Soul Music, Morrison’s Sweet Thing, and memories of a long-lost friend…

Soul Music on BBC Radio 4 is a simple idea that works so well. Take one song, explore its history, talk to people who have an emotional connection to the music.

One of the songs in the new series is Sweet Thing by Van Morrison, from his 1968 folk-jazz album Astral Weeks, above.

Morrison was 23, barely known, shy and awkward when he created something as timeless as it is ethereal, fresh at every listen.

Warner Bros were keen to avoid expensive long hours in the New York recording studio and teamed him up with accomplished jazz musicians who helped create the fluid, organic feel of an album that still sounds as if it is being played for the first time. More or less the case as Astral Weeks was cut in 48 hours.

Sweet Thing is perhaps a slight song, certainly next to Cyprus Avenue and Madame George, yet its floating, wistful charm endures.

For the writer Caroline Mellor, who features in Soul Music, the song reminds her of her friend Dennis, who died aged 29. She was unable to cry at the time of his death, in private or at his funeral, and began to worry there might be something wrong with her.

Then one day, while on holiday in the Spanish mountains, she heard Van Morrison singing.

“Someone put Sweet Thing on a record player in another room and the sound just kind of drifted through the window and mingled with the sunlight.”

This triggered memories of their times together, taking a sound system out on to the South Downs, and Caroline couldn’t stop crying.

“After Dennis died I was still young, but a part of my youth died with him. And I think that’s probably the thing when people die, we’re also grieving the part of our lives that vanishes when they do. And the part of my life that ended when Dennis died was full of youthful energy, magic and gold.”


Julian’s friend John during their long drive across the US

I have written before about my university friend John, who died aged 42. And, yes, a part of my life vanished then.

Not the knotted weave of life since 1999. Not the John experiences shared with other people, including those misted university days or our wedding, where he was best man.

But experiences shared only with John now sit in a room with no door. I can’t check facts or measure memories, as there is no one to ask.

We went together on a three-week holiday to the US. An old photo album puts the date as 1981. John was an experienced driver, while I had just passed my test. We had 3,000 miles to cover in a week, as we were delivering a car, 600 miles or so a day.

I had only just got my licence. John drove in the big cities, but we shared the open road. At night, we stayed in cheap motels and in the morning ate breakfast at truck stops along Route 66.

It was a great holiday, a week in New York, a week in that car, sometimes bickering over my driving, and a week in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

One night we were drowned in desert darkness, nothing to see here, until at a bend in the road Las Vegas lit up beneath us, a bowl of neon. We spent one night there, another cheap motel. It was hot and we wandered through the casinos, or maybe just one casino. We didn’t bet on the tables, or not that I recall.

Perhaps John would remember things differently. But whatever the case, that holiday now belongs only to me.

John had a brain tumour, spotted during an eye test. We talked of meeting up. He was in London, I was in York, busy at work and the father of three young children. I let the matter slip, a lasting regret.

Besides his health seemed to improve, we spoke again, there would be time to meet up. Only there wasn’t.

John would be pushing 70. We’d surely still be friends, as we are in a way, although it’s a one-sided affair.

I have written before about John and if he was able, perhaps he’d heckle me here about the choice of words, or the hoeing of old ground, as my lovely friend could be picky.

Of course, I have other old lovely friends, some here in York known for 25 or 30 years, and newer friends met in the past few years. I have a wife, three grown-up-children, a sparky livewire delight of a grand-daughter. Plenty going on, you can’t dwell, we have all lost someone.

But still.

I miss my tall friend, six foot four to my five foot eight. We met at Goldsmiths College. It was his second go at university, London after Leeds; and my first, London after not getting in anywhere else.

I don’t have a song for John Sheridan. We went to gigs sometimes, one of the last was the saxophonist Andy Sheppard at Greenwich Borough Hall, shortly before we moved north.

My wife thinks she was pregnant with our first born at the time. Perhaps he was listening as he has always liked his music.

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How Truss and Rayner are treated so differently in the national media…

IF YOU want to see politics and sections of the national media hand in slippery hand, look no further than the treatment meted out to Liz Truss and Angela Rayner.

The first, as you may recall, is the work experience prime minister who crashed and burned after 49 days, trashing the economy in the process. The second is the often abused deputy leader of the Labour Party.

Incidentally, there is another link here, as shall be explained.

Right now, Truss is being courted and reported for her opinions on everything, mostly how she is right and everyone else is wrong.

Rayner, meanwhile, is the subject of a vicious smear campaign by the Daily Mail. This has led to a police investigation concerning a possible lapse over a small amount of capital gains tax on a house sale years ago, alongside possible confusion over the electoral register.

Truss is given endless exposure for her frankly ridiculous sounding book, 10 Years To Save The West: Lessons From The Only Conservative In The Room. Full but hardly surprising disclosure, I’ve not read that book and have no intention of doing so.

From the excerpts I have read, and from the interview clips on TV, Truss remains fully detached from reality or empathy. Endlessly reciting her own innocence with that weird air of blank-eyed self-absorption she has made her own.

Perhaps it goes with being a right-wing loon.

Like Boris Johnson before her, like the former US President Donald Trump (and let’s keep that ‘former’, please), Liz Truss blames everyone else for her failings.

I don’t wish to recite her wing-nut theories, but basically it’s because there are lefties everywhere, under the carpet, behind the fridge, down the back of the sofa – and even in the Conservative Party (OK, only the last of those is ‘true’).

I’d like to know how to sign up to this mysterious left-wing establishment Truss says is out to get her, but dare not ask her, for she does go on so.

As for the Mail-inspired campaign against Rayner, I don’t fully understand her alleged sins, and also fail to understand why the police are investigating on the insistence of one Tory MP. Is that how things work nowadays?

In a sense such a hit job shouldn’t matter, except that the BBC endlessly reports these claims – which is exactly what the Mail hoped for.

There are, of course, endless Tory scandals to catch up on.

Here are a few:

The Government’s operation of a fast-track VIP lane for awarding lucrative PPE contracts to its political pals during the pandemic.

Former chancellor Nadhim Zahawi being embarrassed into settling a tax bill worth billions.

Former Conservative MP William Wragg saying he was “manipulated” into giving the personal phone numbers of colleagues to a man he’d met on a gay dating app.

None of these, naturally enough, are of interest. Instead, the Mail and its friends turn journalism into political thuggery, endlessly flinging mud in the knowledge some will stuck.

Maybe journalism has always been like that. Some of my non-journalist friends certainly think so. Part of me still always wants to stick up for the good facets of journalism, even if these can be hard to find some days.

Interestingly, this hit job on Rayner might not even be working. Plenty of commentators, away from those slipped the Mail or Telegraph shilling, are pointing out that the attacks seem misogynistic, class based and also, if you ask me, obsessive and boring.

Matthew Parris in the Times has written a column that is unusually supportive, beneath the headline “Angela Rayner’s only ‘crime’ is being an uppity lass.”

His piece begins, “The hounding of Angela Rayner is outrageous: brutal, snobbish and completely out of proportion to any mistake she may (or may not) have made…”

“Brutal, snobbish and completely out of proportion…” Yup, I’ll second that. A column well worth reading, and I don’t always think that about Parris.

One link between the way Truss and Rayner have been reported lies in a prominent Tory donor and right-wing campaigner. Lord Ashcroft wrote and published the biography of Rayner in which the allegations aired by the Mail and others were first made.

And his publishing company, Biteback, is responsible for Truss’s daft book. As the writer and speaker Steve Parks suggested on X/Twitter, “It’s a vanity right-wing propaganda outlet, not a proper publisher.”

Two big stories of the moment – and both can be traced to Lord Ashcroft. As has been pointed out elsewhere, Ashcroft is reported to have used an offshore trust to shelter wealth while he was a Tory peer. How typical.

Would a less partial publisher have touched Truss’s bonkers book? Whatever the case, I have a better title, as borrowed from Bart Simpson – I Didn’t Do It, Nobody Saw Me Do It, There’s No Way You Can Prove Anything!

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Reasons to be glad… plus Easter politics, flags and National Trust scones…

HERE follows a list of what my stuttering heart could have taken me from.

Friends and family, including my wife and our three grown-up children, a short holiday with the granddaughter, that little girl’s smile, my brother and his wife coming to stay from Hong Kong, bringing our 92-year-old mum, who hadn’t seen me since the unexpected event.

Playing my first game of badminton post heart attack, walking all the way into York, driving the car again. Doing a spot of gardening alongside my wife.

Oh, and watching her decorate the hall, landing and bathrooms. The use of paint brushes is banned on medical grounds, or that’s my story. Anyway, my decorating skills are the wrong side of useful, tricky for a man married to a busy perfectionist.

Going to a gig at Bluebird Bakery near us, as suggested by friends who came over from Leeds to see Alison Cotton, an experimental viola player whose music comes in profound and melancholic layers.

And, no, I’d never heard of Cotton or realised you could experiment with the viola, but that’s what she does, to heart-touching effect, singing beautifully when not pushing boundaries with that viola.

That was my first outing to a gig, with another planned next week – John Smith in Leeds, on what will be our 37th wedding anniversary. Where somebody put all those years remains a mystery.

The passing of time ought to have a deeper resonance when you have had a squeak with mortality. But if you frittered the hours on social media beforehand, it is likely you will resume squandering what should now be invaluable.

That’s how I can tell you about events I would not have missed if I’d been permanently detained in the great elsewhere.

Easter, for a start, I wouldn’t have missed Easter at all.

Not the pleasant Easter I had with friends and family, with the granddaughter hunting eggs in her great auntie’s garden, but the online, anti-woke Easter that was so aggressively flourished by assorted right-wing bores on Twitter/X and elsewhere.

Sensible friends who avoid social media spats and twats may be unaware of the great Easter ding-dong. Just so that you and they know, what happened was that assorted right-wing Tories, alongside those even further off the field, shared Easter messages in a way that was frankly weird, trying to out-Christian each other, and goad all the “lefties”.

If you are a Christian, Easter is the most important date in the year, as even an atheist kicking stones along a ledge can acknowledge. But all these Trumpian types wielded their Easter messages like cudgels. How weird. Liz Truss held a lamb hostage outside an abandoned church, but then she is certifiably weird.

Carole Malone even wrote a column in the Express under the headline: “Why are we forever apologising for saying Happy Easter” – a complaint about something which surely just doesn’t ever happen. Weird again.

When these dull culture warriors weren’t doing that they were banging on about supposed perversion of the union flag. Thanks is due, then, to the assorted people posting who showed all the occasions when the Conservative Party has drawn up new versions of the flag during conferences and so on (from that silly flag tree onwards) to suit its own purposes.

And then, at last, we come to the National Trust scones scandal. And if you don’t know about this, you lead a fuller life than I do.

The Daily Mail reported from a small hill in Lower High Dudgeon that the trust had sneakily introduced “woke vegan scones” made with margarine without telling anyone.

GB News also ran over-heated “news” items about this appalling scandal.

But best of all, someone spotted that in 2018 the Mail had run a feature about the vegan scones, including a recipe.

Ha, hoist by their own unbuttered petard!

All praise, incidentally, to the excellent Celia Richardson, (above) director of communications at the National Trust, who fends off these culture war skirmishes with endless wit and apparent good grace.

Mind you, and just to show that life is complicated, scones are definitely better made with butter and topped with jam and clotted cream. Although perhaps not when you are recovering from a heart attack.

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Why those of us saved by the NHS sing its praises… unlike Telegraph columnists

For reasons that should be clear, unless you are a Daily Telegraph columnist paid by the spittle-flecked yard, people who owe their lives to the NHS tend towards gratitude.

Whereas Daily Telegraph columnists tend towards dyspeptic nit-picking and bile.

Here are recent examples of gratitude from those who are simply glad to still be here. You’ll find me in that crowd.

First up, the poet and writer Michael Rosen, who nearly died from Covid. Following his long, long recovery he wrote a book, Many Different Kinds of Love: A Story of Life, Death and the NHS, that compiled letters written to him by the medical staff who cared for him, alongside poems about his months in hospital.

In a post on Twitter/X on March 7, Rosen wrote: “The NHS saved my life. If people think it’s not good enough, it should be better funded and staff better paid so that the NHS can recruit and retain staff. The NHS is being attacked by those who want to privatise it = taking money away from care into shareholders’ pockets.”

Salient points made by a man who should know. And he is exactly right about the funding and those shareholders’ pockets.

Now, heart attacks. Once you’ve had one, you notice how many of us there are knocking about in the land of Wow Still Here.

John Crace, who writes excoriatingly witty Parliamentary sketches for the Guardian, is missing at present from his seat of scowls in the Westminster stalls. He explained his absence in the following tweet on March 11…

The musician and composer Nitin Sawhney posted a short video in which he appeared relieved, if baggy-eyed, after suffering a heart attack and having two stents fitted…

“Just a small thank you… to all of you and to the amazing @NHSMillion who saved my life… Also a bit of plugging for gigs…”

In a nice turn of tweets, Nitin later replied to Crace, saying: “I just came out of the same hospital with the same issue. Recover well…”

To which Crace replied: “So glad that you are also recovering well. Take care and thanks for reaching out.”

Like John and Nitin, I too am still around thanks to a wire being passed through my wrist and into my heart, where some early morning cardiological fishing removed what appeared to be a clot. After that a stent, a bit of metal mesh scaffolding, was inserted to widen my narrowed artery. I can’t speak for the other two, but once that stent went in, the pain dissolved.

I feel intense gratitude to everyone involved. Alongside intense irritation at the words spluttered out by right-wing rant merchants who hate the NHS. Do these people never suffer heart attacks? You’d think they might, what with all that shouting and elevated blood pressure.

Anyway, such commentators seem mandated to hate the NHS. Some on the right have never liked the NHS, believing it to be a socialist plot or some such nonsense. What they would replace it with remains unclear, although the US system is often giving a glowing reference.

You know the insurance-based system that sees millions of Americans avoiding medical treatment each year due to the costs. Unsurprisingly, some die while worrying about the costs of the treatment that would have saved them.

Here are anti-NHS screeds from the Telegraph, as submitted by usual suspect complainers.

First up in the shouty queue is David Frost, Lord of the Whisky Barrel or whatever his title might be. In yet another aggressive column for the Daily Telegraph (March 7), the former whisky salesman Lord Frost wrote: “The NHS treats us like paupers and expects us to be grateful”, adding in a sub-heading: “Why are so many proud of a Soviet-style system that embodies the ‘we know best’ mentality of the state?”

Hilarious, isn’t it, how the same people who landed us with the penniless pain and endless aggro of Brexit are now telling us that we need to get rid of the NHS.

Without having a cause of bitter dissatisfaction to animate them, it seems as if these people just can’t get up in the morning. The Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson, who delights in being wrong about many things, rose from her bed on July 5 last year to opine: “The NHS is on life support – it’s time to switch it off and start again”.

For rotten measure, she added: “After 75 years, our sentimental attachment to a wonderful idea has meant a reluctance to admit just how bad the reality is.”

There are problems for sure, but the reality for Michael, John, Nitin and me is that without the NHS, we wouldn’t still be here to praise those who saved us. Or indeed to complain about Telegraph columnists.

As Michael Rosen suggests in his tweet, it seems that for the past 14 years the Tories have been running down the NHS to the point where privatisation seems the only solution. You may recall something similar on the railways. You know, the ‘efficiently’ privatised ones that are late or cancelled, and too expensive to travel on.

Nothing about the NHS is ever simple. Private medicine has long worked alongside and within the NHS. Last year, however, private hospitals carried out more procedures for the NHS than ever before.

My hernia operation, the one the day before the heart attack, was done privately on the NHS. Everything went fine on the day, although, tellingly, when I had a heart attack the next day, the NHS doctors and nurses said they couldn’t see my records for the operation, as it had been carried out privately.

My hernia operation was part of a rising trend for short-term fixes where private hospitals step in to help shorten waiting listings.

Is this an unavoidable compromise or a further weakening of the NHS to please those shareholders?

Me and my glad plumbed heart suspect the latter.

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Here I am in sniper’s alley, dodging bullets and pills…

Here I am, more or less in one piece, nearly three weeks on

A friend who had his heart attack 17 years ago tells me the decade between 60 and 70 is when we are most likely to be hit by fatal ailments. It’s known as sniper’s alley for that reason.

If you reach 70, there is every hope of attaining a ripe old age.

So that’s where I find myself, dodging bullets and pills, with two-and-a-half years to go.

Hold me upside down, shake me, and I rattle. All that medication, statins the size of cough lozenges. God, I never used to take anything, and now each day I swallow a fistful.

But that’s the price of staying alive.

Having the heart attack was a profound shock. Surely not, I’m healthy, eat sensibly. Play squash and badminton, cycle, tramp through the countryside nattering to old friends. Don’t smoke, only drink a bit, nothing to scare the horses. Or the cardiac nurse I met the other day. “Don’t worry, we’re not the police,” she said cheerfully as she made a note of my modest enough weekly total.

That nurse was lovely and kind, as everyone in the NHS has been to this owner of a busted heart. A heart now replumbed and rewired. Reconditioned like the engine in that MG Midget I owned decades before anyone mentioned stents or heart attacks.

Yes, it is a shocker suddenly to have been so ill. That’s why I chose to share the harried, churning moment in my blog. Afterwards you cannot help pondering about mortality. Or feeling something. The big thing, the one you don’t want to talk about, is that, yes, everything could have ended just like that.

That’s the price of being alive. You are here, then you are not. The trick is to enjoy to the fullest the gap between those two markers. To take pleasure in many things; gawp at the blossom or spy a passing cloud. Bake a loaf of bread. Watch good television and rubbish television. Read more books, drink good beer and wine. Play with your granddaughter if you have one. Savour your friends and loved ones.

The cardiac nurse talked to me about diet and exercise. My diet is good, apart from when it is not, mostly down to a liking for cheese and unsalted butter.

“You put a lot of cheese in your sandwiches” has long been the view of the unofficial cardiac nurse at home.

Ah, there is still cheese, there must always be cheese; cheese on toast in all its gooey joyfulness; shavings of strong cheddar, squidges of brie or the delightful decay of Stilton. Just not so much or so often. Other food is available, apparently.

The nurse slipped me a leaflet packed with stern information about food. I had a glance later, and thought, oh, right. More things to remember; more things to forget. More to swallow or to not swallow.

Everyone has been so kind while displaying friendly furrows of concern. Wife and children; mother and brothers; the wider family; old friends, new friends; all have been worried. Everyone is pleased to see me upright and smiling. I am good as people say nowadays. Tired but good, glad to be here in the tender care of the cardiac nurse at home.

Why did I have a heart attack? This is not only a why-me moment, but an actual question. Plenty of impromptu medics say it must be because of the hernia operation the day before. Connecting one thing to another, blaming one thing on something else, is what we like to do, indulging in causality, that nagging relationship between cause and effect.

Did righting that bulge in my groin send a clotted bullet into my heart? I have no idea, and perhaps I will never know, although the question will be asked. I already had a tug of angina, though, so who knows for sure.

As well as the dietary nitty-gritty, along with the pills and more pills, there is advice about exercise. Nothing but walking for now. The first instruction was to walk for four minutes. Four minutes! That’s to the end of our garden and back. I am now up to 20 minutes or more, twice a day,

A month or so more may see me with a racquet in hand again. I’d like to point out that I won my last squash session 4-1. And that never happens.

After the unwanted excitement of the big event, I am settling down, hopeful, moving on. The friend who had a heart attack long ago said it took him a couple of years to accept what had happened. My second scariest moment came one week after the heart attack. I sat downstairs reading and listening to music, as I had on the day. I kept glancing at my watch, waiting for 10pm. My wife was upstairs in her studio, as she had been on the night.

That knot in the wood of time came and went without incident.


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That doctor saved your life last night…

Last Saturday I had a heart attack. Writing those words feels strange, but I do own that misfortune. Here, then, is the congealed mess of then and now.

That doctor saved your life last night…

The consultant at Leeds General Infirmary is not referring to the doctor who had repaired my hernia on the Friday afternoon. That operation had gone as planned. I went home, ropey with general anaesthetic, sore but glad the lumpy swell in my groin was gone.

No, he is talking about another doctor, another day.

After a restful post-op day, one walk down the garden, I watched television, read the newspaper. A normal Saturday, minus the alcohol. At 10pm I felt tight in the chest, not painful but uncomfortable. Like the angina I suffer during exercise occasionally, but now there all the time.

Oddly, I was also haunted by a strange dread, as if carrying something I didn’t want to unwrap.

This is how the night flowed…

A community first responder arrives, then two paramedics or ambulance practitioners or whatever they are called. Like everyone else in this story, they are lovely, brisk, busy. After being wired up, pressure-tested and so on, the ambulance takes me to York Hospital, my wife pale beside me. One of the paramedics sits next to her.

I lie on the stretcher, feet towards the door, trying to work out where we are. A backwards glance through the dirty small window shows familiar streets snatched the wrong way round.

Inside the hospital I sit on a chair and wait, as trolleys pull up. Those people all look in a worse state than me, I think. After a while we are shown into the emergency department. It’s a waiting room and here we wait.

After a longish time, two hours perhaps, a cheery nursing assistant calls me into a room with a bed. I lie down as he takes blood samples and links me to another ECG machine. You’ll hear in an hour or so, he says, heading for a break after seven hours. He never seems to get that break.

We wait a little longer. I am still carrying that unwrapped parcel. Other patients come and go or wait and wait. One man had tripped over his dog’s lead, bashed his head. Another man has a cut head, along with a partner who never stops talking, nerves perhaps. Police officers help a young woman/girl who seems to be out of her head.

The young nursing assistant calls us back, more quickly than he’d said. The tests have shown something, he says. You’re going out this way, he adds, whisking us out the other side of the room.

Another room, another bed. I am linked and tested, a canula is slotted into my arm. A screen behind me shows a ‘film’ I cannot see. There are bleeps with, I imagine, an accompanying display of zigzagging lines doing a coronary cancan.

A doctor comes in, tall and handsome, like something out of ER. You are having a serious heart attack, he tells me. He holds out his arms as if in a crucifixion pose. The seriousness of a heart attack runs from here to here, he says. Mine is near the highest score, almost all the way from his left to his right hand.

He relaxes his arms and goes off to phone Leeds General Infirmary. My wife goes paler still. She tells me I can’t be having a heart attack. Then she says you’re having a heart attack. None of this makes sense.

How is the pain on a scale of one to ten, a nurse asks. Oh, how do you ever answer that sensibly? Six, perhaps, I say. A score that earns some morphine.

The tall doctor returns, says everything is ready in Leeds. Two paramedics come in with a trolley and I shuffle across the gap. I am strapped in and wheeled off. After a shaky goodbye, a nurse arranges a taxi for my wife, who heads home sleepless and alone.

Up the ramp and into the ambulance we go. A trainee ambulance practitioner sits besides me as her colleague puts on the blue light and sets off for Leeds. It is raining heavily, pouring down. The ambulance shakes and rattles, surges large puddles, water splashing beneath us.

At the LGI, I am wheeled out. We pass through more doors, travel down dark corridors, then into a large bright operating room.

The coronary staff had finished and left, only to be called back to help this heart-sore man from York. I shuffle from trolley to bed. The doctor tells me what is going to happen. A coronary angiography, I think she said. Local anaesthetic is injected into my wrist, from where a long thin catheter is inserted into a blood vessel.

As the doctor begins, her actions appear on two large screens to my left. She is fishing down tiny rivers in search of a dangerous clotty worm. Above me hovers a massive X-ray camera of some sort. The doctor issues instructions, giving the coordinates to an assistant, and the camera moves in and out, goes side to side. The fishing wire sets off down an artery.

After half an hour, we are done. The obstruction has been removed from my heart. The long wire is pulled out of my wrist. I shuffle from bed to trolley amid teary thankyous, and then wheel off through darkened corridors to the recovery ward.

A nurse settles me in for what’s left of the night. She is calm and kind, has a busy twinkle, but is looking forward to her shift ending in two hours. Breakfast comes, I call my wife to say I am still here, lunch comes.

The hospital is waiting for a bed on the coronary ward in York. One comes free, two more paramedics arrive, wheel me out. One drives, the other sits in the back. We chat, turns out he was a printer in an earlier life, inky tales are swapped.

My wife visits comes into the ward, with two of our three (the middle one lives too far away for a quick visit). It is so good to see them, but I feel tired and old and battered, not my usual self.

They go home. Tests come and go; meals come and go. A night passes without much in the way of sleep. There are more tests, a consultant calls by, advice is given, and then I am released. Not even two days after my heart attack, I am home, shaken and bruised, puzzled, affronted at fate – but mostly relieved and grateful to be here.

That doctor saved your life last night…

Yes, I almost cried when I heard that. Sometimes half a life pours into one small jar. As for that unwrapped parcel, Bill Bryson addresses that feeling in his excellent book The Body, A Guide For Occupants. It even has a name, angor animi, from the Latin and refers to an ‘anguish of the soul’ people suffer when they experience a premonition of death.

Here I am, same as ever was, yet different. So grateful to loved ones and concerned friends. So grateful also to all those lovely hard-pushed kind people in the NHS. Without their help I might not be here.

It is Valentine’s Day. No card for my wife this year. I told her that her present was me. She seemed happy with that.

And then my daughter came round. As the granddaughter walked towards the house, she held before her a big red heart she’d helped to make.

Ah, life. Ah, a tear or two.

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Rishi Sunak’s Rwanda bet with Piers Morgan strikes a new low…

TWO rich men – one possessed of unfathomable wealth, the other of unfathomable ego – appear on TV together and shake hands on a £1,000 bet about whether any migrants will be sent to Rwanda before the general election.

The deeply moneyed man looks a tad uncomfortable about this wager, as well he might, as he is meant to be the prime minister, after all. The other, being Piers Morgan, looks horribly pleased with himself as he sweats under the studio lights.

Two rich men sparring on a tacky TV talk show make light of the fate awaiting some of the world’s most disadvantaged people. Two rich men making a rotten poor show of themselves.

One of them does this dispiriting stuff for a living, so it’s not surprising. The other is meant to be running the country.

Is that where we’re now at? Even those of us who can’t bear Rishi Sunak’s tinpot populism may have wondered why he agreed to go on that show. It was an old promise, apparently. Well, the mistaken princeling walked into that one, and once the saloon doors shut behind him, he foundered like the flattest of fish.

A thousand quid is nothing to Sunak. If someone stuck a grand on the pavement to fool him, he’d not even notice such a puny sum. Well, he doesn’t seem to have noticed that the Rwanda scheme has already cost us £400m – without a single refugee being sent there.

It’s all a heartless gimmick designed to make us feel all our problems are down to those disadvantaged people who risk their lives trying to cross the channel. They have long been treated as meaningless pawns in a game they don’t understand. And now the prime minister and a TV host have had a £1,000 bet about their fate.

Sunak is said to be a great admirer of Margaret Thatcher. My own hostility to Mrs Hacksaw is ancient and to the bone, but I’ll grant you this: no way would she have stooped so low.

A cheap stunt from Sunak in what must surely be the last-hope casino. At least that’s how it looks to me, which is why I stopped doing something else to write this in a dispirited flurry of finger bashing.

Hope you don’t mind…

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A nation hurt by ‘skimpflation’ and why targeting ‘Saga voters’ is dumb

It’s always good to trip over a new word, especially if it sizes up nicely as a political cudgel.

While ‘shrinkflation’ had already entered my dictionary mind, ‘skimpflation’ was a fresh one.

The first suggests pack sizes of food products being reduced in size for the same price; the second that “recipes are reformulated and expensive ingredients are cut down” (thanks to Hilary Osborne of the Guardian for the definition).

You notice this at the supermarket where everything costs more, isn’t as good as it used to be and comes in smaller packets.

And you notice it in the country, too. Everything costs more, isn’t as good as it used to be and prime ministers come in smaller packets.

It takes a smallish man to point this out, but Rishi Sunak is certainly as diddy as his ego appears monumental. And we got him as part of a three-for-one deal at the Tory supermarket requested by precisely no-one.

Sunak pushed into the queue at the checkout after Boris Johnson (low average height, yet with a towering inferno ego) and what’s-her-name; ah, yes, Liz Truss (fatally skimped on good sense, shrank the economy overnight, then still swanned about telling everyone she was right and they were wrong).

As for skimpflation, that’s another name for the Conservative brand of austerity that’s left the country falling apart.

The NHS is shot thanks to cutting out “expensive ingredients” such as proper funding, the railways costs a fortune to use, the rivers are full of shit emptied there by privatisation, schools and hospitals are crumbling, and cash-starved local authorities are finally beginning to totter.

Oh, and the Post Office connived to have sub-postmasters jailed rather than owing up to having bought cruelly unreliable accounting software. This was flogged to them – and us, as the government owns the Post Office – by Fujitsu, which continues to make a fortune by plugging gaps in our hollowed-out state (more skimpflation) that now employs private corporations to do our public business.

Nice work if they can get it.

And what does the tetchy little tech man in Downing Street propose to do about all this as a general election looms? Promise unaffordable tax cuts in a dodgy deal to fool three credible voters for the price of two. Honey, I shrunk the economy, but I’ll roll them a tax cut bribe and hopefully they won’t notice.

Much better than doing something useful like investing in the country. “Tax cuts! Tax cuts!” the political Tory zombies cry, all other thoughts having died inside their skulls, although sometimes these dead-eyed souls may be heard to mutter something meaningless about woke this or woke that.

Still, according to the Sunday Express, Rishi is targeting me, of all the unlikely people. He’s not actually said if there’s one voter I want, it’s that liberal-minded, woke-headed blogger who never stops twittering on about how awful we are. No, what he’s after is the “Saga vote”, said to be voters over 50. Sunak apparently told the paper he wants to harness our “energy, wisdom and experience”.

Well, those qualities were certainly in evidence on what I still call Twitter, where assorted oldies competed with each other to exclaim why never in a million miserable years would they vote Tory. Plenty of energy, wisdom and experience went into those barbative tweets.

If there is one thing the old people in this country need to do it is to stop voting Conservative. Old-style Tories never appealed to me, but they were paragons of sense compared to the shallow, far-right, immigrant-baiting grifters we have now.

And here, to close, is my own new word – “stinkflation”. It refers to that bad smell hanging over the government.

Let’s hope Sir Keir Starmer resists using “skimpflation” to remove the good green and investment ingredients he has advertised down the Labour aisle of the supermarket.

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Starmer wakes up on woke… and the culture secretary lands in a hopeless muddle over BBC ‘bias’

Despite promising not to look at the Daily Mail’s front page, I did like this headline: “Starmer Wades into Culture Wars on the side of the Woke.”

Oh, good – about time he did something to cheer me up. This obsession with woke this and woke that is just deeply tedious. Those who burble incontinently about wokeness merely illustrate their lack of having anything sensible to say.

Mostly they are stirring a shitty quagmire of their own making. Or, rather, one made in the US by the alt-right and their media pals.

Anyway, Sir Keir Starmer used his speech to stick up for, among others, the National Trust. It’s an odd world where that purveyor of bog-standard afternoon teas to the middle classes and holder of the keys to fine historical properties has become the number one enemy to various right-wingers, but there you go.

The hatred of the Daily Telegraph/Spectator classes for the National Trust seems to date to a report published some years ago charting the connections of its properties to slavery.

Members of the Common Sense Group of Tory MPs – more accurately designated the Usual Old Nonsense Group – complained that the National Trust was engaged in an “ideologically motivated endeavour” to rewrite history.

Or, if your marbles haven’t all rolled away, a simple and honest attempt to write a fuller version of history, reflecting the bad as well as the good.

Anyway, times two, what Starmer needs to do now is carry on pointing out this stuff – and to stick to his sensibly stated plans (on green investment, for one) rather than retreating at every tired Tory taunt.

The football commentator and part-time culture warrior Gary Lineker is a man much hated by supposedly commonsensical Tory MPs and their backing vocalists in many newspapers. In an interview at the weekend, he gave a sensible account of himself, and of the anti-woke crusade.

“I mean, what is woke? Having a conscience, having a heart, having empathy? How is that a bad thing?”

Quite so, Gary.

Keir Starmer’s speech coincided with the latest attack on the BBC by a Tory culture secretary, in this case that heap of hopelessness known as Lucy Frazer. In an interview with Sky News, the presenter Kay Burley asked Frazer why she thought the BBC was biased.

Her answer came with an ‘Er’ here and an ‘Er’ there.

“So, where’s your evidence?” asked Burley, an admirably persistent sort.

After stumbling for the right words like a pigeon chasing seeds, all Frazer had to offer was that some people perceived the BBC to be biased. Burley helpfully pointed out that perception was not evidence. She gave Frazer another chance to explain herself, but there was nothing more, just the bob of her seed-chasing head.

Right, so the latest bumble-bum in charge of culture thinks that ‘perception’ is the same as ‘evidence’. And that saying it often enough in a squeaky, ill-tempered voice (a tic caught from Rishi Sunak) will make it so.

After Frazer wielded her blunt razor, Downing Street felt moved to deny the government was pursuing an agenda against the BBC over impartiality.

But before you could say what about this then, a different minister lashed out, this time at a long-running show on Radio 4 .

Huw Merriman said last Friday’s episode of The News Quiz was “completely biased”.

“For 10 minutes all I heard was… just diatribe against Conservatives. Not the government. And I did listen to that and think ‘for goodness sake’ where is the balance in that?” he told Sky News.

When reminded that it was a satirical show, he said it did not strike him as particularly satirical, so there.

The trouble is that for the BBC impartiality is the impossible straitjacket. Wear this nice restraint, various governments insist – it’ll stop you waiving your naughty opinions about. It doesn’t do that but instead imposes an unworkable restriction, especially as what most ministers mean by impartiality is, just be nice to us, don’t criticise, say anything rotten.

Of course, the idea that the BBC is left-wing is more than faintly ludicrous. Robbie Gibb, a non-executive director of the BBC board, was head of communications for Theresa May, a friend of Boris Johnson, the brother of Minister Robbie Gibb and was instrumental in setting up the extremely partial GB News.

And don’t forget the former chairman Richard Sharp, so Tory-friendly he had to resign after failing to declare a connection to a secret £800,000 loan arranged for Johnson.

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Mr Bates vs the Post Office bristles with the quiet fury of the wronged…

Just why is the ITV drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office having such an impact? After all, the story of how Post Office sub-postmasters were wrongly accused of stealing money due to faulty accountancy software is hardly unknown.

If drama is meant to surprise, where is the big reveal? We already know that bankruptcy and imprisonment, divorce and in some cases death followed the Post Office insisting that its Horizon accountancy software created by ICL/Fujitsu could not be wrong; insisting that sub-postmasters whose accounts showed losses would have to pay the money back.

We know this, or some of it, thanks to old-fashioned journalism by Private Eye and Computer Weekly, to BBC Radio 4, to the Sunday Times and to Nick Wallis, author of The Great Post Office Scandal.

Yet perhaps we don’t really know anything; or only in that way we have of half-knowing something before our attention wanders to whatever comes next.

That is why Mr Bates vs the Post Office is such a good and powerful drama. It makes us sit up and pay attention; it makes us spit with fury at the raging miscarriage of justice. And it makes us/me cry.

Writer Gwyneth Hughes wraps 20 years of suffering and angst for the accused sub-postmasters into four crisp episodes of mainstream drama. Not even four hours, thanks to the adverts.

The details are complex and tangled, knotted and barbed. Yet the telling here is simple, shocking and deeply human, especially in the central performance of Toby Jones as Alan Bates, the unyielding sub-postmaster who became an indefatigable cataloguer of wrongs and a doughty campaigner.

His performance, alongside that of Monica Dolan as another victim who fought back, is naturalistic and truly believable. Jones almost says more with the creases of his face than his voice. Watching those anguished and bitterly wry lines at work is to see a quiet storm gathering.

That’s why this drama is having such an effect. It looks again at this heartless British scandal and puts to the fore the human emotion, the despair, the shame and the sheer bloody unfairness of what happened thanks to the deeply underhand behaviour of the Post Office management.

In the wrong hands this could have been dull or worthy – instead, this tale of injustice is as gripping as any thriller, as emotional as any tragedy.

And these are real stories. Lee Castleton, the Bridlington sub-postmaster whose two-year legal fight saw him bankrupted, was pursued for £321,000 costs by the Post Office, seemingly for his temerity in standing against their might.

Lee, who is played by Will Mellor in the drama, told last weekend’s Yorkshire Post – “I am just so grateful. Finally, people are listening to the sheer trauma that happened in people’s lives.”

Much of anger is now being directed at Paula Vennells, the former chief executive of the Post Office. That is perfectly reasonable, as too is the petition (1.2 million signatures and rising at time of writing) demanding she be stripped of her CBE.

I’d happily see her denuded of that title. Yet the very giving of honours to such high-altitude businesspeople is problematic. Members of that too-elevated class go from one extravagantly rewarded role to another, seemingly unaffected by failure or past embarrassment. They are paid more and more with scant regard to how their work has affected those toiling on the lower slopes.

Yeah, snatch back that title if you wish; better, though, to think again about who we given such baubles to.

And members of the government suddenly joining this chorus to express their anger has about it the nettle-sting of hypocrisy as the government owns the Post Office. This scandal has been running for too long for Rishi Sunak to suddenly discover his convenient outrage.

As for Alan Bates, as portrayed here by Toby Jones, he is the patron saint of stubbornness, the great British awkward sod who never gives up. And he hasn’t given up yet, as the fight for compensation continues.



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