Gavin Weightman

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Gavin Weightman
  • 0 Stead's sacrificial lamb

    • History
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 25-03-2012
    0.00 of 0 votes

    I have learned that the Chartered Institute of Journalists is to lay a wreath on the Memorial to W.T.Stead on London's Embankment on 15 April, the centenary of this famous editor's death on the Titanic.The same Institute raised the money for the Memorial to honour Stead's campaigning journalism, particularly his alleged exposure of the "white slave trade" and child sex abuse. It would be interesting to know what a modern journalist, or the Leveson Inquiry into Press malpractice, would have made of Stead's "investigative" methods. As someone who has studied in some depth Stead's most celebrated campaign into vice in London I would say that what he did would not only be judged illegal, as it was in 1885, but utterly reprehensible. Stead's account in his evening paper, the Pall Mall Gazette, of how he had witnessed the purchase of a 13 year old girl with the full knowledge of her mother and her sale to brothel was entirely fabricated. The closest modern analogy would be with the unscrupulous documentary film maker who gets a researcher to play the part of a drug smuggler and then broadcasts it as a real event. In his Gazette story Stead made no mention of the fact that he had staged the whole of the story of " A child of 13 bought for £5". He did not sign the article but made out it was the work of the " Chief Director " of a "Secret Commission." How this "Chief Director" knew of the purchase and sale of the girl was not revealed. In fact, as my book Secrets of a Titanic victim: the story of the real My Fair Lady shows conclusively, Stead trusted an ex-brothel keeper's account of how she had acquired Eliza Armstrong, the 13-year-old girl whom she took away from the desperately poor street in which she lived her parents and brothers and sisters. The application of the word "investigative" to Stead rankles with me as much as anything. He described the mother and the father, a chimney sweep, though he had never set eyes on them, nor the street in which they lived in Lisson Grove, Marylebone. At a public meeting he said he had taken the girl from a "street steeped in sin. " He thought it was a road full of brothels, but there were none, as he had to admit in Court. He did not reveal the girl's name in the Gazette but re-christened her "Lilly". He described how she was taken to have her virginity confirmed by a French abortionist. It was he who sent her there, an entirely innocent girl, to have a finger inserted in her vagina. How would that be judged today? Stead paid the guinea for this examination though he was not there himself. He acquired a bottle of chloroform and asked the ex-brothel keeper to render the girl senseless with it, but little Eliza was too smart. When Stead staged his entry into the room in the brothel where the innocent girl had been put to bed, she heard his voice. In his article he has the girl cry: "Take me home, take me home. " Well, Stead could have sent her home, but he chose not to. Instead he moved her to another house where an eminent doctor had the girl properly sedated so that he could stick his highly trained finger into her vagina. His fee was three guineas and included a signed note confirming the girl was virgo intacta. This part of the story was dropped by Stead in the Gazette account. The day following the doctor's examination, Stead arranged for the girl to be sent to Paris. Later she was moved to the South of France. There was no mention of this in his published account for the very good reason that he did anyone to know where Eliza had been taken.  Stead argued that he was justified in what he did to the girl because she had been "sold" to him. Even if he could have been certain that such a transaction had taken place ( he was not there himself ) he had absolutely no right to treat the girl as if she were his property. But that is exactly what he did. He made a slave of her in the name of a campaign to stamp out the "white slave trade. " The fact that he did not personally sexually assault her was hardly an excuse for abducting her and paying others to indecently assault her. It is not often noted by those who retell this story, and you would have to include the Chartered Institute of Journalists in this category, that Stead was convicted on two separate counts by two different Juries at the Old Bailey. The first was on the charge of abduction and the second on the charge of indecent assault. Why then should Stead be honoured? Because he persuaded Parliament to raise the age of consent from 13 to 16? Maybe, but he had no need to wreck the lives of a poor London family as he did. He could very easily have returned Eliza to her home. His explanation for not doing so, that she would be "sold again" is ridiculous. In my view he realised that if she got back to Lisson Grove and reported what she had suffered he would have been arrested, and that was something he was desperate to avoid. At the committal proceedings at Bow Street he pleaded with the magistrate Mr Vaughan that there was no case to answer. You can read the Gazette's own account of this episode on the Stead resource site www.attackingthedevil.co.uk. You can read the record of the Old Bailey trials at https://www.oldbaileyonline.org In my view, journalists should not be honouring Stead but apologising for his outrageous and quite unjustifiable exploitation of a young teenage girl who he knew to be entirely innocent. Eliza Armstrong was his sacrificial lamb.

  • 0 God, science and the absurd

    • Thoughts
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 22-02-2012
    0.00 of 0 votes

    Reading a review at the weekend of the book The Science Delusion by Rupert Sheldrake reminded me of a very pleasant afternoon I spent with the author a few years ago. My book about early wireless, Signor Marconi's Magic Box, came out at more or less the same time as his Seven Experiments that could change the world. We ended up in the studio of BBC radio London talking together on the day time show hosted by Robert Elms https://www.bbc.co.uk/london/radio/presenters/robert_elms/. It turned out we both had an interest in homing pigeons, not as bird fanciers but from the point of view of science and history. His publisher had ordered a cab to take him back home to Hampstead and I shared it with him. We ended up having a drink in his back garden and later exchanged books. I had always been fascinated by the ability of homing pigeons, all descendants of the wild blue rock dove, to find their way back to a loft, though they might be flying over land that was quite unfamiliar to them. This interest was re-kindled by my research in to early wireless for in wartime there was a serious debate about which was more useful for sending messages, the brand new technology using electro-magnetic waves, or the humble homing pigeon. Rupert Sheldrake was interested in the birds because their ability to find their way back to a loft had never been explained by mainstream science. He told me of an experiment he had organised himself in which homing pigeons had found their way from a ship at sea back to a loft on another ship though the vessels were not visible to each other. The point was that there were no visual clues to guide the birds. In his book Sheldrake had concluded "...after nearly a century of dedicated but frustrating research, no one knows how pigeons home, and all attempts to explain their navigational ability in terms of known senses and physical forces have so far proved unsuccessful." While researching the use of wireless in the First World War I had come across some extraordinary stories about homing pigeons which I was able to add to Sheldrake's store of inexplicable homing achievements. Another of his examples of verifiable behaviour which science cannot explain is the ability of dogs to find their way home or to know when their owner is about to arrive home. Though Sheldrake began life as a very well respected mainstream scientist his questioning of received wisdom has not gone down well with the scientific community. In fact he is a kind of scientific heretic refusing to accept the basic tenets of belief. He is a thinker Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, could do without: a scientist questioning science just at a time when Dawkins has fired his broadside at religious belief. However, I believe Rupert Sheldrake makes a very good point. He cannot accept the view Dawkins takes that science can explain everything. The implication is that occurrences that appear to defy our knowledge of physics or chemistry must be illusory, or, in the case of the homing pigeon, not worth bothering with. An amusing example of one of Sheldrake's experiments can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TwEuA4MRM1o&feature=related You cannot prove that God does not exist anymore than you can prove that there is such an entity as the Almighty. I was brought up as an agnostic and I retain that point of view. I am a "Don't Know" for the very good reason that belief is not knowable. The fact that I do not believe there is a God does not mean there is not one. This was the view my father, John Weightman, took and when he was in his eighties he wrote a book with the title Reading the Bible in the run-up to death. He was a French specialist and had been sent a new French translation of the Bible by a publisher. Reading it he decided to have a last go at the Good Book and penned his treatise a couple of years before he died. He found nothing favourable about religion and was frankly horrified by the cruelty of the Old Testament. God was forever saying that people should be stoned to death. He had a chapter entitled That Unpleasant Person God. But he remained agnostic simply because to be an atheist you were claiming that you were certain about something which could not be verified. My father remained until the end an agnostic, and more significantly I think, an absurdist. He took comfort from a quiet acceptance that there was absolutely no discernible purpose in life at all. The natural world in which one species preyed cruelly on another was simply " one big practical joke." The mistake of religious believers was to seek "meaning" in life when quite evidently there was none. Although he did not meet either of them I think he would have been more at home with Rupert Sheldrake than Richard Dawkins.

  • 0 Wireless to the Resue

    • History
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 21-01-2012
    0.00 of 0 votes

    I wonder how many of those who are preparing to commemorate the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic realise that the only reason any lives were saved, and that we know anything about what happened to it, was the use then of what was regarded as a miraculous invention: wireless. The discovery of how electromagnetic waves could be used to send messages without any wires was truly astonishing in the early 1900s, and would still cause wonder today if we were not so familiar with the reality. After all, these waves are both invisible and inaudible and they can travel great distances and fly through solid walls. When Guiglielmo Marconi was developing his primitive wireless system the world was already wired up with electric telegraph cables: by 1870 the Atlantic had been crossed and most of the British Empire was in touch by telegraph. How could wireless compete? It might be cheaper to run than the cable networks, certainly, but not until the technology was much more advanced. It had only one huge advantage over cable: with wireless it would be possible to keep in touch with ships at sea. Most of Marconi's earliest experiments with wireless involved communication with ships of some kind or other. As early as 1897 he set up a station in a room in the Royal Needles Hotel on the Isle of Wight and put small stations on two of the coastal steamers to demonstrate how he could keep in touch with moving vessels at a distance. Journalists used his equipment to cover yachting regattas in Ireland and North America. In 1898 he rigged up a transmitter and receiver at Queen Victoria's country home at Osborne on the Isle of Wight and kept in touch with the Royal Yacht Britannia on which her son, Prince Edward ( always known as Bertie) was entertaining guests. At this time, and for some years to come, wireless was restricted to sending messages in the dots and dashes of Morse Code. The transmission of speech was demonstrated as early as 1900 by the Canadian Reginald Fessenden who also made broadcasts in 1906, but all singing and talking radio did not arrive until the early 1920s. Between the pioneering experiments and the outbreak of World War l, wireless was limited almost entirely to telegraphy, that is, dots and dashes. However, young men, and sometimes young women, developed tremendous skill in the tapping out and interpreting Morse Code, the very best achieving astonishing speeds in terms of words per minute. When the Atlantic liners were first equipped with wireless the skills of the operators were employed chiefly in paid for messages sent from ship to shore. But it was soon discovered that they could save lives that would almost certainly have been lost if there had been no wireless on board. One of the first, as well as the most dramatic, of rescue operations using wireless took place in January 1909 in the sea off the East Coast of North America in an area called the Nantucket shoals. A liner, the Republic with 460 passengers heading from New York to Europe for a tour of the Mediterranean was rammed in thick fog by a smaller ship, the Florida which was on its way to New York. The Florida ,was also carrying several hundred passengers, many of them refugees from an earthquake which had killed 72,000 in southern Italy and Sicily. The Republic, belonging to the White Star Line, owner of the Titanic, was holed and began to sink. While the captain organised an evacuation, rowing his passengers to the Florida in relays, the lone Marconi wireless operator on the Republic stayed on board. He was Jack Binns, a twenty four year old lad from Lincolnshire and he was to become the world's first wireless hero. Binns could only send one message before the electric power on the liner failed. He rigged up batteries and kept sending messages. These were picked up by a shore station which relayed them to ships in the area. He finally made contact with another liner, the Baltic, which had a Marconi operator on board, J.H.Tattershall and guided it towards the stricken Republic. Binns stayed on duty for more than 30 hours: Tattershall sent a message when the rescue was accomplished that he had not slept for 52 hours. The Baltic was able to take on board all the passengers and most of the crew of the stricken ships. Attempts to save the Republic failed when it sank while being towed towards New York. On board were the captain and volunteer crew who had to swim for it, but survived. Binns was feted in New York and back in his home town of Peterborough. He was offered promotion and was due to be assigned to the Titanic when the owner of the White Star Line, Bruce Ismay, intervened thinking Binns might bring bad luck and bad publicity. He left the Marconi company in 1912 and went to work as a journalist in New York, starting his new career two days before the Titanic sank. While working for the New York American he was called as an expert witness to the Senate inquiry in to the Titanic disaster. He became a businessman and died in New York in 1959 at the age of 74. The wealthier passengers from the Republic had a commemorative token struck with the letters CQD above a depiction of the stricken ship. It was the distress call used by all Marconi operators before the adoption of the SOS. All messages began CQ–seek you–and the D stood for danger or distress. However desperate the situation these young men would sign of OM, which stood for Old Man. As the Titanic went down the senior of the two operators, Jack Phillips who died that night, tapped out to his colleague on the Carpathia: " Its a CQD OM". Morse messages filled the shipping airwaves for many years after spoken radio became available. My Uncle Morris was a "sparks" in the Navy during the Second World War and still listened with a special short wave radio to messages being tapped out in the North Sea. I became interested in radio and built sets with bits and pieces from army surplus shops when I was a schoolboy. It was always a thrill when the valves glowed red and the first signals came in, the dots and dashes tapped out so fast I could not decode the messages unless, as happened on one occasion I heard dot,dot,dot, dash dash dash, dot,dot,dot: SOS.  A badly researched stamp produced by the British Post Office to commemorate the role of wireless in the Titanic disaster. Marconi seems to be on the phone! Not impossible: there were plenty of telephones in 1912 but they had to be connected by wires in those days. Marconi's forte was to send wireless messages. 

  • 0 How Victorian was Charles Dickens?

    • History
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 20-01-2012
    0.00 of 0 votes

    With the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens fast approaching it is worth asking to what extent he was the "great Victorian novelist", not because his genius is in question in any way but because he was not quite as Victorian as is generally assumed. Born on 7 February 1812 he was a child of the Regency, that short period from 1811 to 1820 when the madness of George lll led to a crisis and the appointment of his eldest son George as Prince Regent. On the death of the old King, the Regent became George lV. He, in turn, was succeeded by his younger brother, the 64 year old William who, because of his youthful service in the Navy was known as The Sailor King. William lV reigned from 1830 until his death in 1837 when the young Victoria came to the throne. By the time of Queen Victoria's Coronation in 1838, Dickens had in publication as a serial episodes of Oliver Twist a brilliant satirical attack on the recently enacted New Poor Law of 1834 which was a nineteenth century version of our contemporary attempts to "get tough" on welfare. Oliver Twist, is not therefore strictly speaking, Victorian. His earlier Sketches by Boz are quite recognisably from an earlier era. It is fair to say, of course, that by 1838 Dickens had become a Victorian and it is interesting to see what he had to say about the Coronation of the young Queen. He was asked by Sunday paper, the Examiner, to contribute a piece on the fair held in Hyde Park and in it he was able to display his great affection for popular entertainment. Here is a short extract, reprinted from the edition of 1 July 1838, to celebrate the birth anniversary of a truly astonishing, but only partly Victorian, writer: "The fair in Hyde Park–which covered some fifty acres of ground–swarmed with an eager, busy crowd from morning until night....In the refreshment booths, of which there was a goodly show, were piled, in high and long array, butts of porter and barrels of ale, with sturdy rounds of beef and goodly hams in most beautiful abundance....This part of the amusement of the people, on the occasion of the Coronation, is particularly worthy of notice, not only as being a very pleasant and agreeable scene, but as affording a strong and additional proof, if proof were necessary, that the many are at least as capable of decent enjoyment as the few." In contrast to the enthusiasm Dickens had for the jolly celebrations in the Park was the impression the Coronation Procession through the streets made on him. He wrote: "Of the general effect of the Procession let us simply add, on excellent authority, that though in parts extremely grand, it wanted mass, the intervals were too long, and above all it wanted noise and music. The band of the 10th indeed were present, and people wondered it did not play until it did, and then they wondered more than ever that it did. Fortunately the infliction was short, for no puppet-show music could possibly have been worse." And so began the reign of Victoria who was to outlive Dickens by man years. He, in fact, survived only just over half of her reign, dying in 1870 when there was still thirty years of Victoriana proper to go. Rather surprisingly, since Dickens became so associated with the Victorian Christmas, there were no Christmas Trees in England when he was a boy and he died before the arrival of the modern Father Christmas who turned up fitfully from the 1870s from North America. As for Dickens entering into the "Victorian Spirit" he was not at all keen on "machines" in the great age of machinery. While millions flocked to the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851, Dickens fled to Kent resort of Broadstairs, renting out his London house. He wrote to a friend that he could not bear to have people explain to him how bits of machinery worked so if he was asked if he had seen an exhibit he would lie and say Yes just to shut them up. 

  • 0 Faking the Wild

    • Thoughts
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 13-12-2011
    0.00 of 0 votes

    The story of David Attenborough and the "mocked up" sequence with polar bear cubs brought back to me many memories of cutting room arguments and near disasters that I can recall from twenty years as a factual film maker. I am still not sure about the acceptability of some sequences in progammes I made, though my intention was never to deliberately deceive the viewer. Well, only a bit. I often re-run in my mind one episode that occurred back in the mid-1980s. I was a producer-director in the current affairs and features department of London Weekend Television. In those days there was no chasing after ratings and LWT factual programmes ( Lord Birt was in charge) and we had a reputation for making few if any concessions to "popular" programming. However I was given the chance to make the first ever wildlife programme for the company, a project I relished as a keen bird watcher and amateur naturalist. Although by then I had made a few programmes it had never occurred to me how those brilliant wildlife cameramen got their amazing sequences. Did they crawl down holes to film moles? How did they get so close to tigers in the jungle? The buzz around the office was that I would not have much trouble as my series was to be six half hours on wildlife in London. Once I had the sparrows in the can, that would be it. Maybe a rat or two as well. In fact, London is very rich in wildlife. The problem was how to film it. We went to a couple of lectures given by BBC wildlife producers and asked around. I was astonished, and not a little put out, to discover many of the most gripping sequences were faked. The tiger stalking the jungle was a zoo animal. The eagle catching a hare was a falconer's bird. Which brings me to some episodes that I re-run in my mind from time to time. A star of my series called City Safari was the kestrel, a little falcon once common in the capital,. We saw them every day from our tower block office on the South Bank, and found a nest to film high up in a tower block vent shaft. But we wanted some pukka shots: the bird in slow motion with the Houses of Parliament in the background. And another of a kestrel catching a sparrow, its favourite food in the city, with another classic London backdrop. There were plenty of wild kestrels to film and we got some great shots of them, mostly from a distance. But for the big close-ups with the birds hovering in the right place at the right time we brought in a falconer. I will never forget the first sequence we shot. We chose what was then a building site on the south side of Vauxhall Bridge, now the MI6 building. At low tide the falconer was able to go down on to the foreshore while the cameraman set his high speed equipment on top of the embankment. The kestrel was on the falconer's arm. He shouted: "Are you ready?" I put my thumb up. In his hand he had a little yellow, dead, day old chick. He showed it to the falcon and then hid it again in his hand. He then threw the bird into the air. It unfolded its wings and looked down for the lure. Momentarily it hovered there giving the cameraman a chance to find it, focus and shoot. The film zipped through the high speed camera taking 500 frames a second. Played back at 25 frames it would be slow and elegant and last twenty times as long as it took to shoot. We had several goes at this until the kestrel got fed up and flew off. The falconer was seen running across Westminster Bridge calling: "Rosie!". Then there was the Tower of London shot. Here we wanted to show a kestrel catching a sparrow. The same falconer and the same obliging kestrel performed brilliantly on the south bank of the Thames opposite the Tower. When the film was in an advanced "rough cut" stage the executive producer came to view it. To our gratification he loved it. And it did look pretty good, certainly as professional as anything the BBC produced. Then he asked how we had got that amazing shot of the kestrel catching the sparrow. I took him to one side and explained it was falconer's bird called Rosie which had been in Life on Earth. The sequence was cut so that it appeared Rosie had caught the sparrow which, in reality, the falconer had brought with him from the countryside. Looking crestfallen, the producer asked me how I felt about the deceit. I said: " Not very good". But how were we to compete? The BBC and other wildlife film makers all had what we came to call "equity" birds and animals for close shot sequences. We could have brought up a caption saying: " Reconstruction" but it would have looked daft, and no other companies did that for wildlife programmes. I resolved the moral dilemma by arguing ( to myself ) that kestrels were common in London, they did catch and eat sparrows, and we knew there was a pair nesting near Tower Bridge. Cheating, we discovered, was endemic in wildlife film making but if you were not misleading your audience about what species could be found where, there was no big issue involved. What you had to be most careful about was what you claimed in the voice over. It would have been quite wrong to pretend we had got an amazing sequence of a wild kestrel catching a wild sparrow. We used the sequence to make the point that kestrels in London fed mainly on sparrows. But we did want the viewer to imagine we had staked out the sparrow just as it was caught in the kestrel's talons. David Attenborough, to his great credit in my view, has always been straight forward about staged sequences and, as far as I am aware, has never tried to deny that they occur. A classic is the inter-cutting of a sequence of the birth of polar bears, filmed in a Belgian zoo, with the bears in the wild as if the birth had been shot in the Arctic. To own up on screen would spoil the magic. I know this for certain because I was banned by my family from watching wildlife films as I would constantly let on that the tiger was clearly from a zoo and looked very much as if it had a piece of string attached to its left back leg.  I have argued before elsewhere that fakery, in the sense of staging sequences, is endemic in documentary film making. Those film makers who like to refute this -- and there is surprising number of them -- should ask themselves if they have ever asked anyone in one of their films to "do something again" because the first take was spoiled in some way. Or asked them do something they would not otherwise have done. That is all fakery, but not necessarily pernicious. I argue that it is mostly "legitimate". There is another kind of fakery which is "illegitimate" in that it seeks to seriously mislead the viewer about a sequence of events shown on the screen. What I find most dispiriting about the discussion of fakery in factual programming is the degree to which senior people in the industry pretend they did not know it was going on when it is in fact stock in trade in television documentaries. The intention, invariably, is to make a programme more watchable than it would otherwise be rather than to mislead the viewer about the essential subject matter of the programme. In the case of the polar bears in Frozen Planet the same pretence that cubs were filmed in the wild when in fact they were born in a zoo has been done before with David Attenborough narrating. It cause a bit of a stir then but in time we forget these things and are prepared, in the words of the poet Coleridge to "suspend our disbelief". If you had been watching Frozen Planet with me I would have ruined its best sequence by pointing out there was no way the birth of those cubs could have been filmed in the wild.

  • 0 Don't Kill that Kindle

    • Thoughts
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 03-11-2011
    0.00 of 0 votes

    So that I could get to research the Marconi Archive which is now safely housed and expertly catalogued in the Bodleian Library, Oxford I applied for admission . I had to find a sponsor and was lucky that a neighbour who is a publisher and was an Oxford student long ago was on hand to sign the relevant papers. As I left his house he called after me: " You will not be able to kindle any fires." I smiled back wondering what he meant. The admission procedure was very jolly. I was ticked off for not completing one of the forms correctly then told by the lady dealing with library tickets that my misdemeanour would, on this occasion, by over looked. I had my passport for identification and my debit card for payment, a very modest sum for six months access. But before I was finally granted permission to enter the library I had to read an oath. It was printed on a laminated card and I was instructed to read it aloud. "I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, nor to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document or other object belonging to it or in its custody; not to bring into the Library, or kindle therein, any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library."  This little episode captures, I think, the wonderful theatricality of Oxford University. When I got to the science library where the Marconi Archive is held there was a chap on the door dressed rather like a posh waiter with a red rose in his button hole. While I was marvelling at the quaintness of this attendant I failed to find the correct way to put my new ticket into the very modern entry gate and had to be shown. I learned later that the oath I had taken was originally in Latin and the ban on smoking is relatively recent. And I began to wonder if the Bodleian might soon be storing not just books and papers but Kindles. A new oath might ask me to promise not to set fire to any Kindles. Or some such.