I think I got all the words in their right place. There is a part near the end where Stephen says, "distorting the sound and bending the gay
neddle." Does he say gay
there? Never heard the phrase before. And I'm not about to write in French. And I'm not sure how to spell the Netherlandic version of
Vay vay vay? Anyway . . .
Podgram 5 - Compliance Defiance
You’re listening to Stephen Fry’s Podgrams. With deep thanks, as ever, to the Positive Internet Company.
Oh, my Lord, what an unconscionably long time it’s been since last I’ve stood in front of this microphone and addressed you all. So I suppose the first thing I should do is get all the apologies and greasy compliments out of the way. As regular tuners-in to my Podgrams will know I usually do start with an apology for the gross length of time it’s taken me to come up with a new blessy or podgcast. I then, if you’ll remember, I then thank you all profusely for your input, your insight, your, and James Joyce would put it, your inwit. Your agenbite of inwit. And eventually, after all that huffing and puffing and prostrating, I get going. So perhaps you can take it all as read this time. I really am genuinely sorry for the wait. I’ve just been so damnably busy and I really am grateful. Your comments and corrections have been magnificent.
Now, as far as a little bit of housekeeping is concerned, I ought to say that my site http://www.stephenfry.com
will be undergoing a slow transformation into stephenfry.com 2.0. It’s in the works, and it’ll be with you before you can say . . . before you can say something that takes about two months to say, if I’m perfectly honest. And while we’re on the subject of http://www.stephenfry.com
, have you ever wondered why we say W, W, W? I mean, in England that is, where that letter is w, i.e. three syllables. I mean, World Wide Web is three syllables, so W, W, W is nine syllables. It’s three times longer to say W, W, W, than it is to say World Wide Web. In the early days, right around ’94 I remember it was quite common to call it W3. You’d say W3.stephenfry.com or whatever. But even that is four syllables, so what’s wrong with saying World Wide Web? And while I’m on the subject of this kind of thing, I’ve expatiated on this head before but I’ll do it again, .co.uk. Gosh! That drives me mad. I wrote an article about it in my Guardian column, oh, I suppose back in November, and people tried to give me explanations as to why it’s .co.uk and why it’s a perfectly reasonable thing and it’s nobody’s fault, but I still think it’s bloody stupid! Italy is .it, Germany is .ge, France is .fr, South Africa is .za. Every country gets just dot and then its country code. We have to go .co.uk. Why can’t we go .uk? Why is there no website that I know of which is wonderproducts.uk. Hmm? HMM? HMMMM!? Just drives me crazy. All those hours I have spent, if you add them up, typing .co. An extra three keystrokes that I could have well done without in my life. Plus all that breath I’ve expended saying W, W, W. I’m doing it now. W, W, W. Oh, yes in the Netherlands, it’s vay, vay, vay. Not over here, though. As Tony Hancock used to say. Maybe the answer is to say wha, wha, wha. whawhawhastephenfry.com. Actually I quite like that. Whawhawha. Let’s do that from now on. It’s whawhawha. Agreed?
Anyway, (French speak) as they say in France, “What shall we talk about?” Well, my mind has been revolving lately on the nature of journalism. Oh, no. Lor’ please. Anything but that. Surely there’s enough pain in the world without talking about journalism. Actually, I don’t really mean journalism, I mean commentary and opinion. And really that’s the problem with newspapers isn’t it? They don’t really mean journalism, they mean commentary and opinion. I want it understood from the outset that whatever I say about journalists, whatever I say about the trade of journalism, the trade of opinion, whether in newspapers or blogging, I obviously apply to myself. It’d be ridiculous not to because here I am discoursing into a microphone, and is therefore as guilty as anyone really.
Many, many, many years ago before most of you were born, I used to write a regular Friday column in the Daily Telegraph
newspaper in Britain. BUY NOW!
I enjoyed it. There was no rules to what I had to write on. Nothing prescribed, nothing proscribed. I could write about the death of Freddy Mercury, the imbecility of astrology, the stupidity of shower gel bottle designers. It didn’t really matter. All was grist to my mill.
It’s a ridiculous thing to entrust someone with all those column inches and all that space once a week. It’s bound to go to your head. It’s bound to taint your soul. I’m sorry to sound theological about it, but that’s really how I felt. And that’s really why I stopped, because in the end no matter how good you try to be and how honest and how rational, you start to believe that people should listen to you. You start to believe that your opinion is more important than anybody else’s. You start to believe that your emotional responses to the annoyances of life are of value. And you start to get very lazy. You stop genuinely inspecting your own heart. You stop genuinely making rational, considered points. And it’s between those two extremes that essayism should exist. Somewhere there is the marvelous rational expedition that you take in which argument and example and experience are induced, and there is the subjective journey you take as well where memory and experience of a different kind are used to forge the essay. And the best journalists manage to tread the path between or chose one or other style according to their subject matter.
The problem with the daily or weekly column is, well, emotion is so much more easily accessed than reason, isn’t it? And we fall into the traps. I call the first trap The Milkman’s Cheery Whistle. Most of you will be too young or too not British to know that there was once a regular milk delivery made to most households in the United Kingdom. It started with a horse-drawn cart, with churns that were left on the doorstep, and at its height it was little electric vans that buzzed around the streets of Britain leaving milk and – goodness knows what else, by the end, eggs, orange juice, and yogurt and so forth. I suppose the profession reached its height of respectability and glamour when Benny Hill came out with Ernie. His name was Ernie and he drove the fastest milk cart in the West.
Anyway, what’s this got to do with journalism? Well, it’s the syndrome. It’s The Milkman’s Cheery Whistle. That’s the point. When you run out of ideas for an article, it’s very easy to cast your mind around for some nostalgic regret, some piece of cultural observation that you’ve made that shows your acuity and your connection to the culture. And the cheapest and the most obvious to the point of cliché of these is to regret the passing of The Milkman’s Cheery Whistle.
Every morning as he walked up the path to your doorstep, clanking his bottles beside him, the milkman would whistle. (Crusty, old fogy voice) And in today’s Britain, isn’t it a pity that the whistle has gone out? I don’t know what young people do now. I think they attach themselves to their iPods and they listen to their rappular music while they smack themselves with heroin and knife each other in the guts. But the whistle seems to have gone out of the world, and I for one regret that. I expect you remember as I do the marvelous Lauren Bacall in To Have and To [sic] Have Not
, her first film with Humphrey Bogart, who was to become her husband of course, saying, “Steve, you know how to whistle, don’t you? You just put your lips together and blow.” Whistling was part of the culture throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s and ‘50s and subsequent ‘60s and then, of course, ‘70s, but slowly, slowly other considerations seemed to push the whistle out of the forefront of British cultural life, and I think that’s a great shame, because with it went something else. Went a kind of friendliness, a kind of a kind of attitude, went a kind of neighborliness, a kind of connection – one with the other. Would it be offensable to suggest that perhaps you could only whistle a melody, and it’s melody that’s gone out of British life. The music no longer has melody. Maybe society no longer has melody either. No longer the kind of tunefulness with which one could respond to the other. Well, that’s perhaps that’s the subject for another article. But let’s return to this idea of the whistle. The whistle was the silken thread, if you like, that knitted together, if silken threads can be said to knit, British life. And with that whistle came duty, honor, service, responsibility, family. Now if you want that kind of thing – ha! – you can just whistle for it. [/crusty, old fogy voice]
And there you are. Your article is more or less written with a neat little circular ending by using the phrase, “You can just whistle for it.” Sort of pinching the loaf, as it were, and signing off. Those sort of article are harmless enough, I suppose. That’s Trap 1, going off into the sentimental, the regretful, the nostalgic. Trap 2 is for anger to take the upper hand, and that’s the easiest one of all. Articles with anger in them write themselves. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been kept waiting in the queue at the supermarket and you’re venting your spleen on old people and the way they take money out of purses, or whether its traffic wardens, or queues in cinemas or airports. It doesn’t matter how banal and obvious it is. Just a but fury will take you a long, long way and the article gets itself written. And of course for journalism you could also put in stand-up comedy, which more or less is the 21st century’s equivalent of journalism. And is as guilty of being obvious and banal and cheap and finding the shortest distance between two laughs as journalism is. And I have been guilty of all these things, and the reason I mention them is I’m about to be guilty of them all over again, because I have something of a rant coming on. I have a fury that’s been building up inside me for some months now and I find I have no way of letting it out except through the vehicle of this Podgram.
It faintly reminds me of that legend of King Midas, you know, the one who had the golden touch. The King of Phrygia. He was asked to judge in the musical competition between Apollo and Marsyas, a competition that involved the playing of the cursed flute of Athena. Anyway, was you probably know Apollo won because after all he was a god, but Midas dared to suggest that he thought Marsyas was a better player. Apollo was furious. He killed Marsyas for presuming even to go into competition with him, and he called Midas an ass and to prove it he touched Midas on the head and a couple of donkey’s ears sprouted out. Poor old Midas was ashamed right down to his socks. Nobody knew that he had these ass’s ears because he wore a cap. But one person was bound to find out and that was his barber. So Midas bade him keep the secret.
But this is my point: When something bubbles inside you, you have to get it out. This Podgram for me is part of getting it all out. For Midas’s barber, it was all about digging a hole in the ground and shouting into it, “Midas has ass’s ears!” Finally being able to rest and to sleep, he got it out. As you probably know, reeds grew up in that ground and they whispered it to the trees, “Midas has ass’s ears.” Which I don’t know in Greek has quite so many sussurating S’s. But anyway,“Midas has ass’s ears,” went from the trees to the birds and from the birds to the mortals who understood birds. There were a few around then and it got back to the ears. The ass’s ears of Midas who chopped the head off his barber and then, according to some versions of the myth, killed himself. I’ve always loved Greek myths. I grew up adoring them and I adore them to this day. And it’s surprising how often they have something to say to us and how often one has recourse to quoting them in order to make sense of one’s present predicaments.
And my present predicament is I want to dig a hole in the ground and yell my rant. And of course I’m not so much as digging a hole in the ground as broadcasting a Podgram. And what makes this so much more unforgivable is that the very nature of the rant is perhaps the grossest and the most unforgivable journalistic cliché of them all and that is a moan against what might be considered political correctness. I forgive myself by saying it’s not precisely political correctness that is the target of my rant so much as that strange nebulous world of safety and compliance that seems to be binding us all with hoops of steel at the moment. Nonetheless it’s very naughty of me to even think about wasting your time with a moan of this nature. Yet I can’t help it. I am Midas’s barber and it must be done. So, I hope you’ll forgive me.
Now, where to begin? Well, a friend of mine has directed a number of episodes of a very successful BBC drama called . . . hmm, well, I won’t tell you its real name. I’ll say it’s called Spies, and it’s immensely popular and it’s gone into its, I don’t know, sixth, seventh, eighth series or season as we like to say in the American fashion now. And it’s a jolly romp of a show. I have to confess I have something of a weakness for it. If I’m on a series of long journeys – I have to travel by airplane or boat or something – I don’t mind slamming a few DVDs of it into my computer and it will while away the time very happily indeed. It’s a fine series. Jolly well made. It’s preposterous, of course it is. It’s nothing like real-life spying. If it were, it would be very dull. There are lots of bombs going off and plot exchanges of love and all the rest of it between the various agents in the field and all kinds of enmity between the CIA and the MI5 and MI6 and all the rest of it. It’s harmless dramatic television, but pretty jolly successful as I say.
Most of the episodes involve bombs going off in London and someone having to save it. So there’s a lot of driving around therefore. A great deal of high-speed pursuit, as I believe it’s called. And naturally there’s a lot of communication between the base, where Harry Pearce, who runs it all, played by the splendid Colin [sic] Firth, who you’ll remember as a young lad in Equus
, I dare say and on the “Double Deckers”, if you’re of my generation. He has to communicate with them, they have to communicate with him and with each other. It’s the modern world. Information, data exchange, 3G, Bluetooth, WiFi, they’ve just got to be in touch at all times to save civilization.
Except when they’re driving of course. When they’re driving, they can’t use the phone. When they’re driving, they have to have their seatbelts done up and they must never use the telephone. They mustn’t even use a hands-free phone. They’re entirely welcome to kill each other in cold blood. They’re entitled to betray their country on the screen. They’re entitled to behave badly to their wives and their children. They’re entitled to eat unhealthy foods. But they are not entitled TO USE A TELEPHONE IN THE CAR. WHICH REAL PEOPLE, IN AN EMERGENCY, WOULD DO. Yes, I know it happens to be illegal, but it’s also illegal to SHOOT PEOPLE IN THE FACE. But they shoot people in the face and nobody stops them from doing that. But there is a man, there are a series of men and women WHOSE WHOLE JOB IS TO STOP YOU FROM HAVING PEOPLE FILMED IN CARS NOT WEARING SEATBELTS OR MAKING PHONE CALLS. It’s called compliance. COMPLIANCE WITH WHAT? COMPLIANCE WITH BEING AN ARSEHOLE? COMPLIANCE WITH STUPIDITY? COMPLIANCE WITH MAKING THIS COUNTRY A SHITHOLE? I cannot believe that anybody would allow this to happen. I can’t believe that they wouldn’t just say, “No! I’m going to film it they way it should be!” What is the point of having cars and backgrounds and extras? What’s the point of trying to make it realistic? Why not just do it against cardboard? If you’re not allowed to do it as it really would be done because what? Because you’re setting a bad example? Well, what kind of example are you setting by betraying your country or SHOOTING PEOPLE IN THE FACE? I don’t know where to begin, and I don’t know where to end. I want to take the people who are responsible for this, and I want to squeeze the life out of them. I never want them to get up again. I want them to understand how insane they are. And I have a horrible feeling that they’re shaking their head and saying something about how it’s wrong to set a bad example to children or something. Whereas SHOOTING PEOPLE IN THE FACE - HOW MANY TIMES DO I HAVE TO SAY THIS? - APPARENTLY ISN’T SETTING A BAD EXAMPLE TO CHILDREN.
OMG I WANT TO EXPLODE WITH FURY!
And the awful thing is they win! The directors and the producers of the program COMPLY! AH! Why don’t they just tell them to FUCK OFF!
Oooohhhh, I know I’m distorting the sound and bending the gain needle, but isn’t that what this kind of behavior does? It distorts the sound of society and bend the needle of comity? Oh, I’ve gone mad now. But you know what I mean. I mean surely if ever there was an excuse for distortion and needle-bending anger this is it. IT’S INSANE! IT JUST ABSOLUTELY DRIVES ME CRAZY! You can hear my voice is now ragged with fury. Oh, hell. Oh, double hell, Oh, triple hell with a side order of HELL. What kind of country are we living in? There, you see? You have it. I’ve done it. I’ve done it. I’ve ended an article, as it were, with the phrase, “What kind of country are we living in?” This is the problem. This is the soul danger. And I’m spelling soul here s-o-u-l. The soul danger posed by having one’s own space, whether it’s column inches or a blog space. It just turns one into a kind of prating imbecile, an overweening proud person like a columnist who thinks they have a right to share their furies with the rest of the world. Well, I can’t help it. I have this space and I wanted to dig this hole in the ground and yell. And I have. And I hope it hasn’t upsetted you too much. You possibly disagree. Perhaps you think it’s entirely right that people shouldn’t be shown on screen without seatbelts. And they shouldn’t be shown . . . ha, it makes me laugh because I know what the other arguments are. They are things like, well, these spies are jolly cool, so children look to them to copy them. Errrr, I’m gonna have to say SHOOT THEM IN THE FACE again. Is that where they look to copy them? It just doesn’t begin to make sense. We are ruled by idiots, ladies and gentlemen. I know because of the comments you send me. I know how wise and sensible and thoughtful you all are. You are typical of people. And yet, argh! This country is being run by idiots! Complete idiots! We know they’re idiots because they’re the kind of people who sat next to us at school. They are no more than that. They’re not from some special race of administrators and governors who have inculcated into them a greatness and an understanding that we are not privileged to have. Far from it. They are morons! It’s such a pity.
It’s a small thing, I know. It’s a very small thing when weighed in the balance of human misery. But it may just be the small thing that tips us all over the edge. It certainly seems to have tipped me over the edge, ladies and gentlemen. And I apologize. So I want to rap up now. You’ve given me twenty minutes of your time, which surely must be enough for any kind of a Podgram. Thank you very much indeed. I’ll try and be back to you with a shorter gap than were between the last ones. Unless you’re so disgusted by my extreme exhibitionism that you never want to hear from me again. It’s been another sincere pleasure to share time with you. It only remains for me to thank you for listening and to wish you the very best. Much love. Bye-bye.
You’re listening to Stephen Fry for stephenfry.com
I think of myself as someone who is filled with love, whose only purpose in life was to achieve love. - Stephen Fry