Friday, August 24, 2012

South Wales Echo, Lincolnshire Chronicle, sex, life of Riley, expenses and spurious vocations and first-class bullshit - a short ramble down memory lane

On June 24, I shall have served in Her Majesty’s Press for 40 years, assuming of course, that I don’t die earlier than I plan to or find myself unemployed. The odd thing is that 40 years sounds like an awful long time, but as anyone roughly my age will tell you, it doesn’t feel that long at all.

I am always utterly disconcerted when people refer to ‘the Eighties’ - as in ‘the Eighties’s disco boom’ or something - as though it were a particularly distant part of the Dark Ages, when, to me, it feels like, if not exactly yesterday, then at least as recent as last week. The explanation is, I think, that time seems to run extremely slowly when you are young - remember looking forward to something when you were a child and it was ‘ages and ages and ages’ away? - because you haven’t really got that many years under your belt to compare them to, whereas for us old farts one August  (in, for me so far, 62 Augusts) seems very much like any other bloody August (though this year, in Britain, with a damn sight fewer hot and sunny days). The upshot is that with so many Augusts to choose from, they all become pretty much indistinguishable.

I started my first job in newspapers on June 24, 1974, and I really can’t tell you why I seem to remember certain dates so well. For example, I started my job as a reporter on The Journal in Newcastle on July 10, 1978, my first job as sub-editor (copy editor to you Yanks) on the Birmingham Evening Mail on January 7, 1980, and I joined the South Wales Echo in Cardiff, again as a sub, on February 24, 1986. (However, I doubled-checked all four dates to make sure they were all a Monday, and it turns out I had remembered two correctly, so maybe I’m not quite Amazo, The Memory Man after all.)

I’ve always felt that working as a hack, whether as a reporter or as a sub, is essentially a practical job, the finer and most salient points of which you learn as you go along, but a modicum of training, even initially merely being shown how to hold a biro (that’s Biro, actually - one for the subs reading this) does help rather a lot. So that my career as a hack has not been as dazzling as it might, perhaps, have been can be blamed on the fact that neither starting out as a reporter nor as a sub did I get any training at all.

My first job was working in the head office of the Lincolnshire Chronicle, a weekly paper in Lincoln. The irony is that hacks - and especially those pompous farts who like to refer to themselves as ‘journalist’ - try very hard to make out that joining their profession is ‘a vocation’, one up there with finding a cure for cancer or running an orphanage in Somalia. These types are all too often apt to use the phrase ‘to break into journalism’ as though jobs in the media business are at a premium and only the very best are able to scale the high wall surrounding the elite from you ordinary mortals. Like a great deal in journalism, of course, it’s complete bollocks, I’m afraid.

‘Management’, as we all learned to call them, are especially keen to push the ‘it’s a vocation, lad and count yourself lucky you’ve been chosen’ line as it enables them to pay staff peanuts and make them work far longer hours for nothing. The really cynical bit is that those handing out the jobs know full well that when you are young, you will fall for the whole ‘it’s a vocation’ schtick hook, line and sinker and will gladly beaver away for a pittance in the sad belief that somehow, in some obscure though vital way, you are making the world a better, better, better place. Invariably, of course, the penny drops, usually after a year or two of re-writing handouts submitted to your local rag by PR companies which courtesy as your skill as a ‘wordsmith’ then appear in print as news stories. You don’t believe me? Sucker.

There’s no overtime in the world of hacks, though there are still, occasionally, ‘days off in lieu’, and when I started, there was still a reasonably lucrative and gratifyingly vague system of ‘expenses’ which, if you had the necessary and were able to cover your tracks, you could use to supplement your rather pitifully small wage. Expenses, have, I’m told rather gone the way of the dodo (or is that dildo? No, probably not). For many years, the exception to ‘it’s a vocation, lad, so you won’t mind being paid peanuts, will you?’ was once the world of Fleet Street - that is the national papers in Britain who were almost all based on Fleet Street - who until about 20 years ago could be remarkably generous. But, they, too, have since discovered the financial benefits of paying your junior staff as little as possible and persuading those junior staff that they are doing them an immense favour by employing them.

As for working the expenses system, I was once in the glorious position when working as a district reporter in South Wales of making just as much by claiming totally fictitious expenses and, more legitimate, lineage payments I was being paid weekly. To this day I am baffled as to how and why I was able to get away with it, but get away with it I did and for quite some time. Even better was that although I was a North Gwent district reporter - where ‘North Gwent’ probably sounds rather pleasant to foreign ear but doesn’t at all do justice to the post-industrial horror that the South Wales Valleys were in those days, I lived in a rather pretty part of Powys, in a hamlet called Llangattock. This was just the other side of ‘the Heads of the Valleys road’ from North Gwent whose towns - Ebbw Vale, Brynmawr, Tredegar and Abertillery were as grim as Llangattock and nearby Crickhowell were chocolate-box pretty. Yet ‘work’ - the inverted commas are in this case not meant ironically as it can hardly have been called work - was only a 15-minute drive away over the moor.

I lived with a girl who worked for the sister weekly paper and it was a life of Riley. I never got up before 1oam and never in any kind of a rush. Once I had bathed and shave, I made my way up the Llangyndir back road into Ebbw Vale for a magistrates court hearing. This was followed by lunch in a pub or cafe and then a short district council meeting at 2am, before it was off home again at around 3.30am. This rather pleasant existence lasted, roughly, from early 1975 to July 1978.

The girl I lived with - her initials were JD, and she will surely make another appearance in this blog at some point in my occasional series of Romance And Why It’s Not All It’s Cracked Up To Be - was quite a good, though English, cook and liked sex just as much as I did. The one drawback was that I didn’t love her, that she had her mind set on marriage and I didn’t, and that she wanted to change me in virtually every way imaginable. But what the hell. Push came to shove in about 1977 when she realised nothing much between us was going to come of anything and found herself a job in Staffordshire.

However, we carried on ‘seeing each other’ for another year or so, she travelling down to South Wales one weekend, me travelling up to Staffordshire the next, so nothing much changed except that we were both paying rather more for petrol each week. I still didn’t love her, but she was still a good cook and still liked sex as much as I did and she had a very nice and very comfortable cottag in a little village called Stone. Why she carried on with the arrangement I really don’t know - you’ll have to ask her yourself: he initials are JD and she was living in Staffordshire in 1978. The only other detail I have about her is that she eventually married a butcher.

. . .

It’s at this point I am bound to admit that I have completely lost the thread of what I was going to write about, so I shall just carry on  rambling, a task made just a tad easier as I have just opened another bottle of wine, a Morrison’s bottle of 2008 ‘Chianti Classico’. My two principles when choosing a supermarket wine is that I refuse to buy anything which is less than four years old and I refuse to buy anything offered at ‘half-price’. Wines more than four years old can, of course, most certainly be equally as undrinkable as a wine bottle barely four weeks ago, but the chances are that one chosen at random is rather less likely to be complete piss, mainly becasue there are rather fewer of them in your average supermarket. And when supermarkets decide to offer a wine ‘at half-price’, it’s usually because it’s cheap crap they have to get rid before anyone realises just what cheap crap it is.

. . .

I turned up at the offices of the Lincolnshire Chronicle which were at the far end of the printing works next to the canal at Waterside South. It was a small office which consisted of an editor, a sub-editor, a news editor, a sports editor, a long-time columnist of the old school and about five or six reporters. The editor, sub-editor - whose name was Linda, I recall - the columnist and the sports editor all had their own, very pokey, offices. The news editor and we reporters all shared a slightly bigger office, with the reporters all siting round one big table. We each had a typewriter, but there were only two phones between the five/six of us. Just off our ‘newsroom’, which cannot have been larger than 15ft by 20ft, was the photographers’ darkroom. That was even smaller.

This was in 1974 which, if your maths is any good, was closer to the Fifties than today, and the whole operation was more a hangover from what local weekly papers were in their heyday than what the few which remain are now. So the columnist, who to the 24-year-old I was then seemed ancient, but couldn’t really have been more than the age I am now, will have started his career on the Lincolnshire Chronicle in the Thirties and will have ended it there, too, and wrote stuff which will have interested no one except those his age and older. I do remember that at some point I fell foul of him, though I really can’t remember any details.

The sports editor was a young chap called Max, and as this blog is this evening in revelatory more, I can reveal that I screwed both his wife and her sister, though not at the same time. It’s not as bad as it sounds in that the marriage was, as I found out, already falling apart. That it was all over between them was quite obvious when I went out with his wife on a Saturday evening and she stayed with me that night and he then picked her up the following morning. He knew exactly where to find her and I had most certainly not given him  my address. And he didn’t seem to mind a bit.

The news editor was a rather bouncy chap called Digby Scott. We got along well enough and I should imagine he got along well enough with most people. There are really only two things I remember about him, apart from what he looked like then as I can still picture him and conjure up his manner in my mind’s eye. One was that he was newly married and that in order to supplement his income and save up for a mortgage - this was, after all 1974/5 in the days before smartarse salesmen would hand loans and debts to anyone and his dog - he used to go from door to door in the evenings trying to sell insurance. (The deputy news editor of the local evening paper, the Lincolnshire Echo, was in the same position, and he and his wife were also saving up for a mortgage. Their ruse to make a little extra money was to have a knife-throwing act which, I assume, performed in local clubs. His name was Peter Brown and his wife was called Anne. Their act was called Petana. He once showed me a publicity still they used: he was clutching a fistful of knives and wearing tight trousers and a faux-gypsy shirt with balloon sleeves and she was in bodice and fishnet stockings.)

I got on well enough with Digby - in fact, I get on well enough with many of my colleagues and have always done so, and am always a little surprised when I find out, always obliquely, that they don’t quite get on as well with me as I do with them. But the other thing I remember about him was a memo he sent me about a month after I started with the Lincolnshire Chronicle.

I should explain that many young of the young folk who for several centuries had managed to ‘break into journalism’ were keen as mustard and since they had first set eyes on a newspaper at the age of nine had wanted nothing else but to be what was always described in Press Gazette job ads as ‘a newshound’. They used to frighten the shit out of me when I came across them. They had purpose, they had zeal, they were bastards and they were here today and gone tomorrow. They didn’t hang about. But, dear reader, that wasn’t me.

I had sent off letters to a number of newspapers asking to be taken on as a reporter because in those days I was convinced I was a literary genius who would make his name writing brilliant short stories and novels and, more to the point, felt that if I worked for a paper, at least I would be taking a step in the right direction as I would be ‘writing’. Actually sitting down to justify my status as a literary genius by making the effort to write brilliant short stories and novels didn’t occur to me for quite a few years. In fact, I’m not too sure it has even yet occurred to me. News, as such, didn’t interest me at all (and most of it still doesn’t - I take the view that if it’s really important - and, to be honest, nothing is that much - I’ll find out about it sooner or later. And if I miss it the first time around, I’ll be able to catch up on it in a history book.).

My lack of interest must have been very apparent to Digby Scott, as must have been my lack of ambition. The idea was that keen, would-be ‘newshounds’ should be straining at the leash to get out there to report. I, on the other hand, turned up at 9am and just sat idly reading the paper and waited to be given something to do. This wasn’t quite the attitude expected of a would-be Sir Jocelyn Hitchcock. Eventually, I got my first memo: Digby chastised me for not being more - well, these days it would be called ‘proactive’, but I can’t remember how he put it. But I also remember that he bollocked me because all too often my copy was bad ‘splet’ (sic). This did amuse me, though I don’t think it changed my attitude much.

. . .

Look, chaps, I’m on a roll her, but it is getting late. So I shall continue this rambling melange another time. You’ve got to admit, it’s better than me banging on about the fucking euro.

To be continued.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Assagne ‘hounding’: it’s all about ‘freedom of speech’? Pull the other one

Here’s a suggestion: go onto Google and search for ‘Bradley Manning’. Make a note of how many pages are thrown up. Then do a search for ‘Julian Assange’ and record how many web pages mention him. The results are interesting. According to my two searches a minute or two ago, young Bradley, a mixed-up kid if ever there was one, is mentioned on 4,130,000 webpages. Today’s modern hero, Julian Assange, gets almost nine times as many mentions at 28,000,000. Why?

Julian likes to portray himself as a campaigner of free speech and led the Wikileaks website. As far as I know, the site was, in global net terms, pretty insignificant until young Bradley decided to leak an enormous number of confidential cables and emails sent by embassies and other Western government agencies back home. Why Bradley decided to do it, I don’t know and have so far not come across any explanation. But he did leak the stuff, Wikileaks soaked it up, published it and then Assange began basking in the – to my mind utterly spurious – glow of fighting the good fight for free speech.

The point about ‘being confidential’ is that ambassadors, for example, can let their hair down for a minute or two and speak their minds. That is an important facility, whether you are an American, British, Chinese, Russian or French ambassador or whoever you go abroad for to ‘lie for your country’. Because those emails and cables allow you the opportunity to stop lying and to give your country what you think is good, candid advice and information about the country to which you have been posted. That is one of the main reasons why you are there. You might, for example, last night have had dinner with that country’s foreign minister. It was all smiles and toasts and good food, but the following morning – knowing you are speaking confidentially – you can tell your bosses: ‘I really don’t trust the bastard, he’s on the make and he’s not on our side,’

We all know that the emails and cables which were leaked to Wikileaks and which Assange published online, have been horribly embarrassing. Ironically, it was not just the West who were embarrassed, but many other countries, including Russia (although, apparently not Ecuador) and Assagne achieved quite a coup: many, many, many people loathe him for the embarrassment they caused him and it is rather unsurprising that he has rather few friends in high places. What is equally unsurprising that the cause – the apparent hounding of Assange – has attracted the support of what can only be described as the usual suspects. . I just wish if all his supporters would lend their energies to ensure the fate of young Bradley Manning is not as awful as it seems likely to be: the charges, at best, will see him banged up for life if he is found guilty, and, at worst, he will lose his life for treason.

In his rather desperate attempt to avoid the outraged vengeance of those he has made to look rather stupid, Assange is playing the ‘freedom of speech’ card. From where I sit this has absolutely nothing to do with ‘freedom of speech’. What has Assange acutally ‘revealed’? That ambassadors, generals and diplomat worldwide are a duplicitous bunch? Well, Lordy me, what a surprise. And there was me thinking everything was rosy in the garden. Here’s another revelation, courtesy of me: water is wet. Deal with it.

I made the point in an earlier post that at the basis of Assange anxiety is that if he is extradited to Swede, initially only to be interviewed by the police, let it be said, but possibly also to face charges of sexual assault, the Swedes will do a deal with the U.S. and extradite him on to Uncle Sam. Well, first things, first: if Assagne is guilty of sexual assault (and the charges are more along the lines of having sex without consent rather than hiding in the bushes and grabbing some woman to rape her), why on earth are the right-thinkers of this world defending him? Are they telling themselves that, yes, he might be a teensy bit guilty, but look at the bigger picture: he made a fool of Uncle Sam, and isn’t that a Good Thing? Or are they even suggesting that the deal is done, the Swedes only want to get him into their clutches in order to ship him out to the U.S. on the next plane Stateside.

And what if he is not guilty? Well, that does present a problem for him: he might well finally agree to be interviewed and possibly face trial, but then be acquitted. But he would then, be on still be liable for further extradition to the U.S. But let me ask this: the UK and America already have a – quite controversial for some – extradition treaty. Wouldn’t the Yanks already have made their move? Wouldn’t they have gone for the jugular? Would they really be content to play a long game and wait till he is out of the UK and then strike. It does seem a tad implausible.

As for the ‘freedom of speech’ line, as far as I am concerned that is almost obscene. If Assagne supporters really do feel strongly on the issure, there are more than enough rather straightforward case of skullduggery going on which they could make a noise about. But they aren’t. This is all bullshit which stinks to high heaven.

And none more time: where is the support for Bradley Manning? Where is the outrage on his behalf?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

If I never hear of Julian Assange again will still be too soon, especially as young Bradley Manning is getting a far rougher deal. And Pussy Riot will get to know their fate today

So that stupid little prick Julian Assange has managed to get himself in the headlines again. It’s a shame that Bradley Manning, the source of all the embarrassing stuff Assange published under the guise of striking a blow for freedom and democracy, isn’t getting an equal amount of publicity to highlight his plight. I suspect it is because, whatever else might be the case, Assange is essentially a publicity-seeker whereas Manning is a rather naive idealist. And in the great scheme of things that means the score so far is Assange 1-0 Manning.

I’m prepared to accept the truth of Britain’s claim that they have not struck a deal with the U.S. to get Assange into the Yankee clutch, although it will no be lost on them that once Assange is in Swedish custody - make that if Assange ever gets into Swedish custody, because that is by no means certain - the U.S. will exert enormous pressure on Sweden to extradite him further into their hands. I should imagine that as far as Britain is concerned, Assange is just an irritating problem they want to see the back of.

It will not help his case when it is discussed over sherry and Bath Olivers at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office that Britain was one of the many countries he made a fool of by publishing confidential memos and emails. But unlike the U.S., the Brits aren’t particularly vindictive and all they want is to see the back of them. It would also seem they are on solid ground when they plead that all we are doing, squire, is our duty under various extradition laws. I honestly don’t think the Government give a flying fuck what happens to Assange as long as they can get him out of their hair.
Another intriguing aspect is whether Assange is all that innocent as far as the sexual assault charges which the Swedes are bringing against him.

We all assume that all his shenanigans in holing up with the Ecuadorians to escape extradition is all to do with his fear that the sexual assault charges are just a front to get him into U.S. hands in the long term. That, it seems to me, is to do the Swedes something of a disfavour. Any suggestion that Sweden is in some way the handmaiden of the U.S. really does not square up with its past as a refuge for U.S. soldiers either escaping the draft during the Vietnam War or deserting and heading for the country believing it to be a safe haven. Nor can I think of any ‘hold’ the U.S. might have over Sweden or any leverage it might have.

Then there’s the rather obvious point that as the Swedes have brought charges of sexual assault against Assange, they sincerely believe that he has at the very least a case to answer. That, of course, present all right-thinking lefties with a dilemma: could it really be true that one of their more recent heroes is quite possibly a male chauvinist pig. Well, yes it could, actually.

What Assange chose Ecuador and what might be in it for the country is also something of a puzzle. William Hague, the British foreign minister, has already made clear that Britain - and few other countries for that matter - accept that there is a concept of ‘diplomatic immunity’ and that despite Ecuador granting Assange ‘political asylum’, they will arrest him at the earliest opportunity and that the chances of him getting out of the country are pretty slim.

And Bradley Manning? Well, let me say it again: the poor chap seems to be getting to raw end of the deal whichever way you look at it, irrespective of what he might or might not have done. I would be a lot happier if more agitation were being done on his behalf. From what I have read, he is something of a mixed-up kid, but the crucial detail as far as I am concerned is that he doesn’t strike me as a publicity-seeker. Actually, when Julian Assange is around there doesn’t really seem any room for another. So spare a thought for young Bradley.

. . .

It would be rather disingenuous to describe Russia’s Pussy Riot trio as publicity-seekers because that’s exactly what they are but in a rather more, comparatively, admirable sense the Jules Assange. The essential point is that the publicity they were seeking was not for themselves but for the ‘cause’ they want to highlight, whether or not you agree with it.

But their case, too, is perhaps a little less straightforward than many would have us believe, for we must, in all honesty, accept that for many church-going Russians what the trio did was blasphemous, irrespective of their cause. They might argue: OK, we accept you have a legitimate right to express your view, but doing so on an altar and on what we regard as sacred ground is really not the way to go about it. (In fact, it is worth asking the question here why, apparently, atheism likes to be seen as going hand in glove with ‘right-thinking’ and that ‘believers’ are automatically thought be ‘right-thinkers’ as being something of a sandwich short of a picnic. Certainly, that’s a generalisation, but it does seem to be one which holds to a great extent.)

I mention Pussy Riot because the world and Woking will know their fate tomorrow. Will the go to jail for several years or will the get a suspended sentence?

Monday, August 13, 2012

Olympics: a grumpy old sod sounds off . . .

Well, it’s all over bar the shouting, as they say, and I’m sure many more backs will be slapped this week as Britain congratulates itself on having staged ‘the most successful Olympics ever’ (until the next bunfight, of course). I have held off adding my two ha’porth worth because ... well, basically, I couldn’t be arsed. Good luck, of course, to all the athletes who have trained hard and had success and commiserations to all the athletes who have trained hard and haven’t had succes, and an especial mention to the doughty Saudi Arabian runner who was forced to perform more or less fully clothed, but still didn’t let that put her off. In fact, the sight of her, although last by a country mile, approaching, then crossing, the finishing line almost melted this frozen heart of mine. But it didn’t, and I shall tell you why.

Every four years we have been getting this jamboree, and every four your pompous pricks and prickettes in their hundred drone on about ‘the Olympic ideal’, ‘bringing nations together’ and similar crap, when the truth is that these days the Games primarily serve two puroposes: for the host country to show off as much as possible and stick one in the eye of its rivals, and for the successful sponsors to make as much moolah as his humanly possible in 16 days (which, in case you were wondering, is a fuck of a lot). And it is the joint offence of rancid commercialisation allied to the hypocrisy of spouting so much idealism which puts me off big time. I can’t remember which of the two cola giants ‘won the contract’ - Pepsi or Coke - but if you dared even breathe the name of the one which didn’t get that contract within ten miles of the Olympic site, you risked being sued to kingdom come. The same was true of whoever won the ‘cashpoint franchise’ (although they didn’t call it that because it doesn’t sound upbeat and life-enhancing enough). It was either Visa or Mastercard, but if your credit and debit cards were with the outfit which didn’t have the concession, you were stuffed big time. And woe betide anyone who thinks the food served up by McDonald’s is pure cack: the firm had ‘won’ the chips franchise, and if you wanted to get a packet of chips which weren’t McDonalds’, tough titties.

Then there is the cost of the whole shooting match: I have nothing against anyone wasting as much of their own money as they like, but when it is my money they decide to waste, I do get a but itchy. I think the figure for the cost of staging the Games is £10 billion for everything, but it could well be higher, and we are assured that the ‘Olympic legacy’ will balance the books and that Britain will not end up out of pocket. Well, allow me to hold fire on popping the champagne corks in celebration of such great news for a few more years yet as I am firmly persuaded hindsight is a rather more valuable guide to the truth than prediction. For one thing, no buyer has yet been found for the stadium itself.

On a personal note what did rather irk me was how everyone and his dog suddenly became an instant expert on the the intricacies of sports of which they hadn’t heard of barely five minutes earlier. And I understand China informed the Games organising committee very clearly that the could be no - repeat no - reference to Taiwan and that the Taiwanese flag could not be shown or it would boycott the Games. So there was and it wasn’t and China was good enough to grace the Games with its presence.

But I am, I know, sounding like a grumpy old cunt, so let me outline what I would like to see: I would like to see a return to something a damn sight closer to ‘the Olympic ideal’, with athletes competing for the glory of it all, not because a gold, silver or even bronze means an advertising contract with some bloody shampoo or deodorant firm which will see them rolling in money by the end of the week. I should like to see an end to the obscene multi-million opening ceremonies in which each host nation desperately tries to outshine its predecessor. And I would like to see an end to all this Olympic Village lark where we build a new bloody town which will be inhabited for 16 days. Nations should pay for the upkeep of their own athletes and lend a helping hand to those poor nations who don’t even have the resources to do that. In short, forget the bullshit razzmatazz and get back to sport.

There, I’ve had my say. Now I shall go and lie down.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

I do so hope that Draghi, Monti, Merkel, Samaras, Rajoy and the rest of that sorry bunch realise whose future they are dicking with: I take these things personally. And I’m a Scorpio. Then there’s a new kid on the block, one Alexander Bastrykin: hello, Alex, and what to you to for a living?

I have a 13-year-old son and in many ways he seems to take after me. I was rather facetious as a lad, and so is he. Naturally, he is, to use the phrase metaphorically rather than literally, his own man I and I would hate to find that I am somehow manipulating him into my own image. I always think it rather sad when fathers try to mould a son or mothers a daughter into their own likeness. It is as though, having batted on a bit and no longer being the fresh young things they once were, they are somehow trying their hand at having a second youth. That kind of thing can always end in tears or, at best, stymy the development of our offspring so that it doesn’t take its natural course sooner rather than later. And the sons and daughters so treated rarely, if ever, thank you for it. So I am at pains to avoid that particular pitfall, and if I say he seems to take after me in some ways, I merely mean that, almost by chance, we seem to share one or two similar traits.

But one thing he does do, or rather one thing his presence on this earth as my son does - he is not actually ‘doing’ anything - is to remind me of what I thought and felt growing up. So, for example, if he and I are driving anywhere, it always takes me back to when I was sitting in the passenger seat and my father was driving. But I am not about to write some quasi sentimental piece about ‘growing up’ or ‘like father, like son’, but - apropos the whole bloody ‘euro crisis’ - to try to recollect the slow process by which I became aware of the world, its problems, its wars, its silliness and the making of history.

The first time I became aware of ‘world events’ was when I was less than ten and kept hearing about ‘the Baghdad Pact’. Without looking up what it was, I can’t say I know what it was (although once I have written this I shall spend a few minutes googling it and finding out. I suspect it must have come after the Suez crisis because I was not aware of it at the time, unsuprisingly as I was just six years old. I also have vague memories of the Cyprus Crisis, someone called General Grivas and Eoka and a certain Archbishop Makarios, but I had no idea what was going on.

Incidentally, what I do remember is that the crisis lasted for several years and was very bloody, with Makarios being an especially recalcitrant negotiating partner, but that when the settlement came, it happened very fast and Makarios suprisingly caved in to a certain extent. Several years later, and again I can’t remember when, my father, who had obscure links with Britain’s security services - it might well at that point have been merely that one or two of spooks were drinking buddies - told me that the end came when MI6 established and gathered proof that Makarios was a homosexual paedophile and informed him that unless he started playing ball, this information would be made public. Makarios suddenly played ball.

I became a little more aware of ‘world events’ during the Cuban missile crisis and the building of the Berlin Wall, though as a 13-year-old, the age my son is now, I was oblivious to any subtleties of what was happening and still, as I and many others had been brought up to believe, thought of the West as The Good Guys and the Reds/Communists as The Bad Guys.

So when this afternoon my son was looking at a new wall chart showing the map of the world which my wife has bought, started looking for Syria and asked a question or two about the conflict there, I tried to convey that ‘all is not quite as it might appear’. I informed him - I hope correctly - that Iran supports Assad for its reasons, the US supports the rebels for its reasons, Israel would dearly like there to be no resolution of any kind for as long as possible for its reasons, and Russia and China are opposing the West’s view of the conflict for their reasons and concluded by telling him that at a national level different states always do what they think is in their own national interests irrespective of their public declarations. How much of this he understood, I don’t know. And I might well be completely adrift in my analysis. Again, I don’t know. My point is that, at 13, he is beginning to realise that there’s more going on in the world than Lego and Fifa 12, and I should like to make sure that his able to grasp sooner rather than later that, at best, what goes on at that level is not black and white but a rather nasty and very murky monochrome.

I must confess that although I undoubtedly had opinions as a grew older - who doesn’t? - it wasn’t until I turned 40 that I began to take more than just a passing interest in ‘world events’, but that since then that interest has grown considerably. I have also become very aware of the importance of what can only be called ‘the facts of the matter’ and that what is really going on is rarely what we, we the public, are led to believe is going on - as someone once said ‘news is what doesn’t appear in the newspapers’. What has added to my interest is that I know have two children, one 16 next Tuesday and the other 13, and that were once I didn’t really give a flying fuck about the future - of this country, of Europe and of the world - I do now. For example, I should like both of them to have pretty uneventful, though, I hope interesting lives. I want them both never to have to face need - if they decide to try to become rich, that’s their business: all I want is that they don’t face need - and, all things being equal, I hope they lead contented lives. So when various fuckwit politicians play fast and loose with the British, the European and the world economy for now discernibly good reason, I do get very irritated.

All this was brought on by tonight reading a comment piece in The Economist along the lines of August being the calm before the storm as far as the euro, the eurozone, Greece, Spain, Italy, Ireland and who knows what else is concerned. The only peace of mind I have is that at this point my son, at 13, doesn’t have a clue as to what is going on and that just as I survived the Cypris Crisis intact, so will he survive all the silliness about the euro. The problem is that if, as I fear, Britain, Europe and the world is in for a very torrid time economically - and all that it will entail: political instability is always more likely the less stable an economy is - he and my daughter might not enjoy the contented life I wish them for quite some time.

. . .

In the interest of balance, I have been playing Devil’s Advocate and trying to see the euro crisis from the side of those who hope and believe it will all work out. And with the best will in the world none of it adds up any longer.

I fully understand the argument that the eurozone must be preserved because the economic consequences of a break-up would be catastrophic. But I simply can’t understand why several millions of young people, sick people and elderly people should be made to lead miserable lives in order to avoid a catastrophe which would see them lead miserably lives. Can no one else see the lunacy with which the whole euro problem is now shot through?

Then there’s the argument that if debts were ‘mutualised’, the markets would be calmed and it would become easier again for Spain and Italy to borrow money. But why on earth should the Germans and the Dutch and the Finns and whoever else shoulder the burden of others and pay off the debts of others? And that is a question they are asking themselves. In a way it makes perfect sense that they should insist that debtor countries should cut back drastically on their spending if they want to be lent more money to tide them over. But as those cutbacks entail - see above - misery for millions of young people, sick people and the elderly, is that really a viable solution? As for ‘European solidarity’ the Dutch go to the polls this September and the Germans in September 2013, and I do wonder quite how attractive the electoral slogans will be if they are meant to convey: work harder and enjoy life less, the Greeks need your money.

Not a euro problem as such, but a problem for the European Union are the increasingly undemocratic ways of the prime ministers of Romania and Hungary. What with the best minds Europe can find dealing with finding a solution to the euro crisis, just how much thought is being given to waking up to the news one morning that either or both countries have taken a leaf out of the Communist book and locked up the opposition. Fanciful? Oh, I really do hope so.

. . .

I read two things this week, one of which just has to be complete bollocks. I first read that both Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox church is calling for clemency for those three members of Pussy Riot who held an impromptu punk concert in a church and called for Putin’s removal. Well, there you go, I thought.

A day or two later, I read that both Putin and the Russian Orthodox church have called for the sternest sentence possible the courts can sentence can impose on those unfortunate three women. So which is it.

Then I read of Alexander Bastrykin, the of head of ‘the Investigative Committee’ - Russian committees always give me the willies - and the arrest he sanctioned of one Alexei Navalny. This chap happens to be a blogger and an anti-Putin activist, but apparently his arrest was not as a result of cruel things he said about Putin but for allegedly running a gang which has stolen a great deal of timber. My first instinct is that the charge is so
Who are you looking at, mate? A word of warning, sunshine . . . 
utterly outlandish, so far beyond the realms of fantasy, that there must be some truth in it. But this being Russia, I swiftly decided to hold judgment until my second, third and fourth instincts make their presence felt.

Mr Bastrykin is, apparently, the coming man in Russian security circles in that business is doing rather well for the FSB and they are rather disinclined to rock the boat. So, step forward Mr Bastrykin. See if you can’t do better. Just a few days before his arrest, Mr Navalny accused Mr Bastrykin of ‘fraud and corruption’. That was apparently not a very good move, especially if, like Mr Bastryki, you have a very natty uniform.

According to the Guardian, Mr Bastrykin is something of a card. He was rather put out by the activities of a Sergei Sokolov, the then deputy editor of a newspaper called the Novaya Gazetta (the New Gazette? Just a wild guess) and last June had a one-to-one meeting with him in a forest where he is said to have threatened to have him killed. It’s all probably stuff and nonsense and nothing but a misunderstanding, although Mr Sokolov would not be convinced by such an innocent explanation and has since left Russia for greener - and possibly less dangerous - pastures.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Greatest film ever made? Not quite. But Mr Vidal must surely come close to top of a list of wits

The great and good of the film world have spoken and now we know: after a survey of 800 odd of those great and good, their bible Sight & Sound has pronounced Alfred Hitchcock’s film Vertigo is ‘the greatest film of all time’ - at least until the next time they vote and Vertigo is unceremoniously knocked off its lofty perch. That is what has happened to Orson Welles’s film Citizen Kane, voted by the same bunch of great and good as ‘the greatest film of all time’ for many years, until this year when they decided it was no longer ‘the greatest’.

A number of things occur to me, not least whether it is at all possible - in keeping with that rarefied bunch of cineastes I should, perhaps, introduce a note of pretension and write ‘whether it is at all ontologically possible’ - to be ‘the greatest of all time’ one  minute and not the next. Surely being ‘the greatest of all time’ presupposes an absolute state which can, by definition, not be altered? Well, of course, it does, but I am myself being a little fey here: what the film world’s great and good mean is that this year the majority of us prefer Vertigo to any other film but - who knows? - next year it might well be Adventures Of A Window Cleaner starring the inimitable Barry Evans (inimitable largely because no one actually wants to imitate him. On second thoughts, is rather uncharitable to laugh at the chap, because his life ended rather sadly: he was found dead of alcohol poisoning at his home with a bottle of whisky and a pack of aspirins nearby, and for a while there were suspicions that he might well have been murdered, though bumping someone off using a bottle of whisky and a pack of aspirins does rather strike me as unnecessarily taking the long way round).

I saw Citizen Kane many years ago and liked it, but I could never quite see how it could be ‘the greatest film of all time’. I suspect that the film techniques developed and used by Welles, which were undoubtedly novel at the time, lent Citizen Kane an air of leading the pack, though how that reputation survived until last year - 71 years after it was made and by which time cinemagoers were accustomed to techniques lightyears ahead of Welles’s - rather puzzles me. For many years, however, I suffered from a variety of mild inferiority complexes and, in this instance, was inclined to accept that Sight & Sound and its coterie of cineastes knew what they were talking about whereas I didn’t and if they declared Citizen Kane to be a film of genius beyond compare but I didn’t quite see it, the failing was mine, not theirs. I am now more than a little inclined - inferiority complexes or not - to adopt a more contrarian view and stick my neck out: it’s an entertaining enough film but - work of genius? Better than a great many other films I’ve seen which impressed me more? I really don’t think so.

As for Vertigo, the whole ‘greatest film of all time’ schtick gets even sillier. I had never seen it before so, courtesy of one of the many websites which allow you, most certainly illegally, to watch films online for free, I watched it last night. And to say I was underwhelmed doesn’t even begin to describe what I felt. ‘Greatest film of all time’? Up to a point, Lord Copper. My judgment would be: an entertaining enough hotch-potch of cod psychology and melodrama which I would only recommend for viewing if you really have nothing better to do. But then what do I know? I don’t even use the word hommage, let alone pronounce it as the French do (’ommage). For my money Hitchcock’s film Lifeboat is far better but far less known.

. . .

What is it with all these ‘greatest of all time’ lists anyway? Why do we bother? Why can’t we settle for simply naming a whole load of films, boxers, composers, cars, novels or whatever it is you are interested in and telling the punter: if you like watching well-made films, enjoy watching a great boxer fight, like listening to music, take an interest in cars, like reading fiction or whatever your bag is, you could do worse than checking out . . .

But there is something about humankind that wants its No 1s. I find it all rather tacky and, in the case of the Sunday Times’s annual Rich List, downright embarrassing. The only thing such lists are good for is to allow those who haven’t got an opinion to have an opinion. So, no doubt, after hearing or reading about the result of this year’s Sight & Sound’s survey a good number of folk are already going around confidently telling their friends, as though they knew what they are talking about: ‘Hitchcock’s Vertigo - it’s marvellous, absolutely stunning and most certainly the greatest film ever made!’

Well, it’s not. And as I am apparently in full contrarian mode: Once Upon A Time In The West with Henry Fonda is not half as good as it is said to be, with Sergio Leone rather parodying himself by the time he made it; and On Golden Pond - although this is admittedly a more subjective judgment - is a load of sentimental, saccharine cack.

. . .

‘Contrarian’ is rather a useful word and one which, even though you might never have come across it before, you have a fair chance of knowing what it means without looking it up. I came across it again over these past few days in obituaries and appreciations of Gore Vidal who has died at the age of 126 during (I read rather incredulously) an over-vigorous act of sodomy. Actually, that is rather a cheap gibe, but as it is well in keeping with the general tone of this blog (‘Never Knowingly Undersold’) I’ll keep it in.

Many years ago, I read a novel by Vidal and didn’t think much to it, though I am now prepared to concede that my judgment might - I stress might - not necessarily have been up to much at the time. It was the only one I read, so I long had the impression that what with his public persona of a Grand Old Man Of Letters, he was something of a nine-bob note. On the other hand Vidal’s witticisms entertained me a great deal, not only because they were genuinely funny, but because they each had more than a kernel of truth in them. So when he said, for example: ‘It’s not enough to win, others must lose’, he goes a lot further in describing his fellow man than most of us would be comfortable with. In a similar vein there is ‘When a friend succeeds, a little part of me dies’ and, if we are honest, we tell ourselves: it isn’t nice of me, but, well, he does rather hit the nail on the head. Here are two more for good measure: ‘When anyone says to me “can you keep a secret?” I say “why should I, if you can't?” ’ and ‘A narcissist is someone better looking than you are.’ There’s no arguing with those.

There are other of his pronouncements, those about his fellow Americans, for example, which I am in no position to judge. So when he said ‘Half of the American people have never read a newspaper. Half never voted for President. One hopes it is the same half’, I am obliged to keep my mouth shut.

I trust that over the years and since reading and then dismissing that novel by Vidal, I have matured just a little, so I must admit that of the many things I admire in people, one is industry and application, and Vidal had both. He wasn’t a gadfly, he worked hard, turning out novels, essays and screenplays. And I also admire his courage in being perfectly candid about his homosexuality in an age when gays were pilloried and punished and given a very rough deal indeed for no very good reason I can think of (‘I’m all for bringing back the birch, but only between consenting adults.’) Not any less admirable is his dislike of William F Buckley and Norman Mailer. While writing this and seeking out the exact wording of Vidal quotes on various websites, I came across this gem: after some TV talk show, things became so heated between Mailer and Vidal at an after-hours party that Mailer got up and punched Vidal to the ground, to which Vidal responded, ‘I see words fail Norman Mailer again’.

So might I beg your, and Mr Vidal’s, pardon and drastically revise my original and very callow judgment of the man and (my cheap gibe above notwithstanding) admit that I now find him to be a very admirable fellow and may his soul now rest in peace. I have included a picture of the man and, to honour him, I have
not chosen one of him in his dotage (who of us looks, or will look, good when we are old, lined and 80?) but one when he was in his prime. Should you want to read more about him and his wit, many papers have carried reams of memoirs, but if you are too lazy to do the googling yourself, you could try here, here and here.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Who's wearing the White Hats in Syria? (Or why the West’s attitudes towards the toppling of Assad and his regime remind me just a little too much of the Cisco Kid and Hopalong Cassidy). And just how soppy can a grown man get?

When I was a kid and regularly watched the 30-minute Westerns which were screened every weekday for us young ones – Rin Tin Tin, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry (who I didn’t really like), Roy Rodgers, Annie Oakley, The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid – it was pretty easy to distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys: the good guys usually wore light-coloured hats and had the trousers outside their boots, and the bad guys usually wore dark-coloured hats and tucked their trousers into their boots. The good guys invariably also had a well-shaven chin as smooth as a baby’s bottom, whereas the bad guys had several days of growth on their chins and gave the impression that bodily hygiene wasn’t top of their list of priorities. The good guys always won and the bad guys always lost, and our side were always the good guys and the other side were always the bad guys.

That was then and this is now, and I like to think I’ve rather grown out of such a monochrome view of the world. But apparently much of the rest of the world hasn’t, and nowhere is this more apparent than in coverage of the fighting in Syria which we should now acknowledge is a civil war. No one would, I think, disagree that Assad and his regime are a thoroughly bad lot, but it all gets rather murky when one takes a look at those trying to oust him: who are they and do they really deserve our support.

As usual, I have no special insight into this matter and I shan’t pretend that I do, but I can still make several observations about it all, based on what I have read and heard in the media. For one thing, several million Christian Syrians who wouldn’t, as a rule, cheer on Assad and his regime are faced with a hell of a dilemma: who do they support? There are now several well-documented accounts of what more or less adds up to ethnic cleansing by some of the Syrian rebels, except that it is not your ethnicity which determines whether you will be chased out of your home and told to make yourself scarce, but your religion. All is fine and dandy if you are a Sunni Muslim, but things are not getting extraordinarily bleak if you profess to be a Christian.

It is the fundamentalist Muslim element of the Syrians rebels which is giving many second thoughts: what are the chances, many are asking themselves, that if Assad and his regime are toppled those who follow him in power will be any less repressive or, to put it another way, any more enlightened and democratic. Under Assad, for example, women and homosexuals apparently led more or less free lives, a freedom homosexuals were granted – at least in the big cities – on the proviso that they kept a low profile. If Assad is toppled, will those freedoms continue?

Yet in the Dick and Dora world of Western diplomacy the Syrian rebels are the good guys in white hats and Assad and his henchmen the bad guys who can’t even be bothered to tuck their trousers into their boots. I am prepared to accept that such a stance is merely one for public consumption and that behind the scenes more sophisticated minds are at play, but there is scant evidence for such optimism. The conventional wisdom is that the West is mainly concerned with ensuring that it’s supply of oil remains unaffected and can be relied upon, but even that seems to me a tad simplistic as analysis.

I got to thinking about it all, although by no means for the first time, when I read a report on the BBC News website of the summary execution by Syrian rebels of four Syrian loyalists. But the good guys aren’t supposed to do that are they? Aren’t they? Perhaps they are. Perhaps, given Western certainties about the virtues of democracy and the rest of it, we should be resurrecting the notion of ‘a just war’, in which death might be horrible blah-di-blah and regrettable blah-di-blah and should if at all possible be avoided blah-di-blah and killing only resorted to as the very last resort blah-di-blah-di-blah-di-blah, but at the end of the day We are The Good Guys who are doing The Right Thing and They are The Bad Guys who deserve whatever they get so take your liberal conscience, sunny jim, and stick it where the sun don’t shine. On the whole I think I prefer my 30-minute Westerns: at least it was honest-to-goodness fiction not fiction masquerading as virtue.

. . .

I am one of those poor unfortunates who only has to have one drink and the ideas come crashing in. That, in itself, is not a boast because the lifespan of each idea is very short, far too short, in fact, to be of any consequence and far too short to be of any worth whatsoever. It goes like this: sometimes I drive up to London for my four days of shifts on the Mail and sometimes I take the train.

If I drive, I have taken to stopping off at the Brewers Arms in South Petherton in Somerset for a pint and a half of cider, a bag of nuts and a cigar or two. I leave around ten and listen to the World Tonight (available on all good radio receivers if they receive Radio 4) and ostensibly acquaint myself with the latest goings-on in the world. But, of course, I don’t.

Instead I ‘get ideas’: ideas for stories, for novels, for plays, how to write stories, or novels, or plays, what style I might try to adopt, what style might work, the relationship of style to a particular story and then what kind of story or novel might find favour in today’s ‘modern’ world. Each of those ideas flit into my brain and rapidly flit out again as the next idea crashes its way in. But that is just the half of it. I also listen to the World Tonight and dwell on what I hear and expand on that a little. And again each new ‘thought’ - I’m not being modest by putting the word in inverted commas, merely (I hope) refreshingly honest - is again very, very soon crowded out by some upstart newcomer of a ‘thought’ whose lifespan once more must be measured in milliseconds before a new ‘insight’ makes its way in - and then rapidly out - to my mind. The rapidity of arrival and departure of each new idea and thought seems to be in proportion to the amount of cider I drink. You know what I am talking about, because you have been there, too.

What to do? How do regiment those thoughts? How to hang onto them? How to evaluate them? How to discard the dross, the trivial, the commonplace, the universal from what might, just might, be worth remembering? I really don’t have a clue.

A few months ago, I wrote of arriving back home here in Cornwall and appreciating, each and every time I get out of the car just after midnight. sniffing the fresh, peaceful air of Higher Lank and reflecting just how lucky I am to be living in so pleasant a part of the country where others are condemned to live in a noisy city - at best - or, apropos the Book Of The Week on Radio 4 this week in some godamn-awful slum somewhere. Tonight was the same, but  I shall expand on that a little.
The drive from London takes me down the M3 and then along the A303 which is partly dual carriageway, then from Exeter onto the A30 which is almost wholly dual carriageway. But near somewhere called Temple on Bodmin Moor, I turn right off the dual carriageway (which, for a brief few miles becomes a single carriageway, but what the hell, I shan’t let that bother me at this point) and drive for just over five miles straight across Bodmin Moor. It is a part of the journey I really like, not least because although it takes me around 15 minutes to complete, I know I shall soon be home. But that journey is sometimes quite magical in one particular way.

Bodmin Moor is home to a great many ponies and a great many sheep and several thousand rabbits. And at this time of year many of those ponies have young ones with them. And those young ponies, some barely a week or two old, take my heart and almost make me want to cry in their innocence. My daughter will be 16 in five days time and my son turned 13 just over two months ago. Neither is the sweet young thing they once were, but both are still most certainly the sweet young thing they once were, the difference being that now I can no longer let them know that that is how I feel about them.

Now I am obliged, quite rightly of course, to treat them as older, to acknowledge that they are becoming people in their own right. They would not thank me - as you and I would not have thanked our parents when we were their age - to be reminded that in many ways they are still babes in arms. But every time I see one of those young ponies, all long legs and shyness and all of them sticking as close to their mothers as they can I am taken back in an instance to Elsie being just a babe and Wesley being just a babe. It gets worse: every time a rabbit runs across the lane in front of me I have to brake sharply and do brake sharply in case I inadvertently run it over. For I could not kill one of those rabbits, even accidentally, as I could not kill one of my children.

Soppy? Not a bit of it. I really don’t think I knew anything about anything until my children were born.