Saturday, 4 February 2017

Hugh Sykes on Radio 3

Blog favourite Hugh Sykes - who presenter Sarah Walker described as a "seasoned" BBC reporter - was a daily feature on BBC Radio 3's Essential Classics this week. 

I can't say that I share many of his musical tastes, though he got me exploring his godfather Egon Wellesz's music - which is proving fruitful. 

And listening to Hugh, it's very hard not to warm to him. As wrong as he may be about many things, he's obviously right about others. And fundamentally kind and decent. And I regret tweeting a very rude blogpost I'd written to him a couple of years or so back. That was both rude and wrong. I ought to tweet him an apology, or something.

I'm still not buying his famous defence that he always hangs his (Twitter) opinions up at the door when he's reporting for the BBC though. We've posted quite a bit of evidence to the contrary over the years. 

And the following transcript from Friday's Essential Classics provoked a sharp uplift of my eyebrows, especially given his controversial reporting of the New Years events in Cologne last year where, both on Twitter and on the BBC, he spread and gave some (albeit hedged) credence to rumours that the Cologne attacks on women by migrants/refugees might have been a put-up job by far-right Germans trying to discredit Mrs Merkel's 'generous' policy towards migrants and refugees....fake news!....though in fairness (and consistent with what he said on Radio 3) he did cite "at least two sources" - both anonymous, but "not given to flights of fancy" he vouched. Did that reporting truly adhere to this (admirable) description of the BBC reporter's duty to truth ("Verify, verify, verify!")?:
Sarah Walker: Hugh, we've seen the world of current affairs change such a lot in recent years. We now have 24 hour rolling news, social media, fake news. We're continuously blitzed by information and a lot of it is unreliable. How can we filter out the noise and understand what's really happening? 
Hugh Sykes: Well, by being very, very careful who we believe. I like the old BBC maxim: You should never report anything till you've got at least two sources. If you see something on social media, for example, you have to sure that the pictures that have been put there are of the event that's being described. You have to be sure that the pictures that have been put there are not of an event that happened in the same place three weeks, three months, three years ago. You have to double-check who's put the picture up. If you can get in touch with them get in touch with them and ask them. All sorts of basic tricks of the trade. Verify, verify, verify. It's no different...The rules are no different from what they were before, except there are far more challenges and far more pitfalls than there used to be.
(I kept thinking of Jon Donnison when I first heard that).

There was a fair bit of rather grim stuff, and Hugh's seen a lot of grim stuff in his life. After seeing a particularly grizzly attack in Iraq, he'd have to listen to music (including Mahler) to help cope himself, with it all. Rather him than me (except for the Mahler, which often helps in times of trouble). 

There was lots of fascinating stuff in there, including the fact that Hugh has to have two passports. The main reason, it seems, turns out to be that some countries (he named Pakistan and Lebanon) "won't let you in if you've got Israeli stamps in your passport". 

Here's a longer flavour of what you (probably) missed, opening with a little music:

Sarah Walker: Gottfried Rabl conducted the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra in the 2nd movement of Symphony No.6 by Egon Wellesz, my guest Hugh Sykes's godfather. How would Egon feel about having that piece broadcast now. do you think, Hugh? 
Hugh Sykes: Sarah, I think he'd be so pleased that we were sitting here listening to that, and smiling as we listened to it. We were both saying while it was playing how enjoyable it is, and how moving, and how varied, and I said, slightly apologetically, using the word 'accessible', but i think it is - certainly to me - much more accessible that it was when i first got that CD down from my shelf when I first bought it about ten years ago. I found it difficult then. I don't find it difficult now. The music hasn't changed so I have.  
Sarah WalkerYou must have done. I mean, listening to it, I thought it was absolutely tremendous, and the ideas were just so very clear. There was a real emotional directness, from things like the violin solo - so tender - and you get the feeling of a solo protagonist. And then there was hints of trumpets and drums, slightly military effects. Everything very clear, meaningful gestures. How wonderful to have a link with a composer of that stature, I think. You've had lots of interesting friends and relatives in interesting places, haven't you? 
Hugh SykesVery much so. Emmy and Egon came from my mother's connection with them in Vienna when she was very young girl, and when her father Eric Phipps - my mother's maiden name was Phipps, subsequently Mary Sykes. Her father was British ambassador to Vienna in the 1920s and then, crucially. was British ambassador to Berlin in the 1930s - from 1933 until 1937, when my mother was 10 to 14 years old. And she used to tell a chilling story about how they used to have lunch all together - her large family, four brothers and a sister. So six children altogether and their mother in the British embassy in Unter den Linden in Berlin - and father Eric would come home from the office upstairs, or wherever it was, for lunch. One day he was a bit late. and he sat down at the table, and he apologised and said "I'm sorry I'm late but I've just been to see Herr Hitler again. The next time i go and see him I should take a pistol with me really because he wants to take over the world.  I could stop him, but God knows what would happen to all of you if I did that." Now, was that just a family memory? I did do a bit of amateur historian on that and, entirely separately and with open questions, I asked my aunt - my mother's sister Margaret - whether she remembered her father ever talking about Hitler and she told me almost exactly the same story with those details. So I think it's probably pretty accurate. And certainly if you look at his dispatches - Eric Phipps's dispatches from those days from Berlin to London - they were full of trenchant criticism of Hitler and warnings to the United Kingdom that this was a man absolutely not to be trusted. And, astonishingly for diplomatic dispatches, he described quite a lot of Hitler's henchmen - Goering, Goebbels and all the rest of them - as "gangsters". This is the British ambassador to Berlin describing the entourage of the leader of the country that he was in as "gangsters". And of course he was right. 
Sarah WalkerThat's a story that...I can almost feel my brain sort of blanking out and shutting down. I don't know how to respond almost. How does it make you feel? 
Hugh SykesIf he'd done that, of course, I wouldn't be here. But a lot of other people might.

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