I haven’t watched television in ten years, even in hotel rooms, but do listen to the BBC’s Radio 4.
Alastair Cooke’s slightly overrated Letter from America, which ran from 1946 to 2004, was succeeded by a programme called A Point of View, presented by different people, which has nothing in common with it except that it lasts ten minutes. We’ve had some historians recently: Simon Schama, David Cannadine and Lisa Jardine; before them Clive James; archive here, including (click to hear)
and French fireworks
and Cannadine on
Any Questions? was launched on the BBC Home Service, Radio 4’s ancestor, in 1948 and is still running. Members of an audience somewhere in the UK ask a visiting panel for its views on topical matters. The intelligentsia visits the masses. But most of them aren’t intelligent.
Two remarks took my breath away on Friday during a discussion on the proposed Park 51 near Ground Zero.
Ruth Deech: “There is this tendency, I think especially in Islam, to build on top of what has been conquered.”
Douglas Murray: Sufis “have become suicide bombers”. If true at all, surely “become” can only mean after ceasing to be Sufis. Yet he isn’t challenged.
Vignette of the opposite: New Yorkers grating on a Muslim sensibility. I was there in June and took a cab from Chelsea to the Metropolitan Museum. I found myself being driven along the west side of Central Park and asked the bearded once-Pakistani driver why we were there. He said he had been unable to get onto Madison from where we had started because of the Gay Pride Parade on Fifth Avenue. He could have joined it later, but went the other way round and crossed at 86th. He didn’t even want to see the march. My heart went out to him. He had been in the city for twenty-two years. And his political sympathies lay – with Imran Khan.
If you want a terrifying report on virtually-Nazi, mullah- (and American Christian-) inflamed persecution of gay men in Kenya, listen to this episode of Assignment on the BBC World Service broadcast earlier this year.
The most remarkable thing about the self-described English neocon Douglas Murray is that he published, while studying at Magdalen College in Oxford, at the age of twenty, not a slim volume of verse, but a full-fledged biography, based in part on unexamined letters, of Lord Alfred Douglas. This must be the youngest age at which anyone has ever written a book of this scale. I bought a remaindered hardback copy several years ago.
I’ve often wondered why Havergal Brian’s single-movement fifth symphony has never been recorded. It is a setting of Douglas’s poem Wine of Summer. The sheer oddness of Brian, of all people, having chosen this poet, and in 1937 of all times, would sell it.
New Yorkers seemed more attuned to soccer than they had been before. I had a cab-driver originally from Bangladesh who was obsessed by the World Cup (but football is bigger there than it is in Pakistan).
The British invaded Italian East Africa in 1940. Guillet refused to surrender with the rest of the Italian forces in 1941, and led a charge astride his white Arabian stallion, Sandor, through a column of British tanks at Keru in Eritrea on January 21.
His force was the Gruppo Bande a Cavallo Amhara, Group Bands of Amharic Horse, under a banner of his own featuring the Cross of Savoy superimposed with an Islamic Crescent and the motto Semper Ulterius. The cavalry was supported by Yemeni infantry.
The last full British cavalry charge had been at the Battle of Omdurman in the Sudan in 1898. Churchill took part in it. Here is an article about cavalry “lasts” in the twentieth century. It mentions a British charge at Megiddo in 1918. I suppose that Omdurman was on a larger scale.
Am reading Hitchens’s memoir Hitch-22. People in the UK don’t realise how large Hitchens looms as a public intellectual in the US. (He now lives in Washington, DC, but has dual citizenship.) A decade ago, without knowing his work, I’d been suspicious of a journalist who made a living from demolishing other people’s reputations. He supported the invasion of Iraq. He’d been a Trotskyite activist.
I watched him in the debate about Iraq with George Galloway, still knowing nothing, and was puzzled by this intense, combative, substantial yet rambling, self-promoting and insubstantial, nearly-funny and unsmiling, Enlightenment-defending enigma or hack.
Hitchens is irritated by being told this, but he has no idea what religion is. It has further to sink, anyway. Fascism, as he needlessly reminds us, was to a large extent a movement of the Catholic right.
His piece in Vanity Fair this month about his diagnosis with esophageal cancer deserves a place in any anthology about dying, and it’s impossible not to be moved by the interviews he gave after it, even on the day when it was suspected, while promoting Hitch-22 (a horrible name apparently suggested by Rushdie).
I have got about as far as his parents and education. You learn about England and his family, but not much about him. His vivacious Jewish mother died in a suicide pact with a lover. His father, having given his whole life to the Navy, was shabbily treated when it came to a pension: a familiar British tale. “He’d done so much for the empire and it had done so little for him in return.” I suppose his life has been a reaction against his father’s Toryism.
His descriptions of post-war England remind me of Roger Scruton’s in his Gentle Regrets. The passages about his prep school will have Americans groaning: “Not another Brit going on about the horrors of his schooldays. What is it with you guys?”
But Hitchens doesn’t say that he was traumatised. He implies that the experience was character-building and wonders what kind of person will be produced by schools now which attend to self-esteem and to special needs. His teachers surely supplied him with some of his cruel language. I can just about remember the old world. It is incredible what a volte-face has occurred in education in the UK.
His atheism is connected with his lack of self-pity. There may be a hollowness in Hitchens (there’s a sadness), but perhaps he’d have been a real dissident under fascism or communism. I might comment on the rest of the book later.