Essays: Blitzed by the ATS |
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Blitzed by the ATS

LETTERS have been pouring in from ex-members of the ATS saying that their war-time experiences were nothing like what was portrayed as happening to Cathy in Ian McEwan’s play ‘The Imitation Game,’ which was praised in this column last week. My high opinion of the play remains unshaken, but it is only fair to record the outrage of these ladies. After all, they were there.

Some of them were actually at Bletchley Park or else monitoring German broadcasts at one of the subsidiary centres. None of them remembers feeling either excluded from the action or socially despised. Rather the reverse, apparently, in each case. I’m bound to record that what they say rings true. My own instinct, perhaps based on absorbing too many genteel reminiscences, is that World War II actually did produce a hitherto unheard of degree of social cohesion among the British people.

The trouble is that when talented young playwrights like David Hare and Ian McEwan engage on some solid research on the subject, which for them lies in the historic past, they come up with a picture of the same old divisions being perpetuated and even intensified. Perhaps they find what they look for, but if so, why are they looking for it? Is it because the same old divisions are still being perpetuated and intensified? I leave you with these unanswered questions and turn to the main business of the week, namely Eddie Charlton being eliminated from the World Professional Snooker (BBC2).

I hope I will not be accused of patriotic immoderation when I say that Eddie Charlton is not only incomparably the world’s greatest all-round athlete, he is also a philosopher of rare distinction. No man was ever better equipped to defy the laws of probability. On the other hand, when the odds turn against him he can take what fate hands out. Those deep-set eyes which have stared so long into the far distance are well used to focusing an unblinking gaze on looming doom.

But to be defeated by Kirk Stevens! It must have hurt. Those of us who have seen our man knocked out should speak generously of his opponent, so let me be the first to say that the youngster wields a fair cue and is a demon for the long pot. It could be said that the little mouth-breather looks like a glass of milk in that white suit and has a hairstyle like a grass hut. Yet nobody beats Eddie Charlton by accident.

Nobody beats Terry Griffiths that way either. In fact Griffiths usually has to beat himself, being unable to rely on assistance from others. Drawn at 10 frames all with Steve Davis — another adolescent from the Kirk Stevens peer group, but differing from Stevens in the ability to close his mouth — Griffiths went for a fine cut instead of a safety shot. The result was a disaster for him and for the cigarette firm sponsoring the tournament, since the Welsh maestro is a formidable consumer of their product. While his opponents were plying the cue, Griffiths was always to be seen sucking an Embassy. He puffed and dragged. He ashed and stubbed. In the Embassy boardroom they must have been cheering with bated breath — not an easy trick, but presumably they have time on their hands.

Eliminated from competition, Griffiths became a voice-over. Presumably he was still inhaling the fumes of his free Embassies, but unfortunately a voice-over makes zero visual impact. His vocal impact, however, was all that could be desired. ‘Those slow pinks to the centre pocket across the nap of the cloth,’ he murmured, ‘are never easy.’ I nodded wisely at this. When I am playing snooker my cue ball either misses the target by a yard or else follows it into the pocket with dream-like precision, but in my mind I am that most renowned of champions, Oodnadatta Fats.

Hurricane Higgins is another great consumer of free fags. He smokes the way he plays — as if there was not only no tomorrow, but hardly anything left of today. With adrenalin instead of blood and dynamite instead of adrenalin, he sprints around the table, mowing down the referee, and lines up his next shot before the ball stops rolling. Usually these tactics, combined with an irrepressible urge to attempt the impossible, guarantee his exit at an early stage, but this year he could be seen making heroic efforts to rein himself in. He would have scored a 147 break and walked away with £10,000 if his cue had not screwed him. Even without that he stood revealed as a truly great smoker, capable of reducing an Embassy to ashes in a few seconds.

Meanwhile, back in London, a gang of Iranians were threatening to do the same. As far as I can tell from the news programmes, the embassy they have taken over is theirs, but they come from a part of Iran that wants its independence, possibly because the Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime is regarded as too rational, Westernised, etc. Anyway, the standard scenario unfolded with tedious rapidity, like a made-for-television movie. The embassy filled up with Iranians who hated each other. More Iranians who hated each other gathered in the surrounding streets. The police, at untold cost to the taxpayer, were obliged to cordon off the whole area, thereby forcing the television news crews to shoot through long lenses from upper windows in the next postal district. It was all very exciting. To put it another way, it was as boring as hell.

The British still have a lot to be proud of. It is some time, for example, since their government has tried to get its way by kidnapping a large number of innocent people and threatening their lives. Margaret Thatcher’s tactics are to stamp her foot at the EEC until she gets what she wants — or, in this case, doesn't get what she wants. But at least she does not put a tea towel on her head and talk pious nonsense about the fate of the hostages being in the hands of the Students.

The British have a relatively civilised government, if not a very effective one. British Petroleum, as explored by Philpott (BBC2), probably has more talent at boardroom level than the Government can muster in Westminster and Whitehall combined, but politics and business are not really comparable. In business the objective is clear. In politics there often is no objective, except to stop conclusions being reached.

Philpott, in his invisible way, is the best reporter currently at work. A multi-national company like BP is a country all by itself. Philpott takes his time and gets about. In the latest episode he got all the way to the thirtieth floor, a dizzy level which few BP executives ever reach. Those who get there sometimes find that they still haven't made it all the way. There is an inner cabinet, called Chairman's Prayers, Philpott got in there, too, just in time to hear somebody say ‘We've given him Europe.’

Vladimir Bukovsky was the subject of the first Levin Interview (BBC2). Levin tried to pump Bukovsky on the topic of whether freedom in Britain might be endangered, but Bukovsky has learned a bit about us since he arrived here and would not be so easily drawn. He preferred to talk about a country in which the danger to freedom is beyond doubt. Bukovsky is an impressive man and if Levin can keep up that standard of interviewee it will be a good series.

The Observer, 4th May 1980
[ A shortened, edited version of this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]