Saturday, 23 February 2008


Robert Burns regretted that God did not give him the power to see himself as others saw him. In fact God has given us a much more dangerous gift. The power to make other people see us in the way we want. Leadership, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
Louis X1V was in no doubt about his position. The Sun King was a job description. After a series of military defeats he stormed. “Sometimes I think God forgets what I have done for him.”

To keep his quarrelsome courtiers in order he insisted they all live in Versailles where he devised a system of etiquette of precedence so byzantine – it even dictated the number of steps to a door which a host should take depending on the seniority of his guest - that the courtiers were so involved in keeping their place in the pecking order they had no time for mutinies.

The basis of all power is a cheap confidence trick. If you bet on horses or cards and lose, hard luck. If you bet on banks who lend money to people who cannot pay it back, the government swallows your losses because our perception of a shareholder differs from that of earthier gamblers. They are our superiors.

A bespectacled old lady in a glass hat, unsuitably wearing an evening gown in the middle of the day, plays a charade of instructing parliament in its duties for the next session. Her speech has been written for her by her First Minister, who is in fact her employer. She dare not alter it by so much as a comma. Yet we see the Queen, magnificently robed and bejewelled, giving Her orders to Her parliament; demonstrating that leadership is a concession awarded by the led. Misreading, surely, Locke’s dictum that the masses should give absolute power to an individual and then obey him.

Other members of the Royal Family, male and female, are garlanded with gold crosses, festooned with crescents, the traditional emblems of the brave and the noble, which, unearned, have been handed to them like after dinner mints.

I could be just as brave as Royalty in the eyes of the world were I allowed to wear, as they do, decorations won by my father, uncles and father-in-law.

The Wizard of Oz got it right when he made the lion brave by giving him a medal, the straw man wise by awarding him a diploma and the tin man romantic by giving him a heart. The wizard knew that qualities were unnecessary. It was the label that counted.

Quentin Crisp wisely pointed out that our feral young express their individuality by all dressing exactly the same. They adopt the shared uniform by which we recognise difference; shaved heads which speak of fighting strength, hoods so that children suffering from terminal acne can terrify old people who fought at Arnhem.

In fact any street fighter will tell you that it is surprise that wins fights: victory invariably goes to the man who hits first.

I am by nature a timid man of quiet pursuits. Yet when I wore the kilt I was perennially on the look out for a fight. In the red sash of a Provost Sgt, I terrified drunks who could have eaten me were it not for the power they wrongly perceived I held.

As – briefly - an officer cadet, I saw how one man in the squad was always the first to volunteer, the first to leap into a river or climb a height, in order to be thought “officer potential”, when wiser heads thought he was an idiot.

These uncharitable thoughts come from reading Wendy Berry’s book, banned in this country, about the private life at Highgrove of the petulant ‘Prince of Wails’ and the beautiful basket case he married. Lorries regularly brought gifts from manufacturers of everything from kitchens to hats which were regularly burned because of fears that the goods would be stolen and marketed on E Bay as royal property. Apparently it occurred to no-one to tell the manufacturers not to send them. That and other books by royal servants leave one with a poor opinion of every member of that unhappy dynasty, with the exception Prince Edward and the Queen, both of whom are praised for their consideration and good manners.

I cynically remember a friend, no stranger to command, who always made sure his adjutants were martinets. It enabled him to be easy going and thus popular.

I have known two VCs. One was awarded for bravery in repulsing an oncoming Chinese horde by throwing beer bottles at them. A useless gesture which one assumes only made them angrier. He had been thrown out of our regiment and a lowland regiment. After the award, the lowland regiment called him back and promoted him to RSM.

One of the many mistakes the Army made about me was to assume I had leadership potential. They were not alone. A similar misjudgement by a headmaster made me a disastrous form captain and I can only assume that when the Editor of the Mirror appointed me as night news editor, a mistake subsequently made by three other editors, he must have been barking mad.

But there I was. Two days a soldier and a designated O.R.1, potential officer. So it was natural when a group of us had to be fitted with W.D. spectacles, steel, other ranks for the use of, I was put in charge of the party.

Fourteen of us mustered for the journey from High Legh Camp at Knutsford to Saighton Military Hospital, twenty miles away in Chester. And a pleasant enough journey it was. That is until we climbed down from the lorry at the gates of the camp and wandered, chatting pleasantly, to report at the guard room.

We never made it. A very small sergeant with the voice of a much taller man shouted implications about our families that I am sure he came to regret in quieter moments. He then demanded to know who was “In charge of this shower…”

To a man, my squad of Judases pointed at me.

“Then get them fell in, in three ranks,” he barked. Alas, he didn’t tell me how so I had to whisper to them to get in some sort of line, which they
unobligingly did.

We had our tests, were promised our spectacles and began the journey home. Unfortunately I discovered, in the in the excitement of the morning when we got back to Chester General Railway station, that I had left the travel warrants in Saighton Camp.

I pointed to the least belligerent looking member of the party. “Nip off back to the camp and collect the warrants.”

“F …. Off,” he advised me.

“I’m in charge. You said I was,” I replied.

“Only when we are being shouted at, “he explained.

So I had to go back for the warrants. I told the party to wait for me at the station but none of them did. And because the lorry had gone by this time I had to catch two buses - and in doing so missed three trains. I travelled back to High Legh, accompanied by 14 travel warrants but without a single soldier.

“Good God,” said the orderly officer when I told him what had happened,
“we didn’t lose that many on D Day.”

From My Dangerous Cuttings Book

Polite society should evolve a new code of etiquette for the mobile phone brigade.
The Deputy Editor of the Daily Telegraph Ian Watson, dining at the Savoy Hotel, was interrupted by the cloak room attendant with the words: “Excuse me sir, but your overcoat is ringing.”

Sunday, 17 February 2008


I am not entirely convinced that if I fly to the Isle of Man bits of the English coastline will drop off the edge of the planet. Nor that Iceland will become a Land of Milk and Honey, and the desert will bloom with an abundance of orchids, if I so much as light a bonfire in the garden.

Climate change has dictated Earth’s history and will continue to do so. We are profligate with her bounty but governments which fly emissaries to the far corners of the world to junket and preen will never take the measures necessary to change our excess.

Any natural happening is pressed into evidence that warming is man caused. Global warming and wind change have even been blamed for the appearance of giant turtles on the Welsh coast. Turtles have been washed onto our Welsh coast with almost monotonous regularity for years. Wales is washed by the Gulf Stream which is their natural habitat. There is even a poem about it written by Robert Graves.

I am far more worried about the vast underwater island of plastic, the size of America, which broods off the coast of Hawaii poisoning marine life and feeding toxins to the minute organisms which are the first elements in the food chain. It is certainly responsible for the death of turtles and many other forms of marine life.

There is a hope. In a letter to the Independent, David Sevier, of Aqueous Logic Ltd, pointed out that nature has washed and sorted thousands of tons of a valuable resource and moved it near to several of the world’s markets.

Plastic, he says, is a good feedstock for many products including plastic wood. This, he claims, is an excellent building material since it does not rot or need painting. Apparently, the problem generally has been the cost of collecting and washing it. But the sea has done this for us. It has given us a truly huge business opportunity, a large, fairly concentrated raw material, near highly developed markets, which can be collected free, since it is in international waters. Naturally, since this important news is not doom-laden, it has not been taken up by the rest of the media,

Instead, I have been invited to "Earth Hour" on Saturday, March 29 at 8:00pm. "Lights off for only one hour, wherever you are in the WORLD!"

To see more details and RSVP, follow the link below:

In half the world, of course, it will be broad daylight. But I suppose it is the thought that counts.

On Tuesday we went to Cambridge to watch a student production of “The Pirates of Penzance”, which was by a country mile the finest I have seen; indeed it was one of the finest productions of any kind I have seen.

Hardened G and S watchers like me will be familiar with near geriatric chorus lines, three little maids with a combined displacement of an ocean liner and the other horrors we gladly undergo for the music and the wit of the lyrics. This chorus was made up of manly and athletic pirates and a bevy of Major General’s daughters who were pretty, young and talented.

The British reaction to G and S is one of the great puzzles of life. As a body of work, any other country would be proud of it. There would be festivals of G and S. They would be worshipped as the Strausses are worshipped, statues erected, G and S souvenirs in every shop. Here D’Oyly Carte were kicked out of their home, refused an Arts Council grant and patronised by our artistic establishment.

There is a similar, though less obvious, reaction to Elgar. Goodness knows what would have happened to his reputation had he not written the Enigma Variations and Jacqueline du Pre had not recorded the Cello Concerto.

On the way home from the theatre, across the treacherous Fens, fog made driving a hazard and brought back memories of the post-war years when fogs were so thick that the only way to get home was to tailgate a bolder spirit and hope. Several times this led me into Ladybarn Park (Manchester), across the road from my home, when the lead driver took a wrong turning.

On one occasion, the lead driver jumped from his car and ran past the convoy screaming. We caught him, and calmed him, and asked whatever was the matter.

“I nearly knocked over an elephant,” he sobbed.

He had.

I remembered, just in time to prevent a stampede, that Fossett’s circus, another greater English institution, was visiting and had hobbled its elephants in the park.

I used to earn an honest crust from Vernon’s Pools, going to winners who had marked the cross for no publicity and attempting to persuade them to change their mind. I had to give it up because it was turning me off the human race.

There was the man who earned his living scrubbing the inside of the tanks of railway engines and told me that, despite winning a fortune, he was not giving up his day job. Then there was the man who told me off for waking him up in the afternoon to tell him he had won £40,000. And the publican who told me to whisper how much he had won because he didn’t want his customers to know. The bar was empty at the time.

Only once was I offered a drink and that was by an elderly widow who had won £2,000 and gave me a sherry she said she had been saving in case she ever won the pools.

But the queen of them all was Nellie McGrail. She was a lady from Hyde, Cheshire, who was the first big winner of what was then riches beyond the dreams of avarice.

I was running the Mirror news desk in Manchester at the time, and I sent a reporter called Chris Reynolds to see her and take her to the amusement park at Belle Vue to get pictures of her and her children on one of the rides.

He rang several times to ask if he could come back to the office because he was running out of money. She made him pay for ice creams, lunch, candy floss and all the rides.

“Stick with her,” I said, “you’ll be bound to get a drink out of it when you take her home.”

So he took her home, paying for the taxi, and rang me again.

“That’s it,” he said. “You can sack me but I am coming back to the office. I have paid for everything all day. Carried whining kids and tried to cheer up Nellie. We’ve just got home and she said, ‘I expect you could do with a drink?’ I said I could. ‘Right,’ she said, ‘I’ll put the kettle on.’”

There was a sequel. When the news of Nellie’s great win broke, a taxi driver reading of it in his Daily Mirror said to his wife “I used to go out with her” and became very thoughtful.

Some months later I covered his wedding to the pools winner at the village hall in Heaton Moor. Happily on this occasion we drank champagne; indeed my abiding picture is of four policemen detailed to keep back the crowds drinking it from the bottle, long before that disgusting habit became fashionable. Though thankfully they did not shake it and spray it in the vulgar manner of racing drivers.

My Dangerous Cuttings Book

Seen in a Post Office window in Barmouth was this postcard:

“Dear Geoff, Audrey and Martin,
“Having a lovely time. The weather is good. The children are all enjoying themselves. See you soon,
Olive, Gwyn and the children.”

Written in the address section under a 9p stamp is:
“Forgot your address”