Essays: Load of Bagwash |
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Load of Bagwash

INTRODUCING The God That Fled (BBC2), narrator Christopher Hitchens announced that ‘the programme contains nudity and some scenes of physical and psychological violence’. No doubt the viewing figures were thereby enhanced. In the immortal words of Ronnie Scott, the bouncer was outside throwing them in.

Alas, despite a suavely written and delivered voice-over from Hitchens, the programme fell somewhat short of getting you suitably indignant about the doings of a character called the Bhagwan Rajneesh, who runs — or ran, until he recently did a fade — an ashram in Poona. To this ashram many Westerners come, or came, that they might prostrate themselves before the radiant wisdom of the Bagwash, as it is impossible not to call him if you have ever sat in a launderette and watched your tattered underwear revolve soggily for hours while exuding grey suds. The Bagwash talks the way that looks.

‘Troot is eternally fress as the dewdrop in the morning,’ droned the Bagwash, ‘or the stars in the naiche. Troot ... it is not a ting.’ Sitting on the floor and on one another, his Western followers soaked up the enlightenment as it poured forth. A poignant instruction on a sign-board forbade them to go away. ‘Friends, it is not possible to leave the discourse before it is over.’ But — and this was the intractable ‘but’ against which the measured indignation of Hitchens pressed in vain — nobody showed any sign of wanting to leave the discourse. They couldn’t get enough of the discourse. Far from looking as if they had been brainwashed into acceptance of the unalleviated tripe the hairy old boy was dishing out, they showed every indication of having searched for it all their lives.

The same applied to the ashram’s other attractions. Not all the time on the ashram was spent listening to the Bagwash speak, only most of it. There were also opportunities to be touched by him physically. An activity which in any other context would have looked like a hirsute charlatan copping a feel of a pretty girl was known on the ashram as ‘opening the third eye.’ But the girls didn’t just like it, they loved it. ‘I’m happier here than I’ve ever been anywhere in my life,’ said an obviously nice woman from England. Unless it involves the unhappiness of someone else, happiness is hard to argue with. ‘It’s an inner thing,’ she added, looking enviably serene.

The men, of course, were better material for satire. Superannuated hippies in notably bad beards, they talked Californian balls about energy. ‘A human being is an energy field,’ said the sort of face which fifteen years ago would have been telling you about Timothy Leary. ‘Nershing aspects of a one-to-one relationship ... non-verbal levels of awareness ... we do a lot of energy work.’ Some of the energy work took the form of encounter groups, in which all present doffed their clothes and shouted hatred at one another, while somehow the shaggiest men with the most flagrant pudenda ended up sitting on top of the prettiest girls and loudly establishing an ‘energy connection’.

The script was at its strongest when it pointed out that a mob of Western dropouts talking codswallop about spiritual values is something that poverty-stricken Poona need like a hole in the head, or third eye. The suggestion that some of the participants in the energy sessions tend to finish up in hospital was not quite so unsettling. So do some of the participants in motor-cycle races. The injuries acquired while pursuing free activities are small cause for pity.

My own, perhaps hopelessly two-eyed view is that troot is indeed a ting, that human reason as we know it in the West is the only kind of thought there really is, and that the Wisdom of the East, to the extent that it exists at all, is at least partly and perhaps largely responsible for the fact that India can’t provide a decent life for the majority of its people. But this conviction doesn’t alter the fact that the West, precisely because it is both politically free and technically advanced, is bound to go on churning out a lot of inadequate personalities who are unlikely to find life tolerable without a spiritual leader who will at least pretend to do what anyone is his right mind so conspicuously fails to do — take them seriously.

In this regard the Bagwash seems a fairly benign example of his type. From private sources I understand that there were some nasty details which the BBC demanded be edited out of the programme, but I doubt if they would have convinced you that the Bagwash was the devil incarnate. He’s just a rebarbative dingbat who manipulates the manipulable into manipulating one another — it’s a closed circuit.

Wanly narrated, Checkpoint Berlin (BBC1) still came up with some fascinating data about the Berlin Wall. The year before last, for example, a girl got killed trying to cross it. Nothing startling about that, since the Wall has claimed a total of 71 victims to date. But this girl was born after the Wall was built. The thing has been there 20 years. Known to its creators as the Anti-Fascist Protection Barrier, it has so far been brilliantly successful in stopping West Berliners from staging a mass migration to the East, although if the whole of West Berlin youth is as blandly stupid as one or two of the examples interviewed then the day must surely come when democracy will have no remaining advocates.

Proposing that the Allied troops should pull out forthwith, one of them said: ‘I’d say they have to leave. I’d say it’s not very good, you know? As a matter of fact I do not believe that the Russians would want West Berlin, you know?’ For those of us who didn’t know, the speaker’s face was a revelation. History hadn’t happened to it. You needed all your Christian charity to hope that it never would.

The BBC might please the Government by withdrawing from E. P. Thompson its invitation to give the Dimbleby Lecture, but it won’t please those of its supporters who want to see it given a proper licence fee in order that it might get on with the job of promoting free opinion. Free opinion includes E. P. Thompson’s views on nuclear disarmament. To me they seem wrong-headed, but it wouldn’t have hurt to hear them argued at length. If, however, the BBC’s true destiny is to come up with a programming schedule that will offend nobody, they have made a good start with Under the Weather (BBC2), starring weatherman Jack Scott.

No longer confined to his fleeting half minute, Jack has now been given the bore’s equivalent of a Heavy Goods Vehicle licence. ‘What better than the wonderful British weather,’ chortles Jack, ‘which does have a bad name doesn’t it, and all because of the good old low-temperature depression.’ He fills us in on something called the Digby down-draught visco-static upsurge. ‘Our imaginary cylinders extend upwards through the atmosphere.’ It is children’s television, except that children would not watch it. If only, you can imagine Sir Ian Trethowan thinking, everyone were Jack.

The South Bank Show (LWT) told you how the RSC ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ was put together and made you, too late, want to go to see it. Spearhead (Southern) is a series all about the Army. It is surprisingly rich in drama and well-observed detail. The Editors (BBC1) gave us the last gasp of the Royal Wedding. Sad journalists deplored the squalor involved in the job of trailing the Royals about, but proclaimed the need to earn a living. Voltaire’s answer to this line of reasoning was always ‘I don’t see the necessity,’ but unfortunately Voltaire was not present.

The Observer, 9th August 1981
[ This piece also appears in Glued to the Box ]