The Trouble With Our Trains, BBC 2, 9pm.

potters bar

The Trouble With Our Trains, BBC 2, 9pm.

Twenty years after privatisation, in which the number of rail passengers have doubled,  Nick Hewer and Margaret Mountford examine what was once British Rail, but is now a hotchpotch of different companies competing in the rail market. Only they aren’t. Four billion pounds of government money a year still subsidises the rail network and eight billion pounds are spent on fares, but after rail disasters such as Potters bar when seven people died when a train became airborne after hitting defective points, Network Rail, who admitted safety breaches, were renationalised and renamed Railtrack, who were responsible for the upkeep and upgrading of the railway infrastructure. Privatisation didn’t work and cost lives, but the experiment in which the government as paymaster that subsidies rich people to provide consumer value continues with rising fares and rising discontent among rail passengers.

I had no idea who Nick Hewer and Margaret Mountford were before the programme, but I gather Hewer is a businessman and Mountford models herself on dear Margaret Thatcher. Even she had to admit that it came as something of a shock to find that the one of the best examples of integrated and forward planning was in the country of her birth – Northern Ireland. But, oh dear, Northern Ireland Railways were never nationalised.

Hewer talks to a financial analyst who points out that the returns for train providers such as Virgin Rail at 3% to 4% on capital, which aren’t that great, but what he fails to say is the returns are like government bonds, with no risk and guaranteed, and the extras such as company executives wages that grown exponentially year on year with no great justification are not included in the profit, but the cost. In addition fines worth millions paid to, for example, Virgin Rail by Railtrack for not allowing trains to run is a scam that any racketeer would be proud. Let me put it quite simply it’s so lucrative that the company running Germany’s railways have invested in British Rail that is no longer British Rail, which  leave us, the poor British public, indirectly subsiding the surplus profit of a German network.

Hewer and Mountford conclude we can’t turn the clock back and all in all the public-private divide works and we’re doing not a bad job. Bullshit. Railways are a monopoly franchise. The government owns the railways, paying money to landlords to manage it for them makes ideological sense, but not economic sense. We don’t need to renationalise them, we just need to allow the cash cow that is franchising to run out and take them back into state control.

Dispatches, The Secrets of Sport Direct, Channel 4, 8pm

mike ashley

Reporter Harry Wallop goes undercover to investigate Sports Direct, and its owner Mike Ashley, listed as the twenty-third richest man in Britain, with an estimated fortune of £3.5 billion.  I must admit a conflict of interests here. I own three-supersized Sports Direct mugs. Indirectly, I’ve contributed to Ashley’s fortune.

The first half hour (or excluding adverts, twenty minutes) of the programme was hokum. Wallop found that it didn’t matter what Sports Direct store he went to he could purchase the same goods for the same price. Sports Direct were using a marketing trick of saying the shop, for example, in Glasgow, was about to close and everything must go. Whisper it. It wasn’t about to close. And the discounts weren’t really discounts. Sports Direct products were just cheaper than most anywhere else. A consumer lawyer was brought in to bang on about consumer rights.

The next half hour (twenty minutes) was more interesting. Mike Ashley owns Newcastle United football club and he also owns just under ten percent of Rangers football club. This allows him to promote Sports Direct at no cost and he owns all merchandising rights. Those were estimated at £3.4 million from Newcastle United in the last financial year. Figures for Rangers were not available, but not only does he own the merchandising rights for all goods sold by the club shop, he also owns the rights to the mascot, Broxi Bear, and there are rumours that Ibrox stadium and Murray Park have been put up for collateral for the loans he has made to a club he has never visited. Mike Ashley does not need to explain himself. Newcastle and Rangers football clubs are small beer in Ashley’s business empire.

The secret of Sports Direct success is quite simple. Economies of scale with horizontal and vertical integration.  Ashley bought sports companies such as Dunlop. That gave him license to manufacture goods with that imprint. Sport Direct doesn’t just sell goods. It also manufactures them in China and ships them over to shops in Britain. This cuts out the middle man. It also allows the company to employ a ‘just in time’ system in which the appropriate discounted goods appears in all the shops at the same time. Mike Ashley has total control of buying and selling his products.

Mike Ashley also has total control of the workers involved in manufacturing and selling his goods. An estimated three-quarters of his 14 500 British employees are on zero-hours contracts and this is why he was asked to appear before the House of Commons, select committee. Keith Hallawell, a former high-ranking police officer, and chairman of Sports Direct appeared in his place. Zero-hour contracts give employers the flexibility to employ workers when and where they are needed. That’s the official jargon.

Zero-hours contracts are a legal and immoral way of screwing workers into the ground. Minimum wage is maximum wage. Workers are employed on a day to day basis. They do not know how few or how many hours they are expected to work. What workers do know is they will be expected to work flat out. An undercover reporter working in Sports Direct Shirebrook’s plant, which employs over 5000 workers, was told he wasn’t working fast enough. He was also told he was near the bottom of some spurious league table that monitored workers’ output and he was likely to be sacked if that continued. An atmosphere of fear added to by supervisors spreading company propaganda that some worker had been sacked on the spot for not working hard enough.

But of course these workers on zero-hour contracts aren’t directly employed by Sports Direct. They are employed by two agencies—that cancer in our society—set up to keep workers from having any rights. Sports Direct are not directly responsible for its workers. They are directly responsible for its profit and they are directly responsible to Mike Ashley. Mike Ashley is responsible to Mike Ashley. He’s doing very well for himself. A model businessman running a model business.

James Wood (2015) The Nearest Thing to Life.

james woods nearest thing

James Wood (2015) The Nearest Thing to Life.

The Nearest Thing to Life begins with a death—that of a friend’s younger brother—and the question, “WHY?’.

There’s no real answer, how could there be? But in death Wood’s looks at the obverse, and how Woods, a bibliophile, has charted the great waters of life by clinging to books and the knowledge of humanity that they provide. ‘The Why question is a refusal to accept death.’ Heaven provides an answer and a justification for earthly suffering, but not one which Wood, whose father was a vicar, could accept. He became a ‘formidable liar’. But this doubleness, this ability to inhabit two worlds that of the clandestine reader looking for truth where he could find it between the inky sheets,  and the church-going son that sung in the choir, and attended to all the usual duties of a public school boy, makes a fiction of life. His father hinted to him that he had an ‘uedifying girlfriend’. The truth was much worse. He was reading unedifying books. He was devouring books indiscriminately in the way a chorister might devour a copy of Playboy or even ‘a naughty book’ such as those written by D.H.Lawrence.

Why? hangs unpicked gloating in the free air.

To read fiction is to understand humanity.

…we peer into the thinking of an Isabel Archer or a Tommy Wilhelm, a Pnin or a Miss Brodie, a Pechorin or Ricardo Reis, there is something of the vertiginous sensation of possessing Jesus’s power…

I’m not as well read as Wood and am not sure who Tommy Wilhelm, Pechorin or Ricardo Reis are, but the great thing about books is they are always there waiting for you to find out. But the boy that reads a book is not the same as the man that reads a book. Wood, for example, despairs about the twenty-year old students he teaches at Harvard being able to understand the ‘why’ of a chapter devoted to Isabel Archer sitting alone in a chair after finding out about her husband’s betrayal. Her ability to see through the gauze of familiarity colours all that she thought she knew. Nothing has outwardly changed, but everything has. Wood’s ability to love the characters has made me think about reading it again, but there is another truth that lies beneath, portraits of the upper class just don’t appeal to me. I can’t relate to, or have the empathy, which Wood has, for some twat that is given too much money because a sick and dying man and his son both thing her beauty deserves to be rewarded. I prefer the sharp deceits of Miss Jean Brodie in her prime. A reader can never be wrong, his judgement godlike.

The shape of Wood’s early reading life, aged fifteen, is shaped by finding among a jumbled pile of books at Waterloo Station the poet Martin Seymour Smith’s Novel and Novelists, A Guide to the World of Fiction. He picked the book or the book picked him? This synchronism of the known and yet unknown shaped his life. Martin Seymour Smith offered him a map. Woods offers a similar map to the untutored reader such as myself.

But what stuck in my craw was not the wisdom about writing and reading, and the insights it provides of man and books, but of the awful prejudice of one of his father’s neighbours.  A Dickensian scholar and Oxford University librarian he was quite happy to proclaim: ‘You could say that the girls who serve in Woolworth’s are the intellectual scum of the earth’. My reading of this is not fit for comment.


Kurt Vonnegut: President of the United States.

lkurt vonnegut “From the Collection of the Artist.”

Kurt Vonnegut turns up in the most unlikely of places. I’m not familiar with his writing, but I’m reading a book by Michael Lewis Liar’s Poker in which the author quotes Vonnegut below to describe how the bond market works to distort reality, and  to make it seem normal, a theme the everyman Billy Pilgrim’s character stumbles into in his Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5.

 There is a magic moment, during which a man has surrendered a treasure, and during which the man who has to receive it has not done so. An alert lawyer [read bond trader] will make that moment his own, possessing that treasure for a magic microsecond, taking a little of it and passing it on.

This bring to mind the way coinage used to be debased when it was precious metals made out of a substance equal to value of the currency, for example, either gold or silver, and it was an offence against the king or ruler to shave a coin. Now New York and London Stock exchanges are one of the greatest industries, in monetary terms, devised by man, and when it fails thousands of billions of pounds of public money needs to be spent to keep the foul-smelling water of commerce drinkable for the rest of us.

In Slaughterhouse 5, Billy Pilgrim finds himself in a shop that sells porn, but he’s more interested in a badly written sci-fi book used as a front to make it seem like a respectable book store. The book is written by an author he knows and admires Kilgore Trout. The narrative in Kilgore’s book matches Pilgrim’s own experience of being abducted by the Tranfalmadorians and is about a man and woman kidnapped by extra-terrestrials and taken to another planet, Zircon-212, and put on display in a zoo. He has another of his epiphanies that underpin the wisdom of the book.

These fictitious people in the zoo had a big board supposedly showing stock market quotations and commodity prices along the wall of their habitat, and a news ticker, and a telephone that was supposedly connected to a brokerage on Earth. The creatures on Zircon-212 told their captives that they had invested a million dollars for them back on Earth and it was up to them to manage it so that they would be fabulously wealthy when they were returned to Earth.

The telephone and the big board were all fakes of course. They were simply stimulants to make the Earthlings perform vividly for the crowds at the zoo…

The Earthlings did very well on paper. That was part of the rigging, of course…The news ticker reminded them that the President of the United States had declared National Prayer Week and that everybody should pray. The Earthlings had had a bad week on the market before that. They had lost a small fortune in olive oil futures. So they gave praying a whirl.

It worked. Olive oil went up.

Billy Pilgrim’s ability to transcend time and travel backwards and forwards showed him the fickle fiction of such fortunes. He followed the traditional path to wealth by marrying the obese boss’s daughter nobody else wants to marry, including Billy.

But there is a prophetic touch in the car stickers Billy Pilgrim passes sporting the message Reagan for President. Vonnegut’s novel was published in 1969. He had no way of knowing that the friend of Bonzo—and I don’t mean George W—would actually become President. Not even Vonnegut could have imagined that.

To take a further jump in time and imagine a woman President in Hillary Clinton –perhaps? Vonnegut imagined a world in which the fire-bombing of Dresden with conventional weapons with a power more lethal than the atomic age of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a war crime and unjustifiable. Hillary Clinton’s big message and big sell to the American people that the American future depend on equality of opportunity and is certainly far more left wing than the big two political parties in Britain offer:

To ensure a child born in the hills of Appalachia or the Rio Grande valley grows up with the same shot of success as Charlotte [Clinton] will.

Vonnegut’s character, Howard W Campbell, an American playwright that aligned himself with the Nazi Party strips the hubris of such messages to the bone.  Campbell writes a monograph that Billy Pilgrim gets to read. The reader looking over his character’s shoulder gets to read it too and assess its validity.

America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor and urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humourist Kin Hubbard, ‘It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.’ It is in fact a crime to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor, but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone one with power or gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters…asking this cruel question, ‘if you’re so smart how come you’re not rich?’

Their most destructive untruth is it is very easy to make money. They will in fact not acknowledge how hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those without money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have to do less for the poor publicly and privately.

I’m beginning to believe that Vonnegut and Billy Pilgrim were time-travellers and they’ve jumped in their spaceship and landed here in April 2015. If Vonnegut can pluck Billy Pilgrim from the ether, the Tranfalmadorians and their zoo, then perhaps we can pluck Vonnegut from death and elect him President of the United States, or even Britain. I’d vote for him.

Karl Wiggins (2015) Self-Publishing! In the Eye of the Storm!


I’m not sure why Self-Publishing should have an exclamation mark! But I’m not going to argue with an exclamation mark. This book cost less than a pint of beer and more importantly I spent about five hours reading it. I dutifully followed all the links to some impressive Amazon sites that featured self-published authors have set up to sell their novels. I was familiar with some of the names featured. Joe Lawrence and East End Butcher Boy is mentioned, which is a terrific book. Vera Clarke, writer, is mentioned. Linda Cresswell and Denise Marr and the chief executive of ABCtales Tony Cook also get air-kissed. Karl Wiggins has according to Amazon listings self-published seven books. He has gained the experience necessary to give aspiring authors such as myself  advice. And he is generous in the praise of other self-published authors. The problem with Karl Wiggins is Karl Wiggins.

A typical blurb features in the same format several times. Someone is falling over and pissing themselves laughing.

‘…Anyone who …doesn’t mind peeing slightly when they laugh too hard…’

‘…you will have a damp patch in an embarrassing place.’

‘…Due to the laughter you owe my secretary one pair of knickers.’

‘…Best not to read this book on the train if you have a full bladder.’

‘Publishing is easy, but you need to get your name out there.’ The line between selling books and self-aggrandisement, where does it begin or end? Karl Wiggins tells the reader he is no Mark Twain, but he also tells us several times he has been compared to Socrates and Bukowski. What advice would the budding Socrates give Jane Austen, for example? No Facebook page or profile. No Twitter account.  She published her work anonymously and little is known about her life.  I’d be inclined to follow humourist like Twain and his suggestion:  ‘Any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen.’   Take him or leave him, Karl Wiggins is the equivalent of Bernard Manning talking about those coloured chaps with big lips is all he asks. Jane Austen get your tits out for the boys.  ‘…To use piss-taking humour to bring to the fore situations that don’t stack up.’ ‘Oh, the banter,’ as comedian Ford Kiernan as Jack in Still Game is apt to say, before raise his eyebrows to signal dramatic irony to the camera.

‘Can you imagine arriving back on a time machine in the 60’s [sic]  with the quick, ready banter from the 21st century while everyone’s still laughing at a pie in the face?’

Yes, I can, and it wearies me. The sixties were not ruff collars and Elizabethan England. The Rolling Stones as far as I’m aware are still touring. The theory that how the speaker perceives and reacts to the world is dependent on the language they have at their disposal (Whorf’s hypothesis) is not new. Humour was not invented in the twenty-first century as Mark Twain and Laurel and Hardy show.

Other straw men include chavs: ‘I hate toilet seats because they is better than me. At least they have a job’.

The beardie is the kind of highbrow that Karl Wiggin’s despises. He’s skint because of his ‘superior intelligence’. I’d guess an online group such as the Mc Renegades fall into the beardie category: ‘We’re a bunch of Scottish writers who have some things in common. We write for pleasure, not money…’ I write for pleasure too, but I’d be more inclined to follow Spike Milligan’s lead: ‘This book is dedicated to my bank balance’. But as anyone knows the average earning of an author are under £4000 per annum. Even ‘vegetarian bicycle wearing, [I’m not sure what a vegetarian bicycle is or how to wear it] frowning, long-faced, stupid hat, stupid beard, stupid glasses, miserable twat, disapproving wanker into the broken, bitter mind, that is Bearded Hattie’ or people like me, would find that difficult to live on.

Harpie, one of my favourite authors, but one or two punctuation errors such as putting ‘Lizards Leap’ in italics and adding apostrophes [one or the other, but italics for the modern writer is better] gives ready ammunition to Beardies that self-publishing is not real publishing. In ‘Delusions’, she put it this way, her son ‘has gone without to fund my vanity and ego’. Later she says ‘Amazon sales is the definition of fool’s gold.’ But for the self-publishing author Amazon’s algorithm is god. Twitter’s algorithm tells others who we think we are. And the Facebook algorithm is fairground hall of mirrors in which nobody looks at the same thing, but everybody seems to be laughing. This book is a hotchpotch of different elements drawn from different sources. It needs a good edit. Would the real Karl Wiggins please stand up?

Louis Theroux: Transgender Kids, BBC 2 9pm


Louis Theroux used to write books. He’s moved into the far more lucrative market of documenting those in our society that don’t quite fit in. He writes the scripts for these programmes. Has his own crew. Puts it together like a jigsaw. A novel approach. I get the feeling Louis doesn’t quite fit in either. An alien presence among those we hold at arm’s length and treat as alien.

Let’s look at the squirm factor. By far the worst came near the end of the programme. Dr Crane, the surgeon that carried out trans-surgery in his San Francisco clinic talked about the cost of different procedures like a gung-ho general. He made me squirm. But it was one of his success stories that made me want to look the other way. She had been a he. That doesn’t bother me. I don’t care what people do with their fiddly bits. Not that she had any fiddly bits left, apart from her eyebrows. They kept beetling about whilst she looked on as her partner answered questions from Louis. Up and down they went. Left and right they went. Possessed by free will they would have turned into a wiggy world and I feared for mankind. It might have been the type of questions Louis was asking that set them dancing. He hesitates and then hesitates some more and then jumps right in and talks like a kindergarten teacher addressing a class of five-year olds. Using words such as ‘top bits’ and ‘bottom bits’. He acted like a fanny.

Around fifty-percent of transgender people think about or attempt suicide. There is a cost and it’s not just financial. If adults want to make changes to their bodies that’s fine. But the ethics of medicine is guided by the epigram: above all do no harm. I’d cite the tragic case of David Peter Reimer whose penis was accidentally burnt off in a medical procedure when a baby and, on the advice of psychologist John Money, advocating a particular theory, brought up as a female and used as a test subject.

For any good story you need the beginning the middle and the end. You get those that are sure. Such as those with beetle eyebrows. You get the ones that are not so sure. We see a prepubescent Cole who sometimes dresses as Crystal and talks about growing up and marrying as a man and having a family. His mum Joy supports his/her choice. His dad Eric is more ambivalent. He wants a son. Often it was the parents in this programme I felt most sorry for.

Eduardo and Kacey made the difficult transition in supporting their son Sebastian’s metamorphosis into Camille. Here’s where the squirm factor struck again. Camille is about seven. She shows Louis into her room. It’s girly as you’d expect. Then she asks him to play a game. Louis, being Louis looks like a stick of wood with specs. He politely declines. Camille turns on the music and apes some girly pop star and it’s like kiddy porn. All the stupid half hints as sexual fulfilment and a child flinging her face about like a wobble board. I didn’t like it, but my thoughts were Camille wants to be that women, that particular pop star (I don’t know which one) therefore to attain that goal she needs to be a women. Perhaps she’ll grow out of it. Above all do no harm.

Louis visits a group of medics who take children through body dysmorphia or wrong body transition. He is told that children from the age of two or three can show a consistency that suggests they are wrongly gendered. One test is the he/she test. Which pronoun the boy/girl used is indicative of what exactly I’m not sure. I’m not sure about lots of things.

Let’s go back to good old Alfred Kinsey for answers. We’re all fucked up. And he would counter Larkin’s suggestion that it was your mum and dad’s that fuck you up.  He suggested that 37%  of males had some form of homosexual experience and one in ten of the population are homosexual. There are around nine million Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or Transgender in America. A third more than the population of Scotland. To suggest that gender is fixed and identity can be cured by medical treatment and intervention at such an early age seems be repeating the failure of John Money’s experiment – and for many of the same reasons. What’s the hurry? We’ll find out who we are at different points in our life. Do no harm and no harm to wait.

Inside the Sex Offender Prison, Radio 4. Strangeways: Britain’s Toughest Prison Riots, BBC 2

strangeways prison riot

Rex Bloomstein visits HMP Wharton in Nottinghamshire, the largest sex offender prison in Europe.  841 men range in age from 21 to 91 (93 was the oldest inmate). They have committed a variety of offences from rape to downloading child porn. The average cost for each prisoner is £27 000 per annum. What is unusual about HMP Wharton is the mix of social classes.  Convicted offenders range from working class to middle-class policemen, doctors, vicars and more upper class members of the legal profession. HMP Wharton caters for all, but their rehabilitation programmes are oversubscribed. One prisoner, for example, complained that he’d waited four-and-a-half years to get on one of the courses, but he kept being put back because those prisoners nearing the end of their tariff, and due for release, were fast tracked in front of him. As you’d expect official figures for rehabilitation of prisoners that have went through HMP Wharton’s programmes is six percent in comparison to other prisons with fifty per cent recidivist rates. Call me cynical, but I don’t think you’re comparing like with like. You’d probably find a similar strike rate for ex-murderers.  That’s the whole problem sex offenders are special category and not just in prison.

Twenty five years on I still have no sympathy for the prisoner in Strangeways that had raped his six-year old daughter and was severely beaten by other prisoners and flung from a roof. None. Other paedophiles suffered similar abuse. For 25 days starting 1st April 1990 almost 1700 prisoners gained control of the Manchester prison leaving two dead (they died of heart attacks induced by stress rather than from physical assault that such statistics seem to indicate) and 194 injured. The damage to the prison was extensive. A prison officers said he wept when he saw it. The prison chaplain Reverend Proctor described a darkness within the prison. And the prison governor described the vandalism as ‘evil’.   Three hundred prisoners involved in the initial disturbance had met for service in the prison chapel. A prisoner described it as ‘payback time’.

One of the features of Strangeways, as a Victorian prison, was one set of master keys opened all the doors. When prisoners wrestled a set of keys from a guard they had access to all cells and passageways. Prisoners were locked up twenty-three hours a day. Shitting and peeing in a bucket and being let out of the cell later to empty urine and excremental waste, sloping out was a common experience. The prison had been designed to hold 900 and held almost 1700. Two or three prisoners shared a cell. Shat and peed in the same communal bucket.

Paul Taylor a lifer described being punched on the back of the head by a prison guard when he was shown to his cell. A body-builder he decided he wasn’t going to let them away with that. He was going to take control of the situation and attack before he was attacked. This got him sent down to a punishment wing without any bedding or furniture. A bare cell. For life.  He was one of the main players in the riot and received an extra ten years onto his tariff.

He helped plan the riot with another more idiosyncratic prisoner (read crazyhorse here, but he spoke lots of sense) Paul Hancox. Hancox was critical of the hear no evil, see no evil, and speak no evil, prison-officer code. Prison officers ran the prison in any way they saw fit. Good old-fashioned Victorian values meant cracking heads and getting the job done.

Later in the siege on day five of the twenty-five day protest, only 22 prisoners remained on the roofs of the prison. Mathew Perry who was serving time at Strangeway during the riot described the initial exhilaration of the first day, but then the conundrum ‘how to get off the roof’ (and not be flung off). On one side hardened prisoners and on the other prison officers that promised to give them the good kicking they deserved.  A deal was made and the young prisoners were allowed to leave. By day 25 only a hard core of eight prisoners remained. Strangeway riot taught us nothing. 71 out of 118 prisons in England and Wales are currently classified as overcrowded. Another riot. Another enquiry. More recommendation.