Interview: Britain today, by our man in India: Noisy pubs, too many cars, 'productivity pay' and no pride any more. Mark Tully of the BBC gives his view as an outsider

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
That's Mark Tully, that is, the BBC's man in India. Smoking his pipe. So he must be in England. It's a funny thing, but he never smokes his pipe in India. Only Indian cheroots. His English pipe, when smoked in India, gives him hiccups. Something to do with the dry climate. His father, back in the Twenties, when he first went out East, discovered the same thing. He arrived in Burma with his Capstan Full Strength, which he'd smoked all his life in England, but it gave him hiccups. He changed to Watson's Burma Cheroots, which were fine, till he moved to Calcutta, and back came the hiccups.

Mark was in England, not to discourse on climate and smoking, jolly interesting though it is, but for his appearance in the BBC 2 television series Great Railway Journeys, which is also a book. His trip through Pakistan, from Karachi to the Khyber, will be seen on 17 February.

They still have steam trains in Pakistan, but did you realise they are all oil fired? When partition came, Pakistan refused to import more coal, as it came from India. You see, talking to Mark Tulee - as many Indians call him - you always learn something. (They can get their lips round Tulee, as in Hindi it means bell, but they always put an s on Mark, as if it's the shop.)

Last year we learnt he was pretty cheesed off with John Birt's changes at the BBC, a row given acres of space and time, surprising, for a little local difficulty, but we won't go into all that. Nor about India, despite the fact that he has been the voice of India, for millions inside and outside the subcontinent, for the last 25 years. Instead, I wanted to hear what he thought of us here, stuck in Britain. Are we a foreign country to him?

He is, of course, one of us - well perhaps a bit more pukka than some of us. Tall, ever so gentlemanly, with the sort of fruity voice we'll probably never hear again on the BBC, when he retires in a couple of years, aged 60.

His dad, originally an accountant from the West Country, ran various businesses in Calcutta and was awarded a CBE during the war. Young Mark, born in India in 1935, was sent to England at the age of 10, to prep school, Marlborough and then Cambridge, where he read theology, but not very assiduously, much preferring beer and women. 'Actually, I didn't have much success with women, perhaps because of the beer, and because I'd been educated in institutions where women were unobtainable.' All the same, he went on to Lincoln Theological College, intending to be a priest. 'There's always been a dichotomy in my character - very religious, yet morally really rather bad.' After two terms, he saw the dark - if that's the opposite of light - and left.

'I went through a long phase in my life not knowing what to do. The church had always been my vocation. There was a huge hole when I gave it up.' He taught for a while, then for four years worked with the Abbeyfield housing charity in Cheshire. 'There was a row between the founder and the director. I sided with the loser, and resigned. That's another peculiar thing in my character. I'm scared to be seen as a coward. I always have to speak out. I hate to use a vulgar phrase, but I'm obsessive about not being an arsehole creeper.'

We'll excuse you. On the dole for two months, then he got a job in personnel with the BBC, moved with it to India, still on the administration side, and entered broadcasting in his thirties. 'Journalism is not my vocation. I drifted into it. It doesn't obsess me. India is what obsesses me.'

We met at the home of his wife, Margaret, in Belsize Park, where he stays when he's is London. They are still married, and have four children, now all grown up, but she lives full time in London. In Delhi, he lives with another woman, Gillian Wright, a writer, who assists him with his work. Very modern. Eleven years ago, when this unusual arrangement began, things were a bit tense, but now it appears amicable. 'It reflects great credit on my wife and on Gillian. After such a long relationship, I didn't want a divorce, and have to write 'finis'. I wanted to remain friendly with her and my children.'

In India he also has a manservant, Ramchander, who has quarters in Mark's home, and is a vital part of his life. Oh, and a cook - well, the widow of his former cook, who just stayed on. 'This happens in India. When you take on someone, you become responsible for their family.'

Right, little ole Britain. You've been here for a few weeks' leave, seen us in the flesh, how are we doing? 'I hate to say it, but Britain is being ruined. And what I don't like mainly comes from the United States, unlike France, where they have resisted the worst of America. The city centres in France have been better preserved, local shops survive, there is a real community. French people have a pride in France, which might be annoying for others, but in Britain, there is no real pride in Britain any more.'

What, specifically, upsets you? 'Cars and aeroplanes - they're destroying the environment, causing pollution, ruining communities. People have no roots any more. In India, even in cities, people ask each other the village they are from. Here, no one knows where they're from. They are emotionally shut off from their roots, and each other.

'There's too much mobility. People live in their cars at home, or go from hotel to hotel when they're abroad. Journalists think they know the world, but always end up in the same sort of pubs talking to other journalists. I don't think travel necessarily broadens the mind.'

Hold on, Mark. Hint of elitism here. Why shouldn't ordinary people travel, even if all they do is go to Benidorm and get drunk on English beer? You've had the advantage of travel. 'I don't consider myself a tourist - and it's mass tourism I worry about. I know only two areas of the world - India and the British Isles. I've never been west of Donegal or east of Bangladesh, though in May I'm going to the United States for the first tme, giving a lecture on India at Harvard.

'My point about cars is not elitist. It used to be said that cars were OK, till the working class got them. I'm saying no one should have them - wealthy or otherwise. In cities, we should all be made to walk.'

What else, while the lips are warm, the pipe lit? 'English pubs. They are appalling. I used to love going to pubs, now they are ghettoes for young people, full of awful noise. Pubs have become branded places - gay pubs, youth pubs, whatever. There are none where all ages, all types, can feel equally at home.

'Small shops have gone. Every high street now has its wretched M&S or Boots. Even the banks are all the same. I remember when I lived in Cheshire, my local bank manager called me into his office. I wondered what I'd done wrong. He said, 'Oh Mr Tully, I hear you've had a child, do have a glass of sherry with me'. Imagine that happening today. The personal touch has gone completely from British life.'

Aren't you condemning the nation for the sins of London, where the squalour is appalling, service terrible and transport impossible? I live half each year in Lakeland, and it's not like that out there.

'Not true. A little place like Hesket Newmarket, where I went to see a friend recently, was lovely, but in central Lakeland the traffic was appalling. London is the worst example of what has happened, but it's happening everywhere. Look at Sunday shopping. Surely we can have one consumer-free day. I'm a conservative, with a small c, as opposed to a progressive, or puller down, as I call them. Progress should come about by the tussle between the conservatives and the progressives. Together, we should take the middle road. Today we have the so called progressives in ascendence - pulling down everything. It was Edward Heath who said Conservatives should not be radicals, but look at them now - destroying everything: railways, hospitals, education.

'I went into the National Portait Gallery last week, as I was waiting for my mother to arrive at Charing Cross station, and I looked at that portrait of Attlee. He was a hero in my childhood.' A hero? He looked like a frightened bank clerk. 'That's the point. Attlee wes never impressive. He got things done quietly. Political leaders today think they've got to be charismatic. They will play to the gallery.'

Perhaps you've been too long abroad, remembering only things past, like all expats . . .

'Please don't call me that. I look upon myself as an Indian. An expat floats from country to country. I was equally upset when I was young, seeing things change.'

Aren't you pleased by the work of the preservation lobbies that have grown up while you've been away? 'They're all isolated, doing their little bits of tweeness on the margins of life. They see things parochially. It's the environment of the whole planet we have to worry about. But look, I don't live here. I shouldn't really comment on things I don't know a lot about. It's only because you asked.'

You do know a lot about the BBC. But you must have been surprised by the attention your attack received? 'It wasn't just an attack on the BBC. I was trying to say something important about this country as a whole. The John Birt mentality is everywhere. Think of the police and the Sheehy report. The very idea of 'Productivity Pay' is meaningless. How can you do that in hospitals, the police or schools? Even journalism. A good editor knows the efficiency of his reporters, without measuring their column inches. This mad campaign to quantify efficiency is ruining the NHS, schools and universities. I got hundreds of letters from people working in those fields, despite the fact I'd been attacking the BBC. The same thing is happening everywhere. Making judgements solely on efficiency is totally absurd. We will pay the price when all our institutions are destroyed.

'It was a tragedy when socialism was destroyed, but I admit it had become too doctrinaire, too fundamentalist. Now we are being ruled by capitalism - and that, too, is killing us with its doctrinal ways. No one gives a damn about you as a person any more. The product is all that matters.'

It was time to leave for the airport, his leave over. In your baggage, are there by chance any British products you're taking with you. 'Marmite, of course, some bacon, cheese, Irish whiskey . . .

Phew. Thank goodness we still have some good things.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments