Friday, 27 March 2015

Jeremy Paxman: A Little Something For the Weekend?

The interrogation of David Cameron and Ed Miliband, by a typically peppery Jeremy Paxman on Channel 4 followed the interment of King Richard III at Leicester Cathedral, a televisual curiosity presided over by an unusually sycophantic Jon Snow.

The purpose of the former programme was to see which of two main party leaders is the likely dead man walking between now and Thursday, May 7. A dramatization of the formation of the Coalition between Conservatives and Liberal-Democrats after the 2010 General Election which was due to be screened was postponed until Saturday night.

At that election I voted UKIP as it was then the only party opposed to Britain's membership of the greater empire of the European Union, an issue of politics rather than trade as even the most earnest Europhile would admit - were he or she willing to submit to a Jeremy Kyle-style lie detector test.

This time round I won't be Ukipping. I'll be voting for the party offering me the opportunity to take part in a referendum on future membership of the EU. As that's David Cameron's party you don't need to masticate three Weetabix to work out which lot that's going to be.

That's not the reason why I sat through most of the Cameron-Miliband show. For old time's sake I wanted to see whether Paxo still had what it takes since retiring from Newsnight (which has yet to find an adequate replacement. One difference between Paxo and his imitators is that he listens carefully and, when he does reply or interrupt, keeps his thrusts short and to the point - sometimes to the point of impertinence. No Brian Walden, he).

He gave both Cameron and Miliband a bit of a mauling on, respectively, food banks, zero hours contract working, debt, immigration and, in passing, the EU. The Prime Minister, perky as a pink pork sausage, the wings of his hair brushed back behind his ears, looked the least discomfited of the two. The Labour Leader, edgy Ed,told that he contrasted unfavourably with his brother David, did his best to laugh it off; but evidently felt he had something to prove by reminding his interrogator of how he had stood up to President Obama, "the leader of the Free World" by not agreeing to the bombing of Syria last year.

The two of them were interviewed separately. Each of them had a separate 18-minute Q&A with the studio audience. Strangely though, or perhaps appropriately, both of them adopted the same style: walking about the stage, addressing interlocutors by their first name, doing their best to be personable, approachable, friendly even. I'd have preferred them to be authoritative, sympathetic but decisive. I don't want a pal in Number 10 but somebody who knows what he is doing and why. A prime minister cannot be all things to all people. More to the point, nor should he try to be. Most people I think can forgive errors of judgement when they are openly and honestly admitted.

Miliband was a bit better at this than Cameron, I thought. He gave a slightly more plausible impression of being sincere, He acknowledged some of the mistakes of principally the three Blair administrations - the war on Iraq, the deregulation of the banks, uncontrolled migration - and added one or two others: the growing inequality gap, for example. About membership of the EU he said he thought the chance of a Labour Government offering a referendum most unlikely, he couldn't see it happening unless there was another significant transfer of powers from Westminster. And he defended Britain's membership by waffling airily about jobs and trade.

I didn't expect anyone to challenge these assertions and they didn't. The great interrogator might have interjected, 'hang on a minute Mr Miliband, isn't Britain down by more than £7 billion in its balance of payments with the other 27 EU members?' The closest he came to that was when he chided him for facing two ways on energy providers, supporting higher bills when he was Climate Change Secretary in Gordon Brown's Government and opposing them recently as Leader of the Opposition. Miliband said that didn't mean power companies had the right to rip off the public.    

During the Richard III service a bit of eye-rolling from the pews caught my eye during the address by the Bishop of Leicester, I think it was, to the effect that the dead king was bringing together a diverse range of people. It made me squirm, as did the presence of the Royal Navy and celebrities such as John Sergeant and some of the 'look at me' hats of the women. Only the singing struck an inner chord as did part of Carol Ann Duffy's unusual sonnet (two quintets followed by a quatrain, enjambment and internal rhyming), especially the last bit in which Richard addresses posterity.

Who will the nation bury on May 7? Another Richard, Richard North, has already posted his opinion: Miliband and Clegg. If he's wrong and Cameron fails, the Conservative Party will bury him alive in the equivalent of Bosworth field. Unless of course he falls on his own sword first.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Jeremy Clarkson: Who's Gonna Drive You Home?

So, au revoir Jeremy Clarkson,
not farewell because you have not died -
except in the BBC's estimation.
You crossed the line, they said,
without taking the chequered flag.
Top Gear won't be the same.
Sunday nights won't be the same.
The Cheddar Valley Gazette
won't be the same after splashing
your departure on its front page.
Purveyors of caravans
and supporters of bus lanes
will be celebrating the loss
of your BBC parking spot.
Ditto Argentina.
Perhaps Stephen Fry will replace you.
He once drove a London cab
across the United States.
Why was never clear to me.
Boris Johnson could take over
when he fails to dislodge
head boy Cameron.
Or former Rock singer
Professor Brian Cox.
Either of them
would drive anyone
round the bend,
with or without
a crimson Ferrari.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Sagittarians Rejoice...Revisited

David Archer has heard the voice of his dead father Phil and is now resolved not to sell Brookfield Farm for more than £7 million to a developer. Archers fans, even the fed up ones, rejoice.

The breakfast tables of Britain must have been awash with dropped tears of joy and relief today. We were doing the breakfast and caught the last 20 minutes of the omnibus edition and heard David evidently delivering a calf and ruminating aloud to himself that this was the last one that would ever be born at Brookfield to the Archer family.

The voice of his father came back to him, Phil Archer saying how much he regretted some of the decisions he had made. He was committing the future of Brookfield to the care of David and his wife Ruth. That's when David, quite understandably, broke up. It was a great moment.

More was to follow when he rushed off to tell his mum, Jill, the mother of the nation. The thought of her leaving Ambridge and Brookfield has been too much to contemplate these last few months. Wily old Jill, whose life has always been outward - unlike self-pitying Peggy - understood perfectly the sub-text of her troubled son's distress. Deep down she always he knew he wouldn't, couldn't, tear himself away from his beloved farm.

The likely ructions when his family relations find out that he's changed his mind can only be imagined. Most of them are looking forward to profitably cashing in their shares in Brookfield and setting themselves up for life. Ruth Archer's strategy has been to get David to move to the North East so that she can be nearer her ailing mother Heather. That little problem is easily resolved, of course: the producers can kill off Heather, perhaps Ruth and Peggy Archer while they're at it.

In a disastrously changing world, David Archer's 11th hour change of heart may be of no significance; nevertheless it's good to hear somebody stand up for traditions rooted in the emotions of the heart. David Archer's a man of cattle not the quick buck.

Since posting this, the River Am has burst its banks, spilling into Ambridge and isolating groups of villagers. David Archer, delivered of conniving Ruth who is visiting her mother, finds himself stranded while his daughter Pip is cut off at Brookfield. As though that wasn't enough, the poor chap has had to bed down near or next to Linda Snell, repining her lost furniture abandoned to the waters of the Am. Today's entire omnibus edition, 75 minutes, was given over to the flood and its consequences. Brilliantly done, I thought. Radio at its best. Hooray!

Monday, 16 February 2015

Fifty Shades of Graham Greene...

According to the company Illicit Encounters, 438 of 500 of its surveyed members who have read E L James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, or who have seen Sam Taylor Wood’s film adaptation, have had an affair because their sex lives were boring compared to the erotic S and M goings on of literature student Anastasia Steele and multimillionaire businessman Christian Grey.

For the past 12 years Illicit Encounters has been “providing a meeting place for like-minded married and attached people” who fancy a bit of strange they haven’t got with their regular partners.


Of the gallant 500, 309 said “they invested in handcuffs, ropes, leather or whips...” The information inspired Bradford "hardware store" Uriah Woodhead to take out a full-page newspaper advertisement showing in black and white a partially masked woman’s face. Her lips are coloured, red. “...naughty but nice,” goes the logo.“ We’ve got it all tied up with Fifty Shades of Grey goodie bags for your indulgence!” Well, beat my botty with a bit of two b' four.

Shades of Barry Bucknell, the man who popularised Do It Yourself on national television for three or four decades. Bedrooms littered with bits of leather, rope and other odds and sods? Oh well, if the sexy sadism isn't up to much you can always enjoy yourself with a spot of handicraft, home improvements.

“S and M can be so thrilling and exciting. I’m glad 50 Shades has made it more mainstream, even if it’s just something mild like blindfolding or handcuffing!”  says Claire Page, spokesperson for IllicitEncounters.com.  Right. If ever I meet somebody who’s been on the wrong end of sex trafficking in Rotherham, Oxford or Keighley, I’ll be sure to ask them to describe the thrill of being blindfolded, handcuffed and violated.

In James’ bit of escapist wishful thinking, the exotic literature student Anastasia – she wouldn’t be a trainee nurse from Kuala Lumpar, would she – describes the experience of being hit between her legs with a whip by Christian Grey – he wouldn’t be a zero hours contract waiter from Wolverhampton, would he - On his second circuit, he suddenly flicks the crop, and it hits me underneath my behind...against my sex...The shock runs through me, and it’s the sweetest, strangest, hedonistic feeling...My body convulses at the sweet, stinging bite.

All the lasses are like that In Wallsend. I can report that once, accidentally, my progenitalior got caught in my trouser zip. The effect that convulsed me was far from sweet, strange or hedonistic. Rather than repeat the performance for pleasure, I resolved to be more careful in future. If I remember rightly, that was round about the time that Erica Jong’s novel, Fear of Flying, caused a sensation, principally because of her notion of the “zipless fuck” –an experience to be enjoyed between strangers on a train or a plane. 

The era of free love gave rise to a good deal of imaginative letter-writing in the glossy pages of magazines such as Playboy. The things people got up to in the toilets on the 8.45am to Chuffing Sodbury. 

Glossy porn, which is what this stuff was, made uninitiated DIY practitioners feel inadequate. If you weren’t regularly having ecstatic encounters with women who looked like Folies Begere dancers you couldn’t properly call yourself a man. What Katie did naturally and what Katie would be willing to do if worked on persuasively were not the moral considerations they are in our age of date rape, grooming and sex trafficking.

Ted Bundy, the young and handsome American serial killer, gave an interview on death row in which he said that he started out at 13 by getting excited by S and M magazine pornography he found on a dump. The more graphic and violent the images the better he liked it. From that he graduated to raping, torturing and killing at least 28 young women and girls. Evidently he found S and M “thrilling and exciting.”

So did the Marquis de Sade. He wrote 120 Days of Sodom on a long scroll of paper while in the Bastille in 1785. In this he laid bare, or attempted to, scores of deviant practices ranging from anal rape to ritualistic murder. I don’t know whether he was attempting, metaphorically, to expose the iniquities of pre-Revolution French society or sexorcise his own demons. 

I’ve never read the roll, nor have I seen the two films based on it, Luis Bunuel’s L’Age d’Or (1930) or Pier Paulo Pasionlini’s Salo (1975). Let’s not forget that Fifty Shades of Grey was preceded by these films and others such as Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (1974). How Dirk Bogarde must have enjoyed contradicting his image as an innocent buffoon in all those Doctor in the House film comedies of the 1950s.

Had Joe Orton outlived his relationship with Kenneth Halliwell he might have revised his notion that the only pleasure to be got from life involved polishing his genitalia. Having lived for nearly twice as long as the Oscar Wilde of Leicester I can say that other imperatives take precedence, such as caring for the unwell or unhappy, looking after your wife/partner and family, loving life if you can, and making sure you’ve got enough money to get by. Orton never lived through a recession: I’ve lived through three of them and, indirectly, lost a lot of money. Nothing like a bit of hardship for cooling the blood. When you’re down and out in Bradford, London, Paris, or on the back roads of Syria, hedonism's the last thing coursing through your veins.

Christian squirts baby oil into his hand and then rubs my behind with careful tenderness - from makeover remover to soothing balm for a spanked ass, who would have thought it was such a versatile liquid?  But for the use of the word ass - a West Coast Americanism - I might have thought this a spoof by Alan Bennett or Sally Wainwright in an episode of Last Tango in Halifax.

I'm boring. I don't like surprises - surprises are akin to nasty practical jokes which other people always find funny. I would prefer to shop at M and S than indulge in a bout of S and M with some female trussed up in ship's rigging of stockings and suspenders - like an extra-Parliamentary Black Rod. My love's manners in bed/ are not to be discussed by me,/ as mine by her/ I would not credit comment upon gracefully, says Robert Creeley in his poem The Way. That's my kind of dog.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

War and Peace

More than 45 years ago, on Tuesday, December 30, 1969, BBC Radio 4 broadcast the first of 20 hour-long episodes of Tolstoy's War and Peace.

Edited by Michael Bakewell and directed by Ronald Mason from the translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude, doubtless with sound effects from the innovative BBC Radiophonic Workshop, this audio epic would have kept me indoors for most if not all of those 20 Tuesday evenings after The Archers, from 7pm to 8pm.

My poor old mum would have had no say in the matter. The cast included great radio actors such as David Buck as Count Pierre Bezukov, Martin Jarvis as Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, Stephen Murray as his stern father the old Prince Bolkonsky, Denys Hawthorne as Tolstoy, Sean Barrett as Fedya Dolokhov, Kate Binchy as Natasha Rostov, Anna Cropper as Prince Andrei's ill-fated wife Lise and Patricia Gallimore as Sonya.

Those 20 hours dramatised the novel with Tolstoy as the narrator. Broadcasts like that were electrifying then. Napoleon figured prominently, of course, which would have been meat and drink to me aged 20. At the tail end of 1969 I saw only the historic man of destiny, moving armies across Europe and winning battles as though they were European Cup Finals. I got hold of Emil Ludwig's dramatised chronicle - "more readable than reliable," according to one critic - unable to believe my luck. Had I seen Abel Gance's movie Napoleon I'm sure I would have convinced myself that it was a piece of cinema verite. My imagination pictured things in cinemascope in those days. Of all the actors probably the one whose voice I can still hear in character is Stephen Murray's irascible Bolkonsky, hiding his feelings by storming off to some obscure part of his Bald Hills estate to resume shoe-mending or carpentry.

Timberlake Wertenbaker's adaptation of War and Peace for Radio 4 on New Year's Day has the credit of attempting something different. The ten-hour dramatisation doesn't have a scene-setting story-teller; instead, members of the Rostov family and their friends, including Pierre Bezukov and Lieutenant Colonel Denisov, recount their experiences of the wars against the French to their children: these experiences are then dramatised. The only thing wrong with this is that you know right from the start who survives. I also missed Prince Andrei's vision of the eternity on the bloody battlefield at Austerlitz. It was recounted rather than dramatised as I remember it being 45 years ago. This adaptation has a lot of telling.

Again, the voice that made the most impact belonged to the old Prince Bolkonsky, this time played by John Hurt. Tolstoy's philosophical historicism is explained by Pierre the erstwhile defender of Napoleon, who attempts to assassinate him. Tolstoy had a short way with the great men of history idea, declaring that the Battle of Borodino, outside Moscow, would have happened irrespective of the wishes of either Bonaparte or Tsar Alexander I. Great men are the pawns of history not its prime movers. The whole point of War and Peace is the futility of this delusion. I think Tolstoy should have dramatised this view, put it in the mouth of a character, the way he puts worldly scepticism in the mouth of Levin in Anna Karenina. Having Tolstoy banging on about it gets tiresome, as tiresome as Henry Fielding's prefaces in Tom Jones.

Tolstoy believed people were naturally good and required only freedom to realise their goodness. History, he thought, was the story of the fall from paradise. Interestingly, William Blake had a similar view about the story of Eden, the fall from eternity into historical time. Tolstoy maintained that truth is eternal, not conditional upon culture or events. The Bible, the Illiad, folk tales and folk songs, spring forth from ordinary people and are intelligible to all everywhere, as are fables.    

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Selma...

The murder of Martin Luther King Junior on April 4, 1968, does not figure in Ava Duvernay's fine film Selma. A couple of blogs I read beforehand nearly put me off going. But one of them made an interesting connection with Steven Spielberg's film Lincoln. I admired this account of Lincoln's fight to get the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery through Congress, though I disliked John Williams's overly intrusive, emotionally lush score.

Having seen the film I think that connection is right. Selma focuses almost entirely on the battle in 1965 to persuade President Johnson to force a Bill through Congress prohibiting states from legally blocking negroes from registering to vote. In the film that battle is won on the road from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital of Alabama, as the nation watches on television demonstrators being gassed, bludgeoned, bullwhipped and shot by Sherrif Jim Clark's helmeted policemen. And all the while J Edgar Hoover's FBI keeps a close watch on the Civil Rights main men. Teletype reports clatter across the bottom of the screen as an angry Lyndon Johnson tries to delay a confrontation with Congress. 

What touched me most deeply was not the bloodshed, the snarling bullying. Having watched all 14 episodes of the television documentary Eyes on the Prize I knew what had happened to those impossibly brave Freedom Riders, the lunch counter protestors and southern state marchers. Before going to the cinema I wondered why anybody needed to see Selma if they had seen Eyes on the Prize. It was the dramatisation of the conflict within the Civil Rights movement about tactics and the deeply brooding self-doubts of Dr King, surrounded by the "fog of death", that affected me more.

One of the conflicts involved the reformed Black Muslim Malcolm X. In the film he arrives in Selma to address a church meeting and there's a confrontation between him and Coretta King. In the past Malcolm X had denigrated the supposed passivity of King's non-violence, likening King to an Uncle Tom, willing to appease oppressors. Malcolm X underwent a transformation from advocating an eye for a eye. This wasn't shown in the film because, I suppose, it was a side issue. But the murder of Malcolm X, three weeks after making that speech, was referred to.

The concentration on the matter at hand from both the director and Paul Webb, the screenwriter, kept the tension of the drama intact. But there would have been no dramatic tension without the central performances of David Oyelowo as King, Tom Wilkinson as LBJ, Tim Roth as Alabama Governor George Wallace, Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper, Carmen Ojogo as Correta King and the actors who played Civil Rights activists Ralph Abernathy, James Orange and especially Andrew Young. David Oyelowo rose to the occasion without overly emotionalising the role. He showed King rising above himself in spite of the doubts, the fear, the terror. Emotional turmoil and anguish were sometimes registered with a deeply melancholy inhalation of breath. King knew he was there to be hated and shot at. What was more terrible to him was that others were being hated and shot in his name.

In both Lincoln and Selma legislative objectives are triumphantly attained. In Spielberg's film the President is assassinated. Duvernay resists the temptation of ending her film with King's murder at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. I think she made the right judgement. This is not a film about victims and villains: it is a film about injustice in which both black and white people of conscience and good will are battered and murdered. King's final speech, in front of the state house in Montgomery, brought to my mind one of Bob Dylan's evocative Civil Rights songs, Only a Pawn in Their Game, which starts off with the murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers - for which none of the white suspects was ever convicted - and goes on to include the poor white trash who are encouraged to invest in their fear and hatred against black people.Divide and rule.




Saturday, 24 January 2015

That's How Winning is Done

Manchester City getting booted out of the FA Cup at home by Middlesbrough...Manchester United nearly getting booted out by Cambridge United...Premiership table-toppers Chelsea getting booted out 2-4 at home to Division One Bradford City after being 2-0 up...half the Premier League out of the competition already. All this and side two of The Beatles' Abbey Road. Who really gives a fuck about party political debates on television?

City's unlikely victory, voted the biggest ever FA Cup upset by Match of the Day watchers, comes in the 30th year of the fire disaster at Valley Parade in which 56 people were killed, an event that was as unlikely and ridiculous as City burning down Chelsea yesterday. Since then, for those who don't know or don't care, City's fortunes have mirrored the fluctuating fortunes of the nation. The fall from the Premiership 14 seasons ago was followed by relegation and two or three spells in financial administration. It's been a hand-to-mouth existence. If there was a food bank for football clubs, City would have been queuing for grub.

In 2013 the club, then in Division Two, shocked the footballing world by rolling over Premiership clubs Wigan, Arsenal and Aston Villa to reach the Capital Cup Final at Wembley where they were torn apart by Swansea. That defeat didn't knock the stuffing out of them. They returned to the stadium that same season to comfortably conquer Northampton Town in the Division Two play-off final. Since then the new team's league form has fluctuated between the abysmal and the admirable.

City's struggle to survive and improve reminds me of Rocky Balboa's speech in the movie Rockie V, when the ageing boxer responds to his angry son with a bit of reluctant truth-telling - one of the highlights of a pretty good film:-

Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows. It's a very mean and nasty place and I don't care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winnin' is done...Until you start believin' in yourself you ain't gonna have a life.

Doesn't matter if City get knocked out in the next round, the fifth round; they've already gone beyond their own expectations and made a little bit of footballing history, reaffirming the validity of their two uplifting Wembley appearances in 2013.