Betrayal

I was relieved and pleased to see Theresa May’s “Chequers plan” – effectively an instrument of surrender to the EU – being shot down in flames by the resignations of Messrs Davis, Johnson and others. This was an attempt to fashion a Brexit in name only, not the exit from the EU that the British people have every right to expect.

Even Peter Mandelson has accepted that leaving the EU with no deal at all would be preferable to May’s humiliating betrayal.

And yet – I do believe that she could and would have delivered an honourable and clean Brexit if she hadn’t been undermined and frustrated by those in her parliamentary party – even in her own cabinet – who wish to deny the people the choice they made in what was the biggest vote in this country’s history, for anything.

It’s clear now that she has approached Brexit as a damage limitation exercise rather than an opportunity. In other words she has utterly missed the point and the spirit of the people’s historic choice to shape their own destiny.

It’s an extraordinary time in the UK political scene. The spectrum of opinion on the EU and our relation to it seems to cut across the usual left-right spectrum at an awkward angle, defying party lines and making it impossible for either of the main parties to capitalise on it. It has made British politics very volatile and unpredictable.

For me the great worry is the potential for the Labour Party, in its present backward, fanatical and extremist form, to take advantage of the current state of chaos. We could find ourselves under the jackboot of a government led by a man who loathes his own country and everything it stands for; a blinkered fanatic who believes in the political homeopathy of socialism, in charge of an administration that might set the clock back 50 years and cause widespread misery – not for the few who could afford to ride out the storm, but for the many.

To undo their damage would be the work of decades. Meanwhile, you could well find yourself going on a waiting list with the state communications monopoly for the privilege of having a new telephone, in a few years time (you wouldn’t own it, by the way – your equipment would belong to the state like it did in the ’70s, and so would you).

The key to the Brexit / Remain conundrum is to remember that the matter has been settled. It was put to a referendum two years ago, and the case for independence and self-determination was won. A solution to the present chaos is not to be found on the wrong side of history.

It will not be found by accommodating the losing side of the defining political argument of our time.

The Tango Briefing

I don’t read books often, but downloaded a novel by the British author Elleston Trevor to my Kindle just before going on holiday to Cornwall, and I finished it in about a week.

The Tango Briefing is one of 19 novels written by Trevor under the nom-de-plume Adam Hall, about an enigmatic British secret service ‘executive’ (agent) named Quiller. Trevor also wrote The Flight Of The Phoenix, which became a famous James Stewart film 50-odd years ago and was remade in 2004. Some readers may also be familiar with a 1966 film, The Quiller Memorandum, with George Segal as the eponymous super-spy.

I particularly wanted to read Tango Briefing because a Quiller TV series was broadcast by the BBC in 1975. It has never been repeated, and the only episode I can remember was based on this book.


This one was written in 1973 and doesn’t have the usual cold war theme. Instead, Quiller has to find a freighter plane with a mysterious, sensitive and top-secret cargo that’s come down in the Sahara, before various Arab government and security agencies can find it.

I found it a frustrating, occasionally irritating but ultimately rewarding read. It’s a cracking story, told in the first person – but bloody hell, he takes his time telling it – in a long-winded, rambling stream-of-consciousness style, sometimes taking in plot aspects that contribute nothing ultimately to the story.

He also has this little trick of taking you by surprise by casually referring to something you haven’t quite found out about yet, for dramatic effect – “it occurred to me, in one of those stray thoughts that pass through our minds at unlikely moments, that it wasn’t a very easy death I was giving him” – Er, what? Oh, right! Even though he’s got you under armed guard, you’re about to kill him!

And it gets a bit wearing after a while.

I honestly think you could improve the book by judiciously removing about 40% of it. It does need an edit. But it won’t get one, and it’s worth a few hours of your time anyway if you’re into this sort of thing.

Actually while writing this it’s just occurred to me, in one of those stray thoughts that pass through our minds at unlikely moments, that I said much the same thing about the 1968 film Countdown when I wrote about it a few months ago. Maybe it’s my attention span.

Bad Bohemian

I’m not a tattoo person. I managed to clock up more than half a century without having one.

But at a British Sea Power gig at Sheffield earlier this year, arms aloft, enraptured by the life-affirming chorus of the brilliant Bad Bohemian, a song from the album Let The Dancers Inherit The Party, I decided that I wanted to make some sort of permanent dedication – a commitment – to the idea of the song, to the band, and to the moment.

At another BSP gig in Nottingham this month I had the same experience and that cemented my intention. So I made the following image, derived from the official video of the song.

From this, on Monday this week, a tattoo artist made an outline transfer which she applied to my upper left arm at her premises in Ashby.

Then when I gave her the nod, she made it permanent with a scary motorised needle device and black ink. It extends down my upper arm from near the shoulder, down toward the elbow. It’s 120mm in length.

It took about 40 minutes. It was bloody painful. Not agonising, but definitely an ordeal. I started to feel dizzy and sick after the first 10 minutes or so. She told me this was an adrenalin reaction, and normal. I recovered after a couple of minutes and was OK after that, but I was extremely glad when she told me she was finished.

All a bit grim at first with redness and soreness and traces of blood smeared under clingfilm, but I have taken great care of it with simple soap, moisturiser and Savlon as recommended by the artist, and it looks rather good now. The skin where the letters are indelibly printed has started to go a bit dry, itchy and flaky – all normal of course – but it’s no longer sore. It’ll take another week or two before it’s healed and settled in.

I must say she did an excellent job – very accurate and very neatly executed.

It’s pretty discreet. Under a t-shirt, you either can’t see it at all, or only the last couple of characters are visible – depending on sleeve length, of course.

Even so I must admit I did go through a WHAT HAVE I DONE TO MYSELF phase for a few hours on Tuesday. But that has passed; a mere period of adjustment. For sure, there’s a certain dichotomy with my urbane, middle-class professional self-image. But that only enhances the appeal. I’m very pleased with it.

And anyway, in the words of the song which inspired my, er, body art – what’s done, is done – and there’ll be no redemption.

Oh, Don’t let us die
While we are still alive!

 

 

 

Paddy McAloon

I was idling around the shops in Newcastle City Centre, as was my occasional wont at the time, on the afternoon of 9th of April 1988, thirty years ago today. I’m sure it was this date, because it was a Saturday, and Grand National day.

I went into a greetings card shop, near Grey’s Monument – perhaps thinking of my brother’s birthday later that month, though I can’t actually remember. Half a minute later I looked up from the rack of cards through which I had started to browse and noticed, perhaps ten feet in front of me, the unmistakable figure of Paddy McAloon, the singer and songwriter of Prefab Sprout, one of the greatest and most critically acclaimed British bands of the 1980s. I was a huge fan.

That he had caught my attention had not gone unnoticed, and he met my eyes with what may have been a look of slight concern.

PADDY MCALOON!” I blurted, hopefully not too loudly, but possibly unnecessarily. After all I knew who he was, and so did he.

He raised a fingertip to his lips and gave a dramatic “SHHHH!“. This was quick-witted comedy gold, because there were only two of us in the shop at the time, save a middle-aged woman at the till.

I strode over and struck up a conversation. I think I started by telling Paddy how much I liked From Langley Park To Memphis, his band’s latest album, released less than a month earlier. He told me that he’d just been in JG Windows, a nearby music shop, where he’d seen two girls buying a copy of it. He’d strolled over to say “that’s a nice record!” to them, but they had stared back blankly. Perhaps my own enthusiasm to chat to him made up for his lack of recognition a few minutes earlier. I like to think so.

I asked about Protest Songs, an album which had been due to be released years earlier but of which there was as yet no sign. He was endearingly apologetic about this, and said that it would be released eventually – as indeed, of course, it was. I told him that I very much enjoyed Tiffany’s, one of its more memorable songs. “Oh, you’ve got that, have you?” he replied, perhaps slightly suspiciously. I had recorded it from a BBC broadcast some months earlier.

After a couple of minutes, I thanked him for taking the time to chat, and left. He was very friendly and pleasant. In fact, I found him charming, articulate, urbane.

Countdown

Late one evening in November 1979, my roommate Chris and I returned from the pub to find several of the other students with whom we shared a house gathered around the communal television, watching a man in a spacesuit wandering across what looked (a bit) like a lunar landscape.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Giant steps are what you take!” exclaimed one of my fellow residents by way of a reply of sorts, cleverly referencing the Police single Walking On The Moon which had been released earlier that month.

It was in fact Robert Altman’s 1968 film, Countdown.

I only caught the last ten minutes of the film, unfortunately. But I promised myself I’d watch the whole thing one day and last night, I did.

The events of the years which followed it have made something of a mockery of this film, which concerns a secret backup project to Apollo called Pilgrim, hurriedly put into operation when it’s discovered that the Russians are planning to land a man on the Moon before NASA. One of the Apollo 3 astronauts, a geologist called Lee Stegler (James Caan), is given three weeks to prepare to go to the Moon on the Pilgrim spacecraft, where he must locate a special shelter due to land there a few days before he does. Once he does get there he is to stay put, receiving supplies from Earth every couple of months until an Apollo mission can be ready to come and bring him home.

Since the Moon shelter completes its mission to the Moon either automatically or under remote control from Houston, it’s unclear why they couldn’t just have strapped him into it before take off, to save sending a second spacecraft. He could have sat reading magazines and sucking boiled sweets while the computers and boffins on the ground did all the work.

The first part of the film – dealing with Mrs Stegler’s dread and anxiety, internal politics and infighting at NASA, will he be ready in time, will the Soviets get there first and all that – is actually a bit dull, predictable and overdone. I understand that the British release of this pic was 30 minutes shorter (I watched the original 101 minute version) and I doubt that the plot suffered in the slightest at the hands of the editor’s knife.

Nonetheless I quite enjoyed the whole thing, especially after our hero blasts off for the Moon.

Of course it’s impossible to watch this film without experiencing it as taking place in a sort of bizarre alternative universe, and I don’t just mean the ’60s. Altman’s depiction of Man’s first steps on the Moon is utterly different from the actual event that took place about a year after the film was released, but for me, that only served to make this part of the film more unsettling and compelling.

Stegler just climbs down from the hatch in the subdued lunar gloom and sets off on foot to look for the shelter. No TV camera, no speech, no Buzz Aldrin, no radio contact with Earth. Despite clear shadows on the surface it’s somehow almost dark, adding to the general feeling of isolation and eeriness. He doesn’t actually know where the shelter is apart from its rough location. He lied to Mission Control when they asked him to confirm that he’d sighted it from lunar orbit.

While hiking across the surface of the Moon, Stegler finds that the Soviets did get to the Moon first, when he comes across the wreckage of a Russian Moon lander and the bodies of three cosmonauts, wearing helmets emblazoned with ‘CCCP’. This made me laugh because the surface area of the Moon is about twice that of the continent of North America, and even allowing for the notion that the Russians were aiming for the same general area it seems fantastically improbable to me that he’d simply happen upon them.

Does he find the shelter? It’s quite a watchable film, so I won’t spoil the ending. You can always Google it.

By the way, giant steps are not what you take when Walking On The Moon in this film.

Mice

A couple of months ago I was disappointed to find that a flapjack that I’d left in a frame pack on my bike in the garage had been part-eaten. I was pretty sure it was untouched when I left it there, and I don’t tend to bite through the wrapper when I eat them myself – so the only reasonable explanation seemed to be that it had been “mouse-masticated”, if I may employ a turn of phrase made popular by The Rutles. Or “rodently-chewed”, if you prefer.

I invested in one of these:

I loaded it with four AA batteries, baited it with a small piece of the same flapjack product, left it on the garage floor and switched it on. Sure enough when I returned to it the next day, the LED light was flashing to indicate that it had claimed a victim. The tail sticking out of the little door was a bit of a giveaway as well, to be fair.

I carefully disposed of the electrocuted rodent (a field mouse, I believe) and naively assumed I’d solved the rodent problem in my garage until earlier this month, when I found a pile of what looked like green plastic shavings on a shelf in there. I later realised that an attempt had been made to gain access to a bottle of Lucozade Sport on the same shelf, by nibbling the plastic cap.

I deployed the electronic trap again but also laid out two conventional traps on the floor, all baited with the same irresistible flapjack material. The next morning I was slightly alarmed to find that all three traps had done their deadly business. I had a trio of dead mice to dispose of.

Clearly the electronic trap works very well, but as you can see from the following photograph, which depicts the scene on my garage floor exactly as I found it – the rather less sophisticated mechanical traps seem to be just as quick and effective.

I do recommend these. They’re very sensitive and seem to dispatch their victims quite quickly – and the right-angled sprung bar means that you don’t have to touch the dead mice when you bin them. The bait goes into a sort of recessed cup that forces the mouse to activate a trigger flap surrounding it when they try to get it.

I was encouraged to see that both traps had whacked the mice right across the back of the neck. It must have been pretty quick. Assuming they’re consistently as effective as this I can’t see the point of buying an electronic one, really.

I’ve re-armed the traps and left them ready to do their lethal work for a few days now, but they haven’t done so. It looks like I got them all.

When I lived in a flat in London in the ’90s I had to deal with a mouse problem, and I bought a humane, non-lethal trap. I entered my kitchen late one evening to find that it had been “sprung” – its little door had snapped shut, which I assumed meant that I’d caught a mouse. I drove the trap to a wooded area a few miles away but when I came to release my little visitor, I found that the trap was empty. At one time I never would have used a lethal trap but now it just seems to me to be the easiest solution for everyone concerned, probably including the mice.

Norfolk and Back

Not long after I developed my current passion for cycling, at the beginning of 2015, I set myself a task of cycling to each of Leicestershire’s neighbouring counties and back from my home in North-West Leicestershire. There are seven. Four of them are rather easy, involving there-and-back rides of no more than 25 miles or so. Three of them – Rutland, Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire – need 60-odd mile trips to complete. But I’d got the set by the end of the summer that year, so I decided to see how many of the other counties I could conquer with a cycling return trip.

I’d had a plan to ride to Yorkshire and back for a while, and when the weather forecast seemed favourable, I booked a day off work toward the end of August to execute it. But while poring over Google Maps the night before I set off, on a whim, I decided to try for Norfolk and back instead – a somewhat longer route, but I hoped that the endearing flatness of The Fens would make up for it.

It was still dark when I set off, at about 05:40. And cold. I’d resolved to man up and make do with two layers, to avoid carrying an outer layer in my backpack that I wouldn’t use for 90% of the ride. But I was otherwise well prepared – I had a spare tube, a pump that I’d tested properly this time, a useful tool set with a chain splitter on it and even a spare gear cable. I’d uploaded the route to my Garmin Etrex, a GPS navigation device mounted to my handlebars to use in “track” mode, ie follow it as a purple line on the map rather than following turn-by-turn directions. The route to Norfolk that I’d chosen wasn’t that complicated anyway, and the first 30 miles, to Melton Mowbray, were already very familiar.

My bike computer has a thermometer built in, and I was pleased to see the temperature climbing slowly, starting at 10° C when I set off. By the time it hit 14°, over the Nottinghamshire border, I was perfectly comfortable. I pushed on through pleasant B roads through Nottinghamshire and into Lincolnshire, where I hit a delightful stretch of roads winding through sleepy villages. I didn’t see another road user for miles. Not long after that I entered the reclaimed marshland of The Fens, 30 miles out from the target. I knew I wouldn’t encounter a hill for the next 60 miles of cycling – as you can see from the gradient profile on Strava:

For some reason when I planned the route, I’d opted for a left turn to the A17 along a road called “Stockwell Gate”. This turned out to be a mistake; it was a narrow and badly maintained two-mile one lane track with passing places, and I didn’t really enjoy rattling my favourite road bike along there. On the way back I avoided it by bypassing it on the A151, which is what I should have done on the way out as well. I normally plan these long rides weeks or months in advance and would normally have ironed out that wrinkle by careful reference to Google Maps and Street View. However, since I’d only had the idea to do this one at about 10pm the previous night, I hadn’t put nearly so much preparation into to the route.

But after a not-really enjoyable, busy but necessary stretch of the A17 I crossed the River Nene over Sutton Bridge, and a couple of miles later I was in Norfolk. There’s no “welcome to Norfolk” sign unfortunately, so I snapped pic of a sign at a place called Walpole Cross Keys, just over the border. Then I turned back. I stopped at a McDonalds near Spalding about thirty miles later. I used my new ultra-lightweight bike lock to secure the bike and went in and ordered some coffee, fries and a beanburger.

The route passes under the A1 near South Witham and I was dismayed to see that the road had been closed there on the way back. The bridge supporting the A1, just up ahead, was decked in scaffolding. More ominously, a pair of barriers, not present a few hours earlier when I’d passed that way, were stretched across the road on both sides of the bridge. The detour sign directed traffic directly up onto the A1, and judging by Google Maps would have added at least four miles to my journey, which I certainly felt I could do without. More importantly: as Mike from The Young Ones once memorably pointed out, suicide may be a great hobby – but I wouldn’t do it for a living. I was absolutely, emphatically not going to go cycling on the A1.

Civil disobedience seemed to be the only answer. The road under the bridge looked safe enough and it seemed unlikely that something would drop on my head from the scaffolding as I pedalled under it. There was no-one around, so I manhandled the bike past the barrier stretched across the road and continued on my way.

I allowed myself a modest fist pump as I passed the 142 mile mark, my previous single ride distance record.

The weather conditions were pretty good all day – not too warm and mostly cloudy. I had to cope with bit of a headwind coming back but that seemed to die off after the first 30 miles. There was no rain.

I saw a beautiful sunset not long after I arrived back in Nottinghamshire, but after that darkness fell quite quickly and the temperature dropped. By the time I crossed the border back into Leicestershire at Zouch, it was properly dark. I had good lights on the bike but all the same I can’t say I enjoyed the last hour of the ride a great deal, making my way home in the cold and dark. I was also somewhat tired at this point and quite relieved to make it back.

I had cycled 179.3 miles.

 

The Post Office Tower

Last month I did some professional services work for an engineering firm at their premises right next to the BT Tower in London.  I was delighted to find that my desk was situated near a window with a direct view of its base.

The Post Office Tower, as it was originally known, had quite a prominent place in British culture in the ’60s and ’70s when I was growing up and has always been my favourite London landmark. I well remember being thrilled to see it for the first time, looking out of a railway carriage window approaching Euston on my first visit to London at the age of 8. At that time it was the tallest building in Britain, and an important landmark of the capital city. Ten years later I visited London again. I stayed in a hotel on Tottenham Court Road, from where it was clearly visible, and one of the first things I did was to walk over for a closer look. I recall taking a few photos of it, though sadly I no longer have them.

When I lived in London in the latter half of the 1990s I went to see it a few times, walking around the streets near its base and taking photos. It can be seen from a few parts of the West End. In its heyday in the late 1960s it had viewing galleries for the general public, a gift shop and even a revolving restaurant at the top. But it hasn’t been open to the public since 1981 and I’ve never been inside.

Below is an image from its 1960s heyday, taken at the junction of Clipstone Street and Great Portland Street, showing the tower in its original form. It was undoubtedly more visually appealing then than it is now.

The triangular horn antennae which were an integral part of of its intended visual aesthetic were joined in the 1980s by a myriad of circular dish antennae, attached as if bolted on at random like headlamps on a mod’s Lambretta and somewhat spoiling its elegant lines. I took the following photo in June 2003.

All of the large antennae have now been removed, as you can see from the following photo which I snapped on my phone last month. Their function has been replaced by subterranean fibre-optic circuits, and the upper part of the shaft looks rather undressed now. Despite this the tower retains its status as a major communications hub, carrying the majority of the UK’s outside broadcast TV material, for example.

The tower was designed to remain as rigid as possible in high winds, because accurate alignment of the microwave antennae which were once an important part of its raison d’être was critically important in order for them to continue to function in all weathers, communicating with other stations, over and far beyond the hills surrounding London. To this end, its design incorporates a sort of “collar” in the form of a bridge deck, to anchor it to the exchange building near its base. The desk from which I worked in London last month had a good view of this, as you can see in the next image.

It’s more obviously visible in context in this following image, which I took from outside:

There’s a pretty good 3D model of the tower in Google Earth, which also shows this rather well:

I was fortunate enough to work on the top floor of One Canada Square at Canary Wharf, at the time the tallest habitable building in Europe, for a few months in 2000 and 2001. But I’d much rather have worked at the top of the Post Office Tower. Still, at least I had a good, if distant view of it from there.

Finally, have a look at this YouTube video, a film made in 1967 about the construction of the tower.


Doctor .. WHO?

As nearly all readers will surely be aware, the BBC has decided, in its rather finite wisdom, to cast Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor in its long-running and highly popular science fiction show Doctor Who.

I must say I’m dismayed by this. It’s not that a woman can’t be a lead in an established TV series, or that a woman can’t be a Time Lord. Or Time Lady if you like. It’s just that this particular Time Lord has been established as a male character for 55 years. There is supposed to be a certain continuity of personality and identity. It’s supposed to be the same Doctor, in a different appearance.

My view is that a sudden change of gender rather undermines that.

Furthermore it actually introduces a sexist element that wasn’t previously present. Why, when we now know that The Doctor can change gender in a regeneration, did he regenerate as a man no less than 11 times in a row (12 if you count the War Doctor)?

And isn’t it a bit weird that someone who has lived 900+ years as a male now has a vagina and a pair of breasts to play with?

You’ll find though, that if you raise these objections on social media or other public fora, you’re in danger of exposing yourself as a chauvinist of the worst kind, or a misogynist.

There’s a word that’s sometimes used to describe persons suffering from a particular, indiscriminate, unthinking brand of liberalism; libtard of course. I’m not fond of it myself as I find it a touch crude and inelegant, but it does describe these people quite concisely, these irrational, shallow, juvenile people who think in black and white, look for racism and sexism wherever they can invent it and value virtue-signalling above all else. I must say the BBC’s politically correct Doctor Who initiative has brought the libtards out of the woodwork like no other issue I can remember.

And if they could manage a moment’s rational thought or consistency, these people might see that the BBC discarding a character’s maleness as an unimportant and disposable part of their identity is actually rather misandrist.

Election

I’ll be thinking about a lot of things, no doubt, as I stroll to the polling station tomorrow.

Perhaps I’ll try to imagine a politician who can’t lead his own MPs trying to lead our country. A man who didn’t have the personal dignity to resign when they passed a vote of no confidence in his “leadership”.

Or maybe I’ll wonder what a £10 minimum wage, increased corporation tax and uncontrolled immigration in tandem with massive giveaway public spending would do to our economy and society.

Perhaps I’ll think about what it would be like to have a Chancellor of the Exchequer who, like his leader, supported terrorist methods against his own country for decades, praising the “bombs and bullets” that killed British civilians and service personnel. A self-declared Marxist who carries a copy of Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’.

Perhaps I’ll wonder why a man so lauded for his supposed integrity in some parts didn’t have the honesty to say whether we’d leave the EU if he were to become Prime Minister, despite being asked five times in the same interview.

I might be asking myself how much damage a newly-enboldened trade union movement with a government in its pocket could do to British industry and commerce, and how many jobs their disruption and militancy might send abroad.

Maybe I’ll remember the times when all the public services were nationalised under the last socialist government, when there was no competition for your custom and no-one was allowed to sell you a telephone.

Perhaps I’ll spare a thought for the people of Venezuela, a country that Jeremy Corbyn congratulated on finding a “better way of doing things” that led to 800% inflation and hungry people queuing outside supermarkets with empty shelves.

Or I might wonder how a politician who rushes to condemn any military action by his own country somehow hasn’t found the time yet to condemn an attempt to blow up the British cabinet that happened over three decades ago.

I might muse on the stupidity of at least two party leaders declaring that they wouldn’t have the courage to walk away from a bad Brexit deal. With a negotiating position like that, a bad deal is exactly what they’d get, of course.

I’ll reflect, possibly, on socialism’s track record of failure everywhere it has been tried – causing misery for the many, not just the few. Always.

Maybe I’ll think about our nuclear deterrent. Labour’s leader has already told us, and indeed our potential enemies, that he’d never use it. Yet his manifesto has a commitment to spend billions on renewing Trident, purely to appease his backbenchers.

Perhaps I’ll shake my head, thinking how easy it was for an extremist, swivel-eyed reactionary fringe to take over a mainstream political party. Perhaps I’ll wonder what they might do if they took control of the country whose traditions they detest. What restrictions on a free press they might impose. What measures they might put in place to subvert the democratic process, to prevent themselves ever from being dislodged. What might happen to the people of the Falkland Islands, or the unionist community in Northern Ireland. Or Gibraltar.

But most of all, I’ll be thinking about the least advantaged in our society. People who depend on the NHS, for example. The sick, poor and vulnerable. People who cannot afford to depend on a society broken by socialism.

For them above all, I will vote Conservative.