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My Blog Shame

It’s all Richard Herring’s fault.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I’ll start at the beginning…

One major benefit of owning an iPhone is, instead of listening to other people speaking rubbish to each other via their own handsets, you can inflict podcasts on yourself. I subscribe to 63 at last count, ranging from Lord Melvyn Bragg proving how intellectual he is by prodding patient academics about Neuroscience, to Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo arguing about films and pronunciation on BBC Radio 5 Live. I was particularly partial to the Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross podcasts from the BBC but that pleasure was recently snatched away from me by readers of the ‘Mail On Sunday’. Grrrr.

Deprived of my weekly dose of BBC presenters fucking actors’ granddaughters on air (Was that it? my recollection is hazy), my current favourite is a pod by comedian Richard Herring and his journalist “colleague”, Andrew Collins. One of the attractions of these things is the way the podcasters reveal themselves over 35 or more hours of conversation. Try as they might to present a favourable if slightly skewed image of themselves, time, conversation and caffeine will tell.

Collins has a thing about wheat, wants to kiss a duck (but only once – he’s not a pervert), and cooks his own mince-and-onion lunches, transporting them around in Tupperware containers. He’s also a regular in the Waitrose wholefoods sections, though Richard Herring seems to snaffle most of his nuts and trail mix during the course of their podcast. Andrew is apparently married, but we never hear a word about the Mrs or even know her name. He’s also a self-confessed bird-fancier and travels to Norfolk with a friend on bird-watching missions. His minor-key pomposity coupled with a low resistance to caffeine often results in a revealing rant or two.

Richard Herring is a different kettle of podcaster. Over 40 and an Oxford graduate, so no intellectual slouch, he comes over as a cross between Peter Pan and Che Guevara. Living alone on Marks & Spencer ‘ready meals’ in a large house in Shepherd’s Bush, west London, Herring veers between drinking too much beer or none at all, and reveals a concern for his podginess. He and Collins record the podcast in the attic of his house, amongst the remnants of Fortnum and Mason hampers sent over by his manager. It is a recurring theme of recent podcasts that Herring doesn’t have to worry too much about the credit crunch. In fact he enjoys the recession because it means he doesn’t have to queue at all at Marks & Spencer.

The point of all this is that, for a year now, Richard Herring has written a daily blog. Yes, a blog entry every single day.

This morning, after listening to an old podcast – I’m currently catching up with ones I missed – I took a peak at my own blog and saw to my horror that I’d not written anything here for almost two months.Two months. Although I can’t claim that this omission has had much effect on the low mood of the nation, it’s obviously not very good.

Richard Herring’s Blog can be found at his website: richardherring.com
Andrew Collins’ website: wherediditallgoright.com
Your can download “The Collings and Herrin Podcast” from iTunes or from here: Collings & Herrin Podcast

Interesting Facts About Europe (Can You Trust The Truth?)

The title ‘Interesting Facts About Europe’ is misleading, but that’s the problem with facts. One person’s truth is another’s lie. As it’s not in my nature to disappoint anyone, I kick off with 5 very Interesting Facts About Europe:

1. The World’s 14 Most Charitable Countries are in Europe. (Official Development Assistance by country as a percentage of GNI, 2006), source Wikipedia). Sweden, Norway, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Denmark, Ireland, UK, Belgium, Austria, France, Finland, Switzerland, Germany, Spain.

2. The largest City in Europe is Moscow, with a population of 10,425,075. If you discount Istanbul (part of which is in Asia), the next largest is London 7,517,700, followed by Paris with 2,153,600.

3. The official religion of Denmark, Iceland and Norway is Lutheran.

4. Two of the world’s top 10 oil-producing countries are in Europe. (Russia, number 2 with 9.67 million barrels; and Norway, number 10, with 2.79m barrels.) Number 11 is Kuwait.

5. Romany gypsies are Europe’s largest ethnic minority.

Dictionary.com defines fact as: ‘Something that actually exist; reality; truth.’ Similarly truth is: ‘the true or actual state of a matter’. Unfortunately, as every politician knows, facts and the truth can be manipulated to mean whatever you want them to.

Take, for example, Interesting Fact #1, which states that the top 14 ‘most charitable countries’ are in Europe. This is worked out on percentage of GDN (each country’s Gross National Product); if you look at it in pure monetary terms, the USA gives the world the most aid. If you take out military funding and defence costs, then it’s Norway. All facts.

All the truth.

Fact number 2 cites London as ‘Europe’s second-largest city’. That’s odd, London isn’t even a city. It is made up of 2 cities (the Cities of London and Westminster) plus 31 other London Boroughs. The area governed by the Mayor of London is sometimes referred to as ‘Greater London’ and that’s what is being counted here. Surely it’s only a matter of boundaries? If politicians decide to move the Greater London boundary out 30 miles, it becomes the world’s largest city. If they reduce it by the same you’ve got London competing with St David’s for Britain’s smallest.

On the Wikipedia site there are several versions of London’s population. Here are the first five I found: 7,517,700; 8,278,251; 7,512,400; 7,581,052; 7,517,700. It’s possible that they were all right at one time or another and it’s more than likely that none of them are actually as of now. Yet these are ‘facts’. The same fact, five different answers.

The truth is subjective. And that’s a fact.

The shape-shifting nature of truth is at its most dangerous when it comes to Justice. Two witnesses watching the same scene unfold will perceive two entirely separate events. Take two men fighting: miss the initial punch and the man retaliating is seen as the aggressor.

As for eye-witness testimony, that’s when things really go wrong. I would find it virtually impossible to recognise a waitress a few hours after leaving a restaurant, never mind identifying a man seen briefly running away from a crime scene months or even years afterwards.

Invariably misinformation will come in the form of Facts and The Truth. In 2003, the usually reliable Observer reported: ‘One in every 100 black British adults is now in prison, according to the latest Home Office figures.’ Right-wing ‘newspapers’ The Sun and The Daily Mail made more of the story, but that’s irrelevant. Aside from the happier implication that this means that 99% of black British adults are not in prison (which is not news apparently), the better and truer story might have been, ‘82% of worse-off British adults are now in gaol’. Black people are more likely to be poor, poorer people are more likely to commit crime and so are more likely to go to prison. The false implication was that black people are more likely to commit crime, which is obviously rubbish, but I wonder how many people took that away with them after reading the article – even in the liberal Observer?

Beware of the truth: it’s almost all lies anyway.

Complaint: From Minor Moans to Principled Protests

Profile have just published a book called Complaint by Julian Baggini.

It is claimed that this 224-page paperback is the first to be devoted to the subject and all I can say is: It’s about bloody time! Call yourself a publishing industry, making us wait 568 years for a book we obviously need? Idiots.

Complaining is a popular subject, especially I’ve noticed, with Americans and the British. The only difference appears to be that Americans do it more vocally and prefer everyone to share their disappointment, whereas we Brits try and keep it ‘in the family’. To actually let the person you are complaining about know that you are dissatisfied is traditionally thought rather rude. Things are changing, Starbucks are taking over the High Streets of Britain, but it’s a slow process.

To quote Theodore Dalrymple’s review of  Complaint in The Guardian: “Only Homo sapiens can conceive of a world different from the one in which he currently finds himself. The inevitable gulf between things as they are and as they ought to be is what gives rise to complaint.”

I, for one, really do try not to complain. I fervently hope that all of life’s little encounters will be tranquil and that everyone will meet my modest expectation. But that’s seldom the case. No matter how hard I try to appreciate the other person’s point of view, people let me down. I am often forced to complain against my will.

Take last week, for example. I booked into a hotel via the Internet. (I originally did name the hotel, but it has recently changed hands and I don’t want to mess up their new business). We arrived, after 2pm as directed, to be greeted by a sign in reception asking us to go to the bar. There was a funeral “party” in full swing and we had to wait 13 minutes until everyone present had been served – some of them several times – before we could check-in.

A pleasant young lady gave us the keys to two rather unpleasant little rooms and confirmed that the funeral guests had taken all the hotel’s parking spaces, so we’d have to park on the road and feed a meter for three hours. The rooms were short, thin and grubby. Although it was a hot summer’s day, the heating was on full and the radiator in one room was locked on maximum. The nice girl in reception promised that someone would see to it. I won’t spoil the suspense by revealing whether or not anyone did – you can probably guess.

Although the building is impressive – late Victorian with 1930s art deco influences? – it seems neglected and it’s pretty obvious that the people at the helm have given up. The lack of care is obvious everywhere. At this point I was going to include a list of all our complaints, from no marmalade at breakfast to the stink of tobacco (and an ashtray!) in the room of a no-smoking hotel, but then I realised it would be futile. And it would take too long.

I was going to complain at the hotel, before we left. Honest. But there was no one at reception when we checked out – and the bar was shut.

It seems unfair to single out De Parys Hotel for individual criticism. I’ve stayed in worse hotels and, to be honest, the Fawlty Towers Experience in family-run establishments is commoner than the English Tourist Board would have us believe. And not just in Britain: the worst hotels I’ve ever stayed in were in New York and Antwerp. Don’t get me started on them…

In my average week, three or four more major complainable issues occur. Sometimes you shout about it, at other times you keep quiet. Some people do not take criticism in the right way and I’ve learned to avoid anything that might backfire on me. Experience of the ‘hospitality trade’ means I never voice my concerns in a restaurant whilst there’s still an opportunity for the chef or waitress to add a little something to my next course.

Maybe more companies should follow BT’s lead in solving their quite significant complaints problem. British Telecoms messes everything up on a regular basis – including in our case disconnecting lines because we’re moving (we weren’t), charging for reconnection, penalty fees for not paying reconnection charges, not taking direct debits, penalties because they didn’t take direct debits, disconnection for non-payment of reconnection and non- direct debit payment charges, more charges for further reconnections, etc, etc – and then making it impossible to complain. Well, you can complain but the person you’re complaining to is never the right person and unless you want to spend the rest of your life holding on and transfering to various call centres around the world (with the regular return journey), you do the sensible thing, give up and pay up.

It has taken me over 50 years of life to discover life’s ultimate truth: it’s practically impossible to get anything done properly unless you do it yourself. Everyone, from the tax authorities to public utilities to the computer departments of major government agencies, to the check-out girl at the supermarket, to the window-cleaner and the guy who comes round to fix your computer, will screw up. Sometimes it’s on purpose, usually it’s because they don’t know what they’re doing or because they don’t care what they are doing.

The good news is that you can complain all you like.

The bad news is, a fat lot of good it’s going to do you.

Total Cost of the Credit Crunch

You’ve got to feel sorry for the banks and credit card companies. They sustained us through the good times, barely taking enough profit to carpet their meagre offices and keep their executives and shareholders above the corporate poverty-line. Always willing to help those less fortunate than themselves, they tried to provide mortgages for poor Americans who couldn’t afford to pay them back. And that very act of largesse has turned around and (as Noel Coward might have said) ‘bitten them in the ass’. Shame on you, ungrateful subprime mortgagees.

Of course, the reality is very different. Banks and credit card companies have always been making millions, much of it coming from the poorest and those least able to afford their services. If you have a million in the bank and pay off your credit card every month, you’ll never have to fork out a penny. If you can’t afford to pay your mortgage, you’ll be walloped with charges until they come out of your ear-holes.

The reason European banks and investment companies invested in the US Subprime Market (don’tcha just love the jargon?) in the first place was because they suspected that the people who took out these ‘risky’ mortgages were probably too poor to be able to pay up on time. But that didn’t matter: the institutions had the security of being able to repossess the properties and keep whatever payments had already been made. (Another word for properties is ‘homes’ but that’s not something you’ll find in too many financial reports.)
What these lovely fellows hadn’t taken into account was that the value of the properties would plummet after 9-11, the Iraq War and subsequent exploits of George W Bush. And so they lost lots and lots of money.

A lot of homes were repossessed (nearly two and a half million at the last count), the banks lost zillions and, fearing a ‘run’ on their assets, used creative accounting to cover up just how much of their money had actually departed down the Suwannee. Because every bank knew they’d fudged their own figures, they refused to believe how much other institutions said they’d lost. Mistrust set in and the banking system began to wobble.

What had previously been a series of simple every-day transactions in which High Street banks advanced one another billions in short-term credit, ground to a halt. Northern Rock all but went to the wall and a couple of others almost followed. Recently the Bradford and Bingley Building Society, a British mortgaging institution, issued a profits warning. It’s not getting better, it’s getting worse. No one short of the Duke of Wellington can currently get a loan in the UK and card companies are lowering credit limits and calling in cards like there’s no tomorrow – which is exactly what they’re fearing.

My own bank, the ethically-motivated Co-operative Bank have just reduced the credit limit on my Gold card by £1,500, getting an advisor to call me to ‘explain and discuss my new credit limit’. This is all being done for my own benefit, apparently, though how the attendant rise in interest rates fits into this scheme of things passes me by. ‘Are you OK with this?’ he asked at one point. ‘No,’ I said. ‘Oh well, let’s move on…’

The American Subprime crash didn’t cause the current Credit Crunch, it was merely a catalyst. Many other factors came into play, including the slowdown in the UK housing market, and the fact that banks had few genuine assets to sustain the big losses. In the ‘good old days’, banks and building societies took in money from investors and lent it, at a higher interest rate, to those buying property. But times have changed and they got greedy, lending money they didn’t actually have, occasionally in a silly fashion, such as Together, Northern Rock’s infamous 125% mortgage.

Repossessions are becoming big news in Europe, too. Over 27,000 in the UK in 2007, a nine-year high. According to an article on the BBC website posted in February: ‘Among the biggest mainstream lenders, Britannia, Bradford & Bingley and Northern Rock were found to be using the courts the most, relative to their market share.’

The worrying thing is that no matter how badly the banks do, they will always pass on their losses to their customers. The recent legal action against them for unjust charges – which the banks are supposed to have lost, though you wouldn’t think so – has put them on the back-foot, looking for new and more interesting ways to take money off us.

The total cost of the Credit Crunch? As ever, it looks like the rich will survive and the poor will lose their homes and possibly their jobs as well. A pity Britain is ruled by a government too afraid of losing affluent middle class votes to help those who really need it.

The only vaguely optimistic note is that Gordon Brown and his post-Blair Thatcherite government has two years to improve their miserable record before they get kicked out and David Cameron’s Thatcherite Conservative government takes over. We can but hope…

Life As An Out-Of-The Loop Music Promoter (Part 1)

I’ve been a music promoter for most of my working life. It’s basically the same as being a theatrical impressario except, instead of plays, I organise rock ‘n’ roll shows. The wife likes to think of it as being something like a professional gambler, but that’s just her.

A music promoter hires a venue, finds an act people will (hopefully) pay to come and see, and sells tickets. Ideally, ticket money will exceed costs and so a profit is made. That’s the theory at least. In reality you are gambling that enough people will buy enough tickets to pay for everything. If it’s too hot, people won’t come; if it’s too cold, they won’t come either. A big sporting event on the television can ruin you. So too can another, bigger event somewhere else.

There’s a lot of money to be made in music. Problem is, 5% of the participants get to keep 90% of the loot, while the rest of us scrabble around for what’s left. I can’t deny that there have been rare occasions when I’ve made relatively big money. One such occasion was a Boomtown Rats concert in 1977. Afterwards, I couldn’t see the bed in my hotel room because it was literally covered in bank-notes – not to mention the young woman who’d come back with me from the show. But at the time I was living in a one-room office, sleeping on the floor, and I’d lost hundreds of pounds practically every gig I’d put on that year. The only secret of promoting that matters is to win more than you lose.

Generally speaking, to make serious money you’ve got to be in ‘the loop’ and I’m not. Being ‘in the loop’ means being part of the music mainstream.

I’ve always been something of an outsider and I only got to do the Rats in the first place because very few promoters back then would sully their hands with ‘punk’. I’d followed a hunch by booking this unknown Irish band for £250, largely because I rated their début single, ‘Looking After Number One’, and it paid off. It could easily have been another flop but, luckily for me, by the time the gig came around, the single was number 2 in the NME charts.

Usually putting money on bands you personally like is the kiss of death. At least it is in my case. My personal taste doesn’t often coincide with that of the general public. Big Brother, Susan Boyle, tabloid newspapers, obscure 1950s R&B, even more obscure British folk musicians and Socialism are just some of the subjects the general public and I disagree on. The big promoters, like major record company executives, never ever put money on what they personally enjoy, they “invest” their cash on what they are told other people will enjoy. Invariably it’s the lowest common denominator that comes into play. Was it Barnum (perhaps paraphrasing H L Menckne) who said: ‘No one ever lost a fortune underestimating public taste’?

Popular music is one of Britain’s leading businesses and for the last 50 years or so, the biggest players have been major corporations. Led by accountants masquerading as cool dudes, these outfits are not only in ‘the loop’ they pretty much are the loop. The players all know each other, they’ve all worked in one another’s offices at some time or other and they all go to each other’s parties. Maybe they’ve even got the same accountancy qualifications.

I first realised the situation had become critical in the early-1990s when I was a music journalist taken out to dinner to meet the big cheeses of a major British record company. Every single one of them was a lawyer or an accountant and their collective knowledge of music was woeful. A couple of the collected musos had great sport goading them with such misinformation as: Jerry Lewis had turned to rock & roll after dissolving his partnership with Dean Martin and added the “Lee” as a tribute to US General Robert E Lee; Prince Andrew is the name of a 70-year-old ska legend; and the news that Chuck Berry devoted his spare time to playing and mastering the Dixieland jazz trumpet after attending a funeral in New Orleans. These people knew how to maximise profits, they know all about downsizing and negative equity but, when it came to music, they didn’t know their Associates from their Donnie Elberts. Literally.

In my time I’ve been in on the ground floor of quite a few movements in popular music. Rock & Roll was before my time, as was the British Beat Boom of the early 1960s, but I was excited, moved and inspired by Peace, Love and Hippydom, which I was getting tired of when the Punk and New Wave movement started up in 1976. I was into punk months before the Sex Pistols signed to EMI and I desperately wanted to be part of it. And I was, in my small way. The same went for several other, smaller movements, such as pub rock, Indie Rock and the Irish/ Country-punk explosion of the early 1980s that blew the Pogues out to an unsuspecting world.

The small independent promoter has to make his or her money by selling crumbs from what the people in the loop don’t want – most likely what they don’t yet know exists. Because I have always promoted in small venues, I tend to be part of the grass-roots and I get to see new acts coming up. If I’m lucky, I’ll get a couple of shows out of them before they get snapped up by those ‘in the loop’. You’ve got to get in there quick, before the company-guys see what’s happening and kick sand in your face. But every year, it’s getting harder and harder to grab even a small slice of the pie.

The trend these days is to move acts to bigger – and more profitable venues– way too soon, before they’ve had chance to learn their craft and iron out their bumps. The Rolling Stones are the Rolling Stones today because, when they started, they were allowed to hone their craft in hundreds of small gigs before stepping up to play dancehalls, theatres, town halls, then to arenas and finally, when they were ready, into huge stadiums. The same went for all of the true greats: Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, etc, etc… That’s why witnessing an 81-year-old, arthritic, part-deaf Chuck Berry play a gig in London’s 300-capacity 100 Club, as I did recently, was an exciting, uplifting experience that totally beats going to see the latest manufactured stars play in a stadium or in a field in Somerset.

As they used to say: ‘That’s rock and roll, man.’

Write A Novel The Easy Way

Never mind the old cliché that says ‘there’s a novel inside everyone’. It might well be true, but the tricky part is getting it out and on to paper.

After 23 years trying, I think I’ve finally discovered the secrets of writing a novel the easy way.

I’ve served time as publisher, reviewer and writer and I’ve met a few authors in my time, ranging from Stephen King, Ian Rankin and Ken Follett to Ken Bruen, Terry Pratchett and Minette Walters. Although you can never lump everyone into the same pigeon-hole, generally speaking people who write books, especially novels, are ‘different’. There’s something about them that sets writers apart from the rest of society.

For a start, they have to be single-minded. Working out a story, inventing characters and putting it all down on paper (all right, probably a computer screen, but don’t pick hairs) is a very daunting process. Most novels range in length from 50,000 to 150,000 words: a lot of writing, with plenty of opportunities along the way to think ‘the hell with this!’ and run off and watch reruns of the High Chaparral.

Veteran American mystery writer Joe Gores quotes the advice given to him when he asked a Notre Dame professor how to become a writer: ‘It’s very easy to be a writer. Go to a big city and get a little room with a table and a chair in it. Put your typewriter on the table and your backside on the chair. Start writing. When you stand up ten years later, you’ll be a writer.’ Today we can substitute ‘computer’ for ‘typewriter’ (have you ever tried to get ribbons for those things?) and we have to conquer the urge to edit whilst we write, but essentially nothing fundamental has changed.

To be productive, writers need to have a strong belief in their own talent and a confidence that what they are writing is ‘good enough’. As a former publisher who had to wade through piles of submissions, I can vouch that very often this confidence is very often misguided. Having said that, several terrible writers I rejected (no names) went on to have great success with other publishers. So the question to ask yourself is ‘good enough for what?’. And frankly, that depends on what your goals are.

If you’re attempting literary fiction and you suffer from lack of self-confidence, then you’re probably a masochist who should think about switching to self-flagellation: it’ll be immensely less painful in the long run. If, on the other hand, you’re trying to write a thriller, a romance, historical mystery or similar genre novel, keep at it. As another old saying goes, practice makes perfect. Writing is a craft that can be learned and the way to learn is to work at it. Don’t worry about making mistakes, just get writing. There’s nothing you write that can’t be edited and improved on later.

I can confess that I suffer from a severe lack of confidence in my writing. At the moment I am reading The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke, a brilliantly multi-textured work of fiction by any standard and I can’t help comparing Burke’s flowing prose to my own miserable efforts. Which is silly. A guy I know who teaches writing at university suggests that would-be novelists keep a copy of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code to hand. It sold millions and zillions of copies, but let’s be honest, Dan Brown is no William Shakespeare, nor I suspect would he want to be.

So that’s how you write a novel. You simply sit down and write. There is no easy way unless you are the type of self-obsessed, doggedly persistent person that will make a natural author. For the rest of us, I can recommend a very helpful eBook: Mark Timlin’s Write A Novel in 60 Days That Will Sell. It covers practically everything you need to know to conquer writers’ block, as well as plenty of other unique writing tips. I know because I helped write it. It’s the best. Honest.

Boris Johnson is Mayor of London. Yippee!/The End is Nigh* (*delete as applicable)

In hindsight, it seemed inevitable that Conservative Boris Johnson would defeat Labour’s Ken Livingstone and be elected Mayor of London.

Although the Member of Parliament for Henley-on-Thames was initially perceived by some as a joke candidate, in reality Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson had everything going for him. For a start, the media was rabidly on his side.

The sole London-wide newspaper, The Evening Standard, a hot-bed of right-wing intolerance at the best of times, could never allow a week to pass without throwing up an anti-Livingstone headline or five. Two high profile journalists, Paul Waugh and Andrew Gilligan, the former BBC journalist forced to resign after the Hutton Enquiry, were put on the anti-Ken detail full time and didn’t bother to try for anything like a balanced coverage.

In April, The Standard ran the headline: ‘Suicide bomb backer runs Ken campaign’, only to reveal (in far tinier print) that the ‘backer’ in question runs an unofficial website called ‘Muslims 4 Ken’ and the suicide bombers he supposedly supports are in Palestine.

On top of the media onslaught was the backlash against Ken of what is often called ‘Middle England’ or ‘The Silent Majority’. London’s vast army of middle class and white collar workers like a few quid in their collective pockets and generally rate their own convenience above piddling matters like air or road pollution and parking restrictions. To them Ken was the man who gave them both the dreaded bendy-bus and the congestion charge and who was threatening to tax the SUV.

In the eyes of these inhabitants of Bromley, Croydon, Hamstead, Putney and Hounslow, the incumbent mayor was a threat to their standard of living and must be got rid of. Boris, on the other hand, that nice chap off the telly, knew what Suburban Man (and Woman) wanted, which was to be left alone, and he could be relied on to oblige.

When he turned up at the hustings, which was increasingly rare, Boris pledged to halt gun-crime, disband gangs and get rid of the bendy-bus. He very wisely didn’t say how any of these things could be achieved. All Ken could do was to repeat that crime had fallen under his administration but, as the Evening Standard repeatedly pooh-poohed the figures, no one believed him.

It didn’t help Ken that Gordon Brown’s Labour government was becoming more and more unpopular by the day. Although the two of them obviously didn’t see eye to eye on most things, a vote against Livingstone also served as a mid-term kick up the backside for the Labour administration.

The recent election results, coming as they do after a string of Labour PR disasters, the near collapse of the banking system and in the wake of a much-forecast recession, point to a right-wing resurgence on a par with the wave that swept Margaret Thatcher to victory in 1979. Callers to radio phone-ins are starting to come out of the closet and proclaim: ‘There’s nothing wrong with being right-wing; I’m right-wing and proud of it.’ And let’s not forget that for the first time, the neo-nazi British National Party gained over 5% of London votes and secured themselves a seat in the London Assembly.

Which brings us on to the so-called ‘race card’. For a while now, the press has been whipping up hysteria against immigrants. First came the claims that the lazy blighters didn’t work, more recently that has spun around to ‘they’re nicking our jobs’. Although born in the USA, with an immigrant Turkish grandfather, Boris neverthess managed to portray himself as a true blue Englishman and as much part of London as Trafalgar Square and Harrods.

Of course, Boris managed to get himself accused of racism although, to be fair, most of the evidence was taken from satirical articles he had written with his tongue firmly in his cheek. Even so, it would be a brave or foolish man who would send Boris Johnson into a room full of immigrants and second generation Brits and not expect him to make the odd gaff. Usually we would hope that this would count against him at election time, but not in the current climate.

Only time will tell. I’m prepared to give Boris the benefit of the doubt, but I’m not full of confidence that he’ll do a wonderful job and that everyone will live happily ever after.

The Lies Start Here…

Although I’ve never kept a diary, the idea of a blog is strangely appealing. Thanks to the European Nuclear industry’s Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau, it is now possible for just about any living person to read what you have to say about the world.

George Walker Bush.

Fidel Castro.

Gordon Brown.

Paris Hilton.

All you have to do is write it and the world will be your audience.

It is estimated that there are somewhere around 20 billion blogs currently active in our solar system, spewing out over a million words an hour, read by 26,759 people every single minute. It’s staggering. Well, it would been if I hadn’t just made those facts up. That’s one of the many great things about the web, you can make anything up you like and people will believe it. Partly because it might be true: no one really knows.

A few years ago I subsidised my interesting but less than successful independent publishing company by journalism, which mostly involved writing reviews. I was a primary contributor to many London guide books, knocking off 250 words on pubs, restaurants, cafés, bars, shops, markets, whatever, on a regular and quite monotonous basis. I once visited and reviewed 186 pubs and bars in a single week. The pay was low and frankly, there wasn’t much to say about most of them. So I made it up.

Nothing significant, and not all the time. Just occasionally I’d add an interesting ‘fact’ here, a snippet of ‘well-researched information’ there.

‘A house on this site was the regular meeting place for Lord Horatio Nelson and his mistress, Lady Emma Hamilton, the seemingly respectable wife of William Hamilton, British Ambassador to Naples.’

‘Beatles manager Brian Epstein was a regular here until his untimely suicide in August 1967.’

‘Back in the 17th Century, Welsh drovers rested their cattle here, en route to slaughter at Smithfield Market.’

Including a few genuine facts (if such a thing really does exist!), the name of Emma Hamilton’s husband, the date of Brian Epstein’s death, and the ultimate destination of the Welsh cattle, served a twin purpose: adding credibility to the lie and eating up the word-count. When you’re being chased for 150 words per review and you’ve described the furnishings to death, what beers they sell, who drinks there, the little extras are a godsend.

As Edith Piaf suggests, I have no regrets. The lies were never huge and they did brighten up some pretty dull reviews. In the final analysis, the reader won, the pubs themselves received increased cred, and the publishers got a more readable and more salable product.

The only slightly disconcerting side effect  is that much of what I made up has since been adopted as real truth. That’s how journalism, especially guide books, works: you check out the competition to make sure you’re not being left behind and you snaffle the most interesting tidbits.

In my position as creator, I feel a little cheated that I was paid peanuts for such groundbreaking and much-copied work. On the other hand, I realise that throughout history, the true originator has always been penalised. It’s just something I will have to learn to live with.

The moral of my story might well be that we have to question everything we are told. And yes, that goes for you, be it President Bush, Fidel Castro, Gordon Brown, Paris Hilton or the supermarket check-out assistant.

Of course, all I’ve just written could be a lie instead. Maybe we’ll never know.

If a tree falls down in the jungle and no one sees it, did it really fall or was it just a line in some idiot’s blog?