The “Today” programme took a swipe at Kazakhstan today – or, to be more accurate, President Nazarbayev – in a segment that revealed that an almost racist Borat attitude towards the country is alive and well at the smug old BBC.
Giggling like a posh toff at a boy on a bursary, Justin Webb reported that Nazarbayev is “looking for an elixir for immortality”, and the Nazarbayev University has come up with a yoghurt drink. How funny. You can just imagine the old git – he’s 72 – swatting flies away with his solid gold zuzu while proclaiming he’s the King of Scotland, can’t you?
Of course, that’s nowhere near the truth. Apparently, Nazarbayev was publicly praised at a national assembly meeting – he is immensely popular in the country, and the culture is one of respect for authority, without it tipping into subservience – and he jokingly suggested the scientists find an elixir that would allow him to rule forever.
This is no senile madman, no power-crazed despot. Kazakhstan is by no means a fully fledged democracy, but neither is it a dictatorship. Elections which return the president to power with almost unanimous support have been given as clean a bill of health by observers as the US and UK elections. Nazarbayev is a consummate politician who managed the Soviet state, managed the transition to independence, managed a period of hyper inflation when the country had literally no administrative infrastructure, managed unilateral nuclear disarmanent and managed the development of a powerhouse economy that is growing a hundred times faster than the UK – all in 20 years. Whatever you think of his politics, he deserves respect for ensuring that Kazakhstan has not turned into a carbon copy of those other dysfunctional Stans in the area.
They interviewed a Kazakh and a UK scientist, both of whom said the Kazakhs were on to something, since the management of a human’s microbial balance in the digestive tract is crucial to health and well-being. But no: “The Kazakhs are on to something?” Webb repeated incredulously, with James Naughtie joining him in a gusty sarcastic guffaw.
I’m going to be very sensitive to this kind of thing from now on: I’ve made a commitment to Kazakhstan on the basis of what I’ve read about the place, and there are are a lot of things to admire about it, not least its 99% literacy rate. Stupidity is not a national characteristic, and the “Today” programme has no right to treat it like the country yokel.
Besides, I wonder how many people in the Webb and Naughtie households had a very fashionable Yakult yoghurt drink this morning?
Absolutely fantastic film by Joe Berlinger about the making of Paul Simon’s “Graceland”, a record I think is perhaps the greatest ever made. It is a sublime paean to the African rhythms that underpin all of Western popular music, and yet it was hugely controversial because of Simon’s apparent disregard for the UN and ANC cultural boycott of the time. It is truly a landmark album, an unprecedented musical, cultural, social and political phenomenon, and I can’t think of any other artistic creation that has had such a monumental effect on the world.
The film doesn’t shirk the issues; time and space is given to those, like Dali Tambo of Artists Against Apartheid, who acknowledges the creativity but says, at the time, it was not “helpful”. Simon visits Tambo and takes it on the chin: it’s been on his mind all this time, he says. As they spar on Tambo’s couch, there are uncomfortable moments of honesty that, beautifully, end with Simon apologising if his lack of awareness at any time caused Tambo to feel he disrespected the cause, and Tambo calling Simon brother and embracing him.
However, it’s a tale of the agendas of politicians clashing with the artistic aesthetic. Ray Phiri, the elegant, handsome guitarist who made sounds we’d really never heard before, speaks of music being the closest thing to a religion, and that it has transformative powers that, when it’s done right, can bring people together and solve their problems. “Graceland did that,” he says, simply. He tells of a meeting with ANC activists in London who instructed him to go home and refuse to work with Simon because he broke the cultural boycott, and that South Africans should not be performing anywhere in the world. “Tell me like I’m a seven year old what I have done wrong,’ he replies. “I am the victim here. How can you victimise the victim?”
The discussion of “Gumboots” is revealing. Obsessed with a cassette of Accordion Jive Hits by the Boyoyo Boys, he had written lyrics to be recorded over the top of their music, a pattern repeated on several tracks. His producer told him that he could easily cut the track in the US with session musicians, but that was unthinkable to him; he wanted the original artists involved. So conforming to the cultural boycott would have seen the music of the South African blacks appropriated, stolen, and their work would never have been acknowledged.
What is obvious is that Graceland informed. I have the impression that it was the biggest step that had been taken so far in bringing world music to a general audience, and African music which had been bubbling under the surface of the music industry’s consciousness took off worldwide thereafter. But not only that, it brought music from the US to Africa; musician after musician has the same story of arriving at the studio not having a clue who Paul Simon was, a fact that surely indicated better than any other the hermetically sealed prison of ignorance white South Africa found it convenient to keep them locked up in. Simon, in a sense, kicked open the prison door, even in a simple act of inviting them to New York and reassuring them that they didn’t need a permit to visit Central Park.
There is, undoubtedly, a naivety and an arrogance in Simon. He refused Harry Belafonte’s offer of assistance in smoothing the way with the ANC because art, as he saw it, wasn’t going to beg permission from any one political group. His honesty about almost buying into the patriarchal racism of the white South Africans is uncomfortable to hear, and there are moments where you think, “Oh come on,” when, for example, he justifies himself to Tambo by saying that all the musicians treated each other as equals; you can almost hear Tambo thinking, “Yes, Paul, but you weren’t all equal, were you?”. However, the news announcer from 1985 gets it right when he calls the album a celebration of black South Africa, because that’s what it was.
Of course his actions were dubious, but I think, in his stubbornness, he was ahead of us all in that the album was so successful in bringing neglected musicians to the world’s attention and in raising awareness of the horrors of apartheid that, I believe, hastened its downfall. He showed the world that while young musicians here formed bands as a right of passage, there they had to go through he same process of growth under the shadow of the sjambok. When Oprah Winfrey, one of the richest and, all carping aside, one of the most philanthropic women on the planet, says it stirred her to take an interest and act in South Africa, you know something important is happening; on the other hand, his world tour was attacked, on one occasion by a hand grenade. I believe “Graceland” hastened the release of Nelson Mandela and the fall of apartheid; would Mandela have embraced Simon in front of the world’s media in 1992 if he hadn’t thought the same?
But if I give him a free pass just because I admire the man’s music so much and because, in this instance, it all worked out fine, am I also saying that I’d be happy for the same thing to happen in, for example, Israel? Well, I’m not sure. Simon wasn’t a cricketer or rugby player competing against white teams that excluded blacks, nor was he a businessman working with whites who exploited cheap and repressed black labour; he was working with blacks, empowering them, giving them a voice to say whatever they wanted, a lot of which had nothing to do with politics. How would I feel about a British film maker going to Gaza and enabling and empowering young dispossessed Palestinians tell their stories? Would that be such a bad thing? And yet…
However, it’s all about the music those musicians make – that’s what they want to be remembered, and it’s just perfect music at that. I have favourites on the album, and it’s great to see how they were made. The irresistible accordion groove of “Boy in the Bubble” is the brainchild of Forere Motloheloa, and hearing Simon in rehearsals today singing the lyrics counterpointed against Forere’s Lesotho traditional song is fantastic. And the transcendence of music as an empowering force is absolutely clear in the section on Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s recording of the angelic “Homeless”, one of the most beautiful songs ever recorded, I think. “I call Paul Simon ‘brother’ every day, because of the music” says Joseph Shabalala; the love is obvious, especially when he recounts Simon greeting him, the first time Shabalala had ever been hugged by a white man.
The film is available on iPlayer or in the shops; it’s a must watch, a must buy. And if you don’t have the album – well, that’s a gaping hole in your life that I suggest you remedy as soon as possible. I’ve got it on my turntable right now, and am grinning from ear to ear at the gloriousness of “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes”.
The great Funny or Die website did a piece on celebrities that look like figures from history: I mentioned the resemblance I’d noticed between Robert de Niro and a portrait I discovered in the National Gallery in Wroclaw of Johan van Vogt. I know some people have been looking for it, so, to ease your way, here’s the evidence that Robert de Niro is a time-travelling celebrity:
Jings, I’ve just noticed that both picture have a logo to the right of the subject’s head! Spooky or what?
I’ve just watched a lovely BBC4 documentary on Allegri’s “Miserere”, that most mysterious piece of devotional music that was held like a state secret by the Vatican for so long. Simon Russell Beale tells its story, and then The Sixteen, a cool choir led by Harry Christophers I’ve never come across before, deliver a spellbinding performance.
Like magnificent cathedrals and devotional masterpieces on the walls of luxurious religious palaces, I baulk at the idea of such beauty being owned by the corrupt bureaucrats of organised, brutalised religions: I can’t think of anyone who deserves access to this wonder less than a privileged, self-serving clergy who fatten themselves on the patronage of the rich while failing to give a shit about the poor; to claim this genius as your own is as perverse as the notion of land ownership or the disappearance of masterpieces of art into the private collections of billionaire criminal oligarchs or the corporate patenting of DNA. And let’s not forget that they were happy to castrate boys to sing this, and that if it hadn’t been for the sneakiness of Mozart and Mendelssohn, this would still be locked in the Sistine Chapel.
But that is what the world is, damn it. Plebeians like me can only drop our jaws in wonder at what the rich take for granted as their entitlement. And this is jaw dropping, and those four bars containing the high C – so wondrously sung by Elin Manhan Thomas – are the most jaw dropping of all. I don’t believe in God – cannot believe in God – but I envy the music and art and architecture men have created and have had created in His praise.
I wonder how beautiful the world would be if all that ingenuity had been devoted to man instead of myth.
It is, of course, trash TV. “Make Bradford British” is a crude amalgam of various reality shows, cheap and not so cheerful fare like “Big Brother”, “Wife Swap” and “Come Dine With Me.” The premise is simple: various cultural, ethnic and religious stereotypes from Bradford – “Britain’s most divided city”, is the fatuous claim – volunteer to spend time living with each other in some sort of half-baked and nasty social experiment.
It is an execrable, faux documentary. The “diversity and community experts” are little more than commentators, adding the occasional sound bite to tell viewers what they should be feeling (“These people have to live together” we are told, just in case we hadn’t got the drift) and pronouncing the annual Scottish New Year celebration as “Hoggamunny” (“I don’t understand the question,” says a white girl, “what’s a Mahoggamunny?”). Meanwhile, the production values clutch at the sensational like the drowning man clutches at the proverbial: cue Rasheed, the jolly Muslim fundamentalist, giving up mosque to spend a day in some stately home with the group, praying in the car park, his nose almost pressed against the side of the minibus (couldn’t they find somewhere with a little more dignity?) while elderly liberal Maura weeps her new found understanding.
And yet… and yet…
I have a complicated relationship with the concept of “Britishness”, and not because, like many Scots, I see my identity as lying solely north of the border. No, it is more to do with my genealogy. My father, born in Lipine, near Katowice, in 1913, was Silesian Deutsch Volk; his status as a Pole was merely an accident of politics. So, after 1939, he joined the Wermacht, fought on the Eastern Front where he got frostbite and was wounded and was then transferred to the Western Front, where he was captured by the Americans to begin a whole new time line in the UK.
That, as a boy brought up in the jingoistic days of 1960s Saturday afternoon cinema (“The Battle of the Bulge”; “The Great Escape”), was difficult to accept for a while. How could I be British when my father fought for the ultimate bogey man, Adolf Hitler? How could I be British when the British would quite happily have killed my father on the battlefield?
Let there be no doubt: I’m glad my father was on the losing side. I think World War II and the overthrow of Hitler was one of the few righteous wars in history I would have volunteered to fight in, like the Spanish Civil War or The Opium Wars (on the side of the Chinese, of course). Certainly, there was a moral dimension to it that has been lost in the corporate imperialism of most conflicts since, such as Haliburton’s invasion of Iraq.
But it does rather complicate things. In the TV programme, mixed-race bar owner Audrey talks of the “scales falling from her eyes” when she realises the impact her own racist language has on others: something similar happened the morning my father took the twelve year old me aside and showed me his Iron Cross and explained how he got it. I realised that, in the great game of international politics, a whole nation of people could one day be our allies supplying our Kings and Queens, the next day be our deadliest enemy, and the day after that become our family.
One character in the programme, a black man of West Indian descent called Desmond (yes, that’s right) is interviewed before he meets his house mates: he beats his chest and says that being British is “in me heart”. Later, after hearing an uncomfortable discussion about language with a harmless but insensitive old buffer called Jens who claims that he was only joking when he used to talk to his former police colleagues about going out “Paki bashing” and referring to blacks as “black bastards”, Desmond finds a hole in that huge heart of his. For decades, he had, in his own words, pushed the casual, unthinking racism “under the carpet” in order to just get on with it; obviously distressed, he finds that there is no longer any space under that carpet.
I have no wish to suggest my experience as a white kid was directly comparable to Desmond’s, but I grew up with similar casual references to my difference. I was regularly called a “Polack” by schoolmates and even by colleagues up until the 1990s; teachers referred to me as “Banacek”, a nominally Polish detective on TV played by George Peppard. I have become somewhat sensitive when, on introducing myself, I am asked, “What kind of name is that?” “It’s a surname,” I replied once to a parent who asked me that question in the middle of a busy corridor at a parents’ evening. “Yes, but where does it come from?” was the retort, my irritation failing to make an impression. “My father,” I said, and I was looked at as if I was an uppity moron.
Britain is, for me, simply an organisational entity, and I “owe” it nothing more than that I pay my taxes and obey the law; in that sense, I am a much better Briton than many of the beknighted movers and shakers held up as examples of “Great” Britain, the Sir Richards and the Sir Alans who tax avoid like crazy or the chief police officers and civil servants and MPs mired in corruption. I believe I am a good citizen – I regularly give to charity and am as kind as I can be to others – not because I am part of a Great British Big Society, but because it is the decent thing for an individual human being to do.
A later show, “Prejudiced and Proud”, continues the theme, looking into the lives of Tommy Robinson, founder of the English Defence League, and Sayful Islam, of whatever banned group he leads this week. Neither man has little substance outside his ego: both are filmed smiling with smug satisfaction in the midst of the anger and chaos and violence they preside over; both claim moral authority, yet a moderate imam points out Sayful’s total lack of intellectual credibility for the position he has set himself up in, while Robinson wanders the streets, drunk, baiting people with references to Anders Breivik who, of course, declared war not on Muslims but on the children of white liberals. The leads are merely self serving opportunists, but it is the wider cast of characters I find most confusing – the Muslim boys who look lost and terrified at the venomous reaction they generate, the tattooed skinheads who, like Hitler’s bierkeller shock squads, inextricably link bullying drunkenness with political agitation. The notion of finding common ground with such people based solely on a shared skin colour or language or religion or place of birth seems utterly strange to me; I see nothing that I would identify as my “culture” in any of them.
But I am undoubtedly Scottish. I cheer on the Scottish football team (and anyone who is playing against England) and, in certain situations such as English pubs, vamp up my Scottishness. I am as prone, I suppose, to tribalism as the next man or woman. However, I am also aware that I have no Scottish “blood” in me, whatever that means, and have therefore made a choice. Perhaps that is why we seem to have even more difficulty defining what is “Scottish”, why we feel Scotland as a place that includes all, why we find it impossible to define a Scottish writer any more clearly than as someone who was born in Scotland or who lives in Scotland or who writes about Scotland or who…
But would I die for Scotland? Never. I may fight for a moral or political cause I think is right, or to protect the weak, or to stand up for liberties I valued. But I cannot see myself ever putting my life on the line for some indefinable, amorphous collection of human beings whose only common bond is that they find themselves bounded by the same arbitrary geopolitical borders on a map. Neither can I imagine ever asking young people – who, it has to be said, are rarely the sons and daughters of the rich who start wars in the first place – to go off and put their lives on the line in my place
Britain, England, Scotland – whatever the country, that indefinable notion on its own just doesn’t seem to be worth it.
Christmas TV schedules always include a few retrospectives from the TV archives, and I’ve just watched two that were sublime. First was “Victoria Wood: Seen on TV”, an absolute delight showcasing the career of possibly the most intelligent comedy writer in Britain today. Easily the best thing ever to come out of “New Faces” (well, Lenny Henry wasn’t bad) she is the unlikeliest comedy hero you could imagine: dressed like a wee suburban wifey, she has a face that she herself acknowledges you would pass by in the street. Not me. I’d rush up and get her to sign anything I had available: if Fate was good to me, I’d have a copy of the Woman’s Weekly in my pocket.
The programme is full of excellent analysis of just why she is so good: her ability to create a whole range of totally believable characters, a skill perhaps enhanced by her largely anonymous look working as a blank slate; her observation of the nuances of how people interact with each other blown apart by grotesquery (“Have you seen it on the trolley?”); her difference in coming from a background so unlike the Oxbridge or alternative scenes that held sway at the time of her rise and from the North (“We’d like to apologise to viewers in the North. It must be awful for them”); and most of all her fabulous writing (who on earth could write a line like “There’s hens in the skirting board”?). So many gems, like Acorn Antiques and, of course, “The Ballad of Barry and Frida”, possibly the greatest comic song ever written. And I looked up the “Two Soups” sketch on You Tube and fell off my chair laughing. Three times. A brilliant woman.
And then wee Ronnie Corbett got his own wee show. “The Two Ronnies” was comedy staple for kids of my generation, along with Python, Morecambe and Wise and Marty Feldman. A few years ago, I think he was seen as twee and old-fashioned, but his status as a top class comic has been reinvigorated by the number of projects new comics seem to want him to be part of. Stephen Merchant, David Walliams, Matt Lucas and Catherine Tate all sang his praises, and a host of new talent took part in his recent “The One Ronnie” show which reprised some of the best ideas of The Two Ronnies, including that wonderful word play that characterised their work (“I caught a child playing football on the pitch the other day. I had to order him off it.” / “Audrey Moffat! Now there’s a name! Considering all the friends we have in common, we should get together some time.”) and a drag “Songs of Praise” that is inspired. Every one of them spoke about Corbett’s generosity and willingness to do anything subversive to support fellow comics, including risking his reputation with the blue rinse brigade by snorting coke in a toilet cubicle at the BAFTAs in “Extras” and snuggling Bubbles’ bosoms in “Little Britain”. Eighty-two years old and the most be-jumpered and twinkly of anarchists. Super stuff.
Ahh, diddums… Manchester, red and blue, is out of the Champion’s League.
Okay, I apologise, but I’m going to rant. I’m sort of sorry to see United go because I like their football and they have lots of Scottish connections. But, then again, we Scottish love underdogs because we identify so well with them, so I couldn’t help roaring my approval at Basel’s second goal. City: I used to like them when I was a wee boy and Frannie Lee played for them, but nobody likes a team that buys its way to success, especially if you’re a St Mirren supporter. It’s why I dislike Chelsea too, but adore the Arsenal philosophy.
I’ve no problem with English clubs being successful in Europe, except… jings, those commentators just drive you into the arms of the opposition. In the closing stages of the match, as United huffed and puffed at two goals down, the commentator made an outrageous claim. Well, he said, Arsenal and Chelsea have absolutely nothing to fear from Basel.
Really? Let’s see. United drew with Basel at home thanks to a 90th minute equaliser, and they lost to them tonight. So the tiny Swiss minnows remain undefeated by the Premier League champions, taking 4 points out of a possible 6, and were seconds away from taking a maximum haul.
What about Chelsea’s record against the Red Devils this season? One game. Lost by three goals to one. And Arsenal? Well, United spanked them for eight goals. Eight.
But, simply by virtue of the fact that Arsenal and Chelsea are English sides, they of course have nothing to fear, have they?
It reminded me – as most English commentaries do – of the 1997 Juventus – Borussia Dortmund Champions League Final, dear to the heart because local legend Paul Lambert won his winner’s medal. Lambert was a true Scottish hero: like Dennis Law, he achieved success at the very top of the sophisticated European elite rather than the goldfish pond of the Old Firm. In addition, he came from Linwood, where I taught at the time, and was a former St Mirren player. So I was cheering for him and his German team mates.
In the middle of the match, during an understandably nervous spell when passes were going astray, the commentator said something along the lines of – well, you’d have to think that Manchester United would do a lot better against these teams if they were here.
Well, actually, they wouldn’t have done that well. In the groups stages, Juventus beat United at home and away 1-0. Nul points, United, two defeats.
But what if they’d come up against Dortmund? Surely they’d trounce the dastardly Germans?
Nope. In the semi-finals, Dortmund beat United 1-0 in Germany. And then came to England, and beat them 1-0 again. Nul points once more.
So, basically, United would have done absolutely shite against the two finalists: but no patriotic commentator was going to let logic get in the way of a good dig at Johnny Foreigner.
Look, I know Brazilian and Spanish and Italian commentators are just the same: but I don’t have to listen to them and don’t understand them. And Scottish commentators stopped that rubbish years ago with the end of the careers of Arthur Montford and Archie Macpherson; nowadays, a Scottish win is greeted by sighs of relief or, if it’s against somebody who should have trounced us (remember France!), perplexed delight at the sheer bloody luck of it all.
So – English commentators: please, stop the arrogant assumption that the world cowers in fear whenever you say “Premier League”: it doesn’t. Then, you might actually enjoy it when your teams win.
And don’t get me started on the national team. Wayne Rooney? World class? How I enjoyed the way in which the wonderful, sublime Diego Forlan showed him how the game should be played in South Africa…
Oooh, thank you BBC for a second brilliant documentary in a week. The making of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” album from Alan Yentob’s “Imagine” series was an absolute treat. Of course, I’m a fan: despite being too young to have fully embraced the Sixties, my eldest brother was into Simon and Garfunkel, and I caught on to them through him. Paul Simon is, surely, the greatest songwriter of the modern era, reinventing himself over and over again, and, unlike Madonna, in a good way. Not only that, he has embraced politics in the most subtle of manners: never bombastic, never sensational, he has also never sold out, never become the corporate tax dodging entrepreneur so many of the more strident names of that decade have become. And yet, with one album called “Graceland”, he can quite legitimately be counted as one of the architects of the downfall of apartheid – not that he would ever, ever make such a claim on his own behalf.
“Bridge Over Troubled Water” must be one of the greatest ever “last albums”: can you think of a better? And what this documentary does is to trace some of the reasons why it had to be the last album: the way in which Paul and Artie were growing apart in their interests, their influences, was reflected in the simple act of finally separating their voices, taking “turns” at the songs, which was unthinkable on previous albums on which their genius producer, Roy Halee, insisted on miking their voices through a single source.
The technical details are fascinating: how the closeness of their harmony was augmented with synchronous overdubbing of their voices; the use of echo, and of corridors in the Columbia building to find just the right spot for that thumping drum on “The Boxer”; moving recording studios to cathedrals for the right sound; the laying down of the backing track of “Cecilia” at a presumably rather boozy boys’ night in; the development of the defining piano score on “Bridge…” by the wonderful Larry Knechtel, and the now famous story of that almost missed last verse, with Garfunkel and Halee insisting Simon write it because they knew, just knew, it was meant to be. Most of all, though, there’s a sense of two young men inspiring other young men around them to the very top of their game to produce… perfection.
It’s a long time since I’ve listened to “Bridge Over Troubled Water”. I remember it so fondly. “Baby Driver” seemed to an 11-year old me to be the horniest song I’d ever heard, partly because of the lyrics (the glee expressed in “There’s no-one home, we’re all alone, aw come into my room and play, yes we can play” and the lasciviousness of “I wonder how your engine feels”) but mainly because of that horny horn section blasting out one of the most riotous sax solos ever. I remember I played it on a wee GEC cassette tape. At first, out wailed the alto sax: then as the tape head deteriorated, what I presume was the tenor part came to the fore, and all of a sudden I was listening to a brand new song.
I always loved “Only Living Boy in New York” – explained in the programme as Paul’s goodbye to Artie (“Tom”) as he flew to Mexico to film “Catch-22”, which was the beginning of the end of their collaboration. Like Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours”, it tells the story of musicians whose personal relationship is going pear-shaped. That transcendent choral refrain at the end of the track, washing away to a single plaintive guitar, gives me goosebumps every time. And “Song for the Asking” is the most gentle, poignant coda to a record you could ever imagine. And then there’s “Bridge…” itself, one of the most exceptional – and daringly different – songs ever written.
Looking at them now – two 70-year olds, one of them still remarkably inventive musically – there is a temptation to think about what might have been. I suspect the time was just right, and whatever might have been, it was never going to match that glorious achievement.
I’ve looked out “Bridge…” to listen in the car over the next few days: it’ll be up loud. However, I’ve also set aside Garfunkel’s first album, “Angel Clare” (produced by Halee, I think it’s absolutely beautiful) and Simon’s second (“There Goes Rhymin’ Simon”, with the stupendous, bitter anthem “American Tune”) just to hear again the very different paths they took so soon after that one last hurrah. Wonderful stuff.
Footnote: it tells you something about the cultural impact the duo had when “Garfunkel” is in the spellchecker dictionary…
What a fantastic programme on BBC1 tonight, and it had nothing to do with watching the quite wonderful Fiona Bruce in a yellow summer dress drinking white wine in Florence. It was more to do with an even more beautiful woman, da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine” Cecilia Gallerani, who is starring in an exhibition at the National Gallery from November.
I remember seeing the “Lady” in Krakow in 2004. The fact that I didn’t know the city was home to the most stunning da Vinci of them all shows just how little I knew at the time of the history of what I thought was a provincial capital. It was my first visit to Poland, and had a profound effect on me because I realised that my father’s homeland wasn’t some far off, uncultured backwater that was only worth fighting over for coal and farmland, as school history books had always led me to believe: it was the very Heart of Europe.
The Lady was housed in the The Czartoryskis Museum, a tiny place compared to the great museums of Paris or London or Rome. And, as it was November, the museum was pretty much deserted. So my time with her was relatively intimate, and she utterly dazzled me. It’s one of only two paintings that have made me breathlessly weak at the knees and given me heart palpitations: the other, Caravaggio’s “The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist” in St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, is the type of painting that bludgeons you with its audacious use of empty space, its utter inhumanity and its sheer bloody size. The “Lady” is different: tiny, elegant, seductive. I love her. I can’t wait to see her again. I’ve booked my ticket.
There will be other da Vinci delights, including the newly rediscovered “Salvator Mundi” featured in the programme. It looks ethereal, odd, wonderful. I’d like to see the Oxford copy of the Last Supper too. It’s going to be a ground breaking event because never before have so many da Vincis been under one roof together. And I’m going to be there and, despite the crowds, I’m going to say a little private hello to Cecilia and hope she remembers me. I’m odd that way…
Dearie me. Radio 4’s flagship morning news programme just can’t help baring it’s confrontational teeth these days.
Rob Bonnet interviewed Oscar Pistorius, double amputee and world class sprinter. Right from the start, Bonnet, a mild-mannered presenter who warned the audience that the interview didn’t end well, went for the jugular in the most winsome of ways.
“What about the debate about whether your carbon fibre blades give you an edge?” he was asked. “I don’t think about it,” he said. “Is the debate distracting?” Of course, if he’s just said he doesn’t think about it, it can’t be distracting, can it? But Bonnet had an agenda to get through. “No,” he replied, “because I know the facts about the science of my blades.” “What are the facts?” Bonnet asked, not having done his homework. “The blades don’t enhance performance,” was the short and justifiably sharp reply.
“You’ve always been controversial,” says Bonnet, obviously going for the charm offensive with the South African. “Do you think the IAAF will allow (“allow” stressed rather too forcefully) you to compete in both?” Pistorius, in a graceful and diplomatic answer, gave clear details of his talks with IAAF officials and his constructive relationship with them. “So you think you will be allowed to compete in both?” Bonnet asked, displaying a complete inability to actually listen to what his interviewee was saying. “I’m confident I can get the qualification times,” Pistorius answered.
Bonnet then raised Dame Tanni Grey-Thomson, the wheelchair-bound athlete, who had expressed the opinion that Pistorius shouldn’t compete in both because it would devalue the Paralympics. “What do you think of that?” he asked. What was Pistorius expected to say? Was he supposed to start a slanging match with a revered Paralympian on air just to satisfy Today’s need for a barney? “She’s a friend,” he said. “I think she’s been misquoted.”
“But can’t you see that point of view?” Bonnet asked. “Absolutely not,” said Pistorius. “You can’t see it?” said Bonnet.
“Have the other 400 metre Paralympic runners welcomed you?” came next. “It’s not been said, it’s like asking me if I welcome them. You can’t run a race with one person. I have had a lot of support from them,” said Pistorius.
Then came the clincher. You would have thought that Bonnet would have felt the vibe going wrong, realised that he was alienating this magnificent and courageous athlete. But no – he bashed on to a stunning conclusion.
“No question you are an inspiration to some,” he said, “but to South African athletics you might be seen as an inconvenient embarrassment because you’re taking them into uncharted ethical waters.”
What? Because you are an athlete with no legs, you are an embarrassment? Why not ask a black athlete of the 1930s if he felt he was an embarrassment because he was upsetting the status quo by having to share a shower room with whites?
Quite rightly, that was enough for Pistorius. “I think that’s an insult to me and this interview’s over,” he replied. Bonnet blustered and pleaded. “No, no, it’s not expressed as an insult,” he said. Oh yes it was, Rob. Most definitely. And Pistorius pissed off very pissed off. Good for him.
“Today” is a great programme. I love it. But come on, for goodness’ sake take stock of this need to rile and rankle and recriminate. There was no call for an adversarial tone with Pistorius, just as there was no need for an adversarial tone with Graham Linehan in June. There wasn’t a single positive question to Pistorius that celebrated his achievements; sometimes, heroes should be treated as heroes, and not be set up like Aunt Sallies just to be torn down. Do that, and you lose the sympathy of your listeners: “Today” certainly lost mine today.