Tag Archives: Iraq

Comedy, crime, Russian porn and a street riot: one week in November

These are extracts from my diary in November 2002.

The Second Gulf War started in March 2003…

*****

Up The Creek comedy club in 2009

SUNDAY

I went to Up the Creek comedy club in Greenwich.

A very experienced foreign comic went down very badly.

“What do you guys do here in the summer?” he tried.

“We go abroad!” someone shouted out.

Later, starting a joke, he tried: “Anyone here in love?’

“My girlfriend!” another voice shouted out.

MONDAY

A friend sent me an e-mail circular about the situation in Iraq:

Subject: Do we want war?

War is NOT the Answer. Today we are at a point of imbalance in the world and are moving toward what may be the beginning of a THIRD WORLD WAR. If you are against this possibility, the UN is gathering signatures in an effort to avoid a tragic world event. War is NOT the Answer. 

My reply was:

Sadly, I think it is.

TUESDAY

I went to see Malcolm Hardee at his Wibbley Wobbley pub in Rotherhithe. He told me the fruit machines are rigged and hired from a man called Xxxxx. Each week, there are small payouts to players but Malcolm gets around £100 and Xxxxx takes around £100. Xxxxx has got some 80 machines in South London, each paying him about £100 per week. Xxxxx is a friend of gangster Charlie Richardson.

Xxxxx told Malcolm that Charlie Richardson recently lent him his own car for a few hours. Xxxxx looked in the boot and found a dead body. He returned it a few hours later without mentioning that he had looked in the boot. He said Charlie must have momentarily forgotten the body was in there.

WEDNESDAY

I had lunch with a friend in Covent Garden. She showed me the gas mask and small goggles she had bought in case of terrorist gas attack in the tube or elsewhere. She said the gas mask should protect her for about 20 minutes.

THURSDAY

I had lunch with comedian Nick Wilty at Kettner’s in Soho. In the 20 minutes before he arrived, I sat in the almost empty bar.

The only other people there were a well-known criminal I recognised and three men apparently talking about an armed robbery which had gone wrong and whether or not ‘the South African’ had double-crossed them. It seemed strange they were talking about it so openly.

When Nick Wilty arrived, he told me he had left the British Army after the Falklands War because it had become boring – doing the same thing day in and day out. He served around 1978-1982 but avoided Northern Ireland by (truthfully) saying he had lots of Irish mates and his sympathies tended towards Republicanism.

Nick told me that going onstage was like the first time he parachuted or bunji-jumped – fear in the pit of your stomach, then a sudden change to exhilaration when you were actually doing it.

FRIDAY

In the evening, I was in the Uxbridge Road in Shepherd’s Bush. For no visible reason, nearby were 15 police vans and countless policemen with visors and round plastic shields. I went into a strange internet cafe to check my e-mails.

There was a Cockney-type cafe selling food at the front; a pool room in middle populated by very dubious-looking Turks; and, at the back, a computer room with Russian porn. You had to click off all the myriad porn pop-up windows before you could penetrate (if that’s the word) the Internet Explorer browser layer.

When I came out, the Cockney cafe was full of Eastern Europeans and, going outside, I stumbled into a rugby riot on the Uxbridge Road with police and horses half-heartedly charging the drunken sports fans. I had only been inside the cafe for about ten minutes.

SATURDAY

I had lunch with a well-known comedian, who seemed shy or perhaps just warily reserved.

“I met Madonna and smelled Natalie Imbruglio’s bum,” he told me.

He had crashed a Green Room party and eventually looked Madonna in the eye for about three seconds.

“Hello,” he had said.

“Hello,” she replied. “Do I know you?”

“No.”

And that was it.

He had just come back from Canada where he had performed for a month in a 500-seater theatre in Toronto. One night the audience comprised three people.

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Memories of Swedish identical twins and lonely beheadings in foreign lands

As I had no time to write a ‘proper’ blog this morning, I looked to see what the BBC had reported happening on this day in previous years…

7th October 1959: Southend Pier fire traps hundreds

Water from the past

Three hundred people have been rescued after being cut off by a blaze on the world’s longest pleasure pier on England’s south-east coast.

The visitors became stranded when a large wooden pavilion at the shore end of the pier caught fire in the early evening.

The pavilion, which is used for holding conferences and other functions, was empty at the time.

Most of the trapped people had been at the far end of the pier when the blaze started.

They had to walk most of the nearly 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometres) back because the electricity to the pier’s railway had been cut off.

However, they were not able to pass the burning pavilion and had to complete the journey by climbing down the pier structure and boarding boats to shore.

Firefighters from surrounding districts joined those in Southend to help put out the flames.

They were watched by a large crowd on the sea front – many of whom had come to see the pier’s famous illuminations.

7th October 1977: Invasion of Swedish identical twins

Identical twins from Sweden

Ninety sets of Swedish identical twins have travelled to Felixstowe for a brief shopping trip.

The twins are taking part in studies by researchers from the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm.

The scientists are investigating links between the environment and human behaviour.

But participants are viewing the excursion as a form of light relief. As one twin put it, they have come across “just for fun”.

As the twins disembarked from their ship, the Tor Scandinavia, each pair was confusingly dressed in matching outfits.

It is hoped the sets of siblings might find something different to wear when they spend their money in the local shops and boutiques.

7th October 2001: US launches air strikes against Taleban

So It Goes

The United States has begun its military campaign, Operation Enduring Freedom, against al-Qaeda and the Taleban in Afghanistan.

Cruise missiles and bombers have targeted the airports of Kandahar and Kabul and terrorist training camps near Jalalabad.

The attacks which began around 1630 GMT were quickly followed by a public broadcast from President Bush who promised a “sustained and relentless” campaign.

The Taleban has condemned the strikes and says it shot down a plane, a claim denied by the Americans.

Up to 50 cruise missiles are reported to have been launched from submarines in the Arabian Sea.

The US also flew in B52 bombers stationed on the island of Diego Garcia, and B2 Stealth bombers direct from the US itself.

Tony Blair confirmed the initial strikes involved a British contribution by HMS Illustrious and a small number of submarines.

They form part of a US-British naval coalition gathered in the region within striking distance of Afghanistan, including two US aircraft carriers.

Speaking at a news conference, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, said key targets would be terrorist training camps and Taleban communications, fighter planes and air defence installations.

But the Pentagon says it will be mounting operations from the air and the ground, and defence experts say special forces are likely to be used soon into the campaign.

7th October 2004: British hostage feared dead in Iraq

So It Goes

Fears are growing that the British hostage, Kenneth Bigley, abducted three weeks ago in Iraq, has been murdered by his captors.

Engineer Mr Bigley, 62, and two Americans with whom he shared a house in the wealthy al-Mansour district of Baghdad, were captured on 16 September by the Islamist Tawhid and Jihad group.

His fellow contractors Eugene “Jack” Armstrong and Jack Hensley were beheaded on 20 and 21 September, when their kidnappers’ demands for the release of Iraqi women prisoners were not met.

The United States is holding two Iraqi female weapons scientists, Rihab Rashid Taha and Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, but says it has no plans to release them.

Efforts to secure Mr Bigley’s release have been stepped up in the past few days.

Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi and Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams have appealed to his kidnappers on behalf of the family.

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Hard core porn and political revelations at The Establishment club’s 2nd night

Something so unexpected at The Establishment – The Strypes

In my blog two days ago, I mentioned The Establishment club.

Over 50 years ago, comedian Peter Cook’s comedy club was one of the multi-media trio which created the satire boom in the early 1960s.

There was live comedy at Peter Cook’s club The Establishment; there was Peter Cook’s Private Eye magazine; and, on TV, there was That Was The Week That Was – the original pilot for the show had been a series of satirical sketches based on The Establishment Club. When Cook was in New York, performing in Beyond The Fringe, the BBC re-fashioned the show and replaced Peter Cook with David Frost. Cook later half-jokingly complained that Frost’s subsequent success was based on copying his (Cook’s) own stage persona and that his only regret in life had been once saving Frost from drowning.

The original Establishment Club started in London in August 1961 and lasted until 1964. It was at 18 Greek Street in Soho which, before that, had been the Club Tropicana boasting an All Girl Strip Revue. Cook replaced the sign with one saying London’s First Satirical Nightclub. It is now the Zebrano Bar.

And now The Establishment club has been re-started by amiable Laughing Stock record label boss Mike O’Brien, who has a treasure trove of early alternative comedy club recordings… by actor/comedian Keith Allen, with whom I worked at Noel Gay Television around 1989… and by journalist Victor Lewis-Smith who also produces TV programmes.

Victor (an otherwise entirely admirable chap) once threatened me with legal action for uploading onto YouTube a sales tape for a planned documentary by Keith Allen about comedian Malcolm Hardee’s funeral. I thought this was an over-reaction, as what I uploaded was what his company were using to try to generate interest in the suggested programme from TV broadcast companies. The documentary eventually failed to find a buyer and the full footage of the funeral and its aftermath still languishes unseen on a shelf somewhere; it had originally been planned for Channel 4 transmission but the TV station backed-out, I am told, because Malcolm was “not well-known enough”.

But, anyway, this highly creative trio have re-started The Establishment club in Soho.

According to Keith Allen last night: “We’re trying to re-open the Establishment Club at its old premises in Greek Street as a members’ club. The idea is that we will create a room where you can come in and your expectations will be undermined. Anything can happen. It might involve somebody coming up and talking about something very interesting and pertinent and you listening; it might involve you dancing; it might involve you doing anything. Anything is possible. And the time is right, now, to make sure that anything can be possible. Which is why we’re doing the Establishment Club.”

For the moment, though, there are planned monthly performances at Ronnie Scott’s Club in Frith Street.

On their opening night this week – on Wednesday – they had comedians Terry Alderton, Arnold Brown, Phil Nichol and others, plus ex-rogue MP George Galloway saying he thought Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was innocent of the rape allegations he now faces. According to the review in today’s Independent by Julian Hall, a former judge for the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Awards, “ultimately, this tribute to Pete was a dud”.

I was unable to go to the opening night but did go last night with low expectations and I thought they managed to pull off the almost impossible. They have re-imagined The Establishment for 2012. They have the makings of a very entertaining and potentially even occasionally controversial comedy club here. Except it is not a comedy club.

Miss Behave at the Malcolm Hardee Awards last month

At the Edinburgh Fringe this year, I saw what appears to be the rise of Cabaret with acts and shows like Dusty Limits, East End Cabaret, Lili La Scala’s Another Fucking Variety Show, Mat Ricardo’s Voodoo Varieties, and Tricity Vogue’s Ukelele Cabaret providing more laughs, entertainment and originality than, arguably, most stand-up comedy.

Indeed, the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Awards Show this year was compered not by a stand-up comic but by cabaret legend Miss Behave and it was more a cabaret variety show than a stand-up comedy show.

So, last night, The Establishment did have two excellent stand-ups on – Scott Capurro and Paul Sinha – but they also had their house jazz band, the James Pearson Trio plus comedian Lee Kern with a video story about Twitter and the astonishingly good (and strangely un-introduced) Dickie Beau performing a red-haired, red-costumed drag act mimed to genuine recordings of an increasingly drunken Judy Garland.

We also had Ophelia Bitz screening a sadly ineffective compilation of early 20th century hard core porn films involving fellatio and cunnilingus (neither erotic nor, to a 2012 Establishment audience, shocking) but – again on the Rise-of-Cabaret theme – performing some stonkingly good songs… In my opinion, anyone who manages to rhyme “cunnilingus” with “music by Mingus” at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club is worth the entire price of admission.

And then we come to what were, to me, the two most interesting ‘acts’ of the night.

The Strypes are an astonishingly good 4-piece rock band from Cavan in Ireland. Keith Allen introduced them as having an average age of 14 though, on Irish TV’s Late Late Show in April, they were said to have an average age of 15. But, whatever, they are very young and very, very talented. Like all starters, they are copying. There are bits of the Rolling Stones, bits of the Beatles, bits of Jimi Hendrix, even bits (I thought) of the Velvet Underground – the shades of the lead singer.

But, strutting and posing and staring, they have an extraordinary presence. Keith Allen introduced them by saying to the audience:

“You know one of them is going to end up on the crack pipe. One of them is going to ‘come out’ and ignore his female fanbase. And one is obviously going to end up on heroin. You decide which one it’s gonna be…”

They have a very strong drummer and a very strong bass player holding everything together. An amazing, charismatic-voiced lead singer. And a lead guitarist to die for, mixing Keith Richard stares with soaring fluid guitar and dropping-to-the-knees Jimi Hendrix moments.

They are amazing. They are copying, but copying from the best with years to develop. They believe in what they act out. They are living the dream.

Last night, The Strypes also performed what was, to my ears, a version of My Generation better than The Who’s version.

The other extraordinary ‘performer’ at The Establishment last night was Craig Murray, the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan who was sacked in October 2004.

He, like George Galloway, believes that Julian Assange is not guilty of the rape charges. (I am not so sure myself.)

Craig Murray said last night that he believes there is “a really strange alliance between the liberal/Left Guardianista Establishment and the Right Wing Murdoch commentariat to attack Assange. Even suggesting he might be innocent seems to be somehow socially disgraceful, something you’re not allowed to say in the media. I’m pretty convinced he’s innocent.

“I came across Extraordinary Rendition, torturing people to get intelligence, shipping people into Uzbekistan in order for them to be tortured… So I resigned and blew the whistle, which any honest person would do. But I found myself immediately charged with sexual allegations. I was charged with issuing visas in return for sexual favours.

“But it’s not only me. I can name Scott Ritter, former UN arms inspector… Janis Karpinski, brigadier general, who blew the whistle on Donald Rumsfeld’s approval of the torture techniques at Abu Ghraib prison,.. James Yee, chaplain at Guantanamo Bay

“All of these people blew the whistle and all of these people, in the week following blowing the whistle, were charged with unrelated criminal offences. And that’s what ‘they’ do. All the male ones were of a sexual nature.

“It’s extraordinary that this happens so often to whistleblowers and people just don’t see it. I know, because they did it to me, what they’re doing to Julian. And the media should damn well know it too, but the media doesn’t publish it. What I’ve just said about all these people who, one after the other, have been charged with sexual offences after blowing the whistle… Has anyone read that in the mainstream media? No. Because the bastards will not publish it.”

“Are all whistle-blowers perverts?” someone shouted out from the audience.

“Well,” said Craig Murray, “it’s extraordinary that that narrative could be accepted. I was fighting the government like hell over Extraordinary Rendition and arms in Iraq. In the middle of that fight, did I suddenly decide I was going to blackmail a visa applicant into sex? Brigadier Janis Karpinski – the senior female in the American Army – she blew the whistle on Rumsfeld’s torture techniques – did she actually come home and the very next day decide to go shoplifting?

“It makes no bloody sense. And yet the media accept these stupid narratives. For me, it’s very scary. I don’t think people realise the extent to which the corporate ownership of the media combines with an ultra-corrupt political elite who have poisoned our society.

“I blew the whistle on torture. People were being boiled alive. I mean it. People were boiled alive. I actually got a pathology report on dissidents who were boiled alive in Uzbekistan. They had a factory, in effect. And it wasn’t just there. Mubarak was doing it (in Egypt). Gaddafy was doing the same (in Libya). These dictators were boiling people alive, were torturing people for the CIA, for MI6, who were shipping people around in order to be tortured, in order to get intelligence which exaggerated the strength of al-Queda, which exaggerated the Islamic threat.

“And the reason for that is the government was using that largely invented threat in order to clamp down on civil liberties and opposition at home.

“We are besieged by a single narrative in the media. All we have is social media, the internet, to fight against it and try to build up networks for a wider dialogue. I’m certainly hoping that what you’re doing with The Establishment club will give a chance for people like me – who have got something strange and different to say, something that you don’t get to hear every day on the normal media – to come along and say it.”

I should mention, here, that I do not necessarily agree with everything I quote other people as saying in this blog, but that last bit about The Establishment club I agree with.

Long live The Establishment club!

Though I am old enough to know that hoping is not the same as getting…

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The story two-faced Tony Blair/Bliar successfully hid from the British public

The individual’s right to privacy, the public’s “right to know” and freedom of the press.

Now there’s a difficult balance to strike.

And then there are super-injunctions.

One of the reasons for granting one of the notorious secret super-injunctions was apparently that, if the man’s marital infidelity were revealed, his children might get bullied at school. I rather think that, if the guy’s kids get bullied because their father has been sticking his knob within someone other than his wife, then the guy should take responsibility. It ain’t for the public courts to help him try to hide his adultery.

But the protection of children versus freedom of the press can be a well-balanced problem – of which more later, with Tony Blair.

Yesterday, the Guido Fawkes blog ran a story that, since 2008 – unknown to the British public – it has been an offence punishable by imprisonment to reveal that Lakshmi Mittal, the richest man in Britain – who has donated £2 million to the Labour Party – has a super-injunction gagging all reporting of an unknown and unprintable matter.

And much was made in the press yesterday about the super-injunction with which former RBS boss Fred Goodwin tried to hide an affair he had with a married subordinate before the financial crisis of 2008. This was the super-injunction which also, technically, made it illegal to describe him as “a banker”.

There have been lots of worthy ‘public interest’ words about how the public deserved to know about Fred Goodwin’s affair because it may have affected his judgment in the period leading up to the point at which the British taxpayer had to fork out billions of pounds to save RBS.

I’m not convinced that Fred The Bed’s rumpy pumpy is too likely to have specifically contributed to RBS’s woes in any major way. I think that may be more to do with the near-meltdown of the entire world’s financial system – and, from my biased perspective, two Icelandic banks which stole the money I had invested in them. But stress, obviously, does affect people’s judgment in times of crisis.

If – let us say for argument’s sake – if… a Prime Minister were making important life-or-death decisions in a highly volatile post-war situation, the public would have a right to know if he were making those decisions under extreme personal stress, wouldn’t they?

Well, no, apparently the public would not have any right to know that.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think highly personal matters SHOULD be in the public domain if people – perhaps hundreds, perhaps thousands of people – might die because of a potentially wrong decision taken by a politician under extreme personal pressure.

Tony Blair – sometimes called Tony Bliar, a far more fitting spelling – the man who brought in the Freedom of Information Act – claimed he wanted ‘open’ government.

Yet, when his 16 year old daughter Kathryn attempted suicide on or around 13th May 2004, he and his chaps went to the editors of the main British newspapers and had all reporting of the attempted suicide barred from publication because it was a solely personal, private matter. Rupert Murdoch barred publication of any reporting of the incident in any of his newspapers worldwide; I do wonder what sort of political payback he could expect for doing that.

It remains one of many stories known by but not reported in the UK media. Many people who knew about the attempted suicide at the time agreed and still agree with the blanket non-reporting of the fact it happened. They believe that it was and is a family tragedy and there is no “in the public interest” factor involved; they argued and argue that the physical and psychological protection of the individual child outweighs any public right to know. I disagree.

In a recent blog I mentioned I tried to commit suicide when I was 18.

The Blair daughter suicide bid happened almost exactly one year after the invasion of Iraq, which was in an even worse mess and the Abu Ghraib torture pictures had recently been publicised. The suicide bid was rumoured to have been caused by a combination of exam stress and bullying by schoolmates about her father’s involvement in Iraq. Which is where that earlier reference to school bullying comes in.

The Blair suicide story is not an urban myth. I know someone who, at the time, was connected to the Blair daughter’s Roman Catholic state secondary school, the Sacred Heart in Hammersmith. I heard about it at the time because, obviously, the school knew it had happened.

I first heard the story mentioned in public by an Irish comedian at the August 2004 Edinburgh Fringe. The story had been published in Ireland and abroad but not in the UK and not by any news sources controlled by Rupert Murdoch.

At the time, there were unexplained stories in the British press that Blair was considering leaving office. No reason was given in the reports as to why Blair might leave office beyond, occasionally, some vague reference to “family”. And it seemed to me that Blair suddenly visibly aged at that time.

If those stories were true and he was indeed considering actually resigning for family reasons then it does not seem to be a vast leap of supposition to believe that he was making important decisions of life and death in an extremely volatile and unpredictable high-pressure post-Invasion situation while under extreme psychological stress.

The reasons for his stress might well have been “personal” and “private” but, when personal, normally private events affect national and international decisions and potentially the deaths of hundreds or thousands of people, the public has a right to know the circumstances under which those decisions are being made.

There ARE cases where the public’s “right to know” and freedom of the press over-ride people’s “right to privacy”.

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Painting a New York fart, Tony Blair and Jo Brand

Yesterday, in response to my blog mentioning farteur Mr Methane, Jackie Hunter, former features editor of The Scotsman newspaper, reminded me that early 20th-century artist Maxfield Parrish painted a fart into a mural that now adorns the famous King Cole Bar in New York’s St Regis hotel. I have to agree with her that painting a fart is quite an achievement.

Yesterday was a funny old mixture of a day because British comedians are now planning for the Edinburgh Fringe in August. Going to the Fringe, like having a baby, is a nine-month project involving a lot of nausea, pain and uncertain results.

Charlie Chuck phoned me about his planned return to Edinburgh which sounds suitably unusual and the extraordinarily multi-talented Janey Godley, not planning to play the Edinburgh Fringe this year but just about to go to the Adelaide Fringe, told me about two possibilities she has been unexpectedly offered in two totally different media. From Janey, the unexpected comes as no surprise.

In the afternoon, I had to take a friend to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Woolwich which, for reasons I can’t begin to fathom, is surrounded by a high Grade A security fence which makes it look more like a Stalag Luft Queen Elizabeth II escape-proof prison camp in World War II or a Ministry of Defence site in the Cold War.

In the evening, I went to Vivienne & Martin Soan’s monthly Pull The Other One comedy club at the beleaguered and now closed Ivy House pub in Nunhead. The venue was re-opened specially for the night to stage Pull The Other One with this month’s headliner Jo Brand.

Vivienne & Martin now have their next six shows arranged but with no definite venue and are looking round, although they would prefer to stay at the warmly ornate and atmospheric mirrored ‘golden room’ behind the Ivy House bar. One local alternative might be The Old Waiting Room at Peckham Rye Station.

Comedian and novelist Dominic Holland, making his second appearance at Pull The Other One called it “the weirdest gig that exists,” which it surely is. The format is about two hours of variety acts and two stand-up comics. Unusually, nowadays, the bizarre variety acts – far be it from me to name-drop Bob Slayer and Holly Burn – are as important to the feel of the shows as the stand-ups.

Afterwards, Dominic told me that his 14-year-old son Tom Holland, recently on stage as Billy Elliot in the West End, is currently in Thailand filming a lead role in major Hollywood blockbuster The Impossible. I thought Dominic was probably ‘talking up’ this film out of fatherly pride until I looked it up on IMDB Pro and found it is a big-budget tsunami disaster movie “starring Ewan McGregor and Tom Holland” and is one of the “most anticipated films of 2011”.

Other shocks of the evening were that the much talked-about cult comedian Dr Brown has got an entirely new character act in which he actually moves and talks semi-coherently. And I heard that legendary ‘open spot’ act Jimbo – he seems to have been doing open spots as long as Cilla Black has been acting-out the role of ordinary woman next door – is now getting paid gigs, has allegedly changed into a (different) character act and is perhaps going to the Edinburgh Fringe. If he won an award as Best Newcomer at the Fringe it would be very funny and would be a triumph for Brian Damage of Pear Shaped, who has long championed Jimbo and other – even by my standards – very, very bizarre acts.

A very funny night at Pull The Other One ended very entertainingly but totally unsurprisingly with nudity. There were even some calls for The Naked Balloon Dance of fond memory.

Meanwhile, out in the real world, Tunisia continued to stumble around like a blinded meerkat towards potential anarchic chaos and tanks were rolling around Cairo to prevent what threatened to be a popular uprising.

Is it my imagination or have things deteriorated badly in that area since the United Nations, evidently an organisation with no sense of irony, appointed Tony Blair as Middle East Peace Envoy and why is it I never actually see any pictures of him in the Middle East?

Could it be he’s just too busy talking to God and this week, according to The Times, signing a six-figure deal to make four speeches for a hedge fund which made around £100 million by betting on the collapse of the Northern Rock bank in the UK?

This was shortly after the Daily Mail reported that he got £300,000 for making one speech for banking giant Goldman Sachs, while he had a £2.5 million deal as “advisor”  to JP Morgan, who, according to London’s Evening Standard, won a contract to set up an Iraqi bank in the wake of the US-led invasion.

Which gets us back to the subject of Mr Methane and farting around the world and brings up the possibly pertinent question:

What is the difference between being a comedian and taking the piss?

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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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The British have always been a violent race

Once upon a time, an Italian historian told me this…

The British are a restless, disorderly race. They are not the cold people their stereotype implies. You rarely get anything as social as British pubs anywhere else.  German beer cellars are not the same.

The British like to fight.

If two Italians have an argument, there is a long period in which they just stand and insult each other – “You bastard! – You asshole! – Are you an idiot? – You son of a bitch!” – They shout a long string of verbal abuse at each other, but there is no physical violence. The shouting usually draws a group of people round them and, slowly, the two men get closer to each other and the insults get louder. Only at a very late stage might one try to physically attack the other and – immediately – the onlookers will separate them and hold them back. Real fights are rare. There is a saying in Italy – The one who strikes the first blow wins – because there is rarely a second blow – The fight is stopped.

The British fight in a totally different way.

If someone is offended, he turns suddenly and the most he says is “Fuck you!” then he immediately hits the other guy in the face with his fist. No-one has time to separate the two because, by the time they get there, a full fight has started. I saw it happen in a pub the second day I was in England and I have seen it many times since. Very few Italians have broken noses, but lots of English and Scots do because, with their sudden fights, there is no time to protect your face from the first punch.

The other facet which confuses foreigners is that so many British look like losers. They dress casually and shabbily, they don’t repair the legs of their spectacles for years and they look like they are past caring but, at some point, this apparently laid-back loser will turn round and break your nose. It is not a country where you insult someone lightly.

I was in a pub standing next to a stranger and he muttered something to this other guy who looked like a real loser, a real meek man. There was the tiniest of pauses and the meek guy just hit the stranger full-force in the middle of his face. His nose exploded. The stranger went straight down onto the floor and never got up and the meek guy turned quietly back to his pint of beer.

The Romans had twelve legions to control their entire Empire, stretching from the Atlantic to Mesopotamia. They had to keep two of those legions – two whole legions! – garrisoned permanently in Britain, because it was such a very difficult country to rule. The Germans, the Persians and the Arabs were all difficult too – dangerous frontier people – but the real problem the Romans faced in their empire was the Britons. In the 16th century, Cellini called the English “wild beasts”. Hippolyte Taine’s Notes on England, based on his impressions in the 1860s, said: “Friends and enemies alike described them as the most bellicose and redoubtable race in Europe.”

The British have always had a violent culture. And they have always displayed enormous tendencies to individuality. The British will walk miles to prove their fitness. They want to go to the North and South Poles and it’s the only country in the world where explorers’ biographies are enormously popular. The British are obsessed by Enduring and Surviving. They are fascinated – obsessed – by individuals. The British see the family as a collection of single individuals. In Italy, the family unit is everything. You have to be with the family. That is not the case in Britain. Individuality is everything.

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