Oooom Pah Pah

It’s a nicely Boris Johnson-sounding phrase, isn’t it? Suitably, because it was the chorus of a music hall song about making-up stories, something the Prime Minister was sacked for, twice, at the start of his career in a world where clearly lying is no impediment to career advancement.

There is, according to the 1960s musical Oliver! (and how I hate exclamation marks compulsorily joined to words) a little ditty they’re singing in the City.

 There’s a little ditty
They’re singing in the city
Espeshly when they’ve been
On the gin
Or the beer
If you’ve got the patience,
Your own imaginations
Will tell you just exactly what you want to hear…

So far, it’s the story of Brexit, where the pub bore suddenly feels able to pontificate about sovereignty and trade deals while even its most ardent supporters can’t quite articulate what they will be able to do that they can’t do now that the EU is stopping them doing, nor exactly how leaving the UK’s biggest trading partner is going to usher in anything except the golden opportunity to re-start the ground-nut scheme, or whatever else someone can cobble together out of a trade deal with Tanzania.

They all suppose what they want to suppose

I’ve been reading about two very different stories where people heard, saw and believed exactly what they wanted to believe they saw and heard.

When I first went to High School we had to find, remember and illustrate a poem. I chose In Flanders Fields, in large part because it was short but also because thanks to the definitive historical text of the times, the Airfix catalogue, I knew, or thought I knew, a bit about the First World War. Finding a complete set of The Great War in all thirteen volumes and all its dated monochrome glory at an uncle’s house one excrutiatingly boring holiday had helped as well. I’d been taken to see a vicar who had actually served in the First War. I’d even been given what a strange uncle called a Commando dagger, adding enigmatically, ‘they’re cruel, those Japs,’ oblivious of the fact that the Japanese weren’t fighting the UK in 1914-1918 and as it turned out, the dagger was a German First World War trench knife and nothing to do with WWII British Commandos at all. So I’d heard of the Angel of Mons.

It was a fairy tale. If you haven’t heard of it, it goes like this. Battle of Mons, 1915, British Army about to get wiped out by Germans, angels appear, can’t seem to read ‘Gott Mit Uns’ on the Germans’ belt buckles, may or may not have muttered ‘here’s socks’ and turn back the dastardly Hun instead, with or in some versions without the aid of ghostly Agincourt bowmen.

All very well and stirring stuff, and widely believed as fact, except that a man called Arthur Machen made the whole thing up, deliberately and openly. The angles and the Bowmen of Mons were fiction. He always said so right up to until the end of his life. The trouble was, nobody believed him.

Making-up is(n’t) hard to do

Much the same thing happened in France in June 1944. Hundreds of kilometres from the Normandy landings, local Resistance units rose and gathered on a plateau called the Vercors, near Grenoble. They had been waiting for the codewords on the BBC to take-up arms and fight to liberate their country. When the word came, they fought. Except the word definitively had never been broadcast. Some people, according to Paddy Ashdown (The Cruel Victory) claimed long after the war that they remembered the command in clear.

They wanted to believe it was true. It wasn’t. And it didn’t matter.

The problem being that it does matter. Newspaper after parish magazine after sermon after speech exhorted more young men to join up and get blown to pieces, drown in mud or line-up to die of flu by the hundreds of thousands, unsafe in the knowledge that angels or at least St George was looking after them specifically. On the Vercors, 4,500 French civilians stood-up and shot at the Wermacht artillery with left-over Hotchkiss guns and anything they could steal from a police barracks. They were both massacred.

Today we have a Prime Minister who makes-up stories and people who want to believe them too. Just like then, nothing bad will happen to him at all.

The end of the affair

The Overseas Food Corporation working party reported in 1950 that the groundnut scheme was costing six times as much to produce the crops as the crops were worth. Just like today they repeated the mantra that the administration in Tanganyika needed to be ‘much smaller and more flexible’ and released from ‘the burden of preconceived objectives and targets’, as well as ‘undue or premature publicity’. Plenty of time was needed to foster the growth of ‘viable economic units’ suited to the local conditions, which evidently needed to be shielded from both the public eye and eerily reminiscent of today, any particular expectations.

The groundnut scheme was folded in January 1951. Debts of £36.5 million – over a thousand million sterling today – were written off. Just like today, it was all nobody’s fault that people believed in it all.

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Trump, lies and sellotape

Esquire ran the story today but I heard it yesterday and one thing that Trump has showed us all is that yesterday counts for nothing; he’ll have told another four lies since breakfast. When he came out with this one at a press conference there was nothing but reverential silence from the crowd of supposedly impartial Clark Kents and Lois Lanes all devoted to truth ‘N’ freedom, Gahd, Mom ‘N’ apple pie.

Donald Trump just met the Korean dictator, or as Fox News put it, two dictators met each other. After saying that he’d make North Korea give up all their nukes or goshdurnit, them Commies would pay the meeting ended with Trump basically saying what a nice guy Kim Yung Un was and how he, Trump, had done a brilliant thing when nobody else could and how everybody loved him. So far, so normal.

As was the Big Lie slipped in. Trump said he’d managed to secure the remains of GI’s killed in the Korean War, a Very Big Deal because, he said, so many of their parents had come to see him to say gee Mr Donald, when you go to that there Korea, could you bring back whatever’s left of Jim Buck, my boy in the 427th?

The details I made up, but the gist was what he said. The problem being, nobody laughed. The whole Press pack soaked this rubbish up in reverential silence as if God himself was sitting there lying.

For better or worse, the Korean War ended in 1953. Anyone fighting and dying in it from the USA would have had to be at least 18 when they fought and fell, which means at a minimum they’d have to have been born in 1935. Even by Southern States’ standards, an average of 20 probably held right for parenting back then,  which takes us to 1915. This isn’t any tricky statistics, just boring old maths. And according to President Trump, ‘so many’ people aged over 100 years old not only attended his stump meets but came up to him personally to ask him a favour.

Except they didn’t and everybody knows they didn’t. Except the Press corps dutifully, silently, willingly and without comment soaked-up and repeated this stupid, childish, provable lie. It isn’t good enough that a style magazine gets snide about it the next day. Our problem is the mainstream news happily repeats lies instead of falling about laughing at the liar. Maybe God made Man. Maybe,and maybe the mighty should look on these works and despair. But without any question, the Press made Trump and more than just the mighty need to despair at that.











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After work, the happy volunteers gathered on top of the tower.   Quite. Some nights, anyway.
After work, the happy volunteers gathered on top of the tower. Quite. Some nights, anyway.

Long, long ago when if not the world then at least I was young, or younger, anyway, I lived on a kibbutz. You sort of had to at my school if you’d been on the sailing team.

Yes, I know how that sounds. Thanks.

It wasn’t that posh. We had two Enterprises and two Mirrors, both types wooden dinghies that might have been made in someone’s garage and many of them were. We sailed on a lake that had been a gravel pit next to Westbury railway station. We had two teachers looking after us, both of them a bit like the kids who ended-up sailing, nice, but none of us really fitted in with the school. The female teacher had been through a divorce from another member of staff. We knew something wasn’t right when we saw the obviously not happy couple arrive at school one morning in their (probably his, in those  days) Escort Mexico or whatever it was that blokes having second thoughts went and bought on HP after they’d grown a Zapata moustache. They parked and got out and kissed briefly before they each went their separate ways to their different classes.

Just as a tip, if you want to convince IIIa everything is fine and dandy in your marriage, maybe not both wipe your lips simultaneously as you turn away. It stays with me still, that symbol of a gritted teeth let’s-keep-this-civilised break-up in progress. Hanging on in quiet desperation might have been the English way once. Times were changing.

The other teacher was another misfit, one of the nicest people I’ve ever known. Someone you could trust completely. When one of the other pupils’ father keeled over dead it was this teacher who stepped in quietly as someone who was always there. You didn’t mess him about. You didn’t even want to, because he was totally fair. Unlike the other PE teacher, who was such an utter arse that he spent his lunchtime driving around the town looking through pub windows to see who was where and who shouldn’t be (some of us were eighteen and there wasn’t a school rule about not going to pubs), the sailing PE teacher was just straight down the line. He was usually smiling and quiet. I think I saw him smoking a couple of times. Certainly he didn’t bother asking stupid questions about why when the dinghies went the other side of the island they apparently all hit a headwind and huge clouds of Old Holborn rolled over the lake. At least. But then, he didn’t need to prove anything. He’d been a paratrooper in The War.

Sorry, I’ll type that again. The good PE teacher, the un-ostentatious non-arse one, the one who smiled, had been a paratrooper in the war. Not Northern Ireland Parachute Regiment beating up kids with sticks. Arnhem. D-Day. Unimaginably out in front. You don’t get much more rock than that, really. He probably gave the other one an inferiority complex just by turning up.

So anyway, as nominal Captain of the sailing team it was my sacred duty to go to kibbutz after school. After I left, you understand. It would have been too far to get back every morning, in those days.

I went out with Project 67. I went up to that London for the interview and found people with Walther PPKs stuck down their belt in an office in St Johns Wood hidden behind what looked like a brick wall and clearly wasn’t, all covered by CCTV. It wasn’t now. They only had CCTV on James Bond films back then. James Bond films and spook cover offices in St Johns Wood.  It was my first taste of ‘we can do what we like.’ I got more familiar with that as the next few months rolled on. I didn’t know then that the .22 Walther PPK was a favourite Mossad tool for when words just weren’t enough.

I went out there for about two months. I was 19. It seemed a lot longer, but things do when a month is a much bigger proportion of the life you’ve had so far. Revivim was a pile of nothing in the middle of the Sinai desert. It was nothing like the catalogue of lies we’d been told to get us out there. In writing in my brochure was stuff about how you could all get together and borrow a kibbutz car and go into town. There were no kibbutz cars. ‘Town’ was Be’er Sheba, 36 km away and apart from the bar at the bus station there wasn’t anything to do there except not buy the green tobacco that looked like dope but wasn’t in the market and look at the beggars with twisted legs where they sold the live chickens. It wasn’t much like Trowbridge at all, somehow.

They saved the biggest lie for the night the kibbutz was attacked. We knew there were armed guards around every night. Because of TV we pretty much knew what a full magazine of 9mm going off sounded like, but it wasn’t a sound we’d expected to hear as we didn’t have a TV. We all stopped what we were doing and piled out of our huts to stand there illuminated in the parachute flares that were drifting down. Our PE teacher would have told us to get back inside and lie on the floor, the same way I’d tell people now, but he wasn’t there.

There wasn’t any more gunfire. Some older people from the kibbutz self-importantly turned up with Uzi sub-machine guns in their hands, rounded us up and marched us off without any explanation. What’s happening? Nothing. Where are we going? The shelter. What shelter?

Good question, as it turned out. We were all marched down some steps behind a locked steel door on the tennis court, where it turned out the brick hut wasn’t a toolshed after all, but the top of a flight of steep stairs. We all sat there for about an hour. What’s happening? Still nothing.

Eventually we were sent back to our huts. What’s happening? Nothing. Everyone wasn’t talking about it at breakfast. The volunteers were. The people who lived on the kibbutz weren’t. Even when you asked them directly.

So what happened last night?

What do you mean?

We all had to go to the shelter.

There is no shelter.

The gunfire.

There was no gunfire.

The parachute flares? The lights in the sky?

You were dreaming. Nothing happened.

After about an hour we were all sent back to bed. It’s safe. What is? Nothing.

After about two weeks someone found out what had happened. The kibbutz guards that night were fifteen years old. Apparently it was a really good idea to give fifteen year olds loaded sub-machine guns to stick in the front basket on their bicycles. It was night-time, nothing was happening because it never did unless you went spying on who was using the old huts who shouldn’t have been but hey, you’re fifteen and you’ve got an Uzi. Obviously the best thing to do is check the safety catch is on. Not by feeling it with your thumb. Not by taking your hand off the pistol-grip and making sure the web of your fingers isn’t pressing into the back of the handle. No. You’re fifteen.  So you hold the thing firmly, (disengaging the grip safety) and pull the trigger. And before you can get your finger off the trigger, because who would have thought that would happen, 30 rounds of 9mm have streaked across the sky at 1200 feet per second.

But luckily, nobody thought it. Because they were kibbutz people. And kibbutz people don’t make mistakes. So luckily it never happened at all. Except it did. Just like the two Arab villages which were bulldozed to make way for the kibbutz.

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Put your lights on

In a story absolutely nothing to do with Carlos Santana’s song, which as a sign of aging I still think is quite new even though it came out in 1999, according to the BBC the Energy Secretary Ed Davey has defended the building of a new nuclear power station at Hinckley Point as “a very good deal for Britain.”  In twenty years of providing research-based consultancy I’ve come to detest facts being used to spin a story that they contradict, not least because when the person doing it is found out the first thing he does is blame the people who provided them. I’ve seen whole company boards of directors literally screaming across a table at each other when that happens. It doesn’t generally go in the book of best management practice. But then, incidents like that are supposed to magically unhappen in most management books I’ve ever read.

I don’t know whether nuclear power is better or worse than windmills or tidal barrages or lots of people on stationary bicycles converted into dynamos. But the number of flat contradictions in the story makes me think someone isn’t so much being what the last Tory government chose to call being economical with the actuality, as flat lying.

“A good deal for Britain” now means giving an eye-watering amount of money to EDF, the French company which will be building and operating the power station, along with a Chinese company. In both France and China these companies are effectively nationalised, so now a good deal for Britain directly means that UK tax payers’ money is given directly to foreign governments and this is officially Good. This isn’t me being a bit political, as Ben Elton used to say. There isn’t another way of looking at this. The money couldn’t, for example, be given to the British government’s power companies because they were sold off cheap (just like the Royal Mail, whose shares have jumped 50% in the first week since the launch).

The government estimates that energy bills will be £77 lower by 2030, but Mr Davey could not guarantee this because of the “uncertainties”.

In other words, Mr Davey, who as a Cabinet Minister is one of the most senior members of ‘the government’ has said that what was said isn’t necessarily true.

Greenpeace pointed out helpfully that the official story is that power prices are going to be locked for 35 years. But as David Cameron, the Prime Minister said last week, he couldn’t stop power prices rising this winter. There is no magical thing that makes this winter (the one where prices cannot be controlled) different from the one half a lifetime away where apparently they can.

Even normally shy and retiring Ed Milliband had to comment on the fact that his Right Honourable Friend said he couldn’t do anything at all about consumer prices now, but could definitely fix the price the government was going to pay for power in 35 years.

Mr Davey plans to submit the application for state aid clearance to the EC.

Let’s look at that for a second. You might think the dead hand of the European Union shouldn’t get involved with the workings of a sovereign government. You might also wonder why the UK government is in the business of giving state aid to foreign companies, especially when they are owned by foreign governments. Clearly it’s not enough that we exported the production of the stuff that fills pound shops to China; now we have to give state aid to their government as well.

Angela Knight, chief executive of trade body Energy UK, said 

“We’ve got 10 years in which to insulate our homes better. We’ve got 10 years to take the steps that some other countries have taken – especially those in colder countries – to make sure that we can keep warm but use less.” 

Some other countries have a private rented housing market, where energy inefficient homes are harder to find occupants for. Some other countries actually build houses, modern, energy efficient, insulated houses, rather than allowing ‘the market’ to dictate that fewer new homes were built last year than in any year in the previous ninety. That’s right. in 1924 more homes were built than in 2012. The market doesn’t want new homes. If there were new homes then the rubbishy inefficient heat-leaking old ones we have wouldn’t sell for as much. Who on earth wants that?

Still, what do I know? Someone who probably knows a little bit more about stuff than me is Dr Paul Dorfman, from the Energy Institute at University College London, who said “what it equates to actually is a subsidy and the coalition said they would never subsidise nuclear”.

He added: “It is essentially a subsidy of between what we calculate to be £800m to £1bn a year that the UK taxpayer and energy consumer will be putting into the deep pockets of Chinese and French corporations, which are essentially their governments.”

Where do you even start with this?

So just to sum up, officially we don’t have any money and we can’t interfere in the market because not only is the market always right (except if it looks like the Royal Mail was deliberately and fraudulently undervalued, robbing the taxpayer, in which case it’s just a fluke and hardly worth mentioning) but interfering with the market means your Mum fancied Stalin. At exactly the same time we have £800 million a year to give to the French and Chinese governments in state aid so transparent that we have to ask the EC really nicely if it’s ok that we give it to them. Oh and the teeny little lie about never subsidising nuclear power, obviously.

Appropriately enough, way back in the 1980s there was a TV series called Edge of Darkness (not to be confused with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a searing insight into the 1970s power cuts and the Three Day Week, or Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness On The Edge of Town, a song protesting intermittent rural New Jersey power supplies), the hero’s daughter got herself shot protesting about nuclear energy, setting her father off on a quest to find out who was lying about what. Along the way he met a CIA man who saw the light, spitting out ‘Nuclear energy – they threw truth out the window the day they invented that stuff.’

Something to do with copyright and You Tube which I don’t pretend to understand is stopping me being able to bring you Put Your Lights On with sound.  So I’ll just type the words and you can hum them.

There’s a monster living under my bed
Whispering in my ear
There’s an angel with a hand on my head
She says I got nothing to fear

We all shine like stars, then we fade away.

I used to believe that grown-ups mostly told the truth and tried to help. Then I grew up too.

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Full disclosure

It was dark. We’d finished eating. I got up to open a bottle of wine. She looked down and frowned and pursed her lips as she sat at the kitchen table. I’d got used to that look. It was usually when I said I loved her.

“It won’t work. You just say everything, to anyone. I don’t want anyone knowing about me. I might as well get a sign made as tell you anything. It’s what you’re like.”

She looked up at me then and kept my eyes until I sat down. What she said was true. Sort of.

I do say things. A bit. Quite a lot, in fact. My truest, deepest friends will tell you. The kind ones call it ‘sharing.’ There’s a reason for it.

In my life some people have benefitted hugely from silence. My father, for one. We were one of the last houses on the new estate in the fields to have a telephone. My father worked away from home a lot. In fact he was only at the house three or maybe four times a week at the most. Even some Christmasses he’d have to work and as children we never knew when he would arrive. Then everything had to change as the whole house was geared to welcome his triumphant homecoming.

Name and rank

His parents were dead, so conveniently dead that although he talked about his father who was in a submarine accident off Blyth after WW1 (but not one that can be identified clearly, looking at any website I’ve ever found) and the mother whose foot his ex-RAF guard dog used to hold gently in its mouth none of them turned up at his wedding to my mother. In fact, nobody had ever seen a single relation of my father’s, ever. Alarm bells ringing just a teeny bit yet? They should be.

So, it’s the 1960s, we have a new house, my father has a new car every two years and he isn’t there a lot of the time. When he is the whole house is disrupted. As children when we’re asked at school what our parents do my father goes ballistic and roars around the house screaming that he’s going to complain to the school officially. Somehow he never does, officially or otherwise.

action man
The invisible man.

The time he really blew up at me was over an Action Man. Action Man, like my father who had been in the RAF during what was then called The War (we just don’t have proper wars any more) had a pay-book. With his name and serial number in it. I didn’t know anything about serial numbers, so when I had to (obviously) fill-in the details I asked my father what his serial number was. Because he’d spent six years giving this every time anybody asked for it my father recited it immediately. Then there was a silence.

“Why do you want it?”

I said it was to put it in my Action Man’s pay book. The rest of the day was shit.

I didn’t know why for years. Nearly fifteen years in fact, until I worked out that his serial number was the one thing he couldn’t fake. And as a career liar, my father faked a lot. Like many abusers, he got his victims to collude with the abuse, making excuses for him, refusing to check his lies, pretending things he said or did were a misunderstanding.

Things came to a head when my mother tried to divorce him and found out that you can’t divorce someone you aren’t actually legally married to. For example, if they were already married when they married you. And running a parallel family, although strictly speaking that part isn’t enshrined in law. John Richard Bennett, presumably the only son of Hannah Ramsey and John Bennett, who were married in the parish church of St Mary Cray, near Orpington, wasn’t born in Australia. His parents were never immigrants to the UK. He did not arrive in the UK aged two. He was not a dashing pilot. He was a liar, a bigamist and an abuser who during the war learned to work a lathe on an airfield somewhere. His fondness for the Wellington bomber he made from an Airfix kit might narrow down which airfield he was on if anyone could be bothered to find out. I can’t.

I’ve probably just done it again. John Richard Bennett, bigamist and abuser, sometime resident of Snitterfield, Warkwickshire, Gillingham, Dorset  Southwick and Trowbridge, Wiltshire, take a bow. You’re in the limelight, the place you always thought should be yours, but I think maybe for different reasons. I’ve stopped protecting abusers.

The beautiful woman in my kitchen the other night isn’t sitting at my table now. But if she ever reads this, that’s the reason why I say things. That’s why I’ve spent 20 years finding things out and telling people about them, for a living. That’s why I don’t like secrets. If people don’t want people knowing about the things they do there’s usually a good reason for it and I’ve never heard a nice one. Silence isn’t golden. It covers up abuse so everyone can pretend it isn’t happening. Silence doesn’t protect the victims, it just hides the people who look for victims. I’ve seen that happen enough.






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