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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Old You meet New You… you have much in common

Murder Is Easy… as is laying into the BBC

HOW’S New You doing? Personally, I find that Old You usually wins that endless wrestling match of the immutable self.

New You might make a resolution; then Old You will sigh and say, yeah go on then, but you tried that before and look what happened.

At this point New You stamps a running-shoed foot and says surely it’s worth a try. And Old You says those are my running shoes, you know.

As a riposte, New You tells off Old You for going on what used to be called Twitter and leaving comments on right-wing tweets.

New You has a point here, as trying to put a dent in rampant right-wingers is acutely pointless. Those blubber-brains don’t care what you think however reasonably cross you feel about the shameless stuff they spout.

New You thinks Old You should also stop caring about anything written in the Daily Mail. This is sensible advice, although Old You was drawn to this ridiculous story with the headline: “BBC host swears seven times on air.”

This story was written by someone called Rory Tingle – a real person, apparently, and not a made-up name ­– and concerns an interview between Home Secretary of the moment James Cleverly and Mishal Husain of the Today programme. The presenter tried, vainly, to pin down whether Cleverly had insulted Labour MP Alex Cunningham’s Stockton North constituency by calling it a “shithole”.

She also pointed out that he’d reportedly described the Rwanda policy as “batshit” (truest thing he ever said, if he did say it). Asking these questions involved repeating the word “shit” a number of times; seven if you are a Mail reporter employed to count in order twist the screw against the BBC.

Mishal Husain was admirably persistent, but Cleverly waffled and smarmed his way out of admitting he’d said anything of the sort, even if he almost certainly did.

And anyway, you see… oh do pipe down. Sorry, Old You has just been heckled by New You. Before this new upstart gets in on the act again, Old You would like another word.

The Mail, Telegraph and Spectator predictably formed a grumpy cabal to moan about the BBC’s latest Agatha Christie adaptation. This is now a weird ritual. A BBC adaptation changes elements of an original story because – well, why ever not?

If adaptations didn’t take a new approach, didn’t think of interesting angles, we would be forever watching the same old thing again and again, rendered senseless by too much Mail Mogadon.

The Mail and co always act as if Christie, just about the most successful crime novelist ever, were a poor and defenceless old lady who needs a cultural bodyguard.

The alleged ‘crimes’ committed by Murder Is Easy were mostly connected to having a black rather than a white sleuth. As it happens, both Old You and New You thought this modification worked well. The story, moved on 20 years from the 1930s, still felt like classic Christie, just a little more relevant, a touch more modern.

Such BBC dramas are always attacked for making changes, almost as if the newspapers carrying the reviews hate them as a point of anti-BBC principle. Imagine being that small-minded; imagine being so pea-brained; imagine…

Oh, do shut up, says New You.

Last year’s Great Expectations…

Well, points out Old You, exactly the same thing happened when Steven Knight, of Peaky Blinders fame, adapted Great Expectations last year. Knight made a number of alterations to the original text and the usual suspect TV critics fell into a swoon at the horror.

Yet surely the thing about Charles Dickens, or Agatha Christie, is that their stories are strong enough to take it. One new version of Great Expectations doesn’t over-write the original novel or fatally disrespect all the others that went before.

Some of the grumble-bottoms harped on that Knight’s version was not up to the David Lean film. Fair enough, but that came out in 1946; is no-one else allowed to have a go?

As New You has just wandered off to do some stretching exercises or something, Old You would like to say something about the Tories lurching so far to the right, they risk making themselves unelectable.

Oh, and in the name of balance, add that every time Sir Keir Starmer announces he is rowing back on this policy pledge or that, the soul sinks a little lower. What’s needed is vision and stirring speeches, not a worthy promise to be a bit less shit than the Conservatives.

Oh, but New You has come back into the room, red-faced and a little sweaty, so let’s drop that topic.

As for all this newness, do you ever really change? You sometimes promote good habits over bad habits; you sometimes get something done you might not previously have achieved. You keep going; you still drink alcohol but cut back a bit; you still eat too much occasionally but not as often as you did; and so on.

New You meet Old You – you should get on as you have so much in common.

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Adrift on a sleepless night at least allows me to finish The Bee Sting…

I’ll sail this ship alone, as someone once sang. Wind howls around our attic bedroom as I flounder off sleep’s shore. The deck lurches again as storm-whatever-this-one-is-called blows even harder. Is it possible to feel seasick in bed?

Every time I almost nod off, the wind blows me back. I am ‘sailing’ alone as my wife is unwell and has retreated to the guest room downstairs. A room also used to accommodate insomniacs lost and rubbing their eyes.

At some point, perhaps it is 3am, I chew another antacid tablet and shake a crampy foot; the slumber fates really don’t want me to sleep tonight. At some other point, I give up.

At least this gives me a chance to finish The Bee String by the Irish writer Paul Murray. It was shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, although that honour went instead to Prophet Song by Paul Lynch, another Irish writer.

I’ve not read Lynch’s novel and cannot compare and contrast, but The Bee Sting is remarkable, loving, funny, shocking and awash with human emotion – a breathtaking example of just what the novel can do, can achieve.

One family misadventure after another, a spinning tragi-comic tale of people on the skids, hating and loving each other in the same helter-skelter breath.

It’s a family saga, only not like one you will have read before. Set after the crash in Ireland, when half-built aspirational housing estates were left to rot; the one Murray conjures up is stranded in an unfriendly forest.

The Barnes family live in a grand house, and people look up to them, or they did. They own the local VW garage, whose sudden decline seems to be a symbol for the fall of the town, perhaps the country.

Mostly, the story is shared by the four members of the family. Teenage daughter Cass is smart but has taken up binge-drinking instead of working for her exams. She is more or less in love with her best friend, Elaine – “Cass and Elaine first met in Chemistry class, when Elaine poured iodine on Cass’s eczema during an experiment.”

The drinking, the fumbles, the boys, the anxieties are explored without a single cringe. For Murray likes writing in a teenage voice, is good at this trick, as he showed in Skippy Dies, published in 2010.

Next up is her younger brother PJ, equally smart but through no fault of his own in debt to the local sociopath ‘Ears’ Moran.

Then the story baton passes to their mother Imelda, who is selling off her jewellery on eBay while contemplating an affair with Big Mike, a local cattle farmer who looms in and out of their lives.

The novel’s title comes from an incident at Imelda and Dickie’s wedding when a bee got under her veil and stung her. She kept the veil down and, as Cass has noticed, there are no pictures of her mother on her wedding day.

Cleverly, this small incident is magnified and explained right at the end of the novel. That bee was not what it seemed to be.

Over then to Dickie, who is failing to run the garage and trembles at the prospect of his wealthy father coming back from his retirement in Portugal to help out.

Dickie spends his time thinking about the past, that wedding day, his student days, what happened, what shouldn’t have happened, what might have happened, and being forced to face the cost of his actions. He also, much to Imelda’s disgust, starts to build an apocalypse-proof bunker in the woods near their house.

Each character is given their own voice, and the story circles the past, one event in particular; to explain further here would spoil one of the novel’s revelations.

Imelda is a famed local beauty from a dirt-poor family. Her voice is captured in a stream-of-conscious flow that gains power from the lack of traditional punctuation.

Murry is not a fan of quotation marks to denote speech, preferring to let the dialogue seep into the narrative. He also writes with a resonantly Irish voice, giving a musical skip and spring to the words.

This is a masterpiece of storytelling, showing how to hold a story up to the light, first showing one side, then another. At its breathless conclusion, there is almost an element of the thriller in his writing.

Throughout, the story turns on one pivot; can one tragic event affect everything that happens to a family afterwards?

As I finish the book, that wind still howls and the deck still lilts. I take a couple of paracetamols and sleep for two hours, then surface with these thoughts: what a rotten night and what a wonderful novel.

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Reasons to be cheerful about the BBC and reasons to despair…


David Tennant in his Doctor Who re-run

HOW do you plan to spend the £4.50 you will ‘save’ from the rise in the BBC licence fee? My beery calculator reckons that amounts to one pint of beer – a year.

I’ll save mine for the weekend. Or wait five years and have a big night out in 2028.

Lucy Frazer, the Not-Much-Culture-Round-Here Secretary, says limiting the licence fee increase to £10.50 instead of £15 will help people with the high cost of living.

That is nonsense with toxic Tory nobs on. A pretend reason for actions taken out of political spite – following a licence fee freeze that has already lumbered the BBC with a £500m gap in funding.

The BBC can’t win. It can’t please all of the people all of the time, or some of them never. Moaners on the right say it’s too left wing; moaners on the left say it’s too right-wing. Moaners in the middle shrug and say it’s a bit of both.

Those moaners on the right who chunter on forever about the BBC being biased probably prefer the blatantly biased GB News – a station that fritters its backers’ fortunes on employing Tory MPs and ministers as ‘presenters’.

The station pays ranty-pants Tory MP Lee Anderson the ridiculous sum of £100,000 a year for his presenting ‘skills’.

Coming up after the break. Reasons why the BBC often annoys a man who is happy to pay that licence fee. And would happily have foregone one ‘free’ pint a year for the BBC to have received the fuller increase, as originally planned.

First, here are reasons to be cheerful about the BBC.

These examples are taken from the top of my head, that shiny mound above my viewing eyes.

The first three episodes of the new Doctor Who series have been exceptional pieces of TV. Intelligent stories told with enviable confidence and filmed with the verve of a good movie.

Bringing back David Tennant for a brief encore sounded weird, but show-runner Russell T Davies, back in charge of the spinning Tardis, pulled this off wonderfully and wisely. As for Ncuti Gatwa, he promises to be a proper treat as the ever-morphing doctor.

If Doctor Who is not your thing, how about Shakespeare: Rise Of A Genius. Highly engaging, fascinating – and a revealing account of the playwright’s life, a winning mix of drama and talking heads.

Or Julius Caesar: The Making Of A Dictator, another winning three-part mix of historical docudrama and talking heads.

Or the revelatory Once Upon A Time in Northern Ireland (above), my documentary of the year. Or the latest David Attenborough series.

Or good recent drama such as Boat Story – pleasingly whacky for a mainstream series. Or the return of Vigil, no longer stuck under water but roaming free after military drones unleash murderous mayhem. Or great dramas from The Woman In The Wall to Wolf Hall, all the way back to Our Friends In The North.

There are endless examples. Feel free to pick your own or decry mine. But surely we can agree that detesting everything the BBC does just because your political sensibilities are offended by something on the evening news is hardly fair.

Here are my reasons to be less cheerful.

Emasculating what is left of Newsnight is a terrible idea. It’s not what it was but Newsnight is still the best side of BBC news, and in good new hands under the admirably tough Victoria Derbyshire – she who will not be deflected.

Turning Newsnight into a 30-minute discussion show is a terrible idea. Where’s the vision; where’s the investigative journalism? What’s the point?

As Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, puts it: “… the decision to totally eviscerate the ONLY serious daily TV news discussion show that BBC TV carries is just a flat out bad decision”.

Here’s another reason for annoyance. BBC News CEO Deborah Turness was trundled onto the Today programme to defend the decision. She blamed inflation and a flat licence fee – fair enough, up to a point – and said news had to “carry its share” of savings.

Yet she did so with such corporate pig-headedness, such management-speak arrogance, that I had to switch off.

In many ways, the BBC is fatally hampered by its own mission of political even-handedness, a high-wire compromise that leads to dull journalism, and still pleases no-one much.

The main BBC news is OK but mostly too predictable, following whatever agenda has been set by either the right-wing newspapers and their owners, or bigging up whatever nonsensical policy our floundering government just magicked out of the frothing panic.

God, you can’t turn on the BBC radio news without hearing a dreary posh Tory droning on about the Rwanda policy. Is nothing else happening in the country, in the world? Wouldn’t you just love to hear a Today presenter say, ‘Oh, we’ve said all there is to say about that. Here is some proper news.’

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Here’s a glad/sad list of what makes and breaks life…

GOOD and bad things happen all the time. Here is a balance sheet of what makes me sad or glad.

There is gladness in the small. In walking around the garden just now and seeing trees spectral with frost, spider webs coldly petrified, the air straight out of nature’s freezer. The cold can make you both glad and sad: glad to confront the chill and happy to return to the warmth; sad if you cannot afford to keep your house heated.

Gladder by the day is our 15-month-old granddaughter, rattling with life and curiosity. How uplifting to watch a life uncurl while still thinking about my dad who died in September. A baby lifts the sadness. At the crematorium she turned to wave and smile at people she didn’t know, who then felt a little less sad.

This catalogue might also contain a homemade sourdough loaf to gladden my heart; or a weighty brick to sadden my wife’s stomach. Why don’t you just make a tin loaf, she always says, bravely nibbling a cobblestone disappointment. So sometimes I do.

Gladness comes in no longer having to work every day, or hardly at all. Yet it is still possible to mourn the lack of worldly purpose. An occasional feature keeps the cogs turning, as does writing ‘unseen’ novels, as does this blog.

Raising our eyes, sadness lies in a world forever gone tragically wrong, as is happening again in Gaza after a truce lasting a week. At the time of writing nearly 200 Palestinians are said have been killed and 650 wounded since the fighting resumed.

There should be sadness, too, in how we are expected to take sides in absolute terms, to totally support one party or the other.

Whatever your own feelings or politics, the human truth is that innocent people die, ordinary men, women and children who have nothing to do with the war being fought.

Surely it should be possible to hold in your heart the Israelis who suffered barbaric terrors at the hands of Hamas terrorists, while also having a heart made heavy as a stone by the daily death and bombardment dealt to the Palestinians.

Admitting sympathy for one shouldn’t wipe out awareness of how the other suffers.

And, of course, a wider sort of sadness rests in wondering what we can do about it all, and if what we might do makes any difference. Then again, joining a march to whatever cause does show your feelings, raises the common humanity.

It’s little Rishi Sunak… as Greg Davies might say

There is little in our tawdry domestic politics to stir gladness. Still, it is cheering that little Rishi Sunak – to be recited in the voice Greg Davies uses to introduce Alex Horne on Taskmaster ­– is reported to be growing more and more tetchy in Downing Street. That’s what you get for behaving like an entitled prince even though not a single person voted for you.

Something that should surely sadden us all is the performative politics surrounding migrants. If we scorn these disadvantaged people, if we are fooled into thinking they cause all our country’s ills, we are playing the government’s cruel game.

It is shocking, and saddening, to hear mainstream Tory politicians spouting the sort of rancid rhetoric once espoused only by the far right.

As for the so-called boat people, they are relatively small in number compared with migrants arriving by less extreme and dangerous means.

Sunak’s government, like those it succeeded in shabby quick-change succession, pays endless attention to migration, yet the numbers only rise. Perhaps we should just switch the calculus and tell ourselves having many cultures within one makes us stronger, makes for a better country, a bigger Britain, not the skulking, sulking bully boy.

Also in the political playground, it gladdens me to see Sir Keir Starmer shaping up possibly to be prime minister. Here’s hoping. He may not excite, he may not be perfect, but he offers the best hope of a Labour/non-Tory government in ages.

Also, on the ‘it saddens’ side of this register, how predictable that some who once backed Labour now say they won’t support Starmer, for this or that offence. Internecine sulking is quite the habit among those who still pine for Jeremy Corbyn (had his turn, didn’t work out).

It is nigh on impossible to compile this glad/sad account without appearing ridiculous in noting small pleasures alongside international fears and worries, yet that is how we live, isn’t it?

We take joy where we find it and worry about the rest.

But if worry is all we do, there won’t be any joy left.

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Vinyl nostalgia? Oh, I’ve fallen in love with streaming instead…

A vinyl stay mentioned in the Guardian

PEOPLE wax nostalgic about vinyl. Amol Rajan was on the Today programme the other week, enthusing about the buzz and crackle as stylus nestles into groove.

He went all lyrical about the album covers and artwork too, or I think so; people usually do. As an old friend says on Facebook that he’s reverted to his vinyl LPs, I’d like to echo that, but the dust on my record deck lid tells a different story.

That deck is connected to an amplifier, streamer and CD player, all contained in one clever box. Add modest-sized but good speakers and all music is yours – well, apart from cassettes, and surely no-one yearns for those unspooling bars of plastic.

That said, those little slabs did slot into the Sony Walkman, the first time many of us had music on the go. They went into car stereos too, sometimes unravelling to messy effect, the music slurring to nothing in a mess of tape spaghetti.

The newish hi-fi box sits in the conservatory, while the LPs are lined up in alcoves outside our attic bedroom, divorced from the deck by two floors. Some are 50 years old, including my original copy of John Martyn’s Solid Air, an all-time favourite.

The CDs are closer to hand, lined in their hundreds on the sitting room wall, and still have occasional outings to the spinning slot in the amplifier.

When CDs came in, people with better ears than mine worried about the clinical sound. Yes, vinyl LPs spinning at 33⅓ rpm are real and immediate – and hazardous too when the stylus sticks or skips.

The nostalgic in me, that Hendrix-haired teenager who ordered Grateful Dead’s double live album from Cob Records in Porthmadog, still likes vinyl. Some of those overlooked old discs must be due another spin soon.

That boy’s bald-headed successor spotted a story in last Saturday’s Guardian with the headline “Step inside London’s hotel for vinyl lovers.” Not so much a hotel, it turns out, as a record shop cum warehouse in East London turned into a record-lover’s guesthouse.

The accommodation is free, so long as you agree to spend £250 on vinyl – an expensive night, and a lot of albums to store. Like the stylus, I’ll skip that one, even though it does sound rather wonderful.

Are vinyl albums truly better than other formats, or is it just nostalgia; or can it be nostalgia when people too young to remember are getting into vinyl?

This is a long way to say this vinyl guy has fallen for streaming.

After a flirtation with the free version of Spotify – where adverts butt in like shouty strangers on a bus – I settled for Quobuz, shelling out £13 a month.

The sound is great over the hi-fi, no different to CDs, and as the music is contained in my iPhone, the saved albums can be played over a portable wi-fi speaker and in the car. Music man heaven!

As long ago as March 30, 2018, I wrote here about my ‘blokey’ record collection…

“Yes, those men do line up in the CD collection and slump together in vinyl. It’s always been like that, a boys’ chorus of Richard Thompson, Elvis Costello, Van Morison, Ry Cooder, Bruce Springsteen, John Martyn and Dire Straits, backed up by more recent discoveries such as Craig Finn and The Hold Steady…”

Streaming has let me put that right. On my ever-expanding musical waistline, you will now discover plenty of Rhiannon Giddens – everyone should have more Rhiannon in their lives – alongside Sarah Gillespie, Molly Tuttle, Julie Byrne, Eliza Carthy (a long-time favourite, to be fair), and Lisa O’Neil, the weirdly fabulous singer of soaring Irish folk.

Adding to the non-blokey ballast there is Gillian Welch, a great find.

Cat Power is singing Dylan in her recreation of the 1966 Royal Albert Hall Concert – a great listen, if disconcerting as sometimes she sounds just like Dylan. And Dylan is on there too, singing for himself.

Oh, and the new Sufjan Stevens album, which is lovely. Also two family suggestions: The National from our eldest son and Snarky Puppy, a spot-on tip from the middle boy.

There is jazz too, from Thelonious Monk all the way to Ezra Collective – oh, I do love them. Not forgetting Abdullah Ibrahim and his Africa suite. Andy Sheppard too, he’s always busking in the background. Charles Mingus holds up the classic end of jazz.

Oh, and that’s without the classical, the Bach, Montiverdi and Berlioz.

With streaming you can indulge your musical curiosity. At the time of writing, I am listing to the new album by Ben Folds, after wondering what it might be like. The new Nitin Sawhney is there too after he was on Later.

Unlike those old vinyl LPs, you don’t ‘own’ this music. If you stop subscribing, it’s gone. I’m too addicted to give up, but at least I still read proper books made of paper, so that’s something on the nostalgia register.

Fusty footnote: after many mentions in this blog, and in this very post, of Solid Air, streaming has reintroduced me to Bless The Weather, a John Martyn album from 1971. It’s just as wonderful, and the opening track, Go Easy, must be the ultimate Martyn song.

Old music and new discoveries keep this metronome heart ticking.

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