Thursday, September 28, 2006



Stephen Tall is liveblogging Question Time, but my attention is wandering from the programme. Earlier in the evening, we were watching That Mitchell and Webb Look, in which ‘an MP’ was earnestly advocating stern new laws to control Mildly Socially Uncomfortable Situations such as asking in a pub (say) if a chair is taken. I immediately thought of one of ours, so while Stephen isn’t pleased Jenny Tonge is on Question Time I’m quite relieved it isn’t Sandra Gidley, or I’d not have been able to keep a straight face should she be given the option to well-meaningly ban something.

Oh, joy, Jack Straw is talking drivel about John Prescott (jabs arm with a fork to stay awake).

Mock the Week a few minutes ago, on the other hand, didn’t have nearly enough funny material in it, but it did have a cameraman who was deeply besotted with the pretty young blond stand-up who rarely got a word in edgeways. None of the other comics got a reaction shot when somebody was speaking, but by two-thirds of the way through the constant, lingering cutaway shots to the blond were so blatant that we were laughing at the cameraman’s many visual ways to say ‘I love you…’ than we were at any of the actual jokes.

Ken Clarke’s talking up John Reid. He might just be disastrous enough to deliver half Labour’s seats to the Liberal Democrats, but until he lost the General Election we’d still all have to put up with a Prime Minister who’s an even more authoritarian bully than the one we’ve got now. Too terrifying.

And there was more fun than you can shake a condom at with Diana Rigg in a preceding programme…

Oh, dear, Piers Morgan’s mouth is flapping again, and I feel sleep creeping up on me.

Update: it’s gone eleven, and tragically Richard won’t turn over to I, Claudius. At least the backstabbing in that is brilliantly delivered.

Qwertyfaced by the bitter end:
Mr Dimbleby has just claimed that Mr Straw is about to take part in an online chat, in which “He will answer your questions.” I admire his confidence, but no-one watching QT tonight would bet on that.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


Oh, Just Stop It!

The media preoccupation with what Cherie Blair is alleged to have said is, even for British political ‘journalism’, a new low. Pathetic, isn’t it? Of course it’s possible to think the Chancellor is untruthful or talks rubbish (I’ve expanded on those topics myself), but couldn’t we have the faintest smidgeon of content rather than just gossip? I don’t know if Cherie said what she’s been reported as saying or not; I may not be kindly disposed towards her, but I trust a hack on the make’s ‘I just happened to hear this, with no evidence and no witnesses’ even less. I believe Bloomberg is a relatively new player in the media scene and with lots of money, so I wasn’t all that surprised to see how unpopular their representative was with the rest of the press pack at a Lib Dem Conference press briefing… I’m not saying they made the story up to get some attention, even though the story started off as ‘she walked out of the hall and said this’ and then suspiciously became ‘all right, so she was never in the hall, but she said this anyway,’ but it’s at least as likely as Cherie Blair being that stupid. Let’s face it, any journalist can make up any old thing if there’s no evidence, and I trust them even less than I trust Mrs Blair (though it’s a real struggle to trust anyone less than her husband). Besides, if she did say it, so what? If someone had spent years falling out with Richard, I imagine I’d not regard them very highly either, but it wouldn’t be news. It’s not as if she’s even elected to anything, nor abusing her position in any way in this. So, for once, just leave her alone.

I’d much rather have journalists doing the country a service by taking to pieces what Mr Brown actually said than turning politics into nothing but personal gossip (just like the way that, until yesterday, the main BBC story left over from the Lib Dem Conference was Charles being claimed not to want to shake hands. Who cares?).

I’m not fond of either of the Blairs, but this pathetic media rubbish is so irritating that, yesterday, it even made me feel on Mr Blair’s side – just for a moment. Yes, I thought his joke about “At least I don’t have to worry about her running off with the bloke next door,” was funny, and it takes an awful lot for me to feel remotely pro-Mr Blair. While I find Mr Brown’s speaking style overbearing, at least I was able to listen to his speech without actually swearing at the television. I know many Liberal Democrats had a sneaking (or in some cases blatant) regard for Mr Blair when he was first elected. I started off finding him an untrustworthy Tory snake-oil salesman, and that was the high point of my regard for him. I couldn’t bring myself to watch his speech yesterday, though I was sure it would be better delivered and more engaging than that of Mr Brown, because in common with a large part of the country I simply can’t stand the man. I can’t believe a single word he says. He preaches to the powerless and sucks up to the powerful; he is a loathsome, hypocritical, sanctimonious bully. You see what an achievement Bloomberg managed? He really should thank them.

He reminds me of a joke told by Denis Healey about David Owen, in the style of Sleeping Beauty:
When Tony was born, the fairies clustered round his crib. They showered all the gifts on him. He would be successful. He would be intelligent. He would have a wealthy wife. He would be lucky. He would be handsome. He would be charismatic.

But, unfortunately, the bad fairy also turned up. And she said, “He will have all those gifts, and more. But he will also be… A shit.”

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


Come On In, the Water’s Lovely

Two friends of mine have just taken up blogging. Being younger* and prettier than me, they’ve both chosen the same austere Blogger template to seem very, very serious, but don’t be put off – both Theo Butt Philip and Andy Strange are witty, engaging, terribly nice chaps and splendid Liberals. Good luck to them both. They’ve even shamed me into posting again on my Doctor Who blog, which had lain fallow while I was consumed with September Lib Demmery… The scariest hangover of which is that one of my speeches is now on YouTube, courtesy of Jonathan Wallace (thanks Jonathan!).

The speech is the one from the Bloggers’ Reception that’s been described as ‘post-watershed’, which existed in a special place in my head as being articulate, confident and getting a lot of laughs. Well, the laughs are very cheering – and I managed to watch enough of the video to see that the yawning chasm I felt myself falling into at that deadly silence after my first rude joke lasted only a few seconds, not the hours it seemed at the time – but now I’m wincing slightly when it turns out the reason my speech goes on so long is the audience appreciation, but that most of the words I say are “um,” “erm” and “you know”. Oh dear. Anyway, Jonathan has now made it available, along with three of the other speeches from the night, so if you missed it, just set up your computer in a very small room, close the windows, turn on the heaters, pack in too many people than you can comfortably fit, and you’ll feel like you were there. But enough about me and the established bloggers. What about Andy and Theo?

Andy’s an Executive councillor in Luton, and one of the most thoroughly nice people in the Lib Dems (ooh, and I notice that he’s added some colour to his template and photo. That’s much cheerier). He’s also a huge computer whiz and the person who I think first tried persuading me to set up a blog of my own; I put it off for long enough myself, so I’m glad he’s finally joined me, albeit as a sad example of the power of peer pressure (him and me both). He’ll be blogging about life, liberalism, and Luton, while my fellow policy wonk Theo is openly a shameless self-publicist. Well, aren’t we all? I’ve already enjoyed his piece on Nick Clegg and the Great Repeal Act, something I should have written about but haven’t yet, though it was a big hit in the Conference hall and probably the most popular Conference speech in the blogosphere. Theo’s take is, ah, subtly different, though it should have been titled Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc. I’m delighted that he takes his blog title, “As I look out over this magnificent vista…” from perhaps my favourite episode of The West Wing, and that its length bodes well for another verbose detailed intelligent blog. Hurrah!

Both of them are kind enough to mention me, and as well as my nagging poor Andy, it appears it was my speech on blogging last week that got Theo going, too. Gosh. He must have been drinking inspired. I’m looking forward to reading a lot from each of them.

*Andy is in fact not younger than me. But he looks it, which is worse.

Monday, September 25, 2006


Ming vs Flash Dour Gordon

Menzies Campbell’s Leader’s Speech enthused me last week, and I’m still more enthused after watching the Labour Leader Pre-elect. Ming set out a Liberal vision; while I can see what appeals to people about the Chancellor, Mr Brown doesn’t appeal to me. He has a more forceful voice than Ming, but it was all on one note, and his relentless attack on the listener called to mind Ming’s best joke, that “The Labour Government is like the hurricane that hit the Azores yesterday. A great, grey depression spinning around and sucking everything to the centre. And its name? Hurricane Gordon.” Few platform orators have good jokes, and most of Ming’s got a laugh – like those of every Leader – more through relief than mirth, but that one was so appropriate and made such good use of a topical gift to him in the weather that I actually laughed, and I can’t remember the last time I did that in a Leader’s Speech. Gordon Brown’s moments of comparative light-heartedness weren’t so much jokes as short points where his face made an effort to relax slightly, as if every five minutes his autocue had flashed up, ‘Try to look less murderous for a second’.

Gordon Brown

Neither man is appealingly charismatic, but both can be commanding. How did they compare? Watching Mr Brown’s speech has inspired me to take another look at Ming’s, rather than to comment on his today in detail; I don’t think I could face seeing or reading it all again. There were one or two good things in it, though. I did nod when he talked of inspiring people, and mentioned people he’d spoken to who want to get involved in politics because they want to change the world. Yes, I can understand that. It’s what got me started in my teens. But the tone of his speech was all what Labour (for which you can read ‘Gordon’) could achieve, that “We will build the good society,” not about involving people but about what I’m sure he sees as benevolent rule from the top. When he spoke of looking out for everyone, not just Labour people, I agreed with his words, but I’m sorry to say I simply didn’t believe them from him. It’s true that Mr Blair and Mr Brown’s government has had a different view of what ‘Labour people’ are, but it’s just shifted from poor people and unions to rich people and whatever Daily Mail-style ‘majority’ they think they’ve hit on for their latest piece of bossiness, while still picking out people outside ‘their’ chosen groups to demonise. That’s still a long way from valuing every individual and letting them make their own decisions.

In one of the most pervasive and pernicious bits of Labour rhetoric from the last decade, Mr Brown constantly linked rights with responsibilities; not in the general, perfectly reasonable sense that we all have rights in society, but we also have responsibilities to each other. No, yet again, he reeled off a list of ‘rights’ which were contingent on doing specifically what the Labour Government tells you (a bullying approach specifically rejected by the Liberal Democrats in our philosophy paper, It’s About Freedom). If a ‘right’ is only doled out to you when you’ve ticked off all the Government’s chosen commands, it isn’t a right that you own, but a favour at Labour’s whim. This is not the man to write a written constitution.

When Jonathan Wallace has just put up a speech of mine on YouTube, complete with more uses of the word ‘um’ than I thought humanly possible, it may seem unwise to point out Mr Brown’s hesitations and fluffed words. But that’s not going to stop me. Political speeches are always peppered with tiny mistakes, and it’s mean not to make allowances for them, but when Mr Brown was trying very, very hard to make a speech about values, and stop just being the man obsessed with every penny we have, it took a heart of stone not to laugh as he spoke of “Noble purses worth – noble purposes worth fighting for…”

Menzies Campbell

So what did I like about Ming’s speech on Thursday, other than that gold dust-like genuinely funny joke? Well, he started disarmingly, talking about how he’d enjoyed Conference particularly since Tuesday lunchtime – when a hefty majority of us backed his new tax plans. It appealed to us all, because it wasn’t decided by a union block vote or a hefty donor, and neither was his job – both the tax policy and Ming himself won the arguments and persuaded individual Liberal Democrats to back them, and we all appreciated him acknowledging that. Now, after that he moved on to a set of warm-up jokes, and as you know my views on Leaders’ jokes I’ll draw a gentle veil over them. What his speech was really about was the substance.

In fact, if you wanted a message from Ming’s speech, while the aim was, rightly, a Britain that is free, fair and green, two phrases kept coming up throughout.
The politics of substance,”
“The rule of law.”
Early on, Ming attacked the Tories for being “determined to avoid policy decisions at all costs,” and he expanded on that later as he said “Cameron’s Tories are a substance-free zone” (apparently something Mr Cameron’s dealer has also bemoaned now he’s turned so squeaky-clean):
“Their idea of political principle is to say, tell us what you don’t like and we’ll abandon it. They have learned all the wrong lessons from Mr Blair - the spin, the photo opportunity, the endless sound bites signifying nothing.
Political parties shouldn’t be glorified advertising agencies.
“It’s all very well for Mr Cameron to say he is a liberal now – but real liberalism means leading public opinion not following it. The British public is entitled to the politics of substance, not the politics of spin.”
Ming is not a politician in the slick style of Mr Blair and Mr Cameron, and he’s right to make an issue of that, with much in his speech on our concrete proposals about “the issues that matter”. His message, as I’m sure any Lib Dem spin doctor would tell you, is that he is unspun. However, if that was a deliberate point echoed throughout his speech as a political attack, I suspect the repetition of “The rule of law” tells you more about what Ming really believes. He is an old-fashioned Liberal, and an old-fashioned lawyer, and belief in the rule of law is perhaps the founding Liberal value. It means that everyone should be bound by the same rules, rich or poor, powerful or powerless, majority or minority, and – most crucially – government as well as governed. I got the strong impression that, while he was irritated that so much of politics depends on who’s the slickest salesman rather than whether they’re ‘selling’ anything worthwhile, he is outraged at the same Labour Government striking moral poses to order us all about as has proven itself arbitrary, corrupt and a lawless international bully and bully’s lickspittle.

After the week’s big debate, the substance of Ming’s speech naturally led heavily on tax:
“We will cut national income tax for 28 million working people. We’ll abolish the 10 pence starting rate. We’ll cut the basic rate from 22 pence to 20. We’ll raise the top rate threshold from £38,000 to £50,000. We’ll take over two million of our lowest earners out of income tax altogether… We will reward ambition and aspiration – not penalise effort.
“We will not raise the overall level of taxation. But we will reform the tax system so that it is fairer, simpler and greener. Under our plans, some will pay more. We are straightforward about this. The very wealthy will lose their generous pension tax subsidies. Tax breaks on capital gains will be removed. Those who can afford to make a greater contribution should do so. And we will raise environmental taxes too. All of us should pay tax on the pollution we cause… If we are serious about the environment, only action will suffice.”
And, perhaps most importantly:
“Climate change is the greatest moral and practical challenge we face. We must act. Not in the future - not just when new technology becomes available - but now.”
He attacked the Mr Blair and Mr Brown’s Government for believing that terrorism should be tackled by taking away personal freedoms, angered not just that they’ve given up British values of tolerance and diversity at home but tarnished Britain’s reputation abroad:
“Let me be very clear – Terrorism is a threat to everything that liberals stand for – individual freedom, democracy, and the rule of law…
“In foreign policy, the Prime Minister has elevated belief over evidence, conviction over judgement, and instinct over understanding. Put quite simply, he has presided over a foreign policy which is neither ethical nor effective…
“Security is not being gained, it is being lost.
“Terrorism is not being defeated, it is being invigorated.
“Freedom is not being spread, it is being undermined.”
Ming has long been an impressive platform speaker in shorter, magisterial speeches about international relations – just as Mr Brown can come across with a powerful conviction in short bursts. One is in danger of making every speech a lecture, the other of making every speech a bludgeon. Well, I felt battered after a whole speech by Mr Brown today all in that relentless, overbearing style, but fortunately Ming has found different tones to strike that make a full-length speech listenable. He’s still grandly persuasive as he pronounces judgment on the moral failings of governments at home and abroad, but at times last week he could be disarming, though that’s never going to be his speciality as it was Charles’. And rather than only taking the moral high ground with merciless severity, when talking about, for example, never accepting torture, he was so level and serious that I applauded not just the words but the obvious belief. Ming doesn’t find it easy to speak with thrilling passion, but he outlined some outrages with such deadly condemnation you can’t be in any doubt of his convictions.

For Mr Cameron’s inability to make up his mind (which week are we in? Is he for or against the war in Iraq right now?), there was scorn that won just about the biggest, angriest applause of the speech:
“And now Mr Cameron expresses his reservations about Britain’s foreign policy. Well I say to that – Where were you? Where were you when what was needed was not reservation but votes? I’ll tell you where you were. You, Mr Cameron, were in the government lobby backing military action against Iraq.
“You should apologise for supporting that war.”
I have to say, though, that Ming made a rare mis-step following that; to go from Iraq to a slight snigger in asking Mr Cameron to apologise for writing the last Tory Manifesto had more bathos than moral force. But no speech is perfect.

He was more effective and surprisingly comfortable in telling his own story, born in a tenement in Glasgow and raised by parents who worked hard to give him the opportunities, like university, that they never had. It put real, personal passion into his priority of tackling poverty and inequality, and reminded us that while he may sometimes seem as much of a toff as David Cameron, he’s worked for what he’s achieved and is grateful to the state for his education, his athletic training and his health care, rather than sitting back and relying on the family fortune. And because he’s depended on public services, he’s determined to make them deliver value for money, rather than Labour’s investment being wasted by constant and incompetent micromanagement from the centre. Unsurprisingly, while Mr Brown’s instincts are to take tight central control to deliver things for people, Ming’s are to put power in the hands of local areas and individuals to make services deliver what they want, rather than what Labour thinks is good for them.

Ming talked about his ambition to put our principles into practice, living dangerously but, I think, skirting the large hole in front of him marked ‘David Steel prepares for government’. After all, as he pointed out, not only do people in almost every area of Britain have Liberal Democrat representatives in Parliament, the European Parliament, devolved parliaments and assemblies and local councils, but seventeen million people in Britain experience Liberal Democrat government already. Yes, I was quite struck by that number, too. Controlling councils from great cities to deep rural Britain, Liberal Democrat Council leaders are responsible for a combined budget of over £10 billion. In Scotland, we’ve driven ideas through in coalition, and been rewarded last year by more votes and more seats there than any other party but Labour for the House of Commons – pushing the SNP into third place, and leaving the Tories trailing, again, their one MP stranded on his own. Ming looked forward to more gains in next year’s Scottish elections, and the bigger challenge ahead across Britain, to lead from opposition towards government (in how big a step, we all wondered).

By the end of that, yep, I was impressed. Plenty of substance, and his delivery was more assured than since before he became Leader, as well as more interesting than I’ve ever seen him. While Charles Kennedy is far more engaging than Ming in conversational performances, judging by this I’d write one of Ming’s platform speeches far more highly. Do I have reservations? Of course. Sometimes he can be too quiet, and there were a few points in the text at which I grimaced. I suspect he was speaking to the public at large, rather than admitting ‘I was conned,’ but when he talks about his optimism for what Labour might have achieved in 1997 before their decade of failure in practice I admit to being a grouch; I was never taken in, and I suspect I grumble too much when people say ‘everyone was’. And I sighed when, just after attacking “racism, sexism and homophobia” he said the answer was to be more representative of “women, the disabled and black and ethnic minorities”; with that and his mentions of that political cliché the “Hard-working families,” as well as several feeble policy papers and motions last week that I’ve already criticised at length, I do get the feeling that, at the top of the party, there is a genuine commitment to opportunity for all regardless of gender or race, but that any other sort of diversity is very much a random add-on rather than a priority. Ho hum.

One of the press’ favourite attacks on Ming, of course, is sheer age discrimination. I saw him and Deputy Leader Vince Cable depicted as Statler and Waldorf last week; well, I have to say that it isn’t age that turns you into an overcritical Muppet, but temperament. Four of us sat watching Ming’s speech from high up in the conference hall – tragically, not in our own little box – and while Richard and I were comparative oldies there, in our thirties, there were so many Statlerisms coming from us to begin with that it’s a good job we weren’t sat near any journalists. Before the speech, not only was there a photo-tour of The Life of Ming, from sprinting, through wig, to flak jacket (actually, he looked rather good in it, but there are some photo-opportunities at which no leader can expect a Lib Dem Conference not to snigger), but what really set us off was what came before then. If you were watching at home – I know, you were glued to it, weren’t you? – you fortunately won’t have heard Party Treasurer Tim Clement-Jones harking back to the fundraising of Lloyd George (eek!), nor seen the slideshow of all our MPs from the 1980s onward. It’s the first time Rosie Barnes and David Owen have been seen at a Lib Dem Conference (we didn’t even use to practise the Daily Hate), and it’s fair to say they didn’t get a lot of applause; however, once it got into MPs we still have now, it suddenly became much more noisy, more competitive and more hilarious. We just hooted as very geographically concentrated bursts of hysteria were heard for what were evidently people’s local MPs, and there was a loud but no doubt partly ironic reception for the open-shirted, menswear catalogue shots of two of our chaps (and a bigger one for the former leadership candidate appearing only as a small figure in the background of two much more popular MPs). I suspect one Cornish MP should also be telling whoever selected the slides that extreme close-ups of him are not as kind as they are, for example, to an MP from Manchester. The four of us just sat there and, in common with much of the party, took the piss. It may be an innovation that isn’t repeated, though they all looked great when the MPs and MEPs suddenly filled the stage behind Ming at the end of his speech, like a mass of fans invading the pitch. Do that bit again.

The thing I remember about watching Ming’s speech, however, is that while we’d unwisely been warmed up to mock what was in front of us by the beauty parade and hideous, hideous soft rock it was all set to, the speech itself demanded to be taken seriously. And we did. Yes, our Statler and Waldorf tendencies came out in the odd murmured aside, but there are have been some Leader’s speeches where I’ve found my level of scepticism rising throughout, or where I’ve been shifting in my seat wondering when it might end. Not this one. And no, while there are a small handful of Leader’s speeches from which I can still remember lines and the feeling of inspiration years later, those are rare indeed, and this wasn’t one of those either. It was a good, solid speech, full of substance, giving a strongly Liberal message, and well if not flamboyantly delivered.

Oh, and Ming’s over-used and instantly imitable mannerism? As no-one can have failed to notice, when acknowledging applause, he raises his arms aloft and keeps them there, triumphally. I wonder if he struck that pose when winning his Olympic medals, or if he’s just adopted it now? I notice that sketchwriters and cartoonists targeted it ruthlessly last week, partly because it was so startlingly but mainly, I suspect, because it didn’t look at all a gesture of age or infirmity, and they were crabby at him spoiling their script with a look that’s highly mockable, but for looking bullish rather than old. Each time Ming stood powerfully with his arms raised, two thoughts sprang to mind – a mixture of calling to the sky as if challenging some tribal god, and ‘Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’. Gordon may not be flash, but Ming’s stance says, ‘Call down the lightning!’

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Saturday, September 23, 2006


Back to Old School: The Ribos Operation

We’re back from an exciting week at the seaside, and naturally feel we’d rather still be there. But this time, like when we were boys rather than in ‘youthful middle age’, the BBC has something exciting almost ready for us when we get back. Scary Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood is, appropriately, due to launch near Halloween, but in just a fortnight from today the new Robin Hood series begins. So this morning I watched a terribly entertaining Doctor Who with a malicious twist on an element of the Robin Hood story (as yet it’s only available on an American DVD). It originally finished broadcasting on September 23rd, 1978, but there had been a huge change in the programme in a year; it’s a remarkable leap from Horror of Fang Rock
“Do you think I can rest for one moment, until I have won back the Levithian crown which is mine by right?”
The Sixteenth Season of Doctor Who, broadcast in 1978-9, was unusual in that it told a series of linked stories involving the Doctor’s quest for ‘The Key to Time’; The Ribos Operation was the opening tale that started it all off. Because the stories all fit together, they were released as a DVD boxed set in the States, though in a fairly minimal way compared to the UK releases – there are commentaries, comprehensive text notes (particularly interesting ones for this story, with details of several cut scenes) and the odd photo, but little picture restoration, no documentaries or all the other extras you’d normally expect. So unless you’re as much a completist as Richard and me, I’d wait for the inevitable UK release which will have a lot more in it, however delayed (it’s been out four years, so it’d be nice if they got their fingers out and released it here, too).

Still, it’s quite an enjoyable commentary, with Mary Tamm – who played companion Romana – well-informed and slightly bitchy, while Tom Baker plays up his advancing age and sexual longing: he sighs lustfully at the sight of Mary, talks of 87-year-olds clashing his trolley to try and pull him in Waitrose, and observes that “Fan love is superior to human love”. She keeps leading him into the temptation of saying rude things about her successor as Romana, Lalla Ward:
“Do you remember Lalla?” she asks, cackling.
“We got married, I think,” he replies.
“Did you? Gosh, that was brave.”
They also recall how they used to sign photos of the two of them: “I always sign across your bosom.” “And I always sign over your face,” she comes back at him, sharp as a knife. Like the viewers, they’re desperate for K9 to turn up, as the tin dog’s actually rather good here, but doesn’t make much of an appearance until half-way into Part Three…

At the Time…

I have rather fond memories of this story, not just for the usual ‘coming back to school but Doctor Who’s back on TV’ feeling, though the fact that the story opens with the Doctor planning to go on holiday, at which point the light fails and then he ends up being sent somewhere that it’s snowing has a certain appropriateness to British summers. I missed the opening titles of it first time round because we’d just hurried home from the first out-of-town shopping experience I can remember, at a big Habitat with sandpits to play in, out somewhere exotic like Wythenshawe. The book isn’t really a huge success; much of the serial’s strength is in its dialogue and lightness of touch, but while Ian Marter wrote some superb ‘serious’ Who novels, this one rather suffers from having all the jokes taken out. I still remember even that fondly, however, as I got it on an enjoyable school trip to York, and it was the first book I ever got signed by an actor when given the thrilling chance to meet Tom Baker soon after. Altogether, I really enjoyed the story at the time, but it’s even more enjoyable now that I’m old enough to appreciate how outrageous it all is.

The previous year, Graham Williams had taken over as producer of Doctor Who, and for me his first year is the only one with Tom Baker as the Doctor that doesn’t really work. Of course, it was also the one with That Man in the Scarf, That Woman in the Leather Bikini and The Tin Dog, probably the best-remembered team the show ever had, so what do I know? Anyway, while Mr Williams has been much-criticised over the years, for me this is where his approach really comes together. I could understand people’s vendetta against him if all he’d made was Season Fifteen – mostly good ideas, dodgy execution – but this is a huge step up. There’s wit, character and story, plus it even looks good, and almost all his stories from this point forward work on at least the first three of those levels. His stories aren’t really trying to be scary any more, but they replace terror with a feeling of fairy-tale and fun which is all enormously enjoyable.

The Story

Essentially, what happens in this story is that the Doctor is sent on a mission from God, but instead of winding up po-faced and portentous he ends up in a caper that’s the nearest the series ever gets to Hustle. We see a planet going through its own equivalent of the Middle Ages, with a beautifully drawn culture, instantly credible characters and great dialogue; it’s all so believable that the light, frothy plot arises naturally out of it (though the con-trick’s by no means as clever as those in Hustle, the canvas on which it’s painted is far more interesting). There’s also a lovely attention to detail in the costumes, sets and even lighting – the host of candles in the Hall of the Dead looks breathtaking – all accompanied by some gorgeous music, particularly for the various local rituals. And as for the astounding hats…

By this point, Doctor Who is very much Tom Baker’s show, and he dominates the story (which will, as usual, be betrayed by the odd spoiler here). Unusually, it’s not all in a good way; perhaps because he’s not settled back or possibly sobered up after his own holidays yet, perhaps because he’s having so much fun with guest star Iain Cuthbertson, he’s distinctly hammy at times, which can be a bit distracting. He does have a new assistant to cope with, though, and as Romana’s the first on his level – one of his own people, fresh out of the Academy and initially trying to put him down – it’s not surprising that both character and actor show a degree of petulance. If initially the Doctor is slightly overawed by ‘God’ and overwhelmed by greater academic standing, he reasserts himself through the value not of power nor qualifications, but of empiricism, improvisation and mixing it.

Romana first appears in an outrageously glamorous white frock with silver trimmings, waving about her triple first and knowledge that the Doctor only just passed, and she’s one of the campest things you’ve ever seen. Appropriately for 1978, she could easily pass as one of Abba – even exclaiming “Ooh, take a chance,” at one point – and she’s so bitchy and aloof that the Doctor just doesn’t know how to deal with her. Even as a boy, I thought she was fabulous. In complete contrast is the other leading character with whom the audience is supposed to sympathise, Iain Cuthbertson’s engaging con-artist, Garron. He’s from an Earth a thousand or so years in the future, but with his patter, repertoire of accents and stories of selling famous landmarks, he’s very much a voice from 1978 amidst the medieval characters populating Ribos. His horror at his accomplice Unstoffe’s improvising a side-scam is very like Mickey and Danny in early episodes of Hustle, though they have an even better reason for not stealing the Crown Jewels than the more glamorous Noughties team (with both using the local relics as a set-up for their real con). Much as he brings out the worst in Tom Baker’s acting, he’s great fun to watch, and I have to admit that ‘lovable con-artists’ are the weakness in my usual disapproval of stories that ask us to empathise with crooks. It helps that the Doctor sides himself with crooks and chaos against law and order and fascism (as usual), and that Garron’s so recognisable; he even comes from Hackney Wick – or, according to one particularly error-prone Doctor Who reference guide, the village of ‘Hackneywick’ in Somerset. The only point at which he’s neither plausible nor entertaining is when, with the whole plot centring on an incredibly precious mineral which he just happens to possess a large lump of, he goes to the trouble of using it to bait the fake sale of a planet rather than just selling the stuff. The Graff says it could power an entire fleet and is of incredible worth, certainly far more than Garron is taking him for, but while Garron admits it’s the rarest element going and is basing his whole con on its value, he then claims it’s not worth that much. Oops. Still, the rest of it makes sense…

The World

Ribos is a world resembling medieval Russia – when I saw Alexander Nevsky a few years ago, the look was remarkable despite the huge disparity in budget – that’s just entering its 500 [whoops! It’s not certain, but apparently] 32-year winter, and it’s a superbly detailed society (unusually for Doctor Who, we even hear of several other settlements than the one city of Shurr). Snow, bells, catacombs, religion… It’s only when a planet has its own theology, geology, cosmology and meteorology that you realise what makes so many others less convincing, and thanks to an author with a real gift for words, neither does it suffer from the worthy but dull Star Trek syndrome that makes the detail of a planet sound like it’s regurgitating chunks of a UN report. Though the token monster is, I have to admit, more than a little floppy, even that gets some natural history rather than simply ‘it’s a big beastie and damn the ecological niche’. I’ve always loved the Doctor’s adventures in history, and this is a brilliant new take on them – an alien world with such rich borrowed detail that you infer a full history of its own. I bet it took a lot less research, too. It’s a rather marvellous mix of sci-fi and historical, set on the fringes of great events that makes intergalactic politics seem like proper history.

Probably the two most memorable natives of Ribos are minor characters who you might call ideological opposites, the Seeker – in effect, the local witch-priestess – and tortured old local Galileo, Binro the Heretic. He’s absolutely a Doctor Who hero figure and the nearest in the story to a straight part (though occasionally played in rather too maudlin a way). He’s an old beggar with smashed hands like his near-namesake Giordano Bruno, who also suggested the stars were suns with worlds of their own. Here, he was crippled to make him recant for fear of the Ice Gods destroying the world, and a touching moment comes when Unstoffe (from another world) tells him he was right. An unusual piece of structure in this story is that the Doctor mainly interacts just with the con-artists rather than the locally ‘important’ people – as the con is tied up with the segment of the Key to Time he’s come to find – and so Binro isn’t there to be championed by the Doctor, but to bring out the heroism in Unstoffe. Similarly, the Seeker is there to hunt Unstoffe, and doesn’t notice the Doctor’s disguise right in front of her. She speaks in a shrieking sort of ritual rush which I’ve always found compelling, though it’s possible the actress was just peculiar, and her painted face, prophesies of death and huge horned headpiece all make her stand out. At the time, her prophecy that “All but one is doomed to die” caught my imagination; as I grew older, I realised the irony of her predicting her own death without realising it because, like the Graff, she thinks herself indestructible; but now I can see that the author was having a bit of fun with her on top of all that. We instinctively sympathise with Binro, yet she’s given equal weight – and while we know for a fact that his fledgling scientific observations are true, rather than this being the series’ usual moral that science is real and magic isn’t, when every one of the Seeker’s predictions proves true it seems that both are. Superstition still doesn’t get a good press, however, with the Shrievalty practising mutilation, the Seeker a nasty piece of work, and the Captain of the Shrievalty deciding to seal in our heroes by blasting down the entrance to the catacombs in order to propitiate the Ice Gods. I have to say, this isn’t a sign of his intelligence: as the Ice Gods are supposed to live down there, you’d imagine sealing their home would make them quite cross, to say nothing of all the dead people who can’t be buried now, but as our heroes escape without so much as breaking sweat it must have been a pretty inept demolition job anyway.

The character that’s always had the biggest impact on me, though, was the villain. Though another outsider from another world, the man Garron plans to sting is very much in a medieval mindset – the Graff Vynda-K is a deposed monarch, for all that he hopes to buy a planet rather than a province from which to raise a (space) fleet. He gets some great lines, for example when horrifying the local Captain of Shrievalty by just shooting people on getting bored both with waiting for information and with covering up that he’s from another world:
“What are you?”
“Impatient, Captain! …I flatter myself I know how to get the best from natives.”
He’s also revealed from the first as not quite the “big butch soldier” he’s said to be; he shivers in the wind, but even that’s clever scripting to explain why he later gets so close to the fireplace and is able to discover something there… He’s a soldier always on the edge of losing it, held in check by his loyal old general, and particularly well characterised and played, twitchily, by Paul Seed, an actor who went on to direct such series as House of Cards (he gets soliloquies of his own here). There’s a great deal about him that’s memorable, starting with his armoured knights with their ray-firing staves that, at the age of six, seemed immensely cool for me. Now, however, I can spot little touches of I, Claudius in the mix, though unusually for Doctor Who he’s greatly toned down from the original (but as that’s Caligula, you have to, really). When he finally goes all the way into madness, the descent seems unsettling and even tragic as he disappears into visions of old glories, and it’s the more unsettling because we hear what’s going on inside his head, as if the audience goes mad with him to the sound of cavalry and drumbeats.

The most striking thing about the Graff, though, is his relationship to a famous English monarch. Alan Stevens and Fiona Moore recently observed that, a year later, Destiny of the Daleks would make Davros a twisted version of Arthur, the once and future king; I suspect if you stopped most ill-informed passers-by in the street and asked them to name England’s two most famously ‘good’ kings of Ye Olden Times, they’d say Richard and Arthur (one probably not so good, one largely mythical, but both highly thought of). The Graff is, of course, a young warrior-emperor going away to fight in the wars while he leaves his plotting half-brother on the throne, only to find he’s been deposed when he gets back. I love this reversing the heroic monarch of the Robin Hood tales as Bad King Richard, where ‘restoring the rightful king’ is what the villain wants to do and his subjects are very happy with him deposed. I do wonder if writer Bob Holmes particularly had it in for Robin Hood, as the nearest Doctor Who gets to the main part of the legend is in his earlier story The Time Warrior, set around the Thirteenth Century and in which the outlaws are greedy ruffians and the archer is an assassin. And, in the end, though the Doctor brings about the Graff’s death, it’s almost an aside. Though there’s a bit of camp glove-slapping at one point, they never really face off; although he’s ‘important’ to galactic politics, for once the real story is the little con, so the Doctor can ignore the ‘big events’ in favour of ultimately universal ones. Turning this season’s love of royalty on its head before it even gets going by elevating a scruffy conman over a displaced monarch, it makes utterly the right decision for Doctor Who.

A Mission From God?

There’s one other key character, and I described him earlier as ‘God’. Though most of the story sees the ‘important people’ as dangerous, and sides with the underdog – the con-man, the heretic (magic and religion may apparently work, but all its adherents are gits, so you shouldn’t follow them anyway) – the story does begin with the Doctor being hijacked by an almighty power who gives him orders to seek the hidden segments of Key to Time. In this case, he’s called the White Guardian, and manifests himself as an old gent sitting sipping a mint julep. He has a casual air of authority that makes him quite the scariest thing in it, as God would be, I suppose, and you wonder if he inspired Terry Gilliam to cast Ralph Richardson in much the same role in Time Bandits. He’s a change from the sheer evil of all previous ‘gods’ in Doctor Who; this one is… cold, rather like the hard purity of the Light in the Dark is Rising books. He gives the Doctor one of the most effective threats heard in the series, when our hero asks what’ll happen if he doesn’t do the Guardian’s bidding:
“What – you mean nothing will happen to me?”
“Nothing at all. Ever.”
He appears to be the Universal personification of order, and his legendary opponent, the Black Guardian, that of chaos; returning in the 1980s, they become ‘goodly old man’ and ‘cackling Devil’ in huge costumes, but initially the Guardian was more ambiguous and rather sinister.

Looking purely at this and the other Key to Time stories, there do seem to be multiple possibilities about the Guardian. Though Graham Williams is known as the producer who promoted wit and lightness of touch in the series, perhaps he did want something grand and Manichean at the top of the Universe; in which case, Bob Holmes seems to be deliberately satirising the ‘black and white’ of it from the first. Summoned by the ultimate force of law and order, the Doctor sides with the first crooks to hand, and instead of the story being about portentous doom, it’s a funny con job that also implies that, even if religion is real, anyone involved in it is still a nasty piece of work. Ironically in view of some later writers seeing him as God, the Doctor’s firmly one of the little people, involved in shady little events and not seeing everything in black and white. There are other possibilities, though; in the season where the Doctor’s given orders by ‘God’, half the stories (including this one) debunk gods as not worth worshipping. Perhaps the same is true of the Guardian, as it is with that other ‘important’ character, Bad King Richard the Graff Vynda-K? At the close of the whole season, the Black Guardian appears as White to try and trick the Doctor, who splits the Key up again rather than let him take it. What if the same trick had been played at the beginning, and the three ‘gods are bad’ stories were hints that the Doctor was really working for the bad guy all along? The Doctor seems very mistrustful of his ‘boss’ in this story, so perhaps he went along with the quest to stop anyone else falling for it. Alternatively, what if the Doctor really is working for White, but absolute order is no more attractive than absolute chaos? About twenty years ago, I remember standing in a shop reading a Doctor Who fanzine short story where the Doctor sees a Dalek army at work and discovers they’re servants of the White Guardian, imposing their own fascist order on the Universe. I wish I’d bought that fanzine, now; no idea who wrote it, but it got me thinking. Whatever the intention was, I’m grateful that the ‘Grand Quest’ that you’d expect to be so terribly, terribly serious came instead when Tom Baker was at his most laid-back and Tommiest and it all became simple fluffy fun. I have a terrible feeling that deciding to give the Doctor a sense of purpose would be like enlisting him for national service to put some backbone into him and make him respect authority, damn it; a total disaster that would lose everything that makes Who Whoish. Yet it still manages to work, perhaps because the Doctor ends up cocking a snook at both ‘God’ and ‘the Devil’ in favour of making his own decisions about what he thinks is right and, ultimately, what he enjoys doing.

I love The Ribos Operation. It’s a hugely entertaining little story, deliberately going small-scale with attention to character and dialogue instead of aiming to be a po-faced epic. The author has clearly cried, ‘Sod realism! Look what I can get away with!’ but with enormous panache, and assisted by splendid actors, music and design – the whole thing’s mix of futuristic science and detailed history looks more believable and less cheap than anything in the previous season. There’s a witch and a wicked prince, and they both come to memorable ends; God is deeply scary; Galileo is a hero; everyone wears fantastic hats. What’s not to love? Well, an iffy monster, but that’s not a unique failing. There’s also a great relationship between the Doctor and a suddenly iconic, almost Abba-esque companion to push the whole thing along. It’s rare that anyone raves about this story, but for me it should be celebrated as sheer, flamboyant fun.

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Friday, September 22, 2006


Return of the Leaders

With Ming’s speech all over today’s newspapers, I’m looking back in my usual up-to-the-minute way not at the current Liberal Democrat Leader but at two blasts from the past seen at Conference this week. Charles Kennedy made a much-publicised speech to the Conference on Tuesday afternoon setting out some key themes, but you could easily have missed a major speech by Paddy Ashdown at about, ah, 1am on Thursday morning at the ‘Glee Club’. Well, I say major speech. More of a shaggy dog story, really, but to an ecstatic reception. And no, he didn’t tell any jokes about Ming… And, oddly enough, neither of them really employed their best-known and most imitable speaking traits.

Charles Kennedy

Charles looked good coming on stage; if there’s one thing that’s a gift to those who want to use him as a stick with which to beat Ming (and he was ostentatiously supportive of Ming in his speech; you could almost hear the growls of disappointment from the assembled journalists) it’s that he looks much younger than his forty-odd, while Ming looks older than his sixty-odd. It was a pretty good speech, though for all that he’s been talked up as a great communicator, it certainly wasn’t a great one. Actually, I do think Charles is a great communicator, but he’s never been a great platform orator. Put him in a more relaxed, conversational environment and he’s brilliant, but I’ve never heard him give a speech to compare with the passion and rhetoric of Paddy Ashdown’s Leader’s speeches. Put Paddy in an informal setting that calls for him to be engaging, though, and he always seems a bit stiff and aloof. Well, except at 1am in the ‘Glee Club’. But it’s a very rare talent indeed who can be outstanding at every type of communication.

Charles’ speech, then, was pretty much as I expected, though as Millennium says, the surprise wasn’t any particular part of the content but that there added up to so much of it, speaking for double his allotted time. One unintentionally amusing moment came for light-watchers; at Lib Dem Conference everyone but the Leader gets a set length of time for their speech, with a light showing at the lectern and hanging from the ceiling for the audience to see. It starts off green, turns amber with a minute to go, then red to stop. If the red light actually starts flashing, you’re about to have your microphone switched off. On Tuesday, the amber light came on at 4pm, just as Charles was just to finish; by five past, with the former Leader still evidently with no intention of leaving the stage, the amber light winked plaintively out, and no light was shown until the next speaker was clear to start, twenty minutes later. Despite my jealousy at his ability to overrun time so drastically without being stopped, it really doesn’t seem worth all the bother he had to go through to get it.

Charles was a little hoarse, but still got a big laugh on John Prescott’s cowboy outfit, “Not so much John Wayne as Blazing Saddles,” and had a good, if meandering message. He touched on four key themes, social justice, democracy, climate change and internationalism, and outlined a small number of unfashionable issues on which the party should “keep the flame alive”. These all seem to have gone under the radar, but if there was a coded critique of party direction (including under his own Leadership), it was here. Regional government in England, largely abandoned by the party; pro-Europeanism; and not getting hung up on coalitions but fighting as an independent party (something on which all three contenders for the Leadership this year were much less clear than Charles) were all there, and all have the potential to come back as big ‘I told you so’ issues. Yes, it’s ironic, but while journalists and other professional gossips have spent the week watching every nod, wink and handshake to decipher what Charles thinks, I’ve not read a single analysis based on what he actually said. Charles is more engaging than passionate much of the time, but there were flashes when he really hit hard; he really isn’t a fan of the Labour Party. “Those who the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad… The gods must really have it in for Labour” was a jokey aside, but you got the feeling he meant it, particularly after tearing into the Labour Government for the damage it’s inflicted over Iraq on the integrity of our country and diplomacy: “It is absolutely damnable in my view. Damnable.”

Incidentally, I wonder why Liberal Democrat Voice is asking, “When would you like to see Charles Kennedy back on the Lib Dem front bench?” with poll options running in strict times from months, to years, to ‘Never’? Aside from rejecting the last one, it’s not my business to press him on any of those, and I’d object to anyone polling on my own long-term health problems. Surely the best answer would be “When he’s properly up to it again?”

Paddy Ashdown

True or not, Paddy and Charles rather than Charles and Ming seem to have been reported as the Leaders not really getting on this week. Whatever the business going on there, I thought both were brilliant Leaders, though neither were perfect (and please feel free to call a doctor should I ever lose my grip enough to say any Leader is perfect). Paddy, of course, gave up the Leadership of his own free will before most of the party wanted him to go, though there’d been a degree of tension about how close he was to Mr Blair; though I had a great many arguments with him, that was the only issue, a strategic rather than a policy issue, on which I thought he was really desperately wrong. You’d imagine those most wary of Paddy on that issue would be some of the instinctive, anti-authoritarian Liberals of the sort most likely to visit the Glee Club, and you’d probably be right. But the fact remains that when Paddy went back there for a turn the night before last, he went down a storm. For Lib Dems of my generation, there’s a piece of our heart that’s forever Paddy, and if the press had really wanted to see devotion to a returning former Leader, they shouldn’t have watched us clapping Charles but laughing with Paddy as we all decided all over again that we’d follow him into a ditch (again) if he asked us.

If you’ve not heard of it, the ‘Glee Club’ is an event that takes place on the last night of Conference, where comic songs and sketches are performed, often by MPs, but mainly where a large group of inebriated Liberal Democrats sing in turns inspiring, scandalous and comic songs from three centuries of Liberalism, all collected in the Liberator Songbook. Well, I say ‘sing’… It’s not something the control freaks in any other party would tolerate, and even for us it can be a little alarming if you’re not used to it. For me, one of the most entertaining moments of the night was not Evan Harris’ Woody Allen monologues – it was definitely not Evan Harris’ Woody Allen monologues – nor the song about Mark Oaten, but the sight of Stephen Tall gazing around in appalled horror as the last of his Conference virginity evaporated.

Paddy’s moment of glory came with a long, superbly delivered monologue – not quite as long as Charles’ speech, but it seemed at times like it could manage it – after a moving little tribute to the Glee Club’s revue star, Harriet Smith, whose funeral in the summer was the last occasion on which I was in Brighton. I can’t repeat Paddy’s shaggy dog story about the two tribes and the wizard; not because I don’t remember it (in fact, I remembered the punchline from when he used to tell it on turning up to the Glee Club as Leader, and many of the audience joined in on a lot of the lines), but because it involves such a multiplicity of ludicrous sound effects that I’d be unable to deliver it in person, let alone written down.

I know, you’re disappointed, aren’t you? After all that buildup? Well, even if you aren’t, I’m going to make up for the lack of shaggy dog with one of my favourite Paddy true stories that I probably shouldn’t repeat, but which I still repeated in the bar that night, with all my favourite Paddy mannerisms, without actually noticing how very little distance separated him from me. Fortunately, he didn’t hear, and so I survive to unwisely tell this tale of how our former Leader’s behaviour was subject to the ingestion of… Certain substances.

For more than a few years, I was on the Liberal Democrats’ Federal Policy Committee, and it was chaired by the Leader. Paddy and Charles had very different styles, though it’s a bit of an exaggeration to say we swapped King Stork for King Log. While Charles was laid-back and clever in the way he moved the meetings along, only occasionally steering on an issue about which he felt very strongly (and it was equally noticeable which policy issues he didn’t find completely enthralling), with Paddy the meetings were longer and harder because for Paddy, every single dot and comma was an issue of principle that must be fought to the death. I remember well the rather fraught atmosphere before the Conference in Brighton in 1994 at which we debated cannabis – the one at which Paddy strode off the stage in such a visible huff (though, I should point out, I just did lots of interviews on the subject but didn’t actually speak in the debate. So it wasn’t me). When Paddy got to the point of frustration that meant he took his glasses off, set them in front of him and started to tell us, “Colleagues… This used to be a good Committee to chair…” and then “I’ve thought about this for a long time,” the late, awesome Nancy Seear broke in with a stentorian bellow, “Not as long as some of us! I’ve been campaigning for the legalisation of cannabis since before you were born!”

You’ll have gathered that in those days, there was occasionally the merest hint of tension about Policy Committee meetings. I was, back then, the youngest person on the Committee by ten years, and I had a way to defuse the tension that I’d practised over years in the party’s Youth and Student wings. When things got a little fraught, I got out some sweets and passed them round (the only time Richard Holme ever spoke to me was when he was after my confectionery). Sometimes they were bonbons, sometimes chocolates, but for their disarming effect if not their taste I’d most frequently bring Love Hearts. It’s rather difficult to keep shouting at someone if you’ve just picked up something that says ‘HUG ME’. And the person on whom these had the most noticeable effect of all was Paddy. I never dared ask what the message he’d taken was, but a Love Heart was the one thing that could put him off his stride; he never failed to blush.

I wasn’t the only person who regularly brought sweets to the meetings; I was, however, the only one who regularly offered them round. A party official whose identity I shall for the moment protect (well, he likes Doctor Who too) would always sit next to Paddy and feed him jelly babies. One evening, I approached him conversationally at the end of the meeting and wondered just why I, with no money, should keep the meeting catered for while all he did was suck up to the Leader. He looked at me steadily and asked, “Have you never watched what happens?” So he explained, and next time I watched carefully.

Unlike many of us mortals, Paddy was supremely fit. He’d go to bed at two, do 500 press-ups, wake at five, do 500 press-ups, and if he felt his staff deserved a lie-in, he might not ring them until six. He believed breakfast, lunch and dinner were for wimps. So by the time a 6pm meeting started, his blood sugar would be very low and he could be more than a little irritable. But as more and more jelly babies entered his system…

…he literally became a sweeter person.

And that’s the story of how the former King of Bosnia used to be kept doped by jelly babies.

…And Those Famous Mannerisms

I mentioned yesterday that Ming, like Paddy and Charles, has immediately adopted one over-used and instantly imitable mannerism for his speeches. There wasn’t a lot of either in those by Paddy and Charles this week, strangely enough, but you’d know them if they did them. Charles always seemed someone that impressionists had difficulty with, and, true, a lot of politicians walk about the stage without a script in their hand, so you wouldn’t ‘get’ him just from that. But having listened to a lot of his speeches over the years, I can tell you one, one very distinctive vocal trait that at least regular Charles-watchers would recognise, that they would recognise, and that was a key reason why his Leader’s speeches would often go on a bit and drive his speechwriters to distraction. He would drive his speechwriters to distraction. And that, friends, is because when he wanted to make a point, not only would his delivery get slower and slower, but he would repeat his words for emphasis. He would repeat them for emphasis.

The most distinctive message in which to sum up Paddy’s speeches is, let me tell you this frankly, less in his words than in his other mannerisms, which is perhaps why so many impressionists got him spot on and even I was unwise enough to try him the other night. That clipped tone, so easy to imitate where Charles’ gentle accent is so tricky; the eyes incredibly narrowed, as if ready to focus lethal beams into the distance; and one hand, outstretched, upturned, as if reaching to hold some sacred flame or, as it was unkindly described, ‘the dead spider’. We may have taken the mickey out of both ex-Leaders, but the party still loves them both, and deservedly so.

And Ming’s mannerism? Ah, well. More on that story later, but I suspect you’ve spotted it already…

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Thursday, September 21, 2006


Speechblogging: Me Again

We’re just home, and knackered. So while I’d like to have blogged promptly about Ming’s speech – excellent, though like Paddy and Charles he’s immediately adopted one over-used and instantly imitable mannerism for his speeches (answers tomorrow) – I’ll publish my own from yesterday’s disappointing ‘Meeting the Challenge’ debate instead, as I’ve done all the thinking I need to about that one (writing your own speeches really gets in the way of blogging). If you hurry, you might also get today’s Independent, where I’m given a good writeup; it’s cheaper to physically buy the whole paper than one online article.

I usually think about things a fair old deal before I post them, and when I post, I tend to post at length. Yes, I know, neither of these observations are likely to be a surprise to you, but what they boil down to is that it generally takes me a long time to write an article. I thought we’d all have a bit of a rest at Conference as far as blogging went, but instead it’s been hugely competitive, with lots of people writing excellent blog pieces about twenty times a day. Well, I didn’t, so my Conference impressions (not the impression I did of Paddy Ashdown last night while failing to notice him about twenty feet away, I should say) will gradually appear over the next few days, at a terribly unnewsworthy pace. Sorry about that.

However, along with all the obvious reasons for writing still more slowly than usual at Conference (being in debates, being asleep, being deprived of sleep, being unwell, being less enthused by typing than I was by chatting to and trading hugs with nice people I only see once a year), speeches slowed my blogging down. Unexpectedly, blogging also slowed my speechwriting down. Did any other bloggers make speeches (as far as I know, I’m the only one to accede to Rob Fenwick’s wishes and give a plug to Liberal Democrat Voice)? I’d be interested to know what the crossover is, because as well as speechmaking distracting from my blogging ‘duties’, blogging may have significantly changed my speaking style.

How I Make A Speech

Usually, my speeches don’t have a lot of rehearsal. For many speeches, I’ve bounded onto the platform with only half a dozen key words written on the back of my hand. I suspect this approach, giving full vent to inspiration and able to respond instantly to the flow of the debate, has seen both my best and my worst speeches. Talking on the fly lets you keep constant eye contact with the audience, which always looks more effective and makes your voice more clear than if you’re looking down. It can be far more fluent than a written speech. But if inspiration doesn’t strike, it can also be a train wreck, and I’ve had a few disasters, too (particularly when I was more prone to stammering if I lost confidence).

Most often, I get up to speak carrying one sheet of paper. I’ll have key words for a very rough structure in big, well-spaced letters, but I’ll usually write out two lines in full. If you want my top tip for a good speech, spend a lot of your time preparing just two lines: the first and the last. The first one should get your audience listening, and the last one get them clapping. If you’re speaking under a time limit, having your final line or short paragraph ready is particularly vital; at Lib Dem Conference, for example, if that amber – or, worse, red – light comes on, drop everything and run straight to your rousing climax. Better to skip a bit than trail away uselessly when your microphone is switched off.

Both my speeches this week were typed out in full, which is something I’ve hardly ever done. And it’s all because of blogging. I wanted to post them afterwards, which meant I had to type them in. So they took an awful lot longer to prepare, particularly as the speeches then needed rehearsal so I wouldn’t lose my place or simply have to read the whole time, and I suspect my style was significantly altered (any regular Alex-watchers able to tell?). My lines were probably sharper, less rambling, but my delivery was more flat; I know I used my hands a lot less than I otherwise would, and I was very conscious of glancing down a lot rather than looking confidently around the hall. This was starting to make me so uncomfortable by part-way into yesterday’s speech that I turned it into a visual gag to make the rest of the speech seem more natural, picking up my script and squinting ostentatiously at it at the point where I told the Conference which sub-paragraphs were the ones in which our key priorities had been secreted. And rather oddly, having to work out every single line in advance meant much less time to craft the usually vital first and last lines; I thought my ‘Meeting the Challenge’ speech had a rather feeble opening, and my speech at the Bloggers’ Reception had a rather feeble close.

So why did I put in to speak in this particular debate? The ‘Meeting the Challenge’ paper aimed to set out our values and whole policy direction, and should have been the most important thing this week. The most telling thing about the debate was how few people were interested in speaking, and how few representatives or media people bothered coming in to listen. Two years ago, I’d closed the debate on behalf of the party leadership (yes, difficult to believe, isn’t it?) on a very similar paper – another collection of policies pointing the way forward, based on heavy consultation, and also setting out our themes, which formed our ‘pre-Manifesto’. Though a strange curse seemed to fall afterwards on several of the key people behind it, at the time it was a big success, with a packed, lively debate and a real sense of what it stood for. With these ‘pre-Manifesto’ papers and full Manifestos coming round every four years and always doing a good job in bringing our message together, I found it incredible that this similar project managed to make such a hash of it, and that’s what propelled me to be the only speaker against the paper as a whole.

In the past, my speeches against policy papers have tended to be blizzards of detail, either blasting as many things wrong with a paper as I could cram in or listing as many things missing from it as I could think of. As most of the detail in this was fairly innocuous but I thought the ‘narrative’ was fatally lacking, I tried an experiment. This time, my speech was going to have very little detail; instead, I would see if I could construct a narrative about why it didn’t work. I’m not sure how successful that approach was, but it allowed me to be less surgically precise and more cruelly mocking, and I suspect wound more of the paper’s supporters up than a detailed critique would have done; I know from experience in what you might call ‘political defence’ that it’s fair easier to rebut a specific accusation than a generalised ‘conceptual’ attack, particularly if that nebulous feeling strikes a chord (as my speech evidently did).

One of the excitements of a Lib Dem debate is that you’re never quite sure if you’ll actually be chosen to speak or if all your preparation will be for nothing. Richard points out languidly from where he reclines that this practice is the reverse of the other conferences, where speakers are carefully primed, but they all know nothing they say will make the slightest difference to the outcome. In the event, I was called to give the third speech of the debate. Ed Davey MP and Derek Young, the prospective candidate in one of our top target seats for the Scottish Parliament, spoke before me. Both gave excellent speeches and I opened mine by saying so; if only the paper had been as inspiring…

What I Said to Mock the Challenge

“Conference, this paper set itself a challenge, and it’s our job to see if it measures up. Usually, we get the themes right but the devil’s in the detail; here, many of the details are fine, but the theme is less a clarion call than an overheard hubbub; too many voices, none distinct.

“Now, Conference, to meet the challenge of new technology, this is a multimedia speech. Unlike Vince, I don't have slides, but those of you with laptops can read an article I’ve written about the enormous problems with the chapter on Inequality on the brilliant new website Liberal Democrat Voice, so I won’t repeat it – just ask yourself, when we believe in freedom from poverty, ignorance and conformity, why does the chapter on Inequality say, like a student socialist who’s never lived in the real world, that never mind discrimination or opportunity, the only unfairness that exists in the world is money.

“But the key problem with this paper is not the tunnel vision in the details, but simply that it fails its main job. That job is to set out what we stand for. No – that sounds deathly dull, doesn’t it? That job is to inspire us, to enthuse us, to tell our story. It’s supposed to be our narrative.

“Well, how good a read is that story? Have you read it? No, of course you haven’t. But you tried, didn’t you? Struggled a couple of paragraphs, then thought, ‘Oh, this is hard going’. Don’t worry – I’m a policy wonk, and it was a struggle for me. You know the tax paper yesterday; whatever you thought of it, the title told you the message. The introduction expanded on the message. The summary turned the message into some policy headlines. Then the chapters turned the summary into detail… And it all made sense. But when the tax paper is more exciting than the message paper – much more exciting – something's wrong with the message.

“Here you’ve got Trust in People: Making Britain Free, Fair and Green. That’s a bad start, isn’t it, with about three titles stuck together and you keep forgetting bits of them? Then there’s Ming’s foreword which is rather good, then an introduction that goes somewhere different, but there’s no summary and the chapters don’t expand on the introduction, just come at you from all different directions, none of them relating to the other bits, none of it building up in any order – as if, whoops, they dropped the papers on the floor and just printed them at random. The motion commending this paper does a better job of setting out our message in three lines than this manages in fifty pages.

“Conference, we’ve had plenty of practice in putting together lists of policy themes – it’s called a Manifesto. We do them quite often, and they’ve all been better than Trust in Britain: Making Freedom Green and Fairly Popular. The exciting climax of Trust in Freedom: Making People Turn Fairly Green is that it commits us to our two top policy and campaigning priorities for the next few years. They’re not in the motion. They’re not in the foreword, they’re not in the introduction, they’re not at the end. They’re in sub-paragraphs 3.2.4 and 4.3.1. And not at the beginning of those lengthy paragraphs, you understand – our top priorities shouldn’t be too easy to find. It’s telling you, ‘Conference, you’re very naughty, and you don’t deserve to know unless you eat up every word.’ The priorities are climate change and fighting inequality, by the way, but you have to play hide and seek to know it, and this doesn’t say how they link to each other, let alone to anything else in the paper.

“Conference, let me tell you a story. It’s a true story. I was in a long queue recently, to meet some actors from Doctor Who, and a seven-year-old there with his dad got a bit restless waiting. So he made up a story for us. A good story needs inspiration, interesting details, emotional drive, and a structure to make sense of it all. Now, this boy’s story wasn’t the best story in the world – in fact, it had a lot in common with Trust in Fairness: Making Greenland British for Free. Neither of them have a lot of inspiration, but they both have a lot of details like namechecks of things we’d all heard before (famous monsters, famous policies; much the same thing). Both of them have no emotional drive at all. But his story did have a beginning, a middle and an end, and I can still remember what it was about, so that seven-year-old had a better grasp of basic narrative than Trust in People: Making Britain Free, Fair and Green does, even if, on the fifth try, I’ve finally managed to remember that bloody title in the right order. A talented seven-year-old will go on to do better, but the people who wrote this should know better. Be honest – there is no-one you would give this to to tell them what we’re about.

“Conference, we deserve a message that inspires us – Liberalism is inspiring. This isn’t. We deserve a policy direction that can inform our campaigning – not makes you play hunt the thimble even to find out what it’s telling us to campaign on. And we deserve more competent storytelling than a seven-year-old can manage. This sets out to Meet the Challenge, but it fails the challenge completely. So I challenge you – what is this paper good for? And if it’s good for nothing, what’s the point in voting for it?”

Oh, and though I’ll write about the rest of the debate in more detail tomorrow, depending on how much sleep I’ve had, here’s what Simon Carr had to say. The Independent wants to charge you 70p to read it (if you buy the whole paper on paper), or £1 online for just this one sketch. Flattering as it is to be quoted, and astounding in my experience of newspapers to be quoted pretty accurately, I don’t charge for my words, and Mr Carr’s paper didn’t pay me for the words of mine they’re commercially exploiting; so here, without charge, are his:

From Simon Carr’s Sketch in today’s Independent
‘Speech writers wanted - ordinary people need not apply’

…And then on to the ghastliness of the final big report-back. It was the Trust in People: Make Britain Free Fair and Green report of the Meeting the Challenge Working Party. You may be able to add some punctuation to make sense of it.

Alex Wilcock denounced everything to do with this wretched piece of pulp. The title was bad enough, in his view, there being three of them. There was Ming's preface but it didn't connect with the introduction and the chapters were incoherent and unrelated to each other as though they'd been picked up from the floor in a random order. There was no summary and the two most important themes were buried in paragraphs 3.2.4 and 4.3.1. A seven-year-old boy had a better grip of structure, narrative and memorable detail. "What is it good for?" he asked. "If nothing, what's the point in voting for it?" A heroic question (unanswered).
Parliamentary reaction: one Parliamentarian who I shall keep anonymous gave me a kiss and exclaimed, “That was brilliant! Very mean, though”; on the other hand, Ming Campbell walked off the stage after I finished speaking. Oops.

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I, Claudius

Poison, backbiting, people professing their love and loyalty to colleagues then plotting as soon as their backs are turned, charismatic speeches and leaders being violently deposed… If you want a break from Liberal Democrat Conference, BBC4 is showing the complete run again of one of the finest television series ever made, compelling Roman drama I, Claudius. If you’ve never seen it, do so. The first episode is tonight at 10pm, and not only is the script outstanding, but just about every famous British actor of the 1970s is in it; it originally started broadcasting exactly thirty years ago last Saturday. I wonder why they didn’t decide to show it then, rather than Thursday nights (and no, that other of the greatest series ever made that’s regularly part of the BBC4 schedules still isn’t back; I’ll mention The Avengers again when, hopefully, they return). And, yes, they did show the whole thing just last month, appropriately for August; looking at the ratings, it was a big hit by BBC4 standards, so they decided they’d like it again. The first episode is not only double-length, incidentally, but followed by related documentary Togas on TV (which features not just a lot of I, Claudius but William Hartnell in Doctor Who, The Goodies and someone I’m sure is a young Sutekh).

Tracing the history of the Caesars from Augustus to the ascent of Nero, I, Claudius is loosely based on Robert Graves’ famous novels, but if the easiest TV adaptations to write are novels with clearly defined chapters, clear description and lines that can be turned into dialogue simply by removing ‘She said’ and ‘He said’, this must have been right at the other end of the scale. Written almost entirely in Claudius’ voice and mostly a ‘reported’ record of events, while the novels are impressive, they’re a mass of details and feature very little dialogue. Jack Pulman’s scripts for the TV series are even more stunning when you realise they’re inspired as they are by a book supplying more an erratic plot summary than actual lines. Should you pick up the DVDs, there’s an excellent documentary on them, too, from the same people who’ve done those on Doctor Who releases, one of perhaps three or four other TV series I’d place as highly as this one. Brian Blessed reveals that none of them could get a handle on the characters, and asked the writer, who explained he’d had similar trouble coming up with any scenes to convey the extraordinary story until he thought of the Mafia. And suddenly he had it.

So, essentially, this is the BBC’s answer to The Godfather, but set back in Italy and some 1,900 years earlier. It’s particularly noticeable in the early episodes, as Brian Blessed’s Augustus embraces people with the hearty fervour of a good Family man. In any other show he’d steal it completely, a thoroughly lovable and charismatic dictator, but not when his wife Livia is played by Siân Phillips. Cold, scheming, and utterly compelling, I suspect she and Blake’s 7’s Servalan may have been my political anti-heroes growing up, and helps create the monstrous black humour of the early episodes. Add John Hurt as fey, mad Caligula, blood-soaked guard captain Patrick Stewart, Derek Jacobi as Claudius himself and almost too many other great actors to count, and it’s the cream of British talent.

Aside from the sheer quality, there are quite a few differences between this and modern – if you’ll excuse the term – Roman epics. Like most of my favourite series, the ideas may be epic but the budget isn’t; amazingly, this is entirely studio-based, and you can imagine it as a terrific series of plays, though some of it is strikingly televisual (it’s terribly well-directed, but you won’t get any showy, swooping camera angles, let alone CGI). At the time it was famous for its orgies, but while they seem a little tame by 2006 standards, the reported debauchery still takes you aback. I suspect, though, that the real reason for the orgy rather than the arena favoured of movies was not to shock, but because you can only do one of the two on a small-screen budget. As far as my cursory examination can make out, it’s also pretty accurate in its history – not a claim often made of Rome on the screen. You’ll at least be able to reel off the right names in the right broad sweep of things, though I suspect it gives Claudius rather a good press, while Augustus also comes out of it jolly well (notably omitting his own shagging around), in contrast, of course, to Livia, whom historians apparently think rather maligned. As between them they get almost all the best scenes, though, I’m more than happy to keep them slightly ‘inaccurate’. With Claudius, as it’s his autobiography, you make more allowances for bias in his own favour. Still, we can’t help being on his side, and I remember being particularly pro-Claudius when I saw the whole thing repeated in the 1980s; by then, I was a very bookish teenager with a noticeable stammer that took years of determined speechmaking to overcome, so perhaps that’s unsurprising. Of course he’s a superb character (an superbly played by Derek Jacobi, from youth to old age), his limp and stammer convincing his family – not least his magnificently upright but cold mother Antonia, played by Margaret Tyzack – that he’s an idiot. He survives them all to become emperor, but though he’s a benevolent dictator, he’s always wanted a restoration of the Republic. Where I’m most sceptical of Claudius these days is the way he sets up his successor to be the horrifyingly corrupt Nero, because he wants people to rise up to renew the Republic; Tiberius does exactly the same thing in promoting Caligula because he wants to be loved more after his death than he ever was when alive. Claudius is like an innocent Marxist hoping for repression to hasten the final crisis of capitalism, but his effect is exactly the same as Tiberius, for whom it’s proof of corruption (along with sex, of course, which is generally a sign of moral depravity in this story).

With the novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God making up about 800 pages of mostly plot summary rather than detailed scenes, even a dozen TV episodes wouldn’t be able to expand all of it, so if you’re familiar with the books, this is something almost entirely new to discover, both heavily edited and massively expanded. The second book, for example, spends dozens of pages on Claudius’ conquest of Britain, all completely impossible on a TV budget of the time (the elephants would be a challenge even with modern CGI), but while that’s almost entirely omitted you’ll find that almost all the real meat of the TV series was created for it rather than taken from the novels. If the best bits of the books are in Claudius’ asides on his strange history as he tells it, the episodes of the TV adaptation that you should really look out for are the earlier ones, full of manoeuvring, acid dialogue and black humour. Under Tiberius and then Caligula – whose madness I remember from the character inspired by it in Judge Dredd before I ever saw the show – the reigns of terror become bloodier and less diverting than the mafia-ish family soap, high camp bitchiness and poisonings.

I believe it’s the second episode in which the series hits perhaps its most stunning run of scenes, as Livia schemes to bring down Augustus’ daughter Julia, who has been having rather an unwise amount of sex for someone with such a moralising father and uncharitable stepmother. None of this sequence is in the book, but first we see Livia interrogate almost flirtily one of the ambitious young men whom Julia’s been involved with, getting from him a list of Julia’s partners; then Livia confronts Julia’s son Gaius with the news and manoeuvres him into telling Augustus himself, rather than it coming from her; and it all climaxes as Augustus, finally exerting his power as Caesar rather than the chummy man we’ve seen him pose as until now, moves down a great line of nobles, asking questions until he eventually erupts with a great cry,
“Is there anyone in Rome who has not slept with my daughter?”
Now, I know what you’re thinking: Brian Blessed, shouty, no surprises. Well, though he’s been employed to do little but shouting since his magnificent King Vultan, you may be surprised by how subtle his performance is in this; towering, yes, but often very quiet. He’s never quieter than in his death scene as, at last poisoned by Livia, he’s completely still for minutes on end as his wife, off-camera, explains her reasons for everything she’s done before closing his eyes. It’s absolutely mesmerising. When she’s much older, another great scene comes as, in return for a promise from Claudius (whom she’s finally recognised as no fool), she confesses all her terrible deeds to him for his interest as an historian. And in the later, bloodier episodes, the scene that’ll remain with you is of course the appalling close of an episode at which Caligula emerges from a certain room, his mouth smeared with blood, and simply tells Claudius, “Don’t go in there…”

Incidentally, there was an ill-fated attempt to bring the book to the big screen in the late 1930s with Charles Laughton, which became such a famous disaster the book was declared unfilmable. Again, should you pick up the BBC DVD, you’ll find a great documentary on The Epic That Never Was; it shows fascinating glimpses of a movie that might have been more epic but which, even with the magnificent sets and actors shown in the few surviving scenes, didn’t look a patch on the 1976 triumph. It did, however, feature Flora Robson as Livia, an actress who played old women from her thirties. I mention her because her last film role came over forty years later, as an old witch in the entertainingly irregular Greek legend from Ray Harryhausen, Clash of the Titans… In which you can also see, as the haughty queen whose pride gets her daughter into trouble, none other than the BBC’s Livia, Siân Phillips. I wonder if they met?

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Tuesday, September 19, 2006


Limping Into Tuesday

If you’re at Conference and see me looking more like a zombie than usual this morning, it’s not because too many people have been bending my ear about the tax debate (though a few did. I was called a “right-winger” in the bar at 2am). Despite a breakfast meeting with the inspiring folk of the BBC World Service raising my spirits, I’ve had three hours’ sleep and am in some pain. I woke at five with a very manly shriek of agony as my leg went into cramps, the muscles squirming like live snakes with no prompt from their owner. Richard was woken less by an alarm call than an alarming one; he got back to sleep, but I’m still hobbling. Test your luck, then, if you were woken in your hotel by piteous shrieks of agony at dawn. Perhaps you were right not to call the police after all.

What, you may ask, was I doing in the bar at two this morning if I was planning to visit the breakfast with the BBC World Service? Chatting with nice people before Richard signalled that he was about ready to drop, really, after staying up to make a somewhat abbreviated 1am appearance on Radio Five Live about blogging, with Simon Hughes and a man from the Mirror. Given that there is only one person in the party more likely to exceed his requested word count than me, I experienced little surprise when told by the Five Live team that I might not be on air for long because the programme was apparently running half an hour late while Simon interviewed himself.

A quick word, however, for the BBC World Service. Despite the Metropole’s breakfast being cool, congealed and much less exciting a selection that I’ve been enjoying for the rest of the week – so you needn’t view me as biased in their favour by the food – I’m thoroughly glad I took up their invitation. Regular readers will probably have spotted that I’m an ardent if not uncritical supporter of the Beeb, but even for the BBC, the World Service’s mission to bring impartial and informed news to the world is something that grabs my heartstrings. Speakers included the Director of the BBC World Service, Nigel Chapman, plus people from BBC World (commercially competing world TV news) and BBC Monitoring (watching what all the world’s other major news channels report), with news about the forthcoming Arabic TV service, blocking in China and Iran – the Chinese authorities describe it as a ‘technical problem’, but strange how targeted it is – and many other issues. Awwhh, bless them.

Shame that the BBC stand here doesn’t have any more of those cool Doctor Who postcards they were giving away last year, nor even Robin Hood… Some nice pictures of the Doctor and Bleak House up at the back, though.

Now, however, the tax debate has started next door; I really should get in there. I understand it’s going to be a quiet one, so I might catch up on some sleep.


Ravishing Phone Intoxication

A long, mostly delicious* dinner last night with various other Lib Dem bloggers (note to Polly Toynbee: yes, we really are a secret cabal all plotting to get you) at Brighton’s tapas restaurant Pinxto People, where the staff will be friendly, charming, order for your party and then present the most inflated bill in dining history. Amongst all the intrigue, at one leg of the evening Mark Pack revealed the secret of The Most Exciting Telephone Line In Britain. It’s every bit as addictive as you expect; try 020 7533 5833 any time of day or night. Especially night. Phew.

Note to Iain Sharpe: fabulous blog and the best title going, but if you don’t want other people to post on it try not to leave your Blogger account logged in at the Brighton Centre Internet café. Being almost overcome by the giddy excitement of the forthcoming tax debate, though, I manage to resist posting any amusing additions; it’s possible not all Lib Dems may exercise similar self-control.

*Not all delicious. If you go, you should not only keep careful control of the menu, but also avoid the outstandingly vile green ice cream. Not the pale green one that tastes like toothpaste; the dark green one that tastes like nettles.

Monday, September 18, 2006


‘Reassuringly Extensive’

Last night saw the ‘Bloggers’ Reception and inaugural Lib Dem Blog of the Year Awards’, where Stephen Tall was named Blogger of the Year, to riotous applause. Aside from Millennium, he’s the shortlistee I dash to read most assiduously, and after blogging MP Lynne Featherstone pulled his name from the golden envelope, Stephen wowed the packed, sweaty room with a speech thanking the judges and every other Lib Dem blogger. You can see why he’s a hit, can’t you? His unassuming attire – ‘I’m the Most Popular in My School’ picked out in glitter across his chest – helped, too. He and Lynne made a terribly glamorous pair, and he was swiftly whisked off by all the assembled media. I know Stephen had announced he wanted to lose his Conference virginity this week, but I suspect this may still have been a little startling for him; Conferencegoers were so keen to help ‘A Liberal Go All The Way’ that they didn’t even form an orderly queue.

All this took place at what’s known as a Conference fringe meeting. For those in the happy position of retaining what Councillor Tall has lost, the Fringe meetings are related to the Conference and attended by people who go there, but not part of the debates in the great big hall. Because fringes aren’t ‘official’, they can be on any old theme and organised by anyone (often pressure groups who offer free food and drink to get the Conference representatives to turn up and listen to their pitch). This one, like most, was held in a function room at a nearby hotel. With other parties, the fringe is where all the big rows go on, as they’re not allowed to debate things in the Conference itself. Unusually, Lib Dems get to decide all the weighty issues and are probably ruder about their Leadership in speeches in the main hall than they are on the fringe, so that’s where we just get down to enjoying ourselves, eating free food (if your fringe schedule is well-planned) and having a gossip. With this one a reception for people to meet each other as well as a structured ‘event’, it was great to finally put faces to lots of bloggers I’ve read. An even larger number of them met Millennium for the first time and offered their commiserations; not that he needed them, of course, as he took the disappointment with all the dignity and maturity you'd expect from a five-year-old fluffy elephant.

Alas, there was no free food, but aided by free drink, the people who turned up were lively and there was a good line-up of ‘set’ speakers: Lynne Featherstone MP, Mark Pack (Lib Dem HQ IT guru), Russell Eagling (from sponsporing thinktank Centre Forum), all chaired by Rob Fenwick of Liberal Democrat Voice. And me, of course, with my speech straight after the prizegiving. Fortunately, I was delighted with the winner, mainly because he’s a really nice guy with a superb blog which is varied, intelligent and (hurrah!) lengthy… But also because of the six alternate first lines I was holding in my head, the one about Stephen was the funniest (the others were really very poor indeed). Here’s what I said, including an introductory paragraph that I’d much rather had been scripted – and delivered – by Ronnie Barker…

Lynne and Rob wonder if anything can stop Alex in full flow before everyone dies of heat exhaustion Posted by Picasa

“Good evening, everyone, and congratulations to Stephen, whose blog is a great read, who I always enjoy chatting to online, and who – now that I’ve met him in real life – blushes very prettily. Of course, if I’d had a vote I would have voted for Millennium, on pain of being hit by a sticky bun, but Stephen thoroughly deserved it. While the shortlist have all been nervous to see who wins, I’ve been nervous because without knowing if tonight was going to be all bloggers or a mix or bloggers and ‘interesteds’, I wasn’t sure if I should talk tips like Mark Pack asked, or just go round the room sticking random labels from one to fifty on people to do a blog aggregator right here.

“I’ve been asked to speak, as the second-best blogger in our flat, about my personal experience and how good Liberals can make use of blogging to promote what we believe in. What these speeches are usually expected to deliver is the one top tip that everyone should know. Well, everyone already knows the one most important thing about blogging; it’s all to make sure that anyone searching for your name on Google finds you at the top. So, thanks to Love and Liberty, it’s nice to report that my blog is now at the top of the Google search for Alex Wilcock – at least if you spell it correctly. My surname, of course, ends in a ‘ck’, not an ‘x’. If you Google my name using the spelling advertised by Mr Pax last week, instead of me you’ll see a very much more physically impressive gentleman. I won’t mention his profession with so many salacious scandalmongers in the room, but you’ll certainly find ‘cox’… While all I have to boast of is the size of my articles.

“On that subject, Mark Pack helpfully suggested a strapline for me last week: “The blog with more words in one post than most blogs have in a year”. Rob Fenwick’s opinion was “If you’d told me at the beginning of the year that you were going to start a blog,” he said, “and that your average article would be two or three thousand words, I’d have torn my hair out and told you you were mad.” And these are the gentlemen who asked me here tonight to give a strictly five-minute* speech. I just think of my pieces as reassuringly extensive.

“And the single most important thing I’ve learnt is that while my style might not agree with people who want all their ideas in soundbite form, it’s mine. People suggested at Conference last year that I take up blogging; I finally started in February. One of the reasons I put it off is that I just wasn’t very confident about how to do it. I started off thinking I couldn’t be as witty and eclectic as Liberal England, or as pithy, well-informed and downright brutal as Quaequam Blog! And I was right, of course, but the important thing is that if you try to blog in the style of someone else, you won’t enjoy it and, chances are, no-one else will either.

“It’s a very Liberal message, but simply be you – short, long, funny, detailed, personal, critical, pictures, text; have fun, throw out ideas that interest you, and write a blog that you’d like to read. Blog in your own voice, or why bother? You’re not working for anyone but you.

“The same goes if you’re an active Liberal Democrat and want to promote what we believe in as well as your own personal interests. Don’t just reprint a party press release, because who wants to read that (I mean, you don’t, do you)? Wonderful as tonight’s awards ceremony is, I’d be a bit worried if anyone really went out just to be ‘The blog that does the most to promote Liberalism in the next year,’ because that wouldn’t sound a terribly Liberal sort of blog (though that’s not an objection in principle to being nominated for next year’s, mind). Instead of setting out to be ‘on message’, make an impassioned argument and try to change people’s minds, comment on issues that interest you, or take things in the news and give them your slant, but be a critical friend to the party. Don’t go completely over the top in your slavish devotion, and, you know, if you can occasionally find something other than politics to write about, it helps.

“My own style’s pretty discursive, though I admit I can get brutally partisan on occasion when one of the other parties really winds me up. But as well as writing about ideas, you can supply information, or find useful information in the Lib Dem blogosphere. If you know something really well, tell people about it. When the Leadership election took off earlier this year, I was genuinely undecided, so I did what any pitifully naïve person would do, and looked round the Lib Dem blogs to find well-informed critical profiles of each of the candidates. But, obviously, though there were plenty saying ‘My candidate’s brilliant!’ and rather more with ‘and your candidate stinks!’ there weren’t any that were detailed, balanced and informative on all three. So I had to write them myself when it turned out no other bugger had done it. Lots of people told me I helped make their minds up, but it didn’t help me! And that was my baptism of fire in the blogosphere.

“So, the other absolutely crucial thing for a Lib Dem blogger, on top of finding your own voice, is Lib Dem Blogs Aggregated. Brilliant though Stephen is, if one person deserves a prize for advancing Lib Dem blogging, it’s Ryan. No-one would have known about or talked about my profiles when I wrote them just a week after I started blogging, and I wouldn’t have been able to check whether anyone else had done them yet, without Lib Dem Blogs Aggregated.

“So, as my Mum – who’s read precisely one of my blog pieces, and told me what was wrong with it – as my Mum asked, “If I ever wanted to read a blog (in a tone of voice giving that thought equity with growing an extra head), how do I find one?” If you’re a Liberal Democrat, and you have a blog, sign up to Lib Dem Blogs Aggregated so people can easily find you, tell anyone who starts a blog the same, and tell anyone who has no intention of ever starting one to add the site as one of their favourites. Because it’s just a great read, and I love it, and Liberals above all need to provoke debate; for better or worse it’s the single best digest of Lib Dem daily thought going, even though Lib Dem Voice is trying its damnedest to overtake it in a week.

“Now, the most obvious thing for a Liberal Democrat to do with a blog is turn it into a sort of 21st Century Focus. After all, Focus started as a way of getting our message across on a local level when no-one else would print it, and quite a few people have started the same sort of local Lib Dem information blog. I say that, but it’s one of the miracles of blogging that even the ones written for local campaigns aren’t all unbearably tedious. Andy Mayer’s articles have rapidly gained a reputation to rival that of bruiser blogger James Graham; intelligent, well-argued, very readable, and above all, deadly. And then Councillor Tall was saying to me just the other day that ‘blogging is changing how we communicate, creating a two-way conversation, and this represents an exciting opportunity for citizens and politicians alike’.

“There, you see now, that was actually in the style of David Milliband, and Stephen told me that if I used those words he’d scream. Did you hear anything? No? Well, that’s another sad example of a politician failing to fulfil his promises.

“I think the danger of blogs for elected politicians in particular is that if they go around saying what they actually think all the time, they may make politics too interesting. No wonder Labour haven’t embraced the culture. I know I say things – rather a lot of things – that I probably wouldn’t if I was a candidate, but have decided life’s too short to hold my tongue just in case I ever am again. I’m both more publicly opinionated and more publicly undecided than I have been before, and I’m really enjoying it.

“I hope you enjoy Lib Dem blogging too, whether you write one, read some, or – like all the best people – do both.”

*Naturally, being me, I’d timed it in the hotel as six and a half minutes, when poor Richard was having to listen to it. Last night, Mr Pax said it ended up as nine – whoops. I’d not made any allowance for audience reaction, but the people in the room were very inebriated kindly, which was rather a relief (having given a great many speeches about ideas, but this being the first in which my content was so light I had to be mildly amusing or die on my arse). Anyway, I’d already taken out large chunks for timing, particularly the opinionated rather than expert ‘tips’ variety that I decided most people in the room would already know, even if that’s part of what I’d been asked to speak on. So here, for your amusement and scorn, are a few of the ‘DVD special feature’ bits comprising…

Alex’s Foolhardy Blogging Tips

I suppose what some Lib Dem bloggers really want is to feel important and make the news. Guido Fawkes and Iain Dale try to do it, but really the bloggers we’re most envious of are across the Atlantic. Radio 4 currently has a rather patronising series called ‘Meet the Bloggers’, about these eccentric people and their funny little ways… That said, I’d happily have nicked some insights from their edition about American political blogs, but of course that one isn’t on until Tuesday. Damn. Still, if they’re remotely serious they’ll mention the swing that the Daily Kos has, and I suspect there are one or two Lib Dem bloggers talking up a challenger to Simon Hughes less on the issues than as exactly that sort of test – can we unseat a Party President? Well, possibly, but I think Lib Dem blogs so far are a long way off the sort of brutal partisan punching power that makes a lot of the American ones so readable but not terribly attractive [Mark Pack talked a little on this subject, wondering if Chris Huhne’s Leadership campaign and the ‘Green Switch’ plans that have grown out of it would have taken off without the blogosphere].

[On Lib Dem Blogs Aggregated] And, incidentally, it’ll always pick up a certain number of words from each blog as a sort of teaser; with mine, it’s usually a hundred, so I always try to make my first hundred words a self-contained ‘trailer’ for the rest rather than trailing off in the middle of a sentence, which looks a bit scrappy to me.

And if, like me, you worry that no-one else’ll be interested, here’s my advice: don’t install a hit counter, and assume for the sake of your brittle ego that you have a massive audience anyway [actually, it’s just because I’m too lazy to check out all the different hit counters available].

I’d say that blogs really ought to take comments, if they’re not just to be online preaching. They’re awkward, though, because of course you never know what they’re going to say! First of all, you never start the discussion you want to. Asking a question is invariably fatal; it’s a sure way to be greeted by the sound of tumbleweeds, as I was after setting a challenge in a Lib Dem Voice piece. Then there are all the spammers; I turn on the character entry thingy so robots find it more difficult to spam me but humans can, though I’m never entirely sure whether I’m right to set it so people have to have a profile to post. But, then, if someone’s going to post an anonymous attack, I reckon they can at least go to the trouble of making up a name for it. Then you have to notice and reply to them all or look a lazy git (as I often do). As far as moderation goes, it seems like a lot of effort unless you’ve got a really unpleasant stalker, and it’s hugely irritating to anyone actually doing the comment-posting. It makes it very difficult to have a proper debate if you have to wait for the blog owner to get back from a weekend’s holiday, and then you find you’re the 83rd person to post the same idea and look sillier than usual. Something I try to do when posting a comment on someone else’s blog, incidentally, is to count to thirty before I post. I get so used to being able to change something I’ve said if I think I’ve been completely crass that it can sometimes be embarrassing to shoot off somewhere where I have no editorial control…

I also think one of the great advantages of blogging is that you can put in links. Even though it’s much harder work than just spouting off, it makes it much more interesting to read, as well as much more generous of spirit if you’re talking abut something that someone else has already mentioned (and if you’re afraid people will click on the link, go to the other page and not come back, insert target= "_blank" at the end of the link on your blog, but within those arrowed brackets above the comma and full stop. It’ll make the link pop out in a new window). That said, of course, I don’t research nearly as many links as I should. Millennium’s brilliant at, it but it often rates a bit too high on my Can’tbearsedometer, you know?

And how do you start? Well, just start. It’s not like a magazine column, where if you misjudge your first attempt everyone might have made up their minds to hate you by next month’s issue. If you’re worried your first piece is poor, there’ll be more along shortly. Don’t worry about writing too many, or not enough; just write some as the fancy takes you.

Finally, I was interviewed by a couple of journalists afterwards (though Richard largely had to fend for himself with the scary woman from the Daily Mail who’d taken a fancy to Millennium). The last question one of them (Five Live?) asked was, “What’s the difference between a blogger and just a columnist in a newspaper?” “They get paid for it; they have to bloat or squeeze their arguments to fill a word count rather than as the ideas demand; they have to stick to their newspaper’s editorial line,” I said, and, I added in a flash of self-unawareness, “they’re much more up themselves.”

Update: my speech at the Reception is now on YouTube along with three of the others, courtesy of Jonathan Wallace (thanks Jonathan!).

Meanwhile, Backbench Guardian journalist Ros Taylor thought meeting Millennium was beneath her dignity (hiss!), and has quoted me without a link (tsk) while doing her best to prove me right about journalists with her brilliant insight that specifically partisan Lib Dem bloggers were mostly more excited by Ming’s speech than most journalists were (gosh, who’d’a thunk. All blogs must be the same). Mind you, the quotes in the rest of her piece are a random mixture of article-specific links, mentioning specific posts but linking to a blog in general, and others that don’t link at all, so I shouldn’t be mean to her; evidently she’s not got the hang of the Internet yet. Good job she’s not being paid to do anything web-savvy – oops…

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