Thursday, May 29, 2008

Hay Fever

The Hay Festival celebrates its twenty first anniversary this year, a cause for some celebration.
Envisaged as a get together for the folks who write books and those that read them, it has been an admirable venue for all those that value literature and the arts.
This year has been no exception with the appearance of many literary lions to talk about and read excerpts from their works. This is what the fair was all about, I thought.
So why, oh why, did the organisers feel it was necessary to inject ‘personalities’ into the mix?
The former president Jimmy Carter for instance. An admirable man in many ways but his presence seems to have been solely to put the boot in to poor old George Bush and have little to do with literature or the arts.
Then there was Jamie Oliver, a cook, I understand but one whose literary abilities I had not recognised. And I suspect that my mum cooked just as well.
Next the obnoxious blowhard, Jeremy Clarkson, whose proud boast of having exceeded the speed limit by a substantial margin on a public road should surely result in his having his collar felt by the local fuzz.
Arthur Scargill made a cameo appearance but what artistic value he brought to the event escapes me – and a good many others.
No doubt Cherie Blair mounted the podium to explain just how hard it was to make ends meet with four mortgages now that her husband was no longer being subsidised by the British taxpayer.
And last but not least, the walrus moustachioed John Bolton was wheeled out for reasons best known to the organisers. Here the high spot must have been the attempted citizen’s arrest by the Guardian newspaper’s resident loony, George Monbiot. Not that I disagree with his motives but assassination might have been more dramatic and effective.
For all the above personalities, none of whom have any real connection with literature or the arts, there is a corner of Hyde Park reserved for them. A literary festival is not the place for them to mount their personal soapboxes.
And it seems there is now something of a backlash from those who feel that the festival has lost its way.
No longer held in the town of Hay on Wye but at a spot well outside the town, it is being challenged by those who wish to return to the original format.
The ‘Real Hay Festival’ deserves the support of all those who are interested in literature – and not in the opinions of paid for celebrity guests.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Waxing Lyrical

There’s nothing much wrong with Miss Amy Winehouse’s lyrics that any self-respecting hack from Tin Pan Alley would turn his or her nose up at. But why an eminent university would have thought that they were worth including as an exam question is another matter.
The danger is that, by including them in the same breath as Sir Walter Ralegh, her fans might be deluded into thinking that she was a great lyricist.
Her work rates comfortably with the average puerile contributions of the majority of writers of popular songs, but why the university should have selected hers in preference to some of the legendary great lyricists, beats me.
You only have to compare her rather pointless ditty with the inspired output of Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter, Allan Jay Lerner, Noel Coward and hundreds of others to see the paucity of talent in her offering.
It does, of course, make the answer to the exam question pretty easy.
Sir Walter gets eight out of ten.
Miss Winehouse, one out of ten. Should try harder.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Living dangerously

Am I alone in seeing the inadequacies of the revered British Health and Safety Gestapo?
I appreciate that many of their staff are doing their very best to bring joylessness to Britain. Banning carnivals from hanging banners across streets, stopping the erection of two foot deep paddling pools and advocating the chopping down of monkey puzzle trees, those survivors from an antediluvian age, since the needles might prick some one (early man was not sufficiently advanced to recognise this threat) are fine examples, but do they go far enough?
On a recent visit to that sceptr’d isle, set in the silver sea, I could not fail to spot that, as Shakespeare had pointed out, Britain is surrounded by ocean. And that, even worse, much of this is accessible to the public. Sometimes, rather than a gentle slope down to the waves, there is an appalling drop from the top of a cliff.
How on earth this has been missed by the authorities I know not, but presumably they haven’t read their Shakespeare or perhaps been on holiday in Britain lately.
As a matter of urgency, surely the entire coastline should be protected by a ten foot high breeze block wall with occasional slots for viewing purposes so the public could get a glimpse of the dangers they were being shielded from.
The publicity given to the recent cheese rolling contest must serve as a wake-up call to the Elf’nSafety people to get on their bikes (with helmets, of course) and hurry on down to stop such madness. After a few hundred years, it’s about time to do away with such heathen entertainment and get people back home where they belong in front of their television sets and with their Nintendos (having read the warnings on the instructions, of course).
My cousin, who is a writer and broadcaster in the United States, once wrote that, on unpacking some piece of newly purchased equipment, he read a warning that on no account must he put the plastic bag over his head. As he pointed out, up until then, the idea had never occurred to him.
Perhaps an embargo on the British walking the streets in a casual and haphazard fashion would cut down on many unfortunate accidents and incidents.
As the deputy Prime Minister has so ably demonstrated, it’s perfectly safe -provided one takes adequate precautions in the shape of a stab proof vest and a few accompanying police officers.
Health and Safety really need to address this by supplying such material – especially to innocent visitors.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Pastures New

Having just returned from a few days in the Promised Land, you know, the one promised by T. Blair and G. Brown, I can understand why so many of its citizens are fleeing the coop. That number is dwarfed by those that would like to but are unable to do so for various reasons.
But the problem is where on earth do you flee to?
Australia would be a good bet I suppose and the United States citizens certainly give Brits a warm welcome, but the days of:

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

are long gone. In their place is a mind boggling bureaucracy that might deter any would-be immigrant.
Then there is the EU, many states of which are certainly attractive. If you have been offered a job there and have the appropriate language skills, they have much to offer over Britain which is rapidly approaching a state of anarchy.
But for those simply yearning for greener pastures there are enormous problems.
Firstly, many have obtained their knowledge and admiration for the continental way of life from a brief holiday sojourn – a far cry from living as a resident.
The problems facing them at home are all too often merely transferred to another jurisdiction with the added disadvantage of being in a different language.
Then there is the life style. Continental living, whichever state you choose, is not the British way of life and few adapt readily to the change. Imports of Marmite and PG Tips plus get togethers with other expats do not a life style make.
And Britain remains a wonderful country in spite of all its current problems.
I spent time in a small and attractive market town in East Anglia. On remarking how pleasant I found it, the response was “Ah, but you should see it at night!”
Now with the overwhelming unhappiness of the electorate with their government, with a Prime Minister who is in place, not at the behest of the people, but by a form of political nepotism, and with the rule of law now subservient to the rule of political correctness, health and safety and absurdities of human rights, is it not time for the electorate to take their country back from its inept government?
Governments in democracies are meant to be the servants of the people. The present incumbents clearly treat their citizens as a rather productive cash cow. How many former Prime Ministers have amassed a multi million pound property empire? Winston Churchill had to have his country house paid for by the generosity of a friend.
Rather than leaving a badly listing ship, it would be more productive to stay on and fight for the Britain that has been lost during the past years.
A bloodless revolution would not be the worst idea – and paying politicians a reasonable salary to ensure that they remain pro bono publico – and nothing more.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Plonking Platitudes

Reading the transcript of Gordon Brown’s latest speech led me to thinking that all politicians should be required to take a practical examination in the art of speechwriting before being allowed into office.
Quite when it became de rigeur for politicians to employ speechwriters I am not sure. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s homely fireside chats were crafted by a team of writers that included J.K.Galbraith. He commented that he and his fellow scribes would listen with interest to see which of their ‘bon mots’ had been included. Galbraith was, of course, a writer of some considerable ability and this was reflected in FDR’s speeches.
Winston Churchill scorned any assistance as much as he spurned the platitudes that trip so readily off the tongues of modern politicians.
Don’t they ever read the stuff before they get up to speak?
This is a bit rich coming from someone who, once upon a time, earned his crust as a government spokesman, but in my defence I would say that it was for a former Commonwealth country that needed all the help it could get!
My partner in crime was a local man, and the finest exponent of the words and works of William Shakespeare that I have met before or since. If we were guilty of any platitudes in our work, they would most certainly have been Shakespearean ones.
Now it seems that the wordsmiths resort to the Thesaurus of Hackneyed Phrases when composing for their masters – and it shows.
My old English professor swore that he could tell which of his students had access to Roget’s Thesaurus just by glancing at the submissions.
I wonder if Gordon Brown, whom I understand is a well read man, ever contemplated replacing his weasel words with something on the lines of “I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined the Government: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.’ ’”
Even a little plagiarisation would have worked wonders.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Fruits of Failure

It would be manifestly unfair to assess the seaworthiness of the Good Ship SS Great Britain through the distorting mirrors of the media.
But, good grief, if only ten per cent of the horror stories I read are true, it’s about time that the citizenry woke up and shook some commonsense into their so-called leaders.
There is something seriously amiss with a nation that can provide shelter, jobs and accommodation to foreigners, many illegal, at the expense of their taxpaying citizens.
Whose youth are skewered regularly in the streets within sight of a cctv camera but out of sight of a policeman.
Where, when called to deal with a homicidal gunman, the police are then criticised for firing too many shots. Presumably they should have waited until he had killed a few passers-by.
Where a man is thrown into a police cell for tossing an apple core but where a family, terrorised by an intruder, are told that there are no police available to deal with it.
Where executives of companies are awarded ‘performance bonuses’ as the fruits of failure.
Where drunken, drug taking ‘celebrities’ are idolised daily in the press and often given preferential treatment in the courts for their actions.
And, where Health and Safety regulations prevent, amongst a whole slew of perfectly normal activities that have been around for centuries, your rubbish is not being taken away because your dustbin is too full.
The list is endless.
How this can have happened, in just a few short years to what was, perhaps, the finest nation in the world, is debatable.
But a clue can be found in the string of obnoxious, self-serving auto-biographies now reigning down upon the public from former ministers and their associates, who are receiving ample rewards for their disloyalty.
There is, it would seem, little honour amongst thieves, now all so eager to distance themselves from the navigation department of the ship of state.
The people of Britain should take note of the chunks of ice falling onto their deck.
With a government, led by (incredibly in a democracy) an unelected Prime Minister, who are clearly incapable of even re-arranging the deck chairs, it’s every man and woman for himself.
Which is, I suppose, how a former Prime Minister can add yet another expensive property to his portfolio whilst his former citizens, whom he was supposed to be serving, see theirs being re-possessed.
It’s the fruits of failure once again.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Down the Tube

If the new mayor of London does nothing more, he will have earned my gratitude by banning booze on London’s transport system.
But the enthralling question is: why did it take so long for someone to see this as a problem?
Perhaps the answer can be found in the ‘celebrity news’ columns of the tabloid newspapers where, on a daily basis, there are pictures of nonentities stumbling out of night clubs, drunk or drugged or involved in other embarrassing escapades.
“Too much tipple almost topples Kelly Osbourne after a wild night out” and
“The trouble with Peaches and why I fear she'll end up like her mother Paula Yates,” are but two of the headlines in one tabloid this morning – and this is before we get to the pictures of Amy Winehouse which much surely be enough to put anybody off their morning cornflakes.
So getting drunk and taking drugs is in fashion, encouraged by the media of the masses. And not surprisingly, many young people see nothing wrong in this and find no reason not to emulate them.
I must say, Pete Doherty looked remarkably chipper and almost civilised on release from jail the other day. Wormwood Scrubs must suit him and perhaps a longer stay should be arranged. It’s a pity that Mr. Johnson’s admirable incentive will be proscribed by a lack of suitable accommodation for infringers.
Last time I rode on a late night tube train, I reckoned that half of my fellow travellers would have been better off sobering up after a night in the local cop shop.
Why Anglo-Saxons feel this need to deprive themselves of their senses on a regular basis is a mystery to most Continentals. We’re not without our fair share of alcoholics, of course, but public drunks are carefully tended by the Gendarmerie here in France, long noted for their tenderness and compassion when it comes to dealing with malefactors. They have a deep rooted and highly effective system for discouraging repeat offenders.
And, as far as I’m aware, unlike the British police who have The Independent Police Complaints Commission to face the moment they take any positive action, the Gendarmes merely retire to their nearest post for a quick Gauloise having dealt with the situation – no questions asked.
But the good news is that finally the elaborate CCTV system that monitors Britons throughout their daily lives has finally produced a positive result.
No, silly, it did not prevent any crime being perpetrated, but it did lead the owners of a lost cat to find their pet.
So all those millions of pounds invested in the system have finally paid off.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Rewriting History

If we might paraphrase W.S. Gilbert for a moment, ‘An Historian’s Lot is Not an ‘Appy One.’ Not, at least, if you want to have a best-seller on your hands.
History is defined as the study of past events and, as every schoolboy or schoolgirl knows, was usually a pretty good period to catch up on one’s beauty sleep.
So history books tend to be for historians, amateur and professional, and as Peter Cook would have said, ‘There’s not a lot about.’
Novelists such as Jean Plaidy and Phillipa Gregory among others have mined a vein of gold by combining fact with fiction and, to their eternal credit, managed it without doing too much damage to the historical environment.
But the plain old historian wanting to boost his sales can sometimes be led into the devious path of deception. As in novels, where sex sells, the historian is sometimes tempted to include uncorroborated scandal and myth to spice up his work.
The classic example is undoubtedly that of the Hitler Diaries, an episode that brought much grief to the eminent historian, Hugh Trevor-Roper. Unwisely, he testified to their authenticity without bothering to do much forensic work. Perhaps it was understandable that his enthusiasm led him astray in this case.
World leaders invariably kept diaries or penned memoirs if only to preserve their place in history and he reasoned that Hitler must have done the same. But Hitler hadn’t. And those of us who have read the transcripts of his table talk must feel relieved that Mein Kampf was his first and last effort.
But now serious doubts have been cast upon the authenticity of some documents lodged with that invaluable, and thought to be incorruptible, source, The National Archives. At least 29 documents from 12 separate files have been identified as forgeries inserted into its records.
The forged documents all relate to alleged British perfidy in the Second World War. The archive says the papers had supported sensational allegations by Martin Allen, a self-styled “eminent” historian, in three recent books. These include claims that the Duke of Windsor was a traitor and that British agents had murdered Hitler’s SS boss, Heinrich Himmler, on Winston Churchill’s orders as well as accusing the Queen’s uncle of helping the Germans to conquer France and defeat the British army in the early stages of the Second World War.
Such claims ensured that sales of his ‘histories’ were highly successful in the popular market, one being nominated for ‘Book of the Year.’
Yet every one was based almost entirely on forged documents that had been inserted surreptitiously into the archives.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Allen denies having had anything to do with it. But it seems strange that no other ‘historian’ has used any of this undoubtedly titillating material.
An authority on the Second World War, Sir Max Hastings said: “It is hard to imagine actions more damaging to the cause of preserving the nation’s heritage than wilfully forging documents designed to alter our historical record.”