Monday, 3 September 2007

On Hearing Our Troops are quitting Basra

Geographers are jumping up and down with joy at the discovery of ruined houses and enclosures under the sea round our coasts.

So what else is new?

My friends in the Marine Science faculty at the University of Wales in Bangor have been examining evidence of buried kingdoms under the sea off the coast of Wales for thirty years to my knowledge.

There is evidence of drowned settlements miles out to sea off the coast of Rhyl. Cardigan Bay, according to the Celtic stories which may not be myths, was once a kingdom called The Bottom Hundred. It was a vast tract of level land, stretching along that part of the sea coast which now belongs to the counties of Merioneth and Cardigan. According to the old story tellers, it contained sixteen fortified towns and was known to the Phoenicians and Carthaginians who came to its Port of Gwyddno, the name of its king, to trade for metal. It was also one of the Three Privileged Ports of the Island of Britain.

No doubt there were soothsayers at the time who blamed climate change on the pollution caused by dragon breath and the carbon footprints of chariot wheels, when in fact in the multi- million-year history of the world there have only been 25,000 when our planet has been able to sustain life.

Climate happens.

By the same token, I doubt if there were research grants available for soothsayers in the way gold coins are being hurled at the heads of our scientific community.

In the Bottom Hundred, the drowned kingdom beyond Aberystwyth, they blamed a drunk.
Not just any old falling-down, mead-dribbling, rude-song-singing sot. This one, quite literally, was a prince among men.

The old Celtic Bards invented the Top of the Pops Lists in all sorts of alarming categories,including “The Immortal Drunkards of Britain”. Chief among them was Prince Seithenyn, the Hereditary Keeper of the High Embankment which prevented the sea from washing over the Kingdom of the Bottom Hundred.

Except that he didn’t. He abandoned his post to sneak into a feast which was being held to honour visiting ambassadors, found a quiet corner, ordered an oryx horn of mead all round and proceeded to get legless. Completely forgot to close the flood gates so that, come high tide, the Bottom Hundred became the Bottom of the Sea Hundred and he was much blamed in song and story. Which you have to admit is a lot more creative than blaming budget airlines.

I have my own list of Immortal Drunkards. Toper topping it is Mr Jorrocks, the fox hunting grocer who was created by a North country squire and novelist in the 19th century, R.S. Surtees. His deservedly immortal cry as he disappeared under the table at banquets was: "Pick me up, tie me to my chair and fill up my glass.”

Another favourite drunkard was an 11th century Chinese poet call Su Tung Po, who was exiled for criticising the Emperor.

How many of us drunks have suffered the same fate for lampooning our employers? Years ago, as he passed me slumped into my typewriter in the Daily Mirror News room, my editor Ted Fenna observed, “Pissed again, Skidmore?" “Don’t worry Ted,” I reassured him, “so am I.”

Su didn’t mind criticism either. He passed the years of exile building himself towers to sit in and admire the view whilst putting away large quantities of wine.

He wrote:

“How much have I drunk to-day? Ah! I feel I can escape now from the fetters of mortality. I fling away my staff. Away with all your worries and troubles, you lads. I gaze at the Western Hills - so close they seem, and long to raise my dress and join the leaping monkeys on the overhanging cliffs.”

I have a tendresse to for W.C.Fields who said, “A woman drove me to drink and I forgot to thank her.” But my favourite piece of philosophy came from that other Great Drunkard, Dean Martin (who I refuse to believe was a teetotaller off-stage), who answered a rebuke from Sinatra, “ Be serious? I tried being serious and all I could get was road building. Would you like a hernia for 50 dollars a week?”

I try desperately not to be serious, even when I reflect that every international ineptitude stems from our so called statesmen. The Council of Vienna, Versailles, dubbed 'the peace that passeth all understanding', Yalta, and all the endless summits our leaders love have made their contribution to the mess we are in.

Versailles was the worst. It was from that unhappy gathering, that peace to end all peace, that our present troubles stem. I have been reading James Barr’s definitive work “Setting the Desert on Fire”, the story of the secret war in Arabia 1916-18.

Until we financed it, there was no such thing as Arab nationalism. It was created by American Quaker missionaries at a Literary Society they founded in Beirut in the 19th century.

A British diplomat, sent to Mesopotamia in 1916, could only find sixteen nationalists. The movement we financed to fight the Turks stemmed from the ambition of two men, Ibn Saud, who created Saudi Arabia with the aid of a murderous religious sect, the Wahabi, and Husein ibn Ali, the Keeper of Mecca, who became King of the Hijaz with Allied money.

He did not know that, despite promises of an Arab homeland, Britain and France had privately split Arabia between them.

Francis Stirling, an Intelligence Officer with Lawrence of Arabia, wrote to his sister in 1916: “The situation bristles with difficulties. We have fanned the flames of the Arab revolt with money and men in the Sharif’s attempt to form a free Arab nation. Up to now the Arabs have a blind confidence in all the Englishmen who have been in contact with them. They almost literally eat out of our hands. The Arab cause has been successful beyond the wildest dreams of anybody. That is just the trouble. Mark Sykes, MP, never probably believing that the Arab Revolt would ever really reach further north than Aqaba, formed a compact with the French known as the Sykes Picot Agreement, whereby Beirut and the entire littoral northward of there should be under French administration and that Damascus, Horns, Haena and Aleppo should be allowed to fall to the Arabs (if they can get there) but should be under French influence…..But the Arab won’t have the French at any price. The Americans in Beirut are saying that we have sold the Arabs to the French. The results will be as follows: If we keep our part with the French the Arabs will rightly say we have sold them, that we have raised them up only to cast them down. News of that will spread through the Mohammedan world and do us unutterable harm.”

At Versailles Lawrence warned that an Iraqi nation was an oxymoron and advised the land be split between Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurds.

He was ignored and Feisal crowned King of Iraq. After 12 years that unhappy monarch reflected in 1933:

“There is still and I say this with a heart of sorrow – no Iraqi people but unimaginable masses of human beings, devoid of any patriotic idea, imbued with religious traditions and absurdities connected by no common tie, giving ear to evil, prone to anarchy and perpetually ready to rise against any government whatsoever.”

And he proved it when later in the same year he was assassinated.

Ah well………On with the motley.


The worst thing one can say about a man is that he would have the shirt off your back. Mike Gabbert, my news editor on the People, is the only man I know of whom that was literally true. He stole mine. It was handmade, silk and I was very proud of it. I had taken it off to preserve it, before offering violence to a person in Llangollen, for reasons long since forgotten. Gabbert offered to hold it and never gave it back.

No-one who knew him would insult his memory by claiming he was honest, which made his obsession all the more peculiar. So deeply in thrall was he to Simenon’s Detective Inspector Maigret that he bought and imported an ex-Paris police Renault motor car.

It arrived in Manchester on the eve of the Grand National meeting at Aintree. To christen it, Gabbert offered to take a select party to see the great race. I did not attend because I couldn’t afford to lose any more shirts.

Whether the party, metaphorically or indeed literally, lost their shirts at the races I cannot say. I can say that a good time was had by all.

So much so that on the return journey the car went over, rather than round a roundabout on the East Lancs Road. (This was pre motorway).

My informant was full of praise for the car. He said it was jumping like a stag and would undoubtedly have set up a course and distance record for roundabout jumping.
It was only prevented, in his opinion, by the police car it hit on landing.
He said, to be fair, the policeman leaped out of the car, covered the distance to the right hand side of the car, yanked the front door open and pulled the occupant out from his seat, all in one smooth motion. My informant said it put him in mind of Red Rum in sparkling, mid season form.

The policeman said, “Have you been drinking?”

“Have I been drinking….have I……..? Course I’ve been drinking,” said your man, a touch testily. “Why d’you think I m holding on to this door.?”

“How much have you had?” asked the policeman, taking out a notebook and moistening his pencil expectantly.

“Ah,” said your man, "Before I answer that, you answer me a question. Is it legal to drink BEFORE time?”

The policeman said it wasn’t, but on this occasion he was minded to overlook it.

“Only I don’t want to get Eileen in trouble,” your man explained. “She is the landlady of the Grove in Withy Grove and she always opens at 9.30 on Grand National morning, so we can all gather before setting off. ……But, as you are taking such a sporting view, I don’t mind admitting we had four pints apiece. Then that was us off to the races,” he said.

“We didn’t stop on the way, so by the time we got to the Press Club in Liverpool my mouth felt like a budgie’s sandpit. So I called for G and Ts for the six of us.”
“Then you went to the races…?”

“Did we hell as like. There were five of them still had to buy their round. THEN we went to the races.”

The policeman was scribbling furiously in his notebook.

“And who did we meet when we got into the champagne bar? Noel Whitcomb,” your man said. "Have you come across him?”

The bobby said he hadn’t.

“Lovely fellow,” said your man, “you would like him. Well anyway, every year he brings a couple of readers to the National and gives them a good time. Champagne and everything. But the trouble this year was the readers were TT. Terrible shock for Noel. Well, we couldn’t see him taking the champagne back to London. So we drank it for him. Couple of cases, as I remember. But I wouldn’t swear to it.

“The trouble is,” your man confided, “mixing champagne and gin always has a terrible effect on my stomach. So I had to have a couple of port and brandies to settle it. And I missed the last race.”

“Then you came home?” the policeman said, preparing to close his notebook which was getting pretty full.

“Good God, no," your man said, “and miss the winning owner’s party at the Adelphi? You must be joking. Have you ever been to one?”

The bobby said he hadn’t.

“I thought not,” said your man, “or you wouldn’t have asked."

He said, “They make this chocolate horse and jockey, the chefs do. Then when the winner of the National is announced they dress the jockey in coloured marzipan, in the owner’s colours. This time it was a Mr Bigg. A butcher from Norwich, I believe, and he owns Oxo. Quite amusing, we thought.”

But the policeman didn’t think so.

He said, "Never mind the bloody horse. Did you have anymore to drink?"

“Course we did. It's traditional. They serve Black Velvet in pint tankards, half champagne and half Guinness. Been doin’ it for hundreds of years.

“Mind you,” your man confided, "I think there was more Guinness than champagne in mine, though of course I said nowt.

“Then we left and if you hadn’t parked just where we were landing we’d be back in the Grove now.”

“You’ve swilled all that booze," the policeman said, “d’you think you are fit to drive?”

“Drive?” said your man, “I’m the passenger. It’s a left hand drive…………..”


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