Monday, November 28, 2005

About Woody

Photo by jlmaral
Image from Wikipedia

What explains Woody Allen’s movie-making longevity? Perhaps because we are him and he is us, for he is Mr Everyman with his phobias, terrors, and insecurities. When we hear him talk of his silly fears, we realize we, too, have them, but, unlike the willingly vulnerable Woody, we, fearing ridicule, keep our guilty fears as tightly hidden as did Bob Woodward the identity of Deep Throat.

We, all of us, will at some time have identified ourselves with one or another of the gods of the silver screen, like with taciturn Clint Eastwood; or with swaggering John Wayne; or with suave Sean Connery; or with indomitable Bruce Willis; or with inscrutable Charles Bronson; or with invincible Jean-Paul Belmondo. But to have identified - at least openly - with babbling Woody Allen? No way.

When I emerge from a movie house and into the street having just seen Clint Eastwood in “A Fistful of Dollars” or Sean Connery in “Goldfinger”, I transform my normal guilt-ridden shuffle into a self-confident swagger. I thrust out my chest and raise my chin. Instead of averting my gaze from passers-by I look them boldly in the eye. There seems nothing I can’t do, no-one I can’t beat to a pulp. But, all too soon, my shoulders begin again to sag, and my head to droop, the better to accommodate my eyes which have resumed staring unfocusedly on the sidewalk. I'm once again Woody Allen.

Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Bruce Willis and their ilk portray characters larger than life who bob and weave through fusillades of bullets, leap off buildings and beat up roomfuls of thugs to rescue the damsel in distress or save our world from commies or terrorists or whoever. Woody Allen, on the other hand, battles not with malevolent others to save the world, but with his inner fears to save himself. By doing so he helps us save ourselves by giving us permission to accept who we really are through letting us see our inner fears mirrored in himself.

So we can secretly identify with an anxious Woody riding in a car whose driver tells him of his urge to drive it into an oncoming vehicle; with a humiliated Woody at a party slinking back across the dance floor, having been told to “get lost creep” by a young woman whom he’d requested a dance; with an ecstatic Woody waltzing out of a hospital having just learned he doesn’t have the brain tumour he thought he had, then stopping in mid-flight and creeping away silently when another fear invades his mind. Who of us hasn’t seen ourselves in such predicaments?

Woody Allen insists his screen characters are not him. He is being disingenuous for, in his films, he seldom strays from his native upper east-side New York; and he has perpetually the same phobias and anxieties; and is surrounded invariably by the same kinds of friends with the same existential angsts, who are usually playwrights, editors, artists, or therapists.

In “Play It Again Sam” Woody is a movie nut who, having seen “Casablanca” in darkened movie houses umpteen times, has so internalized Humphrey Bogart that he can conjure up Bogart’s ghost any time he chooses. How different is this Woody from the one who has revealed that when growing up in Brooklyn and wishing to escape its oppressive noise and muggy heat, he would retreat to the cool and quiet of a movie theatre and become lost in the characters on the screen? We can see this reflected in “The Purple Rose of Cairo” where Woody’s character gets out of his seat in a movie theatre and walks directly into the scene showing on the screen. In “Manhattan” Woody plays a forty-two year old man involved with a seventeen year-old girl still in high-school. How different is this Woody from the one currently married to someone forty years his junior?

Woody Allen has said that as an artist he has failed because he has produced nothing great, that he would like to have been another Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams. He does himself a disservice for he is an original Woody Allen, not just another imitation O’Neill or Williams. Over the last forty years he has produced over forty films, a body of work still unfinished. As a writer and director he will take his place, if he hasn’t already done so, in the pantheon of cinematic giants.

Where does Woody Allen go from here? A pertinent question, for his films appear now to be imitating his earlier ones. His golden period was between 1977 and 1983 when he produced his masterpieces – “Annie Hall”, “Manhattan”, and “Hannah and Her Sisters”.

Could Woody’s comparative decline be due to his having for several years been in psychoanalysis? Should he not have kept his demons coiled tightly inside him, the better to fertilize his genius? If, say, Mozart or Beethoven had undergone psychoanalysis, would the Requiem or Ninth Symphony have seen the light of day? Woody believes he used his therapy to his benefit in ways not intended by his psychoanalysts, and that, anyhow, it didn’t impede his creativity at all.

Whatever the truth, Woody, judging by his recent films like “Radio Days”, “Small Town Crooks”, and “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion” seems to be living more and more in the past, particularly the nineteen-forties when he largely grew up. Perhaps his retreat into nostalgia is because he finds the present troubling and the future terrifying, for he has talked often of his fear of death, and that life is ultimately meaningless. To keep these existential fears at bay he continues frenetically to write and produce.

Whether he will produce another masterpiece is doubtful. Even so, the current relatively diminished Woody Allen is still way up there among today’s cinematic luminaries.

Paradoxically, Woody Allen, USA born and raised, can’t be seen as a quintessentially American artist since his influences were almost totally European. In its subtlety, literateness, wryness, irony, and sense of tragedy, his artistry is distinctly un-American. We can see why when he tells of the films he considers the greatest and which influenced him most. They are those of Frederico Fellini, Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Luis Bunuel, and Akira Kurasawa. There is nary a James Cameron among them.

As long as Woody Allen is still with us, let us be grateful for those crumbs under his table he still has to offer.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit

Imagine seeing George Washington being interviewed before he went out to fight the British, or watching the first performance ever of Hamlet. Indeed, up to the times as recently as one hundred years ago we can only imagine what our world was like, and how its people lived, looked and sounded.

Because of the DVD, our descendents a thousand years from now – probably no longer living on earth, since it will have been rendered uninhabitable, but living instead on Mars or whichever other planet they escaped to - will be able to see that video of the president of America landing on the aircraft carrier and declaring "Mission Accomplished" in Mesopotamia, and otherwise see us as we are now, and to see also the films we love today, like “Freddy Got Fingered” and those with Adam Sandler in them.

Although we will never be able to see our distant past as it actually was, we can at least now see our immediate past as portrayed in its classic films in their now restored form. The value of watching these old films is that they incorporate values and views of society as they were held in the times the films were made, since their directors and actors were themselves of those times which shaped their consciousnesses. So a film made now, but whose story is set in the past, will tell us as much about our world of today as about the time in which the film is set.

More and more of the old classics are being re-issued every day. So when we go out to buy a video, we needn’t feel restricted to “Freddy Got Fingered” or films with Adam Sandler in them. No, we can buy for example, “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit”, made in 1955, a seemingly wholesome tranquil time when the husband went out to work and the wife stayed home – solid Family Values; when we were ruled Ike and Dick – solid Family Men, the role models for the Family Men who on Saturday nights took their Families to the drive-in to see films like “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit” – solid Family Fare.

“The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit”, being of its time, enables us to see the world through the eyes of the generation which Tom Brokaw has called The Greatest Generation, which fought and won World War 2, then came home and created the prosperity of the nineteen-fifties, of which we baby-boomers and generation Xers are the legatees.

Who better to play the leading role in “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit” than Gregory Peck, always so hard put upon, always so decent – whether as Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird”, or as the upstanding small town lawyer menaced by Robert Mitchum in “Cape Fear”.

Gregory Peck, as The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, plays an advertising man, a solid Family Man in the middle rung of a large corporation in New York City. Each morning he takes the train into the city while reading the Wall Street Journal in company with some of his fellow Men in Grey Flannel Suits, solid Family Men all – and uniformly White. As the train carries them to their offices they exchange gossip about job openings in the city. It is the quintessential Old Boys Network of the sort arguably not much different from how it still is in today’s corporate world.

One difference between the corporate world then, compared with now, is that it was then de rigeur for men to wear grey flannel suits to the office. Today, corporate head honchos like Bill Gates wear sweaters and no ties, and their male underlings in addition to no longer having to wear ties, can also wear coloured shirts, and on Fridays – dress-down day - can even wear jeans. However, the decorative sartorial freedom enjoyed by today’s corporate employees may simply be to compensate them for their lack of real freedom.

But there was one big difference between the Men in Grey Flannel Suits then, and their counterparts today. The Men in Grey Flannel Suits then, had all fought in World War 2. Only a few years before, they had been storming beaches killing Germans, and wading through jungles killing Japanese. This was the shared experience which bound all these Men in Grey Flannel Suits together.

Consequences from being overseas in the war sometimes came back to haunt them, such as letters from ladies asking for money to help raise a child they had fathered - the result of a brief encounter while taking R and R away from the front. Gregory Peck, our Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, gets such a letter. What to do? Should he tell his wife? He does. But instead of taking the news calmly, she goes hysterical. She throws crockery about and storms out of the house, driving off in the family station-wagon with which, in her overwrought state, she nearly kills herself. Later she comes to her senses, but it was a close thing.

How would a wife today, even in our cool and knowing times, react to such news? It is for those of you, of the female gender, to ponder. And be honest.

An issue explored in “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit” is how much time a Family Man should give to his Family, and how much to his job. The Boss of the company, for which our Man in the Grey Flannel suit works, had built the company from scratch. But the Boss lives alone in his big house, being separated from his wife who longer wishes even to speak to him. He is also estranged from his only daughter who has eloped with a ne’er-do-well. And to top it off, his only son had been killed in the war.

One evening the Boss gets a summons from an important client, which necessitates flying immediately across the country to Los Angeles. The Boss asks Gregory Peck to accompany him. But Gregory has already made an important family commitment for that evening, and says “no” to the Boss, explaining that he has to be with his Family. The Boss is angry, but later recognises there are two types of men. There is the man – like the Boss – with the pioneering spirit, who works night and day creating companies, getting rich, making things happen. But the downside is that he will be alone. And there is the other type of man who, in order to have a happy family life, works only from nine to five, so to spend more time with his Family.

The Boss, realizing he will have to fly alone to Los Angeles, says to Gregory Peck: “I suppose you’re a nine-to-five-man?”

And Gregory Peck, in his inimitable bass voice, says: ”Yes, I’m a nine-to-five man”.

So I ask those of you of the male gender: What sort of man are you? A pioneering mover and shaker? Or a nine-to-five man?

And be honest.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Remembering Lloyd Bochner

Lloyd Bochner has recently died. He was eighty-one. But if you are now asking yourself: “Lloyd who?” and feel guilty you don’t know who he was, don’t beat up on yourself, for I’ve so far met no-one who knew who Lloyd Bochner was. But this may simply be a reflection on me, since, by a man’s friends, ye may know him.

For the record, Lloyd Bochner was a television and film actor who, in the words of the Guardian’s obituary
“……….played mostly suave villains and heroes for more than five decades, but one of his best-known appearances came in a 1962 episode of the Twilight Zone.

In the episode of the sci-fi series entitled To Serve Man, Bochner played a government cryptographer, Michael Chambers, assigned to decipher the contents of an enigmatic book left behind by an alien. The aliens help mankind, and humans depart daily to their planet on spaceships. Chambers decides to visit, having abandoned the translation task. Before stepping aboard he is weighed, as are all passengers, when suddenly his assistant appears with devastating news of the aliens' culinary preferences: "It's a cook book!" But it's too late. Chambers is hustled inside.

The scene acquired almost a cult following over the decades, and was voted 11th in a TV Guide poll of the 100 best television episodes ever.

Bochner's next best-known role was in Dynasty. He appeared only in 1981-2 as scheming tycoon Cecil Colby, rival to Blake Carrington, who dies of a heart attack while making love to his tempestuous screen wife, played by Joan Collins.

It was on stage that Bochner first attracted attention in Canada, where he won two Liberty awards, the nation's highest acting honour. He was born into a middle-class Canadian Jewish family in Toronto, and as a young boy began acting in radio plays. During the war, he served with the Canadian navy before entering Toronto University, where he obtained a degree in sociology.

Bochner appeared at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival in Ontario for six seasons, once playing Duke Vincentio in Measure for Measure, opposite James Mason. In 1951 he moved to New York and made his mark the following year playing a British army officer in the NBC serial drama, One Man's Family.

Bochner went to Hollywood in 1960 and obtained good television parts, usually as a supporting actor. He was in the adventure series Hong Kong as the island's police chief with Rod Taylor as the journalist hero, and turned up in other popular classics such as Dr Kildare, Perry Mason, The Man From Uncle, Mission: Impossible, Columbo, Murder, She Wrote, and Battlestar Galactica. He made regular appearances in NBC's Richard Boone Show.

His films provided useful parts but no big starring role. Among them were: The Night Walker (1964) with Barbara Stanwyck, Tony Rome (1967) and The Detective (1968), both with Frank Sinatra; Point Blank (1967), with Lee Marvin, The Man in the Glass Booth (1975) and the comedy The Naked Gun 2½; The Smell of Fear (1991), in which he parodied his Twilight Zone "cook book" scene. His last film was The Commission (2003)………………..”

Now that you know who Lloyd Bochner was, you can talk about him to someone you wish to impress with your arcane knowledge at the next wine-and-cheese party you attend.

While I did know who Lloyd Bochner was, I didn’t know much about him, and always thought him to be upper-class English because of the way he spoke. So I was surprised to learn he was of Canadian provenance.

So then, why did Lloyd Bochner sound so upper-class English? Perhaps it has to do with the generation of North Americans to which he belonged, and the generations of earlier. I think of actors like Ray Milland, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, and Katherine Hepburn, who spoke in a manner very close to the English of the English upper classes - an English no longer heard in the cadences of today’s Hollywood luminaries.

And what of the English themselves - the ones of today? Whenever a citizen of the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave tries to imitate an English person he will inevitably speak, like, la-di-da - in the way of Prince Charles or the Queen. And perhaps you, too, think the English speak like Prince Charles or the Queen, or, as did the English film eminances of old, like David Niven, John Mills, Anthony Quayle, Alec Guinness, and Richard Todd. But were you to visit England you’d find its denizens speak mostly in the proletarian tones of Jude Law, Clive Owen, or Michael Caine. This isn’t to say that all today’s English talk proletarian, for there are educated gents like Tony Blair who speak sort of upper-class, but not really, not the way his predecessors of past generations - like Winston Churchill or Harold Macmillan, unabashedly of the upper class - spoke.

The English language, like languages everywhere, as with everything else - perhaps even as with God - is constantly changing, and will reflect dissolving class barriers, evolving values, different technologies, and human migration. Expressions like “a furrowed brow” or “cultivating a friendship” reflect the times when agriculture was the main economic activity. Today, instead of talking with our colleagues, we “interface” with them, and rather than spending time with our friends, we prefer to “surf the net”, because, well, computers have taken over from agriculture as the main way we earn our daily crust. And think of computer-based words like “cyberspace”, “cybersickness”, “keypal”, or “screenager”. Our grandparents would never have heard of them. Think of……………well, you get the picture?

How, by the way, did the American accent, with its emphasised burring ”r”, get to be this way, seeing that the first migrants from Europe were English, and so would have stamped indelibly their imprimatur on the English language in the New World? Well, it is because those first English migrants pronounced similarly their “r”s , since that was the way English was spoken in England in the 1600s – the time of Shakespeare. Think also of quintessentially American words like “apartment”, “quit”, and “gotten”. You will find them sprinkled throughout the pages of Shakespeare’s plays. So, in many ways, American English is an older form of English, at least older than the English spoken in today’s England.

Incidentally, Lloyd Bochner was born on July 29 1924, and died October 29 2005.

Just thought you’d like to know.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

On War

This coming November 11th we will remember the dead of the two world wars of the twentieth century. Stern-faced men will place wreaths of flowers at shrines throughout Europe and North America, and will declare that wars like those of 1914-18 and 1939-45, must never happen again. Then we'll forget all about it until November 11th comes around again.

November 11th is that day in 1918 when Germany - on its last legs - decided it was best to sign the armistice – unconditional surrender, really - offered by Britain, France, and the US. Thus we associate November 11th more with World War 1 (The Great War) than with any other war. But The Great War has, in our collective memory, largely disappeared into the mists of time, being shoved there prematurely by the subsequent horrific wars that have displaced it. However, The Great War was arguably the most sanguinary of wars, at least from the viewpoint of the soldiers who were slaughtered in their many millions in the trenches of the Western Front.

The Great War doesn’t figure much in the American imagination because the US, only entering the war in 1917, was a minor player, compared to Germany, France and Britain. However the US’s intervention was the straw that broke the back of the Germans. Absent the US, the war would probably have ended in stalemate. Both sides were losing too many men to go on much longer, and would have found a face saving pretext to stop fighting. Because Germany would have escaped defeat, Hitler wouldn’t have happened, and so subsequent history would have been much different. However, a Hitlerless world may be an actuality in another otherwise identical world out there somewhere – assuming an infinite universe.

In the matter of the ending of World War 1 it isn’t generally known that there was an agreed-upon elapsed time of six hours between the signing of the armistice agreement to end the fighting, and the time the guns were to stop firing. Despite the allied generals knowing they had won the war six hours before it was due to end, they kept ordering their men out of their fortified trenches to storm the German positions, simply to win some extra ground that might bring the generals last minute glory. The result was that in the last six hours of the war, 10,000 men were killed who needn’t have been. Who said that truth is stranger than fiction?

But has anything changed? Think about the two thousand American soldiers who have died so far in Iraq in a war cooked-up by George Bush, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and others, so they could pose as heroic warriors, the better to banish to a corner of their minds that they, none of them, had not only never fought in a war, but had found ingenious ways, when young, to avoid the draft at the time of Vietnam. It’s not for nothing that the only person in the Bush inner circle who urged caution about going into Iraq was Colin Powell, a general who had actually fought in a war – in Vietnam.

When we consider the major wars of history, we think the side that won, did so, because its soldiers were braver, or its generals were smarter, or its peoples more resilient, than those of the side that lost. However, Paul Kennedy, in his book, “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” found that in all the major wars over the last 500 years, the victors had bigger economies and greater industrial productive capacities than those of the vanquished. Therefore, because of these non-military factors, it could have been predicted that for instance, in the American Civil War, the north would prevail, and that in both the world wars of the twentieth century, the allied powers would win. It follows that had the Soviet Union gone to war with the US, the Soviets, having the smaller economy and industrial capacity, would certainly have lost.

Think of all the hundreds of millions of people around the word who were killed and maimed, or whose lives were otherwise destroyed, who needn’t have been, if only their leaders had known that the outcomes of the wars they were planning were fore-ordained because of the decisive non-military factors that Paul Kennedy later discovered.

Do I hear the sounds of sobbing?

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Harold Macmillan

On November 11th, 2005 it will be eighty-seven years to the day when Germany and the allied powers signed the armistice that ended World War 1, the Great War, The-War-To-End-All- Wars.

From the viewpoint of the ordinary foot soldier it was the most terrible of wars, for, if he went into the trenches at the war’s beginning in August 1914, his chances of emerging alive at its end in November 1918 were, to all intents and purposes, nil. This war wiped out almost an entire generation of young men in Britain, France, and Germany, who were poured into the trenches like molten steel into a vat.

But not all the soldiers of 1914 died. A relative handful did survive, if only because, while in the trenches, they were wounded, and so could spend time in the safety of a hospital – an interval when a bomb or bullet may otherwise have killed them

Harold Macmillan was one of the few young men of 1914 fortunate to emerge alive. In later life he became one of the best known of British prime ministers. He was a scion of the Macmillan family which founded the renowned book publishing house of Macmillan - the family which the book, “The Macmillans”, by Richard Davenport-Hines, tells about.

But I want to talk only of what the book says about Harold, the most famous of the Macmillans. He was born in 1894 and, as a boy, was much influenced by his domineering American-born mother, Nellie. Harold went to Eton where he was dreadfully unhappy, so that he was mysteriously removed from there after a couple of years. He completed school elsewhere, then studied classics at Oxford.

When the guns of August 1914 began firing, Harold joined up, became a subaltern, and soon found himself in France, in the trenches which stretched like a hideous gash across much of Europe. He was wounded severely and, while lying in a shell-hole waiting for help, he pulled a copy of Aeschylus’s play ‘Prometheus’ from his back pocket to read during the long wait for a rescue party. So severe were Harold’s wounds that he didn’t recover from them until 1921.

The Great War was the defining experience of Harold’s life. The brutality of life in the trenches was particularly traumatic for the shy bookish Harold, who epitomised the entire generation of young men who came of age in 1914 and were slaughtered. That Harold survived was a miracle, and so, like all the survivors of the carnage, he had many friends and acquaintances who never came back. The list of his Eton and Oxford contemporaries who perished was so long, it read like a veritable necrology.

Harold was moved profoundly by the letters ordinary soldiers under his command wrote home which, as an officer, he had to read and censor. Reading the letters enabled him to see how men of the labouring classes lived, thus making Harold more sensitive to the domestic and financial problems they had to confront. It was an experience that influenced his social policies when he achieved high office.

Harold Macmillan was also a superb actor, having a false self. His public persona was that of an unflappable English gentleman, but inside he was anything but. He suffered nervous breakdowns more than once in his life. Indeed, a nervous breakdown in the form of a panic attack may have been the cause of the famous “Night of the Long Knives” when, as prime minister, Harold fired nearly half his cabinet in the course of one evening.

Given all he went through at the various stages of his life, we shouldn’t wonder that Harold Macmillan developed a false self. It was as good a way as any to deal with a domineering mother, with the horrors of the trenches of the Great War, with his severe shrapnel wounds, and with, later on, being cuckolded by his wife, who had an affair with Lord Boothby over many years, which Harold knew about but said nothing. Only someone with a false self could have been as servile as was Harold to his superiors when climbing up the political ladder, or as manipulative, or as ambitious.

Harold Macmillan may have been the most literate of British prime ministers over the last century, being always a voracious reader, although mostly of works written in the nineteenth century or earlier. Indeed, Harold was very much a nineteenth-century man, being the last British prime minister born in that century, when Britain’s power throughout the world was at its zenith. One could say, Tony Blair notwithstanding, that Harold Macmillan was the last British world statesman. He was, at any rate, the last of the Victorians, or could it be Edwardians?

Harold Macmillan’s legacy will always be shrouded by a cloud from the time, in 1945, when he had ministerial responsibility for the British army in occupied Europe. What did he know, and how much was he responsible for handing back to the tender hands of Stalin, at Stalin’s insistence, many thousands of ethnic Russians who, having escaped the prison that was Stalin’s Russia, and having fought the Germans, found themselves at war’s end herded, as displaced persons, into camps administered by the British army? On being forcibly repatriated to Russia, most of the internees were corralled into Stalin’s Gulag where most died. Harold Macmillan must have known about the repatriations, and so could have stopped them. But he chose not to see, as part of Britain’s policy of keeping Stalin happy.

Harold Macmillan became prime minister in 1957, when Britain’s relations with its former colony, the USA, were distinctly frosty. His immediate predecessor, Anthony Eden, had ordered British troops to seize and occupy the Suez Canal after Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser had nationalized it and sent its British owners packing. President Dwight Eisenhower, not seeing Britain’s precipitous action to be in the US’s interests, told the British to get the hell out of the Suez Canal or there would be, like, consequences. Britain, seeing on which side its bread was buttered, got the hell out. But Anthony Eden was, thereafter, politically dead meat, and so resigned to make way for Harold Macmillan.

Despite that the Suez Crisis was a reminder that Britain was no longer the big fish in the world’s pond it thought it was, the Britain over which Harold Macmillan began to preside was still somewhat of a big fish, still ruling over considerable swathes of Africa, dabs of the Caribbean, slivers of South America, and soupcons of Asia. However, Britain was trying to shed its empire as fast as it could, no longer having the appetite or wealth to rule it.

So Harold, despite being a product of the Britannia that still ruled the world’s waves, presided over much of the empire’s dismantling, having the sense of history to know that a three-hundred-year era had come to an end. He coined the phrase “The Winds of Change”, now in general circulation, which he incorporated in a famous speech he made to the South African parliament in 1960 during a visit there, a speech that didn’t sit well with that country's white rulers. But the prescience of Harold's speech, which said that the days of colonial white rule in Africa were numbered, was borne out over the subsequent two decades. When Harold went out to pasture in 1963, even the most jingoistic Briton could no longer cherish the illusion that his country was still a Great Power.

Harold Macmillan was British prime minister in the time I grew up in a small British colony in the tropics and was becoming interested in the goings-on in the big outside world. I remember, as if yesterday, avidly reading each day in the local newspaper the very latest revelations in the Profumo scandal that brought down Harold’s government. I remember, too, his visit to the little town where I lived, and listening on the radio (“the wireless”) to a speech Harold gave to some local dignitaries in the town hall, where he spoke for over an hour. He was most eloquent, and it was only after he finished that I realized he’d said nothing at all. It was my introduction to the art of speaking but saying nothing, an art in which Harold was a master.

“The past is another country, they do things differently there”, go the opening lines of LP Hartley’s novel “The Go-Between”. Harold Macmillan, too, came from the past, and, as such, was from another country. He seems light-years removed from our George Bush-Tony Blair present, but he left office only forty-something years ago.

He was prime minister a mere seven years, not even as long as for the hapless Tony Blair. But, somehow, Harold Macmillan’s reign seems to have been longer.