Saturday, June 27, 2009


Michael Jackson has left the building.

And now as sure as day follows night, we’ll get the recriminations, the collective "seeking after the money" merchants, the disbelief, the conspiracy theories, the denials, the “It’s all your fault” accusations – all to be shortly followed, I suspect, by the process for canonisation and subsequent deification.

And yet, I'm not totally surprised he's gone. I've always had a feeling that he was not destined to die an old man. But the shock still pegs you back.

In truth, I was never a total out and out Michael Jackson fan, although I did think he was one of the very few genuine “superstars” of the pop music business. Presley, the Stones, the Beatles – then who? Michael Jackson came next. And who since? Madonna – possibly, but only possibly.

Along with every other member of the human race, I had a copy of “Thriller”, and the only other LP of his I bought was “Off the Wall”. So from a 63 year old’s perspective, his reign at the top of the tree started to fade around 1983. But what an album “Thriller” was. You watched “Top of the Pops” for months on end, and when one song off it started its fall from the very top of the charts, another one was released and took its place. I think there were 7 No. 1 hits of the record. Quite crazy.

I’m not sure that on balance I don’t actually prefer “Off the Wall” as an album. It hasn’t got the utter slick, perfectionism of “Thriller”, and to me it seemed to be so fresh, so simple and so different when it came out in 1979. Just look at the cover and remind yourself of what he looked like then, to show what 30 years of money, pressure and Pop Baggage can do to you. You have to be made of very stern stuff not to be engulfed by the Pop Machine. And he certainly wasn’t.

My wife recorded a programme last night which showed a wide sample of the music and the videos over his life, and I have to say, I sat there with my mouth gradually opening as I watched it. I had completely forgotten just how good he was. The songs, the presentation, the dancing, the video production. Absolutely stunning.

The picture below, lamentable quality though it may be, was taken on 15th July 1988, over 20 years ago. I had taken my daughters, who were completely mad about him, to Wembley Stadium in London, and, together with 71,999 other souls, I was treated to probably the slickest, most professional pop concert I've ever attended. All his hits, not a beat out of place, full of energy and pazazz. As well as the Moonwalk, which I still can't do. A terrific evening, and I came away far, far more impressed than I'd thought I would.


And yet, so much then seemed to go wrong. He strode over the music business for more than a decade as a colossus – no-one anywhere near him in the Eighties. And then the great unravelling, They say in life that sometimes you’re Nelson on top of his Column, and sometimes you’re the Pigeon. I think most of the time, to extend that analogy, he had Wings, and not One Eye, although I suspect it swapped around later. But you still can’t take it away from him. He did things in the weird world of Pop Music that nobody had done before, and if we’ve got any sense of perspective, that is what we should remember him for.

Forget the colour change, and the facial rebuilding, forget the baby over the balcony, forget the chimpanzees and the deserved or undeserved undercurrent of rumours about him. Just listen to the music and watch the videos. It’s only when something like this happens that you try to see the man in the whole, in the round.

The Billie Jean video is an absolute masterpiece. The unforgettable music, with tension that nags away at you. The brilliant cinematography, cutting at breakneck speed from one amazing image to another. The inspired piece of genius with the street pavings lighting up – stunning. Oh, and the dancing. It’s as good as it gets.

And now he’s gone. As well as the Michael Jackson programme, my wife had recorded a concert by Elvis Presley from Hawaii, which I watched soon after. I couldn’t help, as I watched Presley’s stupendous performance, wonder if in years to come we’ll put them both in the same category.

Who knows?

Thursday, June 25, 2009


One week in October 1962, I was 16 and everyone I knew thought that the world was about to come to an end. No, it wasn’t that our women’s cricket team was about to get defeated, or that a member of Her Majesty’s Government was going to stand up and apologise for something going wrong.

This was real – Cuba, Castro, Khrushchev and Kennedy playing “Who blinks First” on a Global, nuclear scale. We watched the Russian ships with nuclear bombs and rockets sailing slowly towards Cuba, we heard Kennedy issuing an “Unless …..” ultimatum to the Russians, and waited, rather helplessly, to see what happened. The boats kept moving, and the thought that someone would press the button moved from an abstract possibility to “Bloody Hell, the World ends on Saturday”.

It’s difficult to imagine that feeling today. But then, it was really, really REAL.

I’ve just read a real pager turner of a book (One Minute to Midnight - Michael Dobbs) which plots the actions, minute by minute over the two weeks the Cuba crisis took to play out, and you can’t help but be scared and at the same time thankful, that you didn’t really know what was going on at the time.

Looking back over 45 years, a couple of items jump out at me from the pages of this book.

Firstly, the frighteningly slow pace of communications then. Today, we take for granted the instant ability to send messages round the world. Fax machines, secure phones, satellites, the internet are all second nature to us now. Not then.

It’s not difficult to imagine the rather urgent need to get these messages across instantly when the bet you’re making is a few tens of millions of lives in a Nuclear War. And yet, in 1962, when Kennedy wanted to get a secret message to Krushchev, it could easily take 12 hours to get through. That becomes a bit of a problem when the ultimatum you’ve given the guy runs out in half that time. In the end, the only way Krushchev could get his response back to Kennedy in time, was to forego the secrecy and broadcast it on Radio Moscow’s Nine o’clock News.

Secondly, the resultant inner human belief that Khrushchev and Kennedy, both pragmatists and politicians, showed when they were finally facing Armageddon. It became clear that they didn’t want to be the two people to start a Nuclear war, and that Nothing was worth that price. However, the pressure they were both under from the Military, especially on the US side, to be up and at each other, was truly terrifying. Air Force General
Curtis LeMay comes across as a man quite at one with the idea of blowing the world to bits.

If you’ve ever seen Kubrick’s film “Dr Strangelove”, just look at George C Scott’s stunning portrayal of General Buck Turgidson. You look at this grotesque and mesmirising performance and think it simply isn’t possible. It’s a characature. It couldn’t happen in real life. Except of course that Turgidson’s character is based squarely and allegedly very accurately on Curtis Lemay. If ever there was a real life psychotic in military charge of 5,000 nuclear weapons, it was Lemay. If you didn’t know better, you could be forgiven for thinking Dr Strangelove was a work of deeply Black, Humorous Fiction. The truth is – It’s actually a documentary.

This film is a permanent member of my Top Five Films of All Time.

If you haven’t seen it, try this 3 minute clip


Or try this from Kenny Everett, one of the UK’s most original humorous men ever. It’s where the title of this piece is taken.

The demorolising thing is that today, 45 years on, the American approach to winning over the rest of the world doesn’t seem to have changed. Reading and being aware of history seems to me to be utterly fundamental to anyone given the charge of national and international decisions.

Bush didn’t have it. Apparently Obama does. Something says to me that in the next few years, that may turn out to be a very important difference.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


I love political diaries.

So often these days, politics, at least in the UK, hides behinds shrouds and curtains of obfuscation. The powers that be MUST be doing things they are not totally proud of, to feel the need to hide so much of what they do, and how they do it from the gaze of the general public.

Just occasionally however, someone involved in the governmental process shines a light into the dark and murky corners of our political life, and, to mix a metaphor, lifts the edge of the carpet giving us a glimpse of how the wheels of government turn or sometimes, don’t turn.

So they write a diary. The thing about a diary is its immediacy. It’s written on the day it happens, so you get what the writer thinks when it all happens, not many years after when the memory has changed, views mellow and change, and the longer view, as well often as the latest view paints over the way it was then. There haven’t been that many decent ones in this country over the last 50 years. I suspect I’ve bought most of them. And it’s not always the heavyweights in the political firmament that produce the good ones – on occasions the really good ones come from people your prejudices would class as light weight. The ones I like are few and far between -

Richard Crossman almost started it for me, when he covered the Wilson Years from 1964-1970. Quite explosively. It showed almost for the firat time how Government actually worked rather than how they’d like you to think it worked.

Tony Benn wrote at enormous length (4 million words before editing! – just work that out on a words per day basis). Most definitely his own man, and on occasions as mad as a hatter, but Denis Healey had a standing order to those around him in Parliament – Never leave me for an hour with Benn on my own. I might end up being converted by him. A very charismatic man.

Edwina Currie (she of the salmonella debate) punched way above her weight, with a short book covering 1987-1992, which showed the frustrations of the lower ranks of the Ministerial Greasy Pole extremely well, as well as informing us first hand, if that’s the right phrase, of the colour of John Major’s underpants. Blue as it happened. Well it would be, wouldn’t it?

Gyles Brandreth, he of the woolly jumpers, wrote a hugely underrated book covering his time as a small town MP, covering the gradual decay of the Major government in a very atmospheric and readable way. I think it’s one of the best set of political diaries ever, and yet it’s hardly known at all. You can’t imagine someone like Brandreth producing something like this. He seems such a lightweight. But read them – they are quite superb, reeking of gradual fatalism and terminal, unrecoverable political decline.

And then there’s Alan Clark. Scurrilous, gossipy, outspoken, hugely well written and a series of three stunning books which I couldn’t put down. They pulsed with life, and showed again the frustrations of unrealised political ambition, as well as a terrific insider’s portrait of Thatcher’s downfall.

He was in love with her, of course. Odd, but true. A unique man who loved animals, was a vegetarian, and had two dogs, one named after Hitler’s film director, and the other after his Test Pilot. He lived in a beautiful 12th century Moated castle in Kent with his wife Jane. He married her when he was 28, and she was 16. You couldn’t make it up. If I was ever granted the wish of having dinner with 6 people of my choice, he would be the first on my list.

The Blair years - remember them? Try Alistair Campbell. Flawed they most certainly are. Probably published too soon, so too much airbrushing, particularly with the Brown/Blair relationship, which is not written up truly and fairly, to avoid giving the opposition too much ammunition to fire at Brown. But they’re still a marvellous read. You can’t help feeling that for many years, the country was actually governed by the Author, who had his hand up Blair’s back, pulling the strings for much of the time. You might not like what he stands for, but I bet he’s a great bloke with whom to spend an evening in a pub.

And try Piers Morgan. Almost the last man you’d expect to produce something like a worthwhile view of political life. They’re strictly not diaries in that they were written up long after the event, from notes he had kept. But they are really riveting stuff. He met Blair on innumerable occasions, with greater access that any politician, but it’s also the peripheral bits which enthral you. Try the bit where he’s out at a Rugby Club dinner with the Rugby player Will Carling who’s being pestered by someone on his mobile. A while later a small box wrapped as a present turns up via a uniformed flunkey. Upon opening it, he is faced with a freshly cut clip of Princess Diana’s pubic hair. An invitation not to be rejected! I don’t suppose that will make it into any of the official biographies.

And to the latest one I’ve got my sticky little mitts on. Chris Mullin. At a time when no-one has a good word to say about any politician, up comes a 600 page tome about Mullin’s life as a (very) junior Minister in Blair’s government. I can’t think of any MP who seems to have more integrity and honesty than this man. A very Left wing ex journalist who stands up for the rights of the common man, and who is increasingly appalled by the sinuous goings on at the top of New Labour. He admires Blair The Man, but has a real crisis of conscience over Iraq, and thinks that people like Rove, Rumsfeld, and Cheny are borderline insane.

You’d think he’d come over as a bit of a dull and worthy do-gooder, but he doesn’t. He writes well, perceptively, sees the big picture, and has a dry and funny sense of humour. I started them yesterday, and have just passed page 500.

Given what’s going on in the UK today with the Expenses saga, here’s one very topical entry in his book.

“Andrew Mackinlay dropped a little bombshell at this afternoon’s meeting of the parliamentary committee. Apparently, under the Freedom of information Act, by January 2005 MP’s expenses will be subject to public scrutiny, retrospectively. Goodness knows what mayhem this will cause. “We are in a jam,” said Robin Cook. “Few members have yet tumbled to the juggernaut heading their way.” He said he had been advised that we could probably get away with publishing headline figures and it would be desirable to start publishing a year before the deadline so that any fuss would have died down come the general election. It was agreed not to minute the discussion.

I’ll bet it was! And when was that written? May 2002!!

Talk about pulling the pin out of a grenade, and staring for seven years at what you’ve just done.

Once again, snippets like that shine very bright lights into very dark and dingy corners. And thank Goodness they do. You can understand the politician’s view about all this. Leo McGarry, the President’s Chief of Staff in the West Wing stole Bismarck’s supposed line which got it just about right from their point of view –

"There are two things you should never let people see how they're made. Laws and sausages."

It’s down to people like Chris Mullin who give us all a bit of a clue as to how the system works, or more accurately doesn’t work.

Good on him.

Sunday, June 14, 2009


I've moaned here a few times before about the fact that one of the great TV Dramas I've ever seen has never been available on DVD. "Tutti Frutti" is a six part tragi/comedy first shown in the mid Eighties. Robbie Coltrane, Emma Thompson and Richard Wilson were the, then new, stars of this story of the Majestics, an ageing Scottish rock band touring the most remote villages and towns in Scotland on their ill fated 25th Silver Jubilee tour.

It drips with black comedy, great performances, and an unusually high body count. Robbie Ciltrane singing "Love Hurts" to Emma Thompson is very touching and moving. And he's got a great voice.

Written by John Byrne, it was simply the best comedy drama series I've ever watched. It quickly gained a "cult" status, made more so over the years because of the rumours of why it had never been repeated since the first showings. Copyright problems with some of the songs, members of the cast who didn't want it to be seen again, suggestions that some bright spark in the BBC had wiped the tapes - even the thought that, because John Byrne refused to write a sequel, a BBC Big-Wig was witholding permission to release it, as a punishment - all these have surfaced from time to time.

Thye really sad thing is there is a whole generation who have been denied a classic series which is up with the very, very best.



The Beeb has announced that it's on the market from August 3rd.