Screening Shingle Street

Once upon a time something happened here. The army threw everyone out. On VE Day the army blew up the derelict pub. They wanted, to build a celebration bonfire. The pub wasn’t supposed to be derelict; someone took a few potshots at it, some time during the war.

The Graf Zeppelin parked over this place for a couple of days, loitering about over Bawdsey Manor, where they were busily inventing radar.

Down at Swanage the army were building a flame barrage, to deal with any German invasion. The kind they were expecting daily. And in London, Dennis Wheatley, the writer of supernatural tales, was busily churning out propaganda. Just along the coast the army built concrete blast shelters to test the triggers for atom bombs. The local US Air Force base commander swears blind that a UFO landed near his airfield. Anything that happened at Shingle Street has been kept secret for over 70 years. It’s going to be kept secret for a lot longer.

All of this is true.

And other things might have happened there too.

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We don’t need no education

We’re all a bit tired of experts, after all. The Minister for Education said so. Which tells you pretty much all you need to know about Britain, about how politicians feel about the people they’re supposed to represent, about education in Britain and the reasons for its place in the world.

It’s a country which has always pretty much despised education and cultivated the idea that decent people don’t know much, don’t want to and don’t need to, along with the idea that education in itself is suspect. It’s a country where you can definitely know too much for your own good.

At school I was advised by my Careers master not to do Psychology; employers would think I was always trying to find out what was in their heads. This wasn’t said as a joke. It was very definitely serious careers advice, at what was then a decent-enough school that produced some seriously rich adults, if not that many academics.

Any study of comparative educational attainment shows the UK lagging far, far behind in pretty much everything, starting with literacy. You can see the government’s own comparisons here. It lists the countries we’re encouraged to sneer at, the bad haircut Koreans, the we’re-absolutely-terrified-of-them-so-hush-Chinese, the hippy Finns, the close-to-communist-yet-inexplicably-affluent-and-modest-and-happy Norwegians, chocolate-munching Belgians, clog-wearing Anne-Frank-betraying-Dutch-who-we-helped-so-much and the dangerous-to-bankers-Gordon-Brown-defying Icelanders. The best of them have kids whose reading age is a year and a half above that of a British child of the same age. On average. Twenty countries do solidly better than the UK in mathematics, presumably ones which don’t pretend to be American and call it Math. Likely. Ten countries race ahead of the UK at Science in schools. And we get exactly what we deserve. With a UK population whose collective reading age is about nine years old perhaps it’s not surprising that social policy is dictated by the tabloid press.

I haven’t worked in all of these countries, but I’ve taught a fair few Chinese kids. They do things differently there. Here, we spend hours trying to work out new ways to involve the kids, how to make the lessons appeal, integrate learning into their life experience, make it bogusly ‘relevant’, because obviously knowing how to read enough to get a job compared to say, Pa knowing the boss, isn’t relevant to anything in the UK. In China the approach seems to be much the same as the one I remember from a rural primary school when it wasn’t just films that were black and white: sit down, shut up, open your books.

I’m not convinced that’s always the best way to do things. A practical lesson I did on how to make and lie in a hammock goes down as the happiest and most productive I remember, where even the ‘bad’ boys got involved. And were suitably chastened, even downright frightened when I told them about the last stitch at sea, the one through the septum to close the hammock over the dead sailor prior to chucking him over the side, just in case he wasn’t able to move or speak. Over, under, around, through, back over, up, down, we learned them all. Relative prepositions of place, in a sunny field by a stream one August morning. That time, Pink Floyd got it wrong. And some days, dark sarcasm is the only thing that keeps you going. I’m English, after all.


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Radio on


There’s this film. It’s a story about a murder, an exploration, a road-trip from Londond to Bristol and out beyond, to the sea.  A story about boredom and factories and despite it having ended 34 years earlier, this is a story about the war for which England had clearly, for all its lights and industry, not really fully recovered, inside or out.

A story where a multi-millionaire pop star pretends for reasons of his own to be an Eddie Cochran fan playing guitar in a caravan, working in his dad’s garage somewhere way down the A4 that’s gone now, the same way the Driver’s old Rover car is gone now; the same way Utility furniture and big factories are gone now, along with the M4 Junction 2 skyline, even as far out as Windsor; the way telephones with dials and cords and big black and white televisions and rooms without central heating are gone now.

That was the world I grea up in. That was the world I expected to live in. And while lots of things are better, like not being cold all winter, a lot of it I miss in a way I don’t often think about, but the ache is still there, like an old tennis injury. Or a psychic scar.

Radio On has a simple story.  A man is found dead in his bath. One of his last acts was to send his brother three Kraftwerk cassettes for his birthday and beleive me, that would have been a pretty big present. The brother works, until he walks out of the job, as a radio DJ in a factory on the Great West Road, an in -house radio host lost in the kind of job that has gone now too, the kind of job some of us thought would be pretty cool; the kind of job that couldn’t now even vaguely possibly sustain a rented flat in Hammersmith. It did then. And also the sort of job that left the DJ bored and numb. Or maybe that was just the death of his brother.

We walks away, or rather drives away, to find….well, it isn’t made clear. A short haircut when that was pretty revolutionary in itself. Bristol. The cause of his brother’s death. The revolution, by way of Astrid Proll, the Red Army Faction and a new German maybe girlfriend, because the old one reckons he’s doing her head in with all his stuff.

The literally Dickensian decay of pretty much everything around oddly doesn’t clash with the music that to me at least, sounds new and now. The quaint old cars, the cold, the decision to shoot the film in black and white, the decision to shoot the film at all when it was so much of a non-road trip, down the M4, come off at Theale, pretty much the way I used to run that road, not crossing the M25 because there was no M25 to cross, off onto the A4, the old road of shepherds and stagecoaches and Johny Morris’s son’s pub, the Pelican. And snow that winter. I remember that too. The smell of the cold. The feel of its teeth in the bones of my arm.

And good contrasts. The jukebox left over from an imaginary benevolent USA blasts out “I saw the whole wide world’ as the Driver looks out of the bleak windows of an almost empty pub somewhere outside Newbury. The 1950s Rover rolls sedately along near Heathrow while a Jumbo jet soars into the future at the end of the bonnet. Except it doesn’t look like the future, this vision of England’s glory. Like the future, there didn’t seem to be one, back then.

And Ireland. And the Provos. And Bader-Meinhof. And squaddies hitch-hikinbg and spilling thier PTSD fallout stories, the same ones I’d heard of corss-border firefights, smashing down a flat’s front wall with a Browning .50 calibre, stories that never, ever made the papers because the papers, then as now, lied to give a one-sided story. We just didn’t know they did. We didn’t beleive they did, anyway. All of this airbrushed out of history now by the same papers, so we know that all terrorists are and always have been Moslems because it suits the government and its sponsors for us to think that.

These garages, these farms seen through the windscreen, the blue remembered thrills, the same farms and garages of lost discontent I saw through my own windscreen, out past Silbury Hill. And does any of this matter?

These cars, these phones, those demons are dead. Aren’t they? Cars always start these days. Nobody’s even seen a starting handle, nor a Rover P4 if they’re under 40, or Sting hamming it up in a caravan outside Hungerford, nor a garage where a man comes out to pump your petrol for you.

The Driver asks Sting: “Are you going places?”

Of course not.

This is all old stuff. I should leave it where it lay. We’ve all got new phones. But I can’t forget David Bowie stopped singing Heroes and asked us a question instead. Where Are We Now?


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Who’s Hegel?

For those of a certain age, this is an important question. One which should always but ALWAYS be followed by: “Did he know everything?”

It was and is a book, a film and for all I know a play too. I’d go and see it if it was. Because there is something of me in it and something of it in me. Apart from the fact that I went to a university and read Sociology (well ok, I read some Sociology, not very often and not very thoroughly or well) just like the anti-hero (who firmly believes he is the hero) Howard Kirk. For quite some time I wanted to be like him; a university lecturer, a social scientist, a man free from the fascistic oppression of owning property. I failed at that quite soon after, but I’ve somehow managed to put that right, almost without trying.

Howard Kirk was a Sociology lecturer who believed that conflict was always good. That right would triumph. That right was historic inevitability and Right was wrong. I didn’t share that view then, but I was young and fairly stupid. As a friend told me the other night, I was far too self-absorbed in my twenties.

“But you didn’t know me in my twenties. And you mean I’ve changed a lot, yes?”

She said no. Which was ok. Ish. But Howard Kirk, he was the man. Those were the times. There was this thing called social progress and another thing called class mobility. So quaint!! And free education all the way through university. Ludicrous, isn’t it? Almost anybody would have gone. In fact, they didn’t. Only about 5% of the school population ended up at uni in those days. The rest got jobs, for the most part, when unemployment was an un-massaged one million and you could get a job driving a lorry in the holidays on a car licence.

It was a time when there were student demos, when Labour voted not to join in with American wars and when squatting meant taking over a derelict Georgian house and making it livable again. This was too, a time when councils gleefully pulled down Georgian terraces instead of selling the houses off for a million each. They did it, unbelievably, in Bath, which is now a World Heritage Site thanks to its Georgian houses.

Hegel’s identity was asked about by one of Howard Kirk’s newer students. Whether he knew everything as asked by her friend, both of them keen to impress Howard with their enquiring minds, in much the same way that I overheard an equally keen student once at a Sociology lecturer’s party, thumbing through the pile of LPs and hesitating to chose one because as she said, she didn’t ‘know the Sociological significance of Genesis.’ As if she couldn’t not.

Times change. The past is another country. They do things differently there. And as Conrad would have had to have written it now, Mr Kirk, he dead.


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Turned out nice again

George Formby played the ukelele when his father George Formby died and he got too heavy to train racehorses. After a year or two he was earning what would now be £15,000 a week. All he did was sing, write silly songs and play the ukelele. So it’s a bit hard to see why the BBC banned him.

But they did.

The song that got most up their nose was ‘When I’m Cleaning Windows.’

Pretending to be a window cleaner the song romps through the things a window cleaner sees. Honeymooners billing and cooing, a drunk so dehydrated he drank his bath, a woman who must surely be Madonna’s grandma ‘nearer 80 than 18.’ There isn’t a single swear-word or explicit sexual reference in the song. Not one. There never was in any of Formby’s stuff. He had more sense and the past is another country; they did things differently there. And he made people laugh. A lot.

Forty Years On

He managed it, churning out films and songs all of that time, because the audience was in on the joke. And it was a joke. Nothing he sang was even as risque as a Carry On film, although Sid James probably would have appreciated Formby hugely, I’d guess.

So why the ban?

The Guardian, bless it and its teenage writers scribing Comment Is Free (or as close to free as anyone desperate for what they fondly beleive will be a start in serious journalism with out an Oxbridge education will settle for, £80 being the going rate last time I checked), though it was this verse that made the BBC go full Whitehouse:

Pyjamas lying side by side/Ladies nighties I have spied/I’ve often see what goes inside/When I’m cleaning windows.

They thought it was the ‘ladies nighties’ reference, thinking an oblique reference to nudity would do it. Given that there are references to flashing and proto-cougarism later in the song, I don’t think that’s it at all.

If nighties are synonymous with ladies’ night attire, it follows that pyjamas, for the purpose of the song, serve as cladding for men during the hours of darkness. And here, m’lud, we have clear evidence of the depravity this buch toothed grinning corruper of a nation’s morals was capable of; the veritable torrent of filth that flowed from his lips. This was, after all, a society that rewarded Alan Turing, the man who if anyone did, won the war singlehanded by setting up the mechanism to crack the Enigma code and inventing modern computing by  chemically castrating him because he liked going to bed with people of the same sex.  They kept on at him until he killed himself. Well done, Alan. Congrats and all that, a tad obliged and so on, but we think you’re a disgusting pervert and frankly, we’re better off without people like you. As a grateful nation put it at the time.

So if this chippy Lancastrian thought he was going to get away with this kind of smut polluting the airwaves then he’d jolly well got another thought coming. I think that was the reason. But who knows now? Perhaps they just didn’t like ukeleles.

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Dealing with the truth

It’s something the British aren’t good at. Brexit showed that. As the FOREX markets constantly show, sterling isn’t a strong currency. The UK is not an economic powerhouse. We don’t have an export market, or certainly not one in credit. We don’t talk about what used to be called the balance of trade, because we don’t have a balance of trade. We’re nearly $9 billion overdrawn on that, unlike say, Germany, which manages to export $300 billion more than it imports. This does not make us a strong trading partner able to dictate terms, any more than going into Tesco the day your unemployment benefit is paid gives you leverage over the prices on the things on the shelves there, or how long the store is going to stay open. When people state these facts they’re accused, as they have been for the past 30 years, of talking down the economy, while the reason people actually do talk like this is that there really isn’t much of one to talk about.

We’ve done it since the war. And we made up some really good lies about that. Much the same as Cameron’s ‘we’re all in it together,’ ‘they were all in it together’ is still pretty much what many people believe. Because it gives Brits something to believe in, a fantasy to replace the dreary slide into nonentity that real-life Britain plc actually holds as its core values.

“We were living in a society where despotism, hate, and lies had become the normal state of affairs.” Inge Scholl

Alone in Berlin is probably the best film I have seen. It followed Hans Falada’s book hugely accurately to tell a true story.

Berlin 1940. The city is paralyzed by fear. Otto and Anna Quangel are a working class couple living in a shabby apartment block trying, like everyone else, to stay out of trouble under Nazi rule. But when their only child is killed fighting at the front, their loss drives them to an extraordinary act of resistance. They start to drop anonymous postcards all over the city attacking Hitler and his regime. If caught, it means certain execution.

Soon their campaign comes to the attention of the Gestapo inspector Escherich and a murderous game of cat-and-mouse begins. But the game serves only to strengthen Otto and Anna’s sense of purpose and a renewed love for each other. Slowly their drab lives and marriage are transformed as they unite in their quiet but profound rebellion… as the makers Xfilme put it. Oh, grow up.

Very ordinary people did an extraordinary thing, knowing perfectly well that they would almost certainly be killed for it. As of course, they were. An oddity of the People’s Court was never explained by Falada or the film; why the couple were only executed months after their sentence, whereas the much better-connected Sophie School, who did much the same thing in Hamburg, was bundled out of the court with the usual speed and efficiency as soon as the sentence was read out. Presumably to save time the People’s Court in Nazi Germany pretty much only had once sentence to read anyway.

And it was a true story. It took the Gestapo over two and a half years to track down this unfunded, apolitical factory foreman. Of course they were going to execute him, just the same way the British were of course going to execute Lord Haw-Haw, the Nazi propagandist, for ‘treason,’ irrespective of the fact he wasn’t actually British, making the issue of how he could be acting against ‘his’ king when he had no allegiance to him anyway more than moot. We went in for state-sanctioned murder just as devotedly as anyone else. But you won’t find that in history books.

Nor, in British schools, unlike German ones, will you find a single mention of Sophie Scholl. Or her brother Hans, or Christoph Probst, or anyone else in the White Rose. Or the Eidelweiss Pirates. Or any other resistance to Nazism that annoyed the Gestapo and belied the British and American fiction that ‘they’ were all Bad and ‘we’ were all good that we’ve been fed and obediently swallowed for the past 70 years. And still do.

There’s a problem when you take-on an enormous goverment agency and a whole state that thoughtlessly, the ‘they were all in it together’ believers never consider, that the film and the book dealt with well: when you see the police, th army, the courts, the whole system of justice failing, what do you do? When you see the police take someone away and kill them, what are you going to do? Call the police? Or look the other way and hope they don’t take you? Or believe a simplistic lie, the way it all started?

And by the way: Nightmare in Berlin is the exact same book with a different title for the US market. Don’t get fooled again.


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Fighting them on the beaches

I went to see Dunkirk last night. Not, as Daphne Du Maurier would have it, again, because I’ve never been there. Dieppe, definitely. Boulogne, bien sur. Calais, ‘course. But not Dunkirk.

A friend’s father did in 1940. He had a great day or two smashing-up lorries. British army lorries. To stop the Wermacht Heer getting hold of them. He drove them off a cliff, jumping out at the last minute, him and a mate, like James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause. And before anyone tells you ‘they did though, they had a true and noble cause,’ I’m pretty certain, not having a Ouija Board, that he’d be the first person to say bollocks to that. He was 20, he’d joined because he could see there was going to be a war and he needed the money. There was a Depression. He’d had to get down from Newcastle to London before that. His brother was a Jarrow Marcher.

And then the fun stopped. He was on the beach for a week. He was in the water, at the end of a human pier, for a lot of that time. He gave up his place on a little ship that came in to put someone else in the boat and off the beach and away safe to Blighty giving up his place in the queue. The little ship was bombed. Everyone who he’d saved was killed.

I don’t know what he’d have made of the film. It wasn’t entirely what I was afraid it would turn out to be, a moronic Good vs Bad Brexit hymn. The film showed most of what it was, an almighty balls-up, a catastrophic defeat from which ordinary people doing extraordinary things selflessly managed to salvage something of the core of a force to fight another day.

Something of. After Dunkirk generals were sacked, troops were throwing their rifles out of train windows as they steamed away from Dover station, whole regiments were amalgamated and re-formed, not just for administration but because a feeling existed that a lot of the retreat had come about because of the way things had been run.

But it’s a film, innit? It’s not supposed to be a documentary. The pace was relentless. Both of us came out of the cinema tense and with aching backs from the noise and the stress. We doubted it was maybe precisely the same amount of stress as actually being at Dunkirk, but we thought that frankly, for an evening out we’d pretty much gone through the mill. Especially in Dorchester.

We’d had a decent Thai meal, an achievement in itself. We’d managed to mute the assorted ‘fucks’ and ‘shits’ that spray the speech of people d’une age certain, more especially the women after,  as Howard Kirk would put it, we re-colonised the language in actualising ourselves. She did mostly, anyway. I think the next table caught some. We’d had the sense to book the tickets in advance and also to wear hats as it was bucketing. And it was mostly a decent film.

Except for the end. I mean, s**t. F***ing Elgar FFS? Seriously? F***ing absolutely seriously? And not just any old Elgar but yer actual pean to Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, in case you’d somehow missed the point. (And obviously, no irony whatsoever in the most English of composers writing music as a tribute to a German, being used to celebrate an imaginary triumph over German forces. None).

And no, as in heroic. It doesn’t have a T in it. The hero, in his RAF Spitfire ( the film was very insistent on it being a Spitfire, made of metal, not a Hurricane, made mostly of fabric. This will matter. Test later), out of fuel, benefits from a bit of actually very good acting by the rescue boat skipper who dupes Johnny Boche into flying straight across the hero’s dead-engine flight path.

Rat-tat-tat-tat!! Ach Himmel!! ARGHH!!!

And so on as Commando magazine taught us all.

His prop spinning uselessly, our hero has to land on the beach at Dunkirk. But wait! His wheels won’t go down!!! Must have picked up a packet of flak in that last scrape! Better pump the wheels down by hand before the kite prangs.

And this, for me, is where it got silly. I’ve known people who have terminally messed-up fighter plane landings. One thing that any horse rider or even walker knows though, without being a pilot, is that on a beach, some sand is hard and other sand is soft. And you can’t always tell by looking at it. So if you’re sitting on a couple of tons of scrap metal doing about 100mph, personally I think the last thing I’d do would be to put wheels down which if the ground was soft as well it might be would be pretty much guaranteed to set the remains of the airplane cartwheeling across the landscape. With me still in it.

But the wheels got down, Elgar struck up, just a hint at first, then when the composer thought ‘got away with it’ a proper bit of Nimrod. You know the one.

Dah-da-daaaaah daaa. Dah da daaaaah daaaa……. Think any Royal nonsense at Westminster Abbey and you’re pretty much there. But sillier was to come.

Desperate not to let Jerry get hold of an intact Spit, our hero whips out his flare gun, fires it into the cockpit and stands back to watch the crate go up in smoke, which it obligingly does. Except it’s supposed to be out of fuel, so quite what it is that’s burning isn’t at all clear. Even the wings are burning, which for metal wings is a pretty good trick.

The engine wasn’t burning though, mostly because in the last flame-filled shots, there wasn’t one, just what looked like a broom handle holding the propeller onto the flaming remains of the fuel-less metal-that-burns airplane. Cue credits. And a ha’p’orth of tar. But according to my passenger on the midnight drive home, past the ghosts of Romans and our teens, I was just talking bollocks caviling at that.

Still, for a big budget film at least the Americans didn’t come and win it for us.

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I had two girlfriends who worked in banks, although not at the same time. They were nice girls; both had dogs, one was an authority on potato crisps: harmless, pretty girls from Wiltshire who smiled a lot and didn’t want much out of life, I thought at the time. In spite all that and their general willingness to please something struck me as odd then. It still does now. They were the first people the customer saw and talked to. They were young, inexperienced and that role, the crucial interface between the bank and the people whose money they used was left to those two, before they either worked their way off the counter, as it was called, or left for babies and mortgages and the long trek to now. The least trained, least experience, least paid staff got one of the jobs they could really mess up. They didn’t, so far as I ever knew.

Today Radio 4 is debating whether ‘being in a socially valuable job is reward enough’ with the clear implication that it should be. They mean specifically, should teachers and firemen and nurses get their first pay rise over 1% in seven years, or should they shut up and vote Conservative?

The PM has predictably trotted out the nursery-level homilies about living within our means, having bunged one billion pounds at the DUP this month and approved a six million pay rise for the Queen, to go with the hundreds of millions to renovate Buckingham Palace and more for the renovation of the House of Parliament, overlooking the fact that the one billion was borrowed, the same as government projects are always borrowed. That isn’t the issue.

Nor is the fact that any sensible discussion of public finances has to include tax avoidance and the ludicrous situation whereby the Inland Revenue’s main landlord is an offshore company that doesn’t pay UK corporation tax, the same way Starbucks and Amazon and a huge number of other large companies like to pretend that really, they only do it because they love the job, it’s not something they make any money on.

For teachers, it’s the same deal as those two country girls faced when they could wear an Afghan coat down the street without being ironic, or only a bit, anyway. Teachers get paid a low wage. The youngest, with the least experience, get the least. They also get the worst classes and the least attractive schools. How many people would reply to a real job ad for teaching?

Would you like to break up a real fight once a week?

Can you explain why it’s not ok to throw tables at each other? Do you know why this behavour is acceptable, week in, week out, however many kids’ education gets messed up to suit one kid who shouldn’t even be in this school? Would you like to be exposed to germs you didn’t even know existed and live on Echinacea tea? Would you be happy looking at the same kid’s unexplained cuts and bruises every week, however many times you log their appearance? Would you like to take work home with you, have to teach World War sodding One until you’d happily go over the top when the whistle blows and then get defamed on Facebook by someone you’re not allowed to retaliate to, whatever they do? Would you like to do all that for about the same you could earn doing overtime in Tesco?

If your answer is yes to all of these, you’re unlike the number of people streaming out of the profession, the same way they’re streaming out of nursing. One in five English lessons isn’t taught by an English teacher. Because they left. Most teachers haven’t taught for ten years. For the same reason.

Getting paid properly to do a job isn’t some kind of communism. It’s something MPs demand, along with everyone else. But then, they got the pay rise they wanted. They voted it through themselves.

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Telling people what to think

I'm old enough to remember a time that sounds like a fairytale. Long, long ago, when men wore lapels big enough to pass for aircraft carriers for flies, two journalists decided that whatever it took, they were going to uncover the truth. They did.  They uncovered the fact that the President of the USA had not only sanctioned a burglary but had lied about the fact. Those two men digging for the truth got President Nixon out of the Whitehouse. I wanted to be a journalist back then.

I was brought up in a household full of lies, half-truths and ommissions. Maybe that was part of it. My father, for reasons that as Hunter Thompson, another famous journalist and sometime liar, often said were never made clear, used to pretend to be Australian. That was the family truth. When one day in my twenties I’d had about enough of this I went and found his birth certificate records. He was as Australian as I am. And I can’t really remember all the words of Waltzing Matilida.


A couple of days ago Grenfell Towers burned down. As there was with the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, there was a lot of nonsensical hysteria. With the disappeared airplane, people were demanding to know exactly where the airplane was, not least because the airline couldn’t or wouldn’t tell the unfortunate truth, that it was 99.9999999% certainly at the bottom of the sea.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we regretfully announce the unscheduled arrival of Flight MH370.”

Even when they eventually said pretty much exactly that, many people, especially on social media, demanded the Latitude and Longitude of the crash-site and in its absence insisted there was a cover-up, an alien abduction, a Bond-style villain holding everyone hostage, the CIA holding everyone hostage and/or a Lost-style TV drama scenario where a jetliner miraculously lands on a desert island without explooding and killing everyone on board. I thought at the time it would have been less heartbreaking for everyone concerned if the airline had just been able to treat everyone as adults, and say openly ‘look, sorry, they’re pretty certainly dead.’

With the destruction of Grenfell Towers the hysteria has gone another way, with people demanding to know why ‘they’ couldn’t be told the exact number of people dead in the fire, even though at the time the fire brigade hadn’t even left the building. The original official estimate of just 17 people didn’t help.

There are lots of obvious reasons: they haven’t got all the bodies out. Some of them bodies won’t have physically been found yet. Quite possibly, in the intense heat inside the buidling, bodies won’t resemble bodies at all.

But I remember a time when the same media that accepted this phenomenally low figure accepted another set of figures.


Without blinking, when they were told maybe 40,000 people had died on 911, the mass media reported this without hesitation. When the figure was revised down to 25,000, that was the figure that stuck. The reality, let out days or weeks later, that in fact, around 3,500 people died in the Twin Towers attack, wasn’t exactly banner headlines. The same media, most especially the BBC, happily reported the collapse of Tower 7, the one that fell down because an airplane didn’t crash into it, nearly half an hour before it collapsed. Think about that for a moment. Why did the BBC do that? Why did the reporter stand there in front of a screen showing the very tangible Tower 7 and claim it wasn’t there? The answer is depressingly simple: because somebody told them to.

Seventeen people didn’t die in the Grenfell Flats. Nor did 40,000 people die on 911. You are not being told the truth. No President or pretty much anyone else is ever going to have to worry about losing office as a result of journalism ever again.


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The soft click of the safety-catch

I read a thriller the other day. Ken Follet’s Eye Of The Needle. As war-time thrillers go, it went. It had pretty much everything on the tick box list and rave reviews from the New York Times (‘pulse pounding”, which they cribbed directly from Publishers Weekly, who called it, er, “pulse pounding..”), going on to call it ‘frighteningly realistic’ and all the rest of the blah.

I paid £2 for it in a PDSA shop in Edinburgh, mainly to read on the train but also because I was feeling guilty about not giving the PDSA something. And I was in a hurry and I was ill. I wasn’t thinking straight.

As thrillers go, it’s alright, except you can see the end coming for about half the book. That’s the problem and the attraction of history – you know how it ends, as well as what happened next. A bit like an Oasis song.

Except it’s full of mistakes. Really, seriously basic everyday mistakes that in a thriller, where the job is to build an inclusive, logical world around the reader, smash that world to pieces as soon as the reader has to start making allowances for the writing. For me, when I have to say ‘well that’s not true but…” Then I know I’m wasting reading time. And it happens a lot.

The most-used gun in fiction. Albeit mistakenly.

The first, massive, seemingly compulsory mess-up was when the anti-hero as usual, thumbed the safety-catch on his revolver. Which is problematic as only one revolver ever had one. The Fosberry-Webley, a massive, unusual, anachronistic Heath-Robinson contraption which Bogart used in a single film, which was never issued to any army anywhere.

So far, so thriller.  There’s a submarine in the story and the thing that anyone knows about them is that they go underwater. This isn’t really technical stuff, is it? Nor the fact that if they ran the diesel engines under water either they’d leave a trail of handy bubbles, not really being very secret, or they’d all die from the exhaust fumes, which is why submarines had electric motors for underwater use.

Then the jeep’s side window gets shot out, which is a neat trick when jeeps didn’t have side windows, or at least not back in 1944 they didn’t. It’s handily not explained quite where a civilian could have got hold of a jeep for his own use, or the wherewithall to convert it to automatic transmission anyway, but no matter.

The heroine escapes in this same jeep. Has she left the keys in it? Of course. Irrespective of the fact they didn’t have keys. She turned the starter, forgetting that she ought to have pressed it instead.

OK, so far so bollocks. It’s a thriller. It’s not a manual or a how-to. It’s not important.

Except it is.

“A marvellously detailed suspense thriller based on a solid foundation of fact.” Sunday Times

When mainstream media calls errors and inaccuracies ‘ a solid foundation of fact,’ it’s not just that the author, the editor, the proof reader and everyone else who read it didn’t know, didn’t care and didn’t check. The fact that this is called fact is fundamentally frightening. This is just a crappy thriller for the train. It begs the issue of what else gets passed off as truth. And why. And why nobody cares.


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