Saturday 31 December 2016

For Auld Lang Syne

Soul Music can often be a Radio 4 highlight. It can take you deep into a piece of music and into people's reactions to a piece of music. It often gets the balance right but sometimes overdoes the 'moving' element (as I think this episode did). Moving as the various reflections were they were, as a whole, rather too moving and, thus, rather too depressing - despite always ending in some strong note of consolation. 

Anyhow, this week's subject was Auld Lang Syne and I'm still grateful to this programme for encouraging me to read the original Robert Burns poem and to try and understand it. 

It is a poem, after all, whose Scots dialect is so strong that even it's most famous phrase "For auld lang syne" remains hard to pin down in translation - though it literally translates as 'old long since', so I've always understood it to mean 'for old times' (or 'for the sake of old times'). And translation is certainly needed nowadays for "gowans" (daisies), "dine" (dinner time), "braid" (broad), "fiere" (friend), "guid-willie" (hearty), "wraught" (big drink) and "pint-stowp" (tankard).

Fred Freeman, Professor of Scottish Music at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, was the programme's chief expert and he noted that Rabbie's claims to have collected the song from an old timer wasn't really true and the poet wrote it mostly himself. Moreover, when Burns sent it in to James Johnson of the Scots' Musical Museum he did so to a different tune to the one we all sing this very night - and a lovely tune it is too:

As for the tune we do all sing, here's Prof. Freeman:
The thing is this. The only time that Burns ever used that reel, intact, as we know it. For Auld Lang Syne, the one that's sung universally, is that Burns used it for a song about impotence: O Can Ye Labour Lea? as a lassie accuses this lad of not being able to manage quite frankly!

 And the meaning of Auld Lang Syne according to Fred Freeman?:
The story of Auld Lang Syne is very much a simple one: A chap sits with his mate. probably in a pub, and he asks a rhetorical question, "Should old acquaintance be forgot?" In other words, "Is that the way of it? Do we just forget about friendship?" In the chorus he maintains that he and his jo - his sweetheart - will raise a glass to friendship. And he turns to his mate and avers, "Surely both of us will buy a drink to friendship." Then he reflects on old times when he and his mate were young. They climbed the braes - the hillsides. They pulled the daisies. They paddled in the burn - the stream. But that was before his mate settled overseas, a long time ago. His thoughts return to the present and then, in the most powerful lines, he extends his hand in friendship and says, "And we'll have that drink now!"  
Now it's a simple story but Burns has two serious objectives here. One is that he wants to make a universal statement about human brotherhood. Secondly, he wants to make a more intimate statement about what the Scottish experience of brotherhood should be.  
He doesn't paint the picture of a particular Scottish scene. It's a generalised landscape. So it's Scotland to a degree and it's everywhere. And that makes it a human landscape anybody can identify with. 
Not everybody identifies with bagpipes (to put it mildly), but I do love a good piper. So farewell to 2016!

"I received some abuse on social media..."

"I've seen a lot of bad things in more than 30 years as a journalist. I am not made of stone and what I have witnessed has left me with some mental wear-and-tear."

It was a strikingly defensive talk at times. Criticism on social media has clearly riled him: 
I've posted a lot of photos of Middle Eastern street food on social media. Someone even combined them into an online slideshow under the admirably business-like title of 'Jeremy Bowen is hungry'. I received some abuse on social media for daring to suggest that, despite everything, Syrians still ate and that I'd been known to join them. My answer was that the best way to understand people, even those caught up in the Middle East catastrophe, is to see how they live and not just how they die.  

Dr Usama is Leaving for Manchester

Today's From Our Own Correspondent featured yet another attack on the Hungarian government by the BBC's Central Europe correspondent Nick Thorpe.

In it he fulminated (in mellifluous prose) against the Hungarian government's behaviour during the migrant crisis and the "xenophobia" now rampant in Hungary. 

He then focused on one individual: a nice Syrian doctor called Dr Usama who's done great things in Hungary and who inspired one kindly old Hungarian woman to welcomed the "refugees". 

Nick just couldn't get his head round the polling evidence that barely one in five Hungarians would feel comfortable living next to an Arab. Few of them have ever met an Arab, he said. And if they did, then they would surely change their minds - just like his nice Hungarian lady, 

Nick blames the Hungarian government.

Dr Usama feels so unwelcome that he's now joining his wife, son and three of his daughters who have already left Hungary to come and live in Manchester, here in the UK.

Nick vented his frustration this morning:
What has shocked me all along in the official handling of the refugee crisis in Hungary is the failure to recognise refugees as human beings, to find out their names and why they felt the need to flee their homes and countries. If they had this story might have ended differently.
It's an odd thing that the BBC can be so keen to demonstrate its impartiality that it refuses to call Islamic State 'Da'esh' because that's "a pejorative name" coined by their enemies and as doing so (as Lord Hall put it) "may give the impression of support for those who coined it and that would not preserve the BBC's impartiality", and yet it's prepared to give Nick Thorpe full freedom, time and time again, to give his far-from-impartial take on the Hungarian government and "the refugee crisis".

"Brexit, Trump, the refugee crisis, wars across the Middle East, terrible terrorist attacks"

If you were thinking that 2016 has been a good/great year politically-speaking (especially with the Brexit vote), then Kate Adie's introduction to this morning's From Our Own Correspondent might strike you as being strongly biased in the other direction. She had a little list:
Hello. Today, last day of the year, and we have something different on the menu. Quite a year! And many might say a thankful 'goodbye' to it. Brexit, Trump, the refugee crisis, wars across the Middle East, terrible terrorist attacks. What's the view from our correspondents far away?

Same old same old same old same old (etc)

Hopefully you will already have read it, but if you haven't David Keighley has a powerful end-of-year message at The Conservative Woman, and it's not a particularly cheerful one for those of us who have monitoring BBC bias. He begins:
The BBC heads into 2017 almost unchanged – and unscathed. 
Yet again during a cycle of so-called Charter renewal, the Corporation has repelled all boarders in terms of meaningful reform. 
In effect, its partisan position as a political advocate of the liberal Left, facilitated by its self-serving concept of ‘due impartiality’, has been cemented. Its attacks on the Brexit vote, Nigel Farage, Donald Trump, and anything to do with ‘populism’ (aided last week even by Prince Charles) continue unabated. 
The Corporation’s defence of uncontrolled immigration and unmodified multiculturalism - and in tandem with this, the systematic re-writing of British history and values to accommodate its visceral hatred of Western values - remains bloody-mindedly resolute.
Very sadly, it's hard to disagree.

Same old same old same old

Similarly, this morning's Farming Today This Week was another Brexit-focused look-ahead to 2017. 

Previous Brexit-based panel discussions on Farming Today, post-referendum, have been striking in their lack of balance. One soon after the referendum had 4/4 guests who had been pro-Remain in the referendum. Another one in October had 3/3 guests who had been pro-Remain. This edition had 2/3 guests who had been pro-Remain and 1/3 who didn't take a position at the time but was, from her contributions, clearly like-minded. On the 'hard' v 'soft' Brexit question all three of today's guests wanted a 'soft' Brexit. 

And on it goes.

Same old same old

The year ends but BBC bias goes on. Regulars won't be surprised that Dateline London's look-ahead to 2017 began with Brexit and with all four guests (from various parts of the left-liberal spectrum) being heavily downbeat about Brexit - so much so that even Gavin Esler called them "all you gloom-mongers" at one point. That's all that really needs saying about it. 

Today in Hull

Mishal Husain in Hull

Today sent Mishal Husain to Hull (today) to mark the start (tomorrow) of Hull's year as UK City of Culture (next year). 

(Did her train run behind the backs of houses, cross a street of blinding windscreens? Did she smell the fish-dock? Probably not the latter these days.) 

She evidently brought her own concerns along for the ride, particularly Brexit.

Her interview with Finbarr Dowling of Siemens (just after 7.30) was particularly obsessive - and fruitless. Instead of summarising it myself, here are some reactions from Twitter which sum it up very well:

  • Mishal Husain couldn't get Siemens to condemn Brexit despite best efforts. Nothing positive. BBC imbalance yet again.
  • Can @BBCr4today please blacklist Finbarr Dowling? He didn't complain about Brexit enough. Very unfair on the interviewer.
  • Mishal failed miserably to get a negative #Brexit response from Siemens CEO.
  • @MishalHusainBBC tried everything to persuade @SiemensUKNews to condemn #brexit - but failed.
Though Hull was heavily pro-Leave (68%) in the referendum the balance of guests this morning was typically pro-Remain (by a margin of at least 3:1). 

And Matthew Price did one of his 'vox pop' reports from the poorest estate in Hull (in one of the poorest cities in the UK) and still only managed to talk to people unhappy with the Leave vote. 

(Thankfully, the other reports from other BBC reporters, Sima Kotecha and Sanchia Berg, also in Hull, weren't as Leave-voter free). 

Matthew, having give us one anti-Brexit voice, then said that others here "aren't as articulate" (charming!) and duly spoke to some such people (though they expressed no views on Brexit).

Good old Today sports presenter Gary Richardson didn't so down too well on Twitter either for repeatedly describing the cafe he was broadcasting from as being "like Last of the Summer Wine", saying it was the sort of place where he could imagine Nora Batty shouting out about whether someone wants a cup of tea. The Twitter crowd found that "patronising". (I was more concerned about Gary's ignorance about Last of the Summer Wine as, as you'll doubtless already know, it was actually Ivy who was the one who usually shouted about tea. 

The Folies Farage

If ever a Twitter avatar told you everything you need to know about the bias of a particularly BBC programme then this is probably it:

That episode of 15 Minute Musical came not from The Folies Bergère but The Folies Farage. (Yes, that was the kind of joke you missed if you didn't listen to it).

The previous day's episode, Lady and the Trump, contained such quips as this (sung to of The Lady is a Tramp):
Hillary: "He don't like dark skins". Trump: "You got that right!"

Wednesday 28 December 2016

"His latest unprecedented outburst"

The use of "outburst" is particularly bad ("Since when was it the BBC’s job to decide a President elect’s comments are outbursts?", asked Roland Deschain at Biased BBC. "They really hate that he’s doing all his communication on Twitter and bypassing the leugenpresse, don’t they?"). though 'complained' isn't exactly an impartial choice of word either. (Surely "he said" would have been better?)

Someone at the BBC must have realised how bad it looked and the article has now been edited to remove this less-than-impartial language. In the course of some three hours or so, it's gone from:
It is his latest unprecedented outburst on the social media network Twitter.
The comments came in his latest outburst on Twitter
Earlier, US President-elect Donald Trump tweeted in support of Israel, saying he would not allow it to be treated with "disdain and disrespect".
If anything the first version, with its ridiculously-worded "his latest unprecedented outburst" (almost worthy of the great Sam Goldwyn), is even worse than the second version.

Double standards

Some Radio 4 comedy is both funny, clever and surprising. It's not all predictable anti-Brexit jokes and political correctness. 

Unless you're one of those people who can't stand Stephen Fry under any circumstances, I bet most of you would very much enjoy Some Hay in Manager (broadcast on Boxing Day and yesterday) for example. There wasn't a Trump joke in sight, and there were distant shades of CS Lewis's Screwtape too. It was charming. 

I heard the final episode of that festive delight last night and then went straight on to a Christmas edition of John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme, which wasn't bad either (I laughed occasionally) but, alas, it wasn't in the same league at all. 

Its running joke was about turkeys voting for Christmas, and giving their silly reasons for voting for Christmas - all of which sounded uncannily like those given by Leave voters in BBC interviews. 

Ah yes, it was just another bit of wholly one-sided BBC Brexit-bashing!

Of course, that could just me being one of those green ink internet types with no sense of humour who rages against BBC comedies for being too PC.

And those were pretty much the very words used by John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme to describe the kind of people who object to programmes like this mocking Christian belief but failing to mock Muslim belief - i.e. having a complete double standard when it comes to Islam. 

For, lo!, yes, John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme did tackle that double standard last night by asking why they weren't also mocking Ramadan. 

And their answer, essentially, was because it's the right thing to do not to mock Islamic belief. 

Yes, it's a double standard but it's a good double standard. It just is. 

And those nasty green ink internet types with no sense of humour who rage against BBC comedies for being too PC are just that: nasty green ink internet types with no sense of humour who rage against BBC comedies for being too PC and for not being mean enough to Muslims. 

So the BBC is right to call in "all its lawyers" at the first sign of a programme embarking on an Islam-mocking joke. 

So there you go! They aren't doing it because they fear a violent reaction (a possibility or likelihood not mentioned). They are doing it because it's the right (BBC) thing to do. Simple as that!

Tuesday 27 December 2016

More on that intriguing tweet

Here's a little more on the mystery of Tom Holland's tweet (see yesterday) - a tweet based on Tim Shipman of the Sunday Times's book about Brexit: 
A BBC review of their Brexit coverage lamented that too many of the Leave supporters they interviewed "were a bit shaven-headed, tattooed".
The mystery here was that I couldn't find any internet reference to such a BBC review. 

News-watch's David Keighley has ridden to my rescue and read the passage in question, and it reads as follows (and a big thanks to David for this):
Once the referendum was over, executives did a second, qualitative review of the coverage and concluded that the BBC had been unfair during the campaign, but not in the way Craig Oliver believed. 
It found that because most BBC reporters live and work in London, which voted remain, they did not reflect enough the pro-Brexit feeling from the rest of England and Wales. A source ‘familiar with the review’ (my quotation marks) said, “There was some criticism, which I would not shy away from, that some of the Leave people we interviewed were a bit shaven-headed, tattooed, and looked like they were slightly on the far wing of the campaign. We could have done more to give what I would call ordinary decent Leave voters a little bit more air time.”
So, there must have been two BBC reviews of the corporation's Brexit coverage and, presumably, both must have been internal reviews 'for the BBC's eyes only' (like the Balen report).

It would be very interesting to see them (like the Balen report) and, hopefully, they will make those findings public (unlike the Balen report) - especially given that the BBC has obviously already shared them enough for Tim Shipman to know enough about what they 'found' to include it in his book.


Yesterday's Today had a few festive sections.

We heard a selection of famous voices naming the people who have inspired them most. Three of the Today presenters contributed to this bit. Nick Robinson named his German Jewish grandparents who had escaped from Nazi Germany. Sarah Montague named a pansexual French singer who "made her think differently". Mishal Husain named a Bataclan survivor who refuses to hate the Muslim terrorists who killed his wife. She admires "the example he set by his attitude". 

We also had four senior BBC editors talking about their stand-out moments of the past year. Most involved what Mark Easton called "the Brexit thing", with Mark Easton choosing seeing Theresa May on the day she became PM and assuming she was still home secretary. The "only thing" that "kept" him "sane" this year was Ed Balls on Strictly, he added. Kamal Ahmed recalled the concern of the markets on EU referendum night and "that amazing graph of the fall in sterling" though his main memory was seeing Mark Carney that morning and recalling the tinsel tattoo on the bank governor's eye at a festival "because he's rather a cool dude".  Simon Jack recalled Sir Philip Green doing a 'Taxi Driver' impression during that parliamentary session and "the king of retail's crown finally slipped". And Laura Kuenssberg - as you'll doubtless already know - chose being told and not feeling able to report that the Queen favoured Brexit. ["You behaved as a responsible political editor", John Humphrys told her.]

Those four editors were all there to show off their knowledge in a Celebrity Mastermind special with John Humphrys, which Laura K won all hands down. 

Kamal Ahmed was this year's David Lammy, getting only two answers right and failing to get Mark Carney's school nickname {either Carnival or Carnage}, how Philip Hammond like to dress at school {as a goth}, the oldest central bank in the world {Sweden}, any three of the new items added to CPI shopping basket {"Quite remarkably you've picked three things that were not in that very long list!", said John H}, the most deprived town in England according to the ONS {Oldham}, and the lowest level that a barrel of Brent oil fell to this year {$27.67}.

I did laugh at this question to Mark Easton: 
John Humphrys: You wrote a blog called 'David Bowie: the creative voice who changed Britain'. How much of Bowie's fortune did he leave to charity in his will?
Mark Easton: All of it?
John Humphrys. None of it.


This morning's The Infinite Monkey Cage Christmas Special (on the subject of ghosts and ghost stories) inevitably began with a now bog-standard BBC quip from Robin Ince about 2016 being a terrible year (see yesterday), but who couldn't forgive our (Christmas) Robin for that when we also had this kind of thing?:
Neil deGrasse Tyson: But if I may broaden the concept of 'ghost'? As an astrophysicist it's not hard for me to think of stars that have long ago died whose light only just reaches us on Christmas Day telling us that they once did die. And that stream of light is a ghost, a kind of spirit energy of a last gasp of a star's life. So when I look up at the night's sky I know that some fraction of the stars I see are ghosts of a star that was once alive. 
Brian Cox: No, it's just photons.
And Nick Baines, the go-ahead Bishop of Leeds, shared a joke:
I was walking down the road and I saw a baby ghost on the pavement. On the other hand it could have been a handkerchief.

I sent my girlfriend a huge pile of snow and then I rang her up and said, "Did you get my drift?"

Here are a few Tim Vine jokes from yesterday's The Tim Vine Christmas Chat Show (all worthy of being inside Christmas crackers): 

  • I actually live in an Advent calendar. It's freezing at the moment because all the windows are open.
  • Shopping can be quite a tense thing. I've got a fear of enclosed grottoes. I've got Santa Claustrophobia.
  • I was in Tesco. I saw this man and woman wrapped in a barcode. I said, "Are you two an item?"
  • Did you know this? The guitarist in U2, who's called The Edge, he actually takes December off. He's replaced by a Christmas guitarist called The Sledge. 
  • I said to this bloke, "I can do an impression of the Beatrix Potter character called Puddleduck". He said, "Jemima?" I said, "No, I do the voice as well".
  • He said, "If you were a comedian"...(I let that go)..."would you want to be like Morecambe or Wise?" I said, "Like Morecambe". He said, "Likewise". I said, "No, like Morecambe".

What's going on though? This was a Radio 4 6.30 comedy and there were no jokes about Trump, Boris, the Daily Mail or Brexit. Someone at Radio 4 slipped up there. 

"Reverse BDS?"

This reads as sarcasm to me. Does it to you?

Monday 26 December 2016

An intriguing tweet

Some people - including BBC history programme presenters like Radio 4 Making History presenter Tom Holland - enjoy tweeting.

They even tweet as they read books

Tom Holland is presently spending his Boxing Day evening reading Sunday Times political editor Tim Shipman's All Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain's Political Class and tweeting as he goes

Tom's latest tweet about Tim's book evidently deals with Chapter 17, Aunty Beeb, and reads:

That would certainly be a fair point (and echoes points made here, at News-watch and elsewhere), but precisely what "BBC review" is this? That's a review I'd like to see.

I can't find anything about it anywhere though, not even on the internet. Do I have to buy the book to find out?


I rarely tweet myself but I did actually send someone a 'Merry Christmas!' via Twitter on Christmas Eve and received a reply saying, "I think it's been a good year", to which I replied saying, "So do I. Here's to 2017!" (We were talking politics, of course). 

Stephen Pollard has a fine piece in The Times today expressing much the same sentiment, headlined "For me, it’s been an annus mirabilis". It begins:
I barely seem to have had a conversation this past week without it ending in a cheery “Let’s hope 2017 is better!” — as if it’s a statement of the blindingly obvious with which any stranger would agree that this has been a terrible year. 
Which presents me with a dilemma. Do I treat it as a pre-new-year version of “How are you?” No one in their right mind would reply to that greeting with a genuine answer. “Oh, you know: too many headaches, my back hurts and the cancer isn’t going away.”
Or do I point out that not all of us think 2016 was a disaster? For some of us — the majority, in fact — 2016 was a wonderful year.
Believe me, I’m tempted. Because it’s precisely the cosy, smug idea that “we” all think 2016 has been horrendous that led to the very developments that “we” all so deplore. By which, of course, “we” mean above all Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. 
I did hear quite a lot of Radio 4 yesterday and enjoyed much of it but, curiously, that "cosy, smug idea" that "we" all think 2016 has been "horrendous" kept cropping up in one form or another - along with other related "cosy, smug ideas" of the kind Radio 4 listeners are so often 'treated to'.

Among the things I heard, for example, was Mark Tully on Something Understood asking (re the angels promise of good will on earth to the shepherds), "Where is 'good will' in the politics of hatred unleashed this year?", and Sheila Hancock on Just a Minute's panto special saying that her 'one wish' would be "that 2016 never happened". (The audience laughed, clapped and whooped, and she then clarified that she was talking about Brexit - which they'd evidently already guessed!)

Then there was Marina Warner on From Our Home Correspondent using another panto-related piece to wax indignant about "headlines against Poles and Romanians and refugees or other stock figures of the new populism"- plus the inevitable anti-Murdoch, anti-Tory-governments jokes from Jeremy Hardy on I'm Sorry, I Haven't a Clue, and Sheila Dillon on The Food Programme's 'Wild Boar' Christmas special suggesting that wild boar "does seem to embody a kind of masculinity that seems kind of old-fashioned".

Plus there was Sunday's Christmas special from Hampton Court Palace on the state of religion in England in 1516, with Ed Stourton saying, "Listening to you describe the tide of nationalistic feeling at the time [of Henry VIII's split from Rome], I couldn't help be reminded of our own recent referendum campaign", and Mariella Frostrup beginning Open Book by announcing, "Bolstering borders has been a frequent topic of debate of late so today we've decided to abandon them altogether" and end the programme by announcing, "We're looking forward to another 12 months of transcending borders to bring you the best of books, near and far, in 2017".

Now, much of what I heard on these programmes was interesting and enjoyable but the messages sent out by them - often incidentally, often far from incidentally - were almost always of this "cosy, smug" variety. 

2016 certainly was a "terrible" year when it came to BBC bias (the worst for years, in my opinion). In that respect, yes, here's to a better 2017! Much improvement is needed. 

Unwrapped (Open) thread

Sorry again for the small number of posts this past month. This has been due to circumstances beyond our control (well, my control). Hopefully, ITBB will burst out anew in the new year with so many posts that you'll struggle to ever keep up with them. Until then, here's another open thread. Thank you for sticking with us and  and a 'Merry Christmas!' and a 'Happy Hanukkah!' to you all. Ho, ho, ho!

Pantomime season

Russell Brand visits Scrooge

Being rather ill and in some pain this Christmas Day I heard much more of BBC Radio 4 than I intended to, and it wouldn't at all be in the spirit of A Christmas Carol if I didn't acknowledge that I actually very much enjoyed most of what I heard.


As far as Radio 4 is concerned I really do wish it could be Christmas everyday. It was an exceptional day's broadcasting, this Christmas Day.

Over the past year, however, my abiding affection for the station (despite all the bias) has taken a palpable hit. Why? Because I've felt that Radio 4 has changed for the worse and become even more boring, predictable and earnest. Even in 2015 I'd still be able to find a few unexpected gems almost every day in Radio 4 schedule. This year even finding one has frequently proved hard, and it's not just because too many programmes look to have an agenda or find their origins in an agenda and because that worthiness has at times become all-consuming; it's simply that BBC Radio 4 has become much duller in 2016.

Well, that's how I feel anyhow.

Still, I wasn't meant to be moaning here. I come to praise BBC Radio 4 yesterday not to bury it.


My day actually started with BBC One's broadcast of midnight mass from Birmingham's Roman Catholic cathedral, St. Chad's (the first Catholic cathedral in England since the Reformation, completed just 12 years after Catholics were emancipated by the Duke of Wellington's government) - a lovely public service performed by the BBC for those too lazy, not religious enough or too ill to go in person to a nocturnal mass but who'd still like to be there in spirit. Not being a Catholic, it was a new experience for me - albeit, in the end, not that new (having had a high Anglican upbringing). It helped, however, that the choir was topnotch and the music performed (familiar carols, late Renaissance polyphony, a lovely mass by a late 19th Century composer) was absolutely gorgeous too.

The BBC is always good at broadcasting such things, giving us lots of shots from different viewing points of the magnificent Pugin-designed building as well as the priests, choir and congregation, thus allowing us to be awed and to gawp at all manner of people. 

I spent quite some time matching up the members of the clergy and choir to well-known people, for example. I was particularly taken by pre-Raphaelite TV historian Kate Williams, here pictured next to Birds of a Feather star Linda Robson:

Linda Robson and Kate Williams

As I sign that I must be a political nerd one of the male choristers struck me as being a moonlighting Professor Timothy Garton Ash. The presiding bishop was Archbishop Bernard Longley, who - by a happy coincidence - had something of the look of Harold Bishop from Neighbours about him.

I only wish they could have found a way to allow us to smell all the incense too. Will be ever get beyond 'scratch and sniff' cards?


Being a Catholic service there were bells as well as smells, tinkling out (for the second time) as the Eucharist bread and chalice were raised. I have to say though that the bells of Durham Cathedral, ringing out on Radio 4's Bells on Sunday a few hours later. were much more Godly to my (lapsed) Anglican ears. Goodness gracious, Great Bells of Fire! 

They rang out what the programme's website called 'Grandsire Caters' and which the BBC announcer pronounced (assuredly correctly) as 'Grandsir Caters'. These BBC announcers do check up on the pronunciations - unless they are so posh that they already know that such things should be pronounced in such ways. In fact, I bet that BBC presenter pronounces 'garage' to rhyme with 'Nigel Farage' rather than the way I'd pronounce it, to rhyme with 'Fridgemaster MUL49102 Undercounter larder fridge'.


Cardinal Wolsey, from a painting by Hans Holbein

Talking about 'posh', Edward Stourton presented this week's Sunday from Cardinal Wolsey's old haunt Hampton Court Palace to mark the dawn of the Reformation next very year by examining the state of religion in England in the early years of Henry VIII. 

Now that's my kind of Sunday. I loved it from start to finish. (Best episode ever!)

It was Out with the liberal hand-wringing, the social work/socialist worker campaigns, the SJW bishops, the endless parade of offended Muslims, the interfaith bromides, all the interminable stuff about Anglican infighting and the infallible paeans to Pope Francis, etc, etc, and In with Ed Stourton trying Tudor-style Plum Possett (and rather enjoying its unique sweet-and-sour flavours of meat and fruit, despite not at all liking the look of its brown sludge in the bowl) and well-informed, enthusiastic historians talking about the church calendar and why the Reformation in England didn't just start because 'Enery wanted to get his leg-over with saucy Anne! Plus there was Catherine Bott on Christmas carols and some beautiful performances of Christmas carols by St Martin's Voices, ending with a favourite carol of mine, The Coventry Carol. 

To be particularly nerdy, I particularly enjoyed hearing about the 1515 Sarum Missal, whose post-Brexit break from Rome saw the name of the Pope (every mention of 'Papa' - of which there were many) scribbled out. The Missal itself, however, continued to be used throughout Henry's 'English Catholic' reign, showing where the red-meat loving monarch's theological inclinations lay (and, no, they didn't just lay next to Miss Boleyn).


Archbishop 'Nosy' Parker (inventor of the Parker pen, the parka coat and the Anglican Church as we know it)

Straying away from yesterday to today, I'd just like to add that anyone who enjoyed being taken back to Tudor England by Ed Stourton would probably have just as equally enjoyed being taken back to Tudor England by this morning's Start the Week where Andrew Marr put politics and left-wing concerns aside and talked about the medieval manuscript collection gathered together by Elizabeth I's first Archbishop of Canterbury and pioneer Brexiteer Matthew Parker, about Elizabethan jigs, and about errors (deliberate or otherwise) in maps throughout history.

Those Elizabethan jigs - about which I'd never heard before - were short plays written to be performed as light relief after the main dramatic event. I'm imaging the groundlings sobbing at Romeo and Juliet before being sent away laughing by Ye Little Britayne ("Verily but nay sir but verily but nay sir but..."). Less than ten survive, as they were largely an oral tradition, but they were apparently very bawdy.

High art they don't seem to have been however. Lucie Skeaping say that one of the libellous ones came about because some man wanted to marry the well-off, pretty daughter of his neighbour but got turned down so a jig was penned and performed around town suggesting that the family of the pretty daughter was a no-good family and the daughter was no better than she ought to be. We only have the play - as you might guess - because the courts recorded it when the offended family took to the law.

Not mentioned was the fact that Archbishop Parker was the man for whose psalter the treasurable Tudor composer Thomas Tallis wrote his nine surpassingly lovely psalm settings - one of which formed the basis for Vaughan Williams's must-loved Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis....which gives me all the excuse I need to post the following video featuring the Tallis Scholars:


Other Christmas Day gem on Radio 4 was With Great Pleasure at Christmas featuring Armstong (Alexander) & Miller (Ben), still friends after they went their separate ways, despite Xander never having been heard of ever again - just as Clare Balding, Toby Jones and Owen Jones appear to have disappeared from the BBC in recent years. (Whatever happened to them?). 

There were rumbustious folk song renditions from the boys, plus poetry and prose of the highest quality - and the lowest quality. 

As for poetry we had Thomas Hardy's ever-haunting The Darkling Thrush and William Topaz McGonagall's slightly-less-haunting A Christmas Carol (though I'm a huge McGonagall fan. His complete collection of poetic gems sits in front of me every day and makes me forever think of the Silvery Tay and the central girders of its ill-fated railway bridge which the Storm Fiend did blow away on the last Sabbath day of 1879. O if only they'd been supported on each side with buttresses!). As everyone loves a Christmas quiz, please try to work out which is which here (and Google them if you're unsure):
(a) I leant upon a coppice gate/When Frost was spectre-grey,/And Winter's dregs made desolate/The weakening eye of day./The tangled bine-stems scored the sky/Like strings of broken lyres,/And all mankind that haunted nigh/Had sought their household fires.  
(b) For each new morn to the Christian is dear,/As well as the morn of the New Year,/And he thanks God for the light of each new morn./Especially the morn that Christ was born.
As for prose, we had Dickens of course and Alan Coren being very funny about men shopping at Christmas and a piece of AA Milne....

More Rabbit than Sainsbury's (rather like this post)

.....that made me realise (as I've not read AA since I was six) that Mr Milne really was a very clever and funny writer:
So [Pooh] bent down, put his head into the hole, and called out:
"Is anybody at home?"
There was a sudden scuffling noise from inside the hole, and then silence.
"What I said was, 'Is anybody at home?'" called out Pooh very loudly.
"No!" said a voice; and then added, "You needn't shout so loud. I heard you quite well the first time."
"Bother!" said Pooh. "Isn't there anybody here at all?"
Winnie-the-Pooh took his head out of the hole, and thought for a little, and he thought to himself, "There must be somebody there, because somebody must have said 'Nobody.'" So he put his head back in the hole, and said: "Hallo, Rabbit, isn't that you ?"
"No," said Rabbit, in a different sort of voice this time.
"But isn't that Rabbit's voice?"
"I don't think so," said Rabbit. "It isn't meant to be."
"Oh!" said Pooh.
He took his head out of the hole, and had another think, and then he put it back, and said:
"Well, could you very kindly tell me where Rabbit is?"
"He has gone to see his friend Pooh Bear, who is a great friend of his."
"But this is Me!" said Bear, very much surprised.
"What sort of Me?"
"Pooh Bear."
"Are you sure?" said Rabbit, still more surprised.
"Quite, quite sure," said Pooh.
"Oh, well, then, come in."
So Pooh pushed and pushed and pushed his way through the hole, and at last he got in.
"You were quite right," said Rabbit, looking at him all over. "It is you. Glad to see you."
"Who did you think it was?"
"Well, I wasn't sure. You know how it is in the Forest. One can't have anybody coming into one's house. One has to be careful. What about a mouthful of something?"
Pooh always liked a little something at eleven o'clock in the morning, and he was very glad to see Rabbit getting out the plates and mugs; and when Rabbit said, "Honey or condensed milk with your bread?" he was so excited that he said, "Both," and the n, so as not to seem greedy, he added, "But don't bother about the bread, please." And for a long time after that he said nothing . . . until at last, humming to himself in a rather sticky voice, he got up, shook Rabbit lovingly by the paw, and said that he must be going on.
"Must you?" said Rabbit politely
"Well," said Pooh, "I could stay a little longer if it--if you----" and he tried very hard to look in the direction of the larder.
That how the audience laughing, and it had me laughing.


Jokes, whether of the Barry Cryer parrot variety or the AA Milne rabbit and bear variety, were wholly absent from Radio 4's Christmas short story - The Sons of Upland Farm by Orcadian bard George Mackay Brown.

This was a half-timeless parable of considerable depth and beauty, grim but glowing. The ending rather took my breath away - in the sense that I needed to take a sharp intake of breath after it dawned on my what was being alluded to. (No spoilers you'll note!)

It was good to hear some George Mackay Brown. He's been mainly just a name for me, mostly associated with the composer Peter Maxwell Davies. (Their shared three-part names must surely have brought them together. I can think of no other reason.)


Count Arthur Strong's Radio Show!

It followed Count Arthur Strong's Radio Show! and if you thought George's short story was grim, well this had to be heard to be believed....

It was a distressing tale of an alcoholic old man apparently suffering from dementia and other mental health issues (including disillusions of grandeur) who behaved in a terrible way to his friends and , in the course of this episode, exploited and upset a young boy in a desperate attempt to earn some money to feed his alcohol addiction by creating a Japanese-themed reindeer park.

O the humanity!

(I feel that the above was written in the true spirit of Radio 4 and the Guardian. Down with laughter! If it's not about 'Trump 'n' Farage' it's a right-wing ploy!).

((And, for the sake of internet clarity, the above was a Polly Toynbee-style spoof. I do like my Count Arthur. He's the funniest alcoholic, dementia-suffering, mentally-disturbed man on Radio 4.))


HM the Queen did a lovely little programme at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. She spoke so beautifully. (It's a shame we don't hear the Queen's English so much on the BBC these days. The Queen is the nearest thing I've heard to it on Radio 4 for yonks). She said:
Jesus Christ lived obscurely for most of his life, and never travelled far. He was maligned and rejected by many, though he had done no wrong. And yet, billions of people now follow his teaching and find in him the guiding light for their lives. I am one of them because Christ’s example helps me see the value of doing small things with great love, whoever does them and whatever they themselves believe. The message of Christmas reminds us that inspiration is a gift to be given as well as received, and that love begins small but always grows.
That's lovely. I do hope it catches on and that she does another one next year. She's much better than Will Self.


Prince Charles (l) with some woman (c) and Camilla (r)

Her son, HRH the Prince of Wales, had been on Radio 4 less than two hours earlier. He did a comic turn, marking some 50 years of the programme by (and this will have pleased the BBC) fulsomely singing the programme's praises on Just a Minute's Christmas panto special. Nicholas Parsons and Paul Merton played straight men to the prince (Paul being surprisingly forelock-tugging given his years of anti-royal sneers on HIGNFY).


And at this point I'm losing focus and the will to live. So that's enough of that!

Tearful reminders

Barbara Plett-Usher, this week

I didn't realise, until BBC Watch pointed it out today, that the BBC News website still features (in full) a transcript of Barbara Plett's infamous 'tears for Arafat' broadcast. 

That's the one where she said, "Yet when the helicopter carrying the frail old man [Yasser Arafat] rose above his ruined compound, I started to cry... without warning", and which - after a struggle - even the BBC governors had to admit went too far and breached the BBC's impartiality guidelines. 

Reading the piece in full (it was originally broadcast on From Our Own Correspondent) shows that she went a good deal further than that in her identification with the dying PLO leader and it makes for a remarkable read. For starters, she shared his feelings of being under siege from Israel.

The BBC's own write-up of the ruling against Mrs Plett-Usher (as she is now) strikingly shows that it was only a partial ruling. It was the 'I started to cry' bit that did for her. The rest of the piece - where she personally identified with Arafat - seems to have got away with it, with the BBC write-up citing that "It said Ms Plett's report was balanced by references to Mr Arafat's "obvious failings"....well, read it for yourselves and see if those passing "references" really "balanced" her report. (I think it's a very clear 'no' to that). 

The interesting point that Hadar raises at BBC Watch is, other than an "opaquely-worded addendum" at the bottom of the original BBC News website piece, nothing else much seems to have come of that BBC ruling. 

When the UN Security Council ruled against Israel, with President Obama's blessing, recently, who was it who delivered the news and gave 'analysis' on the BBC website? Barbara Plett-Usher. Her analysis began:
The resolution reflects an international consensus that the growth of Israeli settlement-building has come to threaten the viability of a Palestinian state in any future peace deal.
It is a view strongly shared by the Obama administration, and for that reason the US reversed its policy of vetoing any UN Security Council criticism of Israel.
It is a decision that was taken after months of debate within the administration about whether and how President Obama might be able to define his position on a two-state solution before leaving office.
But his successor Donald Trump has made clear he intends to strongly support Israeli government positions, even making a highly unorthodox intervention before the vote by publicly urging Mr Obama to veto the resolution.
Now, yes, she had her own cruel, personal tragedies since that ruling - and I don't envy her any of that and wish her well - but I think the BBC owes it to her and to us to keep her away from such stories. 

Many people's sense that the BBC's Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen, is still too angry at Israel for the accidental death of his 'fixer' (and is still broadcasting about his continuing sense of anger) and that he's been denounced by pro-Israelis and praised by anti-Israelis ever since for his less-than-friendly reporting of Israel (to put it mildly) ever since. A return to reporting from his beloved Wales is long overdue.

Another opinion piece from Mr Marr

Andrew Marr has certainly kicked up quite a festive flurry of controversy with his New Statesman article An optimist's guide to Brexit. He's essentially called for Remoaners to stop remoaning and seize the invigorating, exciting opportunities that Brexit could bring.

His piece begins:
You hear it in the dingy corners of a crumbling Westminster Palace, at discreetly expensive restaurants and in noxious, Christmas-festooned pubs. You hear it from former prime ministers and lowly special advisers, and even from foreign leaders.
“Brexit will not happen.” It cannot actually happen. Parliament, we are told, will force the deluded people to come to their senses, aided by the judiciary and big business. If the people have made a mistake, then can they not be shown the latest economic forecasts and be obliged, somehow, to think again?
With respect to all involved, and – briefly – to adopt the demotic of Boris Johnson, this must be cobblers. If parliament asked the people of the UK to vote on a subject of such huge importance; and if, after exhaustive and exhausting debate, they made their decision, by a clear majority; and if they were then told that it wasn’t going to happen, or at least not without a second vote, the glossy fabric of British democracy would be ripped to shreds. Frankly, I dread to think what would follow.
It is time to think differently. Brexit is coming, and relatively soon. We have to assume that the UK will be outside the EU within two and a bit years. An entirely new chapter in our politics will then begin. Yet most of the British political class is so battered and demoralised by the Brexit decision that they cannot take what is likely at face value, and start to chart how they intend to reshape a country that has much more power over its own governance. 
Those Remoaners, naturally, are having none of it - well, at least the ones on Twitter who have replied to Andrew Marr. He's felt compelled to respond (and they still aren't having any of it):

So the Remoaners on Twitter are telling Mr Marr where to go but will his message hit home at the BBC? Will it, for example, ever percolate its way into the brains of the people behind, say, Newsnight, who still seem to be going through the Five Stages of Grief about Brexit (just like the Twitter crowd), six months on?  

2017 will tell. 

Pontius Pilate and the EU referendum

I'm an admirer of Howard Jacobson and his latest A Point of View was a typically powerfully-written piece - albeit powerfully wrong.

That it didn't persuade me is probably the result of one of two things: either (a) that I'm a 'post-truth' Brexiteer type who refuses to see the truth of his argument or (b) that his argument was weak, self-serving and full of fatal (self-)contradictions. 

(Happily for me, as you can see I've gone with the second alternative.)

It was one of those pieces where, though claiming he hadn't taken a side himself, the speaker did little else but take one side and bitterly denounce the other side for doing things that he himself was doing in the course of his own talk. (Matthew 7:5 sprang to mind: "Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye").

The whole thing was absolutely perfect for Radio 4. HJ adopted anti-'post-truth', anti-'Brexiteer', anti-'Trump' and anti-'Farage' positions before launching into his main argument - that democracy isn't perfect; that 'the people' can be wrong and potentially tyrannical; that the margin of victory in the EU referendum result was very, very small; that the EU referendum result should not be regarded as binding; that it's good to change your mind; and that 'the people' (i.e. those who voted for Brexit) should, therefore, think again - i.e. Let's have a second referendum after the foolish have listened to the wise (like HJ and the BBC). 

His closing point was worthy of Thought For The Day. He drew an analogy between the Brexit vote and Pontius Pilate's 'mini referendum' on whether to release the common criminal Barabbas or Jesus Christ. 'The people' made the wrong decision. Pontius should have asked them to think again. 

Given the sheer weight of anti-Brexit broadcasting from BBC Radio 4, especially since 23 June, maybe it's time for us start endlessly using the term 'post-impartiality' to describe BBC broadcasting.

Saturday 24 December 2016

Once in Royal David's City

Alexandra Coghlan has an interesting piece at The Spectator on 'the wartime origins of Carols from King's'. 

Her post begins: 
Christmas, for many people, began at exactly 3 p.m today, Christmas Eve. The moment when everything stops, frantic present-wrapping, mince-pie making and tree-decorating ceases and calm briefly takes hold. The reason? A single boy treble whose voice, clear and fragile as glass, pierces through the chaos with those familiar words: ‘Once in Royal David’s city/ Stood a lowly cattle shed…’. 
The service of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge, and its annual broadcast on BBC Radio 4 is as essential a part of contemporary Christmas folklore as stockings and Santa Claus, plum pudding and presents. Ageless and timeless, it seems as though there must always have been boys in red robes singing carols in a candlelit chapel — an ancient ritual renewed with each generation.
Now, of course, Alexandra is probably speaking for far fewer people than she thinks. Most people don't tune into Radio 4 to listen to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. But, nonetheless, it gives an interesting insight into the hold the BBC still has on many people - despite all the bias!

I am one of Alexandra's select though. Last year when I finished work early on Christmas Eve - at 3 o'clock - I drove home listening to a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Radio 4 and then, once home, poured myself a glass of wine and put a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on my radio. I then instantly realised I'd forgotten a very important present and, in a panicky fury of disappointment, rushed out to buy it, leaving my wine and my radio behind and joining (in the process) lots of similarly unhappy-looking, panicky men rushing from supermarket to supermarket. (It really does happen after all. I just thought it was a myth of the kind that Woman's Hour might pedal). I digress though...

Still, a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is proof that the BBC can bring wonder and joy into people's lives - if only by sticking microphones into a Cambridge University chapel every year. 

That said, this year's festival ended with an organ voluntary by one of my favourite composers, Oliver Messiaen ('Dieu parmi nous' from La NativitĂ© du Seigneur), and Radio 4 faded it out almost as soon as it began. I chucked my wine at the radio, cursed Jeremy Bowen and spontaneously combusted (which made posting this piece rather tricky). 

And now, on BBC Four...

Sometimes the BBC can still really hit the spot. 

I'm presently watching BBC Four's two-hour 'All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride' - a slow, two-hour documentary without commentary, presenter or background music (from the people who brought us 'The Canal Trip') which is giving us a reindeer's eye view of snow-swathed northern Norway and the mainly female (and, if Dame Jenni and Jane Garvey will permit me, rather fetching) Sami herders as they track across an old postal route, over frozen lakes, through forests and snowy hills. And, yes, it's out-and-out magical. 

Often the only sounds are the the sound of reindeer hooves scrunching over the snow or reindeer munching lichen ('reindeer moss') from under the snow.

Occasional captions do the narrating. I accept them (as you tend to do on Christmas Eve, especially after the festive wine), though I did recoil a bit when I saw the 'The Sami have 150 words for snow and ice' caption as I've been told by sundry popular science writers that such claims, when related to the Eskimos, are absolute social scientific bunkum - and, thus, are surely likely to be just as much of a myth when applied to the Sami.

I didn't know it was a repeat but when I started telling friends and family to watch what I was watching on BBC Four on Christmas Eve I got two immediate replies (one direct, one on my mobile phone) saying they'd already been there, seen it, worn the (t-shirt) multi-coloured, fringed Sami shawl. 

Still, it's still going on and will surely be up on the iPlayer later, so if you've not seen it yet, please give it a go.