Saturday, 15 November 2014


AWriter’s Notebook
No.52, November 2014
Contact email address:

Social media: Does it warrant the fuss?
Poems: February by Alison Prince

What used to be a monthly blog has suffered slippage. This comes about by considering oneself superman rather than an ageing scribbler, saying Yes instead of No and then being lumbered with two mightyish revisions of books it might have been better to leave behind. Both are academic, of long standing, their subject-matter the media. Both will be reissued in 2015, the 4th edition of Media Communication: An Introduction to Theory and Process from Palgrave/Macmillan; the second, written with Anne Hill, the 9th edition of The Dictionary of Media and Communication Studies, from Bloomsbury.

The work, in each case, has turned out something more than a touch-up. Reading what had been written for the last editions confirms the experience of slippage, in terms of time but also with regard to content. Retirement from teaching begins to show itself within days rather than weeks: you discover you are out of touch, and this is especially true of the fields of media: new terminology, new developments, more recent events clamour for mention and analysis, for adjustment or even  deletion.

Three editions ago the Dictionary had no entry on social media, yet in the past three years it has become the headline-scooping attraction of the digital age. What follows is a modified entry for the 9th edition of the Bloomsbury book. It is a definition and a comment in time which might in turn be on its way to obsolescence before it appears in print.


Thanks to Alison Prince whose poems continue to enrich The Writer’s Notebook.


Social media: Does it warrant the fuss?
The Internet rapidly fulfilled the prophecy of media guru Marshal McLuhan that electronic communication would turn the world into a global village; indeed it can be said that, with the growth of social networking, it has become a global backyard. Basically, social media is hundreds and thousands of people e-chatting and message-exchanging via the Net and sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Foursquare, Tumbir, Flickr and Twitter, not, that is, people actually meeting face to face; more likely squaring up to their own isolation.
      In the opinion of MIT professor Sherry Turkle in her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (Basic Books, 2011), summarising years of research findings among young people,  relying on the mobile phone, texting, exchanging messages on Facebook substitutes machine communication for the real thing; we are connected but alone. ‘We would rather text than talk,’ and in doing so we ‘sacrifice conversion for connection’.

Pressures to conform
 We might nod in appreciation of such possibilities but we continue, in the words of Jill Walker Rettberg in Blogging (Polity Press, 2010), to submit to ‘our instinct for collecting’. Rettberg says, ‘Once enough of your friends have joined a social network site, social pressure can make it very difficult not to participate’.
Social network analysis has become a rapidly expanding field of study, producing a new generation of commentators and gurus matching optimistic with pessimistic visions of the impact of social networking on users. The optimism of American writer Clay Shirky shines through the title of his book published by Allen Lane in 2010, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. In an interview with the UK Guardian’s Decca Aitkenhead (‘If there’s a screen to worry about in your house, it’s not the one with the mouse attached’, 5 July 2010), Shirky says the popularity of online social media proves that ‘people are more creative and generous than we have ever imagined, and would rather use their free time participating in amateur online activities such as Wikipedia – for no financial reward – because they satisfy the primal human urge for creativity and connectedness … Instead of lamenting the silliness of a lot of social online media, we should be thrilled by the social activism also emerging’.

Net delusion?
For every Shirky there is a worried pessimist (or cyber skeptic) who has a basketful of concerns about the impact of social media representing as it often does unbridled freedom of expression and consequently its subversive potential, for good or ill. One of the skeptics is Evgeny Morozov. His book The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World (Penguin, 2011) sees network communication as a whole as being under the threat of, on the one hand, censorship (chiefly by governments), on the other, appropriation by big business.
     Morozov comes down heavily against optimistic claims that the Net is too big to be censored, for the very act of online social intercommunication is subject to surveillance that tracks who we are, what we are doing, where we’ve been, what sentiments we’ve been exchanging. In short, once we step into forums of social media, once we give information about ourselves, we have taken a decision to deliver up our privacy.

Democracy or surveillance?
While Morozov focuses chiefly on the threat of authority to the freedom currently experienced by online communicators, Robert McChesney fears for democracy itself, seeing corporate power, often in partnership with government, as encroaching on, indeed appropriating the Internet for commercial purposes in the same way that public services (such as broadcasting) are privatized. In Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy (New Press, 2013), McChesney acknowledges that in the early days of the Net, grasping it – exercising control over it – ‘was like trying to shoot a moving target in a windstorm’.
     Today sophisticated technology tracks Internet activity as never before, and it does so in the interests of control (the perspective of those in authority) and monopoly (corporate ambition); in each case, McChesney argues, the path to equality, the foundation stone of democracy, becomes increasingly difficult to negotiate. He writes, ‘What seemed to be an increasingly open public sphere, removed from the world of commodity exchange, seems to be morphing into a private sphere of increasingly closed, proprietary, even monopolistic markets’.
     Capitalism of the neoliberalist sort, he believes, has ‘conquered the Internet’; it ‘has been converted into an advertising-based medium’.  In addition, McChesney looks with concern at an Internet that is ‘swarming with mostly anonymous and unaccountable companies  tracking anything that moves’.

Power of the collective
In contrast to this bleak picture, evidence of Net citizens, in small action groups or in the mass, has demonstrated empowerment with regard to social, political and economic issues. Public opinion remains a key factor for both governments and commerce and where the publics use their collective power via the Net to bring about change much can be achieved, in democracies and even authoritarian states. The danger remains, that those who take action, who surrender their anonymity for a public cause, have been noted, their personal details classified in the massive databanks of the state.
    Further, the current ‘openness’ of the Net permits more than government agencies to pursue questionable agendas: industrial espionage, cyberwarfare, hacking, DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service), pornography, identity theft, malicious impersonation, trolling, rape videos, falsification of information, online fraud, paedophile  rings, spam emails, stalking and bullying in their many forms, render the Internet ‘backyard’ a place of danger with potentially destructive powers.

Women as targets
Most worryingly is the cyberwar on women (see @StopWebBullying).A June 2014 report by the think-tank Demos, Misogyny on Twitter found more than 6 million references to the word ‘slut’ or ‘whore’ used in English between 16 December 2013 and 9 February 2014. In conversation with Time online (7 October 2014), Danielle Keats Citron, author of Hate Crime in Cyberspace (Harvard University Press, 2014), argued that ‘Getting us to see online abuse as the new frontier for civil rights activism will help point society in the right direction’. However, a number of social media platforms have been reluctant to take down expressions of cyber abuse, apparently on grounds of freedom of speech and expression. Such libertarian arguments prove difficult to sustain in face of the personal suffering that hate crime causes its victims, this, in a period when the number of suicides resulting from cyberbullying is on the increase.
For some commentators, idealism prevails. In Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky talks of the ‘civic value’ of Network activism, seeing it as potentially revolutionary. He predicts a time when ‘we are slowly going to set up islands of civil discourse’ in which norms are established that encourage people to use their real names or some well-known handle. The challenge for social networking is how ‘to maximize’ the Internet’s ‘civic value’.

Comments on Social Media are welcome, around 300 to 500 words. Please mail to



Alison Prince                      

Lower the gangplank, lad – maybe the dove
meant business with that twig. Go steady, now,
it’s treacherous. Dad, look! Dear God, a tree!
Unbolt the hatches, Missus! We’ll release
the armadillos, peccaries and bears,
parrots and accountants, mountain goats,
architects and bees and three-toed sloths,
yes, free the whole complaining lot. There’ll be
no biscuit ration handed out tonight,
no brackish water lapped, no whinnying,
no roars, no yelps, no threats that they will sue
on Health and Safety grounds. We got them through,
we kept the ark afloat, we have endured
storms and seasickness, we even hung
tinsel in the holds for Christmas cheer.
It’s February. It’s done. Until next year.






Thursday, 25 September 2014


AWriter’s Notebook

No.51, September 2014

Contact email address:

    High Road, Low Road, No Road
Poetry: Again by Alison Prince
Review: Arrivederci Commissario!  Helen Dempsey

The Scots have made their decision. We are united once more; so the politicians celebrate. After a lot of good sense north of the border  from both those for and those  against independence, we enter the era of honour and fair play; of politics set aside; of British common sense demonstrating itself to the world. This is crap; and so have been most of the comments by the power elite reported in the media.

    Friends, the Scots were voting for something more than independence. Indeed it is arguable that they were not voting for independence at all: what they wanted was to be shut of  the kind of government they have suffered under from Westminster; the government of cuts in social welfare, the ideology which introduces legislation that enriches the rich and punishes the poor. They wanted an end to Toryism, just as the English, Welsh and Irish may wish to do once given a vision of what is possible.

‘Believe us, we’re listening…’
Heeding the politicians’ clamour of promises and cross-my-hearts, you would guess that Scotland’s example has been on their minds for generations, regardless of the fact that they’ve wrangled for generations over what to do with the House of Lords.  Locked in to the mentality of their parliamentary privileges, having so benevolently kept the nation’s blessed nurses and other professions vital to the nation to a one percent pay rise while they dish out the shekels  to themselves, rest assured they have the CONSTITITION  in mind. PR man Dave wants to rush it along, 20-20 style; slow-motion academic Ed prefers two innings and a five-day game. Though it will milk the headlines for a few weeks more, reform will fade from the government’s agenda as swiftly as the Royal Charter on the press.
    Years ago it was put to Yorkshire that they become part of regional government. A vote was taken. Nobody was interested, because the good folks of Yorks were well aware that, as far as the ruling class was concerned (Labour in this case) change meant more of the same.
   It is such a relief, however, to know that so many things have been pledged, that politics will be abandoned by all parties in order to debate the common good; to learn that the advance towards independence of the English would under no circumstance be influenced by party ambitions.
 Of all the promises made during and after the campaign nothing summarises better what the Scots have known for centuries, that English assurances are as reliable as King John’s vows to honour Magna Carta (also referred to, more accurately, as the Barons’  Charter).

The country will never be the same again: official
Yes, there will be ‘constitutional reform’. It will promise change. Before you know it we will have a nation cleared of any resemblance to the past. The ruling cabinet will be made up of Etonians. Britain’s best education will be provided by public schools. Sunday will still be prayer day on the BBC and there will not be a cat in hell’s chance of having non-believers speak on Thought for the Day. The income of the royal family will be tripled. Prince George will become Lord of the Isles on his fifth birthday and inherit fishing rights for lochs Awe to Tay from Eck, from Morlich to Ness. The nurses will receive 2% over ten years following the concluding transfer of the National Health Service to American medical conglomerates.
     Statutes and formulas galore will have been assembled by City-based consultants at fees  equivalent to the income of Greater Manchester which will share the role of capital of Merseyside with Liverpool on a six-monthly rota. Devolved committees with powers of recommendation will be responsible for dealing on a local basis (yet to be defined) with issues such as what to do with immigrants, the sick, the elderly, disaffected youth, taxing Starbucks, banks, corrupt business practices, down-and-outs, hedge funds, Wikileaks, jihadists, all of course as usual in the name of equality, fair distribution of wealth and the abolition of prescription charges (over the dead bodies of the Conservative Republican Alliance).
     Cornwall will be restored to its ancient kingdom status and the Cornish language permitted to be spoken on the  royal births and deaths. As a result of Scotland’s promised privileges, plans for a motorway in Cornwall will be postponed till 2025.

Much to do
Of course most of the items listed above are currently well in hand. The difference is that the Citizens’ Charter will speed things up or slow them down accordingly. It will be subject to independent debate across the new counties of Yorkshire-with-Lancashire, Surrey-with-Kent and Inner-with-Outer London, the new regions or Landes of North, East, South and West and the new conurbations of North-and-South Watford. Needless to say, Parliament itself will continue  to shut up shop for four months during the summer months.
    Having proved such a failure, public ownership of facilities and social services for New Britain will be the responsibility of the private sector. Schools will be expected to earn their keep, profitability to be the sole  criterion of new league tables. History teaching will go easy on Edward 1’s ravaging north of the border,  the role of the English in the problematic events at Glencoe, the massacre  and post-combat slaughter at Culloden and the Highland Clearances.   If it has not already been delivered, the Stone of Scone will be returned to whatever location will command the greatest attention of the paying public.
    As for decisions concerning what is of exclusive interest to the English, the Welsh, the Irish as well as the matters of exclusive interest to the Scots, these will be the responsibility of a Royal Commission operated by retired judges, diplomats, former ministers of state plus a 1% representation of local taxpayers over 40 with residency rights of a minimum of 15 years. Except where necessary, all posts will be open to women applicants.
    The future is well on its way to fruition, though there are still doubters. As one English voter recently settled in a new council  house on the shores of Loch Lomond was overheard to say, ‘A new face for the English? I’ll believe it when I see it!’

By Alison Prince

Beside my mother in the cinema
I saw the stick-white bodies of people
bulldozed into graves, and understood
that this was what the war had been about.
Our own deaths had been accidents – the bombs
struck randomly. But this slaughter was planned,
a system coldly carried out.

 Appalled sympathy wrapped victims
and survivors in the deep respect
due to those who might point to our guilt.
They never did. It had not been our fault -
we could not know. But all the same,
a debt stood to be paid and at the least,
we felt we must remember and  take care
that such a thing never happened again.

Who could have known that those
with a camp number tattooed on the arm
would have descendants who look back and find
a tribe to blame for all the current ills?
War never stops, but this new targeting
of children, dark-haired as  the bombers' own
children, is again well-planned.

 In a mosque's rubble a thin boy hunts
through damaged books thrown in a skip
on top of other stuff. I remember
the smell of stone-dust and the stale
reek of doused fire and, too, the pride
of being still alive. I hope he found
something to sell or, better, to take him
beyond the ugly tedium of war,
just for a while. We are now too far gone
to ask for more.

Arrivederci Commissaro!

Helen Dempsey fears the winter without the comforting vistas of Sicily and the bow-legged, balding Inspector Montalbano

Gosh and alas, the dark nights are approaching and we are to be deprived by BBC Channel 4 of Salvo (Inspector Montalbano) and his dedicated and dishy assistants, Fazio and Mimi, the glimpses of the deserted streets of Vigata, the programme’s evocative music and – in the final instalment, a parrot singing the Internationale.
    Il Commissario played by Luca Zingaretti is not exactly one’s image of the Italian heartthrob; he is short, bow-legged and shorn. But he has a mighty chest as the production team regularly remind us in most instalments catching our hero swimming in Sicily’s languid waters prior to him being half-way through a coffee before the phone rings and he learns of the latest murder to be solved.
    Unlike most western crime series which are often laconic in the extreme, made up of grunts and silences, ‘Montalbanio’ as one would expect from a population blessed with an eternity of sunshine and pavement cafes, consists of talking, not just between the key characters as plots deepen and become more convoluted, but with a horde of minor portraits, usually witnesses of all shapes, sizes, ages and appearances who are given speeches sufficient to serve as lessons in Italian and encourage British visitors to venture beyond Buon giorno and, yes, arrivaderci.
    Serious critics would shake their heads at the vein of populism that runs through the series. There must be more women of spectacular beauty and seductiveness featured in ‘Montalbano’; yet Salvo, though he might be tempted never surrenders his priorities: his work, his quality food and wines and his girlfriend who, convenient for narrative requirement, lives and works far off.      Like all policeman’s ladies, she is the victim of forgetfulness, lateness and neglect.
     Whatever the temptations, even the prospect of a weekend in Paris, our Salvo is impossible to shift from his immediate context – and why should he when his mis en scene is made up of exquisite sea vistas, crumbling country mansions, spectacular interiors, courtyards and eye-catching stairways?
     I’ll miss Montalbano because like all good detectives, while willing to bend the rules, he is honest and fair, the sort of character, firm, brave and unpretentious, who drives a car utterly devoid of distinction. He is resistant  to bullying by his superiors, often authoritarian towards his colleagues who in turn he often finds exasperating. Yet at Christmas time they compete to invite him to join their family celebrations. I’d be happy to do the same. Benvenuto, Commissario!

Dear Ed.,
As a dedicated reader of A Writer’s Notebook I was delighted to be invited with my wife to your celebration of Blog 50 at the end of August. The gust swirling round the cleaners’ cradle at the Shard was a little unnerving at first. My wife lost her coque-au-vin but that was amply compensated by our chance to meet your famous correspondent, Ned Baslow, who kept us entertained with tales of his trials and tribulations concerning the celebrities due to appear at the Wickerstaff-cum-Fernhaven Festival of the Arts.
     My wife and I have booked tickets for Extracts from Homer’s Odyssey read by the author himself; and we had a lot of fun returning to Tunbridge Wells anticipating the interval when there will be a competition to award Mr. Homer a first name – as Ned argued, the loss of a great poet’s first name is as bad as somebody pressing the Delete button before the final stanza of his masterpiece.
    However, Mrs. Baslow, who is studying for an Open University degree, said all this naming was a nonsense, the word Omer (with or without an h) was the ancient Greek equivalent for ‘Anon’.  It is amazing how much you can learn dangling half a mile above London with a sausage roll in one hand and half a pint of Guinness in the other!  Yours etc.,
Peter and Glenys Bird.

 Our thanks to Peter and Glenys and to the dozen or so guests who dropped us a line. Also to Alison for her beautiful poem, and our first-time correspondent Helen Dempsey. We’re all a bit sad that Inspector M. won’t be demonstrating the gentle art of Sicilian crawl under a Mediterranean sun. Instead BBC 4 will be serving up the same old Nordic angst – perpetual ice and snow, mangled corpses, and characters verging on the bi-polar and not a laugh from one instalment to the next. Which means the critics adore it…

Tuesday, 19 August 2014


A Writer’s Notebook

No.50, August 2014

Contact address:

Notes in Passing: More Than a DRIP
Jarama Remembered 
Book review

50 and counting slowly
Novelist and media scholar Umberto Eco writes in the Preface to Travels in Hyperreality (Picador, 1986) that while he is capable of writing learned volumes, 'work that demands time, peace of mind, patience' he also feels compelled in journalism and in teaching to communicate his ideas now rather than later: ‘That is why I like to teach, to expound still-imperfect ideas and hear the students' reaction. That is why I like to write for the newspapers, to retread myself the next day, and to read the reaction of others’.
   He is probably echoing the feelings of many writers largely committed to ‘works of length’, novels, plays, academic books. There is a need for balance, in Eco’s case, journalism and teaching.

Practising for pleasure
As a writer of journalistic pieces during vacations from college, subscribing to my university newspaper, editing a magazine during my National Service, writing profiles of Italian artists while I was teaching English in Italy, then employed as a reporter on a Thomson newspaper before, eventually, switching to teaching in further and higher education, I’ve always prized journalism as part of my DNA. Moving from work as a journalist to lecturing in media I tried to keep up with writing as an expression of pleasure, admiration or in some cases, anger (TALKING IN WHISPERS was born out of anger at the seizure of power by the military in Chile). I did art reviews, book reviews, film reviews, all the while combining these, and teaching, with writing fiction for Young Adults.

Novels take one hell of a time, and the more you write, the longer they take. That’s what so attractive about writing them: they engage you for the foreseeable future; they structure that future and when they’re finished there is often a terrible feeling of loss. Writing short pieces can be compensation, for the pleasure is in the process, of getting things down on to paper, of shaping texts which never existed before.
   The idea of doing a blog, ‘A Writer’s Notebook’ (Blog 1, 3 September 2009) was thus an opportunity to be grasped with relish, for it took me back to the days when as a teenager I produced my own magazines. What evolved was something personal, not autobiography, but a reflection of my particular interests – writing stories, creating characters, analysing narrative, in the hope that others might be interested too; and that the blog might attract contributors, which it has.

Freedom to express
Much of what has been posted has taken the form of extracts and summaries of novels, a series on Poems of Place, articles on press freedom and censorship, pieces on writing academic works about media, on the importance of history (Blog 4, 23 October 2009 featured HISTORY’S FORGOTTEN WOMEN), on women’s soccer (prelude to my novel FAIR GAME: THE STEPS OF ODESSA), an article on blogging itself (Blog 13, 14 July 2010),  a number of reviews of books, films and art exhibitions.
   There have been highly readable contributions including book reviews by Tony Williams, comment by Alison Prince, dialogues by Bron O’Brien and two extracts from Laura Solomon’s novel Imitation of Life (Blogs 42/3, 17 September and 20 October 2013). The pages of A Writer’s Notebook are open to contributors; in fact I have been troubled as to where to put the apostrophe; yes, the Blog has been mainly mine, but its contents have been enriched by others.

Not forgetting Ned
Last but not least, the editorial team are delighted to acknowledge the (now regular) correspondence of Ned Baslow, secretary of the Wickerstaff-cum-Fernhaven International Festival of the Arts. He is living proof that the art of letter writing prospers. His letters to potential performers at the Festival such as Wolfy Mozart (interlude pieces, choir conducting), Billy Blake (scenery), Cervantes (script for the musical, The Spectacles of Don Quixote), Florence Nightingale (first aid) and Capability Brown (landscaping the festival site) are already being serialised on Facebook.

Hastings: a 1000 year blip
Our only disappointment has been King Harold’s ignoring Ned’s advice not to rush in to things after his victory at Stamford Bridge. We are all rather sad in the office that Harold’s impatience has led to a thousand years of the Normans, progenitors of the iniquitous Bedroom Tax and much meddling with education.

How slowly human rights progress; how swiftly they can be removed; and with what casual concern. While we (some of us) were worrying about the failures of the English soccer team in Brazil, the English cricket team at Trent Bridge; shocked and helpless at what’s been happening in Gaza, those twinkle-toed politicians slipped through whatever defences the British public has as its disposal and hit the back of the parliamentary net with a new bill that will banish online freedoms once and for all.
   The rush to legislate was as sneaky as schoolkids smoking behind the bike shed. We are talking about the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill – DRIP for short - which an Open Letter by 15 academics stated ‘is a serious expansion of the British surveillance state’, while on a Privacy International website posting, readers were warned, ‘Make no mistake about it – both the current policy [RIPA, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. 2000] and the new bill give the government carte blanche for massive and disproportionate invasion of privacy’.

Submission on demand
Nothing, should the bill become law, will in future be hidden from the eyes and access of what has been termed ‘womb-to-womb’ government observation. In future, everything we transmit on line will be subject to surveillance. Individuals, groups and social platforms will be required, on demand from the authorities, to surrender content about all of us. The Security services will be able to trawl through all our exchanges.
    RIPA was bad enough. This extended blanket powers of interception to telephone and Internet traffic, allowing the police, local government and, let’s face it, every Tom, Dick and Harry in the nation’s machinery of government, to probe our personal details. A Guardian leader declared the Act ‘a mockery of the right to privacy that the Human Rights Act is supposed to protect’.

Nothing to fear
 The rationale for DRIP is as old as the political hills: it is being brought in to protect us against terrorism. If we are not terrorists, we have nothing to fear; if we have nothing to hide, we can rest assured that Big Brother means us no harm. The legislation will only operate in ‘extreme circumstances’. Relax. Journalists such as Rafael Behr are only trying to work people up by talking of ‘creeping spookocracy’.
   This will be very bad news for organisations and movements who use the Internet to coordinate their (legitimate) activities, that of supporting causes, advocating change, protesting about innumerable things they see as being wrong with contemporary society. It will also prove bad news for lawyers because DRIP is in breach of European law: perhaps that is one reason why the present UK government plans to dismantle existing human rights legislation.

Atlantic bargains
In Cheltenham, Britain’s Spy HQ, already equipped with the most sophisticated and expensive surveillance system in the world, next to that of their American buddies at the National Security Agency, they’ll be relishing extending the sale of our data, our online exchanges, or mobile phone conversations for a tidy profit.
   All of this, with scarcely a public voice or hand raised in protest. Surely we don’t believe what we are told; or are we waiting to join forces with the poor old House of Lords when they come to discuss the bill, when they remind the nation of its hard-fought liberties yet in turn get railroaded by a parliament bent on regarding the entire population as potential suicide bombers? Watch this space, but bear in mind that it might also have been under scrutiny, its visitors and their traces duly logged.

While the nation has been commemorating the tragedy of the First World War, another war has been recalled by a diminishing number of those whose relatives fought in it, and who work hard to keep memories of the Spanish Civil War alive.
   What was it that took hundreds of British volunteers (and French, Americans, even Germans and Italians) to fight and die in a foreign war? First, a sense of brotherhood, the desire to support Spain’s republican government as Franco’s fascists, supported by German and Italian bombers (the ones that destroyed Guernica) as it struggled against the odds from one lost battle to another: a democratic government cut off from assistance by the ‘impartiality’ of the states of Britain, France and the US.
  But second, the belief among the volunteers that the war they were fighting was prelude to the war to come: victory for reaction, the success of history’s first blitzkriegs, the belief of Hitler and Mussolini that ‘the allies’ were too scared to get involved, and would be so when the big war came, proved compelling, worth the risk of dying in a foreign land.
   Among the battles that the British Legion of volunteers fought and died in was Jarama. In a moving ceremony in February of 2014, the family of Jack Edwards from Liverpool, wounded at Jarama, according to his wishes, scattered his ashes on the field of battle. There were 400 others paying homage to the fallen. At a gathering of the International Brigade Memorial Trust in Manchester Town Hall on Sunday 9 February marking the anniversary of the battle the lives of 120 volunteers who were killed were commemorated.
   Parallels have been drawn by some with the current call to arms of Islamists carrying young Britons to struggles in the Arab world. The inspiration, the youthful haste to act in a cause, are similar; the difference is that the brigaders were volunteering for a humanitarian cause, while jihadists seem to have it in mind that one day they will return to wreak havoc in their own country.
   Even so, among the volunteers who broke the law and evaded the agencies of order to travel to Spain there were those with little cause to love or respect their own country: unemployment in the 1930s stalked Britain. The gap between the wealthy and a hard-up population was almost as wide as it is today in contemporary Britain. Poverty and hopelessness motivated many men to opt for a life of adventure and sacrifice. It is unlikely that they imagined being pitched into such a combat of horrors, of killings, of executions, of towns and cities devastated by German junkers which would soon would be turning their attention to London and beyond.
   Their message had been clear: Spain was the practice-ground for the 2nd World War; alas few were paying attention. As for the volunteers of the International Brigade, the memories live on in their families, through the pages of the Brigade’s newsletter, in conferences on the war, in books and magazines and on the commemorative plaques both in Britain and in Spain that mark the heroism and the tragedy in which, contrary to the imperatives of stories, the good guys lost.

Among the women volunteers who joined the war was artist Felicia Browne who became a member of the Catalan Communist Militia. With Felicia in their ranks, they attempted to sabotage a railway line. They were ambushed and outnumbered by fascist forces. In going to the aid of an Italian comrade who was wounded, Felicia was machine-gunned down, possibly on 22 August 1936. She was the first of the women volunteers to be killed. Her sketches will be featured at an exhibition, ‘Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War’, on show at the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, from 8 November to 15 February 2015.


R e v i e w: Dublin, the Bits in-Between
TONY WILLIAMS is impressed by James Plunkett’s Strumpet City.

It is only just over the water but it might well be in farthest Oceania. Two works, Ken Loach’s Jimmy’s Hall and James Plunkett’s Strumpet City have brought it home to me how sketchy my knowledge of Ireland is: Drogheda, the Famine, the Home Rule debates, the Easter Rising, the Black and Tans, the Civil War, the IRA,  Behan – all these are familiar to me. But what of the bits in-between? What about Dublin in the years preceding 1914, was anything happening then or was it just a lull waiting for the independence struggle? Well no, as it turns out from James Plunkett’s novel, these were years of terrible conflict and starvation caused not by the usual villains, the British, but by the clash between capital and labour.

Shades of the present?
Dublin was a populous overcrowded city which had lost much of its manufacturing base and unemployment was the norm for the unskilled. The poor, the extremely poor, were crammed into apartment blocks formerly grand homes of the gentry. What work there was for the unskilled, carting, delivering, on a zero hours basis, a day’s work here or two hours there.
   Onto the scene came Jim Larkin - a name which was to resound throughout twentieth century labour disputes in Ireland, the USA and USSR. In Dublin this Liverpool Irishman organised the unskilled into the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, initiated strikes for tolerable hours and pay and coined the slogan ‘a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.’  Larkin led the workers through dreadful deprivations over years of lockouts, was jailed on several occasions and ultimately deported to the USA.
   James Plunkett’s great skill is in making me want to immerse myself in this unpalatable story, informing yet without tub-thumping. Larkin features in the background in this story of richly drawn individuals: a carrier, a foundry worker, various priests, factory owners and managers, prostitutes and, most vivid of all, Rashers Tierney, the lowest of the low.
Plunkett does not share the widespread contempt for the poor, Dublin’s cast-offs, living in cast-off housing, in cast-off clothes bought in second-hand shops, where even the fuel they burn is second-hand: ‘Children and the old searched the bins of the well-to-do for half-burnt cinders’. Rashers Tierney, despised and bullied by officialdom is reduced almost to the level of his dog Rusty, his friend and equal: ‘… the child rooting in the ashbin, the cat slinking along the gutter, the cockroach delicately questing along the wooden joins of the floor.. these were sometimes his competitors, but more often his brothers.’

Police brutality
As a literary figure Tierney could have sprung from Gorky, but in the flesh can be found in numerous favelas throughout the world.  The brutality of the police in smashing the strike, quite literally breaking into the houses of the strikers and in front of the terrified wives and children taking sledgehammers to all the sparse furniture, cookers and fittings, smashing their ‘delph’, leaving them with nothing to take to the pawnbrokers – this brutality is unthinkable now, of course. We use bulldozers.
   Plunkett is not a black-and-white polemicist, and even the most odious Father O’Connor who does his utmost to deny the strikers sustenance and thwart their attempts to send their starving children to England, even he can be seen as a human being at times. Individual capitalists and their wives also make more than token efforts to help the suffering families of the strikers.
  The novel ends with the capitulation of the strikers, the banishment to the USA of Larkin and the move toward war.

James Plunkett, (1920-2003) worked in the Irish trade union movement and in Irish radio and television. He has been well-known for many years to people in Ireland and beyond, but only recently, to my shame, to me.
Published Gill & MacMillan, Dublin 1969.

The major part of Blog 49 was given over to Ned Baslow as guest editor on account of the Blog’s editorial staff being up to their eyes planning the future, specifically preparing new editions of heavy tomes. Ned mentioned how keen his wife Betty is about having a water feature in their garden. We immediately received a kind and generous offer:

We have surplus statue of Cupid that we could donate to Betty's water feature. Poseidon
Betty, we learn, who is studying for an Open University degree, immediately cautioned Ned about accepting this gift, pointing out that Poseidon was the Greek god of the sea, while Cupid was of Roman origin. ‘Something fishy about it,’ she said.
   Ned’s postbag  was too numerous for us to reproduce it in bulk, but below is a selection of mainly-emails from our readers.

Dear Ned,
I was talking to Johan Sebastian during Evensong last Sunday and he expressed genuine regret at not being invited to conduct his Motet for Four Horns and Ukelele at the Festival you are organising. Is it too late to book a performance? He would be happy to give a brief introduction to the work; and his fee would be modest.
Yours etc.
Pete Urwin.

 Dear Ned,
Talking of your wife’s admiration for water features, my company specialises in water feature spectacles. We would be very happy to design such a feature to accompany your planned Tableau of Beauties featuring the one-and-only Helen of Troy. We were the company responsible for the fountains that served as background to the production of The Little Mermaid at the Gove Memorial Free School in Balham.
Yours etc.
Splash Productions.

 Dear Mr. Baslow,
Congratulations on holding the fort while your editorial colleagues escaped their duties on Bournemouth beach. I personally was witness to the mess they made as, eager to rescue their barbeque in a strong east wind, their manuscripts were wafted out to sea or were consumed by seagulls. Put two or more writers together, in my view, and mayhem follows as swiftly as night follows day.
Yours etc.
Liz Motram

Dear Ned,
I’m submitting two new songs in lieu of your rejecting my Lark Ascending, on the grounds that it’s been done to death.
Yours etc.
Ralph V. Williams.

Dear Ned,
We’re just finishing breakfast, though my housecarls have left a corner for William of Normandy’s head. We have an insuperable advantage, being located on a hill overlooking the battlefield. I shall be willing to give a talk at the Festival on the theme of How to Net Harold Hardrada, His Brother  Tostig and Will Norman in Under 48 hours. See you shortly.
Harold Goodwinson.
PS: Please arrange for me to meet Helen of Troy in private.

Kindle editions at crazy prices:
Talking in Whispers (£2.01)
The Freedom Tree (£1.03)
Ticket to Prague (£1.63)
Justice of the Dagger (£2.03)
Fair Game: The Steps of Odessa (£4.11)
Pigs Might Fly (£4.11)

Contributions are welcome and should be e-mailed to:


Monday, 30 June 2014


A Writer’s Notebook

No. 49, JULY 2014

 The Return of Ned

Dear Readers
I’m probably as confused as you might be to discover I’ve been appointed by the editorial team Visiting Editor for this edition. This comes at a time when, fresh from my three weeks Union-assisted sojourn in Fuengirola (too many Russians for my liking), I discover a note on the living room mantelpiece informing me that the Wickerstaff-cum-Fernhaven International Festival of the Arts has been postponed till December on account of Councillor Gilbert Stokoe falling off his son Octavian’s horse and damaging his elbow and breaking a number of ribs. So much for outdoor performances of The Spectacles of Don Quixote, the centrepiece of the Festival.
     So the honour of being appointed editor is somewhat dimmed in the light of the mountain of correspondence that awaits me. Whether the Greeks (Odysseus, Menelaus, Homer et al) will want to take part in the Great Battle of the Titans, or Helen of Troy lead the dance chorus in the Tableau of Womanly Beauty down the ages, bearing in mind last year’s endless rain, is beyond my guessing.
     The Editorial Board, by the way, have lumbered me with this task because they in turn have been lumbered with preparing new editions of a couple of books they thought were at the end of their trail, but aren’t. So there’s not a sausage in the In-Tray and only a half-eaten banana in the Out-Tray.

Confidence misplaced
I thought, well, it’s an opportunity to spread information about the Festival to the thousands of readers of A Writer’s Notebook, particularly as many of our artistes are avid readers of the blog – Wolfy Mozart, Billy Blake, Florrie Nightingale, Calamity Brown, Endeavour Morse and Maid Marian to name but a few.

     How to fill its pages? Well, could blogging be another country for ordinary folk? Not a jot of doubt was in my head that family, friends and neighbours would rally round and contribute a piece, long or short, about the Pleasures, Challenges, Ups and Downs of Life in Wickerstaff-cum-Fernhaven. Not a jot or a tittle!

     My wife Betty, in the middle of her Open University studies, is too busy on an essay for her tutor Dr. Arbuthnot (expert on The Black Rat and the Brown Rat in the Year of the Plague). That’s just what we need, I said to her: What foreigners think of the English, edited down with pictures of England’s anti-heroes such as Judge Jefferys or Jimmy Savile. Of course I got an earful for belittling the study of history; even got a straight No on the theme of Academic Life and the Struggling Housewife and ever-forebearing hubbies.

    Betty’s sister Brenda’s Spanish husband was next on my list: a piece on what the Common Market has done for Spain, Roderigo. He said he’d prefer to do something on bull fighting, at which Betty shut him up by saying readers would be much more interested in the way Picasso rendering the sport. ‘Picasso betrayed his country,’ shot back Rod. The look in his eye (I call it the ‘Franco gaze’) dissuaded me from asking why.

    Demetrius, owner of the local chippie, replied to my request for A Greek’s View of Homer that he was too busy trying to reduce the price of cod to even think about cartoon characters. My best bet for a contribution has been Joe Wilson, Captain of the Cromwell Arms Quiz Team. His general knowledge is phenomenal, yet he has had even less formal education than I have. I offered him 25 different topics, including the Flora and Fauna of Lathkill Dale, Monsal Dale and Dovedale.

    Readers of this blog, I told him, would not only be fascinated by an illustrated article on his specialty they would make the dales their next port-of-call. It was the wrong proposal: ‘If I thought I was to blame,’ he said, ‘for one more body trampling over my precious flora, I’d top myself’.

     I ended up with an offer from my 13 year old Benjie to pen a story about his guinea pig, Useless Eustace, that died in mysterious circumstances. I said I thought the RSPCA might object to the grizzly bits, but he refused to alter a word, saying they'd have to cudgel him with the Royal Charter to make him. Betty then subjected him to a 20 minute lecture on Magna Carta. 'Same thing,' responded Benjie. 'A lot of hot air!'

To the rescue
I have had no alternative but to delve into the missives of my contributors down the weeks. There’s been much to choose from, some of it sad, like King Harold’s reply to my invitation to take part in the Battle of the Titans.

Dear Ned (was the last letter I received from him)
Your letter warning me about rushing in to battle without a Plan B has been duly noted. But after Stamford Bridge I feel we have the wind on our sails. This Norman intruder on sacred English soil will get his come-uppance, never fear. He is a canny fixer but my Housecarls know how to deal with such people. If he tries that trick of pretending to retreat, we  know how to react (though I can’t quite recollect whether I’ve told the lads in so many words).

   At the moment we are easing our feet and consuming a flagon or two of Saxon ale at a village inn on the road to Burwash. I’d be very happy to give a talk on the tactics of war to your Women’s Institute, though as you advise I’ll go easy on the bloodshed.
Yours etc.

Well there you go: a potentially star entertainer facing an epic battle yet still with time to consider his humble subjects.  Harold’s footnote almost brought me to tears: ‘All the best for Derby County in the new season!’

I fear we are going to have a few squabbles among the musicians; and Wolfie’s likely to be at the heart of them (though his acceptance of a 25 Euro fee for 30 minutes incidental music, with a night’s conducting thrown was snapped up without a demurring voice from the Committee).

Dear Mr. Baslow
I hear on the grapevine that Master Beethoven has promised you his 10th symphony on condition it is performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and free tickets will be made available to him for the Tableau of Womanly Beauty. Considering his present state of health, it is a preposterous offer and is certainly making me think again about being the Master of Musique of your Festival.
   If the Emperor himself has the affrontery to suggest of my latest opera that there are ‘too many notes’ the idea of yet another contribution from Luders the Lugubrious will be more than my ears can take.
   Please write to Master B declining his offer and my own very best wishes for his health; but avoid any mention of your proposal for  us to play together ‘Four Hands Make Light Work’. These days my old friend hits the keyboard with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
Yours as always
W.A. Mozart.

Among the heaps of post after my Fuengirola holiday was a rather bristling note from the squire-class gardener who has agreed to re-jig two of Councillor Stokoe’s back meadows formerly serving as an open-plan piggery, more recently ‘discoloured’ as my Betty put it, by rape seed. The folks of Wickerstaff were all for it; and the folks of Fernhaven against it. On the grounds that in Fernhaven at least two of Councillor Stokoe’s election posters were defaced, he used his casting vote to invite the famous landscape gardener Capability Brown (not Calamity Brown as I inadvertently called him) to render the rape and make Stokoe Manor the mirror image of Chatsworth, but without the lake, the waterfall, and that ugly horse that greets visitors in the courtyard. I have written to Mr. Brown to apologise and suggested that if he can spare the time could he plan a water feature for our back garden, as a surprise for Betty’s birthday (preferably with literary connotations).

     Talking of posters, I’ve had to shield the committee from the ire of Billy Blake who jumped the gun and produced a poster announcing the wrong dates. As I pointed out to him on the phone, best leave a space for dates and times until the local council gives its assent, we receive confirmation of a royal visit from Prince Charles and advertising space has been booked in Derbyshire Life, The Lady, Hello (they’re desperate for pictures of Helen of Troy) and Camping Today.

    Billy’s illustration also did not meet with the universal approval of the Committee. One member called it ‘weird’ and almost came to blows with Betty who yelled ‘Masterpiece!’ over and over again: ‘anyone but an idiot could see that’. At which Betty in turn was accused of being an idiot. I stepped in to the quarrel with the comment, Billy comes cheap: we can make a bomb out of the sale of his etchings. At which William Blake’s ‘masterpiece’ was given approval on a vote of 5 to 4.

The complainant has resigned from the Committee and posted some bitter comments on Facebook about ‘folks who try to improve themselves and end up nothing but snobs’, referring to our Betty who delivered some equally bitter twitters on people happy with their own ignorance and content to spread it like manure.

Signing off
Readers, the travails listed above reminded me of the Prime Minister’s idea of a Big Society. He should come and try it. There’s always somebody out there ready to blame hardworking volunteers: will they take over? Like hell they will. Leave it to Ned is all I hear, in my company or out of it: Good Old Ned. That’s what the editorial team of A Writer’s Notebook must have said as they sloped off to the beach at Broadstairs (or is it Skegness?) with laptops and mountains of notes: Good Old Ned will cope. To be honest, it’s been a pleasure despite my failure to get friends and acquaintances to pen a paragraph or two.

That, in my opinion, is the trouble. 140 characters seems to be more than enough for most people; as for letters who needs them, who writes them anymore? Well I do and I get some unexpected and extraordinary responses. After all, how many committee secretaries can claim to have acceptances from Nebu-chad-nezar, Odysseus’ Misses, Penelope, John Milton, Miguel Cervantes, Albert Einstein, Nurse Nightingale, Leonardo da Vinci, the Sheriff of Nottingham, the Chief of MI5 and Elvis Presley for one event, not to mention the rest?

Well, folks, there are letters to write. The team promises to be back for Blog Number 50. I brought six bottles of Spanish red from Fuengirola. Droppers-in at Yer tis, just down the road from the Cromwell Arms, will be welcome, but if there’s a message on the front door, SILENCE COMMANDED, it means that our Betty is at work on her latest Open University essay or she’s busy on the Internet exchanging messages about Fate and Destiny with Uncle Bill as Benjie calls him.

Thanks for your attention,