We don’t know yet what the televising of the conventions will do to American politics, to elections, to the convention system itself. Some of us fear what one good demagogue with a fine voice and a rousing profile might do to the tyranny of popular government…. The only time that I ever saw Adolf Hitler was at a big rally outside the Braunhaus in Munich in 1931. I was a student who had only just heard of him. I got jammed in there and I watched him and soon felt my heart begin to pound. He was – all morals, politics aside – a superb performer. When he got to his peroration, he ended on a practically meaningless sentence. He shouted, “It is five minutes to twelve.” Nobody knew in his head what Hitler meant. But they felt they had been slapped on the back and a sword put in their hands. Hitler paid a direct physical compliment to the nervous system. I had to fight my frightened way out over fainting women and cheering, sobbing men.

I was glad the next morning to sit down and see it in the newspaper and know that most Germans could sit back and read, and judge the speech unmoved, unseduced by the physical experience of the thing itself. The next Hitler will not suffer from this restraint. Cinerama is wonderful and I shall pursue every show they put on all over town. But I wonder, when the politicians get hold of it, what will be the future for what Edmund Burke said was the guardian of popular liberties, “the dignity of reflection”, when the show is over.

Alistair Cooke, This Is Cinerama, Letter from America, October 1952.


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Remind you of anyone? More fascinating satirical images of Il Duce here. HT @CurseandtheCure

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Good vibes, bad sound

A mixed bag at the Festival Hall. My review of the latest Transatlantic Sessions roadshow:

In the end the joie de vivre pouring forth on the stage made up for the oddly harsh sound mix. Amplification isn’t usually a problem at an annual hands-across-the-ocean concert that has become essential listening. Yet this time was different. In the first half, from my seat in the stalls, it was hard to decipher the contribution of every one of the guest singers.

Things improved after the interval, thankfully, and by the time the fiddler Aly Bain and his co-host, the genial American lap steel guitarist Jerry Douglas, brought the sprawling band back for a well-deserved encore, the Festival Hall had once again been turned into the snuggest of saloon bars. Part of the miracle of these shows is that, even with so many VIPs milling around, you feel as if you are one of the handful of revellers at a private party.

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Careers advice

Courtesy of Nigel Molesworth.

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The Nix, the hype

My Times review of the much-lauded debut novel from Nathan Hill:

Can a novel attract too much attention? That might sound like a foolish question in the age of digital distraction, when writers know they are competing with the cookbooks of the rich and famous and the latest celeb memoir. Who can blame publicists for shouting and tweeting as loudly as they can?

In the case of the debut from the 41-year-old American Nathan Hill, the cascade of superlatives tumbling across the Atlantic seems almost perverse. Any work of fiction would struggle to satisfy those expectations.

One of the elder statesmen of American letters, John Irving, joins in the chorus on the cover of The Nix, declaring: “Nathan Hill is a maestro, a maestro of being terrific.” In fact, the woolly second half of that sentence contains a clue to what is wrong with the book. Hill is simply trying too damned hard to be terrific. He is attempting to dazzle us with a panoramic, Franzen-esque chronicle of a Sixties-generation mother’s dysfunctional relationship with her son, a failed writer who whiles away his time as a jaded professor of English.

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Winter mist


The Thames near Cliveden.

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The most striking novelty of the American landscape today, to anyone who knows it pretty well, is a little box about as big as a prairie schoolhouse. These boxes are trim and white and you see them every thirty miles, as rhythmic as telegraph poles, as you cross the country, whether you go  by the south, the three middle routes, the two northern routes across 3,000 miles. They are the microwave repeater stations, that pick up and carry the television image into the laps of the next section of the people. The result last season was that the number of television sets in this country jumped from about 19 million to now over 30 million – that’s one set for every five people, or two sets for every three families, covering 252 stations. We used to think – and unhappily, the movie boys used to think – as late as three years ago that it would be years before people in the Rockies and the Sierras and the desert would have television.

Alistair Cooke, “Is US Television Killing the Movies?”: Letter From America, 10 June 1954.

Posted in Film, Technology, TV, Uncategorized | Tagged , , ,

Truth and lies

I have a feature in the Express on “Denial”, the compelling new film about the David Irving vs Deborah Lipstadt libel trial.

When Richard Rampton rose to deliver his opening statement he was blunt: “My Lord, Mr Irving calls himself an historian. The truth is, however, that he is not an historian at all but a falsifier of history. To put it bluntly, he is a liar.”

Denial shows how Lipstadt herself had major doubts about some parts of the strategy.Some potential Jewish donors to her campaign made it clear they thought the whole trial could only give Irving publicity. Not only did Julius not want her to testify he also refused to allow any Holocaust survivors on the witness stand. For Lipstadt the idea seemed almost perverse. Julius, though, insisted that it would be a mistake to give Irving – who was representing himself – a chance to ridicule or humiliate elderly survivors. In the end, Lipstadt agreed it was the right decision.

One of the characters I mention in passing is Fred Leuchter (he pronounces it “Loocher”, btw, not in the German style used in the film) the execution equipment manufacturer – yes, really –  who eventually became a minor celebrity in the Holocaust denial industry.  I interviewed him about his business many, many years ago, and still have the two pens he gave me as a memento.


Posted in Film, History, World War 2 | Tagged , , , , ,


Often, even in court, one had to pinch oneself to realize the enormity of the events we were discussing. Much of the time, however, merely to keep oneself from becoming uncontrollably angry, it was necessary to erect some kind of emotional curtain between the court proceedings and the death camps, to distance oneself from the horrors of Auschwitz and Treblinka… Before going into the witness box to be cross-examined by Irving, I had two pieces of sound advice which constituted in fact the only kind of coaching I received from the defence. “Remember, Richard,” said Anthony Julius, “you’re on the stand for two and a half hours without a break, so don’t take too many sips of water from the glass they give you; it would be embarrassing to have to ask the judge for a comfort break while you go to the loo.” I followed this as closely as I could, though the dry atmosphere of the air-conditioned courtroom obliged me to have frequent recourse to the water-glass all the same, and on or two occasions it was touch and go.

The other piece of advice was from Robert Jan Van Pelt, who went into the box before me. “Don’t look Irving in the eye,” he said, “it’ll just make you angry.”

Richard J. Evans, “Telling Lies About Hitler: The Holocaust, History and the David Irving Trial”.

Posted in History, Notebook, Uncategorized, World War 2 | Tagged , , , ,

How to fix the Internet

“For years, the benefits of anonymity on the net outweighed its drawbacks.” Not so now, says Walter Isaacson, who has a few ideas on how to deal with trolling, hacking and cyber-bullying.

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