11 APRIL 1998, Page 51


Go back to the day job!

James Delingpole

If everything had gone according to plan this would have been my funniest, most brilliant column ever. The idea was that I'd rant hilariously for many, many paragraphs on the subject at which I'm currently the world's greatest expert: how writing a novel turns you into a gibbering lunatic and ruins your life.

Unfortunately, it all went pear-shaped because the programme to which I was going to peg my babblings — The Write Stuff (BBC 2, Friday) — just wasn't inter- esting enough to sustain a whole review. So if this week's column is a load of old drivel, don't blame me, blame The Write Stuff s presenter Nigel Williams. Or, rather, blame whichever cheapskate it was who decided to ruin what could have been an invaluable guide to the dos and don'ts of writing a novel, by giving it the format of a redbrick-university-style lec- ture: Williams reading stiltedly from his notes; ranks of elderly or mutant creative- writing students furrowing their brows, nodding sagely and laughing politely at his awkward jokes; footage of famous novelists saying wise things. It had all the style and sophistication of an Open University pro- gramme on structural engineering, circa 1977.

The sad thing was, I really did want to listen to what Williams, Robert Graves, Ernest Hemingway et al had to say on the subject. But whenever the camera panned across the faces of those wretched students — as it did with depressing frequency — I kept thinking, 'Those who can, write. Those who can't, go to creative writing classes. You're all doomed. Go back to the day job before it's too late!' Halfway through, I followed my own advice and put Red Ken Gets the Blues (BBC 2, Tuesday) on the video instead.

1 watched this programme about the rise and fall of the GLC mainly to remind myself why I shouldn't vote for Ken Living- stone in London's mayoral elections. Like every other sound Londoner, I would much rather have him to my dinner party than the egregious Archer, but that's not the Point. If Red Ken were in charge of the metropolis again, he would penalise those of us who aren't lesbian, IRA-loving, pub- lic-transport-using whales. Whereas Archer wouldn't. QED. Oh, and, also, I'd take with a pinch of salt all the guff about Livingstone being the newt's best friend. My father and I used to have one of the finest private collections of amphibians in the West Midlands, so I know something about this subject. And I have to say I didn't at all like the look of the footage showing Red Ken holding a Fire Salamander in his hot, dry hand. If you must pick up salamanders, you should always make sure your hand is cold and wet. Otherwise, they get very upset.

Probably my biggest mistake of the week was spending almost three hours watching BBC l's star-studded adaptation of Minette Walters's The Scold's Bridle (Fri- day, Saturday). A fine cast, script and director were squandered on a plotline so twisted and gratuitously pervy and on char- acters so resolutely implausible that I feared for the mental health of Middle England. Was this sorry tale of drugs, gang-rape and incest in posh country-hous- es really your typical bourgeois middle- brow's idea of suitable Easter weekend entertainment? If it was, then I'm sorely tempted to join that get-a-life society of people who have renounced television altogether.

What prevents me from doing so is pro- grammes like The 50 Years War — Israel and the Arabs (BBC 2, Sunday). I wasn't actually going to review it because part one had already been covered by Simon Hog- gart. But then I got a letter from the pro- ducers saying something like 'We read that you think David Starkey's series is total dross. Why don't you give ours a try instead?'

If Martin Amis had written asking me for comments on his latest novel, I could scarcely have been more flattered. I mean, surely series producer Norma Percy and co. must have been told enough times how brilliant their programme is without need- ing to court my opinion too?

Anyway, for what it's worth, I think the series has pulled off an amazing coup by managing to secure interviews with virtual- ly all the surviving key players from the 50- year conflict: everyone from Jimmy Carter and King Hussein to generals, envoys, spies and terrorists.

What's even more impressive is that, for perhaps the first time in public, these play- ers all appear to be telling the round, unvarnished truth. Until now, I've never really believed a word of what the Arabs or Israelis have said about their disagree- ments. The former, I've tended to dismiss as rabid, shifty and malign; the latter, bully- ing, paranoid and stubborn. So it has been fascinating to see these people as they real- ly are — intelligent, mostly honourable men who have hitherto been forced to dis- guise their humanity and vulnerability in the name of realpolitik. Or is that just wist- ful thinking?