Friday, 31 August 2012

Daleks Daleks everywhere

As the BBC starts to gear itself up for the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who next year, the new series starts tomorrow with the return (yet again) of the Daleks, the enemy that keeps coming back for more.

To mark the occasion, there's a bit by me in the current edition of the New Statesman about the Daleks and their creator, Terry Nation. My thanks to Jonathan Derbyshire for commissioning the piece, and for giving it such a fabulous title: Sergeant Pepperpots.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Let Us Now Praise ... Rhodes Boyson


The death of Rhodes Boyson, former Labour councillor and long-time Conservative MP, failed to make it onto the news bulletins of Radio 5 Live, though it was mentioned on Radio 4. Perhaps that's inevitable. Boyson has been out of the political spotlight for a long time - when I was writing Crisis? What Crisis? five years ago, I tried to get an interview with him, but he was already too ill by that stage.

Insofar as he is remembered by the general public, it's probably as that strangely old-fashioned, mutton-chopped figure who appeared on Have I Got News for You and who agreed with Ali G that there was something to be said for children getting caned at school. Or, just possibly, there might be memories of him as the right-wing education minister in Margaret Thatcher's government.

In thinking Tory circles, meanwhile, he's still remembered for the Black Papers of the 1970s, in which he lambasted contemporary education theory, and did so from a position of some authority, having been headmaster of Robert Montefiore School and of Highbury Grove comprehensive.

But my interest in Boyson, and the reason I wanted to speak with him, was largely on the strength of a little book he edited, Right Turn (Churchill Press, London, 1970), published shortly after the election of Edward Heath as prime minister. It's a fascinating document, no bigger than a paperback and with just 150-odd pages, but in that space its various contributors - including Ralph Harris, Alfred Sherman and Ross McWhirter - provide a comprehensive blueprint for Thatcherism, half-a-decade before Thatcher came to the same conclusions.

The key contribution, from my perspective, was the introductory essay by Boyson himself. He was later to publish his memoirs, Speaking My Mind (1995), but some of the background was covered in this thirteen-page piece.

He came from a radical family. His grandfather was 'blacklisted for trade union activities in the mills of the late 1880s', his father 'believed that socialism would bring world brotherhood and peace' and was a conscientious objector in the Second World War, and he himself was brought up within the faith. Born in Lancashire in 1925, his education came within the Labour movement, with its traditions of self-education and internationalism: 'The volumes of the Left Book Club were devoured by those of us who grew up in the depressed areas as the first recipients must have read the epistles of Saint Paul.'

His conversion to conservatism came from a belief that socialism, and in particular the Labour Party, had lost its way, had become attached to the state, and in the process had damaged the moral fibre of society: 'It has become destructive of the self-reliance and responsibility which were the pride of the 19th-century nonconformists.'

You don't have to agree with his conclusions, or the policy positions he came to as a consequence, to recognise the power of his story. There were many formerly on the left who came to endorse Thatcher (from Woodrow Wyatt to Paul Johnson), but Boyson's background and experiences lifted him well beyond their shabby ranks. For anyone wanting to understand what happened to the Conservative Party in the 1980s and beyond, there's no better place to start. Because, even more than Enoch Powell, Boyson represented the soul of the Thatcherite revolution.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Wales since 1939

I've been reading Martin Johnes's book Wales since 1939. And damn fine it is, too. Obviously it's going to be your first port of call if you have any interest at all in modern Welsh history, but it's also pretty essential if you're serious about post-War Britain.

There's a tendency - and I know I'm guilty of this - of not giving sufficient attention to Wales when looking at Britain more broadly; like Northern Ireland, it can be overlooked. So Johnes's book is welcome as a corrective to that, putting a mass of information on record about the changes wrought in the country over the last six decades.

Much of the ground is familiar as part of the UK story, but benefits enormously from having a different focus. The nationalisation of the coal industry, the advent of independent television, the entry into the EEC - it's fascinating and illuminating to see these developments from an angle too often neglected.

I was particularly fond of the chapter 'Promiscuous Living', on the social changes of the 1950s and '60s. Ignoring London and the handful of other English cities that always get examined, it's a joy to read about the impact of youth culture on Carmarthen and Cardigan, to hear Deke Leonard talking about his early days playing rock and roll, and to learn about an Aberystwyth group called Y Blew playing at the National Eisteddford in 1967 and calling for more groups 'prepared to twist and shout in Welsh'.

Perceptions of Wales changed in the 1990s, with the Cool Cymru moment and with the arrival of devolution - which is why I started reading this book, before getting sidetracked well beyond my immediate concerns - but Johnes is determined not to get carried away by an emerging sense of Welsh nationhood. His close analysis of statistics relating to, say, the revival of the Welsh language suggests a process still in its early days, while he's keen to draw attention to the fragility of the economic recovery during the long boom of 1994-2008: 'Wales did get wealthier; it was just that England got even wealthier even quicker'.

It's a terrific piece of political and social history, epic in its scope, fascinating in its detail, and splendidly readable.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Two hundred days later...

Yesterday was the two hundredth day since I  writing my book on the 1990s. Since I aim to average a thousand words a day, and since I was contracted to write a 200,000-word book, that should mean that I've finished.

Regrettably, I haven't.

I'm still keeping to my scheduled word-count, but the end is not yet in sight. It's going to be a long book, I fear. Indeed, it's already longer than anything I've previously written. Bits of it, however, are quite good.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Sid Waddell

The sad death of Sid Waddell, probably the most entertaining sports commentator we've ever had, is inevitably marked by collections of his sayings, such as this list. Included there is the classic: 'His eyes are bulging like the belly of a hungry chaffinch.'

But I've never seen quoted anywhere (except in my own Rejoice! Rejoice!) my all-time favourite, so I thought I'd add it to the mix: 'There's only one word for that - quintessential!'

What a man. Without him, darts would never have become a serious television sport.

A Close Shave

It was a great pleasure to hear Peter Hitchens on the Today programme this morning. I read his Mail on Sunday column yesterday, in which he warned that 'you can now be arrested for not smiling when an Olympic event is taking place', and I feared for his safety.

Happily it turns out that he hasn't yet been detained, and the worst that seems to have happened is that he's invited to discuss his thoughts with James Naughtie to an audience of millions.

It's good to know that the 'totalitarianism' Hitchens fears hasn't quite kicked in yet. He still sounded very cross, though. Almost as cross as his Mail colleague Stephen Glover, who was so upset by the opening ceremony with its 'Marxist version of our island history'.