Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Yankee Doodle Doldrums

    Yankee Doodle Doldrums

When Ernest Hemingway wrote that “prose is architecture, not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over” I couldn’t have disagreed with the great man more. I’d already spent my imprudent youth reading those who came before him, including one writer whose semantic ‘architecture’ represented a veritable Versailles.
It all began with the cinema.
      I just had to see the film again. In fact, I saw it five times and by the end of that week I knew most of the dialogue. It was lofty, archaic, biblical stuff, Baroque, even, yet what fascinated me most when the credits rolled was ‘Screenplay by Ray Bradbury’. I was 13 and had already read Bradbury’s Illustrated Man and his Golden Apples of the Sun. I knew he was special. Thus John Huston’s film of Moby Dick became a wider gateway to American literature. I bought Melville’s hefty book yet unlike Bradbury’s idiosyncratic, down-home prose, it would take me decades to fathom the greatness of Moby-Dick. The book’s philosophical density was perplexing for a young lad, yet what impressed me was how much of Melville’s grandiloquent dialogue Bradbury had lovingly preserved for the screen.
The great Ray Bradbury
He had led me to all the great 20
th century US science fiction writers with strange names like Vonnegut, Heinlein and Asimov, and my particular favourites Robert Sheckley and H.P. Lovecraft. Later in life, I’d get onto the ‘hard stuff’; Edgar Allan Poe, Longfellow, Thoreau and others, and as my prolonged puberty receded I’d come down to earth for Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and even Norman Mailer. 60 years after my cinematic portal into American writing, US culture, high and low, dominates everything, from the infantile vacuity of superheroes to the gripping drama of Breaking Bad.  Yet it wasn’t always so.  
Rev. Sidney Smith
Writing in the January 1820 edition of the
Edinburgh Review, the eternally quotable Rev. Sidney Smith (1771-1845) asked: “In the four quarters of the globe who reads an American book? Or goes to an American play? Or looks at an American picture or statue?” It seemed an unkind broadside aimed at a fledgling nation condemned to compete in the long literary shadow of Great Britain. As Smith sharpened his quill, across the Atlantic both Herman Melville and Walt Whitman were still in their cradles awaiting their first birthday. In Brunswick, Maine at a private liberal arts establishment, Bowdoin College, teenage student Nathaniel Hawthorne had added a ‘w’ to his name to expunge his association with his patrilineal ancestor John Hathorne, a leading judge in the Salem Witch Trials.
It’s hard to imagine what Sidney Smith would have made of the new era of American writing in the years immediately following his death. No doubt he would have scoffed at Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, although he may have recognised its themes of sin, guilt and legality. As for Whitman’s Blades of Grass or Melville’s Moby-Dick, they did little to dissuade sections of Britain’s literati from the notion that American literature remained adrift in the doldrums. Without any transatlantic copyright law and no royalties to pay, American publishers made easy money by reprinting anything worthwhile which came out of Britain. Jane Austen, the Brontes, Scott, and above all, Dickens all rolled of the presses, whilst looking down from his lofty perch, Shakespeare, as ever, remained supreme.

    As American writers like Longfellow, Thoreau and others found their voice, they expressed their dismay at the situation. Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe and others were more than peeved with their country’s failure to support writers, and especially with Shakespeare’s godlike status. In August 1850, still putting the finishing touches to Moby-Dick, despite his boundless admiration for the Bard, Herman Melville grumbled in the journal The Literary World, “You must believe in Shakespeare's unapproachability, or quit the country. But what sort of belief is this for an American, a man who is bound to carry republican progressiveness into Literature?” Melville, then unknowingly on the cusp of obscurity, epitomises the tragic growing pains of American literature.  It would be almost a century before we realised what a treasure chest American writing would become. Melville was no stranger to a good critical bludgeoning. Whilst Moby-Dick was still puzzling blinkered reviewers, on September 8, 1852 the New York Day Book carried a rancorous headline, "HERMAN MELVILLE CRAZY" above a mauling of his latest book, Ambiguities. Masquerading as a news item, it ‘reported’ the views of a ‘critical friend’ who regarded Ambiguities “to be composed of the ravings and reveries of a madman” and finished with a truly knock-out punch; “… his friends were taking measures to place him under treatment. We hope one of the earliest precautions will be to keep him stringently secluded from pen and ink.”  That kind of reviewing today would be a lawyer’s bean feast.      

     They had no need to kick Melville; he was already down. Britain’s literary dominance dragged him further, because Moby-Dick was first published here by the London publisher of his earlier works, Richard Bentley. With those earlier works page proofs had been set by Harper in the US and sent to London for publication. This gave American critics the chance to see what they regarded as their more erudite British counterparts made of a work and then add their own bit of venom. Bentley offered Melville a £150 advance. He was already in debt to the tune of $700 to his American publisher, Harper, so they wouldn’t set the type for Moby-Dick; he was forced to borrow money and pay for the composition himself. Sadly, the Bentley edition would suffer all manner of pedantic editorial indignities. For those Americans who did read books, England may well have been a literary lighthouse, but its beams were tinged with patriotic Anglican piety. Anything remotely dismissive of Britain’s monarchy was removed. Sacrilegious passages were savaged with a vengeance. It wouldn’t do for an American upstart like Melville to attribute human failures to God, and the censorial pen would not allow Captain Ahab to stand on the deck of the godless Pequod  “with a crucifixion in his face” in Chapter 28. And there was that undertow of sex; allusions to hookers, a faint whiff of gay goings-on in the fo’c’sle, Ishmael’s pondering over Queequeg’s underpants. Yet Melville got away with it in Chapter 95, "The Cassock", by using indirect language describing the whale’s penis. Yet the biggest calumny in the British edition of Moby-Dick was the inexplicable omission of the Epilogue, which explains why the story has been told by Ishmael, beginning with the quote from the Book of Job 1:15: “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”
In his lifetime Moby-Dick never sold its initial print run of 3,000 copies. In fact his royalties for the American edition from Harper & Brothers amounted to a measly $556 - that’s roughly £390.  After spending his final 19 years of obscurity working as the most honest customs officer in New York, Herman Melville passed away in 1891 completely forgotten, with a 47-word obituary in the New York Times, where they referred to what would become his classic as ‘Mobie’ Dick. One small report called him ‘Henry’ and in December that year Harper’s Magazine gave his death just nine words.
Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab in Moby Dick
    Herman Melville’s long poem, Clarel, published in 1876, had an initial printing of just 350 copies. By the time he’d written it, his writing career had already been over for a decade. Then, in 1925 critic Lewis Mumford found a copy of Clarel ‘with its pages uncut’ in the New York Public Library, where it had remained, unread and untouched by human hands for 50 years.   30 years after they’d laid Herman Melville to rest in a poor plot in a Bronx cemetery, our own D. H. Lawrence led the charge to recognise his work and transform him into the literary monument he is today. In Lawrence’s 1924 Studies in Classic American Literature his ornate and politically awkward essay on Moby-Dick likens the crew of the Pequod, including the narrator, Ishmael, to America itself: “Renegades, castaways, cannibals, Ishmael, Quakers”. Yet it feels right that Melville’s stream of consciousness style should have finally achieved recognition in the 1920s, when James Joyce’s Ulysses was breaking new ground.     
    An un-collated, unfinished draft of Melville’s final prose work, Billy Budd, Sailor was tidily packed away by his widow, Lizzie and would not appear in print until 1925. Albert Camus, W. H. Auden and E. M. Forster all waxed lyrical over Billy Budd, and close to death, Thomas Mann called it ‘the most beautiful story in the world’, adding ‘O that I could have written that!’
So I thank Ishmael, Queequeg and Mr. Starbuck for inspiring me to take a chance on writing. Ray Bradbury said that “Living at risk is jumping off the cliff and building your wings on the way down.” As for the intrepid Melville, his thoughts remain relevant in today’s corrupt, ill-mannered world. Father Mapple’s sermon in Moby-Dick should form the basis of any investigative writer’s creed:But delight is to him who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth stands forth his own inexorable self, who destroys all sin, though he pluck it out from the robes of senators and judges!”



Most material re. Melville from

DELBANCO, ANDREW: Melville, His World & Work Picador, 2006

SMITH, SYDNEY: The Selected Writings of Sydney Smith, Faber & Faber 2012.

LAWRENCE, D. H. Studies in Classic American Literature: Penguin 1971, re-issued Cambridge University Press 2014.

CUNLIFFE, MARCUS: The Literature of the United States Pelican, 1970.

MELVILLE, HERMAN: Moby-Dick / Billy Budd etc., Numerous editions.

HUSTON, JOHN (Producer) Moby Dick (Film, 1956, Screenplay by Ray Bradbury, starring Gregory Peck, Orson Welles and Leo Genn) is available on Optimum Home DVD OPTD0069 and is in this writer’s opinion, although a very condensed rendition of a massive work, retains its elegance and dignity. There is also a later TV version starring Patrick Stewart as Captain Ahab. It ambitiously tells much more of the book,

But the ’56 version does it for me.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Is The Flying Dutchman Real?

The Flying Dutchman:
The Ultimate Ghost Ship


At the height of Second World War, on 3 August 1942, HMS Jubilee was off the South African coast, making her way on a calm sea to the Royal Navy base at Simonstown, near Cape Town. At 9 p.m., a strange phantom sailing ship was sighted. On the bridge on watch was Second Officer Davies, together with the ship’s third officer, the author of The Cruel Sea, Nicholas Monsarrat. Monsarrat signalled the mystery ship, but there was no response. Filling in his report in the ship’s log, Davies recorded that a schooner, of an unrecognized rig, was moving under full sail. This was all rather odd, as there was no wind. To avoid collision, HMS Jubilee had to change course. Then the strange ship vanished. Interviewed in later life, at the height of his fame, Monsarrat admitted that the phantom ship was the inspiration for his novel The Master Mariner.

The legend of the Flying Dutchman is a classic yarn from the days of sail, an age when the Bible was as important as the ship’s logbook. An irreverent skipper has trouble on board. He indulges in blasphemy. There’s a massive storm, God punishes the ship, the crew all perish and the Master is doomed to a spectral existence for all eternity. The Flying Dutchman is South Africa’s most famous spook, but the ghost ship can be seen in various locations, for example Goodwin Sands, as well as cropping up in stormy weather off the Cape of Good Hope . . . or just about anywhere on the rolling sea. The sightings usually involve a fully rigged sailing ship, sometimes engulfed in a luminescent green mist. Fully lit cabins have been reported, and occasionally there have been reports of a shindig in progress on board, singing, even women laughing. Those saucy spectral sailors . . . no wonder they got into trouble; never mind the compass, crack open another barrel.

So who was this irresponsible, libidinous mariner who was doomed to scare the bejesus out of future generations of hapless matelots? Richard Wagner (1813–1883) knew who he was back in 1843 when he wrote his opera, Der Fliegende Holländer. Four years earlier Captain Frederick Marryat had published his entertaining version of the yarn, The Phantom Ship (1839).
Marryat has the Dutch skipper’s name as Philip Vanderdecken. However, the first reference in print to the ship appears in Chapter 6 of A Voyage to Botany Bay (1795) aka A Voyage to New South Wales, attributed to a London socialite and skilled pickpocket, George Barrington (1755–1804), who was transported to Australia and is remembered for the line “We left our country for our country’s good.” Heinrich Heine published a novel in 1834, The Memoirs of Mister von Schnabelewopski, which included the story of the Dutchman. In the Netherlands, the traditional name for the Flying Dutchman is Falkenbourg. In 1855 Washington Irving wrote a version of the tale calling him Ramhout Van Dam. Another contender is a real seventeenth-century Captain called Bernard Fokke. Like the eponymous Second World War German airplane, Fokke’s ship was noted for its impressive speed, particularly for its voyages between Holland and Java. The name of his ship is not mentioned, but many Dutch mariners actually believed Fokke was in league with the devil. Naturally, when he and his speedy vessel vanished the conclusion was that Old Nick had called in the debt. Although it is easy keeping your tongue in your cheek over the Flying Dutchmen reports, some, from prominent witnesses, are very convincing.

During the Second World War, the German Kriegsmarine’s Admiral Karl Dönitz reported that his  U-Boat crews logged sightings of the Flying Dutchman off the Cape Peninsula. Seeing the Dutchman was an unwelcome omen, and usually preceded disaster for a boat. The ghostly East Indiaman was also seen by
numerous witnesses at Muizenberg, a beach-side suburb of Cape Town, South Africa, in 1939. On a calm day in 1941, a large crowd at the Cape coast’s Glencairn Beach saw a ship with wind-filled sails, but it vanished just as it was about to crash on to the rocks.

Of course, if a monarch sees a ghost, then it must be true. Prince George (later King George V, 1865–1936) saw the Flying Dutchman. The two oldest sons of the Prince of Wales had entered the navy in 1877 and by 1879 it had been decided by the royal family and the government that the two should take a character-building cruise. George was just fifteen when he sailed on a three-year-long voyage aboard the 4000-ton corvette HMS Bacchante with his elder brother Prince Albert Victor. Accompanying them was their tutor, Canon John Neale Dalton (1839–1931), who was a chaplain to Queen Victoria.
The squadron that set sail was commanded by Prince Louis of Battenburg, great uncle of today’s Prince Philip. Off the coast near Cape Town, George, together with Dalton and other officers on the bridge on 11 July 1881, witnessed the spectral Dutchman. George’s diary entry describes the encounter, with its grisly aftermath. (Some sources claim this report as that of Dalton):

At 4 a.m. the Flying Dutchman crossed our bows. A strange red light as of a phantom ship all aglow, in the midst of which light the masts, spars, and sails of a brig 200 yards distant stood out in strong relief as she came up on the port bow, where also the officer of the watch from the bridge clearly saw her, as did the quarterdeck midshipman, who was sent forward at once to the forecastle; but on arriving there was no vestige nor any sign whatever of any material ship was to be seen either near or right away to the horizon, the night being clear and the sea calm. Thirteen persons altogether saw her . . . At 10.45 a.m. the ordinary seaman who had this morning reported the Flying Dutchman fell from the foretopmast crosstrees on to the topgallant forecastle and was smashed to atoms.


The phantom was seen by other ships in the squadron, Tourmaline and Cleopatra.

Kings and pirates, deckhands, landlubbers and lighthouse keepers all have reported seeing her. Here’s a selection of sightings:

        1823: Captain Owen, HMS Leven, recorded two sightings in the log.

        1835: Men on a British vessel saw a sailing ship approach them in the middle of a storm. It appeared there would be a collision, but the ship suddenly vanished.

        1879: The SS Pretoria’s crew saw the ghost ship.

        1881: King George V saw the ship whilst another report from a Captain Larsen of an unnamed Swedish ship tells of a near collision with the phantom, which disappeared. The crewman who spotted her, an English sailor called Landersbury, died shortly afterwards.

        1911: On 11 January, the whaling ship the Orkney Belle almost collided with her before she vanished.

•        1923: An officer aboard a British steamer saw her on 26 January and reported the event to the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). Fourth Officer N. K. Stone wrote an account of the fifteen-minute sighting. Second Officer Bennett, a helmsman and cadet also witnessed the ship. Stone drew a picture of the phantom. Bennett corroborated his account. Stone wrote this: “It was a very dark night, overcast, with no moon. We looked through binoculars and the ship’s telescope, and made out what appeared to be the hull of a sailing ship, luminous, with two distinct masts carrying bare yards, also luminous. No sails were visible, but there was a luminous haze between the masts. There were no navigation lights, and she appeared to be coming close to us and at the same speed as ourselves . . . when she was within about a half-mile of us she suddenly disappeared. There were four witnesses of this spectacle, the Second Officer, a cadet, the helmsman and myself. I shall never forget the Second Officer’s startled expression – ‘My God, Stone, it’s a ghost ship.’”

        1939: People on South Africa’s Cape shore saw the Flying Dutchman. Admiral Karl Dönitz maintained logged sightings by U-Boat crews in the area.

        1941: People at Glencairn Beach sighted the phantom ship that vanished before she crashed into rocks.

        1942: In September, four witnesses sitting on their balcony at Mouille Point saw the Dutchman enter Table Bay, then vanish behind Robben Island.

        Second Officer Davies and Third Officer Monsarrat, HMS Jubilee, saw the Flying Dutchman. Davis recorded it in the ship’s log.

        1959: Captain P. Algra of the Dutch freighter Straat Magelhaen reports that he nearly collided with the ghost ship.

Of course, as with all reports of unexplained phenomena, amidst all the sense of wonder and credulity that gathers around them over the decades, the fine details of provenance become blurred. For example, “a Swedish ship” – the skipper’s name survives, but where’s the ship? Then there’s “men on a British vessel” – which vessel? Look in the Ships List for “SS Pretoria” and you’ll not find one in 1879 – the nearest candidate is the USS Pretoria. That’s not to say these ships did not exist but, as we shall see, some become almost synonymous with the phantom they’ve reported. Lists are laid down and copied out ad infinitum – going back to sources is often a blind alley, but it doesn’t spoil the fun in the long run. These are justifiably the areas on to which the sceptics will eagerly latch. Paranormal atheists, when the chronicles seem fuzzy, may be able to add to their demolition by combining a yarn’s historical sloppiness with a hypothetical approach. So, for example, if the Flying Dutchman isn’t a ghost, what is it?

It could be a mass hallucination, an optical illusion or a mirage. Lights and mist on the horizon can fool the sharpest eyes. A couple of stiff rums and a touch of insomnia on a nightwatch on the bridge can produce visual hallucinations. They are all factors worth considering. Dr Frederick Meyers, the respected Society for Psychical Research parapsychologist, interviewed Stone and Bennett, the officers on the 1923 sighting. He came up with an interesting theory, widely rejected by other parapsychologists, that a type of consciousness survives physical death and has the ability to telepathically project images to the living who see them. So could the Flying Dutchman be the result of some form of an as yet unexplained energy imprinted in time and space? It seems odd that a tragedy or disaster is usually at the root of a haunting. Yet they are just appearances, apparitions and have no intelligence; might they be an indelible, sporadic projection of permanent grief? Or are we at long last facing a new revelation in physics, CERN style – are we periodically peering through the matrix between our dimensions and the ones awaiting discovery?

Or could the Flying Dutchman could be a “Fata Morgana”, a mirage that occurs in calm weather when warm air rests above dense, cold air close to the sea’s surface. The air between the two masses acts as a refracting lens, producing a distorted upside-down image of an upright object. Even though a ship could be over the horizon, the observing crew may see an inverted, blurry image of the “mirage ship” appearing much closer and several times larger than its actual size.

Back to Charles Fort; we offer the data, you decide.
DISCOVER MANY MORE YARNS LIKE THIS IN MY BOOK, THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF UNEXPLAINED PHENOMENA (Constable & Robinson, 2013) and look out for the follow up volume dues out this November, The Mammoth Book of Superstition.

Monday, 15 August 2016


There’s plenty of great fiction around these days yet I still adhere to the old statement that fact is always more fascinating than fiction, and to me that makes it more entertaining. Why? Because these things actually happened. As a writer who loves researching the odd corners of history, I have a penchant for American writers who reveal the underbelly of their country’s colourful
development. So when it comes to both modern and 19th century history, a good starting point was Stephen Ambrose, the author of Band of Brothers and the brilliant Crazy Horse and Custer. However, one of the greatest of them all, in my humble opinion, is Nathaniel Philbrick. Even his name makes him sound like the Chief Mate on a 19th century whaler, and if you check him out on Wikipedia, you’ll see that’s not far off the mark - he’s even a skilled sailor. As an avid devotee to Herman Melville (I still think Moby-Dick to be one of the greatest books ever written), when I came across his In The Heart of the Sea three years ago, (the very bones of Melville’s marine inspiration) I wanted more, and thankfully, from the Philbrick treasure vault there’s plenty to choose from. Reading the masterful Sea of Glory,
the story of the US Navy’s huge voyage of exploration in the 1840s, led by Lieutenant Wilkes, who makes the Bounty’s Captain Bligh seem like a Teletubby, I was trapped in a nightly page-turner of sheer fascination and wonder.

I’m currently discovering an equally skilled and dedicated scribe by the name of Hampton Sides. Another unsung story of an expedition, In the Kingdom of Ice, the grand and terrible voyage of the USS Jeanette
simply has to be read in bed, late at night, when you’re warm. It’s a tragic yarn filled with Arctic ice, frostbite, struggle and deprivation, and with each chapter you’re glad to be cosily tucked in and living in the 21st century. I shall be seeking out more works by Hampton Sides; like Philbrick and Ambrose, he too is a great writer. Next on my reading list after Kingdom of Ice I’m about to delve into Philbrick’s fascinating revelation of the truth behind the voyage of the Pilgrim Fathers, Mayflower: A Voyage to War.

All these engrossing tomes came hot on the heels of both volumes of autobiography by Alexei Sayle, Stalin Ate My Homework and Thatcher Stole my Trousers. Add to these Danny Baker’s hilarious Going to Sea in a Sieve and it becomes clear that for me, it may be a while yet before I get back to reading fiction, but watch this space…

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

The flea and the elephant

The Flea on the Elephant

My son and his wife have just paid £25 to become members of the Labour Party. They, like me, are ardent Corbynistas, but although I have much respect for the man I feel both he and his supporters are living in cloud cuckoo land. Of course, I have an axe to grind: when I applied for temporary membership a year ago for the same purpose - that being to vote Corbyn, I was, in true Stalinist style, ‘purged’. I was not admitted to the Metro-centric ‘club’ and neither did I get my £3 back. That’s because I’m a socialist, and that’s the worst thing the Blairites need in their ranks, even though Cherie, high on breathing in the corporate atmosphere, still clutches her Louis Vuitton handbag and claims to be a “S*******t”. And now you can’t even call anyone a ‘Blairite’ - it’s forbidden.

So why am I so overcome with a sense of doom over the state of the Labour Party? Where to begin? Perhaps even their title needs changing. Apart from the odd exception in the PLP, very few of the smart-suited ardent global corporatist MPs have ever experienced ‘labour’ as many of us know it. They may have pruned a few red roses or turned over their compost heap with a fork, but that’s about it. The fact that a few thousand members have recognised that Jeremy Corybyn’s politics are much closer to the ideals of their founder, Keir Hardie, (who he?) means little to the Westminster gang. They see the party as ‘their’ Labour Party, not the members, because they occupy those green benches, and that position is a meal ticket for all manner of fiscal possibilities. Consultancies, travel, TV appearances. Being an MP of any political hue is a terrific opportunity for self-aggrandisement. Does every Labour MP truly care about austerity? Do they really want to preserve and improve the NHS? Would they stand shoulder to shoulder to take back the railways into public ownership, sort out the Mickey Mouse utility companies, return the Royal Mail to its rightful owners, us, the people? Perhaps they might have believed in such programmes when they were campaigning for election. But the evidence is now that they don’t. And let’s face it, if you toe the line, don’t ruffle any feathers, even if you’re vaguely ‘working class’ like John Prescott, you could end up taking the ermine, joining the Lords and get your £300 per day attendance allowance, a sum many workers won’t earn in a week. And with ‘Lord’ in front of your name, the cash and the privileges just roll in.

 In the immediate aftermath of Brexit when the Tory Party was in virtual meltdown, did Labour act as an opposition and go for the jugular? No. They concentrated on trashing their leader, with the ranks behind him at Prime Minister’s  Question Time sniggering at Corbyn’s every word, joining in with their Public School snotty-nosed counterparts across the floor, all yah-boos, baying Hooray Henrys to a man (and woman). So instead of chanting ‘Tories out! They decided on a kamikaze attack on their own leader. They are a disgrace and whatever happens to them will be long overdue.

Now the election for that leadership looms, and chances are Corbyn might well win. What then? Will there be a new ‘Gang of 4’ style ‘Social/Democratic’ offshoot as there was in 1981 with people like Shirley Williams, William Rodgers, Roy Jenkins and David Owen? More than likely. Which will leave the Corbyn rump of the party out of the periphery of politics alongside the Socialist Workers, the SPGB and, (if it still exists) the Communist Party. We can all hold meetings in a telephone kiosk at the end of the street and give clenched-fist salutes to passers-by.
The SDP Gang of Four
the roots of New Labour - the 'Gang of Four' in 1981. Ready to enjoy their Lords status for good behaviour..

Yet the basic fact in all of this is that what was once known as ‘the proletariat’ as seen by Marx and Lenin no longer exists. We no longer hardly manufacture anything much; we’ve fulfilled Thatcher’s dream of becoming a ‘service economy’ Britain’s tattooed, I-phone-clutching constantly texting, selfie-taking masses don’t want socialism for a very good reason. They don’t know what it is, and neither do they care. They have chosen unchecked, unremitting capitalism and they love every Big Mac, Starbucks KFC Virgin Railways bit of it. Corbyn’s admirable faithful are about as effective against the tumour of capitalism as a cat flea on the arse of an elephant. Half an hour studying real political theory is meaningless when you could be watching Britain’s Benefits Tenants on Channel 5, or Gogglebox. Who wants to hear about community, inequality, bankers, Philip Green or social problems and the NHS, when  Celebrity Bake-Off is on?

Britain’s Brexit champions, and that’s over half the electorate, remain happy for the country to be run by a cabal of financial buccaneers and press barons. They have succumbed to Goebbels and Hitler’s diktat, so ably utilised by Farage, Johnson and Gove, that if the lies are big enough, they’ll believe them. Their Bibles are The Sun, the Daily Mail, The Express and Fox News. As Donald Trump is amply proving, people don’t mind voting for lies as long as they are colourful, entertaining mistruths, something you can ‘whoop’ for as if you’re attending a rock concert, a kind of illuminated disingenuous wallpaper to decorate the enforced drabness of their living rooms.

So old, worn out dreamers like yours truly need to bite this acrid bullet and accept the stark fact that social progress, Corbyn style or otherwise, is more of a dream now than it was in my youth. This, to me, is the real truth about politics: hopelessness. I may have a decade left, two if I’m lucky, but I’ll just turn off the news, stop reading the Guardian (another middle class rag) get through each day and fade away into the widening shadows of ignorance. And of course, in those shadows, there’ll be plenty of noisy company. Tell me lies: they’re much better than reality.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Customer care: a fantasy


The fantasy façade of ‘Customer Care’.

When the computer became commonplace, some of us were naïve enough to think this heralded the future - those expected halcyon days the boffins talked about in the 1970s, that by the end of the 20th century technology would ensure we’d all be working three day weeks and spend the other 4 seeking leisure activities. But these were the sad dreams of people who wear tinfoil hats, learn to speak Klingon and claim ‘Jedi Knight’ if someone asks their religion. So whilst they still live happily in the hermetically sealed world of their X-Box or PlayStation, the rest of us realise that all technology has done, especially in the field of human-to-human communications, is to obliterate soul, feeling, emotion and manners. As for freeing up time, the reverse is true. Even an English word like ‘Application’ now takes too long to say; it’s become an ‘App’. Human endeavour is now expected to swell like sawdust in a jam-jar of water; even the old routine of ‘going to lunch’ for anyone below senior management level in most offices is deemed ‘for wimps’; a sub sandwich and a bottle of water will see you through the afternoon, because under no circumstances must you take your eyes off that laptop.

One of the most visual examples of this new work-based Puritanism is the cardboard cup of coffee. It has become de rigueur now if you want to impress your boss or show your fellow workers how ‘busy-busy-busy’ you are to walk along the pavement to arrive at your office clutching your £2.20 cardboard cup from Starbucks or Costa. After all, who wants the civility of a cup of coffee in a china cup made freshly in your office kitchenette? (If you have one, other than a vending machine).

But because humans have stopped listening to humans, other than through the Troll’s ear trumpet of e-mail, the purchasers of capitalism’s myriad products, from food to a Ford Focus, have found a strange wall between them and the anonymous producers. It’s called ‘Customer Care’, and in most cases, that’s a complete oxymoron. ‘Deafening silence’ is a good example of an oxymoron. And the term ‘moron’ also seems apt.

To help who, exactly? The shareholders?

Over the years I’ve had many battles with so-called ‘customer care’ departments. Virgin Media, for example, who for months continued asking me for ever increasing amounts of money, even though I had ended my services, in the prescribed manner; nothing, including evidence of my non-connection and resignation from their clutches could prevent them from pressing on with their demands, even a debt collection agency entered the fray. A letter to Richard Branson’s London office finally resulted in an apology. The same with a ‘free’ trial for three months with a Website company owned by a European media giant who will remain nameless. I tried the ‘free offer’ pulled out before the trial expired, then suffered months of letters, threats of bailiffs, money taken from my account, rude communications but in the end, when I threw it all on the desk of their CEO in Germany it stopped - because I was the customer, I had stuck by their rules and they were deliberately wrong in their ‘profit at any price’ chicanery, and I was right.

So what about the poor people who are not articulate, creative in their battle plans, those more timid, who mistakenly imagine the words ‘customer’ and ‘care’ mean something? The very old who grew up in a world where being threatened for money was the darkest anathema possible? They must succumb to fear imposed by these immoral, un-listening corporate buccaneers.

And now I stand on the cusp of a new fight with the car manufacturers, Vauxhall. I own a Zafira B model and these cars have been prone to bursting into flames due to a fault in the heating and ventilation system. The car has been re-called for ‘rectification’ work.

After the second recall the air conditioning refused to work. When I complained I was told that the items they’d worked on had no connection to the air conditioning. I was told, however, that it could be fixed for £345 because the car required a new AC condenser. My local mechanic, a very skilled motor engineer, could find no fault with the condenser, but eventually, as the weather improved, I decided to bite the bullet and pay the Vauxhall dealer’s service department to replace the condenser. They did the ‘work’, I paid the bill, and was then told that this wouldn’t help to restore the air conditioning as the car required ‘a new compressor’ at £693.95. I was appalled, and wrote to them asking why they had not tested the condenser to establish whether or not it actually did need replacing, and then called me to tell me what was actually needed? It is now six days since the letter went off, and not an e-mail, a phone call; ‘customer care’ in action again. Stage 2 was to send copies of the letter to Vauxhall’s  ‘Customer Care’ bases at Luton and Greenford. These were sent first class recorded delivery. Result: zilch. The car now goes into a local garage later this week to have the compressor fitted, not at the Vauxhall dealer’s £693.95 but a more honest £445, including parts and labour. How will this coming battle pan out? I have very little hope of anything positive. As some trolls on the Zafira Fires Face Book page have pointed out (38 of them have had a similar problem with air con not working after a recall) I was blatantly stupid to pay them the £345 in the first place. I have egg on my face and for once the Trolls  are right, but we stubbornly carry on in the world of commerce imagining that we can ‘trust’ people to do the right thing.

So, simple though it would be for someone to pick up a phone or send an e-mail to re-assure me that my letters have been received and will be acted upon, no-one working under the banner ‘customer care’ can even think that this might be a good idea. This is because the essence of modern commerce is now based in pure cash-gathering greed. Give us your money, now f**k off. It’s up to us to repel these pirates and freebooters, but it’s all so very, very wearying and tiresome. Welcome to rip-off UK plc.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016



Note too that a faithful study

of the liberal arts humanizes character
and permits it not to be cruel.


As Ovid states, ‘and permits it not to be cruel’. However, what would one expect from a Philistine political party like the Conservatives other than cultural cruelty? Their idea of culture probably extends to Dire Straits and Downton Abbey and very little beyond.

So this true blue woman, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan (ABOVE) berates students and educators alike with the mantra that studying the arts will wreck your chances in life. She may have voted ‘remain’ in the EU referendum, but she perversely supported Brexit’s Michael Gove in his failed bid for Tory Party leadership. Both are to education what Eric Pickles is to hang gliding.

Married to an architect and trained as a lawyer who specialised in acquisitions (surprise, surprise) Morgan’s idea of artistic pursuit is going out running every morning. One wonders if she’d ever pondered over who designed her trainers or her track suit? Some artistic slacker, no doubt. Her advice to the younger generation considering higher education is that you must follow the holy grail of STEM subjects, (science, technology, engineering and maths). In a 2014 report in The Stage, she said

 “But if you wanted to do something different, or even if you didn’t know what you wanted to do … then the arts and humanities were what you chose. Because they were useful – we were told ­– for all kinds of jobs.

Of course now we know that couldn’t be further from the truth, that the subjects that keep young people’s options open and unlock doors to all sorts of careers are the STEM subjects.”

Let’s face it, her party means business and business means maths. To pay for the yachts and the villas they all enjoy the rich need bean counters. There’s no time for all that unprofitable malarkey of painting, sculpture, plinky-plonky music, and apart from The King’s Speech  the Tories probably think there hasn’t been a decent British film made since The Dam Busters. However, they do have Julian Fellowes and Jeffrey Archer - how much art do we need anyway? As for the highly profitable junk ‘art’ the Saatchis will always be around if there’s a sale of Tory supporter Tracey Emin’s offcuts.

Nicky Morgan obviously can’t see any prospect of a world where her beloved STEM subjects could have any relation to the arts. Perhaps, though, had she studied history a little more closely, she may have noticed that down the centuries some of the best science came from men and women who had one foot in the arts camp.

Albert Einstein was a keen violinist. Leonardo da Vinci? Well, all you have to do is google images and apart from artistic brilliance he’ll give you a tank, anatomy or a helicopter … and without the facility of the Arts, how can you frame and present the STEM subjects to an inquisitive young mind? She should take a closer look at Brian Cox, Jonathan Miller, Stephen Fry, Dan Cruikshank and others. Brunel was a brilliant engineer, but his products were works of art.

Leonardo's HELICOPTER - it didn't work, but not a bad try for an artist.

The actor Colin Firth said of England “You’ll not believe what a philistine country it is.” However, I prefer the multifaceted genius of Orson Welles:

  “Everything about me is a contradiction, and so is everything about everybody else. We are made out of oppositions; we live between two poles. There's a philistine and an aesthete in all of us, and a murderer and a saint. You don't reconcile the poles. You just recognize them.”

Thursday, 7 July 2016


Everything’s Not gonna be OK.



noun: nihilism

The rejection of all religious and moral principles, often in the belief that life is meaningless.

Synonyms: negativity, cynicism, pessimism; More
rejection, repudiation, renunciation, denial, abnegation;
disbelief, non-belief, unbelief, scepticism, lack of conviction, absence of moral values, agnosticism, atheism, non-theism

•Philosophy; the belief that nothing in the world has a real existence.

•Historical; the doctrine of an extreme Russian revolutionary party circa  1900 which found nothing to approve of in the established social order.

v v v

There are a number of favourite, all-time repetitive lines in almost all Hollywood movie screenplays. They include classics such as “This ain’t lookin’ good”, “You’ve got 48 hours” and “You’re suspended - I want your badge and your gun” or “We gotta get out of here, now!” and usually when some whiney American infant wheedles something like “Day-ddy, what’s wrawng with Mawmmy?” the classic reply will forever be “Everything’s gonna be OK.” And in Hollywoodland, it usually is. But most of us don’t live in tinsel town. For at least 50% of the world things are certainly not ‘gonna be OK’ at all.

Perhaps the make believe world of California can almost be regarded as another planet altogether. The sun shines each day there, our entertainment is crafted and constructed, and it is beamed around the globe as a small screen palliative against the true hopelessness of life in many lands Americans may never have heard of, let alone visited. Alongside those distant, dark, depressing destinations is the middle ground of economic existence, Europe, a concept which once included the British Isles, a.k.a. the United Kingdom. No longer. Britain (we can drop the ‘Great’ - it’s no longer relevant) now floats politically and economically in the North Sea like one of those abandoned rotting hulks of the Mulberry Harbours  so brilliantly constructed for D-Day, which can still be seen rusting in the waves off the Normandy coast.

I am glad now to be old, past my three score and ten. The calendar ahead is dramatically shorter than the one behind me. But this is providential, as I shall not have to experience the struggles to come. It seems that in my British lifetime, every political, social and economic game plan has been rolled out, tried half-heartedly, and then, as the immorality and visible greed of politicians and business magnates has grown, the dog-eared ideas, only dusted down for elections, are thrown back in the Westminster wheelie bin. I say ‘every’ political plan - but one. That’s fascism, and the rigours of 20th century historical reality have forbidden ‘good and decent’ politicians from trying this. Yet its elements, spreading like carcinogenic cells from the tumour of  old Europe, are slowly losing their repulsiveness. Fascism is a tool to destroy the workers' movements and secure rule by the upper classes. This element has already been in motion since 1979, and is always on the political agenda. Fascism suggests that ‘we’re all in it together’, and succeeds by appealing to the people and to their most primitive prejudices and needs, while actually pursuing the interests of the already rich, who must always be allowed more wealth. If this situation sounds familiar in modern Britain, then although the jackboots and the brown shirts are not out of the wardrobe yet, they are being polished and pressed by the handmaidens of UKIP.


For anyone of a liberal persuasion, or dangerously further to the left as I am, the vote to leave the European Union was the loudest foghorn or alarm bell of approaching fascism, something I never dreamed would sound out across this country in my lifetime. Worse still, I find myself living in a town which could be as rabidly racist as Vienna in 1938. I came to Mansfield for the convenience of its location when I was at the height of my career in sales and marketing in 1987. Back then there were 13 coal mines here. It was as blue collar as you could get. Labour MP, Labour Council. Today Tories (masquerading as ‘Independents’) run the District Council. We still have a Labour MP, but one of the metro-centric beige types who the establishment have rewarded with a knighthood. There are no coal mines here at all now. All closed, yet whilst Britain’s electricity still relies 40% on coal, we import it now from Russia, Poland and distant Colombia. Bulky, ebullient tattooed men (those still with jobs) who once worked down the pit now man the tills at Tesco. Mansfield has a large, thriving population of Poles and eastern Europeans. Walking round the supermarket on a Friday night is like being in Bratislava. And this colourful rainbow of legal, hardworking humanity on the move is the very thing which has been manipulated into the fascist clay to bake the xenophobic bricks of the new Brexit order. Over 70% of Mansfield’s electorate voted ‘out’ in the referendum. As the new fascism slowly grows flesh on its brittle bones, it will have no more fertile ground than right here on my doorstep.

As a left wing socialist I had already long abandoned any hope that the naïve dreams of my youth could ever become reality. Although I have benefited all my life from the great Spirit of 1945, saved frequently by the safety net of the Welfare State and the NHS, I had always fought and hoped for that sense of fairness and egalitarianism engendered in the ideas of  Aneurin Bevan to become the norm. But fascism, this new, moneyed version, does not allow for such luxury. Without their golden carrot on the long stick dangled from Canary Wharf,  Britain’s one-time ‘proletariat’ have nothing to aspire to. A cloying treacle of celebrity, benefits porn, bake-offs, strictly come dancing and rabid tabloid propaganda has been poured into the fuel tank of human progress. It is manufactured by the real Masters of the New Universe: Rupert Murdoch, Lord Northcliffe, the Barclay Brothers and all their well-rewarded acolytes in Parliament and the City, captained by the products of Eton, Harrow, Oxford and Cambridge. What was once regarded as an elected government no longer serves its electorate’s needs. The Labour Party included (‘labour’ is a term it should abandon forever), Westminster exists only to progress and make real the diktat of aggressive capitalism, a darker, more virulent extension of the ideas of Milton Friedman and the creepy, spidery remnants from the dank cellar of Thatcherism.  And so, as Goebbels astutely observed;

           “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will  eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes  vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress  dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by  extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”

Therein lies the success of the Brexit vote. Foreigners are bad. Where now is that mythical £350 million per week we can give to the NHS? There are many more facets to the referendum lies package from both sides of the campaign. Those few politicians (a miniscule minority) who sometimes bleat out truths,
the Dennis Skinners and Jeremy Corbyns of our new world, are Westminster’s court jesters, the shaggy dogs the rich wipe their greasy hands on at their frequent banquets. The champions of the Big Lie think nothing of sending young men to die in some forlorn cause. Tony Blair, that great Thespian of modern politics, is the very embodiment of the self-serving, money-worshipping hypocrite who can lean back on his soft mattress of banknotes and cry theatrical tears for his ‘mistakes’ for the eager media. Westminster’s club members can talk the talk, but walking the walk, their legs buckle beneath them. They will let our privacy be sold off because GCHQ must be the tool for control in the New Order. They cry crocodile tears for the NHS whilst taking bribes from lobbyists for privatisation. They hate the very idea of the public owning anything, because anything and everything can make a profit in the right hands, and profit does not exist for the progress of the nation; profit is for the rich. Thus we have a colourful assortment of Mickey Mouse railways and bus companies, a hi-jacked postal service where stamps cost more than a ream of the paper we write on, belligerent insurance and payday loan companies hiding behind false facades of ‘customer care’… the catalogue of calumny is as long as the Chilcot Report.

Hiding in my little fortress in my embattled corner of the New Reich I now look back in sadness, anger and sorrow. Outside, beyond the closed curtains of my fading world the tattooed masses shuffle along, thumbs a blur as they stare down at their I-phones texting God knows who. The new Daily Mail-reading  Sturmabteilung is growing like a field of weeds, and soon ‘Little England’, isolated, backward, insular and xenophobic, having turned its inked back upon the world, will forget all the hope and potential goodness it once imagined it stood for. There is nothing left now. A bottle of beer, a smoke, a DVD, a good book, bed, a few more weeks, months, perhaps years of breathing, followed by welcome death.

I feel sorry for you, young England, and I feel guilty, because I have a past where hope reigned supreme. Your present, your choice, and your future will never know anything like it. I never imagined myself as a Nihilist, but now I’ve got the T-shirt, and it fits me very well.