If you can bring yourself to separate the director from the fallible man, do go to see the latest offering from Roman Polanski. The Ghost is a classic thriller in the best traditions of English story-telling and Hollywood film-making. I suspect that Robert Harris's novel may be even better, but regret to say that I've been pushed towards the novel by the film, rather than vice versa. It is gripping and stylish, with familiar set-pieces, such as hotel receptions and car chases and bedroom shower scenes given delightful twists.
I loved the East Coast Americana: the clapboard seaside inn, the cutesy receptionist in "traditional" costume, the mysterious old man in the storm-swept cottage, and the professor's mansion – at once realistic and overlaid with very un-American irony. I particularly savoured our hero's desperate search for the ignition slot in an unfamiliar car. Something so vital is really not that obvious any more – believe me.
Yet one aspect of this film concerned me, which was really not about the film at all. It was the way it was conceived, and more particularly "sold", less as a self-contained political thriller than as a direct critique of Tony Blair and Iraq. Of course, it's hard not to see the lead characters as modelled on Blair, his wife and their coterie. And Pierce Brosnan's depiction of the former British prime minister Adam Lang, with his shifting mid-Atlantic accent, so-what gestures and bland expressions of assumed superiority, hardly diminishes the parallels.
But my impression was that many in the audience had come to the cinema expecting not to see a classic thriller, but to find, in fiction, the sort of payback for the Iraq war they felt they had been deprived of in reality. Even this would be fine, if that is where it stopped. Listening to the backchat afterwards, however, it seemed that this thriller – the germ of which is clearly derived from the saga of Blair and Iraq – was being treated as a possible explanation, a legitimate interpretation almost, of what might have lain behind "Blair's war".
The risk here is that fact and fiction become conflated, and the very real misjudgements that fuelled the war are diminished, along with the equally real mismanagement of the aftermath, the misreading of the situation in Iraq throughout, the questionable use of intelligence, and the enormous costs of the war – to Iraq and to Britain.
The fictional scenario played out in The Ghost is seductive. It is satisfying and neat in the way that only the very best thrillers are. But it is fiction; clever, informed and beautifully structured, but still fiction. The reality of Blair and Iraq is not like that. It is untidy. There are probably ends that do not, and will not, tie up. And there are serious questions still to be answered that Lord Chilcot's Iraq Inquiry – yes, it's not over yet – may still have a stab at addressing. Nor should the moral aspect be ignored.
The Iraq war and what led up to it constitutes a scandalous episode in British foreign policy, for which the chief culprits have not, and probably will not, pay. The reality must not be forgotten. The Ghost is a case of a film being almost too compelling for its own, and this country's, good.
Don't forget the benefits of the flight ban
I can time it precisely. At 2153 on Tuesday, just after switching on the television for the 10 o'clock news, I heard a sound I hadn't heard for the best part of six days, and rushed to the window to look. There it was, coursing through the clear night sky, the all-too familiar sight of a Heathrow-bound plane following the bend of the Thames on its westward path. The headlines supplied a second confirmation: British airspace, it had that moment been announced, was open; the planes were flying again.
In one way, this was a relief. With various family members enduring forced extensions to their travels, that first plane heralded an end to their state of limbo and a return to normality. But that normality also brought the return of the almost constant background noise that, in a city, you become inured to. Perhaps it was imagination, but during the shutdown, the birds we see from our seventh-floor flat seemed to be flying higher and freer. What was certainly not imagination was that I was being woken rather pleasantly by a succession of increasingly complex birdsongs, rather than at 0445 sharp by a swarm of planes, waiting to land at Heathrow as soon as the night noise restrictions cease.
And this brief vernal interlude posed the question yet again. Why does the standard holding pattern take Heathrow-bound planes over one of the most densely-populated areas in Europe. Several million people – not just in the immediate airport approach, but in the city itself – are being disturbed before dawn each day. Our quality of life would be immeasurably improved if incoming flights were made to queue over the sea, where only the seagulls and ships can hear them.
Life after Today
An unsung triumph of BBC Radio 4 is Sue MacGregor's programme The Reunion, as I was reminded when I caught last Sunday's edition on The Maze prison. The idea is so simple: assemble some of the key individuals involved in an event from recent history and have them re-live it from their perspective – the whole interspersed with archive clips.
The Maze was a classic, with former prisoners from both sides, one of them now in government, a prison warder, a Catholic bishop, and a reporter. The dilemmas seem as sharp now as they were then, especially the split between the Catholic hierarchies in Northern Ireland and Britain, when confronted with the vexed issue of hunger strikes and suicide.
After leaving the Today programme, MacGregor claimed – rightly, I'm sure – that her gender had excluded her from the big interviews. The Reunion only goes to show: there really is life after Today.