Essays: Flights of fancy |
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Flights of fancy

LORD GREYSTOKE became Tarzan and swung from tree to tree. Lord Stansgate became Tony Benn and drank a mug of tea. Last week the above two lines of deathless poetry flashed into my creative brain, but no sooner had I written them down than I was interrupted by a person from Porlock, and never again recaptured that first afflatus. Perhaps you can finish it off.

Meanwhile, if it is permissible for a humble critic to venture an opinion on these matters, Tony Benn is finishing off the Labour Party. He and his supporters are constantly telling us that his views are being misrepresented by an amorphous entity known as the Media, but if the Media exists (it should be ‘exist,’ but the Media is a monster by now, and takes the singular), then the Media is doing something much more clever and destructive: instead of misrepresenting his views, it is giving us a straight look at them.

The week before last, Benn was to be seen and heard in full flight of fancy, announcing that because the Russian people had fought the Nazis single-handed while the West gathered strength, he for one would not countenance a nuclear war against them. On that particular question it is customary to draw some kind of distinction between the Russian people and the Soviet Government, but Benn, like Tarzan, is above such considerations. Others abide our question, he is free.

The Soviet Government had a pact with Hitler (known, for the information of those among Benn’s younger supporters who have never heard of it, as the Hitler-Stalin pact) by which the Soviet Union would have been quite content to stand by and watch while Hitler did anything he liked to any other country — including, especially, Poland, which Hitler and Stalin carved up between them.

With less overt ferocity but the same monolithic dogmatism, that Soviet Government still rules today. It has never apologised for its past behaviour, in which the consistent theme has been an unhesitating readiness to obliterate, for the sake of ideological principle, large numbers of the Russian people or of any other people incorporated within its borders.

Nobody in his right mind expects the Government of the Soviet Union to find itself guilty of moral turpitude and resign en masse. The Soviet Government is there, will go on being there, and must be treated with. But the idea that to arm against the Soviet Union constitutes an unjust threat to the Russian people is a foolish reason for unilateral nuclear disarmament. There are good reasons, but that one is foolish. And cynical and mendacious as well as foolish. And at some deep level Benn knows all this but goes ahead and says it anyway, because he is a Media manipulator born and bred.

Another Benn view which has been coming across loud and clear is the one about decision-making being more widespread in future, which in effect will mean (if I may manipulate the Media for a moment by glibly simplifying a complex view) that if you don’t attend your local meeting it will be your fault if it passes resolutions not to your liking. I can’t for the life of me see that this idea, which Benn refers to as an extension of democracy, has been suppressed by the Media. Certainly it has not been suppressed by television, on which I have frequently seen Benn himself advancing it.

For those Labour supporters whose idea of democracy is to elect a representative and let him or her get on with it, or indeed for anyone who believes that there are other things in life apart from politics, the idea of increased participatory democracy can only induce a hitherto untapped fondness for Denis Healey. It is doubly a pity, then, that Healey should still be so eager to appear on camera casually attired. This time, instead of being discovered digging in his garden as of yore, he did an over-rehearsed 10-yard walk towards camera in order, apparently, to model a new shirt worn outside the pants. The total effect was undynamic in the extreme.

Meanwhile Mrs Thatcher’s new Secretary for Employment, whose name I think is something like Twitchit, or perhaps Rabbit, was telling the nation that the solution to its problems lay in hard work. If the two main parties were to meet in permanent secret session and work on plans for mutually discrediting themselves they could do no more than they are doing now to further the cause of the SDP, which they have presented by default with the opportunity to manipulate the Media in the most effective way possible — by talking as if the people listening had minds of their own.

South-east Asia, alas, continues to raise the question of whether the US’s good intentions leave you any less thoroughly mucked about than the USSR’s bad ones. One Way Ticket to Hualampong (BBC2) dealt with child labour in Thailand, which I seem to remember was once a happy little country ruled by Yul Brynner. But then came the war, the refugees and more Western influence than a reeling economy could absorb. Now the birth-rate is out of control and pre-teen virginity is for sale in Bangkok.

The programme would have been crushingly sad if it had not been for a marvellous local expert-on-everything who talked a streak about the benefits offered by the condom, which makes, he argued, a perfectly hygienic balloon for children to play with until such time as they can put it to its proper use. Malcolm Muggeridge would probably not have approved, but he would have been mistaken. ‘Linda thinks she was 12 when she arrived at the brothel.’ It was hard to decide which was the more disheartening fact about Linda — that she was servicing several thousand men a year while still pre-pubescent or that she didn’t know how old she was.

Jane Seymour has been extraordinarily good in East of Eden (Thames), which otherwise seems to be populated exclusively by young actors called Bottoms, although Howard Duff, also to be seen as Titus in Flamingo Road (BBC2), is in there too, meaning that he is East of Eden and South of the Mason-Dixon Line simultaneously. He gave Jane a more thorough beating-up than he would ever be allowed to give Constance in ‘Flamingo Road,’ where even the dirt comes out of an aerosol can. ‘East of Eden’s’ production values at least run to some authentic raw earth. If you succeed in not being spellbound by Ms Seymour’s sulphurous charms, however, the Biblical parallels turn out to have a lot in common with railway lines.

Digging hard in Northern Ireland, Panorama (BBC1) revealed that the hunger strikes have proved a boon to IRA recruitment. Since this was the exact opposite of what the Government would like to hear, it was hard to see why it had not been suppressed, distorted, manipulated, etc. Perhaps Revolting Women (BBC2) will improve, and attain the status of a disaster. Until then I reserve judgment, out of respect for the bereaved.

Don’t miss Romer’s Egypt (BBC1), in which a man whose voice and manner suggest a lorry-driver chatting up the girls behind the counter in the motorway kayf at Watford Junction turns out to be an archaeologist who knows everything about Egypt, including how to speak all the local languages. Indeed he seems able to speak every language except English.

In Fame (BBC1), Steve Davis, World Snooker Champion, was shown, in contrast with previous subjects of this instructive series, to be having a whale of a time — not a pygmy right whale or even a sperm whale but the full, 150 ton, 100 foot long blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus).

The Observer, 27th September 1981