Ban ‘Jerusalem’? Yes: long overdue

The BBC can’t get anything right these days. The flurry today may have been an exercise in misdirection, but it showed up the angry divisions in society, as if we needed to be reminded of them. I love the patriotic songs lifting the spirit, but Jerusalem I would lose without hesitation.

The BBC organise the Promenade Concerts in the Royal Albert Hall, and have done every peacetime year since Henry Wood founded them. Today’s scandal broke from unofficial sources; a claim that the Beeb were to ban forever the famous patriotic songs which characterise the Last Night of the Proms. All hell broke loose. Actually this may have been a fake story, a softener before they revealed that the music would be there but not sung, because of the possible coronavirus risk.

A year without Rule, Britannia at full volume is unthinkable, and we must have Land of Hope and Glory belted out with gusto in the Royal Albert Hall or there has indeed been a revolution against us, the right-thinking people of the nation. They are grand, patriotic songs wrapped in the Union Jack that lift the spirit and remind us, in spite of all the vandals are trying to do, that Britons are a great nation and that we shaped and continue to shape the world and we can feel very glad about it.

(I saw this evening that Land of Hope and Glory sung by Vera Lynn has reached Number 1 in the download charts: it might restore my faith in the taste of the public.)

However one of the Proms songs, Jerusalem, or And Did Those Feet In Ancient Time, should be ditched forever.

It is not one that comes under the usual woke condemnation: it is not imperial or racial or whatever other boo-words they usually use to tag things that might make them think. It has a soaring tune by Parry – one of his best, and it is a cracker to listen to because of that tune. However the words – they pretend to be a hymn but are a disgrace to theology and although Jerusalem is a very popular song and has been used as a hymn ever since it was set to music, it has been banned from many churches because its words are blasphemous nonsense.

The words are a poem by William Blake, one of the weirdest of 19th century poets and painters. He was considered mad in his own age: the calm consideration of his legacy in later years does nothing to dispel that. His ideas were both radical and irrational and he grasped for a spirituality receiving an inspiration unlike that for a prophet and more like that received by the Gadarene Swine.

The poem he wrote which has become the famous ‘hymn’ is based on a mediaeval legend invented to fleece pilgrims out of cash in Glastonbury: the monks, to ‘prove’ how ancient their establishment was claimed that Jesus himself, as a child, came to Somerset and founded the abbey. The story takes the Lord’s name in vain in a most scandalous manner but it drew gullible pilgrims in droves. Blake took that blasphemous legend and made it into a poem, and that is what gets sung at the Proms.

This has been characterised as the only hymn in the book consisting of questions the answer to all of which is “no”. And did those feet..? No they did not. That rather knocks out the whole conceit of the piece.

There is a lot to be set for inspiring listener and the singer to exertions to bring about a paradise on Earth, and the confused mixing up of images from Paul’s letters to the Ephesians and from the Book of Kings and from Blake’s fevered imagination has a breathless quality that for that moment makes you feel you can achieve – but it is built on that fatal, ill concept so that to get to the soaring verses about whacking people with swords we are made to sing blasphemous nonsense about Jesus as a bairn in England.

One should also object politically: it sings of England, not Britain. In Blake’s time the word ‘England’ was used to mean the whole of the British isles, but it sits ill today and suggests “there is a special blessing for all who live south of the Tweed – not for Scots though”.

Jerusalem the city has a long history in metaphor, and Hobbes looked at this in the scriptures in forensic detail (and if I every get round to it I will write about that). Blake’s poem though has none of that: it is heretical nonsense and should be cast out at once.

I will enjoy Parry’s tune without the words. If a poet can write better words, freed from Blake’s phrenzy, he may make something which is worthy of Parry’s triumph.

The Salisbury Poisonings – a review

It was well done. I will not pretend to have enjoyed it greatly, though I would have been worried if I had. It was tightly produced and meant well, but so soon after the events it had no drama, because we all remember what happened.

Realising this, the writer pitched it as a human drama, and that is all it could be given its constraints. The Salisbury Poisonings was the BBC’s most promoted drama of the week and must have swallowed a sizable budget for what is essentially a series of internalised tensions, not even inter-personal ones.

The series is primarily not about the poisonings at all, but about the personal struggle of Tracy Daszkiewicz, Wiltshire’s public health supremo, feeling all the responsibility that could come from slipping up just once, and over-reacting perhaps or using her influence to stop others underreacting. That is for the viewer to decide. In addition we have other individuals and households, each with their own dramas, arising from the same events but barely interacting with any linked plot. That is hardly a fair complaint though: this is the reality of how we live and this is a series about real, named people and real, horrible, deathly events and so they interact and fail to interact just as we normal people do, and as they actually did at the time.

Therein lies a difficulty: the familiarity pops the tension that a miniseries like this needs. Had it been fiction, then the scene where Dawn’s boyfriend picks a perfume bottle up from a bin (when the cross-narrative makes clear what it contains) could have been a moment of tense drama, with her future hovering between happiness and death, the audience screaming at the screen ‘Don’t do it!’; but as we know what happened, as a moment of tension it fell flat: sometimes background music is not enough. It is a pity that moment did not quite work, because it really was the moment Dawn’s life was doomed, in silence because reality has no sound-track or looming thunder.

Perhaps it is as well that Saul Dibb had this show.  Another approach, with a different writer, would have been to create an actual drama, to run it like a Frederick Forsyth piece; semi-fictionalised, following the Russians from the moment the order was given in Moscow, plotting, infiltration, execution, exfiltration (and generally spitting on the memories of those actually affected by romanticising the villains). Actually, I cannot imagine Frederick Forsyth writing about a plot so stupidly executed. Had the killers done the job properly, with a tiny dab on the neck and disappearing in the night with evidence, their target (who, mercifully, is still alive) would have passed away alone and his death put down to natural causes. Instead, we got a drama in real life which engulfed the whole of one of Britain’s most beautiful cities.

Within those limits then, it was done well – plotted, scripted, acted. The piece only really showed its depth in the third and last episode, as much of the first and second episodes were filled with the search and decontamination panic, which swallowed too much screen time, serving though to show how much trouble was caused by a tiny smear of fluid on a door handle – in the third episode, with all that done with, the piece could concentrating on the effect on people: Dawn killed and Charlie nearly so, Sergeant Bailey recovered in body but not in mind, and Tracy Daszkiewicz again with the unbearable weight of responsibility upon her and the families torn.

Those involved, both those portrayed and many others, were facing something unwonted and horrible, stepping out of the bland, box-ticking ordinariness of their bureaucratic offices: they were facing the Russian military machine, and they prevailed.

It was only two years ago and these were not paper people conjured from a script. The point was made at the very end when the dramatization was finished and to face the audience they brought the actual individuals portrayed so we could see they and their sufferings were real. If there was no traditional drama it is because that sort of drama is not real life, but they are.

Question Time is meant to annoy everyone

Late this evening, but Thursday night is Question Time night. Locked down, distanced and audienceless it looks peculiar. It is also peculiar in not turning instantly into a shouting match.

We have Chris Philp, a junior government minister; Andy Burnham (by remote link from Lancashire); Camilla Tominey of the Torygraph; James Graham, the playwright; and Stephen Kinnock’s wife (introduced as the former Prime Minister of Denmark). Long discussion ensued about schools and coronavirus, contact tracing and coronavirus, Denmark and coronavirus. I miss the politics.

I miss the audience and their wild reactions because it part of the entertainment industry – the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd. I miss those Corbynites too. They went apoplectic at anything, because they genuinely hated anyone who was not them. It sounds too much like a generalisation that Conservatives think Labour are deluded while Labourites think Conservatives are evil – it is true though. It is mad, but it gives a dynamic to the drama.

This week the debate is too subtle and we wait for Fiona Bruce to provide the provocation. She does it so pleasantly, and brutally, as a smiling assassin.

It’s almost pleasant to watch (if you ignore the fact that they are discussing a deadly pandemic. The old format was infuriating – I had to turn away often, to walk into another room, to gnash my teeth and bite my tongue so as not to shout at the screen. QT was revoltingly biased – one Conservative or Brexiteer baited by four malicious opponents, like tying a fox to a gate and letting hounds torment it. It is against everything I believe. Everyone I have heard discuss BBC’s Question Time agrees it is unacceptably biased against right-thinking people: Labour supporters and Conservative supporters are convinced it is weighted against them.

Wind back a little though: it must be that it must be like this. It must challenge and probe, and dig in the gaps in reasoning and policy. What is more, it must generate new thoughts. Opinions and trains of thought which go unchallenged in a safe-space bubble will ossify and self-justify themselves in their flaws. Every so often a loathed opponent will make a telling point, or give the lie to a preconception that overturns a conclusion built on false premise. It is needed.

They have had figures from Theatreland before, but mainly actors and subsidy-junkies. To have an entrepreneur playwright / producer on has been a valued perspective but some insight was missing. There is much talk of how badly the cultural industry has been hit by the lockdown, but it goes beyond the theatre: the audiences for the theatres fill the restaurants and cafés, and they come from across the nation and beyond to fill all the shops and venues of the town – the decline of the theatre strikes at all the West End’s commercial life.

Until there is shouting again there is less life in Question Time but we can hope that within a month or two it will be just as infuriating as it ever was.

A less preachy BBC: praise be

I read that a new David Attenborough series is coming to the Beeb, which is always a great event: Green Planet. The name may strike dread into the hearts of those used to throwing bricks at the screen whenever another lecture on climate change is delivered, but it is a description of the subject, plant-life (just as Blue Planet was about the seas, not the worldwide success of Thatcherism).

We should still worry. Sir David’s more recent outing in Our Planet was one big lecture on how naughty we all are, with facts skewed and altered to fit the narrative of climate change being behind everything. (It isn’t; only some things.) That series was sponsored by a campaigning organisation and was so blatant that even the BBC rejected it. That sort of thing does not enhance the reputation of the broadcaster, nor the narrator.

This time we are promised a production that is more positive and less preachy. That will be a welcome change.

Mankind does tread upon the face of the Earth with giant boots, ill-regarding what is underfoot. An occasional reminder is welcome and it may help more of us in a solipsistic, screen-dominated society to appreciate what is there and to wish to care for it. However being told that all plastic bags are evil because one ended up in the stomach of a cute porpoise is untruthful and economically damaging (unless you actually throw your bags in the sea, in which case you deserve all those curses).

We can look beneath our big feet and appreciate the wonders of nature and that may be the better way to start mending it. Even in the concrete jungle there are persistent weeds breaking through the tarmac and through any flaw in the concrete, and that is a reminder of how limited is man’s dominion over the Earth in the face of nature. I think how hard it is to get a particular plant to grow in a particular spot in my garden, and then I see a burst of herb-Robert growing out exuberantly between the salt-scoured stones of a harbour wall in the Arctic Ocean and realise that nature is stronger and stranger than we could imagine.

The positive message we are promised in Green Planet is an active one: not just ‘look how beautiful’ but ‘this is what you can do personally’. That is only a bit preachy, but in an encouraging way. When the message is ‘write to politicians as they are all to blame’ or ‘every light left on drowns a polar bear’ that is displacement activity and discrediting science, but a personal positive with a to-do list that will actually have an improving effect, however small; that it exactly what the BBC should be doing.

It is the positive and practical message which Prince William has adopted in framing his ‘EarthShot Prize’, and that goes beyond the headline-grabber of ‘global warming’ to wider issues that are more important.

Yes, do show us the clumsy tread of mankind: we can see how the perennial floods in Bengal are worsened by the loss of forests upstream, or how the Communists poisoned the Aral Sea and turned Ethiopia into desert, and yes, we can see that corrupt practices in some countries leaves plastic waste dumped in the Pacific Ocean, but there is nothing realistically we can do but pray. We can however plant plants, and bee-friendly plants. Anyone can then get out in the country and learn to use their feet while they take in the glories of creation. That way you stop relying so much on electricity and heating and plastic comfort, and to tread more lightsome upon the face of the Earth.

Maybe that normalisation of a natural life will inspire those creative entrepreneurs who are popping up with greater frequency to find that less wasteful techniques are more profitable, as did the later Victorian mill-owners when they used fuel more efficiently and found that workers are more productive when not being poisoned and wool sells better when not smeared with soot.

If it is as we are promised, I can have high hopes for Green Planet. Seeing and understanding nature is the best way to appreciate it, and starting to become part of nature and to nurture it is a very positive message. Getting yet another lecture about how global warming is responsible for everything from shrinking fish stocks to Liverpool losing the cup makes me want to go out and batter a seal cub.

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Our Planet Matters to Auntie

The BBC’s year-long project, ‘Our Planet Matters’ could be a great thing if it is a wide approach, and of the essence of the BBC’s educational mission.  It may just become a narrow propaganda piece.

The announced project is “a year-long series of special programming and coverage on climate change” with “a raft of news services and shows”. There is a false note there: real environmental issues worldwide cover a wide range of challenges, and of these climate change is the most minor. It is real, but nowhere near as important as pollution or the loss of habitats, for example.

The BBC has the resources to drag in all the wisdom of the world and create an unequalled examination of the many, complex issues within the field, but it mostly chooses a narrow, simplistic approach, for it is still at heart a part of the entertainment industry.

We respect the BBC because it can do wonders, and has David Attenborough; they can draw upon brilliant men and women; but it is part of the entertainment industry and the decisions and editing are made by those who are at a level with the Victorian music-hall.

I want Auntie to do its environment series and do it well.  This blog has carried articles on environment issues before and will do so again. Technology has reached a stage when the world can and should step into new ways of doing things that tread more lightly on the earth. In a timely way, Prince William no less has created the ‘Earthshot Prize’ to encourage solutions to the world’s pressing problems, and declared the coming years a decade of action to repair the Earth.  Excellent; and so we should.

What Prince William recognises in the framing of his prize is that ‘environment’ is a broad heading within which there are many practical issues crucial to our time: pollution of the air, land and oceans; lack of fresh water; biodiversity; and climate change. That is all good. For all that though, when I saw that announcement of a year-long BBC series, I knew that they will get it completely wrong. The press release says just “climate change”. Maybe that is just the PR people writing and ‘Our Planet Matters’ will look at the wider field, but I am not hopeful, by past experience.

The environment has been an issue since 1989 when Margaret Thatcher addressed the United Nations:

Of all the challenges faced by the world community in those four years, one has grown clearer than any other in both urgency and importance—I refer to the threat to our global environment. I shall take the opportunity of addressing the general assembly to speak on that subject alone.

Mrs Thatcher began a global movement, and she was not alone. The greatest philosopher of our age, Sir Roger Scruton, whose passing we mourned this week, wrote at length on issues of protecting the environment, and he realised that it is a very conservative concern:

It needs to be pressed as a conservative issue. It comes across in the mouths of radicals and socialists though, whose ideas would destroy the very things they are claiming to support. The conservative voice for the Earth came first and must be heard loudly. I am not confident of its breaking through he walls of New Broadcasting House, but Conservatives should not make the mistake of dismissing the whole field: just the unscientific mistakes that will be propagated.

Back to the BBC’s year of programming, it has started badly by linking the Australian bush-fires to global warming. They are two completely separate issues, and the worst fires are in the coolest parts of the continent.  That was lazy. They need to do better if this project is to fulfil its educational brief.  The fires are an environment issue, in a broad field, but it is not connected with global warming.

However, global warning is the posterboy of the green movement and everything seem reductible to it, to the exclusion of all else; well, that and waste plastic, which is actually more important.

(I recall in the 1980s the two big environmental scares were depletion of the ozone layer above the poles, and heavy-metal pollution from vehicles, which are both real, and completely unrelated. You still got people protesting to remove lead from petrol ‘to protect the ozone layer’.)

Start by asking who will want to push themselves forward to talk about environment issues to all the living-rooms of the nation.  Frightening isn’t it?

Even if it is a year on climate change, the next concern is what conclusions they imply. As has been recited in many other places, the simplistic solutions suggested by the extreme-green movement would lead to mass starvation and worse environmental degradation, and even if the venting of carbon dioxide into the air ceased at once, it would take two hundred years to bring the levels down. Will the BBC accept some subtlety into their broadcasting? We will see, but I am not hopeful.

The BBC started broadcasting in colour in 1967, but it only broadcasts opinions that are black and white.

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