Dennis Sewell on the state of Lebanon and the charm of Guto Harri
My earliest childhood memory is of machine-gun rounds coming through the bedroom wall. There were no loud bangs — the cacophony is almost all at the shooter’s end. Incoming, each successive bullet breathed only the softest hiss, of a kind an exotic insect might make, and left in its trail an enchanting shaft of silvery moonlight. Too young to recognise the danger, I rather enjoyed it. The gunmen back then (this was the late 1950s) were Syrian-sponsored insurgents, who targeted our family’s villa in the Bekaa Valley because we were Brits associated with a pro-Western government in Beirut. Such gunmen are the perennial curse of Lebanon. Between 1975 and 1990 they turned a near-Eden into a charnel house. With the gunmen back on the rampage last week in the uniform of Hezbollah, I spend a long and depressing day online to my keyboard-pals in Beirut. Having long envied those writers whose blurbs boast that ‘the author divides his time between…’, I am determined that my next book will have a divides-his-time clause too. I’ve plumped for London, the United States and the Levant. To that end, I’ve been reviving old friendships and forging new ones among the Lebanese, ahead of a return to my roots. After four days of fighting the army steps in and Hezbollah pulls back. My friends assure me that if Sheikh Nasrallah tries this sort of stunt again, perhaps hoping to pull off in West Beirut what Hamas did in Gaza, Hezbollah will be given a bloody nose next time. Lebanon will fight and Lebanon will be right.
After being constrained by the BBC’s vow of ‘due impartiality’ for more than 20 years, I emerge from White City a free man, but blinking into the dawning realisation that henceforth I shall be expected to hold strong opinions. I’m not at all sure how this will go. Maybe all that pent-up polemic will just come bursting forth as the cork comes off. But what if one’s become thoroughly institutionalised and can no more slap down the reflex of even-handedness than Doctor Strangelove can control his involuntary Nazi salute? Confessing this anxiety to my wife, she immediately spots a business opportunity: a residential centre, a nice country house in the Cotswolds, where former BBC journalists can go to be deprogrammed like survivors of cults such as Scientology and the Moonies. There one might learn to focus on only one side of every argument; practise using emotive language; discover how to select facts and statistics for partisan effect; and be fitted with an ideological prism or an overarching worldview. Later, I try Laura’s wheeze out on a senior Conservative. He laughs so hard he nearly falls off his chair. What is it about the Corporation’s solid commitment to impartiality that some politicians just don’t get?
It was a smart move by London’s new mayor choosing the former BBC political correspondent, Guto Harri, as his new communications director. Guto is one of those people who only has to walk into a room to light up smiles all round. One might think that kind of charm would be an essential requirement in a spin-doctor, but it’s mystifyingly rare in the trade. If Guto is looking for an eye-catching initiative to confirm Boris as the man to make our streets safer, he should point Mayor Johnson at a particularly outrageous practice that blights our part of south London. You can call it a tax or a toll or daylight robbery, but round here it’s known as ‘Shakedown Friday’. One of our neighbours has a teenage son whose walk to school takes him past the gates of no fewer than three other secondary schools before he reaches his own. Each Friday his father slips him six quid to pay the £2 impost levied by toughs stationed outside each school upon anyone wearing the uniform of a different establishment. The revenue thus raised pays for drugs and clubbing at the weekend. There’s a political dimension too that might appeal to Guto’s taste for mischief. My neighbour says that the most ruthless enforcers of Shakedown Friday aren’t from the sink-comp, nor even the bog-standard one, but pupils of the shiny new Lambeth Academy. The chairman of the governors there is the Labour party’s house comedian, John O’Farrell, who used to write gags for Gordon Brown’s speeches — though, obviously, that was quite a while ago.
My former colleagues at Newsnight, where I spent a brief but happy spell some years back, can be justifiably proud of their mini-scoop last week revealing the risk of foreign felons getting jobs at Britain’s airports without criminal record checks. Mind you, my own travelling experience confirms that quite a number of those working airside are wrong ’uns anyway, whether they have criminal records or not and whether they’re imported or homegrown. It’s not an urban myth that there are pubs in Hanwell that are pretty much like souks, where you can barter with Heathrow baggage-handlers any night of the week for a dodgy laptop or an iffy iPod. Of course airport security is a deadly serious matter nowadays. But we think we’ve got problems? The immediate trigger for the trouble in Beirut was the Lebanese government’s decision to re-assign the allegedly Hezbollah-friendly Wafiq Shuqair to his post as head of security at Beirut airport. His reinstatement was part of the price Nasrallah demanded for pulling back his militiamen. The news that the airport’s security chief enjoys the wholehearted support of an organisation with a long criminal record of international terrorism can hardly inspire confidence among carriers or passengers. Welcome to Lebanon.
Dennis Sewell Is A Contributing Editor Of The Spectator.