Saturday, 4 October 2014
Go here: http://www.constablerobinson.com
Well, it’s taken a long time but finally the re-issue of Honoured By Strangers, my biography of legendary submariner Captain Francis Newton Allen Cromie CB DSO RN (1882-1918) as an e-book finally sees publication on October 9 by Little, Brown Ltd. through their subsidiary, Constable & Robinson. Honoured By Strangers has its faults; I had no idea how to go about writing a biography when I took this on 13 years ago. It was a learning curve but one which has served me well in the ensuing years. Perhaps I ought to have up-dated the book in some way, yet reading through it again recently, and looking at some of the positive reviews it received, I’m pleased I left it in its original state, warts and all. As to what chance it has sales-wise as an e-book is anyone’s guess, because one aspect of having such a launch would have been reliability on its appearance on Amazon.com. However, trust my luck - the one company to fall out with Amazon over terms and profits just happens to be the enormous global publishing behemoth, Hachette, the parent company of Little, Brown Ltd. So, I’m wondering if the Hachette/Amazon dispute will seriously damage sales on Amazon. Hachette do have valid issues about the way Amazon tends to hoover up every creative work and sell it on, often diminishing the benefit t both authors and publishers. But that’s capitalism for you. It has triumphed over all notions of fairness and community, and operates with just two driving motives; maximum corporate profits and the care and nurture of faceless shareholders. We in the creative sector are just wild flowers in an artistic meadow - stoop down, pick a free handful and sell them on to a public who don’t give a jot about the creative process which produces their daily entertainment.
Now I’m in my seventies, I’m just bordering on lucky that I have any literary product available for sale at all. If I was three decades younger, with a longer calendar ahead, then I would be manning some kind of barricade. All I can do is offer support from the side-lines for art’s angry campaigners, powered by the embers of my socialist outrage which still keep me railing against a world run by, and exclusively for, the super-rich.
Strange in the end, that this long-dead man who, alongside my passion for Crazy Horse, ends up as one of my heroes, should be the subject of my favourite bit of work. Strange, because if I could travel back in time to meet Cromie, we would have little in common. Me, an excessively over-romantic Trotskyist, him a dyed-in-the-wool Imperialist prepared to give his life for that most vacuous of notions, 'King and Country'. Yet they were different times, different attitudes, different men. What appealed to me about this somewhat naïve yet brave man was his sense of honour, his compassionate determination, and his hope of salvaging something from the crumbling, changing world he found around him. So, from across the divide on the political battleground, Francis, I salute you, despite our differences. You were that rare thing - a Good Man.
Monday, 15 September 2014
IN THE PRIME OF SENILITY
Our lovely late daughter, Sarah, used to say frequently that she had no desire to reach old age. Perhaps this was the inevitable influence of her working life; for
Those of us left behind, who have ‘grown old’ see life through a different lens. I used to look at retired people when I was still out driving my weekly 1,000 miles up and down the country, making a fraught living, and envy them. No more being ruled by the alarm clock. No bosses telling you what to do. Your days, open-ended; golden hours to fill as you wish. In many ways, yes, this is how it is. Living as we do in England, where we have a pension, a roof over our heads and we don’t starve, we’re some of the luckiest people on the planet. Being old and retired? What’s not to like?
There are things about getting old that they don’t tell you about. That’s because most folk under the age of 60 have no idea what they are. These things come as part of a package along with your pension. Firstly, because of what we call the ‘Protestant Work Ethic’, once we hang up our working clothes the rhythm of life changes. Earning one’s daily bread, keeping the mortgage paid, feeding and clothing the kids, this was the perpetual motion engine which made us function. Leisure time therefore was compressed into the spaces in between, and made precious by the fact. When the machine shuts down, something remains; a sense of guilt. I should be doing something. I’m luckier than most because I fill my time writing, turning my thoughts and interests into words. But I suffer the same external tribulations as my fellow retirees. Prominent among these is that post-65, we enter what I call the ‘season of funerals’. Your friends and relatives, those in this age group, have an inconvenient habit of dying. This inevitably engenders your own personal gloom. How long will I last? Now that I’m 71, each day another name is flagged up, another death. We’ve had four funerals in the past year. On top of this your whole physique begins to let you down. Aches and pains abound. Bending down to pick up a piece of dropped cutlery becomes a small challenge accompanied by a grunt. I used to sleep well. Now, I hate going to bed. I read until the early hours, and once we do nod off, sleep is wrenched from us by the demands of the bladder. And throughout the day, the outside world, brimming with youthful activity, becomes a more complex and incomprehensible place.
Being old, we feel like part of another ‘tribe’. We are constantly puzzled. Why are all those people wandering around clutching their I-phones, why do they disfigure themselves with tattoos, why do they throw their discarded packaging to the pavement? What the hell is the attraction of Rap and Hip-Hop? Why can’t these people take an active interest in politics and social affairs and sort this bloody awful world out?
The fact is, none of this really matters because this confusion is simply another element of the old age package. We all remember, discovering our pop music in our teens, that voice shouting up the stairs - “Turn that bloody racket down!” It seems that once we stop work at 65, our minds are frozen in aspic and every external movement becomes a threatening conundrum. In the final analysis, my old friends, there is a consolation here. No-one is immune to these afflictions. Yes, once Cheryl Cole’s over-tattooed arse becomes a wrinkled 70 year old approximation of a crocodile handbag, once Dappy from N-Dubs ‘grows up’ (some chance) and sees his various headgear as a clown’s haberdashery, and when Michael McIntyre retires, rich yet in the realisation that he wasn’t 1% as funny as Billy Connolly or Eric Morecambe, then they too will look in the mirror and text their friends with WTF?
I like being retired for the freedom it gives me to spend time writing down my thoughts. I like the open-ended days. I love the wide landscape of potential creativity. What I don’t like is the unfairness of it all. Fifty years of work, struggle and discipline externally imposed, and what do we get at the end? Ten years of ‘freedom’ if we’re lucky. So in the end biology defeats us. Here endeth this rant.
However, looking at the wider world, all these words I have written here are sheer luxury. As I write this some poor woman in Africa, with a life expectancy of 50, is walking 5 miles every morning to get 5 gallons of muddy water in a jerry can. Children in Iraq and Syria watch as the stark madness of ‘religion’ engulfs and destroys their family as murderous psychopaths, hell-bent on dragging us back to the 12th century, hack innocent people’s heads off whilst telling us that ‘Allah is merciful’. Hundreds of tiny children have died around the globe whilst I’ve been sitting in obese safety and comfort carping on about what a ‘bum deal’ we old English folk have.
Thus I balance it all by telling myself: Quit the crap, abandon the bullshit and face facts. There are degrees of misery in this world and, based on a scale of 1 - 10 mine is a 1. So although navel-gazing is good every now and then, we ought to look down and be thankful that our navel is still there. Time for a pot of tea and a sandwich now, and a cold reality check.
Monday, 1 September 2014
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
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
Wednesday, 13 August 2014
THE FINAL FIGHT FOR OUR NHS
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’.
THIS IS ABOVE POLITICS: THIS IS YOUR FIGHT, TOO.
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 Poetcasting.com 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 …”