Monday, 3 November 2008

The Obama Game

Listen: this is probably a waste of time, but not so long ago I used to be a journalist who counted for something. So I post this as a valedictory to the man who, in November 1989, predicted the end of Communism in former Czechoslovakia; who, the following year, sat in the office all night writing Margaret Thatcher's political obituary - against the-then editor's advice - a fortnight before she fell from power; and who, in March this year, wrote a newspaper blog declaring that Barack Obama would defeat Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Party primaries although, at the time, she was strongly fancied to see him off.

I felt then that Americans were unlikely to endorse a Democratic Party dynasty of Clintons having taken a chance with a dynasty of Bushes, with Iraq as the price they were paying. And if Senator Obama came through victorious in the primaries what elemental force would be strong enough to withstand the wind of history blowing him towards the White House as the first black American President of the United States?

Since then, a lot of dire predictions have been aired. He would win the presidency but be assassinated before he lived long enough to take the Oath of Office in January. Or else he would survive to become the 44th and worst President since George Washington dusted off his wooden false teeth for his first presidential public engagement. I have no idea what President Obama will be like in office; I suspect that idealism will be tempered by pragmatism as the messy imperatives of the real world impinge upon paper policies. If I harbour hope for any particular thing, it is that he wriggles off the hook of the Green lobby and takes a cooler look at global warming whose apocalyptic apostles are the 21st century version of The Weathermen of the 1960s.

But I'm an Englishman who, unlike Sting, has never been to New York or any other town or city west of Donegal. And like the majority of my countrymen I am easily impressed by clean-cut looks, sharp suits and, above all, a big calm confident smile. Why? Because in the collective consciousness of the English these are all post-war attributes of abundance and success, and my generation is still marked by memories of post-war austerity, disillusionment and sense of loss. When Bill Clinton presented himself to a Labour Party conference as though he was a constituency party delegate from America, he had hard-faced arsy party delegates whooping with delight. He put them in good heart and cheered their sectarian spirits simply by looking so full of health and vitality. As a boy, I saw an American military marching band play a jazzed up version of the St Louis Blues as they swaggered and swanked along Brettenham Road in Walthamstow, East London. I had never seen or heard anything like it. The bands I saw at football matches were Metropolitan Police bands and they soberly stood in one spot, often in pouring rain, valiantly playing a medley of light operatta numbers. This was different. Here was life, here was hope, here were pride and magnificence swinging trombones from side to side in the backwater of E17. Americans were like fizzed up bottles of Coca-Cola. They seemed larger than life, fuller of life, than anyone else. Here, we grew up being told what we couldn't do. Our reflex was defensive. In America, it seemed, 'no' was not even a consideration.

So no matter what mistakes President Obama makes - short of World War Three - my feeling is that his election will give the world a much-needed boost of confidence and encouragement. If he turns out to be brave as well, we can only hope that fortune favours the in-coming President longer than it favoured the out-going one.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

An Imperishable Power to Move Us All - revisited

The art of political speaking has changed. I won't repeat what I said on a previous blog on this subject, quoting at length from George Orwell's essay Politics and the English Language. All of us are aware that political speeches have changed drastically. Here I present six examples over the past 75 years. The first four were made when speeches could actively make a difference.

On March 4, 1933, incoming US President Franklin D Roosevelt gave his inaugural address to the people of America at a time much like our own, a time of stock market collapses, a universal slump in trade, unemployment, uncertainty and a good deal of fear. I had never read this speech before, although I had heard its most often quoted phrase: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

You might like to know what immediately follows that. It's this: "- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." Spot the cliche, the hand-me-down phrase. You cannot because there isn't one, not one in the whole speech. The nation waited for words of biblical import - as Americans tend to at times of crises - and the President reached down into his heart and soul and delivered them.

"The rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods have failed, through their own stubborness and their own incompetence...Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men..."

Restoring the "temple of civilisation" depended on the application of "social values more noble than mere monetary profit"...confidence was languishing because it could only thrive on "honour, on the sacredness of obligations, a faithful protection and an unselfish performance..."

After outlining how the US Government was to be the agent of change, President Roosevelt went on to say that self-respect would lead to respect for others in the field of "world policy". Society must move as an army, as one, with discipline and a sense of obligation. He concluded by asking for God's help.

Those of you who know more than I do about the ramifications of the New Deal might take issue with the President's ideas; but no one can doubt the heart-felt seriousness of this speech. Gordon Brown referred to its "imperishable power to move us all."


On December 56, 1956, the House of Commons gathered to hear Aneurin Bevan respond to The Conservative Government's defence of its decision to send British forces to invade Egypt, following the nationalisation of the Suez Canal by Egypt's President Nasser and the subsequent attack on Egypt by Israel, France and Britain.

I am not concerned here with the nuances of the whole debate, nor with the pros and cons of what became known as Suez. Mr Bevan's speech is the sole object of my attention. Again, I had never read it before.

In the course of his speech Mr Bevan gaily referred to "Freudian lapses" (by a Government Cabinet Minister), Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary, "a long story of moral decline" and to "Marianne" - the female symbol of Paris. These references alone, delivered in everyday speech, without a conscious wish to show off, were indicative of the civility of the whole speech. This made the withering satire in it even more impressive. Mr Bevan flayed the Government without once losing his temper or resorting to the self-justifying wisdom of hindsight. His witty use of light irony on such a serious matter made Conservatives sit back and laugh.

He started off in a disarming fashion. "When a nation makes war upon another nation it should be quite clear why it does so. It should not keep changing the reasons as time goes on." He then enjoyed himself inspecting these reasons, one by one, doing so with an air of mounting incredulity, like a health inspector in an appalling kitchen.

The claim that Britain had gone in to deal with all the outstanding problems in the Middle East earned the comparison with Madame Bovary.

What of the claim that Britain had invaded to ensure that Israel withdrew her forces from Egypt? "We went into Egyptian territory in order to establish our moral right to make the Israelis clear out. That is a remarkable war aim is it not? But unfortunately we had to bomb the Egyptians first."

Mr Bevan saved up his most devestating riposte for the Government's fifth reason: to allow the United Nations to intervene in the Canal Zone. It was as if "Mussolini and Hitler had made war on the world in order to call the United Nations into being...If it were possible for bacteria to argue with each other, they would be able to say that of course their justification was the advancement of medical science."

Who today would be able to employ that Kafkaesque image in the certain knowledge that it would be understood by the public at large?

"There is not the slightest shadow of doubt that we have attempted to use methods which were bound to destroy the objectives we had, and, of course, this is what we have discovered...The Government resorted to epic weapons for squalid trivial ends, and that is why, all through this unhappy period, ministers, all of them, have spoken and argued and debated well below their proper form - because they have been synthetic villains. They are not really villains. They have only set off on a villainous course, and they cannot even use the language of villainy."

Some said afterwards that Mr Bevan's was the greatest speech they had ever heard in the House of Commons. It changed behaviour, including the voting intentions of some senior Conservatives. Ah, but that was a time when Parliament was truly sovereign, not merely a cog in the wheel of a gigantic European unicycle .


There can hardly be a person of my generation (I was born in 1949) who cannot recall a single word or phrase of Dr Martin Luther King's mighty speech at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, on August 28, 1963. His final acclamation still gives me shivers and brings tears to my eyes: "Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last."

The occasion demanded a memorable speech. A quarter of a million Americans, many of them Blacks from the South, had gathered to demonstrate peacably to the whole world the necessity of the Civil Rights campaign. It was also intended to send a message to the Government of President John F Kennedy and his brother Bobby, the US Attorney General.

What is immediately striking about Dr King's speech is his awareness of its purpose. "We've come here today to dramatise a shameful condition." And this is precisely what he shaped his speech to do, cleverly using the metaphor of wealth associated with the American Dream as a metaphor for justice - the "bank of justice".

Rhetorical devices are also employed for both structure and emphasis, for like the other two speeches this one was written in lively, literate paragraphs. "Now is the time," is used four times at the start to sound the note of urgency. "The swelling summer of discontent of the negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality..." Shakespeare's "winter of discontent" that opens Richard III has been given a twist.

"We can never be satisfied" is repeated four times. "...until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream". The "valley of despair" is contrasted to "going up to the mountain". Then Dr King begins his peroration with "I have a dream..." This is repeated no fewer than eight times with gathering force until he hits his final inspiring note, using the seminal image of the old fight against slavery: "Let freedom ring..." He says this six times.

The force of this speech was not aimed solely at changing national policy; its deeper purpose was to emotionalise sterility and release men and women from the bondage of their bigotry.


I saw Margaret Thatcher only once in real life; it was at the Conservative Party conference in 1979, at Blackpool I think it was, the year she won the first of her three General Elections. What struck me right away was how small she was, like Princess Margaret. Television cameras seemed to make the Prime Minister look more physically imposing than she really was.

By the time she came to make her speech to the party at the Brighton conference, on October 10, 1980, the mood in the country had changed sharply. Interest rates and inflation were rampant, unemployment had gone past two million, manufacturing had been decimated. The Government itself was divided between 'wets' and 'dries', the former believing that economic recovery should not be pursued at the expense of social disintegration. They wanted Mrs Thatcher to do a U-turn and soften her tough economic policy.

The Prime Minister's job was threefold: to rally the party faithful, to impose herself upon her MPs, especially those in the Cabinet, and to offer some assurance to the country at large that she was not going to bend with the winds of change. Her speech-writer Ronnie Miller gave her the perfect image for expressing her intent. "You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning."

Admire it or deplore it, the one thing you cannot say about that turn of phrase is that it is not instantly memorable. "The lady's not for turning" itself is tongue-in-cheek, based, as I'm sure it is, on the title of some melodrama. Rather than spit fire and brimstone at her critics witthin the party, Mrs Thatcher rather wittily put them in their place.

This speech had to be sober and reflect the seriousness of the times. It does that. Again, this is a speech composed in literate paragraphs. "Prosperity comes not from grand conferences of accountants but by countless acts of personal self-confidence and self-reliance...The state drains society, not only of its wealth but of initiative, of energy, the will to improve and innovate as well as to preserve what is best..." She called for "wisdom and resolution".

While not uplifting like President Roosevelt's speech, nor scintillating like Mr Bevan's, nor soul-stirringly emotional like Dr King's, Mrs Thatcher's conference speech was without a single hackneyed phrase. It was cliche-free. And though written by another, it bore the stamp of Mrs Thatcher's personality as Prime Minister.


Recently, I looked over a speech by David Cameron, a long speech of some 4,500 words. The subject of the speech was largely two-fold: to remind the public that Gordon Brown was responsible for creating the conditions of the current economic crisis by permitting unsound policies during his tenure as Chancellor of the Exchequer; secondly, to set out what a Conservative Government would do to make sure that such a crisis does not happen again.

I was unable to read through the speech with concentration because its format did not invite concentration. It was an ensemble of paragraphs of two or three lines, often a single line. Unlike the liquid in the bottle in Alice in Wonderland, this speech did not invite me to devour it, let alone digest it. Had I done so I doubt if my stature would have altered appreciably, nor my standing.

The passages that I did read, on the theme of Britain in crisis, startled me somewhat gleefully, I must admit, by the inconsistency of the imagery employed to get the message across. The crisis was referred to as a boxing match - Mr Cameron did not intend to "pull his punches". OK, I looked for the KO blow.

Instead I was told that the banking crisis was a problem with "deep roots", presumably implying some history going back a long way. Hmmm. Then I was surprised to learn that the state of the economy had become like a "merry-go-round" out of control, I believe. Try to imagine President Roosevelt using such an image.

From there Mr Cameron told me that the economy was "a house on fire". Then he implied it was like a foundering ship because the time had come to "man the pumps" - unless he was suggesting that we all don plimsolls and get a spot of exercise to cut down on obesity and, at the same time, reduce our carbon footprint. At the point where he referred to the state of the affairs as a house of cards, ready to come "tumbling down", I must admit I gave up.

Had I written a poem about the state of the nation and used the same language in such a shoddy manner I would have been taken to task by friends who expect better of me. Why, then, should the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition - a serious-minded and sincere man he would have us believe - why should he be allowed to get away with bad prose in an important speech? His intention was to blame Gordon Brown for the mess we are in; but couldn't he have followed the example of Aneurin Bevan and done it with a little wit and panache, offering us at least the relief of laughter? You may also ask why he didn't deliver it during an emergency debate in the House of Commons - but that's another matter.

Clearly this speech had been assembled to be delivered to achieve a particular effect. Later, I watched Mr Cameron deliver part of it on television. He looked and sounded plausible; mind you, the extract I saw contained none of the mixed metaphors and cliches decribed above.

This was a hybrid bicycle of a speech, designed to sound good rather than achieve anything practicable. I could imagine Mr Cameron after he delivered it, pushing it squeakily home, with the odd piece falling off with a thunk!


This section was added the night after Barack Obama's acceptance speech as President-elect of the United States. The quotes from his speech are in keeping with the inspirational quality of the first four. Although high-flown, there are no mixed metaphors, no hand-me down cliches. Instead, the Senator has echoed words and phrases embedded in the collective cultural consciousness of America - from Martin Luther King, John F Kennedy and Sam Cooke.

"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer...

"And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn, I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices. I need your help. And I will be your president too.

"And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces, to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of the world, our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand.

"To those who would tear the world down: We will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security: We support you...

"This is our time, to our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth, that, out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope. And where we are met with cynicism and doubts and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can."

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Francis Bacon: a Retrospective

Philomena Hanna, Olivier Messiaen and Francis Bacon had one thing in common: they died on the same day - Tuesday, April 28, 1992.

A painter, a composer and a Roman Catholic mother of two.

Bacon and Messiaen died of natural causes in their eighties; but Mrs Hanna was shot dead in her prime as she was serving behind the counter of a chemist's shop in Belfast's Falls Road. A man walked in and fired five bullets into her. She was the 48th fatality from sectarian violence in Belfast that year.

Philomena Hanna's murder - commited by the Ulster Freedom Fighters, if the name makes a difference - made my heart sink a little more heavily at the time. I thought that anyone partial to philosophising about the horror of contemporary life should paint a simple picture of this woman's body, her blood spreading over the floor of the pharmacy where she had dispensed not only medicines but kindness to Catholic and Protestant alike.

Such a painting, a mixture of banality and pathos, would say more to me than any of Francis Bacon's screaming popes or his menagerie of Henry-Moore-type contortions with teeth.

Bacon's death at the age of 82, unlike Philomena Hanna's at the age of 26, was not a tragedy; simply the end of a process. I could not join in the acclamation for his work which, according to Lord Gowrie, former arts minister and chairman of Southeby's, made Bacon "The greatest British painter since Turner."

He may well have been "an extraordinary and unique personality and a very kind friend". But whereas I cannot say anything about his worth as a friend, I must say something about Lord Gowrie's estimation of Bacon's reputation as a painter and as an extraordinary personality.

Bacon's gallery of monstrosities, we are told in so many words, is a bleak but brutally candid vision of the horror and existential isolation of modern man. The artist, I read somewhere, was moved to paint his pictures of tortured meat by photographs and newsreels of Nazi concentration camps.

It took me some time to see that basically Bacon was old hat. Technically he was less accomplished than Salvador Dali, who was also preoccupied with disfigured human forms. His famous Screaming Pope, a skilfully blurred caricature of a painting by Valesquez, which must have delighted the more iconoclastic of his Soho drinking buddies, is not as original as Bacon's hagiographers would have us believe. Remember Edvard Munch's The Scream, and before that the human condition as imagined by Goya in later life?

I don't think Bacon had a unique vision or any vision at all. "I've no story to tell," he apparently told those hoping to hear the master explain his revelation. "We live, we die and that's it, don't you think?" he said at the turn of his eightieth birthday.

No I don't. And no art that I most admire persuades me to believe that either. Even at its darkest, the painting of Van Gogh is redemptive, and the Dutchman's life was far harder and much shorter than Bacon's.

Irrespective of Oscar Wilde's dubious assertion in the preface to The Portrait of Dorian Gray that art has no ethical sympathy, Bacon's work is ethically vacant and artistically shallow - profoundly superficial. I do not believe he exhibited greater talent than either Graham Sutherland (1903-1980) or Paul Nash (1889-1946), let alone Lucien Freud, Stanley Spencer and sometimes David Hockney. Artistically, there is more accomplishment in a Walt Disney Tom and Jerry cartoon than in Bacon's second-hand contortions.

The French composer Olivier Messiaen had more reason than Francis Bacon to feel bleak about the human condition. For two years he was an involuntary guest of the Nazis in a concentration camp - an experience said to have inspired his 1941 composition Quartet For the End of Time. Eight years later he produced the sprawling, wondrous Turangalia Symphony, with its massive brassy fanfares, tapped woodblocks and what sounds like singing saws.

Messiaen may or may not have been "the greatest musician of his generation", as Pierre Boulez said. I just find it striking that a man who had first-hand knowledge of some of the worst horrors of the Twentieth century wrote music that was bright and affirmative whereas Bacon, whose knowledge of those horrors was second or third hand, had nothing at all to affirm other than a variation of W B Yeats' foul rag and boneshop of the heart. In this respect Bacon's vision has more in keeping with Galton and Simpson's Steptoe and Son.

I do not contest the fact that Bacon had great skill in the way he arranged his painted shapes on canvas. He knew how to make a visually arresting impact. It's just that I prefer Messiaen whose Catholic faith, according to Boulez, was a "very important contribution to the strong personality of his music". By the way, I am not a Roman Catholic.

Bacon or Messiaen? For me the composer's work - the little that I know - is eminently more appealing and, I think, will endure long after the fads and fashions of the international art market have altered once again.

Blaise Pascal described the darkess of night as "those terrifying spaces". Bacon's painting merely confirms that thought; but Messiaen fills those spaces with wondrous sounds. No individual act of terror by a gunman, no systematic act of murder, has yet persuaded me to look upon those dark spaces with anything other than wonder and, sometimes, awe. The dark places inside my head fill me with far more apprehension.

Music humbles and magnifies simultaneously more instantaneously than any other art form. It destroys fear, gives us courage and restores our willingness to hope for something better as we travel through the valley of shadow, with its fear and murder.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

When Will There be Polar Bears in Great Yarmouth?

Those scientific people who scoff at the idea of a god while simulatenously predicting the end of the world are enjoying themselves enormously at the moment.

Some of them are messing about in boats up in the Arctic, directing BBC cameras at chunks of drifting ice and declaring that this is hard evidence of ecological Armageddon, global warming - unless, of course, we change our wicked ways.

The self-righteous evangelical zeal with which they issue their Jeremiads is easy enough to understand: we all like to be right and sound important in public.

However, I would be grateful if they could answer one little question: Why hasn't Great Yarmouth got Polar bears swimming down its High Street on their way to Iceland (the supermarket)?

If, as they suggest, the ice cap at the North Pole is dissolving faster than jelly in a bonfire, where has all the water gone, where is it going?

For years eco-warriors have been prophesying that if the ice melted the seas would rise by a couple of feet at least and the East Coast of England, and much of London, would be covered with water.

Well chaps, the only type of H2O covering the fair isle of Ralph Vaughn Williams is rainwater, not salty seawater. So put away the old boy's First Symphony. Ice, being less dense a mass than water, floats. When it melts it does not, I am assured by one who knows, displace much seawater at all.

That's why all the PB's, the Polar bears, are happily sloshing their way about up near Iceland (the country) and beyond. So it doesn't look as though they will be visiting East Anglia yet awhile.

On the subject of Polar bears, someone has suggested on record that these glacier mint beasts are dying out. Upon inquiry I was told that, on the contrary, they are multiplying.

Or perhaps I was confusing Polar bears with black bears. There was a claim made in Bradford's Telegraph & Argus newspaper on August 28, that half a million black bears are slaughtered annually (including cubs) to supply the Coldstream, Welsh and other British Guards units with black bearskin hats.

Half a million? There can't be that many bears in the world, and the entire British Army totals less than half that. However, unlike Oscar Wilde, I have only my ignorance to declare. If too many black bears are being turned into soliders hats, I have a solution: why not cull a few Polar bears and instead of supplying the Coldstream Guards with black bearskins give them white ones.

The next time two Guards units parade through London, one could wear white bearskins, the other black. They could play chess, or chequers, marching and counter-marching along Whitehall, wherever Guardsmen are allowed to congregate these days without causing a security alert.

It would also be in keeping with the Government's policy of multi-cultural diversity, having white AND black bearskins.

But then, someone is bound to say rhetorically: "Why have soldiers at all!"

Friday, 18 July 2008

Apocalypse Soon

Propaganda, only propaganda is necessary. There is no end of stupid people. Adolf Hitler

If the Arctic should doff its polar cap
in deference to excessive heat,
Mother Earth will be up to her crack
in more H2o than tantalised
the Ancient Mariner. Yet some forecast
drought, Saharas, parched disaster.

Which fate awaits this spinning Ark:
death by drowning or dehydration?
There can only be one apocalypse.
For those who live by final warnings,
beware of hot air -
the true cause of global warming.

Only fools and fanatics claim
to know the Creator's mind;
without the cloudiest doubt
occluding theirs, they proclaim
the end of the world is nigh. Doom
even makes athiests believers of a kind.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

It's a Mean Old Scene - book review

It's a Mean Old Scene: A History of Modern Bradford From 1974, Redbeck Press, £9.99

"Be warned, this is no typical local history book, no gushing amateur Bronte biography, no rose-tinted recollection of the grind of life in the mills, no wistful trip down memory lane ending in a demand for a return to the days when trolley buses rattled along the streets and families of ten left their front doors open all night. Indeed, take a look at the title: It's a Mean Old Scene was one of Bradford's most infamous and possibly perceptive pieces of graffiti that endured throughout the 1970s.

With candour and thoughtfulness, Greenhalf tackles head-on real life in Bradford since the mid-1970s. He is one of the few people in the city to comment openly about the race question, neither side-stepping the issue with deft politically correct moves not spouting mindless, bigoted invective...

This book is a curious mix of social commentary and personal recollection. Some of the best chapters to my mind are the ones which focus on Greenhalf's journalistic exploits. Particularly notable is the moving passage on the Bradford City disaster, which begins with a newspaperman's cynicism and blossoms into a portrait of the human condition.

It's 'dark twin' is the piece on the Ripper murders, and Greenhalf's soul-bearing on how deeply the gruesome killings got under his skin must have taken great bravery to write - it is certainly not glib, easy reading...

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the things Jim Greenhalf has seen, one thing shines through this book, and it's possibly something he might be hard-pushed to admit to himself: he has a great and deep love for Bradford. Unlike many people in the city, Greenhalf cares."

DAVID BARNETT, Telegraph & Argus, Bradford, May, 2002.