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Thursday, 26 November 2020

Lost Things


It’s the lost things that are best remembered, especially when it comes to books. There are exceptions, but few. I remember with regret a beautifully turned salad bowl, the best thing by far I ever achieved in Woodwork. Before, I’d brought home a poorly made bookshelf, and a mahogany crucifix (well, the cross at least) but the salad bowl was my pride and joy. Unfortunately, my parents persuaded me to give it away to the domestic science teacher who’d coached me prior to me entering Catering College. I’ve forgotten the teacher’s name, but not the salad bowl.


But books are the thing; the memories, sharp niggles that catch me every now and again. There are three, in particular, all lost during the traumatic house move from Newport to Monmouth. One was ‘The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce,’ an old hardback bought from a second-hand bookshop. I’ve since bought it on kindle but it’s not the same. Another was a lavishly produced coffee table book of photos portraying Long Island. It was a gift from Bud and Edith, two incredibly generous New Yorkers who took me under their wing when I was in New York and came over to visit us in Newport some years later. At the time, the book aroused little interest though obviously, I was appreciative. I’m still not that keen on coffee table books, but what I regret most is the tangible memory. You pass a book, or your glance alights on it, and the memory floods back—especially the generosity of those who gave it to you. They’re dead now, but I’d still have the book had I not been so careless. 


The final item lost in that house move was the 1982 St Agnes Academic School for Girls Yearbook. It was given to me at the end of my teacher exchange and had the names and photos of every girl I taught that year. It also had a photo of me grinning like a fool. I remember many of the names and faces but am horribly aware that more have gone through the memory-plughole. 


There are two other things I regret losing, both conscious but badly judged actions. My dad sewed and stitched a green canvas shoulder bag for me when I first left home for university—skills he had learned at sea. It went everywhere with me, for a long time holding a mandolin until I was able to afford a proper case. And then, I decided I no longer needed it and so it was binned. With age, you better appreciate the importance of things. 


The final small treasure I consciously binned was an old white plastic, leather-effect briefcase with a broken zip. What was important was not the case but what it held, two or three years of trans-Atlantic letters from my distant cousin in Seattle. We’d been penfriends since our teens. 


The catalyst for that particular act was, ironically, after a visit to see her and her family at her home in Seattle. It was Christmas, and a wonderful, never forgotten experience. But when talk turned to our years of correspondence, she told me cheerfully that she’d thrown my letters away or at least never kept them, which amounts to much the same thing. But then why keep them? I wasn’t Virginia Woolf (thank God) And yet it rankled, bruised ego perhaps. So, in another, earlier house move the plastic case with its trove of letters went. What rubbish, I thought, keeping old, adolescent letters. And how badly wrong both of us were. What a treasure trove of memories was lost. 


Then again, putting regret into perspective, everything is lost in time—the greatest, most rapacious thief of all.

Friday, 20 November 2020

Fascist or Schoolboy?

 

You can buy my book here.  But why should you buy a book about Peter Cheyney?



Cheyney’s success as the most highly paid writer of his time does not necessarily qualify his books as great, but it does show that his work reflected the attitudes and mood of a huge swathe of the population, amplified it, and played it back to them. Cheyney talked to the popular mood rather than the concerns of an educated elite. It was the less educated who bought his work in droves. 



Cheyney’s books travelled with soldiers to the battlefields of Europe and were found in the homes of the ‘Resistance’. His ‘Dark’ series had relevance and brought a new degree of realism to the spy novel with its soiled glamour, its weary brutality.



Oscar, coming to terms with Cheyney


Peter Cheyney’s world-view might make some wince at its robust and thoughtless chauvinism, its narrow certainties that ‘pansies’ were abominable and foreigners not to be trusted.  He is, though, reflecting an uncomfortable fact that the real heroes of World War II were not the moral icons that the media then and now prefer to portray – the awkward bits cut out.  The heroes of World War II would be homophobic, racist bigots by our standards but heroes nevertheless. It was the ordinary man with the ordinary prejudices of the time – and the aspirations that Cheyney portrayed. Those less literate than Greene or le Carre made Cheyney rich because he wrote what they wanted to hear, and so provides a reader today a fascinating insight into a world long gone. 




His most famous books found in 'the dark' series were written when Cheyney was well past his physical prime. Reading his descriptions of hard-drinking, hard smoking lantern-jawed heroes with impossibly white teeth,  it's worth having a vision of their creator at the time they were written.


'On the eve of the Second World War, the forty-three-year-old Peter Cheyney volunteered for the Officer’s Emergency Reserve and was mortified when he was turned down on the grounds of ill health. He settled for the Home Guard instead and the role of Captain Mannering in ‘Dad’s Army.’ Thwarted in his desire to serve King and Country in France, Egypt, Burma, or Greece—anywhere but central London— he dug slit trenches and trained other unfit men, on how to repel the invader. Cheyney revealed a near-martinet obsession with military discipline, which, in the view of his first biographer, was a likely defense mechanism, a response to wounded pride. 


Occasionally it backfired—most spectacularly when he regaled the Press Club with the ineptitude of his men and how he had spent an entire afternoon trying to teach them how to advance under little or no cover. 

One of those listening ‘innocently’ asked, “What exactly were you trying to get them to do?”

Cheyney put his whisky back on the bar and lumbered down onto his very large stomach. An obliging soul handed him a walking stick in lieu of a rifle, and the bar watched in silence as he crept up on the ‘enemy’ hidden behind the door of the Billiards-room. Tables and chairs were moved out of his way as he proceeded to wriggle with deadly intent. People crowded into the room to watch, unable to believe their eyes.

On reaching the Billiards-room, Cheyney, red-faced and puffing clambered back onto his feet and brushed himself down. “Now do you see?”

The wit that every schoolboy knows manifested itself then. An unknown voice piped up from the back. “I’m sorry. I didn’t quite see that?”

It may have been the whisky or the ‘sincerity’ of those watching but Cheyney re-enacted his walrus-like wriggle to the Billiard-room door six times before the penny at last dropped. Furiously he heaved himself back onto his feet and faced the by now hysterical audience. “That’s right, laugh! Laugh your bloody heads off!” And they did, weeping on each other’s shoulders as Cheyney stormed out of the room.

It was a far cry from the young Peter Cheyney, struggling to find himself in the febrile and disjointed world of the 1920s, the young Cheyney, nostalgic for the certainties of war. It was, too, a far cry from the unpleasant thug he may well have appeared to those who opposed him. ....' (Extract from Cheyney Behave)

Friday, 13 November 2020

Shenanigans

President Trump accuses the Democrats of electoral fraud. The Democrats swear blind they would never do such a thing. In the immortal words of Mandy Rice Davies looking at both claims, ‘They would say that wouldn’t they.’ History may eventually sift the truth of it, then again it might not. 


But for any who think these ‘shenanigans’ could never happen here, one only has to look at Peterborough, Birmingham, Bradford and West Yorkshire.


The 2004 Peterborough election vote rigging scandal eventually saw justice in 2008, when Raja Akhtar, the Conservative Mayor of Peterborough, was sentenced to three months in jail for electoral fraud, at Norwich Crown Court. These were not the only convictions for fraud in the 2004 election. Labour party members, including a former mayor Mohammed Choudhary, candidate Maqbool Hussein and a party official Tariq Mahmood were also jailed in 2008.


They were caught as part of ‘Operation Hooper’, launched by Cambridgeshire police after residents turning up at the ballot box to vote were turned away after being told their vote had already been cast. The investigation revealed that the men had tampered with postal voting forms, sending ballot papers to away addresses where they were hijacked. Peterborough Telegraph 10 October 2008



Similarly, the Birmingham Post reported similar shenanigans in 2014:


“Ten years on from the postal vote fraud scandal which saw Birmingham’s political system likened to a ‘banana republic’ an MP says he is sure there is still election fraud today.

The city council election on June 10, 2004 was perhaps the darkest day in Birmingham’s political history as it marred by vote rigging on an industrial scale which left trust in the electoral system shattered.

“High Court Judge Richard Mawrey QC, presiding over the election court, famously declared the fraud “would disgrace a banana republic,” after his election court found there was a campaign by Labour Party activists to forge, steal, and alter thousands of postal votes.”

The extent of fraud was uncovered when police found candidates and supporters handling unsealed postal ballots in a deserted warehouse in Birch Road East, Aston during a late-night raid two days before the election.


A further clue, perhaps, was when the number of postal votes rocketed from 28,000 in 2003 to 70,000 in 2004 – and witnesses saw people delivering bags full of ballot papers to polling stations and counts.


Tower Hamlets in 2015 also saw widespread postal fraud along with voter intimidation. Perhaps as a result, Tower Hamlets now implements tough election security. Both the Evening Standard and The Docklands and East London Advertiser reported how in 2019 anti-fraud officers equipped with body-worn cameras were deployed at polling stations when voting began. Nine officers were also stationed at the count in the town hall and a new photographic entry system was put in place to stop anyone who should not be there entering. The fact that such measures were needed bears witness to the previous corruption. 


But this was the mere tip of the iceberg. In 2017 the Yorkshire Post reported the findings of the Electoral Commission:

‘More election fraud claims in Bradford and Huddersfield than London and West Midlands combined.

‘NEARLY one in five alleged cases of British election fraud last year was recorded in West Yorkshire - with Bradford, Keighley and Huddersfield emerging as 'high risk’ areas…’


Perhaps the strongest motive for electoral fraud is the arrogance of those who know what's  best for ‘the people,’ whether, as in the C19th, the conviction that property owners possessed a wisdom that ordinary people lacked or the present belief, in some quarters, that ‘ideology’ or any one particular party should determine the outcome of an election. The Chartists fought for one man one vote, not one man two hundred votes whether it be a local aristocrat or via the more modern phenomenon of corrupt postal voting. 


It’s not my place to speak for America. Republicans and Democrats can speak for themselves, and should they hesitate the media will do it for them. I’m speaking about Britain where our voting system  clearly needs to be tightened. 


Voting should be done in person with proper ID and, if necessary, over two days.

Mail voting should be restricted to the sick, housebound or those out of the country, and then under much stricter conditions with proper ID and signed by them— not dubious proxies. 

And finally, whatever happens, we should never go down the cyber route via the click of a mouse. Convenient for the voter, and convenient for those who control the technology. I don’t want my vote controlled by Google or Government or any extra-state power who may get involved—including in the future any benevolent A. I. knowing what’s best for us. Pencil and pen or expect further shenanigans.


Michael Keyton has now left the pulpit.

Friday, 6 November 2020

Empire and Heroes



I was drinking tea in a pub (that’s a different story) when my eyes were caught by this wonderfully evocative poster advertising the virtues of Empire and Beer. It brought to mind a dim memory of me as a child celebrating Empire Day in Primary School. It involved lining up in the playground, singing a song I can’t remember and listening to a speech I can’t remember. But I remember we got the afternoon off. So that was good. 


It’s not the done thing to celebrate the British Empire, but to my mind it was just one of those things. Recorded history—and almost certainly before that—is one of a ‘dog eat dog’ world, and it will continue to be so in one form or another. The C16th—C19th saw pivotal conflicts between Britain, Spain, Holland, Portugal and France for territory and trade. Islam was engaged in similar endeavours to the east. The Aztecs conquered and enslaved, and the Comanche were no peace-loving hippies. 


Part and parcel of conflict and empire are the heroes held up as exemplars for others to follow. The Iliad is a paean to heroism and subterfuge. In Rome we had the story of Horatius defending the bridge against an Etruscan army, and Gaius Mucius  Scaevola burning his right hand in front of the Etruscan king in a demonstration of Roman courage. And it’s no coincidence that Thomas Babington Macauley popularised such stories in his ‘Lays of Ancient Rome’ in the burgeoning years of the British Empire, one that was to consciously model itself on that of Rome. Macedonia had Alexander the Great who conquered half the known world. Sparta had its 300 Spartans who defended the pass of Thermopylae.


And yet from Achilles to Sparta stretching forward to our present time, all heroes have feet of clay. Achilles had a dodgy heel. Sparta enslaved its helots and practised infanticide. So why should we be ashamed of Frances Drake, Hawkins, Clive of India, Wolfe of Quebec, Nelson, Churchill? You take on board their human failings and highlight what made them great or at least significant. It’s akin to prospecting for gold in fast moving rivers.  After hours sifting through pebbles and sand you don’t then throw away the occasional nugget of gold because of the debris accompanying it.


And in British history, the nuggets are more usually found in the common man. Edward III and Henry V conquered large areas of France – but not without the long bows of the ordinary Welsh archer.


The Duke of Wellington, summed up that peculiar balance between the hero and the common man in three separate quotes. Speaking of Napoleon, he remarked that ‘his presence on the field made the difference of 40,000 men.’

And speaking of his own troops he confessed, with some pride, ‘I don’t know what effect these men will have upon the enemy, but by God they frighten me.’

And finally, over a few drinks with his officers and in more reflective mood:

‘people talk of their enlisting from their fine military feeling – all stuff – no such thing. Some of our men enlist from having bastard children – some for minor offences – many more for drink; but you can hardly conceive such a set brought together, and it really Is wonderful that we should have made them the fine fellows they are.’

That poster in the pub brought it all to mind, even the way it exploited the nostalgia of empire and the ‘heroes’ who manned it in the interests of beer. The empire too was an exploitative enterprise, venality and ruthlessness mixed in equal parts with heroism considerable, if perhaps inappropriate idealism,  and the everyday just getting on with the job. 

There is one song which sums all of this up: The Soldiers of the Queen, and I always think of my grandfather, Sergeant John Keyton, who died in the Boer War just a week before it ended. 





For me, this version carries a strange mix of jollity, pathos, wry regret and pride.




Whereas this version is more triumphalist, very much 'Boys Own' kind of stuff,  the imagery I was brought up on as a child.