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.