Saturday, 18 April 2009


Hipkin, my archetypal Fenman gardener, delivers papers round his village and has done so for many years. He has a been startled to be told by his employers that he must prove he is English by sending a copy of his birth certificate to their head office. As it turns out it is a legal requirement

The sad collapse of England is a rare example of a tragedy which is being transmuted into farce. A subject for Gilbert and Sullivan, rather than Macaulay. There was a time when our policemen were said, despite the evidence, to be wonderful. Now they are a gun happy mob whose incompetence astounds and are apparently above the law. They mowed down an innocent man who was carrying a chair leg amongst other unlikely targets. Man eating lions are tranquillised with blow darts: why not human beings?

We learn of misinformation from the Metropolitan Police to evade blame for the the tragedy of Tomlinson, a homeless alcoholic who was transformed in death, according to a relative, into a much loved member of a family. Not loved enough to be provided with a home, By coincidence, this happens at a time when we are recalling Hillsborough when South Yorkshire Police Force doctored evidence to evade responsibility.

Manchester police boast gun crime in the city dropped by 97 per cent when they arrested the leaders of one gang. Why were they not arrested years ago? Or indeed shot? Luckily for them, they carried guns and not chair legs.

Perhaps most frightening at all is the fact that planning a demonstration is an arrestable offence. One remembers Nazism and Fascism had similar laws.

But for a truly Gilbertian plot what better than the case of Commissioner Quick on-the--draw-of-his-pension? Parenthetically, have our security services not noticed that outside Downing Street stands a cameraman with a lens powerful enough to pick up typescript, an ability he demonstrated earlier when he photographed a cabinet minister's papers? Difficult to believe that this is accidental happy snapping rather than a nice little earner.

Act Two of this Gilbertian farce was the hurried raid on a number of Pakistani students who, according to some inspired leaks, were within days of blowing up a shopping centre and a night club. MOD should co-opt them. They were apparently going to bring this about without using explosives, of which none has been found.

I look forward to Act Three. The terrorist plot is now seen to be aspirational rather than actual. In other words, there wasn't one. In consequence, the students are likely to be deported rather than charged, but even this is problematic because if they were returned home THEY MIGHT BE TORTURED. If, as we were told, they planned to kill and maim hundreds of innocent shoppers that would be no bad thing. If they didn't, why are they being harassed at all?

I remain convinced that Wahabi dominated Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are the enemy. Not Iraq and Afghanistan. At time like this it is worth remembering that MI5 and the whole secret service was the invention of a thriller writer, E.Phillips Openheim. Aided by a mad Press Baron, “Nutty” Northcliffe.


Despite the daily breast slapping of our celebrity ambassadors I fear The Word of the Century is not 'Caring'. How about 'Massacre'?

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did their best to wipe out the native American, the Aborigine and the Maori but they lacked not only our expertise - they just didn’t have the technology.

We invented the flame gun, the atom bomb, germ warfare, bombing defenceless women and children from the air.........Oh, we are the devil’s golden boys.

There was no sense of race discrimination about us. We slaughtered Jews; Chinese and Russian peasants by the millions; street children in South America; anyone we could lay our hands on in the Balkans. Blacks almost anywhere. We weren’t fussy. If there were no outsiders handy, we slaughtered each other. We invented the death camp. We owe to that Icon of Peace, Mandela, the blazing necklace of a rubber tyre. In World War One when our soldiers were reluctant to shoot that stranger, the enemy......we shot them.

In the fifteenth century a woman called Christine the Pisan wrote a book called The Art of War. It was an instant bestseller. No prince planned a campaign without it. In it, she pleaded with them not to harm the peasants. She wrote: “They would full gladly always live in good peace and they seek no more. So ought they then ,as it seems to me, be free thereof....because their estate is not to meddle in war...and have no other office but, poor innocents, go to plough and work on the land and keep the beasts.”

Fugh. We will have no truck with that sort of rubbish in these enlightened times. “Bring me your hungry and your homeless......and I will wipe them out.”

No. Massacre is my nap selection, with anything to come on just plain evil.


If there was a best novel in the past twenty years I must have missed it. In a recent poll that accolade went to Umberto Eco’s “Name of the Rose”. A good enough read, I grant you; dripping with meaning, though basically about a search for dirty books in a monastery. All gloom and, in the inevitable film, a spectacularly unshaven Sean Connery. Bond in bondage, desperate for flagellation. All shadows and sweaty monks. Monks and mayhem. A sort of Brother Cadfael in a Bolognese sauce. I would have thought “Birdsong” by Sebastian Faulks more worthy of the title. None, of course, comes anywhere near Howard Spring's “Fame is the Spur”.

I was happier about the choice of biography. Juang Chang’s merciless “Wild Swans” was much more successful than Eco in showing how evil man can be if he really puts his mind to it. Mandela’s biography, predictably, came second as it would have done even if no one had written one. Ackroyd’s “Dickens” came third..

I would have put it first, though, as Ackroyd justly remarked, Dickens’ best biography was in his novels. I thought the prologue the best thing ever written about him, though I seem to remember being embarrassed at Ackroyd’s conversations with his subject.

A later guide than I read would no doubt have placed his masterly transcription of the Canterbury Tales high in the list but I certainly won’t quarrel with the Book Guide’s choice of Ellerman’s Oscar Wilde. I prefer biography to fiction. Biography, indeed life, can be fanciful in ways that fiction wouldn’t dare.

John Julius Norwich’s account of murderous Byzantium, the bad empress Theodora, and chapter headings like “The Emperor who lost his nose”alone would entitle his three volumes on that Empire to a place at the top of the history list. He prefers he original three volume edition to the collecte edition from which as he crossly observed to me, all the jokes had been removed. JJ has ben described as the most intelligent man in London. How different he is in lightly wearing that scholarship to the dreadful and ubiquitous Stephen Fry who eagerly shares his vast accumulation of facts with us, I would also include in any list “The History of the Cavalry”, which was the work of JJ's cousin and my old friend the Marquess. of Anglesey and won him the Chesney Gold Medal, the highest accolade of a military historian.

But there I go making lists.


I did my first published interview on VE Day in 1945 and since then scarcely a day has gone by when I haven't done at least one, for radio or for newspapers. Even my non-fiction books are extended interviews, either with people or other books.

But it took me forty years to become an interviewer. And then it was an accident. I fell asleep in the middle of an interview for a Radio 4 series.

Since nobody noticed, and the woman I was interviewing was a Russian Czarist princess with a fascinating story, I said nothing. And for the first and only time in my life the office was inundated with letters praising my interviewing technique. At last, they all said, an interviewer who isn’t for ever interrupting.

It flies in the face of received radio wisdom. On courses, young interviewers are told top keep answers short. Otherwise listeners get bored. This is rubbish.

At its best, an interview is the spur in the flank of a monologue. The interviewer is the jockey - a sort of horseman of the puckered lip. But if you can see him, even in your mind's eye, he has failed.

On Radio Wales, Vincent Kane in his prime was a superlative interviewer. He always left space for answers to his questions. So did a man called Gerry Monte. And there have been others. Like Michael Parkinson and, quirky though he was, Ray Gosling and (though not on Today) John Humphrys. But neither Paxman nor Naughtie qualify since both are desperate to show their own knowledge of a subject.

Now the interviewer is the star. His questions swirl like a matador's red cape as he taunts the bull in a suit of too bright lights.........I do sometimes wish they could fall asleep and give the other chap a chance.

We don't get many interviews. What we get are cross-talk acts between John Humphrys and various elephantine politicians; even crosser talk acts between Paxman’s eyebrows and ever more politicians. But they never seem to elicit any information.

Are the broadcast media right to concentrate almost exclusively on politics? I know it is cheap but I don't know anyone who listens enthralled. Am I wrong?

Perhaps I am also wrong in believing that interviewing should not be part of the entertainment industry, which it plainly is.

I would have thought that if satellite news bulletins and the barely live five proved anything they prove there isn’t enough news about - or news they can afford to get- to nourish a rolling news coverage. The reason the first popular papers included features was that there wasn’t enough news to fill a paper big enough for people to want to buy.

In the old days, BBC announcers would sometimes come on, announce the nine o'clock news and say “There is no news today. Good night!“

Isn’t news just another fix, anyway? We are used to getting it at stated times, like the six o'clock gin of happy memory; and we think we can't do without it.

Isn’t it even more depressing that we are now copying things like the Oompah Whimpering show where you manufacture news by bringing together stage villains or antagonists and inviting them to fight whilst the audience boos and cheers?


One of my oldest friends, Brian Hitchen CBE, ex paratrooper and former editor of the Sunday Express writes;

Very soon, you will see a great many people wearing Red every Friday.

The reason? 
Englishmen and women who support our troops used to be called

the 'silent majority'.
We are no longer silent, and are voicing our love for Country and home

in record breaking numbers.
We are not organized, boisterous or over-bearing.
We get no liberal media coverage on TV, to reflect our message

or our opinions.
Many English people, like you, me and all our friends, simply want to

recognize that the vast majority of  Britain supports our troops.
Our idea of showing solidarity and support for our troops with dignity

and respect starts this Friday and continues each and every Friday

until the troops all come home, sending a deafening message that

every Briton who supports our men and women afar will wear something red.
By word of mouth, press, TV -- let's make Great Britain on every Friday

a sea of red much like a homecoming football team.
If every one of us who loves this country will share this with acquaintances,

co-workers, friends, and family, it will not be long before Britain is covered

in RED and it will let our troops know the once 'silent' majority is

on their side more than ever, certainly more than the media lets on.
The first thing a soldier says when asked 'What can we do to make things

better for you?' is...'We need your support and your prayers'...
Let's get the word out and lead with class and dignity, by example; and wear

something red every Friday.