Saturday, September 27, 2014

Ukip go for the Labour voters’ heart and we might well be in for interesting times. And to make things a little more interesting here’s a pin-up of mine, Gemma Arterton. Then there’s my abortive attempt to introduce you to the music of Reggie Washington but those bastards from Islamic State have nixed it (though quite how I don’t know)

Well, someone’s got a brain in Britain’s Ukip, and the party’s supporters must hope it isn’t just Nigel ‘No, no, no, let me speak’ Farage. The accepted wisdom is that because of the party’s obsession with showing those stinking foreigners that Johnny Bull wants to sup his ale and eat his pie when he wants, thank you very much it is Conservative parliamentary seats it has in its sight has taken — well, the only way to put it is a lurch to the left. It now says that all folk on benefits and all those being paid the minimum wage will not pay a penny in income tax if it came to power, and that will, I assume — as must Ukip — mainly attract those usually thought to vote Labour.

Certainly various interviews with ‘the man in the street’ suggest it is quite a smart move. I was, for example, very taken aback to hear one young man tell us that he used to vote Labour, but switched to the Greens, but might now perhaps vote Ukip. He could well have been a Ukip plant. And if he was genuine in his support for the Greens, it cannot have been that strong if he now feels like switching to Ukip, a party that might possibly be viewed as on the opposite extreme to the Green Party. But his conversion to Ukip might well resonate with some who privately would like to follow suit, but don’t know how well it will go down with their mates. If, however, they discover your mates feel the same way, coming out as a Ukip supporter will not be at all difficult. So Labour might well have to look out.

Actually, no one in his or her right mind, and most certainly not a capable politico like Farage, expects Ukip to gain a majority of seats and be ‘asked by the Queen’ (who, no doubt, would to it through very gritted teeth) to form her government. But — and what with Ukip’s new strategy of appealing to the left as well as the right it is not at all so fanciful — if Ukip gained a sufficient number of seats to hold the balance of power?

Don’t Lib Dems already do that? Well, yes, they did at the last election, but could Ukip, perhaps, replace the Lib Dems as ‘the third party’. Could happen. As for how to pay for its promised magniminity for those at the bottom of the pile — and it has to be said that the only interest Ukip has in them is their votes — it’s simple, see, or at least according to Farage: Britain pays billions to the Johnny Foreigners who run Europe, so when Britain is no longer a part of the EU, the billions we save on our annual contributions will make up for the dosh we lose in income tax.

So far, so Dick and Dora. If, as Ukip hopes, the party gains a sufficient number of seats to ‘hold the balance of power’ the quid pro quo will be that you - whoever ‘you’ are - must agree when in government to take Britain out of the EU. That, I suspect, is where it will all come unstuck. For both the Tories and Labour will know that the following is bound to happen: they say ‘no’, we don’t agree that we will necessarily leave the EU (both Labour and the Tories want there to be some kind of EU reform first before it will decided whether to stay in or not), Ukip says ‘right we won’t support your bid to form the government’, so after a month or three or minority government an election will follow and Ukip will do rather less well, with one or the other party doing rather better and perhaps scraping through to be able to form a government.

As for Ukip itself, well, I’m still very underwhelmed. Farage (pictured) has a useful brain and the gift of the gab. But so far, with one exception, every last Ukip spokesman I’ve heard on either the radio or TV, as been an inarticulate fool. To
underline the point, I can’t even remember the name of the chap who didn’t do badly. (I saw him on Newsnight, if that helps.) I don’t doubt that among the bunch who will stand for election - and the Tory MP Mark Reckless tonight announced he will be joining Ukip, although he hasn’t yet resigned his seat (Later: he has now), but he is the second Tory MP - Douglas Carswell was the first - to jump ship - there are some bright ones, some daft ones, some admirable folk and some downright sinister folk, exactly, in fact, the gathering you would get if you looked at a gathering of people at random. But still I remain unconvinced. In Germany, AfD, the party rather loosely described here in Britain as ‘Germany’s Ukip’, is doing well. In three recent state elections it has gained between 10 and 12pc of the vote and will have an influence in how those states operate.

It has to be said that there seems to be a growing groundswell of support for AfD. But they are not ‘Germany’s Ukip’. They are in one essential respect very different. Afd doesn’t want Germany to leave the EU, but it does want Germany to leave the euro and to stop shoring up what it - and I - regard as a dog’s dinner of a monetary arrangement. But it doesn’t want to leave the EU. Ukip does. As for the future Angela Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor is in no immediate danger from AfD. The last national elections were held last year and the next are not due for several years. And a lot can happen in several years.

What with Afd’s success locally, and the results from the last EU elections in May when, on an admittedly abysmally small turnout, anti-EU parties gained a number of seats, we’re in for interesting times. Which, of course, pace the Chinese, we don’t want. What we really want is boring, uninteresting times. Some hope.

Later: Here’s another piccy of Farage. Quite why his left arm is so big (see below) compared to the rest of his body I really have no idea. But I was so struck by the the pic when I came across it a few minutes ago, my one thought was to share it with you. After all just how many times do you see a blog featuring pictures of politicians with unusuallu big arms? Never, I suspect. Could well be a first, not only for this blog, but for blogging in general! (The guy shaking his hand has just sold him a timeshare in Frinton. It’s the kind of thing Ukip supporters go for. Bugger Tuscany. Perhaps that is why Farage is so cheery.)



. . .

Then, of course, there’s Gemma Arterton (picture below) who, I should point out has nothing to do with Ukip (as far as I know). I have only seen her in two films, a St Trinians film and one of the recent James Bond films. And boy is she gorgeous. I mention her because I am just watching the iPlayer rerun of Graham Norton (of


whom more later - he is, in my book - the very acceptable face of talk shows. Usually they are crap. Graham Norton manages to redeem them and then some. I think it’s because he has a very good sense of humour and doesn’t seem to take himself, or anyone else, seriously. But back to Gemma. Digging up the picture (above), it is obvious from the many others I found that she has many faces, and that a good make-up artist does her proud. But our Gemma also has, in my book at least, natural good looks, and I thing she is gorgeous. At my age she wouldn’t take a second look which is more the pity.

Naturally, it is horses for courses as far as ‘she’s gorgeous’ is concerned. But Gemma gets my vote every time. And if she is as natural as she was on the Graham Norton show, she is also rather a pleasant character. And that plus looks and talent means she won’t, I hope, go far wrong. (Take a look in the right eye, left as far as we are concerned: she’s no one’s fool. And that adds to her attraction.

. . .

Years ago the way to hear new music, to discover new music, would be to listen to stuff at friends’ places you hadn’t heard. But over the years, what with one thing and another, friends getting married, friends’ wives starting to rule the roost and children arriving, so that friends’ wives would make plain that it wasn’t going to be a late night again you got to hear less and less new music (and for the sub/copy editors a little joke: you got to hear fewer and fewer new artists). What ‘new’ stuff you did hear was invariably middle-of-the-road bollocks which didn’t interest you at all and what got you labelled with the tag ‘he is really desperate to be different’. No, he wasn’t, he just wanted to hear interesting music, different music, not the same old shite re-recorded by the same old farts. (It is pehaps obvious that I have been a tad revealing in that last bit.)

One of the musicians I’ve discovered ever since friends got jobs, moved away, got married, had children and I was banned from the house after 8pm was Dave Fiuczinski, of whom I have written before. Today, by way of interest, I looked up two of the musicians he played with and came up with drummer Gene Lake and bassist Reggie Washington. Then, as one does, I looked up, on Spotify, music played by the two and found a CD called A Lot Of Love, Live! It’s not a great name, granted, and musicians, especially jazz musicians for whom the music is the thing tend to come up with rather naff names. But what the hell.

I’ve said — I, who attempts to play guitar — that Dave Fiuczynski plays the kind of guitar I would play if I were good enough. Oddly enough, I’ve always been attracted to bass guitar (and have bought one which I very occasionally play. Similarly, if I played bass guitar more seriously, the way Reggie Washington plays is the kind of music I would like to play. So here’s a track. It’s called Reuben 2 Train. Why? Who cares. As I said above naming the pieces they play is not a jazz musician’s first priority, and possibly only his/her last because somewhere down the line someone is insisting.

NB I was hoping to give you the chance to listen to a track by Reggie Washington (not, of course, to be mistaken for either Ronnie Seattle or Roy Chicago) but sodding technology being what it is and what works on a Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday doesn’t, for whatever, bloody reason, work on a Wednesday. Me, I blame Islamic State and all their fucking ostentatious piety. (‘What, us, inhuman? Us? We believe in Allah, matey! And Allah wouldn’t want us to behead people on You Tube just for the sake of grabbing power and making millions by selling oil on the black market. Infidel! Watch it, sunshine, you’re next. We might be devastating Northern Iraq and Eastern Syria at the moment but don’t think bloody North Cornwall is safe! Bastard! Taking the piss out of us! Cunt!’)

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Another poem.Then there’s the baffling fuck-up in the making in the Middle East: what is going on?

I wrote the other day about how poetry passes me by, and then added a poem. Well, here’s another.

It’s that itch to write again, to blather on
about it matters not what, to till the word
that comes before it comes until it comes,
then hasten on with no regrets, no backward glance,
no pride, no superficial care, just on and on and on,
a notion here, a joke there, a seeming wisdom
here and there and here again,
and there, then on and on
(and what is this irritating odd and wasteful pause?)

To pass the moment, kill the moment
until the moment’s gone as none,
with not a thought, not one,
for who might already be bewildered
by this rush of nothing,
absolutely nothing, but words, words
rush, rush, rush, words, words,
nothing but sound and nonsense.
Then on, on, on again and on until I die.

. . .

Look, chaps and chappesses, buy the bloody book, I need more cigars. And, yes, the novel is better than you might assume, and the cigars are, too, mild, but very satisfying, just the kind of thing to help you relax in a quiet corner while you ponder upon other ways to persuade the world to buy the bloody book. I’m no artist, you know, I work for money.

. . .

As I blather the West seems to be on the brink of another disaster. Here in Old Blighty or members of parliament have been recalled to debate whether the government should allow Britain to join the air campaign to bomb the fuck out of Isis (or IS or Isil or whatever we are supposed to be calling them). The modish watchword is - given the fuck-ups that Iraq and more recently Afghanistan were - ‘no “boots on the ground” ’, by which we mean no troops will be involved.

Well, fair enough. But the second proviso, that we should only stick to killing those fighting for IS (etc - see above) if they are in Iraq (whose government has invited us to do the killing) but should steer well clear of any action in Syria seems to me so daft I can’t even think of a dismissive joke. But aren’t the Yanks already bombing IS in Syria (and being quietly applauded for doing so by the Assad regime because we are getting rid of their enemies)?

Yes, I’m fully aware of the political niceties of it all, that, officially, Assad and his henchmen is still a bastard and the rest. But were anyone to set out to create a situation of such nonsensical delusion, they would struggle to create what is actually happening. I thought the power struggle in the Middle East was broadly based on a tussle between Saudi Arabia - Sunni - and Iran - Shi’ite? And because Assad is officially still that bastard Assad, the West in its wisdom - and I do use the word as loosely as possible - has decline to work with him (though I suspect there is a lot more going on behind the scenes).

But why do we hate Assad so much if we are perfectly happy to pal up with Egypt’s Sisi and his gang of henchmen? And whose coup d’etat ousting a democratically elected presidnet was somehow an acceptable coup d’etat because, not putting to fine a point, we didn’t really like the cut of the jib of the chap Sisi ousted.

As we are on the subject of cuts of jibs, surely to goodness Morsi - for he is the guy Sisi toppled - has a far more acceptable jib than the cutthroats from IS? Or am I missing something? Morsi, I gather, was an inept chap who rather hoped to make Egypt more Islamic. He didn’t lock people up, he didn’t torture folk, and he most certainly didn’t execut those he didn’t take a shine to.

But then I don’t get poetry, so how the hell am I supposed to make head or tail of the tooing and froing of my political betters? And it is well beyond my bedtime. And the two or three small glasses of Rioja I was going to drink have, once again, become the whole bloody bottle. Hick!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Poetry: what is it? Buggered if I know. Then there is a sad, sad tale: my comments on the Scottish referendum are lost forever. And a cheap solution to an eternally pressing problem

For a man of my pretensions, it is hugely embarrassing to admit that ‘poetry’, or at least, modern poetry, not only passes me by, but leaves me pretty much stone-cold. It is to me a closed book, and going on what I hear on the radio not one I exactly want to open at any time soon.

Admittedly, I haven’t read that much poetry. In fact, even that apparently candid admission rather overstates the case. I have, actually, read very, very, very little. Of what I have read, I am more attracted to the ‘verse’ of, for example, Shakespeare, the Metaphysical Poets, Alexander Pope and one or two other, all those who wrote several centuries ago who knew what to do with rhythm and metre more than some of the stuff I’ve heard on the radio. But this is a difficult topic and I am I really danger of making myself look very ridiculous. And even what I have just written might give the impression that I am just being modest. I’m not. I’m just very badly read.

Of more modern poetry, what I have heard by Dylan Thomas I like very much. But then Dylan was fascinated by words, their sound and their import. Then there were the poems I have come across - more or less by chance, which is a shaming admission for a chap who ‘read’ English at university - by Philip Larkin and several others. A few years ago I bought a volume of poems by Seamus Heaney and got a slight inkling of what poetry just might be. But still it passed and passes me by.

But what about the ‘Great War Poets, Ted Hughes, and various other names with which I am so familiar and can’t remember one? Well, I’m sorry to say they, too, just pass me by, especially Ted Hughes. I hear them, am told the are ‘good’, and then quietly wonder exactly why they are good as opposed to ordinary. Dear reader, I don’t have a clue.

Then there’s the recent, as in the past 30 years, tendency to accept that a ‘poem’ is ‘good’ if the ‘poet’ is speaking from the heart. End of story. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. All too often is strikes me as nothing but ineffably trite sentiment written in prose, then chopped up into lines and verses. The trouble is that we can no longer say so.

These days we are supposed to genuflect before such work merely because it is ‘personal’. For some very, very odd reason a ‘poem’ is supposed to be special, and we are somehow expected to revere a ‘poem’ because it is someone ‘baring their soul’. Well, crap on me, sunshine. Not in my neck of the woods. I’ll give everyone - everyone - the respect and space they deserve, but I’m not about to bullshit myself for the sake of ‘form’. Come one, poems aren’t ‘special’ just because they are ‘poems’ however much the folk on radio want to tell you they are. And almost always the ‘modern’ poetry I hear is nothing but horribly trite shite.

However, all that notwithstanding, I have thought and wondered about ‘poetry’ quite a bit and decided that what attracts me is the sound of it. When I hear ‘poems’ read, it always seems to be in a pseudo reverential tone. (Incidentally, actors, who are nothing more than paid hands hired to read something, always make a far better fist of reading a poem than the bloody poet themselves, who read it in an irritating monotone and don’t for a moment seem to understand their own work.)

It’s as though the ‘poetry’ which does attract me is more that which gets closer to music and is less of the ‘me, me, me’ which so pisses me off. Face it: there are now several billions ‘me’s in the world and each of them is interested in the one ‘me’ - themselves - and not in you. At the heart of it your ‘me’ can get to fuck because it rather crowds the ground for my ‘me’. So as far as I can see making poetry more attractive to the majority by emphasising its musical qualities seems, to me at least, a way forward.

Below is my first - as in most recent since the days when I was a callow 19-year-old fuckwit - poem. Driving home from London on a Wednesday night after supping, usually, two and a half pints of cider, I have come to wonder whether I, too, my not try my hand at this ‘ere poetry lark. But it is most certainly about me (although, in a sense, it is in that it describes my bias).

To be honest I have no idea
what poetry might be
 unless good music plays its part.

And those of us who know that rhythm,
rhythmic excellence,
the omega and alpha of all
that sound might hold,
feel and sense that meaning
is but nothing
but the trite and boring
subterfuge lesser muses,
(keen to hold their own)
enrol to tarn their modesty,
and lose for it all love, respect and interest.

By all means tell me all your secrets,
and by all means join in the noise
and banality of life.

But don’t, don’t ever, don’t,
don’t ever try to persuade me
that they are any more vital and important than
the noise and banality of the secrets
of one, ten, twenty billion other souls
with whom you share this world.

But by all means try.

. . .

Before posting the above I spent about an hour writing an entry about yesterday’s independence referendum in Scotland. But, in all the technical shenanigans of posting these entries I bloody deleted it all. It is now unrecoverable. So: either breathe again or reflect that several pearls of wisdom have been lost forever, because I really can’t be arsed re-writing it. I might be at some point in the future, but don’t hold your breath.

. . .

One last thing: I have now got to the age where I can’t even fart without wearing a pair of reading glasses, and there’s the rub. I could go to an optician and be tested for a bespoke pair. Or I can, and have been, buying two for £2.50 at Asda.

Actually, because I keep losing them I have been buying many pairs, and keep at least one pair everywhere - in the car, in each of my jackets, in my computer bag, in my other computer bag, upstairs in our bedroom, downstairs in the kitchen, in the living room next to the computer, everywhere, in fact, where fate and my life might take me. It is a simple solution to a bloody irritating problem: where are my reading glasses? Doesn’t matter, cos there’s another pair here.

The good news is that Tesco, who are going downhill fast have been up to all kinds of tricks to get the punters back through their doors. And one of those is to offer selected items at just £1. So the other day I bought a bottle of HP Sauce, usual price £19.99, for just £1, ditto a jar of Hellman’s Mayonnaise and, joy of joys, three pairs of reading glasses, again at just £1 each. I thought I’d share that with you.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The taxman, as always, cometh (though, I notice, dragging his knuckles along the ground). Trouble is I don’t have the dosh to buy Dave Hartnett a spiffing lunch*

OK, so I might be going on 92 - oh, all right then, 103 - but I still cross my fingers that I have not yet become one of those irritating jeremiahs who blight all our lives and have done so since Adam and Eve first bonked.

For the record, I don’t think the world is now going to Hell in a handcart and haven’t done so since I was 14. I think, most probably, it always has been going to Hell in a handcart since man first crawled out of the primordial swamp and invented television. Nor do I think there was ever a golden age of anything (except



perhaps a Golden Age of Golden Ages - golden ages just aren’t what they used to be. Which doesn’t actually make sense, but it is well past 6.30am and I’ve been up for several hours.) I’m always accused of having a loud laugh, and I do laugh quite a bit, mainly because I am alive. And I laughed again very loudly this morning courtesy of the office of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, more commonly known as ‘the taxman’.

The ‘taxman’ (and the ‘taxwoman’, of course) doesn’t enjoy much of a reputation in Britain these days, or rather its reputation which was already very low - no one likes paying taxes - has sunk a good deal lower over these past few years.

Given that every single vast and wealthy corporation - for example Vodafone, eBay, PayPal, Google, Starbucks and all manner of outfits with really dodgy names to fit really dodgy business practices - can afford to hire clever tax accountants and run rings around the taxman several times before breakfast, the taxman is in a perpetual bad mood. It doesn’t help that anyone with any nous who works for the taxman very soon ups sticks once he or she knows enough about the workings of HMRC, goes freelance and starts earning ten times the pitiful wage paid by HMRC by helping those vast corporations keeping their tax liability to a bare minimum.

That means that there is a steady flow of the very good brains leaving HMRC and, not to put too fine a point, those who stay have a great deal less nous. And they are the ones you and I - or you and I here in Old Blighty - are obliged to deal with when we contact the taxman.

The ruses the good brains who jump ship to assist the wealthy corporations come up with are beautifully simple. For example, the BBC reported in October 2012 that eBay paid just £1.2 million in tax on UK business of £800 million (for the thickos out there, that’s just £200 million short of £1 billion). The same report claims that Starbucks paid just £8.6 million in corporation tax over 14 years. The kind of ploy they use is, for example, to set up wholly owned, but autonomous, companies with which they do business and can thus write off various ‘business expenses’.

For example, I understand that Starbucks rents all its coffee mugs from Starbucks Coffee Mugs Gmbh which is based in Lichtenstein. The tables in its empire of stores are all leased from Starbucks Tables Gmbh of Vaduz. And so on, and every transaction is a tax write-off. It’s all perfectly legal, I am bound to acknowledge, but from where I sit these ruses and ploys are as close to con tricks as it is possible for me to claim they are without getting some lawyer up my arse serving me a writ for tortuous malfeasance and libellous promalgamation under the Let’s Nail All Smartase Bloggers Acts of 1991, 1993 and 2007.

Naturally, HMRC is very put out that it it obliged to start every week of the year holding its dick and looking like a prize prune. And equally as naturally it seeks out every way to get revenge. But as the numbskulls which staff the agency know they can’t lay a finger on the real culprits, week in week out they come down very heavily on what socialists like to call the ‘little man’. And HMRC isn’t above coming up with would-be smart ruses of its own.

Knowing that daily several billion pounds are slipping through its fingers, it most recently announced that, in order to claw back some of that cash, it has granted itself powers to dip into each and every bank account in the land to claim tax it think it might be owed, all without our say-so. Obviously that has led to an enormous row, but to date the British government has done nothing to stop the practice except to get awfully huffy about it, officially declare that ‘look, it isn’t on’ and set up various parliamentary committees to look into the possibility of writing to HMRC to tell it in no uncertain terms that ‘look, it isn’t on.’ ‘He’s making it up’ I hear you declare. Well, no he isn’t: take a look at this BBC report.

. . .

My encounter with HMRC this morning which had me laughing out loud and reflecting for the umpteenth time this week that the world is indeed totally bonkers came about thus.

At the ripe old age of 122 I have become rather better at managing my money than I ever was when I was younger. I learned the hard way. So now I pay several of my bills upfront: as soon as my wage hits my bank account, a substantial portion of it goes off to the electricity company, the water company, the folks we buy our oil from and HMRC.

This means that when the bills eventually arrive they are - depending upon the time of year - often already paid. And once I have paid upfront I can happily live on my overdraft limit without the fear of getting yet another bill which will push me beyond what I and my several banks have agreed is my overdraft limit. Because cross that ‘agreed overdraft’ line and they really hammer you. (Oh, and I have several banks accounts because that is the only way this financial ingenue can keep an overview of what is going on. One for car-related expenses, one for utility-related expenses and the last for spending money.

It also means that if one is getting horribly close to going over the top, I can top it up from another. And let me stress I don’t regard myself as clever. I do it this way because, in all honesty, I regard myself as rather stupid.)

Years ago, I bought a very modest house in Birmingham. I only lived there for four years before life took me elsewhere, but I kept it on and eventually paid off the mortgage. It is now rented out and the meagre rent - it hasn’t gone up in 24 years because the house is so modest, anything higher than what the agent thinks I can charge would mean I wouldn’t get any tenants at all. I don’t mind giving figures: after the agent has taken his cut, I receive £377 a month, which works out at £87 a week.

Lucky sod, you might think, but in fact that just about covers my petrol bill for getting to London and back from Cornwall every week. So not such a lucky sod, really. And because I like to sleep at nights and in the past have always come unstuck whenever I tried to pull a fast one, I declare that rental income to the taxman every year.

Then there’s the dosh I make a month from my sideline of placing the puzzles on the quiz pages of the paper I work for. I have done that for more than four years now and it has helped pay the bills. But I am not paid an enormous sum for doing the work, and I also declare that income. The tax I owe for both income streams comes to just under £2,500. But I have got into the habit of paying upfront so I am not embarrassed by a tax bill I can’t pay.

In fact, I pay more upfront than I need to so that I am always in credit. It’s a form of saving, and not such a daft one when currently the interest paid on savings is around 0.5pc - if you are lucky - while inflation is around 2pc. So I am building up, slowly, a small surplus which might come in handy if I faced with a very unexpected bill.

To add a little more context, I am not a big spender and have only twice paid more than £800 for a car. And I only did that on those two occasions because I was nagged into doing so (by you know who).

When I got home last night and looked through my post, I was very surprised to find a letter from HMRC. I shall give some it verbatim. It was dated 10 September, 2014:

Dear Mr Powell,

 Thank you for your repayment claim dated 8 August and the 2014 self assessment tax return.

I cannot make a repayment now because you are making regular monthly payments to your Self Assessment account. So that I can deal with your claim, you will need to stop your payments. You can do this by:

  • going to our website at hmrc.gov.uk if you have registered to use our online services
  • phoning our Payment Helpline on 0300 200 3822
  • contacting your bank.

Once you have stopped your regular payments and your last one has cleared, I will be able to deal with your repayment claim. You can restart your regular payments again one your have received your repayment.

Yours sincerely,
M E Parker,
Assistant officer.

I was baffled. I was thoroughly baffled. I was completely and utterly baffled because I had made no such claim. And as no letter from the taxman is ever good news, I rang HMRC the first thing this morning to find out what the bloody hell was going on.

Why, I asked, were they thanking me for making a repayment claim when I hadn’t made any such claim? 

Because, the dimwit I spoke to at HMRC replied, that’s how our letters are written.

But it doesn’t make sense, I said. I haven’t made any such claim.

But, she repeated, that’s how our letters are written.

But why, I asked, why do you write them like that?

Because we do, she replied, implying that I was being completely unreasonable.

Well, you should rewrite them, I told her.

We can’t afford to, she replied. Nonsense, I told her, it would take less than ten seconds to rewrite the letter.

But we can’t afford to, she repeated. And that was that.

The rest of the conversation wasn’t very long, and I have to confess it descended into argy-bargy. (I am not proud of the fact that I am rather good at argy-bargy, especially if I am in the right. The trouble is I am not always in the right, although on this occasion I was.)

Argy, in fact, became so much bargy that she finally informed me that she was inclined to ‘terminate this phone call’. That means you are going to hang up, I told her, so I’ll save you the trouble, I added, and hung up.

We little men who do not have the apparently unlimited resources to hire clever-clever tax gurus to ensure we screw the state as legally as possible have no option but to trust the taxman and trust that he gets things right. We like to think, the rings vast and wealthy corporations run around them notwithstanding, that they do know their arse from their elbow. But, dear reader, I really, really, really have my doubts. For example, a week earlier I had received a letter saying my tax code had
been changed, with the result that my annual tax-free allowance was being reduced by £2,750, from £10,000 to £7,250. So, my dear employers would be taking more tax from me. When I got the letter, I rang to ask HMRC exactly why my tax code had been changed (and my tax-free allowance reduced). I was told that the taxman calculated that that would be the amount I owed in tax on my extra earnings next near.

But, I protested, why are you doing that? I have always paid my tax bill on the button because I already pay upfront and am in credit. Just look at my account and you will see that there’s more than enough to pay what I shall be owing. Ah, said the HMRC wiseacre, but that’s what we have decided to do. On that occasion, having very little stomach to charge head-first into a brick wall, I gave up. I reasoned that at least I would have fully paid my tax bill even before it was due and that as the tax bill would have been paid, I would have saved up that much more to fall back on if and when I unexpectedly found myself on my uppers.

Dealing with the taxman is an act of faith. We like to think that despite the sage advice we are given, in this case, to ‘check our tax code if you think we have got it wrong’, they haven’t actually got it wrong. Because unless you are some boring nerd who has chosen to follow an accountant’s path to Nirvana, all tax speak, all tax affairs and everything to do with tax are about as comprehensible to 99pc of us as are the ramblings of a mawkish alcoholic in confessional mode after a four-day bender. They are goobledegook.

So getting a letter thanking me for a claim for repayment I never made from the folk who have granted themselves the powers to dip into my bank account whenever they choose to do so is, to put it mildly, not at all reassuring.

Mind there are worse things at sea: Chelsea only managed a draw in the season’s first Champions League fixture, against, out-and-out no-hopers Schalke 04 after leading 1-0, and after holding Bayern Munich to 0-0 for 89 minutes, thanks to several spectacular Joy Hart saves, Manchester City were pipped at the post 1-0. To put that last comment into perspective: I support Manchester United. (And I bet they have a few clever-clever tax gurus on the books.)

*This reference will be very obscure. And I’d be well advised to leave it that way. Hint: under Dave’s watch Vodafone really took the tax piss.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Scots go for broke – makes sense. The English discover they ‘love the United Kingdom’. Really? But what the hell: it’s the middle of the fence for me

Will they, won’t they? Well, apparently, according to Radio 4’s ‘flagship’ programme Today, even the Chinese are holding their breath about the outcome of the referendum on independence for Scotland due to be held on Thursday.

It has long been known that the Catalans are interested to see what the outcome will be, because, they might be reckoning, if the Scots can do it, so can we. So the government in Madrid is keeping its fingers crossed that the Scots Nats will not get the magic 50pc plus one which will be necessary to stick two fingers at the English and depart to cock up their affairs without any ‘foreign English’ interference. The Chinese, of course, who are as sympathetic to the expression of separatist sentiments as Count Dracula was to holy water are also as keen as Madrid that it will all end in tears for Alex Salmond.

Me? Well, a year or two ago sympathised with the sentiment of Scots who are fed up with centuries of condescension by England, or, more specifically the ‘Home Counties’ and are now within a midge’s dick of achieving that longed-for independence. But at the time I thought the wisest course of action would be to stick with the Union. I could not write that I’m no longer all that sure, but the truth is I really don’t care either way. On the one hand the desire for independence comes from the heart and, in a way, it makes no sense at all to listen to your head on the matter and, despite profound misgivings, vote to keep the Union.

If you want something that badly, and the SNP and its supporters do, I would have thought you just go for it and carry whatever consequences there might be.

As for those consequences, a great, great many financiers, businessmen, economists and the rest of every stripe have trotted out utterly convincing reasons why Yes/No is the way to go. As in most such matters at the end of the day you pays your money and you makes your choice. So the SNP has a legion of financiers, businessmen, economists and the rest who say ‘it will be fine, what with this that and t’other assets blah-di-blah…’ And the ‘Better Together’ gang has trotted out any number of financiers, businessmen, economists and the rest who insist it will all end in disaster, Scotland will go bankrupt, there will several outbreaks of the Black Death within minutes of the Yes victory being confirmed and more likely than not global warming will hit Scotland especially hard.’ And to both sides I say ‘pull the other one’.

Given that these pronouncements have come from the impassioned supporters of the one side or the other, I really don’t believe any of it is objective. Which, of course, make the warnings worse than useless.

The Nationalists have overall had the easier ride: they can afford to promise the earth, a golden dawn and jam tomorrow. Those who want to keep the status quo, on the other hand, are thrown back into the unenviable position of pointing out all the bad things they claim will happen if Scotland throws off the English yoke (which in Scot Nats’ minds is basically what it all comes down to).

So the Better Together gang have come across as a remarkably negative lot and I shall not be the first to observe that surely it would have made more sense to point out the advantages of sticking with the Union. But, no, that doesn’t seem to have occurred to them (and, to be honest, I can only think of one which is that bound together in a United Kingdom, Scotland and England are economically stronger than fighting the good fight alone).

Then there’s the odd sensation that although the referendum has been more than a year coming, England – that is the ‘Home Counties’ - don’t seem to have been taking it seriously whatsoever until the last month. Then they panicked. I can think of no better word. As for all the ‘concessions’ they have belatedly been making it strikes me as being about as useful as a homeowner who has discovered burglars trying to buy them off by informing them they can take half of what he’s got if they will leave the rest. Stupid or what?

As for the remarkably large amount of mawkish guff on the Better Together side along the lines of Cameron’s ‘I love the United Kingdom’ and ‘the Scots are our brothers’, forgive me if it doesn’t, from where I sit, all stink of rotting fish.

Anyone who wants you to believe that he or she ‘loves the United Kingdom’ is most certainly a nine-bob note and you would be well-advised to count the silver spoons before he or she departs the house. It’s bollocks. I love my two children above all else, then my family, both immediate and extended. That’s it. And if I

And unbiased view from the Home Counties. Or, perhaps, not. Who knows, who cares. As long as the exempt haggis from import duty, I'm happy

have any knowledge of the Scots psyche (and I believe I have at least a small insight) the reaction of those the Union bods want to win over with their Love The Union crap will most certainly be: Get to fuck you pretentious git!

Yes, there are many Unionist Scots all over Scotland, but I suspect that if Thursday’s vote shows us that they are in a majority, the only thing it will confirm is that when push came to shove, more Scots follow their head than their hearts. Money does matter to them, you know, and who can blame them. The notion of the ‘skinflint Scotsman’ is a myth. In fact I have met a great many remarkably generous Scots, more perhaps, than in England, and most certainly more than in the bloody ‘Home Counties’. But the notion that your average Scot is not quite as foolish with his money than your average English is not myth. As a rule they believe there are better things to do with our money than throw it away.

My brother and I were discussing all this the other night and we both agreed, however, that a genie is out of the bottle. There has been some violence in parts of Scotland and it was not pleasant. Sectarian violence is by no means unknown in Scotland and I do wonder just how well the losing side, whoever it is, whether Yes or No, will take to defeat.

As for what the outcome will be: I haven’t a clue.

. . .

If the Scots Nats win, the political fallout will be fascinating. The majority of the SNP is, I suspect, inclined to the Left. But there is a marked right-wing number of them two, united with the lefties only in the desire of independence. And it would be a mistake to write of ‘Tory’ Scots: the Conservative Party has been doing badly in general elections these past 30 years not because there is no conservative support or sentiment in Scotland, but because it is so unassailably identified with ‘the fucking English’.

In an independent Scotland I don’t doubt that the fortunes of a right-of-centre party would perk up quite a bit, though drawing its support mainly from the country areas. Then there’s the question of the 45 or so Labour MPs with Scottish constituencies whose days in the Commons would most certainly be numbered but upon whose membership of the Commons the British Labour party relies heavily to form a majority government. Seen in that light, it no-brainer to understand why, ironically, Labour have found themselves in the Unionist camp.

Another question which will have to be tackled is, given a Yes to independence vote on Thursday, which would mean the loss of all those constituencies (some of which are Lib Dem, by the way) in Scotland, what should be done about the British general election due in May 2015. Some have even suggested that it should be postponed until after Scotland is fully independent.

They fear a silly scenario such as: Labour, as some suspect, get a majority and form the government. Then, with independence, at a stroke they lose 45 of their MPs and perhaps even lose their majority. Would that mean another election. Certainly, because a minority government could carry in with a deficit of two or three, but 45 would prove to be impossible. Because of the possibility of this conundrum, there is even a suggestion – I think from the Tories – that next May’s election should be postponed in the event of the Scots voting for independence.

And they would certainly like that: faced with an Opposition which is, a stroke 45 MPs short, it would seem the Conservatives would be shoo-in to form proper government, crucially without those bloody awful Lib Dems. Tory heaven if the Scots vote to tell bloody English to piss off. Trouble is they can’t go for it, because they all ‘love the United Kingdom’ so much. Damn!

. . .

I find it very, very creepy that my movement around the web is so completely followed. This morning I was trying to sort out a mobile phone problem for my daughter. Her Sony Experia SP keeps freezing, even though he was apparently ‘repaired’ by her provider, O2, so I have lost faith in their ability to ‘repair’.

The solution I came up with was to by an unlocked phone on eBay (or one locked to O2) and she can use that until the contract (which I am paying for comes to an end). I was alerted to the fact that iPhone 4s are still available brand-new, but I also looked at other phones. And bugger me if not every page I look at which carries ads – news pages etc – has bloody ads for the very phones I was investigating. Yes, I knew it went on, but I don’t like it.

Ironically, Google, who provide this blogging service for free, are one of the worst offenders. You can’t take a dump these days without returning to your desktop or laptop to find you have inadvertently installed the bloody Google toolbar.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

More on John O’Hara: a critique from someone or other and my response to it

Tonight I was just about to sit down with the end of a bottle of Pernod (a great drink if you like aniseed and don’t believe all the guff that it has to be drunk in sunshine. It doesn’t, and you can get as pissed or not as you like depending upon the amount of water you add. As I get older, I find myself adding more and more) and finish off my second reading of the novel. As it happened I set down the full glass next to the sofa and as I went to put away my guitar, I kicked it over. Damn.

So instead I have decided to post my response to a critique of the novel by one Henry Gonshak who is, apparently ‘the Rose and Anna Busch Endowed Professor of English at Montana Tech’. I found it when I was looking up websites to do with the novel. You can read what Mr Gonshak had to say here. I wanted to leave a comment on the blog, but for some reason I couldn’t so I have emailed it to him. But, after kicking over my glass of Pernod, I decided - what the hell - to post my response here, too. Since emailing it and then deciding to post it here, I have slightly rewritten and expanded it, although not a lot.

I recently finished Appointment In Samara - and I can’t remember how I came across the novel and then bought it - and was so impressed, I bought a collection of John O’Hara’s New York short stories and Butterfield 8. The name of that second novel was familiar to me, because I’d heard about the Elizabeth Taylor film years ago and remembered that it was in some way ‘shocking’. But I only saw it recently and, at the time, I rather liked it.

Last week, I read the Butterfield 8 the novel, and once I had finished it, I immediately, as has sometimes become my habit with books which impress me, began again. That others don’t do so, or at least I’ve never heard of others doing so, baffles me a little. We will listen to recordings of music and watch films again, often very soon after we have just heard or read them, but no one seems to grant a novel the same respect.

I’ve done the same with films (watched on DVD or the internet) and all I can say is that the practice of reading a novel (or watching a film) like that pays off in spades. I have to say I disagree with you almost completely on your evaluation of the novel Butterfield 8, and must agree with you about the film. Having now read the novel my estimation of the Taylor film has plummeted.

It is, at the end of the day, just another piece of Hollywood melodrama, and although there are, as in most things, degrees of worth or otherwise - there can be ‘good’, well-made melodrama and there can be total crap - it was nonetheless nothing more than a piece of melodramatic schlock which might have done good business at the box office and garnered Taylor her Oscar, but in no way whatsover approached the subtlety of O’Hara’s novel.

In that sense it has nothing to do with the novel except sharing a title and vaguely, ever so vaguely, echoing its story. The novel is much, much, much more, and I can understand why when it was first published, and coming soon after Appointment In Samara, it made O’Hara’s name. But

John O'Hara

you [Henry Gonshak, the guy whose take on the novel I am responding to] don’t seem to rate it highly at all. And that, too, baffles me.

You supply the quote, quite possibly well-known, from (Wright State University English professor) Martin Kirch that ‘O’Hara’s achievements have been so long and thoroughly denigrated that he is now considered a novelist of the second, or even the third, rank’, and on the face of it that would seem game, set and match: it seems to say ‘O’Hara was once good, but not that good and certainly no longer as good as other novelists’. You say something similar (’In our era O’Hara comes across as a dated and minor writer who should not be classed with such brilliant’). But read Professor Kirch’s quote again: he says the ‘achievements’ have been ‘denigrated’.

Now that is an odd word to use if he means ‘re-evaluated’. But he doesn’t say ‘re-evaluated’: he uses the word ‘denigrated’, and when someone is ‘denigrated’, the implication is that he has been unfairly treated. And that’s how I read Kirch’s judgment: that O’Hara is still as good as he was, but taste has moved on to such an extent that he is seen as no longer cutting the artistic mustard. And so although you say you agree with Kirch, he does not seem to be saying what you are saying.

In your evaluation of the novel you make several factual errors, and I think these are important: you say Gloria Wandrous was 18 when the novel takes place. She wasn’t, she was 22. You also say the Weston Liggett, the man who picked her up - or was picked up by her - was divorced. He wasn’t: once he had confessed to taking Gloria to bed in the family home, he fully expected his wife Emily to divorce him, and offered to make it easy for her. But he wasn’t divorced - how could he be if the essential story at the centre of the novel takes place between a Friday night and the following Wednesday?

There is also more than a suspicion that, with Gloria now dead - and Liggett’s reaction being pretty callous in that all he thinks about in the aftermath of her death is retrieving the mink coat to avoid being implicated in any way - he will not be divorced and that he and Emily will evntually continue in their conventional, by now dull, marriage and both will continue to enjoy the life of an ‘upper-class’ wealthy American as before (possible recriminations notwithstanding - after all she is well-aware that he has had several affairs).

It is these two errors, and your judgment of Gloria as just another ‘spoiled rich girl, pampered by her indulgent parents’ make me suspect that you simply haven’t understood the novel and, pertinently, its endless subtleties. (Another error: Gloria didn’t have parents, she had a mother and William Vandamm, her uncle, though undoubtedly they did indulge her pitilessly and she was pretty spoiled.)

You don’t seem to take on board that Gloria was not just another good-time girl out for what she could get, and that the key to the tragedy of her life and death - if tragedy is, under the circumstances not a tad hi’falutin - and her unbridled promiscuity and virtually alcoholic drinking is most probably because she was sexually assaulted at the age of 11 by Major Boam and, crucially, felt she was unable to tell anyone. She did not feel able to tell the black maid who was in the house at the time, partly because of the casual and rampant racism abroad at the time of which she was equally as guilty as her peers.

When she did bring herself to tell her mother and uncle, her mother dismissed the story out of hand and, although, he didn’t react as his sister did, Vandamm also let Gloria down. Far more seriously, she was later thoroughly corrupted at the age of 15 by Reddington, a man who was ostensibly a pillar of his community (a detail which he brutally used to brush off similar incidents with a young girl in his hometown).

Now, however, already disillusioned by the disbelief she encountered when she was first violated, she seems to enjoy the sex, the drinking, the sniffing ether and the year-long abuse by Reddington. But, of course, deep down she didn’t, and it was the cause of the despair to which she woke up every morning. She seems to have lost all hope and decided just to go for it. It’s as though if she doesn’t feel valued, she can see no reason to value the world.

O’Hara - in my view - doesn’t create as you put it ‘a stick figure, and a rather tedious one at that’. Quite the contrary: Gloria is intelligent, sensitive, alert, on the ball and witty and, even at 22, no one’s fool. And she is an appealing figure, although you don’t think so. You seem not to have been on her side. I was. She is far more attractive than the gallery of shallow, boozy young men who use her and who are her daily companions. And she is very aware that her life is going nowhere. At the end of the novel she has some kind of epiphany and realises life doesn’t have to be like the life she is leading, and O’Hara suggests that she might, just might, be turning a corner.

Yes, she is still young and immature and believes she ‘loves’ Liggett. But, I suggest, even she, deep down, knows that is nonsense and that the affair - if it can even be called an affair, consisting as it does of two nights of sex and a lot of drinking - will go nowhere. Her death is wholly ambiguous: was it an accident or did she jump off the boat?

The encounter on that boat with Liggett in his cramped cabin is nothing but a sordid and embarrasing interlude, and she knows it. All he wants is sex with her, despite his middle-aged fantasy about being in love with her. She, after the pleasant afternoon she had spent with her mother and her surprising realisation that a marriage and love can, perhaps, be good after all, wants more. She doesn’t sleep with Liggett. She leaves him. And when they are due to meet upstairs, she comes towards him, but then ‘turns’ away and runs off. Did she trip over the low railing? Or had she decided to end it all. The ending is by no means ‘shaky’ or one intended to add spice to an otherwise ‘meandering’ novel.

There is nothing ‘meandering’ about the novel. O’Hara was rigidly disciplined in his build-up, from the scenes in speakeasies where Gloria’s crowd are nothing but a bunch of well-off, but stupid and vacuous halfwits, to the portrayals of the empty relationships of the Liggett’s, the Farleys - the wife casually decides she wants an affair with the actor, but can’t even be resolute enough to go through with it - Jimmy Malloy and Isabel’s on-off relationship, and that between Eddie Brunner and Norma Day, where Eddie reconciles himself to marriage to a ‘safe’ woman for all the wrong reasons, are all small pieces of a jigsaw which O’Hara quietly but deftly puts in place to give the overall picture of what choices a girl like Gloria - a girl with a history of being demeaned and abused - thinks she has.

Perhaps the back stories of the characters make the reader - you, perhaps - think that the novel meanders, but in truth nothing O’Hara writes is superfluous however it might at first seem. And, again I have to say, in my view, the final sentence in the novel is perfect and sums up the whole corrupted, perverted morality of the time and age he is describing: ‘The Reddingtons always went to a hotel where the women guests were not permitted so smoke.’ So as long as the trivial niceties of ‘good’ society are observed - for example that women guests were not permitted to smoke - everyone can pretend all is well in the world even though it damn well most certainly is not and they damn well know it.

At first blush O’Hara’s portrayal of a small part of New York society on just six days in 1930 would seem to be something of a miniature. But it isn’t. What he writes about - hypocrisy and a selfish, callous disregard for others - is universal and most certainly not restricted by being ‘of its time’. And that hypocrisy is just as shocking now was it was then. And that is why O’Hara’s novel is a great novel.

I understand Butterfield 8, only his second novel, was the high-water mark of his writing career and although her wrote several more novels, none was quiet as good and reached its class. Well, as I haven’t read any other them (but I intend to do so) I can’t comment. But I do know that O’Hara is a great writer - his turn of phrase, his dialogue, his insight, his seemingly casual way of writing, the looseness of it, his ability to portray depth when none is apparent - prove it for me.

So, I disagree with you. Completely.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Why this ‘newspaperman’ is not in the slightest embarrassed not to be regarded as a ‘newspaperman’. Chuffed, in fact; or to put it another way: fuck deadlines, embrace discipline. Then there’s why John O’Hara deserves to be better known, at least as well as once he was

This entry needs (and will get) a rewrite.

Well, I’m doing the honourable thing, the thing that has to be done on any last day of a holiday in a ‘Med country’ and that is to sit outside a bar and watch the world go by. I happen to be sitting outside the Teyma (or perhaps Bar Teyma) in Albocasser, district of Valencia (thought the exact nomenclature eludes me and I’m really not anal enough to look up exactly what administrative part of Spain Albocasser (or Albacasser, Albacacer or any number of different spellings I’ve seen) is in.

It’s not quite as romantic as it might seem as, now the lunch/siesta period has finished (it’s now 17.45), and they really do shut down for most of the afternoon, though the weather is not extraorinarily hot, everyone and his truck/tractor /car/moped has come alive and decided to roar, quickly or slowly depending on the tractor/truck/car/moped up and down the main street where I am sitting. But, well, who bloody cares, because I don’t.

I am also on my own, but that is no reflection on my host. It’s just that as I have got older, I am beginning – well, not even beginning – to ensure a little time on my own and I couldn’t even tell you why. I just do. For a hack (though surely I have long made clear that as ‘newspapermen’ are concerned) I am the least likely candidate to get the long-service medal – ‘newspapermen’ are supposed to ‘care about news’, be ‘news hounds’, be ‘first with the news’, regard it as a ‘privilege and an honour’ to serve the Fourth Estate. If what passes for ‘news’ really is ‘news’ – Kim Kardashian is still shagging Kanye West, but he’s already losing interest (you can tell by how, publicly, he’s still ‘deeply in love’); the unions warning Ed Miliband that unless he toes the line, it’s curtains as far as dosh is concnerned; Mary Berry was a real goer when she was a lass, but the BBC is saying nought – I don’t five a flying fuck about news.

Yes, there is news, and there are very admirable reporters and hacks out there doing a very good and often very dangerous job. But they are a distinct minority. As for the rest of us, all this brave talk about ‘needing a deadline’ is just pap for the suckers: the deadline my employers care about is 10pm because just a minute over getting the stuff down to the printers costs hard cash, and that, my hearties gets a lot closer to the beating heart of journalism, past and present, than any amount of waffle about ‘getting the story’.

Let me elucidate: in the golden age of print journalism, before TV and radio and latterly the net, which last about 100 years from the mid-nineteenth century, newspapers had real rivals. Each city, whether in Britain, the US, or in Europe, had at least two evening newspapers and it was a cuthroat business. The amount of advertising cash being spent was limited so, just to survive, let alone make oddles of cash to keep the proprietor happy, each newspaper had to grab as much of that cash as possible. That meant asuruing the advertisers that 1) more people read your paper than read the opposition; and 2) making sure you got your paper out onto the street first to make sure more people read your paper than the opposition. And that was where this ‘be first with the story came from’. No one is going to buy the Evening Beast to read about what’s happened if they have already bought the Evening Brute and already know what’s happened (and the names aren’t my joke but Evelyn Waugh’s or at least a variation of it).

There were once, of course, times when ‘the governing classes’ were dead against newspapers getting even a sniff of what they were up to and passing it on to the hoi polloi. That’s why, here in Britain, they imposed a duty on each paper to ensure it was too expensive for the plebs (for that was how they were regarded) to buy. And that is why one copy of a newspaper would be read allowed to a group of people, in libraries and taverns: at least the cost could be carried by a group. That is also why one element of the ‘governing classes’ fought tooth and nail agains each and every Education Act, to ensure the great unwashed would never learn to read. (That was the same reason why the Roman Catholic church, often on pain of death, wanted only Latin copies of the Bible to be allowed and did not want it translated into any of the vulgar languages, vulgar not here meaing quite what you think it means.)

But on the Tweedledum and Tweedledee principle, another segment of the governing classes, although in no way more disposed to ensuring the well-being of the great unwashed than their opponents, supported each and every Education Act on the grounds that ‘the others’ were opposing it (except, sadly, it really wasn’t all that simple – there were good men on both sides, but don’t let that delay a chap in full rant).

So at one time part of what newspapers were printing was worthwhile – the decisions of government, the debates in the Commons – although even then it wasn’t half has hi’falutin as Newspaper Romantics would have you believe: years ago, I went for an interview for a reporter’s job on the Northampton Chronicle, which was already in those days based in some soulless industrial estate. While I was waiting to be shown in, I spotted, under a protective glass cover a copy of the paper from the end of the 18th century and read parts of it. I happened upon the classified ads and there I came across two things: a lonely hearts column and an ad for wasing powder, which – believe it or not – included a ‘blue whitener’. Pluc ca change . . .

Yes, newspapers had an important role in ensuring a beady eye was kept on the goings on in parliament and in our courts, but arguably it is no longer a role they fulfill. Other media outlets do so.

Some still do, of course, but there is always more than half an eye on what might make money. Even the saintly Guardian, as Private Eye repeatedly records, is not above acts of utter hypocrisy, decrying dictatorship and the rest on one page while further on graciously accepting a dictator’s shilling for carrying what are euphemistically called ‘advertorials’, but should be called ‘advertisements’. But let them all plough their own bloody furrow.

Any hacks reading this might well object that I’m an em rule short of a layout, but what they hell. To get to the point (if I remember it, which somehow I doubt), ‘newspapermen’ are supposed to relish deadlines. I don’t. I like to try to get things done and dusted long before the deadline is reached, which, if nothing else – and there is a lot else – means you can go over what you have written again and again and try to improve it.

To be frank, which is not the same as honest, that is sadly something I don’t do immediately in these blog entries and it doesn’t surprise me that quite often a reader might ask her or himself ‘what the bloody hell is he on about now?’ Once posted, I will look through an entry and correct the spelling howlers I spot, and, if necessary, try to rewrite a passage to make sure it makes more sense.

But as a rule I sit here, waffle and pointificate, then post. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t thought about what I am writing, and, for example, what I have written above I what I thought about for years, partially to explain to myself just why my journalistic ‘career’ has been about as outstanding as Eddie the Eagles in ski jumping. If I can leave you with one thought, it is this: when next you hear a hack, whether a retired old fart reminiscing about his or her career, or a young turk pumping up the PR volume and trying to make out what a keen blade she or he is banging on about ‘needing a deadline’, just remind yourselves that it is so much bollocks. They don’t ‘need a deadline’, they just need a lot more discipline.

. . .

I am now well over halfway through re-reading Butterfield 8 (see, I remembered), and it is well worth it. In a sense I am reading the story for the first time because I can now take in the slight details and no longer be stalled and snared by those bits which snared and stalled me the first time round. Re-reading a novel – re-reading a novel just as soon as you have got to the end – is something I have done several times now and I can recommend it, especially if you do so immediately you have finished the novel (or short story or novella) for the first time.

As I said earlier, I had seen the film starring Elizabeth Taylor several years ago, and although I liked it then, I now realise, despite Taylor’s Oscar, that it is no more, and possibly even less, than just another piece of Hollywood schlock. In it Taylor, in keeping with the utterly hypocritical morality of the time, dies at the end because she was when all was said and done, and in Hollywood terms, a bad girl. Not so the protagonist of O’Hara’s novel, Gloria Wandrous. I have read that O’Hara was an alcoholic who was not just difficult to get on with but ‘impossible’. Perhaps, but he is also a very honest writer. Wandrous shagged around, took drugs, drank the city dry and had even dabbled in lesbianism (shock horror!) and – apparently – stole a mink coat.

Yet she was by no means a ‘bad girl’. She had been sexually abused at 11, and then again, for a far long period at 15, and it destroyed her. She is a bright, intelligent, savvy and very likeable young woman and when she dies (in the wheels of a paddle steamer after falling overboard – and it is really not clear whether it was an accident or whether she turned and jumped overboard), it is the sad end to a young and sad life.

There are other likeable characters – Eddie Brunner, a true friend who most probably has fallen in love with her in the best possible sense, but who decides he will settle for a more conventional woman because, well, it is safer; and Jimmy Malloy, another character who is at heart honest and has no illusions about the city he lives in. But there are also some deeply hypocritical characters, Weston Liggett, who more or less rapes Gloria and thinks he has fallen in love with her. O’Hara is merciless in his portrayal of they hypocrisy of conventional morality, conventional marriage, conventional love, the unthinking and odious racism of the well-off – even Gloria is not immune to that – and the mad and manic drinking and spending culture of the post-1929 crash era.

And Christ he can write well. I have already said how much I admire the ‘looseness’ of his writing but which is not in the slightest bit ‘loose’ in any other sense. Here is a bit, by no means typical, of his prose. (I copied it out a few days ago to post here. To be fair the passage goes on much further, but I think it makes my point.

Check him out, possibly again. You will not be disappointed.

The excerpt (Emily is Liggett’s wife:

Liggett was not quite one of these men; Emily certainly was not one of these women. For one thing Liggett was a Pittsburgher and Emily a Bostonian. That was one thing, not two. Liggett was precisely the sort of person who, if he hadn’t married Emily, would be just the perfect person for Emily to snub. All her life she seemed to be saving up for one snub, which would have to be delivered to an upper-class American, since no foreigner and no lower-class American could possibly understand what she had that she felt entitled her to deliver a snub. What she had was a Colonial governor; an unbroken string of studious Harvard men; their women. Immediately and her own was, of course, the Winsor-Vincent Club-Sewing Circle background. She had a few family connections in New York, and they were unassailable socially; they never went out. It came as a surprise which he was a long time understanding for Liggett to learn, after he married Emily, that Emily had never stopped at a hotel in New York. She explained that the only possible reason you went to New York was to visit relations, and then you stopped with them, not at a hotel. Yes, that was true, he agreed – and never told the fun he had had as a kid, stopping at New York hotels; the time he released a roll of toilet paper upon Fifth Avenue, the time he climbed along the ledge from one window to another. He was a little afraid of her.

If I have time, I shall add the rest of this passage. It doesn’t quite stand as it is here.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Pound plummets, stocks plummet, economy in dire straights: why? Well, the Scots might well – perhaps - en masse tell Perfidious Albion to take a running jump

Las Albadas: Year three, fourth day.

Well into my week of doing nothing and caring even less about it. Nothing much to report, really, except that somewhere along the line I’ve been bitten several times – about nine or ten times – and have the marks to show it. Where the spider came from, and why it had it in for me I don’t know. I most certainly do not have a ‘thing about spiders’ (being afraid of them, rather than wanting to shag them, as is the other meaning of ‘having a thing for’), and had I seen the bloody spider and/or caught it in the act, it would have become acquainted with the full fury of a Powell bitten. But spiders are a long way from the Scots desire for independence from Perfidious Albion (or, at least, the desire of many Scots for independence – just how many there are, or rather just how many there are who can be bothered to leave the TV alone for the 15 minutes it takes to go along to the polling booth and cast their vote, will be revealed a week on Thursday.

I mention this for two reason: first writing about the Scottish independence referendum and, well, possible Scottish independence allows me once again to post the pic I came across several years ago of a Scottish bar stool. Here it is:


Scottish bar stool

The second reason is to register my bewilderment, experienced again today for the umpteenth time, at the behaviour of ‘the markets’, or more specifically ‘the financial markets’ and ‘the stock exchange.

I’m not a complete naif about the workings of the economy, the stock market and the rest of that goddam-awful shite, and, whisper it quietly, I even own a few shares, although these are part and parcel of my ‘pension plan’ (the inverted commas, as ever useful for making a point, are intended to convey what a pitiful ‘pension plan’ it is: with luck I shall be able to pay my yearly electricity bill and my weekly bus far to the local food bank.) But the stock market seems once again to prove the truth of a realisation most of us come to at some point in our lives, that however upright, bright, pleasant, rational and attractive folk are individually – or, of course, depending upon the individual, not – gather them into a group of more than, say, ten or twelve and they lose most of their rationality and most certainly the group as a whole begins to behave like a dumb shit.

A herd mentality takes over, and I know, because I once bought (but never read) a book about the herd mentality of the stock market, the group behaves like someone with an IQ in minus figures. So, for example, an opinion poll this morning revealed that, according to its research (i.e. the number of folk they questioned down the pub last night) more Scots want to become independent and leave the United Kingdom than want to stay and – well, there are better ways of putting it and I know that by putting it in this very crude way and am also betraying my own sympathies – carry on sucking the Westminster dick. And what happened: apparently ‘billions were knocked off the value of the pound’ and ‘stocks fell sharply’. But why, for God’s sake?

The standard answer is that ‘the market likes stability’. Well, don’t we all, but a bit of uncertainty over how many Scots will be bothered to tootle along to the polling booth and add their X to the choice to ‘Tell England To Fuck Off!, is surely nothing but a summer storm. Yes, there are dire predictions that ‘business will suffer’, but anyone taking the long view – which the herd never does – will know it will all blow over and be business as usual quite soon.

Then there’s the other curiosity: although this one poll signified that a majority of Scots want independence, ever other poll held at exactly the same time came to the opposite conclusion: that the number of Scots who want their nation to stay as a part of the United Kingdom (and as I so crudely put it above, carry on sucking Westminster’s dick) is still greater.

Admittedly, over the months and years that these polls have been held the Yes vote has been gaining ground and the No vote, conversely, losing it, but ask yourself: if just one poll of many predicts an overall Yes vote a week on Thursday (September 18 , to make things easy for the innumerate), is that really good enough reason to go into panic mind and junk the pound? (The point should also be made that opinion polls are questionable from about ten different directions, but apart from mentioning it, I shan’t pursue if further, because, well, I can’t think of anything facetious to say on that score, so dull are opinion polls. I mean, what would your reaction be if you asked a son or daughter ‘what do you want be when you grow up, sweetheart?’ and the replied with a toothsome lisp ‘I want to be an opinion pollster, daddy’.

But back to the lunatics and fuckwits who run our banks, the stock market and upon whose utterly irrational behaviour depends whether stocks rise or plummet. Like a great many, I was baffled by the stock exchange for many years, just as I was baffled by ‘banking’, ‘derivatives’, ‘futures’, ‘the national debt’ and the rest of it. Then, not so many years ago, and having served for many years in the bullshit industry, the penny dropped: it is all very, very simple, but the schtick to stop folk realising just how simple it all is is to use jargon. Thus ‘debt’ – and we all know what debt is – becomes ‘highly leveraged’.

In fact just two days ago I read, just by chance I have to admit, a letter in the most recent issue of The New Yorker from the head honcho at S&P Capital in response to a piece a John Lanchester had written about the impenetrable jargon employed by the financial world to confuse the hell out of the rest of us. Lanchester chastised our bankers, brokers and their camp followers for describing ‘debt’ as ‘credit’.

Yes, wrote the S&P head honcho patiently in reply, of course, he took Lanchester’s point, but, you see in a sense ‘debt’ was ‘credit’. And he is right: I you owe me money, you are in debt and I have a credit. But that does expand a great deal more the already vast amount of land covered by the notion of bloody disingenuousness. Is, in a sense, ‘evil’ really ‘good’? At this point the bankers, brokers and their camp followers will certainly be nodding to each other and muttering ‘well, the trouble is this Patrick Powell chap doesn’t understand the subtleties of finance and banking’.

To which I reply: on the contrary, this Patrick Powell chap and a growing number like him are beginning to understand only to well the ‘subtleties’ of finance and banking. And they are getting rather fed up with carrying the can for the implications of those ‘subtleties’. This all started with a headline I spotted in several papers about how ‘the pound has plunged’ because one poll suggested ‘wee Scotland’ might finally be getting terminally fucked off with being patronised by the chinless Herberts who hold the reins of power in the United Kingdom.

There are, of course, two issues at stake here: Scottish independence and the herd mentality of another set of chinless Herberts who mad and manic panic can affect the immediate future of the British economy. And much as I’d like to waffle on for some considerable time, I am informed that supper is ready.

. . .

A few hours later

It is still another nine days to the Scottish referendum and I think from the above it is pretty obvious where my sympathies lie. I also get the feeling the the No Together campaign, or whatever they are calling themselves today, is panicking as only bullies can panic when they realise their bluff has been called.

All their sudden promises for ‘more power’ if you stick with us strikes me as just the kind of crap a violent husband promises the wife he has been beating up for the past 15 years: ‘Sorry, love, I really, really do love you and I’ll never hit you again. Promise.’ Several hours later, after yet another imagined blow to his ego, he lashes out, and the good lady packs her bag for ever.

My solution, and one which doesn’t have a cat in hell’s chance of ever coming about, not least cos Ireland, Scotland and Wales don’t trust England one inch, would be a truly federal arrangement, one in which all four constituent parts of the UK are equal partners, and the Commons is reduced to something like 200 MPs, with 50 (or whatever is regarded as an equitable number) representing each federal partner. But, forget it, that ain’t never going to happen.

So, my best wishes, Scotland. It might blow up in your faces, and it might not. But at least you will be shot of the English and their insufferable patronising attitude.

. . .

Later still (in fact, the following day)

It has come to my notice that in an entry (at some point somewher, I know not where now. Shame, eh?) I said (I ‘opined’ for Will Self fans) that when all was said and done I believed Scotland would be better off in the Union. It would seem I have changed my tune, but actually I haven’t.

I still think, if these things are considered in pounds, shillings, pence and salmon, that Scotland would be better off remaining in the Union. But there come times when not everything can be reduced to its financial value. (In the same spirit I heartily dislike the current obsession that reduced education, both secondary and tertiary (‘university’ for Will Self fans), to ‘finding a role in the workplace’ or some other such utiliratian and utterly soulless guff.

We don’t educate our young to work and become the next generation of worker drones, we educate them to expand themselves and their minds and to make the best they can of themselves in whatever way they choose to. OK, so 110pc of use do end up as worker drones, but there is not good case I know of for making the process easy and assisting the grandgrindian tendency.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

In praise of John O’Hara, an apparently forgotten American writer who could write the pants of many past and present

I think I’ve mentioned the American writer John O’Hara in this blog before, or perhaps I haven’t. But I am about to do so now.

I had never before heard of him until somewhere I saw praised a novel called Appointment In Samara. I don’t know where I saw it praised or even how long ago, but, as I do all too often, I was enthused to buy it, logged on Amazon (brickbats available at all good independent bookshop for that particular internet service) and bought myself a copy. It arrived and then I promptly forgot about it and it languished on my bookshelf for, well, I don’t know how long. If I could remember when I first heard of it, I could, of course, tell you. But I can’t.

Last July I made my, now habitual, trip to South-West France to stay with my aunt – strictly, my stepmother’s sister, but I am one of those who likes to extend family as far and as often as possible) to be her ‘walker’ on visits to the range of concerts held at that time of year in the Bordeaux area. And while I was packing, I looked around for two books to take with me. At the time I was re-reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History Of The United States (which I recommend wholeheartedly to everyone for a very lucid and very useful counterweight to the widespread notion of ‘the Free World’ and how we are all immensely lucky to be living in it, if, of course, we are, and which is, rather predictably hated and po-poed by neo-cons of every stripe) and packed that.

Then I went to my bookshelf and again came across Appointment In Samara, and that, too, went into my bag. As it was I didn’t even open the history book, but read, not quite at one sitting, but at several long sittings, Appointment. And it is very good indeed. I often protest, and not with false modesty, that I am not at all well-read. For a man of my pretensions I am, in fact, abysmally badly-read (I’m assuming that phrase, too, gets a hyphen if it’s cousin does). But I do have very definite ideas on who are good writers and they are not overly conventional. For example, and despite his lack of ‘serious subject matter’, as far as I am concerned the late Elmore Leonard was an exceptionally good American writer. What he could do with words and sentences, which is, after all, partly what ‘writing’ is about, is remarkable.

I realise, being by my own admission, not ‘well-read’, I am on thin ice in my comments, so please bear in mind that I am aware of it. So, for example, quite a few of the world’s most recent novelists writing in English whose work I have attempted to read did not strike me in the slightest as being anything out of the ordinary. Take Martin Amis: I tried him, didn’t get far and gave up. Perhaps , given the hoohah about him in the Eighties – and he was very much an Eighties writer now rather living off past glories (and a new set of teeth, I understand) – I should have persevered. But I didn’t and I take the view that a writer should somehow persuade you to persevere. Amis didn’t.

Then there is Mr Will Self (whose name I thought, when I first came across it, was intended to be some kind of post-ironic, post-modern gibe at modern narcissism, where ‘modern’ holds true of each and every age since the dawn of time, whereas, in fact, ‘Self’ really is his surname): he gave me the distinct impression that by his use of extremely unusual words he was mainly doing nothing but showing off. Look up each and every ‘big’ word he uses and most certainly it is being used appositely. But why not keep it simple? Why, apparently, try to remind folk that they aren’t quite as bright as you are, or, at least, you think you are? Null points for Mr Self (who has, though, unsurprisingly, carved out quite a lucrative existence for himself among the mediocracy, with regular spots on Radio 4, columns in The Observer and as what is sadly often called a ‘social commentator’.

As I am often referred to as ‘Honest Pat’, I do feel obliged to admit that when I have heard a ten-minute piece by Mr Self on Radio 4, I found myself almost always agreeing with him, his intellectually overwrought expression notwithstanding, and that admission comes, as you will most certainly believe, through very gritted teeth.

As for contemporary American writers, I am on even thinner ice. Radio 4 runs its Book At Bedtime programme throughout the week, and a recent book serialised was the most recent by Donna Tartt. Perhaps something is lost in the process of adaptation, but I could not help thinking: she’s a big noise in Yanke literary circles? Really? Why? If some of her good writing had survived the adaptation, she’s not, in my book at least, at all. Good. Then there’s this the apparently current U.S. preoccupation with writing the ‘big novel’, with the suggestion that if it doesn’t come in at at least 600 pages, it’s crap. But let me repeat, there could be – and most probably is, given what I am about to write about John O’Hara – a greats deal I am missing.

. . .

All of the above notwithstanding, quite some time ago I became aware of what I regard as a virtue of ‘American writing’ which does not seem to be shared by British writers. I can, offhand, not think of any other way of putting it but to describe their writing as ‘looser’, and I really do not mean that in any derogatory sense. They seem less contrained, more fluid and fluent. But having said that and given my admission – it’s Honest Pat, remember – I shall say no more, because all I have to go on is the pitiful amount I have so far read. We, or at least, most of us have heard of Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Roth and the other one, whose name I can’t remember. So why does no one, it would seem, talk about O’Hara any more?

After reading Appointment In Samara and after finding out that a great many – around 400 – of his short stories had been published in The New Yorker (more gnashing of teeth by the neo-cons I should imagine, but let’s let that go for now), I bought a volume of his ‘New York’ short stories and very much like those I then read. And I also bought a copy of his second novel Butterfield 8 (Butterfield 8, if you’re a purist).

I finished reading it today and then did what I have previously done with other novels: I immediately started reading it again from the beginning and found that it was even better. I think that stems from the fact that once you have read a novel (and for me reading a novel is as much about ‘the writing’ as it is about anything else) you are more acquainted with it and can savour and appreciate aspects of it which earlier, at the first reading, were not quite as apparent. In the case of Butterfield 8 (OK, you purists Butterfield 8), the dialogue became livelier, in a sense more natural and, although very good at first reading, even better.

I gather O’Hara was respected for his naturalistic dialogue. But once you have read a novel, you – if it is a good novel, which Butterfield 8 is (and I’ll now dispense with the joke about purists) – you know the ‘shape’ and have an overview. Before you read it, you didn’t have that.

Reading O’Hara took a little getting used to. As a Brit and as a Brit who earns his daily crust working as a sub-editor (U.S. copy editor) I am sadly inclined to try to say what has to be said most effectively in the fewest number of words. (The ‘fewest number of words’ is a result of words costing money. That’s why all too often the ‘thats’ are removed from a piece because although they might be useful they are often not really necessary.) Then there’s what non-Brits might regard as Brit tight-aresedness (which is one way of putting it) .

For better or worse we are rather more rigid than non-Brits, often in our writing, hence my admiration for American writers who are good but ‘looser’. So when I first began reading O’Hara’s Appointment In Samara, I would be pulled up short by what might be regarded as oddities in his prose. But this was just a result of my training. Writers can, well all is said and done, write just how they want to, grammar or no grammar: what is important is the end result, not obeying what are at the end of the day merely conventional rulse.

For example, for us sub-editors it is something of a no-no to use the same word twice in the same sentence and we’ll strive to find an alterantive. For a writer, on the other hand, using that same word not just twice but three, four or five times, or however often she or he wants to might well be making a certain point. It’s often puzzled me that we will listen to pieces of music again and again and again, very often in the case of pop songs but also some jazz, rather more rarely with classical pieces, but watching a film again or reading a novel again, as soon as we have seen the film or read the novel, is regarded as, well, rather odd. People ask: why do you want to read it again? You’ve only just read it. Well, above is my answer: the first time is to get to know the novel – and surely to goodness most of us can agree that a novel is more than ‘the story’ – you can now really read it.

Years ago, when I was still at school and a spotty adolescent growing up, I had just one classical LP (older folk will know what that is, younger folk must be told it was the precursor of CDs). It was a recording, by whom I really can’t remember, of Mozart’s 40th and 41st symphonies. And I listened to it again and again and again. So now when I listen to it, I am at the point where I know what this passage is leading to.

There are other pieces and other books which I know as well. My favourite author is Evelyn Waugh, and although I haven’t read all his work (the short stories are very poor) I have read all his novels many times, and each time I get that same feeling of expecation: this bit is just so good. Has no one reading this never read a paragraph again because it is simply so well written. Well, I have, and reading novels again – or watching a film again or listening to a particular recording of a piece of music again, whether pop, jazz or classical – holds the same pleasure.

. . .

I first heard of Butterfield 8 as the film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Laurence Harvey. Ironically Taylor won her first Oscar for her role even though she hated the film. I saw it a few years ago and thought it was so-so. I have now read the novel on which it was – very loosely – based and although I am fully aware of the dyspeptic pseudo morality Hollywood had made its own since the Hays Act, think the film is – by comparison – abysmal.

Furthermore O’Hara’s Butterfield 8 is crying out to be made into a film again, if for no other reason that the corruped morality and the perverted notions of marriage and family it describes are as prevalent today. In many other ways a new version would be a very different film and I suspect could only be made by an independet filmmaker. And if you don’t understand any of that, read the book and I’m sure you would then agree with me.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

A first dispatch . . . (with some pictures)

Las Albadas: Year Three, second day.

Pleasant as always. I was a tad indiscrete (or ‘indiscreet’ – subs please check as at this point I can’t be arsed) in my dispatches from this neck of the Spanish woods last year (or so I’m told), so I shall try for a little more discretion this time round: no names, no pack drill.

Arrived on Thursday, after stopping of at a bar in La Pobla Tornessa and when I discovered it now had wifi for free, gratis and without paying, ‘did the puzzles’ there and then and got them out of the way to make way for a hassle-free seven days (i.e. no scurrying around among my host’s friends and acquaintances as to who has wifi and would it be OK if I came along a did a bit of the work I am obliged to do come rain or shine, work or play). Arrived at just after 6pm and after a few gins it was off up into the hills for a barbecue with a friend of my host’s from when he lived in Cornwall and, would you believe it, the husband of one of the teaching assistant’s at the primary school my daughter and son attended in St Maby. It’s a small clichĂ©, eh? It was a very tasty barbecue, and I enjoyed it immensely even though I must have eaten more meat than I usually do in three years. But what the hell.

Yesterday involved a shopping expedition to Castello or Castell0 – which spelling you subscribe to depends upon whether you are a native of the region of Valencia – to stock up an Heiniken, Larios gin, tonic and lemons, as well as one or two other essentials (including for me, English teabags: I was pleased to find among all the many brands used to prepare the panther piss which is passed off for tea almost everywhere in the world except Old Blighty, on offer was also PG Tips and Tetley teabags of which the Tetley was, at 80 for €3.80, was by far the best value. Brits thinking of heading abroad please note).

After that it was do nothing in the run-up to doing even less (in no particular order) which is my sort of holiday. I’m not really one for marching around museums and visiting other cultural artifacts. Some are, I’m not, and nor am I one for acknowledging any timetable of any description when on holiday. What is the point? Today it was a light lunch at one of the very many restaurants geared up for feeding local Spaniards their lunch. The Spaniards, it seems, are great ones for eating out and don’t need an occasion to do so. I have also been amusing myself taking various photos, of which here is a selection of four. And if you can’t see them, that means my phon is playing up and I cannot transfer them from it to my laptop.

Incidentally: how come this guy can post a blog entry with out wifi? you are surely asking yourselves. Simple really: wifi really is necessary to log onto my computer in London to do all the work, but for reading emails etc, I can use the 3G facility on my phone. It is by no means cheap - £3 for 100Mb (used up in a few secons) and then you pay through the nose – I can write this offline, then post it. And who said I wasn’t immensely clever? Hm



Those who are familiar with my host's work will recognise his trademark logo on the wall of his workshop here in Spain