Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Oh, Andrew, what a fine set of principles.

A while ago I mentioned so-called super-injunctions taken out by those with the necessary loot to hire expensive lawyers, which not only deny all mention of a certain matter, but even forbid any mention that the injunction has been taken out. Super-injunctions were back in the news again recently after two actors and a football player had been playing away from home and didn’t want their public to find out, but the matter took quite a dramatic twist over these past few days with the announcement by one man who had taken out a super-injunction that he now thought the trend was a danger to freedom of speech. It was that lovely Andrew Marr, a darling of the bien pensant left-of-centre who is married to the Guardian journalist Jackie Ashley.
I am not Marr’s greatest fan,and when he hosts his Monday morning radio show Start The Week, I can’t help but hear a great deal of self-satisfaction in his voice. Marr’s announcenment was the big news yesterday morning and at first blush is seemed as though a principled man who had once demonstrated a little weakness had rediscovered his princples and the world was once again a grander place. Unfortunately, that wasn’t true.
When Marr took out his super-injunction – and I repeat that they are not cheap – the talk was that he had done so because he wanted to protect his children, specifically that he and his wife Jackie, both stalwarts of the left, had chosen to send their children to a private school and they didn’t relish the great unwashed finding out. That, it now appears, was just so much nonsense.
In fact, Marr did not want the world to know that he had had an affair with a fellow journalist and had fathered a child out of wedlock. That fellow journalist was Alice Miles, of The Times.
Strictly, under the terms of the super-injunction, I and everyone else is forbidden from revealing her name, but for one thing the affair between Marr and Miles was common knowledge in the ‘Westminster Village’ - Miles was then working as a Lobby correspondent – and, anyway, her name had already been publicised on January 18, 2008 (more than three years ago) in the blog by Guido Fawkes. So if I end up in the Tower for mentioning her name – or more likely am landed with a huge fine for contempt of court – it would be interesting to know why Guido wasn’t similarly taken to task three years ago or any of the other cyber pillocks who have been plastering the good lady’s name all over the net with gay abandon.
In the event Marr came clean overnight from Sunday to Monday and ‘his people’ — whoever they were, somone a little more upmarket than Max Cliffored, I suspect — managed to put a reasonable gloss on the affair. It was put about that Marr – a principled man, we must remind ourselves, a man of the left who, we can be certain knows wrong from right and who was merely guilty of one slip - was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the whole idea of the rich and wealthy being able to hide their dirty little secrets, while the rest of us poor schmucks could do nothing of the kind. That, too, it turned out is just so much nonsense.
What had happened was that Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye, was becoming increasingly sickened that Marr, who has a prominent Sunday morning political show in which he interviews politicians, could take them to task for irregularities in their private lives while he had ensured that his own dirty little secret was kept well hidden.
The technical term for this kind of behaviour is hypocrisy.
Private Eye is not a wealthy publication but Hislop decided to use some of its shekels to hire an expensive lawyer and challenge Marr’s super-injunction. At some point Marr will have realised that the game was up (I don’t yet know what the outcome was of Hislop’s legal challenge was i.e. whether or not it succeeded), so, no doubt on the advice of ‘his people’ decided to come clean and put as good a gloss on the whole messy business as soon as possible. What better way than to insist that his liberal conscience had got the better of him and that — bugger the consequences — right must prevail: super-injunctions are evil. What a shame that his conscience didn’t seem to stir until he realised his behaviour was about to ensure he would be regarded as one of the biggest shits in town.
By the way, the one detail of this whole affair which amuses me most is that after Miles gave birth to the daughter Marr thought was his, and after he had confessed all to his wife, he agreed – principled chap that he was – to pay child maintenance. It has now emerged that Marr is not the father – Miles was a little more generous with her favours than he thought she was. And so Marr now wants his money back. Now that one should run and run. Miles doesn’t some out if this at all well, either. She knew she was screwing other chaps — I assume, she wasn’t asleep while the deeds were being done — and she will have known that it might be possible Marr wasn't the daddy. But did she tell him of her doubts? Apparently not.
Oh, and in view of his crusade to nail a hypocrite I do hope Hislop hasn’t got any skeletons in his cupboard. For as sure as eggs is eggs they are just bound to come out.

. . .

In his blog, Guido Fawkes makes the point that those truly guilty of hypocrisy on an industrial scale are all those hacks, both broadcasting and print, who knew all about the affair, but kept schtumm. It seems that in some matters dog thinks twice about biting dog. Perhaps at the end of the day those hacks put a greater value on self-preservation.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

My Easter message

I am a cradle Catholic which means, as only cradle Catholics will understand, that as far as the RC church is concerned they have got me for life. The theory is that we who were born and baptised Catholics might at some point in our lives renounce ‘the faith’ and we might well renounce ‘the faith’ for quite some time, - the Church is quite understanding, even forgiving in theses matters - but beneath it all, when all is said and done, we are still RCs, and rather like lost lambs might eventually find our way back to the fold. The important point is that as far as ‘Mother Church’ is concerned we have no choice in the matter. It is our destiny. Even what I write here will, as far as the true RC believers will tell themselves, be nothing but proof that I have ‘lost the way’ and that with a good deal of prayer I will find ‘my way back’ to Mother Church.
It might comes as no surprise to some of you that Stalin, when he was still known as Joseph Jughashvilli (I understand the spelling varies according to how much vodka you have had to drink) trained to be a Georgian Orthodox priest and it is not too much of a stretch of the imagination that he learnt much of his murderous methodology from the church. Although the various flavours of the Russian Orthodox church might have very little in common with Vatican’s Roman Catholicism and want very little to do with the Vatican’s Roman Catholicism, it will not have been lost on either variety that once you have convinced someone that their destiny is in God’s hand and that you, as God’s representative on Earth, call the shots, there is not a great deal they can do. It is a crude but very effective form of brainwashing. That seems to be a lesson Stalin learnt. Make them ‘love’ you, and they will do anything for you, even kill those who don’t ‘love’ you.
I write this now, late on Saturday night (here in Britain) and on the eve of the Christian churches most important annual feast day, because despite being ‘lost to the church’ and despite thinking that a great deal of what it ‘teaches’ is just some much hooey, that it’s not quite as simple as that. For in my own very private and very obscure way I have ‘a faith in God’. But I do not believe that the historical figure of Jesus Christ was ‘God’ or the ‘son of God’ or in any way divine. I believe that he was born, had brothers and sisters, married and shat just like most of us. I believe that he was a devout Jew, more devout than many, that he belonged to the Nazarene sect whose aims were twofold: to purify the Jewish faith and to rid Palestine (or whatever the Jews regarded as their home) of the occupying Roman forces. I believe that there were quite a few chuntering around that neck of the woods believing themselves to be ‘the Messiah’. I also believe that the church’s central figure of ‘Christ’ was wholly a creation of St Paul, aka Saul of Tarsus, who cobbled together a Christian myth from all sorts of sources. James, Jesus’s brother rumbled Saul quiet early on and wanted very little to do with him.
I must admit that the beliefs I have listed above are not based on thorough and deep research but upon merely reading two books (well three, really, but I’ll come to that later on). They are A N Wilson’s Jesus: A Biography and the one rather provocatively entitled Jesus: The Terrorist about which I have written before. And I must also admit that I have laid myself wide open to any number of criticisms by saying as much. I should, though, in fairness to myself add that my convictions also lean on my life experience and what, at 61, I know of humankind. The third book was one I read over 40 years ago and of which I remember very little. It was written Hugh Schonfield and called The Passover Plot, and no doubt it, too, is decried by the wise men of the Vatican as just another potboiling piece of shit. Which is fine by me as I can’t remember the first thing about what I read in it.
So that’s me having put the RC church and ‘cradle catholics’ in their place. But I should also like to add that, within reason, whatever the faith, I think it is better to have a faith than not. In that respect there is nothing that distinguishes Christians form Muslims from Hindus from Buddhists from Zoroastrians from - the list is infinite. You might even include humanists. In their very modern and oh so enlightened way they might deny vehemently that they are ‘a faith’ and the more militant humanists might even consider calling in their very expensive lawyers and suing for libel. But, sorry chaps and chappesses, you might not have ‘a God’ but as far as I am concerned you are a faith.
What is most intriguing is that however much these different faiths disagree and however much they feel the need to kill each other, fundamentally their principles are identical: love thy neighbour and all that entails and acknowledge that there is something greater than humankind (call it God, Allah, Jahveh or whatever you like – just don’t pretend he/she/it doesn’t exist). Oh, and there’s more to life than gold and silver.
At the end of the day I don’t give a flying fuck whether the RCs believe I am reclaimable, benighted, misguided, ‘lost’ or anything else. That is no longer my problem. John Hume observed that ‘man created God in his own image’, and that about sums it up. I am grateful to ‘Mother Church’ for whatever good it passed on to me, but I like to think that one of those things is to be honest with oneself, and whatever my conscience tells me will remain between me and my conscience (which is, by the way, a cynical little toad). I am no longer a Roman Catholic. I don’t believe that Jesus Christ was in any way divine. But I do believe that I am nothing without other people and I do believe that in our hearts all of us – all of us, even those who think they are the worst of the worst – know what is right and what is not right. And I pray that each and every one of us can find the strength in ourselves to do the right thing by others. It would sound horribly wishy-washy to end this particular rant with an exhortation to love one another, so I shall put it another way: don’t be too hard on the schmuck who has just cut in on you. And maybe he won’t be too hard on you.
So, a happy Easter break to you all.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The spell is broken: Auntie BBC hints that all might not be well with the EU

There was an interesting item on Radio 4’s Today this morning, interesting not necessarily in what it said, but that in a way it was a first of its kind.

I happen to be a ‘eurosceptic’ in that from my, possibly limited, knowledge of human behaviour and the history of European nations, I believe that the prospect of welding us all together into one joyous whole is just so much pie in the sky. (The less wise EU enthusiasts point to the United States of America and claim that if it can be done there it can be done here. They completely ignore that the genesis of the U.S. was wholly different in that the union evolved and that it was by no means painless given that the Civil War claim the lives of many hundreds of thousands. That’s why the wiser EU enthusiasts make no such comparison.)

The piece on the radio this morning, with, on the one side Karl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister, and on the other a eurosceptic called Derek Scott, who was Tony Blair’s economics advisor when Blair was PM, asked whether in the light of a variety of different problems faced by the EU, it could be seen to be slowly falling apart again. It isn’t just the eurozone crisis which is destabilising the EU, but real problems with the Schengen agreement and the growing popularity of anti-EU political parties. Scott, naturally, given his field of expertise, dealt mainly with the euro crisis and again highlighted its internal contradiction (which were pointed out by eurosceptics when the euro was launched) which mean a monetary mechanism intended to help the different EU economies to converge is, in fact, making them diverge.

The problems with the Schengen agreement, under which EU citizens are allowed to move between EU countries freely without check stem from the arrival in Italy of refugees from the troubles in North Africa, mainly Tunisia, who are then being allowed by Italy to move off into France (where, given France’s colonial history, they feel more at home). France, naturally, is crying foul, has said such refugees should be dealt with by the first EU country they enter and has again begun checking the documents of those arriving at its borders.
The rise of nationalist parties hostile to the EU has also carried on, with the electoral success of the True Finns in Finland. (I must be honest and admit I had never heard of the ‘True Finns’ until about three days ago, and perhaps you hadn’t either, but they are real and now have a sufficiently large number of MPs to be a force to be reckoned with in Finland.)

Here in Britain there have been quiet a few eurosceptics prophesying the imminent demise of the EU — it would be truer to say they have been praying for it — but until now they have largely belonged to the lunatic fringe of EU opponents and are rarely taken seriously by anyone but themselves. What was interesting about the Radio 4 piece and how it dealt with the possible slow disintegration of the EU was that it is anything but in the lunatic fringe of any movement, and given Auntie BBC’s usual chaste insistence on ‘balance’, I should imagine there was a small degree of soul-searching and ‘referring up’ before it was agreed the piece could be broadcast.

. . .

One other aspect of a possible slow disintegration of the EU alluded to by the piece was a growing North/South divide in Europe. The whole point about the EU, or one of them, was that ‘we are all in this together, the smallest member state is as important as the largest’ blah-blah, which was always a piece of idealistic fiction. The eternal dynamics of the group again came into play, as, of course, they had to, and the richer, stronger nations began to call the shots. Now we have a situation in which several of the Med EU states are in financial shit and the North EU states are being expected to bail them out, which is not going down at all well with the taxpayers of those North EU states. Now there’s a surprise.

What would happen if the EU were to ‘shrink’ again, to reconstitute itself into a smaller group of more responsible members? The first thing to say is that it simply wouldn’t happen like that, although there has been talk of a caucus being formed of all the stable eurozone economies within the eurozone. But I doubt whether the current crop of EU bigwigs would ever contemplate a situation where they would be left with a great deal of egg on their faces. It is more likely that they would carry on admiring the emperor’s new clothes until the time came for them to retire with their reputations and dignity intact on a fabulous pension, leaving a new crop off apparatchiks to clear up the mess.

And what of Greece, Portugal and Spain? It might be tactless to say so, but in historical terms they have all comparatively recently been dictatorships, and their reaction to economic adversity might not be the same as that of those EU states of a more calvinistic bent. Spain, the largest of the three, has a huge problem with youth unemployment, and the young tend to get restless rather faster than we old farts. I heard the BBC’s economics correspondent admit that other night that the question now being asked is not whether Greece will go bust, but when. Will Germans be happy to carry on shelling out more of their taxes to sustain Greece? All together now: No, of course they bloody won’t! But that is not what the EU idealists want to hear. They want to cling to the dream that ‘we’re all in this together, come hell or high water’.

A future problem for the EU is growing corruption in those member states which were once part of the Soviet bloc. Old habits die hard and the survival strategies employed when the communists were still in charge are proving to be just as lucrative these days under the evil EU empire (or something. That was a joke: I like to think I am NOT part of the anti-EU lunatic fringe). It seems this corruption is not, as one might think, restricted to former Soviet bloc states in the southern part of Europe, such as Romania and Bulgaria. The three Baltic members have also found that their politicians are finding it hard keeping their sticky fingers out of the till.

. . .

Then there’s the small matter of the EU’s request for an increase in its budget, and increase which is higher than eurozone inflation, so it’s not just a question of sitting tight until times is better, guv. So you really do have to ask whether the European Commission is firing on all cylinders or is, perhaps, not the teeniest bit out of touch. Well, it’s the latter, of course.

Whether of not an increase over an above inflation is warranted, you have to conclude that the EC is ineffably politically naive to make its demand at a time when the rest of Europe is being urged to tighten its belt, and the people of Greece, Ireland and Portugal have absolutely no choice in the matter. And do we really want such dumbos making decisions for us? That, by the way, is a rhetorical question.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Strange but true - I have accidentally jumped on the iPad bandwagon: I got one I didn't even want. And is Turkey getting even more authoritarian?

Through what can only be called stupidity and misfortune, I am now the owner of an iPad. But before I am charged with jumping on an ibandwagon, trying to appear cool or any of the other nasty things which are said about iPad owners, I must point out that – this is where my stupidity comes in – I bought it by mistake. Well, not quite by mistake, but accidentally. It happened like this: I often visit eBay and keep an eye on various kinds of items, even items I know I shan’t want to buy. Why I do this, I don’t know, but I do it. One day, I spotted a ‘new, factory-sealed iPad 1, 16gb with both wi-fi and 3g’ so the more expensive sort. Ten minutes before the end of the auction the price was £380. At the point the excessively childish part of my nature kicked in and I decided to bid merely to bump up the price. You might claim this was unfair on the eventual buyer who would thus be paying more than he or she need to, to which I would respond that I am doing the seller a favour, ensuring that he or she gets a better price. So it’s a stalemate and lets drop the matter. The point is that I did bid, to £390, and someone else responded, raising the price to £400. So I went to £410 – and there were no further bids. Poetic justice you might say, serves you right. OK, point taken. But I now owned an iPad I didn’t want and never planned on buying. Furthermore, reselling, the obvious solution, was by now less attractive as the week I bought the iPad, Apple launched its successor, the iPad 2, which was not only faster but now had a camera. So who was going to want that first iPad. I left it in is sealed box for three weeks, while I debated what to do with it. I had previously seen one and had admired its design. But there was no way I could convince myself that the iPad could do anything my iPod Touch (fourth generation with camera) and one of my many, many laptops couldn’t do. Curiosity finally got the better of me. And, anyway, as I had by then bought a silicone screen protector and a case to keep it pristine, it was obvious that subconsciously I know I was going to keep it. Well, so now I’ve got one. Now here’s an odd thing: after a few hours, using it seems ‘more normal’ than using the iPod Touch. That now seems to have ‘rather a small screen’, whereas the iPad screen seems to be the ‘normal size’. I have also been reading newspapers and magazines on it, and – although I hate to say this – it does feel perfectly normal doing so, so normal, in fact, that I am persuaded that increasingly in the future the number of people who will read their daily paper and magazine using a tablet will increase substantially. The Daily Telegraph app is well thought out and when it introduces an ad – a full-screen ad at that – it doesn’t feel half as irritating as one might imagine. The ad can be ‘swiped’ away in a moment, but the point is that given such full-page ads are possible and, because of the size of the screen, don’t look rather silly, advertisers might feel more inclined to spend money on such advertising, making the web more of a market. So even though I loathe the ‘Mac community’ for its smug self-regard and the way bloody Steve Jobs has been canonised, I can’t deny that launching the iPad was rather more visionary than I first thought. Naturally, many companies – Dell, Samsung, Sony and HP to name just a few – are have now developed or are now developing their own tablet – and, bad news for Microsoft – many are also developing their own operating systems or using Google’s Android – so it would seem the idea will take off. It will be interesting to see what has evolved along those lines in ten years.

. . .

My sister contacted me from Istanbul last week to tell me she can no longer log onto Google blogs to read what I write. That kind of net blocking can only be done at an official level, and not even I am conceited enough to believe I have pissed off the Turkish authorities. A few days later, she was in touch again with the explanation: it seems so blogger somewhere had written something nasty which the Turkish football authorities objected to. Result: Google blogs are banned from Turkey. Well, that’s the official explanation at least. Unofficially I should think it is just another example of the Turkish government’s growing authoritarianism, which my sister has plenty of stories about. We in the West have been getting into bed with all sorts of people for ‘strategic reasons’ – why, until recently even Gaddafi was regarded as a man who was now again wearing clean underpants – but we really should be very careful indeed. There are still voices which demand that Turkey be admitted to the EU – quite what they would do if that happened and for one reason or another Turkey again invaded Cyprus can only be guessed – but then the supporters of ‘the project’ aren’t universally known for their wisdom. Oh, and by the way: the honest money these days isn’t on whether Greece will go bankrupt despite the EU bailout but when. And Irish government bonds have now been rated at junk status. Thought you like to know. Do have a happy Easter break.

. . .

A week or two ago, the Press here in Britain astounded us with the house in Swansea which bears an uncanny resemblance to Adolf Hitler, and today I can proudly present you with an image which is quite possible even more astounding: the jelly bean which looks like Kate Middleton. Enjoy (as they sometimes say in trendy bars in London, and elsewhere I should imagine.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Newspapers insensitive? Rubbish! Did the Kennedys get tough to preserve the fairy tale? And two reasons why I might be thought of as quite stupid

In my noble, indeed sacred, quest to encourage greater understanding between newspapers and the rest of the world and counter the widespread impression that the Press are just a load of lazy and cynical hacks who think only of themselves, I offer you the following picture. It appeared on page 46 of the April 12, 2011, edition of the Daily Mail, in the paper’s Good Health section. In its Ask The Doctor column in which a reader

©Kobal Collection
describes the agony he has been suffering because of back pain, and the whole piece is headlined: Is An Op The Best Bet For My Bad Back? The fact that his affliction was obviously shared by Quasimodo will have cheered the reader up considerably, and the Mail is only to be congratulated on its compassion for sufferers of back pain and attempting to bring a little happiness to an otherwise dank and dark world. It is a shining example of just how sensitive newspapers can be when they try. Just forget all that piffle that they are purely interested in the colour of your money.

Then there is this gem: it is a mushroom which looks like a pig. Well, it does, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it? Oh well. Try looking at it in a mirror. Or even not at all. The resemblance will suddenly be

obvious. A few months ago, the Mail was kind enough to publish a picture of a chip on the end of a fork which, it proclaimed, resembled a dinosaur. Isn’t it a joy to live in a democratic country which is not afraid of allowing its Press the necessary freedom to be able to publish pictures such as this?

Just think, it would not have been possible in Nazi Germany (despite the fact that they the Germans are fond of both mushrooms and pork) and it is still not possible in many dictatorships around the world. We in the free West should count our blessings? We simply don't know just how lucky we are!

. . .

I’ve just read that America’s History Channel rejected the miniseries The Kennedys for broadcast, despite having commissioned it, on the grounds that it deals in documentaries and The Kennedys ‘is drama’. Sounds like a reasonable justification for ditching a programme – for about a second until you consider that it should have occurred to them long before the filming was completed, indeed long before filming started that it was getting a drama series.

Were not History Channel execs in regular contact with the miniseries producers while it was being made? And did not alarm bells ring when they realised, surely quite early on, that the ‘documentary’ they thought they had commissioned was, in fact, turning out to be a drama? Apparently not, and the only conclusion to be reached is that History Channel execs are quite simply bloody useless. But that is rather unlikely.

What is more likely is that America’s royalty – didn’t know the Land of The Free had royalty, but it does, you know – had several quiet but important words in the ear of the History Channel and explained that what might be shown to TV audiences worldwide if the History Channel went ahead with screening it the miniseries just a little too close to the truth about JFK and ‘Camelot’ for comfort. Caroline et al would rather JFK was remembered as the principled, good-looking, young saint who was America’s great white hope leading the ‘free world’ into a glorious future than as a two-faced serial adulterer who was
hooked in prescription painkillers,was in cahoots with the Mafia, whose administration got up to all kinds of murky dealing and who was quite probably bumped off in Dallas after too many vested interests – including his one-time buddies in the Mafia – decided he was bad for business.

Nor were they too chuffed when, after helping shoehorn Kennedy into the presidency, he and his brother Robert did the dirty and announced war on the Mafia. Oh, Caroline et al did not want it widely known that John Fitzgerald was the Kennedy clan's third choice for the presidency after Joseph Snr was deemed ineligible because of his murky, not to say criminal, business dealings, and Joseph Jnr, JFK’s older brother was deemed ineligible to stand as he died long before a campaign could be launched.

Joseph Snr was essentially a Mick gangster who made his fortune bootlegging and used it more or less to buy the presidency for JFK with the help of his Mafia buddies and the bent mayor of Chicago, one Richard Daley. Caroline et al would not like the world to be reminded that, either. Never mind: it is now being shown on the ReelzChannel, a much smaller outfit than the History Channel and one which probably has less to lose and a lot more to gain.

. . .

It has to be said, of course, that JFK’ shagging history – Marilyn Monroe was one squeeze as was Judith Exner and Ellen Rometsch, who were thought by the CIA to be an East German

Three squeezes (from left): Reputed Communist agent Ellen Rometsch, Marilyn Monroe and Judith Exner
agent and who was deported just as soon as possible once the CIA was able to do so – was common knowledge among the Washington Press corps, but in those days it was not done to publicise such matters, and JFK could shag away with impunity. The only guy taking an interest – and copious notes – was J Edgar Hoover, the poisonous closet drag queen who ran the FBI and was much inclined to blackmailing politicians and such-like. So much for ‘Camelot’.
By the way, there is one conspiracy theory that Ellen Rometsch, who could still be alive, is one reason why the U.S. authorities were (and, according to the theory, still are) reluctant to investigate the assassination of JFK as thoroughly as they might. Rometsch, who has not said a word about her liaison with Kennedy, let it be known that she would spill the beans if the such an investigation got to thorough. Her threat has, apparently, entered legal parlance as the ‘Ellen Rometsch strategy’. But I for one, think it is just a little far-fetched. Whatever secrets she was told during post-coital pillow talk, almost 50 years down the line surely couldn’t be all that damaging. By the way, the most efficient way of clamping down on a conspiracy is to muddy the waters. That’s what happened over Dallas, and the one certainty is that we shall never know what really happened, why, and who gained.

. . .

Incidentally, what exactly did happen in Dallas is still extremely murky, and I doubt we’ll ever know the truth. But as far as I am concerned what did not happen was the Kennedy was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald working as a lone gunmen. For one thing, the brief 13-second long piece of film made by Abraham Zaprudeer shows Kennedy being hit from a bullet shot from behind the limousine (which would be consistent with the shot being fired from the Texas Book Depository), but the bullet which made his head explode (shown clearly in the film) could only have come from the right side of the limo. It would seem to have come to the right of the limo and even slightly in front of it (on what has become known as the ‘grassy knoll’). That would make at least two gunmen involved in the shooting.

I don’t doubt that Oswald was involved in the plot as some kind of patsy, and until his death a few days later, he might well have considered himself to have been the sole assassin, but it is likyly that he was set up to think he was working alone, and I don’t doubt that he was shot dead by Jack Ruby days later to stop him giving his side to the story.
Ruby was a nightclub owner with links to the Mafia who was dying of cancer. He had nothing to lose. One theory is that the Mafia, who had help the Kennedys a great deal in the election of 1960 were getting cheesed off with the White House reneging on agreements and generally playing everything two ways. Still, we’ll never know the truth. Perhaps it would be best for all if we settled for the fairy tale of Camelot and St John Fitzgerald Kenndy.

. . .

Confession, so one cliché would have it, is good for the soul. And I also believe that going public about a piece of one’s own stupidity will, in an odd, quasi-mystical, not to say thoroughly superstitious way, ensure future good fortune. The thinking is that whatever supranatural entity pulls the strings, whether it is ‘God’, ‘Allah’ (apparently the same being the Muslims inform me, not that I’m particularly bothered), ‘Gaia’ (‘God’ for environmentally aware atheists), ‘Nature’ (‘God’ for environmentally aware atheists who have long gone grey and listen to Radio 2 and Heart when no one else is around), ‘Yin’ (OK, OK ‘Yan’ too, if you insist), he or she or it (or even they - mustn’t forget the Pagans) rather admires your humble honesty, so you get a pass whenever the next piece of bad luck is doing the rounds.

Actually, you don’t all, of course, and it’s complete bullshit to pretend otherwise, but then none of us usually objects to bullshit unless someone else’s, so - Lord, what a long sentence - in the spirit of hope and bullshit I shall confess to two pieces of crass stupidity. And no, I have never - never voted Labour - not even for ‘New’ Labour in 1997 when everyone and his favourite aunt took leave of their senses and embraced the Coming of Tony Blair.

My two pieces of stupidity both involve laying bets courtesy of the good offices of Ladbrokes. com which does a fine line in online betting. Because of Ladbrokes (or William Hill, Paddy Power and Blue Square - oh, yes, know them all, and have accounts with all four, but restrict myself to Ladbrokes) losing money has never been easier. Should you also want to lose money as quickly as possible, all you have to do is to go online and visit Ladbrokes, open an account, register a credit or debit cars, deposit money, start laying the bets of your choice and penury will be within your grasp sooner than you could say ‘you bloody fool’.

My first piece of stupidity came during the recent Six Nations Rugby Championship. Now that television technology has added several dimensions to the ‘viewing experience’, I have rather taken to international rugby.

I first encountered rugby at boarding school and for many years associated it and the puerile behaviour of the game’s followers with abject misery, freezing weather, very cold feet, beer guts and the kind of crassness you only ever encounter at a British public school: it was an ‘offence’ not to carry your fixture card with you at all times, an ‘offence’ which could be ‘punished’ at will and, quite naturally, given the nature of teenage bully boys, often was. I don’t doubt that such utterly pointless discipline was thoroughly character-building, and I shudder to think into what kind of spineless individual I might have developed had I not rather too often - and quite inexplicably - forgotten to carry my fixture card.

So although I have loathed, and still loathe, British club rugby and its ethos, I have taken to watching and enjoying the Six Nations matches on TV and invitably decided to support Italy, in rugby as in much else the underdogs. Just over a month ago, Italy played France, which is a flaky side at the best of times, rather like their international football side, and always being the kind to put his money where his mouth is, I decided to back Italy courtesy of the service offered by Ladbrokes. In the event, and against all expectations, Italy beat France.

The odds were good, I was chuffed at having won, and I checked to see just how much. Well, as it turned out nothing because I had forgotten to place the bet in the first place. Why, I don’t know, but I had. That was my first piece of stupidity.

The second, almost identical, instance came earlier today. Every April a race called the Grand National is run here in Britain at Aintree racecourse in Liverpool (NB Q: What do you call a Liverpudlian in a suit? A: The accused.) and as it as usual I treated my wife and two children to a flutter. My stepmother down the road also asked me to lay on a bet or three for her online, as did her my 80-year-old Bordeaux-based aunt (her sister), my aunt’s 90-year-old Liverpudlian friend (a former colleague of hers who married a Frenchman and has lived in France for the past 65 years) and another friend called Lucy of whom I know nothing at all.

As luck would have it, my aunt backed the winner Ballabriggs at 14/1, betting £2 each way. Except that she didn’t: although I laid all the other bets through my online Ladbrokes account, but inexplicably missed out her - winning - bet. Stupid or what?

My solution is to remain schtumm on the matter (or as schtumm as one can remain while broadcasting to the rest of the world via an internet blog what has occurred) and pay up anyway. I shall send her the euro equivalent of £30.

When I told a work colleague that I intended doing so, she commented: ‘How noble.’ Nonsense, it is just sheer self-preservation. I don’t want to confirm my aunt’s suspicion that I am, in fact, the village idiot she has always suspected me to be. My wife, who will take the opposite stance to me on any matter, irrespective of her true views, on principle (I use the word loosely) says that is silly, that I should tell the truth, say sorry and save myself £30.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Champagne cocktails and an unexpected spring pleasure as we recall the long gone glory days of a Fleet Street paper now in its death throes

The Germans say Vorfreude ist die schönste Freude (‘anticipating pleasure is the nicest pleasure’, though the German it’s a damn sight snappier and to the point, and ‘nice’ is horribly weak). But I would add that an unexpected pleasure is up there with the anticipation of pleasure as being one of life’s glories. And I had an unexpected pleasure today. It was a lovely spring day, sunny and mild, and I dropped in on my stepmother down the road as I always do on Thursdays to see whether she needed any shopping. I had quite forgotten that one of her oldest friends would be staying for a few days, and as my stepmother has only just moved back home after her stroke four years ago, and as this was the first visit by her friend when she was back home, it was decided that we should all treat ourselves to a champagne cocktail. The great thing about champagne cocktails is that, however pleasant a drink they are, they are not half as grand or expensive to make as the name makes them sound: a chilled bottle of Cava for £4.99 and a common or garden bottle of supermarket own-brand brandy is all you need. In fact, it would be rather silly to waste an expensive bottle of champagne and a dearer brandy on making champagne cocktails. The only other ingredient is sugar lumps: one sugar lump in the bottom of a champagne flute or ordinary wine glass, something like a tablespoon of brandy on it and both topped up with chilled Cava. It is one of those drinks where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and it really will not break the bank. (I went for a pint with a friend last Sunday to a pub called The Dove, which is up the river from Hammersmith Bridge in London, and two pints set me back £6.80, so that bottle of Cava, which is sufficient for three with being in the slightest mean, really is good value.) But that was only half the unexpected pleasure I am describing. As the weather was so pleasant, we decided to have lunch outside in the garden. So I nipped into Bodmin (I got back home to Cornwall last night) to buy whatever took my fancy and returned with an iceberg lettuce, radishes, cucumber, mini pork pies, Thai chilli crisps, brie and jarlsberg, and a bottle of Dijon mustard to mix with olive oil for a very nice salad dressing (which I learnt from my aunt in Bordeaux). So that was it: champagne cocktails and a simple, though extremely tasty lunch on a day off – no obligation to be anywhere soon – sitting outside in the garden on gloriously sunny spring day, chatting about everything and nothing. A unexpected but fine pleasure. . . . There has been speculation on the business pages of the Daily Telegraph and the Financial Times that the Daily Mail and the Daily Express are to ‘merge’. Well, the very first thing to point out is that there is no such thing as a ‘merger’ in the newspaper industry. What a ‘merger’ really means is that of two arch-rival newspapers, one is on its uppers, hasn’t long to go and knows it, so the other uses the opportunity to kill it off once and for all, hoping that it will grab a reasonable chunk of the departing newspapers advertising market. It is only referred to a ‘merger’ by both sides to allow the owner of the dying newspaper to depart the scene with some apparent dignity. In this case the Express owner, by all accounts a notorious pornographer who made his millions selling beaver shots to all and sundry, has recently bought Five, one of Britain’s national TV channels and now wants to dedicate his time to that, fancying himself as a bit of a player. He screwed as much money as he could out of the Express (even obliging his readers to use premium rate 0900 phone numbers when they wanted to contact the paper), but most recently, with circulation, once in the millions, now bumping along at rock bottom, he has been flogging a dead horse. So the time has come to ‘merge’ his paper with any other paper which feels it would benefit from such a ‘merger’. In this case, it seems the Mail does. A more recent development, however, throws all this (and especially my blog entry) back up in the air. Barclays is talking up the value of Desmond’s newspapers to make then more attractive to potential buyers. Obviously if Dicky Desmond (the ‘Dicky’ being an allusion to his pornographic interests rather than the short form of his Christian name) can get more moolah by selling off the papers than by ‘merging’ them with the Mail (Lord knows what he would do with the two Stars if that is the course he follows), then that is what he would do. Why take 2p when with no extra effort you can make 4p. A no-brainer, really. . . . One of the oddest snippets of film I have seen was one of Lord Beaverbrook (Max Aitken) standing on the steps of Birmingham Town Hall just after the war giving a speech in which he exhorted his audience to ‘support Stalin’. It was odd because Beaverbrook was a far from being pinko or a fellow traveller as you could care to imagine, and the Daily Express, the newspaper which he finally bought in 1916 and transformed into the biggest what at one time was the best-selling newspaper in the world is always identified as being right-of-centre. I’m glad to say that World War II ended before I was born – it’s always good to make these things clear – but I gather that in the euphoria following VE Day, Stalin will briefly have been regarded as a friend. What makes it all rather odd, though, was that Beaverbrook (pictured right, and don't doubt that like all men, he became uglier as he got older - me, too, I'm afraid - though searching for a piccy to add to this blog, I was struck that he was not bad looking as a younger man and his looks and money will most certainly have ensured a steady supply of women to his bed), who served in the wartime government, would have been privy information which would have left him in no doubt as to what an unsavoury character Stalin was. The Daily Express was Beaverbrook. Almost as soon as he died, its sorry decline began. At one point it had the largest circulation of any paper in the world, selling more than 3.7 million copies daily. Now, owned and run by a man who made his money publishing cheap pornography, it sells just under 700,000. The Aitken family hung onto the paper for a few years after Max died, but its arch-rival the Daily Mail – the two papers were immortalised by Evelyn Waugh as the Daily Beast and the Daily Brute, run respectively by Lords Copper and Zinc, and I can’t tell you which was which and, anyway, it hardly matters – took pole position. This was ironic because under Beaverbrook the Express wrote the rules of what a successful paper should be and the Mail always tagged along in its wake. But at the beginning of the Seventies the Rothermere family decided it was make or break for the Mail. Under – it has to be said brilliant – stewardship of a guy called David English, the Mail was transformed from a broadsheet into a tabloid and its target readership was realigned to cater for women. It streaked ahead, while the poor old Express was a pale imitation of its former buccaneering self. It was eventually bought from the Aitkens by a building company – which says it all, really – and run by a chap who knew bugger all about newspapers. Circulation carried on falling. Then it was bought out by United Newspapers in a hostile takeover, and at least United Newspapers was in the business. But the decline carried on, with United more or less asset stripping what was left. For example, the Express had moved from Fleet Street into a purpose-built block at the far end of Blackfriars bridge, complete with its presses in the basement. When United took over, the building was sold off to a separate company owned by United and then leased back to the Express. As I said asset –stripping. I worked shifts on the Daily and later the Sunday Express and the Daily Star, and we all knew things were going wrong when the in-house pub, The Poppinjay, was closed. You know newspapers are going to the wall when that kind of things happens. They shot themselves in the foot. Until then, we could all be found downstairs in the bar and if we were needed, we could be back at our desks within minutes. Once the bar was closed, everyone dispersed to various pubs around Blackfriars and could never be found when they were needed. Finally, that scruff Richard Desmond bought it, and it really is a very sorry and very pale imitation of its former glorious self. But he is now off to play with his latest toy, the TV channel, so the time has come for a ‘merger’ to put the Express out of its misery.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Houses that look like Adolf Hitler: why Britain will always remain a bastion of freedom

It is not every day that the Press distinguishes itself. Always keen to justify its existence by reminding us of the ‘fourth estate’s’ fundamental role in bolstering and protecting democracy, of which the people’s ‘right to know’ what is in ‘the public interest’ is an essential element, it nevertheless all too often shoots itself in the foot as the various papers vie to out-trivialise each other. Any number of High Court judges have pointed out that we should not confuse ‘the public interest’ with ‘what the public is interested in’, and despite valiant, not to say desperate, attempts to persuade the public that its activities are vital to the continued well-being of democratic society, many newspapers fail dismally to convince. Would the free world as we know it really come crashing to the ground if we weren’t told who Jordan (‘Katie Price’) has most recently been shagging or that Cheryl Cole is considering dyeing her hair blonde? Well, not on the face of it. Yet, oddly, there is a connection, in as far as we are always obliged to take the rough with the smooth. And it does get very rough indeed.
Her Majesty’s Press is often accused of ‘making up stuff’, and unfortunately that’s quite true. I know, because I’ve done so myself. ‘Quotes’ are never really what people say for the simple reason that ‘people’ - we call them ‘civilians’ - are largely illiterate and rarely speak grammatically or coherently, and even if they did, they cannot be relied upon to say what we want them to say. So naturally quotes have to be improved, quite often substantially. Whenever you see a quote which runs along the lines of: ‘My husband, 43, a lorry driver from Chiswick ...’, you know damn well that the lorry driver’s wife said nothing of the kind. Once I made up a 200-word quote by Princess Di, purportedly something she said while visiting New York. I had to do it, because the copy was way too short for the space it was intended to fill, and, anyway, what I had her say was so tediously innocuous and so utterly vague that she might well have said it anyway. The fact that she didn’t is neither here nor there.
When things get really rough, as of course they inevitably do when one is operating in a multi-million pound industry, being in the crosshairs of the Press at large can, however, become intolerable. Ninety-nine per cent of us have never experienced being ‘door-stepped’, but those who have can testify to the British hack’s unrivalled tenacity in getting what he or she wants at whatever the cost — there are no rules. None at all. They know damn well that, with a gang of hacks knocking on the door non-stop - and in these situations arch-rivals working for opposing newspaper work as one unit, much like a pack of scavenging dogs, and only turn on each other later on — everyone caves in sooner or later. (Well, everyone except those wealthy enough to apply to the courts for a ‘super-injunction’ which prevents publication of everything. That is a recent and very worrying development her in Britain, but outraged jeering at it must be left for another time.)
Theft by hacks pursuing a story is not unknown, and at the present time the issue of newspapers hacking into the mobile phone messages of celebrities and politicians is active (the Prime Minister’s Press secretary has already been forced to resign over the matter as much of it took place while he was still editor of the News of the World), but still we are obliged to take the rough with the smooth. Every so often, politicians - usually of the Left - moot that we should have some kind of Press regulations here in Britain, to curb the worst of the fourth estate’s behaviour. It is not too difficult to see why they might be keen on shackling the media: last year the Daily Telegraph had a field day detailing the way many of our MPs had been abusing their expenses system, which ranged from the utterly fatuous - one MP had a ‘duck island’ built and claimed it on expenses - to the criminal - three Labour MPs have been jailed for their fiddling. Had there been some kind of mechanism for the House of Commons to determine that is expenses fiddling was not revealed, you can bet your bottom dollar we would never have found out about it and, worse, one or two hacks would now be languishing in jail for trying to publicise it anyway. But any kind of state regulation of the Press would be very dangerous indeed (and the British being more bloody-minded than many, that will, I’m certain, never happen in Britain), so we are most definitely obliged to take the rough with the smooth. And by the same token, we are also obliged to accept the utterly, utterly ludicrous and pretend that those responsible for presenting it to us are perfectly rational men and women.
The other day, I turned up for work, bought my cup of tea in the canteen (make that polystyrene beaker of tea), took the lift to the third floor, went to my desk and began to look through that day’s paper. I only rarely actually read anything in it, I just glance at each page and pay special attention to those I had worked on the previous day to see whether I had cocked up or not. (I do sometimes - a few years ago, while cutting and pasting letters on the letters’ pages into a different order, I got into a horrible muddle and many names and addresses were attributed to the wrong letters. There were complaints from readers - a spinster in Norwich insisted she had not written to the paper demanding the legalisation of cannabis - and a huge inquiry as to what had gone wrong. But I was able to cover my tracks, and to this day no one knows it was my cock-up and mine alone. So you heard it here first, though I’d appreciate it if you kept it to yourself. One major failing of newspapers, especially the big, important ones, is that they do not have a sense of humour. One day I might tell you how I accidentally closed down Newcastle airport all on my own. Flight delays, a search by police for bomb which didn’t exist - I’ll tell you some day.)
Anyway, I got to page 28 and saw the following:

This house in Swansea, apparently, is the spit of Adolf Hitler. And to prove the point, we also published a picture of the man himself. Here it is. Can you spot the resemblance? I sorry to say that I can, just. Just. It grieves me, but there’s no denying it: that terrace house in Swansea does actually look a bit like Hitler. But what is important is this: Old Blighty, Perfidious Albion, the UK, Great Britain, call it what you will, the choice is yours, will always, always, always, remain a country of stout-hearted men and women while Her Majesty’s Press continues to publish pictures of houses that look like Adolf Hitler. Cue Land Of Hope And Glory. Do you know, I think I’m going to cry.

. . .

Incidentally, my advice to everyone approached by a hack, whether they work for a newspaper, magazine, TV or the radio, is to tell them to fuck off. And make no exception. Bear this in mind: they are not working in your interests but their own. And if they don’t get it wrong, they make it up, and if they don’t make it up, they get it wrong.