Saturday, 9 July 2016

"Two wrongs do not make a right or a left": Thoughts on Alan Bleasdale's GBH

In the rush to celebrate the creative brilliance of HBO, the American television production company that has given us, among others, Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, John Adams, and The Sopranos, we do well to remember our own television gold. Given the annual laziness that insists on delivering yet another tiresome series of X Factor, Strictly Come Dancing, Big Brother, or Britain's Got Talent, it is relatively straightforward to lose sight of quality.

In 1991, Channel 4 delivered one of the most outstanding drama serials in British television history, Alan Bleasdale's GBH. Consumed by anger since the referendum on Britain's future in Europe, and the continuing madness that now defines British politics - no Government, no Opposition, no plan for the future, and an escalation in racial abuse - I watched GBH again for the umpteenth time since it was first broadcast. It speaks to our present troubled times.

This is Alan Bleasdale's masterpiece; and this is the same writer who gave us in 1982 the sizzling indictment of early Thatcherism, Boys from the Blackstuff, which defined political drama for a generation. GBH is the story of the rise and fall of Michael Murray (Robert Lindsay), the corrupt but charismatic Labour leader of an unnamed Northern city, juxtaposed with the fall and rise of Jim Nelson (Michael Palin), a card-carrying member of the Labour party and principled headteacher of a school for children with special needs. Their worlds collide when pickets fail to materialise outside Nelson's school on a 'Day of Action', destroying Murray's ambition to dominate the news agenda with a full closure of 'his' city. Their antagonism escalates, but this is only one thread in Bleasdale's complex story. Murray is being manipulated by the hard left ... or the right (?) .. and the city explodes in violence when the ethnic minorities are used as pawns in a bigger game. Murray is haunted by his troubled childhood, the death of his working-class hero father before he was born, and the memory of Elieen Critchley with whom he played at school; while Frankie Murray, brilliantly played by Philip Whitchurch, copes with being the older, less successful sibling, vying with Michael for the attention of their mother, Julie Walters; and Jim Nelson's family try to cope with his slow descent into hypochondria and madness. In one memorable scene, Nelson's doctor strips and forces him to examine the lump in his stomach, remarking on the irony that the hypochondriac enjoys full health while the doctor heads towards a fight with cancer. (Apparently this actually happened to Bleasdale, a self-confessed hypochondriac.)

So the politics of GBH are only one part of the story. The intricate plotting and the pace at which it unfolds allows the interweaving of multiple storylines. Bleasdale could easily have dispensed with the not-so troubled marriage of his best-friend, the poet Martin Niarchos (Michael Angelis); the eccentricities of Daniel Massey's hotel owner, Grosvenor, and his rants against the great unwashed; and Frankie's sojourn to Fleetwood with his mother, wife and children.  But these and other plots-within-plots add a depth to the story and the characters that intensify the idea of ordinary lives disrupted by extraordinary times. It is to Channel 4's credit and vision that it allowed the series to take its time, each episode being as long as it needed to be, with several far longer than others. It is television to savour. This is a clear reflection of Channel 4's commitment to quality television, and one cannot help but wonder if the magnified pressures of commercialism, populist scheduling, and shorter attention spans among audiences would allow this to happen today. (In an interview available on the DVD version of GBH, Bleasdale reveals that the executive producer, the legendary Verity Lambert - responsible for introducing the Daleks to Doctor Who in 1963 - exorcised 238 pages and 120 scenes from the script.)

However, undoubtedly the politics dominate the story. Bleasdale is adamant GBH is not an attack on the political Left, that he has not sold-out the socialist values that seared through his early work. Rather, the target of GBH is Fundamentalism in whichever colour it appears. The author's manifesto is laid bare by a Jim Nelson in the final episode when he confronts Murray's attempt to expel him from the Labour Party. Members of the Party today, gripping their dogmatic stubbornness ever tighter, would do well to watch this scene. Murray is testament to the idea that popularity - having followers - does not necessarily translate into leadership. Nelson tells his audience in the Labour club that his father was "never anyone's disciple. He did not believe in Messiahs", and he praises "all those who refuse to learn about life from manifestos and Marx and Das Kapital." Nelson identifies the problem: "You've only read one book", he tells the supposedly socialist mob which has made his life hell, and suggests they may wish to read two or three to challenge their "flat earth" view of the world. He laments how "lions are led by donkey jackets, living proof that the further left you go, the more right wing you become", and warns his listeners that "two wrongs do not make a right, or a left, especially not a left". Nelson concludes his speech with this sentiment: "in the short time that we all have, we would want to be remembered for the good we have done". This timely, for it is sad that, in the space of just two short weeks after the result of the referendum was announced, we have forgotten our promise to "love like Jo" in memory of Jo Cox, the murdered MP who will be remembered for the good she did in a tragically short life.

GBH is television drama at its finest: a brilliant, often angry, moving, disturbing and frequently amusing script; dazzling acting that ranges and rages across a full gamut of  emotions; original, groundbreaking, innovative - there are an insufficient number of synonyms to describe it and its impact. Above all, GBH is a timely reminder that politics plays with people's lives and that we need to be careful in the leaders we choose, especially in the Labour Party.            

Sunday, 3 January 2016

I didn't get where I am today ...

I wouldn't be where I am today without the support and encouragement of two wonderful teachers who inspired and nurtured my love of history at a young age. When I was around seven years old Mrs Hustwick at Woodside First School in Bradford taught her class two periods in history that changed my perspective on the world: The English Civil War (which motivated us to leave Star Wars alone for a while and play instead Cavaliers and Roundheads in the school playground); and the Russian Revolution. We learned how something called the CCCP believed in another something called Marxism, how an Emperor was killed by Lenin (with Charles I, I see now regicide was a common theme of these early years), and we made Borscht soup. From that time on, I became fascinated - obsessed almost - with Russia and the history of the Russian Revolution.

Fast forward to my final year at Woodside Middle School where, at 12 years old, I was taught by Mrs Tones who  knew I was infatuated with history and especially the Russian Revolution (I can still hear her groaning when my question in the school general knowledge quiz asked about the last Tsar). As soon as Mrs Tones told us that we had to research and write a project on an aspect of 20th Century history, I knew what I wanted to do.  However, Mrs Tones advised me against focusing exclusively on the Russian Revolution, so after some negotiation I decided to devote my attention to a sweeping history of Wars and Revolutions in the 20th Century.

Having moved house in the last month, I unearthed the project. It looks a little battered now, but I am still immensely proud of it, and especially the A++ and two Merit Awards Mrs Tones gave me for what she called "Work above and beyond the call of duty". I look back today at the naivety of my narrative (devoid of any analysis whatsoever): a whole paragraph on the Second World War - the same amount of space devoted to the Spanish Civil War, the Hungarian Uprising and the Troubles in Ulster. The Russian Revolution got three pages (one on Lenin, another on Russia Before the Revolution, and a third on the Revolution itself). Even the Vietnam War merited two pages (plus the inclusion of quizzes I cut out of my weekly Battle comic). The project ended with an index and a bibliography. 

So it is with a middle aged gaze - a heady mixture of pleasure and tender melancholy - that I look back and recognise this as the first tentative steps on my academic journey. Little did I know at 12 years old  that I would one day teach the Chinese Revolution at University level, or that the Hungarian Uprising, the Suez Crisis and the Vietnam War would each be chapters in my PhD thesis and first book.

So in sincere gratitude to Mrs Hustwick and Mrs Tones, and in appreciation for their work as teachers, I reproduce some of the pages here (including my terrible portraits of the main protagonists in the history). Thank you both for encouraging me, tolerating my 
idiosyncrasies, and helping me to begin my  travel along a very exciting and rewarding path. You represent both everything that was splendid about the Woodside Schools, and all that is noble in teaching. 


Sunday, 24 May 2015

"All things truly wicked start from an innocence"

' ... all generations were lost by something and always had been and always would be' (Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast (1964)

Gertrude Stein, literary pioneer and grande dame of Paris's literary landscape in the 1920s, once told a young Ernest Hemingway, 'All of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation'.  Another writer would be inspired, moved even; and for a short time, Hemingway stops by a statue of the French hero Marshal Ney and thinks about his friendship with Stein. But Hemingway being Hemingway, the hint of sentimentality dissipates quickly. Resolving to do his best by his friend, he tells himself: 'But the hell with her lost-generation talk and all the the dirty, easy labels.' He returns home to his wife and son and tells Hadley, 'You know, Gertrude is nice, anyway', but then adds 'But she does talk a lot of rot sometimes.'

I have yet to make up my mind about Hemingway. I find his writing can be tedious; the relentless dedication to demonstrating his machismo, the monotony of him recounting the size of marlin caught and game hunted. The dreariness of his first success, A Farewell to Arms, is personified by Catherine Barkley, the one-dimensional nurse who is Frederic Henry's love interest. Her dialogue is so leaden and so clichéd that my joy at her eventual demise was personally disturbing. As a reader, only the literary deaths of Gatsby and Anna Karenina have matched such levels of relief.

And yet Hemingway can delight. When he puts his mind to it, when he is exposed to the desolation and indignation of obsession, he can deliver a knock-out blow. In Fiesta, or The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway creates an unsettling world of absolute passion. Jake's fixation with Brett is palpable, and any reader who has loved and lost cannot fail to experience again in Fiesta's pages the wounded heart and the punch in the stomach that is miscarried love:    
I lay awake thinking and my mind jumping around. Then I couldn't keep away from it, and I started to think about Brett and the rest of it went away. I was thinking about Brett and my mind stopped jumping around and started to go in sort of smooth waves. Then all of a sudden I started to cry. Then after a while it was better and I lay in bed and listened to the heavy trams go by and way down the street, and then I went to sleep.       
This was Brett that I felt like crying about. Then I thought of her walking up the street and stepping into the car, as I had last seen her, and of course in a little while I felt like hell again. It was awfully easy to be hardboiled about everything in the daytime, but at night it is another thing.

Frederic Henry never feels this intensely about Catherine, even as she lies on her deathbed. The end, when it comes, is quick as if the author was hurrying to finish the novel:

It seems she had one hemorrhage after another. They couldn't stop it. I went into the room and stayed with Catherine until she died. She was unconscious all the time and it did not take her very long to die. 
But after  I ... shut the door and turned off the light it wasn't any good. It was like saying good-by to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain. 
And that is how Hemingway concludes what is allegedly one of the greatest love stories of the 20th Century, with a snivel rather than a sob.

In 1964, three years after Hemingway stood on the front porch of his Ketchum home and shot himself with a 12-gauge Boss shotgun, Scribners in the US and Jonathan Cape in the UK collated and published a small book of sketches of his life in Paris in the 1920s. This story - of Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald, of Shakespeare & Co., and The Café des Amateurs - is well known. Hemingway is renowned for embellishing the story of his life. Michael Reynolds's magnificent biographies document the fibs and the fables, and Hemingway's relentless effort to create his own legend. The book is A Moveable Feast, a recreation rather than a recollection since Hemingway was writing about his life forty years previously. Yet it stands the test of time and remains a stunning portrait of Paris at its most vibrant.

We encounter Hemingway's radiance immediately in the opening sentence:

 Then there was the bad weather. 

Few literary openings can compete with this. With these six words we are spirited into not only a moveable feast, but also a moveable narrative, and we arrive in the middle of a conversation, as if the author is entertaining a bar full of strangers in Havana or Florida with stories from his youth. This first sketch, 'A Good Café on the Place St.-Michel' serves as mood-setter and as a glimpse into Hemingway's work routine. When he is facing a morning without words, he gazes over the Paris rooftops and tells himself:

'Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.' So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence ...
And of course Hemingway had written one true sentence. It is the sentence which begins the book: 'Then there was the bad weather'.

The bad weather is a constant theme. While Gene Kelly danced through Paris sunshine, Audrey Hepburn posed in front of the Arc de Triomphe, and Ella Fitzgerald told us how she loves Paris in the springtime, Hemingway reminds us that Paris could also be brutal: 'All of the sadness of the city came suddenly with the first cold rain of winter'. The alliteration reinforces the harshness. Hemingway uses the weather to complete his portrait of Paris; the rain and darkness when he struggles, the Spring sunshine when things are going well. It marks the passage of time. Soon the misery of Winter's onset gives way to its beauty, and the city adapts.  Paris is transformed by the changing weather: 'When we came back to Paris it was clear and cold and lovely. The city had accommodated itself to winter'. Hemingway is obsessed with the rapid changes in the weather, the suddenness that defines the city's mood. Take this haunting passage:

With so many trees in the city, you could see the spring coming each day until a night of warm wind would bring it suddenly in one morning. Sometimes the heavy cold rains would beat it back so that it would seem that it would never come and that you were losing season out of your life. This was the only truly sad time in Paris because it was unnatural. You expected to be sad i the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees ... But you knew there would always be spring ... When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person had died for no reason.
        In those days, though, the spring always came finally but it was frightening that it had nearly failed. 
And these sentiments are captured in the title of the next sketch: The False Spring. Hemingway's mood lifts:

When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest. The only thing that could spoil a day was people and if you could keep from making engagements, each day had no limits. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself. 
Hemingway and Hadley wander through the Paris night landscape and recall their best friend, Chink, and they command each other to 'live in this time now and have every minute of it.
     We looked and there it all was: our river and our city and the island of our city.'

But his mood does not remain constant, and by the end of the sketch he can't sleep.

Life had seemed so simple that morning when I had wakened and found the false spring and heard the pipes of the man with his herd of goats and gone out and bought the racing paper.
              But Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight.
Hemingway feels hunger even when he has eaten a feast, but this is not a physical hunger. The author is hungry for the bohemian lifestyle, the simplicity of the poor, and describes feeling 'an emptiness' when he stops gambling. 'But then I knew that everything good and bad left an emptiness when it stopped.' In 'Hunger was Good Discipline' Hemingway plots his route through Paris to avoid the sight and smell of food. Hunger, both literal and metaphorical, is a dominant theme of the book. Even its title evokes food, with Paris a 'feast' in all senses of the word.

The final sketch in the collection is the beautifully-titled 'There is Never Any End to Paris' - a cliché     perhaps, but it does encapsulate the nostalgia that dominates how we think about the City of Lights in the 1920s. Obsessed with the seasons again to mark both the passage of time and mood, Hemingway describes how a 'happy and innocent winter' was followed by 'a nightmare winter disguised as the greatest fun of all'. Be careful what you wish for. Hemingway laments fleeting happiness and fleeting satisfaction, and reminds us that the fulfilment of Hedonism is temporary. Hemingway returns to this using more vivid imagery when he describes 'those who attract people by their happiness and their performance':

They do not always learn about the good, the attractive, the charming, the soon-beloved, the generous, the understanding rich who have no bad qualities and who give each day the quality of festival and who, when they have passed and taken the nourishment their needed, leave everything deader than the roots of any grass Attila's horses' hooves have ever scoured.
Living for today is dangerous; there is always a new tomorrow to plan. As Hemingway looks back, he confesses that he too was seduced: 'That every day should be a fiesta seemed to me a marvellous discovery'; and this leads Hemingway to infidelity, to the loss of innocence.

So you live day by day and enjoy what you have and do not worry. You lie and hate it and it destroys you and every day is more dangerous, but you live day to day as in a war. 

Hemingway wants to love only his wife, but fails. Full of regret and remorse, he wishes he 'had died before I loved anyone but her'. 'I loved her,' he tells us, 'and I loved no one else', but yet when he finds himself back in Paris 'the other thing', the affair, 'started again.' The regret and the remorse strikes the reader as insincere; it is as if Hemingway is accusing Paris and not himself as the agent of indiscretion (doesn't Rick tell Ilsa in Casablanca, 'We'll always have Paris'?). This is unmistakable when Hemingway tells us how, when he returned to France from New York, he should have taken the first train to his wife in Austria: 'But the girl I was in love with was in Paris then, and I did not take the first train, or the second or the third.' So in these final pages of A Moveable Feast, this extraordinary small collection of memories, Hemingway shifts back and forth between vulnerability and culpability.  But he knows that 'Paris was never to be the same again, although it was always Paris and you changed as it changed' (again referencing seasons and the weather). He ends with a simple statement:

But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.  

This is Hemingway's own self-created mythology, but also the mythology that we have created around Paris in the 1920s, as the beacon for bohemian and aspiring writers and artists who congregated in the bars and salons; at Gertrude Stein's; and of course at the epitome of that special time in the city's history, the bookshop Shakespeare and Co. A Moveable Feast remains the idol of cultural America's enchantment with Paris. It is Hemingway at his best, and it gives me reason to forgive the dullness of A Farewell to Arms, the feigned machismo in The Green Hills of Africa and the crude bullfighting scenes in Fiesta. For in A Moveable Feast, Hemingway gave us perfection in one sentence:

Then there was the bad weather.     

Friday, 14 February 2014

A letter to 14 year old Gary

Dear Gary

This week I should have been in Mauritius, but during the night before I was due to fly I started to experience severe abdominal pain and vomiting, so I had to pull out. It was a sensible decision; the pain is subsiding, but it does take a few days of resting and fasting to recover. I'm used to it, and in time you will be too.

It is 1984. You are now approaching your 14th birthday and you are lying in a hospital bed for the first time. It is a Nightingale ward in the Bradford Royal Infirmary, a horrible and depressing place that thirty years later has hardly changed. This will not be the last time you will be there, or Bradford's St Luke's Hospital. In fact, you will see inside a lost of hospitals: in Nottingham, Leeds, Aberystwyth, Tokyo, Kaohsiung (that's in Taiwan) and in Ningbo (that's in China - more of that soon).

I know that you are now feeling very scared and confused. You have been admitted to hospital following weeks of crippling arthritic pain in your legs. You can hardly walk, and you now find out that your weight has dropped to 5 stones 3lbs. After getting no satisfaction from the son-of-a-bitch GP who told your parents that there was nothing wrong and you were trying to stay home from school, your mum took you to the Accident and Emergency Department and the doctors there admitted you immediately. What they told you has changed your life for ever: You have something called 'Crohn's Disease'. You have never heard of this, but you will be surprised how many people do suffer from this condition. Right now, however, the word 'Disease' conjures up all sorts of frightening images and it feels like your world is crumbling. You don't know where it comes from. Sorry, even thirty years later, the specialists still don't know what causes Crohn's. Given the problems on your mum's side - a history of bowel cancer, colitis and other forms of IBD - it is possibly genetic, but no one seems to know for sure. And in the grand scheme of things, does it really matter why you have this problem? 

You learn that Crohn's is connected to stress, and that it is possible that the relentless and merciless bullying you have just experienced at your new school hastened the Disease's onset. Don't worry. You won't be bullied again, and the life you lead will be the best retaliation against your tormentors you could ever imagine.

Stress will always be a factor. You will want to live life at a constant gallop, and you will achieve so much in such a short space of time. You will learn to slow down, prioritise and avoid stress as much as possible. Rest as much as you can and always get a good night's sleep. It will take you a long time and much nagging from your wife before you accept this change. However, you will not only enjoy it, but benefit from it too.     

Right now you are in Ward 15 of the BRI and you are the youngest patient there. You are surrounded by elderly men, most of whom have had heart attacks. Every night you are awakened by the sound of doctors and nurses running down the ward; another patient has passed away. You were probably talking to him earlier as you made your way down to the television room at the end of the ward to watch the Olympics in Los Angeles. They tell you stories, ask you questions and you run little errands for them. You will visit some of them again after you leave, and soon read their obituaries in the Telegraph & Argus. This will be your first experience of death; it is not right that a 14 year old should be in such a ward and be so close to death, but I am sorry to say that this is typical of Bradford's hospitals. In 2010 you will lose your best friend in the same depressing place, and still nothing changes.   

You are lying in bed with a drip in your arm feeding you antibiotics and steroids, and you have to pass your stools into a special toilet for the microbiology department. You have had your first ever barium meal examination (it gets better, trust me), and your first sigmoidoscopy (sorry, that is still as painful as ever). You did not have an anaesthetic and two nurses held your hands while you screamed. You have never experienced such pain. You spend your days doing the school work that your magnificent teachers at Buttershaw Upper School have prepared for you, and waiting for the one hour of visiting time when Mum and Dad come to see you. Your Dad will make a request on the hospital radio for you - You're My Best Friend - and after you lose him in 2004, this song will make you weep because of the memories it conjures.  

In time you are discharged from the BRI, and your new life with Crohn's Disease begins.

At this point I want to hold your hand; I want to hug you and reassure you that everything is ok; it works out fine, better than you could ever imagine. You miss almost a whole year of 'O' Level schooling, need to get a taxi to school and walk with a stick for a while, but you do manage to get into the 6th Form and University. You have great teachers at Buttershaw who are sympathetic to your condition and cannot do enough to help you.

You have vowed to never let the Crohn's stop you doing anything. Congratulations - it doesn't! Boy, are you in for an adventure with, and despite your Crohn's! It limits you from time to time: you develop a photographic memory for the location of public toilets, you can't eat too much spicy food, and there are still times you have to use a walking stick. The abdominal pain can still be unbearable. But you are alive. You are ok. You grab every opportunity that comes your way. You are still happy and learning to treasure every moment.

From BA you start a PhD in your hobby - yes, all those hours spent listening to shortwave radio pays off and actually becomes your job! - and you set a new record at the University for speed of completion. You get your first job in Nottingham University at age 24 and make lifelong friends there; and your first book is published just two years later. That's correct, you do write books - perhaps not the ones you want to publish right now, but you are an author! Your dream since the age of 6 when you first learned to type on Mum's machine becomes a reality.

You want to travel; you plan to see the world. Well, you do. You will go to so many places: Australia, the US, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, through Europe, Japan and China - and that's just for work. You will travel to many more places for holidays. Right now, you have a map of the world on your wall and gaze at it with wonder. Never let that sense of wonder escape you. Sometimes, you will despair of foreign travel - airports, aeroplanes, hotels - but you must always remember to look around and remember how you felt when you stared for hours at that world map. Never take it for granted.

You may be a picky eater now, but you will learn to love eating (or at least trying) all kinds of food - and the more unusual the better. Your mum will worry constantly and tell you that you are sick because of the 'funny foreign food you eat'. Well, that's ok. Even with dementia thirty years on, she still worries; you will always be her little boy - that's what mums are for. You will come to appreciate how eating good, unusual food is a key pleasure in life. You will also learn to eat only when you are hungry. Don't be dictated to by time - if you are not hungry at breakfast or lunchtime, fine; you will feel hungry later and then you will eat. With Crohn's it is much better to eat small quantities only when you are hungry. You will also have to go to the toilet frequently - don't be embarrassed by it. Everyone does it, and you will learn coping mechanisms, such as always sitting in aisle seats on trains, planes and in cinemas. You will receive magnificent support from the National Association for Crohn's Disease and Colitis who will teach you so much and make your life that little easier. You will meet many doctors, surgeons, nurses and all kinds of specialists. Some will be better than others; some will be more trustworthy than others. The key is to listen to your own body; you are the most qualified expert about your Disease. You will have frequent small operations, abscesses, colonoscopies, blood tests galore, Vitamin B12 injections every three months, and when you reach my age you will actually be injecting yourself very two weeks.         

You will live in China for two years and be the founding Dean of the first foreign University there. You will return to the UK and become a Professor, a Head of Department, and join the Department of International Politics at Aberystwyth. You haven't heard of that Department yet, but being part of it will become an ambition when you start to study International Relations at University. Remember, as a Professor you will be paid to speak, write and read - it doesn't get much better than that. It will be stressful at times, and the Crohn's will slow you down. Always remember how lucky you are, and remember how hard your Dad had to work in a proper job to help you get to this position. By 44 you have everything except perfect health, but it doesn't matter. You must never, never, never let the Crohn's determine what you do or don't do. Learn to live with the problem, not be submissive to it. In time, you will meet many people who tell you how sorry they are because you feel sick, that you are in pain and have to live with a chronic illness. You will explain to them 'that's my life; that's who I am. I'm used to it.' Having Crohn's will be normal for you; and that's a good thing. Never ask, Why Me? It makes no sense.

You will have a frightening episode in Japan. I don't want to tell you too much, but it will be the most serious threat to your life. But how many other people can say they've had life-saving emergency surgery in Tokyo? You will dine out on the subject for years; it will be an exciting topic of conversation. 

The most important thing I want to tell you is that you will not face this adventure alone (and yes, your life with Crohn's is an adventure). You will meet the most wonderful woman who will accept your illness and learn how to take care of you. She will always be there for you and never judge you or be embarrassed. She will do things for you that no wife should be expected to do.  She will travel with you, and you will enjoy the adventure together. She will stay with you all night on a waiting room sofa in the Tokyo hospital, and the first thing you will see when you awake from the anaesthetic will be her smiling, loving face. You will realise you could not do this alone, and that her love is the best medicine you can take.

So, as I write to you from 2014, thirty years from when you are first diagnosed with Crohn's Disease, I want to send you this simple message.

Don't worry; there are worse illnesses you could have, and you do have the most wonderful life. You have the best job and the best wife. You will learn your limitations, but they are few. Relax, enjoy the ride. It's all part of the adventure.

With love and best wishes



Saturday, 21 September 2013

First get the questions right - Political Communication in Hong Kong, 2004

Unpacking boxes in my new Aberystwyth home, sorting through files and albums, I have discovered some articles and stories - some published, some not. This article was published in the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong's English-language newspaper, when I was a Visiting Professor in the Department of Government and Public Administration, Chinese University of Hong Kong (January-June 2004). It refers to a survey published in that newspaper (but also in Chinese-language publications) asking for citizens' views on constitutional development. At the time, I was writing my book., Political Communication and Democracy, and thought this survey a perfect example of poor political communication. 

The original article was published 25 February 2004.  


On Monday, this newspaper - along with every other in Hong Kong - devoted almost a whole page to 'Seeking Your Views', a survey of public opinion launched by the Constitutional Development Taskforce. The survey invited readers to respond to a series of questions relating to passages from the Basic Law that were conveniently printed on the left-hand side of the page for easy reference. Democrats rejoice! The public participation in the political process that you have long demanded is now a reality. You can forget about demonstrating through the streets of Hong Kong and, instead, put pen to paper to express your much sought-after opinions. After all, that is what democracy is all about, isn't it?

Well, no it is not. In fact, the survey does nothing whatsoever to facilitate democratic communication in Hong Kong.

First, it complicates even further the extremely technical debates about Hong Kong's political development that are currently saturating the media. Take a close look at Question A2, on the principles of the 'actual situation' and 'gradual and orderly progress'. Readers are invited to comment on how the 'actual situation' should be constituted, and how we might understand 'gradual and orderly progress'. Another question asks how the development of Hong Kong's political structure could meet the interests of the different sectors of society and facilitate the development of the capitalist economy.

Wow, talk about asking big questions.

Still with me? Good, because when the survey turns to the issues of legislative process, the questions become even more demanding: 'What is the most appropriate legislative procedure for amending the methods for selecting the [chief executive] and forming Legco? Do we need to follow the procedures set out in Article 159 of the Basic Law, if we amend the methods for selecting the [chief executive] or forming Legco as specified in Annexes I and II of the Basic Law?'

And on it goes...

The taskforce has obviously forgotten the first principle: a survey is only as good as the questions it asks, and the questions asked do not invite serious response because they assume a particularly high level of knowledge and comprehension. Has everybody read, understood and, most importantly, interrogated the relevant passages of the Basic Law and all its annexes to be able to offer the kind of critical opinion the taskforce requires? Unfortunately for Hong Kong, political science tells us that, faced with a complicated question, citizens tend to abstain altogether from such surveys because they do not understand the issue, or they vote to keep the status quo (surveys generally being forces of conservative government).

The consequences are potentially ominous: if the average citizen is unable to provide sensible and cogent answers to such surveys based on full information and critical reflection, it is possible to imagine a time when a government concludes that the level of political ignorance is unsatisfactory for any kind of participation. Moreover, if the response rate is low, the authoritarians among us will claim that democracy has failed, and that Hong Kong people are apathetic to politics after all (an argument which the July and January demonstrations prove is nonsense). Or, the technicalities of the questions will generate responses from certain sections of the population only, sustaining an elitist political system that allows for the continued 'tyranny of the minority'. Either way, Hong Kong loses.

The question is only the first stage. The real problems lie in the interpretation of responses. For example, how should the strength of conviction be measured? Should a strong opinion be weighted more heavily than one weakly expressed? Should the taskforce allow for the fact that some respondents will be basing their answer on greater knowledge or information than others? Is the opinion of someone who does not know much about an issue worth the same or less than someone who knows more? Should their opinions be treated equally by decision-makers?

These are important questions, because they lie at the heart of democratic political communication; does or should everyone have an equal opportunity to express their opinions to policymakers, regardless of their access to knowledge and information? This calls for an inquiry into the very value of such surveys, the methods they use, their place in the decision-making process, and the responsiveness of government. They tell us nothing about why respondents hold particular opinions and from where they obtained the information upon which the opinions are based

So if the survey is not assisting democracy, we can argue that it is merely feeding the illusion of participation, transparency and legitimacy. It is providing a fantasy for every Hong Kong resident - Chinese and English-speaking - that his or her views are wanted and valued. The appeal of such surveys is understandable: decisions are considered more legitimate if they have been arrived at by soliciting popular opinion. However, their success depends on voter interest and participation, being user-friendly, and providing information that is of sufficient quality that all potential respondents can form an opinion, regardless of background or status.

Let me summarise my argument in the kind of direct, jargon-free language that the taskforce has decided is not appropriate for its survey: this is bad communication. Political communication turns on the need to persuade people to care enough about an issue that they will form an opinion about it. This survey does neither, and on such an important issue for Hong Kong, that is very worrying indeed.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Dear Kate and William

Congratulations on the birth of your first son. I sincerely hope that he is healthy and happy, and I am sure you will make fine parents. Much of the UK is celebrating along with you today and honouring the birth of their future monarch. You will understand, however, that a great many people have chosen not to mark this occasion.

For Republicans like myself, the idea of monarchy is an anachronism in a 21st Century representative democracy. It suggests that we remain 'subjects' rather than 'citizens' who are in control of our own political destiny. Many people with whom I have discussed this over the past 24 hours have pointed out to me that Republicanism does not have the answers to our present political problems, and that politicians cause their own problems and exact their own cost. I agree entirely with these sentiments, and in fact the current government is itself filled by over-privileged public school boys who have never done a job outside of politics; and quite frankly, the other side is not much better. So surely a monarchy is preferable to the incompetent politicians, right? The difference is that at specific times we can decide who is the Prime Minister; we can decide that the government is not acting in our interests and so choose to throw them out at the next election. We have no such option with the current Head of State. The monarchy is not only unelected, but is also unaccountable which goes against the values of democracy.  Moreover, any one of us can decide to stand for election, get involved and facilitate change at the local, national and increasingly international level. None of us have a shot at being King or Queen. William, you will inherit the throne by the privilege - luck and randomness of birth, not by choice or merit.

I have also heard that the monarchy is valuable because your family 'bring tourists to the UK.' So I hate to break it to you, William, but it seems that you are considered nothing more than a very expensive public funded tourist attraction. It must be difficult to accept that you are thought of in the same way as Alton Towers, Madame Tussauds and the London Eye. If that is what the monarchy has been reduced to, then I am sure you will agree we need to seriously consider its place in modern Britain. Besides, whether we actually have a Royal Family or not does not seem to make much difference, as your castles and other stately homes - the principal draw - will remain. Our history will still be celebrated, and the lives of your ancestors remembered. Yet in 2012, Republican France attracted 83 million visitors (where the Palace of Versailles remains a big attraction with 6 million visitors) whereas the international tourists to the UK were a mere 29.3 million. I really think that the tourists will still come to visit us if we decide to become a Republic. The Monarch has no power whatsoever, though we still have a charade that the Prime Minister must ask permission to dissolve or form a government; and the Monarch signs bills into law - bills that have been deliberated and decided by our duly elected representatives.

I am sure that as you reflect on the miracle of birth today and look lovingly into your new son's eyes, you will also wish to think about the society into which he was born. I am sure you will agree that it would have been nice for him to enter a society where one's luck in life is not determined by birth. You may have seen the disturbing reports that one in three children in the UK - that's four million young people - are living in relative poverty. Your son will never experience the trauma or hardship of children born at exactly the same time to families in Britain and across the world with little hope and opportunity. While your son will be feted by the tabloid press and addressed as 'His Royal Highness,' many of these children will be labelled 'scum,' 'chav,' 'anti-social,' and 'feral' simply because of where they were born and who their parents are. They will begin their life, like Oliver Twist, 'badged and ticketed' through the accident of birth.

I am also sure that the mothers who joined you, Kate, in giving birth yesterday would have liked to have done so in a private suite costing £6000 per night. Of course it would be inappropriate to expect a Royal couple to use a seriously underfunded and understaffed NHS hospital, but I am sure you can see why many people are bitter. Likewise the refurbishment of your new home - £1 million - is being met out of money given to your grandmother, the Queen, by the Government. In other words, our taxes are housing you. I hope you can explain this to would-be first time buyers who cannot afford to take their first step on the property ladder, especially in your neighbourhood, or to those on the waiting list for council houses at a time when few are available because of Thatcher's 'right to buy' and the present government's reluctance to invest in building more council properties. Do the three of you really need five reception rooms, three main bedrooms, dressing rooms and bathrooms, a night and day nursery, nine staff bedrooms and more than 20 ‘ancillary’ rooms? Will you be subject to the tyrannical 'bedroom tax' that has scared and blighted the lives of thousands of your future 'subjects'? And we all hope that you enjoyed your recent tour to Singapore and the South Pacific which cost the taxpayer £370, 590 - the single most expensive Royal visit of the year. I would have said travelling is out of the question with a new born baby, but then you will have a huge team behind you to look after your son, so you will never know the trauma of travelling with young children.

Dear Kate and William, the Tory government likes to tell us that, referring to a necessary period of austerity, 'we are all in this together.' This is not true; some by the sheer accident of birth have been lucky to escape the kind of austerity measures being forced on thousands of families across the UK - caps to welfare payments, cuts to disability allowances, increases in VAT. For many the dole is the only way they can put food on the tables for their children. Count your blessings that your son will never have to suffer this way.

So, you will understand why some of us are Republicans and would like to see the abolition of this medieval institution of monarchy. It does not sit well with the kind of representative democracy for which many of our ancestors fought and died; and in a time of economic mismanagement by the government, the life of luxury you and your family enjoy is resented by thousands of like-minded people across the country. We are often reminded, William, that you represent a new generation of Royals; someone who, like your mother, is determined to do things differently and shake up the Firm. I just hope that you are sufficiently courageous and considerate to use the scraps of power you will inherit one day to abolish the monarchy for once and for all. That will be the greatest service you can do for your country.

In the meantime, I hope you both are allowed some time away from the public spotlight to get to know your son, and that the media desist from the kind of obsessive behaviour we have seen in the past 48 hours. May your family be healthy and happy, and I wish you all the best.


A citizen of the UK

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Being a real writer: Notes on John Irving and Philip Roth

I first encountered Philip Roth through the novels of John Irving, specifically his 1978 book, The World According to Garp; and I discovered John Irving through the American actor, Robin Williams.

In the 1980s, Robin Williams was a hero. In my childhood he had starred in an anarchic television series called Mork and Mindy in which he played an innocent alien from the planet Ork (Mork from Ork) who lived with a young human woman. In every episode Mork tried to understand something new about humans and humanity and then reported his findings to his superiors on Ork. In the days before Seinfeld taught us that 'no hugging, no learning' can create great comedy, such edification was quite common in situation comedy programmes. Mork and Mindy was quite funny ... sometimes ... but like Happy Days, the American sitcom in which the character Mork first appeared, it soon "jumped the shark". Jumping the shark is a phrase used to describe a television series which is past its sell-by date and has become unbelievable and unwatchable; and fearing a loss of viewers, the production team resort to gimmicks and sensational story-lines in a last-ditch desperate attempt to save a show: Happy Days' The Fonz water skiing in swimming trunks and leather jacket over a shark in Los Angeles; Dallas's Bobby Ewing returning in the shower from the dead, rendering the whole previous season a dream.

Before it jumped the shark, Mork and Mindy was a showcase for Robin Williams's own brand of high intensity manic comedy. As a stand-up comedian, Williams improvised whole routines, his energy and imagination seemingly infinite, and you can get a glimpse of his genius in his 1987 movie, Good Morning Vietnam. Moreover, Williams was good friends with another of my comedy heroes, John Belushi, star of the first season of Saturday Night Live, National Lampoon's Animal House, 1941 and The Blues Brothers. My visits to Chicago's Second City comedy theatre where many of America's best-loved comedians, including Belushi, began before their graduation to Saturday Night Live, always feels like a pilgrimage; and I met a pseudo-deity on my last visit there when Lorne Michaels (the creator and producer of SNL) was also in the audience scouting for new talent. What I did not know growing up watching Mork and Mindy was that Robin Williams spent almost the entire run on hard drugs, and that Williams was with Belushi the night Belushi died of a drug overdose aged just 33 in the infamous Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard.

In the late 1980s, I saw on television a movie which I only watched because it starred Robin Williams. In fact, The World According to Garp (1982) was his second film (his first was Popeye which also seems to have sunk without a trace).  However, not even Glenn Close as Garp's mother, Jenny Fields, nor John Lithgow as the transgender football player, Roberta Muldoon, were enough to save Garp from becoming a box-office disaster. But I was hooked. Telling my friends 'I have to get inside that guy's head' I watched the film's opening again to find out who wrote it and I discovered it was based on a novel by John Irving.

I think to understand my infatuation with Garp it is important to appreciate two things about me. First, I have always wanted to be a writer, 'A real writer,' as Helen Holm, Garp's girlfriend and future wife, tells him.

'With all the reading you do, I think you're going to be a writer,' Garp told Helen ...
'No chance,' Helen said. She had no doubt about it.
'Well, maybe you'll marry a writer,' Garp said to her. She looked up at him, her face very serious, her new prescription sunglasses better suited to her wide cheekbones than her last pair which always slid down her nose.
'If I marry anybody, I'll marry a writer,' Helen said.
Garp had been trying to joke; Helen's seriousness made him nervous. He said, 'Well, I'm sure you won't marry a wrestler.'
'You can be very sure,' Helen said. Perhaps young Garp could not conceal his pain, because Helen added, 'unless it's a wrestler who's also a writer.'
'But a writer first and foremost,' Garp guessed.
'Yes a real writer,' Helen said mysteriously - but ready to define what she meant by that. Garp didn't dare ask. He let her get back to her book. 
I watched in fascination as Robin Williams played out my dream played on the television screen. Sitting at my mother's typewriter at the age of six banging out my first juvenile one-paragraph stories, I learnt that being a writer could be a full-time job. I always wanted to be a real writer.

The second reason that Garp captivated me was the ending of the movie. I cried; and even today every time I watch the DVD which is part of my 'comfort film' collection, I am overwhelmed by a cocktail of melancholy and elation. When Garp is shot and is being flown to hospital in a helicopter, he looks out of the window and discovers that his own boyhood fantasy is now realised: 'Look, Helen, I'm flying.' The helicopter continues on its journeywith Helen and the dying Garp, while the camera pans down to reveal a bouncing baby that first introduced the movie (as the newborn Garp) with The Beatles' 'When I'm Sixty-Four' as the soundtrack. Birth and death. Perfect song, perfect movie, perfect ending.

I read John Irving's The World According to Garp in two days. It spoke to me like no other book ever had, and from then on I was determined to read John Irving's whole collection.

John Irving can be divided into two: Pre-Garp and post-Garp. Pre-Garp, Irving is clearly struggling to find his voice, to settle down and become the story teller that I came to adore. Novels like Setting Free the Bears, The Water Method Man and The 158-Pound Marriage are competent and entertaining, but they lack the depth and breadth, the energy and emotion, the imagination and the character of his later books. Garp is a turning point. I remember making this point when, around twenty  years old, I wrote an unpublished essay which argued that John Irving was the new Charles Dickens:  A sense of  epic proportions; a similar taste for exaggerated characters; slow, deliberate plotting which can tell a whole story over a character's lifetime; the same mixture of bawdy comedy and tear-jerking pathos. Dickens plays a central role in The Cider House Rules (1985) in which the abortionist, Dr Wilbur Larch, reads aloud David Copperfield to the orphans in his care. 'Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.' This famous opening to David Copperfield's biography applies equally to the young Homer Wells in The Cider House Rules and to all of Irving's principal characters post-Garp. All are extraordinary people born on the verge of extraordinary lives.

This essay on Dickens and John Irving was written as part of my training as a real writer. Inspired also by the essays of George Orwell which I recall reading in a Bradford tea-shop opposite the city's only independent bookshop during University vacations.  (Yes, Bradford did once have an independent bookshop, tea-shops and cafes, none of which employed a 'Barista' to froth up your coffee.) I spent the weekdays on my University work and then I devoted  Saturday and Sunday to writing ... anything ... an essay about literature or history, politics or music - the subject was less important than the discipline of writing. If I wanted to be a real writer, I needed to write.

I am now looking at the paperback Penguin edition of Orwell's Inside the Whale and Other Essays which I bought in that Bradford bookshop. I remember staring at the cover for hours. It depicts a desk with a small portable typewriter which resembled my own (a Christmas present at age nine from my parents). On Orwell's desk there are half-filled notebooks, Russian newspapers, a bust of Karl Marx; an empty glass, ink-bottles, numerous pens and pencils; a tattered poster of Lenin surveys the scene from above the desk. That's precisely how I wanted my desk to look; that's where I wanted to be a real writer - in a messy workspace that defined my intellectual aspirations. Even now, fifteen years after my typewriter was made redundant and was replaced by the sterility of a computer keyboard, I still miss the harsh machine-gun sound that defined my early literary efforts, the bell which told me I had reached (literally and metaphorically) the end of the line, the satisfaction of feeding a blank piece of paper into the roller and removing a full sheet of paper after my work was complete; the smell of ink and the stain of Tipex.

With the exception of Last Night in Twisted River (2009) - I struggled with the stereotype Italian accents - Irving's post-Garp novels are stunning. My favourite remains A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989) which affected me in a way no other novel ever has. Victor Hugo's Les Miserables moved me and defined for me the power of  story-telling to generate emotion. But Owen Meany affected me: the intricacy of its steady, intelligent plotting and the evolution of its characters to one of the most satisfying denouements in modern literature demonstrated the care that an author must devote to his work. Its opening lines are up there with those penned by David Copperfield:

'I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice. Not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God. I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.'
In these three sentences we are told everything we need to know about the book. We are introduced to the main character (whose voice is depicted throughout the novel in upper case), the story's first plot point, and the ending. What we don't know is how Owen Meany convinced John, the narrator, to become a Christian and this mystery drives forward the 534-page story and explains each of the book's sub-plots. It is a big book (not as big as Les Mis) and I bought the hardback with birthday money in 1989 (price £12.95; my brand new copy of Garp was just £4.95. Such prices quickly date my library).

Since Owen Meany I have waited anxiously for each new Irving book, buying them in hardback as soon as they are available. When Until I Find You (2005) was published, I was in Amsterdam. Because most of the plot occurs there, the book first went on sale in Holland. I bought it and found a new perspective on the city in which I was reading it. Irving's most recent novel, In One Person, was published in 2012 and, having bought it as soon as I could, I resisted opening the pages until my long flight to Australia would give me the opportunity to savour it. I finished it one week later just as my train was pulling to a stop back home in Leeds.

So what about Philip Roth, Pulitzer Prize winner and, in 2011, controversial winner of the Man Booker International Prize? To be a real writer one must also be a real reader; and one way of modelling myself on John Irving was to find out who had inspired him the way Irving had inspired me. My copy of Garp contains a biographical note: 'Setting Free the Bears ... was followed by The Water-Method Man, a hilarious tale of a man with a complaint more serious than Portnoy's.' Who or what is Portnoy? Library research in the pre-Google era alerted me to Philip Roth's novel, Portnoy's Complaint; and John Irving was a literary fan of Philip Roth. If it's good enough for Irving, it is good enough for me, and so began my own admiration for Philip Roth.

Roth is a quintessential chronicler of modern America. His canon, including I Married a Communist, American Pastoral, Everyman, Exit Ghost, The Human Stain and Nemesis, are examinations of the human condition, and specifically the East Coast Jewish Male condition. Everyman, published in 2007, is the book that has touched me most. A slender novel of only 182 pages (yet at £6.99 more expensive than any of my Irving paperbacks) tells the story of us all - regret, loss, stoicism. It narrates the life and death of one man, and in doing so without fanfare or celebration, reminds us of our fragility, mortality and the mysteries of life.

Exit Ghost (2007) also speaks to me. It concerns 75-year old Nathan Zuckerman, a character at the centre of several Roth novels, who travels to New York for a procedure that will stop his incontinence. Having removed himself from life several years previously to live in the countryside free from unnecessary intrusion (' ... with no sense of loss - merely, at the outset, a kind of drought within me - I had to inhabit not just the great world, but the present moment. The impulse to be in it and of it long since killed.'), Zuckerman is reminded of the America he deliberately left behind. In New York he becomes infatuated with a beautiful young and married woman and, in his scriptwriting, fantasises about being her lover. At the same time, he meets friends he has not seen for fifty years, discovers old friends have died and tries to come to terms with his age and the loss of youth, virility and (emotional and physical) self-control. While in New York he also faces up to modernity, and all of us exasperated by a youthful obsession with staying connected while alienating ourselves from the real world will identify with Roth's picture of the mobile phone culture: Through Zuckerman, Roth asks what had made 'incessant talking into a telephone preferable to walking about under no-one's surveillance, momentarily solitary, assimilating the streets through one's animal senses and thinking the myriad thoughts that the activities of a city inspire'; only no-one talks on phones any more, rather they butcher the English language via text messages or constantly reveal the trivia of their lives on Facebook. Thinking has given way to saying.

The novel, like Everyman,  is a powerful reminder of our own ticking clocks and is best avoided by men facing their own midlife crises:

'There it was: the tactless severity of vital male youth, not a single doubt about his coherence, blind with self-confidence, and the virtue of knowing what matters most. The ruthless sense of necessity. The annihilating impulse in the face of an obstacle. Those grandstand days when you shrink from nothing and you're only right. Everything is a target; you're on the attack; and you, you alone, are right.
        The invulnerable boy who thinks he's a man and is seething to play a big role.'
 '... I thought in taking on the young and courting all the dangers of someone of this age intermingling with people of that age, I can only end up bloodied, a big fat target of a scar for unknowing youth, savage with health and armed to the teeth with time'.
No-one else has so precisely and accurately summarised the experience of middle age and its disturbing and destructive envy of youth that is the root of many a man's experience with depression. It takes time to learn that the onset of middle age can be a period of mourning that often precedes the transit to the contentment of accepted maturity.

Exit Ghost is not as polished as Everyman; the literary references are too contrived and appear present only to validate Roth's intellect, while the polemic is an annoying and unnecessary distraction ( 'I've served my tour as exasperated liberal and indignant citizen'). The subtlety of American Pastoral that established Roth as that country's narrator disappears in favour of explicit ranting at the post-911 maelstrom.

Yet Roth's genius for laying bare the pain of experiencing love - most often obsessional and unrequited ('a bore', according to The Mamas and the Papas) - is the most truthful. In language that matches Hemingway's in his own story of obsessional love, Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises), Zuckerman tells us about the woman at the centre of his thoughts: 'She had a huge pull on me, a huge gravitational pull on the ghost of my desire. This woman was in me before she even appeared.' He feels an incredible passion that he cannot satiate; we feel his pain and desperation.

Writing about Miguel de Unamuno Clive James explains why great writers are great:

'The best writers contain within their souls all the characters they will ever create on the page; and those characters have always been there, throughout history; so the writer, no matter how modern he thinks he is, deals always and only in eternity' (Cultural Amnesia, 2007).

Both John Irving and Philip Roth have brought to life the characters residing in their souls, and by doing so have helped us come to terms with the universal and eternal themes that perplex, haunt, disturb and sometimes enliven us.