Sunday, March 18, 2018

‘Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock’. Funny, then, how folk still try

I was at primary school in Britain, the Sacred Heart School, in Station Rd., Henley-on-Thames, which moved to Greys Hill, both in Henley-on-Thames, from September 1954 to June 1959. I can’t remember being taught any history there. In fact, I don’t think any primary school teaches history, except, of course, at the Dick and Dora level of ‘the Vikings were a ferocious, warlike people from the cold North who drank much mead and wore helmets with horns, even in bed’. After that it was a year at Steubenschule, in Berlin-Charlottenburg, just down the road from where we live in the Olympische Straße, then three years at Das Canisius Kolleg, in Berlin-Tiergarten.

If we were taught history at the Steubenschule, it must have passed me by, because I can’t remember any of it, and I do remember of history at Das Canisius Kolleg was that it was Ancient Roman history (though don’t hold me to that).

At The Oratory School, the Roman Catholic branch of Reading gaol and run by Her Majesty’s Department of Justice and Punishment in Woodcote, Oxfordshire, I arrived at 13, one of only two lads of my year’s intake of 42 who had not been to prep school (and who was thus wholly unprepared for the unmitigated discomforts which awaited me – cold showers, I can tell you, do not build your character, they are merely concrete evidence that most public schools would prefer to spend their cash on sherry, fine wines and a log fire in his study for the head than fuel for the boilers to keep the boys warm).

Crucially, they had all, I assume, been taught British history for several years and will have covered topics such as the Anglo-Saxon invasions of Britain, the invasions by the Vikings, William of Normandy’s grab for power, rule by his sons, Matilda and Terence (or was it Stephen? I can never remember) and the Plantagenets, because they weren’t half as baffled by lessons about Henry VII Star Court Chamber as I was. Baffled is putting it mildly, and this went on for a year, my first, in the fourth form. Then, when I began my second year, we all started the term by being asked whether we wanted to study ‘arts’ or ‘sciences’. ‘Arts’, Oratory School-style in the mid-1960s – it was not the paedagogic colossus it is now (at least according to its website and prospectus with its vague references, wholly unsubstantiated, that the Oratory is ‘the Catholic Eton’. Yeah, right) – consisted of Spanish, history and geography. ‘Sciences’ meant lessons in chemistry, physics and biology.

At 14, I equated chemistry with messing around with chemicals (and I was not entirely wrong on that matter), so I opted for ‘sciences’ without a word of advice or consultation from a parent, and that choice defined the course of the rest of my education. I have to say that studying chemistry, and in time coming across the concept of ‘entropy’, lead me to an interest in philosophy – I was rather taken with the possibility that you could discuss and debate ideas – but crucially there was no more history. There were a few brief history lectures in my first foundation year at Dundee University – there were, in fact, several history lectures a week for three terms, but I wisely very soon took to sleeping until noon, then idling away the afternoon in the students’ union coffee bar – so history played almost no part in my life until – well, there is no better way of putting it – I had grown up a little.

Our first year at Dundee was concluded with exams in all five foundation year subjects: methodology (a kind of philosophy for infants), pyschology, economics, political science and history, and as I had spent all year in bed, in the bar, in pubs, at parties and feeling sorry for myself, but had dedicated no time at all to my studies, I naturally failed all five. Those like me who failed were given a second chance at ‘resits’ and as far as I was concerned those resits were a lifeline. For one thing, and this frightened me more than anything else, dropping out of university would mean that I was to be obliged to forgo my grant cheque and ‘work for a living’, and I can’t stress just how much that put the fear of God in me. So I did something which to this day is for me a source of personal pride: as an achievement it might not rank up there with developing the Theory of Relativity or laying down your life for you country, but by Christ was I proud!

I didn’t go home that summer but stayed in Dundee and from scratch – and I mean from scratch - studiously learned the syllabus for each of the five subjects. And come the resit exams I passed four out of five. I missed out on psychology, but passed that at a second resit at the end of the Christmas term. My grant cheque was secured: three more years of ligging around at the state’s expense (or strictly the expense of Oxfordshire County Council). It was about this time that I discovered I was able to claim ‘travel expenses’. Why these, too, were being handed out I can’t even begin to guess, but claim them I did and very welcome, too, were the pounds which trickled into my bank account.

To sum up (a summing up which might please those who get rather fed up with my discursive style), until several years ago when I began to read up on history, all I knew was a few odd facts about Romulus and Remus - they were twins, brought up by a wolf and Romulus eventually murdered Remus - and that Henry VII (the father of Good King Hal/that murderous bastard Henry VIII) operated something called ‘the Star Court Chamber’ through whose offices he put the fear of God up pretty much everyone and then some, and kept the throne to which he was probably no even vaguely entitled.

By the way, I am no expert, but given what I know, I am far more inclined to the suggestion that Richard III wasn’t the nasty little bastard who stole the crown from his nephew, and that the story is most probably Tudor propaganda designed desperately to justify Henry VII own usurpation and the monarchys of his son and granddaughters. There is a related suggestion, which is quite plausible, that the princes in the Tower were not ordered by Richard but by Henry VII who knew that while they were alive, his position would always be insecure.

. . .

I can’t remember when I became far more interested in history, but I did. My subsequent autodidactic assault on the subject had nothing to do with ‘being ashamed’ of my lack of learning as my hang-ups lay elsewhere entirely. The fact was and is that I find history fascinating, though I am more one for reading of the actions and

behaviour of the men and women from history than the facts and figures. It is the psychology – I use the word in a more general sense – of historical figures and of their motives which interest me and how the affairs of state and not least the innocent deaths of tens of thousands might be a consequence of, for example, that so-and-so was a conceited, bone-headed fart who refused to take good advice ever.

Facts – the years when such-and-such took place – are important, yes, but broadly as far as I am concerned their purpose is to give context and to provide a framework with which the ever-growing body of historical knowledge you acquire can be ordered and kept comprehensible.

I am not too proud to admit that I am a minimalist when it comes to academic reading. My strategy is to get the bare bones in place and more and more of the flesh can come later as and when. So over the years I have read, taking a splatter-gun approach, slim volumes on the French Revolution, the Anglo-Saxons, the Normans, the Plantagenet, Treveleyans very, very, very useful and readable Shorter History of Something Or Other, the origins of the First World War – well, you get the picture.

A very honourable mention should go to the left-wing historian Howard Zinn’s A People’s History Of The United States, which had a curiously profound impact on my thinking and which made me realise that intellectually I am a socialist. That I am not one in practice is down to the rather mundane, though serious, point that here in Britain the Left is as adept at fucking things up as the Right is at feathering its own various nests. (NB I suspect that were I German and living in Germany I would now be supporting the SPD, the country’s social democrats, though they, too, are, like Labour here in Britain, are going through a rough patch.)

. . .

I’ve just spent a few minutes trying to track down the exact quote, and finally found it. It is from the one-time reporter, playwright and scriptwriter (The Front Page is probably known to you) Ben Hecht who observed that ‘Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock’. Well, I am not about to launch myself on another rant against the press, journalism and all

the rest. I tracked down that quote because it does neatly, though obliquely, sum up a modern dilemma – and by ‘modern’ I mean contemporary to whatever the age, from the dawn of time to now, 16.18 (4.18) on Sunday, March 18. We know what has happened in the past, but to be honest our understanding of what is happening now, whether that ‘now’ is today, this week, this month or this year, is patchy at best. We need perspective and information to understand what is going, events must be put into context and related to other events before we can truly claim to know our age. That is why Hecht’s observation is pertinent.

Today Vladimir Putin is standing for election in Russia and no one doubts the the whole shooting match is rigged and that Vlad will be re-elected as president. That is a fact, but what the consequences of his re-election will be are impossible to know, and it will be several years, or more probably decades before we – well, not me, but others – can know and evaluate.

Six days ago in China, The People’s National Congress abolished term limits on the presidency and vice-presidency which means that the country’s current president, Xi Jinping, can call the shots until he dies in office, decides to call it a day or is forcibly removed. As Xi will be 67 in two months time and as Chinese men and women seem to live remarkably long lives, he might well be calling the shots for another 15 to 20 years. Putin will be 68 later this year, and although the life expectancy of Russian males is just over 64, Putin is a teetotaller and so might expect might also expect to live – and lead Russia – for another 15 years.

As I say, we can’t at all know what the future will bring – although there is always any number of experts being lines up by the media to tell us – but I suggest that in or around the year 2033 there might well be a great deal of unwanted trouble in China or Russia or both as murderous gangs of rivals fight for control of their country now that their dear leader has popped his clogs. And I can suggest that because throughout history there have been wars, both national and civil, when an all-powerful ruler dies and has not, often merely for reasons of self-preservation, arranged of his power (it’s rarely her power, isn’t it) to be passed on. While he is alive, any possible rivals will be culled or otherwise neutralised, so there is usually a free-for-all once he breathes his last.

The same rather shambolic ‘knowledge’ of what will happen to the UK come the end of next March when it leaves the EU is also threadbare in the extreme. Both the Leave and Remain sides have made and continue to make prognostications, but as far as I am concerned, no one has a clue who Britain will fare economically and thus socially. Yes, we can guess and call those guesses ‘forecasts’, but at the end of the day, stripped of their fine clothes and the reputation of those who are guessing, they are still nothing but guesses.

There’s the very well-known quote by the Spanish philosopher George Santyana, one which is so well-known, in fact, that it is in great danger relegation to the status of cliché, that ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’. I don’t doubt it is a very true observation, but I suggest it is also rather pointless, more the stuff of conversation at middle-brow dinner parties and first-year political science seminars than anything else. Why? Even those who do ‘remember the past’ still fondly imagine that they are the exception, that by repeating the actions of those who have gone before they will get away with achieving what others have failed to achieve.

Here’s a point in case: after World War II when the ‘British Empire’ was in its death throes, every one of its colonies demanded independence. And why not? But at the time there were many in Britain who counseled caution and patience. The colonies were not socially, economically or politically mature enough for independence, they said. I don’t doubt that many who spoke out along those lines did so merely from venal motives and wanted the white man’s good times to carry on rolling for a while yet. But there were others whose counsel was pure and impartial: they well remembered the past and did not want to condemn those colonies seeking independence to death, misery, famine, dictatorship and hopelessness. Their concerns went unheard and what did occur from the first years of independence for many subsequent decades? Why death, misery, famine, dictatorship and hopelessness for the vast majority of the people who weren’t in with the dictator and his cronies. The past was repeated anyway.

. . .

As I say, it is the human behaviour of past historical figures which I find most interesting: people are people are people. Kindness, hate, greed, love, altruism, self-sacrifice – everything we know about people is pretty much eternal. It matters not a whit whether they wore powdered wigs, covered themselves in woad, liked REM or Beyonce, eat with chopsticks. So if we try to understand the actions of people in modern terms, we are halfway there.

Yes, there were differences, for example, the stranglehold the Roman Catholic church had on Western Europe until the Reformation (though that stranglehold then merely shifted hands) was very much a factor in the political decisions, the what is possible and what is not. Then there is the gradual, the painfully gradual, emancipation of women, but at the end of the day, folk farted then, shagged then, got drunk then and laid down their lives for their fellow man then as now.

Plus ca change plus c'est la meme chose: accepting that has helped me enormously in my splatter-gun reading in history. As for Henry Ford’s ‘history is bunk’, that is best understood in that I don’t think he meant it literally. I like to think he was urging us to look to the future rather than ever delving in the past if we want to achieve anything.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Which finds me in Slovakia to get that gold tooth (or, to be frank the rather cheaper aluminium one, times being hard and all that). As for bumping off hacks, well, it seems Slovakia has a littel bit of form

Bratislava, Slovakia

I’m here in Bratislava, capital of Slovakia, which was from 1918 until 1993 a part of Czechoslovakia, and is now a stouthearted member of the European Union and, bar the very occasional political murder (of which more later ©Geoff Levy) of a troublesome journalist or other, a bulwark of democracy and human rights in the former Soviet bloc. As those who have bothered to read my previous blog entry might recall, I am having trouble with a very loose front tooth, or rather was having trouble, so read on.

This morning I kept an appointment at the Smile Clinic (in the Heiniken Tower, honest) this morning for the first stage of having it replaced with an implant, which might strike some, though not all, as an unacceptable bourgeois luxury, but given that here it will cost me only around £1,334 to get the one tooth replaced whereas back in the self-proclaimed centre of civilisation known as the United Kingdom quotes I obtained ranged from £2,300 (from Denzil Tremaine of Tregillick, who also dabbles in car mechanics and installing gas boilers at keenly competitie prices, or so he told me) to well over £4,000, I think the case for travelling East makes itself.

To trip here got off to a rather fraught start after I thought I had set my alarm for 4.45am to get to Heathrow for 5.30 and the departure of my flight at 7.05, but had not. As luck would have it my brother, with whom I lodge in Earls Court and who for some reason rises at 5am every morning for his breakfast, roused me in time to dash to the airport. I made it to the departure gate with 15 minutes to spare after the usual hassle at security where I was instructed to strip twice and then explain why I has carrying a hunting knife strapped to my leg. My simple explanation that I always carry one, if nothing else to cut up birthday cakes with less hassle than the short 3in plastic knife folk at work prefer, was not accepted and I had to surrender it. Still, I can always get another.

As it turned out, our flight arrived at Vienna airport a full 20 minutes early, and why I really don’t know. Perhaps the pilot was on a promise. Who knows? At the airport I was met by a driver who took me the 63 kilometres to Bratislava. Why Vienna rather than Bratislava airport some of you might be asking. Well, simply because for whatever reason far fewer airlines attempt to reach Bratislava than Vienna and trying to obtain a return flight was far easier if I flew to Vienna.

After the initial work – I shall return in three months to get the gold tooth I have chosen to replace my wonky loose one inserted – I took a detour back to my hotel, and walking around Bratislava, Slovakia, this morning looking for my contact Vasily (I’m also here to swap Saturday Morning Kitchen secrets with those blackmailing bastards from the FSB, commercial secrets far outweighing military/intelligence secrets in the modern age as Putin’s murderous

henchmen are incredulous at just how successful the BBC is these days and want to know exactly why) I couldn’t help – really I couldn’t, as all signs, road signs, street names, shop signs and the rest are in some inscrutable language with all kinds of dots, dashes, accents, slashes totally alien to this son of Albion – recalling all those excessively cheesy 007 James Bond films from the 1960s until the present day.

Freedom came to the good Slovak folk in 1993 (which, in James Bond film terms is eight 007 films ago, rather as disaster areas are measured as how much they resemble the size of Wales) but still the past lingers on. In those films all women were either sexy, seductive, attractive twentysomethings who either betrayed 'James’ or fell in love with ‘James’ but either way were shot dead for doing so, or, far more likely, grumpy and dumpy babushka types.Well, I can’t comment on the women (or rather I could but shan’t) but Bratislava is a many ways rather like those cheesy films.

There some 21st century towers of all shapes, i.e. not just up and down and rectangular), quite few dull apartment blocks, some a tad shabby, many not at all, and then near my hotel, in Stefanikova) loads of 17th and 19th buildings which shout Central Europe and which make this son of Adam want to see far more of Central Europe. Just saying.

While writing this last bit a little earlier, I cheap joke did occur to me, that I for the duration of my stay, I should get my head shaved, put on a few kilos and wander round in a tracksuit to fit in with the locals. But even I admit that would be in poor taste, not to say a quip at least 20 years beyond its sell-by date, so please, dear reader, consider it ‘not made’ and that I am a man of morse sophisticated wit (well, on a good day).

Truth be told the little I have seen of Bratislava, which is just the walk from my hotel, the Loft Hotel, in Stefanikova to the clinis and back with that small excursion to the old town, reminds me on many ways of Berlin, and were it not for the, to me at least, rather alien spelling of Slovak words, what with the plethora of accents familiar and less familiar, I might be anywhere east of the river Rhine.

My return trip to have the gold tooth fitted will entail two treatments, one for a mould of some kind to be made of, well, I suppose my mouth and the part of my chops where the tooth will fit, and then another a week later to have the tooth put in. The decision to be made is whether to make two return trips or just the one, eight-day trip, spending the time between appointments (which has already been set for June 20, a day which appealed to me as soon as it was suggested in that on June 20, 1953, the folk of East Germany staged an uprising against their communist government.

(NB While looking up the exact year on Google, I discovered that there was also an uprising – also known as a demonstration - in Paris on that date in 1792 when the people peacefully tried to get their king to play along with the Legislative Assembly. That one didn’t work, either. The East German uprising lead to even more repression and the Parisian uprising lead to the Reign of Terror.) I think I’ll make it a week-long trip and see if I finally can’t hook up with Vasily (the head of the FSB’s Internal Cooking Secretariat, believe it or not, and if you ever met Vasily, you would realise how desperate they are to get good operatives. No wonder they made such a cock-up in Salisbury the other week!).

. . .

As for the murder of a journalist, Jan Kuciak, who was apparently getting to close to discovering the truth about corruption at high levels – take a look here – my comments have already been overtaken by the resignation of the prime minister, one Robert Fico, more here.

Kuciak’s colleagues were not just indignant and sickened but unfazed and, at risk to their own lives and some are now under police protection, they decided to go through Kuciak’s unfished story, check it all again and publish what they had. You can read an English translation of it here. And given what I have to say in my previous entry, you might care to bear in mind how I was careful not to apply my admitted broadbrush generalities about hacks to everyone (although I should stress that no hack has, as far as I know, been bumped off for writing dodgy punning captions to a pointless array of pictures. Well, not yet, anyway, perhaps standards will tighten a little lethally. Who knows. RIP Mr Kuciak.

Coincidentally, on my way to the clinic this morning from my hotel, I walked past a church and the array of candles and flowers you can see in one of the links I have posted, although I didn’t investigate.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The lowdown on hacks (or, at least, my lowdown, but if you come across others, remember: taste it, don’t swallow it)

It is often the little things which get you thinking, and a slight tiff with a colleague – an insignificant tiff at that – got me thinking about the many comments I have made about journalists, hacks, reporters and sub-editors. But first of all a little background.

A few posts ago, I wrote about my tendency ‘to rush’ (you can read it here, and looking it up just now to get the web address, I was surprised  by a long ago it was) and how it has caused me all kinds of problems, not least professionally. The essence of the job of being a sub-editor (US copy editor) is attention to detail, and a tendency ‘to rush’ mitigates against any such niceties. To be blunt, throughout my career – I like to think ‘career’ would be more appropriate as it has certainly not been a case of my diligently setting about climbing a professional ladder and the quote marks will make the word more honest – I have dropped bollocks, a great British phrase whose meaning, even though you might not be acquainted with it, I’m sure you can guess.

The practical upshot is that at work – on the features subs’ desk of the Daily Mail – those in charge have taken to treating me with caution: I am apt to introduce literals into copy as easily as spotting them and removing them. And that, I’m sure you will have gathered, is a professional Achilles heel. The irony is, however – and please bear in mind that I am making the claim, so I might well be kidding myself – I am in some ways a better, often far better, sub than many I have come across. The trouble is that all too often I shoot myself in the foot which obscures the good work I can do. Ah well.

It is down to ‘rushing’, and as I pointed out in the earlier post, that is to this day, to this moment writing this entry, ‘rushing’ is a tendency I have to fight all the time. All the time! It is ongoing. It is not just in the matter of writing – I am inclined to try to do everything sooner rather than later: when I walk, I now consciously try to slow myself down, because – well, what’s the rush? When I look up the chords to a song and set about teaching myself a song, I am again apt to rush it all, which means I create difficulty for myself and the process seems harder than I thought.

The ‘why’ I rush is irrelevant – perhaps it has to do with being the second-born. Perhaps there is another reason entirely. What is relevant it the fact of ‘rushing’ and how, when I am doing something I want to do well (such as writing) I very consciously have to work against it. Sometimes I succeed. Often I don’t. An example: I have just finished writing 1,800 words and thought it would be a good idea to read through what I have written to make sure it all hangs together. But, Christ, was it a struggle not to ignore that admirable suggestion and just post this crap.

The tiff, the disagreement, is rooted in the suspicion that although I might be good at some things, in others I can be – which means I am not necessarily always – a liability. There was a little more to it than that, but that, too, is irrelevant here. But that tiff got me to thinking and finally led to me sitting down and composing this blog entry.

. . .

We hacks, and by the way, on April 4 I shall be working my last shift and then finally retiring so come April 4, I shall no longer be one, I have often suggested are a strange breed. But now I shall come clean: I suspect we are no stranger than doctors, lawyers, accountants, office workers, dockers or anyone else. What, I think, marks us out is the nature of our work and industry.

For example, I have heard colleagues jokingly, of course, refer to members of ‘the public’ as ‘civilians’. By referring to them as such they are implicitly setting themselves apart from other members of the public and suggesting that they are, in some way, special, even though the description of the public as ‘civilians, is pretty much a joke. But the fact is hacks do in an odd way see themselves as apart and something special.

For example, a newspaper consists of many departments doing certain jobs, of which the editorial department – us – is just one. (I can only pontificate about newspapers and the newspaper industry because that is the one I know. I suspect journalists – hacks – in the broadcasting media are very similar, but I have never worked in radio or television so I shall refrain from generalising too much.)

Apart from the reporters, writers, sub-editors and photographers who supply copy and pictures or work on copy and pictures supplied, every newspaper depends on many other departments doing their job well: the advertising department, promotions, the circulation department, those in production further down the chain. Then there are the editorial assistants, the wages department, the personnel department and these days ‘systems’, the bods who make sure the computer system is working 100 per cent. And the whole operation would, to a greater or lesser degree, grind to a halt if something goes wrong in any one department.

If it were not for the adverts the paper carries, there would be no paper. The cover price brings in a comparative pittance. The ads bring in the money which pays for the whole shooting match. Related to them are the bods working in promotions. And if the computers go down, well watch out, and watch out well. It spells disaster. The Mail, for example, but this will be true of every other national paper, has contingency plans to move as much of the operation elsewhere if and when, for example, there were a terrorist attack on Northcliffe House.

To get to the point: all departments – though especially the advertising department, the money-bringers must work efficiently in tandem, must do its job well. But the editorial department has this odd, very odd, conviction, that it is the beating heart of the newspaper, without which, well, sine qua non. This is taken further and lead to the conviction that if the editorial department, or a member of it, wants something done, who is doing the doing is expected to drop everything and attend to the request from editorial. ‘We’, the bloody-minded conviction is ‘are in a position of primacy’. ‘We are what keeps this whole shooting match going. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. Producing newspapers is, if only my colleagues would see the light and agree with me, a symbiotic process.

Without advertising, for example, there would be no papers. Certainly, there would be news sheets of a kind as some folk are addicted to scribbling – I am a case in point - but their circulation would be minimal and the price asked of the public to buy that news sheet would hardly cover costs.

What this editorial conviction that ‘we are the beating heart’ has means is that many, though not all – I propose myself as an exception – hacks are oddly self-centred. The profession, by its very nature, also seems to attract mavericks, and here I don’t claim to be the exception to the rule. Organising hacks is akin to trying to herding cats. Try it. Try herding four, five, ten cats. You will get the feline equivalent of two fingers (US one finger).

Hacks also have a tendency – the self-image they have is part and parcel of it – to what I can only describe as ‘bullshitting’. (NB It was an example of such bullshitting which caused the tiny tiff earlier tonight, but it would not just be pointless but boring for me to go into detail.) Now I am the first to admit that I love, just love bullshitting. But I must also add that one of the few principles I have, and one which is important to me, is ‘bullshit for fun, not for real.’ The trouble is that many journalists do not share that principle.

An example: journalism, journalists insist, is ‘a vocation’ and somewhere along the line was introduced the idea that we ‘break into journalism’, that it is supremely hard to land yourself a job working as a journalist (another NB: I have to this day never described myself as ‘a journalist. I always say, when asked what I do for a living, replied that ‘I work for a newspaper’. Just saying).

Well, tell me, do nurses ‘break into nursing’? Do plumbers ‘break into plumbing’. I don’t believe they do, but using the phrase ‘breaking into journalism’ is useful in that it somehow marks out the journalist as ‘something special’, something out of the ordinary, folk who are not like the ordinary joes who sells us bread, legal advice, bus tickets or who bandage a broken leg. We are assumed by the public to be ‘more in the know’ than they are, and as that assumption adds a welcome sheen to the otherwise drap life of many hacks, they are not inclined to contradict is and set the story straight.

. . .

I began a previous paragraph by promising to get to the point. Well, now I shall.

Journalists – some of them most certainly – to do a vital job, the job the world thinks we all do. They are most certainly not all ‘bullshitters’. A reporter visiting a refugee camp and reporting on the awful conditions there; a reporter trying to get to the bottom of a civic scandal, a story of bribery in political circles; a writer inveighing against the corrupt regime he or she is living in, the reporters ‘merely’ chronicling the doings of the local council, parliament, what really happened to cause a disaster deserve our respect. And many, many the world over often die trying to do a vital job. Take a look at this website, which I have often highlighted and drawn attention to.

But then there are the rest: the writers compiling lists of the newest ‘must-have’ espresso machine, face creams, sub-editors writing punning captions to a series of photographs demonstrating how some celebrities resemble this

or that vegetable (a favourite of the Daily Mail). There was talk on the desk today – and to be fair we were horrified – of how the Mail has published pictures and stories of a former soap actress who has fallen on hard times and taken to the bottle in a big way. She is a mess, but, the paper has decided, a mess which would entertain its readers.

The story even mentioned the several awful strokes of fate which have recently befallen her, but the paper had no compunction whatsoever in still parading her misfortunes for the benefit of many of its – let’s call a spade a spade – brain-dead fuckwits.

So tell me, how do the journalists working on this ‘story’ of an alcoholic actress stack up against their colleagues working in authoritarian and totalitarian states – in Russia, China, the Caucaus, some South Americn counties, in the Middle Eatss – who are often quite literally risking their lives trying to get ‘the news’ out? Answer: they don’t. But tell that to the hacks prepared to turn someone over without a second thought.

. . .

To be honest the main point of this entry is to allow me to let off steam. Actually, that is not the main point: the main point is that despite my poking fun at others in my profession, I want to make it clear that I do have a lot of respect for many earning their crust as members of ‘the Fourth Estate. They, though, seem to be working elsewhere in the world.

As for ‘earning their crust’, claiming working in journalism is ‘a vocation’ is all too often used as an excuse to pay provincial hacks working in Britain a piss-poor wage, and that practice has now spread to the national papers when it comes to re-imbursing newly recruited staff. Given London rents and costs, £20,000 a year is fuck-all, but that is what many of my younger colleagues are paid when they start. In years gone by landing a job on ‘a national’ was rather lucrative, however lowly your editorial position was, but no more, no more, no more.

So there you have it: a soon-to-be-put-out-to-pasture hack lets rip. Oh, I shall carry on with the bullshitting but please remember one of my few principles: bullshit for fun, but not for real.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

A long, long sigh as the cock-up king reclaims his crown (not that anyone was ever intent on stealing it). As for literary folk - well, let’s see. And a PS on the stats of those viewing this blog (which are rather confusing)

I should like to begin this entry with a long sigh, but I don’t know how it might be spelled and, anyway, it wouldn’t be a happy sigh of relief or anything as comforting as that. It’s just that I am - sigh - responsible (I almost wrote ‘as usual’, but that would not be quite fair) for a slight boo-boo which might or might not have gone into the first edition of this morning’s Daily Mail. The first edition is, of course, the first to be printed because it has the furthest
to travel in a paper’s circulation area, to beyond the extremes of the civilised world (or Rhyl in North Wales, whichever is furthest).

I am told my boo-boo was spotted, though whether in time to be corrected for the first edition or not, I was not informed. So what terrible thing did I do?

Well, to tell you in detail would require a long and boring (for me most certainly and quite possibly also for you) explanation, but it involves a game running in the Daily Mail at present called ‘Lucky Squares’ which allows readers to ‘win a share of £1 million!’ That, to date and in the three or four weeks the game has been running, the vast majority of winners, about 15/20 a day, have almost all won just £25 each, a sum which might buy you and three friends two rounds of cheap drinks in a pub (US bar), is neither here nor there: you are still winning ‘a share of £1 million!’ so stop griping.

The thing about newspapers is that it is the small things - the puzzles, for example, and the competitions - which are in an odd kind of way the most sensitive. So after the wrong something or other went in - or possibly almost went in - the deputy editor has demanded an inquiry. The deputy chief sub emailed me to ask why I had done what I had done so that he could provide the explanation required by higher up and I told him: ‘Felix, I said, I cocked up. Sorry.’

I also outlined just how I cocked up, and it was essentially a very, very simple cock-up, one which could happen to anyone, but which over the 76 years I have served in Her Majesty’s Press all too often seems to happen to me. Hence the
sigh. But there’s more to that sigh: on Wednesday, April 4, 2018, I shall be retiring, calling it a day, ending an era (or in my case ‘an ear’). I could have done so more than three and a half years ago on or soon after November 21, 2014, for several reasons - I wanted to save a little more money into my retirement drinking fund but I also like my work and the people I work with - I carried on.

Believe it or not, I am rather distressed by my boo-boos. I am most certainly not the only one to commit them, but once I am gone from the Mail, I should like to be recalled as something rather more admirable than ‘our most recent cock-up king’. So last night’s hiccup doesn’t help.

. . .

My retirement is also rather opportune in that just over a week later, on April 13, my daughter, the little sweet slip of thing I first held in my arms almost 22 years ago, is due to give birth. It was not planned, and she was hoping to build up a nannying and child-caring business for she had a family, but then these things happen. And I must say that although I think, for her sake, it would have been better had it not happened, I am rather pleased because I had always assumed - I was 46 when she was born - I would never get to see a grandchild. But now, God willing, I shall do.

I must say that I am looking forward to April 5 and beyond, for although I like my work (and have liked sub-editing ever since I began to work shifts on Britain’s national newspapers (once known as Fleet Street) in 1990, I shall not be sorry not to have to schlepp 240 miles up to London every Sunday morning and 24o back again down here to Cornwall every Wednesday night. I once enjoyed it, listening to music or the radio for four hours while seeing how many other motorist I could burn off the road without killing myself. But for these past few years it has become increasingly tiring and I am glad to get it over with.

The return trip home on a Wednesday is almost always broken with a stop at the Brewers Arms in South Petherton, Somerset, for a few glasses of cheap red, several of my La Paz Wilde Cigarros and the second half of a Champion’s League football game, but the downside is that I don’t get in until after 1am, sleep only a few hours (I usually wake at 8am at the latest and can never get off to sleep again) and then feel like shit for the rest of the day (like today, though it is off to bed as soon as I have completed this entry). But it is still something of a schlepp.

Come April 5 that will all be over with, but then so will the reasonably generous sum I am paid for my toils by the Mail. At some point I shall have to sit down and work out my finances and adjust a few standing orders, but we really don’t live a life of luxury, I have noted before that my cigar habit is wholly affordable if, as I do, I buy them from The Netherlands (and I don’t smoke that many a week anyway), so I don’t think we shall be starving at any time soon.

That April 5 and the beginning of my retirement and days of apparent leisure also has another significance, and although I shan’t elaborate here, you dear reader who has possibly read past entries might already have an inkling of what I am alluding to. A slight clue: I really do hope I am not a bullshitter.

. . .

One other thing on the horizon is that I have volunteered to help out in some way with the North Cornwall Book Festival. It happened like this: I have attended the St Endellion Music Festival for the past few years and somehow or other ended up on some mailing list, particularly the book festival’s mailing list. A month or so ago, I received an email from the organisers saying they were looking for volunteers and listing in what areas volunteers are
needed. They need ticket sellers, folk to direct cars into fields while the festival is taking place, but also listed ‘publicity’. Well, I thought I might be able to help out there and responded. The upshot is that I am invited to a ‘social’ at the house of one of the organisers in St Endellion where all potential volunteers will meet up.

Now take a look at the festival’s website here, and see whether you spot the phrase which caught my eye almost immediately I first called up the page: ‘The fifth North Cornwall Book Festival was a deep and utter glory . . .’ Did you? I have to say ‘deep and utter glory’ does even less for me than folk who get ‘excited’ by a new policy initiative or who care ‘passionately’ about growing different strains of parsley.

I suspect - well, actually, I am pretty sure - that the festival folk and I shall not really hit it off/I shall go down like a lead balloon. But let’s see. At least I can attend the social on March 8 and get a few glasses of cheap read out of the occasion.

Oh, and whatever they want me to do, I shall not be standing knee-deep in damp grass in a slight drizzle directing cars to vacant parts of a muddy field.

Being ‘prejudiced’ is, I think, derived from ‘pre-judging’ (in this case people). So when I flicked through the photos on the website (and as someone who has also taken a picture or two I have to say they are not in any way outstanding and why have ‘photographers-in-residence’?) I did get a slight sinking feeling. To put it another way, I am not ‘passionate about literature’, I just like ‘reading fiction’.

. . .

LATER: Out of interest, I keep an eye on the statistics of who might be reading this blog and where they come from. I have noticed that there is an extraordinary number of ‘visitors’ from Russia and Turkey, their number being extraordinarily high. Take a look at this screenshot.

Now, I can’t think that my ramblings and pontifications are of particular interest to folk in Russia and Turkey, so I can only assume that for some reason bots sent out from those two countries now also have me on their list. But as gesture of friendship maybe these two piccies will prove to them that their attention is still worth while . . .

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Finally, an entry with teeth, a neglected part of Central Europe gets a look in and one in the eye for those who suspect I am vain. Vain? Moi?

What do ‘getting a little long in the tooth’ and Slovakia have in common? Well, on the face of it nothing, except that juxtaposing a well-known English phrase and a Central European country is just another of the kind of oblique intros I have made my own and which probably don’t do me any favours. But, in fact, they do have a connection, although because it’s a personal one – personal to me, that is – it probably doesn’t count.

About seven or eight years ago, I visited Plymouth for the day with my then young daughter, Elsie (and possibly her younger brother). I had no business in Plymouth and only went along because she wanted to go shopping and I didn’t want a 12/13-year-old wandering around the city on her own. On the way home, sitting in on the train, I took a selfie, and a non-too-flattering selfie at that. In one of the shops we had happened upon what would be called a ‘joke shop’ although it sold more than just jokes.

It stocked any number of cheap and amusing gadgets, toys, books, masks and that kind of thing, items which catch our interest when we spot them in a such a shop, which we then buy, toy with for a day or two, and which are then thrown out ten or 20 years later when we clean out our drawers. They are by then usually covered in dust and fluff.

One of the thing which caught my eye and which I bought was a set of joke false teeth which made the wearer resemble an 70-year-old hideous tramp. They were not pretty, and as a joke I bought them and, later on the train, put them in my mouth and took my selfie. Sadly, I no longer have that selfie but I wish I now did, because the set of horrible teeth were rather too close to the truth for me and posting that picture here to accompany that entry would explain why I am planning a trip to Bratislava, Slovakia, in March rather better and certainly a lot faster than all the preceding long-winded circumlocutious waffle.

The fact was that by the age I had then reached, and one which was not regarded as particularly old, I didn’t really need a set of hideous false teeth. My left front tooth had, inexplicably apparently rather quickly, grown rather longer than its right twin and it was most certainly noticeable. And it did not flatter me.

When I asked my dentist why it had happened, she told me if often did with age because, like horses, our gums recede. But that couldn’t be the explanation, I told her, because it wasn’t that more of the base of the tooth was showing as the gum was receding, but that it had simply grown longer. She shrugged. She was a twentysometing dark-haired and very pretty Spanish woman and shrugging in an attractive way was the least of her charms. Sadly, she has long since returned to Spain. Was there anything I could do, I asked. Yes, she said, you can have it shortened. Is that service available on the NHS, I asked. No, she said, you will have to have it done privately.

But oddly enough, at my next six-monthly check-up and without saying a word she did shorten it, getting to work and simply using a drill to get rid of what was by now an excess on that left front tooth. I didn’t ask why in case I was about to be charged. But I wasn’t.

I can’t exaggerate how much that longer front tooth rather spoiled my ‘looks’ and had made me feel self-conscious. Now the problem was cured. But now I have another problem.

About a year ago, I felt a little pain when I would bit into an apple (milk and an apple or two is my snack of choice), so I pretty much without thinking took to not using my front teeth to eat the apples and used my side teeth instead. A few months later I realised that left front tooth was loose. And it has become even looser still. So loose in fact, that I have decided to have it taken out and replaced with an implant. And that is why I am travelling to Bratislava for two night in March. Finally, got there, eh?

Actually, getting an implant was a subsequent decision. I am not as vain as I have made out here and had simply decided to have the tooth taken out and sport a gap. Why not? Pirates do it, so why shouldn’t I. But there was uproar in our household, with both my wife and daughter both insisting I ‘couldn’t go around with a gap’. Why not? I asked again, but to be honest it is one of those things which you either get, know, understand and accept, or you just don’t. And I just don’t.

The alternatives were a one-tooth denture or an implant. Now implants are notoriously expensive so they both assumed I would settle for a one-tooth denture. No way, I told then, I am not wearing dentures even if, strictly speaking it is only a denture. I’m not. Why not? they asked, but there again that is one of those things you either get, know, understand and accept, or you don’t. The didn’t.

From there on in ‘my journey’ (to use a phrase I am too old to like and don’t, and far too old to get used to but which seems to be rather popular these days in that way that much is now made to sound far more important than it really is. People now talk of ‘their dream’ and ‘their vision’ when what they mean is ‘what they would like to do’ and ‘how they plan to set about doing it’) to getting an implant was clear, and even choosing to go to Bratislava was a straightforward decision.

We Brits are continually warned of the dangers of getting dental work done abroad, and certainly caution is not just advisable but necessary. On the other hand when what British dentists charge – I was quoted from between £2,300 to more than £4,000 for just the one implant when I range around local dentists whereas I shall be paying just over £1,000 in Slovakia – is compared and, of course, all other things being equal, getting the work done in Hungary, the Netherlands, Germany or Slovakia is something of a no-brainer.

I did ring my NHS dentist to ask her advice, and she told me she had seen private work done to one of her patients in Bulgaria and she wasn’t happy with it and work done by Hungarian dentists which didn’t trouble her at all. (She is, by the way, Greek). She told me that I should ensure that whichever dentist I went to adhered to acceptable standards of hygiene. Well, that, too, is something of a no-brainer, and it is an odd kind of British xenophobia which accepts without question that hygiene standards in Europe will necessarily be than ours.

So the die is cast and I am off to Bratislava on March 14 to March 16 for the initial treatment. (This is the clinic.) I shall be flying in via Vienna as direct flights to Bratislava for Heathrow are not plenty. I trust that is no quiet criticism by the airline companies on the standards of hygiene in Slovakian dental clinics. There are several Ryanair flights from ‘London’ Stansted, but they depart for the outbound flight at an unearthly early hour and, anyway, after once driving to and from Stansted and taking several bloody hours to drive through north London to Earls Court (there was a match on at Wembley), never, ever again. OK, I can use the Stansted Express, but even that would mean getting up at just after 4am to get to wherever it leaves London from, and anyway I am now holding a grudge.

For the implant to be done, I shall, of course, have to have the loose front tooth pulled out first, and I have resolved to have a photo taken once the pulling has been done. It will, of course, be posted here, to dismiss all further suggestions that I am vain (OK, only a little – see photo below. I always insist it is intended as a parody of vain self-portraits, but let me be honest: no, it isn’t).