One of the best things about being a writer is that you get asked to interesting places. I’ve always turned everything down because I believed I should sit at my desk and write. About six months ago, I decided to see what would happen if I accepted everything for a while. Admittedly, I had a kick-start. My BBC film Page Eight, about the moral ructions in MI5 in the past ten years, was given the unusual honour, for a TV film, of closing the Toronto Film Festival. So I went to Toronto (refreshing), then to Edinburgh (uplifting), Warsaw (fascinating), Rome (matchless), Hamburg (serious), Jaipur (fabulous), Eastbourne (serene) and Gothenburg (-14°C). During this period of traipsing down red carpets and giving multilingual Q&As (best audience question in Gothenburg: ‘Where did you buy that coat?’), I’ve written more than usual. It turns out that travel doesn’t distract, it concentrates.
It’s great for me to be back at The Spectator, where I’ve been absent for as long as Cliff Richard from Radio One. One of my first jobs round about 1970 was to review detective stories in these pages for an editor Private Eye nicknamed George G. Ale. With his red hair and a rusty-needle gramophone bark you don’t hear any more, Gale was said to be frightening, but the effect was comic. He was more like a dog than a man, yapping and complaining all day. My field of expertise was expanded, for reasons no one explained, to include sex manuals, so I was landed with reviewing the work of Masters and Johnson. They were American sexologists, always described, like all sexologists, as ‘pioneering’. When I quoted their bizarre recommendation for how men might avoid premature ejaculation, Gale refused to print. Now their unlikely advice would be taken seriously, and pass without comment.
Friends are arguing about whether this is the worst government since 1945. It certainly seems so. Blair’s administration did the single worst thing by invading Iraq, and Eden’s got the worst comeuppance, after invading Suez. But there’s been none in my lifetime that so resembles a team about to drop into the Conference. You look around the field and the players are all kicking the mud rather than the ball. Can anyone name a minister who’s had a good game? Even the free-spirited ones like Vince Cable and Kenneth Clarke lost all their vim the minute they got red boxes. Gove, Lansley and Duncan-Smith call to mind George Santayana’s definition of a fanatic: someone who redoubles his efforts after forgetting his aim. Hague merely seems bored, as though his brief — the world — weren’t as interesting to him as an elliptical machine. The disparity between Cameron’s moral lectures to the young and the ugliness of his own tongue dismays even his supporters. Osborne and Cameron represent class interest pure and simple. ‘Does it help us?’ is the only question they ever ask. Their dishonest strategy of blaming Labour for everything the bankers did wrong ran out of gas five miles back down the road. It will be interesting to see what new PR wangle they come up with next to disguise the failure of their own analysis.
Just as few villains think themselves bad, so few cultures think themselves reactionary, but ours is, right now. I don’t think I can stand another artist getting up and thanking the good people from Admass Ltd. A belting article by Roger Lewis in the Daily Telegraph used the death of Nicol Williamson at Christmas to lament the passing of wildness in actors. But sadly it’s not just actors. Whole theatres in London have become genteel outlets for the financial services. That’s why everyone so admires the Finborough. It has the proper pirate spirit of the fringe. A few years ago when asked to introduce my Almeida adaptation of Gorky’s play Enemies to its sponsors from Coutts, who were glugging back champagne like nobody’s business, I explained that Maxim Gorky worked for the destruction of everything Coutts stands for. Polite laughter. A blithe bank executive exacted perfect conversational revenge soon after. ‘Do you just do adaptations or have you ever tried writing a play yourself?’
One brief word of vehement support for the Globe Theatre on Bankside, which has admirably defended its invitation to the Habimah Theatre from Tel Aviv to play The Merchant of Venice this summer. How many times does it have to be said? It is not the duty of all artistic events to represent all points of view. Once we turn the arts into an edition of Question Time, we no longer have arts. However terrible the wrongs of the occupation, a cultural boycott against a Jewish state is a repellent idea.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated February 11, 2012