Chop suey with chips and a date with Cilla

Share
Related Topics
I WAS astonished as well as delighted to be invited by the editor of this newspaper to be one of his 'new voices'. My voice for a start is far from new. It is seemingly older than the rocks on which I sit. It is reedy, croaking and quavering, sepulchral, even ancestral. It is well attuned to prophesies of war and to sombre pronouncements that we have run out of whisky, dispersible aspirin and other comforts of the aged.

As the editor and I discussed all these, to me, charming prospects, the BBC Birt hoo-ha was at its height. It produced in me, alas, vain and unworthy dreams, a sort of folie de grandeur senile. I was turning already into a limited company - I could feel it coming on. Other associated companies proliferated to incorporate my extended family, my wife or personal secretary, the children and grandchildren, the dog William, not to mention comely research assistants without number, all designed to extract the maximum pelf and kudos from the Independent's munificence. I envisaged resplendent offices, many now to be had cheaply, perhaps with an atrium, and glassy sheets of water sliding down marble walls - the Welch Corporation International. Think of it]

The editor meanwhile surveyed my corporate delusions with wary benignity. He was, I fancy, oppressed by different and less glamorous visions. Perhaps like an overburdened Indian stationmaster, he saw an aged peasant, accompanied by squeaking womenfolk and goats, laden down with charpoys, corpses and huge knobbly mysterious sacks tied together with hemp and sealed with red wax. He saw this humble tiller struggling with his accessories into a long train already packed and moving, with passengers clinging to the roof and steps. And politely but firmly he resolved to say, 'No, no. I'm sorry, but it won't do' - words which perhaps are less familiar to Duke Hussey, faced with enormities, than they should be. Anticipating an editorial rebuff, I prudently kept quiet.

I was not either, I confess, as shocked by Mr Birt's financial arrangements as I should perhaps have been. They seemed to me enviable. No doubt Mr Birt, like Warren Hastings, stands amazed at his own moderation. Many of the charges against him seem, as Keith Waterhouse has wittily pointed out, inspired by envy or malice. He has been accused, for instance - 'The horror of it]' - of having a car and driver 'at his beck and call'. Well, at whose beck and call should they be? Is the driver expected to lounge about and swill in the pub while the car is lent out to his mate's minicab firm? Or is the BBC's Director-General supposed to go about on foot, or by bike or pillion, by sedan chair, droschky or rickshaw? Do his journalistic critics, with their flowing expense accounts, travel thus about their censorious labours?

Rather more disturbing to me were incidental insights, perhaps misleading, into Mr Birt's ways of business. Mr Erik de Mauny (Independent Letters, Wednesday) accuses him of contributing little so far beyond bombarding staff with unintelligible memoranda in sociological jargon. Mr Birt is further reported to have employed as accountant a chap with beads and no proper qualifications - a combination conventionally off-putting.

What really shook me, however, raising my mittened and palsied hands skywards, were disclosures about Mr Birt's personal taste in music and entertainment.

We have learnt a fair amount recently about the weird antics of the late Lord Reith, most unsuitable for an austere elder of either Kirk or BBC. Yet we may bet that Lord Reith would never have honoured a disco or a rave-up with his presence. Any young friends of his might rather have been bidden to join him in passionate prayer for the forgiveness of whatever sins they had committed - or not committed.

Mr Birt is apparently regarded 'by friends' as at heart an unreformed Sixties man, still somewhat bewitched by memories of flower power and the Me Generation, an unregenerate Liverpudlian by choice as well as by nature and nurture. (Were these 'friends' malicious or admiring? Either way, does Mr Birt need enemies?)

Yes I know that Liverpool contains much high culture and splendid architecture, not to mention Fritz Spiegl, as well as noise and violence, but this is not the Liverpool worshipped by its aficionados, nor execrated by its foes. Nor is it probably the Liverpool of one who, like Mr Birt, is said eagerly to scan Time Out for shows by the Everly Brothers, Bob Dylan and Neil Young and whose favourite programme is Blind Date (not that I haven't myself a soft spot for Cilla Black).

What, do I then judge a man by his amusements? Yes, to some extent: don't we all? My estimate of Mr Kinnock was not enhanced by reports that he was a Buddy Holly groupie. Nor indeed is a great and good man such as Lord Rees-Mogg further ennobled by staring enraptured at 'Allo 'Allo] Pascal would surely suit him better.

'No man,' declared Dr Johnson, 'is a hypocrite in his pleasures.' I don't know about that. Haven't we all known ignoble and ambitious demagogues who curry favour with pop stars to please the mob (and hypocrites, too, for that matter, who attend The Ring not to hear and see but to be heard and seen)? Yes, but is not feigned vulgarity anyway just as unseemly in a director- general as real vulgarity?

For people like me the real charge, if any, against Mr Birt is not any financial irregularity, nor that he is, as alleged, an aloof mandarin. The charge is rather that he is not mandarin enough, more chop suey and chips perhaps than mandarin, more Bert than Birt.

He is, after all, supposed generally to direct 'a public service'. These words justify his remuneration, however paid, by the taxpayer. As such, his true function is surely not to reflect public taste, still less to degrade it, but profoundly to improve it. It is not all that good to begin with, nor does the BBC do much to raise it, unless in music. But this last might seem about as safe in Mr Birt's hands as a Meissen vase in the hands of a chimpanzee.

For some of these lofty tasks an out-of-touch mandarin might be rather well suited. Judges are often ridiculed for being 'out of touch' (with what, pray?) and for asking questions such as 'Who is Gazza?', and 'What is 'pop'?' Some such questions would be reassuring from a Mr Birt newly out of touch.

For myself I never wholly approved of a previous director-general, who, formerly a public school headmaster unless memory errs, and further burdened with two elitist Ff's at the beginning of his name, demotically proclaimed that he always did his own washing up. Surely he should have delegated that to people like Janet Street-Porter or Michael Grade, if then in his employ, freeing himself to contemplate truth, beauty and the infinite?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Direct Sales Consultants - OTE £65,000 - £100,000

£65000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This national direct sales com...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Consultant - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Can you sell? Want to earn over...

Recruitment Genius: Partitioners / Carpenter / Multi Skilled Tradesmen / Decorator

£28000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Various opportunities are avail...

Recruitment Genius: Trade Marketing Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company leads the market i...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

My cancer diagnosis cost me my home

Deanne Wilson
Dov Charney, the founder and former CEO of American Apparel  

American Apparel has finally fired Dov Charney, but there's no reason to celebrate just yet

Alice Nutting
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum