Monday, 15 June 2015

Holmes Alone (again)

Matters of state will just have to wait while I adjust to my new life of post-redundancy. I have good days and bad moments. Yesterday was one of the good days. It started with a trip to the National Media Museum for Sunday morning pictures to see a Picture House preview of Mr Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes has been a presence through most of my life. As a youth I listened to Carlton Hobbs and the avuncular Norman Shelley do their Holmes and Watson double-act on the radio. I didn't think anyone would improve on that until I saw Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke do theirs for Granada Television. Dominic Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman have their moments in the most recent television series although I think technical ingenuity tends to dominate.

In the latest incarnation of Arthur Conan Doyle's forensic consulting detective, Holmes is alone: Dr Watson, Mrs Hudson and brother Mycroft are long dead. The story switches back and forwards to Holmes' last case, when he was 58, to post war Japan in 1945 and just beyond. Holmes, aged 93, lives in ramshackle, somewhat crumbling, country hideaway not far from Dover where he tends bees to acquire the material for Royal Jelly, tries to write what he calls a factual account of his last case and is visited by his doctor.

Holmes, in the early stages of Alzheimers, is asked to make a dot in a diary every time he struggles to remember something. There is a snowstorm of them by the end of the film, but by this time the inhuman reasoning machine - to whom the "softer passions" were to be avoided lest, like a speck of dust in a lens, they interfere with logical analysis - has come full circle. Sir Ian McKellen adds emotion to Holmes mental powers.

This is also a story about fiction and fact. "I have no use for imagination," Holmes says during a visit to Japan in search of a rare plant, the Prickly Ash. He finds it with the help of a Japanese man in the ashes of Hiroshima. Holmes believes it will help restore his memory better than Royal Jelly. Throughout the story Holmes retreats to his study to wrestle with the events of his last case. Unlike his dead friend Watson, he wants no embellishment, no imaginative decoration - just the facts.

But the facts were so painful that Holmes buried them in the past. All he knows is that 35 years ago he retired from public life to lessen the risk of inadvertently harming anyone else. With the encouragement of his housekeeper's young son, Roger, Holmes breaks through the wall of silence he has imposed over more than 30 years and has a moment of revelation, which I shall not reveal.

The story is poignant, witty in places, slightly implausible, but nevertheless entertaining and enjoyable - not least because of Carter Burwell's wonderful chamber orchestra score. And McKellen's acting. It's not Gandalf as Sherlock Holmes, but there is something of Prospero in it, a part which I saw McKellen play in a touring version of The Tempest six or seven years ago. His facial expressiveness and verbal annunciation compel pleasurable attention.

This is a film without villains. There are no shoot-outs, no chases, no Dolby Stereo heavy duty soundtrack. A film for old bastards with nothing better to do than divert themselves at the cinema? Perhaps, though I think there is much more to Mr Holmes than that. I saw it twice. 

Monday, 25 May 2015

On the Road When I was Young

It seems to me that Steve Tilston has never sought fame on anything but his own terms. He has been driven by his own enthusiasm for his chosen subject matter.  He writes beautiful words and melodies and when our generation of songwriters is assessed on our contribution to our time, Steve’s work will rank alongside much better known artistsRalph McTell

British folk singer-songwriter Steve Tilston inspired the storyline of Danny Collins the film starring Annete Bening, Bobby Cannavale, Jennifer Garner, Al Pacino as a washed-up Rock star in his sixties living off his reputation and Christopher Plummer as his friend and manager Frank. In the film Frank gives Danny a surprise birthday present: a framed letter written to him by John Lennon in 1971. The letter startles Danny into revaluating his broken-down life, sustained by cocaine, booze and the uncritical admiration of elderly fans, and make some hard choices.

Sounds corny, but the film is funny, poignant and thoroughly entertaining. And it's based on a true story. In 1971 John Lennon read a magazine article in which Steve Tiltson expressed anxiety about the detrimental effect on him as a performer of wealth and fame. Lennon, rolling in both, told him not to worry about it; he had been poor and rich and neither detracted from his song-writing.

None of this was known to me until Sunday when Lesley and I went to Sunday morning pictures to see Danny Collins. After we came home I looked on the net and found Lennon's original letter. Moreover I found on Youtube a little film of Steve Tilston singing and playing his song On the Road When I was Young. I played it three or four times; the tune is still with me. Thirty-eight years ago I started out on an unknown road as a 28-year-old apprentice journalist on a regional evening newspaper. That road comes to an end this Friday, May 29. Steve Tilston's song could not be bettered as a valedictory.

Danny Collins is not a better film than Robert Altman's Nashville, released 40 years ago in 1975 when John Lennon was going through strange times in America; but it is more appealing. Altman's epic, like Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party and Nuts in May, is excrutiating, at least it is to me, because none of the characters is remotely appealing. That's not accidental: Altman felt it like that and meant it to be like that. The final scene, following the assassination of folk legend Barbara Jean, gunned down on stage at a political rally, ends with Barbara Harris singing "It Don't Worry Me". I could eat my knuckles at the awfulness of what's being implied, especially when a negro choir joins in...It don't worry me, it don't worry me/ You may say that I ain't free, it don't worry me...

Robert Altman comes up because at a previous Sunday morning pictures outing we saw a double bill: a feature documentary about Altman's career as a television and movie director, and then The Long Goodbye, a Raymond Chandler story that I could actually follow thanks to Altman's direction. He got into pictures after coming out of the US armed forces and going to see Brief Encounter, which made him cry. My future life will be spent in part going to the pictures on Sunday morning, Tuesday morning and maybe Wednesday afternoon. Between films there'll be time to reflect on the road when I was young.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Everywhere We Go...

This is me walking towards today's service of remembrance for the 56 people who died in the Bradford City Fire Disaster at Valley Parade on Saturday, May 11, 1985.

Thirty years ago I walked away from the burning main stand believing that everybody had got out. In the early hours of Sunday morning, May 12, I knew that many had not.
At today's service the Bishop of Bradford, the Right Reverend Toby Haworth, spoke forcefully of light prevailing over darkness. That Sunday morning, I looked out of the window of my top storey flat and saw above Valley Parade the blue glow of a solitary floodlight above the area where the bodies were discovered. It was not poetic but deeply poignant. Bradford is still coming to terms with the experience. Today I felt proud of my adopted city, battered old Bradford, that has looked after me for 40 years. 

The names of the dead were announced and after each name a bell in the tower of City Hall chimed once. In recent weeks, much has been made in the national media of the multiple losses suffered by the Fletcher family: four of them did not return home on May 11. But as the names were called out and the bell sounded, the multiple losses suffered by other families, families not highlighted by the media, reminded me that Bradford, collectively, had been here nearly 100 years before.

On Saturday, July 1, 1916, hundreds of volunteer soldiers from the 16th and 18 Battalions of the Bradford Pals were sent over the top at the opening battle of the Somme offensive. Many of them were among the British Army's 60,000 casualties that day. Three or four hundred of them were among the bodies of the 20,000 dead. The memory of the multiple deaths suffered by Bradford families in 1916 came back to me as the bell rang for the families of the dead at Valley Parade:-   

Jack Leo Coxon, Leo Anthony Coxon; David James Crabtree, Harry Crabtree; Muriel Firth, Samuel Firth; Andrew Fletcher, Edmund Fletcher, John Fletcher, Peter Fletcher; Felix Winspear Greenwood, Peter Greenwood, Rupert Benedict Greenwood; Edith Hindle, Fred Hindle; Gordon McPherson, Irene McPherson; Gerald Priestley Ormondroyd, Richard John Ormondroyd, Robert Ian Ormondroyd; Craig Albert Stockman, Jayne Ashley Stockman, Trevor John Stockman; Howard Turner, Sarah Turner.

Among them was an elderly couple, I was told, who, trapped by the speed of the fire and knowing they could not escape it, held hands as the flames engulfed them

Thirty years ago Valley Parade, like most Third Division grounds, was in a state of delapidation. Watching professional football in grounds little better than cow sheds was part of the culture. The state of the ground reflected the state of the city in the aftermath of the recession that ripped through industry after the oil price hike by OPEC. City's hardcore supporters, accustomed to disappointment on the pitch, had a chant of their own which they hurled at rival fans from the steep, open terraces of the Kop: This is the Valley, the Valley of death. When results were really bad they sang it at themselves. Gallows humour was ever a part of the experience of following a lower league club in 1985. After the fire they stopped singing it.

You'll Never Walk Alone and Abide With Me were sung today. But part of me wanted to hear the chant that comes from the steep covered Kop of the rebuilt Valley Parade:- Everywhere we go, everywhere we go, it's the Bradford boys making all the noise, everywhere we go.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

PR and the Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

A campaign is underway for a system of Proprtional Representation, what Paddy Ashdown glibly used to refer to as "fair votes".

The argument has been going on for years. Is it fair that the nearly four million votes cast for Ukip in Thursday's General Election resulted in just one MP, whereas 1.5m votes for the SNP in Scotland resulted in 56?

PR would share parliamentary seats according to the number of votes cast for each party, putting an end to swing voting and marginal seats, we are told. The sense of disenfranchisement and disillusion would diminish as more people realised their vote counted for something.

Various forms of PR are employed all over the world. It's used to select British Members of the European Parliament, so why isn't it deployed in general elections to our own House of Commons?  I don't know, but I hope it isn't. I don't wish the fair votes petition well, I hope it fails. Why?

In part because I think that too much democracy leads to poor decision-making or no decision-making; parliamentary representation shared out according to votes is bound to increase the number of small parties which will regard its MP as a single-issue delegate rather than a representative of all the people in a constituency - including those who didn't vote for that person.

Representing people who didn't vote for you is what real democracy is, for it tacitly acknowledges other views, other standpoints, other arguments. I was once Father of an NUJ chapel and quickly found out how difficult it is representing others with whom you might not entirely agree.

The argument for PR - it militates against single-party domination - is also an argument against PR - it causes factionalism which in turn can encourage parties of political or religious extremes. 'Oh no!' I hear you cry, 'You're not going to bring up the Weimar Republic as an example!' Of course I am. On the day Victory in Europe was celebrated in London, why wouldn't I?

Between 1919 and 1933 Germany was governed by 21 coalitions. And we know what happened in January 1933 as a result of prolonged instability: power was handed to Adolf Hitler's National Socialist Party. The Nazis, like the German Communist Party, were encouraged by the constitution of the Weimar Republic.

A system of PR operated. Germany was divided into 35 equal electoral districts. If a party got 60,000 votes in a district it got one deputy in the lower house of the Reichstag. Party officials chose who that deputy would be. If the number of votes was half that in several districts the votes were added up and an appropriate number of deputies was allocated.

In addition, plebicites or referenda were offered on specific issues. Under Article 48 of the constitution, the President  had emergency powers to abolish governments and suspend all human rights. Which is precisely what Hitler did as Chancellor after the Reichstag fire. He persuaded President Hindenburg to give him the power to outlaw political opposition and trades unions.

I wasn't there. But the American reporter William S Shirer was, in Berlin, up until December 1941 when Hitler declared war on the United States. This is what he says in his book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich about Weimar's system of governance.

The weaknesses of the Weimar regime were obvious. There were too many political parties, and they were too much at cross purposes. Too absorbed by looking after the special interests they represented, they were unable to form an enduring majority in the Reichstag that could back a stable govenment.

Parliamentary government had become what a majority of Germans called 'kuh handel' - cattle trading - with the partners bargaining for special advantages for the groups which elected them, and the national interests be damned. 

It had been impossible to achieve a majority in the Reichstag for any policy - of the Left, the Center or the Right. Merely to carry on the business of government it was necessary to resort to Article 48 of ther constitution, which in an emergency permitted the chancellor, if the president approved , to govern by decree.

Although I won't be alone in having voted for a party, not especially a candidate, I've always done so knowing the identity of that party's candidate in advance. I don't like the idea of having an MP conferred on me after the election. I like the first-past-the-post system. Since 2010 it has given Britain coalition government and now single party government.

One defeated Liberal-Democrat MP I spoke to the day after the General Election told me that on the doorstep people complained that MPs from different parties needed to work together more. At the same time they criticised Liberal-Democrats for abandoning their principles by working with the Conservatives.
Many of those nearly 4m people who voted Ukip were tactical voters more interested in keeping somebody out than getting somebody elected. The SNP, as I have said elsewhere, were beneficiaries of Labour Party incompetence. The SNP replaced the Liberal-Democrats as Britain's third party. Temporarily. Five years from now the picture could be very different.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Mili-Clint. The Shape of Things to Come.

There was I, getting on with my work, when a wall-screen on the far wall started showing pictures of Ed Miliband in full flow. Evidently the Labour leader was telling a gathering of the party faithful (the Shadow Cabinet were there) that he was "ready for power".

The last time he had the reins of power between his teeth, of course, he was Gordon Brown's Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and signed us up to the EU's carbon capture programme. Brownie points if you believe in Apocalypse Now (in 2017). None if you don't.
I got on with my work. When next I looked up Hillary Clinton was beaming winningly at me. Evidently, the former First Lady of the United States intends to pitch for the Democratic ticket in the next Presidential election.

The last time I took any notice of her she was beaming winningly at David Miliband, who was Gordon Brown's Foreign Secretary. Hillary, on the footslopes of the Everest of ultimate power, was President Obama's Secretary of State, 2009-2013.

Head down again, I contemplated the future should these two events come to pass. On this side of the Atlantic, the Miliband dynasty, on the other side of the Atlantic, the Clinton dynasty.

The prospect of Miliband and Clinton in power at the same time will doubtless cause a flutter of excitement among those who view the alternative as likely to encourage the advance of what Heaven 17 call "that fascist groove thing".

Some of them may have second thoughts after a year of sanctimonious trend-setting - those who haven't taken advantage of the job opportunities, that is.

Monday, 30 March 2015

The Fox and the Duck, a Fable For Our Times?

While waiting outside the front door of 10 Downing Street today, waiting for the start of the General Election campaign, members of the Fourth Estate saw a fox cross the pavement outside the official residence of the Prime Minister and First Lord of the Admiralty.

Reportedly, Reynard was chasing a duck although on ITV News it appeared to be quite insouciant about the prospect of a duck dinner. They didn't say if the duck was lame. If it was should we assume that the fox caught it and that in the greater scheme of things this means something?

Are these signs and wonders pointing to a Labour, Liberal-Democrat, Green pact seven days after May? A tri-partite coalition, a triple-decker Whopper, if the lastest polls are correct in forecasting no overall control for either the Conservatives or Labour. Why those three parties? Because they are devoted to the European Union and all its works. Continued membership of the greater European empire along with the financial implications of EU climate change, are policies they can all agree on, would be happy to agree on.

In the words of William Blake's The Voice of the Ancient Bard:-

Folly is an endless maze,
Tangled roots perplex her ways,
How many have fallen there!
They stumble all night over bones of the dead,
And feel they know not what but care,
And wish to lead others when they should be led.

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!