Sunday, 31 August 2014

Bill Kerr: A modern-shaped person

I'm deeply saddened by the death of Bill Kerr, the last surviving regular from the Hancock's Half Hour cast.

He's not always been as celebrated as he should have been, inevitably a bit overshadowed in the extraordinary ensemble of Tony Hancock, Sid James, Hattie Jacques and Kenneth Williams. But he provided many of my favourite moments, in particular his extended suggestion in The Election Candidate about how to convert a trombone-player into a trumpeter, and his free verse in The Poetry Society.

That latter show is one of the masterpieces of British comedy. In fact the whole of the sixth and final radio series of HHH, when the cast was slimmed down to the core trio of Hancock, James and Kerr, is about as good as sitcoms get.

It was in The Poetry Society that Hancock made reference to 'modern-shaped people', a category from which he specifically excluded Bill. And somehow, in the context of radio comedy and with the quiet genius of Kerr's performance, it somehow made sense.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Yesterday's Papers: Child abuse in Yorkshire

An extract from The Times's review Channel 4's documentary Edge of the City, about social workers in Bradford (27 August 2004):

'The "politically correct" social workers and those from other involved agencies made no bones about the fact that it has been mainly groups of Asian men who have been "grooming" girls for illegal sex, sometimes involving drugging, group-rape and the threat of extreme violence.

'The problem is that, while many underage girls have consented to sex and do not see it as a problem, others have been terrorised into silence. Neither group is willing to press charges. It is the social workers, along with campaigning mothers, who have been pushing the police to help them sort out the problem.'

The programme, incidentally, had originally been scheduled for May 2004, but had been postponed after Colin Cramphorn, the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire, asked Channel 4 not to screen it on the grounds that it 'would increase community tension in Bradford'.

There were local and European elections that month, and others supported the police intervention. 'I am concerned that an ill-judged programme, shown at a time when elections are taking place, could inadvertently act as a recruiting sergeant for the BNP,' argued Lee Jasper of the National Assembly Against Racism. 'Investigating older men who are trying to procure underage girls into sex with drugs is certainly a legitimate subject for a documentary,' said Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council of Britain. 'But we were concerned that airing such a documentary at this time would inflame passions.'

Eric Pickles, the Conservative spokesman on local government, agreed: 'it would have been an immensely irresponsible piece of journalism to run with this programme, which the BNP itself is describing as its first party political broadcast.'

Ann Cryer, Labour MP for Keighley, despite having earlier 'claimed controversially that young Asian men, tied into arranged marriages, are turning to young girls for sex', this time put her faith in the authorities: 'The police would not have done this unless they were extremely worried.'

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Sherlock Holmes and the Great War

I'm currently reading Anthony Horowitz's Sherlock Holmes novel, The House of Silk (2011). And very entertaining it is too. There are some flaws - the proof reading is poor, and there's some language I suspect is anachronistic (were people really 'gunned down' in Victorian England?) - but it's a strong, convoluted story and Horowitz has a good turn of phrase.

He also has a nice line in gently reprimanding Arthur Conan Doyle for flaws in the canon: the lack of interest in Mrs Hudson's background and circumstances, for example, or the failure to follow up what happened to various criminals after Holmes's investigations were completed.

There's something that's troubling me, though. The story's set in 1890, but Watson is writing in 1915 at a time when 'a terrible and senseless war rages on the continent'.

I don't think that Watson would have referred to the First World War as 'senseless'. Certainly not at such an early stage. I fear that's a modern perception that's colouring the narrative.

In my forthcoming book, The Last Post, I quote a passage from John Buchan's 1926 novel The Dancing Floor, in which Edward Leithen reflects on the emergence of anti-war literature. 'The vocal people were apt to be damaged sensitives, who were scarcely typical of the average man,' he observes. 'There were horrors enough, God knows, but in most people’s recollections these were overlaid by the fierce interest and excitement, even by the comedy of it.'

I suspect that, as a patriot, as an army doctor and as a veteran of the Afghan wars, Watson would have been inclined to agree with Leithen's sentiment. He would surely not have seen conflict with Germany as being 'senseless'. Unhappy and regrettable, perhaps, but necessary.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Instant expertise

'We have a responsibility to protect the Yazidis of Iraq,' is the headline of a leader column in the New Statesman, an attitude mirrored across the British media. 'Yazidi' is the word of the moment, and suddenly we're knee-deep in opinions on, and analyses of, this hitherto unheard-of people.

Unheard of? Well, pretty much, if you broadly rely - as most of us do - on the media's portrayal of the world.

I just looked up on the News Bank data base, and in the first two weeks of August 2014, there were 324 mentions of the word in British newspapers. That's compared to the first seven months of the year, when there were just five such mentions. Looking further back: in 2013 there were two references to Yazidis, in 2013 three, in 2011 four, and in 2010 four.

Which, of course, doesn't stop any of us from airing our own opinions in homes and pubs, on the internet and radio phone-ins, as though we have any real idea at all what we're talking about. It's wonderful how quickly we can all become experts.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

When Mary met William (and Jimmy)

I've been reading Quite Contrary (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1993), the - third, I think - autobiography of Mary Whitehouse, a woman who I've written about before on this blog. And I'm very taken by her account of a 1981 debate at the Oxford Union, where - for the first time ever - she actually won a vote.

Her opponent was Victor Lowndes, formerly the chairman of the Playboy Organisation in Britain. It all sounds terribly exciting, particuarly because of the accompanying photograph - there, separating the two antagonists, is our very own William Hague, looking even younger than he had at the 1977 Conservative Party conference:

Mind you, this being written twenty years ago, when Hague was not yet even in the cabinet, he doesn't rate a name-check by Whitehouse at all.

Odd how different things can look in retrospect. Elsewhere in the book, Whitehouse remembers the occasion on which Jimmy Savile was presented with an award by the National Viewers and Listeners Association. In his acceptance speech, Savile reflected: 'While Mrs Whitehouse possibly wouldn't agree with my personal lifestyle, it is through organisations like hers that there is some semblance of decency.'

This was in 1977, just as Whitehouse was launching her great drive against paedophile pornography, a campaign which would culminate the following year with the Protection of Children Act. So he was probably correct in his assessment.

Writing in 1993, however, Whitehouse comments: 'Well, I don't know anything about Jimmy's lifestyle and, in any case, it's no business of mine. What I do know is that, as the years have gone on, so Jimmy has continued to make his highly acclaimed contribution to those in need and for that one continues to be grateful. His knighthood reflects the respect in which he is held by everyone.'

You can't get it right everytime.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

A hundred years ago

A hundred years ago today, the bodies of eight men were retrieved from the Thames Estuary.

On the 5th of August 1914 the first British shots had been fired in the First World War, aimed at the SS K├Ânigin Luise, a German steam ferry found laying mines. The ship was sunk, but so too was the British light cruiser HMS Amphion, which struck one of those mines early the next morning.

The bodies that were recovered came from both ships, four from each. They were buried together, four coffins covered by the Union Jack, four by the German ensign, and they were accorded full military honours.

At the end of the ceremony, a British bugler sounded the Last Post.

And that, in miniature, is why I've written my forthcoming book on the Last Post. There's something deeply intriguing about a piece of music that originated in the British Army but was so widely adopted that it became a universal, sacred anthem of death and remembrance, applicable equally to both sides in a conflict.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014


An article by Neil McCormick rightly celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the release of You Really Got Me by the Kinks, on 4 August 1964. (Though he oddly places it with Decca Records rather than Pye.)

It's a slightly disturbing concept that You Really Got Me emerged exactly halfway between the declaration of war in 1914 and today. And slightly disturbing that I was born on the far side of that divide.

On the subject of time - after six years on this blogsite, I've finally found the time setting and adjusted it to London.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Remembering stuff

As part of the saturation commemoration of the centenary of Britain's declaration of war against Germany, LBC Radio has asked the main party leaders at Westminster to pen a letter to the Unknown Soldier. The results can be read and (if you have the stomach for it) heard here.

Ed Miliband's contribution to this exercise encapsulates much of what irritates me in modern politics.

It starts with the greeting 'Dear Friend'. Really? The Unknown Soldier is Miliband's friend? Even though the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition doesn't know who this dead man was, they're still friends?

Miliband goes on to make nervously sure he's ticked all the correct boxes, mentioning troops from 'across the world - from the Indian sub-continent to Africa, from Australia to the Caribbean'. Though you'll notice he manages to avoid saying what all these troops had in common, presumably because he doesn't want to use the word 'Empire'.

And it wasn't just men. There were women on the Western Front too. Indeed the only person named in the message is Edith Cavell. There's even room in a five-paragraph letter to get in a mention of football.

(You can tell he's not really at Tony Blair's level, though; Blair would have managed to get in a reference to those executed for 'cowardice'.)

Finally, we get the lessons that we should learn from the First World War: it's 'a reminder of the brutality of conflict' and a 'warning to those in power to avoid entering into war unless it is absolutely necessary'.

Well, obviously. And let's be entirely fair: Miliband has long said that the invasion of Iraq was wrong, and the greatest achievement of his time as leader has been to prevent Britain - and thereby America - from a military engagement in Syria. (Why he doesn't make more of this, I have no idea.)

But how are we to know whether a war is 'absolutely necessary'? One way to judge Miliband's political thinking might be if he told us whether he thinks the First World War was necessary.

Unfortunately he doesn't have time for that, because his entire attention is on a touchy-feely embrace of the past that focuses on individual experiences (preferably of those who can be categorised as being representative of an oppressed group).

This, of course, is the media treatment of history, and Miliband is merely responding to a challenge laid down by a media organisation. Which is fine. In broad terms, I think the media are entirely justified in their approach. It's probably true that most of the public aren't much interested in the big themes of history, and there's nothing wrong with an account of the past that centres on empathy rather than interpretation.

But Miliband's not just a member of the public. He also (presumably) still thinks he's a potential prime minister. And as such, I expect something a bit more insightful from him. Something that hints at an awareness of the geopolitical implications of 1914-18, for example.

The same mindset is evident in most of his words and actions, in, for example, the way that Labour's main economic attack on the government is that David Cameron doen't 'get' the economic reality experienced by 'hard working families' and 'the most vulnerable in our society'. A potential prime minister should aspire to being more than a sympathetic ear in times of trouble.

Behind this is a real problem, that the media's handling of history is mirrored in its coverage - on our behalf - of current conflicts. The obsession is with getting footage and accounts of the victims of war. All of which tell us nothing more than what we already knew: war is bloody, horrible and destructive. The coverage has an impact, though. Show enough of the suffering and the call will come that something must be done. And we blindly rush in to support the overthrow of governments with little thought of who or what will take their place. Whilst paying sentimental tribute to our 'heroes' in uniform.

Maybe I'm being unfair to Miliband. After all, there was that stand on Syria. And he's far from being alone in Westminster, Broadcasting House or the country more widely. But I want more from him than Blairite emotionalism. I want an alternative, which is supposed to be his job.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Exceedingly good writing

On the eve of the centenary of the First World War, I rather like Andrew Lycett's piece on Rudyard Kipling in the Telegraph. I re-read a fair bit of Kipling earlier this year, when I was working on a book about The Last Post, and it's still remarkably good stuff.

I would note, though, that it's not true that Kipling 'personally paid for Last Post to be played every night at the Menin Gate at Ypres'. He paid for a bugler to sound the call every night at the cemetery in Loos, where his son was killed.