Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Sorry, but Brexit: pretty much a fuck-up all round. Sad, but true

Sorry, but I can’t resist it any more. What with the daily, if not hourly, developments in – well, why don’t I for simplicity’s sake merely refer to everything as ‘Brexit’ and use the word as a catch-all term? – the whole shooting match is getting sillier and sillier and sillier. That wouldn’t actually matter if the possible – perhaps even probably – consequences of Brexit for Britain weren’t so dire.

I happened to have voted Remain, though I must admit through rather gritted teeth. I am not an EU cheerleader, one who thinks, as some seem to think, that the EU is the best thing to have happened to the world since the invention of lavatory paper. On the other had there was never the slightest chance that I would have voted Leave. And I don’t think I am alone in realising that on June 23, two years ago, I faced a horrible Hobson’s Choice.

It might help, although I am supremely conscious of just how boring it will be if I don’t manage to express myself succinctly, if I outlined my position. And it most certainly isn’t either ‘Remain under all costs’ or ‘Leave under all costs. Christ, no.

The concept of the EU as it was when the European Community evolved into the European Union was – as I understand it – a very good one. For me its essence can be summed up in one word: co-operation. There has, of course, been co-operation between the various European nations for some time on many matters, but the EU could be seen to provide a useful streamlining function. That included the streamlining of trade, keeping down costs which was to everyone's benefit.

I was, and most certainly still am, also in favour of one of the underlying principles of the EU at the time, that the wealthier nations are net contributors to the EU budget, and the poorer nations are beneficiaries – those who could afford to do without shelling out and helping those who needed help. Thus even a short trip to Spain, Portugal and Greece – all three were countries which had suffered under dictatorship for many a decade and whose economies had stagnated - would show to what good use those EU funds were put. That, at least, was the theory.

In practice, it was not quite as straightforward. For example, Greece, a beneficiary, would perhaps not necessarily have been quite as badly off as it purported to be and as its official figures showed it to be if it had collected its taxes more efficiently, i.e. had not allowed its rich folk to stick two fingers up to the state as far as their taxes were concerned. And we now know that in other ways it was rather wasteful, for example, allowing its men and women to retire at, I think, 55, and to draw a state pension while they then immediately carried on working, occupying jobs which those without employment could have done with.

But I don’t want to sidetrack myself, except to add that according to one Radio 4 programme I heard, a great deal of EU money was disappearing into the pockets of, in Italy the various mafia and in other countries to their criminals, but this was not publicly acknowledged - glossed over, even by the EU - in the interests of the greater good.

. . .

The point has often been made here in Britain, and I think it is a valid point, that there was little talk, and pertinently, little public talk, of the EU eventually aiming at ‘political union’. Stout-hearted europhiles will here declare that it was always the intention, right from the outset to unite politically. Well, perhaps it was, but no one was banging the drum for it then, especially not in Britain which in the 1970s held a referendum, its first, on whether to withdraw from the EEC. It chose not to. And note the institution was then still called the ‘EEC’ in that it was first and foremost an economic community, one which by gradually abolishing trade barriers and tariffs benefited all.

It all began to change when the Soviet Union collapsed and former members, all pretty much on their uppers economically, eagerly queued up to join. Was that, I ask, because they were eager for ‘ever closer political union’ with the rest of Europe? Was it hell: they wanted some of the economic action, they wanted markets for their goods and they wanted, without putting too fine a point on it, as much of the good times as they could get. I am not in the slightest bit convinced that those, all very proud nations, having just emerged from being part of political group in which they had little say as to what was to happen were thoroughly content in becoming part of another political groups in which, arguably, they would also have little say.

In 1993 the institution was changed into the European Union under the Maastricht Treaty and was already gaining members, so it once had 12 members rather rapidly increased in size to its present state of having 28 members. And now it quite openly declared that it wanted to become, though it was not called this, a United States of Europe. The purists in the EU visualised and still visualise a state with one parliament, one armed force, Europe-wide taxes and one currency.

That was when alarm bells, which had long been ringing in Britain, became even louder. ‘Do we really,’ an increasing number of folk asked, ‘really want to surrender our national sovereignty to a United State of Europe?’ No, many felt, no they did not.

But still it isn’t that simple. For in other member states there was also growing disquiet, though it was by no means as pronounced as in Britain. What makes that British disquiet all the more pertinent is that folk who, to put it mildly, didn’t and don’t have the slightest understanding of the intricacies of the EU acquire what can only be described as a visceral hatred of the EU. It is utterly irrational, certainly, but that doesn’t diminish it.

They then began to believe rather a great deal of nonsense – mainly because they wanted to believe it - about how Britain might well do far better economically if it were no longer a member of the EU and would be ‘free to forge its own trade deals with the rest of the world’. And that is where I think they are living in cloud-cuckoo-land, though, I must add, as there is just the one cloud-cuckoo-land, it is also home to those ‘I am a European’ types agitating for ‘ever closer political union’.

Well, that was then, but we are here and now and – as I keep pointing out to my sister who suspects I am a secret Brexiteer – the foregoing is neither here nor there. What is here and now is the fact that the negotiations between the EU and Britain are getting nowhere. Or perhaps they are, but both sides are keeping it all so close to their chest that we, the public, have no idea as to what is going on.

What is so thoroughly dispiriting is that both sides, Britain’s Leavers and her Remainers simply aren’t listening to one another, even though in my view both need the other rather more than either side is prepared to admit, even to itself.

Talk to a Brexiteer, and you will be bored rigid with all kinds of economic gobble-de-gook, that Britain will ‘liberate’ itself from some kind of imagined EU tyranny at 11pm on March 31, 2019, when we finally leave, but pertinently it is gobble-de-gook that is lapped up with gusto by like-minded folk. Every slight piece of economic information, if it is good – unemployment is coming down, the sale of salt has increased, this or that forum of distinguished economist (of whom the Brexit believers will never even have heard) is disingenuously corralled by them into justification for Brexit and as proof that Britain is doing the right thing. On the other hand, signs that things might not turn out as rosily is dismissed as ‘Remoaner propaganda’. As always folk believe what they want to believe, and bugger the truth.

Conversely, if you are a British ‘convinced European’ you will now be crying out in anguish and despair about the catastrophe which awaits Britain, a prediction which even I, not a convinced European in the sense usually understood, agree is far more likely to come true. And in there desperate zeal to turn back the clock, these folk, like their Brexiteer counterparts, are also largely clutching at straws.

Recently, for example, a chap who, according to the Guardian, drew up Article 50, the clause which governs a member relinquishing membership, remarked (and I am sure it was a throwaway remark) that under Article 50, and despite the ever so slight Brexit majority two years ago, Britain could still reverse its decision to leave. ‘There,’ the faithful cried as one, ‘it’s not a done deal, we can still remain a member of the EU.’ To which my immediate response was ‘yes, if you say so, but just in theory, and that in practice there would be almost, but no quite, unprecedented political chaos in Britain if a government, whether Tory, Labour or one run by the Tellytubbies, did an about-turn and declared Britain would not be leaving.

The real tragedy, the real completely unnecessary tragedy, is that here in Britain neither side, neither swivel-eyed Leavers, nor the starry-eyed Remainers is listening to the other but merely stoking up their fury at the other’s disingenuity and thinking up more ways to widen the gulf between them. Well, let them. It doesn’t mean I have to join in. And the real problem for us, the public, is that we haven’t a bloody clue as to how the ‘Brexit negotiations’ are proceeding.

. . .

The EU is insisting, and I can’t fault them on that, that the financial details of Brexit – i.e. how much money Britain is liable to cough up given its obligations under plans made years ago for this and that expenditure – must be settled before any talks can begin on what kind of trading relationship Britain will have with the rest of the EU. Britain, on the other hand, wants those talks to be held in parallel, but the EU isn’t buying that (and again, given the nickname long attributed to Britain, ‘perfidious Albion’, I can see why). So, apparently, there is stalemate.

But it is all so bloody, so frustratingly silly: as far as I am concerned whichever way you cut it, both sides will still need each other after Brexit, and not just economically, but politically: Britain, boring old, bolshy old, pragmatic Old Blighty was useful to have around when they various hotheads from different parts of the continent got into a tizzy. And given that France and Germany are seen as the pillars of the EU, Britain was useful to keep stability. There doesn’t seem much likelihood of the Krauts and the Frogs (to use the terms used in King Charles St, Westminster, London SW1A 2AH) falling out, but history does have its quirks, so having Britain around to calm matters would be no bad thing.

(NB I discovered recently that at the Congress of Vienna when the enemies of the defeated Napoleon got together to carve up the spoils, it was Britain’s representative, Viscount Castlereagh, who insisted that France, too, should attend, and so Talleyrand was of the party. Russia, Prussia and Austria weren’t at all in favour, but Britain held out, in the interests of a lasting peace.

Something similar happened after World War II when the Soviets and the US were all for destroying defeated Germany and grinding her into the dust. Certainly not, said Britain, we must build up the country and make her viable again economically as soon as possible if we want long-term peace.)

Britain was useful in other ways. For many members of the EU Britain was useful as a fig leaf, bolshy Britain saying things they agreed with but did not necessarily articulate because, Britain was saying it. And I believe among many eurocrats there is the conviction that Britain was useful in other ways, bringing a kind of stability to the whole shooting match.

For Britain, of course, the EU – for which read its markets – the EU is also needed. But can they work it out? Can they get to the point where both sides win a little, lose a little? Can they fuck. Like in a bitter divorce each side thinks it is right and the other side is being unreasonable, and it seems the twain will simply not meet to compromise.

I’ll repeat: whatever happens in the long term, by 2060 for example, 43 years hence when a great deal of water will have flowed under the bridge it might all look very different. But I do fear that in the short term – by which I mean five or ten years - Britain will suffer and will suffer badly from Brexit. Britain needs to trade, it needs to sell its goods, but trade deals are not made overnight and there is a very real risk that in the interim many industries will suffer to badly that they will go to the wall. But I also believe that has much to lose. It, too, needs and equitably trading relationship with Britain, one of its big markets.

In the short term it would seem that the EU is less under pressure. Life will go on, trade will continue elsewhere, there are, after all, another 27 members of the EU and things won’t go tits up just because Britain, in a strop, doesn’t join the party. But in the longer term the EU also must look to its future. And I believe that unless the EU rids itself of its pie-eyed obsession with ‘ever closer political union’, it is on a hiding to nothing.

Economically, the EU is still sitting quite pretty. Yes, with Britain no longer part of the customs union and no longer part of the EU economic block there will be a price to pay, but it will be a comparatively small price, and there is a lot more to the EU than just Britain. But there are other dimensions to the EU that cannot be ignored.

Certainly, they EU is still a supremely viable institution. OK, so Britain is gone, but that is not the end of the world. But that ignores something quite crucial about the whole EU shooting match, the situation of an EU with Britain as a member and a post-Brexit EU of which Britain is no longer a part. That is the political future of the EU, a future, given this obsession with ‘ever closer politca union’ which is not just part of academic discussion over coffee and cognac.

Already there are very uncomfortable rumblings of discontent which have nothing to do with Brexit. The assumption was always in Brussels that these days every member can see the virtues of the Brussels vision, that all members subscribe to the all for one and one for all. So the results of the most recent EU elections were, at best, uncomfortable, and it might have dawned on the less starry-eyed eurocrats in Brussels that the assumed harmony is not quite as copper-bottomed as they might like. They might even, after a bad meal and a bout of dyspepsia, have feared that the cherished and assumed harmony is nothing but a sham, a rancid piece of whishful thinking.

On the surface politically all might well be portrayed as sweetness and light, but problems are beginning to make themselves apparent. There is, for example, the embarrassing matter of the Brussels desired distribution of refugees and immigrants from Africa: Poland and Hungary are simply saying ‘fuck off, we don’t want them’ and there seems nothing the eurocrats in Brussels can do about it. The trouble is that one or two lesser states are more in sympathy with Poland and Hungary (not, it has to be said, at present shining examples of democratic practice) than with the wishes of Brussels and are letting those two countries do the talking for them.

For the EU, of course, it is a real dilemma: nominally they are taking those two members to court for, I don’t know how they put it in officialese, but it could be summed up as ‘not doing as they are told’. But they can’t push that lined too far, because it they do, they might well be the losers. But if they don’t crack down, they will look weak. And this bunch still want ‘ever closer political union’.

That all, of course, has nothing at all to do with Brexit. But if there are problems, the EU might well consider that having Britain as a member on the side of the angels would be rather useful. Except that they won’t: Britain wants out.

. . .

So there you have it: Brexit is, whichever way you look at it, developing into the mother of all fuck-ups. Additionally, now the sun has stopped shining the EU ALSO has to deal with other problems.
As usual all is sweetness and light when the sun IS shining, but things tend to fall apart when it doesn’t. 

What do I want? Well, I would like the EU to back down, compromise. And for Britain to back down and compromise. The EU can ditch the notion of ‘ever closer political’ and Britain can see sense that it cannot go it alone. Will any of that happen? Of course, not. Me, I am 68 in seven days times and with luck I shan’t be too discomforted. But I have a 21-year-old daugher and an 18-year-old son and I rather fear for them life will not be quite as sweet.

So there you have it: doom. But did you really expect anything else?

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

RIP Susan Wharton, one of life’s gentlewoman and the best company ever. As for the RCs and the rest . . .

In my last post, I reported that one Susan ‘Sue’ Wharton had died, and that I would write about her a little more at length in my next post. Well this is the post.

Susan was the widow of one Michael Wharton, a man who is perhaps better known to the world as Peter Simple. He wrote the column which appeared in the Daily Telegraph for almost 40 years. But this entry is about his widow, Susan, and if you want to know more about Michael, you will find his Wikipedia entry here and a blog entry I wrote about him here.

Susan was Michael’s third wife and even though I know it is almost de rigeur to gush about folk among the English middle classes, it is not a practice I knowingly subscribe to or even like. So when I say Susan was, in my experience at least, a delight, entertaining, always interesting and always good company and one of the nicest people I have ever known, I hope you are assured that I mean it sincerely and am not simply going through a typical middle class motion. I don’t suppose there is any more any point in me denying – although I have never done so – that I am irredeemably and remorselessly middle class, but I do like to put a lot of blue water between myself and both the English/British and German middle classes in some of their manifestations. But, again, this post is about Susan not me, so I shall shut up on the matter.

Susan, who was 91 on October 81, was found dead at home last week. She had vague heart problems – vague in that she would be the last person you would hear about them from – and, as I discovered talking to her nephew last week, has suffered a minor stroke at some point in the past few years, but nevertheless her death was unexpected, as it turns out even by her.

There is/was to be an inquest and I don’t know its result or whether it has yet been held, but Robert, her nephew and her nominated next of kin, told me that she had already been dead for a number of days when he body was found. Her death will have been sudden in that she was found in an armchair with a book and a half-drunk cup of tea by her side. I last saw her just over a year ago when she came to Cornwall to stay with my stepmother and pointedly not to celebrate her 90th birthday.

When I said goodbye on that occasion, I faithfully promised to get in touch by the following spring – that is last spring – to take her to London to visit an exhibition or two and treat her to lunch. To my shame I never got around to it.

She was born Susan Moller and her heritage was Norwegian, although by a few generations. She studied art and then became an art teacher at Wycombe College. At some point she met Michael, I think in the 1970s, and they lived in a cottage in Naphill Common north of High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire.

I first met her at my father’s house in North Cornwall, where my stepmother still lives, at some point in the 1980s and met her many times again when she and Michael came to stay in one of the two holiday cottages my stepmother owned, often at Christmastime. Michael died in 2006 and apart from seeing her in Cornwall when she came to visit, I also used to visit her at home in Naphill Common and take her out for a meal. And as I say, she was always the best possible company.

Perhaps the most notable thing about her was that despite her increasing age she was somehow, in the best possible sense of the word ‘girlish’ – enthusiastic, fun, amused, laughing – not ‘girlish’ in that calculated way some women are which always sets my teeth on edge. And being an artist, and she drew and painted until she died, she knew a lot about art and I could always pick her brains. She and Michael never had children – perhaps she was already too old by the time they married – but I am certain she would have made a good mother.

She was a Roman Catholic, but I don’t know just how attendant she was. But rest in peace, Susan, and please forgive me for not keeping my promise to see you again earlier this year.

This is Susan in the St Tudy Inn near where I live when I took her to
supper there a few years ago.

. . .

I mention that Susan was a Roman Catholic and, like me, what is known – or perhaps what was once known – as a ‘cradle Catholic. But whereas she kept her faith, I ‘lapsed’ years. But even the notion of ‘lapsing’ irritates me.

This is, perhaps, putting it rather too brutally, but the Roman Catholic church, as opposed to the faith, could teach a thing to each and every totalitarian party, not least the communists. For the RC church will insist that my apostasy has nothing to do with reason but is just a falling away and that I might well, in time, see the light. Thus the ‘lapse’ is merely a temporary state: I shall, once I have regained my reason and am once again given grace, ‘find my way back to the church’.

To be frank, although I say I am irritated, I actually don’t give a stuff either way. If that’s they way they want to play it, good luck to them. And I must also point out that I am not one of that curious breed the zealous atheist, someone who is so consumed with ‘not believing’ that they almost make it their life’s work to persuaded each and every believer that they are horribly benighted and then some.

I take a different view: if someone has a faith, whether it is RC or that of any other christian denomination, or perhaps follows the Jewish or Muslim creeds, is, perhaps a Hindu, or a Buddhist, good luck to them. There are inestimable instances where someone’s faith has given the sucour and solace, and I am the last to deny them that or even to see anyone else try to deny them that. Good luck to them and may their God be with them. It’s just that – well, I don’t have a ‘religious faith’. That doesn’t mean I have no faith, though. I have faith in much, just not anything laid down by a creed.

At the wedding ceremony last week there was a Catholic mass with all its invocations to a ‘Lord’, a ‘saviour’ and all the rest, but it does nothing but remind me of Doctor Who on TV, with with British readers will most certainly be familiar and foreign readers might well have heard of. In Doctor Who a great deal is made of the Time Lord and all the rest. I simply cannot see any distinction whatsoever between the christian devotions to saints, its sacraments, its practices, its ceremonies and the rest and those ‘heathen’ and ‘pagan’ practices it derides so much.

But I stress again, if these give solace and comfort to anyone in need in some way, good luck to it all. It’s just that I can’t pretend for the sake of pretending. It is the organisations and institutions I abhor.

A few years ago, I visited St Peter’s in Rome and exploring the labyrinth which is the heart of the Roman Catholic church and seeing the wealth there, I felt almost physically sick at the hypocrisy of the claim that it was all ‘for the glory of God’ when it was and is so obvious to me that it is merely for the glory of those men – not women, not, no, not women in the RC church – who run that organisation. I have over the years read up a little on the history of the christian church and noted is schisms and power play.

The first schism was barely a few hundred years into the existence of christianity when the western church split from the eastern church (or vice versa, as lord knows who split from whom) and it is, to me at least, blindlingly obvious that it the battles and disagreements had nothing to do with faith and everything to do with power – who should be calling the shots. Well, count me out.

Writing this I am even conscious that someone disagreeing with me might demand that I come up with better arguments as to why I hold those beliefs. Really? Well, read again what I have to say. But none of the above should be taken to mean that I don’t believe in Good and Evil: there is most certainly Good and Evil abroad in the world and it doesn’t take much of an intellect (which is why I am able to comment on it) to see how the monotheistic faiths can come up with the notion of ‘the Devil’.

Each and every one of us will be familiar with both good and evil. We will all have come across it: the gratuitous evil which seems to have no cause. But also the gratuitous good folk do, the sacrifices they make for others. So don’t write off what I have to say as simplistic nonsense.

I find the christian churches attitude to women abhorrent and blame my RC upbringing, which although no super-strict was pretty mainline, for my own – and very private but deeply imbedded and wholly unfair – attitudes to women. Despite my intellectual condemnation of that attitude, I am still uncomfortably aware that there are faint echoes in me that ‘women are somehow second-class’, that ‘women don’t quite matter as much’ and all the rest. And without sounding too dramatic, I don’t just not like that part of me, it really does distress me. A confession.

PS Her funeral is next Tuesday, my 68th birthday, at St Teresa’s om Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire.

Friday, November 3, 2017

A short trip to Cologne to see my nephew wed his Polish squeeze (and a good opportunity to slag off the Roman Catholics, something, though, only we 'cradle Catholics' are allowed to do)


Here with my son, Wesley, for my nephew’s wedding. Just a brief visit, flew in today, wedding tomorrow, fly out again tomorrow, then home for him and work for me, but worth a post (I think – perhaps I should leave it to you, my reader, whether or not it is worth it).

We flew out from Bristol at 12.10 and arrived at the airport at 15.15 local time, and already there are a few ironies to report, highlighting how Germany is Germany,

The first: planeloads of visitors and Germans arrive by the minute at the airport – as you would think – and many, like us, use the train/S Bahn to get into the city. So why on earth there should only be four ticket machines as the airport train station catering for, in our case, about 100 people – if not quite a few more - is rather beyond me. And how is this an irony?

Well, the cliché is that Germany and the Germans are hugely and enviably efficient, but just how this purported efficiency has been translated in practice when it comes to allowing passengers to buy their tickets is not at all obvious. Our flight from Bristol took one hour and ten minutes – it’s not far – but once we had reached the four machines and joined one of the four very long queues to buy tickets, we had to wait at least 25 minutes to get them. Slow just wasn’t the word. Just why there are not fare more ticket machines there and perhaps even a window or two I really don’t know.

We got to our hotel, literally just a long stone’s throw from the central station and settled in. My son, who didn’t get in and to bed until (he tells me) about 5am this morning then immediately put his head down to catch up on sleep. I am not quite as tired, and fancying a quiet cigar and a glass of Kölsch, the city’s own beer, I took myself off looking for somewhere to enjoy both. And looked and looked and looked. It’s not that there weren’t enough pubs to have a drink in but as indoor smoking has been banned for I don’t know how long and as I couldn’t find a German pub/bar with and outdoors (as in tables and chairs on the street) I finally settled for the first outdoor drinking establishment I could find: a Thai restaurant which anyway deals more in takeaways than sitdown meals. And the Kölsch I ordered and am now drinking is sadly from a bottle, not on tap which is usually the nicest. Oh, well. At least it isn’t the end of civilisation.

. . . 

The wedding tomorrow is nearby, though across the rive at St Heribert’s (unlike me, my sister and her family have stayed true to the faith so it is a Roman Catholic mass and wedding ceremony. The double whammy is that my nephew’s bride-to-be is Polish, pretty much the Irish of Eastern Europe when it comes to Catholicism, although, of course, in that very sane way of theirs which is sadly still not acknowledged, Ireland has been rapidly putting as much distance as it can between itself and the RC faith (too many folk abused by priests and too many unmarried mothers in decades gone by treated like less than shit by the church and her officials and nuns for there to be much love lost).

(Just been tapped up for five euros – I’m not usually as sympathetic, especially as the guy only wants it for booze, but it seemed the quickest way to move him on and carry on writing. Shame is me.)

So although I’m not really looking forward to the ceremony – all that quasi-mystical Lamb of God stuff and saviour of the world bollocks sounds far too much like Doctor Who for me, Time Lords and the rest of it – I am looking forward to the do afterwards. In fact, there are two dos, one immediately after the ceremony at a brewery, with German beer and local tapas (it says on the invite), and then the reception afterwards. And for all their faults – as in every nation has its faults - the Germans do do a good do. I love them. Don’t know how long it will be going on for, but the following morning we shall have to be up early to catch our flight back to Old Blighty, bloody 11.10! Oh, well.

. . . 

And what else? Not written here for a while, so I’m sure there must be something to waffle on about until I have finished the second bottle of beer I have just ordered. Oh, yes, I’ve signed up to Alamy, the photo agency, though I must also tell you that anyone can do it. If pictures you submit are technically OK, have ‘context’ which of course means they want pretty bog standard pix rather than the kind of arty-farty stuff I have made my own, they will take everything.

I found out about it because a guy I work with has also been submitting pictures and told me all about it. Alamy want as many as you can supply – given the above proviso – because they more they can offer anyone coming their way, they more they will sell. Simple, really. To see what I am talking about, just visit the website – alamy.com – then type in whatever you want to type in, the name of your home town, for example, and take a look at what’s there. Bog standard piccies of everything and everywhere, and I’ve decided that when I do call it a day at work, I shall l spend a few days taking loads and loads of pix and submitting them. And I should stress that anyone can do it. It’s just that the pictures must conform to their criteria, for example, if people are in the picture and can be recognise, you must get their express consent for the picture to be submitted. Similarly, anything which might be a trademark in a picture should be avoided.

. . . 

Köln was, and probably still is a very RC city, so as I write, at 18.15 – 6.15pm in old money – pretty much every church around as well as the Dom is ringing its bells. Old habits die hard. And I don’t doubt that when the time comes and I am a breath away from death, I, too, shall throw in the towel and cry ‘I was wrong, you are right, and please don’t send me to Hell!’ And here is an occasion to record the last words of one Voltaire, a sane atheist if ever there were one. He was on his deathbed when the local priest came to see him and pleaded with him to renounce the Devil and all his works. ‘Now,’ Voltaire is reported to have replied, ‘is not the time to be making new enemies.’ Boom, boom, though quite who was around to record those last words is not quite clear.

PS Just remembered one last thing, but I shall leave it for another post as the good lady is worthy a post all of her own: Susan Wharton, the widow of Michael Wharton, known professionally as Peter Simple, has died.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

I give you Jim Harman, the man who seems to know everything and will tell you about it all at great length. But be quick, he us off to Australia very, very soon

I mentioned an Italian restaurant called La Pappardella in my last entry, and that’s where I first bumped into Jim Harman. La Pappardella is on the Old Brompton Road, in Earls Court, London, and if you are ever nearby and fancy eating Italian, I can recommend it. It is not part of a chain, and because it is not a chain, you get value for your money, e.g if you like chicken salad, as I do, you don’t get just three or four small cubes of chicken as you do in the bloody fake-Italian chains which you have to hunt down amid the mounds of shredded cos lettuce, but three or four generous pieces of freshly grilled chicken breast. I’m no skinflint, but I do like value for my money. Also the staff and everything about it, including the noise, are Italian.

La Pappardella has a small narrow terrace outside on the street, about five feet wide, with about four tables, and that’s where we smokers sit and dine. I go there on a Sunday when I work only one shift, and I am usually there from about 7.30 till 10, except in the warmer weather when Luigi, the manager, slides open the restaurant glass front to allow in fresh air (as in the ‘fresh air’ you get from a reasonably busy, semi-residential street with traffic passing all day and all night) and has politely and firmly made it clear that when those doors are open, he doesn’t like me sitting outside smoking cigars. Punters smoking cigarettes are fine, but not those who like a cigar, however modest that cigar might be. Oh, well.

I should, by the way, yet again point out that I am most certainly no rich putz with money to burn on cigars, but that I get my La Paz Wilde Cigarros from a shop in Amsterdam which sells boxes of 20 for €14 (i.e. around £12.50/$16.50), though just five of them will set you back £13 here in Britain (which is why I get them when I travel abroad to see my sister or my aunt). To put that figure in perspective, anyone who smokes 20 cigarettes a day, and many smoke a damn sight more than that, will be blowing at least £70 a week or more. My modest box of 20 usually lasts me about a month. Just saying.

I was at La Pappardella one night about a year ago when Jim Harman turned up. He had recently returned to Britain from Australia to sell his flat just down the road from La Pappardella, before leaving Old Blighty for good and settling Down Under. I don’t know how we started talking but we did, and he seemed an affable, interesting guy. The terrace and its diners are shielded from the pavement by a long, four-foot high piece of plate glass, and Jim stands on the pavement side of the glass, with his bottle of lager, cup of espresso and glass of brandy on a terrace table, leaning over the glass to reach it. In all the time I have known him, I have known him, I have never seen him sit down.

Anyway, we got chatting and in our first chat he told me the long and very involved story about how he had gone to his dentist a few days earlier to have some slight work done to his teeth, but how the whole episode had ended with him in intensive care at the Kensington & Chelsea hospital on the Fulham Road because the dentist had accidentally injected him with undiluted something or other and had more or less burned out his sinuses. I do seem to remember that he said ‘bleach’, but surely to goodness injecting a patient with bleach, however dilute, is not standard dental practice, so it must have been something else. Who knows.

He was, he said, at death’s door for 48 hours and was later told by his consultant, he said, that only some fluke or other had saved his life. All this had apparently taken place over the previous weekend. I must admit I was a little dubious about it all, as he didn’t seem much the worse for wear and was knocking back the lagers and beers with gusto, not least smoking his ciggies, which, he said, the doctors had strictly forbidden, but as this was all part of a little light conversation, I gave him the benefit of doubt. And, anyway, it was an entertaining enough story.

There was even a sequel to it, which I got to hear the following Sunday: during the week he had been getting very bad headaches and sinus pain but nothing would help. Finally, noticing something ‘plastic like’ peeping from one of his nostrils, he had pulled at it, then pulled at it a little more, then a little more still until finally a load of gunge emerged. Once that was clear he felt a lot better. This was somehow the remnants of the ‘bleach’ or whatever the silly dentist had - undiluted - injected him with. I was again a little sceptical as yet again he didn’t in any way seem under the weather, but, hey, what the hell. Who knows? And did I care?

Jim would turn up at La Pappardella at around 9pm, and it wasn’t just on Sundays that he turned up. Sometimes, after ending my Monday or Tuesday double shift at 10pm, I, too, am in the habit of washing up there for a glass of wine and a smoke. And so in further conversations - I suppose I should more strictly call them recitations - I heard many more sories, how, for example, he had, while working on the telecommunications side of things for an oil company in Nigeria, witnessed rebel fighting and how a dishonest female correspondent for British TV gave a live broadcast of the action, describing the bullets flying all around her, while actually she was standing two miles away on the other side of a valley well away from the fighting and in now danger whatsoever.

On another occasion he told me how to deal with corruption in Nigeria and how he regularly outwitted various Nigerian cops looking for a bribe. There were several other stories - for several years, it seems, he was down and out in Salazar’s Portugal, could tell you a thing or two about the country, and did - but, to be frank, the details of which you always got many now elude me.

It was gradually and only later, once over the months I had heard several anecdotes several times and began getting a little peeved that for Jim ‘conversation’ means ‘listen to what I have to say on that topic’ - whatever the topic - that I began to find him just a little less interesting. Brexit is a favourite, but he has knowledge of and an opinion on pretty much everything you might care to raise and he is more than happy to share all with you. He is one of those people who talks so seamlessly and at length that there is no hope of getting a word in edgeways. Sadly, thought perhaps not unexpectedly, he is less interested - or to be fair, seems to be less interested - to hear what you might have to say.

Most recently I heard all about some Michelin-starred Italian chef who had been a big noise in London finally jacking it all in and returning to Italy where he now runs a successful restaurant on the outskirts of Rome. It is on an archaeological site, so is not permanent, but consists of a tent in which he serves only British food. Knowing how much Italians like their food, and knowing just how unlike Italian food British food is, I told him I found that hard to believe, but no, he said, it was true.

Then there was the tale of the son who took over the family’ very successful vineyard and ran it into the ground because he wanted to use his new ideas. I never knew this, but vineyards keep barrels of ‘reserve’ wine from good years which they then mix with wine from less good years to keep up the overall quality. It seems this fool, the son, that is, not Jim, thought the practice was all stuff and nonsense and refused to keep ‘reserve’ wine. End of vineyard, it seems. Or something. Once again, I got a little lost in the telling and am hazy on details.

Jim is 77 years old, but could pass for younger. He has a slight Australian edge to his accent, but is Suffolk born and bred. Come November 2, I shall never see him again, because that is when he is flying out to Australia and leaving Britain forever (and where he will apparently spend the next few months building a small domestic solar electricity generating plant for the property he owns out there. Again, I got full details but became a little confused rather quickly. It seems he will, through some quirk in Australian law actually be able to make money by not selling his power to the local Australian power company. Or something).

After what I gather was a lucrative career working first in telecoms and later for British Aerospace in electronics he appears to be not short of a penny and owns his flat in Earls Court as well as land and property in Australia. The other night, once I had decided to mention Jim in this blog (although I didn’t tell him), I pressed him for a brief rundown of his life history so I could try to get the details right. As it turned out, it that rundown wasn’t at all brief, though briefer than it might have been as I, keen to get the details for this blog entry, was rather ruthless in interrupting him and urging him to stick to the point. Going off at tangent is something Jim is very good at.

This is what I have pieced together from what he told me and had previously mentioned over the past year or so. He was born into a large Suffolk farming family of hard drinkers and fighters. His brothers were always getting into fights in the local pub, usually to protect him (or something). He left school and worked on a trawler, though for just one trip: he fell overboard and as fishermen regard that as an ill omen, no one would take him on as crew after that.

He then worked in a factory, although I can’t remember what kind, before (if I remember correctly) his foreman told him he was too bright for that kind of work and should get himself an education. So this he did, studying whatever you have to study to work for - I think - the telecommunications arm of what was then the GPO (General Post Office - this will have been in the 1950s, when life was still in black and white, policeman were the friendly sort who would give you a kindly clip ’round the ear to keep you on the straight and narrow, all women were virgins until they married and when they married all took to going to bed in hair curlers, and life was apparently better in every way).

While working there he was headhunted to work for British Aerospace (or something) and after working there, one thing led to another and he was again headhunted, this time to work for the Ministry of Defence who apparently needed someone with his background to work on some of their missiles system. Or something. I did at the time try to pin him down on dates as it was all getting a bit confusing, but apart from ‘it was in the 1990s’ (which is plausible enough, I suppose) still couldn’t get a proper timeline out of it all. And how all this ties in with Nigeria and Portugal (‘that was in the 1970s’) I can’t really work out.

But there you have him: Jim who knows pretty much everything about everything and furthermore has an opinion on pretty much everything and will pass on his knowledge at no cost but at great length. If you do want further details of him and his life, please don’t rely on my account which, as you can, see, is pretty sketchy, but get your skates on and take yourself down to La Pappardella at 253 Old Brompton Rd, Earls Court, London SW5 9HP where you can catch him on almost any night from between 9pm and midnight. But make it snappy as he’s off to Australia on November 7.

And if you want a really long chat, get him started on Brexit.

LATER Re-reading this with a view to correcting literals and making it more readable, it strikes me that you might feel I am being rather unfriendly to a man who has done me no wrong. So let me get it straight: I have nothing against Jim and don’t dislike him. It’s just I do - did, I supposed, unless I bump into him again tomorrow - increasingly get a tad irritated by the one-sided notion he has of conversation. Oh, and being lectured on Brexit.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

It’s the little lad of four, sitting on a sofa trying to eat a fried egg with a knife and fork while a dog stood just feet away pissing which did my head in. Kidnapping was the best thing to do

I don’t know why this occurred to me an hour or so ago while I was leaving work and heading for here, La Pappardella in Earls Court, where I am settling in to a half-bottle of so-so to not very good house red wine, a cigar and, later perhaps, a meal, but it did. And it has nothing to do with anything which happened today, this week, this month, this year or – well, nothing to do with anything I can think of. It simply came back to me. NB This entry was actually written with the immediate bit below last, but I’ve realised that I took an age getting to it, so I have brought it to the top.

. . .

Only two stories found me while I was working as a district reporter in North Gwent, in South Wales, which were worth anything, and even one could perhaps be bullshit. But the second wasn’t.

The office phone rang, and I answered it.

‘Is this Patrick Powell?’ a low, very low and rather mysterious voice asked, one I could hardly even make out.

‘Yes, it is,’ I said, ‘why?’

Then he announced: ‘Social services have kidnapped my daughter.’

You get accustomed to nutters even when you are working for a very low-level, not very successful evening paper in the back of beyond in the South Wales valleys, but unless they are dangerous or, at worst, drunk, they help to pass the time. Oh, really I asked, give me more details. But the guy wouldn’t give any. Instead he asked me to meet him.

I went to the address he gave me. It was one of several very substantial houses in a very substantial avenue in Tredegar which had not only seen far, far better days, but which could not even remember them. There was a lot of empty housing in North Gwent and the terrace house could be snapped up for a song, but as no one had the dosh to buy the bigger ones, such as this, they were bought up by the local council and used to house those council tenants who had caused trouble everywhere else they lived.

These people were the utterly forgotten people, people who no one knew what to do with and about whom they cared even less. They existed on miserly benefits – not at all large even in 1977 – and everyone could pretend they were being taken care of. They had reached the end, an end you and I will, God willing, never meet. The house, like all the others in the row was wasted, falling down, a wreck, however grand it might once have been, almost an ex-house.

The guy who answered the door took me into his very large sitting room, and I mean the room was large. But there was nothing in it but a table and three chairs and a broken-down sofa on which sat a young child of about four. And the sight broke my heart. The child wearing very little was sitting on the sofa with a plate balanced on its knees trying, with a knife and fork, to eat a fried egg. I sat down in a chair to listen to the man’s story. But as I did so, something even more distressing occurred. A large Alsatian dog, a male, matted and ragged beyond belief, walked in, stopped, then without even cocking its leg as male dogs do, pissed, right there, not feet from the child. And then it walked on, leaving the puddle of piss behind it.

The man told me his story. It seemed that not a year or two ago, his wife had fallen pregnant and was taken to hospital to give birth. Then, once the child was born, it was whisked away by the nursing staff, never to be seen by the mother of father again.

I was astonished.

‘Are you sure?’ I asked.

‘Yes,’ he told me. And he gave me the family doctor’s name, the doctor he claimed was responsible for it all.

I jotted down various details, then took off back to Ebbw Vale. I rang the doctor and explained what I had been told.

‘It’s true,’ he said. He was very matter-of-fact, as doctors who do not aim for a celebrity career on TV usually are.

‘What, you took the child away?’

‘Yes,’ he said.

‘But why?’ I asked.

‘Well, you’ve met the father, haven’t you.’ That, he felt was explanation enough. He then told me the child had been immediately given up for adoption.

I kind of understood. And I never got in touch with the father again. Did I do the right thing by doing nothing? I really don’t know, but I’m certain that child had a slightly better life than he or she might otherwise have had.

. . .

Now the bit which initially came first: A few years ago, I decided to read some Somerset Maugham short stories, and then read the very good biography of the man by Selina Hastings (which I have written about before here). But this has little if anything to do with Maugham. I simply mention him because many of his stories, in fact a great deal of them, were based on incidents that occurred, anecdotes he heard or, very often, anecdotes his companions and partners, Gerald Haxton and later Alan Searle, heard and would relate back to him. In fact, Maugham is said to have relied on both heavily for ‘material’. Incidentally, both were very important to him, though Maugham described Haxton as ‘vintage’ but Searle as ‘vin ordinaire’.

Haxton had ‘breeding’, but I put the word in quotation marks because although I admit it does mean something, I dislike much of the snobbery inherent in the word. Maugham and Haxton were together for a very long time, but eventually their relationship disintegrated because of Haxton’s excessive drinking and druggery. He finally died, and although Maugham was inconsolable for a time, he also admits to something akin to relief. Haxton caused him all sorts of trouble. Maugham, a man essentially of the 19th century, was at pains to keep his homosexuality (although he was bisexual and had many female conquests) quiet, whereas Haxton, usually drunk, made no secret at all of his orientation, forever picking up rough trade and getting into all kinds of scraps.

After Haxton’s death, Searle, a working-class lad from Bermondsey, was taken on, ostensibly as his ‘secretary’, and he did, indeed, function more as an employee although he was also, most probably more in the early years, a sexual partner for Maugham. One of many, apparently.

When he was still quite young, Maugham developed a bad stammer, one which caused him quite a bit of social embarrassment, so he was grateful to Haxton who could act in his stead as host and being an ebullient sort take the spotlight off Maugham. Haxton, it is said, had the easy charm of a many to whom many would open up, whereas Maugham could be quite intimidating, although he never meant to be.

My point is that Maugham worked many of the tales Haxton and later Searle brought to him into stories, and the following account, although true, could well serve the same purpose.

. . .

In October 1976, what? 41 years ago? I left the Lincolnshire Chronicle where I had worked for 16 months as a reporter and joined The News, one of two weekly papers circulating in what was then called Gwent, in South Wales, as one of two North Gwent district reporters. As a ‘career move’ moving from one weekly in Lincoln to another in South Wales served no purpose at all, but then I didn’t much have a purpose and was simply driven by a desire to move on. Anywhere, really. It was most certainly not a ‘career move’ and wasn’t intended as one.

Life was simple and easy in North Gwent. Life as a reporter on a weekly is not onerous, not even if you have ambition, and I had none. I fell in with Julie Davis, the other district reporter who had taken a shine to me, and after staying overnight with her on the night of the paper’s Christmas party in her small cottage in Llangattock, just across the River Usk from Crickhowell, within weeks I was staying overnight seven days a week and we were living together. It was not love, but it was easy: a cooked meal every night, telly, then sex. But although I was not ambitious, I was conscious of still wanting to move on, and move on I did, to become on of the local North Gwent district reporters for the local evening paper, the South Wales Argus.

Apart from working for the local evening paper instead of one of the two local weekly papers – the other was the Gwent Gazette – life carried on as it did, except that I was now based in the Argus’s Ebbw Vale office. Stories came from meetings of the local district council, Blaenau Gwent, and the magistrates courts, Ebbw Vales, Tredegar, Abertillery and, until the closed both, Nantyglo and Aberbeeg. The routine was to stay in court or at a council meeting until I had enough ‘stories’ to file, then bugger off back to the office or even home, to write them up and then call it a day.

The job was quite lucrative, too, although indirectly, in a kind of abstract way. A district reporter’s job will not keep him or her in diamonds and pearls, ever, but my weekly wage was supplemented by – at The News’s request – submitting court stories. These were the same as I had phoned over to my paper, except that they were three or four times longer, because I was being paid ‘lineage’ – the longer the story, the more moolah would be added to my wage packet (the South Wales Argus and The News were in the same stable, so the wages office was the same). Then there were ‘expenses’ and Lord was I able to milk the paper.

‘Police calls’ could well be done over the phone, ringing up to get a rundown of local petty crime and road accidents. But for some reason we were ordered to pay each police station a visit in person. My local police stations were in Abertillery, Ebbw Vale, Brynmawr and Tredegar, so that is what I did. To same time, of course, I drove to Brynmawr, about four miles down the road, then on to Abertillery, then back to Ebbw Vale and on to Tredegar, and it was all done and dusted in just over an hour. That was the reality.

For expenses, I claimed mileage from the Ebbw Vale office to Brynmawr and back; then from the Ebbw Vale office to Abertillery and back (and before they were closed to Nantyglo and Aberbeeg and back; and finally from the Ebbw Vale office to Tredegar and back. My actual round trip was about 20 miles. The way I worked it bumped that up to about 50 miles. And this was claimed every day. I really can’t remember what my weekly wage was, but I do know that I was getting as much in lineage and mileage as my weekly wage.

The very, very odd thing was my expenses were never questioned, ever. Ever. Why, I don’t know, but there seemed no reason to find out why. It has long been a principle of mine to do something first and then be told to stop rather to go, cap in hand, to authority to ask whether, you know, is it OK if I do this. To which request the answer can all too often be, no, you can’t. So the moral of the story is: don’t ask in the first place.

. . .

But to get to the nitty-gritty. I did, once in a while, come up with a non-court and non-council story, but with one exception they all seemed to fine me rather than as a result of any diligent sleuthing on my part. (The one good story I came up with was so neutered – probably for legal reasons – as not to be much of a scoop when it finally appeared in print. At one court hearing, a man was fined for importing TV sets from the Channel Islands to North Gwent without paying customs duty. He was fined.

Then, about four or five months later, I was – unusually I have to say – looking through a report of one of the many ‘land regeneration schemes’ launched, paid for by Welsh Office funds, to try to do something about the economic blight destroying North Gwent, but also, and more purposefully, to show ‘the public’ that the Welsh Office was tirelessly beavering away on its behalf. As they say, perception is nine-tenths of the game.

Looking through a report on the latest, a one-million pound scheme to do something or other (and this was in 1977/8, so your £1 million pounds would now, 40 years on, be worth about £5.7 million according to the Bank of England I came across a name which struck me as familiar. What I did next I don’t recall, except that it was to establish that the gent behind the scheme was the very same guy done in the courts a few months earlier for not paying import duty on TV sets from the Channel Islands. What, I asked myself, is going one? How come a two-bit petty crook was being paid a find sum by the Welsh Office.

I did everything by phone, ringing up the Welsh Office, ringing up the company involved and all the rest. It’s not at all difficult, and just needs a little common sense. And the great thing is that people more often than not tell you more than they want to, especially as they don’t yet know that you know what you already know. I wont’ – and can’t – go into details except for one: I spoke to the guy involved and he denied he had anything or anything to do with the company concerned. I then spoked to several other people in the company who all gave me a slightly different story. And when I told one that the man he referred to as ‘his boss’ denied outright being ‘his boss’, he came out with the following great quote: ‘If my boss says he isn’t my boss, then he isn’t my boss.’

Given that there was some kind of scam going on, but given that those involved were low-level knuckleheads (and Lord knows what was going on at the Welsh Office), that about summed it up. I was very proud of my story and wrote it up. The subs then neutered it, and nothing, but nothing at all came of it.