182. Big mistake

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My highlight of summer 1985 came one August morning as Maureen, her best friend Sue and I were walking along a Thames towpath, somewhere in Berkshire. We were heading back to our hired boat, moored a few hundred yards further along. Bearing bread, milk, newspapers and, in Sue’s case, a magazine.

At one point the path narrowed, and Sue was forced to walk next to the river’s edge. Then she was gone. Disappeared. We looked in the river. All that could be seen was the magazine, tightly gripped in a fist, jutting just above the water level. Sue, a Scot, had paid for that magazine. It came out of the river still readable. The three of us wept with laughter, even the drenched Sue.

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The boating holiday took in Windsor, Reading, Oxford and all points between. Good fun, nice pubs, great sights, fair weather, and good company, with Sue’s husband Martin making up the foursome. In Oxford, I had a pizza whose chillies were so spicy that I hallucinated, feeling like I was coming out of my body.

I enjoyed a three month summer break that year, from the July day when quitting Britvic to the dreary October morning when I re-joined the rat race. I had to go back to work, as unemployment benefit – despite its mortgage payments – was insufficient to have any kind of a life.

Equally, Maureen was travelling to London each day. That was unfair and I had to step back up. The path of least resistance – and what I saw as the best chance of a job – was a return to betting shop management, this time with the independent London bookmaker A. and R. Dennis. Six days a week by train up to Forest Gate and back.

It was depressing, a defeated return into an unwanted career. It had to be done. But so depressing that I remember next to nothing of the job. My cashier Bridget, a Geordie woman, always left a cigarette smell in the toilet. Pat the window cleaner, supported West Ham. (It was the club’s best ever season, third place). TV screens were being introduced into the shops, so the punters could view live racing. The punters were not threatening. Neither were they memorable. I hated the travelling with a vengeance.

One Friday evening, our friends Paul and Katie came over to Chelmsford, and I tipped lots of massively welcome pints of bitter down my throat in town, at the Railway Tavern.

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Woke at 9 the next morning. 75 minutes late. Fuck, shit, bugger, bollocks. I phoned Martin in a panic.

“Mate, I need a big favour. Can you drive me to Forest Gate by 10?” He was round in about 10 minutes, and I somehow got the shop ready before Les, the district manager, popped in at 10.30.

I think my subconscious was trying to extricate me from a life without meaning. That attempt failed.

A few weeks later, in early May 1986, Les came into the shop unexpectedly one afternoon, and stayed to watch me balance the books after racing finished. From his pocket he extracted a wad of settled bets from the shop. It was standard procedure at head office to look through the occasional batch from each shop, to check for any major mistakes or foul play.

On the top of the batch was a winning greyhound bet settled for about £240. Trap 5 to beat Trap 6 at Hackney. Les looked at me with intensity. “Remember this one?” I actually did. It was from the shop’s biggest punter, Barry, a black guy who worked in a business next door. I said: “Yep, he had been winning prolifically on the afternoon, betting it back and winning more, and I called him over for that one as he had forgotten to collect.”

Les grimaced. “Sorry Kevin. Trap 6 beat Trap 5.”

“Oh no. Shit. I think I know what’s coming next.”

He counted out the wages and holiday money owed to me. “Got no choice mate. We know it’s a mistake, as your settling has been good. But if you can do it once, you can do it again. We can’t take that chance. Too expensive. No problem with giving you a reference though.”

I didn’t know whether to exult or fret on the train home. Looking back, I believe that whatever part of our being looks out for us had deliberately engineered my over-payment mistake.

Maureen was stoical. “Don’t worry. I know you’ll get something.”

We lived just a few hundred yards from the dairy run by Chelmsford Star Coop. I got myself down there the next day. “I lost my job yesterday – you got any vacancies out on the milk rounds?”

I was told they might have something. A phone call the next day said I could start next Monday, and would get a couple of week’s training to see if I suited.

What time did they want me in?

Four o’clock.

Had I ever got up that early?

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181. The cat that wagged its tail

 

Daughter Lauren and her partner Chris have a cat named Lorelei, which has begun to ape their dog Max. Lorelei has spotted that Max gets most of the privileges, and is determined to get in on the act. There they are together, in Max’s basket.

So she now wags her tail, instead of twitching it, and places her head on Lauren’s knee, and looks at her longingly. Hoping for more attention and petting.

Lorelei has always caught my attention, as a tough, self-contained creature, set on doing her own unique thing. A bit of a hard nut. Uncompromising. Maybe some parallels there with Britain 75 years ago. Not the world’s greatest power anymore, at the end of World War Two, but still sitting in at the top table, on its own merits, having fought heroically against the Nazi war machine.

Somehow, Lorelei, recently, and the UK, over a period of decades, have been persuaded not to be themselves.

Lorelei, to her credit, is at least looking to slip into the tenacious, energetic and alert ranks of border collies.

Britain is now rarely distinguishable from a US poodle, or, as Pamela Anderson said a few days ago, “America’s bitch”.

Now it stands at a crossroads. One choice is to roll over abysmally, yet again, to cosy up to the world’s bully, run by the world’s grossest politician. The other is to show some backbone, by refusing to allow Julian Assange to be extradited to the United States for what is essentially top-class journalism, in particular for exposing evidence of American war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Dragged by police out of the Ecuadorian embassy at the end of last week, after the South American country buckled to US pressure, Assange is accused by the US Department of Justice of conspiring with former intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to commit “one of the largest compromises of classified information in the history of the United States”. Manning was arrested in 2010 for disclosing more than 700,000 confidential documents, including a video of civilians murdered from a helicopter in Iraq.

It is easy enough to search out this video, contained in the 17-minute film “Collateral Murder”, on the internet. Released by Assange and ‘co-leaker’ Chelsea Manning, it shows classified footage from 2007 of American helicopter crews slaughtering a group of 12 Iraqis. The dead included two Reuters reporters and a family in a car, containing children, which stopped to help a wounded person lying on the sidewalk.

It is the vilest thing I have seen in years. Please watch it, while remembering that Assange and Manning risked their freedom to make it available, and that the protagonists were participating in an illegal invasion and occupation, outside of international law. (In my professional writing, I always refer to the US-led invasion of Iraq, rather than the ‘Second Iraq War’).

The dialogue that you will hear between the helicopter gunship crew and their command centre illustrates beyond doubt that they had as much concern for human life as did those who were responsible for sending them to Iraq in the first place. Comments of “nice” at each death. “Look at those dead bastards.” And “we lit them up”. Standard operating procedure, for the US invaders.

It is a great aid for me to remember this film, when the human livestock journalists at the Daily Mail run a headline entitled “That’ll wipe the smile off your face” as Assange is taken away by police. “A soaring ego, vile personal habits, and after years in his squalid den, hardly a friend left,” says the Mail, unwittingly describing itself.

Shocking as the Iraqi footage is, it is one of countless horrors inflicted on Iraq and other sovereign Middle East nations, in the name of “freedom and democracy”. So for me, Assange’s Wikileaks does the world a huge service every time it publishes details of these and other horrors. His reward for that service has been growing media-inspired ridicule, and what looks like a deprivation of his human rights.

Theresa May has stressed that nobody is “above the law”. So presumably we can expect Tony Blair to be dragged, handcuffed, from his multi-million pound Georgian home in London. And sent to The Hague to stand trial. Under Nuremberg standards, Blair can be tried for the deaths of a million Iraqis. Assange’s ‘crime’ is journalism: holding the greedy and powerful to account, baring their lies and empowering the globe with facts.

Over many years, Wikileaks has consistently exposed not just war crimes but the slime-for-ethics in which many politicians and corporations wallow.

Hence, the Australia-born Assange’s honours and awards:

– 2008, The Economist New Media Award
– 2009, Amnesty International UK Media Awards
– 2010, TIME Person of the Year, Reader‘s Choice
– 2010, Sam Adams Award
– 2010, Le Monde Readers‘ Choice Award for Person of the Year
– 2011, Free Dacia Press Freedom Award
– 2011, Sydney Peace Foundation Gold Medal
– 2011, Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism
– 2011, Walkley Award for Most Outstanding Contribution to Journalism
– 2011, Voltaire Award for Free Speech
– 2011, International Piero Passetti Journalism Prize
– 2011, Jose Couso Press Freedom Award
– 2012, Big Brother Awards Hero of Privacy
– 2013, Global Exchange Human Rights Award, People‘s Choice
– 2013, Yoko Ono Lennon Courage Award for the Arts
– 2013, New York Festivals World‘s Best TV & Films Silver World Medal
– 2013, Brazilian Press Association International Human Rights Award
– 2014, Union of Journalists in Kazakhstan Top Prize
– 2019, Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize

These awards recognise Wikileaks’ role in bringing wrongdoing to light. In case anyone has forgotten, that is the key role of the press, or Fourth Estate, which is enshrined in the US Constitution’s First Amendment. Not to entertain, lie, dissemble or show political bias, but to hold power to accountability, and to seek and reveal truth. To never stop calling out power, irrespective of your political loyalties. Again and again, until the fuckers are so ashamed that they start to improve their behaviour.

Maybe Wikileaks influenced the 2016 election results in the US, as some say. Did voters take account of the exposé of Hillary Clinton as a backer and beneficiary of jihadism in the Middle East? There is no proof. But, if revealing truths about the corruption of Clinton and the Democrats somehow caused Trump to be elected, so be it. That process of revelation is what journalism is for, above all else. Electorates need facts to vote. Clinton reckons Assange “must answer for what he has done”, which is interesting.

Assange has consistently, deliberately and unashamedly spoiled the flower arrangements of the turds who sit at the top table. Like the detailed description of American ambassadors discussing how the governments in Syria and Venezuela might be overthrown. Good for him.

I have no idea what he is like as a man. Is he a rapist? If there is convincing evidence, and Sweden wants him, then send him for trial for that alleged offence, not to a kangaroo court in the same United States that tortured Chelsea Manning. Yet much of the corporate media writes of the second eventuality as if it is the way forward, like turkeys anticipating Christmas.

“If he is extradited to the US, that’s pretty much it,” said my mate Martin, also a journalist. “Journalism will become even more indistinguishable from PR, unless you risk breaking the law.”

One of the best independent political journalists, Glen Greenwald, was spot on in his observations. “The move is clearly a threat to the First Amendment, because it criminalizes core journalistic functions,” he highlighted.

Greenwald explained this clearly. “The Obama DOJ – despite launching notoriously aggressive attacks press freedoms – recognized this critical principle when it came to WikiLeaks. It spent years exploring whether it could criminally charge Assange and WikiLeaks for publishing classified information. It ultimately decided it would not do so, and could not do so, consistent with the press freedom guarantee of the First Amendment. After all, the Obama DOJ concluded, such a prosecution would pose a severe threat to press freedom because there would be no way to prosecute Assange for publishing classified documents without also prosecuting the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian and others for doing exactly the same thing.”

If the Trump government is handed Assange on a plate by Britain, a precedent will be set for anyone in the world who publishes facts about the United States. That poses a greater threat to press freedoms than anything I have seen in this life.

Back to the crossroads, where the UK has the option to further disgrace itself by inserting its tongue even more deeply into the bright orange anus of Donald Trump. And fully become “America’s bitch”. The cat that wagged its tail. The has-been country that helped throttle the last vestiges of a free press. A little province in a big US-centralised empire, just like Australia, which has said nothing to protect its citizen.

Or we could show courage, mettle, independence and the spirit of fairness and justice for which Britain is still known internationally. Is that a myth? Or can we treat a top journalist and truth-teller with respect. It is not too late.

The pictures at the end of last week indicated that the decision may already have been made. Multiple policemen manhandling a sick journalist.

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180. Aaron Ramsey

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My good mate Martin Clark and I watched Arsenal play Napoli Thursday night. As always, we chatted about everything under the sun, including  Julian Assange’s arrest.

That darkness was outshone by Aaron Ramsey’s performance. I cannot think of any footballer who makes me happy in the way that Aaron does. Because he enjoys playing, and transmits that to onlookers. And because he is so gifted, and imaginative, and unpredictable. I was babbling superlatives almost every time he touched the ball. Two footed, fit, fast, balanced, skillful, brave, shrewd and loving every second that he plays for a living.

At the peak of his powers, aged 28, you would think Arsenal would do everything in their power to hang onto him, including the wage rise he craved. The manager Unai Emery seems ambitious, but has made a colossal blunder, in my opinion. Juventus will pay him £400,000/week. I know, silly money. But get past that impossible, unwarranted and insane football salary reality, and you have a match winner who can help win trophies. The winning goal in two of Arsenal’s three recent cup final victories is proof of that pudding.

And take a look at his goal against Fulham. Four touches.

Aaron Ramsey goal vs Fulham 2018 | Arsenal beautiful team goal buildup skills | Norwich 2.0?

The first and last bearing the hallmarks of a football wizard. How I would love Ramsey at West Ham.

Maybe he’ll get his hands on the Champions League trophy over in Italy next season.

179. Paying attention

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One result of my childhood is that I’m an attentive listener. With good recall.

My father steered that. Inadvertently. As kids, if Neil or I said something rude or out of line, chastisement ensued. Worse was Eric Godier’s First Commandment that “I shalt not be argued with’. Never any chance to debate and reflect, no encouragement to tweak and streamline my thinking. All of my internal neural motorway signs were erected by fear and pointed in one direction, away from painful consequence.

When he raised his voice, my ears rang and the house shook, or seemed to. I have documented his physical punishments, and the ceilings that these placed upon my exploratory boundaries, in Blog 18.

With any sentience, plus a bit of sensitivity, you can learn from this shit. One: don’t do what dad did. Two, dig out the positives and use them. In my case, the process of listening hard to learn exactly what the rules were, and to reduce the potential pain, slowly took on a life of its own.

An accompanying outgrowth was preferring to write rather than talk. I understood later that writing maintains a control of my space that talk risks yielding.

A flourishing listening ability in adulthood helped my roles as a father and journalist. Maybe as a husband? You would have to ask Maureen. It certainly strengthened friendships and created new ones. The judgement thrown around liberally as a young man has been cut out, wherever possible.

Problem weighing on your mind? I’m happy to hear you talk that out. Anything at all. To mirror it back to you. My gain is that I enjoy being trusted. There is little better than mutual respect built between people over a period of years. And intimacy, which I crave.

But I don’t always get it right. The ego can still jump in. The desire to make a witty quip, or to interject too often.

One problem that may never go away is that I expect listening reciprocation. Also friendship reciprocation. If that doesn’t happen, the suppressed rage of my childhood bubbles and builds.

About three years ago, I went for a few beers with an old mate. Our drinking sessions had been so joyous and open, putting the world to rights, often on long summer evenings.

This one started well. Everything and anything up for discussion. Family, money, sex, politics, the rising price of fish. Time for another beer. A guy next to us at the bar was chatting with his mate, mentioning loudly that he had once met the Lord Chief Justice.

I could see my friend’s ears pricking up. The stranger had, it seemed, also met Gordon Brown at some stage in his professional capacity. He knew important people in London’s political circles. My friend turned to these guys, and said their talk had intrigued him. He was a Labour Party man. He turned back to me, but was drawn increasingly back to the strangers. I looked at my phone, waiting for the interlude to cease.

I might have shown interest if the talk had been a bit more than loud one-upmanship, wearing the shirt of political insight. It was also obvious that the two blokes had issues with each other. Insults were creeping in. The conversation was punctuated by intervals of the raucous laughter that male conversation defaults to. I felt zero desire to join in. Just as well, as there was no invitation. That was hurtful.

So, for about 10-15 minutes, I stared at the optics behind the bar. My friend turned to me every now and again from the threesome, looking ever so slightly sheepish. I rictus smiled, but the bile was building. His back was turned. How could he do that?

An old issue for me. I wouldn’t treat a friend with this lack of respect, why the fuck can’t you be the same? Probably holes and rigidities in my attitude, but I’m sticking with it.

When my mate finally decided to turn back, there was no apology. Instead a eulogy to the joys of unplanned, spontaneous conversation. Which left two options. To find a foothold in new conversational ground. Or to tell him frankly that he lacked discernment, and had wasted 20 minutes of our friendship time with a pair of boors, who were now standing at opposite ends of the bar from each other.

My anger was so heated up that I think it would have killed our friendship. I was frightened that there would be no control in my criticisms. No middle way. Back to feeling like a kid again. So we somehow reverted to our norm, with me biting my tongue every time he mentioned his new acquaintances.

Strangely, when my friend caught his bus home, I ended up chatting with he who had met Gordon Brown. He was a Hammer, born near Upton Park. And most of his contacts were made as a cricket umpire. He was far more considerate and quiet when not trying to impress. But he didn’t ask me a thing about myself. The telling clue.

I cycled home ablaze with anger, riotous with spleen, amped up by the beer. I couldn’t imagine what to do with the feelings. But sleep worked the trick. Deep and long. I felt OK in the morning.

If it ever happens again, I will walk out. Talk about it when calm has returned.

Do I want too much from people?

177. Call me morbid, call me pale

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While Britvic spread its juiceless pallor of misery over me from April to July 1985, a British band named the Smiths were, aptly, peaking.

I was looking for a job, and I found a job – heaven knows I’m miserable now

The singer, Stephen Morrissey, had the most melancholy voice I had ever heard. He was “sorrow’s native son”, in his own words. Maudlin, gloomy, but with acerbic, camp wit and poetic irony bursting through like a bright spring tulip.

And when the wardrobe towers like a beast of prey 
There’s sadness in your beautiful eyes 

The guitarist Johnny Marr played his post-punk riffs in an unusual arpeggio style, mixing strummed chords and running scales. I know this only because my friend Jono told me.

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The music was almost always the background to the voice. You couldn’t look away from Morrissey. Sometimes he had a tree branch poking from his arse, on Top of the Pops. He made defeat sound almost alluring.

Cause I want the one I can’t have 
And it’s driving me mad
It’s all over, all over, all over my face

A voice that was both lugubrious and self-parodying, but also rich and gorgeous.

 Punctured bicycle 
On a hillside desolate
Will nature make a man of me yet?

With just the one album in my CD collection – ‘The Queen is Dead’ – I’m no Smiths expert. But I know that I loved them almost at first hearing, as it became clear that these songs mirrored many of my own feelings. The sheer bloody introspective heartache of being alive, as highs inevitably swung back into dark lows. A musical heir to Henry Miller’s literature.

I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour, And heaven knows I’m miserable now

One of Morrissey’s specialities was to make the return to sadness sound so reassuring. In that respect, my favourite is probably ‘There is a Light that Never Goes Out’. An almost perfect song.

Take me out tonight, O take me anywhere, I don’t care, I don’t care

And if a double-decker bus 
Crashes into us
To die by your side
Is such a heavenly way to die
And if a ten-ton truck
Kills the both of us
To die by your side
Well, the pleasure – the privilege is mine

Morrissey’s wit was all over the place. Anyone who can write a song called ‘Shoplifters of the World Unite’ has my favour. A malcontent with a purpose, who wants to castrate Prince Charles in one song.

So I broke into the Palace, With a sponge and a rusty spanner

She said: “Eh, I know you, and you cannot sing”.

I said: “That’s nothing – you should hear me play the piano.”

 

And no shortage of the guts needed to risk the opprobrium of his home town, Manchester, in his song about the Moors Murders, ‘Suffer Little Children’.

But fresh lilaced moorland fields 
Cannot hide the stolid stench of death

God help any carnivores. Morrissey was staunchly vegetarian, to the point where he struggled to be in meat-eating company

Heifer whines could be human cries
Closer comes the screaming knife
This beautiful creature must die

And the flesh you so fancifully fry
Is not succulent, tasty or kind
It’s death for no reason
And death for no reason is murder

After The Smiths’ short five years as a band, Morrissey knocked out some decent solo work. I used to enjoy him taking the piss out of Jonathan Ross now and again. He still makes music, but his political views have turned crustier, as the years pass.

In the end, for me, he was another artist who helped me to legitimise feeling sad, letting the sorrow and depression flow out, and the love, rather than the stiff upper lips advocated by my parents’ generation. We had a teacher at school, Doug Mason, who perennially advised “give it a rub boy” to address any sports field injury. That shit never leaves, is always standing guard outside my heart, trying to prevent the messy emotions escaping.

So I love Morrissey, and let his music play for hours on YouTube today.

 The boy with the thorn in his side
Behind the hatred there lies
A murderous desire for love

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176.Britvic misery

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The Britvic clock was formerly one of two landmarks announcing one’s arrival in Chelmsford, the other being the Army & Navy roundabout. Little more than a couple of weeks after our wedding, it became a too-familiar sight each morning, presaging another day of dreary gloom.

In the job interview, I had said nothing about academic qualifications, spinning a line about working for my dad, being going into betting shop management and then needing a change. One of the few amusing things I recall about Britvic is a dressing down from the interviewer, having told him that I had enjoyed “the crack and the laughs” on the night shift at Thermos. “If you get this job, we won’t want you larking about,” he warned, his face darkening. “This is a business, and you will have responsibilities.”

My critical remit turned out to be standing at various positions on a production line that transmuted dirty, recycled bottles into squeaky clean receptacles for fresh influxes of fruit juice and other drinks.

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Coming out into the fresh air at the end of the first week was pure joy. The 20 minute walk home was dizzyingly happy.

The good company of the lads and lasses at Thermos had made the work bearable. Jokes, stories and more than a few intimacies traded. Drinks outside of work, occasionally. This lot were on a different planet.

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Mick the foreman was a wiry little git who let people know that he was very good at martial arts, and not afraid to use those skills in a fight. His mate Tony was more overtly aggressive, a tall fucker from a big family. Always protected by Mick, he would let out his temper by smashing bottles, and looking around to dare any challenge. Alan was just a miserable bastard. A few set phrases to describe his loathing for the job, the bosses and life in general. Darren had a bit more joy in him. His ambition was to go in Ladbrokes one Saturday afternoon and win every last penny in the shop. Then drink himself into a celebratory stupor. I could resonate with the first part of that, but not the aggression that popped out too regularly.

Was it naïve of me to expect these poor buggers to be warm and welcoming, consigned as they were to a life sentence at the factory? The only bloke I took to was Gene. Always smiling, chatting to everyone in the building. So content in himself. He was the first person I heard say “another day, another dollar”. But his kind nature was unfortunately tucked away, at a machine on an adjacent line. Female company would have been a godsend.

I stuck it for about 11 weeks, by keeping myself to myself, albeit with unlimited conversation for anyone who wanted a thoughtful exchange of words. Then one morning all my alarm signals flashed red. I used to spend my breaks with a cup of tea and that day’s Sporting Life in a quiet little alcove where few others passed. Wish I could remember the words. Mick and Tony were chatting nearby, about me, unaware of my proximity. Was it something about my unsociability? My hair? The gist was that it was time to have some fun, winding me up. A derogatory pigeonhole, or worse, was on its way. I felt the beginnings of some of the panic that used to pour through me at school when the teasing began. These two were bullies. They could fuck right off. I had no intention of walking their gauntlet.

At lunchtime, I walked across to the building with the human resources office. “Sorry to be a real pain, but an emergency has come up. I just phoned my wife and was told that my grandmother has had a serious accident. She is in her 80s, lives alone, and has nobody to look after her. I know it will muck up your rotas here, but I need to go and see her right now. She will need me to help her for at least the next month, and maybe longer. I don’t have any choice but to leave this job immediately. Really sorry, again.”

I made it up, some of it on the spot. And the Britvic administrators were life savers. To help me cope financially, they would tell the DHSS that I had been laid off due to a mini-business slump. I could have punched the air. The mortgage would be paid.

There are unexpected advantages to being sensitive. The walk home on that warm July day was ecstatic. Better, Maureen showed empathy, having listened to me moaning ceaselessly about the job. We would survive and move on.

The Britvic factory closed in March 2014, after 60 years of drinks production. But the iconic clock tower remains, jutting up over a retail park.

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