Sunday, May 30, 2010

Inside the Gates of Hell

In the gas chamber we stood in silence, taking in the horror.

A camera flash broke the moment, but no photograph could possibly reproduce the sick feeling in my spine: the disbelief that anyone could design with such evil efficiency the death of a fellow human being.

With clothes removed for fumigation in smaller gas chambers, the selected prisoners, told that they were being cleansed and de-loused, would be led into a room with the optimistic sign Brausebad – Showerbath – over the door.

Sure, there were showerheads in the ceiling, but none attached to a water supply. The door was locked and the pellets of Zyklon B, pushed through a small hatch in the wall, would do their work in fifteen minutes of wretching agony. A tiny peep-hole in the wall enabled a guard to check the killing was complete; then the bodies would be heaved out onto the pile waiting for the ovens next door, cremating all evidence of life to dust.

According to the tourist guides, Dachau’s gas chamber was never used for mass extermination. It wasn’t needed. Dachau was its own killing machine: tens of thousands died from the appalling conditions and treatment inside the camp itself. By the time of the liberation, typhus was claiming those the SS hadn’t worked to death or murdered, and hundreds of bodies were piled against the crematorium door.

na’s parents have been staying with us for the last couple of weeks and while visiting friends in Munich, we all decided we needed to see Dachau. Jo’s family lost many loved ones in the holocaust and I have always regretted not witnessing for myself evidence of this darkest moment in our history.

The words Dachau and death are synonymous. It opened in 1933 just a few weeks after Hitler was brought to power by the unholy alliance of right-wing and wealthy. Originally designed to house political prisoners – the socialists, communists and political representatives of nearly half the German population who had voted against the Nazis – in a few years its function grew more sinister.

Following the institutionalisation of racial discrimination, concentration camps were constructed all over Germany; Dachau, rebuilt to house 6,000, was the model. Jews, gypsies, Soviet prisoners of war, German criminals, priests, dissidents, anyone the regime considered inconvenient, all went through the same dehumanizing process. Stripped of clothes, photographs, letters and any link with their loved ones, they also lost their rights, hope and humanity. They became non-people, so the SS treated them like animals.

The Dachau experience is worse than any horror film. In her pushchair Izzy happily burbled and munched dried apple flakes through the reconstructed dormitories where the emaciated, beaten men, crammed nine to a bed, would cherish the top bunks so as not to face the drip of human excrement from their colleagues who had died in the night. I vowed to her grandfather that I would take Izzy back one day, when she could understand.

Outside the perimeter fence, three bells started tolling. A gate opened into a Carmelite convent, and I stepped inside. A dozen or so nuns were singing prayers, as they do every day, for forgiveness for deeds of the past. I added my own.

Back in Munich, I bought a copy of The Guardian. The front page was about the rise of some British racist thugs calling themselves the English Defence League. Seeking to incite Islamophobia through violence, they are just one reason why we need to look closely at how history can too easily repeat itself.

Dachau isn’t just about the Nazis, or the past. It’s a stark reminder of what happens when mankind looks the other way and ignores the seeds of extremism and hatred that lie in the underbelly of every democracy. It’s a lesson our children must learn and never forget.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Knight On A Train

East Coast trains, Easyjet, British Airways – they’re each as dull as the other. Short haul? Long drag, I’d say. Last week I tried them all as I trekked to and from London for numerous meetings with broadcasters.

So it was a welcome relief on Thursday afternoon, when, as I was meandering up the train to find my seat, I heard a familiar voice boom out “Tom!”. It was Sir George Martin.

I’ve known George for 25 years. Considered by many to be our greatest record producer, he’s also one of the world’s nicest, most charming men. George is a towering presence: quite literally, for he stands well over six foot tall with the straight back and posh voice of a former Fleet Air Arm pilot. He had a copy of Aeroplane magazine on the table as I sat down to join him.

Now 84, he is still going strong. He and his son Giles produced the award-winning soundtrack for Love, the Cirque du Soleil spectacular based on Beatles music, now in its fourth Las Vegas year. In the last few months he’s written a seven-part oratorio, The Mission Chorales, which has just had its premiere in Santa Barbara. Meanwhile he’s filming a multi-episodic documentary on the history of recorded music for a US network. That’s why he was on the train: he’d been up to London to interview Sir Paul McCartney. I felt a surge of jealousy: I’d love to have been a fly on a wall in that room.

In fact, it was a documentary series that first brought us together. George had wanted to share his vision of popular music, so he asked me to direct and co-write a 13-part epic for Channel 4 to be called “All You Need Is Ears”. An ironic title, for George confided to me then that his most valuable assets were already beginning to deteriorate because of the relentless pounding he’d given them during his long career. In fact, on our journey last week I had to sit by his good ear, and we raised our voices over the rumble of the train, recalling the fun we’d had during the summer of 85.

We made a taster film and George persuaded some famous friends to contribute: we filmed Clapton and Knopfler showing us how to play the guitar (in Abbey Road, no less), and Phil Collins gave us a drumming masterclass. When we finished filming, Phil asked us what we were doing the following day. I told him George was getting out some of the Beatles’ original 4-track recordings to analyse how they were put together. The following morning George and I were sitting in Air Studios with Sgt. Pepper on the machine, and he faded up each track in turn, spotting mistakes. After undoubtedly the most fascinating filming session of my life, I turned round, and there was Phil Collins sitting quietly on the sofa behind us. He said he wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

The public were denied “All You Need Is Ears” because an ignorant and shortsighted commissioning editor decided George Martin was “too old and grey” in 1985. George is still sparkling today – though at one stage he opened the buttons of his shirt and made me feel his new pacemaker through his skin. Extraordinary, he said, how it keeps time at exactly 65 beats per minute. Better than Ringo, I thought but didn’t say.

Monday, May 10, 2010

An American In Confusion

So the Tories both won and lost then? Jo scratched her head in confusion. My wife has been loyally trying to share my excitement for the drama of the last few days; however, explaining to an American how the party with the most votes doesn’t automatically become the government is like reasoning with Izzy, our one-year-old, about why she can’t play with the remote control. To her it’s just unfair.

“But if the Tories can’t form a government without Nick Clegg, and Labour got fewer votes than the Tories, why didn’t the Queen just tell Gordon Brown to start packing?”

As I take a deep breath and prepare for a dissertation on the role of the monarchy I warm the teapot – another peculiar English custom with no apparent purpose.

This week we celebrated our fifth anniversary since Jo joined me on an Italian cookery course and never went home. Since then we’ve acquired two dogs, a house, a baby and a marriage. And every day she discovers something about British life to amaze and confuse her.

Roundabouts, Radio Four, rugby: there’s a never-ending list of extraordinary British traditions she’s come to accept. One of the things I most enjoy about living with her is that she questions all sorts of things I’ve always taken for granted. Like George, the postman.

Every morning he drives his van 20 miles from the sorting office to our house to deliver our bills. An hour later I drive to the village to put a pile of envelopes into a postbox which someone then takes out, puts into a van and takes back to George’s sorting office. “So why doesn’t George simply pick up our post when he comes round in the morning?” In fact, George does exactly this if we ask him - he's the best postman I've ever had in the UK - but it's only as a favour because I know it isn't common Royal Mail policy: if Britain adopted this system, which is standard throughout the United States, it would save the country a fortune and make all our lives easier. Over there every home has a mailbox outside with a little flag which you put up if you have any outgoing mail. Simples.

Jo would make a great prime minister. In just five minutes she would have sorted out not only the mail service (the word “post” would be redundant, as we’d no longer actually post anything), but also restored hygiene to our cities with weekly collections from bins large enough to hold all our rubbish, insisted that pubs offer more options than just roast dead animal for Sunday lunch (fine once a month, but every week?), and, top of her policy agenda, revolutionised the beauty salon.

Why can’t they do a manicure and a pedicure at the same time? Here it takes two hours and costs a fortune. In LA I can get both done in 20 minutes. And don’t get me onto shopping malls. How dare they charge you for parking when you’re only there to buy stuff from them?

Next week her parents fly in for a holiday. Jo asked me to make sure there are plenty of flowers in the garden. I tried patiently explaining how in Southern California you just ring up some Mexican gardeners and they come bearing instant blooms. Over here we have seasons and the herbaceous border has a mind of its own. What with this cold spell and the long winter, we’ll be lucky to have a bedful by October. She’s not impressed.

Northumberland be warned: there’ll be three Americans in the county next week, questioning our way of life. I’ve thought of hiring a local travel guide to help me with the more difficult comments. “Why do you call this little road A1 when there’s only one lane?” they’ll ask when we head up the coast towards Holy Island. “Why do your tea shops close at 4.30pm – isn’t that tea time?”

But the most important question my father-in-law will want answered, as we sit round the roaring fire in late May, will be: how on earth could a nice Democrat like Clegg ever believe he should share power with an arch Republican like Cameron? He’ll find that one completely incomprehensible.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

When Did You Cry Last?

When did you cry last? It’s such a simple question, but it clearly disorientated Nick Clegg. Eddie Mair threw him this curved ball on Radio 4’s PM programme. The electorate had begun to take Clegg seriously, so Mair invited him to reveal a little of his true self. It was good timing: earlier that day, Gordon Brown had shown us his real character in the back of a car in Rochdale, speeding away from “just a bigoted woman”.

Gosh, when did I cry last? When did I cry last? You could hear the cogs churning in Clegg’s brain – this wasn’t on his list of carefully spun answers. Finally he offered: the last time he cried “was to some particularly moving music”.

Mair was having none of that. Which piece exactly? At which point Clegg clammed up: “Oh, I’m afraid a lot of music moves me so if I started giving you a list we’d be here all day”. And with that he sailed back into the safer waters of liberal policy.

Now if I were a politician (God help the country, I hear you say), I reckoned this was one question I could answer truthfully without hesitation. I’m such a romantic old softie, I could cry at a poster of Four Weddings And A Funeral. As the interview droned off into political predictability, my mind drifted to which tearstained event in my life might win the most votes.

There was the death of our dog Muka. Seventeen years ancient, I can still see her big bat ears opening with surprise as the vet injected the deadly blue liquid putting her to sleep forever. On the drive home without her, the image released such huge waves of sobbing, I had to stop the car in a layby to dry off the seats. That ought to win over the animal lobby, but perhaps it sounded too wimpy?

I couldn’t break a single tear at my father’s funeral because I was too overcome by the suddenness and scale of the event. I was 20, and it wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I went back to North Shields cemetery. There, despite thousands of additions to the vast maze of near-identical plots, I was drawn straight to his gravestone. At the sight of his name, years of pent up grief unleashed themselves. Too intrusive, perhaps? Would Mair have dared to pose that same question to Cameron and Brown, knowing that they have such raw memories close to home?

So after all perhaps Clegg chose well: music is a safe enough bet for a politician. Despite my love of opera, I’ve never dared go to a performance of Turandot, partly because I don’t want to spoil the images the music has conjured in my head, but mostly because I know I would embarrass myself hopelessly if I heard Puccini’s themes anywhere but in the privacy of my own sitting room. Like I did at an open-air Art Garfunkel concert on Hampstead Heath amongst 10,000 people picnicking on white wine and sausage rolls. Joanna loves to tease me about how everyone around us broke into fits of giggles at the sight of my face flooded with tears at the first bars of Bridge Over Troubled Water. Ah, that fatal combination of music, nostalgia and white wine.

At the North East Business Awards last week I tried out Mair’s question on some true professionals. A leading public relations expert immediately replied, “I cried buckets at my 5 year old daughter’s school play”. And one of the region’s top political movers and shakers, well used to being doorstepped by the press, said “every time I think of Madeleine McCann”. And as if to prove it, she immediately welled up right in front of me.

Two perfect sound bites: they should offer their services to the Liberal Democrats.