Saturday, 13 October 2007


We are told that we are diminished by the number of species the world is losing. Certainly, nightingales no longer sing in Berkeley Square, or almost anywhere else in the UK for that matter. The boom in bitterns is over and I cannot remember when I last saw a worm glow.

The anguished publicity these losses generate speaks much for our love of wild creatures. They are not new. I expect that when the cave man came shuffling back to the cave at night, dragging his club behind him, he complained he had not seen a dinosaur all day. And no doubt told his mate it was the fault of global warming.

He would doubtless envy Al Gore, who gets a Nobel Peace Prize this week for making us aware of its dangers. In the same week, he was criticised by a High Court judge for claims he made in his film, which is riddled with errors and can only be shown in schools with a disclaimer. This followed disclosures that his own carbon footprint is Yeti-sized. Which makes him a fitting recipient of a prize for peace awarded by the son of an arms dealer who refined nitro-glycerine to make it safe to use in bombs.

I console myself with the thought - in my view the only original contribution to philosophy our century can boast – that ‘Stuff happens’.

I am much more concerned with the loss of the smile. Look at the people in the background of any photograph taken up to the Sixties and the chances are that one or more of them are smiling. You do not see that in the photographs we take today. Plenty of laughter, but it is possible to laugh and be angry at the same time. The grin is the response to humiliation, but smiling is impossible unless one is completely at ease with oneself.

I am fortunate: I live in Cambridgeshire, where the smile survives.

‘Amiable’ is the mot juste for this multi-coloured, colonised corner of the Fens. The original dwellers might have been sullen swamp people but they had a good deal to be sullen about. For centuries they lived outside the law and lived well. The Fens provided plentiful game and fish; transport was by boat, stilt and ice skate, than which there can be no more pleasant locomotion. Fruit and green stuff were to be had for the picking, wood for the fire and the buildings. Above all, the outside world rarely bothered you. True, you died young, but no younger than the people in the Outside, where Fenmen scarcely ventured from their Wind in the Willows world.

Then along came the Duke of Bedford and his land-hungry friends. They hired a team of interfering Dutchmen and the great drainage began. The labourers were starving Scottish prisoners of war and the great ditches they dug were named for the amount they dug in day. Thus we have the Forty Foot and the Hundred Foot drains, which are in fact war graves. When these forerunners of the navvies died, as they frequently did, they were buried in holes dug in the banks.

The Fenmen lost their freedom; but the inner content remains, like the vestigial tail we all carry at the foot of our spines.
Gangmasters, the 21st century equivalent of the Press Gang, have imported field workers from China and all over Eastern Europe. Like dolly mixtures, the pupils of the school near me come in all colours and great harmony, and the people I meet seem at ease with themselves and not remotely curious about others.

When I went to live in a Cheshire village, the grocer, Geoff Salt, told me not to worry if people asked me about myself and my business: it was the village equivalent of a weekly newspaper.

In Wales, dislike of the English is endemic. They dislike the English almost as much as the North Walian dislikes people from South Wales and vice versa. I thought ‘Gog’ and ‘Hontu’ were swear words, but they merely define geographical location, north and south.

The Welsh still blame us for Edward I’s invasion of North Wales, though his army of 15,000 included 12,000 South Walians. We are criticised for forcing our language on them. Yet it was a Welsh king, Henry VIII, who tried to kill their language, and Welsh parents in Gwynedd who, a century and a half ago, started a movement which aimed to have a thousand English speaking children by 1952.

An historical oddity decrees the most fervent nationalists should be aliens.
Catherine the Great was a German; Hitler was an Austrian, determined to give the lie to a natural truth that an Austrian is an unsuccessful attempt to turn an Italian into a German. Napoleon was a Corsican. Our Royal Family is German and Greek. The Arab nationalism which threatens the west was formulated by American missionaries who ran a literary society in Beirut in the 19th century; the IRA was manned, and often led, by English men and women. Of the two iconic Welshmen, R.S.Thomas, the poet, only became Welsh late in life, and the founder of Welsh nationalism, Saunders Lewis, was born in Liverpool. The first meeting of the Gorsedd of Welsh Bards was held in the 18th century on Primrose Hill in London; the first modern Eisteddfodd took place in Liverpool.

I blame the scenery. So bold and demanding is the landscape, so tempestuous are the seas in Wales that they take a great deal of living up to. One has to make grand gestures to be noticed. In the Fens there is no scenery to speak of, merely horizons and sensational skyscapes. It is easy to be placid and to concentrate on enjoyment and architecture. Our noblest churches and cathedrals, our diverse vernacular buildings, are our defence against nihilist surroundings. Christmas in the Fens is ablaze with light. Every village explodes in a carnival of faery lights. On the river Nene in March even the barges are illuminated. Only Vienna does it better. And possibly Bruges.
Long may it continue, if the Health and Safety restrictions which have banished them from some towns permit them.
The one loss I cannot bear is a little bird called freedom


When Oscar Levant was conscripted, the recruiting sergeant asked him if he would be able to kill the enemy. Levant replied, ‘The enemy? No. A friend? Yes.’

His friends felt much the same about George Harrop, the subject of the caricature above by my talented friend Ed Rawlinson.

George was Night Picture Editor of the Daily Mirror in Manchester when I ran the night news desk, a job I would have held much longer had someone else run the picture desk. A former cinema manager, wartime Chindit and PR man, he had the fastest tongue in the West - and also the loosest. Predictably so, since he incessantly lubricated it with whisky. He was even shaped like a Dimple Haigh bottle.

The telephone was his straight man, and his conversations with it were endless. On one occasion, the Sports Editor Peter Thomas tweaked his phone line out of its socket.
George went on talking for a full five minutes.

His tongue frequently got him into trouble, but it feared no man. Not even an editor, a wartime Commando major whose nickname was ‘Strangler’ and who had once held a junior executive by his ankles out of a fourth floor window.

‘George, get off the bloody phone,’ he raged one night.
‘Have to go,’ said George, in a voice everybody in the room heard, ‘the editor wants permission to change a crosshead.’

A photographer who fell foul of him was ‘a panchromatic Judas Iscariot’. Describing the foremen’s Christmas lunch at a smart hotel, he said: ‘They rushed through the swing doors in their suede clogs shouting, “Where is the foremen’s lavatory?”’
Once, returning home, he could not find his front gate. He hacked a great hole in the hedge, assuming he was back in the Chindits. It would be dishonourable to him to call him predictable.

I was not the only man to suffer from his friendship. Another martyr, the Night News Editor of the Daily Express, was on his way to a Christmas party when he discovered George asleep in the back of his car. Something which quite often happened to many of us.

Good sense dictated dumping him at the earliest - or nearest – convenience, but foolishly he took him to the party. In quite a short time, the host was so keen that my friend should take George home that he gave him the keys of his car.

The years have not diminished the horror of that drive. Distracted by George’s seamless monologue down some imagined phone, my friend drove over the bumpy flowerbeds of a roundabout. This startled George, who demanded to know where he was and how he could open the steamed-up passenger window.
A few moments later, my friend felt a breeze and assumed George had opened the window. But his seat was empty and in the rear mirror my friend saw a bundle of rags rolling down the road. George had opened the door and fallen out.

Numb with fright, my friend knelt in the road beside the rags, fearing the worst. To his relief, George`s head emerged. He got to his feet, dusted himself down and insisted on being taken to a pub 500 yards down the road. The pub was in darkness, but George hammered on the door until the bedroom lights went on and the landlady appeared in her dressing gown and curlers.

‘Madam, said George at his most courtly, ‘I am sorry to have awakened you but there has been a terrible accident. The victim is in shock: a large medicinal brandy would help.’

Still half asleep, she only began screaming for the police when George explained that he was the victim and that he preferred his brandy without ice or soda…

My friend eventually shook George off, which was never easy, and got home on Boxing Day to find his wife had left him. The party host subsequently attacked him with his crutch when my friend told him he could not remember where he had left his car.

Alas, George has long ago gone to the Great Saloon Bar in the Sky. Somehow R.I.P seems inappropriate.


From my Book of Dangerous Cuttings:-

Zimbabwe’s Minister of Finance, Bernard Chinzero, upset a number of Harare luminaries the other day when he failed to turn up after agreeing to be the guest of honour at a business luncheon.

When the organiser phoned Chidzero’s office for an explanation, the Minister’s secretary replied: ‘He was not hungry.’