Monday, 1 September 2014


Stained Nation


I am very nervous writing this. The reason?  I am commenting upon a new religion. Many of you are no doubt disciples. This makes me a heretic, but here goes. 

    In the early 1960s, whilst serving in the Merchant Navy, one drunken night, I found myself sitting in a chair in a Tattoo parlour in Valetta, Malta. I had decided that, as a mariner, I ought to at least have a Popeye anchor on my forearm. Then I saw the equally sozzled occupants of the other two chairs. Two huge U.S. Navy sailors, stripped to the waist, were waiting a fresh ‘inking’. Their bodies were already covered in splodgy blue-green tattoos. Panthers, crucifixes, snakes, rosebuds, hearts, the US flag, unidentifiable wildlife. It made me feel nauseous. I got up and left. I had changed by mind.

Half a century later, I’m so glad I did.

   I grew up with tattoos. My father, who served over 20 years in the Army, mostly in India, was the original illustrated man. Flags of the Empire on his back, a tiger and a lion across his chest, spears, crossed rifles, his regimental badge, snakes coiling down his arms, their heads destined to forever poke from his shirt cuffs. As a kid this fascinated me. But tattoos back then were, in the main, the choice of sailors, soldiers, and criminals. As for women being tattooed, most men regarded that as a strong visual hint of prostitution. Today tattoos have a mystique which emanates from the underworld. The Russian Mafia identify their status with their tattooed icons. Mexican and Columbian drug cartels have their own ‘inkings’. Criminals on Death Row in the USA love their tattoos. In the South Pacific, among such nations as the Maoris, tattoos were a tribal badge.  Strange, then, that Britain is now the most ‘inked’ nation in Europe.

    Undoubtedly, many tattoo artists (my nephew, for instance) are very talented.  Yet it
seems sad that the skin nature gave us no longer seems enough; it has to be scribbled on. Celtic crosses, swallows, Chinese characters. We British have them all. Perhaps an ‘inking’ makes one feel windswept and interesting, an expression of ‘individuality’. But as the well-illustrated Ozzy Osborne commented; “If you want to be different, don’t have a tattoo.” A recent report by the British Sociological Association suggests tattoos can hinder you getting a job. Another suggested that tattooed women were viewed as "less physically attractive, more sexually promiscuous and heavier drinkers".

    As a somewhat ugly, overweight old man I envy athletes with natural bodies like David Beckham. If I had been born that lucky, would I have had all that magnificent muscle tone covered in indecipherable foreign script and dull green graffiti? I think not. I’m sure Cheryl Cole’s derriere was once a pleasant sight. Pity she’s turned it into
a page from a garden centre catalogue. There are many reasons given for being ‘inked’. To honour a loved one. To express your ‘uniqueness’. I know how utterly alone I stand with this view, but to me, the 21st century tattoo represents  the sad decline of culture. It brands people as thick, self-centred, and at the same time, desperate for attention. Skilled the tattoo artists may be, and well paid (Ms. Cole's arse inking cost more than the price of a new car). However, in a few decades, today’s tattooed generation could well be looking at their wrinkled, ink-blotched aged skin and asking “What was I thinking?” To paraphrase that RSPCA warning, ‘a dog isn’t just for Christmas’ - but a tattoo is for life.  

Wednesday, 13 August 2014



Partly due to all the adverse publicity MPs and politicians have received in recent years, among the public, political apathy has increased. There’s that old saying, ‘no matter who you vote for, the government always gets in’. Some things, however, are above and beyond politics. No matter what your political leanings, left, right, liberal or UKIP, for the past 66 years we have all been beneficiaries of one of the finest organisations in Europe; the National Health Service. Even an American think-tank, the Commonwealth Fund, when examining health provision in 11 countries rated our NHS as first for care, access and efficiency. Our health spending is the second lowest of all the countries surveyed. That’s something we can all take pride in. Who came bottom of the list? The USA.  Yet back in the political world, there are those beavering away to dismantle our NHS and replace it with the American model.

"MMmm ... So you haven't managed to locate his Visa card, then?"
At a packed public meeting on August 5 at Pleasley Miners’ Welfare Club with Sir Alan Meale, MP, the public learned some stark frightening facts. 50,000 people demonstrated in support of the NHS at this year’s Conservative Party Conference, yet not one national newspaper or broadcaster reported it. However, day by day the NHS is subject to a constant stream of bad stories about its performance. Yet the story behind this stays buried. 10% of all A&E units have been closed, along with a third of walk-in centres. Half of our 600 ambulance stations are slated for closure. Stressed out GPs are facing the prospect of closing surgeries. 5,000 nurses have been sacked. Since April 2013, billions of pounds of NHS services have been put on the market. 70% of all health contracts given out by our government have gone to the private sector. Richard Branson’s Virgin Health is already operating in some hospitals, and MacDonalds have even been bidding to supply hospital food. Perhaps, if you’re young, fit and healthy, or well off, none of this bothers you. Yet one day you may be ill, and you will certainly grow old. Without the NHS, will you be financially able to cope?

Key positions in the NHS are being filled by executives with a great interest in private health care. The Chief Executive of NHS England, Simon Stevens, has a previous career with the USA’s health insurance giant, United Health. Private health providers, however, can decide not to treat patients they deem ‘unprofitable’.
On Wednesday August 27th The People’s March for the NHS, 300 miles from Jarrow to London, will arrive in Mansfield. It will be led by women, many of them health workers. These are not raving Trotskyists but ordinary working women who have taken the words of the founder of the NHS, Aneurin Bevin, to heart; “'The NHS will last as long as there are folk left with the faith to fight for it.' We should welcome them when they arrive in our town with open arms.

Our NHS is not about politics, left or right. No one should profit from illness. Health care is about  being human.   As Bevin also said “No society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means”.

Thursday, 7 August 2014


Today I received, via e-mail, the cover design for the re-launch of my 2002 biography of Captain Francis Cromie CB DSO RN (1882-1918). Looking back to how inexperienced I was when I first came across this story in Sweden in 1999, and how much I had to learn, ‘on the hoof’ about biography, I am still conceited enough over a decade later to proclaim that above all my work since, this is still my favourite.

Sadly, people who make movies and TV documentaries can’t see that a true story which covers submarine warfare, heroism, the Bolshevik Revolution, illicit love and adultery, espionage and murder might vaguely interest the public. The focus is firmly on the trenches and the massive tragedies of Ypres and the Somme. But here is a story of the same war, yet a very different one, a forgotten chapter made by men who, although not having to suffer from gas and trench foot, never the less existed in other kinds of danger. Not only did they risk their lives in those foul, cramped and unsophisticated early submarines; in the middle of their mission their allies, the Russians, stopped their war and left the British sailors stranded in the Baltic as the Bolshevik Revolution raged across the land. Cromie was a man of his time. Unlike the surface navy officers, he was lower middle class, brave, very handsome, non-smoking, tee-total, musical, a water colour artist and great orator, raconteur and diplomat. Although married with a child at home, he fell head over heels for Russia’s titled young women, and was prepared to stay there for the love of one, Sophie Gagarin, even when his 7 submarines had been scuppered and his 200 men had gone home. Yet brave though he was, as Naval Attache at a deserted British Embassy, he was out of his depth with the chicanery of espionage experts such as the ‘Ace of Spies’   Sidney Reilly and Britain’s envoy Robert Bruce Lockhart. Although respected and admired by Lenin and Trotsky, Cromie was duped in a massive sting by the fore-runner of the KGB, the Cheka. His devotion to the British Establishment cost him his life when he was murdered by Red Guards defending the Embassy on August 31st 1918.  He was just 36. Following a failed assassination attempt on Lenin, every Briton in Petrograd was imprisoned, so Cromie’s funeral was organised by strangers; the Dutch and the Swedes. He was acknowledged as a great sailor by both the Russian and Royal Navies. When his raggedy cortege of foreign admirers passed along the banks of the Neva en route to his funeral in the Lutheran Cemetery, the new sailors of Soviet Russia, on board several destroyers moored along the river, spontaneously formed ranks and gave him a final salute. If all this doesn’t make for good TV or cinema, then I’m puzzled. Oh, and incidentally - while he was in Russia one of Cromie's women was Countess Moura Budberg. Who was she? NICK CLEGG's Great Aunt, and later, mistress to H.G. Wells. Yes, there's even a bit of controversy here, too.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014


All Corduroys and Blow-waves


The great script writers Galton & Simpson once provided a script entitled The Publicity Photographs for Hancock’s Half Hour. In that memorable episode, Hancock is introduced by Sid James to ‘society photographer’ Hilary Saintclair, played by Kenneth Williams. Hancock dismisses Saintclair as being ‘all corduroys and blow-waves’, telling him “I’ve come about the snaps” to which Saintclair angrily responds “Snaps! Snaps? I paint with light!”

    Until a few years ago, as a jobbing writer, Hilary Saintclair had secured my mental image of the modern poet. Yet after wandering lonely as a cloud, in 2008, I began a three year contract as a Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund at Lincoln University, helping students with their essays. There I shared a small office with a real modern poet, Michael Blackburn. Until then, I had regarded poetry as some prohibited subdivision of writing, governed by indissoluble rules. As an amateur musician, I had always written songs, yet songs have rhymes and choruses. I can rhyme all the time and that’s fine, yet much of the best poetry I studied did not rhyme. Playing my CDs of Dylan Thomas in the car, I despaired. I read Neruda, Eliot and Leonard Cohen. How do you lose your inhibitions and reach such emotional heights? I studied my new office colleague’s many books and pamphlets, and even bought Stephen Fry’s somewhat dispiriting book, The Ode Less Travelled, which nailed the pedantic colours of Iambic pentameter, villanelles and scansion to the mast. But I persisted, wrote poetry every day, and showed some of it to my neighbour, the poet and award-winning playwright Kevin Fegan. The result was that Kevin actually asked if I would co-author a book with him. This was published as a work sponsored by the Arts Council, Iron In The Blood, a collection of poems and prose based on the industrial history of the Derbyshire village of Ironville. Shortly after that I won a national competition with the website with a poem about the tsunami which had devastated the Indonesian coast. Thus I abandoned ‘the rules’ and broke the mental lock on a new zone (to me) of creativity.

    There’s no money in poetry, but unlike many branches of writing, it does get you out and about. I was recently asked to give a reading at a travelling poetry slam called The Lyric Lounge, a veritable three-ring circus of performance poets aged 18 to 80. I’m doing another stint later this year in Nottingham. It’s terrific fun. I’m also extremely proud that my home town, Hull, has been made City of Culture for 2017. In fact, after living in the Midlands for 28 years, I’m selling up here and moving back. As well as Andrew Marvell, Hull inspired Philip Larkin, so I’ve written a collection of poems about the city. Yet recently the old doubts about poetic prowess bubbled to the surface. I thought I understood Larkin, but then I read the following, by John Osborne, Director of American Studies, University of Hull. He’s the author of Radical Larkin: Seven Types of Technical Mastery:

“…Larkin developed a set of poetic techniques that allowed him to instantiate unfixity … ellipsis, a four act structure with closing reversal, asymmetrical stanza lengths … a battery of disaggregative linguistic devices … split similes, negative qualifiers, oxymora and rampant paronamasia …”

I’ve not yet got to grips with rampant paronamasia, but I do recall something the irascible Larkin said about such studies; “I can't understand these chaps who go round American universities explaining how they write poems: It's like going round explaining how you sleep with your wife.”

    Despite the semantic challenges of ‘unfixity’ and ‘disaggregative’ linguistics, poetry, especially in performance, is on the rise. Even my local folk club in Mansfield features poets every week. In print, things are not quite as positive. In 2013 one of the UK's most energetic independent publishers, Salt, cut back on publishing individual collections in favour of anthologies, much to the regret of poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy and former laureate Andrew Motion. But with the rise and rise of the literary festival, plus the aggressive background clamour of rap and hip hop, this branch of the spoken word is rapidly gaining ground. How many of us tuned in to see Tom Hollander not only playing Dylan Thomas in A Poet in New York, but actually reading a newly discovered Thomas poem on BBC’s Newsnight? With the centenary commemoration of the Great War in full flight, the works of Owen, Sassoon and others are being re-launched to a new generation. The general public have a latent interest in poetry. It’s our job as writers and performers to puncture that veil because much of Britain’s attitude to poetry is a century out of date. Although some Radio 4 listeners still have an aversion to ‘regional accents’ reality is sweeping such snobbery away, thanks to voices such as Ian McMillan, Simon Armitage and Roger McGough. And let’s face it, if Pam Ayres can continue to tour and make a good living, there’s hope for us all.

   Writing poetry won’t make you rich. Poets are immune to Samuel Johnson’s quip that ‘no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money’. For those of us still on that treadmill hoping to write that one big blockbuster, writing a couple of decent poems every week is the literary equivalent of a sweaty session in the gym. Performing poetry live is an exhilarating experience, and a long way from corduroys and blow waves. In fact, I hope that one day, I may be able to paraphrase Robert Benchley …

    “It took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for poetry, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous …”





Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Monday, 7 July 2014

Writing in No Man's Land

Footloose and Agent-free.

Frank Sinatra once said “Hell hath no fury like a hustler with a literary agent.”  No doubt many of you reading this will have an agent. If so, treasure them, kneel at their feet, kiss their knees. They hold the big shiny key which unlocks that tall steel gate between penury and making a living. In 2005 I parted from my agent. It was amicable enough. We’d done three books together, collected a few royalty cheques, but my book proposals became too outlandish and platforms for my work dried up. Thus I became my own, self-employed ‘hustler’. It worked a couple of times. I negotiated a Literature Grant with the Arts Council, and pulled off an un-agented contract with Constable and Robinson. Yet I realise now that saying goodbye to my agent was the commercial equivalent of a suicide note.

   It is expected that when writers write about their craft that they should provide aspiring scribes with a sense of uplifting inspiration. The rewards, the glittering prizes. J.K. Rowling’s millions, George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones - 5 HBO seasons - wow! Another Dan Brown blockbuster, and, income wise, who wouldn’t want to emulate Stephen King when he claimed “I am the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries.” But dump your agent - without having another waiting in the wings -  and you’ll emulate a reduced Tesco sandwich on the cusp of its sell-by date. The writer + agent = publisher = MSS assessment equation is the one Einstein never tackled.

   So the question is - what are agents looking for? According to writer’, initially it’s an impressive query letter. I’ve laboured over such appeals for attention without success. Is it my work? Possibly. But I figure it’s something else. I’m 71. I’ve been writing full time for 18 years, and before that, part-time for 30 years. Although I have 14 books, including biography, non-fiction, fiction and poetry to my name, no titles have ever sold more than 6,000 copies worldwide. Therefore the bulk of my income has been earned writing magazine features, PR, and countless research projects for the music industry. This is not a good CV for any agency, and it confirms that I was lucky to have ever had an agent at all. Yet that doesn’t stop you from constantly searching for that one brave literary Svengali who might just take a risk. In 2010 I thought I was about to by-pass the slush pile.

    Writing East Midlands organised a Writer’s Convention at De Montfort University in Leicester. The advance publicity offered writers the opportunity to send in a synopsis and three chapters of a work in progress. There would be a final shortlist of ten of the submitted MSS, and the lucky authors would be granted a 15 minute meeting with ‘a major London Literary Agent’ to discuss said work. I was one of the lucky ten with a WW2 novel set in Germany. My interview came at the end of a nervous Saturday afternoon. I was ushered into a quiet office in the English faculty and there, open on the table, was my work. The young woman (I estimated she was in her early 20s) from the London agency apologised, saying that her boss, the ‘senior’ agent had been unable to make it, but my work had been read and assessed, and this meeting was the result. I was then bombarded with a stream of negative criticism, all delivered with a sweet smile.

   “This work is conceited.” I asked what she meant. “The central character telling the story in your novel is a writer. That is a literary conceit.” I was puzzled by this. But the critique continued covering various points, which were no doubt valid, and as my fifteen fraught minutes drew to a close I asked the question “So why was I chosen and why am I here?” She responded “To tell you that you can’t write fiction.” I picked up my MSS, we shook hands, and feeling about as popular as a skunk at a barbecue, I skulked off to the car park and drove home. I totally re-wrote the book, removed the conceit, and two months later re-submitted it to the agency. Needless to say, I had no reply. If there was anything which would put you off looking for another agent, this was it.

   However, I’ve kept on trying, mainly with non-fiction, but the usual response is ‘We are not taking on any new clients at this time’.

   Today, in my self-created no-man’s land, I’m still scraping a meagre living, but if there are any youthful, novice writers reading this, don’t be put off. Agents and publishers are, in the main, more interested in young, photogenic authors because they’re a better long-term investment. They’re less inclined towards irascible, self-opinionated pensioners on their last legs who misguidedly imagine the world owes them a living. Yet I’m not downhearted. I’m still fulfilling my vocation, because getting up every day and spending ten hours writing remains a pleasure and a privilege. I’ve found that just surviving is a noble fight. At least these days there’s the commercial cul-de-sac of self-publishing, a territory where ‘literary conceit’ (and other sins) is actively encouraged. And that, fellow authors, is the new no man’s land - the world of Amazon, Xlibris and Lulu, where you could well end up if you ditch your agent.   

   Most writers begin their careers fuelled by dreams. ‘Making it’ is part of it all; will I get reviewed, pay off the advance? Writing in no man’s land is the same as writing anywhere else. I don’t think he was writing about agents, but Hemingway summed it up;
    ‘A writer’s problem does not change. He himself changes and the world he lives in changes but his problem remains the same …’ Thank heavens I don’t own a shotgun.



They never went to the moon, you know.
It was all mocked up in a studio.
They paid the astronauts to stay schtum
And filmed it in an aquarium.
There are aliens in area 51
Where experiments are going on
To create a hybrid human being
The weirdest creature ever seen.

There’s pyramids up there on Mars
Built by Egyptians from the Nile
Where a big stone face
looks down from space
with an enigmatic smile.
And 9/11? That grim illusion?
Creation of some dark collusion.

We are ruled by big green lizards,
Revealed by David Icke,
They’re called the Annunaki,
But can they ride a bike?
Cameron and Osborne,
Boris Johnson and the Queen
Amphibian shape-shifters,
As well as Mr. Bean.

Triangles and long cigars
Flying disks from distant stars
There’s UFOs all shapes and sizes
Over Warminster and old Devizes
Where Reg Presley’s ghost still walks the fields
To seek corn circles shaped like wheels
Whilst in tunnels deep below the ground
Zombies stir without a sound.

In Whitehall and in Washington
The Illuminati soldier on
As Freemasons, gloved and aproned keep
The policemen of the world asleep
And beneath the tip of this iceberg
The world is run by Bilderburg.

Should this keep us awake at night?
Imagine - Einstein could be right
Are there more dimensions than we see?
Do we live in a conspiracy?
Are we something else beyond ourselves
Alongside Bigfoot, fairies, elves?

Are there monsters in the Serengeti
Is there really a hairy Yeti?
One thing’s for sure, we need not surmise
We’re governed by greed and spoon-fed lies
Our attention diverted by flickering screens
Watched and controlled by anonymous beings.