Friday, 12 August 2011

Greed, Rich & Riots

Greed is the sine non qua of our society. Back in the openly greedy days of the power-shouldered eighties, when lunch was for wimps and greed was a healthy appetite, through the caring nineties, and the naughty noughties, the avarice for more has never declined. The gap between the haves, and, in Bush's words, the have-mores, and the have-nothings has increased exponentially; within countries, between countries.

Do we need to look at examples of greed from those who believe themselves so privileged to ignore their digressions? The bankers and their bonuses; the politicians and their expenses; Murdoch and his phone-hacking?

What an example to set before the dumb and the dumbed-down. The dumbed-down are in the interest of all big business as is numbs their critical facilities. An individual who has not the vocabulary to express him or herself and who is bombarded by advertising which suggests they will better identify with their peers if they eat this, wear that, buy the other, and - surprise upon surprise - finds a: the acquisition of such goods or services leaves them as poor in fulfillment as before; b: poor and as wanting as before; c: poor as ever, may well prove frustrated.

I do not condone the riots. But I do not find them surprising. I have discussed the potential of such with my daughters for some months now. Ed Mileband  echoes the thoughts I posted on a brilliant post by Motown, a black blogger, who suggests that the reasons for riots are more subtle and complex than the reactions and comments of knee-jerk politicians whose only interest is to preserve their positions and power.

What has happened cannot be reduced to a series of simplistic political posturing; it is as an outcome of intricate social webs. Read this article by Peter Osborne of The Telegraph. I am not a natural reader of that paper, but he summarises the problems brilliantly.

There used to be a sense of noblisse oblige among those who were rich; the more you own, the more you owe. Now the established wealth mock the new wealth for their bling but behave no differently. The competitive instincts of both parties is to stay floating atop the shit within their own social circles. Read a few books, I recommend Zola's The Kill, to see how nothing changes but everything changes century upon century.

I know. I come from a very privileged background in my not so distant background.

PS Howard Jacobson weighs in with his own considered thoughts in The Independent: They may be criminals, but we're the ones who have created them.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The Most Unlikely Agent ZigZag

Eddie Chapman was the most extraordinary WWII spy you will never have heard of. Were he a fictional character, you would not find him credible.

I met him while browsing a second-hand book shop where my attention was drawn to his existence by a book entitled Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre. Implausible title, improbable character, I thought. A wannabe blockbuster, I thought, till I read the blurb where I discovered it was reprint for World Book Night 2011; to quote: 'one of 40,000 copies printed of each of the 25 brilliant titles selected…'. I looked at the list. They included many I have read, like The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night by Mark Haddon, Stuart: A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Misty. Good company, I thought, I'll buy it.

Eddie Chapman was by all accounts a charmer. Terence Young, director of the first Bond film, who knew him when Chapman arrived in Soho, observed to a lawyer friend, '"He is a crook and will always be one. But he probably has more principles and honesty of character then either of us." […] Chapman would steal the money from your pocket, even as he bought you a drink.'

And Chapman was a crook, he was a member of the 'Jelly Gang', responsible for burglary the length and breadth of the country. With the police on his heels, he moved with his girlfriend and others to Jersey. It was in a restaurant there, that he made a spectacular exist befitting of Bond through a closed window to escape the law who had just walked in. Eventually he was caught and imprisoned locally. Bad timing. It was 1939. On 30th June 1940, the Nazis occupied the island.

Chapman, together with his less fortunate friend and fellow inmate, Anthony Faramus, decide on a ruse to get out of prison. They would claim they wanted to spy for the Germans. They made their ambitions known with no effect even after they were transferred to the Fort de Romainville prison in Paris. German bureaucracy may have been slow, but it was relentless and eventually Chapman was interviewed. And accepted. (Faramus, despite all Chapman's protests, remained in prison. He was to be the Germans' security for Chapman's good behaviour. Faramus was later transferred to the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp but survived.) 

So the story begins.

After training, Chapman is parachuted into a muddy field in Cambridgeshire and immediately gives himself up to MI6. Thanks to Enigma, the code-breaking machine, they are already aware of his existence, but can they trust him, a man, who by rights, should be in prison? Despite all their qualms, they take him on and he proves one of their greatest successes as a double-agent.

Ben Macintyre documents Chapman's career neatly and concisely without succumbing to any temptation to embellish. He is enough of a journalist to know that the facts in this case are more than sufficient to hold the reader's attention. But he is also enough of a journalist to know how to structure the telling in order to keep the pages turning.

You do not have to be a fan of the Boys Own Book of Adventures to enjoy reading the history of this archetype model. Eddie Chapman was an exceptional character. In the words of Colonel Robin 'Tin Eye' Stephens, 'The man [Chapman], essentially vain, has grown in stature and, in his own estimation, is something of a prince of the underworld. He has no scruples and will stop at nothing. He makes no bargain with society and money is a means to an end. Of fear, he knows nothing, and he certainly has a deep-rooted hatred of the Hun. In a word, adventure to Chapman is the breath of life. Given adventure, he has the courage to achieve the unbelievable. His very recklessness is his standby.'

PS Bang on cue, World Book Night publishes the one hundred contenders for 2012, here.

PPS Just noticed it is on a 342 book offer at Waterstones, (342 - neat, huh?  I should have been a copywriter.)

Ooops. Correction, the book was Alone in Berlin which a reviewed a few posts ago. (Nurse! Nurse! It's time for my medication.)

Wednesday, 13 July 2011


I have known of Rupert Murdoch and his methods since he took over The Times in 1981.

I was a new group head in Leo Burnett, the advertising agency, and the paper was one of my accounts. I wrote the line ' Have you ever wished you were better informed?' Sounds clunky now, but we didn't have Wikipedia in those days. (And schoolboys called William ran round in ragged flannel shorts with a catapult stuffed in their pockets.)

Brian Todd (if I remember correctly) was the marketing manager. A chain-smoking fifty-year old on the business side of the business, and so derided by his then editorial colleagues - there being a serious split between editorial and business employees - was systematically humiliated by Murdoch's henchmen. And I mean humiliated, I could recount the details, before he was handed his cards. Why? The word 'marketing', i.e. selling, was a cardinal sin according to the bible that was Murdoch. Out went Brian, ousted by the king of marketing, in a manner that would amount to grievous abuse today.

Even at my then young age, and so not over-sympathetic with 50+ men, I was appalled. I have waged a one-man war against the owner ever since. He is brutal.

I don't believe Murdoch's downfall is imminent. He is a man who bathes in oil.

I met him once. I was in a meeting a few years ago with his daughter, Liz, at Sky when he popped his head around the door. If only I had a gun, I thought, the world would be better.

I am not joking.

Friday, 1 July 2011


Sue, as in ex, had a bad fall yesterday. She, along with friend, Mary, daughter, Em, and grandchildren, Amy and Katie, was going for a picnic when she tripped over a protruding fire hydrant cover. According to Em, she lay motionless for a couple of minutes. When she came to, she complained of pains in her stomach rather than her head. Diagnosing remotely, It sounds to me that she knocked herself out for a second or two. I spoke to her and she denies the charge; however, I stick to my diagnosis. She, being an enthusiastic tennis player, was more concerned about the damage to her right hand. (She has since informed me it will not impede her aces; the graze not being situated where her hand meets the racquet.)

But, to the point: Amy's immediate reaction to her grandmother's fall was to giggle. Callous, you may think. But her mother, Em, being so much more sensible than me, understood: young Amy's reaction was a means of coping with a situation she had not met before. She, Em, told me had reacted in the same way in similar circumstances in her own young age.

When reported to Sue, she said the same. She related a story of a school friend from Hong Kong who was looking forward to seeing her father after a year's absence when it was reported he was killed in a car accident. The whole class, according to Sue, collapsed in giggles.

Giggling as a means of coping is not a phenomenon I have met before. I have known of giggling as means of overcoming moments of embarrassment - it seems appropriate as a means of self-effacement - but never as an expression of shock.

I am now in shock. I thought I knew it all.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Cockney: or Town Meets Country

I am a collector of dictionaries, particularly any relating to slang. One reason being you come across unlikely little gems like this, lifted from a compilation by Michelle Lovric in The Scoundrel's Dictionary.

To quote:

A nickname given to the citizens of London, or persons born within the sound of Bow Bell, derived from the following story: - A citizen of London being in the country, and hearing a horse neigh, exclaimed, Lord! how that horse laughs! A bystander informed him the noise was called neighing. The next morning, when the cock crowed, the citizen, to show he had not forgotten what was told him, cried out, Do you hear how the cock neighs?

(I don't suppose they ever saw a horse or heard a cock crow in the East End back in them days seeing how they was all sapsculls or half out to sea.)

PS A  source of Lovric's work seems to be the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: A Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit and Pickpocket Eloquence, for the definition of the Cockney above, among others, is lifted straight from it. Quite interesting is the fact the 1811 Dictionary goes on to to state:

Whatever may be the origin of this appellation, we learn from the following verses, attributed to Hugh Bigot, Earl of Norfolk, that it was in use in the time of king Henry II.

Was I in my castle at Bungay,
Fast by the river Waveney, 
I would not care for the king of Cockney;

i.e. the king of London.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Alone in Berlin

The problem of reviewing books is, when you stumble upon a gem, your immediate instinct  is to lend it to all and sundry with the result that you find myself having to write the review without the book to hand.*

Such is the case of Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada, also titled Every Man Dies Alone, or, Jeder stirbt für sich allein in the original German.

It was written in 1947, so I have been slow to come to it; nonetheless, it is an outstanding piece of writing. According to Wikipedia, Primo Levi claimed it to be 'the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis', and he should know better than I.

It is story based on true facts; on a couple, Otto and Elise Hampel, who were once enthusiastic National Socialist party followers until Elise loses her brother in France. (In the book, the lose is transcribed to their only child.) Thereafter, they devise a unique and sadly pathetic method of resistance to the regime, which is to leave messages on postcards in the stairwells of office buildings denouncing the Nazis. Their end is never in doubt and though their campaign survived a surprising length of time, two years or so, they were eventually caught and executed.

Fallada, a successful author pre-war, was caught up in the harsh politics of the time despite his attempts to remove himself, which gives him the authority and insight to write the book.

Alone in Berlin gives one a real sense of the fear and suspicion one has to endure in a totalitarian regime. You know at the outset the two protagonists will be caught, but it is the courage with which they face the day to day tribulations that is humbling. The most innocent encounter with a neighbour could prove their downfall at any moment. (Also, what is of interest for one who has studied the Holocaust, is the awareness the general public has of what is happening to the Jews; the debate swings back and forward as to whether all Germans at the time knew, and so were culpable, or not. This book indicates they did.)

Alone in Berlin has a particular significance now given what is happening in the Middle East as Arab nations rise, or attempt to rise, against brutal dictators. Without belittling the courage of Otto and Elise Hampel, one can regard their campaign of messages written on postcards as a forerunner of Twitter. (To expand on the thought, Fallada details how the couple hoped their messages would be passed from hand to hand to be spread across the city much like tweets.)

Read Alone in Berlin not just for the story of two amazingly brave but very ordinary people caught up in circumstances beyond their control, but also for the writing. Fallada writes with a busted flush so to speak, you know how the book will end the moment you open it, so he concentrates on the environment of repression that he knows from personal experience, and while the ending is inevitably sad the book manages to remain optimistic, perhaps because it was written in the knowledge of the outcome of the war.

Fallada wrote the book in just 24 days not long before he died.

* Although 'you find myself' is grammatically incorrect within the context of the rest of the sentence, there is a curious accuracy to the thought. I leave it as is.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Bang Goes My Knighthood

Given the ecstatic news of Will’s and Kate’s wedding, it seem sacrilegious to write on any topic other than the nuptials. Certainly the UK papers are still full of the Royal news: Where is the honeymoon? How much is costing? Will they use the missionary position?

I can’t wait to be told. But trust Osama bin Laden to spoil everything by going and getting himself killed. I imagine the Daily Mail’s newsroom must be in turmoil over what to flag across their paper.

Present headline reads:

Future headline?

William & Kate honeymoon romp disturbed by Osama bed Linen?

Osama bin Laden comes between William and Kate?

I knew I should have been a sub-editor.