In all the fuss over BBC salaries this week, I heard nothing about the quality of the presenters and the relative merits of their salaries. Bridget Kendall came to mind as an example of the very best of BBC journalists. I wonder what she got paid!
This second series of ‘Cold War Stories’ was essential listening. Just like the first series broadcast on BBC Radio Four last year, it is made up of fifteen minute episodes, each relating a specific event in the Cold War, with contributions from people who actually took part. It takes off where the last series ended with the death of Khrushchev and follows on chronologically, taking in events such as the fall of Saigon, the Prague Spring, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and the birth of Solidarity in Poland. There are also episodes on the proxy war in Africa and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Later episodes cover the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Bridget Kendall is now Master (!) of Peterhouse College, Cambridge. Her expertise in Russian made her an outstanding journalist for the BBC and this series reminded me of her contributions to bulletins when a trusted voice was essential.
This documentary series, broadcast on ITV, was an important part of my education in current affairs and politics when I was growing up. The 30 minute programmes opened my eyes to global issues as well as the social situation in Britain. It ran from the early 60s until the 90s but I was most aware of it during the 70s, a decade when some of the most amazing programmes were broadcast.
The programme was created by ITV when it wore its regional and federal structure with pride, a situation that meant that different television companies contributed their best ideas to the network knowing there was competition in intellectual terms from the other companies in the ITV group. Maybe this is why ITV has dumbed down over the years at the same pace as it has become one company rather than a federation of regional franchises. Granada was the company in the Manchester and north-west region.
I encountered some of the most important journalists of my youth on this series, John Pilger the most notable. His films about Vietnam were excellent. I also remember programmes about the far right National Front party which was growing in the 70s and Gay Pride, a film from 1979.
This series was broadcast at a time when television treated its viewers as grown ups. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I want to pay tribute to the cartoonist Steve Bell whose work in ‘The Guardian’ newspaper keeps me sane in these uncertain times. He always seems to express a sense of fun and a glimmer of hope while skewering the self- righteous. Never has he been more needed than during this UK election period, an election that was unnecessary in any case and was little more than a vanity project for the current Prime Minister. When we wake up tomorrow, there might be good news. However, Steve Bell will have something to say/write/draw that will speak for many of us.
Reading Anthony Sattin’s book reminded me of this television drama from 1992 with the excellent Ralph Fiennes as T. E. Lawrence, otherwise known as Lawrence of Arabia. In this particular film, the drama revolves around the post- war peace conference in Paris where the victorious allies carved up the world. This was the stage on which Lawrence, acting as an adviser to Feisal, the would- be leader of a new Arab nation; one that they believed had been promised by Britain during the war in return for Arab support.
The Ottoman Empire collapsed and the spoils were there for the taking by Britain and France. Both countries wanted influence in the area and the claims of the Arab peoples, themselves, were forgotten.
Denis Quilley played Lord Curzon and Nicholas Jones played Lord Dyson. The fact that both key players on the British side were Lords says a lot about the times! Feisal was played by Anthony Siddig.
The film shows clearly the growing British exasperation with Lawrence, especially over what they see as his disloyalty, while Lawrence shows his contempt for duplicitous politicians. The peace conference is the perfect setting for the political manoeuvering of nations. It also shows how the establishment deals with outsiders.
At this stage of his life, Lawrence is famous. A stage show in London portrays him as a heroic figure in the Middle East. Whether the man himself is happy to be portrayed in this way is left open but the film does show that identity can be forced on people as well as embraced. By showing how awkward he is with women, the implication is that he prefers men for intimacy. I prefer Anthony Sattin’s conclusion that we do not have the evidence on which to conclude whether or not he was gay. I suppose in a way it proves its own point: identity can be forced upon people.
‘A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
For most of my adult life I have been an Americanophile (if such a word exists). I dreamed of visiting. Obviously, growing up in the 60s and 70s much of my cultural background is American- the blog entries here show that! I finally made the journey there in the 90s, when I could afford to fly. I have been back many times since! San Francisco, Boston and Chicago all vie for status as my favourite city.
So what changed? First, the referendum in June 2016 showed me that my own country is divided. I am part of the 48% (this would be the near- half of the voting public discounted by the British Prime Minister as she tries to make Brexit work) and I am part of the majority (?) of people from around the world stunned by Trump’s victory in the USA. I have read acres of journalism on how we got to this point. I am tired of reading about ‘uniting’ as if the diverse views of broken Britain can be reconciled. Instead, I am finding my own way of coping with the current situation.
One of the slogans used by the Leave camp in the referendum was ‘Out and Into the World’. Given that many of the Leave voters were Little Englanders, I cannot believe they actually subscribed to this view but I accept the ‘Into the World’ part of that slogan.
I have decided I need to explore film from the wider world and read more books from, or about, other cultures. My gesture to the Brexiteers is to ensure I read more from Europe and see more European films. My gesture to the USA is to reduce its influence in my cultural life: fewer books from the States; fewer American films. In fact, the wider I spread the net, the better. We could all do with more of the world and less of America.
Others may think my gestures are futile. I will feel better.
I heard Mark Thompson, former Director- General of the BBC, speak at a conference a few years ago and was so disappointed by the fact that he, like the two prominent people who preceded him, gave a speech that was so concerned about not upsetting anyone in the audience that he spoke for about half an hour without saying anything of any substance at all!
I was surprised, therefore, at how much I enjoyed his book on rhetoric and the current state of political language in the UK and USA. The background is a gloomy one as far as I am concerned with our country divided by the toxic debate around Europe and Brexit. This book examines, in part, the reasons for the erosion of trust in politics. He also examines the skills and techniques used by politicians to obscure as well as make points. We really do seem to be in an age of poor political debate. Disagreements are often personal. The messenger rather than the message is attacked. Newspapers do not clarify but pedal points of view.
Thompson had a long, distinguished career in BBC journalism and speaks from experience. I could not help reflect, though, that his journalists created as well as suffered from the new world he bemoans. At the very least, they colluded.
Yet here we are, in a media age of infantalised debate and crude online comments attacking anyone we don’t agree with. The book shows that the study of rhetoric would make us all better citizens and, maybe, less susceptible to being taken in by the spin and misinformation of others. This book is a good place to start the fight back against the forces of ignorance.
Benjamin Zephaniah inspires me. I cannot remember where I first heard this but there are lines that return to me from time to time, especially the lines “And a human being kick him/To prove he´s a man”. It is a poem for our times and. although I am not the animal lover that Benjamin Zephaniah is, I am concerned at the amount of hate that exists in our country at the moment and at the rise of intolerance.
Danny Lives On
Danny the cat
Died last week
Killed by kicks
Of human feet,
I am sorry to say
He passed away,
A houseful of tears
I cried that day.
Danny´s not with me any more
Human beings beat him
I don´t know what for,
I know that some animals
Kill others to eat
But this gang just wanted to
Fight on the streets.
Danny my friend
Waz walking home
Not making trouble
And all on his own,
A few neighbours told me
That Danny then ran
And a human being kick him
To prove he´s a man,
But what kind of man
Could this wicked be
I think he´s a coward
He couldn´t fight me.
What kind of world do we live in today,
When our future adults
Treat life this way.
I am hurting inside,
I just don´t think that we
Are near civilized,
We know how to fly
And we sail on the sea
But we don´t understand
That life is a tree,
And Danny my friend
If this message gets through
You´ll know this poet
Is thinking of you,
These animal beaters
Are so filled with hate
Us animal lovers
Know Danny waz great.