My neighbour, Dr Jonathan Miller, comes round in the middle of the morning to see where we have displayed his Christmas present. It occupies pride of place, propped against the bookshelves – a beautiful abstract wooden relief sculpture, made from objets trouvés that my wife Ruth gave him some weeks ago. By rights she should have it in her room, but I have already grown attached to it, so it remains in our shared sitting room, where I often work.
Dr Jonathan, looking like a sad old tree, stands and asks whether we’ll all be here this time next year. He is not, as I at first supposed, thinking of the Grim Reaper but of that equally ghoulish figure Vince Cable and his proposed “mansion tax”. Jonathan wonders whether those of us who are cash-poor but live in valuable houses will be forced to move. I’d have half expected Jonathan to support this tax – but I agree with him that there is something harsh about it. And yet – as with all opinions – I at most half agree. Tolstoy once wrote – “La propriété c’est le vol will remain a more fundamental truth than the English constitution, as long as the human race endures.”
Another friend, Charles Moore – as firmly Tory as Jonathan Miller is a leftist – once told me that the moment he realised he was politically to the right of his liberal parents (and it is the Liberal party, remember, who advocate the confiscatory mansion tax) – was when he saw David Lean’s film of Dr Zhivago as a boy, and the Gromeko family return to their house in Moscow to find it compulsorily requisitioned by the Vince Cables of the day. Yuri (Omar Sharif) and Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin) are allowed just a couple of rooms of their old “mansion”.
By contrast, I never see the film without considering this to be a perfectly fair arrangement – though of course one feels sorry for Ralph Richardson, as Alexander Gromeko, having to sit on a packing-case to smoke his cigar, just as one recognises that the Bolsheviks were a disaster for Russia.
Last Sunday afternoon, Radio 4 Extra broadcast The Long, Long Trail. It was compiled and produced in 1961 by the great Charlie Chilton, who died a year ago, and was the forerunner of the film Oh What a Lovely War! Chilton’s idea was to revive the songs that were actually sung by soldiers at the western front: “Far far from Wipers,/ I long to be /– Where German snipers/ Can’t get at me”. I was cooking while I listened, but I had to stop, since the pastry I was rolling had become a blur as tears cascaded. There was an excellent accompanying programme in The Archive Hour, presented by Roy Hudd, which revealed that the director Joan Littlewood, when she agreed to put on the show at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, made the suggestion that it would be better without the music or the songs: a classic example of how editors, directors and the like often fail to see the greatness of the material that has been handed to them on a plate. As a hero-worshipper of Littlewood, I’d always supposed that Oh What a Lovely War! had been her creation. On the contrary: left to her, it would have been a worthy rant that would probably have lasted about a week, if that, and never moved to the West End, let alone been made into a film.
The revisionist tendency (Michael Gove, Sir Max Hastings et al) to suggest that the first world war was gloriously worth fighting is one that makes the blood rush to my head. How can they think that? They speak as if Prussian militarism were the only militarism at the time, and as if the British, French and Russians only had their battleships, empires and field guns in order to defend Liberty.
The obvious lesson of 1914-18 – that the war brought more disasters than it solved – is not one we’d expect many politicians to have learnt, for politicians get drunk on war; they enjoy it. Witness the obscene expression on Tony Blair’s face, to this day, when he defends the invasion of Iraq.
But you would have hoped that historians would have more sensitivity. Defending a war that led to the Russian revolution and the rise of Hitler seems far worse, morally, than for the Japanese prime minister to have visited the graves of his country’s former war leaders. Field Marshal Haig, who sent so many millions to their needless deaths, many little older than children, was surely a war criminal: yet his statue remains in Whitehall. I’d vote for any party that promised, in this centenary year, to pull it down as an act of reparation to the slain.
Boswell made Johnson’s spoken words immortal, and Eckermann did the same for Goethe: but, in a sense, they had such wonderful material to work with that it was not difficult to make page after page fascinating. Boswell’s London Journal, on the other hand, reveals the author as a human tape recorder, immortalising quite boring conversations overheard in coffee houses. This was real art.
Andrew Barrow follows in this tradition. He did a marvellous book of words overheard in pubs called Small Talk. Now he has followed it up with an even better one – of words overheard being spoken into mobile phones: The Great Book of Mobile Talk. It has brilliant illustrations by Posy Simmonds. I find it compelling reading. “My dad does all the peeling and the chopping and the mashing” . . . “Just to be safe, get three ketchups” . . . “It’s Gemma and it’s now – oh, gosh, what time is it? Twenty to 10. I was in the shower when you rang. I’m now on the way to the bank”...
As Beckett and Joyce knew, more is revealed by trivia than by great oratory. Mobile Talk will start its life in your house as a loo-book. Then you will find that you are carrying it about all day, dipping into it and recognising . . . yourself.