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?”


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