Monday, 1 October 2018

An anthology of anger

The Anti-Austerity Anthology brings together some of the best active indie authors in a collection of original poetry, prose and more. It is an angry book. It should be

What does the word “austerity” mean to you? In its most generic form, of course, it just means plainness, simplicity, an absence of the superfluous. When I was younger, it had a more specific meaning; “austerity” clothes or furniture were those made during and especially after the war, when there was a scarcity of materials and skilled labour. Today, however, it has taken on another meaning – an economic policy that seeks to reduce budget deficits at all costs, through raising money and through not spending it. It’s a policy that has been widely adopted, especially in Britain, since the 2008 crash.

(Cover design by Chris Harrison)
On the face of it, this is reasonable. Every country has finite resources. But not everyone agrees that austerity is the way to conserve them. It’s not what Roosevelt did in the 1930s, when he raided the coffers in order to get men back to work; do that and they’ll pay taxes instead of being a charge on the public purse. Whether that’s a better idea than austerity is a big argument, and best left for another time. But the key point about austerity, for me, is that successive British governments have sought to reduce the deficit not by raising taxes from those who can afford to pay, but by cutting social support to the poor, the jobless and those who for health reasons cannot work.

The way this hits people was the subject of Ken Loach’s recent film, I, Daniel Blake. Loach was not joking. According to the food-bank charity the Trussell Trust, there were 1,332,952 emergency food supplies delivered by food bank charities to people in the UK between 1st April 2017 and 31st March 2018. Britain had the world’s 24th highest per capita income in 2017 (according to the World Bank; the IMF and the CIA World Factbook put it a little lower). So there’s no excuse for this. As Steve Topple writes in the Foreword to the The Anti-Austerity Anthology: “In reality, austerity is much more than just a policy and a word no one had really heard of until 2010. It’s a cover for an ideological position. One that has its roots in the very structures of society we see around us.” Yep.

Now we’ve gathered together some of the very best indie authors, in the Anthology. The proceeds will go to foodbank charities. It’s our way of fighting back.


I first heard of the Anthology back in 2016, when writer Rupert Dreyfus asked if I would like to contribute. I had come across Dreyfus the previous year, when I read and very much liked his debut novel Spark. In it, a young finance professional becomes disaffected and decides to use his IT skills to blow up the entire system. It’s a fast-moving little thriller, definitely political, but also very funny. It is especially memorable for Vinnie Sloan, one of the great comic creations of all time – a foul-mouthed posh git who makes his living from internet scams while ingesting unpleasant substances. In 2015 Dreyfus followed on with a satirical short-story collection, The Rebel’s Sketchbook, which I described in a review as one of the few books can make you laugh and vomit at the same time. His latest, Broke, a savage take on austerity, will be out soon. Dreyfus is a fiercely contemporary writer; his preoccupations are austerity, Trump, the NHS – in fact much of what’s in the news today. And yet he’s also part of a very English tradition of bawdy dissent that stretches back through Gillray, Hogarth, John Wilkes and into the stews of Elizabethan London.

George W. and Laura Bush meet food-bank volunteers in Washington
Dreyfus knows plenty of radical indie writers and poets, and the Anthology began to take shape. But it was a lot of work, and in 2017 he roped in Harry Whitewolf and myself as co-editors. He chose well in Whitewolf, who is a creative professional but also a startlingly original radical poet. He styles himself as a Beat poet but is actually something unique in his own right, writing repetitive, rhythmic, barbed poems that fall, every now and then, into unexpected humour or tenderness. He is a talented illustrator and cartoonist, and has also ventured into travel writing – with two books describing anarchic journeys of self-discovery, in Egypt and in South America. He’s certainly political, as seen in his poem Short and Long Division, from his collection Two Beat Newbie:

Me and my neighbour hated each other.
Our street hated the next street, so me and my
neighbour would then stick together.
...Our country hated another country, so our counties would then stick together.

Whitewolf has a wide frame of reference, citing influences as diverse as Milton, John Cooper Clarke and Baudelaire (another of his collections, New Beat Newbie, contains a short but elegant tribute to the last-named, Ragmen). But his style is very much his own.


I already knew, and liked, a number of the writers in this book. They included poets M.J. Black and Andy Carrington – like Whitewolf, they’re hard-hitting and political. Steve Topple is a frequent contributor to the online news site The Canary, where’s he’s called the Department of Work and Pensions to account for some of what they’ve done to people in the name of austerity. 

 Amongst the prose writers, I’m a fan of Rebecca Gransden, who is less overtly political and yet deeply subversive; her strange and beautiful books anemogram. (sic) and Rusticles strongly repay close reading. The one US contributor is Riya Anne Polcastro; I already knew her work but only slightly, and will now read more. Her piece here packs a serious punch. Ruth F. Hunt let us use a powerful extract from her 2015 novel The Single Feather, about austerity and disability. Mary Papastavrou, who contributed a dystopian short story, Maria Jumps, is also the author of a strange and compulsive novel of ideas, How to Sew Pieces of Cloud Together; like Gransden’s work, it rewards a close read and is very subversive. 

Come on, admit you want the job
Leo X. Robertson is the author of much short fiction with a horror bent, but also a couple of novels – one of which, the wonderful Findesferas, weaves together Paraguayan history, science fiction and Guaraní mythology to create a novel that, despite being quite short, has an epic quality. Jay Spencer Green contributed Green’s Vacuous Vacancies, a series of career opportunities that are scattered through the Anthology; do check them out (come on, you’ve always fancied a post as a Witchfinder, haven’t you?). He’s the author of several books, including the outrageous satire Breakfast at Cannibal Joe’s. Last but not least, Dreyfus, Whitewolf and I have also contributed. In my case, it’s a preachy essay on the roots of austerity. The other two have deployed their satirical wit.

Other contributors I didn’t know. There’s a witty short story from Chris Harrison, for instance; he’s the author of a series of original vampire novels with a twist (the TotenUniverse). We owe him especial thanks as he also did the excellent cover for the Anthology. When not writing, he’s a landscape architect. Bradford Middleton is a poet and short-story writer who sometimes looks at the dark side of life; he’s published widely, and not just in Britain. So has Bristol-born writer Matthew Duggan, whose work has appeared in a number of periodicals; his first collection, Dystopia 38.10, was published in 2015. Guy Brewer is another new one on me; besides writing poetry, he also undertakes union work. (I especially liked his poem Choking Fumes and Smoke-Filled Skies). Connor Young, from Brighton, gave us a Poem for the Brighton Homeless (Ed gets his head kicked in as he sleeps/By pale blue shirted West Street creeps). Ford Dagenham is an unusual poet with a nice line on everyday hypocrisies – this comes out well in his contributions here.

We hope you like the Anti-Austerity Anthology. It was a lot of work by a lot of people. But the proceeds will be going to food banks. And anyway, this all matters. We can’t go on as we are. At the end of the book, we quote Plutarch, who wrote over 2,000 years ago that: An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.” Let’s not put that to the test.

You can buy the Anti-Austerity Anthology here (or in the US, here), as an ebook or paperback – or order the paperback from from any bookshop using the ISBN 978-1724577962.

Mike Robbins's essay Such Little Accident: British democracy and its enemies  was published in December 2016 and is available from Amazon and other online retailers, or through bookshops 
(ISBN 978-0-9978815-0-9, ebook; ISBN 978-0-9978815-1-6, paperback)

 Follow Mike Robbins on Twitter (mikerobbins19), on Facebook or on Goodreads

Saturday, 1 September 2018

In northern waters

Grey seas, icebergs, wrecks and whales. 

A voyage to the St Lawrence, 50 years ago

One of the odder things about aging is that one may enter a room, forget why, and suddenly recall what one was doing 50 years ago to the day instead. It happened to me this morning. I noticed that it was August 21 and a series of images came unbidden into my head; then I started playing one of those mental newsreels of a past time that are always incomplete. It flickered into life with the image of a train. I was in the dining car with my parents and sister. A flat stretch of late-summer countryside was flashing by, black-and-white cows in a field; a white-jacketed waiter emerged through a swing door with oval windows, a large silver tray at shoulder-height. I wondered why we had been in the dining-car; my parents were the sort who found sandwiches quite adequate. But perhaps it was all part of our ticket, for this was a boat train.


The Empress of Canada in her original livery (Canadian Pacific postcard)
The boat train was once a quite usual feature of international travel, speeding you from Euston or Waterloo and taking you, not to the main station for the port, but straight into the docks, where one climbed down and entered the terminal building or shed to surrender your baggage. This would be labelled as needed, to be taken to your cabin or stickered “Not Wanted on Voyage” and swung into the hold in nets that hung from cranes or derricks. In this shed, too, one would undergo passport formalities before striding up the gangway and into the doors let into the side of the vessel. On one’s return to Britain one went through the same process in reverse, assuming one got through customs in time.

On one occasion some years earlier, my mother had missed the boat train. Disembarking from the Holland America Line’s much-loved Nieuw Amsterdam at Southampton with a two-year-old (me) and my seven-year-old sister, she made the mistake of giving me an orange as we waited in the queue, enraging a customs officer who lectured her about the phytosanitary dangers of American oranges and proceeded to examine our luggage in minute detail. The boat train left without us.

“He was very small. A pipsqueak,” she remembered years later, thought for a moment and added, outraged: “He was Welsh”, as if this somehow explained the man’s behaviour. I remember someone – I believe it was John Treasure Jones, the last captain of the mighty Queen Mary (and himself Welsh) – telling a magazine interviewer how to avoid trouble at customs. Look for a chap with a loosely-knotted tie, he said; a tight, small knot indicates a small, tight mind. It is advice I have carried through life ever since.


But back to the late summer of 1968.

The train rolled into the docks at Liverpool and came to rest outside a cavernous shed. We entered it, and through the open doors at the other side I saw a huge wall of white steel, punctuated by row upon row of portholes. It seemed a leviathan.

The Queen Elizabeth at New York (date and photographer unknown)
In fact, at about 27,000 GRT, the Empress of Canada was dwarfed by the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, which at over 81,000 GRT were for a long time the largest man-made moving objects on earth. I had sailed on the Queen Elizabeth, too. In what I believe to be my earliest memory, I am in the children’s playroom on board, pushing a toy car along the art-deco ventilation grilles at the edge of the room and annoying a little girl trying to play with one of the doll’s houses set against them. Then I look up to see my mother standing above me in a Dior-like New Look skirt. If I am correct, it was August 1958, and I was just 15 months old, so it does not seem possible – surely it must have been another ship, probably the Nieuw Amsterdam – but old black-and-white pictures of the Cunarder’s playroom seem to match my memory.

If the Empress of Canada could not compare to the Queens, it was still very large, and was one of the most modern liners on the North Atlantic run, launched on the Tyne in 1960. Designed for the Liverpool to Montreal route, she could carry about a thousand passengers. In the 1960s there was still demand for cabins. Atlantic flights had been offered since the 1940s, and were having an impact on shipping. Jets had offered a transatlantic service since October 1958, a British-built airliner beating the Americans by a matter of days. But jet travel was still for the very well-heeled; older planes often had to refuel at Gander, and the journey to New York could take 12 or 14 hours. And all air travel was still very expensive. All this would change with the arrival of wide-bodied jets in 1970. But for now, ships remained the best choice for many, for Australia as well as North America (many of the British emigrants who went to Australia as part of the assisted passage scheme in the 1960s made the six-week voyage by sea).

We walked up the gangway and into the entrance in the ship’s side. The first thing one noticed was the flooring; often in this ship, it was a light blue rubberised surface with raised buttons, from which water would drain, and on which one would not slip in rough seas. The first place one called was one’s cabin, where hopefully one’s luggage would arrive too. The cabins were small but not cramped and had their own bathrooms and toilets. I took the upper bunk above my sister. I was sleeping right by a porthole and could sit up in bed and look out at the sea.

I was 11, and old enough to wander around the ship alone; in fact I had just been given my first watch especially for the voyage, so that I would know when to turn up for meals. On this first day I went on deck and looked over the side at the docks. I was in a crush of other passengers, many waving goodbye to friends and relatives on the docks far below; some held coloured paper streamers that ran over the side, with the other end held by those below. As the ship pulled away the streamers would break or fall. In those days many passengers on a ship to Canada would have been emigrants, and I suppose the streamer represented the ties that were being broken in a rather poignant way. In fact I remember that everyone was in quite a cheerful mood, despite the greyness of the English summer sky. One passenger may not have been so happy – the owner of a large steamer trunk (yes, we had them) that was bobbing up and down between the ship and the water. A pair of stevedores tried half-heartedly to retrieve it with grappling hooks. “I say, I hear the poor chap’s PhD thesis is inside,” said someone. There was general chortling. And then the hawsers were unwound and we began, ever so slowly, to inch away from England.


At Greenock (date and photographer unknown)
In the morning all had changed. The ship had steamed up the Irish Sea in the night and had entered the Clyde estuary, and was standing off Greenock, waiting for the tender that would bring the last mail and passengers for Canada. We went on deck. It was a quite brilliant, still summer’s morning, the mountains to the north standing out green against the wonderful cloudless sky; the water was flat calm and the ship lay on a mirror in a room of deep blue. I have travelled widely in the half-century since, but I do not think I have seen many scenes to rival that strange and beautiful morning.

We did not stay long. In due course the tender nosed out to meet us, a small motorboat with a dozen or so passengers and some mailsacks. I suppose the sheer white walls of the ship must have reared hundreds of feet above them. They came up a ladder and the tender went about its business; we pulled away. I wonder what became of passengers who had booked their passage from Greenock to find that the weather had been too bad for them to transfer to the ship in this way – as must surely sometimes have happened.

As we left the Clyde behind, the weather dulled. The coast of Ulster was a low grey-green smudge in the distance. We settled into the ship that would be our home for the next week.

Shipboard life acquires a rhythm. Dinner was taken in a large airy dining-room below, at a shared table, served by a waiter in evening clothes, a very small red-headed man from the Shetland Islands; he was quiet but friendly and every night he handed us a new elaborate menu, great white creations of heavy card, with embossed letters and each night a different picture of a sailing ship’s stern on the front. The menus delighted me and the Shetland waiter, noticing that I liked them, kindly brought me a large white envelope marked “A Souvenir of a White Empress”, with a sample of each menu used on the voyage. I had it for many years and believe it may still be among my papers somewhere.

A 1950 poster by Roger Couillard
Between meals there was not that much to do. One could shop at the duty-free. One could play deck games, weather permitting. One could visit the cinema (we did, once; the film was the latest hit, The Cincinatti Kid. It bored us and we walked out). There were lounges and, of course, bars. My parents made little use of these and did not mingle much with the other passengers; my father, though not unfriendly, was not a clubbable man and was rather self-contained. In those days English people were more reserved than they are now and were cautious with strangers until they could place them, or identify a common relative or acquaintance. I made one friend on board, but apart from that I can remember few friendships being forged. We did meet a young woman who was travelling with two unfeasibly slender borzoi dogs. I had a plastic box-brownie camera (I have it still) and she posed for a picture with the dogs, which sat on a bench beside her; her legs were crossed and her skirt quite short and her leather raincoat unbuttoned, and in the picture there is an elegant expanse of thigh.

And of course one looked at the sea.

If one stood at the stern one could see the wake of the ship, a huge white maelstrom, fading at its edges to green and then grey. Seabirds wheeled and screamed above it. The volume of water displaced must have been enormous as the 27,000-ton ship ploughed through the water at 23 knots. One wonders what the wake of the Queen Elizabeth was like; three times the size, and rather faster – she made well over 30 knots, about 33 MPH.

When one tired of looking at the wake, there was the vast seascape around us. As anyone who lives by the sea can tell you, it has many moods. There was none of the glassy tranquility that we had seen at Greenock. Further out the fresh wind whipped up whitecaps. As it was summer, we followed the Great Circle route some way to the north; it grew cold, and the sky was a dirty light grey and the sea gunmetal with crests of white. One day an announcement on the PA told us that we were near what was thought to be the last position of the Titanic (it had yet to be found). Late that afternoon we saw icebergs in the distance.

At that time, no British person could cross that stretch of ocean without remembering that it was also a graveyard. The U-boat battles of the second war had reached their climax in 1943, just 25 years earlier; plenty of people on board would have remembered them, and perhaps some of the crew had sailed through them – in fact I am sure they had, for the ship was crewed in Liverpool. My father was quiet and mildly irritable throughout the voyage and I know he disliked the sea. I did not understand why, but now I realize that he must have spent weeks on a troopship to what was then the Gold Coast in 1941, a tense voyage; the vessel would have swung much of the way out towards Brazil to avoid U-boats. Many were sunk off West Africa, including a previous Empress of Canada; she was torpedoed by an Italian submarine, but by a twist of fate the ship was carrying Italian prisoners, nearly 200 of whom died.

A few years ago I wrote about crossing the Atlantic, then and now – a piece I later included in my 2014 book The Nine Horizons. It included this passage:

A convoy in 1942 (US Navy picture)
Some journeys on this ocean always have ended badly. You are in your cabin; it was a five-day voyage before, but now it's three weeks as you limp along at the pace of the slowest ship, and you zigzag and dogleg, and destroyers and corvettes fuss around like smoky sheepdogs. It's early morning and you're still in your bunk when there is a soft thud and a jolt and the ship falters and seems to have come to a stop. There is an odd silence. The lights flicker but stay on. You can hear the footsteps of a steward clanging on the steel floor of the passage outside so you open the door. No, probably nothing to worry about, but perhaps you wouldn't mind going topside, sir, do you have warm clothing? – good, sir, if you can get it on quickly. On deck everything's quite calm, but the other ships have moved on ahead, leaving a black smoke stain on the horizon; and you're alone in the early morning between a still, solid grey sea and a gunmetal sky, and there's a cool breeze. It's very calm and it must be only your imagination that the ship is settling slowly to starboard. In fact everything is so calm that you cannot envisage the jagged hole below and the cold water streaming in across the hot boilers and the lascars and stokers screaming in agony from the superheated steam.

When I was young, many older people hated the sea.


On the fifth day it was still dull and cold. In the early afternoon I was standing on the deck when someone pointed in the distance. A school of whales was passing us a mile or so away, their bodies breaking the water, huge, but very small in the distance. I went up again at dusk, which came late (we were a long way north, and it was still summer). On the far horizon in front of the ship was a long, low shadow, and it was not a cloud. I wonder if it looked the same to Leif Ericson a thousand years ago, or to the first of the Breton and Iberian cod-fishermen not long afterwards. Or maybe to St Brendan, 500 years earlier. Many believe he made it. Should we be so sure he didn’t? The American explorer Robert Marx once claimed to have found amphorae from a Roman shipwreck in Guanabara Bay, off Rio de Janeiro. Who knows who first saw that shore from the sea?

That night, there wasn’t much to see. But the next morning we had passed Belle Isle and into the mouth of the St Lawrence.

The sheer size of this river is hard to comprehend. It drains the Great Lakes into the Atlantic and, if one counts the estuary, is not much less than 2,000 miles long. To make landfall at Belle Isle and then spend two days steaming to one’s destination is to comprehend its size and that of Canada itself. Of course, there was now other shipping. Before long that morning a bulk carrier of Manchester Lines slipped past on its way to the ocean, and as the ship ploughed on towards Quebec, the traffic became more frequent. We were some way out in mid-stream; as the day wore on, however, we started to see small white houses nestled in the wooded shoreline. Bit by bit we sailed back into the human world.

The Empress of Ireland (Bibliothèque et Archives Canada)
The St Lawrence had its own harsh history for Canadian Pacific. On the night of May 29 1914, near Rimouski in Quebec, just inside the river proper, the Norwegian collier Storstad hit the Empress of Ireland in fog. The Storstad remained afloat, despite a damaged bow. The 14,000 GRT Empress of Ireland did not, sinking in just 14 minutes with the loss of just over a thousand lives – a disaster quite comparable to that of the Titanic, yet hardly known; perhaps the outbreak of the Great War two months later overlaid it in memory. The rapid sinking was attributed to the use of longtitudinal watertight compartments, which allowed one side of the ship to fill very quickly with water while the other did not, causing it to capsize rapidly. Many of those who did escape the ship died in the water, which at that time of year was still very cold. The exact circumstances of the collision were disputed at the enquiry, and remain so now. (The Storstad was repaired and returned to service, but seized by Canadian Pacific after a civil suit. She was torpedoed southwest of Fastnet Rock three years later.) I did not know it then, but we must have passed the wreck site in the St Lawrence during the sixth day.

In the evening we tied up at Quebec City. It was not yet time to leave the ship, but we went ashore to stretch our legs, striding along the dock below the towering mass of the Château Frontenac, built by Canadian Pacific themselves in 1893. It was there that Churchill had met Mackenzie King and Roosevelt in 1943 to discuss strategy. On this evening in late August 25 years later, there was little activity on the dock – it seemed empty – and even the other passengers seemed to have stayed aboard. At length we returned to the ship. But we had stood on North American soil. Well, concrete.

The next morning I pulled back the curtains above my bunk and saw an odd view. We had come to a halt at Montreal and were tied up near Man and His World – what had been Expo 67, the very successful World’s Fair the previous year. It was over but one could still visit the site, now called Man and His World. I was looking at Habitat 67, the strange cuboid flat complex that had been part of the exhibition and was still lived in, and is to this day.

We were chivvied off the ship by our parents and a Montreal metro train with big rubber wheels took us to an American-style train that took us to Ottawa. We rode upstairs in the observation car. The train rattled slowly along, seemingly right through people’s backyards. We left the Empress of Canada and its great white walls behind us at Montreal. I never saw her again.


From the 1930s
A year later, my father’s work in Canada was done. This time he flew. The rest of us returned the way we had come, in almost the same week. But this time we sailed on a sister ship of about the same size – the Empress of England, also built on the Tyne. The weather was markedly worse and the ship, although only slightly older, was less modern in design. It pitched and rolled. I had been ill before we went aboard and for the first and, so far, last time in my life, I was seasick. After two days for which I had vomited uncontrollably, my mother summoned a nurse from the dispensary in the bowels of the ship. The nurse unsheathed a very large needle that looked as if it was used to tranquilize horses. “Turn over,” she barked, and thrust it into my rump; I could not see but I think she was holding it aloft with both hands, as if sacrificing a goat. It did make me better, but not well enough to go to dinner. Instead, while my mother and sister went to eat, a friendly Belfast steward brought me some rather nice sandwiches and stayed with me until they returned, telling me all about the Mini-Coopers that he rallied in the winter season. It was a cheerful act of kindness that I still remember after nearly half a century. I recall little else about that voyage, except that we tied up at Liverpool’s Gladstone Dock on a cold and drizzly afternoon, I think the first day of September. I looked over the rail at the rows of cars parked on bombsites near the dock, their windows streaked with rain, and felt a strange sense of being grounded, of being dragged home to England against my will. I would feel it later, as an adult, many times.

The Empress of England would not make people vomit for much longer. In two years she was off the route; in five she was scrapped. But the Empress of Canada would work on. Her own life as a transatlantic liner was nearly over; 18 months later the first of the wide-bodied jets entered service. A very few vessels staggered on for two or three years, but soon the QE2 was the only liner left on the route. The others found new lives as cruise liners. For the Canada, this was nothing new; although her sister-ships stayed on the Atlantic route the year round, she herself had always spent the winters cruising.

Twenty years later, as a volunteer in Sudan, I met a man who had been one of the crew in the ship’s heyday, and had been aboard when we made that crossing. He had fond memories of the cruise season. Every woman loves a sailor, he said, and recalled a Hollywood star who had liked to go ashore with them and have sex with them, one by one, against a palm tree. “Funny, she was always sort of unfriendly once you’d done her,” he mused, nursing a glass of the local firewater. He then identified her as someone who was, in the 1960s, a household name. She has long passed away, but I shall take that name to the grave.

The ship was sold in the early 1970s, becoming the first of the Carnival line’s cruise ships. As the years went by, the North Atlantic survivors were replaced by purpose-built cruise ships, vast, slow, soulless floating malls that meander slowly through the water, pausing now and then to unleash thousands of holidaymakers on some defenceless Caribbean island; were our Hollywood star still living, she would find it hard to find a palm tree to herself. But the Empress of Canada somehow survived into the new century, latterly on gambling cruises in the Gulf of Mexico.

Final fate: The Empress of Canada broken at Along, 2003
In 2003 she was finally sold for scrap and was run ashore at the great shipbreakers at Alang Beach, Gujurat – one of those places where men swarm across a huge ship in their hundreds and break it with axes and saws and the sweat of their brows. In a few months, there was nothing left of a great ship that had been home to thousands for days or even weeks at a time, on which some men and women would serve for years.

But that is the fate of the things we use, isn’t it? The year I sailed on the Empress of Canada, British Rail finally abandoned steam, and thousands of engines were left in long lines at a huge yard in Barry, South Glamorgan. One moment they were living, breathing monuments to human ingenuity. The next they were rotting hulks in the drizzle. And the same happened to typewriters, to record players, to valve wirelesses, to cathode-tube TVs and to the car that once picked you up from school; and one day it will happen to your phone and to your tablet and your microwave and the laptop on which I am typing this. Later, someone will look at one in a book or online or in a museum and wonder, yes, but what did it do? And few will know what it was to forge through a vast grey sea, peopled by ghosts of Vikings, Breton fishermen, men o’war and submarines, to see icebergs pass astern or whales in the distance, or see a low grey line on the horizon at dusk and wonder if it was a low cloud, or the New World.

Follow Mike Robbins on Twitter (mikerobbins19), on Facebook or on Goodreads
Mike Robbins's collection of travel writing,  The Nine Horizons, was published in 2014 and is available as a paperback, as a Kindle download and in other eBook formats.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Tonight in the House: Murder, booze and more

Two funny, yet disturbing, books have me thinking about who really governs Britain – and who should

Everyone knows about it now, of course. The 2018 BBC drama series A Very English Scandal has introduced a new generation to one of the strangest stories of the 1970s – the Party leader, Jeremy Thorpe, who was charged with incitement and conspiracy to murder. Until recently, the matter had been largely forgotten. It had faded to a footnote. One had to be 60 to remember it at all well, and no-one who wasn’t knew, or cared, what it had been about. Then in 2014 Thorpe, by then an old and very sick man, died; two years later, John Preston published the book on which the series was based.

At about the same time, political journalist Ben Wright published Order, Order! The Rise and Fall of Political Drinking. One book is a story of shot dogs, petty crooks, skullduggery and attempted murder. The other is a merry romp through the many bars of the Palace of Westminster. Both are entertaining, but they do leave you wondering who the hell has been in charge of the nation. They also left me thinking hard about who we want in public life, and what we want of them. My conclusions weren’t quite what one might expect.


Thorpe in 1965 (National Portrait Gallery/Walter Bird)
For those unacquainted with the Jeremy Thorpe scandal, the bare facts are as follows. In 1961 Thorpe was a young Liberal MP who had first been elected to Parliament two years earlier (as had Margaret Thatcher). Visiting a friend in the countryside, he was rather taken with a handsome, smouldering 21-year-old stable lad called Norman Scott. He resolved to seduce him, did so, and conducted an affair with him for several years. This was risky, as homosexual sex was to be illegal in Britain until 1967. The affair palled for Thorpe. However, Scott proved unable to manage his life well afterwards and turned to Thorpe for help.

Scott does not appear to have been vindictive or spiteful; he had had a difficult start in life, but loved animals and only really wanted to work with horses. However, Thorpe, fearing blackmail, dumped the problem on another Liberal MP, Peter Bessell – a man scarcely better able to manage his own affairs than Scott was. For several years, Bessell made various efforts to keep the lid on Scott, by helping him in small ways here and there. However, as Scott’s life spiralled out of control, he became more and more importunate. In the meantime, in 1967 Thorpe was elected leader of the Liberal Party, making him a major national figure. Thorpe resolved to do away with Scott rather than risk a scandal.

The matter climaxed with a botched murder attempt, Thorpe’s fall, and his eventual trial and acquittal for incitement and conspiracy to murder. It was a scandal that had the nation rivetted for years, and I have never forgotten it, for I was a Liberal activist in the 1970s; I was thus involved, albeit very peripherally, and was present at one or two of the occasions described in the book.

Author John Preston, formerly of the Sunday Telegraph and London’s Evening Standard, has done a splendid job. A complex narrative with multiple actors is very well managed, and the book is extremely well-paced. It also conveys the feel of the times. Preston takes us through the reforms of 1967 that finally made homosexuality legal in Britain, legislation that owed much to Lord Arran, a well-loved if somewhat eccentric peer known to his friends as Boofy; he and his wife were also deeply committed to the cause of badger welfare, and kept a number of the animals in their house, wearing Wellington boots indoors to avoid badger bites. Arran was deluged with hate mail for advocating the homosexual cause. “On another occasion,” writes Preston, “a parcel containing human excrement arrived at his office. Apparently, under the impression that it was pâté, his secretary told him, ‘I threw it away, Lord Arran. It wouldn’t keep.’”  After the reform had passed: “Afterwards Lord Arran was asked why his homosexual law reforms had succeeded, while his efforts to protect the rights of badgers had not. Arran paused, and then said ruminatively, ‘There are not many badgers in the House of Lords.’”

Throughout the book stalks the figure of Jeremy Thorpe himself – charming, warm, kindly and utterly ruthless in his use of his friends, especially Peter Bessell. In the end, Bessell was not fooled. A few others, such as the journalist Auberon Waugh, never really had been. Yet most people seem to have been fixated by Thorpe’s charm. The facts of Thorpe’s affair were known to the police as early as 1962, and to successive home secretaries from 1965. At no point was he warned that he could be prosecuted, or advised to withdraw from the public eye. When he finally did face trial, the proceedings were so heavily loaded in his favour as to seem rigged; the summing-up of the judge, Sir Joseph Cantley, was so skewed towards the principal defendant that it became the subject of a famous parody by the comedian Peter Cook. There had clearly been a cover-up by the Establishment to look after one of its own. Thorpe was acquitted. But although the Establishment had saved his skin, it did not – to his own surprise – welcome him back; he slid into obscurity and died there 35 years later, in 2014. Only then did this bizarre affair resurface in the public consciousness.


My first thoughts on reading Preston’s book were that I should be angry; that, as an idealistic young activist 40 years ago, I had been betrayed by a cynical social system that protected the powerful, and punished the Norman Scotts of this world. Neither was Thorpe the only character in this book who committed crimes, and got away with it where a mere pleb would not. A minor role was played by Labour politician George Thomas, who arranged for Bessell to plead Thorpe’s case to the then Home Secretary, Sir Frank Soskice. Thomas, later Lord Tonypandy, eventually became a much-loved  Speaker of the House of Commons – yet after his death in 1997 it was suggested that he himself had been homosexual, had been blackmailed because of it, and, worse, had been guilty of child abuse (it should be said that this was never tested in court). At another point in the narrative, Thorpe does a publicity stunt with Jimmy, later Sir Jimmy, Savile, later exposed (again, after his death) as a child abuser of epic proportions. Last but not least, a larger-than-life figure in the later stages of the book was the Liberal Chief Whip, Cyril Smith, a man of massive girth (he was said to weigh nearly 30 stone, about 190 kg). He was finally revealed (again, after his death) to be a serial sex offender against children.

What is particularly depressing about Preston’s narrative, entertaining as it is, is that all of this was known to people in power at the time. Thorpe’s MI5 file had hit the desk of successive Home Secretaries and Prime Ministers. Of the latter, Harold Wilson was also apparently well aware that Bessell’s business affairs were well dodgy. (It is a pity he did not look harder at one of Bessell’s contemporaries, Labour MP Robert Maxwell, who as chairman of the House catering committee apparently flogged off all its best vintages, and may have trousered the proceeds.)  As for Cyril Smith, in 1980 I was having lunch with a friend and fellow Liberal activist in Liverpool, and commented that I had brought Smith to Warwick University for a speaking engagement the previous year, and had liked him (as indeed I had). “But you know that he interferes with little boys,” my friend told me. It was, he said, well known in Rochdale. It seems it was; an attempt to unmask him had been suppressed the previous year. But the allegations did not surface properly until after Smith’s death in 2010, 30 years later.

As I came to the end of A Very English Scandal, I felt angry and cynical. Yet at the very end of the book, there was something that lifted my spirits – of which more below. And then I read Ben Wright’s Order, Order!, and started to see some more shades of grey.


Ben Wright is a BBC political correspondent, currently based in Washington. Order! Order! is a journey through the alcoholic haze of British politics. It is, for the most part, about Westminster (though there are some side-trips to Washington and a vodka-fuelled romp through the Kremlin).

Like  A Very English Scandal, it is entertaining. Thus the Speaker of the Commons in the 1960s comes into the Chamber so pissed that he cannot clamber into the chair, whereupon the Government Chief Whip tells him he is a disgrace. “I’ll have you out of that chair within three months,” he calls, to be told, “How can you get me out of the chair, Bob, when I can’t get myself into it?” On a March evening in 1979 the Government falls (I remember this well) and the press corps corps find themselves compelled to cover events without alcohol as the catering staff are on strike. (“Passers-by were confronted with that most frightening spectacle: a sober mob of journalists.”) Nicholas Soames, Churchill’s grandson, denying that he has been drunk in the House: “My lunches consist of bananas, still water, preserved apricots and bats’ droppings.” 

But of course this does not always end well. Wright records a Tory MP for High Peak who was notorious for his claret habit and became a sort of Lord of Misrule. Yet it caught up with him in the end, and the MP and journalist Matthew Parris would later remember the member towards the end of his life, drinking water at lunch but ordering melon with port for dessert and desperately trying to spoon the port from it. In due course he died. Wright’s purpose is not simply to make us laugh; indeed, his last chapter reviews the various unpleasant ways liver disease can kill us. To be honest, that chapter, true though it is, feels a little dutiful. But Wright clearly wants to ensure that his book is not taken as a paean of praise to heavy drinking, and he is right to do so.

Yet Wright also wants to present the way that booze has lubricated political discourse – and to show us what we might have lost. He quotes journalist Peter Oborne to this effect. “Political discourse in the last century was more humorous, kinder, more generous,” says Oborne. “Less earnestness, less dogmatism, more humanity at a personal level. I don’t think it’s entirely a gain that we’ve moved from a culture that was based on drinking alcohol together to a culture based on drinking coffee together.”

Wright looks at why things have changed. The hard-drinking culture of the past was sometimes the product of a bygone breed of MPs from an industrial, union background (and, though he does not say so, one suspects the Tory squirearchy supplied a boozy element too). Today’s MP is, by contrast, anodyne and without identity. “The demise of heavy industry,” says Wright, “has been matched by the rise of the professional politician. Today it is common for MPs of all stripes to be incubated in think tanks or serve political apprenticeships as ministerial special advisers before entering the Commons.”  As Oborne hints, they drink coffee. Neither are they so likely to hit The Gay Hussar or other West End and Westminster restaurants to brief journalists off the record (as Wright recounts, for Labour MPs, Alastair Campbell stopped that).

There is no evidence whatever that this has improved our political discourse. And it has pushed the politician away from the people. For proof of this we need only look at the popularity of Nigel Farage, who is careful to be seen with a pint in hand. This is calculated, as Farage more or less admits to Wright: “The reason it works is because in a politically correct age where all this stuff is frowned upon I think people see it as two fingers up to the establishment and political correctness,” he says, though he claims that isn’t why he is doing it. But I suspect it is, at least in part. The new sobriety may also have increased the partisan divide. At Westminster, there always was one; the Tory and Labour members tended to use different bars, But there was no strict apartheid. And in Congress, says White, a discreet drinking culture saw the members drop by each other’s rooms for a bourbon sundowner. No more.

Should we beg our pols to go back on the booze? It’s tempting to say yes. At the end of 2016 I published my own polemic, Such Little Accident, in which I argued that political discourse depended on people meeting face-to-face and that we no longer did so. I did not insist that these encounters should involve alcohol. But I implied that they often would, and stressed the pub as a place where people did not go as often as they did.

However, one thoughtful reviewer, herself someone who had taken part in public life, wasn’t so sure. “As a teetotaller I cannot say I am swayed by any argument that pubs are an answer to bringing back real political debate. As an ex-member of the Labour party and ex-city councillor in the late 1980s, being teetotal excluded me from many if not the majority of the decision making by the battalion of overwhelmingly white male Labour councillors.” It is a fair comment, and the drinking culture of the House of Commons as it was until the 1980s will have excluded, or at least not drawn in, many who were not natural participants, especially women (Mo Mowlem is the only woman politician who Wright cites as having navigated that culture successfully). It is also bound to exclude those whose social or religious background does not include the traditional British boozing culture. This cannot be a good thing.

But something has been lost, and I am unsure as to what has been gained.


Where do these two books leave us? On the face of it, they are about the failure of the Westminster system. A ruthless Establishment protects its own, even when they are mixed up in murder – though only to protect itself; they are spat out afterwards. Meanwhile a culture of drunkenness prevails in the House, but is then replaced by a cold technocracy that alienates the voters. It is all rather grim. But there are those shades of grey.

A Very English Scandal presents Thorpe, and to some extent Bessell, and their contemporaries in their very worst light. In a way this is fair; it’s an awful story. Yet Preston admits, albeit briefly, that Thorpe had genuine political principles, of a sort. Moreover, although the book is well-researched, Preston relies heavily on certain sources. He has to; most of the prime movers are dead, and he has made every effort to speak to those who aren’t, as the Acknowledgements section makes clear. But he seems to recount in great detail what Peter Bessell did, thought and felt, so he may have relied heavily on a memoir, Cover-up,that Bessell published privately a few years before his death.

There is also a conspiratorial feel about the book in places. Thorpe’s first wife, Caroline Allpass, died in a car accident not long after the 1970 General Election, after only two years of marriage; her car drifted across the centre line on the A303 and hit a lorry coming the other way. Preston hints at rumours that she had found out about Norman Scott and seemed distracted at the time of the accident. In fact, the witness accounts suggest she simply lost concentration (on a stretch of road that was then quite dangerous; I knew it well). In another passage, Preston implies that Wilson’s first Home Secretary, Sir Frank Soskice, not only knew of the Scott affair in 1965 but had read compromising correspondence between Thorpe and Scott, and swept it under the carpet. In fact, Preston’s account suggests that while this is entirely possible, it’s far from proven; Soskice may have had the facts to hand but not bothered to read them. The Establishment did close ranks around Thorpe. But how deliberately, and how explicitly, isn’t clear.

I wondered, too, to what extent the Thorpe affair was the result of laws and mores that were themselves quite wrong. Thorpe was terrified that he would be exposed as a practising homosexual at a time when it was illegal – but it should never have been. In fact many public figures must have wondered what would happen were their private lives to have been exposed. They had good reason to be afraid, as Lord Arran’s mailbag showed.

I have no wish to excuse Thorpe. Preston may have shown us the worst of him, but it’s clear that he was charming but cynical and a user of the worst sort. Neither should Bessell have a free pass. He was  a much nicer man, and behaved well at the end; but his judgement was awful, as regards Thorpe and much else besides. Moreover successive Home Secretaries knew how badly compromised Thorpe was by his private life and did nothing. Late in the book we have Cyril Smith as Liberal Chief Whip, trying to keep a lid on the scandal when he himself had horrible things to hide. There is even a Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police who in 1971 tacitly endorsed a cover-up when he must surely have known what was in Thorpe’s police file. After I finished the book, I mentioned the latter to a friend who is a former detective (not from the Met). He was not at all surprised. “As a police officer, you were always dealing with people more powerful than yourself,” he told me. “You were often told to be careful.” The picture that emerges from Preston’s book is one of a corrupt and closed Establishment that makes fools of us all. As for Order, Order!, it shows us a world of (mostly) men pissed as farts in the Mother of Parliaments, as capable of transacting the business of the land as they were of raising the Titanic.

And yet in a sense Peter Oborne was right; something has gone. We are now governed by technocrats, former “research assistants” whose purpose has always been to enter Parliament and whose private lives, one suspects, have been dull; in today’s 24-hour rolling news culture, they must have nothing to hide, and must always be sharp, available and well-briefed. The idea of going on TV completely soused, as Wilson’s Foreign Secretary George Brown did more than once, would be foreign to them. Perhaps it should be. But it is hard to see what moves them.

The ructions over Brexit, in particular, have uncovered a remarkable lack of spirit in the House. Many if not most members are known to think that it is a bad idea, but cannot bring themselves to oppose it openly lest they incur the wrath of their constituents or their party leadership. So they will do nothing to stop it. One yearns for a George Brown, or even perhaps a Churchill, to get tanked up on the terrace or in the Smoking Room and stride into the chamber, kneel briefly to the chair, take their place upon the green benches, rise – a little unsteadily – to their feet and proclaim: “Mr Speaker, we are sleepwalking to disaster.” But they won’t. With one or two proud exceptions, the careerist, technocratic nature of the modern politician is not to take such a risk.

Reporting the trial: The Mirror, 1979
Perhaps this timidity is also because they are under far greater scrutiny than they once were. On paper, of course, we have become more tolerant. A man or woman’s sexual preferences are now, in theory, no-one’s business but their own, provided they do not involve children or the vulnerable. But a quick tour through a few Facebook discussion groups can sometimes show how little has really changed. Those who take their own stand on matters of policy can also be a target; I wonder if Lord Arran might find a modern Tory Remain rebel’s postbag all too familiar. Moreover there is now a merciless 24-hour news cycle that needs far more material than it once did. A sharp light would be shone on the private life of anyone remotely interesting. The colourful individuals of the past – the Tom Dribergs, the Bob Boothbys – may still be with us, but not in public life. We should not be surprised if they now choose to do something else. To be sure, Thorpe was a disgrace, and being a drunk is not a virtue. But maybe the pendulum has swung back too far the other way.


There is a gentler note at the end of A Very English Scandal. Preston reproduces a letter from Peter Bessell to Norman Scott, written after the trial at which both had – at some personal cost – given evidence against Thorpe, only to see him walk. The letter is kind and generous, and makes it clear that Bessell thought they had still done the right thing in giving evidence – but also that, remarkably, he forgave Thorpe:

The important thing is that we must all be willing to face the absolute truth, even if the consequences are not entirely pleasant for any of us…
There is a wonderful side to Jeremy’s character which I shall always admire and hold in affection. That does not excuse his actions in respect of you ...but he needs understanding and sympathy just as much as the rest of us…

Bessell died a few years later. He had been a fool to trust Thorpe, who did not deserve his forgiveness. Moreover his own business and personal life had been a mess. Yet there is something attractive in that letter, and I should much rather dine with its author than I would with most current public figures. Maybe there is a question for us here . What, actually, do we want our politicians to be? Would we have them cold, sober, ambitious and obedient, as they have mostly become? Or would we rather they were fashioned of the same warped, unseasoned wood as the rest of us, the better to carry our hopes and dreams?

was published in December 2016 and is available from Amazon and other online retailers, or through bookshops
(ISBN  978-0-9978815-0-9, ebook; ISBN 978-0-9978815-1-6, paperback)

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