When I was working as a Russian linguist during the Cold war, the joke was that most Russians valued Pravda not for its news coverage, but because it served as good toilet paper during the endless shortages of the real thing. This value was enhanced by the prominence in each edition of a large photograph of the current glorious leader set amid his latest interminable speech. It might have been a joke to us, but it was actually true.
I was reminded of this while reading an interview with Helmut Schmidt (again… I can’t shake the man off). Asked about his experience of hunger during the war years, he says (roughly translated):
Yes, God knows I experienced hunger. It was during the war in Russia, but then particularly during the post-war years – the worst being a prisoner of war. The English had nothing to eat – they hadn’t reckoned on such huge numbers of prisoners of war. The only thing they had was loo paper. But, because we got nothing to eat, we didn’t need the paper.
I’m not quite sure how this relates to politics, but I have a feeling it does.
This week we have been subjected to the shameful farce about Lord Ashcroft and the evasion of Tory leaders in addressing legitimate questions from a legitimately concerned public and media. (‘Legitimate’ because Lord Ashcroft stands accused of buying the electorate in marginal seats by pouring money into the Conservative campaigns there.)
Then we had Gordon Brown appearing before the Chilcot Inquiry and dancing delicately between past loyalties and future power. No one will be satisfied with him whatever he says – and it comes as little surprise that the public seems to be voicing a hunger for some truth-telling in the face of an over-abundance of irrelevant or seemingly self-serving verbiage.
I wanted to reach for the tissue while listening to the various responses to the return of Jon Venables to prison, having breached the terms of his release on licence.I remain puzzled as to (a) why the public needs to know what he has now done, (b) how the public will benefit from such knowledge and (c) why we assume that such knowledge will contribute to the common good of society. I hear the scream for blood very clearly and I recognise the voyeurism that we both gorge on and get fed. But, I have heard no reasonable account of why we should know anything other than that the processes of law are being followed in the interests of society and Venables. (I understand the response of his mother, but are we to be consistent and let every victim of every crime shape the future of the criminal involved? Think through the consequences…)
So, I am not sure we are getting fed very well. But we are certainly getting through a lot of paper.