so there goes Theresa May’s deal - not with a whimper but with a massive bang. Lost by 230 votes; you can’t get more decisive than that. When she postponed the original vote everyone knew it was only a case of putting off the inevitable, and it would be great to hear exactly what she thinks she gained. But in the meantime, there’s more important stuff to be done. She talks about involving a wider ranger of voices in search of agreement, but in terms of personal skills neither she nor Corbyn is equipped for that. He’s locked in some fantasy where he wins a general election and then persuades the EU to give him what he wants - but he can’t even organise his own cabinet, let alone an international deal. So our fate for the moment is in the hands of Tory and Labour MPs, and for that to have any positive substance, that means collaboration between them. Quite exciting, in a way…even if the history of the last three years doesn’t seem to support much optimism. Maybe the grisly threat of what awaits us if they don’t manage it will actually help to concentrate their minds…let’s hope so.
All through 2018 friends kept telling me about a competition (deadline December 31) asking for poems about Brexit - just your sort of thing, they said. And they’re right, of course, except that entry was free, but each entrant was only allowed to submit one poem, so it’s likely to be a very popular lottery. I knew early on which poem I’d be sending it - a lively account of the journey of the big red Brexit bus. I had a version of this from the summer, but it kept changing to take account of the disastrous nature of the negotiations, and the increasing sense that the bus was heading over the cliff.
So, how to end the poem? Often when i performed it around the circuit I ended up with total gloom, and a sharp defiant question:
“ It’s hell on wheels, it’s rock and roll
So tell me - who took back control?”
It’s a tough, angry conclusion, very much of the moment, but for a published anthology that might sound bleak and cynical - and it might also not be accurate about the story that was unfolding. In November there were rumours of MPs getting together across party lines, to try to rule out both a hard Brexit and the prospect of no deal. Grieve’s amendment was passed, and I scribbled my jaunty conclusion, in which the MPs at the back of the bus eat chips and raise two fingers to the whips, because they have finally taken back control. Then I sent off the poem and waited.
The news got grimmer and grimmer. May delayed a vote she knew she would lose. Detailed preparations for no deal were put in place. Grayling dispatched lorries around the south-east, as a rehearsal for the chaos to come. Maybe I was kidding myself. But then, today, news that the rumours are true. A cross-party group, led again by Dominic Grieve, has put together a motion refusing financial support for no-deal preparations, and the speaker has allowed this amendment to be put, and a majority of MPs have voted it through. Maybe somewhere a poetry judge is looking at my poem, wondering “How on earth did he know this would happen?” We can but hope.
A two-hour drama on Channel 4 by James Graham about Brexit; what’s not to like? Plenty, apparently, judging by the storm of adverse reactions with which the papers are heaving. Anne Perkinds thinks it glorifies an oddball when what was happening was deceit, Shahmir Sanni thinks it simplifies the nature of the crooked deals and social media shanigins. Carole Cadwallader thinks it’s too soon…When would be a good time? What this play does do is convey the huge complexity of this chaotic process - the personalities and the politics, the social media and the social pressures, the sheer lack of control or direction which gave us our current mess in all its glory. No, it doesn’t neatly confirm the prejudices of those watching it, and it would be useless as drama if it did. What it does do is offer a lively, entertaining overview, a way of making sense out of what’s volatile and complicated. I’ve read the books Graham has read- Shipman, Oliver, Banks - and I’m astonished by how much real detail he’s been able to weave into this fast-moving and thought-provoking piece. Well worth watching, and well worth watching again.
If a documentary is on BBC4, and it’s part of the Storyville strand, then it’s probably going to be worthwhile. This one, a huge two-part analysis of David Koresh and Waco, was stunning. It’s partly that they’ve got the time to tack down a lot of people who were part of this story, and a significant number of veterans of Koresh’s community who retain the faith that there was something very special about him. there were also a wise old local journalist, and an FBi man who sat impatients on the sidelines, just itching to crash in and start shooting people. and he got his way. A whole lot of stuiff I’d never heard before. some very canny Bible scholars who knew Revelation as well as Koresh did hatched this plan to publicise his writings about it, and he was in the process of doing this when the raid started. (they thought it might have been the deal that made the peace; the FBI were sure it was all a con). there were video’s made of the negotiators and of the community members, so that they could swap them ina kind of mutual introduction - but those of the Koresh followers weren’s show, because it might have made them look too human and appeakling. When the FBI were trying to pressure Janet Reno into authorising a raid on the community, they told her that Koresh was likely to abuse the children (not true) but they didn’t tell her about the deal with the bible schol;ars. So in they go…and one of the community members testifies that when the assault started, with teargas, it was members of the community who set the building alight, and ensured the death of themselves and many members. Gruesome stuff, but necessary and informative.
Having clocked up my seventy fourth birthday, there are odd moments when I try to think ahead, and now the Christmas sillliness is over I actually get some help from the TV. Two portraits of eighty-year olds in action, and they couldn’t be more different. Raymond Briggs is a bit doddery, eccentric and slow, lovable but very much imprisoned in memories of his own childhood. but it’s good to be reminded, in sequence, of his varied creations - Father Christmas, Fungus, Snowman, Falklands, When the Wind blows - and he’s got a chorus of approving fans to die for - Steve Bell, Nick Park, Posy Simmonds.
And then there’s Andrew Davies. Totally irrepressible, confident and - having polished off Les Miserables (with some cheeky irreverence about the musical - which I also hate) he now can’t wait to get his teeth into A suitable boy - just a thousand pages or so of intricate Indian novel. He’s clever and sharp rather than profound, and he too has a chorus of praise, but for him as an adaptor rather than an original creator - he’s quick, ruthless, gets rids of the stuff you don’t need. But still an impressive work ethic, which it’s tiring to watch, let alone emulate.
way back when, when the kids were young, I remember making a chart of all the goodies on TV, so we could try and avoid clashes, and catch all the good stuff that was going on. Not sure what happened to that. On my birthday, December 26, I wanted to watch a good movie, but there just wasn’t anything on any of the channels that looked appetising in any way. So it’s back to the DVD collection, and a sumptuous two hours in the company of Cary Grant, James Mason and Eva Marie Saint - with Htichcock controlling the dials. “North by NorthWest”, a total treat, witty, clever and suspenseful, not wasting our time or insulting our intelligence. I don’t lnow why we have to go back sixty years to have a good time, but I’m glad we can.
a good week for Vladimir Putin. He’s smiling like a Cheshire Cat because (1) we’re in a Brexit-shaped mess and the EU is suffering (2) Donald Trump has ignored all wise advice, shafted his allies, and with no consultation pulled troops out of Syria. and there’s Putin, on the sidelines, applauding Trump for a good choice, solemnly nodding that May is right to abide by the democratic decision of the British people…not that Putin would recognise democracy if it bit him on the bum. And of course, he isn’ ion the sidelines. He’s pressuring and manipulating, ensuring that his own cash flow continues to run in torresents, in parallel with the maximum disruption of the West. Now we know - courtesy of Congress - how much the russians were doing throughout the Us campaign (not only to boost Trump, but also to discoyrage Black voters from bothering), are we stillgoing to pretend that we’re not sure if Russian intervention had any impact on the Brexit result? Yet another part of the dire prospect we face, with apparently no Parlimantary leadership concerned enough to alter course. Not looking forward to 2019 at all…
It’s a phenomenon I’ve noted before, in this blog and elsehwere, but it’s still weaird when it happens as powerfully as this. I was reading Mark Lawson’s “The Deaths” from Telford Library, when Wenlock Library told me my request for “milkman” had come in. This is the Anna Bruns novel that won the Booker Prize, so I shunted it up the quare, and moved Mark Lawson aside.
The difference is phenomenal. The Lawson was pleasnt enough, witty in a fairly predictable way, and very easily readable.
The Burns is totally different. It’s not obscure or provocatively difficult; it just demands extra close attention, and your progress from page to page is consistently richer and slower - this is a pleasure that shouldn’t, mustn’t be rush. Very hard to convey unless you’re actually reading it, but I am, and I’m loving it. Sorry, Mark, I’ll get back to you - but if I have to choose then she has to come first.
Just got an offer I’ve had to refuse, and it breaks my heart. There’s a protest in Wiolverhampton on Tuesday night, against the trial of the Stansted Fifteen, and they’re asking for interested poets. Yes, a poet of sorts. Yes, very interested - but sadly committed elsewhere. But I have sent them a poem, because this is a cause very close to my heart.
Migrants being forcibly deported, dragged on a plan and dumped in various parts of Africa. Some of them have been trafficked, some of them have appeals pending, but none of that makes any difference to the specialists in Hostile Environment. So I’m delighted that protestors have immobilised this plane - specially chartered by the Home Office, and prevented the removal of these people. They’re tried under an anti-terrorist law, passed in response to Lockerbie - some time back. In the interim, the only person charged u nder it was the pilot of a helicopter who tried to crash it into a control tower. On the spectrum of serious risk, this protest falls a long way short of that, but the powers that be are going out of their way to ensure that these naughty children are to be taught a lesson. And the judge clearly got the message, instructing the jury to ignore any stuff about human rights, and just focus on whether or not they affected the business of the airport.
So there’s two big things to be noisy about here - the forced deportations, and the right to protest. I shan’t be there on Tuesday, but I’ll be cheering them on.. And you can find th poem I sent them elsewhere on this website, in Poems from the News.
Oh dear. It just keeps getting worse. No, says May, the vote will definitely go ahead. Her loyal cabinet trawl the airwaves, insisting she won’t back down. At the very last minute, she backs down. the blood-curdling masses of the ERG challenger her leadership, demand a vote. They lose, by 117-200. Rees-Mogg insists that if that’s the margin of victory, she should go to the queen and hand in her notice. If he’d won by 200-117, is that what he’d have done? Not a chance. short-term egotists the lot of them, with not a glimmer of how they look to us, or - even more embarassing - the world as a whole. And it would be wonderful to pretend that Labour were any more united, imaginative, or aware. Sadly, I can’t do it…
Don’t go to the theatre these days - can’t be sure of knee-room - but I was tempted by the streaming of the National performance of Antony and Cleopatra. Always one of my favourite plays - writing essays about Shakespeare’s Roman plays was the start of my serious political education. and sure enough, tons of the speeches were familiar. As the complicated manoeuvres of the political deals unrolled, I was nodding - yeah, there’s this, and then there’s that. Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okeneido were terrific, until the moment when Cleopatra asks Octavia about Caesar’s plans - “What will he do with you?” Like, I’m sure, thousands of people across the country, I wanted to scream “No, Sophie, it’s not you - it’s me? You’re asking about yourself.” Anyone can make a mistake, and all of us who’ve been on a stage for more than ten minutes have first-hand experience of that, but on stage, on screen, broadcast around the world ? No, it didn’t wreck the evening, and this was a stunning performance - close up of a brightly coloured asp, and all - but that tiny little slip was a razor slice into the suspension of disbelief.
for once, a sniff of good news. Well, good news for me, and remainers. For passionate Brexiteers, not so much. three commons defeats for May, and - I think - the most crucial is Grieve’s, giving Parliament the decisive voice about no deal. so if there’s no parliamentary majority for a hard Brexit, and there is a Parliamentary majority against no deal, what we’ll get is either something Norway-ish, or a second referendum. Right? You just don’t know these days, but this does feel like progress. Yes, it’s a shambles, and the continuing uncertainty is a pain for anyone conducting serious business, but nobody conducting serious business can be cheered by these negotiations, or the deal that’s come out of them. I can see the rage that will follow - “So what were we voting for?” - but the phrasing of the question was so inept, the nature of the campaign so negative and divisive, that it’s hard to call anything “the will of the people” - especially with the bacjground mutters of illegal approaches and demographic change. It was a mess, and if MPs are finally resolved not to mortgage our future for a mess, I for one am mildly relieved.
Wonderful little nugget within the BBC documentary about the workings of the Foreign Office. Boris Johnson is being briefed by his expert advisor, before he gives a speech in Paris. He’s rather inclined to do the speech in French. She’s not sure about this, and if he plans to do it she wants to see the script. she’s worried that there are nuances he may miss, things he’ll simplify. He burbles a bit in French, as if to demonstrate just how fluent he is. she stays quiet and tight-lipped. Her French is streets ahead of his, but she’s focussing on the job that needs to be done. He’s busy preening, and the whole trip is regularly interrupted by the need for Boris to pose and record a little snatch for his Twitter feed, which he keeps having to reshoot because he gets things wrong. We were paying for all of this, just like Londoners were lashing out thousands for the various vanity projects that marked his time as Mayor. Dangerous to be too confident, but it does finally look as though we’ve seen the end of the illusion that this vain charlatan might be a possible candidate to be in charge of the country.
Philip Alston, UN rapporteur on poverty, has looked at how the UK operates and says that it’s a disgrace, callous and mean-spirited. Amber Rudd, restored to the cabinet and in charge of DWP, is eager to demonstrate her loyalty and brands Alston’s report “political”. Maybe she means “moral” - because that’s the main basis for his disapproval. than again, Rudd could be right. Because the really deadly thing Alston did was to listen, very carefully, to people at the sharp end. You can see snatches of news reports where he’s doing it. He’s not grandstanding or interrupting, he’s encouraging people to talk. What was their experience? How had they been treated? He puts that together with the figures, and comes up with a pretty damning picture. Rudd insists that she’s not dogmatic, is perfectly willing o listen to expert critics who phrase their criticisms in a way she approves - but what she won’t do is pay serious attention to the people on the receiving end. that’s the beauty and the power of Alston;’s approach, which is why this government sees it as such a threat.
There’s a lovely moment in the documentary about the making of “They shall not grow old” when the woman from the Imperial War Museum describes Peter Jackson’s decisive pitch - “I want to make something which will interest 15-year old kids in the First World War.” He said it, and he meant it, and the resulting collaboration is just stunning - old footage, painstakingly converted into colour, with sound effects added, plus a running commentary precisely selected from hours of recorded archives. There’s no central character, no personal drama, but if you were teaching this in school, this is the resource you’d want to have.
And then there’s Peterloo. Similar case, really. Important part of our history, often not taught, and certainly not taught in detail. Mike Leigh’s film was made for all the right reasons, and wears its heart on its sleeve, but there’s no way any teacher’s going to be showing this to their kids. It’s solemn, far too long and desperately one-sided. If the Prince Regent, the government and the local bigwigs are just going to be shown as “people in costume who don’t care”, why bother giving them screen time? We could have the marchers’ eye view, powerfully presented, in half the time. I wanted to like this, wanted to recommend it, but came out of the cinema bored and angry. .
Today’s Guardian reports that the Saudis have paid the Natural History Museum £23,700 to host an event, days after the Khasoggi killing. Phrased like that, it sounds brutal and calculating, but it probably is. There was another instance earlier, when a member of the Saudi court expressed dismay at the disloyalty of the Turkish government in releasing details of the killing. “We’d given them a lot of money”, he said, as though that really was the only hing that mattered. It clearly is to Trump, but that’s one of the reasons many of us find him repulsive. Killing off a journalist because what he’s writing is embarrassing isn’t OK, no matter who you are or how much money you’ve got. So all we need are some politicians who grasp that, and are prepared to act on it. Don’t hold your breath.
Phew! We got within a point of beating the world champions. Closer than that, we scored a brilliant try which was disallowed after the TMO overruled the ref, but the TMO’s not supposed to do that unless there’s a clear…blah blah blah. On the other hand, if you have a 15-0 lead against the All Blacks and you let it slip, maybe you don’t deserve to win. and we did get a one-point win against the Springboks, on the basis of a very flukey TMO decision, so maybe that’s quits. We had chances, we made mistakes, the line-out was a shambles, and the All Blacks are very resilient. and maybe if the weather had been dry and more conducive to really good rugby, they’d have thrashed us. but it was exciting, and much more cheering than the slough into which the vaunted England team has slipped over the last year. so maybe a bit of the Eddie Jones magic still survives. It was certainly worth watching.
People keep referring back to Bodyguuard as the revival of watercooler Tv, the moment when we were all spellbound by great television. As I’vve explained in a previous post, I don’t share this enthusiasm (though I’m a massive Jed Mercurio fan), but catching up with other stuff makes me even more mystified by this chorus of praise. Informer, for instance, seems to me much better. As it happens, there are a number of close points of comparison. Paddy Considine also acts the part of a troubled male with a grim past, but he does it with more conviction and variety, and the impact on his partner is much more carefully traced. The working context of the two main detectives is depicted in much more plausible detail than the endlessly complex netwioorks hinted at in The Bodyguard. And as for the depiction of Asian characters - Informer wins hands down. One of its triumphs has been the close, heartbreaking depiction of a very particular family with Pakistani roots - light years ahead of the extreme cartoon of the woman in Bodyguard - look, she’s a passive female stereo type - oh no, she isn’t, she’s a calculating killer! So if I end up buying the box set of one of these, it won’t be The Bodyguard.
Oh dear. It would be almost funny if it wasn’t serious. Donald Trump is slowing the pace right down, looking even more self-important than usual, and asking his citizens to come together. Yeah, right. If you say that someone who bodyslams a report is “My kind of guy”, then it’ not totally surprising that another of your supporters thinks it’s a good idea to post a pipe-bomb to CNN. Which makes it slightly tricky if you then want to do the wise leadership thing of asking your countrymen and women to join together in unity and peace.
Making connections, planning consequences, is not something he’s ever had to do, because he’s bought his way out of it, or pretended that the messy results don’t matter. But the running the country stuff really is quite complicated, and you need to think about what you do and say in advance. There may still be enough intelligent adults left in the administration who know this, and could explain it, but somehow I don’t think they’ll get the chance. Trump doesn’t want to listen to anyone except his chanting fan base, and to them he’s bragging about how well he’s behaving, because he and they know this is just a short charade before he goes on the rant again. But we all hold our breath,wondering if the mid-term elections will make any kind of a difference. Experience warns that we shouldn’t be too hopeful. There are, it seems, plenty of Americans who really think this is the best they can manage.
I’ve said it before, but we really are being spoilt with the drama. some diappointments, admittedly. I wrote about Bodyguard on 26.9.18. I had high hopes of Black Earth Rising (spending time and effort exploring the complex morality of Rwanda’s emergence from mass killings, but it’s drifted into self-important solemnity, with Hugo Blick’s vanity being fed right over the top:look, he doesn’t just write, produce and direct - he’s also an actor!
But don’t despair. there’s also Killing Eve, Vanity Fair, The Cry and probably other good stuff I’ve missed. Certainly Informer was far better - tougher, livelier, more complex - than I’d feared it might be, and thanks to reviews I’ve been able to catch up on Butterly. No, a three part drama about a transgender boy/girl on ITV wouldn’t have been my first choice, but it is by Tony Marchant, and it’s definitely worth a look. So, blessings to the gods of television drama, who are keeping us generously supplied. And there’s still Little Drummer Girl to come.