Monday, January 14, 2008

The ten commandments of New Labour

And the Lord spake unto the children of Britain and said:

  1. We are the God that is New Labour, which brought you out of the house of the Tories, out of the land of sleaze. You shall have no other God before New Labour.
  2. You shall have no idols but the National Health Service and shall not worship at the altars of any other form of healing, for New Labour is a jealous God and will visit the sins of the unfaithful onto their children even unto the third and fourth generation of those who express self reliance, independence or initiative.
  3. You shall not take the names of New Labour nor the National Health Service in vain, nor mock them nor criticise them nor hold them to be in any way less than perfect, for New Labour will not hold them guiltless that take the name of New Labour and its munificence in vain.
  4. You shall keep holy the appointed day of May in honour and celebration of the heroes of the class struggle and comprehensive mixed ability education. You shall not propose nor observe any other festive days unless in like manner of honour and celebration and shall be damned with cardinal sin if you espouse any holiday or celebration that is or might be construed to be a triumphalist anniversary of any military excess such as the battles of Agincourt or Trafalgar or the commanders of the imperialist forces involved.
  5. You shall honour the father and mother of New Labour, the blessed Tony and Gordon of sacred memory, that your days may long continue in receipt of the blessings of the National Health Service and the ten pound winter festive season bonus.
  6. You shall not kill any fox nor other mammal unless by humane methods and without pursuit by dogs.
  7. You shall not adulterate New Labour beliefs with visions of individual choice or liberty or freedom to mock or criticise those of unusual habits or behaviour. You must nevertheless accept with a pure heart and closed mind whatever indignities or injustice might be wrought against you by such bodies and tribes as have been given licence by equality, human rights or health and safety legislation.
  8. You shall where beneficial to New Labour steal from dissenting parties such policies and initiatives as may be likely to win votes. You shall not take political donations from the faithful but shall disguise them as a loan.
  9. You shall not bear witness against New Labour nor succour nor encourage those who seek to expose or criticise New Labour, lest you find yourself banished to the regions of outer darkness and the damnation of your employment prospects.
  10. You shall not covet your neighbour’s disability allowance, nor his place in the queue for a hip replacement, nor his public service pension, nor his carbon footprint, nor his seat on the board of a quango, nor his grace and favour residence, nor his free holidays, nor his lecture tours, nor his second Jaguar nor anything that is his.

These are the commandments of New Labour said the Lord: observe ye them and avoid the sins of the Devil, being smoking, drinking, eating and the burning of fossil fuels, and New Labour will provide all your third-worldly needs through the miracles of wind power and colour coded food labelling.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

It may be art but . . .

I am not a great reader. It stems from a very low boredom threshold. If my attention is not captured after a few pages, a chapter at most, the book is unlikely to be finished. This trait (the second t is pronounced in English) first came to light at school where I was required to take on Great Expectations, which some claim is the best of Dickens’s novels. Since I was under orders and it was a set text I struggled on for all of 125 pages before I dug in my heels and asked for a different task. To his eternal credit the head of English, who later appeared in advertisements for the teaching profession under the slogan ‘the last man to answer all Jeremy Paxman’s questions’, allowed me to work on a biography of Sir Isaac Newton instead. Newton is far more interesting than Dickens.

Despite this the walls of our house, those not lined with M’s pictures of boats, are lined with books. Many I have had for forty years or more and have read more than once. They are a varied collection because I read for fun, entertainment and information. The literary editor of the Times, which last week published a list of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945, and his team seem to read for erudition, social awareness, ethnic solidarity and as participation in an art form. Many readers will have measured their own erudition by going through the list to see how many were familiar to them. I did too and failed, scoring as follows: heard of (meaning I could as a minimum identify the person as a writer), 25; read some of (at least a few chapters and not counting S Rushdie, who comfortably failed the first page test), about 7 or 8; finished a book by, 6. As some consolation these, Roald Dahl (16), Ian Fleming (14), Kingsley Amis (9), George Orwell (2), C S Lewis (11) and Anthony Powell (20) were all in the top end of the list and I bet the last one surprised you. The only one I felt I should have read and have not was John le Carre.

My own list would be based on different criteria from those of the Times, which chose style, influence, longevity and sales, though I felt some had a fair way to go yet to qualify under longevity, several quoted novels having been published only in this century. I would choose a combination of quality of writing (different, I suspect, from what the Times meant by style) and entertainment value. Clearly Orwell got his second place for influence and longevity for his style is hardly racy. He earns his place in my view for his essays on ‘Politics and the English language’ and ‘The prevention of literature’ more than 1984 or Animal Farm. In the first essay he lays out his six rules for clear, unpretentious writing, ignored by or unknown to some of the fifty, who get praised for being genre-crossing or infused with transforming power, displaying consistent integrity and so on. Spare us. If you see the novel as an art form you suffer the same delusion as the French cinema industry.

Published authors displaying both quality of writing and entertainment value are fewer than the number of published, accepted and often praised authors. My list would contain several writers who would receive no consideration from the literary editor’s team because they trade in some lowly, despised genre. We can start, because he is fresh in my mind, with George Macdonald Fraser who died a few days ago with the chronicles of the entertainingly despicable Flashman sadly unfinished. Fraser’s narrative touch was sometimes reminiscent of P G Wodehouse, than which there is no higher praise. To combine this with serious military history was brilliant. To Fraser, without implying an order of merit, I would add: Leslie Thomas, for being able to bring true life pathos to a good bawdy tale; Tom Sharpe, for fiendishly wicked angles on the targets of his satire; Roger Woddis, for showing that poetry can still rhyme and scan; Frederick Forsyth (first three books only), Len Deighton, and Bernard Levin, if only for The Pendulum Years (well they said writers, not novelists). My shelves also house William Cooper, Nigel Balchin, E F Benson ( I’ve never read any but M loves them, keeping me awake at night with her cackling), John Wyndham, David Lodge, Nicholas Monsarrat (no, not The Cruel Sea, The Nylon Pirates) and Adrian Mole. Even Nevil Shute, whom the Thunderer would despise utterly but who could tell a good tale better than most and was one of few who even mentioned real flying, let alone understood it. Not an airport novel or bonkbuster in the list - is the Times saying I am not well read?

Browsing, I came across the appropriate summing up quite by accident in the words of the Master – of the entire twentieth century and since, never mind the puny post-1945 lot: ‘. . . she wrote this novel and it was well received by the intelligentsia, who notoriously enjoy the most frightful bilge’. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The lights are going out, except in France

I remember a newspaper cartoon from the fifties or sixties. It showed a group of emaciated people huddled around a fire at the mouth of a cave, while in the background could be seen the crumbling remains of a city, its idle factories with smokeless chimneys and broken windows. The group is dressed in animal skins, primitive tools lie around and the oldest of them explains: ‘well, first they shut down all the nuclear power stations’.

The eternal and increasingly tedious energy debate comes down in the end to electricity. We need enough electricity, always available, at a reasonable price, to fuel our industry, commerce, health, hobbies and leisure. The debate should be about how to supply this now and in the short, medium and long term without unacceptable harm to the planet. In fact it is less a debate than a lecture from the pious, self-righteous evangelistic green lobby.

For the eco-fanatics look only at the second part of the problem: any harm to the planet is unacceptable. Yet their solutions will not keep the lights on in the short term, never mind in twenty years time. I submit that one of the fundamental duties of a government, after national security and a sound currency, is to keep the turbines running – enough turbines. Demand for electricity can only rise as the population and aspirations for a better standard of living increase. If generating capacity does not increase to match it we will have the same problems as have been seen recently in California and South Africa. China seems determined not to suffer, but at the cost of building a new coal fired power station every month or so – provide the power, forget the planet and lock up the yoghurt knitters. In Britain, we have a rapidly growing population, are running down the nuclear sector, which provides 19% of the power, and any new conventional power station, let alone a nuclear one, is vigorously resisted by the environment lobby. ‘Renewables’ – a silly name, we’re looking for inexhaustibles – are simply not being installed fast enough to cope and suffer from some existing problems, such as transmission losses between remote offshore wind or wave farms and population centres, and some new ones such as not knowing when the wind will blow. On top of that we already import electricity from France, nuclear generated of course. No doubt the French would be glad to cut off the supply next time we breach their diplomatic sensitivities or their farmers are offended by the import of some decent lamb. Or maybe just when they need it all themselves.

I resume, following a coincidental but timely boost to my argument in the shape of a power failure. On a mild, calm, dry day the voltage was abruptly reduced and anything sensitive to it stopped for an hour or so. This is common where we live, being as much as ten miles from a cathedral city and barely within spitting distance of a trunk road. We know exactly where to find a torch and my wife has an ample supply of candles and matches always on hand. A small generator, just enough for the central heating, sits in the garage (a false sense of security this one, being powered by the only Honda engine I know that absolutely will not start).

Yet the government, despite its announcement yesterday, has no clear plan. It is almost too late, even if the objectors were summarily overridden, to get enough new nuclear capacity going in time; wind and wave power comes in small increments and will not keep up; trying to blame the consumer with the tale that 8% of power goes on appliances on standby (a figure I simply do not believe) and urging him to change his habits is pointless. The price alone is enough to make us take all reasonable economies. The gas that fuels many of the power stations will one day have to come from Russia and if I joke about the French cutting us off I do not joke about the Russians – it has already happened. To fail to provide for self sufficiency in electricity is traitorously irresponsible. It cannot be left to committees, focus groups and blinkered special interests. It needs executive action, untainted by electoral considerations. Without it we shall before long find ourselves with an electricity supply that is as reliable and predictable as rainfall in the Australian bush.