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.

PS to 'Isn't noise great?'

Yesterday, I heard a Radio 4 programme by Alastair Campbell waxing lyrical about Jacques Brel. I don't speak French, and although I know Brel's songs are something of an institution in France, it is one form of 'noise' which has never really rattled my cage. There were contributions from a range of French folk who had known Brel, man of whom had worked with him, and they all remembered him with affection. Many commented on his double life: rather conservative and upright paterfamilias in Belgium, where his wife and children lived, and principal shagger about town when living and working in Paris. Fair enough, and it was his many affairs which fueled his romantic songs. But one observation, repeated by several contributors, rather struck me: for all his charm and 'niceness' - 'nice' was one word used to describe Brel - he was 'harsh with his kids'. And that, curiously, makes it very easy for me almost to rule the chap out of court. I say 'almost' because I really can't know the ins and outs of his relationship with his wife and there might be circumstances which justify his 'harshness' although I can't imagine what they might be. But on the face of it, I am not a fan of anyone who is 'harsh' with his or her children, especially when they are young and especially when, otherwise, he finds he makes an effort to charm the pants off the world. Sounds a bit like a self-centred cunt to me.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Schnittke and Scriabin and my fondness for the noise they make.

Sir Thomas Beecham is said to have remarked that ‘the English don’t understand music, but they like the noise it makes’. Before googling that quotation to track down where it had originated, I had assumed it was by some foreigner putting the boot into Old Blighty and its culture. Beecham was a bit of a card, but given that what he said, however true, was not intended to be complimentary, I am rather puzzled by it. However, I didn’t start this entry to write about Beecham, the English or left-handed compliments. I use the quotation as an introduction because it describes my relationship with music almost exactly.
I know little about music except the obvious and trivial things one picks up, especially if, like me, you have been knocking around with a guitar for more than 40 years (and have very little to show for it). I know chords, I know how I should be able to read music (although I can’t actually read music), I know about keys (and, incidentally, I am rather fascinated at how different keys, no one knows quite why, convey different moods). I know that what most people in the West regard as music is but a fraction of the music being made worldwide and I know there is a variety of different scales. When I was 12 and we were living in Berlin, I had a year’s worth of piano tuition but finally gave up because ‘I wanted to play jazz’ - not that, at 12, I had the slightest idea what jazz was. But I don’t ‘understand’ music in the sense others claim or are said to ‘understand’ music.
Once, a little facetiously but also, in a rather conceited fashion because I thought it was rather a good analogy, I asked someone: say you went to a very good restaurant and ate a very good meal. You enjoyed much about the meal, not just the taste of the food, but the texture, how much care had gone into it’s preparation, the service at the restaurant, the company and the wine you drank. Later - that night at home, or a few days later - you might well find yourself recalling the meal and discussing it. But were you to be asked: ‘But did you understand the food?’, you would be rather nonplussed. It would simply not be an appropriate question. Food is eaten and enjoyed, wine is drunk and enjoyed, a good company, service and ambience are also enjoyed and valued. There would seem to be nothing which might be ‘understood’ about any of them in any accepted sense of ‘understood’. (Yes, I know much faux intellectual noise could be made about the elastic character of the notion of ‘understanding’ were this a Guardian or Independent seminar, but it following that line of discussion would only take us down a rather dull alley, so let’s drop that angle sooner rather than later.)
That’s how I feel about music: I don’t ‘understand’ it at all. I can’t even see what there is to understand of even conceive of what there might be to understand. But I very much like and enjoy the noise it makes. And except for mainstream Grand Ole Opry C&W and all that finger-in-the-ear ersatz English folk which was spawned in the late Sixties, I seem to like virtually everything I hear.
Most recently I have become a fan of a chap called Schnittke. I heard a reference to him on Radio 4’s Front Row in which it was said he claimed the Devil had dictated music to him. Intrigued I turned to Spotify, which is very useful in hearing composers, songs or artists you hadn’t heard before, and listened to some. And I like it a great deal.
I am sure it is not, or would not be, to everyone tastes. I don’t ‘understand’ it. But I love ‘the noise it makes’. Try some yourself and see. If you find you do like it, then there’s Scriabin, too, another composer of enjoyable noise you might like to try. If you want to try some ‘noise’ at the jazz/rock end of the scale, listen to some Dave Fiuczynski, a guitarist who is always interesting and enjoyable. And, no, I don’t ‘understand’ a single second of it.
To my list of C&W and finger-in-ear folk (with added vitamin-enriched sincerity) include some, by no no means all, of the mid-19th century Romantic music, of which a little, for these ears, goes one hell of a long way. If there is a spectrum with romanticism at one end and classicism at the over, sign me up with the classicist. For some reason, romanticism reminds me of a lesser well-known saying by Oscar Wilde: ‘Sentimentality is a bank holiday from cynicism.’ Bear that in mind when you next read of how Nazi concentration camp governors used to organise choirs of inmates singing German carols for their children at Christmas.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

60 is looming (and other less trivial matters)

At midnight, in ten days, I shall be 60. Curiously, I don’t care, but I must admit that I can hardly believe it. It seems like only last week that I was 30 or 40 or 50, but suddenly I am the age I once considered to be ‘old’. But I shall play it for all its worth. I shall be entitled to a ‘senior railcard’ which, for example, brings down the cheapest ticket from Exeter St Davids to London Paddington from £12 to £7.90, so I have already bought 12 tickets (six there, six back). What with petrol now costing around £1.06 a litre, the journey by car from home in St Breward to work in London, then back again, would cost £63.50. The journey from St Breward to Exeter and then to London by train then back would cost £31. That’s £32 less, or £1,664 less a year. Guess what I shall be doing.
Question: do all 60-year-olds spend their time celebrating small victories like having discovered a café where the tea is not quite as nice but you get free sugar? I rather fear they do. Shit.
I shall, of course, prepare myself for a welter of platitudes along the lines of 'you're only as old as you feel' and 'good God, man, 60? That's nothing! I'm 79 next birthday and still wipe my own arse!'
I must record, however, that ever since knocking those bloody statins on the head, I feel a lot better than I have for a long time. I have also knocked the Ramipril on the head, and feel rather as I did before my heart attack but before I started feeling exhausted which began a few months before the attack.
I know 'wisdom' dictates that I should 'listen to medical advice' and down as many bloody bills as the pharmaceutical industry can persuade them to prescribe. But I don't want to. I should like to keep my pill-popping to a minimum. I'm sure in time I shall be taking as many as Ann (my stepmother's sister who is now 80) and that my bedside cabinet will slowly transform itself into looking like a branch of Boots the Chemist, but I'll limp over that bridge when I get to it. But I can say that, the bug I had for about two weeks notwithstanding, I feel better now than I have for years. For one thing, I'm hardly drinking (after many years of polishing off at least a bottle or red wine a night on the three nights I was at home) and more or less eat a vegetarian diet, although that is more because I rather like it than for any philosophical reasons.

An interesting book was discussed on Andrew Marr's Start The Week. An Israeli historian, Shlomo Sand, has come up with the idea that the Jews weren't dispersed by the Romans after the revolt in AD70, but that the number of Jews around the world had their origins in people who had converted to Judaism. And he said that, given, of course, that there will have been quite a bit of intermingling in these past 2,000 years, the true descendants of the people who were living in Palestine, Gallili and Judea are the Palestinians. And he made the telling point: who is more entitled to the land there? The people who say they have not lived there for 2,000 years, or the people who have lived there for 1,000? I have probably rather trivialised his account, unfortunately, but what he had to say was interesting and, it must be said, not in the slightest anti-semitic.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Blogging, the ontology of blogs and why I would rather keep a commonplace book than write some interminable, boring account of the . . .

A longwinded resume of the cars I have owned and crashed is not of interest to everyone. I realise that, and it also occurred to me that if the word ‘blog’ is derived from ‘web log’, accounts of what happened 20 years ago might, at first, not seem to qualify. Well, in that case I shall stop calling this a blog. I once kept a diary, from the early Eighties until the mid-Nineties, and it was not just an account of my daily life, in fact it was hardly that at all, but more of a commonplace book. The blog performs a similar function, though not quite the same. There’s also the point to be made that there are really no rules on blogging and every blogger should be able to do what he or she likes.
Were it a diary, today would be described thus:
Woke early at about 4.30am, which I rarely do, but decided to surf the net, read some reviews in the heavier journals of Selina Hastings’ biography of Somerset Maugham and continue writing Part Whatever of my Guide To Cars I Have Crashed. Mark, my brother, with whom I lodge when here in London, got up at 6am because he does a weekly stock take on Mondays at the Troubadour where he works. I dozed and listened to the radio (Today on Radio 4) between 7am and 9am, latterly dozing more than listening, then I got up, brushed my teeth and walked work. It is only a 25-minute walk from Earls Court Sq. to Derry Street, just off High St. Kensington where the Mail has its offices. Listened to Start The Week while walking there. Bought a tea and a bowl of fruit in the canteen, then went to my desk, picking up today’s edition of the paper on the way. Leafed through the paper, with especial though superficial attention to the pages I worked on yesterday to make sure there were no monumental cock-ups, then logged into this, my blog, to finish off the car guide. At 10.25am, almost an hour later than usual, I finally got my arse together to take the lift down to the gym, which seems to be in the bowels of the building, but is, in fact, on the ground floor. Ten minutes on the exercise bike, 20 minutes on various weights, then warmed up, then ran a mile on the treadmill. I was flying solo today, so I could be 30 minutes late with impunity. Back at my desk by 11.30am, pissed around doing very little, looking up stuff on the net, gossiping with whoever was available to gossip with (and suggested that Sue, Chris and I should have a Word Of The Day which we would try to work into everything we said. Today’s word was ‘plangent’, but the challenge never got off the ground except for Sue observing tonight that as the editor has taken the week off, we were all denied the ‘plangent’ sound of his complaints.
Etc. This is getting tedious, and is boring me to write just a little more than it is boring you to read. So now you know why I have decided to redefine the word ‘blog’ to suit myself and bugger convention.
By the way, when I first thought of writing an entry such as this, I thought I might try to come up with some jokes about ‘investigating the ontology of blogging’. But doesn’t really come off, so I have used the word only in the title.

My cars: a short guide. Part VI - A massive Vauxhall Victor, a Simca, two 2CVs, naivety and a valuable lesson learned

The Vauxhall Victor, which succeeded my Triumph Toledo after that car’s sudden end, had only one thing in its favour: it was powerful. I can’t now remember how large the engine capacity was, but it must surely have been 2 litres. I bought it within weeks of the Toledo being written off - saying ‘writing off the Toledo’ would be inaccurate and unfair, as, for once, the crash wasn’t my fault - because the only legitimate way of claiming mileage expenses from my oh so generous employers was actually to drive the miles. Driving it, and sitting behind the steering wheel gazing some distance to the far end of the bonnet is the closest I have ever come, and the closest I shall ever come, to driving a Cadillac. If I remember correctly, the engine also made a deeply satisfying ‘vroom’ noise which spoke of power and purpose, and it surged forward slowly but surely and was the antithesis of all those little nippy 1 litre cars which rush around here and there rather like neurotic flies. The Victor, though,
had one failing: the heater didn’t work, and as autumn turned to winter that made travelling on as many trips as I was able to arrange in order to clock up the miles increasingly uncomfortable. It's not much fun spending hour upon hour speeding along the motoway freezing your balls off and no amount of buckshee mileage payments make you feel any warmer. When winter finally turned very cold, as it can do in Birmingham, there also came a disaster: there was not enough anti-freeze in the radiator and with the first frost, the radiator froze solid. And that was that. I can’t remember ever driving the Victor again. It was like the model pictured above, although mine was blue. (I rather like how the photographer has elegantly placed the Victor in a rural setting and given it a certain kind of rustic glamour. In real life, you would not find these cars sitting in a field but usually parked outside some pub in a more downmarket part of Nottingham. Actually, rustic charm is rather over-egging the cake. My first thought on seeing the picture above was why is that abandoned car looking so clean and shiny?)
I must now confess that my memory of the sequence of events and which cars I owned when is curiously hazy. I was still working for the CEGB when I bought the Victor, but I left in the early autumn of 1984 to start my photography course at West Bromwich College in Wednesbury, and the car I used to travel the 20-odd miles from my home in Kings Heath to Wednesbury (up the M5, a detail I add for those readers who like these accounts to have a more technical dimension) was my second Citroen 2CV. But before then I had two other cars, and at one point I owned three cars at once, although only because two of them didn’t run. I think the first car I bought once the Victor froze solid, and because I had to get to Wednesbury every day, was a Simca. This cost around £300 - a lot more in 1984 than at the time of writing this account 25 years later - and I thought I had a bargain. The ad in the newspaper classifieds said ‘no MoT’. No bother, I thought, very naively. I’ll get one, it'll only cost me £30. So I bought the car, took it to the garage and asked for an MoT estimate. £500. The car did not seem so much of a bargain after that, and the chap trying to rid himself of what was a pretty useless car had probably not believed his luck when I came along and handed over my money. So, I decided foolishly, I'll run the car without getting an MoT, but soon decided to scrap the Simca when I realised that the brakes were dodgy. On the long, multi-lane run-up to Spaghetti Junction and on my way to college one morning, I had to brake suddenly and almost crashed into the back of a builder’s merchant van. I realised I could not risk using the Simca. I should also add that I cannot remember transferring the insurance from the Victor to the Simca, so I was probably driving it uninsured, too.
At around this point my brother Mark came to live with me, and Mark was with me when I crashed my first 2CV. This was another wreck of a car but which I was too green to realise was on it last legs. It was also a rust bucket. I'd had it for a just week - and proud as punch not only to be owning a 2CV but because in some circles they had a kind of bohemian cachet - before it, too, was a write-off. Mark and I had gone for a drink and had argued. I was in a bad mood and was not taking the care I might while driving. Coming off a roundabout in Kings Norton - we were coming down the Redditch Rd. and turned into Wharf Rd., info for the techies among you courtesy of Google maps - we were approaching the exit of a pub car park - The Navigation Inn also courtesy of Google maps - when a car came straight out and I went straight into its side. My 2CV crumpled, with the front completely stoved in and the chassis warped. I wanted
to call the police (because technically the accident was the other guy’s fault) but the other driver tried to intimidate me by claiming he had many friends among the police based in Kings Norton and they would take his side and make out the accident was my fault. This annoyed me, and the three pints of cider I had been drinking worked their magic and I got angry. Then the other driver pointed out that we would both be breathalysed, and, for once, I was sensible. I let the matter go.
However, as far as cars were concerned I was still in a bind: three cars were parked outside my house, all of which were useless and I needed a car to get to Wednesbury every day.
This is where this account gets hazy. I bought my next car, another 2CV, but one in far better condition, after spotting it while driving past the forecourt of a Fiat dealer. (Which of my three cars I was driving at the time I cannot recall. It might have been the Victor with the radiator unfrozen, but it is more likely to have been the Simca with me driving uninsured. However, I really can't remember.) It was in a row of cars which had all been taken in in part exchange. The asking price was £999, but after looking it over I did something which, for me at the time was quite extraordinary. I asked the salesman whether it would come with a full MoT. He said it would. Then I thought to myself that I would offer him less than £999 and we would haggle. I calculated that I would at least be able to knock one or two hundred off the asking price. So I was about to offer him £750 when, on a whim and why I simply do not know, I told him I would pay £650 for the car. He told me he would look at the figures involved in taking the car in part exchange. He returned a few minutes later and asked: ‘Would that be with a full Mot’. It seemed to me that he was hoping I would relent on that point in the interest of getting a bargain. But I said: ‘Yes.’ It was not the answer I think he was expecting, but to my surprise he agreed.
I learnt a very valuable lesson there and then: in some situations, go for broke. You never know what might come of it, and often you have nothing to lose. I have never been the shy type (except occasionally with girls, though at my age - 95 in a fortnight’s time - I suppose I should start calling them women), but I do have a timid streak - which will be news to many, but I am not being disingenuous. But on that day, standing on the forecourt of a Fiat dealership on Constitution Hill, I fully understood the value of chutzpah. I trust and hope I will never forget it.

Footnote for those who cherish footnotes: astute readers, who are usually those who cherish footnotes and who can recite the Footnote and Related Appendices (Necessary) Act 1983 backwards, will have realised that I have not included a picture of a Simca. I haven't done so because I had the car for only a short time and it doesn't really feel as though it belongs in my collection of car. There is not bond. It was a ratty old car anyway and, most pertinently, our relationship being so short, I can't really remember even what it looked like, except that it was dark grey, and so can't find a picture. Sorry.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Now I know why Somerset Maugham had such a bad reputation - rather unfairly, in my view

I heard the final part of the adaptation of Selina Hastings’ biography of Somerset Maugham on Radio 4, and the rancour against him, which I picked up on as a child and which has, apparently, been history’s verdict of the man, is explained.

Once Gerald Haxton died (of alcoholism), Maugham turned to Alan Searle for companionship, and it seems it was Searle who caused all the trouble which led to Maugham’s rift with his daughter Liza and, indirectly, to being ostracised by the English establishment and a very, very unhappy old age. He met Searle, who was more or less simply an upmarket rent boy, in the late Twenties and moved him into the Villa Mauresque after Haxton died, where Searle took over Haxton’s role and acted as companion, secretary and housekeeper. He was said to have none of Haxton’s charm,
sophistication, elegance, wit or presence. He is described at one point as wandering around the villa in garish shirts, ‘his fat thighs bulging out of too small white shorts’, and being so specific, I would hope Hastings will have referenced the quote. According to Hastings (I should point out that what I write here is merely what I heard on Radio 4), by the Sixties, when Maugham had become a very old man, Searle began to worry that he might be left destitute and started whispering in Maugham’s ear that he might not necessarily have been Liza’s father as his wife Syrie had had plenty of lovers at the time (and was, in newspaper parlance ‘a bit of a goer’. Lord how we guys dream of meeting one of those. Is it ineffably crass to say so?) Maugham was then persuaded to write a further volume of autobiography, which was serialised in the Sunday Express (a paper which is more or less the quintessence of middlebrow) and in which he wrote about his marriage in very unflattering terms. This did not go down well, and even old friends turned against him. Hastings points out, by the way, that Maugham was very old, and more or less senile when he did this.

An especially sad incident came when on his annual visit to London, he went to the Garrick Club as usual, but when he entered the first-floor bar, it fell silent and then one or two members ostentatiously walked out. (I would very much like to bet that the behaviour and moral worth of those who walked out would not have survived much close scrutiny, such is the hypocrisy of all too many of those who pass judgment.) Maugham was distraught. Back at the Villa Mauresque he would have bouts of uncontrollable weeping and outbursts of fury. And that little shit Alan Searle began writing to friends and Maugham’s nephew how impossible Maugham had become, although I should add that in later life he was full of remorse at his shit-stirring. So Maugham died an unhappy man.

The readings from Hastings book included recordings of Maugham himself, and he comes across as rather modest and self-effacing and with a generosity of spirit which is wholly lacking in many other self-regarding 'artists'. I’m sure that, like all of us, he had his faults, but his memory does seem to have been very harshly treated. It is so typical of life that, whenever possible, we prefer to take a narrow and vindictive view, and our judgments ignore almost everything which went before if we are given even half the chance to portray someone in a murky light. It is ironic that Maugham himself once observed: 'We know our friends by their defects rather than by their merits.' We should try to see the whole man. Let’s hope the future will value his work and the man a little more.

As I am something of a sentimental old softie, the pictures of Maugham I have chosen to illustrate this entry are neither of those with which we are probably all familiar, Maugham the sour-faced old queen who seems to be sneering at the world, but one from when he was much younger, when he was a charming, good-looking guest at parties in fashionable London and when all the ladies (and, of course, men) fancied the pants off him. It is very odd that those pictures of him in his last years portray a man who is totally at odds with earlier impressions.

Barry, who reads this blog, pointed out that Maugham did himself no favours by writing and somewhat sending up London society. It seems that London society bided its time and took its revenge when it finally got the chance to do so. What I find so admirable about Maugham - I have already said this, but I shall repeat it because it is worth repeating - was his sheer professionalism, that come what may and even on his very bad days, he sat down every morning to write. And he did so even knowing that what he was writing on that particular day was, perhaps, not even very good and would not be used. I do so like that attitude. Shame I don't have it, or better, don't yet have it, because I do know from experience that I can have it.

Incidentally, Liza inherited the Villa Mauresque, but Searle was not left destitute. He died a very wealthy man, thanks to Maugham's generosity. The excerpt I heard did not say so, but Maugham legally adopted him as his son.

NB. Pedant's Corner: there are two accepted spellings of 'judgment'. I choose 'judgment' rather than 'judgement' only because it is Daily Mail house style and the one I am accustomed to using at work, and thus also when not at work.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

My front tooth - note, tooth, not teeth. A lesson for us all who are flirting with late middle-age

And now for something completely different, not to say veering on the banal.
When I first went to work at the Daily Mail on the features subs desk, the deputy chief sub was a nice chap called Robin Popham. I had just turned 40, and he was two or three years older. That was 19 years ago, and Robin retired when he turned 60 in 2008. They retire them at 60 on the Mail and furthermore until very recently, the paper operated a final salary pension scheme - or whatever its technical name is and still does for long-term employees - so pensions were always rather generous for anyone, such as Robin, who, crucially, had joined before around 1990, when salaries also got a percentage increase. (Three per cent of £20,000 is a lot less than 3 per cent of £60,000, and by 1990 Robin and several others would already have been on a generous whack after the profligate Eighties. But this has absolutely nothing to do with what I mean tell you.)
A year of two before he retired, I noticed that one of Robin’s front teeth was rather larger than the other. I wondered why, in the nigh on 20 years I had known him and always almost sat next to, I’d never noticed this before. It was quite noticeable that it was bigger than its pal. Then, a few months ago, I noticed that one of my front to teeth was larger and more prominent than the other. What was going on? So at my six-monthly check-up by my dentist, I pointed this out and asked him what was going one. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘that happens a lot when we get older.’ Oh, really. They didn’t tell us that in reform school.
So now be off, all of you, and check the size of your front teeth.

Somerset Maugham and a warning that first impression might well not be all the are cracked up to be

Radio 4’s Book Of The Week this week is The Secret Lives Of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings. I’ve so far only read a few of Maugham’s short stories, although a few months ago I bought and briefly started The Painted Veil, mainly, I think, because it had just been made into a film, and although I didn’t at the time carry on with it, I shall finish it. I have seen none of his plays, and I don’t think they are even performed anymore. I have seen one of the films based on his short story The Letter, which I enjoyed immensely. But did not know a lot of Maugham, except - and this knowledge was based purely on the scraps of hearsay which come our way - that he was ‘queer’ and ‘not very nice’ and that he died an embittered man. Then there are the pictures of him as an old man, his lined face apparently conveying a distain for more or less everything.
I also knew that he held a somewhat odd position in the literary world in that, born in the 19th century and living to a ripe old age, he straddled two worlds. In his work he also held a somewhat odd position. He said of himself that he was in the first rank of second-raters, which I think is Maugham being rather harsh on himself. He became very wealthy, but as far as I can see deservedly so. He was immensely disciplined, and according to Hastings’ biography, when he had finally settled into the Villa Mauresque in (on?) Cap Ferrat, every day - including Sundays and birthdays - he rose, had breakfast and then wrote from eight until noon. He also wrote everything in longhand and given his rather large body of work, I find that sheer professionalism wholly admirable. Overall, I am now rather puzzled by the somewhat disparaging impression I have of Maugham, one which I more or less adopted wholesale merely because it was the one everyone seems to have had. I think the world, or rather the British world, decided that despite his talent, output, work and wealth, Maugham was, at heart, a wrong ’un for a few essentially trivial reasons. First, however broadminded we Brits like to think we are, we get rather sniffy when someone of Maugham’s fame and stature decides he would prefer to settle abroad. Abroad, for Brits is for visiting and sneering at. (Anyone who has visited one of the very many Mediterranean resorts popular with Brits and sees how whole communities have been transformed into tacky outposts of little Britain will know that the Brits are only prepared to accept ‘abroad’ on their own terms. Cala Llonga was a case in point.) But Maugham, who loved travelling and went all over the world, decided he wanted to make his home in the South of France. Then there was the fact the Maugham was ‘queer’. In recent years, Britain has finally grown up on the matter of homosexuality and now longer persecutes those of its kind who are born homosexual. In fact, if anything we have swung to the opposite extreme and are now expected to celebrate gayness in all its myriad manifestations. But that acceptance - describing it as a ‘tolerance’ of homosexuality, as some still do, is horribly patronising, although the attitude conveyed by the use of the word ‘tolerance’ still prevails - is a very recent development, and although every adult knew of ‘queer’ friends, acquaintances and relatives, they were, in the great and dishonorable tradition of British hypocrisy regarded as outcasts. So the impression I inherited was that Maugham, not to put too fine a point on it, was something of a monster.
One thing he did was, it has to be said, rather vindictive: his daughter Liza sued him after he sold a collection of paintings, some of which were meant to be passed on to her when he died. She won her suit and an angry Maugham then declared publicly that he was not her biological father and disinherited her. It might well be true that he was not her father as her mother, Syrie Wellcome, the former wife of the chap who founded the pharmaceutical firm, put it about rather a lot, but if he wasn’t he had never mentioned it before. He had eventually married Syrie after she became pregnant with Liza, and if he was not the father, or even suspected he was not the father, he would hardly have done that. His angry response was not nice, but on the other hand if those of us who had acted in ways in similarly bad ways in the course of our lives were obliged to leave the room, the room would soon be empty.
I started listening to Radio 4’s readings from Hastings’ biography on Monday, and managed to capture all so far. And the picture of Maugham that emerged is of a far more pleasant character. He had an unhappy childhood and developed a stammer. Once he had qualified as a doctor, he was said to have had rather a gentle bedside manner and took and interest in all his patients, especially the dirt-poor ones from Lambeth. When war broke out he was a highly celebrated and wealthy popular playwright whose worked was being staged on both sides of the Atlantic, yet he voluntarily served with the ambulance brigade, putting his medical training to good use. (He has ceased working as a doctor years earlier. Later, after that service was curtailed by ill-health, and after he had recuperated, he again served his country, this time working for the secret service in Geneva and later in Russia. He was said to be charming company, was very good-looking and was socially popular. He is said by Hastings to have been very good with children. His candid self-appraisal as a first-rate second-rater speaks of a modesty and honesty which I like to feel is wholly in keeping with his disciplined professionalism. He was no glutton, but kept himself trim by swimming, playing tennis, walking and playing golf. He seems rather to have been put upon by the two major lovers he had, Gerald Haxton and Alan Searle, but he bore it stoically.
Now, I know that all this doesn’t necessarily add up to a row of beans as far as a man’s moral worth is concerned, but it is all rather at odds with the conventional picture I somehow acquired of Maugham the Monster and what Hastings writes in something of a revelation. The picture I now get of Maugham is of a man I should liked to have met and whose company I think I might have enjoyed and respected. If I didn’t have enough books already which are waiting to be read, not least Maugham’s own The Painted Veil, I would buy Hastings’ biography. She wrote a very good one of Evelyn Waugh.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Jesus The Terrorist: a book knocking around the office which has caught my eye and which I shall read. Might well be bollocks . . .

Here at I work last night, I came across a book provocatively entitled Jesus The Terrorist, and after spending a few minutes reading the blurb on the back and part of the introduction, I decided to take it home. (This is not theft by the way as, by general consent, most items one comes across in a newspaper office, especially books and magazines, are common property, by which hacks mean that if you can get away with stealing it without anyone noticing, it's yours. Obviously we draw the line at those items which are personal - wallets, coats, cars, that kind of thing. I should also point out that newspapers are inundated with unsolicited new books, sent in by publishers who know nothing of the industry and feel we might be able to give them a little free publicity. They say you are never more than a few feet away from a rat. Well, where I sit on the feature subs desk, I am never more than a few feet away from a whole pile of books - at least 30 - which have been sent in on spec in the hope that we will take an interest in them and write glowing reviews. They are always ignored, clutter up the place for several years and then, I think, are recycled into a constitutent of tarmacadam. And if they are not, they should be. The books department has even more books, and every so often several hundreds of these are piled several feet high on a desk and everyone is invited to take what they want. I invariably take several and never read any of them. These have included a biography of Hogarth, a biography of Jung and other hi'falutin nonsense in which I am theoretically interested but obviously not interested enough actually to read the books.)
My first reaction when I saw the title Jesus The Terrorist - and I should point out that even though I have read a little more, the jury is still out and shall be for quite some time - was that this was the kind of crap Erich von Daniken used to churn out - Was God An Astronaut? - and latterly a certain Graham Hancock, whose books have often been serialised by the Daily Mail and who is always introduced as once having been on staff at The Economist. (The subtext is that The Economist is a journal of such seriousness that it is incapable of employing anyone who might be a sandwich short of a picnic. And with an eye on the libel lawyers - who these days are everywhere - I must hastily point out that I am not claiming Hancock is in any way mad or a charlatan, just that unfortunately he often gives the impression that the lift doesn't always reach the top floor. Here is his website.)
To digress rapidly back to my theme - a digression from a digression, now that, surely, is true sophistication - the book I - er - filched is not badly written. The author, a Peter Cresswell, who has previously written Censored Messiah (which, on googling, seems to cover more or less the same ground) has a Cambridge degree (but see my caveat about assuming The Economist would never employ a nutter) and a Phd in social anthropology from the University of Wincanton - oh, all right then, York - so just because he can write an English sentence without dropping his 'aitches and avoiding glottal stops doesn't necessarily mean his books are of any worth. But nor should they prima facie be discarded.
His thesis is that far from being a religious leader who was intent on founding a new church, Jesus - apparently the name is a Westernisation of a garbled Greek translation of the Hebrew and Aramaic Yeshua and until 600 years ago was pronounced Iesu here in the West - was one of quite a few Jews rattling around that neck of the woods who actively tried to rid Palestine, Judea and Galilli of the Roman occupation, that his apostles were all more or less part of his extended family (the claim that he had several brothers and sisters has longed been made, although not by the Vatican, and strikes me as eminently reasonable), and that accounts of his life were later wilfully distorted by members of the emerging 'Christian' church in order to fit in with Jewish prophecies.
Now however good, bad or indifferent this book turns out to be, it is an area I find interesting. A few years ago, I read A J Wilson's Jesus, A Biography, and this book seems to cover much the same ground. Both seem to agree that Saul turned Paul was the genius behind the founding of the 'Christian faith', and that as far as the religious sphere was concerned, Jesus had no intention of founding a new Church but was an orthodox Jew who wanted to purify Judaism and return to a simpler way of worship. For example, it seems James, now accepted as his brother, took over the leadership of the small group who followed his teachings after Jesus's death (although Christians will insist that Jesus didn't die) wanted to keep the group as a small Jewish sect and that he came into conflict with Paul who had far, far grander intentions - as we now know.
Wilson's book admirably - in my view - adopts the principle of Occam's razor and when in doubt, his explanations tend to the prosaic rather than the miraculous. I'm rather hoping that when writing Jesus The Terrorist Cresswell has adopted the same principle.
Cresswell does concede that the title of his book is provocative, but he claims this is necessary. He also writes that because of the murky nature of his subject matter and because books are linear (he doesn't say that, I do), he is obliged to present some aspects of what he has to say without at first justifying his claims, but promises later to supply explanations and justifications. Whether or not he does so is the acid test as to whether this is a serious book or just more cack along the lines of von Daniken's drivel. I shall keep you posted. And if I never mention it again, you will know this book went the way of Jenny Uglow's biography of Hogarth.
Incidentally, Cresswell's book will be published by an outfit called O Books which 'operates virtually' and has now office. However, the main man is based in Hampshire.
From the O Books website:
This is the shocking truth:
* Jesus was a zealot who wanted to be King of Israel.
* The apostles and disciples were members of his family, by blood and by marriage, and they went on to wage a war against Rome.
* Far from 'converting', Saul - the false apostle - remained malicious and vindictive to the end.
* Saul started the lie that 'the Jews' killed Jesus, while he himself helped to kill Jesus' brother James.
* Saul invented Christianity, borrowing the rituals of a pagan religion, Mithraism.
* The gospels are a deliberately scrambled version of Jewish zealot propaganda with characters, who were Jewish warriors, stolen and subverted by Christian writers.
AUTHOR: Peter Cresswell graduated as a social anthropologist from Cambridge University and did a post graduate degree in sociology at York. He trained as a sub-editor and worked as a research officer at the Open University. After working as a senior journalist and leader writer, he set up a publicity consultancy. He is the author of Censored Messiah (O Books 1974) which shed new light on the origins of Christianity.

O Books seems to be a busy outfit and has a loads of books on its website. I can't as yet not be sure that is isn't a vanity publisher, although given the number of links it has with distributors worldwide that might be unlikely. Cresswell's new book isn't being published until 2010, so I suppose my copy is technically illegal.

The Vatican's smart footwork on the question of disaffected Anglicans who will be offered their own little room in the great RC mansion and, at a stroke, will increase the number of Catholics in Britain while - at a stroke - heaping even more woe on St Rowan Williams deserves mention, but must have its own entry. Kate will not be in the slightest interested, but I suspect Barry will have a few things to pass comment. Also when pontificating about the issue (which is not such a bad joke in context), I shall merely be regurgitating comments by others I have half understood, so don't hold your breath.