Skip to content

Saving Squirrel Nutkin


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.

Ten portions a day? Yeah right…



Last night my wife and I enjoyed a delicious dinner consisting of baked plaice, carrots, cabbage, broccoli with cheese sauce and a single potato. Healthy, huh? Well maybe.

Except for the fish and the cabbage, everything was leftovers. No apologies for that. We had people over a couple of nights ago, and we don’t chuck out food if we can possibly help it.

But here are the downsides. The potato had been roasted in oil. The carrots were glazed with butter and a little sugar. And the cheese sauce was made from full-fat cheddar. All of which the nutritional Nazis would probably claim negated the benefit of the three – possibly four if you include the spud – portions of fruit and veg we consumed.

Still, in the morning I had a banana halfway through a round of golf. So using the widest interpretation of “five a day”, I hit the target. All the ingredients were fresh – nothing frozen. However, if I’d consulted one of the gauleiters of the gut, I know in my heart that I would have been found wanting.

And now comes advice from University College London that I should really ramp up my consumption of plant products to ten portions a day. If, that is, I want to live a long life free of heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

All things considered, I propose to ignore that advice.

If I lived in a society that was custom-built so that the elderly could live a decent and fulfilling life without having to be as rich as Croesus, I might reconsider.

But I don’t, so I won’t.

As things stand, there are innumerable other factors that contribute to a less-than-optimal lifespan. Pollution, pesticides, stress, loneliness, alcohol abuse, worry about the future and a sense of bitterness for reasons real or imagined at aspects of society over which we have no control.

And should we be “lucky” enough to make it into our ninth or tenth decades, many of us can look forward to aches and pains, drugs and operations, being accused of bed-blocking in an underfunded health service and spending endless years parked in a care home staring into space as we descend into dementia.

If we can fix all the other factors that cause us to keel over before our time, or leave us meandering without purpose or enjoyment through protracted old age, then maybe, just maybe, I would spend much of my day stuffing myself with raw carrots, quinoa, and endless plates of fresh fruit salad.

Until then, I shall continue to eat just as much fruit and veg as suits me on a given day, as well as all the other stuff that’s more likely to send me to an early grave. Nor will I measure calories or buy myself a step counter.

And if thereby I can avoid the dreaded seventh age of man described by Shakespeare as “second childishness and mere oblivion/Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”, so much the better.

I reserve the right to change my mind when the end approaches, but right now, I’d rather have a relatively short but sweet life than a long sour one.

The collective presidency – Trump’s accidental innovation?


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.

Alzheimer’s – which of us is heading for the sunset, and do we want to know? Depends on who we are…


The Guardian has an interesting report on the latest Alzheimer’s research. According to psychologists from a renowned Massachusetts medical institute, “rambling and long-winded anecdotes” and “worsening mental imprecision” are early signs of dementia.

The researchers analysed the work of novelists Iris Murdoch and Agatha Christie, and found significant changes in the language they used in their later books. They also looked at transcripts from Ronald Reagan’s press conferences:

“Ronald Reagan started to have a decline in the number of unique words with repetitions of statements over time,” said Sherman. “[He] started using more fillers, more empty phrases, like ‘thing’ or ‘something’ or things like ‘basically’ or ‘actually’ or ‘well’.”

His successor, George Bush the Elder, showed no such impairment at a similar age.

That Reagan’s descent towards dementia was evident in the last years of his presidency comes as no surprise to those of us who remember his hesitant press conferences as the Iran/Contra affair unfolded. Given that he was seventy-eight when he left office, you would have expected his faculties to have become somewhat autumnal. On the other hand, try telling the 93-year old Henry Kissinger that his intellectual powers are on the wane.

So here’s the thing. Dementia doesn’t deal an even hand. It can hit you at any age, though more frequently when you enter your eighth decade. Harold Wilson resigned as British Prime Minister at sixty. He is said to have been concerned about his declining cognitive powers, and subsequently developed Alzheimer’s. Donald Trump is seventy, the same age as Reagan when The Gipper first came to the White House.

In his recent press conference, Trump lurched from subject to subject, free-associating with gay abandon. As for empty phrases and fillers, do “great”, “sad”, “loser” and “failed” qualify? I guess we’ll have to leave it to the shrinks to figure out whether he too shows signs of pre-dementia.

Given his frequent bizarre logic leaps, it’s scary to think that he’s only at the start of his term, not nearing the end as Reagan was when his decline became evident. Even if it turns out that Trump shows no sign of incipient dementia, it’s hardly likely that at his age he’s at the peak of his mental powers.

If Paul Flynn – the 83-year-old British MP – is right in his description of the President’s intellectual capacity as “protozoan”, it seems likely that increasingly over the next four years, others will need to do his thinking for him. People like Steve Bannon, for example.

But enough of this scurrilous and disrespectful nonsense – Alzheimer’s is no joking matter. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. What’s more, Flynn is mistaken. Trump is far smarter than the average protozoa. He even knows where Sweden is – which is more than can perhaps be said for some of his supporters. And he has great words.

Fortunately for those of us who are paid-up members of the Ramblers’ Club, the Massachusetts researchers point out that a tendency to digress is not necessarily evidence of incipient dementia. What is significant is whether our manner of speaking and writing changes over time.

No problem for me then. When I was eleven, my head teacher described me as pompous. If he met me today, I’m sure he would say that I haven’t changed a bit. My wife would certainly concur. And as for long-winded – always have been and probably always will be.

The same went for my father. He was a lawyer. He was sharp as a pin up to the day he died. He was one of those rare people who spoke in paragraphs – rivers of speech delivered without a hint of hesitation, from which multiple, perfectly-ordered subordinate clauses cascaded. You might think he rambled, but only if you were brought up believing that three hundred words without a full stop are beyond the capacity of a human to understand.

I suppose it would be useful to know if one was about to tip into full-blown Alzheimer’s, though for most of us I can’t think why. Since every new wonder drug expected to reverse the decline seems to end in failure, there doesn’t seem much point in knowing ten years earlier that our eventual fate is an oblivion that can’t be prevented.

Unless, of course, we happen to be the President of the United States, and we are about to press the nuclear button when we think we’re telling the elevator to take us to the top of Trump Tower.

Pamphlets, polemics and the coming of RoboTrump


Max Headroom in his pomp

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.”

On Valentine’s Day – time to celebrate the marathon, not just the sprint


As my wife is well aware, I’m no fan of Valentine’s Day, though I fully understand the need of certain sectors of the economy to make a little money in these austerity-blighted times. She says she’s no keener than me on the annual love ritual.

I’m not sure though. Does she secretly yearn for the single red rose, the box of chocolates and the declaration – courtesy of Hallmark Cards – of undying love? If so, I’m afraid she’s been disappointed for most of our 30-odd years of marriage. But not in other ways, hopefully. And every year, I trot out the same corny mantra that every day with her is Valentine’s Day. She, to her great credit, pays me the courtesy of laughing. Or smacks me over the head.

And anyway, Valentine’s is about young love and sweet infatuation, isn’t it? Surely those of us who have been married for a while can come up with something far more meaningful – namely the celebration of an enduring union.

Yes, I know – that’s what wedding anniversaries are supposed to be all about. A year-round commercial opportunity, one could argue, and God forgive the hapless spouse who forgets the day.

But the difference between Valentine’s and anniversaries is that the former is a communal event, and the latter is something to be celebrated one-on-one. Unless the anniversary is one of those landmarks – a 25th or a 50th perhaps – nobody apart from the happy couple, not even their offspring, pays much attention unless they’re prompted. At least that’s largely been our experience.

So I sometimes wonder why we don’t have a day when we celebrate long marriages, complete with its own patron saint. Of endurance, or survival. Or maybe lost causes. If so, then everyone whose marriages last longer than the seductive blink of an eye would be able to celebrate together, just as young lovers do on Valentine’s. What would be the symbol? A cactus perhaps, or a new pair of slippers from Marks and Spencer.

I first got this idea when I acted as the warm-up man for an evening with John Gray, the author of  Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. He was talking about relationships, so I had to come up with some wheeze that transformed the audience into something more than recently re-animated corpses. Personally, I’ve always thought of myself as a native of Uranus (silly joke, I know) but lots of people in Bahrain had read Gray’s books and appeared to have bought into the theory, and there were about five hundred people at the gig.

So I asked everyone to stand up – always a good way to banish the lassitude. I then asked those who had been married for five years to sit down. That left half still standing. I repeated the exercise to eliminate those who had less than ten years under their belts. And so on until we reached thirty years. By that time there was a tiny handful of couples still on their feet. I then told the survivors to leave the room, since they didn’t need Grey’s help, before inviting everyone else to give the Darby and Joans a big round of applause. It went down a treat, and everyone was smiling when I introduced the great man.

The point is, these people were celebrating the success of their marriages as a group, and they had a lot of fun recognising the achievements of others who had stayed the course.

So what we need to do is co-opt the saint and name the day. We can thereby publicly appreciate the quieter joys of being together with another person. The ups and the downs. Their annoying habits. Our phenomenal reserves of patience and forbearance. Perhaps even the coming divorce, which could be made easier by the recognition that all those years were not wasted.

If this is a stupid suggestion from an undemonstrative Englishman, so be it. But I reckon that spending a day celebrating the denial of a living to divorce lawyers and providing a fresh injection of business to restaurants and cactus growers far outweighs the risk of overburdening our local hospitals with the consequences of over-exuberant mass celebrations of marital survival.

And it’s easy to fall in love, but far harder to stay with the same person for ten, twenty or thirty years. That’s worth celebrating, perhaps on a summer’s day rather than in the middle of (in Britain at least) a cold and miserable winter.

As for me, on this Valentine’s Day I and my loved one are in different countries. As has always been the case when we’re apart, I look forward to seeing her again. And I’m sure it’s the same for her.

It’s a feeling that’s far more precious than a bunch of flowers and a bottle of Prosecco. And I shall hold on to that thought as I brace myself for the inevitable questions about all the things I was supposed to do (but didn’t) while she was away. Only kidding dearest – can’t wait to have you back.

Amadeus and the Cult of Godless Virtue


The writer (centre) as Emperor Joseph in Amadeus, backstage – Jeddah 1985

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.

%d bloggers like this: