Saturday, 30 July 2016



The Past has never been more present: retro fashions recur, antiques programmes flood the schedules, genealogy flourishes; good will-hunting is a long-running feature of morning television, and ‘Who do you think you are?’  allows us to be voyeurs while celebrities disinter their family skeletons and jewels. There’s a genuine interest in ancestry; but like a human version of the Antiques Road Show, some of this is just about discovering something valuable in the family tree, a famous forebear or even some slight connection to a current celebrity. Who knows? You might be a relative of Boris Johnson: he seems to be related to everybody else in Europe. These links are a kind of badge of honour.  I once remarked on the French-sounding name of an emergency plumber I’d called out. “Oh yes,” he said proudly, “I can trace my family tree right back to Norman the Conqueror”.  It took a moment.

But there’s a neglected dimension: look in the mirror:                  
No historian, yet you embody decades of experience of
people, places and events, over a long time. Maybe you
remember the 30s, The Andrews Sisters, The War, the
birth of the Welfare State, Alec Douglas-Home, Nobby 
Stiles’ tooth deficit, 7/7, Eddie the Eagle, Andrew
Ridgeley, the Austin Allegro, Prince Harry when he was a
laddish twat not a national hero, the star who winked
at you in Regent St, and so on. These are just the easy 
markers that punctuate the years. Your experience of them,
your perspective on them, and everything in between
them, are something else, something different – common
yet unique. Autobiography is not just about you, it’s about
the people and events which your life spans.

You don’t remember enough to write a book? Once you begin, you will. You can start anywhere, like your first memory, some vivid incident - or an early photograph -  and interview yourself. Where were we? Who is that, OK that’s the Lucas family we met in Shanklin, IOW. Whatever happened to her, I remember the face? Soon the memories start flowing, and whether it’s a trickle or a white-water ride, they will lead you through your entire life. 

Some maintain that we never completely forget anything; it is all there if only we can retrieve it. This is probably nonsense. How could I possibly recall what my mother cooked on a particular night in 1963, say? I might if I had a clue or a cue, and as it happens, I do: it was the night that JFK had been assassinated, which was a Friday. In which case I have the answer: she cooked Shepherd’s Pie, because she operated a fixed rota of meals: we could tell the day of the week by the dinner plate. It’s a one-off but a sound principle of the organisation of memory and the role of cues. Often it is simply a matter of association: we can use the links between memories to use one to lead us to others. Once you start it happens automatically.

“But I can’t type”. You probably can type as fast as you can compose sentences, and what’s the hurry? Or you can get a speech recognition program for your laptop: you talk, it types.

“But my life’s no more interesting than anyone else’s”. Possibly, but you might say that of a skilled craftsman: no public speaker, yet he talks with love and conviction about his craft, given the chance, and fascinates his audience. You are the best expert on your own life, and you probably won’t have a biographer, unless it is you.

“But I’m not a writer”. Really? Not a professional, but you can form sentences and you used to make up stories for your children. Anyway, allegedly Shakespeare said this very thing to his mother when he couldn’t do his English homework: he did OK, though, didn't he? You don’t have to be a professional, you don’t have to aim that high. 

People will help you edit it: just don’t choose a Grammar Nazi. Maybe it will get published. Or you may choose not to swim with the man-eating fish of the publishing world, and self-publish. No disgrace, and at least it locates your book between two covers, for ever: your gift to your descendants. Forty years on, it will be priceless and treasured, and a historical document. But most importantly it will have given you utterly compelling interest and enjoyment: you will have had the ‘time of your life’. It is a unique delight to be able to recreate and re-live your days in this way. Trust me.

FESS: an autoblography   


or from (as an ebook)

There is a difference between helpfulness and conspicuous helpfulness. And so I nominate PEOPLE WHO OFFER YOU THEIR SEAT ON THE TUBE to be dispatched to Room 101. Disregarding the mild annoyance that they have mistaken you for an older person, when you are used to mistakes in the opposite direction, it is the helper's blatant assumption of holiness which is so galling. Watch them carefully: first the smile playing around the mouth, verging on the smug, then the imperceptible swivelling of the eyes as they scan the carriage (while not moving the head) to detect the approving acknowledgement of others (look at me, I'm a fucking saint, better than you) as though their afterglow had not already radiated the whole space and all the occupants like virtuous wi-fi. I have prepared this placard to wear round my neck on all future Tube journeys. I think it will do the trick.


If there is a bird with more beautiful plumage than this Ibis, I would be very surprised.   It is remarkable that it just gets on with its life and doesn't just stand in front of a mirror all day, feeling very pleased with itself. On the other hand, if you Google Ibis images, there aren't any half as beautiful as this one, so I am wondering if Joanna Swan dyed this one up as a model for her 'bloomin' gorgeous jewellery'...



The American people are tired of liars and people who pretend to be  something they are not. 


I think what you are seeing is a profound recognition on the part of the American people that gays and lesbians and transgender persons are our brothers, our sisters, our children, our cousins, our friends, our co-workers, and that they've got to be treated like every other American. And I think that principle will win out.   

In 1975 Penguin published my first book, Children and Race.
It was a minor classic (if only in the sense that it was written
in Ancient Greek and read like some old Morris Minor work-
shop manual). Actually it sold extremely well, but at a royalty
of 7.5p per copy (on a cover price of £1) it would have to have
sold around a million copies to get me into an Aston Martin,
and out of charity shop chic. It didn’t. Ten years later I published
a revised, expanded and updated version entitled Children and 
Race: 10 years on (you see what I did there…) which was
distinguished by virtue of the stunning likeness of Garth
Crooks (then a prolific Spurs striker, now a rotund pundit)
on the cover, created by 9 year-old art prodigy, Danny Milner.

Every author dreads seeing a pile of his/her books remaindered on a bookseller’s bargain table. Equally, a copy turning up at boot-sales is quite depressing, though if it’s well-thumbed you can construct a scenario in which it has been passed round a family, or group of friends, each one anxiously waiting their turn to read it, and quarrelling or even fighting breaking out at the suspicion of someone queue-jumping. Well, it’s possible.

The first time I visited the U.S. and found a copy of v.1 in the Harvard Co-op I nearly wet myself. I felt that I should autograph it and maybe write a dedication to myself, both for writing it and finding it offered up in an Ivy League college, like it was a proper book, not just something I’d written. Sadly, there are aspects of that book which would now be an embarrassment. It was written before Black Power caught people’s imagination and so some of the terminology was archaic. That is the penalty for writing in a rapidly-changing field where you are out of date faster than yoghourt left out of the fridge.

My young friend Cassius N-G, is working in Battel’s Art Café, a coffee house in Harrow-on-the-Hill. He sent me a photo of the books they provide for their customers.  Never thought I’d fetch up next to Sir Alf.  Still, it could have been worse, it could have been Mon Chemin by the gifted Librarian, Arsène Wenger.

And resting on top of The Girl with the Pearl Earring, and The Kite Runner.  Class. I've finally made it, in a coffee-house kind of way. Yo!

I discovered the Dylan/Ali picture by chance: I had not known that they had ever met, nor that they had such obvious mutual respect and affection. It figures, though: maverick genius recognises maverick genius. You can't have two people called 'The Greatest' when one has already claimed the title, but according to me, they both were. I tried to think of a Dylan song to memorialise this meeting and came up with the following:

On Dylan’s 1964 song ‘I Shall Be Free No 10’, he sang about Ali, who was then still called Cassius Clay. After Clay defeated Sonny Liston that year to become World Heavyweight Champion for the first time, Dylan sang: “I was shadowboxing earlier in the day/I figured I was ready for Cassius Clay”.

Ali appeared on stage at Dylan’s concert in New York in 1975, following the release of Dylan’s song ‘Hurricane’, which protested against boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter’s wrongful conviction for murder. Ali phoned Carter in prison on stage during the show, where Ali and Dylan were joined by Carter’s wife and daughter. Carter was eventually released in 1985 after serving 19 years.

Dylan paid tribute to Muhammad Ali, after the boxer died aged 74 on Friday (June 3) following a long battle against Parkinson’s Disease.

Dylan was an amateur boxer as a teenager and praised Ali on his website. Dylan wrote: “If the measure of greatness is to gladden the heart of every human being on the face of the earth, then he truly was the greatest. In every way he was the bravest, the kindest and the most excellent of men."

Thursday, 28 July 2016


I posted this on Facebook yesterday, not to be alarmist, because if anything it understates the current danger, but to spell out the contingencies which I believe we have preferred not to think about, thus far. America is teeming with guns in private hands and the Constitution permits this precisely for the purpose of defending yourself and your family. But it was born in the age of single-shot flintlock muskets which took ages to re-load (or it must have seemed like ages, wondering if you were going to get shot yourself while you did it). Have you any idea how many rounds per minute an ordinary AK47 fires: would you believe 600? Orlando was terrible, but sometime there will be a much bigger massacre, just because these things always escalate. Black churches were bombed, crudely, in the early 60s, in Birmingham, Alabama. What would the white supremacists' target be today: a Pentecostalist rally in a football stadium, arriving by hijacked helicopter?

There was very little response to this post. Perhaps it was overstated: only time will tell; perhaps the situation is just too scary and people are in denial about the contingencies; perhaps it is just that it is hard to 'like' such a thing, even though that is not approval of what is described. Maybe this time next year it will be one of the 'memories' that Facebook plays back for us to revisit and perhaps replay for our friends. How will it seem then: redundant, inaccurate, exaggerated? or predictive, understated and almost nostalgic for its naivety about the speed and extent of escalation? We were shocked by 9/11, 7/7, Bataclan, Orlando and now Dallas, that these things could happen, committed by those who can pass among us unnoticed and strike us down in a heartbeat. I have always believed that white racism and brutality to black people, even murder, was a fuse which was much more dangerous to the American mainland than Islamisation and jihad. What I've argued may be a 'suicidal prediction' (this is a a prediction which is invalidated because it creates the motivation to change things in order that it does not actually happen).  

What will happen now: well a black militant group has claimed responsibility for the police shootings. The FBI will almost certainly have monitored them already and so they will be hunted down and in a series of raids on hideouts they will be shot. How do we know this? Because this is what happened to the Black Panthers in the late 60s. Their leadership took the precaution of sleeping in a different house every night, but eventually they were found and gunned down, with massive overkill. Now, however, citizens are much better armed, with automatic weapons, and better communications: we may expect more protracted gun battles in which the general public may not escape involvement as victims of crossfire, hostages or human shields. Better communications will assist flight and will enable live video broadcast of gun battles across the Net. In turn this will encourage disturbances and demonstrations in sympathy, across the nation, some of which will become violent and call down more violence from the police, and more casualties. And so on, and so on.

America is blessed with a President who has the possibility of bridging the races and starting to turn this issue around, but he's going. I wonder if he's thinking "Après moi, le déluge". He is not perfect, but he is a good man who could leave his fingerprints on history.

There are more black American men in prison than in college; 1 in 3 black American men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime. Out of a prison population of 2.3 million, 1 million are black; they have an incarceration rate which is nearly seven times that of whites.

Prisons are more about punishment than rehabilitation. They are universities of crime that steep the inmates in years of exposure to other criminals. They are humiliating and degrading and provoke a bitter resentment to society and often instil a determination to do it better next time, or not get caught.
There are alternatives. Trying to clear my desktop I came across some stills from a video on crime in the Netherlands:


They have a declining clime rate.  They do not tolerate degrading conditions for prisoners. Their emphasis is entirely on education and training to equip prisoners with the skills that will allow them to secure paid work on the outside and avoid recidivism.  Americans and Dutch are not a different species of human being, but they do have wide differences in their societies. It is inconceivable that The Netherlands could throw up a crass bigot like Trump to be its national leader, figurehead and representative.That is not the explanation but it is symptomatic of a decline in a society's values. The last few weeks has seen the UK veer noticeably in the direction of the US end of the spectrum. Our police used not to shoot black suspects, now they have done. We have narrowly avoided having a Prime Minister who was hardly less of a caricature than Trump. Theresa May is not Barack Obama.
Hold on, it's going to be a rough ride.

I took early retirement from the University of Westminster 10 years ago after almost 30 years there. What did I miss? Good colleagues, mostly lovely students, working in the West End near the BBC. What did I not miss at all? Working in the West End during IRA or ISIS terrorist campaigns, and even worse, writing references.

Writing references for students and colleagues is just part of the deal when you are an academic, it is a professional duty and someone has to do it. However, it was made monstrous by a number of factors:

·        Individuals made multiple applications for courses, jobs, promotions, loans, accommodation
·     We were a growing department (index: 2 members of staff when I joined, 32 when I left, 40+now) attracting huge numbers of students.
·     Students seemed to feel that letters before the referee’s name (Dr, Prof.) carried more weight than letters after. Those who had them attracted more customers.
·      People who get on to courses or get good jobs tend to remember the good reference you wrote them, show brand loyalty and become repeat customers for the rest of their lives. Nice…?

I would routinely write several per week; multiply that up over a 30-year career and it runs to thousands, a job in itself. Strategies had to be developed to cope. I tried everything from a standard skeleton letter in which I just filled in the adjectives and adverbs (but still had to write the biographical stuff which required interviewing the student – who I might hardly know): to a series of rating scales, but that made it look too automated; the most effective system (and deterrent to the supplicant – not such a bad thing…): getting them to write their own, giving the document to you in Word, and modifying it into something literate, realistic and fair: it got the donkey work done – by the beneficiary – covered the areas they wanted, but you had editorial control over the content – including beefing it up if they’d been too modest. Had I thought of this early in my career, I would have written more books, read more bedtime stories and developed several absorbing hobbies in the time freed up.

The other problem with references is the truth. You can’t baldly lie, and you pause before writing anything negative that you know will stand out from the laudatory stuff like a boil on the end of the nose. You develop a language of faint praise, ambiguity, and subtle nuance which communicates your reservations at a kind of subliminal level: there some examples  here which show that we are not above massaging things a little to help the student, sometimes by disguising the bad stuff.

How do you deal with a colleague or student who asks you for a reference, who you don’t like, don’t rate or the opposite case, don’t want to lose. I stress that I have only ever used this strategy once, on a colleague who turned out to be racist, and who we sacked: later,  for some bizarre reason he asked me for a job reference. This is not an original strategy, I think I may have picked it up from Laurie Taylor's column in the THES. What you do is this: you write a generally favourable, but not-too-glowing reference, but at the end you insert this sentence: “I must stress that he is completely trustworthy, in almost every situation”. Think about it.

'a tidy desk is the sign of a tidy mind.' Hmm. However recent studies show that an untidy desk(top?) correlates with creative thinking. Thank you, that'll do nicely:

I bought a 'marquee' as back-up for my party should it rain (there were too many people to accommodate indoors) intending to return it for a refund if it stayed in its box (it did); I forgot to take it back, so I now own it. It measures 6 metres x 3metres and has no guy ropes to take account of. If anyone wants to borrow it for a similar purpose they can do so for the delivery and return cost.
Contact me on FB chat.