Tea with Queen Judi, bicycling in Amsterdam and hunting for WMDs with Hans Blix
Jon Snow's diary.
Monday, and I find Eriks Ešenvalds’s Passion and Resurrection still ringing in my ears from a phenomenal performance the night before. In the Georgian splendour of the Grosvenor Chapel, the Voce chamber choir had lifted the roof with this spectacular choral piece of 21st-century sorrow and joy, conducted by Suzi Digby, the Cambridge-based conductor and pianist.
Female conductors are rare; she is the match for any man I’ve ever seen on the conductor’s rostrum. Concise, certain, emotional and yet not extravagant, she has the capacity to get to the top, taking her choir with her. To be honest, when I discovered that the centrepiece of the concert was to be a major choral work by a 36-year-old Latvian composer resident at Trinity College, Cambridge, I feared the worst – something atonal, dark and brooding. Not a bit of it. The music was dramatic, melodic and exceptionally moving.
Midday on Tuesday. To the New Horizon Youth Centre near King’s Cross for our monthly meeting of the management council, which I chair. It’s a day centre for vulne - rable and homeless young people. We talk of finance and gangs – the former remains tough but survivable. As to the latter, “Not many gangs round here,” I venture. I come and go from the centre by bike, oblivious to the tensions in the streets around me.
The youth centre workers correct me. “We have one gang to the north, one to the south, and then there’s the Kilburn Crew out to the west.” Gangs are about identity, family even, for often deeply insecure, isolated youngsters who yearn for community and get it at the blade of a knife or worse.
That afternoon, I cycle over to the Noël Coward Theatre to interview Judi Dench, who is starring in her first post-Skyfall West End play – Peter and Alice. We squash our camera kit into the little rococo withdrawing room at the back of the theatre, all gold, blue and mirrored. Tricky to film without spotting one of the cameras in one of the mirrors. Dame Judi is an extraordinarily jolly yet formidable presence. At once apparently stern and then breaking out into a completely infectious laugh.
We get on like a house on fire as we discuss this real-life fantasy in which the “Alice” of Alice in Wonderland, at 80, meets the man who inspired Peter Pan, who is 30. Dame Judi is the most versatile and eclectic actress, game for any challenge. I suggest that if Danny Boyle were to make a film of his stunning opening of the Olympic Games, and should they need an old queen to chuck out of a helicopter, she’d be up for it. “Oh yes,” she chimes, “you bet!”
Hans’s solo mission
Wednesday. To the Frontline Club straight after the news, to chair a debate about lessons learned ten years after the invasion of Iraq.
I first visited the country in 1980 during the harrowing trench warfare that characterised the Iran/Iraq war in which a million people died. Twenty years later, we transmitted Channel 4 News from Baghdad for a week before the invasion. Even so late in the day, I could not believe anyone could be so stupid as to attempt to destabilise this incredibly complex entity. Yes, Saddam Hussein was a menace but he was an extremely contained one. A decade of RAF-led and UN-authorised no-fly surveillance had kept his regime in check.
No one who visited in those days could have been unaware of the secular fear with which he kept the competing religious factions at bay. My conviction to this day is that almost no one in the US/UK cabal that did this thing knew anything much about the dangerous differences between Sunnis and Shias. I remember, too, the pathetic experience of chasing around after the UN’s chief weapons inspector Hans Blix. MI6 and the CIA kept calling up with new locations for Saddam’s “WMDs”. We would rush to a farm or a factory and find nothing – only to hear Blix’s large mobile wailing again with another location.
Two wheels better
Friday, and I’m on the 6.35am KLM flight to Amsterdam for a conference, staged by the Dutch state-owned broadcaster NTR, about the future of journalism. I speak optimistically – perceiving the digital multi-platform age as heralding a golden age of journalism. But perhaps I am boosted by Amsterdam itself.
We are located beside one of the city’s great canals, just 200 metres from the house in which Anne Frank hid with her family during the war before she was transported to Auschwitz, to die just a month before liberation. I see that the queue of visitors winds round the back of her house and I am sure the wait will be too long.
But in the break before our conference supper, when the bitter wind-chill factor has peaked at -15°C, I sneak out to the queue, still 80 people deep. Finally, after only 20 minutes, I am in the downstairs warmth of the Anne Frank Museum, neatly structured beneath the attic rooms she and her family hid in. The narrow wooden steps lead up to the very bookcase that disguised the entrance to their bolt-hole.
As I wander through the stark, dark, unfurnished rooms, I think how Anne’s diary moved my daughters as deeply as it had moved me. It is perhaps the strongest literary narrative between us.
Outside, I am overwhelmed by the Dutch brilliance that has conjured Amsterdam’s urban transit system. Tram, car, bike, foot, all wending their separated ways. We in Britain are nowhere, yet bikes are everywhere in ever greater numbers.
As we pine for infrastructure, for jobs and for the groundwork that will provide the foundations for our new tomorrow – why can’t we get to it? Get the private car out of town, let the buses roll, and get the people on to their bikes and on to their feet. We shall live longer, happier, less overweight lives, respecting each other, instead of trying to carve each other up.
Jon Snow is the lead presenter of “Channel 4 News” For details on the New Horizon centre, visit: nhyouthcentre.org.uk