Tag Archives: George Orwell

Bloggers are really just desperate self-publicists… including me in this blog

You know you have lived too long when students think you know what you are talking about.

Yesterday, I was approached by a student who was writing an essay on “blogging as a means of journalism”. I told him I did not think of myself as a journalist. He did not agree. This is an edited version of the exchange.


– Do you consider yourself a journalist or any bloggers for that matter? If not, what do you think makes a journalist?

The fact you can ask the question implies the words ‘journalist’ and ‘blogger’ have different meanings. I don’t consider myself a journalist. Bloggers are certainly not news journalists – if they ‘break’ stories and report instantly on current news stories, it is not really a blog; it’s a news site. You could argue they are neo-magazine journalists providing comment and background.

Most bloggers are amateur dabblers and/or wannabe writers who want a voice in a world where they have none.

I started my blog to publicise a movie. Then to publicise stuff I was staging at the Edinburgh Fringe. It continued as self-publicity. If I were up my own arse, I might also say it preserves details of people in sub-cultures that might not otherwise be preserved. But it’s basically lightly-disguised self-publicity.

A good journalist is concerned with objective facts (whether reporting on them or commenting on them). A good blogger is usually more personal and ego-centric in style.

Some bloggers, of course, are frustrated wannabe journalists so the dividing line is muddy.

Personally, whether it’s a correct dictionary definition or not, I make a distinction between a newspaper report and reportage. I think a journalist/reporter’s piece has immediacy – you have to read it today or tomorrow for it to have any impact. Reportage (like George Orwell’s factual books and essays) can be read just as effectively years later. I would say Orwell’s Homage To Catalonia or Down The Mine are pieces of reportage by a writer, not journalism. Today, they could be written in the form of blogs.

– Do you feel any external constraints as a blogger? Do you ever feel under pressure to say specific things (or not say specific things) to protect people or yourself?

I do not generally write anything which, in my opinion, could legally, physically, professionally or personally damage people. I do not feel any pressure to say specific things and I do not give the subjects of my blogs copy approval in advance. My blogs are mostly interview-based and I record everything so I cannot mis-quote.

If – rarely – I want to disguise a person or a fact (eg if an unprosecuted or unknown crime or something ‘immoral’ or ‘embarrassing’ is involved) I will sometimes – very very VERY rarely – alter the name, geographical location or, if possible, the sex of the person involved. It means I can still tell the truth about the event itself but the person cannot be identified.

I have only done this less than a handful of times over eight years.

Altering the person’s sex totally throws people off any recognition.

– Has your blog ever been censored?

Only by me for reasons above.

I used to re-post a few of my blogs in the Huffington Post. I did once write a blog about rude words and discussed the use of the word “nigger” which is interesting because it is mostly completely unacceptable but IS acceptable from some people (eg Eddie Murphy, Quentin Tarantino) – and, in The Dam Busters movie, a dog vital to the plot is called Nigger, which was inoffensive at the time but is now worrisome to TV stations.

The Huffington Post would not publish the piece, although the word was solely being discussed as an abstract word.

– Do you ever have any issues in terms of libel or slander when writing your blog? Does it worry you sometimes that someone will ever take legal action against your opinions?

No. I worked for BBC Ceefax (part of BBC TV News) and briefly in the newsrooms at Anglia TV, Granada TV and ITN. So I am careful.

If anyone threatened me with a libel action, I would go to court, defend myself (because, in England, lawyers have no incentive to win minor cases – they get paid anyway – and the legal system has nothing to do with justice) and publicise the shit out of it to get more awareness of my blog.

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Filed under Blogs, Journalism

Why interviewing people interests me

… Because I liked doing jigsaws as a kid…

… Because I am interested in how people’s minds work and how life’s ups and downs affect how they think and what they do… Yes, Nature v Nurture.

…. And – naff but true – because interviews record memories and, when the people with those memories die, all those moments could otherwise be lost in time, like tears in rain.

I think very often, when someone writes an interview piece, the intention is only partly to communicate what the interviewee said. The same often seems to happen (particularly in American magazines) when you read a feature piece on a subject. The intention is only partly to explain or illuminate the subject. Very often there is a parallel intention: to show-off the writing skills of the interviewer or feature writer who would really rather be a novelist. So you get long, irrelevant descriptions like:

“When I met Jeremy Bloggs, it was a scorchingly hot summer’s day in Mayfair and his blond hair fell like a desperate waterfall onto his craggy forehead, his chiselled wrinkles no doubt deepened by his recent tragedy.”

What a load of old bollocks.

When I chat with people I try, as much as possible, to write the piece in their own words.

If I add in extraneous facts, it is usually to create an overall unity – to cover over any jumps in the flow of the piece – not to make it look like I have an admirable literary style. If you are aware of the style and not what is being said, it is probably a shit piece of writing.

pen nib I hope I have no one sty;e

As in clothes, so in writing… There is no John Fleming style

I once had a chat with an editor at Random House publishers and he said something to the effect of: “I have read quite a lot of stuff you have written, John, but I haven’t been able to pin down your style, your own particular ‘voice’…”

What I did NOT reply to him was: “I should bloody hope not. I bloody try to write in whatever bloody style suits the bloody subject of the bloody piece!”

In my teenage years, I wanted to be able to communicate well by writing, not to have people say: “Oh, what a great literary stylist.”

I admired George Orwell who, I would argue, was a shit novelist (the love story in Nineteen Eighty-Four is badly drawn) but a great communicator of ideas (Nineteen Eighty-Four is an extraordinarily good book).

When I wrote trailers for various ITV companies’ evening schedules, I had to sell each show AND sell the overall evening ‘menu’ as if it had some sort of unity. I remember one evening I had to write a script which smoothly and enticingly listed a World in Action current affairs report on some worthy subject followed by (I think it was) The Benny Hill Show followed by a one-hour documentary on the Auschwitz concentration camp. I am here to tell you that it ain’t easy to link from Benny Hill to Auschwitz in a smooth, tasteful and enticing way.

It is just as well that I am interested in methods of communication.

There are several Benny Hill Show excerpts on YouTube.

When I was at college, I remember one early exercise was to go into a room and record a chat with someone about anything… then to transcribe from the tape not what you had heard said but what was actually said.

That was when I first fully realised no-one speaks coherently. What we hear is what the person intended to say, not what they actually said.

So someone may intend to say:

“A funny thing happened to me on the way here tonight: a man dressed as a fish was juggling oranges outside this local pub, The Queen’s Head…”

That is what you hear when you listen to them. But very likely what he or she actually said was:

“I was… A funny thing… err… A funny thing happened to me when I… when I… A funny thing happened to me on the way here. I was on the way here to… tonight. And a man dressed as a… a fish – he was dressed as a fish and he was juggling ora.. oranges… juggling oranges outside this local pub, The… The Queen’s… The Queen’s Head.”

When you interview someone and transcribe what was actually said, you almost always have to clean-up what was said. There is always that sort of editing involved. The trick is to edit the words without in any way editing what the person was trying to say. The trick to me is to create an illusion of real speech from the anarchic mess of words and flitting-back-and-forth ideas that actually is real speech.

Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine

Andy Warhol’s seminal Interview magazine

I was influenced in my erstwhile youth by regularly reading Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine in which the interviews were usually completely unedited (except, presumably, for cleaning-up the umms and errs). Because almost no-one speaks coherently.

But, if you edit well, people’s thoughts can be fascinatingly coherent. The trick – if it is a trick – is to get them to talk without thinking. If they think too much about the fact they will be quoted, they may try to speak in well-formed sentences. That ends in a terrible disaster of awkward phrasing and unrevealing formality.

When I was at college, one of our regular guest lecturers was maverick BBC Radio producer Charles Parker.

He had, for my taste, a rather overly Socialist view of ‘ordinary working class people’ and the inherent poetry of their speech as opposed to the Guardian-or-Daily-Mail-reading middle classes. In fact, I think, if you let anyone talk for long enough and edit them carefully, with sympathy and attention to detail, then almost everyone can be fascinating. The exception tends to be star actors and actresses or anyone who has done too many interviews – they easily slip into auto-pilot quote mode.

Charles Parker had made his reputation by producing a series of what he called ‘radio ballads‘ between 1958 and 1963. They were a combination of folk songs and interviews with ordinary people.

Singing The Fishing, for example, intermingled folk songs and interviews with men and women involved in the herring fishing industry of East Anglia and North East Scotland. It was and is fascinating. It was later used as the basis for a documentary film The Shoals of Herring.

(As a mostly irrelevant aside, my father used to service the marine radar on herring boats in North East Scotland, which may be why I am so interested.)

As Wikipedia currently rather awkwardly says (you can never be certain if Wikipedia will continue to say anything) Charles Parker’s radio ballads were “seen as a landmark of study in oral history”.

Another lecturer we had at college was Charles Chilton who, in effect, created Oh, What a Lovely War!

I say “in effect” because it started in 1962 as a BBC Home Service factual radio production called The Long Winding Trail about the First World War. That intermingled the reminiscences of real people with period songs, facts, figures and statistics.

This then became a 1963 stage show Oh, What a Lovely War! by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop in Stratford, London. It then transferred to London’s West End and Broadway in New York. And then, in 1969, it became the Richard Attenborough-directed movie Oh, What a Lovely War! minus the interviews.

Although it has nothing to do with interviews or, really, with this blog, here is a link to a YouTube clip – the almost wordless last seven minutes of the film Oh, What a Lovely War! – a sequence I can never watch without crying.

As I understand it, the final shot is real – there are no visual effects involved. I guess some of the holes are still there in the South Downs outside Brighton.

Perhaps this sequence from Oh, What a Lovely War! shows the other side of the coin: that sometimes you need no words at all to communicate ideas or to show humanity.

I keep telling people that, even when this blog is apparently about ideas and events, it is really about people who interest me.

Charles Parker (1919-1980)

Charles Chilton (1917-2013)

Joan Littlewood (1914-2002)

Richard Attenborough (1923-2014)

Andy Warhol (1928-1987)

So it goes.

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Trevor Lock on Dapper Laughs, Andrew Lawrence and the rise of liberal Fascism (my phrase not his)

trevor Lock, as seen by Poppy Hillstead

Trevor Lock, as painted by Poppy Hillstead

In yesterday’s blog, comedian Trevor Lock explained that he does not think Third World charity aid is always a good thing.

We talked at the end of a week in which there had been a social media maelstrom in the UK about comics Dapper Laughs and Andrew Lawrence.

Dapper Laughs had been at the centre of a storm about misogyny. Andrew Lawrence had posted on Facebook about the UK Independence Party’s poll successes and immigration.

I told Trevor Lock: “I don’t think Andrew Lawrence is being unreasonable if you actually read what he says.”

“Yes,” said Trevor. “If you read what he says. But it’s just… People… It’s absolutely terrifying… You can understand how Nazi Germany got off the ground. You really do see the witch huntery delight in identifying ‘the enemy’. It’s horrendous. Chilling. I found it chilling. That and the Dapper Laughs thing I find chilling.”

“Dapper Laughs,” I said, “I have no opinion on, because I’ve never seen or heard his stuff.”

“I don’t find him funny,” said Trevor, “but the point is he is not the anti-Christ.”

“Can I quote you?” I asked. “You might get hate mail.”

Andrew Lawrence’s Facebook postings ruffled feathers

Andrew Lawrence’s Facebook postings

“Yeah,” said Trevor. “I don’t care. I got hate mail for the Andrew Lawrence thing. I was ‘outed’ on Facebook for liking Andrew Lawrence’s thing. I was described as being a Right Wing, misogynistic whatever. It’s weird.”

I suggested: “It was the three-word description of some women on panel shows that did for Andrew.”

Women impersonating comedians,” said Trevor. “He didn’t say all female comedians and it’s true. They have a lot of people who are not comedians on the shows. I didn’t agree with everything he said and the way he put it, but the shocking thing for me was how people took delight in deliberately mis-representing him or jumping to the worst possible conclusion in order to hate him. It’s frightening.

“I find the self-righteousness of it terrifying,” Trevor continued. “This certainty – this chilling certainty – that they are right. That is how most of these people think. They are certain they are the good guys. Did the Nazis walk around thinking they were the bad guys?”

“That is something it’s dangerous to even talk about,” I suggested. “Presumably Hitler, while committing unspeakable evil, thought he was doing good.”

“Well, of course he did,” said Trevor. “Stalin thought it was a good idea to kill people. On Facebook, a propos the Andrew Lawrence debate, someone wrote something to the effect of It’s funny how, if everybody who opposed liberalism were to be shot, the world would be a much better place. It was there on my Facebook Feed and I just thought: This is interesting on so many levels.

Hessy Levinsons Taft's photograph was selected by Nazi party for the front cover of Sonne Ins Haus publication, but Joseph Goebbels' propaganda machine never discovered she was Jewish, 1935.

This photograph won a contest to find the ‘ideal Aryan infant’. It was selected by the Nazi Party as front cover of Sonne Ins Haus in 1935. They never realised she was Jewish.

“Well, Hitler was a National Socialist,” I said. “And that’s not a misnomer. I’ve always thought that Socialism is not a political system; it’s a religion. If you follow the true path of Socialism without deviation, it will create a perfect heaven on a perfect earth. That’s bollocks. That’s religion not reality. If you’re a Conservative and someone disagrees with you, then you think: Someone disagrees with me. If you’re a militant Socialist and someone disagrees with you, then you think: They are evil.”

“That’s what we’re talking about,” said Trevor.

“There’s that thing in some universities,” I said: “We are liberals. We are democrats. So we must not have people coming to talk to us if they disagree with what we think.

“It’s astonishing,” said Trevor. “This time last year, someone invited me to talk at Leicester University. He said: I am chairman of the Oxfam Society. I would like you to come and give a speech on the importance of charity. So I said OK.”

“Why did they invite you?” I asked.

“He said: I love listening to you and reading about your philosophical take on life.

“They also wanted me to write something for their student magazine and it was just after Russell Brand had said Don’t vote! when he was on BBC2’s Newsnight.

There is a YouTube clip of Russell Brand’s appearance on Newsnight last year.

“So I wrote this piece explaining my views on charity and they were on the phone to me saying: We’re not sure we can publish this and we’re really worried about you coming to talk to us.

“And I was like: Whaaatt?? You can’t publish my views on charity – about how I have a completely different understanding of charity and how giving money to an organisation is not what I understand as charity. And I was sympathetic to Russell’s idea about not voting.

“And they changed the wording of my piece. They edited bits out to make it sound like I was in favour of charity. They sent it to me and said: This is what we are going to publish. Is it alright?

How would that be alright? I told them. You have made me say Vote! when I did not say that; it was a complicated thing. And I am actually against organised charity. 

Yeah, they said, we’re really worried about what you’re gonna say.

Well, I asked them, why have you booked me? I even said it in the article. I said I didn’t know why I had been booked to talk about charity.”

“Did they keep the booking?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Trevor.

“How did it go?”

Trevor Lock may go to a variety of counties in South America

Trevor Lock talked to me at Soho Theatre earlier this week

“It went fine. There was one clever know-it-all trying to make me defend Russell Brand’s point of view, which I don’t fully share. But what was amazing was that this was a university unable to hear… I don’t think I’m known as being Right Wing; I don’t think my opinions are particularly Right Wing… I was just saying: This is what I think charity is.”

“And did they print your piece?” I asked.

“In the end,” said Trevor. “But it took me a long long time and I had to accuse… well, two of them got very angry.”

“They printed your original version?”

“Yes. Because I told them: You have to put THIS back in. Then they said: It’s too long…. I thought: Don’t tell brazen lies to me! You are telling me you have had to edit the article to make it sound the opposite of what I said because my article was too long??

“If they disagreed with your views,” I said, “all they had to do was commission someone with opposite views to write a counterbalancing article and then it would be an interesting debate.”

“This is the thing,” said Trevor. “When I went to university, it was about hearing and talking about ideas. I am 40 years old and here are young lads in theirs 20s who should be debating interesting thoughts. But they are frightened to hear my thoughts. It’s almost like being in Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

Welcome to 1984 Doublethink “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.” Welcome to the Big Brother House.

“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”… Welcome to the Big Brother House.

I said: “Whenever wankers use the phrase ‘positive discrimination’ I think Have they not read about Doublethink in Nineteen Eighty-Four? Positive discrimination is discrimination.”

Trevor said: “What I have taken away from reading Facebook in this last week about Andrew Lawrence and Dapper Laughs is that Hitler could have happened here.”

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Filed under Censorship, Charity, Politics

North Korea – Walter Mitty truth in an anarchic, pedestrian totalitarian state

The throbbing industrial heart of the mineral water plant

It is ironic that one of the most controlled states in the world is so anarchic.

Every day on our continuing guided – or should that be guarded? – tour of the the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, we are told: “The itinerary has changed.”

It is in the countryside that you realise just how disorganised things are in North Korea.

An ox pulling a medieval plough is a rarity – possibly even a luxury. People sit using their hands on the soil. A tractor is as rare as a raindrop in the Sahara. Not unknown but still visually shocking.

In the cities, cars are a rarity. Even in the capital city of Pyongyang, where there is some traffic, vehicles do not exactly jam; they drip.

When one of our two ever-present guides realised I had been in North Korea before – in 1986 – she said: “You must see a lot of changes.”

I smiled and nodded a lie.

There seems virtually no change in 26 years. The monuments have got bigger. That’s about it.

When I was in China in 1984, people used to bicycle to get around. In North Korea in 2012, they still mostly walk. In the countryside. In the cities.

This is a very pedestrian totalitarian state.

Today, we got taken to a mineral water bottling plant to see the awe-inspiring strides North Korea has taken under the glorious guidance of its three great Leaders: father son and holy grandson.

The mineral water bottling plant, like so much else in North Korea, had a stylish look to it, but was not working. We were told the workers were “rehearsing for the celebrations tomorrow” of the late Great Leader Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday.

Plausible if odd, given that our two official state tour guides had organised the trip and, in the coach, had told us what we would see happening inside the bustling bottling plant.

Someone in our group had been before to the same mineral water bottling plant – a couple of years ago. It was closed then too. Back then, the story was that it was closed “for maintainance”. No visible maintenance had been happening. It was – and still is – the Marie Celeste of mineral water bottling plants.

Today, the gleaming, suspiciously clean machines looked un-used. We were told by the manager of the mineral water bottling plant that, each day, they produce 400 tons of health-giving mineral water – 10,000 bottles per day. Quick mental arithmetic makes me realise this mean that 25 bottles must weigh one ton. This seems somewhat unlikely. Perhaps they are manufacturing health-giving mineral heavy water for health-giving mineral nuclear bombs.

The manager tells us the factory’s water is exported to 1,000 different countries around the world.

Opinion varies on how many countries there currently are in the world. But it seems to be accepted to be between 89 and 196 countries. (What, for example, of Palestine or Taiwan or, indeed, Scotland?)

So, of these 196 countries, North Korea sells its health-giving mineral water to 1,000 of them?

Welcome to North Korean reality.

Perhaps many of the countries are not of this Earth. I could believe that.

If modern-day Beijing has a touch of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis about it, North Korea has the touch of a paranoid Walter Mitty about it. In that very real sense, nothing has changed since I was last here in 1986.

One of the most frightening parts of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is when the hero Winston Smith is being tortured and is told that it is not good enough for him  to say he loves Big Brother; it is not good enough for him to say 2+2=5.

If Big Brother tells him 2+2=5 then he must truly believe that 2+2=5. He must know without doubt that the truth is that 2+2 really does equal 5.

In North Korea, people have no access to outside information sources. The trick is to ban the personal ownership of radios. The people have no access to foreign TV, no access to foreign publications or news sources, no access to radio except state-owned radio sets broadcasting the state radio channel. From cradle to grave, the truth they know is what the state tells them.

I do not know that Adolf Hitler existed. I only ‘know’ because I have been told in books and have seen him speak  in old footage used in TV documentaries. But I do not from personal first-hand experience ‘know’ that he existed.

In 1986, the North Koreans showed us (its foreign visitors) a documentary film explaining how the Korean War started. As we saw in the film, the United States’ pet dogs the South Koreans wantonly attacked North Korea without warning. The valiant North Koreans fought back and pushed the South Koreans and the imperialist Americans back to the sea and the Americans begged for peace. The Americans did not push the North Korean forces back significantly; the Chinese did not enter the War and push the US/UN troops back.

In 1986, grandfathers and grandmothers would have been alive who remembered American troops passing northwards through their towns and villages; they would also have remembered Chinese troops passing southwards through those same towns and villages.

But, presumably, they could not tell their grandchildren that.

Because it never happened.

Their grandchildren ‘knew‘ from books and photos and captions and documentaries and museum trips what had actually happened in ‘reality’.

If their grandparents told them anything else, it could only be based on American imperialist fabrications. The only right thing to do, I presume, would have been to report them to the police.

Historical reality is what you are shown to have existed.

I know the aliens were defeated by an Apple computer because I have seen filmed evidence in Independence Day.

Pictures do not lie.

… CONTINUED HERE …

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Filed under China, History, North Korea, Politics, PR, Psychology

North Korea – George Orwell’s pyramid looms over the capital city Pyongyang

Big Brother really is watching over you

(A version of this piece was also published on the Indian news site WeSpeakNews and by the Huffington Post)

I left my Beijing hotel early this morning for a flight to North Korea and got caught in a traffic jam on one of the Chinese capital’s ring roads.

When I was in Beijing in 1984, the city had crowded streams of bicycles. Now it is all cars in wide multi-lane carriageways and flyovers in high-rise skyscraper surroundings which look like something from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

At Beijing Airport, we get on an ancient Tupolev aircraft – very noisy – staffed by ultra-neat North Korean air stewardesses, each in prim red jacket, white shirt and dark blue scarf – the colours of the national flag.

When I entered the aircraft’s cabin, there was an overwhelming smell of air freshener. About 45 minutes into the flight, it became obvious why. The smell of air freshener had disappeared and the natural odour of the aircraft had reasserted itself: a rather unsettling smell of petrol fumes. It is difficult to say which was more unsettling: the smell of petrol or the saccharine-drenched music coming out of the aircraft’s not-very-good speakers. It was like easy listening to Nelson Riddle music in a flying petrol station.

But the North Koreans were trying their best. And that is all anyone can do.

When I was in China in the mid-1980s, some of their new hotels were run as joint ventures with Swiss companies on ten-year contracts. At the end of that time, everything would to revert to the Chinese. So they had ten years learning what specific items and what standards were expected by Western tourists. The North Koreans, in self-imposed exile from the rest of the world for generations, have no idea what goes on beyond their borders and little idea of what travellers expect.

When our group arrived in Pyongyang (you can only travel to North Korea in supervised groups, only rarely as a supervised individual), the people who had paid extra for single rooms (including me) found that there were no single rooms available and we had all been bumped down to a less-good hotel. But the North Koreans were trying their best.

There are so many people in North Korea for the celebrations of the late Great Leader Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday that, surreally, Pyongyang has a shortage of hotel rooms. The British tour company Regent Holidays, which normally takes only occasional single groups into the country currently has four groups in simultaneously for the celebrations; a Swedish company has brought a total of 200 people in several groups.

Each group allowed into the country has to have two North Korean ‘guides’ and a driver constantly with them. This is not only so that the untrusted foreigners are carefully supervised, watched and reported-on by the two guides, but so that each guide can keep a careful watch on the other guide. When I was here in 1986, it slowly became obvious that the bus driver out-ranked the two guides and was himself there to watch and report-on them.

North Korea is not a country where paranoia is under-stated.

But people are people. Insecure, internally modest. No-one chooses which country they are born into. People are people. There is nature v nurture but neither is 100% of anyone. People are people.

Our group of 16 individuals is supervised by two individual North Korean guides: one an experienced older man, the other a relatively inexperienced younger girl.

If the two guides and the driver all keeping a wary watch on each Western tourist and on each other seems oppressive, think of the individual psychology. With this level of paranoia, there is a personal insecurity which is occasionally visible in the eyes of the guides and most of the North Koreans we encounter (except, oddly, the driver). What if they do something wrong? What – even worse – if they do not do something wrong but someone higher than them in the paranoia chain mistakenly thinks that they have done something wrong? This is not a forgiving country. They have been at war with the Americans and the South Koreans since 1950.

The Korean War ended in 1953. But only in theory. In March 2010, a North Korean miniature submarine torpedoed and sank the South Korean ship Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. In November 2010, the North Korean army bombarded the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong with around 170 artillery shells, hitting both military and civilian targets, killing 4 people and injuring 19.

In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, one of the basic necessities of the state of Oceania is that it has to be constantly at war with one of the two other great super-states. A very real external threat is vital to hold the country together. Oceania and North Korea seem to be interchangeable in this respect.

In the fields of North Korea – glimpsed through bus windows on very uneven roads – people are rarely cultivating the barren-looking land. When they do, they almost never have mechanised help; they rarely even have oxen and hand ploughs. They seem to till the soil with their hands. Individuals sitting in brown earth fields.

This is not a 21st century state. This is not a 20th century state. This is like England under the rule of Richard III. We are talking here about medieval countryside scenes.

But, in the capital Pyongyang, the monuments have got even bigger than they were in 1986. Wide avenues, imposing monuments, monolithic buildings

There is a new road with unnecessarily massive monumental buildings for different sports. A giant basketball building. A giant table tennis building. A whole street of buildings for different sports. Gigantic buildings with massive car parks. In a city with very few cars.

There are new tower blocks of apartments. Everything looks stylish on the outside. Our decidedly underwhelming hotel has underfloor heating (which cannot be turned off) but currently has no hot running water.

The invisible building, as seen a few years ago

And, towering over everything, is a giant pyramidal building, massively out-of-proportion to everything else. It is an unfinished 1o5-storey hotel – the Ryugyong Hotel – which the North Koreans started to construct in 1987 – exactly 25 years ago – but never completed. It looks perfect on the outside but it is a showy facade, like a simile for North Korea itself.

The giant 330-metre tall building was due to open in 1989 with either 3,000 or 7,665 rooms (facts are variable in North Korea). For several years after it failed to open, North Korea denied the building existed, despite the fact it dominated the skyline. Now, 25 years after work started on the structure, it is the elephant in the room; never mentioned but ever present.

“It is an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete rising 300 metres into the air, containing over 3000 rooms above ground.”

That is not a description of the gigantic grey pyramidal would-be hotel which dominates the Pyongyang skyline.

It is George Orwell’s description of the Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

But it will do.

It will do.

Welcome to North Korea.

… CONTINUED HERE …

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Filed under China, North Korea, Politics, Travel

Why loving jigsaws as a child helped me write other people’s autobiographies

(This was also published by the Huffington Post)

Last night, I was on a panel comprising (in alphabetical order) Ivor Baddiel, currently scriptwriter for the X FactorHelen Lewis-Hasteley, assistant editor of the New Statesman magazine… and Professor Joanna Woodall, art historian at the Courtauld Institute.

We were taking part in the third Storywarp erm eh meeting, conference, shindig? – Whatever it was/is. People talk to an invited audience about structuring ideas. This one was about the difficulties of telling “Other People’s Stories” and took place in the offices of the Made By Many agency in Islington. I am not quite sure what they do either.

I guess I was there because of three things.

I wrote comedian Malcolm Hardee’s autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake, which was compiled from tape-recorded interviews…

I was paid as editor by Random House to advise comedian Janey Godley on how to write her own bestselling autobiography Handstands in the DarkShe had never written for print before…

And I shepherded, cajoled and edited 19 stand-up comedians who contributed short stories to the anthology Sit-Down ComedyQuite a few of them had never written for print before either.

The last of those three was like juggling spaghetti in a high wind, but that is something which has always attracted me.

In preparing for the Storywarp panel, I realised that I had two relevant interests when I was a kid.

The first was that I was really interested in jigsaws.

You can only put together a jigsaw in one way. Later, I got into television production and editing, where there are a million different ways to put the component parts together. In a sense, writing is the same. You can write anything in any way. There is no single ‘right’ way.

The second thing was that, when I was a kid, I wanted to become a good writer. I did not particularly want to see my name in print. It was not an ego-driven thing in that sense. I just wanted to be a ‘good’ writer.

One of the people I admired was George Orwell.

I think George Orwell is an absolutely shit novelist… Nineteen Eighty-Four is a shit novel. The central female character is badly-written; the love scenes are absolute crap. Yet it is a great book, because Orwell is a shit novelist but a great writer.

He is great at communicating what is in his mind and that is what writing is about. Communication between two people. He is a writer of thoughts; he is an essayist; he is a journalist; but he is not really a novelist.

I thought I would quite like to have George Orwell’s technical ability: to be able to write clearly. So, I asked myself, How did he learn to do that?

I reckoned he learned to write simply by doing lots and lots and lots of hack writing: he was a journalist; he worked at the BBC; he worked in Room 101 at Broadcasting House which later became the Future Events Unit.

And I reasoned, perhaps bizarrely, one way to do that was to become what was then called a Continuity Scriptwriter. You wrote for the announcers on television and, to an extent, for the voice-overs on TV trailers.

You had to write for the announcers under tight deadlines and you had to write for the exact duration. There is no point writing a brilliant 35 second piece if it is for a 17 second slot. There were also the tight deadlines. The durations of local ITV continuity spots changed all the time as they sold or did not sell ad spaces and local and/or network programmes over-ran or under-ran.

You might also have two different announcers per day and different announcers each week plus different voice-over performers for the trailers – so you were writing for different voices all the time. They all spoke at different paces, so you had to write in different ways for different speech patterns and different characters.

It was very hack but, with luck, I ended up being able to write anything at the drop of a hat.

I loved jigsaws. I wanted to be a writer. And writing biography or autobiography – “other people’s stories” – is writing using facts and quotes about and from people like a jigsaw putter-togetherer on a grand scale.

But, then, all writing – all creativity – is putting together a jigsaw.

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You can learn some creative techniques but you cannot learn to be talented

At the weekend, crime writers P.D.James and Ruth Rendell were chatting to each other at the Soho Theatre in London. Someone (clearly not me) asked if they had any advice for a young person who wanted to write.

P.D.James wisely replied that it depends whether you want to be published more than you want to write.

It is possible to be published without being a good writer.

But, if you want to write, then you have to write and there is no real advice except possibly to read lots of well-written books – because reading badly-written books will only lead you on to writing badly-written books.

Personally, I have a feeling that taking writing courses may also lead people on to bad writing because they might start to think there are rules.

It is a bit like the view of the late comedian Malcolm Hardee, who had little time for jugglers because he saw juggling as a skill not a talent. If the average person practised eight hours per day, five days per week for two years, they could probably become a good juggler because it is a skill you can learn. But being a stand-up comic is a talent. If you are not funny, no amount of practice will ever make you truly, truly talented.

You can learn some stand-up comedy techniques from experience, but you cannot learn to be talented.

Same thing with creative writing.

There is no shame in that.

I am crap at science and foreign languages. But I can write a bit.

On the other hand, never say never.

RKO Pictures’ screen test report on Fred Astaire read: “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Balding. Can dance a little.”

There are limits, though.

P.D.James and Ruth Rendell both said they were particularly drawn to crime fiction and have written little else.

A friend recently suggested I could make a lot of money by writing romantic fiction but I said I did not really think I could write it because my heart was not in the genre. I partly said this because someone I used to work with at Granada TV actually tried to write Mills & Boon type novels and gave up.

She told me she eventually realised that you can only write that type of fiction if you believe in it heart-and-soul and enjoy it yourself. A friend of hers did enjoy the genre and he did successfully write for Mills & Boon. She did not enjoy the genre wholeheartedly so was, in effect, writing pastiche not the real thing, which she did not want to do.

She wanted to write well in a particular genre, but that was not her genre, so she felt she could not write as well in that genre as she felt she could in others.

I once had a conversation with an editor at Random House over a book which was never written. He said something to the effect of:

“I don’t know what your style is, John. I read I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake and I read Handstands in the Dark and I don’t know what your own style is.”

I told him: “Well, I hope I don’t have a style. I just write in whatever style seems most appropriate.”

In the case of I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake, it was Malcolm Hardee’s autobiography and it was written from tape recordings of chats with Malcolm, so I just had to make the words on the page seem as if they came from Malcolm’s mouth. You can’t just write down exactly what people say: people don’t talk in coherent sentences. So I had to reconstruct what he said in a way that made it seem like what he had said. Of course, they were the words he had said on the tapes, but re-arranged for print so that, over-all, it read like what he would have said. They were his rhythms and words re-arranged for print.

“In the case of Handstands in the Dark, that was Janey Godley’s autobiography and she wrote it herself. At the beginning, I cajoled and encouraged her and suggested how she should perhaps go about it but, by the end I was just doing simple sub-editing – occasional commas and paragraph manipulation. I never wrote the words or sentences myself.”

When I was at college, at the end of the course (or it might have been at the end of Year One, I can’t remember), we had to deliver a significant creative project of some kind. I chose to write a novel and it was shit. But it got it out of my system. I felt that, if I wrote another two shit novels, the fourth one would be quite good.

When I was a teenager, I had wanted to be a writer and had admired (I still do) George Orwell as a communicator of thoughts. He is not a novelist, but he is a great writer – Nineteen Eighty-Four has some very dodgy characterisation and writing (the heroine is badly-drawn and the love scenes are crap). But the ideas are wonderful. It is a below-par novel but a great book. And Orwell’s non-fiction Homage to Catalonia, about his experiences in the Spanish Civil War is a masterpiece.

George Orwell is a magnificent factual writer, though not a good novelist. But he is such a good writer, he transcends that – Nineteen Eighty-Four is a wonderful novel, even if he is not a good novelist.

It seemed to me that George Orwell had achieved his ability to write so well simply by writing a lot at the BBC and elsewhere. (For a period, he literally worked in Room 101 at BBC Broadcasting House.)

So, after college, I consciously looked for somewhere I would have to write a lot, quickly, under pressure, reasoning that I might be able to write anything about anything reasonably fluently.

And that was why I initially became a Promotion Scriptwriter, writing scripts for TV announcers and trailers every day and often under extreme time deadlines.

That did result – I think – who am I to truly know? – in my being able to write pretty much anything in any style under pressure. And, because I also interviewed people for magazines, I knew the difference between writing for the human voice in vision and out of vision; and writing for different types of print.

If you are writing for TV trailers and you have to make Benny Hill, a documentary on Auschwitz and an episode of Coronation Street seem like a sensible single evening’s entertainment entity, you have to know how to tape over the cracks to join things together.

So I think I can write in pretty much any style and make the result seem fairly fluent.

But romantic fiction is just beyond my limit. I would not do it well.

And I want to write well… not just be published.

Write it as art and sell it as baked beans.

Absolutely.

But write it as art and it might last.

Unlike blogs, maybe.

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How do you become a writer and what are the good subjects to write about?

Yesterday, a 15 year-old girl asked me:

“How do you become a writer and what are the good subjects to write about?”

I told her: “The only way to become a writer is to write. It sounds silly, but it’s like juggling. The more you do it, the better you get.”

On the other hand, I can’t juggle, so what do I know about it?

Always beware of people who use similes about things they don’t know even the first thing about.

And who end sentences with prepositions.

I also told the 15 year old girl she had asked the wrong question.

“You don’t want to know what subjects to write about,” I told her. “You want to know who will buy and/or read the stuff you write. You don’t want to look at anything from the perspective of you writing something; you want to look from the perspective of someone reading what you write.”

That’s the only decent piece of advice I have about writing.

Never think of yourself as a writer.

The worst thing anyone can ever do is think of themself as ‘a writer’. If you do that, your mindset will be wrong. You will think, “How would a ‘real’ writer say this?” and you will copy the way you think a ‘real’ writer should write and it will be crap because you will descend into cliché.

Plenty of people write in the same way, but who wants to write like the lowest common denominator Fleet Street hack?

A famous actress with a great life story once talked to me about writing her autobiography. The most important thing, she said, was that she wanted to write it herself and for the book to be her own thoughts in her own voice. Eventually, the publisher persuaded her to have an experienced Fleet Street journalist ‘help’ her with the autobiography.

I picked up the published book in Tesco one day and looked at the first page. It read like any book serialisation in any tabloid Sunday newspaper. It was written in cliché Fleet Street sentences. It probably sold well because she was a famous actress, but not because it was well-written and not because she herself had written it.

In 2003, Random House commissioned unknown Scots comedienne Janey Godley to write her autobiography. She had gone into a meeting with an editor at their imprint Ebury Press with little hope of getting a book commissioned – nobody had ever heard of her – but, when the editor heard just a little of her life story, Random House virtually ripped her arms off to sign her up.

I was asked to actually edit the book which was published as Handstands in the Dark (a terrible title – it should have been called Good Godley! – but Ebury insisted). I had a meeting with Ebury after the contract was signed at which it was discussed what editing this book might involve, because Janey had never written anything for publication before.

It might involve doing nothing. It might involve tweaking. It might involve a lot of literary shepherding. It might involve writing the whole thing from scratch if it turned out Janey could not do it herself. They wanted to publish her story; she was staggeringly charismatic to talk to; but no-one knew if she could write for print.

As it turned out, she was a brilliant writer, though I had to give her advice in the first few weeks of the process. Of course, it might have been wrong advice – what do I know? – but I don’t think it was.

She used to send me stuff she had written almost every night. Because she was writing an autobiography, at first she delivered lots of facts.

This happened, that happened, then this happened, then…

This can wear the reader down and also it does not actually let the reader share the experience of what happened, which is the whole point of writing the thing. You can get bogged down in facts with no humanity. Writing is not about facts; it’s about emotions and thoughts. The facts, however interesting, are only the skeleton for the meat. People are interested in people, not facts.

I told Janey to find key incidents which epitomised the period or the emotions of what was happening to her at the time and then to describe those key incidents and emotions as vividly as she could.

“Write more about less,” I told her.

One way to make the incidents more vivid was to try to find any of her five senses that were key to the moment. A ‘key’ moment is literally that. It opens up a doorway to something. If she remembered an incident, what was the first thing she remembered inside herself? Which of her five senses was most vivid? Use that key sense of the moment and it opens up a whole emotional experience which readers can share.

When Marcel Proust wrote his autobiographical Remembrance of Things Past (which, of course, I have never read) he ended up writing seven volumes after drinking one spoonful of tea in which he had soaked a piece of madeleine cake. The taste triggered involuntary memories of his entire childhood – all the tiny details came flooding back to him.

He wrote: “The taste was of a little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings…my Aunt Leonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea….Immediately the old grey house on the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set…and the entire town, with its people and houses, gardens, church, and surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being from my cup of tea.” Just seeing the madeleine had not brought back these memories. He needed to taste and smell it.

Describing what is seen or heard is obvious. Perhaps smell and taste come next. But touch is important too. If you describe the rough or smooth texture of something, the object becomes more alive.

You can write that you sat on a sofa. Or you can write that, as you sat on the cream sofa with its three dark brown coffee stains, your fingers ran over the rough-textured woollen blanket which Fred had half-thrown over its back that drunken night.

Of course, you don’t want too much of this – it could end up as bad as having endless adjectives in front of the noun. Who wants to read too many sentences about a noisy, black, frightened, one-eyed Shetland pony?

I told Janey that, if she remembered one key sensory detail of any incident, include it. So, in one sentence, she wrote:

“Three plain clothes detectives were standing around, their cold breath drifting up and turning white and blue in the flashing lights of the ambulance.”

I think that description is all-the-more vivid because Janey chooses to write “white and blue” instead of “blue and white”, but that would take a whole extra thousand words to discuss!

In another sentence, she writes:

“I ran up the stairway with one policeman behind me, my bloodied shoes sticking to the wooden stairs as I went.”

It is, of course, the fact that the bloodied soles of her shoes stick slightly on the wooden stairs which makes it so vivid.

Handstands in the Dark is not a book you forget easily. The rather stunned publisher at Ebury Press said details stayed with him vividly for days after reading it. And Janey wrote every word in it. I very carefully did not suggest words or phrases. Which can be a problem with publishers.

My experience is that people who can write do so. People who want to write but can’t write become publishers and then try to write through other people, often messing up writers’ text and downgrading it to cliché mulch. This, it should be said, did not happen with Janey’s book which Ebury were not allowed to see until the manuscript was completed and which went on to be both a Top Ten hardback and Top Ten paperback bestseller.

An extension of the truism that “those who can write do and those who can’t write become publishers” is that those who can’t write start courses teaching people how to write. That is not always true, but it often is,

The only way to learn how to write, as I told the 15 year old girl yesterday, is to write and write and write.

But don’t sit down with a black sheet of paper or computer screen and think you are creating the words that come out of you. Instead, turn it round 180 degrees and, as you write, think you are seeing the words appear for the first time and you are the reader not the writer. Put yourself in the position of someone who does not know what is coming next.

The first sentence should intrigue the reader into wanting to know what the next sentence is going to be. You want to hook the reader. So, imagining yourself as the reader, you know what has to be written to explain more about what is being said – what is needed to understand more about the argument or about the plot. But you don’t want to give the readers 100% of the information. You want to ‘hook’ or intrigue them into constantly wanting to know more.

Keep ‘em wanting more.

My template was George Orwell, who I think was a great communicator though a shit novelist. Nineteen Eighty-Four is a wonderful book. But the human beings in it – particularly the heroine – are badly drawn. He was a journalist and writer of ideas – his non-fiction like Homage to Catalonia is masterful. Animal Farm, which is really a non-fiction book masquerading as a fictional story, is amazing. But he was not a good novelist.

Me?

I think layout is almost as important as what you write. Make sure it looks easy-to-read on the page. Vary the lengths and look of the paragraphs. Mix prose and quotes. Don’t have big impenetrable-looking chunks of text. Make it look easy to read and it will be easier to read.

My own big problem is I need deadlines to write anything. So I will just go off out to Tesco now.

Do what I say, not what I do.

Always easier to say to a 15 year-old.

And remember William Goldman’s oft-quoted but oft-misunderstood recurring warning in his brilliantly incisive Adventures in the Screen Trade the best book I know about the creative process and full of great Hollywood anecdotes:

Nobody knows anything.

Maybe it is a pity it has taken me 1,766 words to mention that.

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Advice on how to get a book published…

Someone asked me yesterday how to get a book published by a reputable publisher in the UK.

My answer was to get a ghost writer – me – and pay me £156,000 + 98% of the royalties plus all the chocolate I can eat.

Sadly my offer was turned down, so my edited advice was this…

The conventional wisdom is that, to get a publishing deal, you need to have a literary agent but, to get a literary agent, you need to have a publishing deal.

In fact, you don’t.

It doesn’t matter if it’s fiction or non-fiction.

Fiction sells better than non-fiction, but it is even more difficult to get published. Almost bloody impossible, in fact.

Either way, the best thing to do is this…

You need to write a one or two page outline synopsis of what will be in the book – beginning to end – so the publisher knows what he/she is actually going to get.

And write perhaps a 20-page extract. This does not have to be the first 20 pages, but it might as well be. The reason for providing this extract is twofold. It shows the publisher that you can write. And it shows them the style your book will be written in – the same facts can be written a million different ways. An extract gives them a feel for the suggested book’s style.

Plus you need to include a biography of yourself – maybe half a page.

You are a good prospect if you are young (ie under 30), attractive and already have some track record in some creative area. And it helps massively if you can speak fluently. Being dead is not a good selling point if you are trying to get a publishing deal unless you are Jane Austen or George Orwell.

I know someone who was a ‘reader’ for Penguin Books. He was given a translation of a Japanese novel which Penguin had been offered. After reading it with growing excitement, his report to Penguin said that it was the most brilliant novel he had ever read and they would be mad not to publish it.

They told him: “We are not going to publish it.”

The author had, unwisely, just died and would be unable to do any publicity for the book.

Publishers want someone, preferably attractive and certainly alive, who can do publicity interviews for the book and who is ideally young enough to provide them with maybe 40 more years of books. They seldom want a one-off wonder unless you have an absolutely cracking story like being held as a sex slave for 14 years by Prince Philip in a secret cellar under Buckingham Palace or cutting off your own leg with a fish knife while being held hostage by Saddam Hussein in a Paris brothel.

When you have your idea, outline, biography and extract together, you should then go to a bookshop and see which publishers are selling the type of book you want to write and approach them one by one, having looked in a copy of the annual Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook which gives contact names, addresses and publishing requirements.

One thing you do not do is this…

You do NOT write the book first and then approach a publisher.

You want to screw an Advance out of them.

That way, even if the thing sells no copies, you have earned something for your talent, time and heartache.

If you approach a publisher with a completed book you cannot, by definition, get any Advance from them to tide you over while you write the book. You would have worked for perhaps two years for no money and you may have written what publishers don’t want.

Also, publishers like to feel they are controlling the creative process. Most publishers I have encountered are wannabe writers who cannot actually write creatively themselves, so they want to write and/or re-write through you while getting cultural kudos with their friends at dinner parties in Islington.

Never believe that publishers know anything about creative writing. If they did, they would be writing books themselves.

Those who can, do.

Those who can’t, publish…

…and try to interfere with your writing to give themselves a creative hard-on.

The thing to remember is that, up to the point of signing the contract, they can cast you aside and they have all the power. But, after signing the contract, you have most of the power. Under a standard publishing contract, they control the cover, but they cannot change a single comma of the text without your permission and it is unlikely (unless your book is utter shit) that they will throw away the Advance they have paid you. So listen to their advice but stick to your creative guns if you disagree.

If (just to use round numbers) you get a £9,000 advance, you would normally be paid £3,000 on signing the contract. You then have to write the entire book with no more money coming in. You then get £3,000 on delivery of an acceptable final manuscript. And you then have to wait for 6-9 months and get £3,000 on publication. So any ‘Advance’ tends to mean you only get one third up-front in advance of writing the book.

The thing to remember is that it highly unlikely you will make any significant money from your book. Literally hundreds of books are spewing into existence every month to try to find space on the same limited shelves. It is like playing the Edinburgh Fringe. You are unlikely to get noticed and it is like standing in a cold shower tearing up £50 notes. In the case of writing a book, these are the £50 notes you could have earned by stacking shelves in a supermarket rather than starving in a small room earning no money while you toil away at your creative keyboard.

If your book is a paperback, you are likely to get a royalty of only 7.5% of the cover price. So, if your book sells for £10, you get 75p per copy sold. Roughly.

I believe most books sell well under 10,000 copies in the British Isles and fail to make a profit. Publishers live on their rare big buck-earners.

When approaching a publisher nowadays, you also have to take into consideration the new phenomenon of eBooks. Random House recently signed a big deal with Apple to put their back catalogue and future publications onto iBooks.

My 2002 contract with Random House for the anthology Sit-Down Comedy specified a 50% royalty on any future e-book version. A fortnight ago, they sent me a letter saying they want to only pay 25% instead of 50% on any eBook version because the contracted 50% royalty rate “was arrived at before the UK eBook market had begun to develop and before the extent of our digital investment was known. Since this royalty was agreed, the eBook market has moved on greatly but, in the process, we have found that 50% of net revenues is no longer viable”.

Well, lovies, my tendency is to say, “Tough shit, life’s a bitch and a gamble, ain’t it? Don’t come whining to me if you mis-calculated your own business.”

But, with Sit-Down Comedy, in fact, it doesn’t much matter because, although the contract was with the late Malcolm Hardee and me as editors of the book, we agreed to split the royalties between ourselves and the 19 contributors to the anthology. So we are talking miniscule sums even if it sold loads.

However, I know another author whose book has been in print for quite a few  years. It may soon go out of print. Under a standard contract, if a book is out of print for two years, all rights return to the author. So, for example, Malcolm Hardee’s autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake was out of print for two years and now 100% of all rights have reverted to me and to the estate of the late Malcolm.

However, if this other chum of mine’s book becomes an eBook, my understanding is that it will, in theory, never go out of print – the file will still be available for download from the Apple/Amazon/publisher’s computer – and so the publisher will retain the rights until 70 years after the author’s death.

If my chum, on the other hand, refuses to accept a royalty cut from 50% to 25%, then it will presumably not become an eBook, the paperback will go out of print and, two years later, 100% of all rights will revert to my chum. And there would then be the possibility of negotiating a new publishing deal or publishing via some print-on-demand operation like lulu.com

We live in interesting times and that, of course, is the ancient Chinese curse.

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Wikileaks in reverse? Am I paranoid? Or are the Powers That Be reading every word I write?

Today there are reports that ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown thinks the News of the World may have hacked into his phone calls. Well Whoop-di-doop, Gordon, welcome to the 21st century.

In the late 1960s, I remember the London magazine Time Out reported that MI5 was listening in to all diplomatic telephone calls via a telephone exchange in (if memory serves me correctly) Kensington. A computer was scanning all calls and listening-in for keywords. This sounded very futuristic back then.

When the extremely right wing and, in my opinion, neo-Fascist Tony Blair was Prime Minister, he had no problem attempting to create profoundly anti-democratic laws. I remember one bright idea he had (never actually implemented) was to detain known football hooligans to prevent them going to a match if the police believed they might be thinking of perhaps planning to commit a crime. In other words he believed it would be OK to make Thought Crime an imprisonable offence.

Yet the one thing he was strangely opposed to throughout his Orwellian reign was allowing intercepts – phone taps – to be used in evidence in criminal trials. This continues to fascinate me. Why would he object?

He claimed that allowing intercepts to be used in evidence in open court would expose their origin. But, if we are talking about phone tap evidence, what is the problem?

Criminals know that anything they say on a telephone line may be legally and perfectly reasonably intercepted. They know that already. Everyone knows that. So saying in court that evidence has come from a wire tapped by the police or security services is not ‘revealing’ anything. It would only be revealing a hidden source if evidence had been collected and intercepted in some way other than from a wire tap… in which case, of course, the security services would not want to reveal that they had access to that unrevealed form of interception.

So what could that unrevealed and secret form of intercept be if it were not traditional phone tapping?

Telephones are two-way communication devices with built-in microphones. They are transmitters as well as receivers. You no longer need to install listening devices at telephone exchanges to tap phones. You can remotely make the microphones in the handsets active and thus listen in to anything said in a room. Most people have telephones in their living rooms and often their bedrooms; these can listen to and transmit anything said in the rooms. People with mobile phones not only carry transmitters with built-in microphones everywhere they go, but they are carrying GPS devices which can pinpoint their position to within a few feet.

But this is merely a variation on traditional eavesdropping. Would that really be why Tony Blair was so wary of the security services having to reveal in open court what their intercept sources might be?

I remember back in the late 1960s or early 1970s – certainly more than 30 years ago and before the really vast advances in computer development – a Cheltenham taxi driver called Barry Prime was tried in camera under the Official Secrets Act on charges which were never made public. The Sunday Times reported at the time he had told the Soviets that Britain’s GCHQ and America’s NSA had a satellite in (I think geostationary) orbit over the Soviet Union which could listen in to all above-ground communications – listening for keywords in all phone calls sent via the normal microwave system, walkie talkie calls, radio phone calls between, say, a Politburo member in his car and someone sitting in the Kremlin and possibly even a politician sitting in his office talking to his secretary on a wireless intercom. As a result, the Soviets buried all their sensitive communications in landlines, the West lost invaluable intelligence and Barry Prime was sentenced to a staggering number of years in jail (and seems to have been wiped from history and thus Google searches).

Journalist Duncan Campbell also got into trouble in 1985-1986 for revealing that GCHQ intended to launch a SigInt satellite called Zircon.

At one time, one of the words you were never supposed to speak on a telephone line in the UK was the word “Echelon” because it triggered all sorts of intelligence computers listening-in for keywords. Presumably if you mentioned “Echelon” AND “Burlington” AND “Turnstile” or even “Corsham”, then the eavesdropping computers would have had an orgasm of excitement. If, way back then, you had also mentioned “Stockwell”, “Site 3” and “Hawthorn“, then the Men in Black would probably have been sitting in a car outside your house the next day.

Modern satellites’ cameras can read the markings on the epaulettes of a soldier standing in a field outside Vladivostok or travelling in an open Jeep in Iraq. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that satellites which, more than 30 years ago, could listen in on all above-ground electronically-transmitted voice chatter can now listen-in to all human voice communication on a small area of the surface of the earth – let’s say the whole of the UK – and filter out bird song, traffic noises, water sounds etc to leave only the sounds created by human voices… and then to listen-in for keywords.

There was a saying in the late 1960s: “However paranoid you are, they’re always doing more than you think.”

What if any conversation on any street, in any room could be listened-in to by a satellite? What if anything you say out loud can be heard by the computers?

Plus ça change.

Though, in fact, I don’t object.

It’s a fact of modern British life.

The British public have no real objection to street security cameras. So why object to blanket voice surveillance?  After all, it was us who created 1984 not some foreign johnny. All e-mails leaving or entering the UK are scanned; presumably all blogs are scanned; presumably everything on the World Wide Web is scanned because the Internet was originally a military project.

If Google can do it, then I certainly hope Echelon, GCHQ and the NSA can do it.

And let’s not even start to think about Google Street View.

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