Thursday, August 16, 2018

OK, I’ll come right out of the closet: I am a pro-semite and have been for many years. There, I’ve said it, now condemn me. As for anti-semites, there are plenty around, but I don’t think Corbyn is one, he’s just a chap who doesn’t seem to have grown up much (and there are plenty around just like him)

Looking at the list of countries in which live those who have visited this blog recently live, the chances are that some reading this haven’t heard of the troubles the Labour Party here in Britain is having with accusations of anti-semitism. British readers most certainly will have done so. The most recent twist is in the whole affair is that the party’s leader, one Jeremy ‘Jezza’ Corbyn, many years ago laid a wreath at a memorial in Tunisia to - I hope I’ve got this right - Palestinian freedom fighters/terrorists (delete as applicable to your personal bias/prejudices/principles/political beliefs - again, delete as applicable).

I’m not about to come down on one side or the other wholesale on whether some in the Labour Party are anti-semitic or whether it is just - as some suggest - simply a Tory plot to discredit Jeremy Corby. But I have to add that I have and often do come across anti-semitism generally, and it isn’t necessarily anything like what one might expect it to be.

At it’s most obvious in a civilised country like Britain, it is straightforward and often quite marked unpleasantness about and towards Jews. For example, here in St Breward lives a, now elderly, couple who were originally from either then then Southern Rhodesia or South Africa. I know them only very vaguely through my stepmother (the middle-classes like to stick together down here), but about 15 years ago and out of the blue, the husband rang me up to invite me to supper. I was very surprised.

It turned out that he, who had been a businessman in South Africa before retiring to North Cornwall, felt that the local parish council, and especially its finances, were very badly run and he wanted to get himself elected to shake it all up. The invitation to supper was intended to enlist my support, though that in itself was a bit of a mystery as I have no clout over anyone at all and my one vote would not have swung it for him at all.

To get to the point: in that original phone call inviting me to supper he made a reference - why I didn’t understand then and still can’t recall 15 years later - to some businessman he had known in South Africa, describing him to me along the lines of ‘you know the sort, a Jew, always looking for a fast buck, you know the sort’. Well, I don’t know the sort, and to this day I regret not telling him to stick his supper invitation up his arse. That is the kind of overt anti-semitism which is quite obvious. But there are more invidious kinds.

There will be the off-colour jokes about Jews that might be told, the throwaway remarks which involve an expression like ‘well, he’s Jewish, of course, so what can you expect?’, the subtle nudge-nudge, wink-wink from those who realise that these days the have to watch their step in such matters but, you know, nudge-nudge, wink-wink, ‘he’s Jewish, know what I mean?’ There’s even the very odd remark you might occasionally hear that ‘of course I’m not anti-semitic, why some of my good friends are Jewish’, which fact, of course, absolves you of all suspicion.

. . .

I must come out straight and confess that I am truly baffled by anti-semitism. I don’t mean that in the sense that I am baffled by how people can be so coarse and unfriendly as to be anti-semitic, but I am baffled in the sense that were a Chinese man to come up to me and address me in Chinese, I would be equally baffled. I would have not idea what he wanted or what he was saying. I find anti-semitism as incomprehensible as I would that Chinese man.

I realise I am in danger of seeming to be trying to polish a halo, so please accept what I say in the previous paragraph as a simple statement of fact. I shall add, though, that I have a definite liking for much that is Jewish, not least their wit and humour. That is not too say that I expect all Jews to be witty and funny, because I have also met some real bores. But there is something about their - German word alert! - Weltanschauung which speaks to me quietly and resonates with mine. I couldn’t and can’t tell you why. (As it happens the same is true of the Italians, but I don’t want create confusion here.) As we are talking of anti-semitism and anti-semites here, you might as well put me down as a pro-semite.

. . .

Take a cross-section of any group and compare it with a similar number of any other group, and if your samples are big enough, I suspect you are bound to come across pretty similar proportions of boring people, witty people, left-handed people, dull people, stingy people, spendthrifts and so on. And were you to take at random, say, 1,000 Tory supporters, 1,000 Labour supporters and 1,000 Lib Dem supporters, you are very likely to find an equal number of anti-semites in all three samples. What would be notable, though, is that given the suggestion by Labour and Lib Dem supporters that they are always and quite naturally on the side of the angels and always hold the moral high ground, and that Tories are the spawn of Satan, you might suspect that they would disown anti-semitism with abhorrence. Well, that’s the theory. In Labour, it seems, the practice is rather different.

I can’t actually remember when the whole row over ‘anti-semitism in the Labour Party’ began and I don’t give any credence at all to the claim that it is all a plot by the Tories to smear the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, for the simple reason that a number of - Jewish - Labour MPs and prominent Labour supporters, notably MPs Margaret Hodge, and Luciana Berger are equally concerned by what the - Jews - regard as growing anti-semitism. Ms Berger has even been receiving anti-semitic hate email. I don’t doubt that in this whole fuss the more shit Corbyn finds himself in, the more the Tories like it. Christ, they are only human after all, but I don’t buy that they are behind it all? What, are they secretly training up Labour supporters in anti-semitism simply to discredit Corbyn?

Corbyn supporters now claim that the row over anti-semitism in Labour is also bieng fostered by anti-Corbyn elements in the party as a way to oust Corbyn. There’s not doubting at all that a great many Labour MPs feel Corbyn and his leadership are a catastrophe waiting to happen, but the claim falls very short on logic: certainly they believe that Corbyn’s brand of pie-in-the-sky socialism will only ensure Labour doesn’t get the electoral support it might otherwise get, and that a more centrist set of policies would be far more acceptable to would-be Labour voters. But even they will draw the line at doing anything to ensure the Tories are returned to power.

. . .

As for those Corbyn supporters, well, they are a rum bunch. Corbyn has many, made up of starry-eyed and, presumably, so far non-taxpaying youngsters, who often treat him like a rock start (sic), to the standard gaggle of old lefties who might well trot out such sagacities as ‘that bitch Thatcher, eh, I would have strangled her myself if I had had half the chance’. The point is, though, that a group called Momentum (here and here) which in a sense is now the power behind the throne, is attempting to take over the Labour Party or, to be fair, as they might see it to ensure that Labour begins to follow a path more likely to bring about a socialist Britain if they get to power. And Momentum are no slouches and have studied their Leninist tactics well.

So, for example, they are doing their best to make sure each constituency has an election candidate who supports Jeremy Corbyn and his policies and that if a constituency doesn’t, they do their best to becoming the ruling voice in that constituency so that the MP can be deselected and replaced with a candidate in tune with their thinking.

I can’t fault them on that tactic at all: if I were in charge of Momentum, I would do exactly the same. However, I am not and I agree - though I am not a Labour supporter (or for that matter a Tory or Lib Dem supporter - with the moderate Labour MPs who fear for their party’s future and don’t think Labour has a snowball’s chance in Hell of getting enough electoral support to form a new government if Jeremy Corbyn is in charge.

. . .

It is among this gaggle of Momentum activists and Corbyn supporters that rather too many anti-semites are turning up. The immediate impetus for this blog entry, though, is an ongoing spat I am having with a Facebook friend, a college friend from 50 years ago and an out-an-out Corbyn supporter. I went to visit him a few months ago, and apart from seeing each other last winter when a friend of his and his wife who have settled in the US came to Britain and we all met up, I hadn’t seen him in years.

On my visit to his home on the Kent coast, it became obvious to me that when discussing particular issues, we pretty much agreed. Where we differed was in how we might got about tackling the myriad inequities in British society. I like to think - I stress ‘I like to think’ because we can all kid ourselves on - that I am far more aware of the complexities of political life and how something might be achieved than he is. He, on the other hand, thinks the sun shines out of Corbyn’s arse and - I have to say this even though he is a year older than me and if not yet 70, is most certainly pushing 70 - strikes me as having a distressingly adolescent political mindset.

The Facebook spat has been ongoing for over a year. He is a great one for ‘sharing’ the posts of this or that left-of-centre to far-left pressure group and I am a great one for pointing out how utterly simplistic their take on political and social problems are. A while ago, I even suggested that given the venal nature of Facebook - venal as it is only in it for the money, despite all cuddly ‘sharing’ bull - he might well spend some time going into the background of these, very slick, Facebook groups whose posts he shares and discovering whether their motives are indeed pure and sincere. With some of them I do doubt it, as in the more posts that are shared, the more money is made. Sharing rings the tills why Facebook is incessantly trying to get us to share.

One of our major points of disagreement is Israel and its - I have to say appalling - responses to attacks by Hamas in the Gaza Strip. As far as he is concerned - and he seems to be quite serious about this - Israel is well on its way to becoming a ‘fascist state’. I point out that any comparison between Israel, even under its current Netanyahu government, to Nazi Germany or Mussolini’s Italy is utterly ludicrous and - see above - almost verges on anti-semitism. Nonsense! he says, it is not ‘anti-semitic’ to condemn Netanyahu and Zionism

Well, of course, it isn’t, but then that isn’t quite what is going on. Why, I asked recently, is his outrage, publicly expressed by often sharing’ this or that post about Israel, restricted to that one issue? Why, I asked him, has he not expressed outrage (as in hasn’t bothered posting on Facebook about it) by the genocide of the Rohingyas in Myanmar (once Burma) or the treatment of the Uighurs in western China by the Han Chinese?

His answers - as far as I am concerned - have been disingenuous to the point of nonsense. He is outraged about what is going on in Israel, he says, because Britain - i.e. his country - had a part in the creation of the state and the displacement of Palestinians, and there is no such connection of that kind with Myanmar or the Uighurs. On another occasions he insisted that you can’t concern yourselves with all the evils in the world and you have to be selective. So why is it always Israel, I ask?

This is what he wrote:

‘In the end - and we’ve had this discussion before - there are only so many things one can take on board in this very imperfect but wonderful world. I am drawn to what is closest to me and what is perhaps most obvious to me. Brexit, Trump and, coming out of my support for Corbyn - you say naive, I say not yet as terminally cynical as some others - and the attacks on him using anti-Semitism. This leads inevitably to an examination of what these attacks arise from - so Israel, the Palestinians and the more one looks at it, the ghastly unsolvability (is that a word?) if that situation, which leaves Israel with only a very fascist-seeming approach.’

Today, and this was the immediate impulse to write this blog entry, he posted a picture (this one) of Margaret
Thatcher shaking hands with Menachem Begin, a former prime minister of Israel and before that a former commander of the freedom fighters/terrorist group (see above) Irgun.

When, I asked, was murder not murder? How, I asked did the terror acts of the IRA from the early 1970s until the Good Friday Agreement (which claimed many lives) differ from what Irgun had done?

And given the terror acts of the IRA, how did he square his abhorrence of Margaret Thatcher shaking hands with Menachem Begin with Jeremy Corbyn’s enthusiastic and very public support of Gerry Adams (both pictured below) when Adams was a commander of the IRA?

In response someone else, presumably one of his one Facebook friends, gave this very silly and wholly hollow response. (NB Confusingly my comments and subsequent responses wereattached to another anti-Israel post, one which reproduced a letter written in 1948 declaring that Israel was well on its way to becoming a fascist state) She again somehow tried to insist that concentrating on what was going on in Israel was acceptable:

‘There are many open sores in the world of human rights. Talking about one at a time is practical, not romantic.

I pointed out that it was notable that the ‘one’ on which it was practical to concentrate always seemed to be the troubles in Israel. I then asked this woman:

‘Tell me exactly when one murder is acceptable and another isn't. Were, say IRA murders acceptable (in as far as they were fighting for an Irish 'homeland' without British rule) but Irgun murders unacceptable (even though they were fighting for a Jewish 'homeland' without British rule)? Was in your view the Enniskillen bombing acceptable? Was the bombing in Deal acceptable? Were the bombings in Birmingham acceptable? And if the IRA were murderers (whatever the cause) what distinguishes Jeremy Corbyn meeting Gerry Adams from Thatcher meeting Begin? Do tell me, I might be enlightened. Or is it a question of one rule for some, one rule for others? A little intellectual honesty never goes amiss.’

I got this fatuous response, something of a non-response:

‘You are attempting to reframe the discussion to suit yourself. I refuse to be drawn into such a hostile, futile domain.’

Forgive me for being so longwinded and reproducing these response verbatim, but I do want to try to show just how slippery some are in debate.

. . .

My main point? I am appalled at how Netanyahu is responding to Hamas, how Arabs are now being given lesser rights, and how settlers are going anywhere they choose. But I am not in the slightest convinced that the condemnation from some on the left is merely an expression of their equal horror. Sadly, I am rather persuaded that for many - though they might not know it and would certainly deny it - their attitude to Israel - the sole democracy in that neck of the woods, with the rule of law, and independent judiciary and regular elections (oh, and their prime minister, one Benjamin Netanyahu, currently being investigated by the police on suspicion of corruption - is at heart nothing but tacit anti-semitism.

. . .

Oh, I cannot but admire how Israel built up its country, turning parts of a scrappy, scrubby land into productive, green country. I admire how it defends itself in the face of out-and-out aggression. I don’t admire some of the measures it takes, especially recent measures, but I think we should always remind ourselves that the stated aim of the - authoritarian regime in the Islamic Republic of Iran is to wipe Israel from the face of the Earth.

I don’t blame the Israelis in the slightest in refusing to countenance a debate with Iran (not that one has been offered) on just how far off the face of the Earth it is acceptable to wipe Israel.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

My dilemma: how to you patch things up with a stepmother when you really don’t give a fuck whether or not things are patched up? It would only be for her sake.

Although this blog is the descendant of a diary I once kept for about 15 years, it differs in at least one respect in that I have so far avoided writing about people - family and friends - who might read it. Neither do I care emotionally to spill my guts. As it happens I don’t have a great much to spill emotionally, certainly a lot less than when I was writing my diary from around 1980 to 1995 and splitting up with girls (especially one in particular), but even if I did, I wouldn’t record it here for the world to drool over. The major advantage of keeping a written diary is that, with very few exceptions, no one will ever read it. Blogs, on the other hand, are public knowldge. If you don’t want something to become public, don’t put it in your bloody blog.

As for friends and family - not so much news of them, which I do occasionally record here, but comments about them which might not always be complimentary - they, too, must accept that they will have no place here. As far I know, no family have ever read my blog, except in the early days my sister, and only two friends occasionally do so, and I have nothing unpleasant or even uncomplimentary to say about either of them.

But I am about to break my rule and give an account of a very recent family matter, and the reason I have no compunction about breaking my rule is that I really don’t give a fuck who gets upset. It concerns my stepmother, and two very odd and very hurtful comments she made. As a rule and given her less than happy circumstances, I would allow them to wash off my back like water off a duck, but oddly when she made the second comment - and given our history - something snapped in me.

. . .

She hooked up with my father more than 55 years ago when she was in her mid-twenties and he was just over 40, though who hooked up with whom I can’t say and I don’t know. It would be dishonest to say that she thereby wrecked my father’s marriage as I don’t think it was in a very healthy state anyway. Nor shall I speculate further, as no one can know the dynamic of a relationship a couple - in this case my father and mother - has. But I do know from there on in there was often an uncomfortable and edgy atmosphere in the house, and Christmas breaks were never very happy going on on occasion quite awful.

My mother died suddenly of a heart attack in January 1981 at the comparatively early age of 30 - I found her dead - and in the months and years following her death, I got to know far more details of the affair and just what had been going on.

When we returned from Paris in 1972 (the year I graduated) we were back living in Henley-on-Thames, from where many commute to London where my father worked (indeed my sister did daily as she attended a French school in London). My father chose not to commute and to stay in London during the week, telling my mother he slept in one of the bedrooms at Broadcasting House the BBC kept for late night/early morning announcers. I doubt she believed him though. My stepmother, who also worked for the BBC, owned a flat in Blackheath, and my father had been shacking up with her there since 1972.

In the mid-seventies my stepmother inherited several thousand pounds from an aunt and bought herself an old granite cottage in the village of St Breward, about six miles from Bodmin. Her parents were both Irish and had moved to Cornwall in the mid-1930s where her father took over running a mental health hospital in North Cornwall. Her two sisters and brother were born in Ireland, but she was born in Bodmin.  (NB Wrong, as I discovered tonight, after asking her oldest sibling. They were all born in Bodmin. The parents came over in the late 1920s and all of their children were born in Cornwall.) Apart from living with my stepmother in London, my father also used to spend weekends with her at the cottage, telling my mother he was staying with a friend while he was ‘working on his book’. There was no phone, he said, so he could not be contacted. I doubt any sane woman would accept such a story, especially as I’m sure my mother already knew of the affair.

After my mother died, my father sold the house he and my mother had built on Greys Road, on the outskirts of Henley (at Gillotts Corner if you know Henley) for around £82,000. That - a tidy sum - would be the equivalent of around £276,000 in 2018. The money was used to add to and extend my stepmother’s cottage substantially. In 1983, my father retired and my stepmother took early retirement.

. . .

I have known my stepmother since I was 15 in 1965. She, her sisters and their uncle, a GP who was not short of a penny and who owned a small holiday cottage on small island on the Thames at Henley which they all used to visit, I simply knew as my father’s friends. When my stepmother met my father and found out we lived in Henley, our he (and his family) were invited to join them there on a weekend afternoon, but we only went once or twice as I’m sure my mother suspected something was going on.

Late in 1965 we moved to Paris where my father had been posted as the BBC’s ‘Paris representative’. (It is only recently that I have been wondering why the BBC had ‘correspondents’ all over the world, but ‘representatives’ in only one or two cities, but I can’t tell you or even suggest why. Perhaps his posting had something to do with what I suspect was the second string to his bow, his obscure connection to Britain’s SIS (more here 1 and here 2). Perhaps it wasn’t, but I’m not going to speculate.)

From 1965 until 1968 I was at school in England and until 1972, when we returned from Paris, I was at university in Dundee, and such was the rather fraught and generally unhappy atmosphere at home that I rarely ever spent school breaks at home in Paris. (It didn’t help that although I generally got one reasonably well with my father, he and my older brother clashed quite regularly.) I particularly remember the first Christmas in Paris, in 1965 (I turned 16 in the November of that year). My father picked up myself and my older brother from the Gare du Nord and drove us home in a taxi. It was evening and as we drove along beside the Seine with all its lights, I distinctly remember feeling very proud of my father. I also distinctly remember that he stank of whisky.

It was late, and we went to bed almost as soon as we got in, but within minutes a terrible row broke out downstairs - the house had three floors - between my mother and father which went on for some time. My mother appeared and came upstairs to where we children were sleeping (my sister was only ten and my younger brother eight) mother, not a small women, wearing a pink baby doll night dress and weeping. I suspect she had tried to initiate ‘intimate relations’ - sex - with my father but he had wanted none of it. The rest of the Christmas break was downhill from there on.

. . .

I wasn’t reacquainted with my stepmother for 15 years until after my mother died. When she died, and, to but it bluntly, she was out of the way an no longer a barrier to my father and stepmother going public, my father set about easing me in on the fact of his affair. I discovered my younger brother had been eased in rather earlier than me.

I was invited to spend a weekend at my stepmother’s flat in Blackheath and immediately sensed that the story I had been told - that she was an old friend he had turned to when my mother died - was bullshit. There was an especially silly charade when I was given the guest room to sleep in and he made out he was sleeping on a camp bed in the living room. I offered him the guest room and said I would sleep on the camp bed. No, no, no, he said that’s fine, don’t bother.

I didn’t take to my stepmother, but didn’t dislike her, either. I was neutral. I found her pretentious, and her snobbery and airs and graces irritated me, and she had a very annoying habit of pulling me - and my young brother and, for all I know, everyone else - up short on points of etiquette. But I said nothing, probably because I am by nature quite direct and I either speak out or not at all. Although my years working shifts on the nationals in London taught me a modicum of diplomacy, I had not then learnt the little I might now have.

My mother died in January 1982, and I spent the Christmas of 1982 with my girlfriend’s mother in Harwich where she, who had split from her father, now lived. The following year my younger brother and I were invited down here to Cornwall to spend Christmas with my father and my stepmother.

. . .

From the off it was agony. Everything was phoney, no one could relax, the bonhomie abounding was so fake, it could well have been prosecuted by trading standards. Before my mother died we had always celebrated Christmas in the German way on Christmas Eve. Hoping, I suppose, somehow to recreate those Christmases, my father and stepmother emulated them. I suppose they deserve credit for trying but I wished to Christ they hadn’t.

The following morning on Christmas Day, I woke up and thought ‘I don’t want to be here’. I realised the huge upset I would cause by walking out, but I also remember thinking that this was a watershed: I could carry on trying to be honest with myself (after a fashion, I should add, because I don’t doubt I am just as capable of kidding myself as everyone else) or start playing the silly, phoney games my stepmother seemed to prefer, the ‘let’s pretend for the sake of form’ crap. I decided to leave.

I packed, went downstairs to the kitchen where my stepmother was preparing Christmas lunch and told her I was leaving. She said something along the lines of ‘I think you are very wrong’ and I left. My father and brother were out somewhere at the time and my father didn’t speak to me for several years. But to this day I know I did the right thing.

I don’t quite remember how long it took, but there came about a reconciliation of sorts with my father. But it was by no means immediate. My brother was living with me at the time in my house in the Maypole, Birmingham, and whenever my father rang him and I andwered the phone, he would not say a word except to ask for Mark. But in time, at least two years, the situation began to ease and I began to visit him and my stepmother down here in Cornwall.

By then I was living in Cardiff, working for the South Wales Echo. But I never felt at all easy with her and I didn’t much like her. Being a middle-class sort of chap, I was polite and affable, but what was especially galling - quite apart from her airs and graces, snobbery, and her habit of lecturing on matters of etiquette - was when she informed me, referring to my crime of walking out on Christmas Day, that ‘all was forgiven’. She didn’t just say it once or twice, but rather often over the years, far, far too often for my liking. I, who would either have to let rip or say nothing, always said nothing. Christ, I deserve a medal.

My father developed cancer in the early 1990s and died in 1991. My stepmother, unsurprisingly, was devastated. She had retired in 1983 at the same time as my father when she was just 46 and had looked forward to many years of a comfortable life with him. I visited her once or twice while I was living in London, when I married a local woman and myself moved down here to St Breward (although I carried on working in London for another 22 years).

While he was on his deathbed, my father asked myself and my younger brother ‘to take care of Paddy’, and I took the request seriously. My stepmother and I rubbed along OK, although we weren’t in each other’s pockets and I never felt at ease in her company, but with my father no longer around, I was conscious that she needed a bit of company. I can’t say we became bosom pals. And the ‘all is forgiven line’ was still trotted out on occasion.

Eleven years ago, two days before her 70th birthday, my stepmother suffered a very bad stroke. She was in a coma for three days and stayed in hospital for several months, first in Truro then in Bodmin. A few days after she had come out of her coma, she gave me enduring power of attorney, and I have been making sure her bills are paid on time and all the rest ever since.

After leaving hospital, she moved into a care home near the north coast and lived there for several years. She then moved into one of the two cottages she owns adjacent to hers (she had jointly bought the first with my brother, and later inherited the second from her sister when her sister died). She moved into that because at the time it was thought easier to adapt to someone who was as physically disabled as she was. Several years later she moved back into her original home, and that is where she lives now.

. . .

To some it might seem that the account above indicates it has all been at the back of my mind and that I have been chewing it all over for the past 36 years. Actually, I haven’t. So my dad had an affair? So? I haven’t had one while married, although I did a fair bit of two-timing, but none of us is kitchen-clean and I gather my parents’ marriage was most certainly not in the best of health. (In fact, my sister told me that she had been informed - by whom I can’t remember but whoever it was should have known better - that my parents had her ‘to save the marriage’. Not a nice thing to be told.) I honestly thought it was all water under the bridge, and I astonished myself when all this came rushing back to me the other morning - especially that sanctimonious and infuriating ‘all is forgiven’.

I shan’t go into details of what was said because that would be too tedious, but several months ago my stepmother pretty much accused me of trying to steal a table from her. That did sour me rather badly. Then the other morning she said something similar and something inside me snapped. And that was it.

I know myself well: I can get noisily angry but that is always just like a sudden summer storm, over almost before it has started. But when, as has happened and has happened again, I get so furious that I am in complete calm, but in a state of white fury, I make sure I watch my step and keep my mother shut. And there is no going back.

My stepmother has been affected by her strokes - she had two more a few years ago - and can do little for herself. But mentally she is all there, although she sometimes takes a little longer to respond to questions. I have no idea what is going through here mind, but it wasn’t what she said, but what she obviously believes about me. As I say something snapped.

My dilemma is that she is helpless, pretty much, and relies on me in several ways, so this state of affairs cannot carry on. But I don’t care whether or not I ever see her again. I have had it with her, completely, but I can’t abandon her. And I shall not, but . . .

I am going to try to patch things up for her sake - me, I really don’t give a fuck - but not at any price. I am certainly not going to play some phoney little game about it all being ‘a misunderstanding’, the line she took before, and I am not and shall never engage in more of that thoroughly fake middle-class politeness and phoney bonhomie which gets up my nose at the best of times. I have had it - but somehow I’ve got to find a way through. And, dear reader, at this point I am utterly clueless.

Even ‘talking about it’ with my stepmother as my ‘cousin’, her nephew (he, his wife and his mother are staying) suggests is out of the question because I would have to say things she would hurt her very badly indeed - how do you tell someone that she is a total pain in the arse and that her airs and graces and snobbery are supremely irritating and still hope to have a reasonably friendly relationship?

As I say, I am utterly clueless.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

As luck would have it . . .

Given that this blog had its origins in a diary I kept for many years in the pre-digital days when the world was still in B&W, it would be odd if I didn’t mention something which doesn’t occur to everyone, but which recently happened to me: emergency eye surgery

It wasn’t, thank goodness, the result of an accident. I had a routine eye test last Friday morning - six days ago - in which the opthalmologist spotted a small tear in my retina. Can’t have he told himself, probably in Ukrainian as he was Ukrainian, and immediately got on the phone to our local major hospital, The Royal Cornwall, Treliske, in Truro, for an examination at its eye clinic that afternoon

It turned out that there were five small tears in the retina, not just one, and that the retina had already began to detach itself from the back of the eye. It was explained to me why tears can appear in the retina - inevitably, it has to do with ageing - and how these tears can lead to the retina becoming detached, but I shan’t attempt to pass it on because I’m sure to get it wrong. Oh, and once the retina gets fully detached, you go blind in that eye

I was asked to pitch up at Truro the following morning at 1o for the op. What with one thing and another - I this was an emergency eye clinic, and I should imagine there were greater emergencies to be dealt with than mine - my operation wasn’t until just before five

I had both laser treatment and some other treatment which I was told involved removing some of the fluid in the eye, then injecting a gas bubble to force the retina back against the eye (and I shan’t use any technical terms as I’ve noticed some folk who have undergone surgery are apt to do, as I’ll more than likely get them wrong). It was all done under local anaesthetic and apart from one tiny little prick I didn’t feel a thing

I returned home by train wearing an big, white bandage over my eye, and returned the following morning for a post-op check-up. That went well, and the bandage came off. Since then I have had a black bubble floating around at the bottom of my eye, getting smaller by the day, which, I’m told, is the gas that was injected. Because you are not allowed to fly with such a bubble in your eye, I had to cancel my annual trip to the music festivals of Bordeaux which would have taken place this week

I had another check-up yesterday morning and it seems everything is going well. Every time the consultant takes a look at your eye, both get drops of some kind to make the iris huge so he can have more room to look through, giving the patient the appearance of some kind of junkie on downers, and everything is very bright indeed

That’s it really. Another check-up with the senior consultant next Wednesday, and the eye should settle down within four weeks. My brother-in-law suffered a rather worse example of a detaching retina a few years ago, and he is now as right as rain, so . .

I’m sure there is some possible silly joke about eyes and noses, and that when it comes to which organ has the greater capacity for afflictions needing sensitive surgery, they eyes have it, but as I can’t think of it off-hand, I shall leave it there

. . .

Incidentally, given the ongoing debate about underfunding of the UK’s National Health Service, I would like to remind those in Britain reading this that all treatment is completely free. Out of interest, I looked up the cost of the treatment I had for someone who did not have health insurance in the US. It ranged from between $4,700 to $10,000.

Bear in mind that there will be a reason why someone doesn’t have health insurance and that will usually be because they are unemployed and/or to poor to afford it. I know some US states have welfare schemes, but many don’t. And even if you have health insurance, perhaps paid for by your employer, you would still have to cough up around $200 for this, that and t’other

. . .

I like to find illustrations for my blog entries so here is one of an eye, chosen at random from the web when I googled images for ‘vitrectomy’. The great thing is that if I told you it was a close up of Mars, you would be none the wiser. In fact, for the sake of comparison (and because I an impeccably liberal heart beats in my breast which insists on fairness all round, here is also a picture of Mars. I leave it to you to decide which is which.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Bit by bit by bloody small bit this hopeless guitar player is becoming just a little less hopeless. Onwards and upwards (or whatever cliche you prefer, you know what I mean. Never stop trying, something it has taken me a little longer to learn than others)

NB Included in this post are some tunes which your browser should be able to play, though sometimes certain browser/OS combinations cannot. If you want to hear them but your browser is refusing to cooperate, try a different browser.

One thing I had long planned to do when I retired was to take piano lessons. But I haven’t. Instead I am taking guitar lessons. I would still like to be able to learn to read music and play the piano, but the fact is that if you spread yourself too thinly, you end up doing and achieving very little, and I had already long been playing guitar. Then there was the fact that a reasonably sized keyboard, let alone a full-sized upright piano would be hard to fit into anywhere in the cottaged down here on the edge of Bodmin Moor.

As it is my wife, a farmer’s daughter, hoards pretty much everything and is loth to get rid of anything, so space is at a premium. Then there is all the baby crap my daughter has introduced into the house - she splits her time between her and my grandchild living here, usually during the week, and at her boyfriend’s house 17 miles away at the weekends, mainly because he and his parents all work and the house would be empty during the day. (Incidentally, my heart really goes out to new mums with a young baby stuck several stories up in a high-rise tower block of flats, seeing and chatting to hardly anyone and locked into a routine of feeding and sleeping.)

If and when, of course, there would still always be time to try to get to grips with the piano, but I decided to learn to play the guitar properly. It’s not that I can’t play guitar - I can and I have been able to play for many years - it’s just that like so many other players, I got stuck in my groove, simply playing what I could play and not in the slightest bit pushing myself. So, of course, like everyone else stuck in a similar groove, you don’t really improve at all. Anyone reading this will who plays guitar will know what I mean: you do a bit of this for 20 or 30 seconds, then a bit of that, then a bit of t’other, then back to the first bit, and convince yourself you are playing guitar. Well, strictly, you are. But you’re not getting anywhere, and won’t ever.

I have been ‘playing’ pretty much since I was 14 and at boarding school. There was always a few guitars lying around to be picked up and strummed and it is as easy as pie to learn the two chords everyone learns first of all, because they are the same shape: E major and A minor. Then it is on to D major and D minor and - whizzo - before you know it you are playing a G major and then C major. The E, A and D are enough for you to bang out a passable blues, and the G, C and D will take you passably into folk and country music territory. And, of course, using just those simple chords, depending upon how much you practice, you could easily sound - and be competent.

The next step involved looking up the chords to various songs you wanted to play - in my case (52 years ago, remember) it was songs by The Beatles - and by and by discovering ‘bar’ (or ‘barre’) chords and the several variations which make music more interesting but which initially are not quite as easy to master as the simply major and minor chords - the major 7th being one of the most prominent.

Yet even religiously learning the chords to a song was hardly ever satisfying, particularly as I had an older brother around who was gifted in ways I could only dream of. When he played guitar, he sounded like someone playing guitar. When I did, I didn’t. (My brother also had a natural gift for drawing and a very good brain, so good that he could excel at whatever he turned his mind to. Sadly, all too often he couldn’t be bothered putting in the effort and also sadly he had some flaw in him which meant that - as I now know, but didn’t then - he was already demonstrating obsessive behaviour from an early age, and by the time he was 12 when we were living in Berlin, my parents took him to a child psychologist.

Over time, it simply got worse and worse and worse, so that from his early twenties on and until he died a few years ago at that age of 67, he was in and out of mental care, lived in doss houses and generally didn’t have a very happy life. The medication he had been taking for many years eventually brought on dyskinesia, which distressed him even more. RIP Ian.)

So there it was: I was ‘playing’ guitar after a fashion whenever I found one knocking around - there was a battered old acoustic in the flat I shared in 23, Castle St, Dundee, with Eric Clyne, Dave Pilkington and Nigel Selwyn which could never be properly tuned and which was so cheap and cheerful it was murder to play. But I never had a guitar of my own until I was living in Milan in 1973.

I can’t think why I finally decided to buy one, but get one I did (at a guitar shop near Milan’s central station if I remember), a bright orange ‘Spanish guitar’ style item which sounded awful but was within my modest price
range. The first thing I did was to remove the nylon strings and instal metal strings, which everyone who knows about guitars and his dog will tell you is a complete no-no: the guitar’s neck is simply not strong enough over time to survive the tension of metal as opposed to nylon strings and will warp. Well, mine didn’t.

Possibly the neck did warp, but I didn’t notice, and my playing still being of a rudimentary standard it’s a moot point whether I would even have noticed. Eventually, while living in Birmingham in the mid-1980s I also bought an electric guitar, a Les Paul-style shape, and a small amp. My playing, though, didn’t improve because I was still in the groove of playing this, that and t’other for 30 seconds or so and not pushing myself.

I moved to Cardiff in 1986, into a ground-floor flat in Richards Terrace off the Newport Road, and while I was in Germany visiting my sister (and not having checked before leaving whether or not the back door was locked), I was burgled and both guitars were stolen. I can’t remember when I next bought a guitar, a Fender Strat copy, but I was still living in Cardiff and it was there I took my first lessons. They were, however, a complete waste of time as I simply didn’t go the scale exercises my tutor set for me.

. . .

This is all getting a little long-winded and to be frank beside the point. So here’s a tune, Witchcraft played by Jimmy Bruno, and the kind of music I should like to play and at a standard - a bloody great standard - I should like to reach. I doubt I ever shall, of course, but there is no harm in trying and seeing just how far I can get.

Witchcraft - Jimmy Bruno

I have indeed made progress, for two reasons: first I am now regularly practising various exercises and also because I have a very good tutor, Paul Berrington in Padstow, who, though, has one tiny fault - he teaches too fast and by the end of my weekly hour my head seems about to explode with all the stuff he has told me. At first I was a tad despondent, though I didn’t tell him, and wondered whether I would ever get my head around any of it (it was the music theory I was interested in as much as becoming more dextrous).

But by and by some if it began to accumulate and in that odd way these things have, the more you understood, the more you were able to understand, and the more you understood, the more you were able to ask pertinent questions. Furthermore, all the - for my baffling - mystique of many jazz chords became far less baffling as I got to know more and more music theory. So, for example, if looking up the chords to a song I came across Bbm7b5 (B flat minor seventh, flat fifth, all I could do was to memorise ‘where the fingers went on the fretboard’ - and there are several shapes/inversions for every chord - and trust I would remember. I never did.

Now, such chords hold no fear for me, or rather less. It’s not that I understand music theory, more that I can now see how I might understand music theory and if that sounds a little too Irish for some, please bear in mind that your average Irishman or woman is more than a tad brighter than the rest of us.

Knowing the theory will not necessarily make you a better player. But practising the scales and particularly arpeggios does wonders for finger dexterity, muscle memory and finally - the Holy Grail - of playing instinctively what you want to play without thinking about it at all.

I have to be off now, so here are a few more tracks by guitarists I like. If I could become even a tenth as good I would be reasonably happy, though I suspect if I were to become a tenth as good, I would then try to become even better.

. . .

Here’s another favourite tune of mine, Lullaby Of The Leaves. I have five versions on iTunes, two guitar version, two horn versions and one by Art Tatum. This one is by guitarist Grant Green.
Lullaby Of The Leaves - Grant Green

Then there’s the guitarist John Scofield, who played with Miles Davis in his younger years.
Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get - John Scofield

And if that’s a tad to middle-of-the road for you, try this:

The Nag - John Scofield

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Was he or was he not? Who knows? Who cares? Well, not me particularly, but it is interesting. Then there’s the matter on which I shall say nothing, nothing at all...

In a previous entry, I promised to conclude a - rather long-winded - account about why I think it more likely that my father, who I had so far thought was a BBC journalist helping out with MI6 now and again, was actually a full-time spook. Not that it matters and he died almost 30 years ago, but a number of things an aunt told me on a trip to Germany in May cast a rather different light upon what I knew.

Briefly, my father served in the Army Intelligence Corps during World War II, and then worked for the British Military Government in Germany for a few years, probably until a few months before I was born in 1949.

By the time I was born, he had joined the BBC Monitoring Service at Caversham Park, Caversham near Reading, which, he told me, entailed the BBC monitoring radio (and, I suppose, later TV) stations from around the world. I
often wondered why the BBC should bother doing that and when, as a young lad, I asked him, he told me that the BBC could thus hear about news they might otherwise have missed and could put it in it’s own bulletins.

I’ve since discovered it, or possibly just part of it, was a division of the CIA known by the somewhat innocuous name Open Source Enterprise. In 1959, he was appointed as the BBC’s representative in Berlin (note, there was also a BBC correspondent who, for some of the four years we lived in Berlin was Charles Wheeler. Wheeler a more liberal-minded chap and my father rather further to the right apparently did not get on very well).

In Berlin, he was part of the BBC’s German Service, a department which existed for 60 years from 1939. It was in Berlin that he, by his own account and in response various questions I put to him in the last few years of his life, ‘helped out the security services’. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it might account for Charles Wheeler’s antipathy. Wheeler was a hack to his core and most certainly would not have agreed with a journalist working hand-in-glove with his country’s government, if only for the very practical reason that it would cast doubt on his integrity as an honest journalist, and even though that integrity might be wholly unsullied, even the possibility that a journalist was not entirely independent could be damaging.

Incidentally, and as I have pointed out in the blog before, when I talk here of a ‘journalist’, I do mean the professional man or woman who reports on news and sometime provides analysis as opposed to the guy or gal thinking up puns for captions to pictures of vegetables that look like celebrities - or celebrities that look like politicians if you like. This second kind of hack might be beavering away on Tunnels & Tunnelling, a very useful publication which now has an online presence for those with a keen interests in, well tunnels and tunnelling.

The first kind of journalist is one the public - ‘civilians’ - imagines you are when they discover you ‘are a journalist’ and assume you spend your days hob-nobbing with politicians and high-end businessmen and are generally ‘in the know’. In fact, the other sort, those who staff Trout & Salmon, for example, are equally justified in calling themselves journalists. It’s just their work is not quite as apparently sexy as that of the first kind. Me, I’ve never called myself ‘a journalist’, I always said I worked for newspapers. Nothing hard news about me, dear friends.

. . .

I mentioned in the entry I link to above a guy called August Löning, a distant relative and strong anti-Nazi by virtue of the fact that he was a supporter of Der Stahlhelm, a rival far-right group which was mainly distinguished from the National Socialists by the fact that it wanted to ‘bring back the Kaiser’ and the Nazis didn’t. Onkel August as I, part of the ‘extended family’ - and boy can Germans extend families, although I must admit I rather like it - called him was a founder member of the German CDU (Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands) and served as a member of the stare parliament of Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen). But Onkel August was also part of a secret government in waiting set up by - well, partly by the British security services - which was destined to take over in the event of a Soviet invasion. That, at least, is what my father informed me.

Several years ago, Irmgard, one of August Löning’s daughters told me that a few times every year throughout the 1950s a mysterious Englishman would visit her father in Lathen, the village about 12 miles from the Dutch border in which he lived, and when he arrived, they secreted themselves somewhere quietly and everyone else was told not to disturb them. Irmgard said she couldn’t remember his name. But on my recent trip to Germany her younger sister Helma, who I had lunch with, could remember who it was: my father.

Was she sure? I asked her. Because her sister Irmgard, I told her, who knew my father just as well as she did, would certainly have remembered it was my father. She was certain, Helma said. My father visited her father - August Löning - regularly throughout the 1950s. And then, she added, as we ate, there was ‘the radio transmitter in das Alte Wehrhaus’.

August Löning had owned das Alte Wehrhaus (the old weir house) on the river Ems since a new weir had been built further down the river. We spent many holidays there when we lived in Berlin, and it was also where a radio transmitter was kept. There’s obviously nothing particularly unusual about having a radio transmiter as part of plans to be ready to put in place a provisional German government if the Soviets ever invaded West Germany (as it was then), but it did take me a little by surprise when Helma told me. She said her brother Heinrich had been trained to use if as and when.

The question I am asking myself is why would a member BBC monitoring service, by his own admission, help to set up a provisional German government and, furthermore, make regular visits to see August Löning throughout the 1950s? But if he were a serving member of the security services, it would make a lot more sense.

That possibility also made me ponder on something else which has in the past struck me as odd. My father, who once later in life described himself as a ‘right-wing radical’ when I asked him what his politics were, also once told me he had campaigned for the then Liberal Party during the general election of either 1950 or 1951.

Now, anyone meeting my father would never have put him down as a liberal, but it is always possible that he, then 27/28. was a tad more idealistic at the time and, well, thought Britain could do with a Liberal Party government and it was worth campaigning to get one elected. It has since dawned on me that the security services might also very much like to have an inside man among the Liberals, given the number of Communist sympathisers out and about and the steadily deteriorating relations with the Soviet Union. But that is just surmise.

So there you have it. I can still not say with any certainty what my father was - a BBC man who ‘helped out’ or a spook with a BBC cover. To be frank it doesn’t matter either way, but when Helma insisted it had been my father who had arrived regularly throughout the 1950s, I did get to thinking again.

A few years ago I discussed some of this with my sister, and we decided to ask MI6 straight out. So almost four years ago, on November 1, 2014, I wrote them a letter explaining who I was and who my father was, and asking whether my father had been a member of their staff. I didn’t get a reply for several months, but then I did get a response from MI6. It was bland in the extreme.

It purported to be from a suburban street somewhere in South London and was extremely short. I know it was from MI6 because I had addressed my letter - I got the address from the MI6 website - to ‘General Inquiry, MI6, PO Box 1300, London SE1 1BD’. I think I still have it somewhere though I can’t say where as when I put stuff away

for ‘safekeeping’, I invariably forget where it is (but at least it is still safe). I can only remember the gist of the very short reply, but it was along the lines of ‘such matters are never discussed’ and it advised me to get in touch with The National Archives in Kew, South-West London, to see if they had any info on my dear old dad. Nowhere in the letter was there any mention of the ‘security services’, ‘MI6’ or ‘MI5’.

Oh, and here’s tip: if anyone in Britain (or in your own country) volunteers the information that they are working or once worked for the security services, you know one thing for certain: they are not or did not, and are just total bullshitters. Spooks don’t talk or brag. It’s not in their nature, and an ability to keep quiet is one of the traits which makes them attractive as potential agents. For the record, I am not and have never been a member of the security services.

Former colleagues might not that I am far to outspoken, indiscrete (or indiscreet - subs please check, as I can’t be arsed), noisy and tactless to be considered spook material. But then I would have thought that having a reputation as a loudmouth might well be excellent cover. If it worked for the Scarlett Pimpernel . . .

 . . .

There is another matter I should dearly like to write about, but wisdom - yes, wisdom - advises against it. As I confessed to a friend a week or two ago, rather shamefacedly I must admit, I might not be much wiser than I was, but I have learned to listen to small voice inside me that occasionally counsels ‘nah, wouldn’t do that, or at least not yet’. So, zilch, dear friends, zilch on the matter.