Tuesday, 24 September 2013

peaceful protest

Here is publisher and blogger (and Tory) Iain Dale's post on the incident outside Labour Party Conference that led him to roll around on the ground in apparent fisticuffs with a protester. Let's face it, we've all done that at some point, haven't we? I thought it fair that Iain, a person I like, should get a chance to tell his version of events here - he chose not to publish the video of the incident, but I just felt I had to, everyone was having so much fun. Party conferences are plagued by these annoying and often bonkers individuals. Video The Independent.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Spandau Sweetheart

Here is the first of my stories, grouped under the title "The Girls Who Went Away".

Spandau Sweetheart 1971

RAF Gatow, Berlin, 1971

Rocking-Horse, Rocking-Horse! The siren sounds the alert, and then you'lll get the voice alert. Rocking-Horse. If you hear Operation Rocking-Horse it's for real. The Russians are here and there's a war in Europe.

It was sheet-change day on the base. The British Air Force wives took their sheets to a building with a kind of long metal counter, that reminded her of a slaughterhouse. Or maybe an operating theatre. Something vaguely medical, where creatures or people died. She had gone there with Olive, in whose house she was staying, two days after she had arrived. Now, a week on from that day, she wasn't going to sheet-change. She supposed Olive had wanted to show her around, help her feel at home. Or maybe Olive, with the three little girls to amuse and look after, in the long hot Berlin summer holiday, could have done with some help. But, she shrugged, she probably wasn't going to start now.

Much later she would think herself unkind for ignoring Olive, as she had. She got up late, ate the bread and preserves (Rose's Lime Marmalade was her favourite, and it went surprisingly well with the dark German bread) Olive had left out, and went wandering. Or sat around the house, idly picking up and putting down the little girls' reading and colouring books. She didn't talk to Olive. She was seventeen, and in Berlin for the summer, for reasons that were not entirely clear to her.

The British Air Force base was in outer West Berlin. Spandau was the nearest shopping centre off the base itself. You could get most things in the NAAFI though. The days were hot. The nights, too. Sometimes there were violent electrical storms, with bouncing balls of blue lightning and sudden, angry downpours. She had told her friends she was going to be “living in Berlin” over the summer. Most of them had said something like “Oh, that”, or, sometimes, “East or West?” with a smirk. People didn't travel, much, in 1971. She had saved up from her Saturday job, and gone to Berlin. Her father had driven her to Harwich, spending most of the journey, it seemed, wondering irascibly aloud why she had to take all these records with her. Vinyl LPs were quite heavy. She had taken along a dozen or so, because after all she was going to be gone for weeks, and how else could she have sounds? At the time she was into the Incredible String Band. She liked Barclay James Harvest and Mott the Hoople too.

She had taken the ferry to the Hook of Holland, and then the train. Just as far as Hanover, because although you could go directly through East Germany to West Berlin, you couldn't arrive at an Allied base from Eastern bloc territory. So she flew from Hanover. It was all terribly exciting and glamorous, and yet somewhere inside she knew that there was nothing at all truly glamorous about being a little grubby, and feeling a little sick, because Potato Puffs, and Mars Bars, and nothing else, had seemed like the right things to eat on the way over. She knew already, as they started their descent into Tempelhof, that she would invent a Berlin summer which would not be much like the summer she was about to have.

Tempelhof was a Nazi airport. She did not know this when they landed there, but it was. Albert Speer had had a hand in its design, and it had amazed Europe when it was opened, in the mid-1930s. It was still avant-garde now, in 1971, and would remain so until it closed, in the first years of the next millennium, when glass and swooping spaces began to be airport vernacular architecture, in Madrid and Manchester and elsewhere, and until airports began to be routinely named after people.

She had followed her brother to Berlin. She had spent most of her life following him, and he most of his ignoring her, or, charmingly, politely, tolerating her. She remembered another summer moment, when she had been perhaps five, and her brother perhaps eight, and they had been in the garden, and he had looked up from something he was doing and said to her, “Lovely sister, it would be so helpful if you just went away for a while. I'll see you at lunch.”

She was not stylish. Her brother often had girlfriends her age. Sometimes they were her friends, or her classmates. They were never the beautiful ones. But they always had style. She remembered a bright blue, rather odd-shaped jacket made of felt, that one of the girlfriends had worn. One of the plainer ones. She had accessorised it with an orange silk scarf, which should have looked ugly, but didn't. Seven years later, she would see a magazine feature styled exactly like it. She herself was not stylish, though. When she looked in the mirror at home she quite liked the way she looked. A mass of auburn hair, which made her look a bit like the girl on the cover of the Blind Faith album, white freckled skin, and very long legs. She had a pair of patchwork hotpants that year. Not the bib ones, those were just wrong: these were just patchwork shorts really, and she liked them, but she knew that all in all she was not stylish, and never would be.

She had followed her brother to Berlin. He had followed his girlfriend of the moment, who was called Magda and was short and rather plain, with straight hair and a pointy nose, and an underbite. Magda was Olive's daughter, and of course her husband Johnny's too. He was the Air Force man, and his job was the reason they were all in Berlin. Magda owed her exotic name to the fact that she was adopted, and it was the name she had come with. It had never been said where Magda had been adopted from, and she privately suspected that Magda was a by-blow of Johnny's, perhaps from earlier times in West Germany. Johnny had an underbite, too. The next child in the family was seven years younger than Magda, and then they went down in two-year stages, all girls. Their names were not at all exotic. They were Susan and Jennifer and Marilyn. When Johnny had been posted to West Berlin two years before, Magda had been just about to take her O-levels, and had been left behind to lodge with family friends. This too was exotic. Magda herself had invited her to Berlin. There had been talk of one or two others coming too, male friends of her brother's, at least one of whom she might have had hopes of, but at the last minute they had not come. So she was very much alone that summer. She didn't really mind that, she thought - it saved bother.

Her own name was Nicola. She didn't like it much. She knew several other girls called Nicola. All of them were her own age. There had been a brief vogue for the name before she was born. It had then disappeared. She didn't think it would ever come back. Nicole was good, though you probably had to be French to carry it off, but Nicola was no good really.

In 1971 the Wall had been there for ten years. It was there to keep the people of East Berlin from crossing to the West. Which too many of them had been doing for the government's liking. Berlin remained a city divided into sectors by the Allied powers, as it had been since 1945. The Wall was, in a way, a separate thing from what the city of Berlin was. It cut across Unter den Linden, so that the Brandenburger Tor sort of peered over the top of it. In the West the Axel Springer empire had its building right up against the Wall, so that those engaged in capitalist comings and goings might look down, as they drank their morning coffee, on no-man's-land, where the number of those killed trying to cross was growing. If they were there at night they might even see it happen. The guards had a shoot-to-kill policy.

The RAF base at Gatow was inside West Berlin, but only just. The Wall ran along the edge of its airfield, though here it was a wire fence rather than a wall. This was supposed to be a military courtesy - when Berlin was originally divided into sectors this had been a Russian base, and had been transferred to the British sector after some negotiation. It was widely thought by those who worked on the base that the wire fence was there to make a military incursion easier. If this happened it would attract the famous Operation Rocking-Horse alert. Most of the people who worked and lived on the base hardly ever left it - they were inside a wall within a Wall.

The river Havel meanders through much of southern and western Berlin. The city is green, at least in the West, and the parks and riversides are full of people on summer days and nights. She wandered them too, sometimes getting herself an ice cream, and then, daringly, a beer, at a cafe in a park. Although she went to pubs sometimes in England, and drank a bitter or a cider there, she did not drink much yet - and she had noticed that while in Germany you might often see a lone middle-aged or elderly woman with a beer, as you did not in England, you did not see a lone teenage girl. In fact you never saw teenage girls on their own. They were always in twos and threes and larger groups, chattering and linking arms, their quick-fire German snapping in the hot air. She did not speak German. But most of the families on the base spoke no German either. This was beginning to change. Quite a lot of the servicemen married German girls instead of bringing wives from England, and they had bilingual children. Some of the families stayed on after their term of service, and became German. But in 1971 this was still rare.

She began to ride the S-bahn, “Einmal Umsteige, bitte!”, which ticket gave her the freedom of all the public transport she dared use. West Berlin, in 1971, though the city did not know it yet, was approaching a crossover point. It was about to cease to be a bastion of capitalism, of creativity, of the alternative, of anything really. After all, Berlin was no longer the capital of Germany. The corridors of West German power were in quiet, complacent Bonn. The little creaking wooden advertising signs in the S-bahn carriages, (“Was trinken wir? Schultheiss Bier!”) and the swaying trams with their leather hanging straps were about to become quaint, as West European cities modernised in the long postwar process, created flyovers and motorways, and streamlined their public transport systems, which usually meant shrinking them. West Germany was doing some of these things, and of course the autobahns were a pre-war notion, but West Berlin was not.

She sat with her beer in the cafe in the park. She was wearing her patchwork shorts, and the backs of her legs were sticky against the wooden seat. A radio was playing inside the cafe, “That's Not The Way To Have Fun, Son”. Then, someone was speaking to her, in German. A Turkish kid, a boy who looked eleven or twelve. When he saw she didn't understand, he mimed a cigarette, with two fingers in front of his mouth. His fingernails were dirty, and his finger ends looked bluish under the dirt. His chest was thin. She shook her head. She'd smoked a cigarette from time to time in the past year or two, but she'd never yet bought any. The Turkish kid moved away, quite purposefully, and she watched him go. She thought he would stop by other people in the park and ask them for cigarettes too, but he did not. On an impulse she got up and followed him.

He walked fast, head down, and was quickly away from the streets which were familiar to her. The pavement got narrower, the sounds and smells changed, and she began to hear what she supposed was Turkish and Arabic as well as German spoken around her. The shops stopped being clean, well-lit supermarkets, and began to be dark-fronted places with meat and fat smells coming from inside, or tattoo parlours, or had military memorabilia and greatcoats in the windows. There were not many women on the street, now. it was still hot, but dimmer. As the light began to fade the Turkish kid ducked in somewhere, she didn't see where.

She stood for a moment, uncertainly. There were cigarette ends and greasy paper wrappings under her feet. She stood there, feeling suddenly very white, in her tie-dye T-shirt and patchwork shorts and bare legs. A woman laughed, somewhere behind her, and another woman's voice called out in Turkish, from somewhere above her. A neon light flashed on in a shopfront to her left. A narrow staircase beside it had Kino Club painted on the wall beside it. She was lost.

She turned back the way she had come, walking fast, not daring to run. Anyway, her feet were flat, and she had never been able to run. The flat wooden sandals she had on, which laced up her thin freckled calves, were no help either.

She was lost. She had turned right into the street she was in, and she turned right out of it instead of left as she should have done. She often did this, and her family said she could get lost in her own living room.

She walked as fast as she could, in the gladiator sandals that were not made for walking fast in. A sign for Spandau was up ahead. When she had been sitting in the park with her beer, a sign like that had been over to her right. But she couldn't see the park, or any trees at all, and the Spandau sign was for cars anyway, and she knew she would be wrong if she tried to cross the dual carriageway she could see ahead of her at the next junction. She stopped for a moment, hearing her heart in her chest and her breathing, noisy now in fear. Ahead of her there were more people, and it was lighter. People were walking fast, getting on and off buses, going home from work. But she couldn't speak German. She didn't even know how to ask a person if they could speak English.

Across the road, before the junction, was a little shop, a mini-supermarket. She could see a plump white lady behind the counter, with scarlet hair, smoking a cigarette. She could go in there. The lady might speak English. Or anyway, she could mime enough to make the lady understand that she needed the phone, and then she could call, and Johnny or Olive would come and get her.A sign flashed on next to the shop, Girls, and the neon sparked on and off, making the hourglass silhouette it showed wink crudely. Her breath rasped in her ears. She stepped off the pavement.

A hand grasped her elbow. She started, her heart still loud in her head. "Careful, girl, you get kill that way. I help you? You lost?" The voice was guttural, the English heavily accented, Turkish, she supposed. Hoarsely, breathlessly, she said “I need to get to Spandau”. “OK, no problem”, the man said. “I take you. My car near.” “No”, she panted, “just tell me how to get there.” She knew it was not a good idea to mention the base at Gatow, because not many people in the centre of the city knew where it was, and might not like it if they did. But Spandau, everyone knew, and she could get back to Olive and Johnny and the British authorities and safety from there. Spandau, Spandau.

The man was heavyset, with old-fashioned long sideburns and, something she had never seen before on a man, a gold earring. He was wearing a T-shirt and jeans, and biker boots. She supposed he was about forty. She had never seen a man his age in jeans before, not anyone she knew, anyway. He had hold of her elbow now, and they had turned a corner. The bright thoroughfare with the bus-stops and the commuters in summer jackets had disappeared. She was gasping now, trying not to sob. There was a car. He began to push her in, not gently. For the first time, she pulled away from him, hard, and leaned her body away from his, ready to run. He pushed down on her shoulder, roughly, and she lost her balance and tipped into the passenger seat.

In the car, he closed the driver's door and slapped the side of her thigh, hard, and she moved her legs away. The car moved off, round corner after corner. It was dusk now, and the street lights were coming on. They stopped. She was paralysed with horror. It was almost as though she were watching a film, a film in which she herself was being taken away.

Spandau, please", she said faintly.
Get out of car."
Where are we?"
This Kreuzberg. My place. Get out.”

Then they were down some stairs, in a dark room that smelt of cigarettes and sweat and something like incense. He kept hold of her forearm. He sat down. He said, “You lovely girl. No worry, no frighten, I with you. You not hurt.” He ran his hand up the inside of her thigh. He put his thumb inside her shorts, just far enough, and with his other arm moved her, slowly, slowly, back and forth, then quicker. He was breathing hard, and then, with a profound exhalation, sat back.

Now, lovely girl, I take you Spandau. You my Spandau sweetheart.”

He dropped her off at the Spandau shopping centre. He said, “I find you again. Every day here, four o'clock. This good for you. My Spandau sweetheart. I lucky I find you.”

She told Olive and Johnny she had got lost walking around, and they told her to be careful and stick to wide streets and where there were plenty of people. She had thought her brother would have arrived that afternoon, but he had not. He and Magda had taken off to the Wannsee and would meet some others there, maybe go camping.

That night there was a storm. She lay awake as the thunder crashed, listening to the electrical hiss of the power lines outside her window, and to the plaintive chatter of the little girls in the next room.

This good for you.”

She was there, at four o'clock the next afternoon, and he took her again, in his car, to Kreuzberg. This time two other men were there in the shadows, watching. She didn't see their faces clearly, and she didn't look at them anyway. She looked at her own white arms and legs, there in the sticky gloom.

Every day she was there, in the room in Kreuzberg under the Wall, and every day she was there in the dark. Men were there, watching. Sometimes they touched her. Sometimes not. Sometimes they told her what to do. Afterwards she found Deutschmarks tucked into her tiny shoulder bag or the waistband of her shorts. She was glad to have them.

Especially as she hadn't done anything to get them.

Three weeks later, in the last days of August, she told Olive and Johnny she didn't want to wait for her brother any longer. She was polite, and thanked them for having her, and said she had changed her ticket, and thought it would be fun to fly all the way back. They didn't say much, but drove her to the airport. It was an evening flight, and they were almost late, because they had to pick up the little girls on the way, from a Kinder Party. This was something the German community in Spandau put on several times a year, to bring the Allied (no longer occupying) forces closer to ordinary German people in West Berlin. The little girls were deeply unimpressed with the Kinder Party. It was full of Germans, they squealed in some disgust, squirming and shrieking in the back seat, over the top on sugar and superiority.

It was only on board the plane, when the No Smoking sign went off and people around her lit up, that she realised that in all those days in Spandau she had never once seen the prison.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Kafka on the Shore

don't worry, I'm not reviewing this book. It may be my least favourite of those of Haruki Murakami I have read. Here is an interview with Murakami from 2004. If you did not know it was from 2004 you would know it was not from now, even if you didn't know that Kafka on the Shore, about which Murakami is being interviewed, was newly published then. You would know this because of technology. The Japanese have usually been ahead of Europe when it comes to technology, and here Murakami (who was born in 1949) refers to "video games".

All Murakami's books I have read are about memory, among other things. Perhaps most writing is. Murakami's only "realistic" novel (not sure that term really means anything) is "Norwegian Wood". I read it in English translation in 2011 and wrote about it here. If you read what I wrote you will notice that I mention my Japanese teacher from the time I was in Japan, in 1979 and 1980. I have never forgotten a conversation I had with that person (or have I?) in which he asked me what I thought happened at the end of the song "Norwegian Wood". I said the narrator burns the girl's house down. It seemed obvious to me. He said he thought perhaps I was right, and then talked about a friend of his who was passionate about the song, and who was a writer. He said his friend had quite a different understanding of the song. At the time Murakami was only just beginning to be published in Japan, and had not been translated. "Norwegian Wood" was published some years after this conversation took place. I had not heard of Murakami at the time, but much later, when I had, I remembered that conversation. I do not believe my teacher named Murakami during that conversation, and if he did I didn't remember the name, so it all came later. And of course the friend and writer my teacher was talking about could have been somebody different altogether. Maybe. I won't name my Japanese teacher, as he is doing something rather different these days and is eminent in his field: perhaps he would not care to be reminded, or for others to be reminded, of his teaching days on the hillside in Kamakura. He and Murakami are about the same age.

 I wrote a story called "Enoshima Mon Amour" based in part on my memories of those times. You'll be able to read it soon.

So. Read the interview I link to above. Murakami mentions Ross McDonald as the American detective writer he is keenest on (he has a big passion for the genre, and it shows in most of his work). I hadn't heard of Ross McDonald until - you're ahead of me - my Japanese teacher recommended him to me, saying he had been introduced to that writer by a friend (in Japanese it is ambiguous whether you mean "a" friend or "the friend I mentioned earlier in this conversation", you know by context what is being referred to, well, mostly) during that same conversation. I loved Ross McDonald's Lew Archer books, and read them all.

Well. Who knows?

Saturday, 7 September 2013

this is formidable

There might be some people in Europe who do not know about Stromae. He is 28 years old, Belgian, Rwandan father who disappeared in the 1990s when the Thing Of Which We Do Not Speak happened. His second album "Racine Carree" (Square Root) is a work of genius. His real name is Paul Van Haver. Stromae is Maestro backwards in the "verlan" argot young urban francophones often speak. Here is the video for his second hit from the album, "Formidable". He is in the middle of Brussels, his home town, pretending to be drunk. The police who stop to speak to him recognise him and tell him they are great fans, but believe that he really is drunk and do not know he is making a video. His songs are simple, and usually very dark. There are English subtitles for this one to help non-francophones. Most francophone artists who want international fame sing in English. Not Stromae. Brel mark 2? Well, maybe. He certainly rolls his r's just like Brel did - but then they are both Belgian. This is a talent not to be ignored.

in Reading Gaol by Reading town

picture: BBC

well, you probably know the rest. Oscar the beautiful genius was there. The gaol, a young offenders' institution since 1992, is to be closed, one of four in the UK to cease to be used as part of the prison system. What will happen to it is another matter. It is a nineteenth-century building in the centre of the town, unlike most prisons, close to the railway station and next to parkland which houses the ruins of Reading Abbey. You can see part of the ruins in the picture. Also pictured is part of an outdoor art installation, which was erected between the prison wall and the River Kennet in 2000. The Oscar Wilde Society and many others were enthusiastic about it, but Reading council was not. It tried to pull out of the project, but too late. The then leader of the council, David Sutton, publicly sneered at Oscar Wilde enthusiasists at the opening, at which I was present. The council turned its back on what is probably the greatest piece of international heritage Reading has. How should it be remembered, preserved, commemorated, now?

Friday, 6 September 2013

support the war

pic Demotix. Not in Canada

it's happening everywhere. Glory in slaughter, I mean. Apparently in Canada (which has not been asked to contribute anything to any action in Syria) the spoiled children of the bourgeoisie are demonstrating, holding up pictures of Assad and wearing T-shirts printed with "We Love You". I learn this from reading the excellent Terry Glavin. The abominable Putin is strutting and sneering at the G20. In Reading, England, the so-called Peace Group demonstrates in favour of the slaughter in Syria continuing. UK commentators on the so-called (post-socialist) left are still saying things like "if" chemical weapons have been used by the Assad regime. What the f*** does it matter now who used them? Just make it stop. By any means necessary. There are good reasons why chemical weapons are illegal. Always. Everywhere. Anywhere. Although Churchill was a big fan of them, I read the other day.

War is peace. Death is life. Ignorance is strength.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Best Blessings of Existence 51

Things fall apart...

Holidaying on a Greek island alongside marauding teenage booze hounds might not be cheerful, but would certainly be cheap.

She had pressed the claims of Verona and Sardinia but Paul assured her that neither met their budget:

So what do you fancy, Ayia Napa, Kos – or we could motor down and take a break in the South of France?

She didn’t fancy any of it, but faced with Paul’s preference for a traditional gite (meaning primitive, verging on filthy, with unspeakable toilets) it was no contest because Ayia Napa was out of the question.

They arrived in Kos at the beginning of August, depositing Vanessa and Richard with her parents.

The hotel was decent and so was Kos, once she had overcome an instinctive reluctance to spurn any of the sights recommended by Kathryn who had been on some tremendous digs in the vicinity of Kardamena.

Days assumed a routine; mornings meant temples and ruins; beach or pool denoted après-midi and they could be found most evenings taking dinner in one of the town tavernas.
Then it was travel Scrabble, nightcaps and bed, followed by breakfast and a repetition of the same.

Afternoons were her best time; perched on a hotel sun lounger (Paul preferred the beach, but she hated the sensation of sand under her feet) with The Bone People by Keri Hulme or Janet Frame’s An Angel at My Table. Before leaving home she had packed nine holiday books and these additional treats had sidled into the suitcase; courtesy of reviews in The Sentinel on Sunday.

Reading was serious stuff and she prided herself on never judging a book by its cover.

It was a principle she had failed to observe when selecting a husband.

As he tucked into a dish of souvlaki and the inevitable Greek salad, she thought that in terms of the cover test, Paul looked decidedly dog-eared. The aquiline features of the Frank Churchill manqué (Bunters circa 1977) had been overlain by fleshiness around nose and jaw, and a pink hue that owed more to Jameson’s than sunshine.

He was not fat, but an established roll of flesh straining against the buttons of his red, white and black holiday camp shirt necessitated averting the eyes when the Full Monty was paraded to all-comers on the beach.

Of course many – even the majority - of British males en vacances looked execrable with their lurid shorts or (worse) posing pouches and sandals.
And most men who would not see thirty again were carrying a few extra pounds – Fatty for example.

But she was not married to Fatty, and the fact remained that these days, Paul looked better in a business suit than a birthday suit.

She caught her own reflection in a glass, wincing at the hint of double chin and a hairstyle that was neither Annie Lennox crop nor chin length bob. She was 34. Paul was 39.

And they were well on the way to fat and forty.

They finished the meal; paid up and walked the short distance to the hotel, where they ordered Metaxa for him, ouzo for her ,and unleashed the Travel Scrabble.
Tomorrow they would visit the Mosque of Hassan Pasha, lunch at the harbour and write postcards in ‘wish you were here' mode.

In vino veritas

Without the camouflage of children, dog, work, The Duke and the Nuttalls; she and her husband had little or nothing to say to each other.

Will Ladislaw of Bunters had become the Casaubon of Kos.

Two years earlier, circa August 1987, new starts had been the flavour of the month.
Politically, business as usual applied only to the ruling Tories.
The Party had added precisely three seats to its 1983 tally and majorities in constituencies like Lowerbridge were now wafer thin.

Poor Derek – oh damn!

cursed Sylvia who had snagged her black Wolford tights on one of the packing crates in Hazel’s front room.

I don’t know why you dislike him! He must have nightmares about getting kicked out – and he always seems less stuck up than some of them.

The thought of Derek being kicked out was truly delicious but she could not share it, and right now, the person who had received the order of the boot (metaphorically, if not literally) was Martin Sweet.

Hazel called time on the marriage shortly after the election; rented a flat above the feminist bookshop in Gridchester and was now in the process of moving.

Martin and the fish would remain in the marital home.

Hazel’s bombshell was dropped almost en passant at the end of their weekly drink at the Malmsey Head.

Martin and I are splitting; can you give me a hand with the move?

This was why they were filling packing crates and orange boxes and ferrying them to the flat in Gridchester.
It was cramped and a bit dingy, but Hazel planned to decorate it, and Poppy (who ran the bookshop as a cooperative) would be a good neighbour.

Her first thought was that as far as Martin was concerned, still waters ran deep.

Hazel’s husband was a weekend twitcher and apart from a secondary interest in tropical fish, had no other hobbies outside Party activity. Who had he met – and more importantly; where had he met her?

Twitchers were solitary by nature and added to that, Martin’s aversion to eating anything that had not been cooked at home (or scooped from one of the tins in the Sweet larder) made him an improbable philanderer.

On the other hand, they had recruited a couple of new members during the General Election campaign and Martin had been seen leafleting with one of them.
But Cheryl Smithers, who worked behind the counter at the wholefood shop, was in her fifties --- still, she was pretty trim and Hazel had let herself go.

Some men preferred older women.

However, Martin Sweet’s sexual preferences were in this instance, irrelevant.

There’s no one else: I was just dying inside,

observed Hazel cheerfully.

We haven’t had a conversation for years; we go nowhere; do nothing – and as for a sex life!

They did not ask her to elaborate, but she exchanged glances with Gail and Sylvia.

Hazel was a good ten years older than the rest of them. Her children had flown the nest; she had worked at the Council with Martin for the entire duration of her marriage and the idea of starting over at 46, to quote the late lamented John Lennon – was unthinkable.

Do you think it’s the menopause?

whispered Sylvia as soon as Hazel went to the toilet.

Although if it is, she ought to be grateful – I had another scare last month. I mean – what will she do? Do you think she’ll go berserk and wear boob tubes and short skirts and take lovers? How positively AWFUL if she does…

The thought of Hazel (thirteen stone in Evans’ smocks), doing any such thing- was grotesque, as Paul, who disliked 'Stalin’s Granny', was quick to point out.

Old Mart’s had a lucky escape! Imagine knocking on heaven’s door shackled to that!
He’ll be squiring some fit piece as soon as Granny’s packed her bloomers!

This insufferable comment, made whilst she had just spent an hour on the family ironing, prompted her to leap to Hazel’s defence – boob tubes or not.

That’s terribly unkind – and anyway, I don’t know what you’ve got against Hazel; you’re always horrible about her.

I think she’s really brave to get out of a dead-end marriage; they never go out, never go on holiday, and the bloody fish are virtually pushing her off the sofa!
I hope she gets a toy-boy – or TWO – so I can have one!

She spat the last comment, softening its impact with a smile.

Paul picked his shirts out of the pile and detached Richard’s hand from the cord of the iron.

Steady Sweetie … this little chap nearly had an accident….
Think I might pop round on Mart; maybe he’d like a jar in The Duke on darts night.

Replying was pointless.

In the short term, Hazel acquired neither gigolos nor toy boys – but changes were made. She lost weight, having renounced comfort eating, and the smocks were replaced by a rather preppy style; shirts, well cut jeans and penny loafers from Jones the Bootmaker.

Martin had kept the television, so she made do with a radio and joined a small theatre club. And she left her job and joined up instead with Poppy in the cooperative bookshop. At Party meetings she was civil to Martin; her children were too absorbed by their own love lives to fret about the potential peccadilloes of their mother, and she ditched the red cagoule.

Hazel Sweet was happy.

It’s worked out for her, admitted Gail, rather fretfully as they finished their drinks at The Malmsey Head; minus Hazel who had gone to Brussels on a Singles Weekend.

You never know, she might be swept off her feet by some gorgeous hunk. She certainly gets out enough – she’s never in!

They were officially pleased for Hazel; but privately each felt slightly peeved. because Hazel’s new life served to highlight the shortcomings of their old ones.

Sylvia’s disquiet was understandable. Brian and Lisbet Pelleroe had left the Party; whispers on the grapevine hinted that Gridchester’s Chief Rodent Officer was applying for new jobs, and Sylvia was happily spared the torment of attending meetings and encountering the repellent couple.

But the unpleasant publicity had left its mark. Shaun remained chilly and Joe was bullied by infants at his primary school who repeated their parents’ gossip without understanding the words.

Joe did not understand either; but a week of playground hounding

Ho! Ho! Your Mummy’s a Ho!

culminated in him fleeing the classroom and cowering behind the bushes at the back of the playing field, where he was discovered an hour later with wet pants and cut knees.
Sylvia attended a meeting with the Head where they agreed a school/home support programme for Joe; but his mother considered that she had been criminalised.

It was horrid; that nasty old bag kept on mentioning Social Workers and said something about children being damaged by unusual family set-ups. And nothing happened – NOTHING! Apart from slaving over a stove to make a pie that they FORCED into the carpet! I wish I’d shoved it in Lisbet’s face!

Gail’s source of unease had political rather than personal origins.

The disastrous Election results prompted renewed speculation about the Party’s ability to survive the 20th century. The Leader had fallen on his sword; but his successor, a former Ear, Nose and Throat specialist without a bedside manner, realised that a narrative (or scapegoat) must be found.

The Red Heart Sect, so destructive in Lowerbridge and elsewhere, seemed specially tailored for the role.

Battle was engaged at the 1987 Conference.

Entirely without warning, the Leader’s speech was ditched in favour of a rigorous debate about the infiltration of Red Heart at every level of the Party. She watched television highlights as delegates hailing from the length and breadth of the nation took to the podium to denounce the Sect and all its followers.

It was galling to see Derek Kingsmill in starring role; detailing the crimes and misdemeanours of Party members in Lowerbridge, including a Council Leader who had corrupted the channels of democracy, imposing extreme and revolutionary policies by bullying, intimidating and blackmailing the members.

And worst of all, they had been siphoning money from the Party into a secret slush fund held by Red Heart nationally.

Red Heart was a cancer feeding on Party flesh, but he had confidence that the new Leader; a former medical man

would whet his knife and slice it out!

Derek’s peroration assaulted her ears in a high pitched squeal (like a stuck pig) and the Leader; riding the acclamation, announced a programme of show trials to expose, expel and dispatch Red Heart and consign its followers to oblivion.

Duncan Musgrave, Norris Farmer’s replacement as Head of the Sectional Team. was a man from the same mould as the Leader ,and was determined that Gridchester North would pay for its role in scuppering the General Election.

Shortly after the Conference, Secretary Peabody received a letter outlining a root and branch investigation into the workings of the local Party.

Hearings of named individuals would be conducted on consecutive Saturdays at the St John’s Ambulance hut, and members wishing to supply information about their colleagues could be assured that this would be received in strictest confidence. If summoned for examination, colleagues (not comrades) should note that it would be in their best interests to attend.

It was all very frightening, and despite the assurances of Fred Hoy, who had replaced Brian as Chairman:

Lot of hullabaloo about nothing! It’ll blow over – it always does!

she felt extremely uneasy.

The whole thing had a whiff of 1984 and Ivan Denisovich about it and she dreaded the arrival of the post and the sight of a tell-tale envelope, adorned with the Party’s familiar franking, topping the pile on her doorstep.

Paul, by contrast, found the situation hilarious and lost no time in ringing Donald, Gillian and Eric to say so.

Bloody marvellous! I’ve half a mind to join myself so that I can denounce a ridiculous old boot called Stalin’s Granny! Can’t wait to see if this one (prodding her stomach playfully) gets called in!
Yes! (to Eric). Just like McCarthy!
I’ve asked her if she’s been selling that paper to keep her in tights!

Oh come ON darling! Just joking!

If there was a funny side, she had missed it.

It was all right for Paul. He wasn’t a member and was spared the atmosphere of mistrust and hatred that now poisoned meetings; or the shared, but unvoiced realisation that denouncing an unpleasant colleague might be the best way of getting rid of them.

Ned Pitt was an early victim.

Gail called after her hospital shift, fresh from depositing Daisy at the village hall, where she was meeting friends from The Woodcraft Folk brass-rubbing group.
Usually, Gail Pitt was renowned for a stoical cast of mind that led some to impose upon her good nature, but Ned’s interview at the hut had disturbed her equilibrium
She had not changed out of her uniform, and toyed fretfully with one of the flapjacks that Vanessa had made at school.

He’s been accused of selling the paper and giving the proceeds to Sect members in Lowerbridge!

Well – he’s been working in Lowerbridge recently; it was quite a big job installing central heating in one of those Victorian houses in Sacheveral Way. Apparently, it’s owned by the College Principal, but he doesn’t KNOW them – or if they’re in the Party. How would he?

You don’t have that sort of conversation with a client.
Musgrave refused to say who’d tipped them off – and of course, Ned had to admit he’d read the paper – well, we all have.

This was true.

Copies of Pulse, the Red Heart paper had been appearing at meetings in the back room at The Duke or in the St John’s Ambulance hut for the past year or so.
Nobody had thought anything of it. She took a second flapjack, and decided that Vanessa’s first cordon-bleu efforts had turned out really rather well.

I thought, she replied between mouthfuls

that Darren was sent them from Party HQ along with other bumph – like the NHS stuff and non-nuclear defence policy briefings.

Gail deputised for Darren when he attended football fixtures at Gridchester Wanderers instead of Party meetings at The Duke, and was adamant that this was not the case. Darren had nothing to do with the papers. They were normally in a pile at the back of the room at the start of meetings and somebody took them away at the end.

She thought (although she could not be sure) that she might have seen Chantelle Beech with one or two copies and a collection tin – but there again, from behind, the dyed hair and black roots could have belonged to Sian Norfolk.

Ned had admitted to buying a paper; if dropping a few coins into a collection tin on a table amounted to a purchase – but the destination of the tin at the end of the evening was anybody’s guess.

It’s destroying him

said Gail, in a tone of barely suppressed horror as she described how Ned had come home from the St John’s Ambulance hut and then proceeded to get completely blotto on left - over Strongbrew from Maureen’s fish and chip social.
And he doesn’t even like it!

Duncan Musgrave, who was rapidly acquiring the fearsome reputation of a Nuremberg inquisitor, had declared that he remained to be convinced that Ned had not embarked upon a course of action that could be described as prejudicial to the Party. His membership had been suspended pending further enquiries.

Although at this rate, hissed Gail angrily as she left to pick up her daughter, there won’t be anyone left to embark upon anything! Laurence has been called in next, and the Beeches have already been suspended over that car boot sale.

I feel like tearing up my card – save them the bother!

The idea that Ned Pitt, (a Party loyalist to his toes who pounded the streets come rain or shine in one of the safest Tory strongholds in the nation) could embark upon anything, whether prejudicial or not, was ludicrous.

But Lester Beech would stop at nothing, and his very existence was prejudicial to the fabric of a civilised society!

Her father would have called him a tyke ,and she winced at the thought of his drunken aggression in The Duke, when he had pushed his face so close to hers that she could smell his breath and see a food particle lodged between his two front teeth. He hated her because he knew that she knew the truth about the car boot sale.

For once the children settled for a quiet bedtime, pacified by hot chocolate and Vanessa’s flapjacks.

She pottered about aimlessly, reflecting that Paul was late again (first round of the Fairway/ St Agnes Convent debating competition), for the third time that week, and switched on the television for the nine o’clock news – to be confronted with a mug shot of Brian Pelleroe and a scenic view of the spice factory.

Duncan Musgrave, a small man, channelling a bank manager with navy blue suit and clipped moustache, was confiding to camera outside the St John’s Ambulance hut that the investigation of the Gridchester Party was progressing as well as could be expected at this stage and that no, of course it wasn’t a witch-hunt.
The Party would be strengthened when the process was complete, and members in Gridchester and elsewhere might rest assured that all and any information leading to the ejection of the rotten apples would be treated in the strictest confidence.

She turned off the set just as Paul arrived, bearing a polythene bag containing a meal for two from the Chinese takeaway.

Witch-hunts, she mused, were naturally unpleasant for the witch - but seen from the perspective of the hunter…

A letter to Duncan Musgrave might be a very good idea

Sunday, 1 September 2013

secret intelligence

is hardly a new thing. Today's Sunday Times, not usually a stupid paper, has the following in what is otherwise a mostly factual report on the political developments around action of Syria:

Britain’s role in providing intelligence to the Americans is likely to be met with disquiet by MPs who voted against military action. GCHQ’s role is understood to have the tacit approval of Cameron.
Really? If those MPs do in fact respond with "disquiet" then they are more ignorant than the average MP is, in my experience. The UK has been providing intelligence to the US for at least 200 years, and formally under the UKUSA AGreement of 1948 - which was approved by Parliament at that time, and on which the House of Commons Library can provide great swathes of information, including the text of the agreement, to any MP who is interested. And if they are not they should be. And as for GCHQ's role having the "tacit approval of Cameron" - that's just daft. GCHQ is a Government department. Cameron is responsible for its actions. Part of its role has always been to share and provide intelligence, not just to the British Government, but to others too, not just the US but to Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Others too, depending on circumstances. My first job was as a translator in Government service at GCHQ, first from Russian and then from Japanese. I was there for seven years, including a period of langauge training in Japanese, both in the UK and in Japan itself. None of this is a secret. So can we have a little engaging of brain before nonsense like the above is written in otherwise reputable publications?

In related news, I see a comment from a friend on Facebook (who is not based in the UK) expressing dismay that newspapers take a polemical view and attempt to tell people what to think. What happened to the press being unbiased and presenting the facts so people can make up their own minds? that person writes, dismayed. Well, that has never been the case. Never. And probably never will be, as long as newspapers continue to exist.

I still read newspapers, mainly The Times and Le Monde, but not on paper any more. I'll probably continue to do so as long as there still are newspapers, but I suspect younger people do not. The fact that I don't read them on paper any more causes me some difficulty when it comes to lining my rat cage these days.