Sunday, 30 December 2007


Merry Xmas was it?


My ex-SAS doctor, who until this time I had looked on as a friend, put me on antibiotics which ruled out drink. Not only was I dragged back on the wagon. I was tied to the wheels with a grim-visaged Head Ferret driving the team.

I didn’t really mind. Drinking at Xmas is no fun. It is when teetotallers crowd into pubs and get us drunks a bad name. I shudder at the way they follow a sweet sherry with a milk stout, a whisky and ginger and a Tia Maria, then ask their friend, “What was that we had in Majorca, Blod?” and finish up with Sangria and an Alka Seltzer rub down.

I was tempted to ignore the blood pressure problem like my good friend Jimmy Godwin, head waiter at the Blossoms in Chester who was told by his doctor to give up gin and tonic after his first heart attack.

Jimmy did exactly what the doctor ordered. He gave up gin and tonic. Switched to whisky and tonic. He was much relieved after his second heart attack. He told me he had found the common denominator.

“It’s the tonic,“ he said, and not another drop passed his lips.

“Great waiter,” said Lol at his funeral some months later. “Lousy diagnostician.”

Teetotalism comes a bit hard, though I once lasted five years. Came a cropper when the Ferret took me on a coach trip to the Loire Valley. One of the excursions was to a vineyard.

The Ferret said I could drink on French Territory but not at home, which was OK for a bit. Then an American cousin and family historian, Warren Skidmore, discovered that our first ancestor, Ralph, was a Norman who came to this country after the Battle of Hastings.

Norman, I thought? That means I AM French Territory, and it was off at all meetings. Alas, not for the first time, France has been occupied by Fascists.
The Ferret claims that by May the drinking money I save will pay for a holiday in Moscow and St Petersburg, a city for some reason she is desperate to visit. Though she knows I do not do abroad, or even the next town, unless pushed. She reckons that when we have paid for a holiday for two there will even be enough left over to buy the Kremlin. But she always had an exaggerated notion of how much I spend on drink. I doubt if there will be enough to buy Lenin’s Tomb, which, the way things are, will be just the place to hold my 79th birthday party.

But don’t worry about me. Just make sure you have a Happy New Year.

The tenor Stuart Burroughs was a great one for New Year parties. Nice fellow. Never had a singing lesson, just began singing when he was in the RAF and never looked back. I know a story which puts him in a very good light.

Pal of mine’s wife had motor neurone disease. She was a big fan of the tenor who was coming to Bangor, North Wales, to give a concert.
She was too ill to attend a performance but my pal was determined she would be present at the rehearsal. We pulled a few strings and a place was kept for her.

Alas, traffic was heavy, manoeuvring a wheel chair is a slow job, and when they arrived at the venue the rehearsal was ending. As he walked out, Burroughs spotted the wheel chair and came over to have a word with my pal’s wife. She told him how sorry she was to have missed his rehearsal.

“Did you?” he said. “We can’t have that.”

He called back his accompanist and together they did the whole programme, just for her.

I was telling you about my friend George Thomas and his debut in the paddling pool world of light entertainment.

He was fortunate enough to do his air crew training in America. Before visiting New York on leave, he and his pilot were warned not to stare at people. To do so would be to elicit snarls of “Rubberneck”.

George recalled they were on the subway when a Puerto Rican mother settled in their carriage, accompanied by the fattest baby they had ever seen. “It was spherical,” George said, and you could see he was moved. So unusual was its shape that the pilot’s eyes were drawn to it, however hard he tried to look away.

“RUBBER,” snarled the mother.

“Thank God,” said the pilot, “I thought it was real.”



Seven people were injured on Thursday when Greek Orthodox and Armenian priests came to blows in a dispute over how to clean the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Following the Christmas celebrations, Greek Orthodox priests set up ladders to clean the walls and ceilings of their part of the church, which is built over the site where Jesus Christ is believed to have been born.
But the ladders encroached on space controlled by Armenian priests, according to photographers who said angry words ensued and blows quickly followed.
For a quarter of an hour bearded and robed priests laid into each other with fists, brooms and iron rods while the photographers who had come to take pictures of the annual cleaning ceremony recorded the whole event.
A dozen unarmed Palestinian policemen were sent to try to separate the priests, but two of them were also injured in the unholy melee.
"As usual the cleaning of the church after Christmas is a cause of problems," Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh told AFP, adding that he has offered to help ease tensions.
"For the two years that I have been here everything went more or less calmly," he said. "It's all finished now."
The Church of the Nativity, like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City, is shared by various branches of Christianity, each of which controls and jealously guards a part of the holy site.
The Church of the Nativity is built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was born in a stable more than 2,000 years ago after Mary and Joseph were turned away by an inn.

Saturday, 22 December 2007


Oh dear. My recent rants about religion have led at least one reader to conclude I am an atheist. Far from it. I am descended from a long line of Methodist lay preachers. One of whom was so friendly with John Wesley that when he came to preach in my family home at Stourbridge in Staffordshire so many people wanted to hear him they could not all fit in the ground floor of the house.

My ancestor hit upon a typically Skidmorean solution. He carved a hole in the kitchen ceiling, stood Wesley on the table so that his head peeped through into the bedroom above and directed the overflow to listen to him there. Another ancestor held towpath services for bargees, which led to him being called the Bargeman’s Bishop.

My favourite ancestral story concerns the more exalted branch of the family who held the living of Abbey Dore in the Golden Valley. One of them appointed a vicar who was only five foot tall and could not be seen over the rim of the pulpit. My ancestor, disturbed by being sermonised by a disembodied voice, tried to persuade him to stand on a box. The tiny vicar refused because it was not consonant with his dignity.

The ancestor was Charles II’s ambassador to France at the time but that did not prevent him from giving most of his attention to the pulpit dispute. His refusal to learn French obviously reduced the time he had to spend on official duties.

Far from being anti-religious, I have worried about religion for most of my life and have only recently come to a conclusion that satisfies me. I have never shared the belief that the more science discovers about life, the more difficult it becomes to believe in a creator. Quite the opposite. I read in the Daily Telegraph of new mathematical theories which suggest that, in the very beginning, there was a void that possessed energy but was devoid of substance. “Then the void changed, converting energy into the hot matter of the big bang. But the team suggests that the void did not convert as much energy to matter as it could, retaining some, in the form of what we now call dark energy, which now accelerates the expansion of the cosmos.”

The story (DT 22.11.07) described a basic tenet of religion. The doctrine of my old friend Hermes Trignegustus, who said in the 2nd century “God is a sphere whose centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere.”

Or of Zen Buddhism. Witness Huang Po’s description of Zen in the 9th century: ”All the Buddhas and all sentient beings are nothing but the One Mind beside which nothing exists. This Mind, which is without beginning, is unborn and indestructible. It has neither form nor appearance. It does
not belong to the categories of things which exist or do not exist; nor can it be thought of in terms of new or old. It is neither long nor short, big nor small, for it transcends all limits, measures, names, traces and comparisons. It is what you see before you. Begin to reason about it and you at once fall into error. It is like the boundless void which cannot be fathomed or measured.“

In the 17th century Sir Thomas Browne wrote in his “Religion of a
Doctor”: “I believe that a common spirit infuses all mankind. It is the spirit of God. It is the spirit which lay on the waters and by its heat generated the world and all creation... the Holy Spirit. The Universal Spirit of the Pagan.”
Another thing I learned recently was that we all carry two strands of genes, the purpose of one strand being to repair any malfunctions in the other. It is difficult, given those facts, to subscribe to the philosophical assertion, the incorrigible proposition “there is no plan, no scenario, no libretto”.

The simple truth, as I see it, is contained in the four fundamental doctrines at the core of Aldous Huxley’s ‘Perennial Philosophy’, which he says all religions share. The first is that the phenomenal world of matter and individual consciousness is a Manifestation of Divine Ground. The second is that human beings are not only capable of knowing the Divine Ground: they realise it by direct intuition. Thirdly, man possesses a double nature, the phenomenal ego and an Eternal Self, the spark of Divinity within the soul. Fourthly, man’s life on earth has one purpose: to identify himself with his Eternal Self and so come to intuitive knowledge of the Divine Ground.

I don’t believe in God as Father Christmas, presiding over a Celestial Eisteddfod where everyone, clad in Druidical nightshirts, incessantly plays harps and you can’t get a drink. I don’t believe in miracles, biblical assertions. And if there is a Day of Judgement, I will stuff my fingers in my ears so that I cannot hear the heavenly trumpet and refuse to take part.

Like Oscar Wilde said to Robert Ross, “When the Last Trumpet sounds, Robbie, let us pretend we do not hear it.”

I hope I make myself clear?

A DROP IN THE OCEAN …………………………………………………………

During World War 2, my friend George Thomas was a wireless operator in a bomber. He told me that on one occasion his aircraft was returning from a raid with so many holes in the fuselage that the pilot suggested, as they approached the coast, they should all jump out before they fell out.

George, who had a great talent in these matters, parachuted into the paddling pool of a holiday camp. The moment he touched water, the rubber dinghy he carried strapped to his back inflated, upending him so that he was floating like an upturned tortoise.

That wasn’t the worse thing, George told me. He said the dinghy contained a large capsule of purple dye which was designed to explode and mark the position of the evicted airman in a vast sea. In the confined area of a paddling pool it emitted a dye of such intensity, George said, he felt like a DFC on a purple velvet cushion.

And there was worse to come. At that stage of the war, he told me, scientists had perfected a small radio beacon which was strapped to the chest of air crew and was so sensitive that on impact an aerial shot up and the equipment issued a loud intermittent bleep.

So there he was, up-ended, circling a tiny azure paddling pool, with his chest making rude noises.

But not even that was the worse thing, he told me (and at this point his voice always shook with suppressed emotion). Over the sound of the radio bleeping he could hear cheering and a ripple of applause. Turning his head, he saw that the pool was ringed by excited children, some of whom were waving paper flags, which he said was very touching.

This went on for some time before a large Yorkshireman in a red coat waded into the pool and pulled George to the safety of the bank. He introduced himself as the camp manager and said, “I dunno know oo tha art, but I’ll tell thee what. If tha can come and do that every Saturday there’s a fiver in it for you.”



A Vicar wrote to the News Chronicle:
“If golf is allowed on Sunday, then cricket and football, tennis, bowls and darts must also be sanctioned and Sunday in Aberystwyth will outdo Paris.”

Sending me this cutting from his Oxford college, the late Professor E. M. Hugh-Jones wrote of the occasion when ... “Gerard Fiennes was walking with the station master along the front at Aberystwyth and an RAF plane flew over on parachute exercise. The first failed to open and the poor man plummeted into the sea. ‘Eh indeed,” remarked the stationmaster, ‘nothing opens in Aberystwyth on a Sunday.’”

May I take the opportunity of hoping, against all the odds, that my readers will have a Happy Christmas and a Prosperous and Healthy New Year? Just don’t bet on it.

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Panto of Mine..................................

I am not a fan of Stephen Fry, the only writer I know who can make an advertisement for tea sexually ambiguous; and I find his novels unimpressive. He is ubiquitous, I know, an hygienic Geldorf with attitude, who appears in many roles but always acts himself and generously shares his wide knowledge of almost everything, whether we want it or not. So I was not surprised to read in the Radio Times that when he wrote a pantomime this year he had to rewrite it because it was too raunchy.
I have a special love of pantomime, perhaps because of its long and distinguished history. The great names in pantomime include John Rich, David Garrick, Joe Grimaldi, Dan Leno, William Beverley, E.L. Blanchard, Herbert Campbell, Nat Jackley, Florrie Ford, Dorothy Ward, Pat Kirkwood, Wyn Calvin, King Charles II, the Emperor Augustus and my mum.
Every year Augustus gave the Roman Empire the elbow so that he could be a pantomime - the word is Greek for dumb show performer - in the mimes to music with which his court entertained itself when it was not throwing Christians to the lions. The Christians got their own back when they came to power by banning those first pantomimes. An act of cultural savagery that was only paralleled by the Puritans, who banned Christmas, and New Labour which made T Bone steaks illegal and tried to do the same with turkey.
Happily, pantomime, the most magical theatrical event, survived down the centuries with groups of players putting on “Commedia dell’ Arte”. They toured Italy acting simple stories about an old man Pantaloon who tries to guard his pretty daughter Columbine from the dashing Harlequin. Harlequin bribes Pantaloon’s servant Polcinella to perform teases and tricks to prevent his master catching the lovers.
Charles II brought “Commedia” to London where it split into separate theatrical traditions; Polcinella fathered Punch and Judy, and Harlequin pantomime. The first musical play was put on by John Weaver, a Shrewsbury dancing master, at Drury Lane in 1702. It was his boss, an actor called John Rich, who first used the word pantomime and introduced the magical tricks which are at the heart of it. The truth is that he had to invent a new entertainment because, though he was a brilliant mime, he could not speak properly and his company were such lousy actors.
Rich invented Harlequin’s costume of many colours for a very good practical reason. Each colour, the audience were told, represented an emotion: yellow for jealousy, blue for truth, scarlet for love. When Harlequin wanted to express an emotion he would strike an attitude and point to a colour. He could even make himself invisible by pointing at black. Even his scenes were inventive. He represented rough seas by getting small boys to jump up and down under a canvas sheet.
Rich also invented many of the pantomime traditions, beautiful scenery and mechanical monsters among them. When, by 1789, people tired of the Harlequin tales, he adapted Robinson Crusoe, the first of the traditional pantomimes. But when a critic suggested it might be a good idea to adapt Cinderella, Babes in the Wood and Puss in Boots as pantomime, everyone thought he was crazy.
Pantomimes were such a success under Rich at his theatre, Covent Garden, that his rival, the great tragedian David Garrick, was forced against his will to put one on at Drury Lane. For the first time his Harlequin had a speaking role because, although he had a wonderful voice, Garrick was a lousy mime.
William Beverley invented the transformation scene when he and E.T. Smith, the lessee of Drury Lane, watched a leg of mutton roasting on a spit.
“Wouldn’t it be a good idea to have a stage that revolved like that mutton,” said Smith, “changing colour as it is doing under the flame?”
“I will paint you one,” said Beverley, and in 1859 a wondering audience gasped at its first transformation scene.
Clowns are always called Joey in tribute to Joe Grimaldi who began life as a ballet dancer but soon became the greatest clown of any age. His father, an Italian actor, thrashed him incessantly. When he was two, he was on stage dressed as a monkey. Attached to a chain, he was whirled round his father’s head. One night the chain broke and he was hurled into the pit. When he was four, he fell through a trap door forty feet down to the cellar below.
His first experience as an actor came when his father shammed death to find out what his children thought of him. Joey, suspecting a trick, cried loudly but his brother danced with joy. It was the brother who got the beating. Sickness and sadness forced him off the stage before he was fifty. He went to a doctor for a cure of his depression. The doctor advised him to go to the theatre and see Grimaldi, who could cheer anyone up.
“But doctor,” he said, “I am Grimaldi.”
I think that is one of the saddest stories I know.
Charles Dickens was in the audience when Grimaldi had to be carried on stage in an armchair, from which he gave his last Clown performance on 27 June 1828. Dickens, incidentally, as a struggling young author had ghosted Grimaldi’s biography. Later when he was famous he did his best to suppress it and it does not appear in any of his collected works.
I am delighted it was a brilliant newspaperman E.L. Blanchard who invented the modern panto and brought in the first man to play dame. She was called Widow Twankey after the china tea Twankay which was popular at the time. It was Blanchard who decided the Principal Boy should be a girl. The first, a Miss Ellington, appeared in his first pantomime in 1852. He wrote every Drury Lane pantomime and many more from then until 1888.
My mum? She was Dandini, Second Boy in Cinderella, at the Theatre Royal, Salford, in 1917. The breathtakingly beautiful Pat Kirkwood, one of the most sophisticated West End leading ladies, was the most glamorous of Principal Boys. We were both born on the same Manchester council estate.
Could be Stephen Fry talking………………………………………..

* * * *

It would take more than one life to get as wizened as Curly Beard so he must have been reincarnated.
He was born in a slum in Derby but went on to be one of Britain’s finest show jumpers, establishing a world record for the height he jumped a horse.
He even survived being employed by Dorothy Paget, an eccentric whose horses were not allowed to leave a showground in the evening until Miss Paget had given the order. It was not uncommon for all the horses to be unloaded again in the near dark so that the great lady could spend a penny in the privacy of the horsebox before they were reloaded and sent on their way.
She slept all day and, like Ludwig of Bavaria, came to life at dusk.
I can never set a foot on the calendula escalator that leads to
Christmas without remembering Curly and the free Christmas tree.

I used to ride work for him in the days when I could be carried by a single horse. He spent much of his time in the Sportsman, up on the Welsh border at Tattenhall. I was in the bar there one day with Curly and my old man when I said, "I will have to go after this. Going to buy a Christmas tree from the Clocaenog forest."

Curly said, "You don't have to buy one. I'll get you one free. But we will have to wait until dark."

So I said, "What will you have while we are waiting?"

Curly said he would have a large gin and my old man said, while I was ordering, would I call him up a large scotch? By the time I had added mine, my free Christmas tree had cost me £6 (it was a long time ago). By the time it was dark it had cost me another ten quid and we were in no state to go digging up Christmas trees.

We arranged to meet at opening time the next day. We were just going to have one and then collect a free tree from a friend of Curly's. We would have done, too, if the Wynnstay Hounds hadn't been meeting at the Cock at Barton.

In those days hunt followers of standing - or in our case barely standing - shared the stirrup cup, a potent mixture of port and brandy which reconciled people to falling off horses. It tasted so good we stayed on after the hounds had moved off. Let's be honest, we were still on it, at my considerable expense, when the huntsman blew kennels somewhere over by Overton.

We kept meeting like that for about a week and I had lost count of how much the free tree had cost me in drinks. But it was well over fifty quid, 70s prices.

To be fair, though, the next night we borrowed the landlord's spade and went off to dig up the tree. I do not know how we managed to break the spade, which I later replaced at the cost of £11.50.

I know how I broke the tree. I remember falling on it. And even if I hadn't remembered, my wife of the time kept reminding me of it for years.



Shelley was so full of life I am surprised her body contained the mechanism for dying. She had the looks and air of a Grand Duchess, clothed in the shimmering silk of merriment. She was, endearingly, a dedicated luncher, though she drank little.

The last time she came to us for lunch (from Yorkshire!) she was full of her new project, typically innovative, a series of illustrated biographies of artists. It followed the success of her first book, a best selling biography of the Salford artist L S Lowry, which was turned into a ballet.
Her most recent “The A to Z on Rembrandt” was published last week.

We near as dammit shared a birthday. One time she took me and her other kids to the theatre to see the ballet “Copelia”. We had just lunched, and in those days the last course for my lunch was always oblivion. I fell asleep during the overture, and, awaking to see a bunch of mechanical dolls dancing before my eyes, was convinced it was DTs, let out a scream of horror, leapt up and charged out of the theatre, to the delight of her tribe.

She was a terrific reporter, for whom every story was the reason Caxton invented printing. Her pal Liz Smith recalls a typical night in 1977:
“We were waiting outside the Daily Mirror, Manchester, for the first edition. She wanted to see if she’d got the splash with her article on the effects of parental drinking on children. Not only did she get a full page splash but pages 2 and 3 as well. The only place to celebrate at that time of night/morning was the Press Club. She managed to get quite high on glasses of water!”

She also recalled the sad time: “Three weeks ago I lunched with her and Wendy and Mike Cuerden. She could hardly get down the stairs when we arrived to collect her but was determined to go for the meal at her favourite local restaurant, and what a lovely time we had sharing memories and stories. I saw her again two weeks ago in hospital; she was on oxygen and pumped full of steroids but looking so good that I thought she might, as she was planning, return home to finish the job she was doing for the Lowry exhibition.“
She probably had a pen and notebook in her hand when she was born. Certainly she was in no doubt where the future lay.
Mike Cuerden writes:
“Shelley, an authority on L S Lowry, had battled with cancer for ten years. Typically, she told no-one when it was first diagnosed.

“Born in London, she grew up in Nottinghamshire, leaving school at 16 with few qualifications but an insatiable curiosity. She began working on the weekly Notts Free Press in Sutton in Ashfield. From there she moved to The Star in London, before it merged with the Evening News. Soon she joined the Daily Express, then the headiest place to work in Fleet Street…

“She was the first girl staffer in Moscow at the age of 21. Slim, chic, and young, she was noticed by the then Russian premier Nikolai Bulganin and Communist Party chief Nikita Khrushchev. When they visited Britain in the late 1950s Shelley acted as unofficial interpreter for the press pack.

“While covering the Hungarian revolution she and other reporters were waiting at a bridge to interview refugees fleeing to Austria. They heard a baby cry and Shelley, risking being shot by Russian guards in watchtowers, crossed the bridge and brought the baby and her family to safety.”

Shelley, though virtually teetotal, was a legendary party giver, Queen of Fleet Street. A foe to be feared on jobs in the North, she even invented and marketed a card game. She helped organise the Lowry exhibition in the Lowry Gallery at Salford, her first project as a curator. It opened the day after she died.

She was a splendid TV chat show host and the most generous part of a double act in the history of that medium. I was looking at a series we did for Granada in which she made me look witty and all wise. She was a heaven sent audience. A rare gift in people of talent.

But above all she was a good and true friend and a terrific loving mother to Michele, Christian, Gavin and Daniel. Her marriage to TV presenter John Weaver ended in divorce.

She had only one flaw. She preferred some bloody Irishman to me.

Stanley Blenkinsop who knew her for fifty years remembers:

After she left the DE I was going through the small ads in the MEN when I saw an advert for a nanny needed who "must be a Man City fan"

I rang up the number - only to find the mother was Shelley! She said the qualification was vital because her kids were City supporters and (quite rightly in my opinion) hated United.

She was tireless in her efforts on behalf of her friends. When my first book was published she brought a crew from Granada TV to Anglesey to interview me and publicise the book.

In those days every member of a TV crew had a “shadow”. They would only work eight hours at a stretch and they required a two hour lunch break with meals of four courses of which three had to be hot.
Since it took two hours to get from Manchester and would take another two hours to get back, the crew insisted on lunch when they arrived and half way through the filming decided it was time to go back. I would have contemplated mass murder: Shelley remained imperturbable and determined that my book should get an airing. She arranged for Jim Parry, a freelance, to make the film on a hand held camera.

At sad times like these I get a great deal of comfort from a poem I found in Nicholas Evans’ book, “The Smoke Jumper”:
Each giving and each taking,
These are not flowers that fade,
Nor trees that fall and crumble,
Nor are they stone.
For even stone cannot the wind and rain withstand
And mighty mountain peaks in time reduce to sand.
What we were, we are.
What we had, we have.
A conjoined past imperishably present.
So when you walk the woods where once we walked together
And scan in vain the dappled bank beside you for my shadow,
Or pause where we always did upon the hill to gaze across the land,
And spotting something, reach by habit for my hand,
And finding none, feel sorrow start to steal upon you,
Be still.
Close your eyes.
Listen for my footfall in your heart.
I am not gone but merely walk within you.

My wife, Celia Lucas, who worked with her on the Daily Mail, says it is OK to say I loved her, because she did too.

Celia writes;

I met Shelley in 1968 when I joined the Daily Mail in Manchester. She came into the office with Mish, then about two or three years old, and typed out a story while Mish played happily on the floor at her feet. The nanny must have been off sick and I was amazed how anyone could concentrate in such circumstances.

I needn’t have been. As I came to learn, Shelley was equal to anything. She was so good – and so thoroughly nice with it – that no one could even be jealous of her, quite an achievement in such a competitive world.

Her parties were amazing. It was when preparing for one of these (I’d got there early, supposedly to help) that I saw, for the first and only time in a domestic setting, a potato peeling machine. Like its owner, it did its job quietly and efficiently with no fuss, and it never broke down.

There were three female reporters in the office (the fourth didn’t stay long and left to get married) and Shelley helped us all with advice and sympathy, both professional and personal. When I met Ian she was an enthusiastic supporter of the romance! Later on, when my children’s books came out, she backed them with articles and a TV slot. She was a true friend and I will miss her.

The funeral will take place on Tuesday 18 December at 1.00 pm at St Philip with St Stephen Church, St Philips Place, (off Chapel Street), Salford, M3 6FJ, followed by a private committal.

A reception will be held at Studio 1, The Lowry, Salford Quays, M50 3AZ (see ) from 3.00pm. (Friends and colleagues may like to visit the new exhibition at The Lowry,"Exploding Paintings", which Shelley curated with others shortly before she died.)


Welsh Graffiti;
“The views expressed on this wall are not necessarily those held by Aberystwyth Urban District Council.”

“Self igniting cottages. Come home to a real fire - buy a cottage in Wales!”

“English capitalists out… Wales has been sold ( subject to contract)”

Sunday, 9 December 2007


Christmas, the ultimate spinning time, approaches. It is time to remind ourselves that in the early days of the Church the nativity was not celebrated. For the very good reason that the date of Christ’s birth is unknown.
St Clement of Alexandria claimed the Egyptians of his time celebrated the Lord's birth on 20 May; at the end of the 3rd century, the Western Churches celebrated it in the winter; churches all over the world united in the 4th century to celebrate the nativity on 25 December. Like other Christian festivals, it was grafted onto a pagan feast, this one celebrating the god Mithras.
People say Christmas is not what it was; that nowadays it is just an excuse for gluttony and drunkenness. Traditionally that is exactly what it was. Only then it was called Saturnalia.
Pope Gregory XIII muddied the waters in A.D. 1582 when he messed about with the calendar. If there had been no realignment, Christmas would not only be coming, it would have been coming twice that year.
My own view is that it was a tremendous error to spin and pin Christian festivals on the old Pagan holy days. When you look at an aerial photograph of a field, the Neolithic ring houses show through the grass. More and more, the old Saturnalia, the binge drinkers’ annual outing on which Christmas was draped like a crepe paper garland, shows through.

Frankly, it has become a celebration for the under tens who still live in that happy world where Father Christmas rules, there are angels round their beds and we celebrate the unlikeliest paternity suit in history.
Benjamin Franklin said it for me when he prophesied a time would come when the Immaculate Conception would have as few believers as the older story of Minerva being born from the head of Jupiter. The Romans believed, you will recall, that Jupiter had a horrible headache and out of his scalp came Minerva, fully grown and dressed in armour, a long trailing robe, a helmet, a shield and a spear.

Bet his missus Juno gave him some old fashioned looks when he tried that one on her.

I have far too much respect for God to believe he does conjuring tricks.
Besides, wherever you look, the wicked eye of Pan is peeping at you through the Festive greenery.

Any day now a giant Christmas tree will be erected in Ely Cathedral and our local church will be thronged. Not for the services but for the admittedly magical Christmas tree festival. Ignoring the awkward truth that the Christmas tree is a very powerful pagan survival, like the effigies of the Green man and the fecund woman carved into stone gargoyles on churches. That old pagan W. C. Fields read the bible avidly as he lay dying. His friends said it was hypocritical. “Not so”, he told them, “I am looking for loopholes.” So, I believe, were those medieval stone carvers. They placed an each way stone betting slip on the drain spouts of their churches. Just in case.

Look in the journals of the distant past. Even Parson Woodruffe, whose diaries read like a menu, didn’t make a great deal of what was then a holy day. Nor Kilvert either. I seem to remember Pepys made much of the feast, but that was in Restoration England which was the mirror of today in all its noisy vulgarity.

Dickens brought the new all purpose Christmas to Britain, a sales gimmick he eagerly took up as a story telling device during his visits to America.
Do not misunderstand me, there is a benevolent Spirit of Christmas which brings gifts to children and is something much more mysterious and lovely than that vulgar old man in the colours of Coca Cola who was invented in America in the 1930s as a sales gimmick for that alarming drink.

I do not understand this new Father Christmas tradition. 364 days of the year you warn your children not to accept gifts from strangers, then on the 365th day you persuade them that it is a good thing that an old man they have never met is going to creep into their bedrooms and load them down with costly gifts. A DRUNKEN old man, I remind you.

You leave him beakers of sherry, pints of beer, bumpers of port. Are you mad? He is not only driving; he is driving six reindeer. In a sky overpopulated with satellites and, according to Norse myth, a wild horde of ravening beasts harnessed by Odin, who is not famous for sobriety.
I wouldn’t travel by air on Christmas Eve, not if Hell had me.

And what about Christmas cards? How many forests do you reckon we will lose supplying wood pulp for the millions of Christmas cards that give postmen yuletide hernias?

From Skidmore Prava we are sending our cards by email, glowing with self righteousness, however mean our friends think we are.

* * * * * *
Freddy Brabin was a wealthy chemist with a shop on a prime site at The Cross in Chester. It was his misfortune to look like Freddy Frinton, the comedian who pretended to be a drunk. Freddy wasn’t pretending. When it came to being a drunk, Freddy was very serious indeed.

He was tiny but drove an enormous Cadillac. When it ran out of petrol he left it where it was and went home by taxi. But not always. Once he was so far gone in the little club we used that I had to drive him home, where he plied me with so much drink he had to get out his Cadillac and drive me back to Chester. But for timely intervention by a third party we might still have been going to and fro.

He was a kindly man. He told me one day how worried he was about the starving children in Africa. He said he had been reading about something called War on Want where people gave public dinners and wondered if I could fill him in with the specifics.

I explained you invited all your friends to dinner, gave them dry bread and water and sent the money a good dinner would have cost to the starving children.

He said, “You must have got it wrong.” He said he wouldn’t dream of asking his friends, or for that matter any enemies he might have, to drink water when it was his round. “Besides,” he said, “I thought I would have it at the Country Club and I have never seen bread and water on the menu there.”

So I suggested a compromise. “Give them a decent meal,” I said, “and, whatever it costs, give the equivalent to War on Want.”

Accordingly, about 40 of us sat down to a four course dinner, which followed a champagne reception and ended with vintage port. After the meal, Freddie spent a few hours and about a thousand quid downstairs in the Casino.

He didn’t fancy driving home, because he kept falling over, so he stayed the night.

The next morning he woke up around six a.m. with a mouth like the floor of a budgie’s cage. In his nightshirt, he wandered down to the kitchens where the early morning chef was still scratching himself and said, “Make us a cup o tea.”

The chef said he didn’t start work, not till seven, so Freddy could …… off.
At seven o’clock Dennis Ewan, the manager, came in and the chef complained to him about drunken guests invading his kitchen. “Just a minute,” said Dennis, “can you smell burning?”

They rushed to the dining room where they saw a crescent made of blazing dining chairs. In the centre stood Freddy, haloed in flames. “Now will you make us a bloody cup of tea?“ he said.

He was quite proud of the fact that he was the only member barred from the Chester Country Club the night after he had spent around two grand there. But, good as gold, he sent the starving kids a cheque for the same amount.


From the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: “In 1867 Rossetti decided to put Swinburne (the shy flagellating poet) in the hands of “some sensible young woman who would make a man of him”. He solicited the aid of Adah Isaacs Menken, a stage performer, to seduce him. Needless to say, the attempt failed, and Miss Menken returned the £10 fee to Rossetti as unearned. “I can’t make him understand,” she explained, “that biting’s no use!”


On May 25 1975 the Irish Press reported that a Mr Brian Dicer, a member of the Welsh International Football team, had been arrested and charged with indecent exposure in the middle of Lenin Square in Kiev.
In his defence, Mr Dicer said: ”Walking round the square was a real eye opener. People rushed up and offered to buy things I was wearing for fantastic sums. My tie went for a fiver, I got £45 for my jacket and £30 for my trousers. Before I knew where I was I was down to my pants and socks.”

Mr Dicer told the police that the man to whom he sold his trousers assured him that he could buy another pair round the corner for a quarter of the price. “But when I got there the shop was closed,” he said.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

A Merry Xmas? You must be joking

I dislike Christmas so much I founded the SAS (The Scrooge Appreciation Society), the insignia of which is the odious Tiny Tim being battered with his own crutch by Tony Soprano.

Now I am going to have to celebrate it because the Government is trying to downsize it. Somewhere in Whitehall there is a Think Tank which is set up for Enjoyment Reduction. Pretty long established. In 1664, Oliver Cromwell banned the Christmas pudding. Eating it, he said, was a lewd custom inappropriate for people who followed God. The pudding was re-established in 1714 by King George I, with meat from the original eliminated from the recipe. It would be about the only sensible thing that George I did, and less socially divisive than locking his adulterous wife up in a German castle in Celle as a punishment after having her lover Count Konigsmark murdered. Though, in fairness, the story that was told in Celle when I was stationed there, that he had the Count baked to death in an oven, lacks authentication. Though when you consider that our Hanoverian Royal family contains a murderer (Victorian Duke of Clarence whom Queen Victoria was convinced was going to murder her); three bigamists (Georges III and IV and William IV) - Charles II was a bigamist too, but he was a Stuart; and a traitor/fraudster (the Duke of Windsor) it does give pause for thought.

I am by nature subversive. What I eat, for example, is dictated by what the Government advises. Whatever it tries to ban, I increase my consumption of. Scoff not. “Safe alcohol levels” were a rough guess by a committee and we have been assured that a large percentage of HIV sufferers do not know they have the disease. If they do not know, how can anyone else? How did the doctors find out and why did they not tell the patients?

Never in my life have I eaten more oxtails than I waved in the face of authority when oxtail was banned (I make them with a dusting of chocolate). T Bone steaks appeared on our table with the regularity of afternoon tea, and I narrowly escaped egg binding when Mrs Currie warned us of their dangers. I even ate foreign cheese, of which I am not greatly enamoured, the moment she advised against it. When she sent out letters of fire and sword against chicken, I ate so much I sneezed feathers.

Now, following the largest ever review of links between diet and cancer
incorporating more than 7,000 studies, a ban is sought on everything I enjoy eating. Among warnings to stay thin, take exercise and eat greens and grains is the recommendation to avoid processed meats such as ham, bacon and salami. Experts suggest we will drop dead on the spot if we so much as nibble the crusts of a bacon butty.

My chum “Blaster“ Bates defined expert thus; ”X is in an unknown quantity and spurt an uncontrollable drip.”

Happily, according to the Daily Mail, there is a growing medical and food
industry backlash against the £4.5 million, five-year study. I stand in its Van.
The trouble is that when the Government leads, others follow. An elderly disabled couple whose Christmas shopping trip to Tesco cost more than £300 have been given a warning for taking too long in the store.
Wheelchair-bound Roland Hodgson, 80, and his wife Pauline, 75, took more than four hours to com.plete their gift-buying expedition, which included a meal in the cafe.
Shortly afterwards they received a letter pointing out that they had exceeded a three-hour limit for parking at the store in Trowbridge, Wiltshire. A young mother has been ordered to pay nearly £400 for leaving her wheelie bin in the wrong place. Holly Dutton, 26, failed to pay a £100 fixed penalty notice issued when she left the bin in an alley behind her house in Horwich, near Bolton
A pensioner was thrown out of a superstore because he refused to remove his hat to please security cameras. A pregnant friend who asked Peterborough Hospital to sex the baby she was carrying was denied on the grounds that if some foreign patients were told they were having a girl they would seek an abortion. In Boots Cash Chemists I was told that my measurement for knee length elastic stockings must be taken by a man. In Halesowen Santa Claus has been forced to add a sea belt to his sledge and observe a 5 mph speed limit. Primary pupils in Devon have been forbidden from wearing angel's wings in case they are set alight by candles. Although much of such nonsense is driven by Insurance Companies it makes our lives a misery and readers will no doubt have many additions to offer.

I once complained to an hotelier that when I put my shoes outside my bedroom door, no one any longer took them to be cleaned. He said there was a machine in the room for that. I said there was also a machine in the room for making tea, a TV, a fridge for drinks and a trouser press. Not to mention room service. And he said, “Well, we don’t want guests wandering round the hotel.”

He explained that on the plans for new hotels the water colour sketches of the reception and restaurant and bars looked pristine. When the hotel was built and opened there were customers all over the place and the effect was ruined.

“So we keep them in their rooms. It’s tidier.”

Things were different when I was a Knight of the Brotherhood of the Chain of the Turning Spit.

Once we hired a dining coach to be put on the end of the Crewe to Bournemouth express on an occasion when we were eating away from home. My friend, the 9th Baron Langford who was our Baillie and was kindly contributing several bottles of ’47 port, insisted the pair of us interview the station master at Crewe to ensure all was hunky dory. Station masters love a lord and this one donned morning dress and a topper to meet us. At the baron’s request, he introduced us to “our” engine driver.

“My grandfather,” confided the baron to the startled driver, “always maintained there was no greater pleasure than making love in a sleeping car as the train went over a set of points.”

(The Brotherhood was very strong on such niceties. One elderly brewer assured me that no kisses were more erotically charged than when the girl had been drinking yellow chartreuse and the man green. An estate agent called Ramos declined a dessert that was served in a cocoon of spun sugar on the grounds that it would be like eating the pubic hairs of a fairy.)

“However,” the 9th Baron told the engine driver, “what might be an aid to lovemaking is very bad for port. So I would be grateful if you would slow down as you approach any set of points on our journey.”

The extraordinary thing was that the engine driver did.

I made my own modest contribution to refined eating. We had been to a Normandy banquet at the Piccadilly Plaza in Manchester where our guests had been Louis Edwards, the Lord Mayor of Manchester, and Sonny, the then Marquis of Milford Haven. After the meal, Geoffrey Langford and I took them to the champagne bar where Edwards ordered a tankard of Moet, the 9th Baron, Mumms, and Sonny, Louis Roederer.

To this day I do not know why, when it came to my turn, I asked for a chip butty. The waitress took the order without demur and soon returned with the champagne, followed by a waiter bearing the finest chip butty I have ever seen. The bread was home made, the butter runny and the golden chips had hard crusts protecting inner potato, soft as a baby’s cheek. The silver platter on which they were served also carried salt, pepper and vinegar. Interspersed ‘twixt chip and plate was a neatly cut, and probably ironed, square of newspaper.

“By God,” said the 9th Baron, “that looks good. Bring me one!” “And me,“ said the Marquis of Milford Haven. “And me,” said the Lord Mayor of Manchester.

I have achieved little in life, but I did introduce the aristocracy to the chip butty. Which, on a point of information, goes very well with champagne and is as good a way as any to shuffle off this mortal coil.

* * * * * *

My first Christmas card arrived this week. It was “Christmas Cracker”, a commonplace booklet which my broadcasting chum John Julius Norwich sends to his friends. The booklet contains oddities he and they have picked up over the year (I have had two honourable mentions). From this year’s, a gem contributed by Nina Lobanov:

‘Edinburgh Evening News, 18 August 1978:

‘While they were waiting at a bus stop in Clermiston, Mr and Mrs Daniel Thirsty were threatened by Mr Robert Clear. “He demanded that I give him my wife’s purse,” said Mr Thirsty. “Telling him that the purse was in her basket, I bent down, put my hands up her skirt, detached her artificial leg and hit him over the head with it. It was not my intention to do anything more than frighten him off, but, unhappily for us all, he died.’


We may extend Mr Sharples’s search (Letters 22 August) for “useless” words in the Chinese language.

A rare Chinese-English dictionary of the mid 19th century, based on the Khang-His Tzu-Tien dictionary of single pictographs, reads for the most part quite normally. However, each page contains one or two gems of translation, such as the character rendered as “a dog with short legs”. My favourite “useless” character is translated “a horse passing wind after eating corn”.

Saturday, 24 November 2007

As Broad As I Am Long..........................................

I see where a lady has been refused entry into New Zealand because she is overweight. Frankly, I do not think she is missing much. New Zealand has always seemed to me more a butter label than a country. Certainly nothing to lose weight over.

When I achieved 21 stones the family joined to force me on a radical diet. They echoed the doctor's advice that I would live longer, but I don't believe in death.

Huang Po wrote in the 9th century an explanation of Zen: “All sentient beings are nothing but the one mind beside which nothing exists…” My all time favourite human being, the 3rd century Taoist scholar Chuang Tu, who I have just discovered, put it even more simply: “Heaven and earth and I were born at the same time and all life and I are one.”

That is death kicked into touch. So long as there is a lovely planet I will be here to enjoy it - and always have.

No disrespect but The Buddha inclines to the stout and anyway the most I could hope to lose at my great age is around three stone. To achieve that I would have to give up everything that makes later life enjoyable: evening gin, fish and chips, roast potatoes on Sunday and butties. Especially butties. No more Pimms in the summer. No bread sauce with game or game chips with partridge, which should always be stuffed with pear and onion. It is not to be borne.

True, at my great weight I cannot enter marathons; long walks tire me. They also bore me, and really successful old age consists in keeping boredom at bay. I miss gardening, but we have a gardener, Hipkin, an old fashioned Fenman who gives me more pleasure even than gardening. It is a bit shaming that he is as old as I am, but what would you?

The problem seems to me to arise from faulty reasoning. The belief that we should measure the quality of our life by its length is surely questionable. Measuring quality by length is oxy-moronic. It is not a method you would use to quantify cloth, or meals, or, God forbid, Christmas.

A doctor once said to me that if he kept an animal alive in the state he keeps a patient he would be prosecuted by the RSPCA.
The longer we live the less we are able to. One by one our senses desert us until the horizon of our life is sitting in an old people's home, quietly wetting ourselves while we watch TV and try to remember where we have put our handkerchief.
Do not take my word for it. Take God’s.
Psalms 90:
The days of our years are threescore years and ten;
and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years,
yet is their strength labor and sorrow;
for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.
Or as Shakespeare would have it:
Threescore and ten I can remember well:
Within the volume of which time I have seen
Hours dreadful and things strange; but this sore night
Hath trifled former knowings.
Well my former knowings, like Macbeth’s, are bad enough, but what about Benign Posture Vertigo?
You may well ask.
BPV is doctor speak for falling over, which is something that flown with wine and impertinence I used to do on a regular basis. Do it now and it’s a two to one shot I will break a hip and, if I do, it’s four to one on the overnight declaration I will die.
I cannot even complain “It is my age“ without being accused of therapeutic nihilism, which I must combat by thinking positively, restoring functions (don’t ask) and keeping in touch with my neighbours, something I have avoided all my life. That, by the way, is – again in doctor speak –compressing morbidity and, to be truthful, I am better at expanding it. But we must look on the bright side.
According to my DNA, some time in the past 15,000 years my ancestors lived in Finland. I am very glad we moved. In Finland, I learned to my horror, PT is compulsory for pensioners.
I think we made the right decision moving here. According to the Daily Mail, 2,000 people are sharing £34.4 million from Social Security and the National Health because they are obese and there is another 50,000 alcoholics sharing £85 million to induce them not to work. They could have induced me any time in my life for a fraction of that and I have never charged them a penny, no matter how fat I got. Fat Free, you might say.
I do not know how many Finns are numbered among the 9,000 of us who live to be more than a hundred but I do not see the point of doing endless press ups in order to ensure you can spend longer in an Old People’s Home in a perpetual hunt for your glasses, telling any luckless visitor how much better things were in the Sixties and what a wild time one had. I couldn’t remember IN the Sixties what I was doing in the Sixties. In my dotage? No chance.

* * *

I have done some fancy eating in my time and I have the insignia to prove it. I am a Chevalier of the Confrerie de la Chaine des Rotisseurs, a gastronomic society which, according to the French conman who invested me, is the oldest of its kind in the world. For those who do not read French Menus, that means The Brotherhood of the Turning Spit Chain.
We were a merry crew of gourmets, chefs and hoteliers. We used to have monthly banquets in the restaurants owned by members, happily digging our graves with our teeth.

I particularly remember one in the Auberge de France, a small bistro in Manchester owned by a tiny man called Roland Genty, who during the war had done evil things to passing Germans whilst serving in the French Resistance. His restaurant was famous for its Quiche Lorraine, which, on the evening we went there for a Vin d’Honneur, he planned to produce in two servings. In that way the Quiche would arrive at our tables in the peak of mid season form.

The first serving went very well but those of us on the second table waited impatiently for ours to arrive. And waited…and waited…and waited.

At last Roland appeared at the kitchen door, visibly upset. “There ‘as been a tragedy,” he told us sorrowfully, “the waiter ‘as dropped the Quiche Lorraine so, naturellement, the Chef ‘as stabbed him.”


After living under an umbrella by the side of the Bridgewater canal for three years Mr Kenneth Thomas has died at the age of 73. Mr Thomas, who greeted passers-by with shouts of “Hello” or “Money – what does it all mean in the end?” was treated with suspicion by the local people. Prior to his years under the umbrella Mr Thomas lived in a rhododendron bush near Sale.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Vain Hopes For a Land of Glory

Despite the best efforts of politicians over the past half century England will always be for me a land of hope and glory. Unfortunately, these days, she only lives in my heart; in the music of Elgar and Butterworth, Vaughan Williams and Novello; in books and in the paintings of Constable; in cartoons and gardens and the memories of old folk like me.

I glory in being politically incorrect. I always laughed at Bernard Manning. I enjoy Music Hall, Gilbert and Sullivan, Oratorios and fish and chips, despite their Italian origin. I also like tripe and onions, red beef, Bury black puddings, George Orwell and Game (birds, definitely not sport). I admired Enoch Powell, like Manning, in private life, the least racist of men.

England no longer lives in the feral young; in what used to be the country pub, in the media or the slum village of Westminster, where I believe there has been a deliberate Government policy to reduce the liberty of the private individual. I would be prepared to go to prison with Shirley Williams rather than participate in the identity card scandal.

Patently the Freedom Restricters’ legislation only affects the law-abiding majority. The gun law after Dunblane limited the rights of responsible citizens to bear arms; yet there has been a vast increase in gun crimes and I knew of several pubs where I could buy a handgun as easily as a packet of cigarettes. The Dangerous Dogs Act doesn't work, the anti-hunting bill isn't, the smoking legislation is built on a lie since there is no reputable scientific evidence that second-hand smoke harms. The World Health Organisation spent six years trying to prove it did and then had to admit it couldn't.

Now we are not allowed to smoke and drive and Christmas is discouraged. Climate change is down to nature and only marginally to us. The same Government which is telling us not to set foot in an aeroplane has just cut £75 million from the conservation budget. We are like those curious Russians who have walled themselves up in a cave because they think the world is going to end next year. They threaten to commit mass suicide if anyone tries to rescue them. What’s the hurry when we are all going to die anyway next year when the world ends?

Commercial organisations boast of their customer services. It took me longer to buy Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G from Virgin stores than it took him to write it. First Virgin refused my credit card because it claimed I had given the wrong security number. It passed me to an HSBC website which gave me a number to ring. The number was unobtainable. I found a second number, rang that and my call was answered by the only English girl whose speech was so incomprehensible as to make one wish for an Indian call centre. She gave me an email number to register for MasterCard secure code. I have spent literally thousands on the Internet on antiquarian books, bronzes, wines, furniture, but no one has ever asked for this number. Dutifully I typed it in and a message came up to say the service was unobtainable. Alas, I got the same girl when I rang back and she wisely put me on to a technical adviser. All these calls were of course linked by long passages of music, which whatever it was had not been written by human hand.

The technical adviser was a man from the Indian continent. He was convinced that he had a senile idiot on the other end of the line and not only told me how to fill in the form but insisted on spelling every word. Eventually I got a security number but when I rang back the record had been sold.

How different things were in the old days when your fitness to have an overdraft was decided by the bank manager and not by some acne ridden child with an economics degree!

I was always in trouble with the various banks to whom I entrusted my overdraft, in the days when I believed that beyond my means was the only place to live. For some years I lived alone in a council-owned manor house in Cheshire called Picton Hall, my wants supplied by my housekeeper Mrs Higgs, a woman of great discretion who if she saw high heels in the hall always brought two cups of tea to the bedside.

One day when she brought the post up to my bedroom, the first letter I opened was a bill for the livery of my hunter, the second a brochure from a builder of cabin cruisers and the third an invitation to the Regimental Ball of the Duke of Lancaster's Yeomanry at Houghton Towers. Tickets 20 guineas. Under all these was a pitiful letter from Mr Miln, the manager of the Midland Bank in Commutation Row in Liverpool. It read: “If you would even try to live within your means, we might come to some accommodation.”

I bundled up my post and sent it to Mr Miln with a covering letter in which I explained: “I enclose this so that you can set the Hamlet's ghost of my overdraft against the Elsinore of events.”

Almost by return Mr Miln wrote: “Thank you for your full and frank disclosures. May I remind you that Hamlet was one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies as you are one of the Midland Bank’s?”

Years later I told another bank manager of this. He said “If I had written that to a customer, I would have been sacked on the spot.”

This bank manager answered my complaints about the treatment I had received from the Trustee Savings Bank by saying, “If you think the bank treats you badly, you should see the way it treats its staff. When I arrived at this branch the manager had not been told that I was relieving him.”

Take back your Ipods, your mobile phones that take photographs, your credit cards that allow our feckless to run up astronomical debts, your PCs and your PC regulations. I will settle for the England you have destroyed.


Joe Minogue was a giant cloth cap, a cigarette and a pronounced Manchester accent. It was possible to know him for several weeks before realising that beneath the cap lived a face like an angry nut and the body of an apprehensive leprechaun. He was translated from being a penny a line municipal correspondent at Manchester town hall to Foreign Editor of the Manchester Guardian. He said there was little difference in the two jobs, except that as foreign editor he was much bothered by coups in parts of the world you had to look up in an atlas. Though he said the politics in Manchester Town Hall were often much bloodier. When he was appointed, the cap toured the world visiting the Guardian's distinguished foreign correspondents. Alistair Cooke - which he pronounced with three ‘o’s, as he did coups - was particularly fond of him.
I worked for him for nearly three weeks in the Fifties before he was forced to sack me. He didn't like to tell me, so he gave me a letter for my wife asking her to tell me but to be sure to add there was nothing personal in it

He did feel a little out of place in the rarefied Oxbridge atmosphere of The Manchester Guardian (never the Guardian despite what the masthead said). He was surprised when he took office to find his telephone was kept on the floor near the door. He never moved it in case it was a tradition. An earlier news editor had refused to allow a telephone in the news room at all because it disturbed his writers, and a reporter called into the subs room to answer one was heard to say, “The Manchester Guardian does not take murders over the telephone.”

If you went to his office, the desk would, like as not, be unoccupied but you would find him curled up the floor, settling a coup on the telephone.

A later news editor kept a pet canary in the news room. He was carrying it through the landing bay and explained to a curious machine minder that he was taking it home for Christmas. “Are you?” replied that man of the people, “we’re ‘avin turkey.”

Ever subversive Minogue formed an Anti Culture group at the paper, which he invited me to join when I was a very senior reporter on the Mirror. Alas, the editor Alastair Hetherington refused to have me anywhere near the paper when he learned I hunted foxes, although I had a pretty impressive cuttings book.

It must be admitted that Joe and I were among nature’s subversives. When we could not work together we set out to undermine the industry with a series of improbable “Letters to the Editor”.

I wrote to the editor of the Manchester Evening News recalling how, as a boy, I had hunted my uncle’s pack of Rochdale Flock Hounds over the Lancashire moors and wondered what had happened to the breed.

Minogue responded by saying that, although he remembered the breed well he was never convinced they had the true nose which one only found in the Doffcocker Dandy Dinmont, though for tongue he had always preferred the Chowbent terrier.
What was very odd was the spirited correspondence this produced from other readers until we began to believe in the breed we thought we had invented.

Tiring of this subject into which others had introduced an acrimonious note, Minogue wrote to the Oldham Chronicle to enquire whether there were any photographs of his uncle, a Sioux chieftain who had come to the town in the mid 19th century as part of a delegation of American Indians to examine the cotton industry.

I wrote to say that I couldn’t help with a photograph but I did have a fragment of a war bonnet picked up in the eighties in Ashton under Lyne market by a relative of mine. Though it was a much treasured relic in our family, I offered to pass it on if the writer could give some proof of ownership.

Watching a TV broadcast of the “Antiques Road Show” last week, I learned Lancashire was afloat with Indian chiefs in the mid 19th century and my daughter tells me that many districts in Lancashire have their own strain of dogs, such as the Ormskirk terrier. So Oscar Wilde had it right. Nature does imitate art.

Readers Letters once ruined an Editorial power lunch. Hugh Cudlipp, who ruined the Mirror, was in my day a foul-mouthed bully of little talent who did irreparable harm to the paper. From time to time he would descend on Manchester and inflict lunch on his executives. The better to enjoy tearing them apart, he always invited two reporters. It was not a pretty sight. The Mirror also owned the Glasgow based Daily Record. So when Cudlipp invited his executives for ideas to increase circulation, the executive who suggested we do more Scottish stories was unwise. “Isn’t that a bit like Mr Marks out-voting Mr Spencer?” rasped Cudlipp.

Gerry McGee, the sports editor, was not falling in any traps. When Cudlipp said, “I now call on Mr McGee to give a short address”, he replied, “21 Washaway Road, Sale.”

It was not original but, my God, it was brave.

Cudlipp was bested only once and that was by my friend Bill Barton, who sadly has just gone on his lunch break in the sky. (For Bill, a lunch break that only lasts for eternity will seem sadly curtailed).

Besting executives was what Bill did best.

Cudlipp had been saying that everything in the Mirror was true. “Nay, nay, Mr Cudlipp,” roared Bill, whose “nay, nay” had the illuminating force of the Edison Light, “what about readers’ letters?”

“The readers’ letters are genuine despatches from the good people who buy our great newspapers,” answered Cudlipp.

“Nay, nay, Mr Cudlipp” said Bill, “I had to write three before I could come here this morning.”



“Convinced that the addition of public plaques advertising famous local people and events would encourage visitors to the Potteries, the members of Stoke on Trent’s Committee for Economic Development and Tourism have called for a list of subjects worthy of commemoration.

“The type of thing that would interest visitors, said Mr Ted Smith, was the story of Thomas Holland. On the 12th of December 1903 while Mr Holland was singing “When the Roll is called up yonder, I will be there” in John street, the ground suddenly opened under his feet and he fell 120 ft down a pit shaft to his death.”

Sunday, 11 November 2007

In Praise Of Misanthropy

I am only likeable on the outside. Inside I am a misanthropist. My best days are the ones when I wake up safe in the knowledge I am not going to leave the house all day. My worst are when we entertain. Apart from family and trusted chums, I am one with the old Maori who said, “Eat up, guests may arrive.”

To be quite frank, I think the worse diseases on the planet are AIDS, cancer and Homo sapiens. I blame it on being labelled, quite early in life, as a “character”. It is a sad truth that, generally speaking, you only meet characters on the lower rung of professional ladders. They are rarely promoted. There are other disadvantages. Not only am I the subject of a vast anecdotage. If people have a scurrilous story that lacks a leading player I get the starring role. Perversely, it is equally annoying when, as happened this week, someone else was credited with one of my stories and prompted these thoughts.

My secret scenario is less amusing. At my Banquo’s Feast all the places are taken by people, mostly women, I have let down over the past three quarters of a century. Though the top of the table is reserved for my bloodhound Amy, who I had to give away at a time of extreme poverty and who shortly died, as I believe, from a broken heart and who I think and dream of constantly.

In the outside world, I am fondly described as “Pickwickian” or “Falstaffian”, depending on what people have been reading at the time.
I once foolishly asked the Welsh baritone Sir Geraint Evans what his inspiration was for the magnificent make ups he created for his operatic roles. He said: “If I had known you when I was doing Falstaff, I would have based it on you.”

I cannot spend five minutes in the company of an artist before he is drawing a caricature of me. My book on the Welsh painter Sir Kyffin Williams is coming out in February. It will contain a selection of the twenty or so cartoons he did of me during a long friendship. They are worth far more than I am.

I suppose I am easy to draw. Hand-knitted whiskers, belly like a spinnaker, literally an all round reporter as broad as I am long. 5ft 8ins and twenty one stone are not the ingredients of Adonis. Nor is there any escape. I do not believe in death and fear I am going to keep coming back as a tired joke.

Search hard enough and there is always one word which exactly describes a person. In the case of Bill Marshall that word was outrageous. I did not know what trouble was until I met Marshall, the Daily Mirror district man in Liverpool. He was a library of opposites. Lanky without being tall. A Lincolnshire lad with an American accent. Immaculate blazer worn with stained trousers, cowboy boots without socks, wild hair and an occasional beard. That was the picture I had when I saw him for the first time in the Liverpool Press Club a week after I joined the Daily Dispatch. Though we kept in touch until the weeks before his death and I loved him like a brother, we did not see each other for 30 years. Which may explain why I was able to have a successful career as an author and broadcaster. Had Bill still been around there would not have been time and I could well have been in prison.

I should have been warned when his wife invited me to a party in his flat at Formby and said, “Don’t bring Bill.” Getting barred from your own house takes dedication and a lot of effort.

There was the time he sold my passport and used the money to buy drugs for re-sale. But he wanted to be sure they were genuine. In those days Bert Balmer was Head of the CID in Liverpool and his deputy was a man called Jimmy Morris. They were both members of the Press Club. This night he passed me the drugs and said, “Go and ask Bert what it is.” So in his thrall was I that I went to the head of CID and said, “Bert, what are these?” passing him some curled-up leaves. “Bill sent you?” asked that excellent man, and then passed them to Jimmy. “What do you think, Jimmy? Rhododendron or Azalea?”

There was the time he bought a roulette wheel and made me go out and buy a black shirt and white tie and be the croupier. I thought they looked silly with a sports jacket but I always did what he said. Even when he got me to shave off half the News Chronicle reporter Jackie Yeadon’s beard as he slept drunkenly on the club sofa and prop him up still asleep on a parapet whilst Bill shouted: “Roll Up and see the midget with half a beard“ at the Saturday shoppers below in Lime St. Yeadon was small and majestic with it. During the war he had got extra meat by telling the butcher he was the captain of a midget submarine.

Anyway, I stood behind the wheel of a game I did not understand in the Press Club annexe and lost £45 in ten minutes and that was in 1953 when I was paid £15 a week.

He made up stories for the Mirror that nowadays would have got him an overnight declaration in the Booker Prize. Like the one about the girl who couldn’t afford the cruise her doctor ordered so she bought (or to be more truthful Bill did) 45 round-trip tickets on the New Brighton ferry.

Then there was the dog he tied to the railings of the Bridewell with a note attached to its collar which read “My daddy says he is going to shoot my dog when he comes home because we cannot afford to feed him, though I have given him my tea every night. Please give him a home.”
The story he wrote produced so many offers of a home the Daily Mirror phones were blocked for three hours.

It was catching. Even Balmer, the Head of CID, caught it. Every Saturday he would make up a story for us so we could claim a shift from the Sunday papers in our group. My favourite was a spin off from a fashion among criminals who had been in prison to have a swallow tattooed on the joint between thumb and forefinger. Bert told us the CID was worried the fad was being copied by juveniles. They showed they had been to reformatories by having a sparrow tattoo, Bert claimed, and all our offices fell for it.

Marshall struck when you weren’t watching. Years later when I lived in Chester, he rang me from Liverpool to say another of his many wives would be coming through Chester. Would I meet her off the train and give her dinner. “She is pretty upset,” he confided.

I met her and we had a jolly meal. Over coffee she admitted she needed cheering up and I said, “Yes, that’s why Bill suggested I meet you,”
I thought she was going to explode.

“Do you know why I am upset?” she said. “We were divorced this morning and that ******* turned up in his oldest clothes, pleaded poverty and I have got peanuts for maintenance.”

When I heard some days later that Bill had turned left at a level crossing and driven several miles along the Liverpool- Formby railway line I felt a pang of regret he hadn’t shared the experience with an oncoming express. But the feeling didn’t last. You could only dislike him for about five minutes.

There was this time when I was sleeping on the newspaper files in the Daily Dispatch office, where I worked, because I had no money for digs. He rang to tell me that Hoagy Carmichael was in town and we should go and pay him homage at the Adelphi where Hoagy (who for some reason he called Hoagland) had a suite.

Hoagy could not have been kinder. He invited us in and although it was a little after 10am poured us both giant Scotches. Inevitably Bill asked him to play the piano. Characteristically this very nice man agreed: but he wouldn’t play his signature tune “Stardust”. He said he couldn’t stand the damn thing and he wrote it. So for an hour or so he plied us with Scotch and entertained us on the piano with tunes, for which, he said, he had not been able to find a publisher.

A yelp from Bill brought the performance to an abrupt end. He had remembered that he should have been across the city covering an Assize trial.

“Anything I can do?” asked Hoagy, before I had a chance to warn him.
Bill said, yes, there was. He knew Hoagy didn’t like Stardust but he asked could he ring his news editor Roly Watkins and, when he came to the phone, hold the instrument over the piano keyboard while Hoagy played a few bars of “Stardust” and then said, “Hello Roly, this is Hoagy Carmichael. I am afraid I have detained your reporter Bill Marshall.”

Good as gold, Hoagy did as Bill told him. He played the opening bars down the phone and said his piece. There was a pause and then a suddenly angry Hoagy said, “No, this is not Bill Marshall, I am not pissed at half past eleven in the morning and I have no idea what is on at the Assizes.”

After the show that night, one of only two he did in Britain, he came over to the Press Club and once again at Bill’s command (by his time Bill saw him as his property) he played for the members.

After an hour or so he wanted to stop but Bill commanded him to play on. “Look Bill,” he said, “I get a thousand pounds for a concert.” ”Oh, it’s money you want?” sneered Bill, and promptly wrote a cheque for £1,000, which Hoagy pocketed and played on.

The next morning there was another call from Bill who wanted to know if he had cashed any cheques because one had gone from his book and his bank manager had warned him if he cashed any more cheques he would close his account.

I said, “Only the thousand pounds you paid Hoagy,” and enjoyed the panic I could feel down the phone. “We have to get it back,” he said, and off we went to the Adelphi.

Hoagy was full of apologies. “I cashed it with the hotel half an hour ago,” he said. In the minutes that followed I was repaid for all the indignities Marshall had heaped on me. And then Hoagy relented. “I haven’t cashed it,” he said, “but you cannot have it back. I am going to have it framed in my den to remember a great night.”

From my Dangerous Cuttings book

John Ambrose of Hemel Hempstead, Herts, was holidaying near Sydney when he found a spectacle case carrying the name of Keith Nursery of Bungay, Suffolk. When Ambrose returned to Britain he went to Bungay to return the case personally, only to discover its owner had emigrated to Australia.

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Week moment

.How soon the future becomes the past when you get older. Christopher Fry complained: “When you are old you seem to eat breakfast every half hour.” Or as my jungly friend Lord Langford who bought himself a quad bike on his 90th birthday puts it: “Growin old is not for Cissies.”

To me Xmas comes but once a week and it always seems to be Friday.
Not that I am against the sere and yellow. My only serious ambition in life was to retire. I had an agreeable picture of myself in an alpaca jacket, leaning on a walking stick and pottering through my rose garden.

So carried away by this vision was I that I left the Daily Mirror when I was thirty, moved to Chester and retired whilst I was still young enough to enjoy it. Alas, I fell in with a group of racing men, book makers and professional gamblers and, as a result, the next ten years were passed, in the words of Lord Rochester, “in a mist of perpetual revelry”.

The swinging Sixties swung right over my head and I cannot remember a single thing about my retirement.

It ended abruptly when I was forty and met my wife and her family of High Achievers. In self defence, I became an author and broadcaster.
Which is how I came to meet Jess Yates, who was born in a cave in Llandudno and grew up to be a brilliant organist, a legendary television performer, the most innovative programme maker in the history of the medium and a total disaster as a human being.

After World War II, West End cinema openings were spectacular occasions which all the stars attended. It was Jess who created the spectacles. For Cockleshell Heroes, a war film, he recreated a Commando landing in the cinema foyer with all the noises of war. He organised circuses, mini Hollywood musicals, Arabian nights…

Inevitably he was snapped up by TV where his great achievement was a star studded show watched by millions called “Stars on Sunday”. Gielguid, Kitt, Olivier, a constellation of Hollywood and Ealing Studio stars not only appeared: they kept coming back. Which was a mystery because the show had a minute budget.

The secret was the contacts book Yates had made during his days producing West End Spectaculars. He would ring a star and invite him or her to spend a day with him on a free Sunday. He offered a car to collect them, a slap up lunch, dinner and a night in a top class hotel.

And in return? “Sing me three songs or read me three extracts from the bible.”

Fee? “No fee. But,hey, what are you doing on Sunday anyway?”

Amazing the number of stars who accepted his invitation. They would sing their songs, without rehearsal, Yates would tape them and drop a song in each of the next three programmes.

Yates’s fall from grace is a tragedy for another day. When I knew him, though, he lived in a mansion at Rowen in North Wales. He was a penniless recluse, unable to write the biography for which he had taken the publisher’s gold. I was hired to ease it out of him. It was an eerie experience. He would take you from the front door along a corridor and into a wardrobe which opened out into a palatial flat where he hid with his girl friend Anita.

The stars did not desert him. Eartha Kitt rang one day and invited him to take her for lunch at Porth Meirion, the smartest hotel in North Wales.
Unable to admit he was broke, he agreed, but warned Anita to say they were on a diet and to order only cheese biscuits and water.

Eartha innocently went through the card and, as Yates watched in agony, ordered champagne, oysters, fine wine and the house speciality. He knew the bill was going to be far more than the few pounds he had in his pocket. After the meal, during which he had nibbled at a biscuit and sipped at the house water, ravished with hunger he excused himself and went to the lavatory to count out his few pounds.

On the way he was stopped by the Maitre d’. Yates sensed everything was over. He would be disgraced; the paper which had hounded him would have a field day. He was about to confess he couldn’t pay the bill when the manager interrupted him.

“Mr Yates, we are so grateful to you for introducing Miss Kitt to our hotel. OF COURSE THERE WILL BE NO CHARGE FOR THE MEAL.”

* * * * * * * * * * *
I was an expert on being poor. When I came out of the army I took a job with a news agency, got married and was sacked the week after we returned from honeymoon.

The only work I could get was a casual Saturday shift on the News of the World, which paid £4 and 10 shillings in real money. My rent for two rooms in a very smart house was £2. I had married a Jewish princess who knew nothing about laundry, even if we had hot water. So we had to pay 2/6 a week to get the washing done. Didn’t cost a lot because I only had two shirts. We could do what we liked with the remaining £2 7s. 6d. which meant we ate every other day.

I had to keep half a crown back to buy myself into a lunchtime drinking school every Thursday at the Waldorf, in Cooper Street, Manchester, where John Milligan, the News of the World Editor, drank with the news editor, Graham Haslam.

At some time during the hour that followed the news editor would say, “Doin’ anyting on Saturday, Skiddy?” “Don’t think so, Graham. Why?”
“Wonder if you would do the late shift for us?”

It meant a ten mile round walk to the News of the World but for a year that was our only income.

We were in the house one day sharing a cigarette we had made from the week’s collected dimps. The front door bell rang. I was wearing my good suit and my one clean shirt ready to go to the Waldorf, so I went down.
There was a tramp at the door.

He said he had just come out of prison and did I have the price of a cup of tea. I said I was broke, and saw him look at the smart house in which I lived, the well cut navy suit and polished shoes I was wearing and then he looked back down the long drive to the road.

The look he gave me, utterly defeated and totally disbelieving, went straight to the heart. Halfway back upstairs I remembered the half crown I had put on one side to buy my way into the round. I ran after him.
He looked terribly guilty but I pressed the half crown into his hand and returned home rejoicing.
My wife asked, while I was at the front door, why didn’t I pick up the washing from the front step?

I went back.

No wonder the tramp had looked guilty. He had stolen it. For the next six months I had to sit in my vest whilst my shirt was washed under a cold tap so I could go to the Waldorf and get my Saturday shift.

The highest penalty for urinating in public was dealt to Pierre Pinoncelli, a Frenchman who was fined 45,122 euros (£31,400) in 1998 for relieving himself into artist Marcel Duchamp's modern art urinal, called Fountain — said to be worth £1.9 million.
He described his "attack" as a surrealist act.
Now, however, authorities believe they may have come up with the answer: le mur anti-pipi.
This brilliant, yet simple invention is an undulating wall that fires urine back in the direction of the offender.
"The jet of pee is rather oblique. If it meets a sloping surface it is sent back to the trousers," said Etienne Vanderpooten, a municipal architect who has been working on the problem for the past 25 years.
"It is the case of the arroseur arrosé [the sprinkler sprinkled]," he told the Nouvel Observateur magazine.

SAD NOTE; You can count on three fingers the truly fine people I met as a broadcaster. Two now that Ray Gravell has died. He was a legend as a rugby player and one of the few human beings I have met who was without an ounce of vice. The BBC has archived the last job we did together, a film about his hero Owain Glyndwr. I treasure the walking stick he gave me as a memento,
Although he had a massive cohort of fans, including the film star Peter O’Toole and used to terrify opposing rugby teams by singing Welsh warrior songs in the dressing room and although he had less cause than any man to be humble, he was humble,sweet and generous. And you don’t get many of them to the pound.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Pooter Poo

When my wife and I became engaged, I was trooped a tattered colour round her grand relations.

One dining room was hung with a Canaletto, several Gainsboroughs and the odd Alan Ramsay. Reflected in the 18th century glass and the glassily polished Chippendale table was an array of cutlery that looked like Mappin and Webb’s window.

Over all flew Mr Pooter, the family’s pet and presumably house-trained pigeon.
Except that it wasn’t.

As I nervously muttered the “start at the outside and work inwards” mantra, it landed on my head and crapped down the back of my neck.

“Can’t be much wrong with you,” my host, the knighted chairman of multi-national Albright and Wilson boomed. “Mr Pooter has obviously taken to you.”

Uncle Sydney and I became great friends. I once asked him whether being chairman of an international company was difficult. “On the contrary,” he told me, “it’s always an each way bet. By the time a development reaches my desk the work has already been done by my staff. I just have to say yes or no.”

So the talk of the difficulties which earn tycoons their high salaries is just so much spin. Like the rest of life.

I discovered this in childhood. We were told that night fighter pilots could see in the dark because they ate masses of carrots. In my innocence, I had a double helping of the loathsome vegetable, then went out into the yard in the black-out and banged my knee on the dustbin. Had I known it, that was my epiphany in the evils of spin, though it was many years later that I learned it was a governmental device to ease a glut of carrots.

Democracy is a summit of spin. The classic democracy on which it is based was undemocratic. Indeed racist .Only citizens of Athens and Rome had a vote. Democracy was not even popular. Thucydides points out that none of Athens’ achievements happened under a democracy.

H. L. Mencken had it sussed: “Under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule - and both commonly succeed, and are right.”

That touching tale of 400 Spartans fighting the entire Persian army at Thermopylae is rubbish. The classicist Mary Beard points out they were assisted by a thousand Helots and other tribes. There was no room in the Pass for Persians.

The ultimate spin, surely, is the notion that God created the world in six days. Not that He would be unable to do so. But would He really need a day off? In my view that Sabbath business throws the entire Creation scenario into doubt, and when in the ‘30s the Immaculate Conception was introduced in a contested divorce, the Judge wisely ruled it was inadmissible.

At times of stress young creatures turn for succour to their parent. Parents have no-one so they invent a spectral parent, Freud suggests. The Ionian philosophers postulate a god which could create but not direct. Sir Thomas Browne quotes Hermes, The Thrice Great: “God is a circle the centre of which is everywhere and the circumference nowhere.”

My chum Syd Wignall, a Himalayan climber, would go with that. He was hired by the Indian army to spy in Tibet on the Chinese, who captured him and imprisoned him in Takalot. Freed in the depths of winter, he had to traverse the Himalayas on foot to reach India. In his fine book “Spy on the Roof of the World” Syd tells of a presence which guided him safely down an ice cliff.

Another chum, Douggie Brand, a much decorated Royal Marine and veteran of the SBS, spent the best part of a year in one of Saddam Hussein’s most notorious torture chambers. Every day he talked with a palpable ‘presence’ which came into his cell.

I talk to God all the time. He is a Great Listener. Like these men, I have no truck with religion which, to me, is just crowd control.

The Crusades, we are told, were fought to safeguard the pilgrim routes to Jerusalem, at that time occupied by Arabs. More spin. Arabs did not interfere with pilgrims. The Koran forbids it, or indeed any hindrance of the People of the Book. The purpose of the Crusades was to enable Western monarchs to give their mutinous nobles someone else to fight. And those noble warriors sacked Constantinople en route, raping and pillaging, at the request of the Venetians who controlled the cruellest and most repressive empire on earth.

It wasn’t Drake who beat the Armada. It was the weather. And the fact that Spanish arms dealers supplied King Philip with duff ammunition, as Wignall demonstrated in another book. After he had climbed across the Himalayas, he was so fed up with mountains that he invented marine archaeology and went round the world diving and discovering Armada galleons.

More recently, the Establishment would have us believe the world is about to stop spinning and burst into flame. I share the view of David Bellamy: “The last peak global temperatures were in 1998 and 1934 and the troughs of low temperature were around 1910 and 1970. The second dip caused pop science and the media to cry wolf about an impending, devastating Ice Age. Our end was nigh! Then, when temperatures took an upward swing in the 1980s, the scaremongers changed their tune. Global warming was the new imminent catastrophe.
“But the computer model - called “hockey stick” - that predicted the catastrophe of a frying planet proved to be so bent that it “disappeared” from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s armory of argument in 2007. It was bent because the historical data it used to predict the future dated from only the 1850s, when the world was emerging from the Little Ice Age. Little wonder that temperatures showed an upward trend.
“In the Sixties I used to discuss climate change with my undergraduates at Durham University. I would point to the plethora of published scientific evidence that showed the cyclical nature of change – and how, for instance, the latest of a string of ice ages had affected the climate, sea levels and tree lines around the world. Thank goodness the latest crop of glaciers and ice sheets began to wane in earnest about 12,000 years ago; this gave Britain a window of opportunity to lead the industrial revolution. Despite the $50 billion spent on greenwashing propaganda, the sceptics and their inconvenient questions are beginning to make their presence felt.
“A recent survey by Klaus-Martin Schulte, of King’s College Hospital, of all papers on the subject of climate change that were published between 2004 and February of 2007 found that only 7 per cent explicitly endorsed a ‘so-called consensus’ position that man-made carbon dioxide is causing catastrophic global warming.”
Like Mark Twain’s death, reports of the demise of the polar bear are exaggerated.
According to Bellamy, their population is increasing.

The most successful spin in our times has been the Mafia. In fact they did not launch an Empire of organised crime. According to the Pulitzer Prize winning author Jimmy Breslin, that was the work of a mill worker’s son from Wigan, Owney Madden, who learned the gangster’s trade in Liverpool.

He emigrated to the US where Prohibition made him powerful enough to call, on the advice of Damon Runyon, a meeting of other major gangsters in Atlantic City in May 1929. The subject was Al Capone whose antics were getting respectable killers a bad name. Capone was shovelled off to prison, Madden spread out street maps of New York and the bootlegging territories were defined. Rules for murder were established. Nobody could be killed unless a local commission agreed.

After the re-districting, which was copied by gangsters in other cities, a banquet was held to honour Madden. A gangster called Frenchy deMange was chosen to present him with a watch for “services to the American underworld”.

The truth is always more interesting than the spin.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I ALWAYS WORRY…when people, usually mothers, ask me how I got my start in journalism. And not only because the question carries a sub text: ‘If a prat like you can do it, it will be a doddle for a bright child like mine.’

Mostly I hesitate, because everything that has happened to me in my career has stemmed from an embarrassing accident.

In this case, going to prison. Only an army prison and I was guilty of nothing - but then they all say that, don’t they?
I suppose I could explain the issue by saying, ‘It was because my greatcoat was unbuttoned, coming out of a pub in Thetford.’

We were a night away from a draft to Palestine and were celebrating in a last chance saloon called the Green Man.

I was a lance corporal in the Black Watch (RHR) who had somehow got mixed up with an RASC unit in the days when Englishmen dominated the Highland Division while the canny Scots all joined corps and learnt a trade. In my unit all the Scots came from Glasgow. None of them much more than five feet high. If you were any taller in Glasgow, you got posted to Edinburgh.

Because I was still fastening my greatcoat on the street, I was pounced on by the Town Patrol of burly corporals for being improperly dressed. A minute Glaswegian ran up to one of the corporals and smacked him in the mouth for being impertinent to ‘a Highlander’ (from Manchester, as it happened).

In consequence, we were all charged with assault, taken off the draft to Palestine and sent to Germany. My charge - ‘in that he did assault six regimental policemen’ - preceded me to my new unit, where I was summoned by the CO. He said, ‘I am a very bewildered officer; you don’t look violent to me.’

I didn’t. Indeed, in the kilt, I looked like an undernourished reading lamp
I explained what happened, but he said there was nothing he could do about it. It was a court martial offence and he would have to remand me. ‘But,’ he said, ‘a word of advice: plead guilty. Otherwise they will have to adjourn the court and you will have wasted the officers’ morning. They will have to bring the witnesses over from the UK and they will be very cross with you. Plead guilty and your Prisoner’s Friend will explain the situation.’

I did. He didn’t. And I spent the next 56 days in 3 Military Corrective Establishment at Bielefeld.

When I was released and posted to Bad Oenhausen, I decided to desert. On my way to the Bahnhof to get a train to the Hook of Holland I was pounced on by the garrison RSM, a Scots Guard called Graham. He was very rude to me, suggesting that if I didn’t smarten myself up he would take the red hackle out of my bonnet, stick it up my arse and have me clucking like a Rhode Island Red.

I was very glad when he dismissed me.

To my horror, I saw him again five minutes later in the next street. Rather than face him, I dodged into the first door I could open. As it happens, it was the office of Army PR.

A CSM, Paddy Seaman, asked me what I wanted. I didn’t know what to say, so I asked him if he had any jobs going. I thought I might sweep the floor or make some tea.
He said, ‘Have you any experience of newspapers?’

I thought, ‘That’s a funny question’ - because, as a matter of fact, I had: I had been a printer’s apprentice at Allied Newspapers at Withy Grove.

I said I had worked on the Manchester Evening Chronicle and Paddy said, ‘Blimey, we haven’t had a newspaper reporter before. Come in and see Kenneth.’

Kenneth, it turned out, was the CO. At the time I didn’t know officers had first names, so I was a little surprised. I was even more surprised when I met Major Kenneth Harvey. He was a touch fey. I later learnt he had transferred to the Royal Armoured Corps because its black beret brought out the blue of his eyes. What with one thing and another, I was very relieved when he asked me to sit down.

All I remember of the interview was the bit where he said, ‘Here’s a chit. Go to the QM and draw your three stripes.’


‘You will join as a sergeant, of course.’


He bridled, and his little shoulders shivered. ‘You cannot expect to be an officer straight away,’ he said.

That afternoon, with not the slightest idea what I was doing, I was on my way to cover the Berlin Airlift. Still the biggest story I have ever covered on my own.
But the army always did the unexpected. Some months later when I was ‘Returned To Unit’ because of persistent drunkenness, another Guards RSM - Irish this time and called Kenny - thought PR was short for ‘provost’ and appointed me Provost Sgt of HQ 7th Armoured Division.

So if your child wants a career in journalism, tell him to try unbuttoning his overcoat in Thetford

* * * * * * * * * *


“The Royal Portraits is a collection of snaps by the late Cecil Beaton. In the course of taking these he met the old Duke of Gloucester who, when told Beaton was coming, said: ‘That’s the fella in the floppy hat, aint it? Can’t stand the man. Never stops talking in a funny voice. Bloody suspicious, I think.’

“On an Egyptian tour being introduced to a belly dancer he kicked off affably with the question “Ever been to Tidworth?”
Is there a biography of this remarkable man?”