Tuesday, 19 August 2014


A Writer’s Notebook

No.50, August 2014

Contact address: Watsonworks@hotmail.co.uk

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:


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