Tales from an author

Archive for the month “April, 2012”



Here is an extract from my (newish) book Fifteen Minutes of Fame (an eccentri comnination of autobiography and cultural commentary)

The following piece, written at intervals since 2009, recalls (with nostalgia) childhood enthusiasm for stories. The essay weaves backwards and forwards, through numerous tales, in various formats, that have gained attention across several decades, occasionally arriving somewhere near the present day.


“Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop”. This advice was given by a King to a White Rabbit, during a bizarre trial, staged near the conclusion of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (published in 1865). There is a lot to be said for starting stories other than at the beginning – I often begin in the middle, hop backwards to the opening, and meander through several digressions, before reaching something like an ending. The curious world of Wonderland has been an unlikely influence on my story-telling, as an imaginary counterpoint to the facts I normally rely upon. Following this short diversion, it is time to mention I have been fascinated by stories for almost as long as I can remember. Good stories entertain and inspire us, often providing vital insights into people’s lives. Stories can be factual or fictional – and sometimes a hybrid.

    I was born during the twentieth century – the exact year being 1964. By the middle of the 1970s, I had moved from stories aimed at children to reading books primarily written for an adult audience, with football being a particular interest. I discovered the James Bond novels and stories, written by Ian Fleming, and read all of these during a spell of about a year. Bond led an intriguing life as a spy, with missions in exotic locations, while Fleming brilliantly described the thoughts and actions of the character – including Bond’s shower and breakfast routines, plus his appreciation of fine food, sophisticated drinks, and beautiful women. Another enthusiasm was history books, consumed as a teenager.

    Besides being an avid reader, I appreciated other forms of story-telling. A notable example was television situation comedies, with great programmes from the BBC in the 1970s including Are You Being Served?, Butterflies, Fawlty Towers, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, and The Good Life. I also enjoyed comedy sketch programmes, such as Morecambe and Wise, The Dick Emery Show, and The Two Ronnies. The part of the latter show where Ronnie Corbett would sit in an armchair, telling a joke, surrounded by several minutes of tangential rambling, irritated me at the time. In retrospect, Ronnie Corbett’s style of story-telling appears to have had a great influence upon me. Moving away from comedy, television news bulletins, plus newspapers, helped develop a knowledge of the outside world.

    In my youth, I planned to develop the enthusiasm for books, by becoming a writer. I started to read the works of George Orwell, who remains my favourite author, due to his profound ideas, expressed in a conversational prose style. Besides books published in his lifetime, I enjoyed The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, a posthumously-compiled four volume set. The series opened with Why I Write, an essay from 1946, in which Orwell gave a summary of his literary career. Orwell argued that writers are motivated by four factors, the first of these being “sheer egoism”, caused by a wish to be recognised as a clever person. Next came “aesthetic enthusiasm”, which could follow from appreciation of external beauty, the taking of pleasure in the usage of words, and a wish to share experience. The third factor was “historical impulse”, with an author finding facts to be used for posterity. Orwell’s final motive was “political purpose”, with writers seeking to be an influence on people’s ideas about the direction of their society.

    What is my motivation as a writer? I think – we cannot always be certain about motives – that the central factor is a wish for communication. I feel a need to connect my enthusiasms, ideas, and knowledge with those of fellow human beings. I also seek to give permanent record to experiences, many of which would otherwise be forgotten. Enjoyment in the creation of a piece of writing is followed by a sense of satisfaction when it is published, read by others, and discussed. From the preceding sentences, it appears the second and third of Orwell’s themes are predominant for me. I must confess that ego plays a big (too big?) part, while politics has often been a feature of my writing. My books may appear diverse in nature – spanning history, politics, and football, besides a miniature autobiography – but they form part of a logical progression, as writing is interweaved with other activities. The books and experiences are twin facets of the developing story of my life, with personal activity placed in a wider context (I could say “the bigger picture”).

    I have developed a role as something of a raconteur, offering funny (sometimes slightly exaggerated) tales of my experiences. Stories are told, in animated fashion, at social gatherings, sometimes fuelled by alcohol, although audience participation (or even heckling) often proves a more effective stimulant. I have a love of trivia, and thirst for knowledge, taking delight at links between odd scraps of information. Interesting turns of phrase are often adapted to new purposes in my writing. I also make (I think) good use of irony.

    Inspiration arrives from diverse sources. One of my heroes is Bruce Springsteen, many of whose lyrics take the form of extended narrative. Bruce often tells thoughtful or comic stories to introduce songs during concerts. Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, released in 1978, was re-packaged in 2010 within The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story, a stunning set, in which three CDs plus three DVDs are housed within an extensive book – itself placed within a box. Bruce’s masterpiece, a 43 minute album, has been expanded into discs that stretch to eight and a half hours of music and film. This is story-telling in the grand manner. Another great musical act are the Velvet Underground, an American band – managed at one point by Andy Warhol – that sold very few records during their creative peak, in the 1960s, but have built a legendary reputation, as innovators who influenced countless other artists. One of the strangest recordings by the group, and among the first I heard, as a teenager, is The Gift. A freakish short story, packed with telling incidental detail, is recited (not sung) against the backdrop of a monotonous piece of music. It is a work of genius. The words of The Gift were written by Lou Reed, and narrated by John Cale, in his native Welsh accent, this being an incongruous delivery of a tale taking place in the USA. Several years later, Cale produced Patti Smith’s astonishing debut album, Horses. Patti Smith subsequently co-wrote Because the Night  with Bruce Springsteen. In 1981 I read Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story, a book by Dave Marsh. This work included a reference to the novel You Can’t Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe, which prompted me to read the latter book in 1984, when it was re-issued by Penguin. Wolfe’s novel, based on his experiences as an author, is outstanding, although rather patchy – it was compiled by an editor, Edward C Aswell, from an unfinished manuscript after the writer’s death. One section of Wolfe’s novel originated as a short story, with the clever title A Great Idea For a Story.

    Hopping back over the Atlantic, from the USA to Britain, the television dramas and films of Stephen Poliakoff throw eloquent light on contemporary British society, characteristically featuring great ensemble acting, sumptuous settings, and atmospheric music. Poliakoff’s achievements as a writer and director include Perfect Strangers, depicting a large family gathering, with genealogy a major factor in a drama where secrets are unveiled, and Shooting the Past, which revolves around a photo library. Alongside film, I enjoy live theatre. One outstanding piece is Les Miserables, with dramatic action, and brilliant songs, making up for an almost impenetrable plot, set in nineteenth century France. I generally dislike films that are musicals, as the format appears false, but find the theatrical equivalent entertaining, with productions of Cats, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (from Ian Fleming’s non-Bond novel), Peter Pan, and Wicked springing to mind. Non-musical plays I recollect as being impressive range from an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the modern O Go My Man, written by Stella Feehily. The latter is a comedy about relationships – the title being an anagram of monogamy – set in Dublin. In the novel of Frankenstein, the (self-taught) monster reads books which include The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In the real world, I have read Goethe’s amazing epistolary novel (a true original), plus his two part poetic play, Faust. Goethe worked on Faust at intervals across a span of 58 years, and referred to this masterpiece as “a private fairy tale”, having modestly decided the second part would not be published until after his death. 

    The oldest surviving stories in the world are The Iliad and The Odyssey, by Homer, possibly dating from around 700 BC. It is arguable that Homer was not really an author in the modern sense, given that his works were composed, and delivered, as oral poems. In presenting the adventures of Odysseus, Homer uses disjointed chronology, in an account full of repetition and circumlocution. This is a type of narrative that engages the attention of the reader. In the twentieth century, Homer’s The Odyssey provided a basis for Ulysses by James Joyce, who moved the action to Dublin. In a similar way, the novella Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, set in the Congo, was adapted to a new setting, with a fictionalisation of the Vietnam War in Apocalypse Now, a film directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Another of Coppola’s works is Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which rates as one of the best cinematic portrayals of the tales of Dracula. The original Dracula novel by Stoker, set in Romania and Britain, during the late nineteenth century, is full of political symbolism and repressed eroticism. In 1993 I started to write a novel, (imaginatively) entitled Dracula, that advanced the story first set out by Stoker, a century earlier, to the contemporary world. My novel is uncompleted, and dormant, awaiting possible revival in the future – just like a sleeping vampire – but that is another story for another day. Seventeen years on from starting my Dracula, I set out on another novel in 2010, with a re-write of The Diary of a Nobody, by George and Weedon Grossmith, again moving a late nineteenth century story to the modern day. 

    Great contemporary British novelists include David Lodge, author of the academic romances Small World and Nice Work, plus Martin Amis, whose London Fields, published in 1989, looked ahead to a turn of millennium that is now part of our past. Much earlier, the gentle writing of Henry James brought us The Bostonians and The Portrait of a Lady, described as “the two most brilliant novels in the language” by F R Leavis, one of Britain’s most influential literary critics – he strangely received a mention in the film of Bridget Jones’s Diary. In 1984 Merchant Ivory Productions released a film adaptation of The Bostonians – starring Christopher Reeve, Vanessa Redgrave, and Madeleine Potter. It is a fascinating work, in which the (admittedly unappealing) character of Basil Ransome seeks both love and success as a writer, amidst Henry James’ political satire and subtle comedy – “The Master” was a consummate story-teller. Five years earlier, during 1979, the same film production team had offered The Europeans, a dramatisation of another novel by James. Merchant Ivory have also filmed three of the novels of E M Forster, A Room with a View, Maurice, and Howards End (the latter being the book that gave us the phrase “only connect”). Moving from the sublime to the surreal, another cherished piece is The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien, a delightful fantasy about strange creatures. I was enchanted by a work that Tolkien introduces with the words “This is a story of long ago”. It also appears to be a tale from a far away land, judging by the strange maps, drawn by Tolkien, that appear in The Hobbit.

    I take pleasure from the physical feeling of a well-produced book, preferring a solid hardback to the less sturdy paperback. There is sensual delight in the freshness of a new book, but I also enjoy the mature scent of an older book. In many cases, books are enhanced by attractive presentation. During the 1990s, I was a member of the Folio Society, which issues works of excellent quality. Folio publications I have read include The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy, and The Folio Anthology of Autobiography, edited by Angela Thirlwell. Another outstanding Folio book is Columbus on Himself by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, which combines extracts from the writings of Christopher Columbus with biographical commentary. A visionary explorer, Columbus was also an eccentric, and often slipped into delusion. I am fascinated by the story of Columbus’ discovery of the Americas in 1492, and his attempt “to learn the secrets of this world”. Back in 1993 I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland plus the sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, And What Alice Found There. The Folio Society edition of Lewis Carroll’s linked novels, the latter of which places Alice’s experiences within an oblique chess problem, consists of books with matching design, in a blue slipcase. Renewed mention of Alice echoes the start of the current essay. I have reached the point where I will stop this example of story-telling, but elsewhere countless tales continue to develop, and be told, in a process full of wonder.

Why Not Trust the Tories?

I am currently campaigning with the Labour Party to defeat a Conservative administration at Southampton City Council, that is intent on cutting and privatising public services. Has nothing been learnt from Thatcherism? Here is a piece of writing from my political past, which I still think is relevant.   

      I joined the Labour Party in September 1984. I had been born in a National Health Service hospital, and educated in comprehensive schools, while I believed in democratic Socialism, equality, free trade unionism, internationalism, and Britain playing a positive role in the world. These factors made me a natural supporter of the Labour Party, and I wished to be an active participant in British politics. That Autumn, I attended a couple of Labour Party meetings, staged at Farnborough, which focussed on the national strike by coal miners. Each meeting featured a speech by a Labour MP, the first of these being Dave Nellist (member of the Militant Tendency). The latter meeting was addressed by Dennis Skinner (the legendary “Beast of Bolsover”), a former miner, and impassioned critic of the “casino economy”. My workplace was conveniently situated for visits to Parliament, which I often made. One trip to the House of Commons was followed by a letter to Bernard Wetherill, the Speaker, asking about the public availability of amendment papers for Parliamentary debates, to which I received an encouraging reply. A few months later, in January 1985, Timothy Wood, a Conservative MP, handed me a copy of a Local Government Bill, as a Commons committee debating the legislation adjourned for dinner. There is no such thing as a free bill, however, for I had already bought a personal copy – besides financing it as a taxpayer.   

    With bold ambition, I began writing A History of the Conservative Party on September 30 1985. As a member of the Labour Party, it seemed natural to me – although not others – to plunge into literature with a critical history of the Con­servative Party, despite being aged only 20, and lacking any experience of writing for publication.

    I drew inspiration from works by Antonio Gramsci and Aneurin Bevan, two great Socialist politicians. Gramsci was imprisoned by Benito Mussolini’s Fascist dictatorship in Italy. After his arrest, Gramsci wrote to Tatiana, sister of his wife, Julia Schucht: “I am obsessed by the idea that I ought to do something for ever. I want, following a fixed plan, to devote myself intensively and systemati­cally to some subject that will absorb me and give a focus to my inner life”. This led to Gramsci writing the Prison Notebooks (between 1929 and 1935), which rank among the most profound political writings. Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, by which a ruling class asserts and reinforces its position, along with his advocacy of ways in which the working class can counter this, have been a massive, and beneficial, influence on Socialist thinking and action.

    Bevan’s Why Not Trust the Tories? was published in 1944, when victory for Britain, and her allies, in the Second World War was in sight. He drew parallels between the contemporary situation and the position following the end of the First World War, when a Conservative and Liberal coalition government proceeded to condemn the hopes of a nation to the scrapheap. Writing about Conservative procrastination over development of the welfare state, Bevan suggested the Tory approach was “Jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today”. I thought this a clever phrase. Several years later, I realised Bevan had borrowed this curious idea from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, And What Alice Found There. In that novel the White Queen offered Alice work as a maid, for “Twopence a week, and jam every other day”, going on to say “The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday – but never jam today”. A Labour government took power at the end of the Second World War, with a landslide election victory, and delivered the welfare state. The defining achievement of Labour was the National Health Service, with Bevan, a Marxist agitator, being the architect. The Conservative Party responded with vehement opposition, voted against establishment of the NHS in Parliament, and has continued to undermine its principles. Margaret Thatcher approached the welfare state, and other Labour achievements, with all the rationality of the Queen of Hearts. A History of the Conservative Party was published in 1989, and concluded with a critique of Thatcher’s government, from which the following is taken:


During the 1979 General Election campaign, the Conservative Party concentrated on Labour’s troubled time in office. The Conservative manifesto, setting out a different direction, had the unlikely title Time For a Change. Polling took place on May 3, and the Conservatives won 339 seats to Labour’s 269, while the Liberals took 11 seats, and the other parties 16. The Conservatives had a majority of 43, and Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s first woman Prime Minister. Thatcher’s government initially represented a balance between adherents of her approach and sceptics. She excluded Edward Heath, who was to be a constant critic in the following years.

    Thatcher proclaimed herself a “convic­tion politician”, opposed to consensus. Her major pre­occupation was an attempt to reverse Britain’s long-term economic decline through monetarism. This was developed by Milton Friedman, an economist from the USA. Monetarism was a theory that had only been properly tested by one of the world’s most barbaric regimes, the Fascist military dictatorship in Chile, and the result had been a spectacular failure. Thatcher’s govern­ment soon proved a calamity for Britain, with an economic strategy of reduced public expenditure, reduced taxation – especially for the ruling class – an attack on the trade unions, and the sale of public assets. When Thatcher took power, more than a million people were unemployed. The number of unemployed people increased to two million in August 1980, and three million in January 1982.

    The Thatcher government was authoritarian, inflexible, and uncaring. It attacked the democratic rights of the British people, notably with restrictions on local authorities. Thatcher followed an aggressive foreign policy, involving hostility to the Soviet Union, and was involved in constant disputes with the European Economic Community. Thatcher notably failed to improve the position of women, and her role as the first woman to lead the Conservative Party was anomalous, as the Party has perpetuated male dominance of British society.

    A strong belief in ideology placed Thatcher outside the mainstream of the Conservative Party. Thatcherism was proclaimed by supporters as radical, but it was a reactionary attack on progressive institutions. Thatcher’s policies provoked opposition within the Conservative Party. She dismissed this, calling her opponents “wets”, and gradually removing sceptics from the government. The “wets” did not have the courage to challenge Thatcher with a Leadership contest. Thatcher’s annual speeches at the rally following the Party Conference prompted the pathetic spectacle of marathon standing ovations.

    The government became increasingly unpopular, until its fortunes were revived by victory in the Falklands War. The Argentinian invasion of the Falklands, in April 1982, represented a crisis. Thereafter the military operation to recover the islands reflected well on Thatcher. She dishonestly presented the war as a fight against Fascism, having previously allowed the sale of armaments to the military dictatorship of Argentina. It was only when these armaments were being used against Britain that Thatcher saw a problem. Nevertheless this surprise did not provoke Thatcher into opposition to Fas­cism, as during the war against Argentina she worked in alliance with the regime in Chile, led by General Pinochet.

    The Conservatives were helped by divisions in the Labour Party, which led to the formation of the Social Democratic Party at the start of 1981. The SDP formed the Alliance with the Liberal Party, and this took votes off Labour at the next Election, held on June 9 1983. The Conservatives won 397 seats, Labour 209, the Alliance 23, and the others 21. The Conservative majority of 144 was deceptive, with the Party’s 42 per cent share of the vote being little higher than the 40 per cent obtained in their massive defeat, by Labour, in 1945.

    Thatcher’s second term was as unsuccessful as the first. Cecil Parkin­son, who had recently relinquished the post of Party Chairman, resigned from the government in October 1983, with the revelation that his former secretary, Sara Keays, was expecting his child. The Conservative Party was divided over Thatcher’s continu­ing attack on local government. The government carried legislation that limited local authorities’ powers to set their own rates, and abolished the Greater London Coun­cil plus the Metropolitan County Councils – each of which were Labour-controlled. The miners went on strike during March 1984, in opposition to the government’s programme of running down the coal industry. For a whole year the government was to preside over this damaging dispute, without attempting to settle it. The Irish Republican Army bombed the Grand Hotel in Brigh­ton at the time of the 1984 Conservative Party Conference, and several members of the Party were killed or injured.

    The government discarded mone­tarism during the Autumn of 1985, realising it had failed, but maintained its general plan. Although there had been some economic improvement, it could not be called a success, and mass unemployment was only gradually reduced. At the beginning of 1986, two Cabinet Ministers, Michael Heseltine and Leon Brittan, resigned amidst a dispute over the ownership of the Westland helicop­ter company. Thatcher’s position appeared threatened by revelations about her role, but she survived the crisis. Later in the year the Conservatives were damaged by another scandal. This featured Jeffrey Archer, who had previously been a Conservative MP and successful businessman, only to lose a fortune, and abandon his political career. Archer had retrieved his fortune with large sales of a series of mediocre novels, and been appointed Deputy Chairman of the Party. Having rehabilitated himself, Archer’s dealings with Monica Coghlan, a prostitute, were publicised, and the outcome was Archer’s resignation.

    Thatcher paid a triumphant visit to the Soviet Union, early in 1987, with relations having thawed. A trip to the Soviet Union was an unlikely way for a Leader of the Conservative Party to improve their electoral prospects, but that was one of its aims. Thatcher called a General Election for June 11, and issued a Conservative manifesto entitled The Next Moves Forward. In the Foreword, Thatcher associated herself with the idea of “One Nation”, with the curious claim that her government was fulfilling this aim. Thatcher led a poor campaign but, with the opposition being weak, the Conservatives won 375 seats, Labour 229, the Alliance 22, and the others 24. The Conservatives retained power with a majority of 100 seats. Election victory was followed by reconstruction of the govern­ment, including the sacking of John Biffen, who had been Leader of the House of Commons. Biffen responded by saying that Thatcher’s government was Stalinist. The idea of the Conservatives being influenced by Stalin­ism was unusual, and so was Thatcher announcing support for “One Nation”. As Thatcher entered her third term in office, the thinking of the Conservative Party was characteristically incoherent.



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