The Questing-Vole

Life and letters | 29 January 2005

There's a new bully at Grange Hill

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In this week’s Cease and Desist Department, it’s Grange Hill. For many tens of thousands of grown men and women worldwide, the names Tucker, Zammo and Mrs McCluskey are enough to induce an instant rapture of nostalgia: the mind’s ear fills with the sardonic, boingy guitar of the theme tune; the mind’s eye with the single sausage of the cartoon title sequence, wobbling forever on the end of its fork. For some time now, this constituency has been catered for by the existence of a non-profit website called Now, however, creator Phil Redmond’s Mersey TV, who took over production duties from the Beeb two years ago, are worried about the competition the site poses to its own, rather more rubbish site, called Could the two not coexist, happily boosting the show’s profile? Apparently not. Mersey took legal action to close down the site this month, arguing that their copyright was being breached by using images from the show. Sledgehammer and nut? Nose and face? Or, perhaps, Gripper and Roland? Let’s stamp out bullying.

The US literary journal the Believer has secured a sort of scoop. The latest issue reproduces a six-page handwritten fax, sent by David Hockney to the New York Times and rejected for publication without, according to the magazine, so much as an acknowled- gment. The fax is a response, quite hot and cross, to an article sweepingly dismissive of Hockney’s theory that artists as long ago as Van Eyck were using optical technology in their paintings. Hockney took the view that the NYT’s original article was unduly influenced by exposure to David Stork, a Stanford professor who has spent quite some energy on pooh-poohing Hockney’s ideas. In the course of his complaint about Stork’s ‘circus ... believing it can “prove” or “disprove”’ the use of optics in Van Eyck, Hockney offers a plea in mitigation: ‘I put it all down to smoke-free Stanford not pondering things wisely.’ Smoke and mirrors, then. Still, rude of the NYT not to reply.

A couple of dates for the bookish diary. On 1 March, Index on Censorship hold their annual Freedom of Expression Awards at City Hall in London. Hosts are Anna Ford and Bob Geldof; judges for the prize, honouring ‘outstanding contributions to

the promotion of free expression’, include Baroness Kennedy, novelist Hari Kunzru, actor Bill Nighy, and former chief inspector of schools Chris Woodhead. A dinner afterwards with panoramic views on London will be hosted by Jonathan Freedland, a writer with panoramic views on the world. Tickets are £100 a pop, in a very good cause. Call 0207 278 2313 for details.

The beginning of March also sees Jewish Book Week, which claims to be Britain’s oldest literary festival, taking place at the Royal National Hotel in London. Opening with Maureen Lipman on Saturday 5th, it proceeds with an unbroken chain of stars through to Antony Sher the following Sunday week. Among those to be seen: Oliver Sacks, David Baddiel, Rabbi Lionel Blue, Mark Ford, Howard Jacobson, Adam Thirlwell and Carole Caplin. Look at www.jewishbookweek. com for details, or call 0870 060 1798.

I hope readers will indulge me in an item which will be of interest to only a select few cognoscenti, but will be of fierce interest to them. One of the most admired and celebrated underground comics of the Seventies and Eighties has resumed public- ation after more than a decade. Bob Burden’s Flaming Carrot — the first surrealist superhero — is back. On the cover of the new issue, FC, a plume of fire sprouting prettily from the top of the enormous carrot that he sports instead of a head, is seen dodging the deadly flying buzz-saws of Garbage Mouth. FC is armed only with a baloney gun. In the background, a zombie sings, ‘Klang! Klang! Klang! went the trolley...’ Inside, he goes on to do battle with a tribe of pigmies building a giant ear out of stolen bread. I wish it were possible to explain why Flaming Carrot is a work of genius. You’ll have to buy the first issue from Image Comics, or visit to see for yourself.

Michel Faber, Booker-nominated author of the epic historical romance The Crimson Petal and the White, writes to Prospect magazine to defend Frank ‘Weasels Ripped My Flesh’ Zappa against an unfavourable review of Barry Miles’s recent biography: ‘Any father who named his children Dweezil and Moon Unit and still retained their respect can’t have been too monstrous.’ Quite so.

A new book, John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart, tells us that ‘God designed men to be dangerous’, and that the route to male self-realisation (and, a new twist, spiritual fulfilment) is for men to go on expensive holiday camps to pursue the macho, atavistic activities they were destined for: ‘risk, danger, and a point of no return’. (Picking actual proper fights is out, mind; we’re Christians.) This was the thesis of the equally derivative Iron John way back in 1990. It was utter cobblers then, and it’s utter cobblers now.

As I mentioned a fortnight ago, the multimillionaire pulp thriller author Michael Crichton’s latest book, State of Fear, has as its central plot strand the prospect of a devastating tsunami. I contacted his represen- tatives asking what, if anything, he was doing by way of donating to or helping the relief effort for the Asian disaster. Update: still waiting for a reply.

Further to the Vole’s efforts, in his last column, to stamp out swearing in public life, a friend draws my attention to the appearance from Sutton Publishing of, bold as you like, Cnut, by the Isle-of-Wight-based historian M. J. Trow. Honestly. No doubt, the usual politically correct bores will claim that putting this filth on shelves in bookshops where anyone can see it is somehow justified in the name of scholarship; hence the weaselly subtitle ‘Emperor of the North’. They will say it is a serious work of Anglo-Saxon history. The same argument was advanced by FCUK, with their spurious claims to be selling jumpers, socks, and other sorts of clothes. It cut no ice then and it cuts no ice now. How can the most vulnerable and precious group in our society, the children, be expected to know anything about Anglo-Saxon history? The damage will already have been done.

In response (we guess) to this column’s admiration of his unique way with figurative language, the former Guardian editor and media guru Peter Preston seems to be toning it down. Only this week, he caught himself getting carried away, and admonished himself, ‘Maybe I’m slightly over-egging that final roundelay.’ We must encourage this new mood in the great man. Recipes for egg-free or low-cal roundelays, if you will, to Mr Preston, care of the Vole.