The Obscurer

TV Dinner

You’ve got to feel sorry for the BBC. Only a few weeks ago they were being criticised for providing TV programmes which mimicked the commercial sector, even though much of the make-over programmes which came in for criticism actually originated on the BBC and were then copied by ITV or are repeated on the UKTV channels. They even became front page news in the Daily Express when they provided 19 hours of repeats one Bank Holiday Monday; this despite the fact that for as long as I can remember the Bank Holiday schedule has been full of repeats, and there was no criticism or comparison with what other channels were doing on the same day.

Now they are being criticised for being different from the other channels. It seems they just can’t win. The Barwise report into Digital programming complains that BBC Three and Four are poor value for money. Fair enough, but perhaps that is the price you have to pay for being different; almost by definition, if you are providing something different to the commercial sector then you are providing something that the market does not feel it can make a profit on. I don’t watch much of BBC Four, but I am glad it is there. There is the occasional programme that crops up that is like gold dust, and which I think would be unlikely to be shown elsewhere – “The Divine Comedy” at the Cambridge Folk Festival for example. When there is Opera on which I don’t want to watch, I personally am happy that my license fee is helping to provide that service to those who love opera.

BBC Three is a bit of a mish-mash, and I am not sure of the worth of “Eastenders Revealed” for example. Funnily enough the News programme on BBC Three came in for particular criticism, yet it was included at the behest of Tessa Jowell and was not part of the BBC’s original plans.
But there are still some good programmes like “Little Britain” ,“Bodies” and “Spy” which I have watched and enjoyed, and which have provided an outlet for writers and programme makers which otherwise may not have been there.

Perhaps I am the wrong person to make a judgment on all this, however. Coming in for particular praise by the report is “CBeebies”, the BBC channel for toddlers. Now, I know more than I should about CBeebies and I think it is just fine, but it is essentially just a four hour loop of repeats of “Teletubbies”, “Tweenies” and “Fimbles”, with the occasional lamentable new programme like “Bobinogs”, “Boogie Beebies” and “Big Cook, Little Cook”. If that now constitutes a “triumph” then I clearly have no future in TV scheduling or criticism.

Orwell And Good

George Orwell gets quoted so much nowadays that I wouldn’t be surprised if something from “Homage to Catalonia” has been used as a reading at a wedding. And why not? He is, in my opinion, one of the finest English writers and thinkers of all time. This is one Blair whom everyone loves. One of the things I like about him is the way he publicly changed his mind on matters, and his writings could sometimes be contradictory; in other words he was a very human writer.

What everyone seems to agree on is that he was a great visionary. His works, in particularly “1984“, describe a future world which daily seems to be unfolding in front of us. But I am not sure how accurate this is. Orwell did show a nightmarish vision of a totalitarian society in “1984”, but I feel this should be seen in context. Orwell was born in 1903, still twenty-five years before full and equal universal suffrage for men and women was realised. He was educated first at St. Cyprians, a brutal regime he described in “Such, such were the joys”.

He grew up in a world where the British Empire was at its height, and he played his part in administering justice in the colonies as a police officer in Burma from 1922 until 1927. When he returned to England he saw National Socialism, Fascism and Communism rise to power across Europe, then witnessed the Second World War and a National government in the UK.

This was the background to Orwell’s life, when he wrote “1984”, after Kafka’s “The Trial”, Huxley’s “Brave New World” and Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon”. Totalitarianism was not a terrifying fiction but was very much a part of his world, and “1984” was to some extent not so much a prophesy as just 1948 given a tweak.

What would Orwell think if he were able to see the world in 2004? Would he be shocked, and agree with everyone who invokes his name on such matters as CCTV cameras and Political Correctness, and rail that his predictions of Big Brother and the Thought Police were coming true? Or would he not instead marvel at just how much the world has changed since 1950; at the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the huge increase in democracy across Eastern Europe and South America? Of course the world is not perfect; there are still far too many despotic regimes, and a few unconvincing democracies, and there is of course still the small matter of terrorism – there is still much to do (oh no, now I am sounding like the other Blair!) – but would Orwell not be interested in the important issues like the human right to freedom of expression across the world, rather than the human right to go 40 mph in a built up area without a GATSO catching you.

Of course, I don’t know what Orwell would think, but that doesn’t stop everyone else from having a go. Another great English writer, William Shakepeare, wrote in “The Merchant of Venice” that “the Devil can cite scriptures for his purpose”, and I cannot help thinking that, should he not find what he was looking for in the Bible, old Satan would use something Orwell has written to suit his needs.

For Orwell is quoted by such diverse writers as George Monbiot when talking about globalisation, and referred to by Melanie Phillips to attack the bill on inciting racial hatred. Peter Hitchens uses him in his lament to a lost Britain, while Christopher Hitchens sometimes appears to think that he is George Orwell, or at least his heir. Michael Moore in his film Fahrenheit 9/11 compares Bush’s War on terror to Orwell’s theory of a perpetual war, while the website Moorewatch quotes Orwell to attack Moore’s film “Bowling for Columbine“. Perhaps they are all right.

Quoting Orwell has become a way to give instant kudos to your argument. Anyone can do it, and it doesn’t really matter if it is an appropriate quote or not. It says I am on the side of Orwell, light and freedom; those who disagree with you, and who you criticise, be it George Bush, Michael Moore, the Government, the EU, or whatever, are therefore on the side of darkness and totalitarianism. Ironically, his words on freedom are often used to try and gain the moral high ground and can be used to silence debate.

This is not meant as an attack on Orwell, rather to express concern at the way his name is bandied about. If he is used to defend everything, then eventually his writings will mean nothing. “1984” is a fine novel, and Orwell’s warnings about totalitarian rule should of course be taken seriously; alongside the writing of others and the teaching from history they are a constant reminder of where society can go, and where it should not go. We should never be complacent about sleepwalking into totalitarianism and there is still much to learn from Orwell’s writings; but not necessarily from those who quote him.

The Road To…

I don’t normally buy a newspaper, but yesterday, while waiting in a cafe for the latest repair on my car, I bought a copy of the Guardian. I am glad I did, as otherwise I doubt I would have heard of the the death from cancer at 52 of Pete McCarthy.

Pete McCarthy I think used to present reports on local news in North-West England, but this is a faint memory I am not happy to rely on. He certainly presented the excellent Channel 4 show “Travelog”, and was brilliant in “As It Happens”, the live, er, as-it-happens show he presented with Andy Kershaw where they spent 2 hours at any old spot in the world and chatted to the locals, and occasionally the the odd ex-pat Brit. I particularly remember the show they did from America when Clinton won his first victory in the 1992 Presidential Elections.

In more recent years he has probably found his greatest fame with his travel books about Ireland in McCarthy’s Bar and The Road to McCarthy. I have read neither, but millions of people have, and I always thought he was a top notch journalist.

His death became all the more poignant for me as it came on the same day as the Government’s report on Pensions, and the juxtaposition of the two events illustrates some of my feelings on its news reporting. The main point that was made, apart from the fact that pension schemes are not accruing enough income at the moment, is that as people are living longer, we need to plan accordingly. We have to get used to people having to work for 50 years and then drawing pensions for 20 years, and this change has to be financed.

Fine, but not great for the family of Pete McCarthy to hear; or for me. I have attended 3 funerals in the past 6 months; for one person in their 50’s, one in their 40’s and one in their 30’s. I suppose I have as much reason as anyone to take the “you never know what will happen to you, you may be hit by a bus tomorrow” attitude.

The pension situation has changed so much from around 8 years ago; then, my father was persuaded and cajoled into taking early retirement, taking a healthy redundancy package as an inducement, and then, 6 months later he was re-employed by the same firm on an increased salary as a private consultant. He was not the only one. Now, just a few short years later, we are being told we will have to work until we are Seventy; and that is just what they are saying now. Lord knows what they will say when I actually near retirement.

Well they can forget it. I am not going to be daft; I am following the pension advisers advice and I am confident my retirement plans are sufficient; at least until my pension fund starts to move the goalposts as they are threatening. But working until I am Seventy? No way. As soon as my pension reaches subsistence level then that is it, I’m off. As long as I have my family and my house I can happily survive on beans on toast and tap water. The sun will still shine in summer, and with my eyes closed, sat in my back garden, I could just as easily be in St. Tropez.