Who'd tell a Vickers worker he was losing his job over Mr al-Masari?

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LAST week I met a friend whom I hadn't seen for a long time and asked her how she was earning a living these days. She replied that she was in the Indian art and antiques business, helping to establish the provenance of old paintings and sculpture which were being traded in the West. I said: "That sounds like a good racket to be in." My friend took offence and I apologised. I hadn't meant the word racket in its more precise OED sense of "a scheme for obtaining money or attaining other ends by fraudulent and often violent means" but rather in the broader sense, which the Concise Oxford also allows, of "an activity, a way of life, a line of business". This usage has now become common and the reason is probably de-industrialisation and privatisation: you could hardly speak of the "coal-mining racket" or the "shipbuilding racket", but attach the word to "media" or "derivatives" and it becomes entirely appropriate. The implication is that old ideas of what constitutes proper work linger on, from, in my own case, a childhood spent among people who either made things or were paid, usually out of taxation, to serve the public as a teacher or railwayman or civil servant. Until I was well out of school I can't think that I knew anyone, other than shop-keepers, who did not belong to either of these categories, and now I know hardly anyone who belongs to the manufacturing class, unless one counts newspapers, television shows, and books. Perhaps living in London is partly to blame, because British manufacturing, as the case of the Saudi dissident, Mohammed al- Masari, reminds us, still exists. At Vickers, GEC and British Aerospace, large chunks of it hang by the frail thread linked to the royal family of Saudi Arabia.

LIBERAL newspapers, the Guardian and the daily Independent, have taken an uncompromising stand on Mr al-Masari.

We have read a lot about beheading and hand-chopping (and quite rightly, though I don't remember reading much about this during the Gulf War) and the shamefulness of the Government yielding to a blackmail whereby Britain wins pounds 5bn in arms orders from Saudi Arabia if it exports Mr al-Masari to the Caribbean island of Dominica.

The Independent described it as "a stinking, rotten deal"; the Guardian said it made Britain look "ludicrous, and craven". It is difficult to disagree, though one would be interested to know more about the views of Mr al-Masari, as an advocate of Sharia law, on the beheading and hand- chopping question, and indeed on the Salman Rushdie question.

But might it be a necessary shame, given that so many jobs, wages and factories are at stake?

On Friday, the Independent didn't bother to address this question at all - the beneficiaries were simply written off as "arms dealers", a trade to which the word racket conveniently applies, rather than manufacturing companies and workers.

The Guardian said it was "self-interest of the narrowest kind" and that protection of British jobs would be "a more noble cause if it had been pursued elsewhere with equal enthusiasm to prevent the run-down of our manufacturing industry."

Absolutely. The run-down of industry, however, is now a historical fact. Arms exports keep a large fraction of what remains in business. Should we be prepared, for Britain's much exaggerated moral reputation, to sacrifice that too?

Perhaps we should, in which case editorialists and other moralists might like to put their case directly to the man on the lathe at the Vickers tank factory.

"Look, it works like this. You lose your job and Mr al-Masari doesn't have to move his fax machine from Willesden to the sunny Caribbean."

A difficult assignment, I should say, which may be the reason that Her Majesty's Opposition has not yet taken it on.

I'VE been a fan of Stanley Baxter ever since he and Jimmy Logan had a comedy programme on the radio in Scotland which had as its catchphrase "sausages is the boys" (how we all laughed, as the woman in Alan Bennett's Talking Heads would say). I went to see him as a dame in Edinburgh and Glasgow pantomimes, watched his TV shows, and then gradually lost patience with what seemed an eerie desire to act (almost to be) Shirley Temple at great length every year.

Baxter seemed to have lost patience with this himself, because he gave up his profession and retreated into private life, which when the pantomime season came round every year led me to ask the staff of this newspaper (when I edited it): where is Stanley Baxter, can he be found? The result, eventually, was the recent piece in the Sunday Review, which found Baxter alive and content in Highgate, though not wishing to speak to our reporter. Last week, to coincide with a Baxter retrospective on Channel 4, the Daily Telegraph had a small scoop when it published an actual interview with the great man by John Sandilands, in which Baxter, now 70, confessed that it was "amazing" to think he had once been risky enough to attract the ire of Mrs Whitehouse. "I'm mortally afraid at my age of sounding like Victor Meldrew," he said, "but ... listening to some of the stuff that gets past nowadays, I can only say to myself: 'I don't believe it.' "

Watching the new series of Rab C Nesbitt on Friday night, I could see what he meant. Gregor Fisher as Nesbitt is in some ways Baxter's successor as a brilliant caricaturist of a certain kind of Glaswegian. Pretend drunks have been swaying across Glasgow stages throughout the century but the sexual plot lines are relatively recent. What gives the series its most contemporary feel is the language: shag, arse, arsehole, shite (interesting how the final "e" has become de rigeur for the last - it was on the screen in big letters later on Friday in the Fantasy Football show).

It would be mistaken, however, to imagine the language or the pub scenes as realism. Nesbitt's way of life is a sentimentalised view of a Glasgow housing estate. The swearing is halfway-house stuff, and drugs and dealers with guns have long since replaced fortified wine and razor-men. Many of us can't yet imagine poor people sticking syringes into their veins as material adaptable to comedy, but according to people who have seen the play made from Irvine Welsh's novel, Trainspotting, and the preview of the film, it can be comic. Nesbitt may one day join Baxter in our view of how comedy used to be, and we'll be amazed, to use Baxter's word, that he once had the capacity to disturb.

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