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.”

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