Saturday, 28 January 2017


There are two reasons why I should devote a whole post to canis familiaris. Firstly because it is a compulsory condition of the Community Service Order I received following my prosecution for direct pet discrimination, an action brought by the Equality Commission. I pleaded guilty, I was bang to rights: a whole post devoted to Cats, back in November, with not so much as a BBC disclaimer:  'other species are available'. Mea culpa. The other reason is more positive: the household is in a pro-dog frame of mind this week, since The Editor decided that Roxie the Dog's acute separation anxiety might be helped by the presence of a companion, and if it were a puppy, she might mother it. Mothering was a prospect which had been unlikely since the vet's intervention to turn her 'road less travelled' into a cul-de-sac.

So Wednesday afternoon found us on a farm in Suffolk, braving bitter wind and icy rain which had travelled non-stop from the Steppes: surveying 13 candidates for adoption, and we ourselves being vetted for suitability. If you can imagine twelve more, as cute as this one, you will understand the impulse to grab a handful each and run away. But we settled on this little bitch, called her Lola (not to be abbreviated to Lol) and headed back feeling well-pleased, but with only photos to bridge the gap until she's old enough to leave her mother. Meanwhile Roxie the Dog suspects that Something is Up - possibly the smell of fresh puppy up her nose from our clothes. Oops.

Lola is a Border Collie and should  be useful for rounding up sheep, a traditional Willesden practice. It's possible that this skill might be generalised to include chickens, as the High Road boasts more fried chicken outlets than the entire KFC operation (other foods are not available, apparently).

Dogs and I go back a long way. The first family dog was not called Spot, but I have no idea what it was called: I've lost the memory stick for that part of my life, on account of being less than one year old at the time that he/she/it died of distemper (a disease, not paint fumes). The second one was a Battersea Dogs' Home graduate called Kim, a Manchester Terrier cross. 

Kim's major error (apart from having metrosexual owners who chose a confusing sexually ambiguous name for her) was to run out of the sideway of our house on the evening of November 5th, Fireworks Night. She was out all night. For a dog it must have been something like listening to a recording of the Battle of the Somme, in the dark, alone and utterly terrified. She came back in the morning, a different dog. Anxious, neurotic, more than a little crazy, and very unpredictable, she had been scarred irrevocably by the experience. This was not long after my father's second heart attack, and after a couple of incidents in which he had to run after her to stop her scaring or biting children, she was put down. It was probably a kindness, she was no longer a happy dog.

#3 came a long time later. My friends DG and GL had a wonderful Border Collie cross called Hera. She had a lovely temperament, and I became very fond of her. When a brief but romantic encounter in Finsbury Park left her with a litter of puppies, we were first in the queue for them. She was another bitch, my preference, and was named Jones (for obscure reasons, which cannot be divulged without m'learned friends stirring at the prospect of a fat fee). Actually, she chose herself: she was the only one of the litter who stumbled forwards to greet us when we viewed them. Her first night away from her family was miserable: she cried bitterly, rhythmically, and finally so compellingly, that I went down and kept her company. I slept on the sofa, with this tiny little sad puppy finding some comfort nestling in the space between my head and my shoulder. We bonded that night.

Jones was the perfect family dog. Affectionate, loyal, and tolerant of the indignities children always visit upon stationary animals, from poking to dressing up. Only once was she in disgrace, and then for reasons beyond her control. Her hormones persuaded her she was pregnant and that she should excavate a large hole in the Chesterfield sofa as a nest for her phantom puppies. When we came home, the living-room carpet had experienced a heavy fall of cotton waste. Jones shrank from us, her belly nearly touching the floor, as she slunk away from us; as guilty as only a very guilty dog can look.

That strong maternal instinct came to the fore a little later: having found a discarded tiny kitten in the park, Jones groomed it, mothered it and even produced milk to suckle it. A photograph of this stood at my wife's bedside when she was in UCH, having our first child, Leah. A human breastfeeding consultant lit upon it and it was used to help many mothers with feeding difficulties, along the lines of "if a dog can feed a cat, with patience you'll feed your baby". Well done that dog: typically loving and generous.

There was a long gap in my dog ownership as my own situation changed, but I always had visiting rights with my sister's great dogs, Cassie and Sasha. The latter brilliantly exemplifies what we in Psychology call 'one-trial learning'. When I met Sasha for the first time I happened to have a dog-treat in my pocket which I gave her. Ever since, I get a hero's welcome on every visit.

Roxie the Dog, the current dog of choice is a Cockerpoo, though temperamentally much more Poodle than Cocker Spaniel. Jones was a hard act to follow, but she does her best (another bitch). She is a psychoanalyst's dream, addicted to love, dependent and habit-forming; a neurotic obsession with squirrels, though like an unrepentant Hunt enthusiast, it's "just for the thrill of the chase, not the kill". In Roxie's case this is academic as she's never caught one, nor likely to, now that she is slowing up a bit.  Like Kim, Roxie had a traumatic experience early in life. When she was 3, a Staffie ran to her at full speed from 100 metres away, grabbed her by the throat and proceeded to shake her violently. I'm told that the idea is to kill the victim by tearing the throat. For lack of anything else, I kicked the assailant very hard, grabbed Roxie and held her above my head, out of reach. This did not stop the dog from jumping up with her feet on my chest, snapping at Roxie inches from my face. Eventually the owner arrived, a young woman with a baby in a stroller, who blamed her husband. The conversation will be left to your imagination.

I totally accept that these dogs are a reflection of their owners and can be trained to be perfectly docile and affectionate animals; but I also believe that generations of selective breeding for aggressive purposes cannot be discounted and so there is always a potential for aggression beneath the surface. I would argue that dangerous dogs, who can (and occasionally do) kill, should be licensed and registered, like guns, and only allowed in public places muzzled and leashed. Roxie only survived because she had not been groomed recently, so that she had a thick matt of dense curly hair at the neck, which stopped the dog from getting a proper grip. It is not hard to imagine what it would have been like to carry her bloodied body back to the house, and my younger daughter's reaction. The offending dog was reported, the owner warned that she must be muzzled and kept on a leash and that a further offence would result in the dog being put down. I haven't seen her since.


 And then there was Lola:

Don't accept your dog's admiration as conclusive evidence that you are wonderful... Ann Landers

The better I get to know men, the more I find myself loving dogs ....  Charles de Gaulle

The only creatures that are evolved enough to convey pure love are dogs and infants...Johnny Depp

Dogs never bite me. Just humans.....Marilyn Monroe

Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read....Groucho Marx

Can you quit talking to me in that baby-voice? Man up.

WTF do you mean 'fetch'?  If you wannit, geddit yourself...

Anyway, sometimes when you shout out 'fetch' in the park, it sounds like 'felch' and I'm not doing that for anyone, not even you.

My wish list is: two walks a day, at least one a week on the Heath, 30 minutes a day of belly and head stroking, and a weekly bone with lots of marrow to suck out. Why? Because if you don't I'm going to tell Her about that visitor you had when She was away, the one that stayed overnight with you, 'just as friends'. It doesn't look like that from the photos (shouldn't leave your iPhone out, sucker). Oh yes I would.

Me 'Always being there for you', which you say to your sloppier friends, is not a reflection of you, or a choice of mine. Explain to me how a prisoner has any alternative...


Dog, dogged, dog-eared, dog-tired, dogging, dog your footsteps, mad dogs and Englishmen, let sleeping dogs lie, can't teach an old dog new tricks, man's best friend,  dog in the manger, barking up the wrong tree, etc etc

Saturday, 21 January 2017


One morning in April 2004, my heart stopped, literally. I was assaulted by an improbable multiracial gang, who drugged me, took a hand-held circular saw to my sternum, opened up my chest cavity and stuffed in some lengths of blood vessel they had ripped out of my left leg and arm. While I was still hovering near death, they were congratulating each other in the nearest pub. It was not a Manson-like sadistic ritual,  a cult killing (for a less graphic and sensational account of the backstory, see this week's extract from FESS at the end of this post, 'A piece of my heart'). Didn't you read about it in THE SUN:  MAD MOB MUG SAD DON HORROR!

In essence, a coronary bypass operation like this is barbaric and miraculous, only surpassed by the heart transplant process (which celebrates its 50th anniversary later this year). The fact that thousands of people have been rescued from near extinction by this process only adds to the potent mythology and iconography surrounding this vital organ. The heart is everywhere in our language, our imagery and most of all, our music.

The heart is the body's pumping station, we know that. But this was forcibly brought home to me in  a Stanmore evening course in plumbing. I wanted to acquire some of those skills so that when I bought a house, I would not be separated from astronomical piles of cash with an ease that Dick Turpin would have envied. I told the teacher about the bypass operation which would clash with the last part of the course; as a teacher, I should have realised what a priceless gift I was giving him: the graphic metaphor. From then on, every session contained at least one reference to David's Heart, a soft version of a central heating boiler in its pumping action, he assured us.

I had to wait only six weeks for the operation. It was a careful time, went quickly and it was not unpleasant, on the whole. Rationalisation quickly steps in to stop you thinking about the actual event in any detail. That is assisted by friends who don't really want to think or talk about it either. When they did they invariably dispatched it very quickly, often with something like 'anyway, it's very routine these days'. For some reason I resented this: I wanted to say "Yes. Very routine for the surgeons, thankfully, but not at all for the patient. It is a unique and monumental trauma to the body for them".

Naturally, because there are casualties in the operation, you are wise to tie up the loose ends of your life, though without actually touring the country, even the world, to say a tearful goodbye to your far-flung friends, just in case. I did write a will, and we did get married, a legalistic precaution that guaranteed my family a share of my pension. Marry in haste...

In the event the operation was fine: as fine as something like that can be. I was reassured to hear that though my arteries had been choked up with cholesterol and a heady residue of Silk Cut Extra and Cadbury's Milk Tray, the heart itself was said to be very strong and 'the heart of a man 20 years younger' ('Beefheart'?.) Naturally this metamorphosed into a gag about 'hoping he wouldn't want it back', which was repeated endlessly, and wound up as an exhibit in the Wellcome Museum of medical science (Ed: that's not strictly true, David...).

So I lived happily ever after (haha) and eternally grateful to the gang of sadistic muggers mentioned earlier, who stopped my heart with drugs somewhat before it would have stopped itself. There is a slight sting in the tale: the grafts don't last for ever. Somewhere between 10-15 years they start to collapse, and then they have to be propped open by stents, inserted in the groin and then shunted up to the coronary grafts, every now and then dropping off a bit of plastic tube to keep the highway open, like a coronary goods train. Or CrossRail, only not starting from scratch and actually boring its way through. Or one of those rigid metal stops that are used in plumbing to stop plastic central heating pipes from...collapsing inwards. There. This is where we came in; full circle, with a plumbing metaphor, only in the other direction.

It's a minor operation, nothing like the bypass job. Mine has not happened yet, but must come soon, as I'm 13 years into the cycle. I'm not worried: it's just routine these days...

The heart as a symbol of love (and loss of love, when it's broken) is arguably the most common icon of all, from Valentines cards to scrawled versions as a signature graphic to end love letters.  Most of us have 'given our hearts' to someone, sometime; most of us have also had our hearts 'broken'. So the heart is a dual-purpose symbol of love and loss, of passion and pain and an all-embracing symbol of emotion. We have love 'in our hearts' for lovers, family, friends, pets and sports teams (though as Jean-Luc Godard said - about the beginning, middle and end of his films -  'not necessarily in that order.' Equally we can be downhearted, stouthearted, cold-hearted, heartless, goodhearted, sweethearts, and much else besides.

Since 1977 we have been city-hearted. Milton Glazer developed a design to serve the New York tourist industry, now copied by every major city in the world, and pressed into service to promote an endless array of other products since.

I have searched in vain for a similar icon to promote the NW London tourist industry. I therefore offer this design, free at the point of delivery, to Brent Council to advertise the unalloyed pleasures of living so close to The North Circular, the M1, IKEA, Gladstone Park (with its annual Gladstonebury Festival), and of course, Wem-ber-ly.

When the tourists flood in, the NW10 economy booms, and house prices skyrocket, I only ask one favour in return for this service: a bench in the Park with this carved inscription:  "David Milner, our benefactor, hearted this place".

A change of heart/ still my beating heart/cross my heart and hope to die/cold hands, warm heart/ eat your heart out/ a faint heart never won a fair lady/ a heavy purse makes a light heart/ empty as a banker's heart/ have heart in the right place/ home is where the heart is/ heart-to-heart.... etc etc etc...

In 1978 Asa Hartford, a professional footballer who played for Scotland, was discovered to have a hole-in-the-heart which had not apparently hindered a successful career in a sport that is very physically demanding. This was a dramatic (not to say counter-intuitive) discovery which led the Press and media to speculate that he might have to leave football to protect his life: to quit while he was winning, having improbably 'got away with it' this far.  
He didn't. Instead he joined the Scotland squad going to the World Cup in Argentina and played as if nothing had happened. However, the legendary commentator, David Coleman, achieved the remarkable feat of 'oral accommodation', putting his foot in his mouth with one comment followed by his heart when he realised what he had said: He described Hartford as a 'wholehearted player'.

  The Tartan Army did not do very well in the competition and returned home early, having not lived up to the Manager's claim that they could win it. Which gave a Guardian sports writer the chance to make the best/worst pun ever. He diagnosed their problem as Premature Jock Elation.

“One ought to hold on to one's heart; for if one lets it go, one soon loses control of the head too.” 
― Friedrich Nietzsche

“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” 
― Antoine de Saint-ExupéryThe Little Prince

“I know I am but summer to your heart, and not the full four seasons of the year.” 
― Edna St. V

One dark, damp evening in November 2003 I went to a home match at Tottenham. So far, so unremarkable. Uncharacteristically I was late (my compulsive punctuality deserves a book in itself) and so I started to jog across the park from where I could see the stadium, already illuminated, and looking like a great ocean liner docked in Tottenham High Road, romantic and floodlit, towering over the surrounding houses. I quickened my pace until I was too breathless for comfort – and I was getting sundry pains. Now, at that time I was rehabbing a flat that I had bought when I inherited some money at my mother’s death. I was doing all the work myself, quite intensively, and over that period more parts of my body hurt than didn’t. So I didn’t place much store by the painful sensations I was getting.

Two weeks later I was cycling past Lords’ on my way home from work, and I became aware of a pain in my left arm. It didn’t go, in fact it seemed to intensify so I stopped. So did it, after a few moments. That seemed to be saying that it wasn’t a muscle/tendon/ligament problem (like I would know about these things). I rode on, but was persuaded to stop again. Then the blinding flash of insight in which 50 years gets stripped away in a millisecond and a memory steps blinking into the light. When I was about seven my parents were given an unwanted subscription to the Reader’s Digest, each one being unceremoniously dumped beside the toilet, as reading matter or emergency supplies. In an article called “How I survived my first heart attack”, I had read that, contrary to popular belief, heart attacks started with a pain in the left arm, not the chest. I froze. The next thoughts and images starred my father’s three heart attacks, his siblings four between five of them, some heart history on my mother’s side, and the terrifying total of cigarettes smoked since age 17. Oh shit. Get a cab.

I didn’t say anything about it to my family that evening: no point worrying them before it was actually diagnosed. But I may have been a little pre-occupied. I slunk off to the GP in the morning and after a lightning discussion, he called a taxi to take me to the Rapid Chest Pain Clinic at The Royal Free. A few treadmills later, angina was confirmed, and I was sent to see the cardiologist. There I was given an angiogram (tube enters blood vessel in groin, pushed all the way up to heart, dye squirted to reveal state of coronary arteries: if possible, stents can be inserted to hold open blood vessels there and then, but because of ‘unusual bifurcations’ stents were impractical.  “Well”, said the cardiologist. “We have 4 coronary arteries. One of yours is 90% closed, two of them are 60% closed and the other one is fine! We can’t do stents so we have to give you a triple bypass. Any questions.”  I like his brisk approach.

Seven weeks passed, rather carefully, and only about six of them were devoted to researching mortality statistics for bypass operations, which turned out to be at a level where there was not a huge risk, but neither was it entirely negligible. There followed some hurried will-writing, and a decision to get married when neither partner really wanted to, purely so that a lifetime’s pension contributions would not go down the toilet.

Come the day, my admission was postponed by seven hours. So I carried a large quantity of very heavy floor tiles from B&Q to my car, and then unloaded them at my property project (well, you don’t want to waste the time do you?)  hardly stopping only to ponder the irony of dropping dead hours before a bypass op, unloading tiles for which there was no hurry as I wouldn’t be doing manual work for another 3 months, minimum.

The Heart Hospital (Hm. I wonder what they do in there.) was a very plush private hospital in the Harley Street posh doc ghetto, which had recently been taken in to the NHS. Now you might expect that the NHS would have immediately spent millions on it, gutting out all the luxury features and bringing it down to the norm for your average local hospital.  But no. Somebody must have overlooked it and it was left pristine, luxurious and probably superior to many other private hospitals. The obvious comparison was with a good hotel: but I had stayed one night, once, in a 5 star one in Manchester while doing expenses-paid consultancy, which was vastly inferior to The Heart.

The Team came round to my room the night before the op. It was very jolly and we had a few laughs. The surprise was that the lead surgeon (listed as David L) turned out to be a 6’6” Indian gentleman, extremely slender, and with the longest, most beautiful fingers I’ve ever seen in my life, perfectly choreographed in every movement.  I could feel my heart purr and say to me “we’re gonna be alright, David, we’re gonna be alright”. As indeed we were. As they left my room, David L last, I said “Goodbye David, and if you’re going off for a drink, make it just the one!” The rest of the team swivelled round like a perfectly rehearsed synchronised swimming team and all looking similarly aghast - “outrageous! No respect or deference! He won’t have that”- none of these things were said but they were inscribed clearly on every face. As for David, he touched me lightly on the shoulder gave me a huge grin and said “I think you can trust us on that”.  I think the expression they use in social work and counselling is ‘I felt held’.

I woke in Intensive Care, slightly disorientated and surprised that there weren’t at least two doctors from Casualty in attendance, preferably Jacq Taylor whose icy heart I would like to melt, and perhaps the blonde nurse with the heart of gold who left the show without telling me. Though one at a time in my state.The time in IC was uncomfortable and had some very painful moments, for example the removal of the chest drains, which was excruciating, and I think requires anaesthetic or pain relief. I was not shy about pointing this out to them, through clenched teeth. There were way too many tubes going in and out of me for comfort – I hosted twelve at one point, I think, and such frequent re-catheterisation by one nurse that people were beginning to talk. I hardly moved, not only because of the tubes but because I felt somehow flattened: it was as though Eddie Stobart’s entire fleet of HGVs had run over me, and then reversed. But there were two ‘highlights’ (if you’re not squeamish or prudish):

My new wife (same person, new title) came to see me on Day2 and sat on a three legged stool near my bed.  “Anything I can do for you”, she said with a smile. Well, I’m not going to pass up a feed-line like that, am I, and so I said “Well, I suppose a quick BJ is completely out of the question?” (I have to confess this was not improv, I had rehearsed this scenario for some time). She laughed (and what a very potent defence against male sexual ambitions is the female laugh). Whereupon, coincidentally, one of the tubes popped out of my head/neck allowing cartoon-like quantities of blood to shoot out.  She fainted and fell off the stool, hitting her head on the marble floor. Two nurses came rushing over to tend to her, completely oblivious to the fact that my life-blood was draining away down the ward floor, probably so that I would probably require a transfusion replacement, while my wife would only need Ibuprofen, at most. But I’m not bitter. 

The other incident took place 7 or 8 days after the operation, when I received distinct signals from my large intestine that, at last, something was on the move.  Oh blessed relief. I made my way to the bathroom and positioned myself on the toilet for the Great Event. I will spare you some of the detail, suffice to say this was a very slow process indeed and at one point it stopped altogether. I wonder if you can imagine having a large cucumber stuck halfway out of your bottom: and being on strict orders not to ‘push’ because of your healing wounds. I can. Eventually there was no alternative: I had to ring the alarm bell and summon a nurse to come and ‘assist’. I was looking the other way, of course, but I think scissors may have been involved, or possibly some leverage system.  I often wonder what she said to the other nurses after her long absence with me: “Honestly, it was so hard I thought he might be passing his spine.”   They really, really are angels, aren’t they?  But if you say that to them, they just pooh-pooh it.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

#51: DEAR MR.TRUMP.....

Dear Mr. Trump,

I am going to talk to you man-to-man: straight-talking (which you claim to favour, though your own discourse is more a kind of crooked blustering).  I am one of your peers. I was embarrassed to find that we were born two days apart. I am your junior by about 48 hours and perhaps that accounts for your superior knowledge and experience, gained in that interval. For some of the things you have that I don't have - like your temperament - are probably grounded in infancy, though not usually quite that early. I wonder if your grasp of world affairs was also formed during this critical period, possibly.

You are an impostor. You claim the wisdom, the knowledge, the skills and worldly experience to be President of the United States, the most powerful country in the world. Really? Show us the evidence, for it is not clear from your behaviour. You have very little relevant knowledge and experience: what you have is half-baked ideas to grab headlines, prejudices as a substitute for facts, repeated endlessly as though they were facts, with great conviction, to persuade the audience that you can do what you say. (How are the plans for The Wall coming along? Any tenders under $20 billion yet?).

Ignorance and bigotry are to be expected on the campaign trail, but they don't work in incisive television interviews and press conferences. You will be found out, exposed and totally humiliated. Your tactic so far has been ad hominem argument (that means attacking the questioner personally, or their newspaper/tv channel, rather than answering the question - but you knew that). Talking of latin, do you remember ex-VP Dan Quayle, returning from a tour of Latin America, explaining that he couldn't really talk to the people he met as he didn't speak Latin..................well, he was the laughing stock of the entire world, but worse awaits you. In the last few days the 'revelations' about you have been so extreme that you look visibly shaken. This is just the beginning, you have four years of this pack of rabid dogs baying for your blood. They scent it already. Is it possible that you may not even make the Inauguration, because of a coup détat by the military? Unthinkable, but not a fate worse than the Donald: some of them are as bigoted as you, but more sane.

Suppose you make it to the Oval Office: what about decision making: have you decided yet whether it is going to be dice or Tarot cards? You have surrounded yourself with a Cabinet of yea-sayers who owe you for their jobs, people who are all totally unrepresentative of The People, just like you, and who will be prone to help you make decisions to help people like them. They are not doing this for love, but for the love of money, and fame, respectability or business deals. What happens when two of them argue different courses of action. How do you decide between them when you know nothing? Go to the Gents and toss a coin?

It is not just you who will suffer (though you will, to the point where you may consider commissioning your own assassination). You will drag your country with you through the slime more than Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton, or both combined. The rest of the world looks on in shock and awe as this tragedy unfolds. Disbelief that America could elect such a man, piled onto the disbelief that you would have the chutzpah to stand in the first place. You must know how little you know. Now we just wait for the major blunders that will follow, 'as the night, the day'.

You have conjured up undreamed-of reservoirs of hate in your country. You were clever to identify the legions of unemployed, dispossessed, mortgage-stricken, fearful, regressive, anti-liberal, Rust Belt, trailer trash, and a raft of people that technology and globalisation was leaving high and dry. It was said of the British politician, Michael Heseltine, that he 'knew how to find the clitoris of the Conservative Party'. You have managed to do the same for half of your country. The con is that you have no idea how to bring them prosperity, and even if you did, they would only get to the trough after you and your kind had taken the lion's share.

You have alienated so many people, so much, so soon that you may as well install one of those  machines that issue numbered tickets at the White House: form a line here for people who want to have a pop at President Trump. No sir, you want that line, for assault riflemen, this one's for Uzi owners. You see hate begets hate, and the sick truth is that the world would breathe an audible sigh of relief if some of the hated hit back. Maybe there is a plot already afoot, a group of assassins with a sense of irony: not head-shots in a motorcade, but lining you up in front of a Wall: "You're fired!" shouts the firing squad. Those who live by the Wall...

Is this really what you want? Look at it this way: it's been great fun playing the stadia, puffing yourself up to be someone really important, the razzmatazz, the cheerleaders (what a gift to you), the applause, you've had a ball! You've had great publicity that money couldn't buy (although you did your best to, of course). You can make countless billions off it. But now get real: if there were a person specification for the job, you'd not match up to any of it, nor have the skills or knowledge to fit the job description. Donald, you're in deep shit. Do yourself, America, and the Rest of the World a favour: make your first act in Office to be: Impeach Yourself. And the second one: repeal the law that proscribes a Third Term for the President.  Quit while your ahead, and you still have one. You know it makes sense.

BBC Radio 4 has had something of a coup: Trump has agreed to appear on Desert Island Discs and has submitted the following list for approval.

My Way    Frank Sinatra
Money for Nothing  Dire Straits
The (First) Lady is a Trump Ella Fitzgerald
If I Ruled the World   Tony Bennett
Money, Money, Money    Cabaret, original cast recording
Baby Love    The Supremes
Living Doll   Cliff Richard

His indispensable choice was the final one. Do listen (below). For his book he nominated 'The Wit and Wisdom of Donald Trump' (which the sub-editors cut from a 373 page volume to a single paragraph); for his single precious object he asked for a full-length, unbreakable mirror (obviously to light fires from the Sun's rays).

Mark Blyth is a Professor of Economics at Brown University. He correctly predicted Brexit, Trump and the Italian 'clown' election. The Bad News is that he is saying don't bet against a Le Pen victory in France or put any money on Merkel in Germany:

Last week The Items got its first reader from Albania. 'Tis a wondrous thing. How on earth would it happen? Surely a keyboarding accident, for we must modestly state that we are not well-known in that tiny corner of International ex-Communism? Or maybe they just explored Google Shqipëri, the Albanian branch of the Hydra-headed monster (generally benign) that has taken over our lives (but when will Amazon eat ityou may well ask). Anxious to access our venerable namesake, The Sunday Times, possibly confused by an English keyboard in a tourist hotel, they carelessly anagrammatised Times into Items. Just like The Editor did when this blog came kicking and screaming into the virtual world.

 That must be it. Anyway, young Enver (this is the only Albanian  first-name that we know), welcome to our world. Much as we'd like  to write something especially for you, because we place the  cultivation of a relationship with Albania well above most other priorities, we  are handicapped because we know so very little about you. We do know that you were a Stalinist communist country from 1947 to 1990, rather following the Chinese rather than the Soviet model of communism, so earning the disfavour of the USSR. Your leader, some would say 'dictator', was Enver Hoxha. He was a heroic figure, he said, and there are many monuments to him in your country, before he was toppled. A bit like Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The Editor also recalls that there used to be an English performance poet called Attila the Stockbroker who, with tongue firmly in cheek. celebrated Hoxha and Albania to the point where he became a national hero, received in your capital, Tirana, with something close to rapture. Those were the days, when you were a closed country, closed to foreigners who didn't want to go there anyway, because you were a closed country. Now it's different and you're just another ideology-lite European country with your culture and folk-music swamped by your brand of Eurorap: definitely some Eastern influence + a bit of James Corden!

That's it. That's all we know. But if you should make the same mistake again and read this, and you would like to submit a piece in the Comments section at the end of this post, we will publish it.  Example 'How I gave up kabanos and learned to love McDonalds Quarter Pounder/No Cheese'.  Promise. Falemnderit! 

PS  It is true that the The Editor once wrote a novel, Black + Blue, in which the fugitive main characters fled through Albania, fearing for their lives; but that's another story, though one which may yet re-surface in electronic form, despite the level of popular demand...

Last year, I was reunited (after 45 years!) , with my long-lost Sri Lankan guru, mentor, muse, teacher, compadre, Ambalavaner Sivanandan (also an ideologue, Marxist, revolutionary firebrand, orator, writer, poet, and in order to blemish this Renaissance Man CV, Manchester United supporter). Naturally he has never lived anywhere near Manchester, in common with most of his fellow fans, preferring a kind of long distance virtual fandom. Since I last saw him he has retired from the Institute of Race Relations. He had joined it as a Librarian and he helped to engineer a bloodless coup which removed the former regime. It had been happy servicing ex-colonials writing their memoirs about the Raj, but that was replaced with an active campaigning institution serving the needs of the British Black community, with Siva as Director (I have often thought that there must be easier ways of getting promotion, but I have never taxed him with this).

We got divorced in 1972, painlessly and without acrimony, in fact without either of us knowing or noticing at the time. It was simply a matter of a callow youth, still quite immature, needing to remove himself from the orbit of this very powerful and persuasive man to complete his growing-up, afraid to become merely a disciple. Between then and now we had seen each other only once, at the Institute. I always think it’s important for good, old friends to see each other at least once every forty years and although we had fulfilled that quota, another visit was now due. Siva and his wife Jenny, no doubt fleeing the revolutionary tumult of Finchley Central, had settled in rural Hertfordshire. They have an idyllic country view where knife-crime is more likely to be a matter of the use of inappropriate cutlery than street violence. 

Siva is now 92, and though physically compromised, is sharp as a tack (possibly spelled attack, though he is less aggressive than he used to be, when the stem of his pipe would find my rib-cage with unerring accuracy, though for emphasis, not intentional harm). We sat at their kitchen table, two old men struggling a little with deafness and memory loss, with Jenny as the memory-stick, referee and guide when either of us meandered completely off the point. It was delightful. It is customary in these situations to say that we took up exactly where we had left off, and so we did in our emotions: there was a lot of love around, and we laughed a great deal. But in what we discussed we went back earlier, recalling and reworking the first few years of our relationship, filling in the gaps in each other’s memories, meeting again old friends we had forgotten. It could have been very sad because some have passed and because it is such a marker of one’s own age and ageing, but it was the reverse: the warmth of recollection, almost like a physical sensation, and the possibility of re-making those friendships now.

It was a great re-union: there will be more afternoons like that.  But the first  episode was so stimulating in so many different ways that sleep was impossible that night: at 3.45am I was sitting up in bed writing this, having given up the attempt. Lying here thinking about the afternoon and so many glimpses of an important past, I was reminded of those flicker books we used to make as kids with a matchstick man drawn in a slightly different stance on every page: flicked through (as with the snap/shuffle of playing cards) they produce an animated figure. It’s an illusion of course, but the afternoon was a little like doing that with a photo album, or with mental pictures of our times together, and that’s not an illusion. It was real and a very important part of my story, come into the light again, and to be cherished.

The first time ever you saw my FESS...                                                     

In January 2014 I started to write an autobiography, although I didn't know it at the time. For the previous two years some rather extreme things had been happening to me, or around me: very serious illness, the death of a very close friend, a rupture with another erstwhile close friend because of an abuse of my friendship that was treacherous (more of that another time), but also some very good things that excited me.  So it was a strangely good/bad period, often very emotional, the kind of time when you start reviewing your life, thinking of all of your ups and downs, pondering the eternal verities, and the Meaning of Life, and most of all, 'What's it all about, Alfie?'

This turbulence caused some very old memories to float to the surface, things I had effectively forgotten, sometimes for 50 years, from my childhood and adolescence. And so that I wouldn't forget them again, I started to write them down. Then I put a few on Facebook and people like Chrissie Garner and Chris Wickham said very nice things about them. Encouraged by this, I was writing more and more, and with the kind of urgency that would only otherwise come about if I was on Death Row; but I had been, very nearly, and so I knew what the clock ticking sounded like.  Very soon it was looking at itself in the mirror and saying "Hmm. You know you could be book if you really wanted to". So with a lot of help from my friends, notably Dave Solomon, Barbara Saunders and Janet Swan, I did.

The point is this: it was one of the best, most enjoyable things I've ever done. What happens is that once you have started, an endless stream (well, trickle to begin with, tsunami at times) of associations leads you to rediscover great chunks of your life, the events, the people and the emotions that accompanied them, and it's a high that is better than you'll get from drugs of any Class, trust me. You thought you had a bad memory that you'd forgotten everything - even forgotten that you'd forgotten. You hadn't, you'd simply mislaid - and now found - the key to the filing cabinet.

If this is sounding a little happy-clappy and evangelical, well I can't deny it. Because I could not give anyone a better gift than this knowledge: how to recapture those vast, distant tracts of your life that you thought were lost - to enjoy all over again - even the bad bits, now they're over.  You may think that autobiography is unforgivably narcissistic and self-publicising. Maybe it is. Maybe it can't help but be. It is what it is (just like Brexit). But in there is an immensely valuable, even therapeutic process, which is also a legacy to your grandchildren, and theirs: a personal account of what it was like to live between the Second World War and the time the climate changed. It's not just the winning side which gets to write history - you can also do it for yourself. Finally, there is also a drive to communicate, to externalise, all those lessons you've learned,  which are lodged somewhere in your brain and want to get out.   The one thing we all have in common is Life. We don't all suffer the same disasters or exult in the same triumphs. As humans we have the ability to think, anticipate and plan. We don't all have to invent the wheel: we can learn so much to help ourselves from other people, especially their construction of their life.

When it was all over and the book was published (self-published - I'm not One Directional, a celebrity cook, nor was my life any number of shades of grey), I decided to write a blog on how to do it. I never finished it *. As I was walking down that long, lonesome road that is Willesden High Road, a stand-up chameleon stopped and offered me a lift, and the rest is hysteria...

So, because I have reasoned that, if you have liked any of this blog you might like the book (logically sound, but maybe not psychologically so) I am pasting in a few chapters over the coming weeks. They are very short and will soon be available on the NHS for insomnia ('Take two chapters before retiring...'). And should you want to add profiteering to narcissism etc in your indictment, I will just point out that the book version gives me a royalty of about two-and-sixpence in the old money, not even 25p) and the paperback version costs £7.20 per copy to produce and £1.70 to post. The net profit will not buy an Aston Martin. Unless some of you, the roughly ten thousand students I tried to teach during my career, would like to crowd-fund it: it's only about ten quid each. Just sayin'...

Where on earth, you may be wondering, did I cross paths with the diminutive songster from Minneapolis, the one with the moustache that was less visible than my grandmother's?

Well, it never happened: this was a transparent device to capture your attention. But I was Prince-for-a-day in 1953, at St James Infant School, Chase Road, Southgate, N14, where we were temporarily billeted, waiting for the completion of a new primary school. St. James was the opposite: a Victorian relic which must surely have been a workhouse for the undeserving poor when it was built: some of that atmosphere remained.

I have virtually nil recall of my time at St. James. I do remember gathering bluebells one weekend in a wood out in Hertfordshire, giving a huge bunch to my teacher, and then seeing them in the staffroom waste bin later in the day.  Hard to say whether this affected my subsequent attitude towards women or not. And I also remember the classrooms having very high windows that you couldn’t see out of. But the main memory, the episode which haunts me to this day was some bizarre concatenation of patriotism, monarchism, pagan rites and Marxism-Leninism, when the school decided to mark May Day and the Queen’s coronation with a pageant.
It starred the May Queen, SC, the automatic choice because she was a beautiful little thing, delicate, pretty, modest, scrupulously well-behaved and therefore absolutely guaranteed not to say ‘oh shit’ if she dropped her posy. Let the Palmers Green and Southgate Gazette court correspondent complete the picture:  “The Queen was ably escorted by her gallant Prince, David Milner (7)”.  The accompanying picture (quite large and probably displacing several W.I. reports and the Mayor’s Musings, a page I always turned to first) showed Susan looking so stunning that it might have advanced and accelerated my adolescence, had I not been more interested in my Hornby OO-scale train set than torrid sex then.

Had I followed this order of priority through life it might have all turned out a lot better. Anyway, there she was, in her filmy fairylike dress, her hair garlanded with paper flowers, stepping out on the arm of this funny little fellow in white shoes, socks, shorts and shirt, plus a huge rosette on the chest, looking ever so much like a target for a firing squad. But why on earth was he wearing a satellite dish on either side of his head, in an eerie anticipation of the present day? Ears: they were his ears.

 The final touch of humiliation, the coup de grace, had been applied by my Mum. Tiring of wetting and coaxing his hair into a suitably regal style and running out of time she had improvised a solution to the fly-away bits. Of course, why didn’t we think of it before – a hair-grip! Assured that it wouldn’t show, and aware of a 7 year-old’s lack of sanctions, the condemned boy was marched off to the scaffold. I believe this was the only truly cruel thing my Mum ever did to me. In a way she was fortunate: today’s sensibilities would have dictated that the visible hair-grip on a boy constituted child abuse under any contemporary penal codeI’m sure nobody noticed. I’m sure it was just a trick of the light that it shone out of the PG&SG’s photograph like a beacon. One thing is certain: if there had been thunder and lightning, I would not be alive now to tell this tale.

Did I mention the speech? I had to give a speech. I was allowed to read it, which I did with all the passion of the second iteration of the football results. It was my first acquaintance with public speaking; I felt it went quite well, really. I had thought of a good beginning: “I have a dream…….. ". (possibly when Martin Luther King plagiarised my words for his Washington speech, ten years later, I should have sued for breach of copyright, but I decided he deserved the world's approbation). And anyway, I got a kind of mobile standing ovation at the end. There was a whisper of applause, then everybody rose to me and scampered off to get their cars from the little playground car park...  
What a day.

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