Friday, May 24, 2013

Roll up, roll up and watch the butchered soldier’s family weep uncontrollably. Thrill as they hold back nothing. Enjoy, quite vicariously, having a close family member murdered in cold blood.

The beheading of a young soldier in Woolwich is appalling, and seems all the more so for happening in open daylight in a suburban street in London. But would it be churlish to ask why it is any the less appalling than similar atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan. And is it any less appalling than the deaths of innocents - the euphemism is ‘collateral’ - in U.S. drone attacks in Yemen and Pakistan?

The young soldier was innocent, and I don’t accept that he was even in the slightest culpable because he had served in Afghanistan - if you want to blame anyone for the invasion of Iraq and what’s going on in Afghanistan, blame the politicians - such as that prat Tony Blair - for all the bloodletting, not the soldiers they send out there to do the work. Equally innocent are those who are killed in U.S. drone attacks. I have been looking up figures for those killed and am conscious that many of the websites giving them are very critical of the policy (as am I).

I shan’t suggest that the figures they give are in any way exaggerated - generally at least 700 adults and children are thought to have died and it could well be far more - because I am in no position to verify any claims made, but even one or ten or one hundred ‘collateral’ victims is one or ten or one hundred too many. In the past few days President Barack Obama has been defending the policy, and the general U.S. line is that the drone attacks are being used ‘defensively’. Well, as someone pointed out on radio a month or two ago, the interpretation of ‘defence’ is very broad indeed.

Let me put it this way: I wonder just how happy the U.S. would be if some foreign country pursued a policy of drone attacks on its enemies in the U.S. and innocent U.S. citizens were killed. I suspect it would throw the diplomatic equivalent of a hissy fit. In fact, it would be the mother of all hissy fits. Seems like there’s one rule for some, one rule for others. But then what’s new?

. . .

Naturally, the machete attack in Woolwich is still top of the news here in Britain, but there are two aspects about the coverage which I find discouraging, to say the least. It has long been a police practice to stage a press conference - especially if a child has disappeared or been murdered - in which parents or relatives appeal for a safe return or for anyone with any information to contact the police. There might well an element of voyeurism in it all when the public switches on the TV news and watches these appeals, but such conferences are defended by the police on the grounds that they are often very useful and do help to turn up more information from the public. But on TV all day today has been a press conference of the wife, parents and family of the butchered soldier in floods of tears, and at no point are we, the viewing public, being urged to come forward with information.

I can’t for the life of me think of any reason why this public exhibition of grief was staged. Well, perhaps one: if, in any small way, being able to share their grief in public somehow helps the soldier’s family deal with it, then one might argue that there is some justification. But to be honest, I’m playing Devil’s Advocate: I don’t for a moment think that was why this press conference was organised. In fact, I can’t think for a moment that there could be some reasonable explanation for staging it.

Call me a cynical old cunt, but I can’t help but feel it was just a very, very, very morbid manifestation of keeping the customer satisfied. I have seen the same clip on TV news about five times today, and at no point are we told exactly why we are given public access to this family’s grief, longlasting shots of the dead soldier’s widow weeping, longlasting takes of his stepfather reading out a statement and barely being able to keep his emotions under control.

Why was this shown? Can there really be any ‘news value’ in it? Perhaps. Or perhaps someone, somewhere, or many people everywhere decided it was ‘good television’, which it undoubtedly is depending on your moral values. For me it was nothing more than first cousin to the exhibition of freaks which is part of Britain’s Got Talent or, going back several hundred years, the public executions held at Tyburn Gate (now Hyde Park Corner) where Londoners in their thousands would turn out to watch some poor sap being topped, with a plentiful supply of beer and pies on hand.

I suppose that was the difference: London’s boys in blue did not arrange for a temporary bar and fast food outlets. Well, they missed a trick there.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Well, what do I call it: Alma Mater, Borstal, Personal Prison, Privileged Background (as in Key to Lifelong Success In Life) take your pick, none is appropriate

Earlier tonight I replied to a correspondent whom I should like to call a friend but can’t really as I have never actually met him. He had emailed to point out that he was somewhat puzzled by an aspect of a previous entry. Well, I don’t really want to go into that entry as in my reply I was more candid than I can be here. But I should like to mention one of the things he and I have in common is that we both went to the same school. It was (fanfare, please) the Oratory School which now likes - spuriously - to style itself the ‘Catholic Eton’, but that tells you nothing more than that even boarding schools are now resorting to marketing men who will come up with any kind of bullshit to pull in the custom.

Apparently, Cardinal Newman, who founded the school in Edgbaston, Birmingham, hoped he could start and run a school which was as good as Eton, but that is a long, long way off actually being a ‘Catholic Eton‘, and when I was there, from 1963 to 1968, it seemed to me to have more in common with Dotheboys Hall, than Eton. (And by the way, given that Eton has something like 1,000 pupils, what exactly is so special about being an ‘old Etonian’? There must be several million of them by now which rather dents any claim to exclusivity. Just a thought.)
The OS, as we referred to the school when I was there, has undoubtedly improved in the intervening years, but then it had to. It was generally accepted that if your son was too thick to get into one of the other ‘leading’ RC public schools - Stoneyhurst, Ampleforth or Downside - you tried your luck at the Oratory, which always needed the dosh and would take virtually anyone, especially the rejects.

I don‘t know where all the money was going, apart from ‘missing’, but it was a very hand-to-mouth existence if I recall. The food was between bloody awful and almost inedible, the heating - what there was of it - was turned on on November the 1 and turned off again on March 31, whether or not it was cold - and it usually was -, there was hardly any hot water and we were still ‘beaten’.
Some wiseacre or other once observed, and it has become some kind of wisdom, that living in such conditions ‘develops character‘. No, it doesn’t. And the claim is only made to defend the utterly indefensible. We had the usual gamut of characters, from a second master called ‘Dr’ Williams, a Welshman who claimed to have played rugby for Wales and cricket for Glamorgan, but had done nothing of the kind, as was easily established by my housemaster (Fitzalan), a Tony Tinkel, and the other housemasters. Then they found a correspondence course in economics in the boot of his car - he ‘taught‘economics - and realised he was just keeping one step ahead of the class. They confronted him with all his bullshit - I got all this from Tony Tinkel himself - and that was it: he was off.

Another character was some bogus major who turned up every Tuesday to run the school CCF (I think it stands for Combined Cadet Force) and who suddenly disappeared with as much petty cash as he could lay his hands. Other masters were a Mr Cornwell, who taught Latin and seemed as batty as a fruitcake, a maths teacher who was barely over 5ft tall - or was it barely under 5ft tall? - and who was teased incessantly, so much so that several years after I left he topped himself (though there might have been other problems, too, I don‘t know). There were some good teachers - I particularly enjoyed chemistry taught by Tony Mallet - and liked Mr McCowan, who taught us physics. It wasn’t all Decline And Fall stuff.

The headmaster for my first four years was a Dom Adrian Morey, who was also housemaster of Junior House, which was a mile away and to which all first-year boys belonged, and Christ could he beat hard. It was his practice in the summer to take all the Junior House boys swimming after supper and on our way to Junior House, and we all had to swim nude. And with the best will in the world I cannot give an innocent explanation for that. But this was 50 years ago.

The chaplain, a Father Norman Millard, also apparently had sex with some of the boys, but I only found out later. I think he was eventually defrocked, but I can‘t be certain on that. Yes, some got a good education there - the outgoing Lord Chief Justice was at the OS a few years before me, and Edward Leigh, MP for Higher Loamshire or somewhere, was in the year below me. But don’t believe anyone who insists that having had a ‘public school education’ ‘gives you an unfair advantage’. It does nothing of the kind. The best you can hope for is to be a little more nicely spoken, but even that is now going by the board.

Anyway, The Bat, a Lancashire lass born and bred is proof that anyone can sound ‘posh’ and have airs and graces if they want to and try hard enough. I ran away three times in my first term, but it wasn’t difficult as we only lived eight miles away. Then my brother and I were day boys for the rest of the year and the following year (which was a pain, because lessons didn’t end until 7pm - there were only about six day boys, but around 250 boarders - and we even had to go to school on Saturdays, though as we did prep (homework) at school there was none of that at home. But then my father was posted to Paris and I became a boarder. I was dreading it, but as it turned out it wasn’t too bad - awful food, cold water and no heating notwithstanding - and I had quite a laugh, though admittedly an education is supposed to consist of something just a little more than ‘having quite a laugh’.

Everyone - everyone! - in my year became a prefect of some kind - house or school - in their fourth or fifth year, but I wasn’t considered responsible enough. But that didn’t bother me: I got three A-levels at the end of my fourth year, but returned for a fifth year to ‘improve’ them (I didn’t), but being the only guy at school in my fifth year with A-levels (there were quite a few thickos in my year who hadn’t been farmed out to work in some estate agent’s office who had failed their A-levels and returned for a fifth year to try to bloody get some), I invented ‘sixth-form privileges’, and it never occurred to anyone to call my bluff. So I would swan around having hijacked all the prefect’s privileges - leaving your jacket undone and using stairs and corridors forbidden to others - with none of the responsibilities. Not bad. Perhaps the other chap who went there and reads this would like to comment and possibly put right some of the bollocks I have undoubtedly talked and even add a few reminiscences of his own. Any chance, Barry?

If you are desperate to find out more about the Oratory, here is it’s Wikipedia entry. My advice is to reject half of what is written there out-of-hand and treat the rest with a large pinch of salt. In fact that would be true of any claims made by any public school as well as more or less everything which appears in Wikipedia. More about the OS (from me) on request.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Las Albadas Day 6,729 - In which rural Spain in high summer gives the Antarctic a run for its money. And my splendid literary career starts here: meet Morag McTwee

NB (Written May 31, 2014) Given some concerns expressed to me about the contents of a previous version of this entry, I would very much like to point out that the extraordinary weather I experienced, described below, was wholly exceptional and unusual for the time of year. That, you will gather, is why I described it in the first place. So please don’t be put off visiting Albados, Els Ibarsos, or anyone or anything else connected with those two places. I thought the concerns were wholly valid and accordingly I re-wrote the piece to, I hope, allay those concerns and get rid of any part of it which might, perhaps, have been distressing. I thank you.

This is ridiculous. I’ve just driven four miles back from Els Ibarsos to get in a little shopping and happened to notice on the in-car outside temperature thermometer (aren’t modern cars marvellous, no wonder a new one costs a bloody fortune - you’ll gather that I have never owned, let alone bought, a new car) that it was a wonderful, holiday-making, reassuring bloody 8.5c. And this over halfway through May, with just one month to go till mid-summer when the ‘days get shorter’. Heavens be praised, when I got back here to Seth’s, the temperature was higher - 9c - according to the fabulous in-car outside thermometer. However, I am assured weather such as this is a once in a century occurrence.

. . .

A not very well-kept secret is that I have literary pretensions and intend to try my hand at fiction writing once I can no longer have to earn my crust through honest work and am reduced to existing on the pitiful amount the state will pay me by way of a pension. All things being equal (i.e. if I am not shown the door earlier by Lord Rothermere and his henchmen) that will be from November 21, 2014. Why not do it now, you delusional phoney? I hear some of you ask. Well, the answer is quite simple: that kind of thing needs time and application, and scooting between London and Cornwall, four days in The Smoke and three day ‘down in the country’ (I think that’s what some people call it, though for the record: I go up to London and return to Cornwall, not the other way around) affords neither the time nor the application necessary to do the kind of thing I intend doing properly.

I have in the past written two novels, one of which, in hindsight, was bollocks, the other, however ‘good’ or ‘bad’ it is, I am reasonably proud of (even if to date no one has actually ‘got it’). The one lesson I have learnt producing those two, a crucial lesson, is that writing is a full-time occupation. Writing each, even the bad one, I treated as ‘work’, regularly sitting down to write in six-hour stints. Others might be able to do that kind of thing in ‘creative’ bursts, but I can’t. I have to treat it as a task, as work to be taken seriously. And you have to be completely ruthless in saying: right, that’s it, leave me completely alone for six/seven hours. And that isn’t possible at the moment.

Naturally, I will look like a complete tit if, when I do retire, I do absolutely bugger all despite noble intentions but at least I shall not make - or even be able to make - lame excuses. Incidentally, one of the reasons I write this blog is simply because I like writing. In my case it’s a substitute for talking, yapping, call it what you will. For many years, from about 1980 until 1995, I kept what is conventionally called ‘a diary’, but it wasn’t a diary at all, more something like this (except for a few years of highly personal stuff when I split from a girl I’d been going out with and immediately regretted it. Trouble was, she didn’t).

I started it after reading East Of Eden by John Steinbeck and in the introduction he described (if I remember correctly) that for a while he suffered a form of writer’s block and that his editor or agent, I don’t remember which, gave him a hardback A4 lined ledger and suggested that at the start of each day he should spend a little time writing on a left-hand page by way of limbering up and then proceed to write his novel on the right-hand page. Ah ha, I thought for a writer (as, delusionally, I thought of myself) who doesn’t yet write, that might be a way in.

It wasn’t, of course, or wasn’t for quite some time, but do now have, tucked away somewhere (in Guy’s house next to Paddy’s in St Breward) about 10 or 12 A4 ledgers full of my scibble and scribblings. To date I haven’t attempted to read any of them which means that they never will be read by anyone). Which is all a very long-winded way of introducing you to Morag McTwee. The link is that The Bat could well be a good model for Morag.