Friday, March 28, 2008

Plane Speaking

There's going to be quite enough hand wringing over the predictable fiasco at Heathrow's Terminal Five for me not to bother with it. Except to say that one can hardly expect a Spanish operator of shopping malls to have much idea of how to run an airport. And to add that, although the excuse has been that all new airports suffering from teething troubles, this is not a new airport, merely a new terminal.
Since I am fortunate that I rarely have occasion to transit through LHR my greater concern is the news that mobile phones, that bane and boon of modern living, will be allowed to be used on aircraft in flight.
“Hello, yes, it's me. I'm on the plane. No plane, dear. I was on the train last time I called you. Yes, it only took and hour and a half to go through security so I had plenty of time to go round the shops. Just as well as they took my shampoo from me and I had to buy some more – I suppose the stuff they sell here doesn't explode or something.
Yes, it's been a good flight and a charming young man sold me a scratch card so I might win a million euros – or was it a subscription to a mobile phone company? It was hard to understand him as he comes from somewhere in the middle of Europe and his English is not so good.
I think we must be coming into land as I see the houses are getting bigger. Yes, we are. That nice young man has got quite excited about it and is running up and down the aisle. He's so excited that he's forgotten his English and is shouting 'Brace, Brace.' I expect that's Polish for 'we are landing soon' so I better get off.
I'll call you as soon as I'm in the terminal.”
But no doubt the more enterprising carriers will be offering mobile free seats – for a surcharge, of course.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Ta Ta Jaguar

The news that Tata, the giant Asian conglomerate, are buying Land Rover and Jaguar must come as something of a relief to their UK workers. At all events, it will ensure a competent management is in charge, unlike the fiasco that surrounded the Rover company.
But it can hardly be good news for the Jaguar Fan Club.
“I say, old boy, what sort of motor are you driving these days?”
“A what? Tata! Never heard of it.” And the poor Tata owner will be shunned at the club and treated like a leper.
And John Prescott will never be the same when he is referred to as 'Two Tata Prescott.'
The original Jaguar was made by the SS Company, whose initials stood for Swallow Sidecar. After the war, in view of the unfortunate connotation of SS, the name was changed to simply Jaguar. But they might just as well have kept the SS bit as it has come to stand for Sheer Snobbery with the later models.
In America, it was sold as a sort of poor man's Rolls Royce and I well recall seeing a group of my fellow passengers clustered round one in the parking lot of Detroit Metropolitan Airport.
It was a dark and dirty night. “But it won't start,” they cried.
Gently I explained that this was one of the loveable quirks of the marque and that the Jaguar company had scoured the length and breadth of the globe to find a maker of electrics that would refuse to operate in conditions of humidity.
Perhaps the best description of Jaguars was that they were cars designed for those who thought they had arrived – but really hadn't.
My apologies to all of you Jaguar owners out there.
Myself, I drive a Clio!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Brush Up Your Shakespeare

Shakespeare has always been a bit of a bother. Since schoolmasters, and now we must hastily include schoolmistresses to keep out of trouble, found that, with the abolition of corporal punishment, even greater pain could be inflicted by forcing their pupils to read Shakespeare, he's been on slippery ground.
It has resulted in keeping the membership of the 'Friends of the Bard' club within manageable numbers but has produced an upsurge in the rival organisation, the 'Bored by the Bard Club.'
Yet the most illiterate quote him almost daily in their conversation, a trend that has even extended into furthest reaches of the Thames estuary, that well known fountain head of modern English. Many cannot even spell his name but this should hardly be held against them as he was a bit uncertain himself.
Those of us who have grown to appreciate him have always puzzled at where he gained his knowledge from. And especially his almost encyclopaedic knowledge of Venice.
To the best of our knowledge, Ryanair weren't flying there at the time so it's something of a mystery but his descriptions are so vivid that it's hard to believe that they were gleaned from third party sources.
In a new book, Shaul Bassi, a lecturer at Venice University, and the writer Alberto Toso Fei say Shakespeare's insights have such a “local feel” that he must have gained them at first hand.
Possible, but where he fitted such a trip into his busy schedule is another puzzle and it will probably reignite the old arguments as to whether or not he actually wrote the plays.
Unfortunately, in spite of a number of learned biographies on the subject, nobody really knows much about Will and his life.
Nor do many know his plays, which is a pity.
I was fortunate inasmuch as my first exposure was by being taken to the Stratford on Avon theatre to see Julius Caesar, not by having to read him.
And I always thought that about twenty percent of the audience watching Cole Porter's wonderful musical, 'Kiss Me Kate,' were completely baffled by the plot through not knowing their Shakespeare.
But I am sure that Shakespeare himself would have approved of the songs, such as 'I've Come to Wive it Wealthily in Padua.'
After all, that's probably where he landed on Ryanair's flight to Venice.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

True Courage

“Corporal David Hayden has become the first RAF Regt Gunner to be awarded the coveted Military Cross following his outstanding bravery and disregard for his own safety during a sustained fire fight whilst deployed to Basrah in 2007.
Corporal Hayden served in Iraq as a Section Commander on B Flight, Number 1 Squadron RAF Regiment. On 7 August 2007, he was deployed as the second-in-command of a B Flight Multiple patrol, call-sign 20A, during a half-Squadron foot patrol in Al Waki. As his call sign came under intense enemy fire, Corporal Hayden, aided by one of his flight, ran into the open to bring Leading Aircraftsman Beard, who lay grievously wounded, into cover, personally accounting for at least one of the enemy in the process. Although being constantly exposed to hostile fire, Corporal Hayden then carried LAC Beard a further 200 metres to safety. He then returned to his call-sign to rally his men before leading their extrication from the area.
With absolute disregard for his own safety, he repeatedly risked his life in order to rescue a wounded comrade and extract his men from danger.”
These were the plain facts that won David a medal.
But there is far more behind the story of David Hayden, not just of courage in the face of the enemy but a different sort of courage. The courage to make something of a life going terribly wrong.
But for his military career, one not without its stumbles along the way, David would have remained one of the feckless, feral youths that clutter the streets of Britain’s towns today. And nobody is more aware of that than David.
I’ve been engaged to write his story and it will be a pleasure to be able to detail the life of a true celebrity who provides a good example to the young.
Of his award he says:
"I'm honoured to get this award but I dedicate it to my fallen comrades."
And of the uniform? "I'm proud of this uniform because it identifies me as a serviceman, as a protector of the Sovereign.
"I'm proud of it because the RAF Regiment has made me what I am today - a Military Cross winner. And no-one can take that away."
David, after several hazardous tours of duty, is now an instructor back home in the UK.
He says it was the military that turned him from a yob into a hero and made his life worthwhile.
They should have made him a recruiting officer!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Private Lives

When Rowland Hill came up with the idea of a penny post in 1840 it seemed an idea whose time had come. It certainly beat the foot messenger carrying your billet doux in a cleft stick.
Although I wasn't there at the time, I believe that in the early days it was possible to post a letter in London in the morning and have it delivered in the metropolis in the afternoon. It was also a fair assumption that it would be delivered unopened and unread by any third party and was thus unlikely to appear in the next edition of The Times.
After 150 years of government meddling not only will your letter not be delivered the same day but the chances of it being delivered at all are slim.
So it was not surprising that many turned to the almost instant advantages of E-mail and, foolish electronic virgins that so many of us are, we naively assumed that our private messages would be just that – private.
That one of the beloved Mayor of London's staff should have had the contents of his personal mail blazoned across the pages of a tabloid newspaper was, I suppose, inevitable. The discloser of the information, who in moments of euphoria, refers to himself as a journalist, has had previous experience in such matters. And many would say of the unfortunate aide in question that it couldn't have happened to a better bloke.
But it is the equivalent of rifling someone's mailbox, extracting a letter and steaming it open. It has the advantage of course that you don't have to put the kettle on, just get an obliging geek to do the dirty work for you.
Why this is not a criminal offence beats me.
But it is just an extension of the intrusion into private life that is evident everywhere. I understand that there are still a couple glens in the Highlands of Scotland that are unmonitored by CCTV cameras along with a few spots in the Yorkshire Moors that are still lacking this invaluable piece of kit. But elsewhere it is a great comfort to know that, as you are being beaten up and robbed on the street, somewhere some jobsworth employee of Big Brother will be watching. He won't be able to stop you being robbed, of course, and the pictures will be too fuzzy to identify your assailants, but you will have the satisfaction of knowing that your cry for help is being watched with interest.
As far as getting the law to assist, you'd have been better off in Rowland Hill's day.
At any rate your letter would have reached them the same day.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Demeaning Deedes

Few men of talent will have made what is known as 'good family men' I suspect.
Bill Shakespeare doesn't seem to have been one, Charles Dickens certainly wasn't and George Bernard Shaw only got away with it by adopting his own sage advice to those about to get married.
Now it seems that the highly respected journalist Bill Deedes has joined the throng. His biography quite rightly details his life, its highs and its lows, much as I suspect he would have wanted it.
I only met him once many years ago at some social event where we had a pretty inconsequential conversation wherein he referred to me as 'old cock.' But his charisma was apparent and I always read his columns, so full of common sense, up until his last, written the day before he died.
It is sad therefore to find that a British tabloid newspaper whose main cannon fodder is the private lives of drugged and drunk so-called celebrities has chosen to feature but one aspect of his life.
This paper obtains its circulation by not over exerting the brains of its readership and it is probably safe to say that the vast majority of them have never heard of Bill Deedes, nor would they have read any of his work. He sometimes used words that they might not have understood anyway.
However under the banner heading 'How legendary editor Bill Deedes' infatuation with a woman 53 years his junior tore his family apart,' they spend over three thousand words on his travelling the world in the company of an attractive young female reporter.
Nary a word concerning his long and distinguished career as a journalist, as an MP and Cabinet Minister nor of his service to his country in the armed forces where he was awarded the Military Cross. His later work for the charity 'Care' is not noted nor does his life peerage get a mention
Perhaps one should expect little more from this paper, whose sole interest is in titillating the salacious tastes of its more moronic readers.
The item immediately above was headed: 'Tipsy Pixie Geldof emerges the worse for wear after she parties at THREE clubs in one night,' whilst the one following ran: 'That's NOT what to wear! Trinny Woodall bares skin and bones in a gaping red gown,' and 'I won't become the new Britney, says Hannah Montana star Miley Cyrus,' along with 'Britney Spears' pregnant sister, 16, covers up her baby bump' and ''I'm pregnant,' says Minnie Driver - but she won't reveal who the father is.'
Journalism at its very best, providing true role models for the young! Bill would have been proud to have been grouped in such illustrious company.
So here I would like to make my position crystal clear. If, on my reaching the age of eighty, there are any attractive and nubile twenty something female journalists out there who would like to travel the world with me as freelance reporters at the expense of a major newspaper, please form an orderly line here.
And, if anyone wishes to write my biography subsequently, they have my full permission to report on the matter.
R.I.P. Bill.


Thursday, March 13, 2008

Archer on Top Again

Now that England has become a vassal state of Scotland, it is time for English schoolchildren to do a bit of revisionist history. For years, the Scottish King Bruce (not to be confused with the Australian Bruce) has been held up as a shining example of determination against all odds and as an object lesson to those suffering from Arachnophobia.
But now, the English have a worthy hero of their own. Once again, Jeffery Archer has triumphed against all odds, including that of not being an outstanding novelist, and got a best-seller on his hands.
Whatever your feelings concerning his private life and apparent moral turpitude, you have to give it to him, this man's a trier. His first novel saved him from bankruptcy and his latest draws heavily upon his experiences in prison.
And, for this reason alone, may be his best yet. Here he has drawn on the events that shaped the lives of his fellow inmates which gives an air of authenticity no imagination can surpass.
Writers are at their best when dealing with environments they are familiar with. Dickens tended to flounder once he left the environs of his home town, London.
But it's Archer's sheer tenacity and Lazarus like determination not to be buried that arouses my admiration.
I understand that he is an enthusiastic cricketer. Perhaps he might consider a trip to New Zealand to show the overpaid, decorated professionals there a thing or two.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

It's Foolish, But It's Fun!

Back in the 1940's there was a popular song of this title doing the rounds. That it was during one of the frequent nadirs of this particular art form should be apparent when I tell you that a contemporary offering was 'Marzy Doats and Dozy Doats' which explains why the graves of Ira Gershwin and Lorenz Hart were in a constant turmoil at the time.
The ditty celebrated the joys of doing things frowned upon by society, climbing trees for green apples, walking in thunderstorms and excessive eating and drinking among others. After four eight bar stanzas the author ran out of forbidden fruit to lyricise over and mercifully the song ended.
But that was then and today any self respecting British lyricist should be able to come up with a list of government warnings, advisories and edicts that would enable him to give the Iliad of Homer a pretty good run for its money if he wanted to celebrate their joys.
The most terrifying aspect of the society painted by George Orwell was its infinite greyness, a society shorn of any joy and individuality. Orwell got the date wrong but he was pretty much on the money for everything else.
The other day an American researcher identified Slough as being the dreariest place on earth. He was, of course, a bit late. John Betjeman had got there first (and had to apologise subsequently) and I don't know where else he had looked but he had clearly missed Gary, Indiana and Spring City, Tennessee. For those of you living there, I too apologise, and next time I'm through I'll let you prove me wrong.
But it's not just Slough that's dreary in today's world. The cold grip of government extends even into the still beautiful countryside of rural Britain. You know, the part where the Members of Parliament have their subsidised second homes.
The original idea of a democratically elected government was that the voters should tell the government they appointed how they wished their country to be run.
Not, as it now appears, for a government, paid for by the electorate, to tell the people how they should run their lives.
That the concept of law and order has been turned on its head against the wishes of the vast majority of law abiding citizens is apparent in a new ruling that those who commit crimes because of need should be let off lightly.
The bank robbing fraternity must be especially pleased with this idea since it will undoubtedly be extended to include their profession along with drug pushers etc. in the near future.
Willie Sutton, when asked why he robbed banks said 'Cos that's where the money is.'
Nowadays they'd have to let him off with a ASBO, I suppose.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

A Tale of the Tub

Wallowing in my tub the other day, I was ruminating on the parlous state of affairs mankind has got itself in to. Cows, of course, do quite a bit of ruminating and, as a result, seem to be a good deal more contented than most of us.
I was following in the steps of the many famous philosophers who have had similar trains of thought. Socrates, Marcus Aurelius, Copernicus and, in today's world, Jade Goody and Margaret Hodge have all done a bit of it.
One unresolved question in my mind was this ceaseless quest into outer space to find a world similar to ours. Surely we should be looking for somewhere totally different?
Mind you, having found it, we'd probably manage to cock it up in no time at all.
But lying there, surrounded by a squadron of yellow rubber ducks, I think I may have come across one of the reasons for mankind's inability to think straight.
I refer to the excessive use of the shower as opposed to the conventional bath.
A bath gives one time to ponder, to think deeply and clearly, to come to carefully considered decisions. Showers lead to hasty actions, in case someone messes with the water pressure and freezes or boils you during your ablutions.
The invasion of Iraq, for instance, would never have taken place had Tony Blair and George Bush developed their relationship further than a similar taste in toothpaste and made use of the tub to reflect.
And where would we be if Archimedes had taken a shower? His name would merely be remembered as that of a West End restaurant or possible as a Greek shipping magnate.
And ship's tonnage would not be known as displacement.
Marat did not do too well out of the bath business admittedly but was probably deep in thought at the time, and Charlotte Corday certainly made life easier for the housekeeper who had to tidy up afterwards. Anyway, Alfred Hitchcock proved that showers were no safer.
A little known slice of history is that of Winston Churchill's contribution to victory at the front in the First World War.
Arriving at his headquarters behind the lines, he brought with him his portable bathtub complete with gas fired geyser. Spotted by the Germans, they thought it was the British new secret weapon.
At Cambrai, they were dismayed to find that it had been a deliberate ruse to confuse them, as the tanks rumbled across the battlefield.
Churchill never got the credit he deserved.
And finally, as the water gurgles down the plughole, a tub provides you with proof positive as to whether you are north or south of the equator.
And in today's uncertain world, it's nice to have something positive to latch on to.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

You Couldn't Make It Up!

But it seems that this is what penners of their own autobiographies do these days. Almost beyond belief, yet another tear jerking memoir has has run aground on the rocks of probity.
This time the publishers have had the good grace to pull the book from the shelves. Realistically, the authors of these falsely marketed books should be sued for obtaining money under false pretences.
I'm pretty sure that anyone's autobiography is going to contain a bit of fudging – mine certainly will – but blatant dishonesty is another matter.
It seems that publishers today are obsessed with either signing a celebrity up who can't write or a producer of a sufficiently miserable fictitious memoir of their life. Mislit has been big business for some years now but I think that future volumes will have to carry a certificate of authenticity stamp on them.
I'm not sure how other writers go about tackling these things but the last book I did in this genre involved my travelling to Lebanon and Dubai and interviewing various family members to ensure that the details were correct. Perhaps publishers should do the same before dishing out a contract.
This form of deception which plays upon the feelings of the reader is far more reprehensible than something in the flat out forgery vein such as the fake Hitler Diaries.
But many of the big publishing houses today are not the least interested in literary quality.
Coleen McCoughlin, whose bedside table contains nothing more cerebral than a telephone according to Wayne Rooney, has just been signed up to 'write' a series of novels for a substantial advance by a major publishing house.
No doubt Mr. Rooney can help her out with some of the four letter words.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

And Nothing but the Truth

The story broken today that Misha Defonseca, who was born Monique De Wael, had fabricated most of her best-selling autobiography, ‘Surviving with Wolves,’ should come as no surprise to those of us that dwell in the murky depths of biographies and autobiographies. It won’t be the first time that the tide has gone out on the truth and exposed the claimants to ridicule.
In this case, it seems to have made Mrs. Defonseca a millionaire, although her publisher, Jane Daniel, is understandably aggrieved at having been duped. She is suing for £11 million which may take some of the sparkle off the fairy cake.
After World War II there was a spate of memoirs by allegedly SOE agents, conveniently shielded by the Official Secrets Act from any forensic investigation into the truth or otherwise of their exciting adventures.
The most enterprising of these must be a Ms. Roxanne Pitt, who accomplished the notable feat of selling her purely fictitious story to two publishers with only the slightest change in the details of her heroic exploits behind enemy lines.
As far as is known, she never set foot outside of the British Isles during the conflict.
More recently, a tear-jerking memoir of growing up in a poverty stricken Irish household came to grief when a neighbour happened to chance upon the book. The author’s sense of the dramatic had, he claims, run away with her.
Two years ago I was commissioned by a Romanian immigrant to Britain to write his story for him. His spoken English was good but, understandably, he was not up to putting it down on paper.
I first interviewed him at a luxurious penthouse mayfair apartment and, as usual, videoed his story which told of his leaving home at 17 and walking across Europe, looking for a better life. En route he had joined the Foreign Legion and suffered incredible hardships before reaching England on a forged passport. It sounded a good story although he didn’t look to me like a man who had suffered too much! He was young, slim and charming.
He claimed to own two apartments in London and we wheeled around town in either his Range Rover or his BMW as I proceeded to tape his story over the next few months.
His present prosperity at the early age of 26 came, he said, from an up-market art gallery in Mayfair. But in spite of a number of requests, we somehow always seemed to miss going down the street to visit it.
Finally, we got to the stage in his story where, having arrived in London, he earned his living by selling drugs. He hastily said that, no, he was too smart to have been a user. I pointed out that such a means of livelihood would not only be frowned upon by his reading public but would also lead to his having his collar felt by the Metropolitan Police.
He seemed to lose interest in the business after that and, as you might guess, the art gallery was a figment of his imagination.
So writers of biographies need to take care. When the eminent biographer, Philip Ziegler was commissioned to write the biography of Lord Mountbatten, mindful of his lordship’s colourful past he asked, diplomatically, what should he leave out?
“Put it all in, warts and all,” said Mountbatten, cheerfully.
Unfortunately, not all recounters of their lives are as honourable.