To Wyndham’s theatre for the all-star cast, all-star audience opening night of Heroes, a French comedy translated by Tom Stoppard. I was in high anticipation. Stoppard was my theatrical inspiration as a teenager. I saw the first runs of Travesties, with John Wood starring, and Jumpers with Michael Hordern. I even put on a performance of Stoppard’s radio play Albert’s Bridge at my school. I associate Stoppard with delirious absurdism, razor-sharp dialogue and consummate ability to marry the transient with the eternal. Sadly, Gerald Sibleyras’s play had none of these attributes. Stoppard said that he translated it because he wanted to do something different, but as a motivation for bringing to the London stage a play about a trio of war veterans this is pretty lame. As lame as the character of Henri, played by Richard Griffiths. Watching Griffiths, together with alpha actors John Hurt and Ken Stott, bring life to a beautifully paced but ultimately trivial Stoppard script, was like listening to Daniel Barenboim play Chopsticks on a Casio electronic organ.
My late cousin Cynthia belonged to a religious sect called the Christadelphians, who believed that the only part of the world to survive the apocalypse would be Cheltenham. If she was right, and the apocalypse happened to have come during the week of the Cheltenham festival (both of which, I concede, are pretty improbable), then the survivors would at least have had a world-class architect on hand for the global reconstruction programme. Daniel Libeskind was speaking at the town hall on Saturday morning, and a strange mixture of vaulting ambition and giggling ingenuousness he turned out to be. Expatiating on his late start as an actual fabricator of the built environment he said: “Before I won the prize for the Jewish Museum in Berlin I hadn’t built so much as a garage!”. Given Libeskind’s propensity for twisting anything rectilinear into the most outrageous shapes, this is just as well. The only kind of car you could get into a Libeskind-designed building would be one that had been written off in a headlong collision.
The Real Thing
It seems like only yesterday that Richard Branson was pushing his new Pendolino trains at us like a demented little boy. Now it turns out that the billionaire entrepreneur’s ambitions for the British rail network are shrinking to Hornby size. The transport secretary, Alastair Darling, has announced that Virgin’s CrossCountry franchise is to be curtailed in 2007, five years earlier than its existing contract. Far from transforming rail travel, Branson has ended up having to be bailed out by the public purse to the tune of £420m in the last three years.
To be fair to Branson – and God knows that hurts – he, like everyone else in the rail industry from Stephen Byers on up, has been dogged by the madness of separating track and stock in the original privatisation plan. Now the West Coast route, which is on a fixed-management contract allowing for a 1% profit, will be retained by Virgin, while the old CrossCountry will absorb some of the currently inefficient Central services. Two new franchises are also to come into being in the Midlands. Sounds simple doesn’t it? A real way out of the current mess. Well, no, not at all. And while the likes of Branson are looking to quit on rail because they can’t make the margins they want, other potential operators are queuing up to have a crack at it, confident in the knowledge that if they cock up too much they’ll be bailed out by the public purse as well.
When will this government – or any other – take on board the simple fact that large-scale infrastructural investment is best handled on a – doh! – large scale. It doesn’t matter how many ways they cut up the operating cake, there still won’t be any icing on it for the existing passengers, and no incentive for our car-addicted, road-freighting masses to let the train take the strain. Believe me, if a ballooning capitalist of Branson’s canniness is getting out, then rail privatisation truly is punctured.
The London left-liberal chattering classes are rallying behind David Cameron’s tilt for the Tory leadership, their hearts softened by his disabled child, their blood stirred by his trendy wife, and their minds dulled by his soft line on cannabis. None of them has bothered to look too hard at what the wunderkind actually says about the most important issue affecting middle-class people who believe in social inclusion: education.
If they’d troubled to read this paper on Tuesday they would’ve had Cameron’s vision on education straight from the horse’s mouth. And what daft, un-thought through combination of buzzwords and unworkable policy it was. Cameron hangs on to the prime minister’s frayed shirttail, saying that “Tony Blair has got it at last” by recognising that schools should have more autonomy and parents more choice. He not only endorses the government’s P-P-Privatisation by stealth of the state education system, but actually thinks that business should be allowed a still freer rein when it comes to managing schools.
This is Cameron’s “modern, compassionate Conservatism”, more of the same mad philosophy that says that because entrepreneurs are good at flogging widgets, they must be able to churn out cultured and happy individuals. More of the same harping on about “choice”, when it’s precisely the “choice” offered by the independent sector in the face of failing London state schools, which has seen 25% of pupils drain away in the past decade, as any parent who has the money puts them into private schooling.
Yes, we’ve all rethought our attitude to the “comprehensive ideal” of the 1970s in the past few years and realised that it ain’t working. But the reason is because it was an ideal, looking forward to a fully inclusive and egalitarian society. Instead we have a society in which there’s very little manufacturing industry, the middling tradesmen are from Gdansk, the doctors from Africa, and bright local kids want to be media tarts, while inner-city poor kids end up as crack whores. Nothing Cameron proposes will change this one jot; proof positive that an Eton and Oxford education still propels utter mediocrities into positions of power and influence.