Monthly Archives: March 2012

Old lives. Young love. A short story.

The essence of what appears below is true.

Gilbert Pickering was not an unhappy man, nor was he a happy one. Life since 1945 had been OK for him. But only OK. After the war he’d finished his PhD at Cambridge, a few years of dull research in the fifties and then chair of Applied Mathematics at Birmingham for so many bloody years until he retired in the mid 80s. A classic don’s life, conferences, papers, teaching and a couple of liaisons with post grad students he was supposed to be supervising. So now at 83 all he had was the lust of a 21 year old but the body of, well, an 83 year old.

The marriage too had been neither happy nor unhappy. Just OK. Celia was also an academic – Reader in Germanic Studies – and she too was in her early 80s now  Funny thing was, lust was the thing that occupied their first ten or so years together, but it had slowly petered out. No kids may have been a mistake so when it turned out they had nothing in common bar the sex, they were rather snookered. But as their generation was taught to do, they carried on regardless. “Christ”, thought Gilbert, too late to change now.

His halcyon days had been his early twenties – the only time he had really used his brain. Quite glamorous really being a Bletchley Park code breaker. He had so many memories of those days – the early Bombe code-busting machines, the Colossus machines – computers they were – bloody great computers. He had worked with Alan Turing in the famous hut three – worked next to the great Turing– what a fucking waste when he killed himself. Those days were something – comradeship, a bunch of huge brains all crammed together – the real pity is that he still couldn’t tell anyone else. He didn’t even know who was in the other huts just over the other side of the estate. Not even Celia knew about it – even though he had first met her in a pub in Bletchley.  She’d never guessed what he did.  Code breaking and sex. What more could a 21 year old intellectual want?


Celia wanted to talk – so as usual he smoked his pipe and listened. She wanted to tell him something.

Something, it turned out, about the war. About the 1940s.

“You were what?”

“I was a code breaker”, she replied, “I translated the German intercepts into English – I was 19 – an undergrad – they raided the universities to get the best brains. So they said. I was at Bletchley Park. But I’m not sure if I should have told you.”

His jaw dropped. “Which hut?” he asked.

“ Seven” she answered. “But wait a minute.”

“Yes I was there too. With Turing.”  Tears came to Gilbert’s eyes.

“God – secret for all these years.”  Tears too.

Gilbert got up and hugged her and kissed her. Really kissed her like he used to. Now he knew she was right for him – knew what they had in common. His mind told him to take her upstairs but he knew that hugs and kisses suited their years rather better.

But the real passion they shared was for the all the young lives they had helped to save. Young lives saved from the U Boats in the North Atlantic. Young lives saved from the Panzers in North Africa. Young lives as they once had. Young lives that were now old lives.

Old lives like Gilbert and Celia.

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Posted by on March 21, 2012 in Uncategorized


The man who didn’t change history. A short story.

It was a hot summer day and Gavrilo was tense and nervous. He was in a team and on a mission. An assassination mission as it happens. Gav was quite a minor player but he was there for the cause. The cause that obsessed him.

But it had all gone very very wrong.

The target was still alive. Very much so.

The first would-be assassin was Mehmed but had been spooked by a policeman behind him and had not thrown his bomb. Vaso was the number two but for some reason he had failed to use his pistol or bomb. The third attempt was by Ned who had his chance soon after, but his hand grenade had got lodged under the wheel of another car so failed to kill the target. But it did injure twenty or so of his entourage. Ned had taken his suicide pill and jumped in the river with the police after him, but they soon pulled him out. He’ll probably be executed. All Gav knew now was that the target was going to the hospital to see those injured by Ned’s bomb.

Gav felt that he and his comrades had lost their chance. He stood by Moritz Schiller’s cafe feeling totally despondent. After today the security would be increased with no more chances for them to get near their target. Suddenly, Gav heard something. It was the car – shit – right here and not moving. They must have gone the wrong way because the driver was trying to reverse in a real hurry. He’d stalled the engine. The car was standing still. This was Gav’s chance. He drew his pistol and ran towards the car. So anxious was he to hit the target that he failed to see the open drain cover that caused him to trip and fall, dropping his gun. He got up – the car had gone.

Gav looked around and was sure that nobody had noticed him or his gun so he turned and ran into the side streets. He felt lost, a failure, useless. He had let the cause down. Gav had failed to make history.

Gavrilo Princip. The man who didn’t change history. His bungling in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 meant that Franz Ferdinand was not assassinated that day. Because of this, at least three empires did not collapse, two major wars did not happen and arguably the basis for the one of the biggest genocides in history was not created.

But Gav knew none of this and all he wanted was a wee. And once he found a suitably quiet alleyway, a wee is what he had.


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Posted by on March 12, 2012 in Uncategorized


A long way from Mandalay.

The UK is an incredibly densely populated country – and it’s hard to get away from it all.  Three times now I have got away from it all to the Shetland Islands. To the uninitiated, they are the group of Islands off the north east coast of Scotland –  the ones most people here thought were the Falklands in 1982. Sean Penn has a holiday home there.  Actually that last bit may not be true.

My three favourite facts about the Shetlands are that there are no trees there, the closest city is Bergen and that’s in Norway, and Lerwick the main town is further from London than Munich is. I have always stayed in the same place – a serious middle of nowhere hotel on the west coast. And I mean middle of nowhere. Nothing else man-made in sight at all.  Apart from on the island – more on that in a moment.

The hotel (nameless for reasons you will see) is my idea of paradise. Lobster from the sea for dinner, total silence, otters on the beach, only four rooms so not many other people to get in the way, no television etc etc.  Like many things on Shetland it’s run by a non-local – the islands are  full of feral escapees from London and H., who ran the hotel is as I recall from Greenwich.  She is married to B. – who is sort of local. He was I guess in his late forties, quite distinguished looking and was in charge of serving at dinner, and the bar.  Very amiable but always – at least in my view – gave the impression that serving at table was a little beneath him.

From the hotel, apart from sea and sheep, the only thing you can see is an island. A barren looking strip of grass with a windsock and a castle. Not an old one but a Victorian baronial-style fake one. I was of course curious about it – did anyone live there, how did they get there, why the castle?  I asked B. but he didn’t seem to know much and H. was equally vague. Odd as they were just across the water from it. The next day I walked up to the village – a couple of miles – and in the small shop asked the lady what she knew – once she realised where I was staying she also didn’t seem to know much about it and suddenly went very funny on me.  I was even more interested at that point.

Back at the hotel that night I was looking at the titles on the small bookcase in the lounge and found – stuffed behind some books – a small but nicely made booklet. It was a history of the castle.  I secreted it about my person and took it to the bedroom.  The picture on the inside front cover made my blood run cold.  It was a family group, the laird, his wife, two children and some dogs on the steps of the castle. The full aristocratic works. The laird, when I looked closely, yes it was B. It was hard to date but it was him. The wife was not H. of course.

I have never really found out what happened – I chatted with some guys in a bar in Lerwick who said that the castle was built by a Lancashire mill owner and had passed down to B. who had inherited it from an uncle. Something had gone badly wrong, as B. had worked as a decorator and taxi driver until he met H. and they had opened the hotel.  Somehow he had been forced to sell the island and it must have been so hard for him to see it and the castle that had been in his family for over 100 years out there across the water every day. No wonder he was so glum serving my gin and ‘go easy on the tonic please’.

As for the family in the picture I have no idea. My imagination has run wild on that one, but I’ve probably just read too much Daphne du Maurier. I have been back there twice and will go again but of course will never ask.


(I have not named the hotel or the people involved but they have now sold up and ran a deli in Lerwick for a while but have now sold that too.)

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Posted by on March 7, 2012 in Uncategorized


Mikhail Khodorkovsky – the best of the worst.

I am the kind of the person that likes the feeling when you get the measure of something. Like driving a car – I remember when after a few months behind the wheel the day came when I thought “yes, I’ve get this now”.  I suspect it’s the same with sex but I think I made better progress with driving, so we’ll leave that there.

Equally I have always wanted to get the measure of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. I wanted to know if he was a simple bandit, a good guy locked up by Putin for his political opposition or just a piece of Western propaganda. So I was glad to get a chance last night to see the documentary ‘Khodorkovsky’ made by Cyril Tuschi. So have I got the measure of MK?

Not really, but that’s not the film’s fault. MK is an absurdly complex individual who surrounded himself by very opaque and also complex individuals. The film is fantastically disjointed and very ‘handheld’ but the anarchic feel of the cinematography certainly suited the early of days of MK’s career and indeed the whole Yeltsin episode. The series of interviews with ex-spooks, henchmen, civil rights activists and in one case a mad as a box of frogs lawyer also give a real taste of the Wild East of 90s Russia.

So on the debit side, MK by his own admission invented the process by which the oligarchs were able to buy state-owned businesses in questionable auctions from Boris Yeltsin’s government at well below market prices. Boris knew that no Russian could afford to buy state assets such as Yukos and the other oil companies at their real values and did not want to risk their going to foreigners so sold them cheaply to ‘well-placed’ individuals.  And MK was VERY well -placed indeed. Another debit is that MK made Yukos the most transparent company in Russia with western-style corporate  governance policies, not because he really believed  it but because it was a way to make friends with ‘the west’ and possibly one day sell Yukos to a US company.  This possible sale was one of his mistakes.

On the credit side, MK does seem to have democratic beliefs  but  I have to say some of his business partners do seem pretty dodgy and indeed Interpol is pursuing some of them, but he overall carries the open and civil society flag pretty well in Russia.  He would likely have got away with this had he not – and this a big credit – publicly faced up to Vladimir Putin about corruption OK, kettle, pot, black, etc., but MK said he did what he did in the old days and that these were new days. VP does not like being challenged and even though MK has said he has no interest in politics, standing up to VP was the end for him.  His biggest credit in my view was that before he was arrested he was given time to get out of Russia and into exile but he stayed home and took what was coming.  Did he deserve it? Maybe not. Did he want to go to prison and suffer? Possibly not. Will he take advantage of it for political purposes?  You bet he will!  He is no Nelson Mandela but when he is released from jail he is going to rocket to the political forefront. Prison helps people in that way.

Politicians are rarely nice guys and MK is good at the bad stuff I’m sure, but he would in parallel drag Russian society into the 21 century – taking no prisoners on the way – but it is about time someone did that. The people who actually came out worst in this fascinating film are the Western politicians who jumped on the MK bandwagon – Gerhard  Schroeder in particular looked pretty slimy I thought.

So is MK the prodigal son that the Russians need – probably, I think so, well at least he might be. One person in the film, a backpacker who wandered into shot and was interviewed ad hoc put it well. He said MK is ‘the best of the worst’. So there you have it.

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Posted by on March 5, 2012 in Uncategorized


So no chance of a knighthood then?

Most people that know me are well aware of my opinions on the British monarchy. I have never really been any good at making a secret of them. Yesterday I wrote a blog that was quite vitriolic even by my standards, yet today I have toned it down a bit.  Why?  Well I had a chat with someone whose judgement I respect a lot, and she – by no means a monarchist – seemed to think it was a bit strong, so I have diluted it a wee bit. I did so because, thinking about it, it was a bit strong and above all because I felt guilty about laying into them as I did. That guilty feeling has really crystallised my thoughts about the Windsors.  Anyway here is the blog, the final part explaining a little about why this guilt thing has helped me to understand my feelings about them.

It seems to me that a Royal Family, if you insist on having one, should perform at last one of these four functions.  First of all they should be the fall-back, the democratic default in times of crisis in history, secondly they should give a lead to the nation in terms of culture, music and literature, thirdly they should be role models for behaviour,and examples to us all or fourthly they should be nice to look at.

So let’s see how out very own Windsors measure up shall we.

The fall-back. Well so far we have not had the crisis of our democracy that would test our lot, but if we look at how their close family have performed it doesn’t look great.  Russia – a weak, dim and arrogant Czar failed to make the reforms that were so clearly being demanded and thus let the Bolsheviks into power. Kaiser Wilhelm ran away from his post leaving a vacuum that was filled by the army and eventually led to one Adolf Hitler and his merry band. Alphonse XIII of Spain legged it to avoid the new leftist politics and the eventual civil war that led to Franco’s taking power, while Victor Emmanuel III of Italy basically gave power to Mussolini  Not a great record. They tend to hand it all to the nasty guys and run away. The only major crisis we have seen in the UK was the Queen’s arrogant refusal to speak to the nation over the death of Princess Di. Tony Blair persuaded her to do it and saved the royal bacon. Perhaps he should have let them screw it up and be thrown out there and then.

So what about the cultural leadership bit? I am not sure about the quality of the mayonnaise in the Windsor family sandwich. The Queen’s favourite writer is Dick Francis, while I doubt most of her offspring can read much beyond a cheque with their name on it. Which brings me to point three. The moral leadership and being a good example. Elizabeth is married to a man who makes racist remarks in public. Of her kids, Andrew has been an expensive and clumsy embarrassment as a ‘business ambassador’ for the UK and was fired, his ex-wife takes money from individuals seeking ‘access’ to him, Charles is a serious weirdo who is profligate beyond all belief  while Edward is a bit of a non-entity with a rather murky business ‘career’. Three of the four children are divorced with Charles publicly admitting adultery. He will become head of our established church. Nice.  The whole family have a long history of underpaying and poorly treating their staff.  Great role models.

What about the glamour aspect? Well this is simple too. They are really not a great looking bunch and  have ‘bought in’ beauty and elegance such as Diana Spencer and Catherine Middleton. I feel sorry for the latter – what do they have in store for her I wonder? At least Di Hard used it all to have some bed-based fun with a series of high rollers.

Now my objections to the monarchy could be based on the four points above or on the hereditary aspect being so non democratic or the fact that they are very expensive too.  But it’s not really.

With me it is much more personal as it is the Windsor family that I object to. I am much more sympathetic to the low key royal set-ups in Sweden or The Netherlands as they see quite in touch with the zeitgeist. The fact that I still feel a bit uncomfortable writing negatively about the British royal family shows the grip they have got on us.  If I wrote about the sex life of some dim celebrity or about a top footballer’s failure to be a good role model, nobody would bat an eyelid and I would not feel guilty either. Yet the royal family seem to be untouchable in the UK.  The Windsor family have made no effort to earn or keep our respect, they have failed to keep their side of the deal with us and they have propagated the mythology that makes us feel uncomfortable about criticising them.  That is why I am a republican.

See you at the street party.

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Posted by on March 4, 2012 in Uncategorized


Of communists and flying cars.

As age creeps up on me, I seem to become more and more sentimental and also think so much more about my parents and their earlier lives.  It’s probably a mortality thing but there you go.

My grandfather was born in about 1895 and served in the First World War as a Royal Engineer in the trenches in France.  He kept a diary and wrote a set of poems during the war and they are all kept in a locked book that I’ll get only when my father dies.  Grandfather was shot towards the end of the war and his leg was only saved by a tin cigarette box that he had in his pocket. He was invalided back to the UK and sent to a temporary hospital in a great old stately home in a village called Bridge in Kent.  His nurse, one Elsie Ovenden, was one of the 12 children of the gardener at the great house and she soon afterwards became his wife.  My father spent his summer holidays in the inter-war years in the village.  Orchards, long sunny days, meadows and all the best fruit and veg. It was all very HE Bates.

There were two great houses in the village, Bridge Place where my great grandparents were in service,  and Higham House. The latter belonged to a wealthy Polish count called Zborowski who was a famous amateur motor racing driver.  He made his own cars and my Dad remembers one of these racing down Bridge High Street. Dad aged about four was convinced the car could fly. A frequent guest at the house also thought the car could fly. He was Ian Fleming and the car of course became Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  Funny how Dad saw the real car that both my kids and I enjoyed on paper and film.  Zborowski was killed soon afterwards in a Grand Prix but he lives on as the founder of the miniature railway that runs across nearby Romney Marsh.

My Grandfather’s wartime experiences and then marrying into a family who were all in service made him a communist who spent much of his life trying to change what he called ‘the system’. He was also a passionate anti racism campaigner long before it was acceptable to be so in working class English society.  However after the Prague spring was crushed he went very quiet about the USSR.  It really hit him hard. Oddly he was also a fierce monarchist and used to stand for the national anthem at the end of the day’s TV. He wrote a letter once to the BBC complaining  about their referring to Elvis as ‘The King.’

He died at the age of 96 and his beloved nurse and wife followed him a few years later.

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Posted by on March 1, 2012 in Uncategorized

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