Chop suey with chips and a date with Cilla

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The Independent Online
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?