Tuesday, 7 March 2023

Brexitwatch: A Book of Secrets - have I met an emissary from the future?

 A funny thing happened to me the other day as I was walking across a blasted heath not far from where I live in North London.

I saw a woman standing by a fire. I was going to write ‘old woman’ and then I realised she was no older than me, and was possibly a good deal younger, as most people are. As I approached she held out a book, quite a weighty tome, and said: ‘I have come from the future with this book of secrets. Take it.’

Sadly, living in modern Britain has bred suspicion and cynicism in me, and I quickened my pace and brushed past her. After a few moments, I heard her shout: ‘Then I’ll burn the book.’ I looked back and saw her throw it on the flames. Then I went hurrying on my way.

A few hours later something made me go back. There was no sign of the woman. The fire had gone out, but among the ashes were the remains of the book. I saw that it was a volume in the New Oxford History of England entitled Brexit 2015- but the end date of the period it covered was lost, as was the author’s name and date of publication.

Gingerly I retrieved what was left of the volume, and found the opening sentences:

‘We can now see that the Brexit referendum of 2016 was the real fault line in English history. The previous year, David Cameron, a friendly, plausible prime minister, had won a surprise victory in the General Election. Unfortunately Cameron was also shallow, weak and careless, and rarely failed to put the interests of the Conservative Party before the interests of the country.’

I am now trying to piece together other passages, which I will post in this blog.

Tuesday, 28 February 2023

Brexitwatch: the Windsor Framework - two cheers for Sunak


As a floating voter who has never belonged to any political party, I'm free to give credit where it’s due. So I say ‘well done’ to Rishi Sunak for negotiating the Windsor Framework with the EU.

Will the substantial slice of the Conservative Parliamentary Party blinkered by their irrational hatred of the EU, manage to vote it down? Apparently Brexit liar-in-chief Boris Johnson did not even bother to show up to hear Mr Sunak yesterday. So no change there. Will the people-who-like-to-say-no DUP refuse to come back into power-sharing now they’re no longer Northern Ireland’s biggest party? Who knows?

The point is Mr Sunak has made an effort to stand up to both groups, and assert that the EU is not our enemy, and that if this country is going to limit the damage from the Brexit disaster, we will need a constructive relationship with Europe.

This, of course, will raise many difficult questions for him. Yesterday, he was waxing lyrical about the advantages to Northern Ireland of being inside the EU Single Market. But Brexiters like him are denying those advantages to the rest of the UK, even though they promised we would stay in the Single Market when they were conning people into voting for Brexit. Every day more people see through the Brexit lies, so for how long can this doublethink survive?

But perhaps for the first time since 2016 we have a Conservative prime minister prepared to stand up, to some degree, for the UK. No Brexit is as good as being in the EU, but the Conservatives have so far chosen a particularly bad version. If Mr Sunak is prepared to defy the fanatics in his party and lead us away from the foolish delusions that have dominated the Tories, he deserves credit for that.

This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.


Tuesday, 10 January 2023

Farewell to the Hardy Tree

In the 1860s, Thomas Hardy, the famous novelist, was learning the ropes as a young architect in London, and was given the unenviable task of digging up graves at Old St Pancras Church to make way for the railway about to power its way from St Pancras Station to the East Midlands and beyond.

He tried to give a decent burial to the human remains and stacked the gravestones around an ash tree, creating what became known as the Hardy Tree. Sadly, weakened by last year's storms, the tree has now fallen.

Two decades later, Hardy wrote a poem about another churchyard where remains had to be dug up and reburied, and included the lines:

We late-lamented, resting here,

Are mixed to human jam,

And each to each exclaims in fear,

'I know not which I am!'

You wonder how much that was inspired by his own experience of the daunting task at St Pancras. 

Friday, 6 January 2023

John Stonehouse: my part in his downfall

If you’ve been watching the ITV drama series
Stonehouse https://www.itv.com/watch/stonehouse/10a1973/10a1973a0001, you’ll know the Walsall Labour MP John Stonehouse faked his own death in November 1974, creating the impression that he’d been drowned off a beach in Miami, only to turn up later in Australia where he was arrested. Later he was gaoled in the UK on various fraud charges.

At the time, I was a reporter at ATV, then the ITV company for the English Midlands, and I covered the story extensively. Shortly after his disappearance, I remember interviewing (sadly only by telephone) an American detective who told me he thought someone might have made Stonehouse ‘an offer he couldn’t refuse’ and that the MP might currently be ‘wearing a concrete overcoat.’

The detective turned out to be wrong, but the most surprising thing about the affair for me was that I had done a discussion programme with Stonehouse shortly before the General Election of October 1974 in which he and a Conservative MP had knocked lumps off each other in the customary manner. I’ve always wondered whether Stonehouse already knew he was going to fake his death a month later.

I did a number of interviews with his election agent, Harry Richards. This is one from May 1975:


Monday, 2 January 2023

Be careful using Travelex’s ‘buyback guarantee’

Once upon a time foreign exchange company Travelex used to offer a proper ‘buyback guarantee’ when you bought foreign currency from them. For an additional few pounds on top of the normal commission charge, you got a guarantee that they would buy any foreign currency you had left on your return at the same rate you paid for it. It was a service I often used when changing money at airports.

I hadn’t used Travelex for some time when I went to Denmark at the end of October. At Heathrow, as I had done so often in the past, I went to Travelex to buy, on this occasion, Danish kroner. I asked for a buyback guarantee, paid over the usual additional fee, and was told this would mean I would be able to change my money back at the ‘spot rate’ on the day. I assumed this meant the rate might move a bit in my favour or a bit against me.

Imagine my surprise when I tried to change back my remaining currency using the buyback guarantee, and found I was facing a loss of 27% (!). When I remonstrated with Travelex staff, they told me that a thrusting new CEO had moved into the company and that this virtual destruction of the buyback guarantee was one of his initiatives.

I wrote to Travelex to complain and said I felt I should have been warned at the outset that the ‘buyback guarantee’ no longer protected the customer, but they dismissed my comments, saying only that they would in future ask staff to ‘clearly communicate exchange rates before a purchase is confirmed’. If this means anything, it should require staff to say something like: ‘please be aware that purchasing this buyback guarantee will not protect you from suffering a substantial loss of perhaps 25% or more on any money you change back.’

Has anyone else had a similar experience to me?

Sunday, 1 January 2023

Brexitwatch: my New Year's honours list

Human Being of the Year Brexit-wise for 2022: my award goes to Chris Grey, author of the blog https://chrisgreybrexitblog.blogspot.com/.  Though to be honest he probably also deserved the award for 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021.

Emeritus Professor of Organization Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, he blogs most Fridays on Brexit, cutting through the lies, deceit and confusion that have plagued the UK during the Brexit years. He writes authoritatively, soberly and fairly, but also readably. It is consistently the best thing I have read on the subject.

One of his many illuminating insights is that both Conservatives and Labour are trapped in what he calls 'performative' policies on Brexit. That they constantly advocate courses of action that are not designed to benefit the British people, courses of action indeed that they know will damage the British people, and whose only point is that they appeal to the prejudices of Brexiters and make them feel better.

Leaver or former remainer, right wing or left, if you want to really understand Brexit, invest 10-15 minutes of your time each week in reading Chris Grey.

Tuesday, 13 December 2022

History of Assassination: my North London talk in January

I'm honoured to have been invited to speak again at the Crouch End & District u3a in North London, this time on the history of assassination.

Drawing on my book Assassins' Deeds. A History of Assassination from Ancient Egypt to the Present Day (Reaktion), I'll be talking about murder by poisoned umbrella or booby-trapped toy or killer disguised as a bear.

The most notorious assassinations will, of course, be there - Julius Caesar, Good King Wenceslaus, Thomas Becket, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, JFK, Martin Luther King, John Lennon, Kim Jong-nam, as well as the ones that got away: Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Hitler, Stalin, Queen Victoria. How might history have been different if their would-be killers had succeeded?

Because dynastic ambition was so often the motive, perpetrators were often spouses, parents, children or siblings. One Turkish sultan had 19 of his brothers strangled. The powerful have always tried to protect themselves, but that can misfire as a dozen or so Roman emperors were murdered by their guards. On the other hand, many victims seem to have been surprisingly careless. Abraham Lincoln had let his bodyguard go for a drink. 

I'll also be examining the thorny question of whether assassination works.

The talk is on 19 January at 1030. https://cedu3a.org.uk/monthly-meetings/