Tuesday 28 September 2010

Too little, too soon in Labour's opera?

The prize for the most useless text message of all time must surely go to the one I received at teatime on Saturday, reading “Miliband wins!”

Since the sender is a fan of both textspeak and The X-Factor, I wondered for a nanosecond whether a military band had scored an unlikely victory in Simon Cowell’s latest talent contest. But I swiftly realised that the timing was all wrong, and fired up the news on my BlackBerry to satisfy my intense curiosity about which of the geeky north London political obsessives had seized the glittering prize of leadership of the Labour party.

At the time, I was on my way to see a Baroque opera of almost incredible obscurity: Steffani’s Niobe, Regina di Tebe (first staged in 1688, next performed in 2008 and only now receiving its British premiere). This was a bizarre and hugely complex tale involving a two-timing queen, her world-weary and indecisive husband and assorted gods, priests, a winged magician and malevolent underworld spirits. Much like the Labour party conference, in fact.

It culminated in a most convincing fire engulfing the palace of Thebes, killing all the royal children, whereupon the king committed suicide and Niobe herself turned to stone in despair. And I could only think: yes, that will be pretty much like the atmosphere at Ma Miliband’s house next time they all get together for a big family gathering, only with better music.

It is as though the Archbishop of Canterbury were about to place the crown on the 80-year-old Prince of Wales’s head, and Prince Andrew swanned up and grabbed it for himself.

Not being a Labour supporter myself, I naturally rejoice in the party’s selection of the more left wing candidate for the post, and one whose name so conveniently rhymes with “red”. But as a Briton, I deeply regret that our alternative Prime Minister is now a 40-year-old who has only five years’ experience in Parliament and has never held down a job outside politics. It is all too little, too soon.

It is ironic that one of the accusations levelled against Ed during the campaign was that he had been dithering and indecisive in office, when his brother might well have been Labour leader today if he hadn’t bottled a series of opportunities to dethrone Gordon Brown. True, there is the saying that he who wields the dagger rarely gains the crown. But the political career graveyard is also full of those who let “I dare not” wait upon “I would”.

Is a bit of dithering indecision at the top necessarily such a bad thing, in any case? It might have spared us Iraq and Afghanistan.

As a younger brother myself, I have some sympathy with Ed Miliband’s defiance of the convention that the older sibling should be the brighter high-achiever, with the number two being dimmer, nicer and ready to step into the elder’s shoes if he should go under the proverbial bus.

But isn’t it a bit odd that, in a nation of 60 million people, the choice for leadership of one of our great political parties should ultimately came down to one between two brothers? What does that say for Labour’s success in widening opportunity for all over the last 110 years?

The track record of younger brothers in political leadership does not seem all that impressive, but might the world have been a better place if Ted Kennedy, Raul Castro or Jeb Bush had been first to the top? No, probably not.

The obvious British precedent is of a most distinguished foreign secretary who never made it to Number 10, despite being leader of his party in the House of Commons. He was called Austen Chamberlain and he had a younger half-brother called Neville who did ultimately claim the prize. Remind me, how did that one turn out?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Hell is good business for religion

I wonder how the world will look to those unfortunate Chilean copper miners when, God willing, they finally emerge blinking into the daylight after four months or more trapped underground?

They may well be shocked by how attitudes have changed during their incarceration. Heaven knows I was uncharacteristically busy for just four days last week, so not paying my usual close attention to the media, and the chattering world transformed itself.

When I tuned out, the Pope was about to arrive for a visit that was unequivocally billed as a disaster in the making. An unholy alliance of national treasure Stephen Fry, atheist archbishop Richard Dawkins and serial human (but particularly gay) rights campaigner Peter Tatchell had all declared him wholly unwelcome.

Prof. Dawkins, indeed, had slated him as "the head of the world's second most evil religion", curiously without spelling out the proud holder of the number one spot, though he probably did not have Buddhism in mind.

The press was full of the prosecution case from AIDS to women’s rights, via contraception, child abuse, homosexuality and the Hitler Youth. Congregations were dwindling, seminaries closing, stacks of tickets for the set-piece events left unsold, and the whole circus a vast and expensive irrelevance to secular modern Britain.

Imagine my surprise when I turned on the TV news on Sunday evening and found a series of smiling people pronouncing that Benedict’s stay had been “a triumph”, a view which even the BBC did not attempt to contradict.

This seemed strange when, in the interim, all I had caught was Lord (Digby) Jones on Radio 4 that morning, complaining that the Pope had failed to say “sorry” for clerical child abuse. Did he or didn’t he? He expressed “deep sorrow”, and English is not even his second let alone his first language, so should we give the old boy a break? Or is he playing a deep and cunning game to shirk responsibility, like (say) Tony Blair on Iraq? Suspicion of such dastardly Catholic plots has been rooted deep in British consciousness for almost 500 years now.

During his stay, did the Pope and Mr Cameron exchange thoughts on the concept of deterrence? Religion is, after all, in possession of the ultimate deterrent: the prospect of an eternity of unspeakable torment, which makes Britain’s ability to vaporise some enemy cities with Trident missiles look decidedly puny.

Benedict’s present problem is that fewer and fewer people in this country believe in Hell, or in the upside alternative of Heaven. Just as ever more of us wonder whether the British nuclear deterrent is independent or useful in any meaningful sense, unless the occupant of 10 Downing Street is an obvious nutcase (as has been known).

Personally, while not a fervent believer, I recognise that Christianity is the rock on which the whole of western civilisation has been built. I greatly value the beauty of our ancient churches, the wonderful language of the King James Bible and the Prayer Book, and the splendour of a Latin Mass or an Anglican choral evensong.

All things which, ironically, current worshippers are doing their best to sweep away in the name of greater “relevance”. Even so, it is surely far from game over for Christianity. Religious faith has waxed and waned over the centuries. Who predicted the current resurgence of Islam?

Few atheists, I am told, adhere rigidly to their non-faith in the face of an impending plane crash. As human numbers continue to grow and the planet creaks ever more menacingly beneath the strain, surely religion can only benefit as Hell comes closer to hand right here on earth?

All of which may make the canny old Pope’s line on birth control just what Protestant cynics used to call it in my childhood: good business sense. May God bless or forgive him as appropriate. If He exists, that is.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 14 September 2010

Nostalgia isn't what it used to be

The older you get, the faster time passes. So it is comforting to have occasional interludes in which the pace slows, the predictable always happens, and one can bask in happy memories of simpler days.

For many years now, Sunday night TV has provided just this in the whimsy of Last of the Summer Wine from Holmfirth, the gentle police drama of Heartbeat filmed in and around Goathland, or its hospital spin-off The Royal set in Scarborough.

To be honest, I have not watched any of them regularly in years. Summer Wine lost much of its appeal when Bill Owen (Compo) died, and Heartbeat was never the same after Bill Maynard had to be invalided out of the role of Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Even so, it was comforting to know that they were still there in the schedules, providing work for British character actors and film crews, income for owners of wheeled bathtubs and classic cars, and a massive boost to the Yorkshire tourist industry.

Now, all of a sudden, they are gone. I have never knowingly missed a final chance to see anything since my father let me stay up especially late one night when I was seven, to catch The Last Night of the Crazy Gang from the London Palladium. So naturally I was glued to the screen on Sunday to watch the very last episode of Heartbeat, which exited not so much with a bang as a groan and a lot of sobs, as cast and audience alike were left wondering whether Oscar Blaketon would survive being impaled on a very large pitchfork. Given the Hitchcock-like appearance of the Grim Reaper in an earlier scene, I did not feel inclined to bet on it.

When Heartbeat started back in 1992, there seemed to be a fairly direct connection between the chronology of the series and real time. But then someone no doubt spotted that they would soon have to move on from the steam trains, Bakelite telephones and pounds, shillings and pence that contributed so much of its appeal. And so it ended up stuck for years in the late 1960s, repeating itself like a cracked vinyl record as the regular actors aged but their characters supposedly did not.

Current television convention clearly required a final, wrap-up episode in which it would have been revealed that Aidensfield had actually been wiped out by a surprise Soviet nuclear strike on RAF Fylingdales in 1965, and that everyone had been hanging around in purgatory ever since. Well, it worked for Ashes to Ashes and Lost.

Instead we got a cliff-hanger that could only be resolved in the next series that is never going to be made. Disappointing, or what?

I turned for light relief to BBC4, and what was billed as “Michael Smith’s Deep North: the novelist returns to his native city of Newcastle upon Tyne.” Given that I have never heard of any such person, I had high hopes that this might turn out to be a hilarious spoof. But, in fact, the only fiction proved to be the claim that the man was a Geordie. It eventually emerged that he had been an occasional childhood visitor, escaping from his upbringing in Hartlepool. As you would. The BBC clearly needs to do more work on its geographic understanding of this so-called “deep North” beyond White City.

This, sadly, is the sort of cheap-to-make “fondly looking back” programme of which we can expect to see much more as the old, expensive, period comedies and dramas vanish from the airwaves.

Still, with 295 episodes of Last of the Summer Wine and 372 of Heartbeat available for endless recycling, why bother making new stuff when we can all wallow in fond memories of the way we used to enjoy our Sunday night fix of nostalgia back in the good old 1990s?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 7 September 2010

Pigs and politicians cannot win

My cousin’s roof was blown off by a tornado last month.

That is surely not a sentence many people get to write, unless they have a very large extended family in Kansas. But my cousin lives in the sleepy village of Great Livermere in Suffolk, which experienced this freak weather event on August 23.

The wind also flattened the outbuildings in which, until that very morning, had lived three contented pigs. They escaped being crushed because my cousin’s husband had roused them at five o’clock and driven them to the abattoir to meet their destiny as sausages.

I mused for some time as to whether this constituted good or bad luck. I also considered whether the tornado might be seen as retribution by a vegetarian deity, but dismissed the possibility since my cousin’s husband is a priest. I finally concluded that it was simply one of the very few classic lose-lose situations not currently involving a politician.

Last week, despite myself, I bought a copy of Tony Blair’s autobiography. It came with two dust jackets, and I exposed the second one with some trepidation, half expecting it to reveal the image of the shape-shifting giant lizard which, former sports commentator David Icke assures us, is the reality behind our royal family and political leaders.

The more I read of Blair, Mandelson and Brown, the more credible that theory becomes. However, the only difference between the two covers was that the inner one lacked the “Half Marked Price” sticker slapped on the first. This presumably slashes the take of the Royal British Legion, to which Mr Blair has announced that he is donating his profits.

Another classic lose-lose situation because it produced gales of abuse for his hypocrisy that were surely just as great as the howls that would have gone up if he had simply pocketed the money.

On the other hand, it is possible to have only limited sympathy for someone who, when asked if he has any regrets, skirts around those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and says that he is sorry he tried to abolish foxhunting. Oh, and maybe we should have a crack at Iran next.

Incidentally, I have not read a word of the book yet but the cover picture is haunting me as I type this and making me think that the Tories’ much derided “demon eyes” poster campaign of 1997 actually hit the nail squarely on the head.

I felt rather more sympathy for William Hague in his lose-lose dilemma with his young adviser. Share an expensive hotel room and face accusations of impropriety, or book two and be rubbished for wasting money? After the expenses scandal, what would you do?

The resulting personal statement was the second time Mr Hague has made me cringe, the first being his understandably jejune performance on Radio 4’s Any Questions immediately after his debut as a 16-year-old at the Conservative Party conference. The fact that this is not constantly replayed to embarrass him can only suggest that the BBC has wiped the tape.

My principal client regularly holds managers’ conferences at which all participants are expected to share hotel rooms with colleagues of the same sex. The implications for their reputations are apparently now mind-boggling. Except, of course, that totally different rules apply to politicians.

Back in the 1980s Spitting Image portrayed the press as pigs – trilby-wearing porkers spreading porkies. Today politicians have become the lowest form of human life. How we all hate them – and that’s before they have even started on the real spending cuts.

Dave Cameron will no doubt look back on his paternity leave with young Dandelion, or whatever she is called, as a brief lull before the tornado struck. I hope it does not take his roof off, but if I were him I would not bank upon it.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.