Sunday, 21 December 2008

Adrian Mitchell

I’ve just returned home after a weekend of unseasonally mild weather spent trail running to learn of Adrian Mitchell’s death. The first message on the answerphone bore the news, the tone of the first words enough to know what was to follow.

I’ve known Adrian and his wife of 47 years, Celia, for a long time, and in one of those twists of life that make some think beyond coincidence to meaning and fate we’ve had much more than usual to do with each other these past few weeks. Celia and I have been engaged in wrapping up the Medical Aid for Iraq charity, of which we have both been officers since the first Gulf War. And I had been trying to get Adrian to pick up his journalistic pen again (his writing career began in journalism), specifically to write about David Tennant’s Hamlet as he’d seen all the great Hamlets of the past half-century.

As it happened, Tennant injured his back, so he wasn’t playing the part at the press night. Adrian said he was too ill to write anyway, spent the next day in hospital and was ‘desperately trying to rest’ – a notion that barely entered the vocabulary of a man who felt an almost moral imperative to fulfil every request to appear, no matter how remote the venue or small the audience. His unwillingness to rest, his reluctance to miss a reading almost certainly delayed the diagnosis and exacerbated the consequences of the pneumonia he developed this autumn. And as if his writing, his performance and his other work was not enough, he remained a tireless campaigner in the cause of peace.

In his last email to me, a week before his death, he wrote of ‘trying to get Ian Hislop to set his hounds on the New Statesman for regularly printing full page colour adverts for BAE Systems and asking his investigators to trace the effect of the ads on the editorial side of the Statesman’. I had made Adrian poetry editor of the New Statesman when I edited the magazine in the 1990s, and his was an importance influence on my editorship well beyond poetry. From Benjamin Zephaniah to Brian Patten, and from Alex Comfort to Paul McCartney, Adrian’s pages – like the man himself – sparkled with enthusiasm, commitment and verve. I’m glad that in what I never dreamed would turn out to be my final email to him, I took the time to tell him how those pages were among my proudest achievements at the Statesman.

The world will miss him, and my heart goes out to Celia and their family.

Postscript: I've just unearthed one of five poems that Robert Graves wrote in his seventies and Adrian published as part of a 'Poetry Extra' in the NS in 1994. It seems absolutely fitting to Adrian's memory:

How is it a man dies?

How is it a man dies
Before his natural death?
He dies from telling lies
To those who trusted him.
He dies from telling lies -
With closed ears and shut eyes.

Or what prolongs men's lives
Beyond their natural death?
It is their truth survives
Treading remembered streets
Rallying frightened hearts
In hordes of fugitives.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Virgin Killer: ban this image now!

You can find the Scorpions' Virgin Killer image of a naked girl that has been causing all the fuss 32 years after it appeared as an album cover by doing a simple google search, if you're so inclined. You should even be able to access it on the Scorpions' Wikipedia page again without any problems now that the Internet Watch Foundation has lifted its ban on the page, which was adhered to by most big UK internet service providers.

Unfortunately no one is currently proposing a ban on the image that replaced that of the girl, which I'm sure you'll agree is a disturbing picture of 1970s' rock idols at the peak of their perverted powers, with no redeeming 'artistic' context of any description. It's enough to make you thank The X-Factor for giving us the straightforward kiddie-porn of Eoghan and Diana and, gawd help us, JL 'it's just like the Beatles' S.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Alas, poor Tennant lovers

Sorry Adrian, Celia and everyone else I know who had tickets to today's press night of Hamlet starring David Tennant, but I just can't help feeling a little smug sadistic satisfaction at the fact you had to make do with his understudy instead.

I'm sure Edward Bennett, who normally plays Laertes, was brilliant. I'm told he got a standing ovation at last night's preview, after all. But let's face it, it's David Tennant who people have been paying up to £300 a black-market ticket to see (though I have seen the odd bargain - restricted view, no leg room, back of the upper circle, that sort of thing - going for £70-80 a time on ebay when no one's looking). And I've no doubt they'll be extremely miffed to find that they forked out all that dosh for someone who's never even appeared in Dr Who. It almost makes up for the fact that I never managed to buy or blag a ticket, on the press night or otherwise, for myself.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Polygamy, oral sex and the imam

There’s been a minor furore in Holland about the controversial Hague imam Jneid Fawaz, who has a Q&A column on his mosque’s website advising Dutch Muslims about what they can and cannot do. The furore arose over his advice regarding polygamy.

‘It is not obligatory to ask permission from the first wife and it's not one of the requirements that the first wife gives her permission,’ Fawaz wrote, apparently ignoring the fact that having more than one wife is illegal in Holland.

Fawaz would have been on sounder legal ground if he’d suggested making use of the Dutch samenlevingscontract or ‘cohabitation contract’, which is available to multiple partners (of either or both sexes). It does, however, require the consent of those entering into it.

Meanwhile, for Islamophobes who may be concerned that Muslims’ use of the worldwide web is limited to hard-line propaganda and terrorist networking, there is possibly reassuring news from Fawaz’s website statistics. These show that what drives web traffic among Muslims is no different from among non-believers. The most-read of Fawaz’s Q&As all concern sex, with the top two concerning the imam’s opinion on whether oral sex (15,000 hits) and sucking a woman’s breast (12,000) are permitted under Islam.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

US election not over yet

A month after the elections were done and dusted in most of the United States, they've just found 171 new ballot forms in Ramsey County's Maplewood Precinct 6 in the Minesota Senate recount. Here the Democrats' Al Franken still harbours hopes of defeating the Republicans' Norm Coleman and adding to the pro-Obama majority in Washington. Of the new votes, 91 went to Franken, 54 to Coleman and 26 to other candidates, with the result that by Tuesday evening Coleman's lead had been cut to 303 votes. The eventual result now hinges on 6,003 ballots that have been challenged by the two candidates, with a roughly equal number being challenged by each of them.

You can judge a selection of the challenged ballots for yourself here. But if these examples are anything to go by, the final result is unlikely to change by much. The first ballot was challenged by the Coleman camp on the grounds that since the voter had plumped for McCain and Palin in the presidential election it was obviously a mistake that he or she had gone for Franken in the Senate election. And, just to make sure that the Republicans couldn't take the irrational high ground, the rejection of the second ballot on the grounds of overvoting was challenged by the Democrats, who insisted that it showed a clear preference for their candidate.

Monday, 1 December 2008

May contain nuts

Where do you stand on grey squirrels? Bushy-tailed rats, bird-molesting monsters, shooting’s too good for them?

‘These foreign interlopers, not even European,’ as one letter-writer to my local paper had it recently, have out-eaten and out-bred the native red squirrel (not to mention spreading the squirrel parapoxvirus, to which they are immune but which kills the reds) to the point where they have all but wiped out the indigenous population in most of England and Wales. That and a large number of our native birds, too, including the London sparrow, if you believe their enemies (personally, I suspect the cats).

And now Rupert Mitford, the 6th Baron Redesdale, has set up the Red Squirrel Protection Partnership (so-called ‘because if we called it the Grey Squirrel Annihilation League people might be a bit less sympathetic’), with a reported 900 volunteers across the country, to trap, shoot and otherwise exterminate the grey invaders. He’s even been trying out traps in my neck of the north London woods.

I’ve been at war with the greys for years. They eat my bulbs, steal the bird food, empty out the window boxes in winter and bite the buds off everything in the spring. Should I care? Why are the red ones cute and the grey ones a menace? Why do we want more sparrows and fewer pigeons? And is it really true that when Redesdale passes on his shot squirrels for food they have to carry the label: ‘May contain nuts’.