From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘Diatribes of bilge’?

Nuclear explosion!

March 10th

Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Meghan and Harry, aired on ITV on Monday evening, has been described as a ‘bombshell interview’ whose ‘shockwaves swept around the world’.  The Daily Mail, our representative tabloid for the day, talks about ‘a string of incendiary accusations unleashed by Harry and wife Meghan’ and tells us that Buckingham Palace has been ‘paralysed with horror and dismay as Prince Harry stands accused of blowing up his family with his bombshell interview.’  And it was apparently no ordinary bombshell: ‘palace insiders’, we are told, described a mood of ‘intense personal shock and sadness’ that the prince had pressed the ‘nuclear button on his own family … people are just reeling.’ * Paralysed people ‘reeling with shock’ after being hit by a nuclear explosion whose shockwaves have swept around the world should probably take time off to be thankful that they have enough life left in them to do their reeling.

Apart from the implication that security had been withdrawn from Harry and Meghan’s family, and that Archie had been denied a title, on racial grounds – hinted at in particular via a reported conversation with an unnamed royal who had speculated on the shade of darkness of the unborn baby Archie – the most telling ‘bombshell’ was perhaps Meghan’s revelation that she had become suicidal and sought help from Buckingham Palace, but had been refused.   Almost submerged among the more striking claims was the assertion that there exists an ‘invisible contract’ between the royals and the tabloids informally stipulating favourable press in exchange for access.**  If that is true, and there is no reason whatever to suppose that it might not be, one can only assume that, for whatever reason (and one can guess), Meghan Markle was not regarded as coming under the terms of that invisible contract.

There can be no question that the Press’s treatment of Meghan Markle has been one of the principal determining factors in this whole sorry saga.   But, with the notable exception of today’s excellent editorial in The Independent,*** even the very few inhabitants of the more enlightened wing of the Press’s unstately home seem reluctant to acknowledge this.  Sunday’s The Observer (7/3/21), for example, carried three substantial articles about the interview.  In the first, by Vanessa Thorpe (p.5), nothing whatever is said about the press; the second, by Andrew Gumbel (pp.40-1), talks about them ‘feeling’ they [Harry and Meghan] had gone to USA ‘with some assurance that they wouldn’t be hounded by the paparazzi the way they felt they were’, and thereby calls into question whether they really were hounded by the paparazzi or simply ‘felt they were’; the third, a carping article by Catherine Bennett titled ‘In the battle of Meghan versus the Firm, who do we cheer on? How about neither…’(p.49), makes very fleeting reference in passing to ‘when Meghan was herself bullied by the UK press’ but doesn’t bother to linger on that insight.

In this instance one had to look to David Olusoga, Professor of Public History at the University of Manchester, on the BBC’s Today  programme yesterday to get to the nub of the issue where Harry and Meghan were concerned:  ‘‘This is the story of a black princess, a moment when Britain projected this image around the world and this was the opportunity for us to become the nation we pretend we are…. I’m interested in the fact that we didn’t.  We allowed our press to hound this woman and hound her family and it says something about us.  And the Royal Family are just another institution of this country, and in some ways these issues reflect the wider country.  It isn’t just about the royal family; it is about us as a nation’.   The BBC, seeing the Tory private sector fetishists in full cry in its rear-view mirror, intent on eviscerating it to get at its licence fee, inevitably felt it had to ‘balance’ Olusoga’s incisiveness by inviting no less an authority of Britain and the Royal Family than Meghan’s estranged father Thomas Markle to share his expertise with us: ‘I have great respect for the royals and I don’t think the British royal family are racist at all. I don’t think the British are racist.’  So that is settled then.

Olusoga’s repetition of ‘hounding’ allows the full force of the metaphor to come through:  in the ‘tally ho!’ world shared by both the tabloid press and traditional fox-hunting the quarry is regarded as vermin, ‘fair game’, onto which the hounds – whether fox-hounds or news-hounds – can be set, with the goal being to tear the quarry to shreds, either literally or metaphorically.  Harry had seen what happened to his mother who was, as nearly literally as it is possible to get, hounded to her death in an underpass in Paris – hunted down by the paparazzi.   When he saw the same thing in danger of happening to his wife he would have had to be insane not to want to find a way to protect her from the hounds.

Only one person was explicitly exonerated during the interview from complicity in ‘The Firm’s’, or ‘Buckingham Palace’s’, stiff-upper-lipped refusal to take Meghan and Harry’s plight seriously and defend them against the hounds.   That one person was the Queen herself.  It was obviously not coincidental that news of the impending Oprah Winfrey interview galvanized the rest of ‘the PaIace’, by contrast, into a very belated inquiry into allegations that Meghan had herself bullied members royal staff.    It was very clear from the interview that there was a mutual and very genuine warmth and fondness between the Queen, Meghan and her grandson, and that warmth is reflected in the Queen’s public response to the interview:   ‘The whole family is saddened to learn the full extent of how challenging the last few years have been for Harry and Meghan. The issues raised, particularly that of race, are concerning. Whilst some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately. Harry, Meghan and Archie will always be much-loved family members.’ 

With depressing predictability, Britain’s gutter-press, whose excretions just happen to be the printed media’s best sellers, seized on five words from the 60 word statement:  ‘Whilst some recollections may vary…’  This they interpret as a covert assertion that Meghan was lying through her teeth, effectively endorsing the awful Piers Morgan’s ‘Pinocchio Princess’ label for Meghan.  The Daily Mail’s online headline could not be a starker contrast to the Queen’s restraint:  ‘PIERS MORGAN: Meghan and Harry’s nauseating two-hour Oprah whine-athon was a disgraceful diatribe of cynical race-baiting propaganda designed to damage the Queen as her husband lies in hospital – and destroy the Monarchy.’ ***  Whatever else eventuates from the interview one good outcome has been Morgan’s unlamented departure from ITV’s Good Morning Britain.  

Piers Morgan was not about to go quietly and, as is the wont of the more contemptible tabloids, hid behind ‘freedom of speech’ as the catch-all weapon of his defence:  “I believe in freedom of speech, I believe in the right to be allowed to have an opinion…. If I have to fall on my sword for expressing an honestly held opinion about Meghan Markle and that diatribe of bilge that she came out with in that interview, so be it.”****  His noble act of falling on his, now rather tarnished, sword as a martyr to the cause of freedom of speech, which seems to have pre-empted his being fired by yet another employer, brings an appropriate end to this episode of his own series of diatribes of bilge. Unfortunately it won’t be the last of the series.

All of which brings me back to David Olusoga: ‘It isn’t just about the royal family; it is about us as a nation.’  Exactly so.  The likes of Piers Morgan can get away with expressing their repugnant opinions because a sufficiently large section of the nation apparently has sufficient thirst for the diatribes of bilge to keep newspapers in business that are often a shameful national embarrassment.  Their diatribes feed off and indirectly fuel an undercurrent of racism and xenophobia.   Princess Diana was hounded to her death; Harry is obviously right, that cannot be allowed to happen to Meghan, and if it takes living in California to ensure that doesn’t happen, so be it.   Rather than cleaning up the sewage by closing down the offending tabloids, to a crescendo of whines about ‘freedom of speech’, the nation should follow the excellent lead set by the population of Liverpool who have boycotted The Sun ever since its appalling coverage of the Hillsborough disaster.  If nobody buys the bilge, the offending tabloids won’t survive, and the nation will be a lot cleaner and healthier. But I’m not holding my breath.

* https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9340143/Queen-holds-crisis-talks-Harry-Meghans-bombshell-Oprah-interview.html

** https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/reviews/harry-and-meghan-interview-oprah-review-b1813834.html

*** https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/press-media-meghan-harry-diversity-b1814801.html

**** https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9338343/PIERS-MORGAN-Meghan-Harrys-nauseating-two-hour-Oprah-whine-athon-disgraceful-diatribe.html

From David Maughan Brown in York: Fiction

September 17th

Distraction from the catastrophic train-crash of our world-beatingly incompetent government’s Covid-testing programme being sorely needed, I stoically continue with the painstaking process of reading and correcting the proofs of Game of Stones, a novel I completed two years ago but delayed publishing.   I find I am pleased with some parts, less pleased with others, but only mildly frustrated that it is now too late to alter more than a couple of words here and there.   Because of the time lag since completing the final draft, I can look at it with relatively fresh eyes, remind myself what I was trying to do and make an at least half-detached assessment of whether I succeeded.

Before I was lured onto “the dark side” and joined the senior management of the University of Natal after the unbanning of the ANC in 1990, I spent the first twenty years of my academic career in the English Department, initially teaching English but gradually managing to introduce more African Literature onto the curriculum.  I was particularly interested in, and most of my research focussed on, the generally covert ways in which fiction invites its readers to agree with the political and moral perspectives of its authors.  This is most obviously true of ‘popular fiction.’ In the 1970s and 1980s rather more white South Africans were reading, and having their race attitudes shaped by, Wilbur Smith than Dickens or Conrad.  My doctoral research focussed on the very different ways a variety of colonial and indigenous authors treated the 1950s “Mau Mau” emergency in their novels, partly because the race mythology around the revolt was heavily referenced in white race attitudes under apartheid.   There were four distinct groups of authors: metropolitan writers who used it to add exotic local colour to their stories; authors like Robert Ruark and Elspeth Huxley who used it to propagandise the generally profoundly racist Kenyan colonial settler view of the movement; and two distinct groups of post-Independence black Kenyan novelists who tried with varying success to counter the colonial mythology.   Many of my later publications in the last decade of apartheid were aimed at unpacking the extent of the racism and sexism being promoted by the hugely popular novels of writers like Wilbur Smith under cover of their skill as narrators of fast-moving and gripping story lines.    

Throughout the managerial half of my academic career I felt a lingering regret about the abandonment of academic research and teaching necessitated by the commitment to helping to manage the transformation of a large research-intensive university in the decade after the formal ending of apartheid.  So when I retired I thought it would be interesting to explore fiction from the writing, rather than the reading, end – very conscious of the medium’s power both to promote and to question political and other perspectives.  What I didn’t appreciate at the time was that the interest would need to be extended to the intricate ins and outs of the publishing industry, such as the copyright issue I elaborated on in my September 11th entry, in comparison with which the mere business of writing is comparative child’s play.   

Both my first novel, Despite the Darkness, and the sequel, Game of Stones, explore the interface between fact and fiction.  The action of the former takes place in the months immediately after the declaration of the state of emergency in South Africa in 1985, with the fictional action being set very precisely in its apartheid historical context and geographical location in Pietermaritzburg and incorporating some non-fictional personal experience of secret police harassment.  Game of Stones is set in Sheffield twenty-three years later and ties up the loose ends deliberately left with a sequel in mind.   Perhaps ‘exploring’ the interface between fact and fiction is too seriously academic-sounding a description of what I was doing in writing the sequel – ‘playing around at the edges’ of the interface might capture what I was doing rather better.   So, although some of the subject matter the novel touches on is, again, very precisely located historically, and very dark – historical events don’t get a whole lot darker than the Rwandan genocide or the Hillsborough disaster, the novel plays with authorial identity.   The plot of this novel has none of the relatively limited  autobiographical elements informing the first one, but one of the key moments in the plot hinges on the police having hacked the main character, Cameron’s, computer and read a chapter he has written giving an account of the notorious Forest Gate police raid in 2006.  The chapter, carefully researched and footnoted, which appears as an appendix to the novel, has been written as a chapter for a book Cameron is preparing titled The Age of Overreaction.  As it happens, the first project I embarked on after my retirement was the writing of a book titled The Age of Overreaction, whose putative contents page was destined to feature a chapter on Forest Gate.  I decided that writing fiction would be more interesting and could be fun, and gave up on that project, but decided that, if most fiction is in one way or another a recycling of fact, that particular chapter could be usefully recycled as an addendum to fiction.  Writing fiction, however serious, is a kind of play, and I enjoy playing with words – so, as I grind through the proof reading, I recall and recapture some of the enjoyment I derived from playing around as I wrote it, and don’t bother that it isn’t destined for fame and fortune.

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’

June 26th

Today is what we used, during the apartheid years, to refer to as South Africa Freedom Day:  commemorating the signing of the Freedom Charter at a conference organised by the Congress of Democrats attended by 3,000 people in Kliptown, outside Johannesburg.   The name has subsequently, entirely understandably, been transferred to April 27th to commemorate the longed-for day in 1994 when South Africa experienced its first post-apartheid (and first genuine) general election.   Today also happens to be my second son, Brendan’s, birthday, which is being celebrated without us this year in Cape Town.  One son born on Soweto Day, the other born on South Africa Freedom Day, there had to be a message there somewhere.

This year Brendan was very unexpectedly presented with a birthday present by Chelsea Football Club.   He has been a passionate supporter of Liverpool FC from a very early age, in so far as it is possible to ‘support’ a football club from a distance of 6000 miles, and woke this morning to the news that, after 30 years of waiting, Liverpool had finally won the English Premiership title again, courtesy of Chelsea winning a match against Manchester City.   He would have had the good sense not to join the Liverpool fans’ ecstatic, Covid-defying revelry last night, had he been there, but he will have been just as ecstatic.

The restart of the locked-down football season this week has made me aware of just how much I missed watching football in the scheduled run-up to the climax of the season.   This is a statement my sons would identify with entirely, and my daughters-in-law would find completely incomprehensible.   I have to confess that I was unashamedly delighted by this outcome too, and not just out of empathy for my Liverpool-supporting sons, son-in-law, and grandson.  Why confess?  Because – and, safely buried this far into a blog, I can probably get away with saying it – I have been a Manchester United supporter ever since the Munich air disaster in 1957.  Manchester United supporters would generally rather see anyone in the entire universe win anything that their own club can’t win, just as long as it isn’t Liverpool.

My loyalty, then, is a bit fickle.  What I really enjoy is watching ‘the beautiful game’  played at its most beautiful, and, at football’s best, that term isn’t as absurd as it might sound to non-believers.   The speed, the athleticism, the ball-control and the intricate inter-passing; the vision to be able to pick a fifty-yard pass and execute it perfectly; the ability to dribble a ball through a crowd of opponents; the bravery and gymnastic ability of the best goal-keepers – what is not to admire?   When football is played by an outstanding team, with all the players playing at the top of their form, it can be mesmerising.  Liverpool’s 2020 team has it all, and they have a brilliantly charismatic and likeable manager in Jurgen Klopp, who is also an outstanding football tactician, to bring it all together.  Klopp’s team are leading the highly competitive Premier League by a truly astonishing 23 points with a handful of matches remaining; by way of comparison, for those who aren’t followers of the game, Manchester City won last year with a record total but a margin of only a single point over Liverpool.  So, yes, Liverpool fully deserved to win, and I’m delighted it happened for Brendan’s birthday.

Being an inveterately political animal, as anyone reading these blogs will have discovered long ago, my sympathies, if not my full-hearted support when they play Man U, have been with Liverpool FC ever since Hillsborough.   Sport can elicit a wide variety of emotions, but none I have experienced have ever come anywhere near the emotion elicited by standing in a packed crowd at Anfield singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” while supporters at the Kop end (named after the battle of Spion Kop in the Anglo-Boer war) held banners aloft commemorating the 96 fans who were crushed to death at the Hillsborough ground in Sheffield in 1989.  I cannot believe that even the most partisan Manchester United supporter could have failed to feel sympathy for the families and friends of those 96 fans in the face of the police lies and cover-up of their responsibility for the disaster, the unspeakably contemptible coverage of the event by the execrable Sun, and the British establishment’s preparedness, all the way up to the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, to believe the story that responsibility for the disaster lay with drunken Liverpool fans.  Almost 30 years of dogged determination on the part of the Liverpool fans to see the truth eventually acknowledged, if justice by no means done, was wholly admirable and very nearly enough, in itself, to demand a shift of allegiance.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Sunny Sunday

May 3rd

The headline BBC news item this morning was based on an in-depth interview Boris granted to The Sun on Sunday in which he gave an account of his recent two-day sojourn in the Intensive Care Unit at St Thomas’ Hospital in London.   Unlike Icarus, I don’t on principle go anywhere near The Sun, of which more later, so I have to rely on the Independent’s report about The Sun on Sunday’s report about what Boris said.  He is reported to have asserted that he had to be “forced” to go to hospital because he was feeling “pretty rough”, and described the experience as a “tough old moment” during which he had kept asking himself: “How am I going to get out of this?’’  A colloquial interpretation of the stiff-upper-lipped public-school-speak understatement would go something along the lines of: “It was a bloody nightmare.”  As I am quite sure it must have been.  

Two other quotations from the reported interview drew my attention.  The first was Boris’s statement that “They had a strategy to deal with a ‘Death of Stalin’ – type scenario”.  This answered, at least in part, the currently frequently asked question as to whether his experience might have changed him.  Prior to his illness Boris was inclined to think of himself as Churchill rather than as the dodgiest member of the Yalta triumvirate.  The second was his comment that when he became so ill that there was a 50-50 chance that he would have to be intubated and put on a ventilator ‘they were starting to think about how to handle it [his death] presentationally.”  Leaving aside the obvious point that it certainly wouldn’t do “presentationally” to point out that the Prime Minister would have brought his own death upon himself by recklessly ignoring how dangerous the virus was to which he had succumbed, I found myself wondering whether this concern about how his death would be handled “presentationally” might not reveal a subconscious recognition that his entire adult life had been largely “presentational”.

For inveterate UK media watchers – and lockdown provides far too much scope and temptation to join that sad subset of people who should, but currently can’t, get out more often – Boris’s decision to bestow his musings on The Sun on Sunday is telling.   The Sun on Sunday and its daily counterpart, The Sun, are the UK’s leading Sunday and daily newspapers when it comes to sales, to the tune of around 100,000 copies each more than their closest rivals from the Mail stable.  The Sun, with its unspeakably contemptible coverage of the Hillsborough disaster, also leads so far in what has always seemed a highly competitive tabloid rivalry to see who can produce the most shameful demonstration of what journalism shouldn’t be.  Right now I wouldn’t, however, bet against it, or one of its rivals, plumbing even lower depths with nakedly racist treatment of Megan Markle.   

The Sun’s banner-headlined version of the “The Truth” at Hillsborough, which exonerated the police from their responsibility for the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans by depicting them as a bunch of drunken football hooligans who picked the pockets of their crushed their fellow fans, and urinated on police trying to save the lives of the victims, was extraordinarily influential all the way up the political food chain to Margaret Thatcher.  It took 23 years, during which The Sun was boycotted in Liverpool, for the truth to be uncovered by the Hillsborough Independent Panel and publicly acknowledged that the original story had been a tissue of lies fed to the newspaper by the South Yorkshire Police. The Sun finally printed a fulsome apology in September 2012, acknowledging that ‘the people of Liverpool may never forgive us for the injustice we did them.’  The people of Liverpool haven’t forgiven them; The Sun is still boycotted in Liverpool.  But Boris Johnson is the last politician I can think of who would ever have been concerned about a media outlet carrying lies.   Any Tory leader must, by definition, keep on the good side of Rupert Murdoch the non-British media baron who owns the The Sun.  All five Liverpool constituencies voted Labour in the 2019 General Election with a minimum of 70% of the votes cast, so where the Tories are concerned Liverpool is a lost cause.  And why would Boris ever consider overlooking 100,000 potential members of the Boris Adoration Choir for the sake of a mere matter of principle?