Friday, March 30, 2007

How To Be Invisible

He was famous because it was reputed that he knew a very secret spell called ‘How To be Invisible'. It was said that only the most powerful magicians knew this spell.

This story can now be found at:

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Diamorphine in the UK

There is a shortage of diamorphine in the UK. Diamorphine is the world’s most powerful painkiller, used in the treatment of people dying of cancer and other dreadful diseases. The current shortage means that many people may be suffering undue pain and indignity in the final stages of their lives.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

A Pint Of Bitter In A Jug

The following stories are in memory of Geoff Squires from Coventry, long-standing resident of Whitstable in Kent, recently passed away.

Let's hope they serve a decent pint in the next life.

The problem with writing as a medium is that it is very difficult to portray the inflections in words
. One word can be said in many different ways
. In this case the word is "no". It can be said as "no-o", with a broken inflection. Or as "no-o" with a rising tone, or as "no-o" with a descending tone. Or just as "no", blandly, with no inflection whatsoever. Or in any one of perhaps a hundred different ways.

This story involves a trip to Southend. Geoff and his mate got off the coach and - of course - they wanted a pint. So they went into the nearest boozer. Geoff drinks bitter, and his friend drinks lager, but they both have one thing in common, that they prefer to drink out of a jug rather than a glass. Geoff went to the bar. "I'll have a pint of bitter in a jug, and a pint of lager in a jug, please," he said.

The barman didn't move. "No!" he said: like that, flatly.

"Oh," Geoff stuttered: "does this mean that you won't serve us?"

"No-o," the barman said (brokenly, with a rising tone).

"Oh," said Geoff again, bemused, "so you don't mind serving us?"

"No," (descending, with a shrug).

That’s when it struck Geoff what the problem was. He looked about the bar and there wasn’t a jug in sight.

"You won't serve our drinks in jugs?" he said.

"No," (indulgently).

"But you wouldn't mind serving us a pint of bitter and a pint of lager in glasses though?"

"No," (positively).

"All right then," Geoff said, much relieved, "I'll have a pint of bitter in a glass, and a pint of lager in a glass. OK?"

"OK." And the barman served them their pints, and Geoff was about to pick them up when something occurred to him. "Incidentally," he added, "why don't you serve drinks in jugs?"

"Because people tend to use them as clubs," the barman said, miming the action of bringing a jug down on someone's head.

"Good point," Geoff said as he carried the glasses over to his friend. And they drank up quickly, and left without another word.

Geoff is a diminutive Midlander with very thick glasses and wiry black hair like a brillo pad. He's very distinctive. This next story also involved a trip to Southend, although this time Geoff was on his own.

He went into a pub and ordered a drink. Now Geoff likes his pint filled to the top. No head. So when the barman handed him a pint with a quarter of an inch of head, Geoff handed it back.

"Can you fill it to the top please?"

The barman tutted, but did as he was asked.

After Geoff had finished that, he went for another. This time the barman gave him a pint with a half an inch of head. "This is taking the piss," said Geoff: "can you fill it to the top please." The barman was obviously having trouble with the pumps because the more he pumped, the more head he got. "Right," he said, "I'm the owner of this place. You're barred!"

Geoff shrugged his shoulders and headed off to another pub. But no sooner had he got through the door than the barman said: "you're barred."

"Barred? How can I be barred? I've never been in here in my life before."

"I've just had a phonecall from the owner," the barman told him.

"Oh well," thought Geoff, and wandered on again. He thought he might as well visit a club this time. He was on holiday, after all. So he looked around for a club, and when he'd found one, went in. He went to the bar, eager for a drink, but, once more, the barman told him he was barred.

"Don't tell me," said Geoff, "you had a phone call from the owner. Does he own every bloody pub and club in this place? I just want to know where I can get a drink."

"He owns two pubs and one club," the barman told him, "and you've just walked into each one in succession."

"Oh well," thought Geoff again, crestfallen, "at least I'm guaranteed a drink at the next pub." And he didn't care how much head that pint had on it this time.

Geoff has a friend, Big Ted, a tobacco smuggler by trade. Big Ted is about 6 foot something or other and the same about the midriff. A genuine man-mountain. You’ve already had a description of Geoff. He’s about 4'11", and wears milk-bottle bottom glasses. They call him "Double-Glazing" on account of the thickness of his glasses.

Big Ted has been in the smuggling game for years. He crosses over on the ferry once a week, returning with large quantities of continental tobacco, which he then sells around the pubs in his home town. There's a few like him in every town. Unfortunately, in the last few years he's begun to lose the use of his legs. Walks with a walking stick over short distances, but needs a wheel chair the rest of the time. Which kind of militates against the smuggling business somewhat. So he got Geoff in to help him. Which is when things started to go wrong.

Geoff does the pushing. So you've got mountainous Big Ted in his wheel chair, and little Geoff puffing away behind, eyes swimming like two jellyfish in gold fish bowls. To say that they're an obvious pair is to understate the case. They stand out like two conked-out Morris Minors in a Rolls Royce rally.

Geoff's got a croaky voice, a nervous disposition, and likes to do impressions of Reg Presley of the Troggs.

Which is fine on Karaoke night. It's not so fine when he's pushing a man-mountain through the Nothing To Declare section of the customs building, in a wheel chair loaded up with illegal tobacco.

"Wild Thing, you make my heart sing, you make everything groovy, Wild Thing….." echoing around the corridor, while Geoff boogies down to the rhythm.

"Shhhhh," says Big Ted, curtly.

And, of course, the obvious thing happened. All the customs men got to know them.

"Hello Ted, hello Geoff," they say as Ted and Geoff are embarking on the boat. And: "hello Ted, hello Geoff, what's that you've got tucked away in your wheel chair?" they say, as Ted and Geoff are passing through the customs hall on the way back.

These last three times they've been caught. Ted is thinking of taking early retirement.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Battle of Orgreave

History cannot be reduced to particular events
. There are always complex forces at work. Nevertheless certain moments can seem to carry a resonance, representing a point of change in the life of the nation and defining, in a symbolic way, what went before and what came after.

One such “moment” occurred on June the 18th 1984.This was the so-called Battle of Orgreave, during the year-long Miner’s strike, a day when massed battalions of trained riot police were directed at the ranks of picketing Miners attempting to close down the British Steel coking plant in South Yorkshire. It is this moment that helps us to understand British history before and since.

Anyone above a certain age will remember it: will remember the sight of Arthur Scargill, his dignity severely compromised, clutching a baseball cap while being dragged away by the police; will remember the scenes of charging horses and stone-throwing rioters; will remember the incongruous picture of baton-wielding policemen, clutching shields, charging from behind protected lines, like medieval knights going into battle; will remember the war-cries and whoops and chanted slogans, the drumming, the jeering, the primitive clatter of wooden truncheons against riot shields, the surges and the counter-surges, the indelible impression of a nation at war with itself.

Which is exactly what it was, of course. The police were being withdrawn from their proper battleground - on the streets, fighting crime - and being redeployed, instead, in a war on Trade Unionism. It was the beginning of what has since become known as “globalisation”: the wholesale privatisation of public services and publicly-owned utilities that has continued ever since, and the attack upon anyone who stood - or who stands - in the way.

These are the events that a film by Mike Figgis seeks to commemorate, based around a re-enactment of the day, organised by artist Jeremy Deller. The film is available on a new website from Channel 4.

At first sight it is a strange conceit. The artist has called on the services of various re-enactment societies, more used to taking part in recreated battles from the English Civil War or the Roman invasion of Britain, than to play-acting an event in living memory. And yet it is not so strange. Police tactics on that day were exactly those used by the Romans, and revised again and again on the battlefields of history. The Miners represented a strand of tradition in British society that the government of the day had called “the Enemy Within” and openly declared war on.

Figgis uses the re-enactment as a sort of framework on which to build our perceptions. We are introduced to a variety of people, including ex-Miners along for the re-enactment, an NUM official, an ex-police officer, a former chair of Rotherham Miner’s Support Group; and Tony Benn, of course, that stalwart of traditional British values and historical good sense.

There are some very poignant moments. The ex-policeman, in particular, makes a number of very moving observations.

“People travel through Yorkshire or mining communities,” he says, “and all they see is slag-heaps and a bit of muck and grime. They don’t realise about the love and closeness that exists in mining communities....

“One of the reasons I joined the police,” he continues, “were I wanted to do some’at for the community I came from. And thanks to Margaret Thatcher I did. I helped to destroy it..."

The consequences of the destruction, not only of the NUM and the mining communities, but of a whole proud tradition of solidarity and mutual support in British Working Class life, is still with us: in poverty, unemployment, anti-social crime and drug addiction.

Margaret Thatcher called the process, euphemistically, “modernisation”. What she actually meant was a direct attack upon the networks of support devised by working people over the centuries to protect them from degradation and exploitation. “Modernisation” as a concept always serves those who have wealth and power against those who have most to lose.

It is one of Tony Blair’s favourite words.

I took a copy of the film to the Snowdown Welfare Club and Institute in Aylesham in Kent - once the social club for the Snowdown Colliery - to show it to some of the ex-Miners who still use the place. My thanks to Monty, Ian, Bridget and Graham for helping me to review the film, and to Bridget in particular for providing the TV and video.

The reaction was swift, and, I have to say, very intense. Despite the criticism that the re-enactment was unrealistic - there were thirty times more police in 1984, they said, and it was much more violent, much more frightening - it was clear that many memories were brought up. The sight of police snatch-squads, even fake ones, batons raised, cracking arms and heads in a riot of hate-filled reprisal, roused a deep, stirring anger. And they all agreed that the often repeated slogan of the time - “the Miners united shall never be defeated” - was wrong, echoing one of the sentiments of the film. It shouldn’t have been only the Miners, they said. It should have been "the Workers".

At one point a heated argument broke out, about who had been at Orgreave and who had not. Accusations were flying about all over the place and voices raised. At another point someone came over to me and abused me for forcing the film on them and reminding them of times best forgotten: “those days of anarchy“, as he described them.

“Don’t worry about him,” someone else said. “He doesn’t understand. He was never a miner.”

I was made to put the film on twice in a row.

“Every penny they had was to defeat the Working Class,” said Graham at the end, reflecting an anger at the way vast amounts of public money was so blatantly used for political ends, to attack people for merely defending their communities.

I suspect that this is precisely the reaction that Mike Figgis wants us to have.

The Battle of Orgreave was conceived by Jeremy Deller.

Commissioned and produced by Artangel in association with Channel 4 Television.

Directed by Mike Figgis.

The film can be viewed online at:
Original article appeared in The Big Issue June 2002.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Mutton Curry for Vegetarians

Someone had scrawled graffiti on a post halfway across the golf-course. I used to pass it every day as I was walking my dog. "Meat means murder," it said. "All meat eaters are fascists."

I'm a fascist and a murderer, then. I eat meat.

It's an extreme statement. But is it justified? I think not. A fascist is someone who seeks to impose his will by force, and I don't care one way or the other whether another person wants to be a vegetarian or not. In fact - by that definition - whoever wrote that graffiti is a fascist, since they would have me eating only vegetables whether I like it or not. As for meat meaning murder, this is even more absurd. Murder implies malice, and there is no malice whatsoever in my desire to eat meat.

Time and time again I've been struck by the fact that extremist views in fact undermine the very aims they seek to impose. Death is a part of life. We all die in the end. When I die my body will feed the worms, no doubt. What we should be aiming for is the eradication of suffering. In other words: the humane and ethical treatment of animals while they are alive. This is a far more realistic aim, than that we should expect every human being on the planet to give up meat.

If animal rights activists were really sincere in their desire to help animals, then they would want to enlist the support of meat eaters too. No one wants to see animals boxed up in confined spaces for the whole of their lives, never seeing the sky, never skipping about in the fields. No one wants to see animals screaming in terror at the prospect of dying. No one wants to see animals clubbed to death, or left bleeding, half alive. No one wants to see animals force-fed on a diet of ground-up animal parts, turning naturally vegetarian animals into cannibals. There are many meat eaters who would happily see the end of veal crates, and the transport of live animals. And almost every meat eater who can afford it would be perfectly willing to pay more for their meat if they knew that the animal had had a happy life, and a dignified and painless death.

I was a vegetarian for a number of years. The reason I packed it in initially was that I got a job in a steelworks, and the canteen simply didn't serve vegetarian food. There's only so much manual labour you can do on a diet of mashed potatoes and cheese. And, the truth is, vegetarianism tends to be the preserve of the middle classes.

I went on the hippy trail to India. India, of course, has a fine tradition of delicious and varied vegetarian food. So no problem there. But those countries in between - Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan - are all almost exclusively meat-eating.

I'd already come to the conclusion that the insistence on a vegetarian diet, regardless of the circumstances, was both rude and impractical. There were vegetarian restaurants along the way, set up exclusively to cater for western tastes. But the normal Afghan fare - their equivalent of fish and chips - was pillau rice: a mound of rice fried in meat fat, with a scrawny lump of meat buried at the bottom. Poor man's food. Pillau rice was what the Afghans ate. And that - I decided - was what I would eat too.

In Pakistan I ate mutton curry. To this day I have a taste for cheap cuts of old meat - such as mutton or goat - mulled in spices over several hours, till the stringy flesh grows succulent and falls off the bone. It's a pity that such basic forms of meat are so difficult to find in this country. This is how most people in most parts of the world eat. In China they eat every part of the animal, even the feet. Nothing is wasted. It's only in the decadent west that we relish the tenderest parts of lamb and veal and other baby animals, and then throw the rest away. And it's only western travellers who will visit another country and then demand that they cater for our delicate tastes.

To be invited into someone's home, and then to put the host to so much trouble by insisting on the particularities of a certain diet, smacks of churlishness to me. To do the same in someone else's country seems rude in the extreme.

So let's unite to end barbaric factory-farming methods - shall we? - and leave out the insults.