Friday, May 10, 2013

For those in peril on the sea

“Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave.”

The school hymn of Pangbourne College, alma mater of Andrew Simpson, the Olympic sailor who lost his life yesterday in a capsizing off San Francisco, keeps coming into my mind.

Composed as a poem by William Whiting in 1860 and set to music a year later by John Dykes, the hymn has long been adopted by navies around the world and is often sung on Remembrance Sunday. So it was appropriate that it should be a favourite at Pangbourne, whose founding mission was to prepare boys for a career in the Merchant Navy.

As well as Simpson, who won an Olympic gold medal in 2008 and a silver last summer, the school produced Rodney Pattisson, twice an Olympic sailing champion, John Ridgway, an ocean sailor and rower, and Mike Hailwood, the former world champion motorcyclist and Formula One driver who died in a car accident at the age of 40, albeit not racing on a track as seemed to be the fate of many of his contemporaries.

What connects them, apart from the school, is they spent their lives in quest of a thrill. They were not happy with risk-avoidance; they wanted to live in adventure without regret.

Having covered sailing for The Times for a few years, I had got to know Simpson, Ben Ainslie and Iain Percy, his fellow Olympians and childhood friends, quite well. I even sailed with them in an America’s Cup yacht four years ago, a faintly terrifying experience.

That was in the older monohull boat, though. The craft to be used for this year’s America’s Cup is a monstrous beast, 72ft long and with a mast 13 storeys high. The catamaran’s wing sail, a rigid structure designed to give maximum force, is bigger than the wing of a jumbo jet.

Speaking to a colleague last October, after another of these AC72 boats had flipped over off San Francisco, Max Sirena, the skipper of the Italian America’s Cup team, said that they would not dare to take guests out on it in anything but the lightest conditions.

An investigation is now under way to discover the cause of the accident that claimed Simpson’s life and many are calling for the America’s Cup, due to be held in September, to be postponed or raced in smaller boats. Safety must not be compromised by speed.

Yet I wonder if it is what the sailors really want. Most of them love pushing their boats and themselves to the limit and when not racing yachts will spend their leisure in other apparently hazardous pursuits, such as kite-surfing.

“These are dangerous boats,” Sirena said today. “The boat is basically too powerful. At the same time, this is our sport. This is a risk we take.” For him, danger was to be anticipated and measures put in place to survive it, but never to be wholly avoided.

When the US Oracle team’s AC72 capsized last October, it was while doing a turning manoeuvre in choppy water with a 25 knot wind. They call the point of no return in such a move “the death zone” and the only way to get through it is to go as fast as you can.

On that occasion, although the boat capsized, there were no significant injuries to any of the crew. Speaking almost flippantly after the event, Tom Slingsby, one of the sailors, said: “We’ve been pushing the boat more and more and we found our limit today.” A crew-mate recalled the last thing he heard before leaping into the water was his skipper shouting at them to keep an eye on each other.

Last summer, before the Olympics, I chatted to Simpson and Percy about their friendship, which had lasted more than 25 years. One poignant phrase of Simpson’s sticks in the mind today. Asked whether they had any plans to retire, Percy said that racing was what they lived for.

Simpson added: “I think I would struggle just pottering up and down creeks in my old age.”

“Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!”

Thursday, April 18, 2013

No news is good news

This is a dreadful thing for a journalist to admit, but I often wish that there was no news and that events would take a day off.

Not that I want to shirk. I could spend the time researching a story or writing a book or catching up on the admin I never have time for. But as a consumer of 24-hour news, I would love it all to stop, just for one day. To switch on the television and find that nothing is happening; to go on to Twitter and see that the most recent post was from yesterday; to find only music on the radio. This is what happened 83 years ago today at the start of the BBC’s 6.30pm radio bulletin.

“Good evening,” a newsreader said, doubtless wearing a dinner jacket. “Today is Good Friday. There is no news.”

With no thought of padding out this uneventful bulletin by asking a celebrity for their view on the weather or manufacturing some political controversy to fill time, the airwaves were then given over instead to piano music. It sounds lovely.

Looking at The Times for April 19, 1930, it seems the BBC could have found some news if they had looked hard enough, although that would have involved turning to page 4, since the first three pages were adverts.

In the late debates in Parliament on Thursday (there was no Times on Good Friday) there had been discussion of the death penalty, the withdrawal of grant for cadet corps, the introduction of a 48-hour week and concerns about growing unrest in India. All worth a snippet on the news? No, said the BBC.

A child in Yorkshire was killed by a collapsed wall, two people died within half an hour of each other in separate car crashes in London and a man appeared in court on a charge of homicide after 70 children died in a fire in his Paisley cinema.

Up north, there was news of a threat to Hadrian’s Wall after planning permission was granted for a quarry near by, the National Union of Teachers had things to say about raising the school leaving age to 15, while the sports pages looked ahead to the final match in the Five Nations rugby, with France needing to beat Wales to win their first ever title (they lost 11-0).

In foreign news, the Kuomintang, the Chinese nationalists, were banned in Singapore, while in Germany the sole minister representing the Nazi Party (one Herr Frick) had proposed a series of racist measures in the state of Thuringia, including a ban on jazz bands “and music made with clashing instruments”. He was also keen to limit school lessons about the Old Testament “because of its essentially Jewish character”.

The Times noted that this new Nazi Party “may take an increasing part in German politics for a year or two”...

None of this, however, was of much interest to the BBC. No news today was the decision and no news there was. After the saturation coverage of the Thatcher funeral and the unending slog of gloom about austerity measures, Syria/Iraq/Korea and the weather, wouldn’t it be nice if we could again be given another day without news?

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Margaret Thatcher: a Prime Minister for the nuance-free Twitter age

It was a Thursday morning, double-history. I can’t recall what we were meant to be studying — almost certainly the Nazis or the Tudors since that was all we ever studied — but instead of ordering us to open our books, Mr Heath turned on the television. Today, he said, we are going to be watching history. Today, the BBC informed us, the only Prime Minister we had ever known had decided to stand down.

Momentous events often happen on November 22. John F Kennedy was assassinated then, for a start. Monarchy was restored to Spain on the death of Franco, Angela Merkel became Germany’s first female Chancellor and the Orange Revolution kicked off in Ukraine. It was when Jonny Wilkinson drop-goaled England to the rugby World Cup, too.

For that third-form class watching history being made, the sight of Mrs Thatcher being taken to Buckingham Palace to inform the Queen and a collection of grey-haired men coming forward to express their sorrow, doing their best to hide the dripping daggers that they had wielded the night before, marked the end of an era. Born too late for her to snatch our milk, we had only ever known her as PM.

When she left Downing Street for the last time it shook up our knowledge, our security, of the way the world was. We felt the same when John Craven left Newsround.

Enough has been written on Thatcher’s influence and legacy, with neither her supporters nor her detractors giving much ground in the past two decades. It was appropriate that she should live long enough to reach the age of Twitter, since the 140-character format encourages black-and-white opinions with little nuance.

I struggle to understand both the simpering adoration (I know one Tory MP who has a framed photo of her by his bed) and the utter hatred from people who overlook what a mess the country was in before she came to power. As today’s Times leader reminded us, the day Thatcher became Prime Minister The Times had nothing to say on the matter since the print unions had closed the paper for much of 1979. Surely destroying the power of the unions, who had destroyed her three predecessors and wrecked the economy, was to her credit.

Thatcher was, for me, very much an “on the one hand... on the other” politician. She did some good, she did some bad; she was compassionate to some, intolerant of others; she healed the country, she damaged the country.

One thing is certain: the critics who say that she was divisive are utterly wrong. No other politician has so united the country in having a strong opinion about them, one way or the other. No one ever remembers Thatcher with a shrug.

As a grammar school boy with a strong work ethic, I should have been her sort of person but there was also something about her that made me think we would never have hit it off. That manic certainty, for a start, and the fact that despite (or through) growing up in Colchester I loathed the crass, vapid, money-centric, culture-free Essex Man she had created. They were her people, not me. I was Tory, but an old-school One Nationer.

We are all Thatcherites now, the Prime Minister declared this morning. Maybe economically we are, or most of us. But as I have got older, I have identified more with the Tory wets. I suspect that if I had been one of her MPs, I would have had too much compassion (or too little spine) to approve some of her measures. I always admired John Major’s hesitation more than her conviction.

I met them both when I worked at Conservative Central Office more than a decade ago. The early William Hague philosophy of compassionate conservatism based upon kitchen-table issues, a positive move that gained no traction with the electorate who wanted to punish the Tories with at least two terms out of office, had been ditched in favour of a strong anti-euro, anti-immigration, play-to-the-base policy. It was a grim time.

Part of this shunt, this attempt to pick up at least the love of the Daily Mail if not a parliamentary majority, meant bringing back Thatcher. “The Mummy returns” she declared at conference, to rapturous applause in the hall and shudders round the country. I felt uneasy, knowing that any of the good she had done in her first two terms in office would be swamped by more recent memories of the poll tax and section 28.

Thatcher was brought round the Central Office “war room”, supposedly to rally morale. We spoke briefly. She complained about the BBC being biased and told me not to let John Humphrys keep getting away with it.

I also met Major during that campaign. The first time we spoke, he asked what was happening in the news and having run through a few headlines I told him that Surrey were winning at the Oval. We then chatted about cricket for 20 minutes.

The next time he came round was just after the new Wisden had been published. He saw it sitting on my desk and, ignoring the manifesto, grabbed the yellow book and started to thumb through it. For a few minutes, the election was forgotten and we talked instead about the upcoming Ashes. Both would inevitably result in a thrashing. Call me soppingly wet, but this was my sort of PM.

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.