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Friday, 27 March 2015

Sloppiness Galore on Radio 4

Notwithstanding my stern letters of admonishment, standards of journalism at the BBC continue to plummet. A presenter on its current affairs programme Today today described a certain European head of state as 'looking visibly shaken'. Call me pedantic, but that sounded tautologous to my ears, and I shall, as I have done many times in the past, send a personal letter in writing to the BBC explaining that tautology is unacceptably beyond the pale.

The same presenter went on to report criticisms made of The Who for doing too little to prevent the spread of Ebola in Sierra Leone. Why the BBC should single out that particular popular music group is quite beyond me, given that no other aged rockers appear to be helping to contain the virus. Surely some allowance should be made for the fact that there are only two surviving members of the band, both in their seventies and currently hampered by a busy tour schedule. It all seems utter nonsense to me.

And then there is the Clarkson debacle, its immediate cause being a failure to impose boundaries and discipline on unruly talent. These incidents may seem individually trivial, but collectively they confirm an insidious weakening of management at the BBC. How can that be, you ask, given the rocketing increase in the number of managers at the ailing broadcaster. It is, of course, all a matter of leadership. Allow a weak, woolly-minded, self-obsessed, effete clique to assure its members of the top jobs in a large organisation, and plummeting standards inevitably follow.

It was all very different in my day. Few now remember the time when I, a BBC outsider, was brought in to hot-house a new generation of talent. Discipline was my watchword. Each branch of the broadcaster had its own boot camp for would-be presenters. The trainees for the Today programme where inculcated with my principles at a defunct RAF training camp on the exposed south coast of the Isle of Wight, at which we drummed-in the three Rs: reading, writing and Rethianism. I can remember the weedy and pallid body of the young John Humphries- his tee-shirt, shorts, and pumps drenched by the rain off the Channel- struggling to complete fifty press-ups, his punishment for a split infinitive.

For all his corporeal feebleness Humphries at least had a certain mental toughness, which could not be said for all of his fellow trainees. As the chef du camp it was to the carpet in front of my desk that especially incalcitrant individuals were brought, either for punishment or encouragement. A tearful Melvyn Bragg was one such case. He could no longer face the thought of completing the course, he told me through his sobs. He wanted to leave. He didn't care that he might be throwing away a golden opportunity. And the trigger for this outburst? One of the teachers at the camp had overturned his bed and his locker a moment before the provo-master was to begin his inspection, resulting inevitably in two day's isolation in the cooler. It took all of my eloquence and charisma to instil some iron into his mind and persuade him to stay. I recall that the teacher's action had been intended to deter the young Bragg from his tendency to pretention. Alas our techniques were not universally successful.

Sadly, it has all changed. Nowadays the trainees at the BBC sit around a table with i-pads and lattes, completing questionnaires on diversity and multi-culturalism. That none of them can spell hardly seems to matter, just as long as they adhere to the corporation's policies of political correctness.  I can understand why Clarkson lost his head. Doubtless he will be on the 'phone again soon, asking for advice. I shall tell him he's well off out of it.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Super Spuds

Since the news broke this morning about my involvement in the project to develop a genetically engineered 'super spud' I have received several items of correspondence from members of the public seeking clarifications about the properties of the new potato. One is from a celebrity chef. To protect her identity I will refer to her only as 'N'. She asks if there is truth in the rumour that 'super spuds' may be engineered to contain cocaine, and if so will they grow in east-facing window boxes.

The terms of my contract with the Monsanto corporation specifically forbid me from answering the first of N's questions, but an east-facing window-box will be fine as long as the potatoes are well watered. My charitable research foundation expects to launch a new brand of powdered potato, Smashed, early next year.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Unfair to Blair

Nassau. The professor has just finished breakfast, a concoction of esoteric super-foods prepared to his own recipe. The priceless porcelain, the antique Nubian silver-ware, and the Chinese silk napkin have been cleared away. The professor stares past the open French windows to the views of the harbour below. On his desk the scattered newspapers bear signs of his critical inspection, with savage under-linings in red pencil. The cool of his study, the subdued  panelling of rare tropical hardwoods, and the sympathetic spirituality of the surrounding objets d'art are clearly insufficient to soothe the professor's mood, as a frown of disapproval mars his noble brow. Imperiously he beckons a waiting stenographer to enter his presence so the dictation of the day's blog may commence...

Censorious waggles of the den Sushing head met the news this morning that Tony Blair was to leave the post of Peace Envoy owing to his complete failure to achieve any notable positive results in the eight years since he was appointed to it. It was not the failure of Blair himself which drew my disapproval, you understand, but the failure of judgement that led to his selection for the role. In 2007, when the rumours of his impending appointment began to circulate, I wrote in the sternest possible tones to those responsible.  Blair was hopelessly ill-equipped for the role they had in mind, and I told them so. Yes yes yes, they agreed, but it was now out of their hands. Certain promises had been made. Monies had changed hands. In short, it was too late for aught but hope that the best might be made of a bad job. 

And a truly forlorn hope too. It should have been obvious to any idiot that Blair was not up to the job of brokering peace in the middle-east. Consider the ideal candidate for the role. A figure of vast intellect, of unplumbed reserves of patience, of granite integrity,  a figure universally revered and respected as an impartial and objective judge of man's affairs, fluent in all languages, a trusted mentor to the world's leaders, charismatic, imperturbable, stern and gentle in equal measure...

(Connoisseurs of  literary humour the world over: You can see where he's going with this one. Putting himself up for the job any minute now, I'll bet.)

Eight years ago I would have taken the call. Today I am not so sure. The comforts of a long-overdue retirement beckon, and there is still much to be done in my other fields of endeavour.

The professor waves away the stenographer, who departs with nods of deference. He searches among the scattered newspapers for one that demands special attention. The Racing Post. "Blair's the Boy" 11:1 for the 2.30 at Wincanton.

(Connoisseurs of  literary humour the world over: Sure, you never know what to expect. Isn't that just like him.)

Friday, 6 March 2015

World Book Day

Among the school teachers of today there does indeed appear to be a lamentable lack of consistency towards literature. Yesterday being World Book Day, pupils were encouraged to attend their classes dressed as characters from books. This morning I hear the news that some pitiable young man had been shunned by his school for appearing as the lead character from a popular work of fiction entitled Fifty Shades of Gray, on the grounds that the book was unsuitable reading for schoolchildren.

I wonder, therefore, what reasoning led to similar treatment being heaped upon my great grandson, Essay den Sushing IV, who attended school in the guise of Monsignor Auban du Fornette, the disputatious Jesuit sophisticate who famously appears towards the end of the particularly humourous tenth of Pascal's Provincial Letters to argue that 'sufficient grace' could indeed be insufficient. In tears he told me how he had entered the classroom aglow with happiness, expecting applause and encouragement for his exemplary choice of childhood reading matter, only to be met with blank looks from his teacher.  They can't have it both ways.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Deceptively Simple

Coincidence is a remarkable phenomenon. Thousands of posts on every conceivable topic (and a few inconceivable ones) have I composed in this blog, a blog permeated by a determinedly even-handed and apolitical ethos; then out of the bleu, as the French say, this morning's report from my editor humbly brings to my attention that last month three posts on the trot had featured David Cameron. What are the chances of that?  (Remind me to buy a lottery ticket). So let's change to a more respected and trustworthy subject...

Estate agents are universally derided as slippery individuals who will do anything to make a commission. My own recent experience suggests that their reputation for shadiness may be unfair.

Just after Christmas I bought another Belgravia apartment, close to my main Mayfair address. After I had completed the transaction, and various priceless effects had been installed- the muscular Bacon tryptique, the exquisite multi-hued Qing dynasty vase, the gold-encased 11th century Scandinavian olyphant, the raven-black Goddard and Townsend secretaire, the delicate egg-like Qianlong moonflask, and so on- the place seemed decidedly cramped. I had to thread myself through the objets d'art, fearing that one elbow or the other was bound to send something tumbling to its expensive ruin. It was all rather mysterious, as the apartment which had seemed truly cavernous at the viewing was now like the cramped cell of some particularly agoraphobic hermit. And then I recalled a statement on the details which the estate agent had presented to me: 'this property is deceptively spacious'. I can't say I wasn't warned.