There was something almost predictable about the fact that the three prominent Labour figures caught out in the “cash for lobbying” sting on this week’s Channel 4 Dispatches documentary were Stephen Byers, Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon. Byers, Hewitt and Hoon. For some reason, I’m irresistibly reminded of Roald Dahl’s obnoxious trio of greedy farmers in Fantastic Mr Fox – Boggis, Bunce and Bean. (“Byers, Hewitt and Hoon, one daft, one thick, one goon!”). They really are the Three Disgraces, the Blairite equivalent of the three characters in Last of the Summer Wine: Compo, Incompo and Totally Incompo.
My only encounter with Patricia Hewitt was when I hosted a health awards ceremony a few years ago. As guest of honour, the then health secretary sat at the table closest to the stage and spent a fair bit of the proceedings busily texting away on her mobile phone. A chance meeting with Geoff Hoon was more memorable. Interviewed on the Today programme shortly after the Iraq war began, he was asked why, if Saddam really had weapons of mass destruction as Hoon claimed, the Iraqi leader had chosen not to use them. Hoon began the interview by stating that the weapons hadn’t been used because, with coalition forces camped on his doorstep for weeks before the invasion, Saddam had had plenty of time to hide them away. By the end of the same interview he had executed a 180-degree turn, arguing that the attack on Iraq was so swift that Saddam hadn’t had time to give the order to use them.
Encountering him in the shrubbery at one of David Frost’s legendary garden parties (“So pleased you could come! Soooper to see you! Have you met the Pinochets?”), I asked the former defence secretary how he had managed to deploy two such contradictory arguments simultaneously. “Hey,” he shrugged insouciantly. “I’m a lawyer.” Well, he’ll need one now.
I’m away on tour for the next month, travelling to 19 different theatres – 12 of them in or near marginal constituencies such as Dartford, Chatham, Cheltenham, Richmond and Rochdale. I’ve always felt very lucky that my job means I get to spend time in different parts of the country. Otherwise, it would mean that if I wanted to see what Sheffield, Harrogate or even Basildon looked like, I’d have to take a holiday there.
One of my best working days last year started at the British Library in London and ended in Liverpool Cathedral, travelling via Cambridge. We were filming a documentary about famous diaries and began by bringing the polar explorer Pen Hadow to the library to see for the first time the diary of Captain Robert Scott, or Scott of the Antarctic. Seeing those pages, stained with sweat and wax and bearing the story of Captain Oates’s death in Scott’s pencilled hand, Hadow’s lip trembled and his eyes filled with tears. It was an extraordinarily moving moment.
We later drove to Cambridge to see Scott’s last letter to his wife, which is held in the Polar Research Institute there. It was heartbreaking to see the words on paper and realise that, having finished the letter, Scott had sharpened his pencil, gone back to the beginning, and written “To my Widow … ”.
Some four hours later, I was in Liverpool’s Anglican cathedral to give an after-dinner speech. I was overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the place. The architect, Giles Gilbert Scott, also designed the red telephone box, and it’s said that the cathedral could accommodate more than 200,000 such kiosks. After dinner, a young man came up to me. “Would you like to hear the organ?” It was 11.15pm. The place was almost empty as he pulled out the stops and started to play: Bach’s Toccata and Fugue, followed by “Jerusalem” and, this being Liverpool, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck and I walked back to my hotel as if on air, feeling the heart of that great city throbbing beneath me like the engines on a massive liner.
Embarking on the current tour, I thought it might be an idea to find out what all the fuss was about Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and all the other stuff that every other comedian (including Gordon Brown) seems to be obsessed with. Boy, did that teach me a lesson. A very helpful expert pointed me to a website where you can see what’s being said about you or your business (it’s called whostalkin.com). In Bahrain for the grand prix a fortnight ago, I hesitantly dipped a toe in the water and typed in my name. The first twitter popped up. “Rory Bremner, on the grid in Bahrain? F**K OFF!!!”. Well, that’s a nice start. Days later, after a charity show in Oxford, I try again. “Rory Bremner is boring and sh*t” says the first tweet, after which someone has helpfully added, “YES! F**K YOU, RORY BREMNER!!” This isn’t going very well, so I follow the twitter-thred, or whatever it’s called, to find that my new best friend has earlier boasted that he’s just “raped (sic) someone’s FaceBook, can’t wait to see his social life fall apart, ha ha!!”
This reassures me that the twitterer and I aren’t quite on the same page but also sets me wondering about social (antisocial?) networking. Being incompetent (as well as boring and sh*t), I frequently have to visit online forums to find solutions to technical problems, like how to turn on my computer. What you find on these forums is invariably helpful – a community of people who’ve had the same problem you’ve had, found a way to solve it and are more than happy to share that information with you or direct you to another website or solution. It’s very heartening – just what the internet should be for – and quite an antidote to the bile-fuelled and angry young men referred to earlier.
Appearing on the BBC’s The One Show, I meet Gyles Brandreth, who gives a wise word of advice about twittering, gleaned from his own experience and that of über-twitterer Stephen Fry. Once you start tweeting, you have to be able to respond to the tweets you get back – in the case of Stephen, this could run into hundreds, if not thousands. As someone who can barely cope with the daily influx of e-mails, I’d be worried about that. As Gyles said, if you don’t respond to the satisfaction of your followers, because you’re too busy doing something else – say, having a life – you will find that your followers can become abusive and start being, as Gyles puts it, “very ungracious”. I’ve already got to that stage, and I haven’t even started yet. I’d better quit while I’m behind.
Travelling to London on the train, I laugh out loud at something I read in the paper. Sitting opposite me, I notice a woman giggling to herself. United for a moment in laughter, I ask her what’s cheered her up at this hour of the morning. She answers that she’s married to Victor Ubogu, the 18-stone former England prop. It turns out that he’s got chickenpox. She knows she shouldn’t laugh, really, but there’s something about the sight of her huge, macho husband covered in calamine lotion that reduces her to fits of giggles.
I agree. Get well soon, Victor.
My own wife has been similarly sympathetic about my teeth. I had them capped last week because they were chipped and uneven, partly because I’m having a midlife crisis. “Notice anything different?” I say, grinning at my wife. “My God, you look like Tony Blair,” she says. “What do you mean, I look like Tony Blair?” I say. But even as I say it I realise I’m talking in my Tony Blair voice. This is going to take some getting used to. I think I’m going to have them filed down again, which will cost a small fortune. If only I was on Tony Blair’s rates. Or even, come to think of it, Geoff Hoon’s.
Rory Bremner is on tour until the end of April. Details at lakinmccarthy.com