The Apollo spirit, Prince Harry’s bottom and banning Orwell

Before Neil Armstrong (who died on 25 August) set foot on the moon, science-fiction writers had often envisaged the first visit by human beings to another world. I do not think any of them expected that the event would be shown live on TV and that young men in Leytonstone, east London, where I then lived quietly and unfashionably, would rise from their beds to watch. Some of my contemporaries saw it as an outrageous waste and asked why we couldn’t expend similar resources on abolishing world poverty – but most of us took a more positive view.

To be sure, the Apollo programme was a cold war project, intended to broadcast the superiority of US technology and establish western control of space, which, it was vaguely imagined, might be strategically important in some future war. It was, however, a collective, state-sponsored endeavour and even in Britain we felt a kind of ownership of it. The astonishing feat of putting a man on the moon, we thought, might inspire humanity to overcome more earthly challenges. A Republican occupied the White House when Armstrong landed but the Democrats had set Apollo on its way, just as they had launched the Great Society (formerly the New Frontier) to eliminate poverty and racial disadvantage in America and the Peace Corps to ameliorate hunger, disease and ignorance in developing countries. We imagined the fight for a more just and peaceable world moving forward with humanity’s expansion into space. We expected men on Mars, package holidays on the moon and clean water throughout Africa, all well before the end of the century.

It all sounds preposterous now. But when governments have become so enfeebled and unambitious that they cannot begin to tackle global warming, economic slump and ever-widening inequality – or even collect much of the tax due to them – one yearns for a revival of the Apollo spirit.

Gospel according to George

The BBC is wrong to turn down the idea of erecting a statue of George Orwell outside its headquarters in central London. The corporation reportedly argues that, as he was left-wing, it would be seen as a partisan choice. Yet the point about Orwell is that his writings, like the Bible, can be plundered in support of any opinion you happen to hold.

When I edited this magazine, I once tried to ban citations of Orwell, pointing out to our contributors that he was a mere journalist – who, like most journalists, engaged his brain only spasmodically – and that an argument was not made stronger just because he seemed to agree with it. Quoting him, I suggested, was a device used by lazy writers who lacked evidence for their views. I abandoned the ban, mainly because I couldn’t observe it myself. You may have noticed he was quoted in this column in last week’s issue. Orwell wrote too many phrases that stick in the mind. As did the authors of the King James Bible.

On yer wheelchair

Keep a close watch on David Cameron and his fellow Tory ministers during the Paralympics. You may think that even Tories can see something incongruous, even obscene, about celebrating the feats of disabled athletes while cutting state support for those who are similarly afflicted. Not a bit of it. Cameron will argue – not perhaps in so many words but certainly by implication – that if Paralympic competitors can overcome adversity to achieve so much, anybody on disability benefits should at least stop being a “burden” on society, particularly if they are just suffering from a bad back. The Tory view, to adapt Norman Tebbit, is that disabled folk should power up their wheelchairs and look for work.

Particle inebriator

When journalists talk to people, they frequently ask, “Do you mind being quoted?” A media academic, interviewing me over lunch the other day, asked if I minded not being quoted. He explained that this was how social science tries to proceed. It wants to be like the physical sciences, achieving results that can be replicated. I was, for the purposes of his research, to be “a former editor” and my name or what I had edited was of no more relevance than whether a particle in a physics experiment was located in London or Manchester. Moreover, it should be possible for another researcher to interview me on another occasion and find me behaving in exactly the same way, just as would the physicist’s particle.

My interviewer kindly bought me lunch and quantities of wine. In the interests of experimental rigour, I shall demand similar generosity from any academic who wishes to interview me in future.

Windsor knees-up

Without going so far as the Sunday Times’s editorial – hilariously headed “The Sun’s brave lone stand for press freedom” – I support the decision to print photos of Prince Harry cavorting nude in Las Vegas. Those who demand privacy for royalty make a category error, like demanding human rights for cats. Members of the royal family have no role beyond providing public entertainment; apart from a certain facility with horses, they have no talents or skills to admire. Harry’s medieval ancestors, it is said, were required to perform before witnesses on their wedding night to ensure the marriage was properly consummated and the royal succession assured. I see no reason, therefore, why we humble subjects shouldn’t, if we so wish, look upon his bare bottom.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.