Monthly Archives: October 2010

Adrian Chiles

The BBC are well rid of Adrian Chiles and Christine Bleakley.

I’m not surprised their ratings have plummeted since they joined ITV. Too much money seems to rob people of their talent and make them arrogant and full of their own glory.

Anyway, I always thought their so called ‘magic’ together was simply a publicity myth.

The Day Auberon Waugh Planted a Kiss On My Wife’s Forehead

My wife has just told me about a charming encounter with the late Auberon Waugh.

She once had a shop in Shepherd Market, which has now been converted into my present office. She stocked beautiful objects such as luxury soaps, perfumes, gift books and small items of virtu.

Known to his friends as Bron, he was a regular customer and on one of his visits purchased a few items to give away as gifts.

However, browsing further at the motley items displayed, his eyes fell on a book entitled Knickers, an elegant celebration of women’s underwear.

My wife told him that the book was not for sale, but Bron would not take no for an answer. His heart was set on purchasing the book and nothing was to deter him from his objective.

As it was Bron, my wife relented in the end and sold it to him. He was ecstatic at his latest purchase, planted a kiss on my wife’s forehead and told her that the book was the ideal present to give to Richard Ingrams on his forthcoming birthday.

I wonder what happened to the book. Over to you Richard!

Bondage Tights

I have been criticised for talking about women and their lingerie, on the grounds that such flippancy is not ‘newsworthy’.

Well, here I go again!

Bondage tights worn by Cheryl Cole, the nation’s sweetheart, while mimicking her latest single on The X Factor, have totally sold out at Selfridge’s. Buyers at the store are ordering more to keep up with bulging demand.

In a biting recession such news is more important than the claptrap we have to endure from our politicians day in, day out.

As the saying goes, one man’s meat is another man’s poison.

Mike Leigh and His Falling-out with Israel

The British film director Mike Leigh has enjoyed a considerable triumph at the 2010 Cannes and London film festivals with his latest film, Another Year. He is known for his social conscience and a rehearsal technique for training his actors to put across ordinary lives in a style of compassionate realism. The new film, a study of the humour and melancholy involved in ageing, is a magnificent justification of his methods. He is, therefore, a voice to be listened to.

The Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem clearly thought so when it invited him to be their guest this autumn. Himself the son of a Jewish immigrant family in Manchester, Leigh was due to arrive in Israel on 20th November, but now is reported to have refused to set foot in the country in protest at its government’s policies towards the Palestinians.

In a letter to the school, he evidently makes his views plain, saying that he had considered cancelling the trip on many occasions.

Mike Leigh is furious with the Israeli authorities over their violent interception last May of the Turkish flotilla on its journey to Gaza and their arrest of many of the peace activists on board. He is also opposed to the never-ending expansion of the Jewish settlements on the West Bank, whose illegality apparently creates no inhibitions to their continuation, despite the fact that they have emerged as a central blockage to hopes for peace in the Middle East.

The points Mike Leigh makes are in line with changes in public opinion in the West, which now tends to swing more towards sympathy for the Palestinians, despite the media’s reluctance to follow suit. Today this springs largely from the false (but assiduously cultivated) assertion that any criticism of Israel has its basis in anti-Semitism.

The intemperate rhetoric we still hear from some Arab zealots meanwhile does little to help with anyone’s understanding of the situation.

Historically, from its foundation in 1948, Israel came in for a good deal of sympathy from the liberal left in the West. Its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, established his Mapai party (the Labour Party of Israel), which was affiliated to the Second (social democratic) Socialist International, as a driving force. The kibbutz movement gave every impression of promoting principles of grassroots mutual aid and positive collectivisation. Israel was seen as a counter tendency to the monolithic centralised government of the Soviet Union. It was also regarded as a democratic bulwark against Arab dictatorships and autocracies.

Those days seem long ago. The Jews who founded Israel were from a generation associated with many of the leading and most progressive movements in science, philosophy and politics.

From the start, however, there were signs of a ruthless nationalism within the ideals of Zionism. The demographics of the country changed  with the admission of Jews from many other cultures under the Law of Return, which guaranteed their citizenship; and right-wing hardline governments began to predominate. The opinions of the more bigoted religious sections of Jewry have had an increasing influence.

Israel has also had its problems with its attitude to Holocaust survivors, whom it has often treated shabbily. Nevertheless, its spokesmen, along with the lobby groups in other Jewish communities of the Diaspora, have continued to exploit the Holocaust to cry ‘anti-Semitism’ at the first sign of any criticism of Israeli actions. This tactic has done Israel few favours in the long run, as its motive becomes ever more transparent with each new incursion into others’ sovereign territory, attacks on Gaza that involve indiscriminate collateral damage to its entrapped people and unimpeded usurpation of Palestinian land to build further settlements.

It often seems that Israel can get away with these policies, arrogantly confident in its unique position as a ward of the government of the United States. Unfortunately this has also led to an undermining of America’s moral authority in the brokering of peace initiatives in the Middle East. Previous administrations in America could have put pressure on Israel to slow down on and draw back from the establishment of the illegal settlements before they became a fait accompli. They decided not to do so, aware, no doubt, of the votes of the Jewish lobby in Washington.

Now the present regime must pay the price.

Similarly, President Obama would like to declare the Middle East region nuclear free, but is hamstrung through not being able to make any open mention of Israel’s own nuclear capability, said to possess over 200 nuclear warheads. This is surely one of the most open secrets on the planet. Israel’s ambitions to become a nuclear power went back to the days of Ben-Gurion. The uranium was out there in the Negev desert.

It might be thought that apartheid South Africa stood in opposition to the ideals of any truly democratic state, but the former association of Israel with that oppressive regime was more than a curiosity of history. Nuclear technology was exchanged and Israel used Pretoria’s range in the Cape of Good Hope for its missile testing. Rockets could be fired off from there into the South Atlantic with a reduced risk of discovery.

Today South Africa is free of any nuclear taint, and of apartheid, but the same cannot be said of Israel. No wonder parallels have continued to be drawn, likening the treatment of Palestinians in Israel to that meted out to the black underclass of the white republic.

Many academics and men of letters – though few politicians, I have to admit – are today disillusioned with Israel for not seeking to heal the wounds inflicted on the Palestinians through no fault of their own. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 may be said to have triggered a deadly conflict that has destabilised the whole region and shows few signs of resolution.

It seems both ironic and deeply sad that the Jews, noted throughout modern history as champions of every liberal and enlightened movement, should now find themselves the targets of the world’s anger on those very issues that they themselves fought so hard to preserve and claimed as a human right.

Does loyalty to Israel imply the forsaking of ideals inherent in the Jewish race, for fear of being cast as renegades to their national cause?

In an age where human values are respected, it seems uncanny to find that, when it comes to nationalistic considerations, we can still be driven by a perverse and dangerous impulse to adopt the kind of fundamentalist zealotry that we recognise in others but rarely in ourselves. Religion can be a force for good, but may just as easily be misused for evil purposes. Few today would claim that the Crusaders of the Middle Ages were anything but a bunch of murderous criminals.

In my view, political Islam, as well as certain elements of the Christian ‘bible belt’ in the United States, are equal in constituting a threat to peace. Likewise, some of the ultra-Orthodox Jews, today well represented in the Israeli cabinet, are also a threat to peace. The latter dream of a biblical Israel, consisting of the whole of Palestine and beyond, believing that in effect they hold the title-deeds from Jehovah.

Reactionary radicalism on either side will, if not toned down, always be a major obstruction to creating harmony.

For Israel to secure its future, force alone can never be the answer. Even to live in a paradise is no guarantee for enjoying life to the full if it is surrounded by enemies. You can never forget the threat in the background or at any time afford to drop your vigilance.

Peace is, therefore, the only key to stability and tranquillity.

If that were finally to be achieved in the Middle East, Israel would reap benefits almost unheard of in our present age. The land described in the Bible as flowing with milk and honey would be theirs. The country would prosper beyond anybody’s expectations. With their knowledge and highly advanced technology, Israelis would be in a unique position in the region. Israel could become the focal point, not for suicide bombers, but as a centre for learning and innovation in every conceivable field, from art to medicine to technical evolution in manufacturing and agriculture.

The Arabs and the Jews share much in common. Both have their origin in the lands of the Bible, from the same place where the Prophet Muhammad received his inspiration and founded Islam. Where Jewish communities existed inside Arab countries, as in Iraq, they were in general easily assimilated and their religion was respected.

The balance was disturbed only by the arrival on the scene of Zionism  as a militant political force, but whatever divides Jews and Arabs may also unite them.

The Holy Land should remain holy and never be allowed to become a doomsday arena of conflict, whatever satisfaction this may give to those who look for the apocalypse and the end of time.

If Mike Leigh can provide a counterweight to the rigid thinking of politicians on all sides, he will be doing humanity a great service.

William MacQuitty and the Titanic

British television is still the best in the world. While standards generally have kept falling, due in part to the recession and a lack of advertising on commercial TV, and in part because of public taste becoming more or less attuned to mass-market requirements, we can still find on our screens programmes that retain a degree of excellence hard to beat anywhere else.

One is Channel 4’s series, Titanic: the Mission, a project to reconstruct sections or parts of the liner to scale, using the crafts, methods and technology available to its builders a hundred years ago. The idea is an inspired challenge to confound those who may have thought there was nothing much more to be said about the tragedy of that disaster, which shocked another generation. As the series has unrolled, it’s been giving us a rare and realistic insight into how the Titanic was really built and the tremendous efforts that went into it.

In the first episode a group of engineers re-created a 32-foot-high section of the steel bow, including the gruelling work of riveting by hand; in the second they cast a replica of the enormous anchor, the largest ever made up to that time; in the third they demonstrated the cutting-edge electrical gadgetry that guaranteed the passengers’ maximum comfort, before moving on to the arts and crafts of the decorations, furnishings and luxury fittings. It was an indicator of how attitudes to industrial relations have changed to hear that only seven workmen died during the original construction, and this was regarded as a good safety record for the shipyard.

As soon as I saw the series announced in the schedules I thought of an old friend, William (‘Bill’) MacQuitty, and how fascinated he would have been by the whole process of making these programmes.

The Titanic was a theme that ran through his whole life, as I discovered when I interviewed him for the Oldie in January 1997. He was then ninety-two years old, having been born in Belfast in 1905 to a father who was managing director of the company that owned the Belfast Telegraph. One of his earliest indelible memories was of being taken down at the age of six to the Harland & Wolff shipyards to watch the launch of the great liner from the press stand.
It was a formative experience for how his philosophy of life developed, and inspired him eventually to move out into a wider world than Belfast could offer.

The impact of the news that the ship had sunk also had a powerful influence over his thinking.

‘Everyone in Belfast was connected with this ship,’ he said, ‘and the death toll affected everybody. The great thing it did for me was teach me that the cause of death is birth, and that I had only a limited length of time. When this great unsinkable ship sank I realised that I was bound up in the same process and should therefore get on with living. It also taught me not to set up barriers to protect myself. I exposed myself like sponge to water, to soak up as much knowledge as possible, and it occurred to me quite quickly that it doesn’t matter whether you are a window cleaner or a princess.

‘You learn as much from a tramp as you do from the chairman of a company,’ he added, giving me a quizzical look.

In due course he set off on an adventurous career that included being a merchant banker in the Far East, a film and television producer, photographer and author, a story told in his autobiography, A Life to Remember, which Quartet published in 1991. His title was based on that of the definitive account of the maritime disaster, A Night to Remember, by Walter Lord, which in turn was used for the film produced by Bill in 1958, so fulfilling a long-term ambition. It featured Kenneth More in the role of the heroic second officer, but the distributors in America still complained bitterly that it contained no international stars. Bill therefore ‘spent a month going around explaining to them that the ship was the star of the movie, and no other star could ever have had so much drama, excitement, horror, terror and love as that ship’.

In 1996 Quartet also published his little handbook, Survival Kit: How to Reach Ninety and Make the Most of It, which encapsulated his personal beliefs.

‘Everything he says is everything I believe in,’ wrote Lord Menuhin. Bill agreed that the bitter religious rivalries of Northern Ireland had been instrumental in his discounting of organized faiths, whether of the Catholics or the evangelical ‘hellfire’ preachers among the Presbyterians.

‘If believers hold that only their religion is correct and that the universe is run by their particular god, they run the risk of being attacked or even killed by others who are equally sure of the rightness of their own religion,’ he said in our Oldie interview. ‘Faith is a very dangerous thing,’ he concluded. ‘Religion hijacks the teachings of great people and turns them into monolithic constructions with heads and hierarchies and all the different categories, so they can’t survive on the simple philosophy of “Take all that thou hast and give to the poor”.’

He told a story of the time when he was establishing Ulster Television and needed to recruit an engineer. He found the perfect candidate, who unfortunately was a Dublin Catholic and so was refused a work permit by Stormont, where the Ulster Unionists held sway. Bill’s response was to write a letter saying the national newspapers would next day be running a story that Mr MacQuitty was unable to set up Ulster Television because the government of Northern Ireland was refusing a Catholic engineer a permit to work. The result, said Bill, was that ‘they couldn’t get off the perch quick enough’ and sent round a dispatch rider with a clearance. An official did ring up, however, and declare, ‘You’ll rue this day, MacQuitty, you’ll rue this day.’

‘I never did,’ said Bill.

His own leanings were towards Buddhism. He knew the Dalai Lama and in the 1960s had published a book on Buddha, illustrated with his own beautiful photographs taken on his journeys round the world. The virtue of Buddhism in his view was that it was actually a philosophy, not a religion, ‘and according to the Four Noble Truths, everybody is a Buddhist. The difference between religion and philosophy is that one has a god and you are an immortal, whereas in Buddhism there is no discussion about the next world or the soul or the spirit.’

‘And what happens when you die?’ I challenged him.

‘I see myself as a torch,’ he said, ‘carrying a flame through my life, and when it dies all my molecules and everything else that makes me what I am go on to make other people.’

The film he made of A Night to Remember stands as a moving classic of British cinema, carefully based on the facts as known and using a documentary style.

Later in the same year as the Oldie interview, James Cameron came up with Titanic, his blockbuster remake of the story. It went on to win a string of Oscars. Cameron had at his disposal not only two of the brightest rising stars in the Hollywood firmament, Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, but also a whole panoply of movie techniques quite unthought of forty years before. (In the earlier film the lifeboat scenes were shot under arc-lights on a cold night at Ruislip reservoir and the sinking was done using models in an indoor tank.)

There was a meeting of mutual respect between MacQuitty and Cameron, and Bill was always careful to acknowledge that the more fanciful aspects of the Hollywood script were probably necessary for modern audiences. He could never resist speculating, however, on what the likely fate would have been of two young lovers, inadequately dressed, standing up in the bows of an ocean liner ploughing through arctic waters at 25 knots.

He stayed in touch with all aspects and developments in the Titanic story to the end of his own life, and was concerned at damage being caused to the wreck through indiscriminate diving  by underwater camera crews.

Bill MacQuitty was a man who achieved much through a combination of Ulster charm and capability. I’m sure the small enduring flame of his spirit will be present at any celebration at the end of the Channel 4 series.

The nickname for the rivets used to fix the great steel plates, he remembered, was ‘Harland & Wolff confetti’. They had a habit of coming in through the windows of his father’s newspaper office if the paper printed something that displeased the shipyard workers.

Hitler

A huge exhibition has just opened in Berlin, about Hitler. Indeed, the Germans are queuing round the block to see it.

Why not get enlightened about the man by reading Young Hitler, published by Quartet Books?

Buy your copy here.

For more on the exhibition, click here.

And for more on Young Hitler, click here.

Peace in the Middle East

I cannot fathom the media or the politicians.

If they truly want peace in the Middle East, why not try first to acknowledge that people in Gaza are as important as the ones living on the West Bank?

Without the accord of both, no peace is feasible.

Why, therefore, waste time on backing one side and refusing to legitimise the other? It is sheer hypocrisy to pretend that peace can be achieved while ignoring the aspirations of a large bulk of the Palestinian people.

It is so sad to see that politicians in particular live in a world of their own. Simply look at what happened in Iraq, and what’s happening now in Afghanistan.

The picture is very clear: it makes no sense at all yet they continue to feed us with nonsensical reasons for their being engaged in bloody conflicts in far away regions of the world, where the chance of success is almost nil.

Reality is something that they do not grasp, nor I am afraid will they learn from history.

How stupid can we get, in an age of great learning?