Category Archives: Books

The opening of James Joyce’s novel “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”…

James Joyce in Zurich, 1916

Today, 16th June, is Bloomsday – the day on which James Joyce‘s Ulysses (1922) is set.

Joyce’s earlier novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) was on the syllabus at my school so I had to read it.

And I loved it. 

So, for no reason other than the fact this is Bloomsday – and to be quirky – and as an act of self-indulgence – and the not minor fact it is apparently out of copyright – here is the opening of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man… like all Joyce’s work, best read in your mind in an Irish accent…


The first edition of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, published by B. W. Huebsch in 1916

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo….

His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.

He was baby tuckoo. The moocow came down the road where Betty Byrne lived: she sold lemon platt.

O, the wild rose blossoms
On the little green place.

He sang that song. That was his song.

O, the green wothe botheth.

When you wet the bed, first it is warm then it gets cold. His mother put on the oilsheet. That had the queer smell.

His mother had a nicer smell than his father. She played on the piano the sailor’s hornpipe for him to dance. He danced:

Tralala lala,
Tralala tralaladdy,
Tralala lala,
Tralala lala.

Uncle Charles and Dante clapped. They were older than his father and mother but uncle Charles was older than Dante.

Dante had two brushes in her press. The brush with the maroon velvet back was for Michael Davitt and the brush with the green velvet back was for Parnell. Dante gave him a cachou every time he brought her a piece of tissue paper.

The Vances lived in number seven. They had a different father and mother. They were Eileen’s father and mother. When they were grown up he was going to marry Eileen. He hid under the table. His mother said:

—O, Stephen will apologise.

Dante said:

—O, if not, the eagles will come and pull out his eyes.—

Pull out his eyes,
Apologise,
Apologise,
Pull out his eyes.

Apologise,
Pull out his eyes,
Pull out his eyes,
Apologise.

The wide playgrounds were swarming with boys. All were shouting and the prefects urged them on with strong cries. The evening air was pale and chilly and after every charge and thud of the footballers the greasy leather orb flew like a heavy bird through the grey light. He kept on the fringe of his line, out of sight of his prefect, out of the reach of the rude feet, feigning to run now and then. He felt his body small and weak amid the throng of the players and his eyes were weak and watery. Rody Kickham was not like that: he would be captain of the third line all the fellows said.

Rody Kickham was a decent fellow but Nasty Roche was a stink. Rody Kickham had greaves in his number and a hamper in the refectory. Nasty Roche had big hands. He called the Friday pudding dog-in-the-blanket. And one day he had asked:

—What is your name?

Stephen had answered: Stephen Dedalus.

Then Nasty Roche had said:

—What kind of a name is that?

And when Stephen had not been able to answer Nasty Roche had asked:

—What is your father?

Stephen had answered:

—A gentleman.

Then Nasty Roche had asked:

—Is he a magistrate?

He crept about from point to point on the fringe of his line, making little runs now and then. But his hands were bluish with cold. He kept his hands in the side pockets of his belted grey suit. That was a belt round his pocket. And belt was also to give a fellow a belt. One day a fellow said to Cantwell:

—I’d give you such a belt in a second.

Cantwell had answered:

—Go and fight your match. Give Cecil Thunder a belt. I’d like to see you. He’d give you a toe in the rump for yourself.

That was not a nice expression. His mother had told him not to speak with the rough boys in the college. Nice mother! The first day in the hall of the castle when she had said goodbye she had put up her veil double to her nose to kiss him: and her nose and eyes were red. But he had pretended not to see that she was going to cry. She was a nice mother but she was not so nice when she cried. And his father had given him two five-shilling pieces for pocket money. And his father had told him if he wanted anything to write home to him and, whatever he did, never to peach on a fellow. Then at the door of the castle the rector had shaken hands with his father and mother, his soutane fluttering in the breeze, and the car had driven off with his father and mother on it. They had cried to him from the car, waving their hands:

—Goodbye, Stephen, goodbye!

—Goodbye, Stephen, goodbye!


…and here is Molly Bloom’s closing soliloquy from the climax of Ulysses

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British newspapers… a novel tale of devious deals, phone hacking and death

The Lion of Fleet Street is a novel about a British tabloid newspaper reporter – one of the ‘big beasts’ of Fleet Street – the centre of the newspaper business at the turn of the century.

It is written by Patrick Symes. He worked as a freelance reporter for national newspapers, radio and television for forty years, specialising in sport. He also ran a news agency covering news and sport throughout the South of England.

So he knows the inside stories.

He has written (as  Pat Symes) 12 non-fiction books about international sportsmen.

The Lion of Fleet Street is his first novel.


JOHN: You’ve written factual books before. Why a novel now?

PATRICK: I just wanted to see if I could do it. I got to a stage in my career where I was winding down. I had sold the news agency and I did a wee stint as a lecturer in Journalism at Solent University in Southampton which was also coming to an end… and I was having cancer treatment.

I was fit and happy and looking forward to my dotage and then suddenly I discovered I had prostate cancer and then kidney cancer. I’ve had one kidney removed. Then the cancer moved to the lungs, which is where it is now. I’ve got a few nodules there.

JOHN: And, at the moment…?

PATRICK: I’ve had numerous scans. I’m never going to beat it; the tumours are there. But it can be contained and coped-with, I hope. So you just plod on in those sort of circumstances.

I had started a book. I don’t even know why. But I thought: Well, I’ll continue it.

JOHN: Why this plot?

PATRICK: One of the good things about journalism is you meet so many people and come across so many incidents and you store them away. I got this idea based on, I think, the funeral of one of the ‘big beasts’ in Fleet Street. I remember that time – the turn of the century – quite vividly. 

It was a massive turning point in the world of the media and how news was disseminated.

Most of my career, if I was covering a football match, I would have to pick up a phone and dictate the report to a copy typist. That was also the way these ‘big beasts’ in Fleet Street operated too; they had these huge, inflated reputations because theirs was the only conduit for news. 

But suddenly there was a twist and a change and the internet came in, though it wasn’t much good to begin with. I remember thinking: Well this is never going to catch on.

Now, of course, we all live by it every day.

It wasn’t just that, of course. Radio and television were becoming more sophisticated and news was being blasted at us all day long.

JOHN: How were radio and TV becoming more sophisticated in news coverage?

PATRICK: It was more instant. TV had taken over the role of newspapers. There was regional television, regional radio stations with quite sophisticated news production. During the day we would know instantly if the Prime Minister resigned. There was no point newspapers printing that as ‘news’ the next day. 

I think I got the tail end of Fleet Street in its pomp. And there was more money around.

“I think I got the tail end of Fleet Street in its pomp…”

News (in newspapers) has become softer now; it has to be very showbiz orientated.

Many of the ‘big beasts’ took hefty pay-offs and disappeared off to their gardens,; one or two others – like my man in the novel – stayed but didn’t really know how to adapt. Their salaries were quite large. New, younger, management came in with new, fresh ideas and decided that the old type of journalism was largely redundant. 

My man, with redundancy hanging over him, teams up with a phone tapper – although many of the journalists of that time did it themselves. He comes up with a couple of stories that give him a front page lead and he seems to be restoring his reputation, but redundancy is still very much hanging over him.

In desperation, he listens in to a police tape – this was at the time of the Milly Dowler murder

A certain person is going to be arrested, but my protagonist mis-hears it

When his story appears on the front page of his tabloid, the Sunday Argus, it becomes obvious fairly soon afterwards that his story naming the wrong man had been obtained by illegal means. My protagonist’s life is in ruins but he finds another story which involves… There was a hotel in Eastbourne, near Beachy Head which specialised in giving a ‘last night of luxury’ for would-be suicides.

JOHN: This was real?

PATRICK: I don’t know. Beachy Head is a very spooky place. The wind whistles there and there are all these crosses on the edge of the cliff where people have jumped…

JOHN: Really?

PATRICK: Yeah.

JOHN: You went there?

“Beachy Head is a very spooky place. The wind whistles there… where people have jumped…”

PATRICK: Yes. And I was standing there minding my own business, taking in the atmosphere when two people from a church vigilante group came up to me and said: “Can we help you?”

I said: “Why do you think I need help?”

They said: “Number one, you haven’t got a camera. Number two, you’re standing there with your hands in your pockets, deep in thought… If there’s anything we can do to help you…”

JOHN: So you said “I’m a journalist”… and they said “Jump”…?

PATRICK: (LAUGHS) 

JOHN: All first novels are autobiographical, so…

PATRICK: Phone tapping WAS rampant throughout Fleet Street at that time. It was so easy. They were all expected to do it – on the tabloids anyway – and some fairly prominent people in the newspaper industry of that time got away with it. News International are still paying off victims of that nigh on 20 years later.

JOHN: Have you an idea for your next novel?

PATRICK: I went to a school that had part-boarders and there was a very encouraging English teacher there. He got sacked because he was fiddling around with some of the boy boarders.

He became an actor. His name was Roland McLeod.

He never rose to any great prominence, but he was in Worzel Gummidge and Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em and The Goodies and so on. He tended to play the bank manager or something similar in sitcoms.

He suddenly got the gig of his life when he appeared in Coronation Street – a 6-month or  a year’s contract – and there was a big, big build-up when he was going to propose to Emily Bishop (one of the central characters). A huge build-up. It was in all the papers.

Eileen Derbyshire (as Emily Bishop) and Roland McLeod (as Bernard Morton) in Coronation Street

I didn’t know he was in Coronation Street at first, but you couldn’t avoid it. I mentioned his background to some colleagues in the office and they said: “You ought to put that up to the News of the World. They’d love that!”

Walking behind the newsdesk at the time, by coincidence, was a guy who heard the words Ryde School and he said: “Oh! I went there! I was a boarder and I had ‘difficulties’ with teachers.” So it suddenly became a revenge mission for him and it took me over, really.

I thought: Well, he didn’t do ME any harm…

So it was a real crisis of conscience for a day or two but, in the end, greed overcame my conscience and I rang the News of the World and, of course, they loved it.

I went back to my parents’ house to see if they had any school reports signed by him, which they had. It became a front page lead in the News of the World, I’m afraid to say.

I was well-remunerated, as you can imagine.

The News of the World found him on the day before publication, boarding a plane at Luton Airport. They tapped him on the shoulder and said “Roland McLeod… It’s the News of the World” and he said “I’ve been waiting for this for 30 years”.

It was an astonishing admission when you think about it. 

JOHN: What happened on Coronation Street? Did they pull him as a character?”

PATRICK: I think his role was finished anyway; he had proposed to Emily Bishop and she had said No.

He still got bits and pieces of work afterwards, so I didn’t feel that bad about it. I could justify it by saying to myself that, in many respects, he…

JOHN: …got his comeuppance.

PATRICK: Yes. He did deserve it. 

JOHN: Kiddy fiddling is serious stuff…

PATRICK: Once the News of the World revealed it, he had a speech ready and he said something along the lines of “Homosexuality is a curse. It’s not what I wanted to be.” He tried to justify himself. He had a prepared statement.

JOHN: Over your 40 years in the business, you must have encountered lots of stories which never got published… Did you think of putting them into the novel or future novels?

PATRICK: Little bits and pieces. You knew about people who were on the fiddle. There were stories which suddenly ‘died’; they just didn’t appear.

JOHN: I mean, Jimmy Savile. There would have had to be real, solid, cast-iron evidence to print a story while he was alive.

PATRICK: Yes and he, too, gets a mention in the book. Every newspaper tried to nail him at one stage or another. But they never had solid proof and, if he thought they were getting too close, he would always say: “Well, I’m a national treasure. I’ve raised £50 million through my charity walks and things. Do you want people to know you stopped me doing those?”

… Some of Pat(rick) Symes’ sports books…

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Cult creative performer/painter The Iceman turns children’s book author…

Anthony Irvine – The Iceman – appears occasionally in this blog.

I first auditioned his stage act – melting blocks of ice – in 1987.

In a later incarnation – AIM – he added painting to his creative output. Some of his fine art can be bought from the Saatchi Art website.

For example, a painting of his first ice block – Crazy Larry’s Painting – is currently on offer at a bargain price of £4,280.

And now Anthony has become an author…


JOHN: So you are now an author as well as a performer and painter…

ANTHONY: I have a literary background. When I was a young man, I studied literature at a very ancient institution.

JOHN: Bedlam?

Debbie’s fantastical adventures with Antarctic animals…

ANTHONY: It’s a children’s book called Lockdown Melter.

JOHN: And you presumably wrote it during the Covid block-down…

ANTHONY: Yes. I thought of everybody suffering. It’s a fantasy where a young child – Debbie – is frustrated with the situation and escapes with the aid of Lappy, a polar bear – a small polar bear – who she meets in her bedroom and she goes on this adventure to Antarctica.

To facilitate this adventure, Lappy instructs her to get some ice cubes from the fridge freezer. The ice cubes are put on her head and there’s a magical transformation and she goes on this journey.

The idea is that Antarctica is a pristine, beautiful, relatively-undamaged place that we can all go to; the animals are in harmony and, in the story, the penguin says…

JOHN: The penguin?

ANTHONY: Yes, the penguin… There’s a penguin… As I wrote it, I thought: This is an amazing parallel to my Iceman stage act. It retains an ice theme. In a sense, I melt blocks of ice to achieve purification. Similarly, Debbie is finding something away from this world really – saṃsāra and all that.

JOHN: Saṃsāra ?

Anthony Irvine – his self portrait…

ANTHONY: The Buddhist concept of suffering. Do you chant?

JOHN: Not as far as I know.

ANTHONY: Lockdown Melter was a very simple story but I quite liked it, so I approached a publisher, Olympia, who have an imprint called Bumblebee who have published it.

JOHN: Well, if you write a good children’s story that doesn’t date – it’s a fantasy – it’ll sell forever and internationally.

ANTHONY: You can get it from WH Smith, Foyles, Browns Books, the Book Depository, Waterstones, Amazon, the lot…

JOHN: You should tell Waterstones you will do a signing of the book AND melt a block of ice the same time. That should get people in. Does JK Rowling melt blocks of ice in a bookshop? No. She’s just not trying hard enough.

ANTHONY: Perhaps I should go Banksy-style and sell a book that melts. You know his picture that shredded itself? 

JOHN: Yes. The water from your melted book might be worth a fortune.

ANTHONY: Is it technically possible?

JOHN: I dunno. You are The Iceman. Why become an author?

ANTHONY: I used to tell stories to my young son and I guess I’d always had the thought I might write a children’s story. It is really for young children. The idea is young children could read it themselves or parents could read it to them; it’s more like a picture book. So then I realised I had to get the pictures.

The illustrator is actually Greek: Sofia Stefanis Pons. She did some nice – I think dramatic – illustrations. My pictures were declined as being too ‘rough’. But hers are great.

Debbie meets Lappy for the first time… illustration by Sofia Stefanis Pons…

JOHN: So do you have an idea for a second book?

ANTHONY: Yes. I like the innocence of Lockdown Melter.

When I was a child, I was very unhappy at one point and I built an arch with stiff cushions. I went through the arch and discovered I was happy. So the Lockdown Melter idea is simple but it is like going somewhere and attaining awareness. It’s the same principle.

Debbie goes on a journey. She meets animals who are nice to her and she finds the Antarctic world all very beautiful and something happens at the end which I can’t give away. But I think the idea of the story is the idea that human beings – the human race – need help and in this story it’s the penguin who gives that help.

JOHN: The penguin?

ANTHONY: Yes, the penguin… There’s a penguin… Next time I think Debbie might go to the Sahara.

JOHN: Difficult to work ice blocks into that story.

ANTHONY: An ice block could bring irrigation to the Sahara… I think if this first book is successful I WILL continue with the writing idea.

Anthony Irvine’s educational Thespian Follies, coming soon

I have already written 13 little plays for drama classes in schools. That book is due to be published soon. It’s called Thespian Follies.

It’s an educational resource; I’m going quite mainstream, aren’t I?

Ice blocks were my life and still are my life to some extent but I feel I have to do a bit more. My next ambition is to write a Channel 4 type series: a bit like The Outlaws but based on car rental. When I was in debt at one point, I did a job at Hertz car hire, cleaning cars and taking them out to the Army and so on: that’s a ready-made situation comedy.

JOHN: You could call it Hertz of Darkness.

ANTHONY: I was thinking of calling it Hurts… That’s my next project.

Maybe writing will displace painting in time, but at the moment my main activity is still painting. I’m trying to sell Bill Bailey a painting; I’m playing tennis with his accountant this afternoon.

I sold a painting to Mark Thomas at the Electric Palace in Bridport recently. He was on tour and I hadn’t seen him for about 40 years. He gave me his book and I sold him a painting in which he appears.

JOHN: You are a born entrepreneur. JK Rowling will have to start learning how to melt blocks of ice…

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A bit of a chat with Robert Wringham – Part 2 – Comedy, characters, dreams…

Robert Wringham is not his real name…

Yesterday’s blog finished with:

ROBERT: So, when I moved to Scotland, I thought: I’m taking that name! It’s sort of similar to mine and the thing about that book is it’s about doppelgängers. So I thought: My persona is going to be my evil twin. He’s going to do the stuff that I don’t do in real life.

Now read on…


JOHN: I am not in any way a performer. No talent; no interest in doing it. There is a different mindset between performers and writers, isn’t there? I’m not remotely a performer. I can’t ad-lib fluently in spoken speech, whereas I can write I think fluently quite quickly.

ROBERT: I don’t want to be truly me performing on stage; I want to be a character. I think I can just about hold my own in terms of fast thoughts, but what I can’t do is play the character at the same time. However, in Stern Plastic Owl and my other books, I think I CAN do that.

JOHN: So, when you were a stand-up, it was character comedy…

ROBERT: Not like Alan Partridge. It’s like what I said about ‘Robert Wringham’ and the doppelgänger. I want this clear line between the real me and what I’m showing, otherwise it’s not actually a creative act. I don’t want to go out there and just talk. I want to have a character and that was why I was not very good as a performer. I couldn’t really do that.

The way I’ve found round that problem is to do these books. 

JOHN: By and large, I don’t like character comedy because, in television, I got typed as a finder of bizarre and/or eccentric ‘real people’. So I know there are loads of eccentric or even just slightly unusual people out there – well, most people are slightly unusual – and they are really interesting. So why should I watch someone pretending to be eccentric or unusual when they are not? – They are just analysing someone who isn’t themselves and fabricating a character to hide behind.

Charlie Chuck is not a subtle character study of a real type…

The closer a character act is to being real, the less I’m interested. The more ‘cartoony’ they are, the more I’m interested. Charlie Chuck springs to mind. Charlie Chuck (real name Dave Kear) is not a subtle character study of a real type of person.

ROBERT: One of my favourite comics is Harry Hill (real name Matthew Hall) and a lot of people don’t really think of him as a character comic although he is. You could not be like that in real life. I assume Matthew Hall at home is going to be nothing like Harry Hill.

JOHN: Yes, he’s a cartoon character – in a good way. I think really good straight stand-up comedians on stage are themselves, but slightly heightened versions of themselves. And then there are the OTT cartoony-type ones. But stand-up ‘character comedy’ tends to be just wannabe actors showing off their abilities, not performers who inherently have that odd ‘comedian’ gene.

I also don’t particularly like slow-speaking comedians. If I pay to see Jerry Sadowitz, I’m getting value for money in the words-per-minute, but slow comedians, by-and-large, I think: Just get on with it! I never liked Jack Benny. Too slow. Although, oddly, I liked George Burns.

ROBERT: To me, ‘slow’ is the ultimate cool because it’s the opposite of… When you’re nervous on stage, you go fast. A slow-speaking comedian instills a certain confidence in the room. You think: Oh! This guy knows what he’s doing! He’s going to slowly reveal the routine. It’s also very funny: almost as if they don’t care what the audience thinks.

JOHN: I guess maybe George Burns felt more Jewish to me, which I like. Jack Benny was maybe less ‘American Jewish’ humour.

ROBERT: My partner is Jewish and Jewish is a big part of our shared life. In my secret mind, ‘Robert Wringham’ is Jewish, though I don’t tend to talk about it on the page. My favourite humorists are all Jewish. 

JOHN: S.J. Perelman?

ROBERT: Yeah. Woody Allen, Fran Lebowitz, Jon Ronson.

JOHN: So what’s next for you after Stern Plastic Owl?

ROBERT: I’m working on my novel. It’s almost done.

JOHN: Tell me it really IS about sitting in a bathtub and it’s called Rub-a-Dub-Dub

ROBERT: Yes! It is!

JOHN: A lucky guess on my part. What’s the plot?

ROBERT: I think ‘plot’ is old hat. So, instead of going wide with a plot, go deep. It’s about the conscious state you have when you’re in the bath. You’re nostalgic. You’re thinking back. There’s this time machine effect. You’re thinking back to you childhood. So that’s what my guy in the book does. He’s remembering things, thinking of his worries, thinking on his body. There’s a lot of stuff about the body in it.

There is something called phenomenological writing, which is just the real nitty-gritty of what surrounds you. You’d be surprised how you can make that interesting.

JOHN: As I speak to you, I am looking at a squeezy pink double decker bus standing in front of a painting of a nun sitting in front of a station/cathedral. What is phenomenological writing?

“I am looking at a squeezy pink double decker bus standing in front of a painting of a nun…”

ROBERT: It’s really old. It’s a French thing. For example, Georges Perec did one where it was all in one building, but it was into the nitty-gritties. So he’d be talking about the design on the carpet for ages and going into the shagpile of this single room or the individual books in the bookcase and what they were. And it would all be in the service of something: like This is the character of the person who lives there. But it would be really deep into the nitty-gritty.

You would think: That can’t possibly be fun to read. But, actually, it’s really entertaining and interesting. What I’m doing and what Georges Perec did is playing it for laughs.

JOHN: I remember reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch and wondering why she went into such detailed descriptions of people’s houses… until I realised the descriptions were actually also descriptions of each householder’s personality. The houses personified their occupants. 

This blog bit is just pure self-indulgence…

You were talking about dreams earlier on. I’m interested because I have an unidentified medical problem. I used to sleep soundly and deeply and never remembered my dreams. But now I haven’t had a full night’s sleep since June 2020 – I wake up literally every hour and, of course, sometimes I wake up in the middle of a dream. I always wanted to remember my dreams because I assumed they would be surreal but they’re not. The dreams I have are very realistic not surrealistic. They have narrative storylines running through them. I am disappointed. You sound like you have better dreams.  

ROBERT: Mine aren’t stories at all. If I do something very repetitive during the day – like doing the washing-up – that’ll end up in my dream. Repetitive things go in. Embarrassingly dull.

JOHN: I don’t seem to have nightmares. Do you?

ROBERT: No. And, if I do write things down in my notebook, it’s always things like Stern Plastic Owl. I DID once write down Stoat: Hospital with a colon between the two words. I can’t even begin to imagine what that means. 

JOHN: I can only dream of having dreams which are that weird.

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A bit of a chat with Robert Wringham – Part 1 – The Stern Plastic Owl man…

Robert Wringham describes himself as a ‘humorist’… His latest book is 2021’s Stern Plastic Owl.

His first book, in 2012, was You Are Nothing (about Simon Munnery, Stewart Lee et al’s comedy show Cluub Zarathustra).

After that, he wrote A Loose Egg (2014), which was shortlisted for Canada’s 2015 Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour.

His 2016 book Escape Everything! was a spin-off from the New Escapologist, a lifestyle magazine he edited and published 2007-2017 and which continues as a series of online essays. New Escapologist describes itself as “the journal of the art of getting out of things” and suggests that “work has too central a position in Western life”.

Escape Everything! was successful enough to be translated into German and released in Germany, Austria and Switzerland as Ich Bin Raus and then, in 2018, in South Korea as [] 탈출하라. No doubt to further confuse readers, it was also republished in the UK in 2021 in English as I’m Out: How To Make an Exit.

Meanwhile, in 2020, in English, Robert had written The Good Life For Wage Slaves, which was re-published in Germany as Das gute Leben.

He had also written a regular column 2016-2020 in The Idler, a magazine whose declared aim is to “return dignity to the art of loafing” and had written for a variety of other esteemed outlets including Meat, The Skinny, the British Comedy Guide, Playboy etc etc etc.

Obviously, I had to have a chat with Robert.

It would have been churlish not to.

He lives in Glasgow and Montreal (his partner is Canadian), so we talked via FaceTime.


JOHN: You have said: “The highest form of human activity is the shenanigan”…

ROBERT: It makes sense, right? What could be better than a mischievous, spontaneous act?

JOHN: ARE you a mischievous, spontaneous act?

ROBERT: That’s what I aspire to.

JOHN: You describe yourself ‘a humorist’.

ROBERT: There’s a thing on Wikipedia at the moment about the definition of ‘humorist’ which says it’s “an intellectual who uses comedy to get his or her point across”. And that nails it for me. I don’t want to think of myself as an intellectual, but I do like the idea that I’m trying to communicate a ‘point’ packaged nicely with humour, so you can get inside somebody. It’s the sugar pill, right?

“I think it’s to do with anti-pigeon…”

JOHN: Why is your latest book called Stern Plastic Owl?

ROBERT: That’s a theme. My previous similar miscellany book was called A Loose Egg because I got hung up on that phase “a loose egg”. It came about by accident, because there was a loose egg in our fridge back in Canada.

Stern Plastic Owl is a random phrase too. Like all comedians and writers, I have a notebook nearby at all times, including by my bed. There is an idea that sleeping should be when your fertile ideas come up although, really, what I write down in the night is gibberish. But it feels like it’s a resource I should use and one of the phrases that stood out was Stern Plastic Owl. I didn’t know what it meant.

So there is a story in the book where I try to work out what it means. It’s kind of a detective story in the middle of the book.

JOHN: So did you find out what it means?

ROBERT: Not exactly. But I think it’s to do with anti-pigeon, do you know what I mean?

JOHN: No.

ROBERT: An anti-pigeon device. You’ve got an owl and you put it up on your roof to scare pigeons away. There’s one nearby and I think I must have seen that and it came back to me in a dream. So I tried my best to write a piece around one of those stern plastic anti-pigeon owls.

JOHN: I’ve never heard of this before. Are you telling me, if I come up to Glasgow there are fake owls on window sills and roofs all over the place.

ROBERT: They’re everywhere.

JOHN: You were a stand-up comic.

“I never got a horrible heckle ever…”

ROBERT: One of the very brief things from my very brief stand-up period was my come-back to hecklers: “Sir, you cannot count the number of cylinders I’m firing on”. I’m still happy with that. I never got to use it, but it was just there on standby. I never got a horrible heckle ever.

JOHN: You were too loveable?

ROBERT: Probably too young. A lot of audiences are just polite if you look very young.

JOHN: Why did you give up stand-up?

ROBERT: My favourite thing was writing the jokes and fine-tuning them. The hardest part was making it sound good, sound spontaneous. I didn’t enjoy the late nights or the Green Room badinage. I have met a lot of wonderful comedians in Green Rooms but I never felt I was holding my own in those conversations.

JOHN: You wrote that one great climb-down of your life was “pointing your imagination in the direction of writing rather than performance”.

ROBERT: Well, that’s not really true. That’s just what I put in the book. It didn’t really feel like a climb-down. I just didn’t want to tell the story in the other direction which was I was travelling in a favourable direction to the thing I wanted to do. I didn’t think there was any comedy in saying that.

JOHN: Is it a book full of lies? Like comedy routines?

ROBERT: Oh completely. The idea of what is true is something that is always on my mind a lot. For example, my real name is not Wringham. My actual passport name is Westwood. Robert Westwood.

 I wanted to change my name and be a persona. So, when I’m on the page or on the stage, it’s a separate thing. 

JOHN: Why Wringham?

Agraman aka The Human Anagram, John Marshall, c2018

ROBERT: I was always entertained by people like The Human Anagram (aka Agraman aka John Marshall) in the 1980s, but I wanted to do something else. I like horror novels and there’s one called The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

 It’s of the age of Frankenstein, but it’s Scottish and I think that’s why no-one has given a shit about it and it’s unjustifiably obscure. The villain in that is called Robert Wringham.

So, when I moved to Scotland, I thought: I’m taking that name! It’s sort of similar to mine and the thing about that book is it’s about doppelgängers. So I thought: My persona is going to be my evil twin. He’s going to do the stuff that I don’t do in real life.

(… CONTINUED HERE … )

Robert’s books have been published in the UK, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and South Korea

 

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Award-winning Janet Bettesworth: her Mercenaries novel and a Ukraine song

Walking a tight-rope on a roller-coaster

Stand-up comedian and comedy club promoter Janet Bettesworth has published her first novel Mercenaries

The blurb says it “plunges into the no-holds-barred dark world of Airbnb machinations” in which “Carla, a comedian, and Louise, an actress, are bribed by an elderly landlady, Alice to… extract revenge… A mélange of gruesome memories emerges as events unfold”.

And… “This plot line walks a tight-rope on a roller-coaster! And includes all you need to know about Butlins Holiday Camp Margate, Countess Elizabeth Bathory, racism, Airbnbs, #MeToo, bribery, the Royals, insects, coffins, croissants, failed comedians and revenge.”

Janet started creating the book by posting a series of her portraits of characters on Facebook (I blogged about it in 2020) and asking people to suggest their backgrounds.

So I had a chat with Janet and fellow comic Peter Stanford at her undeniably prestigious book launch in South London.


JOHN: So why write this book?

JANET: The genesis was when I won £1,000 in a writing competition.

JOHN: From whom?

JANET: The Oldie magazine. The topic was The worst job I’ve ever had.

JOHN: Which was?

JANET: Being a waitress at a Butlin’s holiday camp in Margate. I had to go to the Garrick Club where The Oldie held their Award thing. I went with (comedian) Will Franken. 

The evening dragged on and they hadn’t told me when the presentation was going to happen. I really needed to go to the loo and thought: When on earth is it going to be time to give out the prize? Everyone was drinking away so I thought I’ll quickly just nip to the loo and the next thing I knew there was a banging on the door of the toilet and it was Will Franken…

JOHN: This was the Ladies toilet? 

JANET: Yes.

JOHN: Was he dressed as a lady?

JANET: No. But, by the time I got back, they had lugged (comedy icon) Barry Cryer on to fill the gap because there was no Me to be seen anywhere… Barry Cryer was in the middle of one of his parrot jokes but they kind of wheeled me on and I looked a bit shamefaced… When they wrote it up in The Oldie, it was all my fault this had happened: the person who didn’t really know what they were doing.

PETER: One would have thought they would have checked you were there before making the announcement…

JANET: Exactly! OR told me when it was going to happen.

JOHN: … or done the presentation in the toilet.

JANET: Before all that, I had been going round the room talking to various people who didn’t know anything about me. But, after the presentation, everyone was incredibly much more friendly. So I talked to Maureen Lipman and also to this really nice woman called Elizabeth Luard and she said: Have you ever thought of writing a book? And I said I genuinely felt it was beyond me.

I’d read hundreds of books and quite often I would be so full of admiration for the writer but I would think it was one step too far: I wouldn’t be able to do it.

JOHN: So why did you do The Oldie competition if you weren’t interested in writing yourself?

JANET: Well, I could write short things. Like for comedy writing….

But Elizabeth Luard said: If you can write something like the short Oldie piece, all you need to do is get ten more bits of that length and sew them all together.

JOHN: So the book is not so much a novel, more like a series of vignettes.

JANET: You’ve not read the book, have you?

JOHN: No.

Former art teacher Janet’s portrait of Peter Stanford…

PETER: Do you even own a copy of the book?

JOHN: I was hit by a truck in 1991 and can’t read books. I can write them, but I can’t read them.

PETER: You could always buy it and not read it…

JOHN: When is the audio book coming out?

JANET: Actually, a blind friend of mine asked the same thing. But I’ve never had anything published before and I’m completely new and it’s a strange world to me. My husband reads to me every single day, usually in the afternoon. I love being read to and he loves reading things out loud. We’ve read the Diaries of Alan Clark and… 

PETER: Does your husband do all the voices?

JANET: Yes. He always does the voices. I have actually had part of Mercenaries read out loud by a voice artist: Seanie Ruttledge.

 He read out the very first bit, which is quite pornographic.

JOHN: That’s a good start. If they read the first five pages, they’ll get some porn.

JANET: Oh, there’s plenty more after that.

JOHN: Why is the book called Mercenaries?

JANET: One of the themes is the difference in outlook between the generations. You have two women – the slightly younger generation – who are tangentially in the comedy or acting worlds. One of them is a vegan and she is very Me Too; and the other one is an elderly woman called Alice. So it’s the way she is viewed.

JOHN: Autobiographical in some way? 

JANET: I am 77 at the moment. When I was about 68, that’s when I started doing stand-up comedy and, in a way, going to all these gigs was a bit like going back to my youth. The kind of atmosphere of going to all these gigs was like a kind of renaissance, in a way.

Janet’s impression of me as an East End street trader…?

JOHN: It gave you a new lease of life?

JANET: Yes. And it gave me a sort of different prism to see the world.

JOHN: And the relevance of that to the book is…?

JANET: Well, they’re both aspects of me.

JOHN: So, if you’re describing different aspects of yourself, did it make you understand something more about yourself?

JANET: (DUBIOUSLY) I suppose so, yes. The hard part was trying to put it more together so there was some sort of plot.

JOHN: The easy bit was the pornography?

JANET: I dunno.

JOHN: You are an arty person as opposed to a wordy person. You were an Art teacher…

JANET: (DUBIOUSLY) Is it not possible to have both interests?

JOHN: Yes, but I thought maybe you were a fulfilled arty person and an unfulfilled wordy person.

JANET: I suppose. 

JOHN: Have you an idea for another book in your brain?

JANET: I did have the other day, but… 

JOHN: I know. I can’t remember what happened yesterday.

JANET: All the proceeds are going to the Ukraine, by the way. 

PETER: The book was published after the Russians invaded Ukraine.

JOHN: So the profits go to Ukraine charities for how long? Forever?

Janet checks the Ukrainian song’s lyrics…

JANET: Why not? Until Ukraine stops needing it, I suppose.

JOHN: So, if it’s all going to Ukraine, you’re going to earn nothing from this.

JANET: Great.

JOHN: So are you going to write another book?

JANET: I don’t know. I just have to wait for…

(AT THIS POINT, PETER PULLED OUT A PIECE OF SHEET MUSIC…)

PETER: We can sing. Here’s a song in Ukrainian. 19th century.

(JANET, WHO CAN READ MUSIC, STARTED SINGING “A PRAYER FOR UKRAINE”…)

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The ‘unfilmable’ Wrong People – in a movie that has taken 50 years to make

David’s next project is very un-comedic…

The last time I chatted to David McGillivray was in May 2019 BC…

Before Covid.

This year he celebrates his 40th year writing for Julian Clary but also he is about to direct a movie of Robin Maugham’s controversial 1967 novel The Wrong People. The pitch is… 

Set against the backdrop of 1960s Tangier, this thriller tells the story of Arnold Turner, a repressed English schoolmaster on holiday in Morocco, where he meets Ewing Baird, a wealthy American expat with a dark secret. As Turner becomes more involved with Ewing he realises he has been lured into a dangerous trap.

So, obviously, David and I had a chat…


JOHN: The Wrong People… Very definitely a million miles away from the world of comedy. You’re directing it…

DAVID: It’s happening this summer.

JOHN: It’s described as “a thriller” but it sounds Arty to me.

DAVID: It’s a brilliant piece of writing and indeed a thrilling adventure as well as being a searing piece of social comment.

JOHN: …from the 1960s. Making movies is not easy.

DAVID: Well, the story of trying to get this film made starts 50 years ago when I was writing House of Whipcord and Frightmare for director Pete Walker and he was telling me about his Hollywood actor chum Sal Mineo, who was in London at the time, trying to set up The Wrong People as a film.

David with his well-thumbed copy of the book

Around that same time The Wrong People was re-published in paperback under Robin Maugham’s own name. Earlier, he had published it under a pseudonym – David Griffin – because that’s what his uncle Somerset Maugham recommended.

JOHN: Because…?

DAVID: Because of the subject matter. Sal Mineo was trying to set up the film but Pete Walker said to me: “They’ll never make it.” So I went and bought the book and, like Somerset Maugham, I read it in one sitting. I went back into Mr Walker’s office the next day and said: “You’re right. They’ll never make a film of it.”

Sal Mineo went to all manner of screenwriters. (Peter Shaffer, Edna O’Brien, David Sherwin etc) They all said No because they found the subject matter distasteful. He did get a script out of a children’s writer who had I think written episodes of Doctor Who. But his script was deemed not really suitable and they ended up with – what a surprise – Pete Walker’s screenwriter Murray Smith. I’ve never seen his script. There may have been other scripts – maybe one by Robin Maugham himself – but they have all disappeared. Anyway, Murray did one that Sal also didn’t like. So the whole project was doomed, really.

“I found it winking at me on the shelf”

Sal was unable to make the film. He returned to Los Angeles in 1974 and two years later was murdered. After that, I never thought a thing about The Wrong People until I found Sal Mineo: A Biography winking at me on the shelf. It was published in 2010 and there is an entire chapter on The Wrong People.

I read the original Maugham book again and decided that night: Right! I’m going to make the film myself!

JOHN: When I talked to you about The Wrong People back in 2019, you were looking for a director at that point. You were not going to direct it yourself.

DAVID: I ended up seeing a lot of people who weren’t that keen on directing it in the first place and, in all honesty, with whom – half of them – I didn’t want to work. One or two of them had the most extraordinary ideas about what they wanted to do with the material.

Then, when I was on a 65 bus, I decided Oh! This is going to go on for years! I’ll direct it myself.

So I scripted a version and contacted a distributor who had put out a couple of my other films. He liked it, but said it needed a re-write. So I contacted my old friend Peter Benedict and we are now up to Draft 7. He’s very good on structure.

JOHN: Why did you originally not want to direct it?

DAVID: I’m not a born director. I’m more of a producer. I’m not bad at organising. But, during the intervening years since 2014, my confidence has grown; I think I can make a fist of it now.

JOHN: Ooh… So what is the audience for the film? It’s an arty, gay, adventurous thriller? 

“…I would prefer not to lose all my money but if I break even that would be lovely…”

DAVID: Obviously it’s never going to play the Odeon, Leicester Square. It’s an arthouse picture that will have a limited audience. That’s fine with me. I would prefer not to lose all my money but if I break even that would be lovely.

JOHN: It’s your own money?

DAVID: Of course, as always. Nobody would ever dream of giving me a penny.

JOHN: When we chatted in 2019, you did say it would be quite expensive to film.

DAVID: Yes… well… the budget has been… reduced… We have had to compromise; it’s the name of the game. I’ve done it all my life. So it’s no longer three weeks location in Morocco. It’s now going to be done via the miracle of green screen.

Maugham was an under-rated talent. He’s only really known for The Servant. The Wrong People is written very filmically and that’s because he worked on quite a few films. He understood cinema and that was the reason I loved it when I read it. I could picture it all. He writes like a screenwriter.

Robin Maugham in 1974 (Photo by Allan Warren)

JOHN: I’ve never seen The Servant, but it’s a gay film and made in 1963…

DAVID: The Servant was heterosexualised. It was straightened up and, unless you were in the know, you would never be aware that it’s a gay story. It was, again, based on Maugham’s own experiences and, although the novel is slightly gay, it was mostly straightened up because the market wouldn’t have accepted it in those days. 

The film is brilliant but bizarre. I mean, there’s an orgy in it with Dirk Bogarde and a load of women and Robin Maugham quite rightly said: “The orgy scene at the end of the film was a cock-up. It was obvious to anyone that neither (screenwriter Harold) Pinter nor (director) Joe Losey had ever been to one.” And he’s right; it looks just so unreal.

JOHN: And you have experience of orgies?

“You’ll find I don’t mention any orgies…”

DAVID: I wouldn’t say orgies exactly, John. Did I admit to orgies in my autobiography? I think you’ll find I don’t mention any orgies.

JOHN: Because…?

DAVID: I didn’t go to any.

JOHN: But your house was a den of iniquity.

DAVID: We didn’t have orgies there, John. Other things went on in that house.

JOHN: Such as…?

DAVID: Didn’t we have this conversation three years ago? 

JOHN: But my reader in Guatemala may have forgotten.,,

DAVID: It’s all in my autobiography Little Did You Know. It is well worth a read.

JOHN: You’ve said Maugham created “a moral dilemma” in The Wrong People – What moral dilemma?

DAVID: Because The Wrong People is about child abuse. It was a difficult subject then; it’s a difficult subject today. But for different reasons… Now almost nobody will even discuss the subject. I’m going to bring it out into the open again. Because the subject has to be discussed. Child abuse goes on. It’s been swept under the carpet. 

JOHN: Really? I’ve written down here: Jeffrey Epstein; Kevin Spacey.

DAVID: Well, these high-profile cases peek out from the top of the parapets, but what we’re concerned with is what Maugham was concerned with in his book – the secret child abuse that goes on that is never reported. It was far more common in 1967 because people turned a blind eye to it. Now we KNOW it goes on but, as I say, we can’t discuss it.

Maugham very cleverly invents a situation that makes the reader – as I’m going to make the cinema audience – think twice about this subject and you’ll have to see the film in order to find out more.

A publicity folder for Sal Mineo’s unfilmed Wrong People…

JOHN: There is, the publicity blurb says, a “shockingly unexpected conclusion”.

DAVID: I don’t think the audience will know what’s going to happen next. That’s the genius of Maugham’s writing. You can’t imagine where this story is going. Towards the end, there are some marvellous twists. And the ending is… Alright, I’m going to tell you – I don’t think I’ve admitted this before – I have changed the ending. Well, it was Peter Benedict originally, to give him the credit. But it makes it even more powerful.

JOHN: He wakes up in the shower and it’s all been a dream?

DAVID: It’s a lovely idea but, of course, that’s not what happens.

JOHN: …and then the aliens arrive…?

DAVID: There are no aliens in The Wrong People, John.

JOHN: Is there a car chase?

DAVID: I’m afraid it’s not that kind of a film. It’s an arthouse movie for a specific audience.

JOHN: Well I guess, despite the lack of a car chase, I’m just gonna have to see it to the end…

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George Orwell: Nineteen Eighty-Four. The Principles of Newspeak, Part 2 of 3

Yesterday’s blog quoted the start of George Orwell’Appendix to his novel Nineteen Eight-Four.

It continues here…


The B vocabulary. The B vocabulary consisted of words which had been deliberately constructed for political purposes: words, that is to say, which not only had in every case a political implication, but were intended to impose a desirable mental attitude upon the person using them.

Without a full understanding of the principles of Ingsoc it was difficult to use these words correctly. In some cases they could be translated into Oldspeak, or even into words taken from the A vocabulary, but this usually demanded a long paraphrase and always involved the loss of certain overtones. The B words were a sort of verbal shorthand, often packing whole ranges of ideas into a few syllables, and at the same time more accurate and forcible than ordinary language.

The B words were in all cases compound words. They consisted of two or more words, or portions of words, welded together in an easily pronounceable form. The resulting amalgam was always a noun-verb, and inflected according to the ordinary rules. To take a single example: the word goodthink, meaning, very roughly, ‘orthodoxy’, or, if one chose to regard it as a verb, ‘to think in an orthodox manner’. This inflected as follows: noun-verb, goodthink; past tense and past participle, goodthinked; present participle, goodthinking; adjective, goodthinkful; adverb, goodthinkwise; verbal noun, goodthinker.

The B words were not constructed on any etymological plan. The words of which they were made up could be any parts of speech, and could be placed in any order and mutilated in any way which made them easy to pronounce while indicating their derivation. In the word crimethink (thoughtcrime), for instance, the think came second, whereas in thinkpol (Thought Police) it came first, and in the latter word police had lost its second syllable.

Because of the great difficulty in securing euphony, irregular formations were commoner in the B vocabulary than in the A vocabulary. For example, the adjective forms of Minitrue, Minipax, and Miniluv were, respectively, Minitruthful, Minipeaceful, and Minilovely, simply because –trueful, –paxful, and –loveful were sliightly awkward to pronounce. In principle, however, all B words could inflect, and all inflected in exactly the same way.

Some of the B words had highly subtilized meanings, barely intelligible to anyone who had not mastered the language as a whole. Consider, for example, such a typical sentence from a Times leading article as Oldthinkers unbellyfeel Ingsoc. The shortest rendering that one could make of this in Oldspeak would be: ‘Those whose ideas were formed before the Revolution cannot have a full emotional understanding of the principles of English Socialism.’ But this is not an adequate translation.

To begin with, in order to grasp the full meaning of the Newspeak sentence quoted above, one would have to have a clear idea of what is meant by Ingsoc. And in addition, only a person thoroughly grounded in Ingsoc could appreciate the full force of the word bellyfeel, which implied a blind, enthusiastic acceptance difficult to imagine today; or of the word oldthink, which was inextricably mixed up with the idea of wickedness and decadence. But the special function of certain Newspeak words, of which oldthink was one, was not so much to express meanings as to destroy them.

These words, necessarily few in number, had had their meanings extended until they contained within themselves whole batteries of words which, as they were sufficiently covered by a single comprehensive term, could now be scrapped and forgotten. The greatest difficulty facing the compilers of the Newspeak Dictionary was not to invent new words, but, having invented them, to make sure what they meant: to make sure, that is to say, what ranges of words they cancelled by their existence.

As we have already seen in the case of the word free, words which had once borne a heretical meaning were sometimes retained for the sake of convenience, but only with the undesirable meanings purged out of them. Countless other words such as honour, justice, morality, internationalism, democracy, science, and religion had simply ceased to exist. A few blanket words covered them, and, in covering them, abolished them.

All words grouping themselves round the concepts of liberty and equality, for instance, were contained in the single word crimethink, while all words grouping themselves round the concepts of objectivity and rationalism were contained in the single word oldthink. Greater precision would have been dangerous. What was required in a Party member was an outlook similar to that of the ancient Hebrew who knew, without knowing much else, that all nations other than his own worshipped ‘false gods’. He did not need to know that these gods were called Baal, Osiris, Moloch, Ashtaroth, and the like: probably the less he knew about them the better for his orthodoxy. He knew Jehovah and the commandments of Jehovah: he knew, therefore, that all gods with other names or other attributes were false gods.

In somewhat the same way, the party member knew what constituted right conduct, and in exceedingly vague, generalized terms he knew what kinds of departure from it were possible. His sexual life, for example, was entirely regulated by the two Newspeak words sexcrime (sexual immorality) and goodsex (chastity). Sexcrime covered all sexual misdeeds whatever. It covered fornication, adultery, homosexuality, and other perversions, and, in addition, normal intercourse practised for its own sake. There was no need to enumerate them separately, since they were all equally culpable, and, in principle, all punishable by death.

In the C vocabulary, which consisted of scientific and technical words, it might be necessary to give specialized names to certain sexual aberrations, but the ordinary citizen had no need of them. He knew what was meant by goodsex — that is to say, normal intercourse between man and wife, for the sole purpose of begetting children, and without physical pleasure on the part of the woman: all else was sexcrime.

In Newspeak it was seldom possible to follow a heretical thought further than the perception that it was heretical: beyond that point the necessary words were nonexistent.

No word in the B vocabulary was ideologically neutral. A great many were euphemisms. Such words, for instance, as joycamp (forced-labour camp) or Minipax (Ministry of Peace, i.e. Ministry of War) meant almost the exact opposite of what they appeared to mean. Some words, on the other hand, displayed a frank and contemptuous understanding of the real nature of Oceanic society.

An example was prolefeed, meaning the rubbishy entertainment and spurious news which the Party handed out to the masses. Other words, again, were ambivalent, having the connotation ‘good’ when applied to the Party and ‘bad’ when applied to its enemies. But in addition there were great numbers of words which at first sight appeared to be mere abbreviations and which derived their ideological colour not from their meaning, but from their structure.

So far as it could be contrived, everything that had or might have political significance of any kind was fitted into the B vocabulary. The name of every organization, or body of people, or doctrine, or country, or institution, or public building, was invariably cut down into the familiar shape; that is, a single easily pronounced word with the smallest number of syllables that would preserve the original derivation.

In the Ministry of Truth, for example, the Records Department, in which Winston Smith worked, was called Recdep, the Fiction Department was called Ficdep, the Teleprogrammes Department was called Teledep, and so on. This was not done solely with the object of saving time. Even in the early decades of the twentieth century, telescoped words and phrases had been one of the characteristic features of political language; and it had been noticed that the tendency to use abbreviations of this kind was most marked in totalitarian countries and totalitarian organizations.

Examples were such words as Nazi, Gestapo, Comintern, Inprecorr, Agitprop. In the beginning the practice had been adopted as it were instinctively, but in Newspeak it was used with a conscious purpose. It was perceived that in thus abbreviating a name one narrowed and subtly altered its meaning, by cutting out most of the associations that would otherwise cling to it. The words Communist International, for instance, call up a composite picture of universal human brotherhood, red flags, barricades, Karl Marx, and the Paris Commune.

The word Comintern, on the other hand, suggests merely a tightly-knit organization and a well-defined body of doctrine. It refers to something almost as easily recognized, and as limited in purpose, as a chair or a table. Comintern is a word that can be uttered almost without taking thought, whereas Communist International is a phrase over which one is obliged to linger at least momentarily.

In the same way, the associations called up by a word like Minitrue are fewer and more controllable than those called up by Ministry of Truth. This accounted not only for the habit of abbreviating whenever possible, but also for the almost exaggerated care that was taken to make every word easily pronounceable.

In Newspeak, euphony outweighed every consideration other than exactitude of meaning. Regularity of grammar was always sacrificed to it when it seemed necessary. And rightly so, since what was required, above all for political purposes, was short clipped words of unmistakable meaning which could be uttered rapidly and which roused the minimum of echoes in the speaker’s mind. The words of the B vocabulary even gained in force from the fact that nearly all of them were very much alike. Almost invariably these words — goodthink, Minipax, prolefeed, sexcrime, joycamp, Ingsoc, bellyfeel, thinkpol, and countless others — were words of two or three syllables, with the stress distributed equally between the first syllable and the last.

The use of them encouraged a gabbling style of speech, at once staccato and monotonous. And this was exactly what was aimed at. The intention was to make speech, and especially speech on any subject not ideologically neutral, as nearly as possible independent of consciousness. For the purposes of everyday life it was no doubt necessary, or sometimes necessary, to reflect before speaking, but a Party member called upon to make a political or ethical judgement should be able to spray forth the correct opinions as automatically as a machine gun spraying forth bullets. His training fitted him to do this, the language gave him an almost foolproof instrument, and the texture of the words, with their harsh sound and a certain wilful ugliness which was in accord with the spirit of Ingsoc, assisted the process still further.

So did the fact of having very few words to choose from. Relative to our own, the Newspeak vocabulary was tiny, and new ways of reducing it were constantly being devised. Newspeak, indeed, differed from most all other languages in that its vocabulary grew smaller instead of larger every year. Each reduction was a gain, since the smaller the area of choice, the smaller the temptation to take thought.

Ultimately it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centres at all. This aim was frankly admitted in the Newspeak word duckspeak, meaning ‘to quack like a duck’. Like various other words in the B vocabulary, duckspeak was ambivalent in meaning. Provided that the opinions which were quacked out were orthodox ones, it implied nothing but praise, and when the Times referred to one of the orators of the Party as a doubleplusgood duckspeaker it was paying a warm and valued compliment.

( …CONTINUED HERE… )

There is a 1984 trailer for the 1984 movie of Nineteen Eighty-Four on YouTube…

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George Orwell: Nineteen Eighty-Four. The Principles of Newspeak, Part 1 of 3

George Orwell, in his 1943 NUJ photo

Two things had a big impact on me when I was young.

One was seeing film footage of the Nazi’s Belsen concentration camp when I was around 11 or 12.

The other big impact was reading George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four when I was around 14 or 15.

George Orwell died in London, on 21st January 1950 at the early age of 46.

So his works came out of copyright in the UK on 1st January 2021.

The Appendix to Nineteen Eighty-Four fascinated me almost as much the novel itself.

Here it is…


Newspeak was the official language of Oceania and had been devised to meet the ideological needs of Ingsoc, or English Socialism. In the year 1984 there was not as yet anyone who used Newspeak as his sole means of communication, either in speech or writing. The leading articles in the Times were written in it, but this was a tour de force which could only be carried out by a specialist. It was expected that Newspeak would have finally superseded Oldspeak (or Standard English, as we should call it) by about the year 2050.

Meanwhile it gained ground steadily, all Party members tending to use Newspeak words and grammatical constructions more and more in their everyday speech. The version in use in 1984, and embodied in the Ninth and Tenth Editions of the Newspeak Dictionary, was a provisional one, and contained many superfluous words and archaic formations which were due to be suppressed later. It is with the final, perfected version, as embodied in the Eleventh Edition of the Dictionary, that we are concerned here.

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods.

This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever. To give a single example. The word free still existed in Newspeak, but it could only be used in such statements as ‘This dog is free from lice’ or ‘This field is free from weeds’. It could not be used in its old sense of ‘politically free’ or ‘intellectually free’ since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts, and were therefore of necessity nameless.

Quite apart from the suppression of definitely heretical words, reduction of vocabulary was regarded as an end in itself, and no word that could be dispensed with was allowed to survive. Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.

Newspeak was founded on the English language as we now know it, though many Newspeak sentences, even when not containing newly-created words, would be barely intelligible to an English-speaker of our own day. Newspeak words were divided into three distinct classes, known as the A vocabulary, the B vocabulary (also called compound words), and the C vocabulary. It will be simpler to discuss each class separately, but the grammatical peculiarities of the language can be dealt with in the section devoted to the A vocabulary, since the same rules held good for all three categories.

The A vocabulary. The A vocabulary consisted of the words needed for the business of everyday life — for such things as eating, drinking, working, putting on one’s clothes, going up and down stairs, riding in vehicles, gardening, cooking, and the like. It was composed almost entirely of words that we already possess words like hit, run, dog, tree, sugar, house, field — but in comparison with the present-day English vocabulary their number was extremely small, while their meanings were far more rigidly defined. All ambiguities and shades of meaning had been purged out of them.

So far as it could be achieved, a Newspeak word of this class was simply a staccato sound expressing one clearly understood concept. It would have been quite impossible to use the A vocabulary for literary purposes or for political or philosophical discussion. It was intended only to express simple, purposive thoughts, usually involving concrete objects or physical actions.

The grammar of Newspeak had two outstanding peculiarities. The first of these was an almost complete interchangeability between different parts of speech. Any word in the language (in principle this applied even to very abstract words such as if or when) could be used either as verb, noun, adjective, or adverb. Between the verb and the noun form, when they were of the same root, there was never any variation, this rule of itself involving the destruction of many archaic forms.

The word thought, for example, did not exist in Newspeak. Its place was taken by think, which did duty for both noun and verb. No etymological principle was followed here: in some cases it was the original noun that was chosen for retention, in other cases the verb. Even where a noun and verb of kindred meaning were not etymologically connected, one or other of them was frequently suppressed. There was, for example, no such word as cut, its meaning being sufficiently covered by the noun-verb knife.

Adjectives were formed by adding the suffix –ful to the noun-verb, and adverbs by adding –wise. Thus for example, speedful meant ‘rapid’ and speedwise meant ‘quickly’. Certain of our present-day adjectives, such as good, strong, big, black, soft, were retained, but their total number was very small. There was little need for them, since almost any adjectival meaning could be arrived at by adding –ful to a noun-verb. None of the now-existing adverbs was retained, except for a very few already ending in –wise: the –wise termination was invariable. The word well, for example, was replaced by goodwise.

In addition, any word — this again applied in principle to every word in the language — could be negatived by adding the affix un-, or could be strengthened by the affix plus-, or, for still greater emphasis, doubleplus-. Thus, for example, uncold meant ‘warm’, while pluscold and doublepluscold meant, respectively, ‘very cold’ and ‘superlatively cold’. It was also possible, as in present-day English, to modify the meaning of almost any word by prepositional affixes such as ante-, post-, up-, down-, etc.

By such methods it was found possible to bring about an enormous diminution of vocabulary. Given, for instance, the word good, there was no need for such a word as bad, since the required meaning was equally well — indeed, better — expressed by ungood. All that was necessary, in any case where two words formed a natural pair of opposites, was to decide which of them to suppress. Dark, for example, could be replaced by unlight, or light by undark, according to preference.

The second distinguishing mark of Newspeak grammar was its regularity. Subject to a few exceptions which are mentioned below all inflexions followed the same rules. Thus, in all verbs the preterite and the past participle were the same and ended in –ed. The preterite of steal was stealed, the preterite of think was thinked, and so on throughout the language, all such forms as swam, gave, brought, spoke, taken, etc., being abolished. All plurals were made by adding –s or –es as the case might be. The plurals of man, ox, life, were mans, oxes, lifes. Comparison of adjectives was invariably made by adding –er, –est (good, gooder, goodest), irregular forms and the more, most formation being suppressed.

The only classes of words that were still allowed to inflect irregularly were the pronouns, the relatives, the demonstrative adjectives, and the auxiliary verbs. All of these followed their ancient usage, except that whom had been scrapped as unnecessary, and the shall, should tenses had been dropped, all their uses being covered by will and would. There were also certain irregularities in word-formation arising out of the need for rapid and easy speech.

A word which was difficult to utter, or was liable to be incorrectly heard, was held to be ipso facto a bad word: occasionally therefore, for the sake of euphony, extra letters were inserted into a word or an archaic formation was retained. But this need made itself felt chiefly in connexion with the B vocabulary. Why so great an importance was attached to ease of pronunciation will be made clear later in this essay.

( …CONTINUED HERE… )

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Ross Smith on his book about the reality of working in the creative industries…

Amazon.co.uk divides its books into various categories. At the weekend, I got an email from writer Ross Smith telling me that, just four days after publication, his new book See You at the Premiere: Life at the Arse End of Showbiz was in the Number 1 position in the ‘Hot New Releases’ of two of those categories – Playwriting and Screenwriting. It is now on sale on every Amazon site in 190 countries worldwide. I obviously chatted to Ross in – not-so-obviously – St James’s Park in London. We chatted in early November. I have only just pulled my finger out. Look, I’ve had plumbing problems…


“The first interview I’ve done in 25 years”

ROSS: This is the first interview I’ve done in 25 years. The last one was with Time Out. I used to write a BBC Radio 2 show called Steve Wright at the Movies. My producer Barry Littlechild was very forceful; you didn’t argue with Barry and he forced me into doing that interview.

JOHN: Why the 25-year gap?

ROSS: I stopped doing interviews after the movie Revenge of BillyThe Kid because I had a couple of bad experiences.

JOHN: But you have interviewed people yourself.

ROSS: I did nearly 300 interviews back in the day.

JOHN: At college, I studied radio, TV, journalism and advertising. The one that was most satisfying was radio, because you have total control over the result. But I went into television  because there’s no money in radio.

ROSS: Radio is notoriously badly-paid. I used to write for Radio 4’s Week Ending; for a while as a staff writer.

JOHN: You’ve done it all.

ROSS: (LAUGHS) Everyone’s written for Week Ending. This is what the book is about. I could make myself sound like Steven Spielberg but to do that I’d have to cut out all the heartache and all the projects that didn’t happen and all the debt I got into. All the awful experiences I had just to get to the next one.

There were gazillions of things that didn’t happen and I had to pay my bills at the end of the month. A couple of times I failed and I had to get kicked out of my home.

An exposé of life in the Arts end of showbiz

JOHN: The book originally had a different sub-title.

ROSS: Yes. The original sub-title was Memoirs From the Fag End of Showbiz…

We know what ‘Fag End’ means in Britain, but our American friends have got a different meaning. So I thought: OK, how about Life at the Arse End of Showbiz? And now I prefer Life at the Arse End of Showbiz. It sounds more funny, more resigned, whereas Memoirs From the Fag End sounds more like I’m really bitter, which I’m not.

I didn’t want to write a book about me per se, because I’m a nobody, although I’ve got a few credits. 

JOHN: More than a few!

ROSS: Yeah, but I’ve never been able to monetise my career… Indeed, that’s one of the key things about the book. I am in the area where 95-99% freelance creative people are.

You can be creative and go work for the BBC and have a job for life, going from project to project. But 95-99% of us are in this area where we’re not necessarily hugely successful and earning loads of money but we’re not complete arseholes. We’re stuck in the middle and that voice never gets heard. 

The only people who get interviewed by the broadsheets and the Graham Nortons of this world are people who are ‘successful’. And that gives a one-dimensional view of the Arts – acting, writing, whatever. As a result, the punters – the public – think Oh! Everyone in showbiz is earning a fortune! And it’s just not true.

My book is about the sort of guy who plays the waiter in one scene in a film. Looking at his career. 

That is the career, frankly, that most young creative people are going to have. They are not going to be the next Benedict Cumberbatch. They are going to be that waiter and try to make a living.

It is not a How To book per se; it’s more. It’s basically about all the shite that young people who have aspirations to be creative do not want to hear but need to hear if they want to monetise their talent and – far more important than that – maintain the monetisation of their talent.

It is all about the importance of agents, the importance of hustling, the importance of just keeping the fuck going.

This is a spade (Photograph via Pixabay)

There’s no bullshit in my book. I call a spade a spade. If you really wanna know how difficult it is – and all the pitfalls – read this book, because that’s what it’s about. It’s about how difficult it is to establish and maintain a freelance career. It goes a long way to explaining why so many freelance creative people haven’t got a pot to piss in.

JOHN: You wrote the movie Revenge of Billy The Kid under the pen name Richard Mathews. It has built a big cult following over the years.

ROSS: It’s un-fucking-blievable that film. We had never made a film before and no-one in the British film industry would give us a break and, in those days…

JOHN: When?

ROSS: 1988. It’s all in the book. The only wannabe movies that got made then would be like Privileged which was produced by students, but it was executive produced by John Schlesinger – an icon of British cinema – he godfathered the project and made sure ‘the kids’ did a good job. We had nothing like that.

Director Jim Groom, his business partner Tim Tennison and I wrote four scripts together. One was turned into a movie; the rest just didn’t happen. In the book, I talk about the ones that did NOT happen as much as the one that did. The one that did was Revenge of BillyThe Kid.

“Old MacDonald had a farm… and on that farm he HAD a goat…” – Ooh, missus!

Jim had lots of experience in editing commercials and trailers. Tim had been a First Assistant Director on many films – Little Shop of Horrors, Wetherby, Dance With a Stranger. I had written comedy sketches for TV and stuff like that. But no-one would give us a break.

It was a very anarchic production every step of the way. About 20 of us worked on the film and our average age was about 24. We went away for four weeks to Wales and Cornwall to shoot.

It’s something people love or hate. If you go to IMDB and scroll down the headlines of the reviews, it will go from ‘The Greatest Film I’ve Ever Seen’ to ‘Utter Dogshit’. There is nothing in the middle. Which is what we wanted.

The News of the World gave it its first ever No Stars review.

I suppose I turned my back on the film industry in the mid-Noughties. I gave up because of all the shit, although I had a very good production rate. I wrote 30 scripts and got 4 movies made out of it. My fourth film came out – The Adventures of Greyfriars Bobby – in 2006. It took sixteen years to get made. (Ross again used the pen name Richard Mathews.)

Invasion of the Cathode Rays, in which Ross played a robot

JOHN: Talent has to meet luck…

ROSS: Yes. In 1995, my friends and I took a midnight show to the Edinburgh Fringe Invasion of the Cathode Rays. It was set in the 1950s and was a parody of public health warnings, TV commercials. We were getting about 20 people a night in the audience. It was great fun, a great show, but we didn’t find our audiences. Fair enough. Classic Fringe story.

My second Fringe show – a two-person sort-of family show called One Small Step (written under the pen name David Hastings) – was the story of two people in an attic who discover all this ephemera from the 1960s and they start telling the story of the space race.

They hold a beach ball up and say: “Sputnik!” It’s that sort of play. The on-stage budget – costumes, sets, props – was £136.

One Small Step – 2 actors, 60 characters and 35,000 people.

The two actors played about 60 characters, including Laika the dog.

We were on at the Assembly Rooms at 5.00pm in the afternoon and got about 20-40 people daily for the first week. We had websites and fanzines writing wonderful things, but the mainstream press didn’t give a shit about us. Unless a show has ‘someone off the telly’, they’re not interested. That’s not a reflection on journalists; it’s a reflection on their readers.

But one day a guy called Malcolm Jack, a critic for The Scotsman, came to see it. There were 8 people in the audience that day. He wrote a 5-star review. The review was published on a Saturday morning. By 3.00pm in the afternoon, even the actors’ friends couldn’t get tickets. On the Sunday, it sold out again.

His review ended with the line: ”It’s hard to imagine a play fuelled by a more profound and spellbinding sense of sheer wonder”… Remember this is a play with two guys walking around on a stage with buckets on their head pretending they’re spacemen! It’s just two actors sitting around with junk on a stage; they play Also Spruce Zarathustra, the 2001 theme, on a stylophone!

Next thing we know…

The Sunday Times – 5-star review. 

Daily Telegraph: “One of the greatest things I’ve ever seen.”

The whole run sells out.

It gets a 10-week UK tour the next year. 

At the next year’s Fringe, the Assembly Rooms puts it in a bigger venue. The whole run sells out.

The British Council come on board: “We want to take you on a world tour starting in Sydney, Australia, for three weeks. It’ll take 11 months and end up in China.”

It was the world’s most-toured British play of 2010 – 22 countries in 11 months.

And all that started from that one review.

JOHN: Talent has to meet luck…

ROSS: Yup. It has been seen now by around 35,000 people worldwide – it toured America in 2019.

JOHN: So you made pots of money…

ROSS: Over-all, over the whole journey of all those shows over about two-and-a-half years, I only made £5,500. But the point is – as William Goldman famously wrote -“Nobody knows anything”.

Nobody KNOWS what is going to work and what isn’t.

You might think: Oh, come on, Ross! It’s been seen by 35,000 people! You’re getting your royalties and being flown all over the world!

No. This is the REAL reality. I went to see it in Washington, but I had to pay £600 for my flight and my own accommodation.

This is the world where most of us are. And that’s what this book is about. Readers who want to get into the Arts may not want to hear this, but it’s going to be the world they may (if they are lucky) enter.

They are NOT going to be the next Michael Caine. They might be the next Ross Smith. (LAUGHS) And, if so, good luck to you!

(CONTINUED HERE…)

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