Wednesday, 24 April 2013

In praise of Jeremy Clarkson

It’s fair to say that Jeremy Clarkson divides opinion like few other television presenters do.  You either love him or loathe him: there are no half measures.

Personally, I think he’s an absolute gem.  I relate to him and his views, possibly because I too am a middle aged, over-weight man with a liking for Levi’s.  I even had greying hair like him, until it started thinning drastically and I shaved it off. 

He is an opinionated old git, and his views are often controversial, but that’s probably for viewer consumption only.  If you knew him personally he’s probably completely different and a nice bloke.  But his TV persona undoubtedly made (and continues to make) Top Gear the runaway success it is.  It remains the most popular BBC production, continues to be sold in countries all over the world, dubbed into various languages including Farsi (remarkably it’s the most popular show on Iranian television) and has spawned copycat shows in, amongst other countries,  the USA and Australia (seen them both and they are nowhere near as good – although the local rednecks and convicts probably love ‘em).  And it’s all down to Jezza.

I’ve enjoyed the program for years, even back in the old days when it was presented by Quentin Willson or Vicki Butler Henderson or some mad Northern Irish bloke whose name I’ve forgotten.  It was a worthy but dull show, featuring serious and useful reviews of various cars, mainly family saloons rather than supercars or muscle cars or hot hatches (God, I’m not even sure those terms had been invented….shows my age).   Most weeks the highlight was racing driver Tiff Needell – a kind of 1980s Stig – power-sliding a Cortina or something perfectly to end up stationary and side-on to the camera as he delivered the final line of his review.
Then along came Clarkson.  Initially as a contributor, one of the team.  He was already a motoring journalist and newspaper columnist, and his segments were always more pithy and entertaining and downright anarchic than anyone else’s, and very soon he was the most popular guy in the show, and took over from Quentin et al.  In came May, and Hammond, and a new producer, and the show moved from being a worthy but dull motoring program to Entertainment.  And there it has remained ever since.  It has made all three presenters rich and public figures, but Clarkson is by far and away the best rewarded.  Because as well as being anarchic and opinionated and sometimes downright rude, he is also a very clever man. 

You see, he has a deal that as well as paying him an attractive salary for presenting the show, also provides for repeat fees (nationally and internationally) and a share of merchandising.  Now as the program is aired every day in Poland for instance (and on some days there is more than one broadcast) this clearly mounts up to a tidy sum.  DVD sales?  Check – a cut of that, and they are popular sellers (even if largely off-cuts and compilations from the tv show).  Top Gear magazine?  Yep – and he writes a monthly column too.  The American and Australian versions contribute to his bank balance as well, through the licencing agreement.  His contract is basically a licence to print money.  He earns far more than May and Hammond because they do not have the same level of royalties and repeat fees, even though to my way of thinking they are as integral to the show’s success as Jezza – it wouldn’t be the same without either of them.

And now he’s a best-selling author too.  This is where his true genius shows itself.

I’ve read most of the books he’s published, and thoroughly enjoyed them all.  They are even more irreverent than the tv shows.  He is ruder about certain types of car and certain groups of people (especially Germans, Americans and environmentalists) than he can get away with on the telly.  They even talk a lot of sense at times.  All written in the same short sentences and vivid turns of phrase that he employs in his best tv segments.

But the real genius is that only one of those books is an “original” – “I know you got soul”, which is an entertaining read that takes various disparate things – for instance the Spitfire, a Kalashnikov rifle, the B52 bomber – and while relating their history in an often hilarious, typically Clarkson fashion, explains why they transcend normality and become special.  All the rest are compilations of his various newspaper and magazine columns.  For which, of course, he’s already been well paid once, and he is now being lucratively rewarded for again.

I’ve just bought The Top Gear Years.  The blurb on the cover made it sound like an inside story of how the program came to be the tv juggernaut it undoubtedly is, written by the man who knows it all best, Clarkson himself.  Nope.  It turns out to be another compilation, this time from his Top Gear magazine column.
Do I feel  cheated?   Not at all, because it’s still a very funny and entertaining read. 

I wish I could stumble on such a money making scheme though….

Clarkson, I salute you. 

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher - A personal memory. And War Crimes.

“Maggie, Maggie, Maggie!  Out, out, out!” went the chant.

It was a familiar refrain back in the 1980’s and 90’s, as Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Governments set about dismantling Britain’s industrial base (and while they were about it decimating the coal, steel and shipbuilding industries), waged war on Argentina over a bunch of cold and remote South Atlantic islands that just happened to be sovereign British territory and, with Reagan and Gorbachev amongst others, brought about the fall of both the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain, ending the Cold War that had been in progress for the better part of 50 years.

She died yesterday, aged 87, and the chant, at least in the street parties of Brixton, Glasgow and various old mining communities, changed to “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie!  Dead, dead, dead!”   How distasteful is that?

In my youth, when I left school in 1970, Britain had a very strong Trades Union movement that controlled factories, mines, shipyards, transport and public services across the length and breadth of the country.  It was a double edged sword: although work was plentiful and it was difficult to lose a job once you had one (it took me about 2 days to find a good stockbroking job, one I kept for nearly 10 years, when I decided to leave school that October), most industries were unprofitable, especially the major ones mentioned above, all of which were drastically undercut on pricing by cheaper Eastern European and far eastern competition.   But such was the strength of the union movement that employers, whether public or private, found it increasingly difficult to cut costs (which then as now often meant job losses) because the mere suggestion they were considering such measures prompted strike action.  Another catch-phrase of the say was “Everybody out!”, at which factory and mine workers, nurses and dustmen, even civil servants, downed tools and went home, where they stayed for as long as it took for their unions to force their employers to back down.

It happened with depressing regularity, and the entire country suffered.  I can remember working by candlelight in the office in London during one period in the early 70s when a coal miners’ strike forced power cuts to preserve fuel (most power stations then were coal fuelled), which in turn led to a three day working week and the downfall of Heath’s Conservative Government.  Around the same time a postal strike caused a back-up of mail that took months to clear (once the postmen went back to work) but gave me the opportunity to take a day off work during which I cycled round the town I lived in, hand-delivering letters from my company to its clients – I hadn’t realised Edenbridge had such a large investor community at that time.   It was a cold, wet day I remember, and one lovely old lady invited me in for a nice cup of tea and a bacon sandwich while she wrote her reply. 

Whichever party was in power, it was the same story.  With a Conservative Government the strikes tended to be aimed more at getting them out, and were thus more about worker’s rights and terms and conditions.  With a Labour government they were about money, as unions demanded more, often in ridiculous amounts and without anything remotely like a productivity guarantee, in the knowledge that sooner or later the government, relying increasingly on union support and funding to pay its own bills, would cave in and grant the demands. 
So the time was definitely right for change when Maggie came to power in 1979.  I remember it well.  The previous winter (1978-79) has been labelled the Winter of Discontent, as Callaghan’s Labour government struggled with a succession of strikes by various powerful unions, and unusually for a left-wing government was more than normally reluctant to cave in.  This led to huge piles of rotting rubbish in the streets of Britain as the dustmen, members of the public service union, refused to collect it.  It also led a massive backlog of funerals and morgues everywhere filled to overflowing with dead bodies (gravediggers were in the same union).    It was the year after I married, and the year of my first job change – voluntary: my old stockbroker paid peanuts so I left and went to work for an American company that immediately doubled my salary (I stayed with them for 5 years).     In the few elections previously where I had exercised my democratic right, I had voted for the Liberal party once and twice for Labour (on the grounds that my Liberal vote was a complete waste of time – the candidate lost his deposit) but this time I decided to vote Conservative.  This was not because I particularly liked Thatcher – like most people I knew very little about her – or the Tory policies, but simply because I was sick to the eye teeth of the unions making my life, and pretty much everyone else’s, a misery.  It was protest vote, and I really didn’t expect the government to last that long – it seemed certain to go the same way as every other administration in the face of continued union power.

Little did we know! 

Over the next 10 years, Mrs. T changed the country.  She took on the unions, all of them, and despite many battles that to this day split public opinion, beat them.  Legislation was introduced that did away with the closed shop (meaning that employees no longer had to join a union, whether they wanted to or not, as had previously been the case) and made a secret ballot amongst all union members mandatory before a strike could be called (meaning that handfuls of loony activist shop stewards could no longer bring an industry or the country to a complete standstill without first consulting their members).  The TUC council were up in arms and of course called for strike action, but in the end were forced to comply – and to their surprise and disgust found that actually their members didn’t always agree with them and often didn’t actually want to go out on strike.

The union at British Leyland went on strike for more pay, led by a Brummie called Derek Robinson (Red Robbo to everyone – a nickname that I ended up with in my last job as I continually played Devil’s Advocate over certain policies that I disagreed with).    It was a long bitter dispute that spread to other car manufacturers (secondary strikes) but the union eventually lost  – as did the car industry itself: it never recovered and many manufacturers ended up either going out of business completely or taken over by bigger (and foreign) companies.  So ended the UK car industry.

The steel workers tried their luck, with similar results.  They were never going win their pay and conditions dispute, as uncompetitive as they were: British-made steel cost many more times as much as East German or Polish or Korean steel, so manufacturers who needed the product went to them instead. Goodbye, steel industry.

The biggest and most bitter dispute was in the coal industry.  It was always going to happen, for many of the same reasons as the steel industry died….too many pits were uncompetitive and running at a loss, only kept open because the Coal Board didn’t want to upset the unions by closing them, while power stations and other users bought much cheaper imported coal from Silesia or wherever.   But Arthur Scargill, he of the Bobby Charlton combover haircut, and the Communist jock Mick McGahey, weren’t interested in that: not a pit shall close, not a miner shall lose his job, they said: oh, and by the way we expect a minimum 10% per annum pay increase for all our members, guaranteed.   Predictably, and quite rightly, Maggie gave a metaphorical v-sign at that, and let them get on with it.  She insisted the Coal Board close loss-making pits, no matter the cost, used riot police and troops to protect those few workers (and those of a competing union – there was more than one in the industry as a whole) who wanted to work from intimidation and violence when they reported for work, and shrugged her shoulders at the complaints about the destruction of entire communities.  The strike dragged on for over a year, and there were fatalities, and ended in bitterness and pit-closures and massive job losses and the destruction of those communities.  And of course Britain’s coal industry went the same way as the rest.  To this day, thirty years on, there are mining communities, particularly in the north-east and south Wales, that have never recovered from those terrible days, and exist now on the breadline with high unemployment and few prospects.
 This is the bitter part of her legacy.

But it wasn’t all bad.

Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, 8000 miles away in the South Atlantic but sovereign British Territory for all that.  Against all advice, Maggie sent a task force to kick them out – its number included the Queen’s second son Prince Andrew and a man I eventually got to know very well as my parish priest.  It was a short but bloody war, won inevitably by the professional British Army against an occupying force of poorly trained conscripts.  But not without cost: many Argentine lives were lost, notably when a submarine sunk its battleship General Belgrano, stated as a clear and present danger even though it turned out to be heading away from the islands at the time (the incident produced possibly the most famous newspaper front page in history: The Sun carried a picture of the sinking ship under the banner headline “Gotcha!”).  Britain also suffered heavy casualties as well, notably when a troop carrier landing at one of the many bays on the islands, Bluff Cove, was hit by a succession of cruise missiles (as well as the dead, many troops suffered terrible burns), and at the battle of Goose Green, where a force of paratroopers fought bitterly to liberate the capital Port Stanley after landing on the opposite side of the island and walking all night across it carrying full kit and weapons, straight into the fight.  My friend the parish priest was on the cruise liner Canberra that was being used as a hospital ship, and spent a harrowing few days administering the Last Rights and comforting the dying, of all faiths.  He told me some years later that Prince Andrew had performed heroically, flying many missions under heavy Argentinian fire, to ferry out the wounded and dying from Bluff Cove – a fact that received little publicity at the time, and even less since. 

Internationally, Thatcher was as big a personality as she was at home, and it’s fair to say more popular – even at home. 

First of all, she “stood up” to the European Economic Community, as it then was, and passionately defended British rights, as she saw them.   This made her unpopular with the French and German politicians who then (as now) called all the shots, but she basically didn’t care about that – to use a phrase subsequently borrowed and ill used by every successive Prime Minister from Major to Cameron, she only wanted “what’s best for Britain”.  She usually got it too, often in the face of bitter objections – budget cuts, rebates, scrapped draft constitutions, the lot – and all of it in Britain’s interests.  At one summit she consistently and continually refused to accept pleas and demands from the EEC Commissioner, the Frenchman Jacques Delors, saying “No, no, no” over and again, prompting another Sun classic headline “Up yours, Delors!”.  

On the wider stage, she played a leading role in what eventually became the death-throes of Communism and the Cold War.  She had a like-minded ally in US President Ronald Reagan, ageing ham that he was.  Between them, they forced through various missile treaties with the Soviets, eventually leading to the appointment of Gorbachev as First Secretary, who in turn introduced his own raft of legislation that granted more freedom to Soviet citizens and reductions in their all-important weapons budget.  This in turn gave the entire population of Eastern Europe the courage (aided again by the words and support of the Polish Pope John Paul II) to overthrow Communist regimes everywhere in the knowledge that this time the USSR would not intervene.  It’s fair to say she was instrumental in changing the face of not just Europe but the entire world.

Back at home, she introduced many different pieces of legislation that enabled council tenants to buy their homes at knock-down prices, dismantled and sold off publicly owned utilities like the gas, electricity and telephone services, and introduced other laws that reduced taxes, gave people more cash to spend, introduced an entrepreneurial climate that allowed many small businesses to start and flourish.  She de-regulated the city, doing away with the distinction between the market makers (jobbers) and client brokers, allowing banks to participate directly in a booming stock market – the de-regulation that at the time, for those employed in the City, was quite brilliant but in retrospect introduced a winner take all culture that arguably led to the current financial meltdown that has dragged the whole world into recession.

I remember it well.   To this day, I’ve never been as materially well-off as I was then – even if too much of that apparent wealth was actually on credit.  I went through a succession of jobs in the 80s and 90s, all within that burgeoning financial industry, and each one paid better (though was more stressful and demanding) than the one before.  But I had a bit of money in the bank, had lovely houses culminating in a four-bedroom detached in a sought after neighbourhood, and drove generally decent cars (only one of which was a company car – it was a taxable benefit).  Most of the time, my family did ok too, plenty of food on the table, a good wardrobe, lots of toys and stuff, and an annual holiday (even if only in Cornwall rather than the Costas).  I developed a fondness for champagne at one place I worked, where there was a tradition that any salesman exceeding a commission target for the week, had to host a party on the Friday night for all staff (it was a small company) – for over a year, business boomed and we had a party every week, without fail.  It had to end, of course: the company eventually got involved in a rather messy legal scandal resulting from a failed takeover and went out of business – but God, it was great while it lasted!  But I would never have had those opportunities without the changes that Maggie introduced, of that I have not a shred of doubt.

Everything comes to an end, of course, and so it was with Maggie.

By the early 90s, after 11 years at No.10, I think the country and the Conservative Party were tired of Maggie.   And I think she was running out of ideas, if not of energy.  In any event, there was dissent in the Cabinet and her stance on the Poll Tax (widely seen as an unfair way of getting people to pay for their local government services) and some contentious public health legislation ended up in prompting a rebellion in her party that saw her kicked out and replaced by John Major (who had previously been a quite good Chancellor and Foreign Secretary but who in the event was a huge disappointment as PM).   I remember her dignified exit from Downing Street, and the little farewell speech on the path outside the house, and the tear in her eye as she was driven away into what turned out to be political obscurity.  She was never the same force in the Lords, and seemed content to write her memoirs and grow old gracefully.   She ended senile and suffering from dementia, and had a few strokes before the one that finished her off yesterday.

To the end, she was deeply divisive.  You either loved her or loathed her, and all she stood for – and this is true of her more than any other modern politician I think (even Tony Blair and George Bush don’t seem to divide opinion in the way she did).  She is getting a public funeral next week, similar to that held for Princess Diana, and I’m sure there will be many people lining the streets and in tears mourning her.  And there are also people now celebrating her death, and there will be still more partying on the day, I’m equally sure.  And it’s a very curious thing, that in hindsight both are right and both are wrong.  She did huge amounts of good, even great, things, both for Britain and the world, and she also did many things that arguably were very bad, even evil.    Optimist that I am, I tend to be in the pro-Maggie court, and admire her as a great Prime Minister – with the caveat that I understand the loathing that people in those devastated mining communities and elsewhere feel for her (her policies and their effects on the my own industry have, over the years, caused me problems and distress, financially and mentally, but not to the same extent).  But on balance I believe she did more good than harm.

Rest In Peace, Maggie.

As a footnote, I’ve read a few of the huge number of messages left on various on-line message boards and newspaper Comment sections.  The majority are from people with an axe to grind, and generally therefore are virulently anti-Maggie – which I think is sad.   But what interests me, is that only a few are really critical of her Falklands policy, and I can only remember one that suggests she is guilty of War Crimes.
And yet, in those same message boards, in the very same Maggie Tribute threads, there remain numerous comments that equally virulently slate Tony Blair for getting us involved in the Iraq War and the fall of Saddam, and continue to accuse him of War Crimes and demanding his impeachment and trial for them.

Now, I have just finished reading a rather excellent book by Max Hastings, called “All Hell Broke Loose”.  It’s a one volume potted history of the Second World War, that covers all the major campaigns and battles, and uses first-hand testimony from the people involved – British and German troops, American GIs and Japanese kamikaze pilots, Jews and Poles and Hungarian victims and the Russians who suffered by far the highest number of casualties, both civilian and military.  What comes across is that the victorious Allies were just as guilty of “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity” as were the Nazis and Japanese, even if their scale was smaller.  Leaving out the Holocaust, which stands alone as the atrocity to end all atrocities, the scale of death and misery caused by Allied bombing of Germany and Japan by far outweighs that caused to the UK in the Blitz, or to the US at Pearl Harbour.  How can the fire-bombing of, say Dresden or Tokyo, both of which killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians in a single night, be considered anything but a war crime when there was no real military value or target in either?  Both were carried out quite deliberately to cow the civilian population.  Now – did Maggie do anything comparable in the Falklands or Blair in Iraq?  No.  And this leaves out Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that can both be justified by saying they ended the war – but still wiped out tens of thousands of civilians (again, no military targets) with a single blast.

My point here is that, if Thatcher and Blair and Bush are now being accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and Hitler and Hirohito and Goering and Mussolini convicted of them, and more recently Karadjic in Serbia and Taylor in Africa guilty of them  - even if the verdicts are not official yet – should we not also be levelling the same accusations and judgements against Churchill and Truman and Bomber Harris (and others), instead of lauding them as heroes?

The truth is that in wars, any wars, innocent people die, and otherwise decent people do things that ordinarily they would be deeply ashamed to even consider.   In any war, decisions are made in the light of available information, and there is no guarantee that the information is correct or accurate – deception is an acknowledged tool of war.  Should we condemn or accuse someone of a crime for taking action in those uncertain circumstances?  In my mind, certainly not.    Churchill believed he was right in authorising Dresden, Thatcher believed she was right in sending the task force to the Falklands and Blair thought he was right in sending troops to Iraq – truthfully, faced with the same circumstances, would many of us have done anything different?  I might have baulked at Dresden, but certainly not the Falklands or Iraq.  Does that make me potentially a war criminal?

No, for me the whole concept of war crimes or crime against humanity (unless in exceptional circumstances – like the Holocaust) is a complete nonsense.