I admire Prince Charles, the heir to Britain’s the throne, for his support of environmental causes, his views on architecture and his monumental patience in waiting for his accession. Unfortunately I can’t muster up much enthusiasm for his latest initiative.
His Royal Highness doesn’t like grey squirrels. The little creatures that dart here and there at the bottom of my garden belong to an invasive species. They strip bark from broad-leaf trees, making the trees vulnerable to pests and parasites. They carry a nasty virus that they transmit to our native red squirrels. As a result there are 3.5 million of them, and only about 170,000 red ones still hanging in there around remote parts of the country.
They were first introduced from America to the United Kingdom by Victorian landowners, who little anticipated the consequences. The same landowners who brought rhododendron plants from the hills of the Himalayas – another species that dominates my back yard in leafy Surrey. Nature’s way of paying us back for our nefarious colonising, you might think.
The plan that Prince Charles is endorsing is to build thousands of little traps full of Nutella laced with a contraceptive. The squirrels will not die. They will merely stop reproducing. In five years, according to the government boffins who have come up with this chemical condom, the population will decline by 90 per cent.
Certainly that would be a more benign method of reducing the grey squirrel population than previous efforts to dissolve their innards with warfarin. And definitely less creepy than the suggestion I once received from a council worker who came to our home to advise us how to get rid of a squirrel that had burrowed its way into our attic and was busy chewing cables. He suggested I buy an air rifle and take pot shots at the little bugger when it appeared on the rooftop.
Leaving aside the thought that for some members of the population, buying up air rifles to kill small animals might become an addictive pleasure not confined to the slaughtering of squirrels, I can’t help thinking that we’ve been here before.
Aren’t we just a little guilty of moral hypocrisy when we talk about a “kind” way of reducing populations? Kind, as in China’s one-child policy, Indira Ghandi’s sterilisation programme and, horror of horrors, Hitler’s forced sterilisation of physical and mental defectives?
Unless you’re a fervent animal rights activist, you’d probably say no – human life is sacred. Wiping out a few million vermin is not the same. You would definitely take that view if you believed that as the top species, everything on the planet – beast, plant or microbe – is there for our sustenance, use and enjoyment. If it’s OK to clear a field of weeds so that we can cultivate wheat, how can it be wrong to get rid of a few million grey squirrels so that our broad-leaved trees can continue to decorate our countryside, and we can enjoy the sight of cuddly Squirrel Nutkin regaining his old habitat?
But I’m still not convinced. After 90% of the greys have taken their medicine and died of old age without further offspring, what then? The wheat field, if unattended, quickly regains its weeds. Do we keep lashing out the Nutella until the squirrels finally disappear? I doubt if that final solution will come to pass. Even if a small enclave remains, you can be sure they will go forth and multiply. Also, can we be sure that Nutkin will return? What if something even more destructive than the grey squirrel moves in to fill the vacuum?
I fear that the damage is done. The greys are with us for ever. Just as the snapping turtle has invaded Italy and Asian carp have made it to the Great Lakes after decades of effort to stop them, the squirrels have reconfigured the environment.
Much as I understand a desire to reset the clock to an age when Nutkin roamed freely, for me it’s a foolish aspiration. Almost as foolish as the desire to recreate a Britain without the current crop of human immigrants. How far back do we go? Do we look to restore our wildlife population to where it was in the days of industrial grime – the last time the reds had ascendancy, or way back to the Ice Age, when mammoths roamed through Godalming? Same goes for the humans, for that matter.
I’d far rather we spent the money protecting our trees against the parasites that are killing them, and helping more endangered species to survive and thrive without destroying competitors.
We should rejoice in the miraculous dexterity of our squirrels, enjoy the glorious flowering of our rhododendrons and welcome the ridiculous loquacity of our green parakeets.
We should also treasure the hard-working, courteous immigrants who contribute so much to our economy and enrich our culture. Biodiversity should not be confined to the animal kingdom.
As for the poor old squirrels, the damage they cause is but a zillionth of the devastation we humans have wreaked since the industrial revolution. Perhaps we should be considering liberal doses of Nutella ourselves.
And anyway, did the greys destroy their original habitat? Try visiting the United States to find out. If you’re allowed in, that is.
A quick thought about Trump.
The man is a ground-breaker in many ways – in his nastiness, his cavalier approach to the truth, his way of communicating and his constant self-contradiction.
His apologists tried to convince us before the election that his trash talking was just campaign tactics, and that he would become dignified and measured on taking office. They were wrong. What you saw then is what you get now – for better or for worse.
But here’s the odd thing. His most critical appointees – Mattis at Defense, Tillerson at State and now McMaster at the National Security Council – all appear sane, sensible and capable individuals.
Mattis in particular has not been afraid to deviate from the Trump line – especially on NATO. McMaster has a reputation for telling his bosses what he thinks they need to hear, rather than what they want to hear. None of them appear to share Trump’s rose-tinted affection for Vladimir Putin. Their hand is strengthened by the reality that Trump cannot afford to lose another senior appointee.
Are we looking at an entirely new style of presidency, wherein Trump continues to behave like a man running for election, and his senior cabinet members – with the support and connivance of Mike Pence – get on with the business of government despite him, rather than because of him?
In other words, a collective presidency – government by cabinet – while the man himself rants and raves in a bubble of sycophancy in the White House?
Whatever one thinks of the policies, a degree of consistency and coherence applied by his less ideological team members is surely more to be desired than Steve Bannon’s destructive testing of the world order, and the chaotic leadership Trump has shown thus far.
If this is the future of the Trump presidency, it would be truly ground-breaking. It might even give him a decent chance of making it to 2020 without being kicked out of office.
The other day I read somewhere that the legal profession is being transformed by artificial intelligence. No need for paralegals to spend hours assembling contracts and other legal documents from reams of boilerplate. Computers can do that for you in a fraction of the time.
Is this also the future of political writing? Is the writing on the wall for speech-writers, spin doctors and political journalists?
Even before AI has its evil way, long-form political writing is becoming a rarity.
Whatever you might think about Tony Blair – and I have a lot of time for him despite the Iraq debacle – these days it’s rare to see a political figure writing five thousand words on any subject. I’m not sure whether all the words in his Brexit speech were his, though the sentiments clearly are. I share them.
And, by the way, I utterly reject Boris Johnson’s advice to “rise up and turn off the TV next time Tony Blair comes on with his condescending campaign”. Britain’s smug and blatherous Foreign Minister is the last person to be lecturing Blair on condescension.
Blair is not the only public figure to wax eloquently at some length about a topic close to his heart. This week, Mark Zuckerberg published his “manifesto” on the future of Facebook. I have read both documents from start to finish. I’m not sure how many of Zuckerberg’s followers, or indeed those who take an interest in Tony Blair, will also have done so.
This is not to look down on those who like their current affairs in no more than thousand-word chunks. That’s what we’ve come to expect. Stuff that is any longer tends to be lumped under the category of “long reads”. You can still find lengthy pieces written by journalists – in Vanity Fair, for example. But let’s face it, they’re minority fare.
Out of the current crop of British politicians, I’m not sure if you would find many capable of writing five thousand words. Even if they could, it’s unlikely that they would consider such extended writing a worthwhile use of their time. Johnson and Michael Gove perhaps; both are journalists by trade. Theresa May? Philip Hammond? Jeremy Corbyn? I very much doubt it. Across the pond, it’s questionable whether Donald Trump would be able to concentrate on a single subject long enough to write five hundred words.
To be fair, politicians don’t need to put pen to paper. They have speech writers and article writers on their staffs.
Would any of them be capable of writing an eleven-page essay on the possibility of alien life, as Winston Churchill did in 1939? Maybe not. He earned his corn as a writer, and was a man of immense curiosity. Unlike the current crop, who, as Blair suggests, seem to be focused on one subject – Brexit – to the exclusion of all else. Or, in America, whose Trumpian obsession is the threat to national security.
In Churchill’s time, you would most likely find any number of politicians able to write polemics at least as long and eloquent as Blair’s. The political pamphlet was a tradition sired by the invention of the printing press five hundred years earlier. But that’s not the modern way. Trump is determined to bypass the media and continue appealing directly to the voters via TV, and the online media, especially Twitter. About the only people who write at length on matters of public interest – other than civil servants and journalists with “failing” publications – are judges. And very few of us take the trouble to read their judgements. We rely on the media to summarise them for us. To be told, in other words, that they are enemies of the people.
Which takes us back to the question of whether we are approaching a time when political journalists, campaigners and speech writers will soon become redundant. Are we approaching the point at which most political writing is generated by artificial intelligence?
Unlikely? I’m not so sure.
Let’s say we have access to a giant database of every political speeches delivered by a prominent politician anywhere in the world over the past two hundred years. By no means impossible. The same goes for the millions of words written by journalists and other political thinkers during the same period. Not so unlikely. Google and others are in the process of digitising almost everything that’s ever been written.
So we have the raw materials. Now we need the factory. A software engine that builds customised opinion.
To create our message we set parameters. What style of delivery do we want? Populist? Cerebral? Aimed at what demographic group? Is there a speaker whose style we might want to emulate? Lincoln? Hitler? John F Kennedy? Boris Johnson (God forbid)?
And then there are the issues we want to address. Let’s say we select “Is Russia a threat to to the West?”. Our software looks for everything said about the subjects and selects words and phrases that are relevant to the subject and support our views. We pre-set our position according to a five-point scale: strongly against, against, indifferent, in favour and strongly in favour.
The software has already learned our writing style – our typical sentence construction and our favourite turns of phrase. We can set the draft to “my style”, “Lincoln’s style”, “Obama’s style” and so on. If we want to lift whole passages from someone else’s writing, we can select “quote” or “paraphrase”.
Perhaps we want to make a joke or some humorous reference. No problem. We simply go to the settings and select “racist”, “sexist”,” literary”, “religious”, “W.C Fields”, “Jack Benny”, “Bernard Manning” or any other mode to suit your taste.
Finally, we set the length of the speech or the article. Artificial intelligence does the rest.
And there we have it. No need for an expensive writer to slip in references to enemies of the people at the drop of a judge’s wig. No need to find some hack to ask not what your country can do for you. Just get Google or a similar entity to dip into the vast cauldron of digital verbiage that’s already out there and assemble the perfect speech or op-ed. Well, if not perfect, then at least 90% of the way there, and ready to be polished into the final product.
Some tasks might be more challenging than others. It would probably test the full capacity of IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer to emulate a Donald Trump speech – the great leader free associates from one subject to another with dazzling unpredictability.
But I imagine that future versions of the software could incorporate an insanity setting that would incorporate whatever personality disorder Mr Trump suffers from. And if a computer can create jazz, it can do Trump.
There would remain the problem of the receiver struggling to digest five thousand words of computer-generated blather. But just as our phones turn voice to bytes and back to voice again, we will – again courtesy of Google – be able to decode the blather back into small messages that we can understand. Even better, we should be able to apply receiver settings according to our own beliefs. As in “Trump = fascist, racist, bad, pussy-grabbing”, or “Tony Blair = liar, warmonger, has-been”. Or even “New York Times = failed, fake news”.
No need to think for ourselves, then. The receiving software fashions the incoming data according to what we want to hear.
The implication, of course, is that because we will quickly come to realise that computers are doing the writing for people, we might stop believing anything anyone says unless we see the person saying it on Fox News. Even then – if a newspaper can mistakenly print a picture of Alec Baldwin instead of Trump – surely with all our Hollywood digital wizardry, we’re not far off from being potentially taken in by an entirely credible RoboTrump. Anyone remember the fabled Max Headroom from thirty years ago? We’re entering the age not just of fake news, but of fake politicians.
Which leads us to a future that perhaps we are not anticipating. Not robots so smart that they work together to eliminate humanity. Instead, robots trained by their human masters, beating the crap out of other robots. What is truth? It’s what you tell the robot you want it to be.
In March 1927, the well-meaning founders of the British Broadcasting Corporation gave the organisation a motto: “Nation shall speak peace unto Nation”.
Since we seem to be heading towards a world in which nothing is believed unless it’s on the internet, perhaps we need to create a motto for the new arbiter of fact and opinion:
“Robot shall speak rubbish unto Robot.”
I mean no disrespect to those who live virtuous lives according to their religious beliefs. But in these idolatrous times, I suspect that just as many people subscribe to concepts of virtue that may have their roots in religion but as far as they’re concerned have nothing to do with God.
Godless virtue goes like this:
My body is a temple. I eat the right things, go to the gym five days a week, don’t smoke, drink very little alcohol, don’t sleep around and avoid shoving noxious chemicals up my nose. I will thereby increase my chances of living a long life.
My mind is my Holy of Holies. I study hard, get multiple degrees and devour self-improvement books. I set myself goals. I network, practice my soft skills and always keep my eyes open for the main chance. I seek the material rewards of success, and achieve a measure of personal fulfilment. Thereby I succeed in my chosen path, and because I treat my body as a temple, the path is long and happy.
I don’t do God. My priests are secular: the health columnists of the newspapers, the lifestyle gurus of Instagram. They, and the peer pressure of my fellow gym bunnies, cyclists and shiatsu fans, keep me on the straight and righteous path. It’s all about me. I, as my parents and peers encouraged me to believe, am the centre of the universe.
And then, as I plod along as a fully paid-up member of the Cult of Godless Virtue, bang! Along comes a Maradona, a Steve Jobs, an Oscar Wilde. Someone who does everything the wrong way, wrecks body, mind or both, yet achieves things that make them immortal. Things that I aspired to, but are far beyond my limited capabilities.
I spit, I curse, I howl with frustration, disappointment and envy. How can this idiot, this dysfunctional abomination, get to do all the things I can’t?
Right, I think. To hell with the Health Section of the Daily Mail, and with Weightlifting for Dummies. Enough of the half marathons, the meditation and the aromatherapy. You let me down. So from now onwards I’m going to live a life of excess, debauchery and emotional incontinence.
And blow me – my life of mediocrity continues regardless, and I live to a ripe old age, although suffused with bitterness and anger. Nobody will remember me, while the truly talented have flamed out years ago. Their fame lives on, and I am one of life’s afterthoughts.
And that, in essence, is the story portrayed in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus.
Except that in the late 1700s there were no deals to be done with the humanistic priesthoods of wellness and self-development. There was only God. And in Amadeus, currently in revival at London’s National Theatre, Antonio Salieri, a composer of limited gifts, does his deal with Him. Make me rich and famous, give me the power of music, and I will serve you all my life.
But then, at the court of the Habsburg Emperor, where Salieri is comfortably ensconced, appears Mozart. A foul-mouthed freak whose music has a divine quality that Salieri can never match. So the devout Italian renounces his pact with God, and proceeds to destroy His dissolute instrument.
Schaffer’s play has Salieri in his dotage, decades after Mozart’s death, confessing to his part in the divine Wolfgang’s demise. A bitter old man, resigned to his tenuous place in history as a high priest of mediocrity.
I have a special relationship with the play. I saw it at the National on its first run in 1979, with Paul Scofield playing Salieri. A few years later I acted in a production in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in the role of the Emperor Joseph. I’m biased, but I still think that the performances of the actors who played Mozart and Salieri, Paul Jones and David Frontin, were equal to those of their professional counterparts.
Then came the movie, which earned F Murray Abraham (better known today as the cynical CIA careerist in Homeland) an Oscar for his Salieri. And now the National’s revival, with Lucian Msamati playing Mozart’s embittered rival.
Msamati is magnificent, every bit the equal of Scofield and Abraham. Adam Gillen as Mozart is less impressive than Simon Callow and Tom Hulce, his predecessors. A bit shouty, lacking in light and shade. But his is a role with less scope to make his own. If you’ve seen the movie and previous stage productions, what you remember of Mozart is his silly laugh and his scatological humour, rather than his childlike passion and squalid ending. In Shaffer’s hands Mozart is a hysterical allegro, but Salieri is a symphony of malevolence.
That said, the production is a delight, with the thrilling musical set pieces of the original staging at the National. One feature that elevates it is the role of the black-clad musicians, who not only play their instruments but buzz around the action like avenging demons. They give a sense of movement to a drama that in less imaginative hands could be seen as a patchwork of dialogue and big operatic moments.
As for the Emperor Joseph, whose part I played, Tom Edden’s performance reminded me of warm nights in Jeddah, as passing aircraft stooped the actors in their tracks. And of Joseph’s standard conversation-stopper – “well, there it is!” – that I still use today.
When I read about David Beckham, that paragon of personal virtue, who never won a World Cup, cursing the powers that be for not giving him a knighthood. I think of Amadeus. When I think of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, whose fiery eclipse is yet to come, I think of Salieri and Mozart. Not an exact parallel, I admit, given Trump’s age, but at least I can probably claim the distinction of being the first person to compare The Donald to The Wolfgang.
Amadeus reminds us that the virtuous don’t always get their reward. And that undeserving shits so often surpass them.
These days, whether the devout like it or not, God isn’t perceived to be the only game in town.
Even if dissolute geniuses don’t implode before their time, and, like Keith Richards, defy the odds by reaching their natural spans, the only consolation for those who live long lives of mediocrity might seem to be the prospect of reward in the next life, and punishment for the wastrels. But for those who belong to the Cult of Godless Virtue, immune from divine allegiance, no such comfort is to be found. So sad, as Trump might tweet.
Well, there it is.
PS: Amadeus runs at the National Theatre until March 18. Catch it if you can. If not, or if you’re reading this from Timbuctoo, the movie is still out there. It’s a classic.