Thursday, 23 January 2014


A Writer’s Notebook

No. 46, January 2014


James Watson

Friends and contributors



Editorial: Bravissima, PJ!

Guantanamo: The Banning of books

Chile: The Burning of Books

A brace of haikus


Bravissima, PJ!

Regular listeners to BBC Radio 4’s morning news programme, Today, might well have thought they had been transported to a  different planet during January 2014 as the programme had been handed over to a new editor-of-the-day.

There’s nothing new about these occasional forays into the semblance of broadcasting independence. Usually the guest editor’s take so resembles the usual day to day content and approach that one fails to notice the difference.

But not with singer/composer P.J. Harvey’s editorship. As a measure of her innovative and utterly surprising stint, the Daily Mail’s outraged response was praise enough for something welcomely different.

Naturally the Mail spotted where P.J. was coming from, wafting in on clouds of double-dyed left wing prejudice. Forgotten, predictably, was the editorship granted to the new CEO of Barclay’s bank who took care to permit a flicker of blame for past banking  practices before proceeding to to inform listeners that the way forward was a garden of roses: pure propaganda reflecting Today’s own daily cow-towing to the world of big business.

The producers who opted for P.J. Harvey probably didn’t have the slightest notion of what they were letting themselves in for. A singer? Good idea. Educated, too; with a touch of the intellect in her songs.

Suddenly the Radio 4 airwaves were bristling with the radical, subversive comments of speakers who, in the normal course of programming, would not be allowed within a mile of the microphone; and that included the better-known: John Pilger, scourge of Left as well as Right, author of Hidden Agendas? Were we crazy?

 P.J. – your programme was like emerging from the ‘same-old’ and breathing in the fresh air of unmediated truth; for a few moments, dramatically illustrating the difference between what should be said about issues and what is permitted to be said. Alas, I doubt whether the editor’s chair will be waiting for you in the foreseeable future. Thanks for the memory!



A recent edition of The Guardian noted that not a lot of books are available for prisoners in the cells of Guantanamo Bay. Those banned seem as inexplicable as most codes of censorship allow. Take four: Jack and the Beanstalk, Puss in Boots, Cinderella and The Merchant of Venice. Jack has aspirations: he kills an evil giant: could prisoners see something of Uncle Sam in this tale? Puss’s ambitions are brought about by his killing rats and mice. Sounds like pure terrorism. Obviously it’s a No to Puss; and, despite the Merchant being by the Bard, it does smack of anti-Semitism: best not to play in the hands of suspected Islamist extremists.

No need to guess, however, that Kafka’s The Trial gets the thumbs down, or Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, especially in the light of what happened to Bradley Manning and what awaits Edward Snowden if he ever sets foot again in the Land of the Free.

Some contemporary authors will be pleased and relieved that their work has been under the cosh. John Pilger’s Hidden Agenda really asks for the blue pencil as does, predictably, Lord Thomas Bingham’s The Rule of Law. Breath again George Galloway and Clare Short: you’re banned.

Which seems to leave us with an embarrassed Jeremy Paxman: his The English is permitted, though the same charity is not extended to The New Dinkum Aussie Dictionary…

Finally it is a mystery whether Anna Perera’s outstanding teen novel Guantanamo Boy (Penguin) is accessible, except under the counter, to young American readers. Any stories about how it has fared in the US?



Forty years ago in September 1973. Democracy was overthrown in Chile. A period of arrests, mass shootings, torture and terror began under the generals, the most prominent of whom was General Pinochet. Forty years later, into the second term of President Obama, the promise to close the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay has not been kept. Further, as this blog’s editorial suggests, the American state is as scared of the content of books as the Generals were.


In this short extract from teen novel TALKING IN WHISPERS, Andres, hunted by Security, cannot resist returning to the house of his popular ballad-singer father Juan who has been arrested and taken to the House of Laughter.


As he reached the Via Rivadivia, Andres stepped back in shock. In his mind’s eyes he had expected to see the street as he remembered it – friendly and quiet, whitewashed, with the occasional balcony adorned with baskets of flowers; a sleepy street with blue-grey cobbles and trees casting tranquil shadows.

Instead, he witnessed a street under siege. Directly in front of him were a jeep and a military van. Beyond, in the centre of the street, a raging bonfire. He glanced up and saw blankets spread over window-sills like signal flags. There were at least ten soldiers on guard. Others were moving from one house to the next. So far there were no blankets hanging from the windows of Juan Larreta’s house.

Our turn, I think. A crowd had gathered in the street and Andres had no difficulty concealing himself.

Weak sunshine had succeeded the rain, kindling steam from the pavements into a visual echo of smoke from the bonfire. Juan’s bedroom window was thrown open. A second later – out came the books, the whole of Juan Larreta’s library, and Andres’ collection too, no doubt, hurtling through the sky, a rainstorm of knowledge, of ideas, of songs and poetry; flittering, soaring, smacking the pavement, sometimes shedding pages, sometimes falling as neatly as if placed there by a loving reader.

And the books were shovelled towards the bonfire.

Andres spied a few titles as they ploughed into one another on the ground: The Eagle and the Serpent, War and Peace, Neruda’s poems, a biography of Mozart, the story of the Beatles, the drawings of William Blake, Film Directors of Chile, a life of Bolivar and, to Andres’ momentary amusement, momentary grief – Alice in Wonderland, given him by his mother years and years ago.

Andres wanted to laugh. So the Junta is even afraid of Alice in Wonderland. One day I’ll write a song about this: ‘The Junta through the Looking Glass’. Yet he did not laugh. The scene before him of vicious and insane destruction was no laughing matter.

All Juan’s songs in manuscripts were being burned.

The officer supervising the book-burning called to the crowd above the crackle of the bonfire. ‘This, by order of the Junta, the property of all enemies of the state will be seized and destroyed.’

He paused for his words to sink in to the heads of his listeners. He watched the crowd whose eyes remained fixed upon the continuing avalanche of books, upon the flames, upon the pages curling, turning black, dissolving.

‘The entertainer Juan Larreta was a traitor – to the nation, to the Holy Church and to the name of decency. The Interior Ministry has banned the publication of his work and the performance of his songs.’

The officer waited, as though half-expecting a backlash of protest. Like the others, Andres silenced his opinion and saved his skin. Like the others, he felt cowed, ashamed, almost unclean.

He had listened to lies and he had not responded. He had not even whispered a protest.

The silence pleased the officer. He chose to interpret it as assent. Perhaps for a moment, in his heart, he had expected the crowd to defy him. Perhaps also in his heart he knew the lies he spoke. Yet he had won. He had declared injustice to be acceptable, and the crowd had let him get away with it.

Except, that is, for an old man at the rear of the crowd. He cried out, lonely, shrill, but courageous: ‘Larreta was a good man. He spoke to the people’s hearts.’

The old man’s words were as petrol to the flames. ‘Step forward – that man, step forward!’

The crowd was reluctant to open up for the old man. Andres recognised him. An Indian, who worked at the bakery down the road. Juan had sung at his grand-daughter’s wedding.

He stood forward, bare-headed, in a suit that had grown old with him. He was bundled, without protest, without words, into the army van.

The officer delayed returning his pistol to its holster. He wagged it in the face of the crowd. ‘Any more heroes?’


A brace of haikus



            A flotilla of slugs

            Heads for the allotments

            Intent on mayhem.



            HAIKU FOR TODAY

              Eleven soup kitchens

              In Coventry alone;

              Tory Britain now.


Our star correspondent Ned Baslow is on holiday with his wife Bette, son Benjie, twin girls Beatrice and Barbara and Grandad Barnie in Benidorm.  Hurry back, Ned! We have an email from Elvis that needs a swift reply.


Kindle editions (4)


The machines are yellow like the morning sun.

At first Muyu’s people thought them gods. They glowed, they glistened, they roared. No forest ears had ever heard such sounds. Not even the gunfire of the soldiers from the Distant Masters could match them…

How can young Muyu and his beautiful friend Lyana stop the hated soldiers and the timber companies from destroying the forests?

 Their friend ‘Greenboots’, whose book about their people’s plight has focused the eyes of the world on East Timor, now has a price on his head and they are on the run together, in a desperate bid to outwit Captain Selim, the Butcher in Shades…


‘Watson’s pedigree as a writer of political novels for young adults is impeccable…This is a powerful and intelligent book which uses its chosen genre both to grip and incite its teenage audience.’ Books for Keeps [5-star rating].


This was a Waterstone’s Book of the Month.


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Thanks for reading this!



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