This is the time of year when we all need an epiphany or two. Mine came last week driving near Seville, where I’ve been filming. Far away, across the valley, I saw a vision. There was a tall figure, bathed in radiant light — light which both shimmered in two huge wings, yet also seemed to cascade upwards. The angel of the south? No, it turns out, not quite a Pauline moment. This was a solar tower onto which hundreds of mirrors beam sunlight, the rays turning water into steam and producing energy. It was very beautiful. It’s rare at my age that you see something you’ve never seen before and gives you a prickle of optimism.
Up to Bridlington to talk to David Hockney about his huge new RA show coming up in January. He makes an interesting point related (inevitably) to smoking. Having virtually criminalised the weed, the Americans have become addicted to pills. It’s true that the biggest difference between US commercial TV and ours comes in the ad breaks. They are relentlessly pushing pharmaceuticals of all kinds, to calm you, cheer you, impress your loved ones and make the sun shine more brightly. The result, posits Hockney, is a general mental slowing-down and zonked quality in the US. ‘It used to be like this,’ he says, snapping his fingers repeatedly, ‘fast, fast, fast’. No more. Maybe if the West wants to recover its mojo, the first thing to do is throw away the pill bottle.
Mind you, I say this as a Scot with a bleak streak, who believes in a bit of pain to get you through the day. Running in the park recently I fell head over heels (literally) after hitting a tree-root, and whacked my ribcage. There’s supposed to be little you can do, so I’ve been living with it, and running. Sleeping is hard, however, and something seemed adrift, like pack-ice in spring, so I eventually went to the hospital. The NHS was brilliant, and an X-ray confirmed a crack. My wise physician gently suggested I stop running for a while. He pointed at a small fuzzy curve at the base of the ribcage — internal bleeding, where the blood has collected. This might have sounded alarming but he added: ‘Ah, rather lovely, isn’t it? Like the ellipsis at the bottom of a glass of Sauternes or port.’ Sore though it is, I’ve been laughing ever since.
It’s been a hectic year. In between buying drinks for Ian Hislop’s lawyers and attending Charles Moore’s seminars on Marxism (you do all know he’s a plant, don’t you?) I’ve been making films about the Queen for her Diamond Jubilee. There was a media reception at Buckingham Palace. It had been a day of more lurid allegations at the Leveson inquiry into Bad and Naughty Journalists. The guests were in apocalyptic mood but for the royals, it must have been like having the cast of one of Hieronymus Bosch’s less chirpy paintings round for salted nuts. Meanwhile, the tabloids are pretending to be hurch newsletters. The fearful spectre of statutory regulation hangs over the press; but for the tabs, long-term, dullness is deadlier. How long before we see the Sun running headlines such as ‘Thoughtful analysis of procurement failures by National Audit Office.’ And pictures of Angela Merkel, well-dressed for winter, on page three? Harry Hack has donned a dog-collar and touches only soda water, and it’s not a pretty sight.
As for me, it’s been three years exactly since I gave up alcohol for three days every week. This has saved me from the Scylla of alcoholism and the Charybdis of teetotalism. And I’m never far from a drink: highly recommended.
Next year brings the last run of Sunday programmes from Television Centre, before we decamp to the expanded Broadcasting House. That will mean recording a new introduction to the show, which in turn leads to all sorts of decisions. What kind of slightly silly car should I drive? (There are dark threats of a scooter.) Perhaps, in a nod to the spirit of the times, I should travel by bicycle… but with a large limousine behind me to carry the newspapers.
Start the Week brought one of the best jokes of the year, from the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, though sadly only after we were off air. I was talking about the idea that Judaism is essentially a religion of argument and humour. He said he’d been at a seminar in the United States where a leading rabbi had intoned: ‘Always remember, two negatives can make a positive, but two positives never make a negative.’ From the back of the room, without missing a beat, came the rejoinder, ‘Yeah, yeah’.
Andrew Marr’s latest book is The Diamond Queen (Macmillan).