Ever since the astonishing adulation heaped on David Bowie after his death on 10 January I have been mulling over the musical influences on my own life. Bowie meant absolutely nothing to me: his music did not appeal. When the Guardian made his portrait a full front page I, and most of my friends, were astonished. Yet Robert Peston, the former BBC reporter recently moved to ITV, said Bowie would "have his vote as the most important Briton of our age." Recognising that what he was writing might be dismissed as "sentimental pap", Peston felt he could fairly say that Bowie "probably had as big an influence on me as anyone, not just in respect of music and fashion, but also gender politics and identity." This set me thinking: while Bowie meant nothing to me, perhaps some other musician had a big influence on me. Bob Dylan maybe. I came to love some of his songs and I regard him as the greatest popular musician of my generation. But I am not sure he had any influence on me. Maybe he accentuated my natural cynicism. He wrote very little that was sentimental. Who else might have influenced me? I liked James Taylor, Kris Kristofferson, and a host of blues musicians such as Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy. But, try as I might to identify a musician who I could say was " probably as a big an influence on me as anyone", there is just a blank. Peston says he was hooked on Bowie when he was just twelve years old. That was in 1972. I had a look at the charts when I was twelve back in 1957. All the songs are very evocative: Tommy Steele Singing the Blues, Lonnie Donegan Cumberland Gap, Elvis Presley All shook up, Paul Anka Diana and Buddy Holly That'll be the day. My father sometimes listened to Pete Murray's Radio Luxembourg show with me when I was in bed and would mumble "they're all masochistic songs." I did not buy a record until 1960 when I got a Saturday job selling paraffin in a local store. When I got in I had to soak in a bath to wash the paraffin off and the record I bought still evokes a whiff of it. I cannot remember now why I chose Fats Domino's Walking to New Orleans but that is the 45 I asked my mother to buy with my paraffin money and it was there for me when I got out of the Saturday bath. I was then fifteen and about to become hooked on folk music and the blues: at sixteen I was learning the guitar and hanging out in coffee bars. By that time I think my taste in music, such is it became, was influenced earlier by the records played on BBC children's radio. I have asked a number of friends who are of a similar age to me–say mid-sixties to early seventies–and they instantly start humming and recalling the songs of our childhood: The runaway train, How much is that doggie in the window, The teddy bears picnic, I'm a blue toothbrush etc. Of these I would say The runaway train was the one that got me interested in blues and folk music. It was sung by a Texan called Vernon Dalhart, born in 1883 who had performed in opera before he pioneered recordings which became known as "country music". Others were clearly taken with other songs from that era. On his interview on the BBC's Desert Island Discs, the cookery writer Nigel Slater chose the Teddy Bears' Picnic as the favourite of the eight records he was allowed to take with him to imaginary isolation. Perhaps more surprising was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher'schoice in 1987 in an interview with the pop magazine Smash Hits: her all-time favourie was the 1953 hit How much is that doggie in the window. The American version sung by Patti Page was number one in the US charts when Thatcher was in her twenties. It was also a hit in the UK with a cover version by Lita Roza which made her the first female vocalist to top the singles chart. According to legend Roza hated the song so much that she refused to sing it again. There is no doubt that music evokes memories of childhood as well as adolescence and emotional times in our adult lives. But do they influence us in the way Robert Peston wants us to believe Bowie influenced him. I still find it difficult to accept that Peston would have lived a different life had it not been for the excitement of seeing Bowie on Top of the Pops dressed like a clown and calling himself Ziggy Stardust.
All the fuss about Jeremy Corbyn's image has brought to a mind an incident from long ago when smoking was quite acceptable in public and a puff on a pipe could be regarded as avuncular and reassuring. In the run-up to the general election in February 1974 I was given an assignment by the group of newspapers I worked for to follow Harold Wilson and his entourage in the hope of getting an interview. I sat with fellow reporters below a platform somewhere in south London ( Putney I think ) while Wilson complained bitterly about the political bias of the Press, stabbing the air with his pipe stem. He puffed away the whole evening so that by the time the meeting was closed the place was wreathed in smoke. I tried to get my interview backstage but a BBC Panorama crew got him into a car to drive back to his home in Lord North Street, Westminster. I managed to get a lift in the car behind with Mary, his wife. I recall her worrying about whether their son Giles would have a hot water bottle when they all went to Huddersfield, Wilson's constituency. It was February after all. When we got to Lord North Street Wilson had gone upstairs. I think it was his sister who came downstairs in a dressing gown. It was around midnight by then. There was excitement because the following days newspapers which had just been delivered headlined the fact that Enoch Powell was urging everyone to vote Labour. After a few minutes Wilson appeared and stood at the bottom of the stairs. He called across the room: "You can interview me if you don't mention this". It was a large Havana cigar, not yet lit, held between two fingers. Meekly, I nodded my consent to self-imposed censorship. I followed Wilson upstairs where he quizzed me about my politics and I rolled out my Labour credentials: chiefly the fact that, during elections, my grandmother in Northumberland provided the Party committee room in her little terraced house. We chatted briefly and inconsequentially and I have no memory of what I wrote but I am sure if I could find it again it would be banal. Wilson asked if I smoked and when I said I did he got his "bag carrier", a chap called Alf Richman, to cut a cigar for me. All his public life Wilson was a pipe smoker: the image of the cigar was too potent for a staunch Labour man. It has been said, too, that the pipe came in handy for interviews as he would relight it whenever he was asked a difficult questions giving himself time to consider his answer. Now, of course, the pipe would be banished. I wonder when was the last time a senior politician has been seen smoking in public.
One or two political commentators, ruminating on the remarkable emergence of Jeremy Corbyn from obscurity to national prominence, have called to mind the wonderful historical work of the late Norman Cohn entitled The Pursuit of the Millennium. At the time of the Crusades a great many movements arose, fired by an irrational belief in a utopian vision, and often putting their faith in an imaginary messiah. A tramp sleeping rough in the woods would be identified as a long lost hero of a crusade and carried shoulder high and quite bewildered into town to be crowned King. Lavished with all kinds of luxury for a few months, the imaginary messiah was invariably denounced as a charlatan and forced to flee. Of the many such tales Cohn related in his book, the one which has lodged itself in my memory is of the rise and fall of the messiah he called the "Pseudo-Baldwin." When the Crusaders captured Constantinople ( Istanbul ) in 1204 they made one of their number, Baldwin IX, Count of Flounders as Emperor of a large area around the city. In less than a year Bulgarians invaded and put him to death. Back in Flanders Baldwin’s daughter Joanna became Countess but she could not resist the power of Philip Augustus of France and the lands she hoped to rule were annexed by the French. This domination was resented and when Philip died in 1223 the scene was set for an uprising. " At this point, " Cohn wrote "the age-old phantasy of the Sleeping Emperor reappeared in a form adapted to the hour." In the popular imagination the slain Baldwin became superhuman "half demon half angel". A belief arose that he had not been killed at all but had been serving a penance imposed on him by the Pope for some terrible misdeed, living as a wandering beggar and hermit. Now he was close to expiation of that penance and would soon be back amongst his people. This belief grew when a stranger appeared announcing Baldwin’s imminent return. Sure enough a begging hermit appeared looking the part with his long hair and flowing beard. Tracked down to a hut he had made of branches in a forest in the region of Valenciennes, France, close to the border of what is now Belgium, he revealed that he was the long lost Baldwin and that he had a year to go on his penance. Cohn wrote: " Great crowds streamed out from Valenciennes to see him and in April 1225 brought him back to the town on horseback, clad in scarlet robe, amidst scenes of wild jubilation." Not everyone was convinced. Joanna, Baldwin's daughter, demanded to see the man who was said to be her father. But the Pseudo Baldwin refused her invitation and instead gathered an army together to take over her territories by force. By now a Christ-like figure people fought for a lock of his hair, a scrap of his clothing or a chance to sip his bathwater. He was crowned not only Count of Flanders and Hainaut but Emperor of Constantinople and Thessalonica.. The poor worshipped him believing he would bring them riches. He began to believe that he really was an Emperor and when King Louis VIII of France invited him to visit he accepted. This was his downfall. Louis had agreed a treaty of alliance with the banished Countess Joanna who knew very well this was not her father but an imposter. In conversation with the Pseudo Baldwin it soon became apparent that he could remember nothing about events that the real Count of Flanders would have known. He was, in reality, a serf by the name of Bertrand of Ray from Burgundy, who had gone on a Crusade as a minstrel and was a notorious imposter. At his audience with King Louis he realised he had been unmasked and he made a run for it. But the Pseudo Baldwin was no longer a wandering hermit but de-throned Emperor and he was soon captured and hung. This is just one of many such stories told in Cohn's book. Why should these medieval tales be evocative of the the elevation of humble Corbyn to the front rank of politics? He is not an imposter, of course, but there is something of the "Sleeping Emperor" about him, a long lost soul who has suddenly and miraculously come back to life. The belief that he might turn the clock back and create the kind of utopian Britain left-wingers dreamed of in the 1980s has a touch of the " pursuit of the millennium" about it. And there is a feeling that his celebrity will be short lived and it will not be long before he is denounced as a liability by his own followers and returned to his position as a recalcitrant, humble backbencher: "hung out to dry" as the saying goes.
As Remembrance Day approaches, Labour Party supporters who regard their new leader as something of a loose cannon, will be clutching their red poppies and hoping that Jeremy Corbyn does not commit another political faux pas. Will he attend the commemoration at the Cenotaph in Whitehall on Sunday? After all, he seems to regard it as a symbol of Imperial pomp commemorating a war between declining Imperialist nations. It is said he once laid a wreath not to the war dead but to those he regarded as victims of police aggression. This time will he wear a white poppy if he does turn up? I wonder, in fact, if Corbyn knows anything of the history of the Cenotaph. If he does then I cannot see why he should feel it his political and moral duty to break ranks and, in doing so, offend a great many of those people who regard the memorial in Whitehall as a place for national mourning rather than a triumphal structure. It is there not by government decree but in response to a spontaneous outpouring of grief in July 1919. After the signing of the Treaty of Versailles which marked the end of the War and the surrender of Germany, a Peace Parade was planned in London. It was organised with great haste and a decision was made to place along the route of the procession memorial structures of some kind. The eminent architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, already working with the War Graves Commission, was asked to come up with a design. In Paris the French had decided on a catafalque, a figure above a coffin on a raised dais. Lutyens, Lloyd George and the ministers involved rejected that. A Catafalque was Christian and the war dead included men and women of many other faiths. Lutyens came up with a design which was secular, austere and simple. The intention was for it to be in place in Whitehall for just two weeks. It was made of wood and plaster and would be taken down when the Parades were over. However, within a short time the base of the monument was submerged under thousands of flowers placed by the public. Lutyens himself recalled: "It was a mass-feeling too deep to express itself more fitly than by the piles of good fresh flowers which loving hands placed at the Cenotaph day by day. Thus it was decided, by the human sentiments of millions, that the Cenotaph should be as it is now." In 1920 the Remembrance Day commemoration was duly held by a Cenotaph built of Portland stone, as it is now. It is not a triumphal memorial nor does it represent one faith. It is understated and sober and, as one newspaper put it 1919 "consecrated by the tears of many mothers." Without the demands of the public it would not be there now. Perhaps Jeremy Corbyn should bear that in mind as he contemplates his approach to Remembrance Sunday.
The novelist Ford Madox Ford wrote that you could judge the quality of writing in a book by picking a page at random to see how it reads. Page 99 would do for any book, probably somewhere in the middle. I knew nothing of this until contacted by Marshal Zeringue an American blogger who runs a website on which he publishes the response of authors to an invitation to check out page 99 in their own books. He asked if I would have a go with my most recent publication Eureka: how invention happens (Yale). This was the result: My page 99 ......obsolete their creators are liable to be dismissed as misguided or backward. But it is their pioneer work that generates optimism and draws out the backing for the more advanced technologies which replace them. However, when Farnsworth began his labours, the industry view was still that some version of mechanical scanning of images was the most promising way forward for the transmitter. It was not that people were unable to see that a cathode ray tube camera would be superior. That was not in question. Very little work was being done on it because the problem of discovering how to manipulate electrons in a vacuum tube involved experimentation with a much less accessible technology than the Nipkow disk or any of the other mechanical scanners. With the mechanical scanners you could pretty much see what was going on with the naked eye. How electrons were behaving in a sealed glass tube was not apparent and involved a highly sophisticated understanding of physics. The key discovery that electrically charged particles a thousand times smaller than atoms would travel through a vacuum had been made in the nineteenth century. It had been shown, too, that when these particles, or electrons as they became known, hit a photoelectric surface they could produce an image. Farnsworth’s all-electric television system would have to manipulate this laboratory equipment in some way so that the cathode ray tube performed the same function as the Nipkow disk and the selenium cell. He was not the first to attempt this but he had a chance to be the first to make it work. The biggest problem was with the camera. As Everson had anticipated, California provided Farnsworth with some much-needed expertise as well as with financial backing. Bill Cummings, in charge of glass blowing for the University of California in Berkeley, who had made them their first tubes, taught Cliff Gardner the art. In time he became very skilful. Meanwhile, Everson and Pem worked with Farnsworth making magnetic coils and experimenting with the photosensitive materials. At the outset, Farnsworth was wildly optimistic about what he could achieve in a short space of time. In 1927….. My commentary Page 99 of Eureka: How Invention Happens lands the reader somewhere in the middle of a chapter I called "Seeing with electricity". Looking at it a good while after I wrote it I would say it reads well enough, though it is not especially evocative or enticing. No publisher would chose it as an extract for publicity: there are other pages in this account of the invention of television which are much more fun. The page 99 test originally was a way of judging fiction. My book is non-fiction and is bound therefore to contain a good few pages of prose which I hope are readable and interesting but which are not going to dazzle the reader. How much the text on page 99 would give a sense of the central theme of the book I am not sure: it is there alright but, out of context, I suspect it is not really evident. Eureka is an account of what I have called the "ancient history" of five twentieth century inventions: the aeroplane, television, the bar code, the personal computer and the mobile phone. Each of these inventions was made possible by a long accumulation of scientific understanding, technological advance and inventive genius stretching back at least as far as the eighteenth century. One invention would lead to another and technologies would merge. Scientific understanding was always crucial but the breakthrough – what I have called the "eureka moment" when an invention works for the first time, however crudely – has often been achieved by an amateur or outsider. This is not so surprising when you consider that only one of the inventions in my book, the bar code, could be said to have been a "necessity". Established industries had no need for television, the mobile phone, the aeroplane or the personal computer. Some of the flavor of the book is there on Page 99 as a rank outsider, the American Philo Farnsworth, struggles with the near impossible task of creating an electronic television system in the 1920s. He nearly made it but the effort broke him...now read on!
My father John in party mood. He was a great raconteur and essayist During my time as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Queen Mary College, London I found that many students, and especially those who were diligent in their research, imagined that they could not start to write an essay before they had worked out in their head what it was they wanted to say. Yet whenever they began to write they found they were overwhelmed by the knowledge they had acquired and could not find a way into it. It is a familiar dilemma for anyone writing factual articles or books. Students would tell me they had been advised to map out their essay before they started writing, to follow the rules about referencing and to make sure they had a clear and firm conclusion. What they presented to me as a draft was, nevertheless, invariably a jumble of quotes and propositions which were barely intelligible. They would ask if I could help them with grammar and “writing style” as if that was the problem. Flicking through the pages they had presented to me and wondering how on earth I was going to help them in the brief hour of the tutorial I found myself relating something my father had said years earlier and which, if properly understood, could be a way to arrange their thoughts and lend their essay some coherence. What they needed was not a firm conclusion but a clear idea at the outset what their essay was about. If they could find that then everything else would fall into place. My father was an academic who had a reputation as a fine essayist and reviewer. The longest pieces he wrote were no more than three thousand words but he laboured at them for days and sometimes weeks. He made extensive hand written notes before he moved to his ancient portable typewriter to begin his first draft. I remember asking him how he decided what the opening paragraph of an essay should be. Had he worked it out in advance? He thought about it and said: "I usually discover what I want to say on page three. Everything before that is just dross which I have to get out of the way." This casual remark my father made years ago became for me a mantra in my writing tutorials. I liked the fact that it puzzled the students at first so that I needed to explain it. What it emphasized was the fact that whenever you begin to put down in writing the thoughts milling about in your head you start a dialogue with one part of your brain which has all the information and another part which is attempting put it into some kind of order. What was fluid is now there in black and white, solidified as it were. You can therefore examine it closely. In my experience those first attempts to get down what you think are always clumsy but I don’t throw them away: I keep going. I always find I am attempting to say the same thing over and over again in a slightly different way. Eventually I get a sense of what is not working and discard certain ideas and bring in new thoughts. It feels like a process of discovery which can only unfold because I emptying my thoughts onto the page. With luck, after many attempts, I will write a paragraph which gets at the essence of what I want to say. This is what I have come to think of as the "page three" revelation. With a number of students I was able to flick through their draft essay and to find, some way into their text, a “page three” paragraph. I was pleasantly surprised how often it worked. With the student sitting alongside I would take that paragraph and put it at the beginning of their essay jettisoning everything that went before. We could then work together to smarten up their opening paragraph confident that we were now "getting off on the right foot." A student of English Literature suggested that my father’s "secret of page three" was perhaps a bit like E. M. Forster’s much quoted "how do I know what I think until I see what I say?" The student believed Forster was describing his own approach to literary discovery and at first I thought it might be a witty way of encapsulating the belief in the my father’s belief in the revelations of page three. In fact, Forster was writing tongue in cheek, gently satirising an approach to creative fiction in his book Aspects of the Novel. When the French novelist Andre Gide said he would discover what his fiction was about in the process of writing he was no different from an anecdotal elderly lady, taunted by her nieces about the meaning of logic, who exclaimed "how do I know think until I see what I say." If that were to read: "how do I know what I think until I see what I have written" then I think I would go along with it. All writing, whether of fiction or factual books and articles ,involves a certain amount of "discovery". In the case of the non-fiction books I write it is about finding a way of encapsulating what you want to say in a creative way. The magic of page three says you cannot achieve that without finding out what you think by examining what you have written and throwing away the dross. This is not the same as editing, which comes at a later stage when you are happy with the structure of what you are writing and you are discarding text which you feel is irrelevant or re-working what you find clumsy or not as eloquent as you would like. I found I could not begin to edit student essays if it was obvious they had no idea what the whole thing was about. Vocabulary and grammar were irrelevant. What I looked for was always something that might serve as the “secret of page three” and if it was not there I would go looking for it by "interviewing" the student about what they had discovered in their research and what conclusions they had drawn. When you teach you rarely discover if you have been of any help but I like to think that somewhere a former student of mine at Queen Mary College has benefited from my father’s casual remark and looks to page three of their drafts to discover what it is they really want to say.