Wednesday, 24 April 2013




 A Writer’s Notebook
  No. 40, April 2013

James Watson
Friends and contributors

1. That funeral: media reverting to type
2 Whatever happened to Glenda?
3. Pigs Might Fly: author’s preface
 No wizards, no smartphones, just the flicks and 
Saturday night dances in the village hall -a new novel now available on Amazon Kindle.
4. Poems of Place (17) Butterflies
5. Quotes of the month
6. Correspondence 1: Freedom of speech: the limits of expression. From Mark Turner
7. Correspondence 2: Ned Baslow to King Harold (not Hardrada)


That funeral: media reverting to type
Predictably with the run-up to the Thatcher funeral and the event itself, the media by automatic default reverted to type as stenographers of power. Whatever pale rider of radicalism is permitted to gallop across the pages of the nation’s press or through the airwaves of radio or TV, the ruling model of society as upheld by the power elite soon reasserts itself according to dominant ideology; that is, the socio-economic and political requirements of the establishment as contrasted with those of ‘people’.

It’s all in the Mail
They are not separate entries, simply defined in hierarchical order. The elite’s advantage, however, is that it has the power of definition, not the least the definition of the people, or as they are referred to when approval is called for, the ‘silent majority’.
      The argument is put that Margaret Thatcher did not believe there is such a thing as society; this because she is reported to have said it. What she was probably thinking is if people followed her lead, voted for her, read the Mail or Telegraph and kept their traps shut, society does exist indeed – to be conveniently shaped and guided, or as some calumnists might say ‘ exploited’.
The state funeral of Maggie – make no mistake, it was ‘state’ in every meaningful sense of the word – was the media’s opportunity to remind us of the values we are all supposed to share: adulation of greatness whatever its socially divisive effects, affirmation of nation, identification of the enemies within.

Adolescent objectors
The Souvenir edition of the Daily Mail was an exemplar of practically everything the student of media has been taught to expect. First, those who are in our camp, then those in their camp. Robert Hardman (Inside St. Paul’s, ‘As the coffin emerged in the sunlight, the crowd erupted in cheers…’, page 2) offered an adulation but did not shrink from dishing those not on wavelength: ‘no one was unduly worried if a few “look at me” adolescents thought it appropriate to heckle a coffin en route’.
That a good third or more of the nation may have fallen into the classification of look-at-me adolescents was a reminder that division remains as it has always been a weapon in the maintenance of power.

Accessories to death
An event such as the funeral provides an opportunity not only for the media to mark who deserves favour and who doesn’t, it reminds us of those who broke the rules. Yes, a few of the upper crust who ended up in jail (‘Jailbirds’ but still welcome) received a disapproving welcome, but the Mail’s stick was out for that ‘surprise addition to the guestlist’, the Duchess of Kent, the ‘gurning exhibitionist’ who was suspected of using her mobile at the end of the service.
     Of course there were no comments, complimentary or otherwise, on the way Fergie was dressed. The fashion observations were reserved for the celebrity wives of the great and the good. Bearing in mind the estimated £10 million cost of the funeral to the British taxpayer, one can only guess at how much our top designers (we are a nation of shopkeepers) made out of the ‘ladies in black’.
    Not that the Mail’s Nicole Mowbray suspended her critical faculties for this occasion, Cherie Blair missing ‘the mark with a large hat reminiscent of a cake tin covered in satin’: fair do’s, for when you strut the stage, you court the applause (or not). It was all a case of good, healthy capitalist/personality projection opportunism.
    The opera star Katherine Jenkins (from the Welsh valleys?) earned a PS: Did Katherine go far too low? by seeming ‘determined to show-off her curves in a plunging cocktail-style dress and flared overcoat’.
Somehow this whole fashion charade summed up the sheer hypocrisy that accompanies the national penchant for languishing sentimentality. For a moment (and for one moment only) George Osborne’s tears seemed the only genuine expression on display. As for the clergy, they too affirmed that when it comes to taking sides…

EDITORIAL: Whatever happened to Glenda?
Well that is what some of us, unfamiliar with the deeper depths of parliamentary life, have probably been asking over the years. Not any longer: Glenda Jackson rose in parliament and delivered a speech about the Thatcher era that was passionate, eloquent and inspiring. If she were not a 76 year former actress (of considerable stature), if she were a recently elected MP, in her late thirties or early forties, those on the left would have thought the extremely unlikely was happening: a Labour leader in the making, and a woman to boot.
 That professionalism brought with her from stage and film ensured that throughout the manic responses baying from the Right, the shouts, the calls to sit down, she continued without hesitation, repetition or divergence. She was spot on, revealing herself a force that should have been reckoned with.

 Introducing Curlew Stevens, one-time bird-watching layabout, now entrepreneur

Save the Ritz? Dad’s in hospital and 16-year old film buff and general also-ran Clark Gable Stevens (Curlew to his friends) is faced with the biggest challenge in his life, rescuing his Dad’s cinema from the clutches of the developers. The obstacles are gigantic; the chances of success for Curlew’s Save the Ritz Campaign as likely as seeing a flight of pigs crossing the skies of Fetterton. Does destiny deter Curlew? Read on.

Author’s preface to Pigs Might Fly
This story is set at a time when the only computers were as big as a house. Young people could not e-mail each other because there was no such thing as e-mail and the mobile phone was light years away; and as for television – well, just a few of the better-off were installing their black-and-white sets.
    In rural areas, milk floats were pulled by horses; and plenty of folks had to go down the backyard to the lavatory. It was even possible to play football and cricket in the street without being mown down by the cars of commuters late for work.
    Going to the pictures was still the entertainment that got people out of their homes; unless they were in to dancing, in which case they'd gather to do the quickstep or the modern waltz in the church hall, or in the cities, the Palais de Dance. Girls got pregnant, but not quite as often as they do today and the best a boy could expect after a night out was a hug and a kiss – and a cold walk home.

The flicks: heart of the community
Life was often hard, but the pictures opened up the world – to adventure, fantasy and romance. The local cinema held a very special place in the hearts of communities, far more than do the multiplex entertainment centres of today.
    However, in the minds of developers and businessmen out to garner profits after years of war and peacetime hardship, the future belonged to the shopping basket. Cinemas were prime sites for demolition and replacement by supermarkets, shopping malls and car parks.
    This was also the time when trams ceased to ply the streets of Britain, when thousands of miles of rail were closed in order to give free rein to the motorcar and the motorway. It was a time when old buildings came down and concrete skyscrapers began to take their place. Neighbourhoods vanished: was anybody consulted?

Save the Ritz
It is always a problem to know what, in the name of progress, should be held on to; what should be cherished and preserved in face of change. Each individual, each group of individuals, each community must decide for themselves. Sometimes there was conflict, though most often, resignation; only a few, like Curlew Stevens on behalf of his hospital-bound father, stood up to be counted.
    True, Curlew would much prefer to continue to idle away his days in a hay meadow staring at the clouds, but the Ritz is more than just a building: it is a cause. So what if his plan to mastermind a Save the Ritz Campaign is as likely to succeed as, in the words of his friend Chippy Bulmer’s dad, pigs might fly?
The tower, featured on the cover of Pigs Might Fly plays an important part in Curlew's story. A tiny caption gives the game away - a real tower that played a part in the author's life.

Issue 41 (May): opening extract of PIGS MIGHT FLY.
For further information, please go to
Poems of Place (17) Butterflies
     In Kelsey church, a red admiral fluttered in panic
As if mauled by ants; or was this because
On the day the world mourned the Roman pontiff
The creature was trapped in Anglican communion?
To rescue its conscience as well as its humming wings
 I engulfed it in the dark perpendicular of my hat,
 Raced with it through the ancient door, putting out of mind
Questions of Should I or Shouldn’t I?
Or What if there’s a hawk on the prowl; rewarding it
With a suddenly dubious freedom – of drenching rain,
Enough for this premature child of spring to catch its death of cold.
In another church – majestic Stoke by Nayland –
read in marble the life-flights of the Rowleys, frail of wing.
Children of one Sir Charles and his wife Maria Louise,
They'd They’d had less strength to survive than my butterfly.
Aged one – that was Frances Charlotte.
Aged two and a half – that was Elinor Caroline.
Aged thirteen (oops, an unlucky number) – that was Haland.
Aged seventeen – that was William Arcedechne.
On January 20th 1857, all of twenty-two, Lucy Mary
Breathed her last. And then there was spring for the Rowleys
Until in April of the same year Harriet Georgina
Flew the empty nest, aged seventeen.
At this point I brought to an end the pilgrimage of an unbeliever
To the stately churches of Suffolk, except to linger
Before the great east window of Boxford
Marvelling at the inanities of faith, yet equally moved
By flights of hope and love this side of death.

Young people remain particularly stricken by the [unemployment] crisis. Currently, some 73.8 million young people are unemployed globally and the slowdown in economic activity is likely to push another half-million into unemployment by 2014. The youth unemployment rate – which had already increased to 12.6 percent in 2012 – is expected to increase to 12.9 percent by 2017. . . Currently, some 35 percent of all young unemployed have been out of a job for six month or longer in advanced economies, up from 28.5 percent in 2007.” ILO Global Employment Trends 2013 Report.

Robert Fisk in the I newspaper (15 April 2013) reflecting on a story posted on line of a Syrian youth holding the decapitated head of an air force officer whose helicopter had been shot down by a ground-to-air missile.

Propaganda? Most certainly. Truth? Perhaps. But the internet has so skewed the Syrian war that propaganda has become truth and truth propaganda – even myth. Everyone believes what they want to believe. And this awful image is not just a challenge to humanity. It is also a challenge to journalism…Alas, in war, photoshop technology and the internet have made villains of us all.


Brenden O’Neill, Five things Liberals love that Thatcher invented’ Spiked, 17 April 2013. In essence, Thatcher naturalised unemployment, turning it from a social predicament brought about by the failure of modern society to provide all with gainful employment into an individual’s own problem, caused by his physical or mental ineptitude. You are unemployed because you are sick, not because society is sick.

Free press, free speech continued
From Mark Turner
Dear Ed.,
One of the real problems concerning censorship is how far it is legitimate to cause offence. Various advocates of free speech and a free press argue that there are currently enough laws to curtail free speech, in the UK the most pernicious are laws relating to defamation. These are not alone: hate speech, speech that offends religions, are subject to rigorous surveillance and redress.
   The number of people arrested for ‘offensive’ language on Twitter, for example, is multiplying. Currently it is politicians and celebrities who do the talking, and the police who do the acting: each has a vested interest in using the law either to protect their backs or, as in the case of the police, to patrol boundaries defined in the interests of law and order, not liberty of expression.
    Where do you draw the line; and equally important, who should do the line-drawing? In my own experience, every time you attempt a definition of a term, like ‘truth’, ‘objectivity’ or ‘impartiality’, things start to unravel. They become immensely more complicated in a multicultural society where different cultures and religions hold differing positions on what is true and what is permissible.
    Where opinions clash, the inevitable outcome in a reasonable society is compromise; but even this is problematical. Compromise ideally would represent a ‘giving way’ by both sides in a confrontation over communication and behaviour. ‘When in Rome do as the Romans do’ used to be a useful marker; it has less meaning today because ‘Rome’ is too complex to sustain normative values and conduct relating to communication.
    Perhaps free speech in an immensely complex society has reached a point of either surrendering its high ideals to pragmatism or substantially redefining itself, beginning with an examination of expectations. Unfortunately, compromise is not something certain (if not all) religions and many cultures are used to or prepared to accept.
Mark Turner.
Thanks, Mark: may the debate continue. A Times leader of 23 March 2013 stated that ‘It is precisely the ability to publish the most annoying, offensive and fringe opinion that should be protected…A liberal, free society ensures that agreement among the good and the great does not become a conspiracy of silence and respectability. The right to be an irritant is crucial.’

 The Ned Baslow Letters (continued)

   Dear King Harold,
I have to say that I was taken aback to receive your email, but delighted all the same to learn that you and your men have reached Knaresborough on your way south. What’s encouraging is that information about our Wickerstaff-cum-Fernhaven Summer Festival 2014 is getting to those places, to borrow a phrase, which only a well-known lager reaches.
    It is an excellent idea of yours to join our Battle of the Titans, once you have obtained victory over William the Norman. We have pencilled in a bunch of eager Greeks and some merry vagabonds from Sherwood Forest. You and your housecarls would certainly add to the excitement, especially as folks around here are always moaning about the loss of the good old days when the Edwins and the Edgars and the Edwards ruled the roost instead of a lot of Fitzes.
    At the moment, Sire, we cannot guarantee seats during the main show, as the last tickets for the front three rows have been taken up by our chairman, Lord Gilbert, and his family. When I broached to him your request for reservations, he was quite unequivocal, saying we’d have to put things on hold until after, well, you know what.
    But rest assured, there will standing room down the side aisles of the village hall theatre for all participants, apart from beside the stage where the St. John’s Ambulance people will be situated.
    Finally, good luck with your enterprise. I hesitate to remind you, but consider it important to repeat the advice I ventured in my earlier correspondence: there’s always a chance of disaster if you rush in to things. I think I can trust a good old Anglo-Saxon to let his head rule his heart on this occasion.
Yours etc.
Ned Baslow

PS: My boy Benjie has drawn your picture complete with helmet and beard; only he’s written Harold Hardrada on the bottom. When I pointed out that Hardrada was your enemy, he altered it to Harold Pinter. In my view and that of my wife Betty (who is still studying for an Open University degree) that’s a compliment and a half.

As ever, contributions – poems, comment, critiques (books, films etc.), short literary pieces – are very welcome. Please mail to, best by the tenth of the month.