Tag Archives: George Orwell

Dan Came Third in the North Korean Marathon at the Edinburgh Fringe…

On Thursday this week, Dan Kelly starts the Edinburgh Fringe ‘run’ of his show How I Came Third in the North Korean Marathon. So obviously I was interested and went to see his preview show at the Museum of Comedy in London.

And we talked…


JOHN: Your show is very well presented, very entertaining and funny but it’s difficult to find much about you online… You are a man of mystery.

DAN: You won’t find out much online.

JOHN: Have you performed on stage before?

DAN: Not particularly. I’ve done a few bits of improv just to experiment and see what it’s like to be on a stage.

The image used for Dan Kelly’s Madras Years show…

I went to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2018, the same year I went to North Korea, just to see what it was like to perform there and I did a 40-minute free show – a character show – for two weeks. Dan Kelly’s Madras Years.

I was a chat show host who had had a curry with every celebrity in the world and I would take audience suggestions and describe the meal I had with the celebrity they chose. 

I know Edinburgh really well: I went to university there – I studied French and history. I would go to the Fringe every year and work in a coffee van in George Square. I just wondered what it was like to perform there and it was brilliant.

It was two weeks in a karaoke booth in the City Cafe which held 30 people. I worked out that, if I performed every day maybe I could get 15 people a day. After two weeks, I thought: How did I get away with that?

JOHN: You’re back again. So, after this, will there be a third show…?

DAN: I think the next show, if there is one, would be about my job and its travels – wandering round an Iranian supermarket looking for frozen lamb and so on.

JOHN: Your job is…?

DAN: I work as a data collector. I collect data on the cost of living around the world. Basically, I travel to countries all over the world and go round supermarkets with a dictaphone, recording the prices. 

JOHN: You looked at prices in North Korea?

DAN: No. I went with colleagues – five of us – in 2018 as part of a larger group.

JOHN: An athletics group?

5 friends backed up by the Great Leader and the Dear Leader

DAN: No, the five of us were just friends.

There was no reason to go there work-wise but we thought: This is a place we don’t cover at work, so how can we get there?

The idea of an organised tour came up, but it didn’t quite appeal.

Then the marathon randomly appeared and that felt like a reasonable way of doing it.

JOHN: Dangerous?

DAN: With the marathon, the course is set and there are marshalls on the course, but you are free to just run. You have to keep to the route, but it was one of the few ways we could see a lot of Pyongyang on foot. It’s probably one of the easiest, safest places we’ve ever been.

JOHN: And the local spectators don’t speak English so they can’t talk to you.

DAN: The only dangerous thing was the amount of alcohol available. Almost encouraged. We were told: This is part of North Korean lifestyle! From the moment we got the train into North Korea from Dandong in China, first thing… trolley down the train… “Who’d like a beer?”

We had two Korean tour guides and two Western guides and it was: “We’re gonna be having a beer. You guys having a beer?”

It was a kinda nice welcome, but then it was, “Right, we’re gonna have ANOTHER beer” and “Who wants to try some local drink?” And the amount of drink available was endless. There didn’t seem to be any immediate danger except for the fact that, when everyone gets super-drunk, that’s when people start daring people and saying: “Let’s see what we can find! Let’s go to the floors that they told us not to go to.”

JOHN: They were presumably trying to loosen your tongues?

DAN: That is what we couldn’t work out.

Dan forging ahead on the streets of Pyongyang…

On the day of the marathon, we did a tour during the day and were given loads of beer with our dinner and there was the post-race euphoria and I remember clocking ourselves in the bar and thinking: This is where the dangerous stuff happens. Late at night. The guides are having a drink at a table over there and we’ve been allowed to drink as much as we want. It  was 1.00am. This is dangerous. Don’t mess around!

JOHN: The hierarchy of the guides in North Korea is interesting. 

DAN: As I say, we had two Western guides and two Korean guides. One of the Korean guides did not speak English and one did.

JOHN: Mmmm…

DAN: Someone said: “They have to have two so they can check on each other.” Whether that’s true or not, who knows?

JOHN: When I went in 2012, we had two North Korean guides – one young, one older; and a driver. Someone in our group spotted that the driver wore a Party lapel badge but the two guides didn’t, which presumably meant he was superior to the two guides. And the tendency was not to pay much attention to the driver because he allegedly didn’t speak or understand English. Allegedly. So you were more likely to be unguarded in what you said to each other in front of the driver. And there was some thought that the younger female guide was more senior that the older male guide. What was your first impression of Pyongyang?

“The skyline there was… interesting…”

DAN: The skyline there was…  interesting…  That was where you got that first hit: This is a bit different! It’s like if you went somewhere with indigenous plants. They look like plants, but I’ve never seen things like this before! 

JOHN: I remember on BBC TV once, they read out the description of the Ministry of Truth from George Orwell’s 1984 and showed that giant unused pyramid hotel. And it was pretty much the same as the description of the Ministry of Truth.

DAN: You went there in 1985.

JOHN: It was 1984 in 1985 and it was still 1984 in 2012.

The elephant in the room: It was 1984 in 1985 and it was still 1984 in 2012…

DAN: We were only there for four days.

It was billed as the 28th Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon in 2018 but, since 2014, they’ve also run a marathon for international amateurs. It’s a way of bringing in tourists.

JOHN: Presumably it’s also a way of showing North Koreans how North Koreans are superior.

Dan makes his final run in the national stadium in Pyongyang

DAN: The North Korean professionals run their own race and, in 2018, they invited two or three African runners at, we guessed, the level at which the African runners would challenge but not beat the North Koreans.

The Africans were staying with us in the same hotel and told us they did it for a small fee: We can’t win, but we gotta run them close. Their personal best times were just outside the personal bests of the North Koreans running.

They did the same for the women’s race and we saw female African athletes being blocked-off from water stations where North Korean athletes were welcomed in. Little things like that.

JOHN: In your show, there is video footage of the race and you in North Korea…

DAN: The first day we were there, they told us, “We do a video for all tourist groups. So, if you see a guy with a camera, don’t be alarmed.”

After three days, they played us two minutes of some of the footage – the film ended up an hour in total – and they said: “This will be available on DVD (for around £20). It had North Korean music and looked like a film out of the 1960s. I thought: YES PLEASE!!!

So I got this DVD and then, when I showed the footage to people back in Britain, I saw their faces and thought: This feels like a story worth telling… So the Edinburgh show all came via that.

JOHN: And you took photos…

DAN: Yes. We were told, if we took any photos of statues, we were not allowed to cut off any part of the statue on the photo. Don’t quite know why. Our cameras, phones and lenses were scrutinised quite a lot.

JOHN: Any foreigners watching the race?

DAN: Not so much watching, but there were about 1,000 foreigners entered that year.

Dan Kelly (right, in light grey top) on the Pyongyang podium

You finish in the national stadium and they pack it out with thousands and, if you get in the top three, you get to stand on the podium.

I scraped into the top three and got a medal and a certificate and a little bouquet.

JOHN: …and a fascinating and very entertaining Edinburgh show.

DAN: I hope so.

JOHN: Where are your next work trips?

DAN: Rabat and Casablanca in Morocco. And then maybe Gabon.

JOHN: How were the shop prices in North Korea?

DAN: Who knows? In one of the restaurants we found a drinks cabinet with Western spirits in it and they had some prices on, so we took a photo of it. I think we only brought back four prices from North Korea.

JOHN: Maybe next time…

(THERE IS CURRENTLY A TRAILER FOR THE SHOW ON YOUTUBE…)

c

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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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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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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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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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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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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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