Book Review: Democracy and its Crisis by A.C. Grayling

This is a wise and thought-provoking read, whatever position on the political spectrum you inhabit – apart from the far extremes, of course. I enjoy reading A.C. Grayling’s books much as I enjoy George Orwell’s essays – I would happily read them on a beach rather than a page-turner novel.

The book starts with Plato’s oft-quoted worry about democracy – that it can be controlled by a hidden oligarchy, or, worse, descend into mob rule with order being restored by a strongman ruler who eventually becomes a tyrant. In Plato’s view too many voters were too ignorant, selfish and prejudiced to make a rational decision. Plato’s solution was rule by an aristocracy of philosopher kings. Aristotle argued that this was impractical as it ignored human nature. He had a point. One can only imagine what would happen if this country was ruled by the likes of Prince Philip and Prince Charles. Though Harry isn’t that bad. Come to think of it, they might do better than the current lot. Aristotle’s solution was to nurture the virtuous citizen, reasonable and informed, and encourage a polity in which no single order of citizens can override the interests of others.

Grayling takes us from Plato and Aristotle, through the peasant revolts, Machiavelli, the English civil war, Locke, Hobbes, Spinoza, Rousseau, and the American and French revolutions to arrive at the present day with Boris, Farage and Trump. A bit of a come down that. Sometimes you have to concentrate to follow the arguments but that can only be a good thing if you want to be an informed voter.

I liked the section on the English civil war and especially the description of the Putney debates when the Levellers (men who had just risked their lives in a brutal war) debated their idea of democracy with representatives of the propertied class. And there was me thinking that the Levellers were a rock group. Only joking. This reminds me of my dad’s descriptions of the debates that were held in the British army towards the end of the Second World War. The soldiers had risked their lives and were fed up with the ruling system. They wanted change. And they got it with a Labour landslide and the creation of the Welfare State.

Grayling reaches the present day and wonders where everything went wrong. He points to the steady erosion of the checks on the power of the executive in the UK, the lack of a written constitution, the practice of whipping MPs to vote against their real wishes, the iniquities of the First Past the Post electoral system and the fake news and propaganda dispensed by certain newspapers.

I was taken by his quote of Hannah Arendt’s distinction between the ‘masses’ and the ‘people’. The latter wish to see their views and wishes make a difference; the former hate the society which has marginalised and excluded them. Now what does that remind you of? Any televised interview with a redneck Trump supporter or with one of the ‘left behind’ pro-brexit voters in northern English towns such as Stoke-on-Trent.   It’s not so much ‘Democracy and its Crisis’, more ‘Civilisation and its Discontents’.

Finally, Grayling summarises his own remedies, which include; compulsory voting, rigorous probity in election funding and media reporting and lobbying, avoiding referenda and separating the legislature from the executive. Two appendeces cover brexit and Trump. Even if you disagree with some of Grayling’s solutions, it is important that you know why you disagree.

And my final thoughts? It’s a fine mess we’ve got ourselves into. Many will be familiar with Churchill’s comment that ‘democracy is the worst form of government except for all other forms that have been tried from time to time.’ Fewer will know of Churchill’s other comment that ‘the strongest argument against democracy is a few minutes’ conversation with any voter.’

But, it’s the best we’ve got and we’ll just have to keep trying to make it better. And a careful  read of this book might help us along the way.



Book review: Getting Carter: Ted Lewis and the Birth of Brit Noir by Nick Triplow

I posted this review on Amazon and Goodreads:

I first saw the film Get Carter in the late Seventies and loved it. From the initial train journey back up north to the Newcastle pub with its old gadjies in caps and white mufflers, ‘Top Hat’ beer glasses and the final confrontation on a wind-swept north eastern beach, it all seemed so real to me, a ‘smoggie’ brought up near Middlesbrough’s docks. Michael Caine was about as geordie as Chas n’ Dave but no matter. I even sought out the original novel by Ted Lewis which was almost out of print. I found it in an obscure Liverpool book shop (book shops, remember them?) along with an equally dusty paperback copy of GBH. Get Carter, originally called Jack’s Return Home was set in Doncaster but the film was pretty much true to the book.

The film was a success, and stimulated interest in the book – lauded as creating the noir school of British crime writing – but interest seemed to drift away with only aficionados of the genre retaining any great interest in Ted Lewis. And then this cracker of a book comes along.

I immediately identified with Lewis, in particular, with his struggles at grammar school. The story of the martinet teacher who struck him across the face causing him to wet his pants in front of his school-mates resonates. I remember a teacher at my school who bullied kids via sarcasm rather than violence – he even looked like Heinrich Himmler. There were kind teachers too, of course, and Lewis was lucky enough to be taken under the wing of Henry Treece, a charismatic character who encouraged him in his writing.

Lewis’s story ends in tragedy. He drank himself to a harrowing early death at 42. And this is the central mystery of Lewis’s life. He was talented, good-looking, a success with the ladies, yet in effect he took his own life at an early age. A mystery to match any explored in his fiction.



Elmore Leonard (giving you the V sign above): 10 Rules for Good Writing

  1. Never open a book with weather.
  2. Avoid prologues.
  3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
  6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Elmore’s sixth bit of writing advice is to never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”. Well Martina Cole often starts bits of action with both: “suddenly all hell broke loose”.  Cole shifts shed-loads, no, container-loads, no, container–ship-loads of books. And who the fxck is Elmore Leonard anyway? The answer is that he sells plenty (he’s dead now, of course), and is respected by critics and other writers. And I like his books. And he wrote the script for the original classic film 3.10 to Yuma. And the book which was made into the film, Jackie Brown. And Pam Grier is one sexy little lady, know what I’m saying? Phew, got carried away there.

The internet bulges at the seams with books with titles such as How to become a millionaire best-selling author overnight. When the best bit of advice to a new writer working in McDonalds and dreaming of being a writer  is: “don’t give up your day job, you’ll earn more money”. I read an article a while back which revealed that most traditionally–published professional writers earn less than £14,000 a year. Recently I saw an updated figure – £11,000 – which is round about the minimum wage.

So, assuming you still want to have a go, where to get the best writing advice? I would put forward six books which have helped me:

How Not To Write A Novil by Mittelmark and Newman: all beginner writers should be forced at pistol-point to read this book. You split your sides laughing at the mistakes no-hoper writers make, feeling a bit guilty because it’s all so cruel. Then you realise that you make some of those very mistakes….

Story by Robert McKee: the author used to write Columbo episodes and uses classic films like Star Wars, Casablanca and Chinatown to illustrate his ideas – it is aimed at script-writers but there is much of value for novelists. And it is a damn good read.

Self Printed by Catherine Ryan Howard: excellent manual for the self-publisher.

Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell. learn the secrets of LOCK – A Lead, Objective for the lead, Confrontation and Knockout ending.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne & King: two professional editors reveal the tricks of the trade.

The Elements of Active Prose by Tahlia Newland: an indispensable checklist of good writing by a professional editor and writer.

Hang on, what’s going on downstairs? Sounds like the dog is trying to snaffle the grand-kids’ toast. Suddenly all hell is breaking loose. Got to go.


At last! Not Without Risk completed

At last my third novel Not Without Risk is completed, edited and proofread, and awaiting publication by AIA Publishing – not a big five, I’m too old for that kind of thing, but a small reputable outfit. I’m not a bestseller yet – I reached 15 in the noir genre on amazon but you’ve got to reach the top 100 overall to achieve bestseller status – here’s hoping. You can read the draft blurb and 1st chapter on the My novels: Not Without Risk page on my website I’m just awaiting the cover now & I’ll put it up on here when received. I’ve also redone the Home and About pages on the website. Any comments welcome!

Woolton Hall – No News is Bad News


Woolton Hall is one of only 27 grade 1 listed buildings in Liverpool and most of them are on the docks. It dates from 1704 and was remodelled by Robert Adams in 1774 – it is considered to be one of the famous architect’s best works. It is one of Liverpool’s heritage treasures but has been empty for many years. I blogged about it in January 2015 at the height of the St Julies furore when it was on the market with Savills estate agents with an existing planning consent for the hall to be refurbished as a day care centre and  become the centrepiece of a new build care home facility. Someone visited about two years ago and took some photos that show that it wasn’t in too bad a condition – in visual terms at least.

Since then not a dicky bird. In a previous incarnation I worked on the conservation of historic buildings and areas and the alarm bells are ringing. For historic buildings at risk no news is bad news. South Liverpool is peppered with the sites of similar mansions which have long been demolished and replaced with detached up-market houses. The maths are simple: for a developer a site is worth a lot more with the historic building gone. No need to do anything –General Winter or  fire-raising vandals will do the work. And once it’s down no one can prove that it wasn’t dangerous. The site of the old St Julies school adjacent to the hall will become available once the new school now going up is completed. Those alarm bells are making my ears ache.

I tried to contact Chris Griffiths, the Council’s conservation officer, but he has left and not been replaced. The Council’s planning people say that two years ago a party was informed that retirement apartments would be a suitable use of the site. Since then, nothing. I will check with the  Woolton Society and will endeavour to get the building added to the Historic Buildings at Risk register. If anyone has any news concerning the hall please get in touch.


woolton woods 032 (2)img_0097


Well, the new St Julies is going up! Against all our best efforts it’s a floor higher than the old one and it is 30 to 70 metres closer to the village (see photos). It will be faced with reasonable brick but there is no doubt that it is much more prominent in views from the village. Could anything have been done to stop it? I am a retired planner so might be able to throw some light on what happened. Well first, the Council and the mayor used the oldest trick in the book. They put up a number of red herring proposals that took varying amounts of the playing fields and woods. The proposal chosen had least impact. Surprise, surprise. And they offered the sop of part of the grounds being opened up for public access. The proposal contravenes the Council’s own unitary development plan (UDP), still the statutary document for guiding planning decisions in the city, via its effect on the green wedge (Policy OE3) and the conservation area (Policy HD11). Except, compliant Liverpool planners amazingly informed the Woolton Society that they ‘see no problem building on conservation/green wedge areas’. Why have a UDP at all? Why pay planners when you can just have a big rubber stamp on the mayor’s desk?

Equally amazingly, the tame consultant taken on to prepare the heritage statement on the impact of the new school said:

The new development will reflect the orthogonal nature of Woolton hall and make a positive contribution to the local character and distinctiveness of the area. And: The open character of the land which is proposed to be developed does at present allow views over it from the north but the current views are towards the current unsightly building of St Julie’s school and their replacement with a co-ordinated design for the new school buildings will be an enhancement of that view.

‘Orthogonal’ comes from the Greek for ‘right angle’. I think the author means ‘huge box’. Look at the photos and make your own mind up.

The problem with trying to get a good design was that the school wanted the new build to be next to the existing school to avoid disruption to the pupils’ education – and the site of the existing school will make a good site for new housing development. Crucially, it is difficult to challenge a local planning authority’s decisions and get the government’s secretary of state to call in an application unless there is some strategic issue at stake or procedure hasn’t been followed. The only possible way would have been to employ an expert barrister at great cost and with little chance of success. That’s local democracy for you.

Book Review of No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy


The story is that, when Cormac McCarthy was beginning his writing career, he was advised by a professor of English Literature not to use speech marks or speech attribution  – ie ‘Go away,’ Joe said. If that professor is still alive and you come across him I’d be grateful if you’d do me a favour. Ask him to remove his glasses and give him a right good poke in the eye for me. This stylistic quirk works in this book most of the time (with good dialogue you can often tell who is speaking without attribution) but, occasionally, you get confused as to who is speaking and whether or not it is speech or the character thinking. To my mind, the use of speech marks/attribution is simply good manners on the part of the author. When it is in the form of ‘Joe said’ and it is broken up with the subject’s thoughts and reactions you don’t notice it.

Anyway, now that I’ve got that out of the way. I read this book after seeing the film twice – and loving it. The plot is simple. Llewelyn Moss stumbles upon a drug deal in the desert that has gone horribly wrong. Bodies and bullet-riddled 4x4s everywhere. Packages of herion, a caseload of cash. This is Moss’s chance. He takes the money and goes on the run, pursued by Chigurh, a mob hit-man, and a soon-to-retire sheriff. Even though I was familiar with the plot and the characters, I enjoyed the book and read it at a fair lick. McCarthy is terrific at setting scenes, defining character with a few deft brush-strokes and pacing a thriller.

There were a few things that irritated me, however, apart from the lack of speech marks/ attribution.

Overuse of the word ‘and’. Too many passages went like this: ‘and he sat down and tucked into his breakfast and ate a tortilla and drank some coffee and wiped his mouth…’  I must say that here it works in action scenes but when overused it grates.

Chigurh, the hitman, uses a compressed air cylinder to power a cattle stun-gun contraption to murder his victims and blow out the cylinders of locks – mainly on the front doors of houses and hotel rooms. Great idea and it works well on the screen. Except… most houses have deadlocks and bolts. Maybe if a victim was off their guard and just had the Yale lock on it would work. I know it’s a home security detail but…

Chigurh is a nasty piece of work. Trouble is, he’s not human. He’s like a Terminator-style  robot programmed to kill. Throughout the book there are italicised passages which set out the sheriff’s thoughts. In the first, he thinks ‘somewhere out there is a true and living prophet of destruction’. Maybe this is what Chigurh is meant to be, but I would have liked a little background and characterisation – even if it is at the level of Alan Rickman’s badass Sheriff of Nottingham who whispers in a victim’s ear as the knife goes in: ‘I had a terrible childhood, you know – I’ll tell you about it some time’.

And, finally, the ending. I hate authors messing me around. If I’m  rooting  for the protagonist and he gets shot (along with his wife) well before the end, with the rest of the book given to philosophising by the about-to-retire sheriff on how everything in America is going to hell in a handbasket (to be fair, he’s probably right), then I’m being messed around. I don’t like it. I don’t necessarily want the protagonist to win but I want a climax at the end. Got that?

The film actually improves on the book by putting the climax much closer to the end. But there is another inconsistency in the book. After the executions we have a key scene in which Chigurh is driving down the road and another vehicle crashes into him. The scene is related from the point of view of an omniscient narrator who gives details of the other vehicle and its driver that Chigurh couldn’t possibly know. Who is speaking here? The author? God? He hasn’t piped up before so I don’t think it is a postmodernist thing. In the film the scene is a simple car crash seen from Chigurh’s point of view. Much better.

So, to conclude. A really good snappy read but with some inconsistencies and irritating stylistic quirks.