Book review: The Cold War by Norman Friedman

The Cold War: From the Iron Curtain to the Collapse of Communism. Published by: Carlton Books.

Nothing about the Cold War is simple. When, for example, did it start? Most people would say after the Second World War but a case could be made for saying it started as soon as Russia turned towards Bolshevism (that is, Communism) in 1917. Certainly the West was hostile to the new state from the outset, numerous powers attempting to crush it with a series of military interventions during the post-revolutionary Russian Civil War. But as the USSR was on the Allied side during the war with Hitler, most people view the Cold War as starting in the late 1940s, particularly after the USSR obtained nuclear weapons in 1949. This book does the same.

When did it end then? With the news of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989? (it was in fact demolished later). With the collapse of the USSR in 1991? Were there, in fact, two Cold Wars, the first ending with the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the second starting with the sharp decline in East-West relations following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979?

Indeed, with China, North Korea, Vietnam and Laos still Communist, could a case even be made for saying the Cold War is still on? Certainly, plenty of spying and intrigue still goes on and the world is hardly free of international tension particularly since the succession of President Trump in 2017. US defence spending is now far higher than it ever was during the official Cold War. This is essentially madness.

This thorough nicely illustrated and accessible account wisely restricts itself the key period, however, chronicling events from the botched aftermath of the Second World War, through to the Berlin Airlift, Marshall Plan, Korean War, nuclear confrontation, the space race, Detente and ultimately a largely peaceful resolution, mostly attributable to Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. It is well worth reading.

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Thirty years of Spitting Image

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John Major was entirely painted in grey. Home Secretary Kenneth Baker was a slug. Future Prime Minister Tony Blair was portrayed as a wayward child while Edwina Currie was a malevolent Cruella Deville figure. The puppet-based comedy Spitting Image first appeared on our screens thirty years ago in 1984 and ran until 1996. There had never been anything like it before and has been nothing like it on British TV since.  It made its mark on the times in a way that no other comedian, TV show or satirical cartoon of the time could ever have managed.

Perhaps it could only have started in 1984, a time when the forces of conservatism seemed perilously close to absolute victory. Margaret Thatcher, simultaneously the most loved and loathed Prime Minister of all time, had won a second landslide election victory the year before and was now taking on the miners, a battle she would ultimately win. The unions were in revolt, unemployment was sky high. People were angry and yet the Opposition which was split between Neil Kinnock’s Labour and the Liberal-SDP Alliance had never looked weaker.

There was something of a political comedy void too. Mike Yarwood, a huge star in the Seventies, was far too gentle (and troubled) an impressionist to continue through the Eighties. By 1984, his career was in freefall, perhaps partially because he was unable to convincingly “do” Margaret Thatcher. Yes Minister, meanwhile, was a brilliant political comedy, but it was set in a fictional and non-partisan political landscape (Jim Hacker was never identified as belonging to any existing party). Meanwhile, Not The Nine O Clock News which had lampooned many public figures during the early Eighties (while rarely actually impersonating them) had ended in 1982. Smith and Jones had begun their own largely non-political sketch show while Rowan Atkinson was now in Blackadder. NTNOCN producer John Lloyd would be instrumental in launching Spitting Image for the ITV franchise Central in 1984.

The project was hugely ambitious: it was the most expensive light entertainment show of the time. In retrospect, we should be less surprised that the results were patchy (and they were) than by the fact that Peter Fluck and Roger Law’s puppets were nearly always easily recognisable and that Spitting Image not only managed to be produced so close to transmission time (some scenes were even broadcast live) but that the show was so often on the mark, highly topical and frequently very funny.

Some public figures will be forever linked with their puppet counterparts. To some, Norman Tebbit will always be a leather jacketed yob, Michael Heseltine a swivel-eyed loon vocally denying any intention of standing against Thatcher for the Tory leadership while simultaneously wearing a sign saying “Vote for Heseltine” on his back while, for many, Kenneth Baker, as mentioned, will always be a slug on a leaf.

Some caricatures required less imagination,  however, with US president Ronald Reagan (voiced by Chris Barrie, later of Red Dwarf and The Brittas Empire fame) always portrayed as a moron, as in this fireside chat with Soviet premier Gorbachev (whose distinctive birthmark always took the form of a Soviet hammer and sickle):

Gorbachev: Ron, do you know what I see when I see when I look into those flames? I see our two nations living in peace and harmony… what do you see?

Reagan: I see a little doggy, a bunny wunny and a big hippo on a broomstick. Hell, this is fun!

Margaret Thatcher herself, meanwhile, was usually portrayed (rather sexistly) in a man’s suit (something which may actually have helped her image). John Major, her successor, initially appeared as a robot being secretly controlled by Thatcher before becoming the totally grey figure he is now remembered as, complementing wife Norma on her peas (“Very tasty”) while secretly nursing a childish crush on colleague Virginia Bottomley (prompting Major’s cabinet colleagues to taunt him by chanting “John loves Ginny!”).  Major’s earlier affair with Edwina Currie was, of course, at this stage not known to the general public or to Spitting Image’s writers.

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Currie, in fact, undeniably benefited from the publicity her puppet generated. She was, after all, a junior minister and never in the cabinet. How many junior ministers can you name today? This was not solely Spitting Image’s doing, but it surely helped. The same is true with Labour frontbencher Gerald Kaufman. He was never exactly a household name but got attention simply because Spitting Image claimed he went around saying creepy things such as (inexplicably) “sweaty palms”.

Others liked the attention less, though many like to pretend otherwise. Liberal leader David Steel  openly claimed that his image was harmed by the impression he was in SDP leader David Owen’s pocket. It is doubtful Roy Hattersley (who has a genuine speech impediment) enjoyed his depiction spluttering spit everywhere (notably spitting out the words “Spitting Image” during the title sequence) either.

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It wasn’t just the politicians, of course. The portrayal of the royals was always controversial. An early episode saw the Queen “christening” Prince Harry (who had an unflattering puppet from birth) by smashing a bottle against the side of his pram. Elsewhere,  Jeremy Paxman (one of the few figures still in the public eye both now and then) memorably began every broadcast with a sneering “yeeeeeeeeeeeeesss” while the late newsreader Alistair Burnett was seen as being in love with the Queen Mother. Rupert Murdoch, meanwhile, was seen as a crude figure constantly breaking wind while all journalists were routinely portrayed as pigs.

It had to end one day, of course, and in 1996, it did. Tony Blair was initially portrayed as a schoolboy because of his relative youth. He soon became a super hyperactive figure on becoming Labour leader in 1994. But while both he and successor Gordon Brown had puppets, the show didn’t get to see New Labour in power.

The programme never received much critical acclaim but effectively launched a thousand careers with Ian Hislop, Clive Anderson, John O’Farrell, Ben Elton and Red Dwarf’s Rob Grant and Doug Naylor (authors of The Chicken Song) amongst the numerous writers and Chris Barrie, Steve Coogan, Harry Enfield, John Sessions, Rory Bremner, John Culshaw, Alistair MacGowan, Steve Nallon and Hugh Dennis all amongst the vocal talent.

Could it happen today? Animated copycats like 2DTV and Headcases both proved failures although Round The Bend, almost a kids’ version of the show with puppets by Fluck and Law enjoyed some success in the Nineties.

But in the age of Boris Johnson and Nigel Forage perhaps we need a Spitting Image now more than ever?

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Is 76 too old to be Pope?

The new Pope Francis I is 76 years old.

Yes, that’s right. At the start of his tenure as Pope, he is already older than most people are when they retire. He is the ninth oldest Pope to have been elected since 1295. Would you be happy if your doctor, dentist, solicitor or bank manager was 76? Perhaps not. However, if you are Roman Catholic, you have no choice. He is now the head of the Church.

Let’s put things in perspective. Only three monarchs in the whole of British history have exceeded the age of 76,: Victoria, Elizabeth II our present  Queen and George III during his mad phase when his son ruled as Regent.

In elected situations, only one US president Ronald Reagan has exceeded 76 years while in office. He was arguably in the first stages of dementia when he left office aged 77 in 1989. In Britain, both William Gladstone and Winston Churchill ruled into their 80s. Both were great leaders, but both were past their best by this point.

Times have changed since the 81 year old Churchill faced the 72 year old Labour opponent Clem Attlee in the Commons in 1955. Leaders have got younger since then. Perhaps it is as well. Three PMs retired in a row on grounds of ill health in the fifties and sixties: Churchill in 1955, Eden in 1957 and Macmillan in 1963. All did live to a good age though (Macmillan and Churchill were both over 90 when they died) unlike Labour Opposition leader Hugh Gaitskell who died suddenly in his 50s in 1963.

Thereafter, leaders got younger. Harold Wilson may have looked portly and unglamourous next to President Kennedy when he visited him in 1963. But Wilson (born 1916) was actually only one year older than JFK. He was to be the youngest PM of the century so far when he entered Downing Street aged 48 in 1964.

Wilson retired aged 60 in 1976 and thereafter Labour leaders got older again. his successor Jim Callaghan, already prone to afternoon naps and stints on his rural farm, was 64  when he took over. Callaghan reportedly wanted to be succeeded by someone younger when he stood down in 1980 with Labour back in opposition. And, technically, he got his wish. Michael Foot was 67 and thus a full year younger than Callaghan. Indeed, Foot was two years younger than the dark haired charismatic Ronald Reagan who was elected president one month after  he became leader.

But Foot with his walking stick and long scruffy white hair seemed much older than his years. “Do you want this old fool to run Britain?” was the cruel Sun headline during the 1983 General Election. “Let’s kick Michael Foot’s stick away!” urged comedian Kenny Everett in front of an audience of cheering Young Conseravtives during the same campaign. Labour lost heavily.

It thus took until 1983 for Labour to elect a leader born after the end of the First World War. Perhaps overreacting slightly, they elected Neil Kinnock, a man of 41 with no cabinet experience. Kinnock never got to Downing Street either but the trend towards younger leaders has continued (with a few exceptions notably sixtysomethings Michael Howard for the Tories and Menzies Campbell for the Lib Dems) ever since.

John Major became the youngest Prime Minister of the 20th century, taking over at 47 in 1990. But his successor Tony Blair (who, like Kinnock, had become Labour leader at 41) was younger still in 1997. William Hague was only 36 when he became leader in 1997 and is widely seen as having peaked too early in this regard.

But Cameron was only 39 when he became Tory leader in 2005. He had no Cabinet experience at all and had barely been in parliament for four years. He was younger than Blair or Major had been when he succeeded to Downing Street. Today all three party leaders are in their 40s. George Osborne, the Chancellor is barely 40.

What does all this mean? Much was made, after all, of Tony Blair’s youth and inexperience in 1997. But, in practice, even his opponents would agree, he actually took to the job of being Prime Minister with far more ease than ostensibly more experienced souls like Callaghan and Eden had done.

Old age need not be a disadvantage either and it should be noted that the Queen continues to do her job very well. But the Papacy is starting to resemble the last days of the USSR with one elderly leader such as Brezhnev – who once famously addressed an audience of communists while facing in the wrong direction – being succeeded by another (Andropov) and then another (Chenenko) within a couple of years.

Happily, the Vatican is not a nuclear power. And it is worth remembering that the upshot of the succession of geriatric leaders in the USSR was that it eventually led to the appointment of a younger man Mikhail Gorbachev, a reformer who presided over the destruction of a corrupt and archaic regime.

Is it too much too hope that history might repeat itself?

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