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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Good questions.

Good questions get brownie points. from me....I always appreciate good questions.....they are a spur to creative thinking....they take us out of the groove.....In fact I got into the habit latterly, when taking classes of central Asian civil servants, of starting each session by inviting the participants to pose questions about the subject of the "lecture" to which I then responded ex tempore. I then wrote the lecture up afterwards in the light of what followed....I learned a lot!!!

This post starts with the questions an Englishwoman called Lynn Barber has apparently been asking of famous people in British newspapers for more than thirty years - and then moves on to compare with other good interviewers I've noted in my life. The best, for me, has to be the psychiatrist Anthony Clare whose famous interviews of the 80s and 90s on BBC are, I have just discovered, now being rerun
“What do you spend your money on? Do you like buying stuff for others, or yourself? Do you resent paying income tax? What’s the most you’ve ever spent on a dress?
Who were you closest to as a child? 
How often do you phone your mum? 
What would you normally be doing at this moment, if you weren’t doing this? 
What do you do on your own in a hotel room? Why?”

Questions like this are what Lynn Barber uses to open up her celebrity interviews, and I think you can see why. They’re simple, direct, upfront and conversational, but also come at you from an angle. The article which drew my attention is a review of the book Barber has written but is unfortunately behind behind a pay-wall at the London Review of Books
Her questions are inquisitive and extrovert, bold and clever. The ensuing write-ups are stylish and often surprising, gossipy on the surface, precise and controlled underneath. Precise, controlled, and of course ‘unsparing’ – her own word:
‘If anyone else tells me what a lovely lad Rafa Nadal is I shall scream.’
‘Don’t ever make the mistake of underestimating Hilary Mantel.’ ‘I don’t want to give a cool appraisal of Jeremy Irons … I just want to boil him in oil.’
Richard Harris at the Savoy in 1990, ‘playing pocket billiards’ through his tracksuit bottoms.
Rafael Nadal in Rome in 2011, ‘lying on a massage table with his flies undone, affording me a good view of his Armani underpants – Armani being one of his many sponsors, natch.’

If this is what good interviewing is now about, beam me up Scottie! I want the 70s back – give me Oriana Fallaci any day. Chris Hitchens bade Fallaci a fond and eloquent farewell in 2006
With Oriana Fallaci's demise at 77 from a host of cancers, in September, in her beloved Florence, there also died something of the art of the interview. Her absolutely heroic period was that of the 1970s, probably the last chance we had of staving off the complete triumph of celebrity culture. Throughout that decade, she scoured the globe, badgering the famous and the powerful and the self-important until they agreed to talk with her, and then reducing them to human scale. Facing Colonel Qaddafi in Libya, she bluntly asked him, "Do you know you are so unloved and unliked?" And she didn't spare figures who enjoyed more general approval, either.
As a warm-up with Lech Walesa, she put Poland's leading anti-Communist at his ease by inquiring, "Has anyone ever told you that you resemble Stalin? I mean physically. Yes, same nose, same profile, same features, same moustache. And same height, I believe, same size."
People began to sneer and gossip, saying that Oriana was just a confrontational bitch who used her femininity to get results, and who goaded men into saying incriminating things. I remember having it whispered to me that she would leave the transcript of the answers untouched but rephrase her original questions so that they seemed more penetrating than they had really been. As it happens, I found an opportunity to check that last rumour. During her interview with President Makarios, of Cyprus, who was also a Greek Orthodox patriarch, she had asked him straight-out if he was over-fond of women, and more or less got him to admit that his silence in response to her direct questioning was a confession. 
Many Greek Cypriots of my acquaintance were scandalized, and quite certain that their beloved leader would never have spoken that way. I knew the old boy slightly, and took the chance to ask him if he had read the relevant chapter. "Oh yes," he said, with perfect gravity. "It is just as I remember it."
Occasionally, Oriana's interviews actually influenced history, or at the least the pace and rhythm of events. Interviewing Pakistan's leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto just after the war with India over Bangladesh, she induced him to say what he really thought of his opposite number in India, Mrs. Indira Gandhi ("a diligent drudge of a schoolgirl, a woman devoid of initiative and imagination.… She should have half her father's talent!"). Demanding a full copy of the text, Mrs. Gandhi thereupon declined to attend the proposed signing of a peace agreement with Pakistan.
Bhutto had to pursue Oriana, through a diplomatic envoy, all the way to Addis Ababa, to which she had journeyed to interview Emperor Haile Selassie. Bhutto's ambassador begged her to disown the Gandhi parts, and hysterically claimed that the lives of 600 million people were at stake if she did not. One of the hardest things to resist, for reporters and journalists, is the appeal to the world-shaking importance of their work and the need for them to be "responsible." Oriana declined to oblige, and Mr. Bhutto duly had to eat his plate of crow. Future "access" to the powerful meant absolutely nothing to her: she acted as if she had one chance to make the record and so did they.
Perhaps only one Western journalist ever managed to interview Ayatollah Khomeini twice. And from those long discussions we learned an enormous amount about the nature of the adamant theocracy that he was bent upon instituting. The second session was an achievement in itself, since Oriana had terminated the first one by wrenching off the all-enveloping chador she had been compelled to wear and calling it a "stupid, medieval rag."
She told me that after this moment of drama she had been taken aside by Khomeini's son, who confided in her that it had been the only time in his life that he had seen his father laugh. 
Do you really remember any recent interview with a major politician? Usually, the only thing that stands out in the mind is some stupid gaffe or piece of rambling incoherence. And if you go and check the original, it generally turns out that this was prompted by a dull or rambling question. Try reading the next transcript of a presidential "news conference," and see which makes you whimper more: the chief executive's train-wreck syntax or the lame and contrived promptings from the press.
 Oriana's questions were tautly phrased and persistent. She researched her subjects minutely before going to see them, and each one of her published transcripts was preceded by an essay of several pages in length concerning the politics and the mentality of the interviewee. She proceeded, as Jeeves used to phrase it, from an appreciation of "the psychology of the individual."
Thus, a provocative or impudent question from her would not be a vulgar attempt to shock but a well-timed challenge, usually after a lot of listening, and often taking the form of a statement. (To Yasser Arafat: "Conclusion: you don't at all want the peace that everyone is hoping for.") The commonest and easiest way of explaining the decay of interviewing is to attribute it to the short-term and showbiz values of TV. But there's no innate reason why this should be true.
At the dawn of the television age, John Freeman—a former cabinet minister and diplomat, and editor of the New Statesman—established an inquisitorial style probably borrowed in part from Ed Murrow, and provided astonishing glimpses of hitherto reclusive public figures like Evelyn Waugh.
Television allows points to be pressed and repeated: the BBC's Jeremy Paxman once put the same question a dozen times to a Tory politician who was being evasive. It also brought us the huge advantage of the close-up, which did immense damage to shifty types like Richard Nixon.

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