Sunday, 10 February 2008

As the Archbishop said to the Author

I once chaired a discussion at the Hay Literary Festival on the likelihood of the Disestablishment of the Church of England. Among the debaters was Rowan Williams, at that time Bishop of Monmouth.

Some days before, I had been confessing to a chum, Dr Barry Morgan, Bishop of Bangor in North Wales, who incidentally in moments of stress bakes the most delicious gateaux, that I knew nothing about the subject. Barry Bish the Dish, as he was known locally, said rather unkindly, “That has never worried you in the past.”

I said, “But Dr Williams is on the panel and he has got a brain the size of Cardiff.”

“He is a friend of mine,” said Barry. “Tell him if he is unkind to you it is crosiers at dawn.”

In the event he was kindness itself and the voice of sweet reason. In the light of the present row when he made some harmless suggestions in a debate on law, I am sure his intentions were good. The problem is, of course, that he is far too religious to be Archbishop of Canterbury. I am not saying it is a job for an atheist, but there is no doubt that deep beliefs such as he holds make it awfully difficult to do a job, more the chairman of a fractious liberal party, with all the horrors that implies. Politics rather than faith is called for. However, he will not be the first deep believer to be crucified and in debates of this kind it as well to remember the Daily Telegraph Poll which disclosed that only a minority of Anglicans believe in God.

I was much more worried to read the warnings of scientists that transmitting songs into outer space may attract the anger of unfriendly aliens. Heartening though it is to think that our stellar neighbours have a musical ear, it reminds me of something I have been warning about for years.

The bench marks by which people judge behaviour are many and varied. From the old salt’s “I know what the lads on our ship would say”, memorably recalled in the film “Odd Man Out”, to public school and regimental tradition, even reference to biblical sources or that rather wishy-washy “ not quite the thing” of old colonials.

I have a different test, which involves spacemen landing on a market research mission, with Bristol boards and biros in each of their ten arms, stopping passers by and saying something like this: “We have polluted our planet and we are looking for a new home. Before we decide whether to settle here, would you mind answering a few questions?”

Now, if you are faced with a creature with ten arms, three heads and an eye in the centre of each one of them, the chances are you are not going to push him to one side. So when he asks you where you are going, you are going to hold your hands up and enter a plea of guilty.

“I am going to the pub,” you may say.

“Pub? What is pub?” the three heads will chorus, and you will explain it is a building, either draughty and scruffy or luxurious in a naff sort of way. You will explain how there is a thing called a bar and you all line up on one side whilst a man on the other side serves you drinks.


“Liquid made from juniper berries or wheat with sugar and things.”

“It tastes good then?”

“Well no, actually. It is a bitter taste and it furs your tongue. Or you can have spirits and they make you feel slightly sick as they go down.”

“So you don’t drink those… spirits?”

“Well, yes, but you put another liquid in them, so you cannot taste the spirits.”

“But you drink them because they have a nice effect?”

“Well, that is not quite true. They can make you fall over, or you might get in a fight with a stranger, and at the best you say silly things. And then the man behind the counter throws you out because you are behaving badly.”

Now at this point you can tell the three heads are puzzled, because they are looking into each other’s one eye and tapping their foreheads with all ten arms.

“This man behind the counter? He gives you this liquid which he knows will make you fall over and when you do fall over he throws you out? Is that entirely fair?”

“Well, no, but anyway he doesn’t give it to you. He sells it to you for money.”

“What is…?”

“Money is bits of paper or round things made of metal and the man behind the counter puts them all in a thing we call a till where a bell rings when money is put in it.”

One of the heads which is quicker on the uptake than the other two says, “I see”. And he explains to the other two heads that this thing called money is a sort of punishment token and is given to people who have misbehaved and they have to take it to this punishment place called a pub where the man behind the counter keeps it to show they have been punished.

And you don’t like to interrupt but you have to put them right.

“You don’t quite understand,” you say. “These are not punishment tokens: they are rewards, and to earn them we have to work.”


“Oh, some people go hundreds of feet down a hole in the ground every day and dig out fossilised trees. It’s very dark down there and filled with a dust which in the end kills you. That is if the roof doesn’t fall in.”

“And what do you do with this fossilised wood you have worked so hard to find?”

“We burn it.”

At which point all three heads and ten arms make a rush for the spaceship crying, “Which way is Uranus?”

* * * * * * * * * * * *
When the world was young and I could still keep up with it, I worked in Liverpool for the Daily Dispatch, though I spent most of my time bumming drinks in the Liverpool Press Club.

Sometimes, when we got bored with the club, we would go down to the docks where there was this mine sweeper which never seemed to go to sea. The Daily Herald man “Dicko”, one of our group otherwise known as “Zum Zum” because that was the noise he made when he reached the stage of inebriation where conversation is easy but pronunciation difficult, reckoned it was welded to the Dock Wall. But he did have a tendency, when not zum-zumming, to exaggerate.

Anyway, the Press Club enjoyed reciprocal membership with the ship’s wardroom. Well, I say wardroom but it was more of a wardrobe really, because mine sweepers are quite small.

Anyway, this one day we were enjoying rums all in when the Daily Dispatch was bought out by the Daily Mirror and the first I knew about it was when a messenger arrived at the wardroom door and said, “The news editor said don’t hurry with your copy because the paper has closed down.”

I went white and the skipper said, “Whatever is the matter, Skiddy?”

I said, “They’ve closed my paper. I’m out of work again.”

“Didn’t you know it was going to happen?” he said, and I said, “No. Bolt from the blue.”

“Well, I can only say,” he said, “that if their Lordships of the Admiralty took a ship of mine out of commission without due warning, I should send them a pretty snotty signal.”

And I said, “lf I knew the telephone number of our proprietor, Lord Kemsley, I should give him a piece of my mind.”

“It is Mayfair 2326,” said the Daily Mail man Medlicott, thus showing why we called him Harry Slime or the Turd Man.

“You can use the ship to shore radio,” the skipper said.

Ship to shore? The ship was part of the shore. But when I had swallowed a few more rums it suddenly seemed a good idea. So we all went off to the radio room and the wireless operator connected me with Lord Kemsley.

A distant butler said, “Lord Kemsley’s residence” and I said, “You’ll not know me but like you I used to be in the employ of Lord Kemsley until he sold the paper from under my feet.”

The butler said he was extremely sorry to hear that. His Lordship was not at home at the moment but he would be happy to give him a message.
And did I give him a message? It was a corker and I could tell the butler was enjoying it because he was writing it down.

“Run a newspaper?” I ended. “He couldn’t organise a piss up in a brewery.”

“Or a bunk up in a brothel,” offered the Express man Les Clare, who was listening.

“May I have the phone?” asked the skipper.

“Certainly,” I said, and I passed it over.

“P.S.,” he said. “That goes for Her Majesty’s Royal Navy.”


In “Urgent Fury”, as Washington with unintended irony called The Grenada Caper, the Americans showed up with the aircraft carrier Independence and its associated battle group, a veritable armada comprising naval fighter bombers, air force gun ships. a 1,250-man heavily armed Marine amphibious unit with tanks, and two army Ranger battalions.
On day 2, two battalions of the 82nd airborne Division were sent in to help and on day 3 more troops arrived.

The details of the invasion are still classified after six years. “They have got a lot to hide,” said Edward Luttwak at the Centre of Strategic Studies. While Ronald Reagan hailed the invasion as a victory which left Americans “standing tall”, the reality was a fiasco. The tiny island was invaded by 20,000 troops after a bunch of Marxist thugs (about 20) shot the prime minister and seven others.

At one point the Marines, the Rangers and the 82nd Airborne were all planning to attack the same targets at the same time. There was no intelligence from the island and no maps. The war was waged with tourist maps and a British Admiralty chart dated 1895. The primary purpose was to “rescue” 600 American medical students. The military thought they were in one location. The parents knew they were at another. Nobody asked the parents before the fleet sailed.

When the invasion was launched the navy could not talk to the army and the air force could not talk to the Marines because of a communications screw up. A navy observer on shore got in touch with his ship with a call via Washingtonm from a public call box on the island . The army radios ran out of batteries. They got 700 new ones two days after the war ended.

Carrier jets not only bombed a lunatic asylum killing 17 but also an 82nd airborne command post wounding another 17. The myth of a vast Cuban invasion was not only heavily hyped from Washington but in military planning. Three helicopters crashed in an assault by the Rangers on a Cuban camp that turned out to be empty. When the battle dust settled the only Cubans to be found were 43 middle aged and poorly armed construction workers.

At the end of the day the army handed out 9,802 decorations. There were also dozens of Purple Hearts for wounds in action. Behind the Washington cloak of secrecy there is an uneasy suspicion that the invading forces shot more of their own side than the defenders.


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