Friday, 30 September 2011

Mr Street-Porter

Back in 2003, when I was researching a book about Biba, I wrote to Janet Street-Porter, thinking that she might have something intelligent to say about a shop she used to frequent. She didn't, of course, but she did at least write back, even if she did talk patronising rubbish. And even if she did address me as Ms Turner.

I had little time or respect for her before, but I'm afraid that I had even less after that.

Anyway, Mr Street-Porter was on Question Time last night, denouncing a mooted proposal to raise the speed limit on motorways to 80 mph as a 'crowd-pleasing, cheap policy'. Is that really a problem? Crowd-pleasing policies don't seem to me necessarily a bad thing in a democracy. Particularly if they're cheap.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

In memory of: David Croft

The news of the death of David Croft reminds me of a story I took from his autobiography, You Have Been Watching, for use in my book, The Man Who Invented the Daleks:

In the mid-1970s, David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd, then riding high with their sitcom Are You Being Served?, approached the head of comedy at the BBC with an idea that, said Croft, 'was so hot that I didn't want to tell him what it was', for fear of word getting out and the idea being plagiarised. 'To his eternal credit, he didn't protest or ask for a script. He told me to go ahead and do it.'

The resulting pilot, Come Back Mrs Noah, starring Mollie Sugden as a Yorkshire houswife sent into space in the year 2050, resulted in a short series. It was a resounding flop, commercially and artistically, but its very existence demonstrated the freedoms accorded to those with a proven track record.

That was the old days, of course, when broadcasting executives were allowed to trust their instincts.

A horse is a horse, of course, of course

All the talk leading up to Ed Miliband's speech to the Labour conference was about how much the party ought to apologize for the mistakes of the last government.

Miliband did apologize. For Labour's policy in the 1980s. The party shouldn't have opposed the reforms of Margaret Thatcher in terms of council house sales, cuts in income tax and trade union legislation. This came after his opening words, which had invoked the memory of the 1985 Bournemouth conference, when the then leader, Neil Kinnock, had attacked the left-wing council in Liverpool.

It was all a bit odd, this harking back a quarter of a century to a time when Miliband himself was still looking at his A-level options. Apart from anything else, wasn't this what the whole of New Labour had been about? The very existence of Tony Blair was an apology for the 1980s Labour Party.

Presumably we're supposed to take from this that, although he accepts some elements of the Thatcherite legacy, he's rejecting the political morality of the era: the veneration of big business and the City.

It's not very convincing, though it may yet become so. Because there's so little to underpin it.

The policies that have emerged so far this week have been busily ceding ground to the Conservatives. Miliband says that Labour would have a maximum of £6,000 a year student tuition fees: so he accepts the idea of doubling fees from the level at which a Labour government left them, but not a tripling. And if the current government doesn't reduce the deficit, then the next Labour government will. Meanwhile Ed Balls calls for a 'temporary' cut in VAT, thereby accepting in principle the level of 20 per cent introduced by the Coalition.

The Labour Party is looking dangerously as though its policy pitch is that they're just like the Tories, only not quite as much. Ho hum.

And still Miliband doesn't look strong enough to deliver a line like 'I'm my own man' without sounding like a studious teenager, anxious to be taken seriously.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Quote for the Week 6

'Looking somewhat like a baby Harold Wilson, but speaking with the authority and cadence of a baby Churchill, he electrified the conference with a stern summons to revive pure Conservatism.'
Fred Emery of The Times on the 16-year-old William Hague appearing at the 1977 Conservative Party conference. Remembered in honour of the 16-year-old Rory Weal who today similarly excited delegates to the Labour Party conference.

Terry Nation - the story continues

It having been a few months since The Man Who Invented the Daleks was published, it was a very pleasant surprise to find it had attracted another review, this time by David Crozier in the Ham & High, the best local paper I know. The high place it holds in my estimation hasn't been harmed by Mr Crozier's kind words:

'Written with both wit and wonder ... this is a wonderful book, not just the details of one man's life and career, but a splendid rollercoaster ride throughsome of the best TV series since, well since the invention of television.'

Whilst on the subject of Terry Nation, I've also added a couple more extracts from the book to my website. And I'm much looking forward to a visit to the Morley Literature Festival in a fortnight's time, when I shall be talking about Nation.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Yesterday's Papers - Cassandra on capital punishment

Watching Question Time on BBC1 last night, as the execution of Troy Davies was being discussed and Conservative MP Priti Patel called for a return to capital punishment, I was reminded of one of the best columns written by William Connor, better known as Cassandra.
The piece was published in the Daily Mirror on 13 July 1955, the day that Ruth Ellis was executed for killing her lover, and opens:

It's a fine day for haymaking. A fine day for fishing. A fine day for lolling in the sunshine. And if you feel that way - and I mourn to say that millions of you do - it's a fine day for a hanging.

IF YOU READ THIS BEFORE NINE O'CLOCK THIS MORNING, the last dreadful and obscene preparations for hanging Ruth Ellis will be moving up to their fierce and sickening climax. The public hangman and his assistant will have been slipped into the prison at about four o'clock yesterday afternoon.

There, from what is grotesquely called 'some vantage point' and unobserved by Ruth Ellis, they will have spied upon her when she was at exercise 'to form an impression of the physique of the prisoner'.

A bag of sand will have been filled to the same weight as the condemned woman and it will have been left hanging overnight to stretch the rope.

IF YOU READ THIS AT NINE O'CLOCK, then - short of a miracle - you and I and every man and woman in the land with head to think and heart to feel will, in full responsibility, blot this woman out.

The hands that place the white hood over her head will not be our hands. But the guilt - and guilt there is in all this abominable business - will belong to us as much as to the wretched executioner paid and trained to do the job in accordance with the savage public will.

IF YOU READ THIS AFTER NINE O'CLOCK, the murderess, Ruth Ellis, will have gone.

The one thing that brings stature and dignity to mankind and raises us above the beast of the field will have been denied to her - pity and the hope of ultimate redemption.

The medical officer will go to the pit under the trap door to see that life is extinct. Then in the barbarous wickedness of this ceremony, rejected by nearly all civilized peoples, the body will be left to hang for one hour.

IF YOU READ THESE WORDS OF MINE AT MIDDAY the grave will have been dug while there are no prisoners around and the Chaplain will have read the burial service after he and all of us have come so freshly from disobeying the Sixth Commandment which says 'Thou shalt not kill'.

The secrecy of it all shows that if compassion is not in us, then at least we still retain the dregs of shame. The medieval notice of execution will have been posted on the prison gates and the usual squalid handful of louts and rubbernecks who attend these legalized killings will have had their own private obscene delights.

Taken from Paul Hamlyn (ed.), Cassandra: At His Finest and Funniest (Paul Hamlyn, London, 1967) - my apologies for the infringement of copyright.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Let Us Now Praise... Lewis Silkin

The 1945 Labour government headed by Clement Atlee was packed full of giant political figures. So much so that some of its members tend to get unfairly neglected, chief among them the great Lewis Silkin.

Back in his time on the London County Council, Silkin had been instrumental in introducing the green belt policy. Now in government, he introduced three massive pieces of legislation that transformed the country just as surely as did the more celebrated health and education reforms of the time: the New Towns Act in 1946, the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947, and the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act in 1949.

These were genuinely socialist reforms, for which campaigners had been fighting for years. In the case of the Planning Act, the struggle to gain democratic control of development went back to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution: a century on from the Public Health Act of 1848, Silkin's Act finally made all new development subject to statutory oversight by local authorities. It also allowed compulsory purchase, facilitating new construction for the common good, and introduced the concept of listing buildings of architectural or historical merit, so that they might be preserved for the nation.

No more were the concerns of individuals to be placed above those of communities. Clough Williams Ellis, the creator of Portmeirion, whose wife was a member of the Communist Party and who own sympathies lay in that direction, called the Act 'an encouraging sign of returning sanity' after the horrors of the Second World War.

But that was then, and this is now. And in modern Britain, where political polarities so often seem to be reversed, we find the right-wing Daily Telegraph campaigning against the coalition's plans to relax planning laws, and the left, most notably Vanessa Redgrave, fighting for the right of travellers to remain at Dale Farm in Essex, in the face of decisions made by the local planning authorities.

Even more confusingly, the local authority concerned is Basildon - one of the towns established in the late-1940s under Silkin's New Towns Act.

As ever when political morality becomes confused, one should look back at that great post-War government and ask: What would Lewis Silkin do?

Friday, 9 September 2011

Quote for the Week 5

As debate continues over whether the top rate of income tax should be reduced from the current level of 50 per cent, I'm reminded of 1988 when the then chancellor Nigel Lawson cut the top rate from 60 to 40 per cent. Part of the justification put forward by commentators at that time was that the reduced rate would in fact raise more revenue, since it would remove the temptation to find ways of avoiding payment.

'I like that argument, but it isn't true,' said Lawson. 'More tax would have come from the top one to five per cent in any case because the salaries of the top earners have been put up so enormously. But still, let's go on using the argument.'