I think I am right in claiming that this is my first ever contribution to the New Statesman in over 35 years of journalistic activity. I have, however, regularly applied for the editorship, along with my friend Auberon Waugh, whenever it was advertised. Hitherto neither of us has been successful.
The idea behind these applications was to expose to ridicule the impression given to gullible members of the public that the job was genuinely open to all comers. The same applies equally well to the BBC, which has just advertised a job vacancy for the post of director-general. According to the advertisement, candidates must have "top drawer" managerial and financial skills, personal resilience, not to mention some experience in "attracting and retaining creative people" (possibly a belated recognition by the BBC that under the present incumbent, Sir John Birt, a great many creative people have gone elsewhere).
Otherwise there is little recognition by the BBC, or those who write about it, that whoever takes over will have an almost impossible job trying to clean up the mess that Birt has made. Under Birt and his friend Chairman Bland (who will appoint the new DG), the programmes have been dumbed down to such an extent that there is now a large body of opinion in favour of the abolition of the licence fee. The new-look BBC is not much different from the commercial companies. This view is likely to catch on if Bland selects one of the dim grey-suited figures who are wheeled out regularly by the press as most likely to succeed. In the meantime, I shall wait to see how many firms offer Birt a job when he goes - in view of the fact that he has always insisted he needed his £350,000 salary in case he should be tempted to go elsewhere to earn even more.
Reviewing a new biography of Richard Strauss, a music critic wrote that he found it hard to acknowledge the greatness of his music on learning that his private domestic life had been entirely respectable. We still want the artist to be not just bohemian, but also a tormented and even unpleasant person. For it is a canon of contemporary criticism that you can combine a debased character with the capacity to produce great works of art. (Hence the ridiculously high reputation currently enjoyed by Francis Bacon, an artist who spent much of his time boozing in Soho, gambling or picking up rough trade.)
In what was probably the last of a flood of letters to the Times,Yehudi Menuhin complained, along with other musicians, about the distortion of the film Hilary and Jackie, a "factional account" of Jacqueline du Pre's final years with special emphasis on her sex life. Yet even Menuhin, widely revered throughout the world as an almost saintly figure, could not escape the same kind of treatment. Some years ago the film producer and disciple of Ken Russell, Tony Palmer, went to town on Menuhin with a TV film and subsequent biography, presenting the great musician as an emotional cripple, unable to play the violin because of his various hang-ups. According to Palmer, Menuhin was so shattered by the break-up of his first marriage and his visit to Belsen in 1945 that he lost control of his instrument.
Palmer repeated all this in an obituary of Menuhin in the Guardian last week, though he was not tasteless enough to repeat what he said in his book - that Menuhin had driven his first wife to an early grave. The point, apparently, was that all creative people "pay a terrific price to achieve what they do. And every composer or poet or painter is trying to tell us about that price with every note, every line, every stroke of the brush." This applied, in Palmer's view not only to Menuhin, but to his friend Sir Edward Elgar, who endured a "lifetime's anguish", anguish that he poured into his Violin Concerto (hitherto thought to be rather a serene, nostalgic work). For good measure, Palmer added that Menuhin's famous 1929 recording of the concerto is marred by a number of wrong notes - a flaw that has escaped the notice of the critics for 70 years.
American lady journalists are always a pleasure to meet. Another one, Judy Bachrach, flew into town last week, while working on a definitive if unauthorised biography of Tina Brown and her husband Harold Evans. How fitting that I should meet her in the upstairs room of the Coach and Horses, Greek Street, traditional setting for the Private Eye lunch. For it was here that the bubbly young Oxford undergraduate Tina Brown took an important step on her path to fame and fortune. Invited by Auberon Waugh (whom she had previously interviewed for Isis), Tina twinkled away, charming all the (mainly) middle-aged gents round the table. When she later wrote a witty account of the occasion in Isis, she was hailed as a child prodigy and never looked back, later becoming the uncrowned Queen of New York. Bachrach has a large notebook and diligently writes down everything she is told.
Another recent visitor to the Eye lunch who also carried a large notebook and wrote it all down was Kitty Kelley, then researching her book on the royals. Having finally read, and greatly enjoyed, the book (still not obtainable in this country), I was pleased to see that Private Eye is treated as the ultimate repository of truth. Thus on the disputed paternity of Prince Harry, Captain James Hewitt has denied all the rumours on the grounds that the dates don't fit. But in her book Kelley quotes the Eye as her ultimate authority: "Hewitt first met Diana five years earlier than the captain claimed, at a polo match in 1981."
How nice of these American journalists to take Private Eye so very seriously.