Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Pats on the back

The Times was named Sports Newspaper of the Year last night by the Sports Journalists Association. It was pleasing not just because it was the third year in a row that we have been given the prize, which is judged by other sports editors, but because 2012 was a pretty enormous year for sport and you'd assume competition would be tougher than ever.

It's a tribute to everyone in the department, from the top man down to the hard-working unsung subs who stop us from looking too idiotic every day, and I'm proud to have been part of the team for eight years, even if at times it feels like my role amounts to that of Gary Pratt during the 2005 Ashes.

But this blog isn't about me or about The Times. Instead, I wanted to doff the cap to three friends in other organisations for their awards, with whom I have shared many beers abroad and whose company I always enjoy.

So well done to Richard Heathcote, snapper supreme for Getty Images, who won Picture of the Year; to Oliver Brown, the softly spoken purple proser of the Telegraph, for being named Interviewer of the Year; and to Lawrence Booth, for whom it can only be a matter of time before they call him the Sage of Northampton, who snapped up Scoop of the Year for his story in the Daily Mail last year about Kevin Pietersen's text messages to the South Africa camp about his captain.

Doos-gate, as it came to be known after the unflattering Afrikaans word that KP used to describe Andrew Strauss, was one of those stories that shaped news coverage of the England team for more than one day, right up until they headed off on tour to India two months later. It may have even influenced Strauss's decision to resign the captaincy. So blame Lawrence when we lose the Ashes.

Lawrence is also, as if he doesn't have enough to do, Editor of Wisden, one of those jobs in journalism so important that you have to capitalise the E. As custodians of the Laws, spirit, records and warmth of cricket, Wisden Editors don't tend to get much time for scoops. The Voice of Authority does not dirty his hands with digging up such things, but rather stands above it all and pontificates beautifully on why they matter (or not).

John Woodcock, the former chief cricket correspondent of The Times and Editor of Wisden in the 1980s, was once asked a couple of years ago whether he had ever had a scoop in his long career in journalism.

"There was usually one most days if you looked for it," he said. "I used to hide them in the seventh or eighth paragraph."

In those days, when journalists mixed more freely with sportsmen and friendship mattered more than exclusives, scoops were considered rather infra dig.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Nightmair before Breakfast

“You’re a nasty piece of work, aren’t you?”

Eddie Mair’s interview with Boris Johnson yesterday morning was a brutal disembowelling, a deflating of one of the great characters in politics, and it was great fun to watch. I doubt, however, that it will do much damage to BoJo’s reputation in the long run. As the Prime Minister said today: "Never underestimate the ability of Boris to get out of a tight spot."

Those tearing into Johnson yesterday and today hated him already; while those he has charmed in the past — and he has been electorally the most (the only?) successful Tory politician of the past two decades despite his many foibles — will soon forget this. Johnson, like Bill Clinton, has an easy knack of making people overlook his failings.

Yet it was quite a surprise how poorly he handled Mair. Johnson tends to be good at moving on after gaffes. He has, after all, had a bit of practice. The usual method is to apologise (something so few politicians ever consider when in the wrong), quip something in Latin or preferably Aramaic and steer the conversation on to something else with lashings of charm. I don't know why he didn't do the same yesterday; it's not as if he was hit with new weapons.

The three questions about his personal integrity that Mair put to him had all been aired extensively in the past and, grating though it must be for them to come up again, Johnson could have waved them off with his usual “admit and apologise” strategy. Here’s how:

Did you make up a quote while working for The Times? “Yes, gosh, that was terribly poor form of me. Schoolboy error, quite rightly given six of the best and sent packing. I never thought my own godfather, of whom I fabricated the quote, would grass me up. Still, it was years ago and everyone knows about it.”

Did you lie to Michael Howard about your affair? “Yes, cripes, who hasn’t lied when confronted by a beak about having an affair? Quite rightly given six of the best and sent packing. Deeply regret it now. Mea maxima culpa.”

Did you tell Darius Guppy you’d give him a journalist’s address so he could get him beaten up? “Yes, that’s been gone over lots of times as well. Very bad of me, but the old bean was in a dreadful state and chums say silly things in private conversations that they don’t mean. I never did act on that promise. Don't you have any new questions you want to ask me?”

I think the main reason why Johnson handled these questions so badly is Mair’s manner. He is like a disapproving headmaster, never sneering or raising his voice but able to make his subject feel small and his own displeasure quite clear. It has the effect of making politicians feel bashful and ashamed.

The quote at the top of this piece, a damningly blunt attack, was delivered in a calm, level tone and so felt more damaging. Mair is the ideal iron fist inside a velvet glove.

I experienced the Mair method myself 18 months ago when I went on Radio 4’s PM to talk about The Times’s scoop of getting hold of the RFU dossier into England’s poor rugby World Cup.

Mair, in the same calm but damning tone, accused us of sensationalism, saying that we had “only published the negative comments and none of the positive feedback”.

I replied that the three dossiers leaked to my colleague, Mark Souster, amounted to 100 A4 double-spaced pages and that over the previous four days we had given 23 pages of The Times to reporting what was said, meaning there was barely a sentence left out. I also pointed out a few of the positive comments we had published and said the reason we didn’t print more is there simply weren’t more.

I think I did a good job, but I was speaking from a position of honesty and still felt besieged. I can well imagine how off-putting Mair’s style must be to someone who has something to feel ashamed about even, as in Johnson’s case, when the story is public anyway.

The main thing that came out of the Sunday morning humiliation was not the effect it will have on Johnson’s career, but what it might do to Mair’s. Instead of standing in for the big names when they are away, as he is doing for Andrew Marr on Sundays and has done for Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight, he deserves a regular crack on one of the BBC’s punchiest programmes. It would become required viewing.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Plum sauce

The news that Sebastian Faulks is to take on the mantle of PG Wodehouse and write a new Jeeves and Wooster novel 40 years after the last, Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen, has had a largely negative reception, many ardent Wodehouseans fearing that he won’t be able to pull it off.

In a piece in The Times this morning, I tried to be more encouraging. Faulks, after all, understands the canon, as demonstrated in this piece two years ago, and is unlikely to be guilty of trying too hard.

As I mischievously suggested, perhaps Faulks will really horrify the traditionalists by modernising the Jeeves format, having the valet rescuing Bertie from a gay marriage to Gussie Fink-Nottle, at which the Reverend Stephanie “Stiffy” Byng was due to conduct the ceremony. I suspect not.

But can he conjure the wit, seemingly effortless yet laden with historical and literary references, of Wodehouse that proves so charming? There is a wonderful website that allows you, by refreshing the page, to read a selection of randomly chosen Wodehouse quotes.

To take the first three that came up just now:
  • “Bingo uttered a stricken woofle like a bull-dog that has been refused cake.”
  • “Why is there unrest in India? Because its inhabitants eat only an occasional handful of rice. The day when Mahatma Gandhi sits down to a good juicy steak and follows it up with a roly-poly pudding and a spot of stilton, you will see the end of all this nonsense of Civil Disobedience.”
And, my favourite:
  • “Freddie experienced the sort of abysmal soul-sadness which afflicts one of Tolstoy’s Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day's work strangling his father, beating his wife, and dropping the baby into the city’s reservoir, he turns to the cupboard, only to find the vodka bottle empty.”
Good luck matching that, Sebastian.

He is not the first man to try to replicate Wodehouse, though he is the first to have an official imprimatur. Eileen McIlvaine’s Wodehouse: A Comprehensive Bibliography records 29 “imitations, parodies and other flights of fancy”.

My colleague, Simon Barnes, wrote a Wodehouse-style short story called How’s That, Jeeves? for a collection of cricket-themed parodies called A La Recherche Du Cricket Perdu, in which Bertie is a county captain, Jeeves his dressing-room attendant and Madeleine Bassett a telephonist.

In 1979, four years after Wodehouse’s death, Northcote Parkinson, a naval historian, wrote a fictional life of Jeeves, called A Gentleman’s Personal Gentleman (he had done the same a few years earlier for Horatio Hornblower), while Peter Cannon, in a rather slim volume of three short stories called Scream for Jeeves, attempted rather surprisingly to marry the styles of Wodehouse and H.P. Lovecraft.

There is also a pastiche by Barry Tighe that fits into the tries-too-hard category called Gieves to the Fore (he had to tweak the names under legal warning, so Gieves attends on Bartie Wooster and his rival, Spade).

The most interesting Wodehouse tribute, though, can be found in a fabulous study published last year of Wodehouse’s influence on the theatre, called Second Row, Grand Circle, by Tony Ring.

In it, Ring has discovered that Thornton Wilder, the American winner of three Pulitzer Prizes, started upon a stage play called Homage to P. G. Wodehouse, in 1938 but never completed it.

Manuscripts found in the Thornton Wilder Papers at Yale University reveal two drafts of scenes that refer to Freddie Threepwood, heir to the Blandings empire, his manservant Jeeves (on secondment from Wooster?), an Aunt Augusta, the Drones club and some missing jewels.

It sounds fascinating, but Wilder maybe did not feel up to the challenge of echoing the Master and ended the project. Does Faulks know what he has let himself in for?

Friday, March 01, 2013

Don't let the Loonies win. Any of them

The biggest losers of the Eastleigh by-election were not the Tories or the Labour Party, they were the Monster Raving Loonies, whose candidate received only 136 votes, about 100 fewer than the man from the Beer, Baccy and Crumpet Party.

When the Lib Dems first won Eastleigh at a by-election in 1994, profiting from the sitting Tory MP being found dead wearing stockings and suspenders with a flex round his neck and an orange in his mouth (ah, those were the days when sex scandals were done well), the Loonies received 783 votes.

The UK Independence Party, whose candidate was one Nigel Farage, polled only 170 votes more.

That was the same year that a Monster Raving Loony candidate, "Top Cat" Owen, got 2,859 votes in the European elections. Truly, 1994 was a halcyon time for the loonies.

Mais ou sont les Loons d'antan, as Farage is always saying. They have faded from our scene. In the previous by-election of this Parliament, in Croydon North, the Loonies got 110 votes, just pipping the candidate standing on the platform that "9/11 was an inside job".

No one votes Loony these days in part because the joke has worn thin. The death of their founder, Screaming Lord Sutch, in 1999 also robbed them of their charisma. But perhaps it is also because people feel that loonies are now in the mainstream.

That is certainly the feeling I get looking at the post-Eastleigh reaction in the Tory Party. Stewart Jackson MP writes a piece in the Spectator blaming the result on David Cameron’s support for gay marriage and the response is loads of comments attacking Jackson for not being right wing enough.

As Jerry Hayes, one of the remaining voices of sanity in the Party, wrote today: "Of course there will be the usual primal screams for a change of course. More traditional policies, anti-Europe, anti-immigrant, anti-union and an abhorrence of same-sex marriage. The delightful irony was that Maria Hutchings represented all of these things. She was the standard bearer of the Amish wing of the Tories.

"The electorate had no doubt what her views were. They were not remotely Cameroon. So when the usual suspects demand that the party drifts to the right and abandons modernisation they should be reminded that voters were offered all that they consider to be a masturbatory dream and rejected them."

I doubt that Cameron’s backbenchers will make that link. They will look at the decision by Tory High Command to keep Hutchings away from the media after she told them that the local state schools weren’t good enough for her son and decide that if only she had been allowed to speak up more often, votes would not have leaked to Ukip.

Maybe not, but the Tories would still not have won and perhaps some of their votes would have gone over to the Lib Dem candidate. I know that I, as a former Tory Central Office staffer, would struggle to put my cross next to someone like Hutchings.

Ironically, this result, looked at with calmness and sanity, is a good thing for David Cameron. Instead of the election of a candidate from the loony wing of his party who would no doubt be a troublesome and gobby backbencher, he has gained a loyal member of the Coalition. This vote was a victory for the Government, not a defeat for the Tories.

And perhaps that is the biggest lesson to be drawn from Eastleigh, that this was a disaster for Labour and Ed Miliband. On a decent turnout their share of the vote went up by 0.22 per cent and remains less than half of what it was at the 2005 General Election. All talk of being a One Nation party that can win seats around the country was just froth. They have as much work to do as the Tories, maybe more.

The key to winning the next election will be the state of the economy in 2015 and how people feel about the future. Petrol prices, inflation and jobs are what matter, not Europe, gays and immigration. When people cannot afford to feed themselves, they tend not to give a toss about same-sex marriage.

The candidate ahead of the Loonies in Eastleigh may have it spot on. To twist Bill Clinton’s adage: it’s the beer, baccy and crumpets, stupid.