Are traditional memoirs and diaries being swept away by social networking?

Now here’s an intriguing theory. Esteemed editor Ruth Winstone, who I vaguely know through her work on nine volumes of Tony Benn’s diaries, suggests that the end of an era is nigh, that the age of the political diary may be over. Winstone should know. She has also edited three volumes by the former Labour MP Chris Mullins. Her argument is that the instant communication of blogs and social networking has effectively replaced what used to be a reflective private activity.

Tony Benn: Photo Hattie Miles
Tony Benn: Photo Hattie Miles

I’m pleased to see that Peter Wilby, writing in The Guardian, disagrees, pointing out that political diaries tend to give a sense of history  behind the kind of scheming, plot or  knee-jerk reactions that  these days are so often the motivation/subject of politicians tweets. He has a point, but why single out political diaries? He implies that the same is not true of (mere?) memoirs. Surely it depends on the quality of both the writing and thinking as much as the actual subject matter. For example no one expects Cheryl Tweedy’s autobiography to contain an analysis of  the changing soci0-demographic structure of the North East in the wake of  the decline of the mining and shipbuilding industries but I’m guessing that the fact that she is a product of that era means that, amid the tittle-tattle and fluff, there’s something of that in there. Weightier memoirs (diaries/biographies) can contain a great deal of background and context.

As for blogs and tweets? They are by their very nature of the moment, a platform for comment, reaction, whimsical thoughts and  maybe a little brow-beating. All could  have their place in a diary but once filtered through a process of reflection, and with hindsight, can be very different indeed. My feeling is that  traditional diaries, memoirs and biographies live on while social media provides another means of communication. All are valid and all will survive in some easily recognisable form.

Ironically Tony Benn is about to publish what he says is the final volume of his diaries. A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine even contains the subtitle The Last Diaries. Well he is 87-years-old but I wonder. The old political warhorse battles on. I suspect that that blaze of Autumn sunshine mentioned in the title might turn out to be an ongoing Indian summer.

Benn recently said that he gets immensely annoyed that people  think he’s mellowed with age. He hates being regarded as a harmless old gentleman saying: “I may be old and I may be a gentleman but I’m certainly not harmless.”

Benn first made big headlines back in the early 1960s when as Lord Stansgate he renounced his peerage so that he could sit in the House of Commons. He went on to become the Labour Party’s longest serving  MP and  was a minister in both the Wilson and Callaghan cabinets.  He resigned from Parliament more than a decade ago famously announcing that he was leaving Westminster to spend more time on politics. Nearly 12 years on he hits the road again on January 11th when he takes the first of a series of  An Evening with Tony Benn shows to the Braintree Theatre in Essex. He still seems to have plenty to say and no doubt plenty to write about.

Smoke, mirrors and worn out shoes – another journey across the great divide

We went to an incredibly smart dinner the other night (at someone else’s expense I’m delighted to say). It was a black-tie do. Country mansion, Michelin stars, five course banquet that kind of thing. I dug out my seldom worn dinner-jacket for the occasion. It looked incredibly suave. To complete the illusion I needed to add my most stylish black shoes. Sadly they had worn out long ago but, as luck would have it, were still to be found in residence at the bottom of my wardrobe. Polished to within an inch of their lives they looked the business even though the soles were completely worn through. Our table of six included a well known Tv presenter, one of the wealthiest women in the land , two concert pianists and us. We had a great time. I enjoyed talking to the multi-billionaire sitting on my left happy in the knowledge that she need never know that I was literally on my uppers.

Stamps of approval as Doctor Who celebrates 50 years of real-time

It looks as though 2013 is going to be THE year of Doctor Who. As the much loved BBC sci-fi adventure prepares for its 50th anniversary in November there are likely to be plenty of opportunities to celebrate our national love of the programme.

William Hartnell - the first Doctor Who
William Hartnell – the first Doctor Who

This will include a special issue of 11 new first class stamps each depicting an actor who has played the Doctor since the  Tardis first arrived on our screens in flickering black and white in 1963.

Back then the doctor was played by William Hartnell. Over the next 50 years in real time and countless millennia  in his Time Lordly travels, he has regenerated in the form of Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davidson, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McCann (in a one-off TV film), Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Matt Smith.

The stamps are due for release in March and will be accompanied by an issue of second class  stamps featuring some of the Doctor’s infamous intergalactic adversaries – The Daleks, the Cybermen, the Weeping Angels and the Ood. A special addition will be a collectors edition of five stamps portraying each of the four foes and the famous time-travelling police box, The Tardis.

Sadly there will be no zooming back in time to pick up these stamps at 1963 prices. They cost just 3d (in old money) back then.Today a first class stamp costs 60p.

Talking of time travelling… By a quirk of fate the very first episode of Doctor Who was broadcast on Saturday 23rd November 1963 and with impressive symmetry the 50th anniversary falls on a Saturday too. It’s so nice to get your co-ordinates right once in a while!

I’m not a Doctor Who obsessive myself but I know people who are. Inevitably my work as a journalist has also brought me into contact with several writers and actors who have impeccable  Galafrean connections. I remember talking to actor Julian Bleach when he was cast as the mad and mutilated Davros – the evil half-man, half-Dalek and  would-be destroyer of all that is good in universe. Just another role, he said, ideal to add to his growing CV alongside Frankenstein’s monster, and an evil circus master in Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood. Hadn’t he detected a theme developing?

Anyhow to cut a long story  short I phoned Bleach one day and got his dad, Jim, on the phone. I asked for his thoughts on watching his son battling to exert a vicious tyrannical hold over the universe? Jim simply sighed and replied: “Oh we’re used to it.” He also told me that Julian’s first public performance was at nursery school when he gave an impressive rendition of When Father Painted the Parlour as part of the end of term entertainment.  Somehow after that Davros just didn’t cut-it anymore in the behind the sofa stakes.

Meanwhile comedian and actor Toby Hadoke  actually created a touring show based on his devotion to the programme. It was called  Moths Ate My Doctor Who Scarf. Part memoir, part tribute and part stand-up, the production offered  observations that were both gently satirical and strangely touching as Hadoke charted the Doctor’s on-screen triumphs and disasters in parallel with his own journey from child to man.

Talking about the show, he reminded me that Doctor Who – famous and popular once more – spent the years betwixt Sylvester McCoy and Christopher Ecclestone in the TV wilderness. Throughout that deeply unfashionable period Hadoke kept the faith.  He told me that in the 1990s burglars broke into his flat and stole a broken guitar, a Bananarama single and half a jar of instant coffee but left his Doctor Who videos (now sought-after collectors items) untouched.

Was Hitchcock really the manipulative impotent control freak shown in this film?

Just watched The Girl, the BBC film which tramples all over film director Alfred Hitchcock’s towering reputation. It found  the master of suspense, played by Toby Jones, portrayed as a leering, impotent control freak bullying and sexually harassing his terrified  leading lady Tippi Hedren (Sienna Miller)  during the filming of  The Birds and Marnie in the early 1960s.

Was Hitch really the sexual predator shown in this production? Difficult and obsessive I can believe. Mean-minded and petulant over his refusal to release Hedren from her contract, perhaps. Hedren herself  has spoken of his manipulative behaviour. But the level of abuse implied in this HBO co-production beggars belief.

The drama, written by Gwyneth Hughes, was supposedly based on claims made by The Birds assistant director Jim Brown who died last year but Brown’s widow has already told British journalists that her late husband admired and respected Hitchcock and regarded him as a genius. She doesn’t believe he would ever have sullied the director’s name with such lurid allegations. So was The Girl an eye-opening drama full of true revelations or just another piece of cheap sensationalism?

Christmas chaos ding dongs merrily into our lives

Things can only get better! Christmas has been hijacked this year by a number of unexpected events, not least my 84-year-old father being diagnosed with cancer and having to spend nearly a week in hospital. First they built him up with steroids and then gave him a hefty dose of chemotherapy. He was kept him under observation for several days as they juggled the doses of the drugs that he’ll probably be taking for the rest of his life and then monitored the results.

Dad was finally allowed home at 6.00pm yesterday (Christmas Eve). This was the best gift possible for my 86-year-old mother, but will she/they cope? Incredibly independent, mentally sharp and decades younger in attitude than their octogenarian status would suggest, they have finally realised that they’re actually rather old and that physical frailty has, quite suddenly,  become a serious problem in their lives. Until a little over a week ago they regarded the vagaries of advancing years  as a mere inconvenience, at worst a nuisance.

Now they’ve been fast-tracked into the twilight zone, picked up by myriad systems – the NHS, Macmillan, district nurses and so on. All this has come as an almighty shock. A massive change of fortune triggered by dad’s discovery of a curious lump in his neck while shaving and the subsequent medical investigations that swung into action almost as soon as he had consulted his local GP. In the short-term poor dad faces at least five more sessions of chemo and a very uncertain future. We keep our fingers crossed!

On a much more trivial front we also suffered a bit of a domestic appliance disaster this morning when the new cooker that we took delivery of just three weeks ago  decided to have a nervous breakdown. Having worked like a dream since installation, the main oven chose today of all days to start only operating on slow-cook. Our splendid turkey has now been taken to a friend’s house and is currently gently roasting in an oven half-a-mile from our dinner table. Yikes! At least we were able to laugh. It might be a complete pain but when we think of the terrible things that happen to others – the sick, the homeless, the poverty-stricken and those in distress – we know we are very lucky indeed.

Footnote:  the turkey  eventually  returned from its travels wonderfully cooked.

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