reckoned that there were plenty of stars who could have the audience eating out of their hands within five minutes but that Bygraves uniquely managed to do it simply by strolling onto the stage. And in a curious way, I see that Tarbuck might be onto something.

Dorothy Lamour in her heyday

At the Palladium in November 1989, there was a gathering of old Hollywood in a gentle, nostalgic songfest. Stairway to the Stars comprised in its succulent line-up Jane Russell, Arlene Dahl, Virginia O’Brien, Kathryn Grayson, Van Johnson, Gloria DeHaven, Tony Martin, Lorna Luft, Georges Guétary (who of course sang 'I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise') and, particular treats for us, the Nicholas Brothers, Gene Nelson and Dolores Gray. Each performed numbers with more or less vim and accuracy. But one soared above the rest. Her fishtail sheath was so clinging that someone must have propelled her on from the wings. Her body was stout, her gait frail and her voice in a medley of mostly forgettable numbers was flat and wavering.

Yet she simply took the place by storm. She was Dorothy Lamour. Few who do not cherish the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby Road movies will entertain any inkling of whom I write. I have no psychological qualifications or indeed language with which to analyse what made La Lamour so entrancing. But with all her frailties and lack of conventional talent – did she have any of that, even in her youth? – she was absolutely unmistakeably a 24-carat gold star. None of the others came close. And she – like all but Dahl, DeHaven and Luft – is gone now. So you’ll just have to take my word about her remarkable presence.

Lamour in later life

At the top of the bill for the Royal Variety Show in 1978 was a woman who won and then lost the hearts of the British public, first by being a real working class entertainer, then by leaving her country early in World War II because her new husband, as an Italian citizen, would have been interned had they stayed. Again, she was someone whose appeal escaped me. Strident and bossy and with a voice that seared the eardrums, she seemed to me nearly as repellent as Bygraves.

Yet as soon as she strode onto the stage, Dame Gracie Fields had the audience in the palm of her hand. Her last public appearance at 80, it was mesmerizing. I cannot say what she did or how she did it. Perhaps it’s a chemical reaction.

Gracie's last show

Al Jolson must have had that effect on a live audience, for you look in vain in his surviving movies for what made him so greatly loved. That he was so is undeniable. His widow, Ruby Keeler, once remarked: “my husband was the greatest star in the world … as he never failed to tell me every day”. This is almost certainly the only witty remark that Keeler is ever known to have made, so she must have meant it.

Jolson's blackface act on stage 1916

Danny Kaye too had that galvanising effect on audiences, if contemporary accounts are to be believed. On screen he seems merely strenuous and irritating. Perhaps the distance in an auditorium, the lack of the camera’s unforgiving gaze, eliminates the sense of the wheels going round. Or perhaps it is the adrenalin buzz of performing live. Judy Garland’s charisma is palpable on film and video – you know she must have been sensational on stage. I knew people who saw her and they had no doubt. George M ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ Cohan will have had that elusive magic too. And Callas and Caruso. And Jack Benny and Jackie Gleason. And Piaf and Josephine Baker. And Marie Lloyd and George Robey.

Legendary Garland at Carnegie Hall 1961

Was Bygraves in this sort of class? I don’t think so. The thing about all those stars – Fields and Jolson, Garland and Piaf, Benny and Kaye – is that they were one-offs, that no one was like them. And they seemed fired by some unfakeable vibrancy, no doubt the charge that came from a live audience. Bygraves was just nonchalant and smug, an untalented and unsexy British equivalent of Dean Martin to whom his background, chutzpa and career arc could be compared. But he clearly entranced a live audience. You could posit that anyway the sort of people who would turn out for Bygraves must have been a bunch of idiots. Nevertheless, that still makes him a great big star.