Sunday, May 31, 2015

Flamborough lighthouse in a sea of yellow rape

Walked along clifftop path from Flamborough Head under a near cloudless sky. Took this photograph on the return leg.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Tomorrow you die, Andrew Coogan's autobiography

Have to declare an oblique interest in this title because it was written by a friend's grandfather.
Coogan's account details his childhood in Glasgow's Gorbals in the 20s and 30s, through to his athletic success with the Maryhill Harriers, to his call up for service in World War II in the Lanarkshire Yeomanry. This territorial cavalry unit was in the process of being subsumed into the artillery, and Coogan's battery - woefully I'll equipped - were shipped out to Singapore to face the full fury of the Japanese onslaught as it tore through Malaysia and Thailand to take the supposedly impregnable British fortress at the foot of the Malay peninsula.
From facing the horror of a banzai attack and a forced retreat to Singapore, to the brutality of imprisonment in the infamous Changi Jail Coogan presents an unflinching account of the sadism of his Japanese captors. The title is taken from a threat made to Coogan by a Japanese officer in response to a refusal to obey an instruction to stop digging a deep grave for a dead fellow POW (Coogan wanted to dig deeper than the permitted 18 inches to protect his friend's remains from scavenging animals). From Changi, Coogan and a small band of surviving comrades from the Lanarkshire Yeomanry, augmented by a changing group of British, Australian and Dutch POWs, are taken first to work as slave labour in a Formosan copper mine, then to a coal mine near Nagasaki. Enduring starvation, sea and rail transport in appalling conditions, and the casual violence of guards indoctrinated to believe that surrender made their charges completely worthless, Coogan never loses his belief in the innate goodness of humanity. While he encounters brutal treatment from some of his captors (two of whom he went on to present testimony against to the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal) he is eventually befriended by a guard who shares his love of running and, along with a Roman Catholic chaplain, manages to ensure the survival of a number of his comrades by stealing food from a variety of ingenious, and occasionally stomach-churning sources.
The book also highlights the futility and banality of war. He is scathing of the failures of those in authority, from Churchill's refusal to make proper provision for the defence of Singapore, to the senior officers and wealthy expatriate community who singularly failed to appreciate the danger posed by the advancing Japanese. A final indignity is recalled by the derisory £75 Coogan received as back pay on his return to Scotland. The payment, he recounts, was itself subject to a deduction for food and accommodation, giving rise to his observation that he was docked pay for the pleasure of being starved!
This searingly honest narrative pulls no punches but ends by bearing no hatred. In some ways it complements the Railway Man with its account of Eric Lomax's search for release from the brutalisation of such horrifying captivity in that this is an account of survival against the odds, but one that is suffused with a love for humanity. It deserves to be read by a wide audience. I hope also that it comes to stand as a testament to a passing generation that lived through World War II and stands as a counterbalance to the often cloying sentiment and sensationalised accounts served up on film and TV.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

An evening of poetry with Mike Harding

Went to see Mike Harding yesterday evening at the Square Chapel in Halifax. I've been to several of his shows over the years, in fact, he was the first comedian I ever saw live. As a 15 year-old, I blagged a ticket from my mate, John Hodgson, who was too scared to ask a girl from the year above to go with him to Leeds Town Hall to see the Rochdale Cowboy tour in 19776. All week he'd been trying to pluck up courage, but his nerve still failed him by Friday, and with two tickets to that evening's performance, he asked me it I wanted to go. John had been busily supplanting Harding as the teenage mimic's monologue of choice instead of the then ubiquitous Monty Python for a while beforehand. It was a tall order, but 'hulla, hulla, hulla' and 'dip your bread in' had made some inroads into the all powerful 'shut your festing gob, you tit' and 'shut the bleeding door, mother' so I was mentally prepared for the big night out. Harding had an uphill task that night - the acoustics in the Victoria Hall were not on his side. A strong wind whistled round the domed ceiling - prompting plenty of impromptu wind breaking jokes from the lad from Crumpsall, and I was hooked on live comedy from then on. Last night was different; Harding's poetry is of the blank verse-type (I had hoped we weren't in for a night of forced rhyme) and it's largely based on the people he's known in his life. So we reconnected with his mate Worfie - and learned how Miss Worswick used to relax at the weekend (a subtle and moving piece, in which he showed a tender respect for his self-confessed early years' educational bette noir. The poems were interspersed with readings from Harding's forthcoming autobiography and the readings ended on a well-received political philosophy note, with works that castigated bankers, fraudsters, shysters and general arseholes - much to the evident approval of his audience. Like myself, many there had followed Mrs 'Arding's Lad for years: the cast of characters were largely well-known by most, and he gently introduced us to new ones - from his Irish, atheist and Socialist granddad, to Ireland's best digger driver with a light and assured touch. The tragic death of his RAF navigator father, a month before Harding was born in October 1943, was also deftly handled. Fans will remember this from his 1980s Bombers Moon tour, but in his poem Photographic Father, Harding shows how his memories have changed over the years - even down to mentioning the account of the man responsible for shooting down his father's aircraft: a sombre and reflective moment. But the evening was about the warmth of humanity - as best reflected in his poems about life in Connemara and the joy he has had in seeing his grandsons grow up. It was a pleasure to meet up again, Mike. Thanks for the laughs over the years. And from the recounted tales I overheard walking back to the car afterwards, my mate John is part of a long-lived oral tradition of Hardingophilia that is still alive and kicking.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Jeeves and the Wedding Bells - Sebastian Faulks' homage to Wodehouse

I'm rather sceptical of literary 'homage' as a genre. The idea of entrusting well-known (and in this case extremely well-loved) characters to the sometimes less than safe keeping of an established contemporary author can produce the very stuff of nightmares for devotees of the original. True, there have been some notable successes - Anthony Horowitz's House of Silk being a delightful case in point. In Wedding Bells, Faulks has assembled the usual suspects and teamed them with a cast of Wodehousesque supporting characters - Sir and Lady Hackwood are a good case in point - and given use a Wooster outing that packs a fair few laughs. However, there are a couple of jarring notes: Wodehouse's Wooster and friends inhabited a parallel universe, where the realities of life in the 20s and 30s were mercifully absent. This was an England devoid of the loss and horror of World War One. But Faulks allows the brutal world to intrude - a key character has lost both parents in the Lusitania sinking, Jeeves refers to a distant relative dying on the Somme. I enjoyed the tale, but my Wooster is a balm to the senses and a lovable upper-class fop who can mix with the rude mechanicals at the bar in the village hall as well as with his elders but no-betters at the Hall, albeit with the need for a 'sharpener' before the ordeal starts. A good diverting read, but I could have done without the all-too-real world intrusions.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Short and Curlies

Short and Curlies



A Sense of Place

A Sense of Place

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Voting to harm, with fingers crossed

At the time he sacked himself over Europe, John Major famously said he could trust the Parliamentary Conservative Party to re-elect him (notwithstanding that he'd labelled a number of the 'bastards', of course) because they were perhaps 'the most sophisticated electorate in the world' For those not around in 1994, he got back in, but the effects were so catastrophic that his party were turfed out of office in 1997 and it took them until last Thursday to win another election in their own name - even then, they only ended up with three more MPs than Major's final majority of nine when he lost office. If - and the evidence is slight - Tory MPs of 1994 vintage were sophisticated, a sizeable chunk of the 24% who voted them back into office last week are anything but. For example, who would vote for a party that told the electorate they were going to make swingeing cuts, but then refused - either in the manifesto or in debate - to reveal how much or where the reductions would be made: that's not a leap of faith, it's blind stupidity, placing trust in an arrogant group of politicians whose social class and family backgrounds are far removed from many who voted for them, or the people who will suffer most from the cuts. On justice, we now face a similar issue. For the second time, Cameron has appointed a non-lawyer to hold the Ministry of Justice/Lord Chancellor portfolio. But this time, the former-journo, Michael Gove, has been charged with fast-tracking the abolition of the Human Rights Act. In 100 days, we are told, the Daily Mail/Sun/Express-led charge against the European Convention on Human Rights (drafted by a Tory Home Secretary at the behest of Churchill no less), will be replaced by a British Bill of Rights, that will - in a reconditioned phrase stolen from 'new' Labour without a sense of irony 'bring rights home'. Except it won't. Before the 1998 Act, we had common law civil liberties, which were enforceable largely at the whim/pleasure of the judiciary, without a stable basis on statutory law. Voting for Cameron on Thursday looks to me, on the basis of these two examples, to be the most dangerous act of self-loathing by an ill-informed or highly partisan electorate that believes it won't ever suffer the misfortune of ill-health or job loss, that its pensions are large and secure, and that its rights can be entrusted to a Murdoch-beholden journalist turned right-wing neo-con politician. And they've inflicted this on the rest of us. Lemmings show more sense.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Levelling Sea - Philip Marsden

This remarkable book traces the development of Britain's maritime power through the history and growth of Falmouth. From the duplicitious Killigrews - near hereditary constables of mighty Pendennis, who mixed piracy (sorry, privateering sounds so much better), with political brinksmanship, to the Quaker Fox dynasty of consuls, chandlers and traders, Marsden traces the attractions of the burgeoning port to non-conformists, chancers, traders and those drawn to the sea and its ways, his formidable research and wonderous prose paint an enduring picture of a town that owes its existence to the power of wind and wave, that attracted great wealth and prestige to the far west and held a nation in thrall to its control of news and information by its renowned Packet service and deep water harbour. A book to read and savour - particularly if you want to know what a futtock is...

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

A Conservative canvasser calls...

Yesterday evening, resplendent with solicitous half-smile (think relief at passing wind) and blue rosette, 'pumped-up', as Cameron might put it. This was the day that the Tory candidate for Calder Valley, Craig Whittaker decided to retweet Richard Littlejohn's appallingly bad taste headline referring to Jimmy Savile as a babysitter in preference to a Labour government. Whittaker's poor judgement was even more astounding, given that in the last Parliament he had not only chaired the all-party group on looked-after children, but also founded a charity that has the aim of improving their educational achievement. The candidate, perhaps wisely, decided to go to ground, leaving his hapless bunch of canvassers to try and stem the UKIP tide - Whittaker's defending a 6,000 majority. As to loyalty, Whittaker can't be faulted - he's supported all government initiatives to the hilt, with a ringing endorsement of the benefit cap and bedroom tax. Indeed, his only rebellion was over same-sex marriage (which he defended on the rather strange ground that it could lead to polygamy!) The canvasser left my doorstep in no doubts that my household will not be supporting his candidate.