Essays: Hero of Our Time |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Hero of Our Time

POSTPONING the second part of their Soho exposé in order to make room, This Week (Thames) were first to show us a full-length interview with Vladimir Bukovsky. It was inspiring stuff.

Bukovsky didn’t go through the wringer for 13 years just to become a television star, so it is incumbent upon us not to cheapen his sufferings by talking too long about the extraordinary effect he is able to produce on screen. Sufficient to say that he looks as radiant as an avatar and sounds, with his excellent self-taught English, as authoritative as an oracle. What he has to say would be of capital importance however he looked and sounded, but it can’t be denied that it’s a handy bonus when the man with the important message turns out to have the kind of screen presence that hucksters pray for in vain.

Bukovsky made it clear that his release was not a political victory: the Soviet Union is still the Soviet Union. Still less was it a personal victory, since mere survival had never been his object. (A useful lesson here for a generation which has been encouraged to believe in survivalism as a kind of religion.) ‘It is a victory for the human spirit.’ Asked if he had ever contemplated suiciding to escape the torture, he patiently explained, without a hint of messianic superiority, that to give in would have been suicide — it was his inner freedom that he was determined to preserve.

We would be fools to assume that in the same circumstances we could match his example. But equally there is something craven in too readily assuming that we could not. At 34, Bukovsky is a true Hero of Our Time, and would have been even if he had failed to come through. That he has got out alive is an extra blessing, especially in the context of Russia’s gilded youth, who since the era of Pushkin and Lermontov have been cut down in their prime almost as a matter of course. It’s nice to think that the only ordeal he now faces is one of exposure to the media.

The 30-year rule having sprung the appropriate locks, it is now possible to tell the story of how our World War II back-room boys foiled Jerry. In the first of a six-part series called The Secret War, BBC1 introduced Dr R. V. Jones, an electronics boffin who, it now emerges, played a disproportionate role in saving Britain from the tyrant. Modest to a fault but prodigiously capable, Dr Jones was the man who realised that the German bombers attained their accuracy of navigation by following radio beams. He had to go all the way up to Churchill before he could get the equipment to test his theory, since the Germans had done a subtle job of disguising the truth. Only the unnecessary sensitivity of the blind landing receivers on board site aircraft was a tip-off that they were beam-fliers.

Once the beams were jammed, the accuracy of targeting dropped. Filling out Dr Jones’s clear and gripping recollections, there was all manner of well-chosen film, including some treasure-trove German footage recently dug up in the Imperial War Museum. A German pilot talked about the raid on Coventry, which the bomber crews could see burning even before they had crossed the Channel. If Dr Jones has not found the beams, a raid like that would have happened every night.

The next five parts of the Beeb’s series will undoubtedly bring Dr Jones back on again to tell us what happened next. Naughtily getting in ahead, The Secret War of Dr Jones (Yorkshire), screened on the same night as the Beeb’s effort, told a compressed version of the whole story. Accompanied by doomy drum noises, Austin Mitchell gave us a run-down, in tabloid prose resembling the caption to a Sun Page 3 nude, of the perils which Dr Jones helped avert, over and above those he had already helped avert on BBC1.

Dr Jones shyly outlined the tale of how the V1 and V2 were spotted in time. Even then, the V1 would have given London a terrible pasting if the Germans had not been fed with dummy information about the fall of shot. There was a touching moment of in-studio history. The beautiful agent whose report was instrumental in identifying the doodlebug had been brought to Leeds. Still beautiful, the Vicomtesse de Clarens met Dr Jones for the first time. Gorgeous aristocratic spy united with humble scientist! It was too much. Mitchell was beside himself.

Can the Dr Joneses of the future he produced by a comprehensive system of education? Such questions were hard to suppress when watching What Choice For Your Child Now? (BBC1), a ‘Man Alive’ spin-off dealing with Bristol Cathedral School, one of the direct grant grammars now planning to go independent rather than give up its standards. The standards, it emerged from the filmed report, are impressive. But the subsequent studio discussion left room for other opinions — notably those of Margaret Jackson, who fought back well, saying that privilege has always defended itself by claiming to maintain standards.

Norman St John Stevas didn’t think she had a case. He also didn’t know the difference between ‘less’ and ‘fewer,’ a slip which it would be impertinent to point out if the subject had not been education.

Malcolm Bradbury’s Love On A Gunboat (BBC1) was also about education. Set in 1956 and now, it traced the path to arid doom of a bright boy from Nottingham. Leslie Potter (Stephen Moore) was a recognisable Bradbury simulacrum, with large feet. He and his ‘writer’ friends talked echoes of Leavis (‘Don’t you think he’s life enhancing?’) while the sound-track rang with echoes of Brubeck (‘Take Five’ — the dance music for the generation that couldn’t dance).

One of the friends had the perfect Colin Wilson look, which Colin Wilson has still got now. Clumsy Leslie seduced virgin Monica. Twenty years later they had everything and nothing. Stan Tracey’s ‘Under Milk-Wood’ cried out plangently. It was a clever play, but would have been more convincing it the hero had not been just a talentless version of a talented man. The talented are never in one piece.

Survival Special (Anglia) had a shattering array of spiders, all seen in close-up by the redoubtable Oxford Scientific Film Unit. Never reluctant to look in on Nature at her most hideous, the Scientifics this time excelled themselves. One spider disguises itself as a piece of heather. A fly alights upon it. What a mistake! Suddenly the screen is full of eyes. ‘The encirclement is so slow,’ said the voice-over as a spider gave the works to a wasp, ‘it is almost an embrace. But the kiss when it comes is the kiss of death.’ No! Turn it off! This would have been the Bad Sight of the Week, if it were not for Nicholas Parsons, who is currently appearing in a commercial for Olympic Holidays. Don’t go to Greece. He goes there too.

The Observer, 9th January 1977