Essays: Baebius lives! |
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Baebius lives!

SKYLAB fell on my defenceless homeland. On News at Ten (ITN), Reginald Bosanquet, overcome with disbelief, read his autocue one line at a time. ‘Skylab broke up, with debris. Streaking across the night sky and heading. Thousands of miles across the ocean for Australia.’

At least Reggie wasn’t entirely speechless. I’m bound to confess that I was, since until that point I had been an admirer of President Carter. But when they start strafing your own country with tons of red-hot supersonic junk you can’t help wondering whether there might not be some substance in all those theories about US imperialism.

The advantage of being in possession of an all-embracing political theory is that you need never be at a loss either to explain events or to propose their remedy. Marxists, for example, not only know exactly what is going on in Northern Ireland, they know exactly what needs to be done next. The more evident it becomes that Britain would be glad to get out, the more they are convinced that Britain is contriving to stay in.

The same line of thought can be found in Livy, Book XXII, where Q. Baebius Herennius, tribune of the people, is to be heard announcing that it was the war-mongering Roman nobles who first drew Hannibal into Italy, and that those who have it in their power to end the war are continuing it by trickery so as to serve their own ends.

While Q. Baebius Herennius was saying all this, what was left of the Roman army was doing its damnedest to wear Hannibal down. Eventually, by the patience and sagacity of Fabius, Rome was saved. I don’t say that the same tactics will be of much use in Ireland. Indeed I have no idea what should be done in Ireland. All I am sure of is that Q. Baebius Herennius will always be with us. Herennius perennius.

My own all-embracing political theory, for what it is worth, is that an inordinate proportion of the world’s misery is brought into being by all-embracing political theories. These might tend either to the Right or to the Left, but what they have in common is the unwavering conviction that ends justify means. In this respect, any attempt to choose between the two sides is pointless. Nor should anyone who finds himself in the middle feel weak on that account. Powerless yes, but weak no. If history is with anybody, it is with those who are not sure where it is heading.

The above profound reflections are advanced in lieu of an appropriate reaction to Outcasts on the China Seas (BBC2), the best programme I have yet seen on the dread-provoking subject of the boat people. As Q. Baebius Herennius knows, the boat people mainly consist of North Vietnam’s historically outmoded middle class. The expropriators have been expropriated. Upwards of 45,000 of the expropriated expropriators have ended up on the island of Pulau Bidong, a small lump of granite with no toilets. Here, while doing their ingenious best to keep their children’s drinking water free of excrement, they wait to see what the world has in store for them next.

As Harold Williamson, the programme’s tactful front-man, was careful to make plain, these are the lucky few. Most of the boat people died on the way. The price for risking almost certain death is a large fee payable to the Vietnamese Government, which according to judicious estimates has so far amassed about £700,000,000 out of this sad traffic.

One of the things they might care to do with the money is hire a good PR firm, since by now everybody except Q. Baebius Herennius and Jane Fonda must be starting to wonder whether Ho’s benevolence, always supposing it existed in the first place, has been passed on to those who have succeeded him in the task of guiding the Vietnamese people towards their destiny.

What no Marxist can begin to contemplate is that Marxism might be the reason why Marxist States turn bloody one after the other. Panorama (BBC1) had a report on Czechoslovakia, where it appears that the signatories of Charter 77 are currently getting it in the neck. The programme’s front-man, who shall be nameless until such time as he gets his wires uncrossed, tried to tell us that the reason why sound and picture were out of synchronisation throughout the item was that the film had been shot in secret. This was, of course, tosh. Some of the film had indeed been shot behind the unyielding backs of the local secret police, but the reason why the whole lot was screened out of sync was a cock-up at the BBC.

As was only to be expected, the growing tendency of BBC executives to follow up the wrong decision with a prevaricating explanation has by now infected the screen itself. The Beeb is running short of human faces. But a broadcasting organisation mincing its words in order to ward off criticism is not the same thing as a whole State dreaming up a pack of lies and calling it a constitution.

In Czechoslovakia at the moment, the secret police are keeping the playwright Vaclav Havel on his toes by blocking up his drains and not allowing anyone to clear them. When President Nixon was caught pulling that kind of stunt he was very properly thrown out of office. But in the Marxist countries such practices are not against the law. They are the law.

In State of the Nation (Granada), Jeremy Isaacs was the peripatetic moderator of a discussion on how, when and whether to tell the truth about an imaginary country called Freedonia. In the grip of a repressive regime, Freedonia nevertheless runs a reasonably benign salt-mine. Is a story about a non-violent salt-mine still a story?

The assembled communications experts pretended to worry at this topic, although there was little in it. The real question was about who should be sent on such a story, the reporter with an axe to grind or the objective reporter. Even here the point was missed. Nobody except Q. Baebius Herennius doubts that there is indeed such a thing as objectivity. Unfortunately, however, it is often only the reporter with an axe to grind who can summon up the energy to get in there and ask the awkward questions.

Fronting an excellent TV Eye (Thames) on the subject of Islam, the redoubtable Vanya Kewley once again demonstrated that it is possible to be passionate in the cause of decency. Her ‘Everyman’ programmes for the BBC were copy-book examples of how right-wing nightmare nations like the Philippines and Paraguay can be discredited without any implication that left-wing nightmare nations are somehow not so bad after all.

Kewley elegantly embodies the principle that the truth is absolute, even if our grasp of it is relative. Q. Baebius Herennius believes that the truth is relative and his grasp of it absolute. She can understand him, but he will never be able to understand her.

The Observer, 15th July 1979

[ An edited version of this piece appears in The Crystal Bucket ]