The People’s Thatcher

So, farewell then, Great Leaderene… Actually, more the Housemaster’s Wife.

You divided a nation. You certainly divided me. Born on the black-sheep side of a wealthy family, I’ve been a lifelong socialist, detesting power and privilege, at the same time relying on a Trust fund to act as my social security blanket. You detested those things too. I’ve worked all my life, had to, and always believed in the value of trades unionism, but throughout my career I hated too, the power and privilege of the unions.

After two years in college studying and learning to become a film cameraman, in 1970 as you rose through the ranks of the cosy Conservative hierarchy, a gentlemen’s club you secretly hoped to break apart, I left and was immediately recruited to work as a junior member of the camera crew on a proper feature film shooting on location in London. Two weeks into my new career, a man came onto the set and took the producer aside. Five minutes later, I and two other ex-students were sacked. Why? We weren’t members of the Association of Cinematographic and Television Technicians, the mighty ACTT.

I immediately offered to join, but was told I couldn’t. Not until I had been working in the film industry for six months…. It was a joke, but it aborted my nascent film career. I fell accidentally into radio broadcasting and, as a news writer, felt it was behoven to me to join the National Union of Journalists. For four years I paid my dues, and then I was a senior News Editor, the company got into difficulty and started laying waste to the staff. Unfairly dismissed (the company denied that I was even an employee!), I ran to the union. We won’t help you, they sneered. You’re management!

A 24-hour news radio station I worked for, LBC had been started by newspaper people. Knowing nothing else, they let the print unions in. Members of the militant Society of Graphical and Allied Trades were allowed to dictate to producers and editors. They controlled the flow of raw news information into the building. If they chose not to work, there was no new news. Journalists were not allowed to touch the newswires. A bunch of, frankly, lazy gobshites, the SOGAT members sat around playing cards, or went to the pub, and were paid twice as much as experienced broadcasters.

In 1980, I got a contract working as a relatively lowly writer on Thames TV’s flagship programme, Thames News. I had been in my new TV career a week, when members of the technicians’ union, the ACTT, went on strike. The issue was the introduction of videotape. Up to then, the reporter went out on a story accompanied by a film crew of seven. Four of them were unnecessary to the process of gathering news; they would be drivers, riggers, ‘assistants’. It was cumbersome and expensive, and open to corrupt practices: expenses were faked, overtime and ‘danger money’ demanded, foreign currency transactions fiddled and the proceeds divided. Fewer stories could be covered, more slowly and at greater cost, reducing the salaries that could be afforded to non-ACTT staff..

Yet the technology existed to streamline the process. The introduction of lightweight video cameras and digital editing suites was fiercely resisted by union officials, who knew perfectly well their members’jobs were not threatened: more people could be employed gathering more news more simply, and this would dilute their power. It was nothing to do with jobs being threatened, but entirely to do with non-union members being let in who would work for less and expose the corrupt practices of the past.

For five weeks, my new TV career remained in suspension. Eventually there was a cock-up over renewing my contract, I was temporarily without one and I quit the ‘profession’ with, it must be said, some relief.

Thatcher brought in laws banning the union closed shops. This allowed the sometimes harsh light of progress to stream in through the smoke-blackened curtains of union backrooms. It brought more fairness to the workplace.

My attitude to unions is, as may be imagined, ambiguous. Like Thatcher, I suspect, I could see their initial value – although, frankly, they had done nothing for me and my ‘rights’ as a working man. In German industry, unions operated on a collegiate level with directors and technicians; in Britain, they had become bloody-minded obstructionists, weekday Marxists out only for themselves.

While feeling sad for the miners and their shattered communities, history may judge that Scargill was a preposterous figure, a monstrously vain bully who deserved taking down, and who (like Hitler) brought his union and their industry, that had done so much to improve conditions for miners since the General Strike, crashing down in flames. The print unions, the labour ‘lump’ on which building workers and dockers had to depend for a precarious living… I hate to say this, but she was right.

But, Oh God! that voice….


Taking the Lord to task

It may be thought from previous Posts that I have it in for Lord Sachs, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain. I don’t. He seems a fundamentally decent man, vocally somewhat furrowed with caring for his wayward flock; perhaps a bit soapy in manner. He is obviously a man of great learning and wisdom, so I’m sure he won’t mind me apprehending him, although I have absolutely no credentials or qualifications for doing so.

In his three-minute Thought for Today slot on BBC radio this morning, the Chief Rabbi returned to a familiar theme, that of warning against rising antisemitism in Europe, and urging Jews to show fortitude, as they had done conspicuously in Warsaw in 1943.

I wanted to make just three points about this.

The first is to note that, like violence in Northern Ireland, antisemitism seems to increase and decrease very much in line with economic indicators, such as the unemployment figures. It seems to be a symptom of insecurity in the general population and has very little to do with religion, which most people now do not practise or understand.

Secondly, antisemitism when it is on the rise tends to be only one part of a wider picture of periodic anti-ism against all sorts of social groups, including all foreigners, people of African, Afro-Caribbean or Asian ethnic origin, and families without wage earners living on state handouts. It is a sign of human frailty to envy those who are worse off than yourself what little they may have, that you perceive they have only at your expense.

And thirdly, I believe you are wrong when you say, as you did three times in your short broadcast, that antisemitism is caused by hatred of Jews. It’s not hatred, it’s fear. Fear of the Other, fear of people who have often arrogated a special status to themselves, based on an apparently documented connection with the Almighty; fear of people who think they are superior, ‘chosen’, and who tend at the ultra-orthodox end of the religious spectrum to distance themselves by thought, conduct and, above all, dress from the rest of suffering humanity. How else are we goyim supposed to respond? To paraphrase Woody Allen, Jews can’t function without feeling themselves to be a perpetually persecuted minority. But as we see in Israel-Palestine, the boot is sometimes worn on the other foot.

If I may sneak in a fourth point, Dr Sachs, why in your view is it honourable for young men to sacrifice their lives in the name of freedom and life itself, when they are Jews rebelling against oppression by overwhelming force in the Warsaw ghetto, but not when they are young Arabs resisting being walled-in in the Gaza strip, their homeland purloined, their mothers and sisters killed in punitive strikes by supersonic aircraft they do not themselves possess, and by artillery firing phosphorus shells banned in international law?

Just testing…

PS Missing letters

I apologise, by the way, for any letters missing from my Posts recently. They have been stolen by a misfunctioning keypad on my expensive Asus laptop. I try to put in new ones, but my eyesight at close range is rapidly failing. Do your best.

Dark Time: a paradox

Help! Judging by recent press releases, the universe seems to be expanding at a rate commensurate with the increase of information available to cosmologists to estimate its size.

The bigger it looks, the bigger it gets… Truly the gift that goes on giving.

But as the light, bearing information, that reaches us from the furthest reaches of the universe has taken 13.9 billion earth years to arrive, can we have any idea of what kind of space it occupies today?

Maybe if we could see that far out in real time, we would find that the source of the 13.9 billion years old light is no longer there? Or that it has reached some unexpected, invisible boundary? Or that it is contracting rapidly? Or that we are borne on the backs of four giant turtles? What can illuminate this paradox?

Let us call it Dark Time. The invisible string that connects the unimaginably distant past with the here-and-now.