We were in character too
In 2011, I was in discussion with Ilya Khrzhanovsky, the director of Dau, about co-directing with Nicolas Roeg an adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s Scandal (LRB, 8 October). Khrzhanovsky invited me out to the set of Dau in Kharkiv. The experience was as bizarre and unsettling as James Meek imagines. Khrzhanovsky sat at the centre of this world he had created out of a pastiche of historical memory and re-imaginings of what might have happened if politics, resources, theories and money had all fallen into alignment.
The day I arrived, we were plunged into the uncertainties and paranoia of 1953, just before the death of Stalin. We were given cribsheets of the history of the time and asked not to introduce anything into our conversations which could have occurred after 1953. Before entering the set (which was built round an enormous abandoned outdoor swimming pool), my companion and I were dressed in Soviet-style clothes of the period, right down to the underwear. My glasses were deemed too modern; a local optician had to open his shop and give me a suitable pair. Roubles were issued and passports provided. We were searched for any traces of modernity. Two ‘KGB officers’ interrogated us as to the reasons for our visit; one had actually been a KGB officer, the other a Gulag camp commander. We were then given the tour – no filming was taking place that day – but the set was fully peopled with workers and guards. The thing I found astonishing was that each time we entered a part of the set, be it the lab, the newspaper office, the interrogation cells, the café, the hairdresser’s, Dau’s house, whatever, the characters were in the middle of doing what they were supposed to be doing. Nothing, it felt, was being performed for our benefit. The scientists were conducting experiments on magnetically-fired bullets; the journalists were preparing copy for that night’s late edition (once they knew I was Scottish, they talked of John MacLean, the ‘Soviet consul’); the café was in full swing with grumbling customers and indifferent waitresses. The pièce de résistance of this literal charade was the visit to Dau’s apartments. The door was opened by his wife, Nora (played by the Ukrainian actress, Radmila Shchyogoleva). Nora was profuse in her apologies for Dau’s absence but invited us in for tea, which was duly prepared by a bustling, rotund babushka. Nora chattered on for half an hour, completely in character. But the disturbing trick of the whole experience is that my companion and I were also in character; maybe our ‘lines’ were a little uncertain but, by and large, we stuck to the rules: this was 1953 Soviet Russia and we were specialist tourists from the UK. It was like watching a play, but from the inside.
Even at that time Khrzhanovsky reported that he had shot seven hundred hours of footage. The whole experience had spiralled – I was going to say ‘out of control’, but that would be wrong: Khrzhanovsky is all about control. I asked him only two questions to which he did not have answers; both seemed to unsettle him: ‘How will you know when you are finished?’ and ‘How will you stop?’ James Meek’s report of Khrzhanovsky destroying the set doesn’t surprise me: how else could he have stopped? Of course, stopping isn’t the same as finishing.
Needless to say, the Roeg-Khrzhanovsky collaboration failed.
Corbyn in the Media
Paul Myerscough refers to the BBC’s ‘dominant role in people’s reception of news and commentary’ (LRB, 22 October). The actual figures demonstrating that dominance are startling. Using data published by Ofcom and the official measurers of TV, radio and newspaper consumption, I have calculated that the average UK adult consumes 56.7 minutes of news and current affairs each day from UK sources; 39 per cent derives from TV, 29 per cent from radio, 18 per cent from newspapers and 14 per cent from online news sites. Because of the BBC’s super-dominance in TV and radio news and current affairs consumption (75 per cent and 85 per cent shares respectively), and its strong position online (nearly 50 per cent), the BBC’s overall share is 60.6 per cent, compared with 6.3 per cent for Murdoch’s newspapers, 5.7 per cent for the Mail group, 5.1 per cent for ITV, 4.2 per cent for Independent Radio News, 3.2 per cent for Sky News, 2.8 per cent for the Guardian (thanks to its online readership), 2.6 per cent for the Mirror group, 2.4 per cent for the Telegraph group, 2.4 per cent for the Express group and 1.2 per cent for Channel 4. No other provider has more than 1 per cent.
If any commercial organisation commanded a 60 per cent share of news consumption, there would be a national outcry, and demands that the organisation be broken up. But the BBC’s dominance – which has been growing steadily, as newspaper circulation declines and ITV News loses audience share – doesn’t merit even a mention in the government’s Green Paper on the BBC’s future. Of course if Myerscough is right that ‘the BBC’s institutional bias’ is now effectively in the Tories’ favour, that might explain their indifference to the situation. Meanwhile, the left seems primarily concerned about which of the newspaper moguls has a larger share of a disappearing readership.
Like Paul Myerscough, I was struck by the different way the leaders’ speeches to the Labour and Tory Conferences were treated by BBC2’s Daily Politics. The studio guest for Cameron’s speech was Michael Heseltine; for Corbyn’s it was Lance Price, Alastair Campbell’s second in command as Blair’s spin doctor, and for several years now quite removed from the UK political arena running a French B&B. I complained to the BBC and received this reply:
As well as being a highly experienced journalist and political commentator, Lance Price has held significant roles in the past for the Labour Party, most notably being their director of communications and overseeing their 2001 general election campaign. With this in mind, we felt he was well placed to give an informed analysis of Jeremy Corbyn’s conference speech. Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader was controversial, even within the party itself. Mr Price clearly stated on the programme that he was ‘not a fan’ of Mr Corbyn’s leadership, but we believe it was important to hear his views, as they represent a significant strand of thinking within the party and among Labour supporters.
It seems especially worrying that the BBC justifies the invitation to Price on the basis that Corbyn’s election was ‘controversial’. Is this not a case of the BBC positioning itself as arbiter of who is fit to be elected as Labour leader, just after record numbers of party members had voted for him?
St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex
Paul Myerscough uses two tropes which are increasingly common among Corbynistas. First, he identifies scepticism as being about an inability to value qualities beyond ‘seeming plausible’. There has been plenty of that, it’s true, and the voters are obviously a shallow lot for being influenced by it, almost as bad as the BBC for covering it. But he discounts the possibility that, for many on the left, the main problem with Corbyn is simply that they disagree with him, and feel that many of his views actually are – as opposed to merely portrayed as – some combination of simplistic, populist, outmoded and distasteful.
Second, Myerscough reserves special disappointment for the Guardian’s new editor and her ‘cadre of electoral realists’. Realism? Could anything be worse? Apparently it could, in this case ‘disdaining’ (i.e. disagreeing with) Corbyn’s supporters and alienating potential readers. Another view might be that the cadre represents the views of people like me who just want the more progressive party to have a chance. It’s hard not to think of the Scottish referendum, where questioning of the Yes campaign risked the most scornful charge of all: lack of optimism.
While Labour are having what I like to think of as a holiday from the voters, the Tories are trying to grab the centre ground. The SNP still appears to be the go-to party for genuine opposition to the government, and its level of organisation stands in sharp contrast to Corbyn’s flat-footed start. Maybe a hopeless media operation is another element of the new politics. Who knows? What is clear is that excuses for the next election are piling up early.
Lewes, East Sussex
Adam Smyth’s piece on John Aubrey reminded me of sharing, many years ago, a hotel dinner table with the late Conrad Russell (LRB, 8 October). We were talking about Harold Wilson, then lately prime minister, and Conrad began to tell me of a conversation he had had with his father, Bertrand Russell, about Wilson’s personality. However, he said, Bertie was then very old, and Conrad came to realise that they were no longer talking about Wilson, but about what Bertie remembered his grandfather Lord John remembered his grandfather the duke telling him about the personality of the Younger Pitt. I do not remember the latter’s way of speaking being mentioned in our conversation.
I decided, then or thereafter, that there are some stories it would be churlish to disbelieve, and I have several times repeated this reminiscence since Conrad’s death. I am now 91 and memory is unreliable, in what it says you have forgotten no less than in what it says you remember. However, since I seem to be a key figure in the chain of transmitters Adam Smyth has rehearsed, I would like to limit my contribution to what I wish to say now and believe is all I have ever said or claimed to remember. Specifically, I do not remember being told anything about William Pitt’s way of speaking.
I have an example of ‘cross-generational vaulting’ to compare with Adam Smyth’s. My uncle, Philip Bell, studied at Queen’s College, Oxford just before the First World War. At that time the president of Queen’s was a very old man who had been brought up in Ireland. A very old man had looked after the orchard on his parents’ property. He had fought at Waterloo. I asked my uncle: ‘What did he say about Waterloo?’ My uncle replied that he had posed the same question to the president of Queen’s, who had replied that even as a young boy he knew of Waterloo, and had asked the same question of the old man in the orchard. His reply was: ‘The drums, the drums.’
To Adam Smyth’s team of cross-generational gymnasts could be added Roland Barthes, whose meditation on photography, Camera Lucida, begins with the dizziness of looking history in the face. Barthes is describing his amazement at seeing a photograph of Napoleon’s youngest brother, Jérôme, taken in 1852: ‘Je vois les yeux qui ont vu l’empereur.’
Do killers like heavy metal?
Andrew O’Hagan insists on characterising mass murderers as heavy metal fans (LRB, 22 October). He imagines a future killer who ‘may be into hurting animals, or like Death Metal music’. Later, prospective killers ‘read Tolkien and swap sci-fi comics, or get into heavy metal’. In fact, none of the murderers O’Hagan mentions in the piece seems to have been into metal, and a recent study from Humboldt State University has found that metal fans are ‘significantly happier in their youth and better adjusted’ than their peers. The Humboldt study builds on an earlier study by researchers at the University of Queensland, which found that extreme music – metal and punk, predominantly – decreases levels of stress and hostility. According to its authors, metal music helps its listeners to ‘explore the full gamut of emotion’ but leaves them ‘feeling more active and inspired’. O’Hagan’s killers seem largely to have been rejects from a culture they aspired to join. Metal fans, in my experience, tend to reject that culture.
Memories of the Fog
At the time of the great fog of December 1952 I was working as a junior clerk in the Counting House of Guy’s Hospital in Bermondsey (LRB, 8 October). It was said that during that week there were more hearses leaving the hospital than ambulances arriving. My own recollection is that, against advice, I left the office during my lunch break. When I returned to my desk and picked up my ruler, I found its outline clearly marked on what had been a sheet of white paper. Ascherson also mentions the animals at the Smithfield Show. Many were prize-winning beasts, so efforts were made to save them from the effects of the soot-laden fog inside the show area: sacks were soaked in whisky to filter the air they were struggling to breathe. A few years later I moved to Exeter, where I was amazed to find that fogs were white. I now live in Canberra, where, very occasionally, the airport is closed for an hour or so because of what I would call a ‘mist’.
Neal Ascherson’s piece brought back vivid memories of a late-afternoon car trip in London in mid-December 1952. I was being driven home to Watford from my prep school in Kent. My father, a Londoner, knew every short cut and side-street, and always followed his own carefully chosen route through the heart of the city. The gloom was deepening as we emerged from the north end of the Blackwall Tunnel, and after a further five minutes or so we were in an impenetrable smog. My father stopped the car, pulled a white handkerchief from the glove compartment, and told me to get out and run ahead of him, holding the handkerchief well elevated. I was told to ‘follow the kerb’. Not as dangerous as it sounds: we stuck to the side-streets, and moved slowly. The city was eerily silent and seemed empty. Even outside the car you could only see a few feet ahead. My father called out directions through the open window of the car as we approached each intersection. We continued this regimen, my father barking instructions out of the gloom, for two hours or more. The fog lifted as we approached the Hippodrome in Golders Green: I had been jogging for a little under ten miles.
The photograph in the last issue of a goalkeeper peering through the fog in 1945 brought to mind a famous example of the risks of fog to professional sport. On Christmas Day 1937 Charlton Athletic were playing Chelsea at Stamford Bridge with their English international, Sam Bartram, in goal. In his autobiography Bartram recalled fog enveloping the ground:
The referee stopped the game, and then, as visibility became clearer, restarted it. We were on top at this time, and I saw fewer and fewer figures as we attacked steadily. I paced up and down my goal-line, happy in the knowledge that Chelsea were being pinned in their own half. ‘The boys must be giving the Pensioners the hammer,’ I thought smugly, as I stamped my feet for warmth. Quite obviously, however, we were not getting the ball into the net. For no players were coming back to line up, as they would have done following a goal. Time passed, and I made several advances towards the edge of the penalty area, peering through the murk. Still I could see nothing. The Chelsea defence was clearly being run off its feet. After a long time a figure loomed out of the curtain of fog in front of me. It was a policeman. ‘What on earth are you doing here?’ he gasped. ‘The game was stopped a quarter of an hour ago.’
Homes in Hackney
Iain Sinclair watches police helicopters circling ‘Hackney’s last vestiges of public housing’ from the ‘infinity’ pool at the top of the Shard (LRB, 24 September). At the last census, 44 per cent of people in Hackney lived in social housing (belonging to the council or to registered social landlords). Despite the sleepy depletion of stock through right-to-buy sales there are still 22,400 units of fully public (council) housing, held in trust for the people of Hackney and available according to need. Though hampered by the government’s refusal to let us borrow to build we are building new, high-quality homes for social rent every year and are consistently among the best-performing local authorities in this respect.
Town Hall, London E8
Labour Councillor for Clissold Ward
How to Do Good
Responding to Amia Srinivasan’s review of my book, Doing Good Better, Rajith Dissanayake challenges the effectiveness of distributing long-lasting insecticide-treated nets to prevent malaria (Letters, 8 October). These worries are misplaced. A comprehensive survey published last year in the Malaria Journal found that the overwhelming majority of nets were used for malaria prevention, while fewer than 1 per cent were used for other purposes. In a separate response, Yannis Gourtsoyannis disputes that deworming programmes improve school attendance. It’s true that Aiken et al’s recent replication found some coding errors in Miguel and Kremer’s original study, but Gourtsoyannis’s claim that this study has been ‘debunked’ is inaccurate and misleading. Inaccurate in that the errors identified by Aiken et al do not directly challenge the existence of an effect on school attendance: rather, they challenge the effects on untreated students attending schools within a certain range (between 3 and 6 km). And misleading because the case for deworming programmes doesn’t primarily rest on its effects on school attendance: ultimately it is the remarkable impact that these programmes have on earnings later in life that makes deworming an unusually cost-effective intervention.
Lincoln College, Oxford