Sunday, November 02, 2008

DIARY 79 - A few things to say about......


Yes, he is a breath of fresh air, a beacon of hope, an opportunity for the US to reform itself and repair its sullied image in the world. I seriously hope he does get the mandate, and survives long enough to do some good. I am deeply aware,however, that I know little or nothing about the policies he is campaigning on. Much is the same for Mc Cain, the media reports have focused exclusively on personality and charisma, to the neglect of giving us a clear idea what they stand for, apart from crudely sketched partisan positions. The mood in the UK, at least, seems to be that any change whatsoever will be better than things staying as they are. If the Republicans get re-elected, whether by hook or by crooked means, social unrest could follow, the US's democratic reputation already in tatters will completely collapse, quickly to be followed by their economy, it would seem. If the Democrats get elected there could still be social unrest in some southern states, or a Presidential assassination. Not a comforting scenario to envisage, and I hope I'm not being unduly pessimistic. But this does highlight how much America stands at a very uncertain moment in its history, poised as it seems for radical change, and for once positive with hope in its heart, however briefly it may or may not turn out to be. Memories of President Kennedy are unnervingly coming to my mind here, and in the UK the wave of renewed optimism and desire for change that swept Blair into power in 97 - and look where all that ended up!


What a kerfuffle this week about two overpaid entertainers behaving like juveniles. The details about the answering machine messages left on Andrew Sachs phone, prove it was entirely an unedifying event, obscene, and not even redeemed by an ounce of wit. The fuss that has ensued seems out of proportion, but perhaps its not just about this particularly incident, but the whole comic culture. What comedians get away with these days on prime time television has changed so radically in the last ten years. If I might indulge in a Mary Whitehouse moment - there really have to be some boundaries as to what is considered appropriate for public broadcast. Its not really good enough to justify it by saying this is how folk speak in ordinary life. You shouldn't as a matter of course pander to the crueler aspects of human communication. TV & Radio is not ordinary life, its life writ large and visually enhanced, so it will have an impact on the society it reputedly serves. It acts not as a mirror, but as a magnifying glass, and as such it gives a distorted picture. To treat it as a reflection of reality is dangerously naive. It isn't just down to Ross and Brand to clean up their act, but a whole raft of TV entertainers who will merrily slander and publicly defame people simply on the basis of their passing celebrity. Humour does have a need to satirise and prick pomposity - but much of what passes for amusing comment is really giving someone whose fallen from grace or has revealed a humiliating flaw in their character, a good public kicking.

In the 80's comedians did develop a moral compass, jokes about someones disability, race, sexual orientation or gender were forsaken. These now seem to be deemed appropriate when it comes to any celebrity who falls on hard times - I've heard some truly awful remarks being made about Kerry Katona, Amy Winehouse and Heather McCartney - all women I'll have you note! The details of their personal responsibility for what has happened to them aside, no one should be lampooned for their inability to overcome their drug or alcohol addiction, or the fact that they have a false leg. This humour might be called 'edgy', and irreverence does have its place, but it needs to be skillful and have a moral purpose too, otherwise it will not hit its intended target. It just becomes vindictive, the humour of the school playground. Leaving lewd messages on a 78 year old's answering machine, is just disrespectful towards someone who was going to be a guest on your show. If they'd stopped for one minute to think ' would I like this if it were done to my grandparent' or to bring it closer to home' if this were done to me would I find it funny'? But I guess they got carried away, so intoxicated with their god like gift, they lost the plot completely.


When I heard on the radio that Studs Terkel had died at the age of 96, I let out an instinctive and impassioned cry of 'Oh No'. In that moment I recognised quite how personally I felt this loss, how much I'd come to love a respect the work of this pioneer civil rights, broadcaster and oral historian. Very much a man of the people, and of his time, Studs was left wing in America, when it was a very unpopular if not dangerous thing to be. He was briefly blacklisted during the Mc Carthy era. His interest in ordinary peoples experience steps out of every page of his books, and was no doubt present in his radio broadcasting too. If you haven't read any books by Studs Terkel, I highly recommend them. My personal favorites are' Hope Dies Last' about individuals who've never lost their idealism, or 'Will the Circle be unbroken' where he interviews people about their different views on death, or 'Working' where he talks to workers from all types of work and careers.

Studs Terkel, undoubtedly had his own political views, yet his approach to documenting his subject matter was impartial, showing every possible angle on a subject. He interviews people from all social, economic and political spectrum's, and allows them to speak. What is communicated is their basic humanity outside of stereotypes. Irrespective of your own views about the opinions they express, in the end you understand a little better their experience, and why they have come to that conclusion, however unpalatable it might be to you. In 'Working' he interviews people at all levels of the Ford Company, and what he reveals is how each level of the business always blames the level above them as the source of all their problems. In his books you really are forced to 'bare witness' to the breadth of human experience and step out of your limited, self preserving perspective.

His approach to making his books was laborious, often visiting an interviewee several times. He always took a tape recorder with him, though he barely understood the technicalities of how it worked, and was lost if it didn't. Until her death a few years ago, his wife listened to and transcribed these tape recorded interviews. Terkel would then further edit and polish them. What he produced was invariable a seamless personal monologue, with little sense of Terkel's actual presence or questions. Without resorting to racial or cultural caricature he allowed something of their manner of speaking to come off the page. This is a skill he sensitively developed to a high degree. It is his self-effacement that gives the books their impact,because of this the books are never about him as the author, or the book being an expression of his ego. His books are about lives the people in them. His approach to interviewing was to encourage the person he was interviewing to open up and more deeply reveal themselves. Jonathan Ross should take note!

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