Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A PS

A few years ago, in fact, many years ago - it was in 1990 - I mentioned something to my girlfriend at the time and she, being French and, perhaps, a little more intellectually arrogant than we stout Anglo-Saxons care for (it's not unknown), described my observation as a lieu common. Even my limited French could translate that as a commonplace and further translate her description of my insight as something of a slap in the face. Perhaps it was a necessary one. I don't know. But as a result, I have become rather oversensitive to the possibility that what I say is sometimes blindingly obvious to others; and that by saying it, I am doing nothing more than making a big fool of myself. That thought has occurred to me again after completing the previous entry. So, if what I write is blindingly obvious, I apologise.

By the way, the French woman was called Rozenn Milin. She was from Britanny and spoke French, perfect English, though with a marked American accent, Breton and Welsh. At the time she was working as an actress but has since gone on to do other things. And if by chance she comes across this entry: Hi, Rozenn, get in touch.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Something which has been knocking around my head for a few years now, but examined here in a none-to-clear way. And rather at length.

Earlier today, on my way to work (just a 20-minute walk, which must be unique for a commute in London), I was listening to Start The Week on Radio 4 (chaired by Andrew Marr, not my favourite person and who I once purposely annoyed at a Conservative Party conference. That tale is worth an entry in its own right, so I shall say nothing here, except that the encounter confirmed my previous suspicion that he is something of a self-regarding pillock and he’s a short-arse to boot.)

His programme is, however, always interesting, though you often feel you are eavesdropping on metropolitan bien-pensant at a North London dinner party as they trade good impressions of themselves. This morning’s edition was up-to-scratch, with contributions as usual from this and that expert in this and that area, and one contributor was a Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology, Barbara Sahakian, who (this description is from the Radio 4 website) ‘believes it’s time for an open debate about the ethical issues surrounding the use of new types of drugs which could in the future be used to make us all clever, well-behaved and sociable’.

Among other things, she reported that ‘16 per cent’ of students at U.S. universities regularly use cognitive-enhancing drugs which can boost your intellectual performance as athletes often use drugs to improve their physical performance. And it’s not just students who resort to that kind of respectable drug-taking. She claimed that arriving at a conference, she was offered one such drug to help soothe her jet-lag and that further inquiries among her peers revealed that quite a few of them took these cognitive enhancers as a matter of course - in the words of one colleague - to ‘get a good day’s work in’.

The programme went on to discuss ‘neuro-ethics’ (as in just how ethical it might be to resort to such drugs when others could not do so because they couldn’t afford them and whether the advantage they gave you over those not taking them was unfair). Whether taking them will be deemed unethical or not, we were also told that in the future taking them will be a matter of course for many people. Prof Sahakian also said that at the moment these drugs to not seem addiction forming or to have any side-effects.

To all that my response was a polite and restrained horror. But - and here’s the rub - as I am now 60 (as close readers of this blog have no doubt gathered over these past weeks), my future participation in such a brave new world of cognitive-enhancing drugs will be somewhat limited. But what interests me is this: is my horror merely that of an older man whose spirit is increasingly too ossified to adapt to a new cultural development? Am I now too long in the tooth to adapt to such a development? Or is there more to it than that?

I might, of course, be expected to claim that there is far more to it, that despite my age, I am as opened-minded as I ever was, and that my horror at the thought that in 100 years time dropping a tab of some cognitive enhancer will be as usual as drinking a morning cup of tea is principled and rational. But, in fact, I shan’t claim there is more to it than that for the simple reason that I don’t think there is more to it. Things change and the young are far more adept at changing with it. We who will not see 59 again must reconcile ourselves to that.

The fact is that my two children, one now 13 and the other 10, will grow up with such innovations and take them in their stride, much as I grew up with, say, the ease with which I could buy and run a car, whereas for those of my father’s generation owning and running a car was not something they took for granted in their younger years. Or to give what might be a better example, my generation is accustomed to buying what it wants here and now, thanks to the acceptability and availability of credit in the Western world. My parents, however, were still of the kind, when they were younger, of actually saving up for things.

So when young Wesley and Elsie are in their middle-age, who’s to say that popping a pill of a certain kind before an important business meeting will not be accepted as a matter of course?
But that is not quite the point I wanted to make in this entry. The fact that my children will adapt far faster to innovations made when they are young (though undoubtedly they will also suffer the fate of being increasingly horrified and disconcerted by change as they get older) has an unavoidable implication which is of far more consequence.

That they will not regard as odd what I regard as odd rather queers the pitch for those who like to claim that standards are standards and must be observed. Furthermore - and this is, admittedly, something of a leap for which the reader will be wholly unprepared but which I do feel it is a valid leap - it rather queers the pitch for those who believe there is an immutable morality which governs all our lives. At the very least, the fact that something is ‘right’ and acceptable in 2009 which was not ‘right’ and acceptable in, say 1954 or 1808 makes arguing for the existence of such an immutable morality a damn sight more difficult.

If standards - that is what is acceptable - can and do change from generation to generation - and much changes quite drastically quite apart from standards - doesn’t that mean that at the end of the day our moral values have as much permanence - that is to say, have as little permanence - as this year’s winter fashion? And if our moral values are not as fixed as we would like them to be and can change and be adapted almost at will, in what does their imperative lie? What give those values their moral force?
At this point, those people who have a faith get a rather useful get-out-of-jail-free card on this score: they can claim that all morality derives ultimately from God (or Allah or Jehovah) and that this is what makes it immutable. They have a point, although, at the end of the day people who resort to such reasoning are doing nothing but shifting the essence of the argument. And invoking God in this manner does, as it happens, bring with it its own difficulties: one very pertinent example is what to do about homosexual clergy? It seems that God is not quite as clear on that matter as everyone would like God to be. But that aside - if that and other matters can be put aside - having God as your fixed point is very useful.

Those of us who don’t have a faith (or, in my case, have such an obscure and private faith which I would find it extremely difficult to outline to anyone and which doesn’t involve anyone ‘being divine’) are left with the problem: what is the fixed point at the centre of our ethical systems? Here it should be pointed out that we all have an ethical system, whether we think we do or not, rather as we all have health, irrespective of whether that health is good, bad or indifferent.

Our ethical system might be a shining example to us all or downright corrupt and tawdry, but we all, nevertheless, have such a system. Having said that, though, I am also obliged to point out that those characters whose ethical systems leave a great deal to be desired are the least likely to break their balls and anguish over exactly what gives ‘morality its imperative’. And although the point I make might superficially sound flippant, it does shine a certain necessary light on the matter.

Following on from that thought, it is also pertinent that at this point I can resort, quite legitimately and quite honestly, to being utterly and disconcertingly bathetic. For the fact is that what I have, in my own rather cackhanded fashion, indulged in and what men and women with far better brains than mine also indulge in is something of a luxury. Pondering on the nature of morality, ethics, good, bad, right and wrong is, when all is said and done, a pastime for the leisured classes.

Folk with more pressing needs, such as where to find food today, where to find help for my sick child, how to avoid those rebels who want to kill my and my kind, probably spend rather less time analysing the nature of morality and what gives ‘the right thing to do’ its moral force. They might, of course, do so, but, I should imagine, from position of bewildered despair.

This entry is all rather confused, and I’m not too sure I even know what it is about. But it is about something which has preoccupied me for some time, and I find that writing things down like this imposes a certain discipline which means I have to think it through more carefully. The unfortunate thing is that you have just been marched up to the top of the hill, then down again, but with very little to show for it.

Sorry about that. What needs to be introduced to make it all a little more comprehensible is the notion of relativity which has cursed these past 120 years. Cursed? Well, it was meant to make things easier, but actually makes them twice as complex. What can ‘good’ mean if it is ‘good’ for you but not ‘good’ for me? Some would say it means nothing. And that is less than helpful.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A contrarian writes

I have now looked up the word 'contrarian', and it seems that I have used it correctly, although as I suspected it could well be argued that the notion of 'wilful' is an intricate part of being contrarian. But what surprises me as that the online Oxford English Dictionary returns a 'not found' result when you ask it to define 'contrarian', as does the online Collins dictionary. However, if you google 'contrarian' you come up with may references. The key to this slight mystery is that it seems the word is more commonly used in investment circles and in an economic context (which, I must admit, was news to me) as in a guy taking the opposite - investment - tack to accepted wisdom. Fascinating? Perhaps not. I think whether or not you find this entry interesting will depend on how bored you are.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Introducing Matt, our obsession with 'heritage', why global warming is a tragedy/godsend (delete as applicable) and the art of faking knowledge

One of our better newspaper cartoonist is Matt of the Daily Telegraph, so I have decided to post four of his recent cartoons, just for the craic, as they say. The first two will raise a smile more from British readers than anyone less familiar with Britain and its vast array of obsessions, but the third and fourth will strike a chord with everyone. Here they are:


I've never 'got' this obsession with 'preserving the past'. Certainly, many buildings and artefacts are worth keeping, and we should always remember the past (especially our past mistakes). But here in Britain, and, I should imagine, elsewhere, there is a manic drive to save absolutely everything merely because it is more than 30 years old. Futhermore, such 'preservation' is now such a given that it is far more likely for my grip on reality to be questioned for wondering exactly why everything must be preserved than querying why we are now obliged to preserve everything we can lay their hands on. A result of this obsession is what has been referred to as the 'heritage industry'. At its best it can produce some extremely interesting, not to say, fascinating sites which serve as a useful educational tool for younger generations. At its worst it is downright ridiculous, as when public lavatories are preserved on the grounds that we should know exactly how our forefathers chose to take a dump.


This must ring a bell or two in many: you are sitting listening to something like a Budget speech and allowing portentous phrases such as 'the fiscal imperative of blue-book adjustments being acknowledged no later than the third quarter of the next financial year' to roll over you and, quite simply, you despair. Oh for the days when your standing in the community was not at all great, when 'respectability' was something vaguely ludicrous and you were perfectly happy to settle for a colourful newspaper graphic of a pint of beer, a packet of fags and a petrol pump and the cheering news that it's 'a giveaway Budget'. I would not claim to be a total moron and I do - up to a point - understand aspects of the economy which in my younger days not only baffled me but bored me rigid. But it would be a lie to pretend that when Darling, Clarke, Brown, Lawson or whoever the current incumbent is gets up at the Dispatch Box and drones on for an hour or so my eyes don't glaze over sooner rather than later. When I was still working as a evening paper district reporter in the Seventies, one story we found ourselves writing every year was an account of the local council putting submitting to the county council for is 'precept' (which is what I think it's called - it was asking for the money it would need in the coming financial year). Before the meeting of the relevant finance committee ('Ways and Means' or some such) which would debate and then vote on a 'precept' figure - I do hope I am getting the jargon right - we reporters were always sent the committee minutes to look through beforehand. And I would always spend about 30 seconds looking through them and understanding absolutely nothing of what was laid out there in all its tedious glory. The drill was to put in an appearance at the meeting, then get a few quotes from councillors (making sure they kept it short - councillors are liable to drone on a little, especially in the South Wales valleys), then head back to the office to construct a story. I say 'construct' a story rather than 'write' one because that is exactly what we did: it was a question of producing 300-odd words of copy which did not betray that the writer was wholly out of his depth and which, furthermore, pulled off the useful trick of persuading the reader that if what he was reading seemed like complete goobledegook, it was his fault - he was simply too dumb to understand perfectly ordinary matters. One vital strategy in 'constructing' that story was to rifle through the bollocks in the committee meeting minutes and judiciously chose one or two passages to quote verbatim which might seem plausible and, crucially, were anodyne and said nothing whatsoever. I am rather proud to report that every year I managed to pull off the trick of writing a decent, intelligent, yet thoroughly meaningless, story about matters of which I understood nothing at all. That I was never caught out was, though, no great achievement but merely down to the fact that everyone else - from the news editor, to the subs, the editor himself and the readers - was also completely at sea in such matters (and, I hope, felt is was their fault that my account made no sense to them at all). The few people who knew what was being printed in the paper was all complete nonsense would have been the council finance director and, one hopes, the chairman of the finance committee. But they preferred to keep quite, content that the least attention drawn to their figures, the better. Scrutiny is not popular with council chief financial officers.


Crusty old farts who are agin everything are surely a universal figure, as likely to be found in Tblisi, Jakarta, Andean Chile and Kansas as Kent, Cheshire and Pittenweem. But that is not to say that scepticism about exactly what is going on with the world's climate and, if something is, who is causing it is necessarily thoroughly outlandish and irrational. My dad was the kind who might, were he still alive, have been prepared to doubt even the existence of Copenhagen, but I am more intent on trying to keep an open mind in both directions (and make damn bloody sure my children also understand the importance of keeping an open mind). That is, of course, an admirably quality if keeping an open mind means you are still inclined to see my point of view and might well eventually think I am right. But if, similarly, it means you are also quite prepared to consider that my point of view might well be a load of cack, 'keeping an open mind' is becomes shorthand for 'sitting on the fence', 'an irrational inability to see sense' and being 'wilfully contrarian'. (Er, being 'contrarian' might already be 'wilful', but having so far spent the best part of an hour writing this blog entry, I can't be arsed to look it up and will leave it to some wiseacre in Tucson to set me straight if necessary.) Perhaps there are those who feel it best to keep an open mind on the virtue or otherwise of keeping an open mind.


This last cartoon and my inclusion of it here might seem a little callous, given that for whatever reason, the Arctic is shrinking and polar bears are finding foraging ever more difficult. But I would point out that since life has existed on Earth, environments have changed and species have always been forced to adapt. Are we really going to shed a tear about the passing of the North European mammoth? Or the bears and wolves which were once indigenous everywhere? Or that the wild boar no longer roams the countryside on Britain? I'll repeat that it might sound callous, but the polar bear is simply faced with having to adapt to a changing environment. Apart from all that Matt has come up with rather a good joke.

NB. I assume the Daily Telegaph and/or Matt hold copyright to all four cartoons shown here, so I would like to point that out so that my arse is covered and I don't have my festive season spoiled by some slick legal department brief getting in touch and demanding money with menaces.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The rise and fall of a literary genius, or how we can effortlessly fool ourselves at any age.

For a guy who had wanted ‘to be a writer’ since the age of 16, I still feel I am appallingly badly read and, more to the point, I have, to date, written very little. Still, that is what I wanted from quite an early age on, and it has only been in recent years that I have come to my senses and realised one or two basic truths about ‘writing’, ‘being a writer’ and, most crucially, self-delusion. On that last I can tell you at no extra cost: it is an affliction we are all highly susceptible to (oh, all right: to which we are all highly susceptible).
My ambition ‘to be a writer’ had a very mundane genesis and was based on a very silly misunderstanding and an innocent teenage conceit.
It is not unusual for young people to try to write poetry (and not all that unusual for older folk to do the same) and I was no exception. I can’t remember writing many poems, although I do know that I tried to and when I was about eight, I translated a piece of German children’s verse into English, illustrated my translation, stitched the pages together to turn them into a booklet and gave it to my parents for Christmas.
When I was 16, I wrote one poem which, as I remember, and in the manner of adolescents, addressed several then ‘contemporary’ issues. Doing so, we believe, gives the poems we write a certain gravitas and importance. That’s complete bollocks, of course, but try telling that to a 16-year-old. Not only will they not understand you, they won’t even want to understand you.
I can’t remember what issues I touched upon in that particular poem except that I made reference to ‘Red China’ and what a danger that evil nation posed to the rest of the world. Being the son at the height of the Cold War of a reactionary journalist who also, I later discovered, had a vague working relationship with MI6 for most of his life, and being securely locked away in a Roman Catholic boarding school for most of my teenage years meant that my world view was not necessarily sophisticated. A song in the charts at the time was Barry McGuire’s version of Eve Of Destruction which made reference to the danger of Red China and which was pretty hairy stuff for this reasonably immature lad, and perhaps that also influenced me. This was still the era, remember, when all things Western were ‘good’ and all things not Western were ‘bad’, particularly communism and socialism, and the end of the world is necessarily far more imminent when we are young than when we become older. When we are older, in fact, we have a horrible suspicion that it ain’t never going to end.
I was very proud of that poem, not least because I had actually finished it — all my life I have had the attention span of an impatient butterfly, and when I was younger started many poems and finished very few. I was so proud, in fact, that I showed it to Mr Hinds, one of the school’s English teachers. I showed it to him rather than Mr Walsh, my own English teacher, because Mr Hinds was young, and, I imagined, more broadminded that Mr Walsh, who was far older and quite ill for most of my school career. Mr Hinds, I felt, would be more open to my ideas.
I really don’t know what Mr Hinds actually thought of my poem, and I can’t remember him saying anything about its literary worth. But I do remember that, crucially, he advised me to ‘carry on writing poetry’ or something like that.
I now realise that he was simply doing what any half-decent pedagogue would do, what, arguably, any half-decent pedagogue should do: he was merely encouraging me to ‘carry on writing poetry’. Ah, but that was not how I interpreted his response. No, sir, I read it as his way of telling me that my poem was quite simply excellent and that, by implication, I was some kind of literary genius. And from that moment on that is how I saw myself — I was a writer, though not just any writer, mark you, but a writer of quite exceptional genius.
I can’t remember writing very many more poems, and although I did occasionally attempt a few pieces of fiction, my output was not large. (If I put my mind to it and utilise the technique useful to recall of trying to remember specifically where I was when, I could, perhaps, bring to mind a few of the - very - short stories I composed. I remember one in particular, written when I was spending the summer holiday after my second year at university working in Peppard Hospital as a porter. It told of a crane in a shipyard which was getting too old for useful work and was to be replaced by another, newer crane. One day, just after the new crane had been constructed, and while everyone was inside eating their midday meal, there is a colossal crash and the new crane is found toppled over and smashed to smithereens. The only way this could have happened would be if - well, it’s impossible, of course - but if the new crane had somehow become entangled with the old crane and the old crane had moved away and - needless to say, it’s all highly improbable - somehow pulled over the new crane. Now that would be an explanation, although being so very unlikely, it could not be the explanation, and the destruction of the new crane would have to remain a mystery.)
But, as I say, my output remained embarrassingly small and, more seriously, especially small for a would-be literary genius. I have since, I very relieved to assure the reader, written a little more and feel far more confident about writing. I can also assure the reader that I am no longer persuaded that I am a literary genius (a realisation which, oddly, came as something of a relief. It took a weight off my shoulders.) You see, I was all too conscious that I was not writing very much, that, in fact, my ‘literary output’ was not just minimal but virtually non-existent. Added my embarrassment was that every so often I would read of some writer or hear some writer on the radio describe how he or she ‘wrote every day’, that he or she ‘had to write’, that writing was ‘a part of [their] being’, sometimes even that ‘if they didn’t write [they] would go mad’. It was also a little embarrassing, not to say quite irritating, to come across friends and acquaintances who did actually write. Even worse than that was that they also read a great deal more than I did.
What made this all the more confusing was that when I did get to read what other, unpublished, would-be novelists and short story writers had written, I was all-to-often not very impressed. Yet what was better: rather bad stories, novels and plays which had, at least, been written, or works of sheer ineffably breathtaking literary brilliance which didn’t actually as yet exist?
Even I knew the answer to that one.
I could not be writing this if I hadn’t in more recent years finally put my back into trying to be a literary genius, or, at least, attempting to be one, and I can assure you all that I have finally got around to doing some of the necessary work. It is quite sobering to know that, if pushed, I could probably list everything, have written, but these days I prefer to be sober about my ambitions than to live with my head in the clouds.

In doing the necessary work, I have learnt several valuable lessons: that writing is hard, although enjoyable; that the best way to do it — I suspect the only way to do it — is to treat is as ‘work’ and to be extremely and horribly strict with yourself about sitting down regularly to do that work; never wait for inspiration — it will never come; that what you write need not be perfect from the off and that you can - and should - revise as much and as often as you like (although there is also the danger of the whole enterprise going horribly stale by being pfaffed about with too often); that in an odd sort of way, there is no such thing as ‘good’ work or ‘bad’ work, that it is, for example, more useful to speak of ‘interesting’ or ‘engaging’ work; that the essence of successful writing is thought, and lots of it, and that the more thought you put into the work you are doing, the less chance there will be that, at the end of the day, it's a load of cack; that we all love the smell of our own farts and are well-advised to remember that others, invariably, don’t; that there are an awful lot of bullshitters out there, rather more, in fact, than, at your most cynical, you might suspect; never — never! — talk about what you are doing, because the more you talk about it, the less you will do it; that most talk of ‘art’, if not all of it, is 24-carat, top-grade bunkum, especially when the word ‘art’ is used in the same sentence as the word ‘should’ (this ‘writer’ believes that ‘art’ is not an ‘entity’ but a ‘process’, but more of that, perhaps, in another entry); and that any writer, poet and playwright (or for that matter any composer, musician, painter or sculptor) can do what the bloody hell they like: there are no rules. However, whether you will find anyone who is the slightest bit interested in or engaged with what you have produced and who might, moreover, be willing to part with hard bucks for it, is another matter entirely. Here’s a principle I firmly believe in: payment is the sincerest form of flattery.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

My cars: a short guide. Part IX - this interminable account is finally concluded but not before several Rovers reach a sticky end

I did promise a final instalment of this account of my motoring history, and I am determined to show I am a man of my word, however much it might distress anyone else. There are only another six cars to go, and once this entry is out of the way, we can all breathe a sigh of relief and attend to less important matters in good heart and with a clear conscience.
When acquiring the Volvo and the 2CV, we had become a two-car family, but it would be wrong to imagine that we were in any way wealthy. We simply needed two cars. My wife insisted she needed one to take our daughter to play school and to go shopping - although I can’t imagine she drove more than 48 miles in the whole week - and I needed to drive to Exeter St David’s station and back every week. The successor to the 2CV was an Austin Maestro which I bought from the guy who had started looking after our cars when he set himself up in business. I paid
£500 for it, which was about £480 more than it was worth, and looking back I should have known as much. But Hamilton B. - I shan’t give you his full name as I intend being quite nasty about him - gave every impression of being a good, conscientious and thorough mechanic, and who, furthermore, made a great deal out of being a Seventh Day Adventist who attended church several times a week. So I reasoned that even though the Maestro he palmed off on me looked like nothing more than a mobile wreck, it must, at least, be mechanically sound if Hamilton was selling it. Looking back, I find it almost impossible to believe that I could have been so gullible. I was 49 and no less cynical than I am now. I should have realised something was amiss with both Hamilton and the car when within weeks of buying the Maestro (which was red like the one pictured), he ‘serviced’ it, only for it to break down on the way back from Plymouth. I opened the bonnet and immediately found a rather large spanner lying loose next to the battery, which most certainly should not have been there and which Hamilton had forgotten to remove. The reason for the breakdown was obvious: the lead to one of the battery terminals was loose and kept slipping off the battery. But I still remained loyal to Hamilton and still I allowed him to service and MoT both cars for several more years. Looking back I find it hard to believe my idiocy, but that was the truth.
The Maestro’s end came rather suddenly when it developed a very severe leak from the radiator and I blew the head gasket. The last journey I ever made in her was quite eventful. On the Sunday, I had barely managed to limp to Exeter station to get to London, and knew I would be in for trouble on my return journey several days later. I gathered as many plastic milk bottles as I could find from the canteen at work, and once back in Exeter on the Wednesday night, I filled them all with water and set off on the 60-mile drive home across Dartmoor (which is not quite as bleak as it sounds, as it is dual carriageway almost all the way). I had filled the radiator on my departure - there can be no talk here of ‘topping it up’ because pouring several litres of water into the radiator and watching it gush out of the other end just moments later is a lot more than merely ‘topping it up’ - but I could only manage to drive ten miles or so before I had to stop to refill it. On my second or third stop, I realised that I was also losing a great deal of oil and that I also had to ‘top that up’. The drive home to the small village in which we live usually takes just over an hour. That last journey in that particular Maestro - believe it or not I subsequently bought another whose fate was equally tragic - took almost five hours. I was finally forced to abandon the car two miles from home in the middle of Bodmin Moor after the engine seized up and would no longer respond to generous doses of extra oil. I walked the rest of the way home and got in at just before 5am.
I had just four days to find another car in which to get to Exeter station, and that is when I came across the second Maestro. It only cost me £200 and seemed like something of a bargain. It had supposedly been owned by the father of the man who ran the garage in St Kew Highway and had been taken off the road when the engine manifold broke. The deal was that for my £200 I would get the Maestro, a new manifold and a 12-month MoT. There was a problem of sorts, however. For some reason the temperature gauge indicated that the engine was overheating although, oddly, it wasn’t doing anything of the kind. But seeing the dial sitting well in the red does not make for happy motoring, and I never felt comfortable in that car. Nor did I have her for long. One morning, I arrived back at Exeter, after taking the sleeper from Paddington, at 4.15am (my shift pattern was quite erratic at the time) to find that the car had been stolen. It was found in Exmouth several days later, and as the thief had wrecked the steering column when he broke in, it was a write-off. The only good thing about owning that second Maestro was that, for once, I didn’t lose money on her: although I had paid £200 to buy the car, I had told my insurers she was worth £350. They offered me £275 scrap value, so I actually made £75.
It was around this time that the first Volvo, a 360 GTE Turbo Fuel Injection Twin-Cam Gti TiG iTg Touring Saloon with little pink spots (or something like that) breathed its last and was shunted of the the great scrapyard in the sky (well, in Bodmin, actually) and none too soon. This was my wife's runaround and all sorts of things were going wrong: the sunroof was leaking badly, and as is the manner of the more mechanically-inclined woman, for at least a year she had attempted to solve this problem by stemming the leaks with a number of old tea towels. I knew none of this because I never used the Volvo and didn’t get into it in a month of Sundays. I did eventually find out because I did once have to use the car on one rainy day and was upset to get a pint of rainwater down my neck as soon as I pulled off. Her ingenuity with tea towels was not always very effective. There and then I resolved to buy my wife the best, most practical new car money could be, but in the event sanity and economic necessity prevailed and I found her another Volvo for £395, which she has been driving for the past three years, although I am bound to admit not exactly trouble-free. But I take the view that most problems are character-building and take pride in the fact that her character is immensely stronger since I have been buying her cars to get around in.
Incidentally, regular readers will recall how when I was younger I owned two Austin Allegros. I think I pointed out in an earlier entry that Allegros were regarded with derision bordering on sheer contempt by lads who took their cars seriously and revered Jeremy Clarkson. I should point out that when the Allegro passed into motoring history, that mantel was taken on by the Maestro. Owning and driving a Maestro was seen as convenient shorthand for the owner and driver being a total pillock. All I can say in attempted mitigation is that I have never claimed to be ‘a lad’, and that my one concern when buying a car is to get as good a value a car as possible for as little money as possible. That I have rarely achieved it is neither here nor there, but it does explain why I am content to be regarded with derision by a large section of the British public. To put it another way, I really don’t give a stuff.
Within days I had bought a replacement, yet another Rover. This was the model which was more or less a re-badged Honda. To help Rover solve the latest of its many financial crises, Honda had done a deal and agreed to allow the company to adopt and sell one of its designs, although in time Rover developed its own engine for the model. I bought the car from a garage just north of Camelford for £800, and it wasn’t a bad buy. I had it for just over three years, the car provided good service, with relatively few crises. It did have a terrible tendency for various electrical components in the engine to get damp if it rained for more than a day, but the trouble was almost always the rotor arm in the distributor, so whenever I called out the RAC, I invariably invited them to take a look at that first, which they did and which always got me going again sooner rather than later.
By this time I had abandoned commuting to London by train after being let down once too often by First Great Western, but driving up and down meant I was clocking up an enormous number of miles - a rough estimate would be that I drove around 25,000 a year - and that took its toll. The car began to look ratty and when I spotted another Rover which was several years younger and for which only £750 was being asked, I bought her. Unfortunately, I had that one for barely five months: driving rather too fast in a narrow, winding Cornish country lane just south of St Endellion (and, to tell the truth, after drinking just a little too much sherry with my stepmother who I had been visiting in her care home), I collided head-on with a county council van. The van was coming up the hill, I was driving down the hill, and we were both going too fast. The car was another write-off, although oddly enough the damage was such that I was able to limp home at about 8mph and then limp on further to the garage north of Camelford to see whether I could find a replacement in time for my weekly journey to London. As usual, my luck was in, and Rob Gibbon, who owns and runs the garage, sold me yet another Rover. This one wasn’t in quite as nice condition, but beggars can’t be choosers, and once again he was asking my sort of price.
That Rover cause me no major or even minor upsets, but it was long in the tooth when I bought it and was even longer in the tooth when I handed it back to Rob in part exchange for the car I now drive - yes, another Rover, which also cost £800. My relationship with this one got off to rather a bad start when it became apparent that the alarm needed attention - it kept going off for no very good reason - but that was finally sorted out, although I didn’t have the car for three weeks, during which time I was back driving the Rover I had part-exchanged which Rob was using as a courtesy car. It is only fair to come clean and admit that this new Rover has one small and very unimportant, although niggling, fault in that a bearing in the gearbox needs to be replaced, but with luck that will be done before Christmas. The major thing in this current Rover’s favour is that she doesn’t look like a complete wreck. Even though I say so myself, this one is halfway decent looking. And as I have reached the respectable 60 and am expected to behave like a real grown-up, that is only as it should be.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

An sincere apology to a previous reader, how we can be extremely insensitive without meaning to be and, perhaps, a lesson learnt

I have one follower who has come out and declared herself. You will see a link to her blogs to the right of these words. I also have another follower who is a little more in the shadows, who professes, I can only accept sincerely, to be baffled by the kind of technology which makes a blog such as this possible, and who, thus, does not have his own blog.
Until a few days ago, I did have a third reader, who also declared herself to be a follower, and there was also a link to her blog to the right. It has now, however, disappeared. And I fear I have inadvertently upset her. I shall go on to explain how it might have happened, but before I go any further I shall ask her to forgive me - she will know I am addressing her - and I shall ask her to accept that there might have been a misunderstanding. If I am right and offence was taken, it was not due to oversensitivity on her part. If anything, it was down to a certain tactlessness on mine.
Some readers might know, because I mentioned as much in this blog when I was writing from Ibiza, that while I was on holiday, I came across by chance a copy of A People’s History Of The United States by a very respected historian called Howard Zinn. The purpose of his history was that it should serve as an antidote to other histories of America which told the story of the nation, so to speak, top down. He wanted to tell the history through the stories tribulations of the ordinary man and woman - the indentured servants who were all too often treated as no more than white slaves, the black slaves themselves, the native Americans, the immigrants who were played off against each other to compete for scarce work. I learnt a great deal from that book.
I was aware, in broad outline, of the history of slavery in America, but I did not know much of the detail. And while reading the book I came to realise what a horrifying, unspeakably evil detail it was and is. And I feel - I hope - that perhaps I understand a little better the deep sensitivity of Afro-Americans in matters of colour and their existence, and the reality of their lives both past and present. But it seems that I touched upon that sensitivity rather roughly, although inadvertently, in a previous entry to this blog, and for that I am truly sorry indeed. It was sincerely unintended. I think the reader concerned will know what I am talking about, so I don’t feel there is a need to be more explicit as this entry is almost entirely intended for her eyes only. From what I gathered from looking at this particular reader’s blog, she is wholly or partly of Afro-American descent and from what she writes on her blog very aware of the past lives of her forefathers and foremothers. The chances are that she has already given up on reading this blog, but if she does occasionally take a look, I hope she reads this and accepts my apologies.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A share tip from a certified sucker who is otherwise highly sceptical of ‘a sure thing’

Looking through this blog and the different entries in order to track down any literals and other cock-ups which have so far remained unspotted, I notice that, apart from the interminable account of the various decrepit cars I have owned - one last instalment still to come, but don’t hold your breath because even I am becoming a little bored - many of the most recent entries have centred on newspapers, journalism, newsroom and hack. So it’s time for a little respite: I should like to give you all a share tip.

I am not at all wealthy, but I do own some shares after transferring my miniscule pension pot from Abbey Life (motto: Trust Us, We’re Not Quite As Bent As The Rest) to a SIPP (self-invested pension plan). Years ago, in fact as long ago as the recession in the early Nineties, I reasoned that one of the few companies actually to thrive in a recession would be pawnbrokers, and that were I ever in a position to buy shares, I would invest in a pawnbrokers. I didn’t take all my money from Abbey Life to invest in the SIPP until about 2005, but once I had decided to do so, I looked up (the posh, rather, pompous technical term is researched, but I will stick with the phrase ‘looked up’) which of the pawnbroking firms was listed on the stock exchange, and I came across Albemarle & Bond. I bought 3,117 when they were around 158p and they immediately shot up to 220p (well, not immediately, over a matter of weeks). In 2007, when they hit 240 I sold 2,000. Over the next to years, they were up and down, but generally hovered around the 210 mark. In the late autumn of last year, they were even over 270, but I wasn't paying attention and missed out on selling (the theory being to sell, wait for the price to plummet, then to buy again. That’s the theory.)

However, in recent weeks, they have taken another lead up and are now at 248, while the rest of the market, though recovering, is lagging a little behind such enthusiasm. We all know, or think we know, what the business of pawnbrokers is, and it might strike my more sensitive readers as being a bit - well, off - to profit from the misfortune of others, but, in fact and by chance, I have discovered that pawnbrokers are also largely engaged in the business to lending money to people who are by no means on their uppers.

So my tip for the day: buy Albemarle & Bond. I doubt very much that they will be going bust in these next few years.

If you want to find out more about the company, you can do so here.
A while ago, I came across a firm of bailiffs who were also quoted on AIM and was considering buying into them. But I had a word with a chap on the City desk who pointed out that firms of bailiffs do not always attract characters of the highest moral fibre, mainly because of the kind of work they are engaged in, so it would not be unfair to assume that when it came to their bookkeeping, they might not be as scrupulous - and, crucially, might not treat their shareholders as fairly - as they should do. I took heed of his warnings.

By way off illuminating why I am otherwise rather sceptical of ‘sure things’, I’ll take you back to 1973 when I lived Milan for a while and was teaching English, and when I was caught hook line and sinker by a gang in one of the Metro stations working the three-card trick. In their case, it was a three blocks of wood, each with a rubber band around it and one had a postage stamp stuck to its underside. I watched for a while and thought I noticed that on the block with the postage stamp the rubber band was skew-whiff. ‘Ah,’ I thought to myself, ‘I don't have to keep an eye on the block with the stamp, I just have to look for the block with the skew-whiff rubber band when he stops.’ Well, and I’m sure you’ve guessed, they were streets ahead of me.

They always know a sucker when they come across one, and I was - and possibly still am - one of the biggest. I had already been hooked when a previous ‘winner’ had enlisted my help while he got his money out. He took my hand and placed it on the ‘winning’ block, thus making me feel a part of his victory and ensuring I was persuaded it was possible to win. I knew I had been well and truly suckered as soon as I told the guy to stop and I would point out the block with the postage stamp. I knew because of the certainty with which he asked me to hand over my stake. I knew! But I handed it over anyway and, of course, I was wrong. I reckon that the gang was at least 4/5 strong and consisted of the player with the rest of them making up the crowd around him, ‘winning’ and thus attracting suckers like me. To this day I feel stupid. Oh well.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Why the Daily Mail always scores so well: ignore the wiseacres — nostalgia is still what it used to be. Big bucks

I shall be hated for saying this by every last progressive in the land - and if such admirable folk living further afield also know or know of the Daily Mail, they will most certainly join in the howls of condemnation - but here I go: the Daily Mail is a superb newspaper, or rather, with a nod to those who loathe it with every fibre of their being, the Daily Mail is a superb newspaper in the field it chooses to operate. It knows how, when and where to push the right buttons and does so again this morning with this set of pictures. (Admittedly, knowing how, when and where to push the right buttons might also be said of Adolf Hitler, but I'll let that pass rather than risk this entry becoming ever more arcane.)
Every paper has its constituents, of course, and does its best to pander to their varied prejudices and foibles - doing so successfully keeps circulation healthy. Even the saintly Guardian plays the game, though satisfying its readers' unshakeable conviction that they're 'on the side of the angels' does get exceptionally wearing. But when it comes to nostalgia, the Mail more or less corners the market. (It also helps, no doubt, that people have pretty short memories).
Loosely themed around the fact that years ago the country didn't give a stuff for health and safety ('elf 'n safety is the phrase usually employed by the paper), its spread of pictures is merely an exercise in showing images of 'yesteryear' to elicit from every Mail reader a heartfelt 'aaaahhh'. These pictures don't actually show fluffy white kittens, but they more or less get the same result. Even guys might find themselves suppressing a slight sigh. The first (right) shows two girls enjoying themselves in the street. Note the lack of a safety harness, the wearing of which 24 hours a day is apparently a legal obligation these days.
Then (below) we have this picture of a lad out fishing. That the lad is barely four years old and might tumble into the water at

any minute is neither here nor there. He's perfectly safe because the photographer taking the picture would simply jump in to rescue him. Or perhaps, more truthfully the photographer would probably not think twice about jumping in and getting thoroughly soaked.
Ensuring our youngsters can swim is admirably sensible. They might, after all, from a very early age, choose to go fishing when there is no photographer around to record the

event and, crucially, to jump in the water after them should the fall in. So it is understandable that such instruction is vital, even though, as in this picture, the training method chosen is somewhat arcane.
This row of eight toddlers (below) are very young and undoubtedly have not yet tasted their first cigarette, although

that will only be a matter of time. (NB pedants: I really am not sure whether that should be 'is' or 'are' - strictly as I am referring to the row, it should be 'is', but that sounds plain daft. This might be a topic I can raise again at the next meeting of the Feature Sub-Editors Hyphen Committee. Might even be worth and extraordinary meeting. Addendum: Word from up high: it is 'is'.) What is remarkable is that despite their young age, they have all already developed a very good head for heights and seem perfectly happy to be perched on such a high wall. Should there be some kind of mishap, the photographer is again on hand to sort things out and hand the poor child who has just fallen off and broken its neck a consolation lollipop.
Quite what is going on here (below) I really don't know, and I can't even attempt a sensible guess, except to suggest that these four lads are being slowly broken into the joys of English cooking. Or perhaps they are unfortunate enough to attend an English boarding school and are still a little peckish after lunch. It's also quite possible that they have just enjoyed an English lunch and are now engaged in getting rid of it again. One often has to.

I've just found the book from which these pictures came: it is called When I Were A Lad and was compiled by Andrew Davies and published by Portico. Just for an extra plug, similar books can be found at http://www.anovabooks.com/.

To keep this straight, and even though this page is in no way intended as profitmaking, I must point out that all the pictures I have published on this page are the copyright of Corbis.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Wise words not to be ignored. From those who know...

After publishing my last entry, I did a bit of hunting around on the net to come up with these quotations. I hope they amuse you. But more than amuse you, they should also be taken seriously. There is more than a grain of truth in each

The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.

Thomas Jefferson

I am unable to understand how a man of honour could take a newspaper in his hands without a shudder of disgust.

Charles Baudelaire

Once a newspaper touches a story, the facts are lost forever, even to the protagonists.

Norman Mailer

Newspapers are unable, seemingly, to discriminate between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilisation.

George Bernard Shaw

Editor: a person employed on a newspaper whose business it is to separate the wheat from the chaff, and to see that the chaff is printed.

Elbert Hubbard

I fear three newspapers more than a hundred thousand bayonets.

Napoleon

I've always said there's a place for the press but they haven't dug it yet.

Tommy Docherty

Journalism - a profession whose business it is to explain to others what it personally does not understand.

Lord Northcliffe

Northcliffe was in many ways something of a genius. He was born Alfred Harmsworth, the son - if I am getting this right - of a rather useless and impoverished barrister, and, if I remember, he was a cycling enthusiast. I don't think that was in any way significant except that because of his enthusiasm, he met an awful lot of people from different backgrounds and, I think, came to realise that people who might not usually mix socially (as was far more the case at the end of the 19th century) could and would do so if they had a common interest. Perhaps he realised that that approach might be successful in newspapers. To this day, the Mail is read by members of the many middle classes which exist in Britain. (There are far more middle classes than the simple distinction between, lower-middle, middle and upper-middle might suggest. And before American readers pat themselves on the back and tell themselves their society is classless, it is, in fact, nothing of the kind. If anything, it is even more class-ridden than Old Blighty.)
Norhtcliffe's first venture was a magazine called Answers To Correspondents in which people wrote in with queries and other readers answered them. Northclifee had a great empathy with the little man and his greatest creation, the Daily Mail, for whom I work, was built on that empathy. Furthermore, pandering - I’m afraid to say there is no better word for describing what the Mail does - to the middlebrow prejudices of the little man has ensured the Mail remains one of the world’s most successful newspapers. Northcliffe had no children and reputedly died insane, keeping a revolver under his pillow. His brother, ennobled as Rothermere, was the business brains whose expertise made Northdliffe's dreams pay, and he took over the group when Alfred died. Rothermere’s great-grandson Jonathan is the current owner of the fabulous group known as Associated Newspapers. I once found myself alone in a lift with Jonathan and I was buggered if I was going to stand there like some bloody serf. So I said the first thing which came into my head:
“You’re Lord Rothermere, aren’t you.”
“Yes,” said Lord Rothermere. It was all horribly flat and I did not want to leave it at that. So I said the next thing which came into my head:
“What’s your job like, then?”
“Oh,” said Lord Rothermere, “pretty much like every other job. Some good days, some bad days.”
And with that the lift reached his floor, the doors opened and he left the lift. He probably thought I was the biggest pillock he had ever met.
Incidentally, the Daily Mail was once referred to by a certain Robert Cecil as 'written by office boys for office boys'. This sneer is better put in context when you know that Robert Cecil, briefly a Prime Minister, was better known as Lord Salisbury.

The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything. Except what is worth knowing. Journalism, conscious of this, and having tradesman-like habits, supplies their demands.

Oscar Wilde

Freedom of the press in Britain is freedom to print such of the proprietor's prejudices as the advertisers won't object to.

Hannen Swaffer

Journalism largely consists of saying ‘Lord Jones is dead’ to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive.’

G.K.Chesterton

You cannot hope to bribe or twist (thank God!) the British journalist. But, seeing what the man will do unbribed, there's no occasion to.

Humbert Wolfe

Journalists aren't supposed to praise things. It's a violation of work rules almost as serious as buying drinks with our own money or absolving the CIA of something.

PJ O’Rourke

And from my favourite author:
If, for instance, they have heard something from the postman, they attribute it to a semi-official statement; if they have fallen into conversation with a stranger at a bar, they can conscientiously describe him as a source that has hitherto proved unimpeachable. It is only when the journalist is reporting a whim of his own, and one to which he attaches minor importance, that he defines it as the opinion of well-informed circles.

Evelyn Waugh

Just days after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I went along to Waterstone's in High St. Kensington and found a copy of Waugh's Scoop. I flicked through the pages and found the passage I was looking for. It was when Lord Copper briefs young William Boot before Boot takes off to cover the war in Ishmaelia, the country based on Abyssinia. I shall dig out the copy and reprint it word for word. It so suited 2003 gungho attitude to the invasion of Iraq. Incidentally, there is still no word of WMDs. I fear they were so well hidden, they will never be found.

Everything you read in newspapers is absolutely true, except for that rare story of which you happen to have first-hand knowledge.

Erwin Knoll

I can illuminate that: a year or two ago, I met a neighbour in a local petrol station and he told me that his son, on holiday in Australia, had gone snorkelling and lost his credit cards (which he stupidly had in the back pocket of his shorts). He was very upset, rang his dad etc, and my neighbour set about getting money to him. At the end of the day, the son was sitting with friends in a bar, when a stranger walked up and laid his credit cards on the table. It turned out that snorkelling in the same spot an hour or two later, had spotted the credit card wallet on the seabed, rescued it, come across a picture of Daniel on a pass among the credit cards, spotted Daniel on the other side of the bar and returned the cards.
"Great story," I said to Paddy, the father. "Do you mind if I tell the Western Morning News?" He didn't, so I rang the paper, told them the details, it rang Paddy and then printed the story.
Of course, being rather slow on the uptake, I should have thought of selling the story to the nationals who pay good money instead of merely alerting the WMN. (I story I had once heard about and tipped off the Mail newsdesk earned my £300 and all I did was to alert newsdesk.) Hoevery, one of the local news agencies did spot the story in the WMN and flogged it to the nationals and one paper it appeared in was the Mail, the paper I work for. They, or the news agency - I don't know who - got one or two details very wrong indeed: they said Daniel was a student at Manchester University. He wasn't, he was a student at a college in Cheltenham. And they said he was studying town planning or something. He wasn't, he was studying geography. Oh, and the Mail had several direct quotes from Daniel all the way over there in Australia. That was news to Daniel and his father as Daniel didn't speak to anyone, and his father had only spoken to the WMN.
Once, while still working as a reporter in Newcastle on The Journal, I was asked to cover the anniversary of the death of a local man, a soldier who had been shot dead in Northern Ireland. As usual, coming to a story cold like that, I went to the cuttings library and looked up previous stories we had printed about the man's death. Then I wrote my story, using details which had previously appeared in The Journal, describing as background how the man was out on patril when he had 'died in a hail of bullets'. Except that he hadn't. The following day, a relative of his rang the paper to point out the man had been killed by a single sniper's bullet, and could we please get it straight the next time we mentioned his death. I'm sure the relative was assured by newsdesk that, yes, we would certainly get it right, but I am equally sure that the next time we mentioned his death, no, we most certainly did not get it right. Why should we? A hail of bullets if far more dramatic than a mere single shot from a sniper, and, anyway, there is a certain dramatic truth* in what we wrote (or some such bullshit). *©The Guardian
Beware hacks. Always.

Apropos bullshit: Now comfortably settled in the Lords, Shirley Williams, once a Labour Cabinet Minister who grew disillusioned with the drift leftwards by Labour in their Eighties' wilderness years and threw in her lot with the Social Democrats, commented, after the Social Democrats suffered a sound drubbing in a general election and barely reached 10 per cent of the votes cast (rather than a hoped-for reaching out by the electorate to this new party of reason, hope and compassion): "It was a moral victory."
Well, that's all right then, Mrs Williams. There really aren't enough of those. And I am a moral millionaire.
Just how toe-curlingly embarrassing the Social Democrats were at their worst can be typified by a description of them in a speech by the then David Owen, a Labour Foreign Secretary before he, too, jumped ship. He referred to the Social Democrats as: 'The caring and the daring, the tough and the tender.'

To this list of admonition from many who have fallen foul of the Press, I’ll add the very useful advice given to all young reporters and heeded by those who are serious about making a good career for themselves:
‘Never let a couple of facts stand in the way of a good story’

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Misspelling, literals, sense, smoky and noisy newsrooms, and a shameful theft

I don’t know whether other bloggers do so, but once I have posted an entry, I revisit it several times in the following days and weeks to sort it out a little. There are always - always - misspellings and literals to be put right and awkward phrasing which can be improved. An inelegant phrasing can be forgiven and doesn’t signify that the world is about to end. But although some might castigate me for being a buttoned-up Brit going on anal for being bothered by such trivialities, I do like to try to ensure that what I write is clear, straightforward and comprehensible. If one has to read a sentence several times to establish what the bloody hell is going on, the writer has rather missed the point of writing. A good example of incomprehensible prose which verges on obscurantist claptrap is what is often written by the High Priests of Self-Regard who are employed by the Independent (‘the Indy’ as they like to call it) in that paper’s arts pages. All too often it is anything but clear, straightforward and comprehensible, and there’s a suspicion that the whole point of the piece we are reading is to get us to reflect on what a clever young thing the writer is. Making sure that what you write can be understood and is understood as you want it to be understood is, as far as I can see, the only reason for getting punctuation right. But though is might be the only reason, it is a very, very good one. Commas slow you down where you should be slowed down. That is why we use commas. If anyone tells you to use a comma in a certain way because ‘that is the rule’, you in turn should tell them where to get off. Rules are descriptive, not prescriptive (although an in-depth discussion on the whys, whens and wheres is for another time when we’re both exceptionally bored and have little enthusiasm for much else. And it has just occurred to me that in pontificating, as I have just done, on the correct use of commas, I am also laying down the law. Well, you can’t win, so perhaps we shouldn’t even try.)
The beauty of computers and word-processors is that when it comes to correcting a piece you have written, they make any re-writing involved a doddle. When I was still a reporter in the late Seventies, we wrote on typewriters and on ‘copy paper’ and always had to make at least one carbon copy. (It was called ‘a black’, but in these more enlightened times, I’m sure there is a term more acceptable to sensitive souls. I was once told off for ordering a ‘black’ coffee. What should I have ordered, I asked. A coffee with ‘no milk’ I was told. Oh well, you live and learn). In those days re-writing meant scoring out a word or sentence with a row of ‘xs’ and adding the correction. Because the ‘intro’ - the first paragraph - and possibly the second par were to be printed in a point size greater than the rest of the story, they had to be written on separate sheets of copy paper because it went to the typesetter who was setting type in 10pt or 9pt, whereas the body of the story was dispatched to the typesetter who was setting type in 8pt or 7pt. My particular quirk was that however scruffy and scored-out the rest of the story was, that first sheet of copy paper had to be pristine. If I made just one slightly typing error - and I invariably made lots - I would rip the paper from my typewriter and start afresh and keep doing so until that first sheet was spotless. I have enormous respect for 19th-century novelists who wrote by hand and even later writers who used a typewriter. Re-writing - and I can’t think they did it any less than we do - must have been an unbearable chore, yet they did it.
Misspellings and literals are another matter. Literals are understandable and can easily be forgiven. Even though I have now taught myself to touch-type, which has helped writing enormously and allows me to write almost as fast as I think, I still mistype, although far less than I once did. But misspellings, where the fault lies with the brain, not the fingers, are unacceptable if they are left uncorrected. The irony is, of course, that the spell-checkers we all now use will pick up on literals, but will ignore misspellings. So, for example, in a previous entry I wrote about hacks coming back to the profession after taking time off return ‘with their tales between their legs’. Er, not quite, and that entry had since been changed to the correct ‘tails’ (although in the context in which that error found itself, it might well, ironically, have been taken to be a clever pun, although a pun so obvious I doubt I would choose to make it.) There is any number of words which lend themselves to pretending to be another and unobtrusively insinuating themselves into an otherwise upright and respectable piece of prose of unimpeachable character: there/their, bare/bear, tail/tale, discrete/discreet, piece/peace, to/too - the list is so endless that off-hand I can’t think of any more.
This is all a very long-winded way of saying: if you come across a howler in any of these blog entries, please don’t immediately write me off as an illiterate wastrel. Wait a few days, go back and check, and if the howler is still there, then by all means damn me to hell and damnation. But wait a little after first spotting it. Who knows, I might have gone back to correct it.
By the way, I can’t leave the mention of my early days as a hack without embellishing the account a little. Just a few days ago, a guy at work and I were recalling what it was then like to walk into a newsroom before we all became modern and liberal. Today, no one is allowed to smoke and we all use computers. Then, almost everyone smoked, so the atmosphere was often rather cloudy, and as we all used typewriters, it was also very, very noisy, especially as phones still had bells. There is a grand old tradition in newspapers - perhaps I should specify in British newspapers - of making do and living in squalor. So, even today after the ‘paperless revolution’, every reporter and writer’s desk is piled high with reports and agendas which were skimmed through once and will never be looked through again until they are finally thrown out when the paper, as it does periodically, re-arranges the desks on the newsroom floor. And I am really not exaggerating when I say that these piles of paper spilling here, there and everywhere, can be at least two or three foot high. MoWhen we were still using typewriters, every morning there would always be a scramble to find and commandeer one on which every key actually worked. More often than not, we would have to put up with one on which one key or another didn’t register at all or which jammed every so often. Another daily task was finding a chair which was not - quite literally - falling apart. Why did we put up with this? Why were we expected to put up with this. But we did put. It was, and still is, a mystery to me why folk who at home live like ordinary, tidy people in ordinary, tidy homes think nothing of existing like savages once they enter a newsroom. Very often we eat meals at our desks, and very often a plate, the meal half-eaten and then abandoned, will be simplyh pushed aside where the plate will remain for the next few weeks, the congealing food looking ever more unappetising and in the old smoking days all too often being joined by stubbed-out cigarettes. I have already mentioned before that most items found in newsrooms, unless their ownership is very obvious and cannot be ignored, are conveniently regarded as common property and can be taken at will. To this day I feel very guilty about an incident which happened about 15 years ago. Walking past the desk, I spotted a £10 note lying on the floor behind a colleague’s chair. Rather than pick it up and ask whether she or anyone else had lost a £10, I picked it up and put it in my pocket, even though it was very obvious that it had probably somehow fallen from her coat. I little later she did, indeed, realise that she had lost £10 note and asked of the table generally whether anyone had found one. Dear reader, to my eternal shame, I said nothing. I kept schtumm. My lips were sealed. For a brief moment I did consider coming clean and doing the right thing, but I managed to overcome that temptation without too much trouble.
So now you might understand why, older and more mature and now with at least a modicum of a moral sense, I am so intent on ensuring my entries in this blog are correctly spelled and that they make sense. It is, in fact, a kind of penance, though, thank goodness, not one I find particularly onerous. It is a way in which I hope to persuade myself that, in many ways and despite some past abysmal behaviour, I’m not a bad old stick and really do know right from wrong. Making sure that my commas are all in the right place might seem a trivial way of demonstrating my essentially moral character, but don’t knock it.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A birthday lunch at Mr Stein’s of Padstow.

I am 60 tomorrow, and as a treat, our stepmother took myself and my sister to Rick Stein’s seafood restaurant in Padstow. (My sister has flown in from Istanbul for my birthday - it's not every day you are 60, in fact, it's only once in a lifetime.) The restaurant is every bit as good as it’s reputation. I had squid sauteed in chilli with something or other to start with bean shoot and coriander, then an Indonesian fish curry with various seafood and a green bean and something salad, passon fruit Pavlova and cheese. It was the second time I’ve been and it will most certainly not be the last. I’ve discovered that until March it is doing a special three-course lunch for £28.50 so I am considering treating myself again. (My wife isn’t all that bothered about food). If anyone reading this (Barry) wants to investigate the winter lunch special, the phone number is 01841 532 700. From From January 25 to February 12, the restaurant is also doing winter charity lunches in aid of Save The Children. This year it will only be £17.50. You can get more information here
My stepmother’s sister, who has lived in France for most of here life and my cousin are coming over for a few days before Christmas and we might have a meal at 15, Jamie Oliver’s restaurant, which is also supposed to be very good.

Hacks, hackery, a deluded public and why we are the scum of the Earth

It would be technically true to say that I have worked as a journalist for the past 35 years. I started my first job, working for the Lincolnshire Chronicle as a reporter, on January 24, 1974, and except for the almost obligatory sabbatical many hacks take in their 30s - I decided to retrain as a photographer; others go off to run an antique store or take off to the Greek islands to write ‘my novel’; all, sooner or later, return to the fold with their tails between their legs, sadder if not wiser and with considerably more debt - I have only ever worked as a reporter and sub-editor. Yet in one important and widespread understanding of what a ‘journalist’ is, to say that I have worked as ‘a journalist’ is complete nonsense.
To those who never actually get to meet the species, we journalist are noble fellows whose role is to expose the corrupt, root out the truth, protect the little man and generally fight on the side of the angels. We are those for whom facts are sacred. Those who have never met a journalist imagine that he and she dines daily at the top tables of the great and good, that we invariably have an in everywhere, that we know what is really going on, that our counsel is sought, that we are not only intelligent and quick-witted, but charming and cunning. Those who have never met one of my kind are only to happy to mythologise the journalist, and will gladly forgive him and her their peccadilloes because they suspect we are, somehow, other. They are only too ready to believe that we are at once at home in the sleaziest brothels as in the loftiest chancelleries of the world, that we are on intimate terms with statesmen and artists, courtesans and billionaires. That we can drink the best of them under the table and still turn out 1,000 words of crisp, scintillating, informed, informative and entertaining copy by dawn. And it is, of course, all complete rot. Yet, somehow, the myth survives. People will regale each other with tales of the most horrific behaviour by journalists and still, in a corner of their hearts, acknowledge a grudging, secret respect bordering on admiration for such cavalier behaviour. The profession - and it is only a profession in the most literal meaning of the word - is still seen as glamorous.
Yes, there are journalists who are, in every sense, as professional as barristers, surgeons and economists and who, metaphorically share private dinners with presidents and prime ministers and are privy, or partly privy, to secrets of state. And, yes, there are members of the public who become millionaires after spending £1 on a Lottery ticket. But the man or woman who writes captions for the tit and bum pictures in the Daily Star, those who compile surveys of bras in the women’s pages, those employed by Trout And Salmon, Tunnels And Tunneller, Floor Covering And Carpet review - and those last two do exist - are also entitled to call themselves ‘journalists’, and characters who are as far from the popular view of what a journalist is and what he or she is engaged in could be hard to imagine.
Every tinpot polytechnic turned university in the country offers a ‘media studies’ course, and these are always oversubscribed. But tell would-be media students that not one editor in the country gives a flying fuck for a media studies qualification, they will refuse to believe you.
In the 35 years I have worked as a ‘journalist’, the broadcasting media have expanded enormously, and it is now misleading to talk of ‘the Press’. Weekly papers and regional morning and evening papers are having a very tough time indeed, most recently because the internet has devastated their classified ad revenue, and getting a job ‘in television’ or ‘on the radio’ is now seen as the goal. But in essence those who choose to earn their living working as a ‘journalist’ have not changed a jot. Many of them, especially those who are not too bright, also believe in the myth of the journalist fighting the good fight, and do not see their behaviour as impertinent intrusion into private lives, but as a sacred duty they have to uphold the public’s ‘right to know’. But the truth is not just far simpler, it is unbearably more banal.
It is an irony that having a free Press is most cherished in countries which do not have one. In these countries - Burma, the former Soviet Union and other former Eastern Bloc states and in other countries caught up in a totalitarian system - exceptionally brave men and women do risk their lives by following their profession. Here in the Western world we do, nominally, have a free Press, but you wouldn’t know it. (I say ‘nominally, by the way, because increasingly the courts can be used by anyone with enough money to pay the fees to muzzle a journalist and shut down a story, and the most sinister recent development as been the ‘super injunction’ which prohibits a journalist from even reporting that an injunction has been taken out. Such ‘prior restraint’ is not possible in the U.S. whose courts take the view that redress, if needed, is available a posteriori through the libel laws.)
My work at the Daily Mail involves ‘early revision’, the early referring to the time of day we turn up, not the ‘first’ revision. Once pages have been laid out and sub-edited, I and colleagues read the proofs, make changes, re-scheme pages if the ad shapes change and generally prepare the pages for the printers. On Sunday’s I am the only ‘early reviser’ and my first task when I turn up - invariably late - is to read the puzzle pages for errors, check that the answers are right, check that the right cartoons are going in and ensure that the enjoyment of those readers for whom the puzzle pages are the most important pages in the Daily Mail is in no danger of being spoiled. My next task is to do the same on the ‘promotions’ pages, where readers can snap for a bargain price of £5.99 (PLUS ten of the tokens printed daily, is the whole point of the exercise - the public must somehow be induced to buy the bloody paper) a perfume by Princess Di’s favourite designer which is ‘usually for sale at £99’. And don’t believe the ‘serious papers’ don’t do the same: what is on offer will vary and be tailored to the pretensions of a particular paper’s readers, but the schtick is identical. Sun readers can to to France ‘for £1’. Telegraph readers can get ‘fine wines’ with a 50% discount. Guardian readers can get a good deal on the latest trendy novel.
When do I - a ‘journalist’ for the past 35 years - ever engage in serious journalism? Never.
To round off, here are a few quotations from people who have come into contact with journalists and who might thus be thought to know what they are talking about:
‘Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock.’ - Ben Hecht

Ben Hecht became a famous playwright and screen writer and wrote The Front Page. But before that he spent several years as a crime reporter in Twenties Chicago and most certainly knew what he was talking about. More quotes tomorrow.
Oh, and by the way, I hope I don’t sound outraged. Journalism? I love it. And if that sounds hypocritical after all I have written here about hacks, there’s another useful insight for you.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

My cars: a short guide. Part VIII - a third 2CV, two Volvos, two Austins and more Rovers than you could shake a stick at

Working and living in London I didn’t need a car, so once I had rid myself of my very awful Vauxhall Chevette - and discovered that since I had last got rid of a car, I now had to pay someone to scrap it - that was it for a while, no more cars, and I can’t say I missed them. Finally, in 1995 once I had become engaged and knew I would be moving to Cornwall, I agreed to buy a former flatmate’s 2CV, a white Charleston with blue stripesm, which was still in good condition, both mechanically and cosmetically.
There was something attractive but deeply daft about how Citroen released the same car over and over again with each model being identical in every detail except that it had differently themed paintwork. I think the last techinical change made was when the engine capacity was doubled from 300cc to 600cc, and that was at some time towards the end of the 19th century.
The 2CV you got was still a great car to drive - if you like that quirky sort of thing and didn’t mind slowing down considerably when driving up hills - but it was a dog to deal with when something went wrong. So ‘theming’ them in the hope that this would somehow make the car different was, frankly, quite daffy. In essence the design hadn’t changed in years. Furthermore, Citroen desperately wanted to stop making them - they had, after all, been designed as a farm vehicle in for post-war use and didn’t fit Cirtoen’s new high-tech innovative company image - but just as they were on the brink of being retired, hippies of all shades, German greens, French revolutionaries, British Liberals and vegetarians, and assorted Dutch and Danes suddenly decided it was cool to drive one and that it made ‘a statement’ about their individuality. And, incidentally, no one - except cynical ad men - seems to have cottoned on that more than one person being ‘individual’ in a certain specific way, such as driving a 2CV, makes it impressively less of an ‘individual’ act, and that ‘being alternative’ can quite rapidly become a mainstream activity. There are few sillier sights than a whole gang of more or less identically dressed and styled alternatives all convinced that they are a one-off. But then the world seems to abound in silliness. But what the hell, it’s been going on now for several thousand years.
Certainly, Citroen must, at first, have been rather pleased that an old design had a new lease of life and that it would be reflected in the sales figure, and they even designed a ‘new’ 2CV, the Dyanne, to cash in. The Dyanne got a new shape and superficial makeover, but it was otherwise the old 2CV with a new name.
I had agreed to buy Andy Penman’s old 2CV - he only wanted £100 for it, but I insisted on giving him £200 because it was worth more than £100 and I didn’t want there to be any bad blood later on. As it happened, I needed it sooner than we had planned because my wife-to-be had had a miscarriage and I had to get to Cornwall very quickly, so I picked it up from outside his house in Kennington and drove down to Cornwall in it, getting lost around Southampton looking for a petrol station.
That 2CV was a good little car and I drove down to Cornwall and back several times before I finally left London. It was still nice looking and drove well. Later, it developed a habit of not starting in the damp cold of Exeter St Davids, but I got a great deal of good mileage out of it.
However, my wife insisted, when our daughter was born, that we needed a safer car, and she also insisted that a Volvo like the one her father had, a 340, was what she wanted. So we looked at two or three, but none was worth the asking price. Then we discovered that a dealer in Summercourt on the Truro road was selling one, and that it had belonged to the dealership manager, no less. Our thinking was that if the manager had driven it, it most certainly would have been kept in tip-top condition. But that was rubbish. I paid way over the odds for it - £2,000, £1,000 more than I had ever before spent on a car - and as soon as we got it, we realised the electrics were all to cock. Yes, it was fast - it was the 360 GTE (whatever that means) and, yes, it looked quite nice, but it needed a lot of work to be done before I was happy with it. Celie, my wife, used it as her car, and I carried on with the 2CV to drive to Exeter to get the train to London.
By 1999 it was giving me far too much trouble. I had discovered a garage at Wainhouse Corner on the road to Bude which ‘specialised’ in 2CV, but all that meant was that they had a yard full of wrecks in various states of degeneration which were useful for picking up parts (such as a rear indicator lens which I needed after I had reversed my car into a gate). The garage was run by three old brothers who all seemed a bit daffy. The final days of my 2CV came when I had dropped it off for a service. When I picked it up, it was obvious something was serious wrong: the driver’s door would not shut properly, the steering was all to cock and the car was simply assumetrically out of alignment. Then I realised: it had been on the ramp and fallen off. The brothers, of course, denied any such thing but they would, wouldn’t they. There was no way I could prove that the negligence was to blame, so I had to lump it and sold the car for a pittance to a 2CV enthusiast.
I should add that a year or two early, I had twice crashed the Volvo, first demolishing one wing, and once it came back repaired, on the very same day, demolishing the other wing. There was a joke between my father and my brother Mark that as far as cars are concerned I am accident-prone, and I am bound to admit that there is a great degree of truth in the claim.
But now it is past midnight, I am tired and I am going to sleep. I shall continue this - rivetting is the only word I can use - account another time.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Idle time at work . . .

Apropos nothing at all, a few definitions which have been bandied about these past few minutes here at work:

"A pessimist sees his glass half-empty. An optimist drains it, then hands it over for a refill."

"A pessimist is a man who puts All Bran on his prunes."

And my favourite:
"Definition of a pessimist: a well-informed optimist."

And just for the craic, here's a quote from Gore Vidal in which there is more than an element of truth:
"It's not enough to win - others must lose."

LATER: Well, that is what I thought it was, but it isn't. An hour or so after writing the above, I had a vague memory of giving the above quote, only to be told I was wrong. A minute ago, I got around to looking it up. The correct quote is:
"It's not enought to succeed. Others must fail", which is even better.
Vidal is also quoted as saying "No good deed goes unpunished", though whether he actually came up with it or was just passing it on, I don't know.

The big ask: keeping up with how language insists on changing (dammit)

Are you managing to stay abreast with how our language keeps changing? If you’re not, I fully understand. It’s a big ask (as people quite apart from sportsmen and women are increasingly saying), and the use of the word 'ask' is just one way language is changing.
In fact, 'ask' is not another rather pointless neologism but has a distinct meaning. It carries elements of 'demand', 'challenge' and 'request', but is distinct from all three. It seems to have started life, for a change, in Britain rather than being an American import as is usually the case, and was first used specifially by sportsmen and women. I suspect 'Big' Ron Atkinson first came up with it, as he often came out with words or phrases which were adopted by others ('early doors' for a player who has to leave the field early, and another very good one which is on the tip of my tongue but which I can't for the life of me recall offhand.)
You never come across a simple 'ask'. It is always a 'big ask'. And although the word and concept started life in sports, you will increasingly come across it elsewhere, for example on Radio 4's Today programme, most probably used by a politician, a breed always very keen to demonstrate how on the ball they are and how modern and aware and how they deserve every penny of their ill-gotten 'expenses'.
When I was young, my family still sat down together to Sunday lunch (something which, I believe is happening less and less - it was more German middle-class than British, and it is not the only thing I miss from the German part of my upbringing) and almost every Sunday the following conversation took place:
Me to my father: ‘Can you pass the salt, please?’
My father: ‘Of course, I can.’ But he wouldn’t pass the salt.
The point was that I should have asked ‘would you please pass the salt’. Once I had done so, I would get the salt, but also the same lecture on speaking correct English. And I would respond by telling my father that language was always changing and that what was once ‘wrong’ might now well be ‘right’.
Generally, it was pointless to try to take on my father at that level, because he knew more than I did and in such a debate could run rings around his son. But I still insist that what I was saying is true: language and its use are always changing and what was yesterday correct might well today slightly affected and old-fashioned. Those such as my father who insist that one usage is ‘correct’ implicitly feel that there was one age whose use of language provided the yardstick for correct usage, a kind of golden age. If there was such a time, it follows that not only is all subsequent use of language which doesn’t match up to that yardstick ‘wrong’, but, nonsensically, all previous use in the centuries leading up to that golden age was also wrong.
As we get older and as younger folk adopt the use of language which, to our ears, sounds alien, inelegant and ‘wrong’, some of us, like my father, are apt to get crusty and make fools of themselves. But unfortunately - some might say unfairly - it is us who must ‘raise our game’ and get use to the changes or risk sounding like old farts. It's a big ‘ask’, I know, but we have no choice.
Usages I don’t like, but no longer claim are ‘wrong’ include how people these days will say something along the lines of ‘there’s cars in the street’, whereas, if there is more than one car, it should be ‘there are ...’. Similarly, and in imitation of the characters from Friends, ask someone under 40 how they are, they will probably respond with ‘good’. This baffles someone like me who will say, and all his life heard other people say, ‘well’ or ‘quite well’. These changes are distinct from contemporary and more ephemeral usages such as beginning a sentence with the word ‘basically’, as in, for example, ‘basically, we are not aware of how language has changed until others laugh at us’, where the ‘basically’ is basically utterly redundant. It does perform a function - it gives the speaker a spurious authority as though he or she knows more than others what they are talking about, that they ‘have an in’. But that will not last. Another fashionable word whose use is more fashionable than marking any real change in language is the use of ‘absolutely’: ‘Did you enjoy your night out?’ ‘Absolutely’. I don’t like it, but then increasingly I belong to a world which is of less consequence, so my likes and dislikes are more and more unimportant. If you, like me, don’t like these changes, all I can say is: ‘Get used to it.’
Incidentally, I was going to record how much I dislike some Americanisms which, so far, have not been adopted in Britain. ‘Awesome’ is one. But then it occurred to me that referring to something as ‘a big ask’ might mean nothing to Americans and that, furthermore, they might feel aggrieved over certain British uses which they feel debases the English language. So I shan't.

Friday, November 13, 2009

My cars: a short guide. Part VII - the Cardiff years, my second 2CV, two Austin Allegros and a bloody awful Vauxhall Chevette

My second 2CV gave very good service and saw me through my bleak months of unemployment and landing a job as a sub on the South Wales Echo in Cardiff. When I first bought her, she was in very good condition, despite the bargain price which I paid to make her mine. She first lost a little of her glamour (and why the bloody hell am I referring to her as ‘she’?) on November 1985. I had been unemployed since being forced by a lack of funds to abandon my photography course at the end of the Easter term. I set about applying for jobs as a newspaper photographer, which was not as daft as it sounds. The only major factor not in my favour was my age. Newspapers far prefer paying their staff peanuts and would rather take on an absolute beginner in his or her late teens or early twenties. I was 35, and employers, nor unrealistically, believe that a 35-year-old might be more inclined eventually to complain about low wages and working long hours than an apprentice smudger or reporter in his or her late teens or her early twenties keen to make his or her mark. (One of the scams used by newspapers to justify paying journalistic staff extremely low wages is to claim that working as a journalist is ‘a vocation’ and that anyone who has managed to ‘break into journalism’ should count themselves lucky to be working in such a rarefied profession. It’s complete cobblers, of course, but journalism is one of those profession, like working in the film industry or working for a circus, that has a certain, though utterly spurious, glamour.)
I did, however, get two interviews. One was for a job with a photo agency in Loughborough. I went along, had a chat, showed my ‘portfolio’ and was offered the job. The wage was, however, rather low and as I had also saddled myself with a considerable debt in the CEGB years buying up every last piece of photographic equipment going - such is the expensive nature of most enthusiasms - I decided it simply wasn’t worth it and that if I took it, I would still be in debt by the time I died. So I turned it down. In retrospect, the wage wasn’t all that low at all, just lower than would have been comfortable. Perhaps in my heart I knew that I wasn’t cut out to be a photographer. At about that time I also had an interview with the weekly paper in Yeovil, but was not offered a job.
Apart from applying for jobs as a news photographer, I was also applying for jobs as a reporter, but here I had less luck. I did so because working as a sub on a regional paper is pretty much a question of shovelling as much shit as you can stand - or so it seemed to me - and I didn’t really want to do that again. I got very few interviews - editors understandably ask themselves ‘who is this fly-by-night who is already 35 and hasn’t reported for five years? Do we really want to employ yet another bloody dipso who will probably have his hand in the till the minute he gets here?’ To which the answer is, of course, invariably no: editors might usually be complete shits, but not all of them are stupid. (Incidentally, describing them as ‘complete shits’ might seem gratuitously offensive, but the fact is that the nature of the job demands that the holder is capable of a unpleasantness and duplicity, and, as a rule, certain kinds of people - call them ‘shits’ if you will - are invariably more qualified than others to perform that role successfully.)
The only interview I can actually remember was with the Ox & Bucks news agency which was run by an ex Sun reporter. I went for a day’s trial and was asked to stay on for a second day with the ex Sun reporter offering to put me up for the night. Before we drove to his house we stopped off at a pub for an evening meal and a drink. He told me any number of amusing stories about his time on Fleet Street. One, in particular, amused me a lot: he and a gang of other hacks, both print and television, were in some part of the world or other where the climate was hot. Part of the group was Michael Cole, who was working for BBC television and pissing everyone off with his pretensions and superior manner. While the rest of them were drinking beers and spirits, Cole insisted on drinking white wine and making out he was something of a connoisseur. So they got the waiter to give them a glass, one of the party pissed into it, then it was placed in a fridge for a while until it was chilled. When Cole was due to get his next glass of wine, he was, instead, served up the chilled piss. He took a sip. ‘What’s this one like, Michael?’ they asked. Cole took a second sip and then pronounced it ‘rather dry’.
I remember the ex Sun reporter asking me as we drove to his house, both of us no longer sober: ‘What’s it like driving home with a strange man?’ Hmm, I thought and decided that he was probably a woofter and not in the slightest bit interested in my abilities as a reporter, but rather my attractions as, like him, a member of the male sex. When we got home, I met his wife, stayed the night, worked another day and went back home to Norlan Drive, Birmingham, where I lived. I can’t for the life of me remember whether of not I was offered a job. Perhaps he realised I wasn’t interested in batting for the other side.
I have gone off on something of a tangent here, but this was the life I was leading while I was unemployed between leaving college in April 1985 and starting work on the South Wales Echo in on February 16, 1986. In November 1985, I was in touch with some small cable TV station based in Coventry who were looking for someone to cover for the news producer while he was on holiday. The woman who interviewed heard a tape I had made while on my course (I can no longer remember why), showed me the programme being broadcast live, accepted my assurance that I reckoned I could handle what was involved and me more or less told me I had the job. I knew nothing about that kind of work, but I have to say that it is the kind of thing any reasonably intelligent person should be able to learn quite fast, especially on the job. The woman told me that she just had to have the appointment cleared by the board and would be in touch again in a week’s time. On the strength of that promise I decided I could do with a break and I drove to Edinburgh to spend a few days with a friend. While there I rather spoilt my 2CVs looks. We were driving somewhere in The Meadows near where he lived when in the road ahead of me I saw two 3ft high concrete bollards. I gauged that they were just far enough apart for me to drive in between them. I was wrong. On a 2CV the wheel arches covering the back wheels form a rather pleasing kind of cupola. Driving through the narrow gap between those two bollards, the cupola over each rear wheel was stoved in and thoroughly dented. The best gloss I can put on such a silly incident is that at least the damage to each wheel arch was identical and that the overall impression was, at least, pleasingly symmetrical. When I returned to Birmingham, there was still no word from the woman or the TV station. I waited a few days, fearing the worst, though puzzled as to what might have gone wrong, and then rang up. The woman, I was told, was not longer there and had left rather suddenly. Why, I wasn’t told. But that was the end of that particular opportunity.
Finally, realising that I would probably have no luck at all getting a job as either a photographer or reporter, I applied for a job as a sub on the South Wales Echo, got it on the spot - newspapers find it difficult to get subs and my experience on the Evening Mail in Birmingham helped. So I packed my bags, loaded up my 2CV and moved to Cardiff.
I can’t really remember what happened next, but I finally got rid of the 2CV. I think it needed quite a bit of work done to it to pass its MoT, and what with paying off my debts, I was rather on my uppers in the early days in Cardiff.
For a while I did without a car and I can’t say it made much difference to my life. But eventually I bought an Austin Allegro, although I can’t, offhand, remember why I decided to buy another car. I certainly didn’t need one. Allegros are widely, and
I think justifiably, regarded by most British drivers as ‘naff’. The word is in common parlance these days but was said to have originated as an gay acronym to describe someone who was not gay and would no be interested in a spot of rumpy-pumpy: not available for fucking. Whether that is true or not, I don’t know, but it is plausible. These days, in British English, it is used to describe something which is the opposite of cool. And Allegros were remorselessly uncool, and therefore not too expensive.
They were produced by British Leyland (or whatever the firm was calling itself in that year. Leyland was in terminable decline, but took a very long time to go bust and in the process kept changing its name as though to stave off its destiny). To indicate just how desperate the firm was, here’s a snippet about the Allegro: when it was launched, its unique selling point was that it had a square steering wheel. Now if the best your designers can come up with to make your new car more attractive to the public is to make the steering wheel square, it really is time to shut up shop and take early retirement. In fact, Leyland stumbled on for another 20 years.
The Allegro served my purpose (whatever that was - I didn’t need a car and can’t for the life of me remember why I bought one) but it had one very niggling fault. The cylinder head gasket went at some point, so the cylinders filled with water. So every morning before I drove to work and every evening before I drove home again, I had to unscrew all four plug and dry them. This was always very inconvenient, but I did it - had to do it - every morning.
In September 1989, I was sacked by the Echo for dropping one bollock too many and decided to set myself up as a freelance photographer. I did get enough work here and there to survive - a local newspaper group was setting up a string of freesheets and I took their pictures and I also took pictures in South Wales for one of the Catholic papers. I also wrote features for the Wales on Sunday and for a while even worked subbing shifts. It was at this time that the Allegro became an ex Allegro when I had a crash with a speeding driver in the backstreets of Roath (a part of Cardiff). I was looking for the address of the woman I was seeing and was not looking where I was driving. A car, driving far to fast came out of nowhere and I went into the side of him. If anything the crash was my fault: I had been looking over my shoulder to try to read street signs and did not see him because I was not paying any attention whatsoever to my driving. But I had a stroke of luck. When the police arrived, he pleaded that as a Muslim he had not been drinking but he had and was over the limit. I got off scot-free. In fact, it never occurred to the coppers that I might have contributed to the accident. I simply made a statement saying that ‘he had come from nowhere, driving too fast, and that, and the fact that he was over the limit, cooked his goose and saved my bacon. The Allegro, however, was a write-off.
I bought another, but that one too, wasn’t in very good condition and a few months later, while on my way to visit a friend in the Valleys, the chassis snapped so that driving became more or less impossible. It was possible, just, by tugging very hard on the steering wheel because the left side of the car was where the chassis had gone was lower than the right, but in truth the car was undrivable, and after a week or so, I admitted as much to myself and got rid of it.
My problem now was that I was working as a freelance photographer and still needed wheels. My landlady put me onto her son-in-law who ‘did up cars and sold them’. He had a light-blue Vauxhall Chevette for sale. I bought it. It was a complete wreck and the MoT, as I discovered, was fake. The
particular trouble was twofold. First, was starting the bloody thing. There were no problems starting it in the morning. Problems only started when the engine was hot. Then it wouldn’t start at all until the engine was a little cooler. So every time I stopped, I had to wait for around 20 minutes before I could move on. The other, more serious, problem was that the whole left front wing more or less didn’t exist. It was completely rusted through. In my eagerness to get a car to get around in, I had given it only a cursory examination and had not even bothered to lift the bonnet.
My relationship with the Chevette lasted only a few months, for come the turn of the financial year, everyone had battened down the hatches and work dried up. So I rang up the Daily Express and landed myself four subbing shifts. That was in June 1990. For the first few weeks, I travelled to London from Cardiff, stayed for several nights, returned to South Wales to doing my washing and pick up some fresh clothes, then returned to London. By this time the differential on the Chevette had gone and - this is no exaggeration - it sounded like a tank. The noise it made was deafening, and driving the 120 miles or so between Cardiff and London was no fun. There was also the problem of finding somewhere to park in London, and once, while parked on single yellow lines outside the Times offices at Wapping, my Chevette was towed away to a police pound in Kings Cross. Getting it back cost me £120 plus £70 for the parking fine, so getting rid of it was the obvious thing to do. To add insult to injury I actually had to pay a scrap merchant £20 to pick it up. That bloody Chevette marked the nadir of my driving career. I didn’t have another car for several years, but from then on, however, ratty subsequent cars were, the only way was up.
Still to come, if I haven’t bored you rigid, is my third 2CV, two Austin Maestros, two Volvos and four Rovers. Once that account is out of the way, you’re dismissed and your time is your own.