The other day I went into the National Portrait Gallery gift shop to buy a postcard of George Orwell. There wasn’t one. I then looked for Anthony Powell. Again, no luck. V.S. Naipaul wasn’t there either. In the course of my search, however, I couldn’t help noticing that there were two versions of Helena Bonham-Carter and two of Michael Caine.
Britain has again become a two-nation state. It is divided between those who watched Big Brother and those who didn’t. But this split is not between the elite and the masses, or between the more and the less intellectual (some of my most intellectual friends watched), or between those with good taste and those without. The difference, it seems to me, is rather between the high-minded and the low-minded, between the squeamish and the unsqueamish. In any event, I belong to the wrong side of this divide. But I’d like to say a few things in defence of watching this horrible and uncivilised show. One is precisely that it illustrates so graphically the stages by which civilisation breaks down. As has often been claimed, if we all knew what other people, including our friends, said about us behind our backs, society would collapse. And that is precisely the process which the programme-makers set in motion for our entertainment. Another is that the spectacle of George Galloway gradually being driven to reveal his true character was utterly fascinating. At the start of the series he adopted a pose of avuncular, worldly bonhomie which was almost persuasive; by the end he had emerged as cunning, vindictive and mean. And lastly, I suddenly realised what this Big Brother series, with its humiliating confrontations and its shifts in power, so often reminded me of — a play by Harold Pinter.
One minor question which kept worrying me while watching Big Brother was: how does Dennis Rodman, the much-tattooed and much-pierced Don Juan of basketball, who claims to have ‘bedded’ thousands of women, manage to kiss them, or indeed hold them close? Apart from his spiky nose-studs, he has a ring through his lower lip and large studs on his nipples. How does he avoid inflicting severe pain on the lips and nipples of his many partners? I suppose the answer is that he removes these ornaments before starting. But then the whole thing must become very unspontaneous. Unlike clothes, studs and rings can’t just be ripped off in the heat of passion — at least I hope not.
In the many discussions I’ve heard on the subject of selection by academic ability, there’s one glaringly obvious argument which the supporters of selection never seem to mention. It is that mixed-ability teaching holds back disadvantaged children as much as it does the brighter ones. It is bound to be depressing and confidence-lowering for a child of below-average ability to sit day after day in a classroom with pupils who learn much more quickly and perform school tasks much more proficiently. At the same time having a chance to shine in relation to one’s classmates is bound to be an incentive to learning. The opponents of any form of selection presumably believe that a mixed-ability classroom somehow raises the standards of the less able. This goes against all common sense as well as the evidence of recent years.
It seems to be much easier to indoctrinate children than to teach them — particularly when it comes to inculcating puritanical and morally superior attitudes. All the under-12s of my acquaintance, for example, start making disapproving noises as soon as anyone lights up a cigarette. Some even complain that smoking makes them feel physically sick. A few years ago children wouldn’t have cared whether anyone smoked or not. In this particular case the indoctrination is undoubtedly in a good cause. But what other activities are our schools teaching young people to feel aggrieved about — hunting, wearing fur, driving cars into city centres? Children passing sanctimonious judgment on adults is very unattractive, even Orwellian. Soon, we won’t even be allowed to give them a smack when their priggishness gets beyond endurance.
One of the first things I did when I became arts editor of the Daily Telegraph about 20 years ago was to commission the witty and erudite Fritz Spiegl to write a weekly column about the English language. He had arrived here as a refugee from Austria at the age of 13 knowing scarcely a word of English, but he soon developed a wonderful feel for the language, especially its quirks and byways. (One of his many books, for instance, was a guide to Liverpool dialect called Lern Yerself Scouse.) This was the same Fritz Spiegl who was for many years the principal flautist of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and who composed ‘UK Theme’, the medley of songs from different parts of Britain which has launched Radio Four every day at 5.30 a.m. for the past 33 years — and which is about to be axed. Thousands of listeners, Jeremy Paxman and Gordon Brown among them, have complained about dropping this ‘celebration of Britishness’. I’m sorry to say that I’ve never heard it, but I find it rather touching that a musical arrangement which was designed to reflect the unity of the United Kingdom should have been written by someone who originally came from abroad. This is multiculturalism the way it should be. Fritz Spiegl, incidentally, never lost his Austrian accent; going through his column with him every week was always fun — he was extremely amusing — but also hard work. He was prickly, and a perfectionist over every word and comma.
Amid all the consternation about Hamas winning the Palestinian election, one curious fact has not attracted much notice. It is that one of the successful candidates for the less hardline Fatah party is popularly known as ‘Hitler’. Jamal Abu Roub acquired this nickname as a teenager and has stuck to it ever since. I wouldn’t know whether it helped him to win votes, but it certainly didn’t seem to hold him back. Whether Roub will try to get rid of his nickname now that he is a member of parliament remains to be seen.