Of IPGL, conspiracies and conspirators: the mysterious case of the letter to the Electoral Commission

Over the past couple of days on the twitter following the publication of a letter to the electoral commission by former MP and current candidate, Roger Mullin, the tag #torydirtymoney has been appearing in tweets. Despite being debunked by BUzzfeed’s James Ball, and being dismissed by the electoral commission, the tag has a life of its own, and stories continue to be circulated on various websites and by tweeters and by politicians and journalists who should know better (including sophisticated electoral gadget operator Jeremy Vine, and TV’s Robert Peston from Peston on Sunday with TV’s Robert Peston)

The basis of Mullin’s complaint is first, HSBC loaned money to a company known as IPGL Ltd which was, according to Mr Mullin, “in some financial distress”; and second, the money was (in the words of Mr Mullin) “Laundered” into COnservative party donations. Among other things Mr Mullin suggests HSBC should have notified donations made by its borrower to the electoral commission.

The financial position of IPGL Ltd is dealt with by James Ball in his Buzzfeed piece, and can be checked with a review of the IPGL accounts. This was not a company in “distress”. The 2008 accounts and 2009 accounts show the company made a loss in each year. But, with plenty of collateral available (the company had over £1/4 billion of net assets) the company reported that it consolidated various existing HSBC debts into a £200 million loan with HSBC in October 2008 and arranged a repayment schedule through to 2011. The debts were being repaid (and total indebtedness to HSBC being substantially reduced), while the donations (amounting to just over £1million over the two financial years to 2008 and 2009) were made. As James Ball notes, the company returned to profit in 2010 and remains trading today. For a company in financial distress (as suggested by Mr Mullin) that’s a very quick recovery – particularly when the company was paying back tens of millions of pounds of debt. Perhaps then the reality is that the premise of Mr Mullin’s complaint is flawed. There is no indication the company was in financial distress. A group of companies, containing investment companies, made an operating loss at the height of the global crash. This is not a surprise. It happened to lots of businesses. And it happened to lots of businesses that subsequently recovered. There is no story here. The continued propagation of it seems conspiratorial. One would have expected a journalist of Robert Peston’s experience in financial and business journalism to have carried out basic checks of the accounts before sharing a story which seems to have a flawed foundation.

Disregarding this though the other basis of Mr Mullin’s complaint is itself startling. He appears to argue (and my apologies if I am misrepresenting him) that somehow HSBC retains responsibility for the way in which the money loaned to IPGL Ltd is used. This seems to be the only basis for his argument that HSBC had to report the donations made by its borrower to the Electoral commission. To a property lawyer this analysis is bizarre.

Consider the following situation. Bank X lends money to A. The money loaned becomes the property of A. As A’s property, A has the power to use and to enjoy the property as A wishes. Bank X has a right against A to get the money paid back. But short of express provision in the loan agreement Bank X is not responsible in any way for what A does with the money. The “money” is no longer Bank X’s property. Bank X has no ongoing property interest in it (unless provided expressly – in Scotland this would not be possible). So if A borrows money for a specific purpose and uses it for a different purpose the bank will only have a remedy against A as an express term of the contract. And that remedy will be to demand repayment of the loan – the bank cannot simply assert that it still owns the money previously handed over. Similarly, if A goes and buys drugs Bank X has no responsibility for that purchase. The police will not come knocking on the door of Bank X to arrest the directors under the Misuse of Drugs Act. Why then, accepting the logic of Mr Mullin’s argument, would Bank X incur liability to the Electoral Commission? If Bank X is not a shadow director (whereby the debtor company is used to acting in accordance with their instructions) Bank X has no responsibility. Creditors do not generally have liability for the actions of their borrowers.

A review of a basic student book on banking law, Ellinger’s Modern Banking law, ch 17, sees a discussion of instances where lenders incur liability. These include negligent advice by the bank to the borrower, the bank bringing a loan facility to an end too early, the bank incurring liability as a shadow director because it tells the borrower what to do, and environmental cases – where banks can incur liability if it causes or permits pollution or enforces a security and takes possession of the property. The environmental liability arises expressly in statute. If the statute was silent there would be no liability because the default position is the lender is not responsible for the actions of the debtor.

Mr Mullin’s letter proceeds on two assumptions: (a) IPGL Ltd was in financial distress; and (b) that HSBC has responsibility for what the borrower, IPGL LTd, does with the money loaned. Unfortunately for the conspirators IPGL LTd was not in financial distress; and HSBC has no responsibility for the actions of its debtor.

If people are wanting to look at issues regarding expenses in political contexts there are a variety of other stories that can be looked at. But this story is a non-story.


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Reflections on today’s earth shattering news from Downing Street.



















Stop playing short term tactical games and do your fucking jobs.

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The Modern Sisyphus

Turns out that the contemporary punishment of the gods is to force a large chunk of the population to vote over and over again in referendums they don’t want reducing complex questions to binary choices – neither of which adequately reflects their views – while politicians get paid flipping great wadges of cash to pass the buck to people thereafter interpreting the reductive binary choice in a way that bears no necessary relation to the motivations of the people who vote.



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a meditative reflection on the state of contemporary domestic politics

sod it.

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Why I am responsible for that bloke everyone is talking about

A long time ago I had no idea what the world wide internets was and so me and some mates had a look around for football manager jobs we could apply for using pseudonymous email addresses while we were chatting about things that had been on the television twenty or thirty years before and so after being shown on-line videos (which had just been invented by the youtube) we invented rec.arts forums and abusing people on the interwebs by using the insults based on old television characters.

Now of course back in my day rec.arts was an insult where I came from. If you went in to a pub and said to a man with a pint in front of him “rec.arts” he would have hit you as soon as look at you. But “rec.arts” it was, and the information about production dates for old episodes of Juliet Bravo, and updates on what happened to Joe Beck’s bike, always made the experience worthwhile.

Anyway, our time posting on these forums and entering arguments with strange Canadians convinced that all new programming in their preferred genre was funded by people from Canada certainly made us better writers as this post that you are reading now on this site proves. I mean look at it. See, how fluently I use sentences now. Admire my punctuation, the way I can slip easily from a long sentence using lots of clauses (and sub-clauses) before stopping. Producing a new sentence. Short. It takes years of writing on the rec.arts forums to be able to master an entire paragraph comprising one sentence. But those days certainly improved our writing style. Imagine how bad my writing was before that!

Anyway, in the heading to this whimsical look back at people that I have met and the early days of the internets of thing I mentioned the person that everyone is talking about. Well, he also contributed to the rec.arts. And he really honed his skills there by randomly sending abuse to people that he had never communicated with before on topics unrelated to the topic in the heading. Most people ignored him. But some responded including [insert name of celebrity people will have heard of. Fix this later lads].

And that abuse of [celebrity] led indirectly to Boaty McBoatface, the violent attacks in Sweden this past weekend, and the re-election of Robert Mugabe. And I feel responsible for that. Because if it hadn’t been for me and the rec.arts Juliet Bravo community abuse on the internet by narcissists would never have been invented.

But enough about him. Now that you’re here you will appreciate how valuable this blog is. And content as good as this can’t just be given away. For as little as 75 pence a week you could give me money and I could spend it on making my writing and this site even better. And if you want to give more then send me your bank details and I’ll withdraw an appropriate amount.

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Welcome our new guest film reviewer

I am delighted to welcome a new guest film reviewer to this blog. Her perceptive words of wisdom on cinema will be accompanied by our new television reviewer when he can get the time off from the Guardian and telling us what his girlfriend likes on the telly.

Anyway, a big welcome to Camille who is this week looking at 2001: A Space Odyssey:

The received wisdom on 2001: a Space Odyssey, a film about Rigsby offof The Rising Damp visiting space to find out why Americans are interested in something or other on the moon, is that it is “compelling” and “important” and “good”. It is a “brilliantly directed” and “powerful” examination of computers going wrong in a “space” that is largely hostile to people who cannot breath when the computer will not open the pod bay doors and you have forgotten your special space helmet. And it is an “exploration” of the essence of “humanity”, the “inquisitiveness” that drives human “development”, such as the ability to synthesise complex ideas symbolically represented using visual metaphors, cinematic techniques, or the extended exploration of character to “shed light” on the “human condition”. But what do those “critics” who have a “knowledge” of the history of cinema and its techniques really know about an art form that some bespectacled bod with a Wollastonesque grasp of a medium can’t replicate by randomly throwing words at a page in the hope that her (or his) ignorance will attract a few extra clicks on the newspaper website?

So 2001: a Space Odyssey is “relevant” to whom? Certainly not the human beings who cannot go on trips to the moons of Jupiter.  Nor the computers who are not operating under contradictory instructions and cannot make it to the cinema due to the lack of plug points in the local multiplex. Nor the  cavemen who are not ululating in deference before a big black block before using a thing to kill a tapir. Most cinemagoers will be homo sapiens. Nor is it particularly “compelling” or “good” . The story of people going into space to do stuff on spaceships has been told many times. Like in that one with Carrie Fisher and Indiana Jones. Or the one with the robot. You know? That one. The robot in space one. That was in space. And what do we need another film in space for? They have already done one. And that’s that.

Oh, but the Mr la-di-dah Gunner Graham critics have said 2001: A Space Odyssey is different. It is beautifully framed and shot. It uses music wonderfully to convey space travel. And it has a so-called “jump cut” between a bone being thrown in the air and a spaceship that is “audacious”. Well, nyah. Who cares? IT doesn’t even have a plot. I mean, what’s Rigsby even in it for? and why do we need to find out about the BBC channels in the future? It’s not even the future now. It’s the past. That’s daft.  And the so-called symbolism is difficult and complicated. And while I understand that some people like it and admire it, I have no idea what they are talking about and so I am adopting a wilfully contrarian view for coins and you can read more from me every week in the Funday Times.



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Paul Nuttall MEP – statement


Paul Nuttall MEP, offof the Ukips, has clarified comments made on his website that he had lost a close friend at Hillsborough when he was at school.

Mr Nuttall explained that his school had been on a week long trip to Northern Ireland and on a visit to Hillsborough Castle, to mark the signing of the Anglo Irish Agreement, his friend had gone missing causing Mr Nuttall and his school friends some considerable upset and distress. Mr Nuttall confirmed though that while he remained haunted to this day by the five minutes when the teachers anxiously hunted for his school chum his friend had been found again soon after in the castle gift shop purchasing a Garret Fitzgerald tea towel.

Mr Nuttall regrets any confusion caused but notes that any misunderstanding clearly lay with the reader of his website and has asked that those who misunderstood his press releases on the topic apologise to him for the distress that today’s radio interview has caused.


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Before talking

The waiting room has no natural light, the moments after arrival occupied by filling in forms – noting the rules on personal data, completing a checklist. As I read each word there is a shadow behind it. And when I fill in the form my hand shakes, my writing – generally illegible –  looking like the scrawl of an old man.

The receptionist takes back the clipboard and the forms, invites me to sit.

I’d been early. Fifteen minutes early. There for a couple of minutes when I’d caught sight of another person with an appointment. She seemed startled, eyes darted left, right, avoiding any acknowledgement – rushing through when the man in the rumpled suit appeared at the door, nodding hello.  I guess the appointments were scheduled to avoid those awkward interactions. But I’m sitting here for fifteen minutes and my breathing is speeding up, and I feel the tightness in my stomach, and grasp my right wrist with my left hand, and I count.

In. Two. Three. Four.

And out. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight.

In. And concentrating on my wrist in my hand.

And out. And on my breathing and counting to ensure I am breathing out for twice as long as I breathe


And out.

And she appears, grey haired, glasses. She is short, slight. She quietly says my name, and I stand, and I’m much taller than her and feel a little uncomfortable and stoop to say,

Yes. That’s me. Yes.

And she takes me to a door at the end of a corridor, and she opens it indicating I should enter and

The room is light. Light walls. A desk made from light wood to my left. Large windows, with pale blinds, to my right, a coat-stand in front of them.

It is light. So light.

On the wall farthest from the door is a small two shelf bookcase, next to a semi circular coffee table pushed tight against the wall. The chairs on either side of the table are cushioned with wooden arm rests, the cushions the same colour as the box of tissues on the coffee table.

I am ushered in, walk in to the light, and I am invited to hang up my coat and scarf. I take them off slowly, hang them up deliberately. 

I’d phoned the day before, a call long delayed. The number had been scrawled on various pieces of paper around the house – in notebooks, on newspapers, on train tickets. But there was always a reason not to phone. Too busy. Too much on. But some days when I’ve nearly phoned I’ve thought I was too well. But I’d phoned the day before and was told there’d been a cancellation and so I could be seen tomorrow. Would I be here if there’d been a delay? If it had been a week?  I’ve bounced myself into it.

I sit.

The tissues. The box of tissues. She moves them towards me.

The preliminaries are sensible. Obligations of confidentiality are summarised. Provisos detailed. The catch all note that information from the file may be shared within the practice to focus on how to help, to cover those unforeseen circumstances where someone is ill. It’s familiar from legal work. Similar concerns. I switch off. Nod along. Remembering lectures on professional ethics where

And she is looking at me expectantly.

I tilt my head. I clutch my wrist.

– So, let’s begin. What brings you here?

And I talk:

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I have only ever been out on Hogmanay twice. Once, I stayed at a friend’s house in my hometown. She had invited friends from her University to visit, a collection of English literature students. I was a rural curiosity. The evening passed. We spoke of films, and television, and books. And afterwards, it was never spoken of again – not even the year after when she and I were nearly struck by sheet lightning during the Christmas break.

In the mid 90s in my final year as a student my then girlfriend and her flatmate and boyfriend thought it would be lovely to go out for a meal. We went to a restaurant in central Edinburgh. This was rather more expensive than a student who worked through the holidays to support himself through the year was used to. The cheapest thing on the menu was mushrooms in filo pastry. It cost £30. In 1994. That was more than the books for an individual degree course cost. The pastry was burned, sorry charred. The sauce surrounding the mushrooms was cold. I pushed it round my plate allowing it to visit every part. I was the only person at the table who was sober; hell, I was the only person in the restaurant who was sober. It was cold. It was miserable.  It was unnecessarily costly – financially and emotionally.

That is my experience of a Scottish new year.  Since then I’ve stayed in.

So a very happy new year to you at home.





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Love and luck

I’m not the easiest person to be around. I know that. I wish I was easier, and I try to improve (with varying degrees of success), but I am anti-social, awkward, too often trapped in the slough of despond. But I am blessed to be with someone warm, and witty, and wise. She is clever, and creative, and kind. And despite knowing what, who, I am, dear reader, fifteen years ago she married me. It’s not easy being with someone, agreeing to share your lives, the choice in some ways both selfish and selfless. But I am glad, albeit constantly surprised, that she chose to be with me.

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Lifestyle columns in the Guardian destroy people’s faith in humanity . I’m rejecting it

From Wednesday, I’m going to live without reading lifestyle columns in The Guardian. I want my life back. I want my soul back.

I’ll never know how many people link to this blogpost below the line in comments on an article on The Guardian website. Nor will I get to read comments suggesting that a blogger and tweeter like me needs to embrace the whimsical delusions of self-publicising charlatans. And that is no bad thing, for the moment this blog is read by more than five readers – pandering to the worst excesses of  sensationalism, populism and deceit over honest exploration of the important question of how to pronounce scone – I (and you) lose, and those who need to be held to account for commissioning bollocks in serious newspapers win.

The reason I won’t see any reaction in the Guardian is because come Wednesday I will live a state of Utopia with a self denying ordnance whereby I cast aside so-called modern conveniences like those columns providing answers to questions people send in about relationships (I’ve never found  them particularly believable – I mean, a Henry vacuum cleaner, the “necessity” of wearing dungarees, and your BFF?).

From Wednesday, I’m rejecting the world of simple unadulterated pseudery entirely. That means no Guardian lifestyle columns, no fashion tips, no make up columns, no why this pasta has transformed my life, no 101 things to do with humus, no consumer survey examining how best to accessorise your chestnut stuffing with a garland from a number of high street (and two independent) shops, no pretentious Tom Goods explaining how they’re going back to nature, no readers’ examination of the problems of relationships going stale because you’ve both read the Pamela Stephenson advice and shrugged and rolled your eyes, no semi anonymous open letters to family members or friends who made some faux pas in 1993 that you’ve never forgiven, and no articles that have involved some bloke making a bet that he can get “solar photovoltaic system” into a column shared widely on twitter.

Rejecting a part of a newspaper website that people on the twitter consider to be the basic necessity of life wasn’t done on a thoughtless whim. I already miss not being able to share sarcastic comments about people that the liberal elite have already decided are idiots.

I decided to eschew complex pseudery for two reasons. The first was that I found myself happier away from the Guardian lifestyle pages and the relentless sanctimony they generate, and instead living intimately with other parts of the internet (where there are videos of Margarita Pracatan and articles about television programmes from the 1980s). The second, more important, was the realisation that the Guardian lifestyle pages destroy, in more ways than one.

It destroys our relationship with normal people. It first separates us from folk like ourselves, while simultaneously converting life into the ramblings of people so reeking in sanctimony that even Gandhi would consider giving them a slap. Not only does it enable us to destroy warm feelings for society efficiently, over time this separation has led us to valuing people we encounter in day to day life less in case they’re the sort of person that will midway through a conversation say “Did you read that piece about quinoa?”, meaning we protect and care for society less. By way of this vicious cycle, we are consciously causing the mass extinction of goodwill to all men, and at Christmas too.

We know that, at the very least, some columnists are harming our view of the world, our society and, ultimately, ourselves. Therefore we can recognise the need to reject these lifestyle (and other) columnists. We’re going to have to draw a line in the sand somewhere. I’ve drawn mine.

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Katie Hopkins: an apology

The following text has been prepared for immediate release.



19 December 2016

Katie Hopkins: An apology

We are sorry for Katie Hopkins.

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A detailed and considered analytical review of the TV show Question Time

It’s rubbish. It’s been rubbish for years. That’s why most rational people stopped watching. They invite awful people on because they are trying to annoy you.


Don’t watch.

As an alternative consider one of the following courses of action:

Read a book.

Browse a celebrity lookalike agency website.

Speak to your family members.

Go to bed.

Following this advice will make you a happier person. And if enough of you stop watching the whole monstrous show might be ditched in favour of something less like a phone in on Talk Sport.


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You never feel worse than when someone leans across and touches your arm, inclined head, and with lowered voice, asks, Are you okay? You want the hand off your arm, but that won’t happen until you answer, might not happen even then. So you rush through the possibilities of how bad you must look for someone to take the time to ask. Pale skin? Slightly fevered? Disengaged? Red-eyed? Do they know? What did they see? Did you flinch during the news? You reach up to your eyes. They’re not wet. Not that. Not this time.  None of these things. None. At least, no more than usual. And once clear on that you’re left wondering whether this is just making conversation, or genuine concern?

Fine. I’m fine.

Non-committal. The easy answer. An answer that avoids answering, but easier than saying nothing. The hand is withdrawn, but the touch lingers on your arm and you reach to brush that phantom weight away but – aware of the eyes that follow your movement – you stop, reach down, grasp your wrist. Breathe. Your interlocutor’s curiosity is temporarily sated; retreats.

It is not always a passive act not talking, not telling. Not picking up the phone, and dialing the number that’s on scraps of paper around the house, is an active choice. You tell yourself that not responding to the well intentioned text or the email is for them, not for you; that you don’t want to impose, to overshare, to burden.

And in your seat, and on the rush hour train, you have unwanted replays of moments, your – his – spots of time. No boat stealing, or lake hopping, though. Nothing so benign.  

Later you watch the cursor flash on the screen, type. And again you write, another night trying to capture those instants where he became you. But it is not right. It is never right.



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You’d walked home that night: rewinding, replaying, rescripting.

You’d messed it up, telling her. Messed it up. After the plates were cleared, as you’d talked about life and books and stuff there were no openings. Never an opening. Willing, your mind willing, but your mouth had stayed closed. The man, the child, inside peering through the windows of your eyes – hearing the stranger who occupied your body talk pretentiously about Kafka and Felice. Tell her. Just tell her. Your stammer was back. Stressed. Too stressed. Remember your script. You’re prepared. Over-prepared.

You’d begun.

Clumsy. Awkward non sequitur. Not natural. Too planned. But necessary. It had to be planned. Moving things on. Letting her know that something had happened. You’d tried before. Lost the words. Lost them. Moments had passed before. Not just that night, lots of nights. But that was no way to start. Beginnings are always easier when you’ve finished, when you can work out where the start was.

She’d looked sad. Her eyes were sad, as you blurted everything out. The lot. The whole shebang.

And there were tears. Her tears. Your tears. Proper Juliet Stevenson tears. And you’d hugged. And she’d told you that it was okay, and you’d told her that it was okay. But, you both knew.

As you’d walked home that night, every person you passed seemed to stare. Was your face still red, eyes puffy? Did they know? Did they know what you’d said? They must. Look at them. Staring. They know.

You’d walked more quickly. You needed to be home.

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Train trip

The train is full, people standing in the aisles, standing in what the guard insists in his increasingly tetchy announcements is a vestibule. I’d been early, sat at a table, taken out a book, started to read. I leaned against the window, looked out. I used to do that on buses years before. When I went to my granny’s. The engine vibrations felt through your head as it rested on the bus window, and if you closed your mouth together you could make your teeth chatter. Or you could just feel the vibrations through your torso, feel your heart pump, feel the constant shudders, that judder into your arms, giving your fingers pins and needles. It was relaxing on that forty five minute bus trip, a way to occupy yourself when your mum tells you not to read because it will hurt your eyes if you’re holding your book watching the words jump. Yes. Relaxing, lying there, curled in the seat, watching as raindrops trailed down the window, veering at near right angles as the bus went too quickly over a hillock, and your head bounced off the window. Odd, remembering that now. I’ve not thought about it for years. Until I was on the bus with my youngest, and she sat close to the window letting her head rest against the glass, asked her, Do you like it, the feeling? And she nodded and laughed. And lay back against the pane. Yes. Odd. Remembering that. But with the news, this week of news, my head’s there against a window years ago.
And I sit, eyes closed against the pain, head against the glass. I sit.
You sit. Stop. You sit.
Eyes open. The train is busy. I look out, my temple resting against the window. A grey table surface floats over the train line, nail-less fingers rest on it, other fingers flick through the shadow of a book, starting at the back, of course. How it ends. Or begins. Is this how it begins? Five minutes ago, maybe ten, I’d eased my earphones in, switched on the radio. She sat then, plonked herself into the seat, as the newsreader started talking about the election. And as she sat she pushed me nearer the window, my arm pressed against the metal window surround. She didn’t speak, but shuffled in her seat. Every time her thigh touched mine I was moved nearer the window. I tried to move my legs away. But each time I moved she nudged closer. The train wasn’t that full then. It is now. My breathing is shallow.
Get off me.
Will you get off me? Head against the window. Breath. It mists slightly.
You don’t shout. You didn’t shout. Leave me alone.
I don’t shout. I don’t speak.
You don’t cry. He will not see you cry. You will not let him.
The newsreader talks again about the election. She talks about the latest person to come forward, his latest denial.
I want out. Let me out. Will you move? Give me some space.
Silently, think to her: Stop touching me.
You want it to stop.
My cheek is wet.
I am on a train. And it is packed. And I am crying. And the woman next to me stares.







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A Good Read

I often go to bed with the cheery voice of Harriet Gilbert by the bedside.

“Thanks for downloading A Good Read.”

I’ve been listening to A Good Read for over twenty five years.  At the time I started listening it had already been running for over a decade. During my time as a listener it has enlightened, infuriated, and provoked, and (of course) year on year incrementally increased the size of my library

The format is simple. An avuncular host and two guests talk about some books recommended by those on the show. The books recommended are generally in print and available in paperback (in recent years kindle availability seems acceptable – but for old school A Good Read listeners the loss of the recap at the end of show detailing book, publisher, and price is still hard to come to terms with). When I first started listening each guest selected two books for the host and the fellow guest to read; now each guest recommends one book while the host recommends a third.

Guests who appear on the show fall into various categories: there are the enthusiasts – who choose something they love and want other people to love it too; there are the show offs – who select a book to showcase their erudition and superior literary taste; there are the sentimental selectors – choosing a book that reminds them of a relative or a time they loved (and into this category there are those revisiting their younger years – selecting a book they loved as a teenager and who seem, as the programme develops (and for reasons that are all too familiar), to be attempting to recapture their lost youth); and there are non-readers – invited on the show because of a certain level of fame, too polite (or egocentric) to turn the show down, who struggle to nominate a book, and seem not to engage with the other books selected. The simplicity of the format, and the warmth of the host have made it an essential listen.

I have heard Kingsley Amis rail against pretension as his own choices of a Flashman and a Dick Francis novel met his carefully delimited requirements of a good read; Charles Moore enthuse over Jane Austen; and comedians choose a variety of short bleak novels of childhood trauma and tragedy; while Michael Grade came over all Harry Enfield being Barry Cryer in the Story of the Twos. And I’ve heard a writer admit he didn’t reread any books and simply choose the book he’d read most recently so he didn’t have to re-engage with a text.

I have often pondered what I would recommend if the call came. “We have run out of celebrities and worthwhile public figures We want some random punter to choose a book for another random punter.  What’s it to be?”

There are some guidelines I think the decent guest should follow:

Keep it relatively short. You are forcing a book on two other people, one of whom has a taste in reading you know nothing about. It would therefore be impolite to choose something that was too long. 250 pages or less seems an ideal length. A few hours to read – so if the other person hates it you’re not forcing them to persevere for days on end infuriating them more and more.

No poetry. I love poetry. I read a little poetry most days, but there are many people – voracious readers some of them – scared of poetry. They worry about hunting for messages, looking for symbols, and are reminded of school. You may be paired with someone who loves poems too, but you may be making the reading feel like homework.

Choose something that is relatively unknown. Is it worth going on the show and giving a publicity boost to the latest paperback by a regular top ten bestseller? So why not choose something that might be a discovery for people.

So bearing my three guidelines in mind what to choose?

Over the years there are some books I have given as presents more than any others. There was Dan Rhodes’s Anthropology,  a wise and witty book of short short stories (101 words long) that I gave to seven or eight friends one Christmas as a student. And there is one book that I have enthusiastically handed over to friends over twenty years, hoping that it meets with approval: Pfitz by Andrew Crumey, a novel published by Dedalus. I have bought fifteen copies of Pfitz during the past twenty or so years. It was one of the first books I gave to the woman who (naively, without full knowledge of my Doctor Who obsession) agreed to marry me. It is a book I’ve given to friends from a variety of occupations – lawyer, social worker, writer, journalist, lecturer, researcher. So, how did I come to encounter Pfitz?

As a student when I visited bookshops I would visit the Scottish books section. There I first encountered Alan Warner, Irvine Welsh, Gordon Legge, AL Kennedy, and more bizarrely Ian McEwan (of course, he’s a Mc, all “Mc”s are Scottish: Larry McMurtry, and those lads) and (later) Magnus Mills’s Restraint of Beasts. And so in my final year as a student, while taking time off from exam revision, in Waterstones in Edinburgh I encountered a writer new to me, Andrew Crumey, and his first novel Music in a Foreign Language (which subsequently won the Saltire first book prize). I bought it, and enjoyed it – an alternative history novel where a post communist Britain emerges after the fall of communism around Europe. I was looking forward to his next novel.

And Pfitz appeared in 1995. It was a novel that reminded me of Calvino, or Borges, or Lem. But most of all, at that time, it was a novel that set me thinking of the first novel by Dennis Potter, Hide and Seek, which I had borrowed from the library in Carlisle in 1989 and became slightly obsessed with. Pfitz was a historical novel flirting with fantasy, dealing with serious philosophical topics. Set in the eighteenth century in a land ruled by a prince who creates imaginary cities.  And the prince’s subjects work on the development of these cities, culminating in Rreinnstadt – a city as encyclopaedia: a museum and library at its centre. And every one of the prince’s subjects was set to work on the design of the city – preparing maps, designing buildings, and creating the biographies of all the inhabitants. The maps prepared are incredibly detailed – with not just the overview of the streets, but every building, and with every room in every building, and with the location of every person in the city. And these maps are not static but change over time, so what every subject of prince is creating is an entire city, and its populace – each of whom is the subject of a biography with their background, and why they are there. And Pfitz is about one of those working on Rreinnstadt, Schenck, a cartographer, who falls in love with a woman working in the biography section, and who finds on a map an indication of a figure, Pfitz, who appears to be the servant of a count.  And Schenck, at night, creates a biography of Pfitz to enable him to spend more time with the object of his desire in the biography department. And from there Crumey fashions a murder story, a romance, a tale of rivalry and jealousy, and an examination of what reality and what fiction is. And while it deals with weighty themes it is light, delicately constructed, and witty. It is fun. It’s good fun – where else in modern fiction would you encounter a travelling man at the fair with his performing bumble bees in the self told biography of a character? It’s light, but not froth. It’s witty, but serious. It’s a good read.   I will not say more but I would unhesitatingly recommend it.

So, if you were on A Good Read what would you recommend?

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Why Trump won: a personal reflection

As a professional columnist with views and opinions on things in the news I have obviously had to come up with an opinion on the seismic events which have happened over the past forty eight hours. I have spent much of this time reflecting carefully on the events and decided that a thing I think about a thing has been vindicated by the decision of the American electorate.

I have an opinion on a thing in British politics, and you will realise from looking at my previous columns that irrespective of any empirical evidence or data that view is one I think week after week in relation to stories on this topic or that. The thing I think is occasionally supported by an anecdote relating to someone I met, or a family member, and appropriate extrapolation from that shows clearly that people in the United Kingdom will act in a certain way justifying the thing that I think, and if the politicians I agree with do not think in the way in which I suggest then there is no way that the public (who are just like this person I met across the whole country, and the whole cultural and socio-economic spectrum) will think that too. Or if they do think what I think  and the public don’t endorse them they simply have not acted sufficiently strongly in putting forward arguments in support the thing I think.

And it is clear therefore that, while watching the thing in another country on the news, this view meant that a person who was more in line with what I think would have been better at winning the election against a person who managed to win the votes of those who disagree with that thing I think. Selecting someone who was trying to appeal to people in another country, rather than selecting someone who would have appealed to me, was a calamitous decision. If the person who was selected was going to win in any way they could only have done so by being more like me in their thinking. And if that was the case the appeal of the person who doesn’t think like me and attracted the support of the people who think like him, rather than me, would have been negated. And a landslide in support of the thing I think would surely have resulted.

The lesson for Britain in this is clear. By ignoring the thing I think, and losing an election, the thing I think must be placed at the centre of thinking in British politics. And with that as the big idea, victory for those I agree with is guaranteed, unless they are insufficiently committed to what I think, I think.



syndicated to all newspapers.

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I heard the news today, oh boy

I have never had a more visceral reaction to a politician, because he transports me. He takes me to places in my memory where I felt vulnerable, where I felt scared. And I know that from talking to others his presence, his speeches, his attitudes have that effect in them too. And with his sexism and with his racism and with his anti-intellectualism he represents all I despise. And with his demeanour, and with his attitude, and with his actions he represents all I fear. When he speaks, when I hear that contempt for others, for women, for non white, for all that is not Trump; when I hear that sloganeering demagoguery, pat four word solutions, baseless assertions; and when I see that sneer, that posturing, the head tilted back, the snorts, the sniffs, yes, when he speaks he pushes the buttons you don’t want to be pushed if you have ever been afraid. Because he is the bully in the playground taunting, pushing, but letting others fight his fights, standing at the back, egging on, laughing. Because he is the authoritarian teacher sneering and belittling the weak, throwing the duster across the room, laughing at the child in the row behind you who can’t answer the questions. Because he is the man outside your door, nudging it open, his face reflected in the mirror.

For the past few weeks every news broadcast has left me in a heightened state, anxious as I am transported. And now we have that for four years.

And I am scared.


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Her face, the right hand side of her face, was orange.

That struck me last week. Sitting eating, and talking, catching a reflection in a window, feeling transported twenty plus years sitting eating, and talking on the floor, or on low sofas where my knees were above my waist, or on beanbags, in various student flats. But usually sitting in front of three bar electric fires. And my friend, one side of her face reflecting the light from the fire – the three bars visible in her eye. I felt safe because during my first year at University those nights in front of the electric fire stopped me leaving.

Unable to get into halls of residence, hours from home, I was in lodgings a very long way from anywhere – staying with an elderly couple who had decided to take in students following the sudden death of their daughter. The atmosphere was tense. Most nights the couple would sit and drink. It was not uncommon to wake up with him in my room, drunk. Sleep was fitful. Eventually, I tried to go to sleep with suitcases filled with books behind the door to try to stop him coming in. And days were no less stressful. I was barred from cooking, but unable to afford regularly to eat out. So I didn’t eat every day, would sometimes miss two or three days. Not eating becomes easier. You exist in a heightened state – sensitive to every sound, experiencing life in a Powell and Pressburger pallet. Come November, the leaves of the trees that lined the street had fallen and were bold russet browns, and orange. Vivid orange. As if painted on. Not eating meant I could exert some control over at least one aspect of my life.

Meanwhile, the degree was going little better. The first person in my family to go to University, studying a subject I had fallen into because I had no idea what to do and degrees were to get jobs, for professions, I found the work relatively uninteresting. Geographically isolated, socially awkward, I did not make friends easily. And after the first week of frenzied activity where conversations followed the same line – what subjects did you do? What were your grades? What are you studying? What’s your favourite novel? Your favourite film? I would go back to the lodgings at night, and being so far out, and mindful it took so long to get back to the centre, I would spend evenings reading from my angst ridden teenage student library which ticked various boxes. There was the Plath (poetry, of course, and the fiction), Kundera, Marquez, a smattering of Alasdair Gray, some Kelman, MacCaig, and a much read copy of The Trick is to Keep Breathing. And I wrote. Oh, how I wrote. Those things I couldn’t talk about, wouldn’t talk about, for years. Laden with adjectives, stylistic experiments – attempts to get inside my head.

And I wanted to leave.

I wanted to go back home, to pack it all in.

But I knew how upset my parents would be, how upset my father – who despite protestations from his head teacher had to leave school at 14 to bring money into the home – would be.

So I stayed.

And I hated it.

I hated every aspect of being away, of the whole damned place.

Until I met her again.

I bumped into her outside the law school. She had been at my school, older than me, effortlessly elegant, short hair, long coat, clear sad eyes. At school in the spring after the Lockerbie disaster, the spring after my grandfather died, I had sat with her in a room, one sports day, while everyone else was outside running, or jumping, or watching, and we’d chatted and I’d cried remembering my grandfather – and she didn’t judge and didn’t hug, but listened, and shared. And one day during my first term as a student I bumped into her crossing the road next to the law school. We stopped and chatted, and she invited me to her flat a street away from the law library.

And so, later that night after we had eaten (she’d cooked. She’d insisted I eat. She was right) I was sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of a three bar electric fire, her face, the right hand side of her face, orange. The evening was pleasant. We talked. About books. And about films. And about the future. That night we planned to meet again, and weekly (sometimes more frequently) thereafter we did. And each week she made sure I ate, and each week we talked, and we talked, and we talked. And when the landlord drunkenly tried the door to my room, and when I felt increasingly semi-detached in the law school, there was one night each week I looked forward to, where I felt safe, and where one week months later she trusted me more than anyone ever had before.

And time passed, and the degree got better, and (eventually) life got better, and I moved into a flat, and throughout we continued to meet weekly, sharing tales of new books, or new films, or our new loves, or consoling each other after bereavements or break ups. And over time there were other friends, others I could sit easily with chatting about film and television and books, always books.

And those friends were important. A support in difficult times, and a joy in good.

But over time, as people transform – with new relationships, with new jobs, with new families – the circle of friends, of those you keep in touch with and meet regularly, grows smaller. And while you never lose those shared experiences with new commitments there are new priorities. Contact becomes less frequent. The dynamic changes.

And where like me your personality means that it took a long time to build that circle the lack of contact, through the consequences of love, and the growth of a family, or geography or a multitude of factors exacerbated by neglect, leaves you strengthened in some ways, but in some ways increasingly insular. And for a time that seems to be the pattern.

But last week catching a reflection of an orange light in a window, while sitting eating and talking about families, and relationships, and books, about writers you have loved for years and those you have recently encountered, and sharing a love of television, and scripts and scriptwriters and directors and performances, and remembering schooldays, and student days, good and bad, with new friends, a new social circle who only one year ago I’d barely met, transported me twenty plus years, transported me to bumping into her outside the law school and what in the weeks, months, years after I had gained from that. And I so appreciate this chance to have a second circle of people who matter to me, and with whom I feel comfortable, with whom I feel safe.

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