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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Away from the poppy politicking, there are better ways to remember

November drizzles with cold. On such an Armistice Day, it is perfectly OK to cocoon yourself indoors, to stay away from the local war memorial. It is also perfectly OK to join a service of remembrance and pay your respects that way.

Personally, as shall be explained in a few paragraphs, I like to remember one of my grandfathers.

Too often the traditional minute’s silence to honour those who died in assorted wars is preceded by noisy squabbles. The usual suspect newspapers cook up silly poppy stories, conveying red-faced fury about white poppies, or idiot incandescence about an actor or BBC newsreader forgetting to wear a poppy.

There are almost as many examples as there were poppies in those fields.

This year’s efforts include the Daily Mail reporting that a 78-year-old poppy seller at Edinburgh station was “punched” by pro-Palestine protesters. A British Transport Police investigation later found no proof of such an attack having occurred. Perhaps the police should investigate other Daily Mail stories.

Most outrage was reserved for the pro-Palestine march that took place in London yesterday, on Armistice Day. Home Secretary Suella Braverman had wanted the march banned, something the Metropolitan police commissioner Sir Mark Rowley sensibly declined to do.

Having already described pro-Palestine marches as “hate marches”, Braverman then wrote an article for the Times saying the police were biased in favour of left-wing marchers. Her rancid rhetoric is thought to have helped stir up right-wing thugs who held a counter demonstration yesterday, clashing with police. Nine officers were injured and 136 people arrested.

Braverman may or may not survive in her role, but no-one should care about that today. Look the other way. That woman exists merely to cause self-serving rows. There is only one thing in her tawdry political life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about, to misquote Oscar Wilde.

All the finger-pointing and bellowing that too often accompanies remembrance has nothing to do with respecting those who died. Instead, it is the pursuit of what you might call weaponised nostalgia.

There are many ways to remember. Here are a few thoughts about Bill Cole, who has been mentioned here before. William Albert Cole died in 1974. I was 17 at the time, so have been remembering him for much longer than I knew him, which is odd.

Bill did not wish to fight or carry arms as that was against his Methodist religion. He was not a conscientious objector, but volunteered for the Royal Medical Corps.

He survived the Battle of the Somme, one of the heaviest battles of the First World War. The opening day of that battle on July 1, 1916, saw the British Army sustain 57,000 casualties, the bloodiest day in its history. Bill would have been in the thick of that carnage.

As John Keegan records in his book The First World War, many of the divisions were new to the war and were volunteers like my grandfather or were organised around ‘Pals’ or ‘Chums’ battalions. The Somme was the first time such untried soldiers saw war – and, tragically for many, the last.

The horrors Bill Cole witnessed are hard to imagine. Like many who survived, he did not talk about his war, or not until he was close to death.

His military reference refers to him as having been a stretcher bearer from June 1916 to May 1918, and that he later worked as a clerk, his “trade or calling before enlistment”. He was described as “a most reliable and absolutely trustworthy orderly of exemplary character”.

After he returned home, Bill lived a mostly quiet life of faith and family, dying when he was 82. His youngest son, my father Jeff, died recently aged 91, and that loss makes me think once again of his father. That is the way to remember, through the swaying old ropes that tether all families.

My dad was the youngest of three, the golden-haired boy of the family. A happy family photograph printed on the back of his funeral celebration showed the two parents and the three children, with my dad between his sisters.

All are now dead, which is hardly surprising, but still seems shocking when you look at those smiles.

It’s easy to be drawn by the noise, by the shouting and the poppy politicking. Often I have fallen into that trap, too. Better, sometimes, to walk on by and find a quiet place in which to remember.

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Still can’t stop myself being worked up about Johnson and Braverman…

WHAT sort of fool is still worked up about something former part-time prime minister Boris Johnson said or did; or, indeed, about the latest poison pearl from the lips of full-time nasty person cum Home Secretary Suella Braverman?

Oh, I know the answer to that one. It’s me, however much I say think of something else, switch to another mental channel – move on.

Does smarting at Johnsonian mendacity or Braverman’s cruel snippets change anything? Almost certainly not. They still swim in the deep ocean like weirdo creatures hogging the cameras in the latest David Attenborough documentary.

As the Covid inquiry continues, many lurid details are being sketched in about Johnson, of whom his former fellow Tory minister David Gauke says: “Whatever his electoral appeal, Boris Johnson was wholly incapable of doing the job.”

Ah, now you tell us.

What should have been clear as glass all along is that Johnson never was the decent leader we needed. Instead, during the pandemic we were lumbered with a lethally unreliable, egotistical shuffle-bum who changed his mind all the time, was always distracted and swerved from one thing to another.

Johnson is yet to appear before the inquiry, although the picture being painted of his premiership is already devastating. Here are two scraps flapping in the angry wind.

One: Johnson apparently thought that old people should “accept their fate” and die. Did he include his own father in this cruel calculation – who knows?

Two: in a Trumpian moment to rival the former US president wondering out loud if bleach wouldn’t wash away the virus, Johnson reportedly asked leading scientists Sir Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance if Covid could be destroyed by blowing a hairdryer up the nose. As he’d seen on a YouTube video.

I feel an incidentally coming on, and here it is. During the pandemic Johnson’s government cooked up a wheeze to give millions of our pounds to newspaper groups, some of them run by billionaires who might be said to have a flexible approach to paying taxes.

The scheme/wheeze was an advertising and information campaign called “All In, All Together”.

And here’s a not very funny thing. The Mail was among media groups apparently given public millions, and as soon as Johnson was eased out of Downing Street for general uselessness, the paper gave him a column for a reported £1m a year.

Can such a ridiculous figure be true? And if it is, doesn’t it stink that Johnson deflected our money to the Mail (and other groups, including the Guardian – shame on them) and then the Mail gives Johnson a million back, or so the story goes.

Call it sour grapes if you wish, but Johnson isn’t even a good columnist, just a showy juggler of coloured balls.

Anyway, now he is also joining GB News, reportedly for another high sum. Rich right-wingers just love to shovel money into Johnson’s pockets, never mind how incompetent he was in office. The more he fails, the wealthier he becomes. It’s like he’s on a posh supermarket dash, cramming as much cash as he can into his swerving trolley.

As for Braverman, the Home Secretary – and honestly, I wouldn’t have her anywhere near mine ­­– told the Financial Times that people sleeping rough was a “lifestyle choice”.  She wants to crack down on tents being pitched in urban areas, as they are mostly lived in by people “from abroad”.

To describe extreme poverty and homelessness as a “lifestyle choice” is a stinker even for her. A “lifestyle” is glossy magazines and expensive adverts. It’s nice holidays and tins of posh paint with silly names. Fast cars and slow morals. Private medicine and public schools if you have the money.

Not ending up sleeping in a tent.

As organisations including Crisis, Centrepoint, St Mungo’s and Pathway said in a joint letter (Guardian, November 5): “Sleeping on the street is not a lifestyle choice. Laying blame with people forced to sleep rough will only push people further away from help into poverty, putting them at risk of exploitation. At the extreme end, we will see an increase in deaths and fatalities, which are totally preventable.”

Once again we are back with the “undeserving poor”, as defined by the 1834 English Poor Law and deployed ever since by harsh commentors to suggest that poor people are feckless, work-shy, and not worthy of our help (unlike the undeserving rich such as Johnson, who just get whatever they want).

And when you think Braverman can’t get any worse, she also wants to fine charities if they supply tents to homeless people, while insisting this is what “the law-abiding majority wants”. This member of the law-abiding majority certainly doesn’t want that.

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The throwing away of inky old words…

One of the ones that got away…

We are at the tip with rubbish, including some inky old words. Only it’s not a tip but a ‘household waste recycling centre’.

You may spot, if you are inclined to pedantry, that ‘tip’ is a short word comprising three letters, while the council-coined phrase consumes four words and 29 letters.

Shorter is better, I’d say, but we are here to recycle waste from our household, mostly from the garden, which is a bottomless bounty of soiled debris and rotten greenery, so we’ll let that pass.

Branches, gnarled roots, old sleeping bags (see last blog), something or other electrical, an unwanted duvet – all this and more we offer to the skip gods. And those words.

We have been clearing out the attic, you see. Amid all the empty boxes for TVs and computers, that couldn’t be thrown away just yet some years ago, were two boxes of newspaper cuttings; columns, reviews and features written during 27 years on the newspaper that showed me the door some time ago.

Standing on the concrete floor above the skips, I wonder which one takes old words. There doesn’t seem to be one marked “ideas and thoughts you once thought of as smart”. Can’t see one either for political rants past their grumble-by date. No repository for “columns excoriating Margaret Thatcher”. No skip for angry adjectives, narky nouns or vituperative verbs.

I don’t feel up to asking one of the workers in hi-vis jackets, so they all end up in cardboard, although critics of my long-lost columns might have preferred “general rubbish”.

I had forgotten about those boxes. On discovering them, I rummaged the words. Some were OK, some quite good, others rather beside the point.

After leaving those inky old words at the tip – I always call it that anyway ­– I start thinking about what you should keep and what you should not; and about old columns and dusty opinions, about how important they may seem at the time, how irrelevant later.

Here’s a great, often disinterred, quotation from Groucho Marx – “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.”

It doesn’t really work with ‘opinions’ instead of ‘principles’, or the punchline doesn’t. But writing columns or blogs can seem that way: you don’t like my opinions on this matter of passing importance… well, I have others.

So many opinions, old and new. I still push them on to this ledge sometimes. If there is a difference between then and now, it is that everyone’s opinions seem to be nastier and pettier nowadays. This is not really about what is said quite so much as they way it’s said.

I did touch my lips to the vinegar bottle for some of those old columns, and still take a bracing swig occasionally. What’s changed? Maybe it’s just that opinions in a newspaper column are properly argued, or they used to be, and still are in the better ones.

In the Trumpian post-truth, social media shitstorm world we have now, an opinion doesn’t have to be well argued or thought out, make sense or even be remotely factual. It just has to exist, and once spoken or spat out, to be believed by those who wish to believe it.

And to be tossed into the bearpit of what used to be called Twitter, once an OK hangout, now sometimes nasty and unhinged.

You can’t really move through life without having opinions about something or other, but does sharing do any good? Does it help or does passing on opinions produce brain-rot in writer and reader? Oh, who knows.

Anyway, I’ve binned my past, but not all of it. Before cuttings were dumped into those forgotten boxes, they were stuck into albums and saved in clean plastic sleeves, and I’ve kept those, just in case I need to remind myself what I thought once of Margaret Thatcher (all true, every word).

Some columns weren’t political at all. A favourite, published on March 24,1994, was a humorous account of having just had a vasectomy. “Geoff the farmer had his own solution at the squash club,” it began. “You need gelding.”

I’ve kept that one, along with whatever scars remain from that procedure.

And all the features I have written over the past eight years, some 60 or so, have so far been kept, perhaps as proof of existence. Maybe they’ll go the same way eventually, but they’re staying for now. Along with more far too many copies of my two long-ago published novels.

But that’s another old page.

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Naivety… that’s what me and the Beatles shared in Greece…

The Beatles had a summer of love in Greece in 1967. I had something similar a little later, although sand in the sleeping bag proved to be more in evidence than love.

This came back to me on reading a report in the Observer (Sunday, October 1, 2023) asking if the Beatles had been used as a propaganda tool by Greece’s military junta.

Those army officers didn’t much like summer-loving hippies, so it was an odd match when John Lennon told a local reporter that Greece was “a wonderful country, fantastic climate, great climate… and that’s why we are thinking of buying a small Greek island and setting up our own hippy commune…”

Looking back, if something unites that wild-haired and fairly clueless student and the world’s most famous Liverpudlians, it must be naivety. The Beatles because they were seemingly used to offset the country’s international isolation caused by reports of torture and political persecution. And me because, well, I was just naïve.

My make-do Greek holidays began ten or more years later, at a time when I had no idea (that sentence could stop there); no idea, for sure, that only a decade or so earlier, Greece had been ruled by a military junta. Did I even know what one of those was? Probably not.

All I knew was that Greece was where mildly adventurous young people went on holiday. Packing was light – sleeping bag (tick); tent (if you went posh); a few T-shirts (tick and tick again), plus passport, drachmas and travellers cheques. Oh, and an ill-defined sense of hope (tick again).

There were a few times when I roamed the beaches of Greece. Grains of memory remain, although experiences from so long ago sometimes blur. I once hitch-hiked all the way through France and over the border into Spain, a trip that left disappointingly few outlines in the mental scrapbook.

Writing nothing down and taking no photographs was clearly a great plan.

Did that small epic of lift cadging take place before or after my first encounter with a sandy mattress in Greece? It’s hard to say for sure, but certainly one Greek trip was with a schoolfriend who’d not been abroad much if at all.

That was to Crete. Near our sleeping-bag quarters was a café-bar where we went for breakfast of coffee and bread, maybe fruit too, the details slip.

I went on solo beach-bedding trips to Crete (again), Paros, Santorini, and other islands. Sleeping on beaches wasn’t exactly condoned, and often you had to show you had booked a night in a room before you were allowed off the plane.

A few years later, I went back with my new girlfriend, later wife. No sleeping bags that time, but we did book a night (possibly two, we can’t pin that memory down between us) in Athens before taking a ferry to Spetses where local children gathered at the harbour, chanting “You want rooms?” We followed a boy to his house, where the family had moved upstairs, leaving downstairs for tourists.

We saw wild tortoises on the island, which was quite the sight; and an overweight British man having lager and boiled eggs for breakfast, while his thin wife smoked, which was not.

Shortly afterwards, we left the island and headed to the Peloponnese region, where we had a proper adventure, staying in Monemvasia with its vertiginous clifftop fort, going on hazardous bus rides, walking in the countryside where men in military-style clothes carried rifles and shot birds, which was unsettling. After one night in a hellish hostel, we treated ourselves to a real hotel. Before that we stayed in a crumbling but grand hotel. Our room had a balcony where I read about the miners’ strike in the Daily Mirror.

We returned to Greece earlier this year, on a package holiday; less adventurous but more reliable.

As for those more distant sandy-sheeted Greek holidays, the only sleeping on beaches I would do now is to take an afternoon kip (other locations are available, sofas will do nicely).

The Beatles never bought that island, but I did buy a new sleeping bag. In other news, we have just thrown away the family’s sleeping bags with their cocooned familial DND of holidays, stay-overs, teenagers at rock festivals and nights on hard floors.

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Fake interviews on GB News and Rishi Sunak being silly about cars…

The other night on GB “News”, a right-wing TV station which is undressed without those quotation marks, the Tory MP Lee Anderson ‘interviewed’ the Tory home secretary Suella Braverman.

Unsurprisingly, he told her she was doing a grand job.

An MP pretending to be a TV presenter pretended to ‘interview’ his colleague, while failing to challenge her or ask any tough questions about her vile anti-migrant policies.

Or any questions at all, really. And nothing dimly related to journalism.

As has been widely pointed out, GB News is an attempt do a Fox News in Britain. Totally partisan and happy to aggressively brandish its bias.

To that end, the station employs various Tory MPs as faux-presenters, and apparently shells out £100,000 a year on Lee Anderson, hardly a bargain.

What has perhaps been less noticed is that the Conservative Party – long since bored with the notion of conserving anything – has in effect become the GB News party, a weirdo populist outfit with no fixed purpose other than a fatal weakness for endless culture war scraps.

It’s soul-denting stuff. Noisy fisticuffs in the hope of raising a pimple row of headline in the more slavish newspapers, as we shall hear as the party gathers in Manchester this week. But then, if you’ve been in power for years without improving life in any discernible way, even the lowest blows are worth a try.

That’s why prime minister Rishi Sunak now says he will end “the war on motorists”. A war that doesn’t exist as he’s invented it. That’s a flat tyre you’ve got there, Rishi – and you banged the nail in all by yourself.

On X (formerly Twitter), he blathered:

“We are a nation of drivers. Most of us use a car every day and, for many, life would be difficult without their car. But too often, drivers feel under attack. That changes today with a long-term plan to improve drivers’ experience on the road…”

For “long-term plan”, you should read “short-term panic/latest batshit brainstorming”.

A nation of drivers? Well, you aren’t, matey. You fly by helicopter or plane whenever fancy takes flight. And that time you pretended to fill up with petrol, having borrowed a car for a news stunt, you had no idea how to pay.

Where to start with this nonsense? We are not “a nation of car drivers” but a nation of people with different needs. Anyway, car drivers aren’t one homogenous voting block but a collection of people in and out of cars, with views about everything and nothing.

Many people drive, some do not. Some drive and hate being stuck in endless traffic jams. Some drive but would travel another way if public transport worked and you didn’t have to take out a mortgage to buy a train ticket.

Rather than this fake “war on motorists”, what we have is a society far too tolerant of the noise and nuisance caused by cars, and even more so by thundering HGVs. There is no such war; it’s another myth; and even if there were, the Tories have been in power for 13 years, so how come they’ve only just noticed?

Should you be wondering, yes, I have a car and drive when necessary. I also have a bicycle and two feet that work fine. And a bus pass for free use of the splendid new electric buses in York. But then, Sunak probably regards electric buses as a woke conspiracy and maybe thinks we should proudly suck up good British diesel fumes.

Sunak’s pro-motorist measures include limiting the power of local councils to impose 20mph speed limits and bus lanes. He also has it in for Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, where rat-runs are closed to create cleaner, more peaceable neighbourhoods.

So much for levelling up; so much for localism. Instead, we have a prime minister behaving imperiously and telling local councils what they can and can’t do. Such decisions should be made locally, not laid down by tinny presidential whim.

And I’ve not even mentioned bunging £3.5bn of taxpayers’ money on the new Rosebank oilfield off Scotland. A public subsidy to a Norwegian-owned company.

What we need is less oil and more sense.

Sadly, all we can expect is more boorish nonsense.

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Cosmos worries at my feet and Sunak’s anti-Kermit song…

YOU’RE standing on the cosmos, my wife says. This gardening lark is clearly more philosophical than you might suppose.

Then again, perhaps we are all standing on the cosmos, or in it, as cosmos is another name for the universe, and…

You’re standing on the cosmos…

Ah, not the complex and orderly system or arrangement of things, but that spindly plant with feathery leaves that is suffering from cruel proximity to my untrained garden boot.

We are trying to remove an uninvited shrub that seems disinclined to budge. My wife bends down with a sigh and pulls out the cosmos, displaying the elemental power of the gardener.

As her stumble-bum assistant, I keep digging and tugging, while attempting to restrict unnecessary damage to the universe. Eventually, the stubborn shrub comes free and joins the pile of greenery destined for another trip to the tip.


GARDENING and politics don’t really mix, the first being too pleasant for the latter, but something about that doomed cosmos fits Rishi Sunak’s wish to water down his government’s key climate commitments.

Then again, big surprise. The man flies everywhere and uses helicopters as others might hop on those dangerous-looking electric scooters you see in town now.

In reviewing his government’s green pledges, Sunak says he will put the “long-term interests of our country before the short-term political needs of the moment”.

So says the man doing this for the short-term political needs of his presently unpopular party. Ever since the Tories scraped home in that byelection in Uxbridge, with a single-issue candidate who stood against the Ultra Low Emission Zone, they seem to see votes in doing an anti-Kermit.

“It’s not that easy being green,” sings Sunak, with his too-short trousers risen up to expose socks in that colour.

“It’s not that easy being green when you fly everywhere, and the worst of your MPs think green only belongs in the fields they own.

“It’s not that easy being green when the right-wing newspapers who support you won’t shut up about how rubbish electric cars are and about how they can’t see the problem in a bit of pollution.

“It’s not that easy being green when you’re in a deep hole over that election in a year or so. It’s much easier to kick off a culture war about how nobody can afford to be green – apart from me, of course, I can afford whatever it like. I’m just not that interested in being green.”

The home secretary did the interviews round this morning, despatched to sell shabby shares in Sunak’s Anti-Kermit Policy. Her line, delivered in that uniquely annoying way she has, both patronising and hectoring, boiled down to: “We won’t save the planet by bankrupting the British people.”

Ah, our old friend the British people. Whenever you hear that, remember to check what they are trying to sell you. And when a Tory says it, keep hold of your wallet. They seemed happy enough bankrupting us all when handing out PPE contracts to their mates during the pandemic. Or when Sunak came up with his Eat Out To Help Spread Covid scheme.

Making the Tories the anti-green party doesn’t seem likely to appeal to young people, or sensible Tories, or the motoring industry, or anyone who worries about all those greenhouse gases – such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane – we’re swimming in. Or the concerned global community.

Sunak delivered a hurried speech about his plans this afternoon, saying that people dislike Westminster game-playing and short-termism.

According to the lectern he stood at, this was all about “Long Term Decisions For a Brighter Future.” Well, it’s snappier than “Short Term Decisions To Cling On To Power and the Daily Mail and Rupert Murdoch told me to say this”.

Elsewhere in his having-his-green-cake-and-eating-it speech, Sunak said: “Since I’ve become Prime Minister I’ve examined our plans” and “they impose costs that no one was ever really told about and which may not be necessary”. Perhaps he should speak to whoever it was who was Chancellor from 2020. Did he support those green policies back then or was he not paying attention?

The headline to his speech was pushing back the ban on new diesel and electric cars until 2035 – another five years. As for the rest, it was as slippery as it pretended to be sensible.

Perhaps I should go back into the garden and try to avoid treading on something.

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