Essays: Wisdom of the East |
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Wisdom of the East

‘SO ended the Battle of the Shallow River of the Dead. Yet the Ancient Sages say, the singer is silent now. Is this an empty saying?’

Thus spake the voice-over in The Water Margin (BBC2) as your reporter struggled back from four weeks in a blind desert to bathe his parched eyes in the healing stream of images that men call television. Out on the road performing my new epic poem ‘Britannia Bright,’ I was unable to watch television for many, many nights. Of all the programmes I missed, it was ‘The Water Margin’ I missed most. Not just for its story and characters, but for the sayings of the Ancient Sages, who as gnomic aphorists were apparently in the class of Lichtenberg and La Rochefoucauld.

Sometimes, especially on the university dates, I bribed willing youths lounging in their common-rooms to write down for me what the Ancient Sages said, so that after leaving the stage at the end of the evening I could still get my ration of Oriental wisdom. ‘What did the Ancient Sages say?’ I would hiss as I came racing off, and out of the backstage gloom a student voice would whisper: ‘The Ancient Sages say, a yielding tongue endures while teeth which are rigid decay and break.’ And I would say: ‘Ah.’

In a re-tread of ‘The Avengers’ called The New Avengers (Thames), the Mrs Peel character is now played by Joanna Lumley, the possessor of an amazing pair of legs which go all the way up to her mouth, which in turn goes all the way across to each ear. Apart from her, the show is the standard tat. There was a lot of newspaper coverage about the re-launch, the key question being whether the new series could live up to the old. In fact the old was no great shakes: just arch and gimmick-laden like the new.

Bionics, the archest gimmick currently around, inevitably showed up in ‘The New Avengers.’ No sooner had I switched it on than a semi-human heavy started ripping doors down with his bionic hands. A Genius of Crime tooled around in a wheel-chair, thereby arousing echoes of ‘Ironside’ to blend with the bionic reverberations. I suppose ‘Dr Strangelove’ was being referred to as well. It was a yawn a minute.

Having seen the wiring diagram on the wall, the BBC has now acquired its own American import to compete with ITV’s deadly combination of ‘Bionic Woman’ and ‘Six Million Dollar Man.’ The Gemini Man (BBC1) has all the mechanical components of Bionic Woman and Six, with the additional gift of invisibility. Like ‘The Invisible Man’ (another American import, already owned by the BBC), Gemini can go for nine-tenths of an episode without putting in an appearance, thereby considerably trimming the pay-out to the leading actor — in this case one of those pretty boys who after weeks of dialogue-coaching still insists on referring to his metabiulism. Needless to add, Gemini, like Bionic Woman, Six and Invisible, is mainly employed on the clandestine implementation of United States foreign policy. ‘According to our research data,’ his boss informs him, ‘radiation distorted your DNA molecular field structure.’ Pull the other prosthetic.

Still in the field of bionics, America changed Presidents, turning Gerald Ford in for Jimmy Carter. The BBC plugged into the American coverage of this event. We saw a lot of the NBC presenters John Chancellor and David Brinkley. Enormously salaried communications superstars, they ought to be called Ditch and Water, since they are at least as dull as those two words combined. The vote-count lasted far into Tuesday night and started again early on Wednesday morning. I watched it all, but the dreariness was infinite.

Anchoring the show back here in Britain, David Dimbleby was in frequent touch with our Washington talking head, Charles Wheeler. ‘Charles, I was told you had a comment to make.’ ‘Well ... I haven’t really.’ ‘...?’ ‘Hold on ... Yes, I have a comment.’ Two American politicos had flown over to keep David and Robin Day company. They were John Lindsay and Gary Hart, handsome and very handsome respectively. Boy Senator Hart, topped off by one of those comic-strip faces which consist mainly of jaw-muscles, is obviously already running for President and will probably make it. Remember, you read it in this column first.

As for Carter, has he a yielding tongue, or rigid teeth which will decay and break? Not even the Ancient Sages would be able to answer at this stage. So far, the biggest threat Carter offers to world peace is the personality of his mother, Miss Lillian. Considering how over-exposed she managed to become even before her son was elected, the mind trembles at the amount of boredom she is fated to engender in the years ahead.

To be saddled with Miss Lillian, however, is more than a fair trade for seeing the back of Kissinger. Having read Carter’s Playboy interview with great care, I am almost confident — only a fool would be confident — that American foreign policy will be changed for the better: i.e., away front Kissinger’s Realpolitik, which was never real.

Just how unreal it was was thoroughly brought out by a ‘This Week’ special called The Kissinger Years (Thames), in which those who thought they were speaking for Kissinger made an even fuller job than those who spoke against him of convincing you that he was a menace to health. Kissinger’s biographer, Professor Stoessinger, expounded his hero’s theory (which I imagine can in turn be traced back to Kissinger’s hero, Metternich) that stability, not justice, is the stuff to aim for.

So when Kissinger said ‘I enthusiasdically accebd this assignmend,’ that was the assignmend he was accebding — to create a world in which a manure-pile like the Shah’s Iran would be regarded as a desirable regime. The hideous result has been to increase the moral stature of the Soviet Union. Justice has been abandoned and stability has not been secured. If Carter can turn that around, I’ll even agree to like his mother.

The British by-elections were on Tonight (BBC1). So should I and Russell Davies have been, reading excerpts from the epic poem above mentioned, but our tape failed to appear, perhaps because John Pardoe was judged to need more time in which to make a pratt of himself. Up until the moment when Pardoe put his Hush-puppy in his mouth, the show had been dull enough, with Angus Maude cannily underplaying Tory expectations and Roy Hattersley masterfully conveying statesmanlike detachment. Robin Day (again) was putting the questions, David Dimbleby (again again) was doing the links, and your scribe was staying awake for no other reason than to see himself.

But then Pardoe said that Treasury officials had been bad-mouthing HMG to the gnomes. Since this was tantamount to accusing civil servants of treason, the party woke up with a bang. Hatters and Maude converged on Pardoe from each side and Robin flung himself shouting on top of the pile, at the bottom of which Pardoe was doubtless already wishing that he had kept his yielding tongue behind his rigid teeth.

The Observer, 7th November 1976