Essays: Sorry, Quaterfans! |
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Sorry, Quaterfans!

QUATERMASS scholars from all over the country have inundated me with the names and personal details of 472 obscure British actors privileged at one time or another to impersonate the brilliant but batso boffin.

Unless there are universities offering post-graduate courses in Quatermass studies, which I suppose is perfectly possible, most of these savants must have long ago given up all other pursuits and settled down to full-time Quatermass research, some of them concentrating on the textual reconstruction of Nigel Kneale’s old scripts, others delving into the mythopoeic resonance of the professor’s battles against various heaps of sponge rubber going zoing-zoing-zoing.

Never joke with a science fiction fan. You would get better feedback swapping jests with a neo-Nazi. I speak as an ex-believer, having possessed, back in the fifties, unbroken runs of Galaxy and Astounding. For years I read nothing else. I can still recite the Laws of Robotics and chant the rhyme with which the Demolished Man jammed the probes of the telepathic police. I loved science fiction. The only reason I ever gave it up was that I realised it was turning my brain to molasses. Apologies, then, Quatermass fans, for having played fast and loose with your hero. As for all those Austrians who have written to point out that Salzburg is not in Upper Austria, all I can do is congratulate them for having spotted the deliberate mistake. THE OBSERVER’s circulation department asked my assistance in the task of finding out how many Austrians buy the paper. I hit on the idea of inserting, in my article on Salzburg, an error so tantalisingly subtle that they would be bound to write in. 3,756 of them wrote in. If, in a future article about Paris, I place the Louvre at Versailles and vice versa, you will know what is going on.

Main business of the week was the showdown between Kissinger and Frost (LWT), an edited version of the NBC encounter which in America had caused a certain amount of fuss, since Kissinger had insisted on eking out the question-and-answer with a few prepared speeches. By the time NBC’s doctored version reached your screen via LWT, it was looking a bit bitty. Nevertheless it was gripping stuff. Frost nowadays sings instead of talks, but if you could compensate mentally for his fluctuating intonation it gradually became apparent that he had done a certain amount of homework and was willing to put the modern Metternich on the spot if he could.

Kissinger had few vocal devices with which to combat Frost’s deadly technique of delivering his questions as fragments of a baritone aria. All Kissinger could do was fall back on his old trick, or drick, of substituting, or subsdiduding, ‘d’ for ‘t’. His line on Vietnam was familiar. ‘We inherided a dragedy.’ This standpoint being not without substance, he was able to defend it with some force.

Indeed Frost’s questioning, though admirably implacable, was often wide of the mark. Frost had obviously bought the entire anti-war package on Cambodia, up to and including the idea that the North Vietnamese had scarcely even been present within its borders. They were there all right. There was considerable military justification for US intervention in Cambodia, as even some of the most severe critics of Nixon and Kissinger are prepared to admit. ‘Now jusd a minude,’ fumed Kissinger. ‘With all due respecd, I think your whole line of quesdioning is maging a moggery of whad wend on in Indo-China.’

Well, not quite. Nixon and Kissinger might have had short-term military reasons for their policy on Cambodia, but the ruinous long-term consequences were easily predictable. Nor, despite Kissinger’s plausible appeal to international law, was there anything legal about the way he and his President tried to keep the bombing secret. In fact they conspired to undermine the United States Constitution. Kissinger’s personal tragedy is that his undoubted hatred of totalitarianism leads him to behave as if democracy is not strong enough to oppose it.

Unfortunately his personal tragedy, when he was in power, transformed itself into the tragedy of whole countries. The most revealing part of the interview was not about South East Asia, but about Chile. It transpires that a 36 per cent share of the popular vote was not enough to satisfy Kissinger that Allende had been democratically elected. Doubtless remembering Hitler, who had got in on a comparable share of the total vote, Kissinger blandly ascribed Allende’s electoral victory to a ‘peculiaridy of the consdidution.’ But Margaret Thatcher is Prime Minister of Great Britain by the same kind of peculiarity, and presumably Kissinger, if he were still ruling the roost, would have no plans to topple her. By what right did he topple Allende?

Kissinger couldn’t even conceive of this as a question. ‘Manipulading the domesdig affairs of another goundry’, he explained, ‘is always gombligaded.’ It is not just complicated, it is often criminal. The Nixon-Kissinger policy in Chile was an unalloyed disaster, which delivered the population of that country into the hands of torturers and gave Kissinger’s totalitarian enemy their biggest propaganda boost of recent times. You didn’t have to be Jane Fonda to hate the foreign policy of Nixon and Kissinger. All you had to be was afraid of Communism.

These were general points which, if Frost had borne them firmly in mind, might have led him to ask more searchingly specific questions. He deserves some credit for having tried hard, but finally he was out-matched. Kissinger, for all his faults, is a man of wide culture and real intellect.

Year Zero (ATV) featured John Pilger in Cambodia. Most of what he had to show was hard to look at. Already it has become apparent that Pol Pot’s crimes, like Hitler’s and Stalin’s, are too hideous to take in, even when you are faced with the evidence. Nevertheless Pilger might have found a few unkind things to say about the North Vietnamese, who, I seem to remember, have recently taken to offering their internal enemies the opportunity of going on long yachting expeditions with insufficient regard to safety precautions.

Pilger loudly accused the international relief organisations of playing politics, but forgot to mention the possibility that the North Vietnamese might be playing politics themselves. The way he was telling it, they were philanthropists. He was there and we were here, but it was hard to quell the suspicion that one of the reasons he was there was that North Vietnam likes the way he presents such a neat, easily understandable picture.

Panorama (BBC1) portrayed the Czech Government engaged in the unending totalitarian act of impoverishing its own country by persecuting anybody courageous enough to insist on the objective nature of truth. The defendants were accused of ‘subversion of the State on a grand scale’ and locked up ‘in order to safeguard the dictatorship of the proletariat.’ Why does it need so much safeguarding?

The Observer, 4th November 1979
[ A shortened version of this piece appears in The Crystal Bucket ]