Baked Beans and Brexit

My wife has started an emergency food store in case there’s a no-deal Brexit. I’ve told her I’m not that bothered. We only do 40% of our trade with the EU so it could be worse. OK, every pack of fruit you pick up in Sainsburys is from Spain or Holland but what’s wrong with a nice English Worcester or even a nice shiny red Gala from New Zealand?
When it all kicked off in 2016, I made the prediction that we wouldn’t leave because of the economic dislocation involved in leaving a club that we had spent the last 40 years developing a close trade relationship with. And even if we left it would be some sort of ‘half in, half out’ arrangement like what Norway and Switzerland have now with the EU – but with no say. Looks like, on the face of it, I could be proved wrong but then there’s the strong likelihood that, following a no deal Brexit and the inevitable economic decline, we might be forced to go back and negotiate a new trade deal. What else could you do with your biggest trading partner?
We studied what was then the common market in my economic geography course at uni many years ago. I still recall learning about the European Coal and Steel Community (which evolved into the common market) set up by French and German politicians after the war to so interweave their strategic industries that there could never be another war in Europe. And then there were the economic difficulties the UK faced after we lost the Empire and found that trade with the Commonwealth wasn’t enough to get us by. The country was in economic decline. So we joined the Common Market. And later, as a regeneration professional, I was there when we heard that Merseyside had gained EU Objective One status and we had almost unlimited funds to set things right – not based on political whim but objective criteria such as unemployment. And then there was the trip around the aeroplane factory at Broughton where we marvelled at how wings, fuselages and all the other bits were brought from all over Europe to be put together. Just in time. And I’ll make another prediction – that all this talk of closer trade links with the USA won’t amount to much in the end.
Not that everything is rosy with the EU – I am definitely a skeptic when it comes to political unification and joining the Euro. If you take the trouble to check the facts you discover that we always had the power to stop immigration from countries such as Poland if we wanted to. That fishing is a hard nut to crack, in or out. That, contrary to what someone emphatically told me in a pub, the European Court of Human Rights has nothing to do with the EU. In my opinion, it is better to be in with a say and a veto. Be awkward sods if needs be.
But it looks like the views of me and many who think like me will be overruled and that we need to prepare for a no deal Brexit. Though in the end I rather think my prediction about not leaving will come true in one form or another. You can hold me to that. If I’m wrong I’ll show my arse on the town hall steps (I knew a council officer who made that boast – and was held to it when he lost).
I knew there was something bothering me about that emergency food cache. It needs baked beans. Lots of tins of baked beans.

Natural Causes? Book Review of The Potter’s Field by Andrea Camilleri

When news came through recently that Andrea Camilleri had died at the age of 93 from natural causes – ie a heart attack, I wondered. Had the police checked the hospital CCTV for a suspicious-looking nurse hanging around, just waiting to slip into the room to deliver a syringeful of poison that would make it look like a heart attack? That’s what would have happened to an enemy of the mafia in one of his books.
I have developed the habit of watching ‘Inspector Montalbano’, the TV detective series set in Sicily, on Sunday evenings. To be honest, I prefer shows such as Spiral, Fargo or the Scandinavian stuff, which have just a little bit more bite. When Cateralla barges through the door yet again, it’s just a bit too much slapstick. What will happen next? Will he be pouring custard down the inspector’s trousers?
But I realised that I’d not read any of the books so I decided to try The Potter’s Field, reckoned to be one of Camilleri’s best in the series. I’d seen the TV episode some time ago and couldn’t remember all the details of the plot so it was reasonably fresh. And the book was good. I whupped through it in a couple of days, and I’ve not done that with a book for a long time. It starts with a dream in which Montalbano’s boss hammers on the door in a storm at night; he is a fugitive from the new Italian government led by prime minister, Toto Riina. Toto was the mafioisi who ordered the assassination of the anti-mafia prosecutors Falcone and Borsellino. Good start.
The mafia is a key player in the complex plot of this book. A corpse is found cut up into thirty pieces. Thirty pieces, geddit? From the thirty pieces of silver Judas was paid in the bible for betraying Christ. And the body is buried in a potter’s field – Judas’ resting place. So the victim is obviously the victim of a mafia vendetta on a traitor. Or is he? Betrayal is a theme running through the book – Mimi, the inspector’s long standing and trusted sidekick, is acting strangely, and the inspector suspects that he is mixed up in the murder. Similarly, Montalbano betrays his partner Livia with a female colleague.
A flawed hero? Love it. And there is a femme fatale, the delicious Dolores Alfano, who has a pivotal role in the complex plot. And then there are the cheeky bits. For instance, the inspector refers to a Camilleri novel he has read with its ‘quite far-fetched plot’.
Any quibbles? Well there is the slapstick with Catarella. And Camilleri reproduces local Sicilian dialect in Cateralla’s speech directly. Here he introduces the tasty femme fatale: ‘Right ‘ere, Chief. Inna waitin’ room. Says ‘er name’s Dolorosa. I say it ought to be Amorosa! Says she wants a talk t’yiz poissonally in poisson.’ Maybe a bit at the start and then the odd expression or word to suggest the dialect would have been better? I was surprised that there weren’t more lingering Dickensian descriptions of food, just the use of a few deft brushstrokes to tickle your taste buds, as with setting, scenery and character. Deft. Good word, that. As with Jay Rayner, the best meal descriptions are for the bad experiences:
‘He realised his grave mistake at once. How could they call arancini these rice balls fried in hundred-year-old oil and cooked by a chef suffering from violent hallucinations? And how acidic the meat sauce was! He spat the rest of the arancini he had in his mouth into the sea, and the remaining whole and half arancini met the same watery end.’
The complex plot resolves itself with a surprising twist and, like one of Montalbano’s (good) meals, leaves you with a feeling of replete satisfaction. Note to myself: must try more Italian food. Tumazzo and ‘ncascatia. Sounds half decent, that. Though I might give the arancini on the Vigata-Messina ferry a miss.

‘ISHIGURO? A RATHER DULL READ WHICH I DITCHED HALFWAY THROUGH’

https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2016/jan/07/the-remains-of-the-day-by-kazuo-ishiguro-book-to-share

This is a response by a reader to the above article in The Guardian praising Kazuo Ishiguro’s book The Remains of the Day. Which just goes to prove that you can’t even satisfy some of of the people some of the time.
I’ll come to that book shortly but, first, apologies for appearing inactive of late. I’m nearing my 70th birthday and I’m slowing down a bit. ‘Aw, bless, start the violin machines…’ And I’m also just putting the finishing touches to the first draft of my latest novel Pool of Life. Yes, it’s set in Liverpool and draws inspiration from Carl Jung’s famous remark that ‘Liverpool is the pool of life’. A nice standalone quote but if you research it you discover that there are deep waters underlying the comment. Deep waters, ha ha. My previous novel Not Without Risk was published by a small Australian outfit and royalties occasionally appear in my bank statement – £5.15 here, £2.78 there – but I’m afraid that I won’t be picking up restaurant tabs just yet. The book did garner some excellent reviews from rated reviewers across the world and that to me is success.
I write in the ‘crime/mystery’ genre but I’ve been thinking lately about the difference between a ‘genre’ novel (eg crime, thriller, romance) and a ‘literary’ novel. The standard definition is that, in a genre novel, action and plot are the key – things happen – while in a literary novel emotions and internal changes to characters are more important. My problem is that, on the one hand, I can’t be doing with action based thrillers in which the author has taken the current advice from the publishing world to ‘go darker’. I can only take so many burnt and bleeding bodies. But on the other hand I get bored with some prize-winning literary books in which nothing happens either action-wise or emotionally – despite claims on the cover such as ‘this amazing book will make your nipples tingle with excitement’.
Well, recently, I realised – to my shame as an avid reader – that I’d not read Ishiguro. He’s only won the bleeding Nobel prize. So I started with Remains of the Day (see the Guardian article for what it’s about) and I’m working my way through the list. An Artist of the Floating World, A Pale View of Hills – and The Unconsoled for Crimbo. The Remains of the Day is perhaps the most accessible – it was made into a film, of course. In Ishiguro’s work nothing much happens on the outside; a chance meeting maybe that reawakens old memories and regrets. There is usually a big theme that is only mentioned obliquely – the appeasement of the Nazis or the atomic bombing of Japan (Ishiguro is actually from Nagasaki but moved to Britain at the age of five with his family) – but it is all about a character’s reflections on wasted opportunities or regrets for an opportunity taken which turned out bad. The amazing thing for me as an author is that Ishiguro’s writing is so good – maybe it’s a second language thing. You never get a superfluous adverb or think ‘that character wouldn’t say that’. Never. And, although ‘unreliable narrators’ are the current trend in fiction, Ishiguro, instead, gives us ‘unwitting narrators’: speakers who remain trapped in self-preserving fictions, mysteries even to themselves. This to my mind, is what makes Ishiguro so readable and so profound. A role model for any writer.
So, in conclusion? Rather than ‘dull reads to be ditched halfway through’ I find Ishiguro’s books wonderful. But maybe that’s just me.

Shakespeare in the North

 

I have closely followed the development of the Shakespeare in the North proposal to the point where construction is about to start on a site opposite to Prescot’s historic parish church (The photos show the proposed theatre and one of Prescot’s listed buildings. Link here to article in The Stage https://www.thestage.co.uk/features/2018/birth-of-merseysides-shakespeare-north-playhouse/).

Back in the 70s, I was a young graduate in one of my first jobs, charged with preparing a plan for Prescot town centre. This was shortly after local government reorganisation in 1974 when Prescot – hitherto under Lancashire County Council – was incorporated into the new Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council which only came into being, it was rumoured, because Harold Wilson, prime minister at the time wanted his Huyton constituency to be separate from Liverpool. In fact, the reorganisation saved Prescot; the County Council had been working its way through its historic town centres, demolishing historic buildings and constructing modern concrete shopping centres. Huyton was ‘improved’ in this way just before the deadline. Prescot was next on the list and then Ormskirk.

Prescot town centre was in the terminal stages of ‘planning blight’. If you put in a search for a property you were buying, up would come an ‘earmarked for development’ card and the property would be condemned to neglect and decay. It has to be said that there was considerable opposition at the time to any idea of saving Prescot’s heritage even though Prescot was at one time the most important town in south Lancashire: in the 18th century Liverpool’s postal address was ‘Liverpool near Prescot’. At this time Prescot was renowned as a centre for the watchmaking industry and became very prosperous – it was reported that the town’s vicar rode around on a horse shod with silver. By the 70s, although many listed buildings had survived, a lot were in a poor condition. I was assured by a veteran senior Council official, putting great emphasis into each word, that saving Prescot’s heritage would be ‘a waste of public money’. You have to say that in a woolly-back accent to get the full effect.

Nevertheless, being an awkward sod, my starting point for the plan was to designate the town centre as a conservation area thus removing the blight. A town scheme, funded by the Borough Council, Merseyside County Council and the government, was set up via which grants were given to owners to improve their properties. The main shopping street was  pedestrianised and landscaped. A major store was constructed on a large derelict site, but with access from the main street (Not so sure about this now – big stores on the edge of town centres often kill off local shops, but hey-ho). Derelict historic buildings in Council ownership were refurbished by Community Industry who trained local unemployed young people in building skills. A museum of watchmaking in a prominent listed building was set up. An archaeological survey of the town was carried out by Peter Davey of the Merseyside Archaeological Society, which showed that Prescot’s medieval street pattern, centred on the circular churchyard on a hilltop site indicative of Celtic settlement – had survived intact. Interestingly the remains of medieval buildings survived inside property rebuilt in the 18th century boom period. And the site of the first Elizabethan theatre outside London was identified…

Looking back, I now realise that I was extremely lucky to have a job that I loved: a job where you face a problem, work out a solution and then make it happen. All these years later, it is heart-warming to see something like Shakespeare in the North about to reach fruition.

I have seen some curmudgeon-ish comments in the local media about the cost of the new  theatre in the light of Knowsley’s deprivation and poverty. But in a later career in regeneration I grasped the truth that you’ve got to identify your assets and make the most of what you’ve got. The new theatre will create jobs for local people and bring in visitors who will spend cash in local pubs and restaurants. It will assist the regeneration of the town and the area generally. I might even go and watch some of the plays they put on. Being a miserable, as well as an awkward, sod, I like the tragedies.

 

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.

 

WRITING ADVICE: BEST BOOKS

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.