Saturday 16 December 2023

So Farewell then, 'Question of Sport'. My part in its downfall

So after 53 years,
Question of  Sport is being axed by the BBC because of the squeeze the Conservatives government has applied to the corporation's finances while it let inflation rip.

Back in 1969 or 70, I took part in the pilot programme that led to what was then A Question of Sport  being commissioned. At the time I was working as a radio outside broadcasts producer in the BBC's North Region, based in Manchester. Out of the blue, I got a phone call asking if I could go to what were then the corporation's television studios in the city at a converted church in Dickenson Road (pictured), which was also the birthplace of Top of the Pops.

The programme was presented by David Vine, and among my fellow panellists was the distinguished football reporter Dennis Lowe.

I remember getting a question about a piece of film featuring a runner, who I correctly identified as the great Czech athlete Emil Zatopek and also correctly said that at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki he had won the 5,000 metres, the 10,000 metres and the Marathon in his first ever run over the distance. No one, incidentally, has ever managed to repeat his treble.

In spite of my stunning performance I was never invited to take part in one of the many transmitted programmes, with the producers unaccountably preferring panellists such as Henry Cooper, Brendan Foster, Fred Trueman, Emlyn Hughes and Princess Anne.

Monday 11 December 2023

Assassins' Deeds: Hit the Road, John!

Assassins' Deeds roadshow reaches Stanmore on 15 January as I talk to Stanmore & District u3a about my history of assassination from ancient Egypt to the present day.

Expect stories about the earliest assassination known to history, the killer in a bear's costume, the president whose bodyguard went for a drink while he was murdered, the near misses that spared Napoleon, Hitler and Queen Victoria, and much, much more.

Assassins' Deeds is published by Reaktion Books

Tuesday 21 November 2023

Brexitwatch: Leave Planet Earth! How the Tories' "stop the boats" slogans evolved 2016-30

The Conservatives pretended, with some success, that the best way of improving the quality of life for the British people was to stop those so desperate that they had abandoned their homes and travelled thousands of miles in constant danger, from trying to reach our country. This seemed all the more bizarre as we had a desperate shortage of workers

As each initiative to 'stop the boats' failed, the Tories' slogans evolved:

2016 Vote Brexit to STOP THE BOATS

2023 Quit the ECHR to STOP THE BOATS

2030 Leave Planet Earth to STOP THE BOATS

Leaving the EU failed. Treating its member countries as our enemies proved not to be a good way of getting the help we desperately needed from them if we wanted to 'stop the boats'. Leaving the ECHR was, if anything, even more disastrous, as it resulted in Britain becoming a pariah nation with its trade agreement with the EU torn up. The Conservatives talked up a new deal with North Korea as an alternative, but when mutual trade in its first year amounted to only £22.30, even some Tories began to have doubts. Leaving the ECHR also failed to 'stop the boats'.

The 'Leave Planet Earth' scheme was originally floated by the NatCons, or National Conservatives who were extreme right wingers even by Tory standards, and rejected by the party leadership, but by 2030 it had become official policy in spite of its obvious practical difficulties. Former prime minister Boris Johnson dismissed its critics as 'the woke Green liberal elite Remoaner Blob.'

During the early 2020s, incidentally, the Conservative government kept referring to those trying to seek asylum in the UK as 'illegal immigrants'. They were not, because it was not illegal to seek asylum, and the civil service refused to adopt this mendacious terminology, referring instead on official government websites to 'irregular immigration'.

Thursday 21 September 2023

WORLD EXCLUSIVE!! Sunak's secret global warming speech to Tory MPs!

Stop the boats! Stop the ULEZ! Stop the Green Cr*p! Stop the Woke Climate Blob!

That's how we'll win the next General Election!

Now, of course, saving the world from frying and ensuring our children and grandchildren have a planet to live on involves making some tough choices, and I've made them! I've taken the tough decision to delay all the action we Tories promised we would take to fight global warming! We know saving the planet is important, it's just that saving my job and the job of Tory MPs is more important!

I've also taken the incredibly tough decision to scrap a whole lot of laws that don't exist! 

Now, we can't have action to fight global warming making people in Britain poorer. That's Brexit's job!

And speaking of Brexit, I know some of you have been concerned that my promise to be honest about global warming means that I might start being honest about Brexit! Don't worry. There'll be no nonsense of that kind! And, by the way, I'm not really being honest about global warming either! There will be no backsliding from the Conservative policy of lying whenever it's convenient.

So Stop the Boats, Stop the Ulez and we Tories can rule for another five years, or until the end of the world, whichever comes sooner.

Monday 28 August 2023

The 'Father of the Netherlands': visiting the scene of an assassination

William the Silent, who led the Dutch Revolt against Catholic Spain in the sixteenth century, is often known as the 'Father of the Netherlands'.  

I had written about his murder in my book Assassins' Deeds (Reaktion). How a fanatical Catholic named Balthasar Gerard had wormed his way into the Protestant William's confidence. How on 10 July 1584, Gerard had gone on an errand to the Dutch leader's house in Delft, and waited while William had lunch with his family. And how Gerard hid beneath a staircase and then, as William emerged, shot him dead at point blank range. 

So it was sobering and intriguing to stand on the very spot where this dramatic assassination happened. William's house is now the Prinsenhof Museum (pictured), and the hallway and staircase clearly recognisable from the accounts I had read.

Gerard tried to get away, but was caught and executed brutally. The Netherlands would have to fight on until 1648 to gain their independence in what became known as the Eighty Years War.

Friday 18 August 2023

Memory Lane: interviewing people looking for work in 1975

Those nice people from MACE, the Media Archive of Central England, have just posted a television report I did for 'ATV Today' (the news programme that covered the English Midlands) on 25 July 1975. Interviewing people in Birmingham looking for work

Friday 28 July 2023

BeatlesWatch: It was 55 years ago today.......................

On 28 July 1968, the Beatles went on a ‘mad day out’ around London with photographers Don McCullin and Stephen Goldblatt, to generate some publicity pictures. During the shoot, they visited St Pancras Old Churchyard in Camden, site of a Christian place of worship since perhaps the fourth century and nestling beside the lost River Fleet.

They sat on this bench – life was so exciting in those days. At the time the band were making the White Album, or more correctly Double Album, and already on the road to breaking up. 

Tuesday 4 July 2023

Brexitwatch reveals the Brexiters' biggest mistake: winning!

I've managed to resurrect another section from the history of Brexit Britain published some time after 2050 - the priceless gift of Sybil, my acquaintance from the future:

'The morning after they "won" the Brexit referendum, the leaders of the Leave campaign, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, looked as though they were going to a funeral. No celebrations, no 'we did it' fist-pumping triumphalism. Glum faces all round. The reason was simple.

In a project with so many faults and flaws, it seems invidious to pick out one, but perhaps the greatest was that Johnson and Gove never meant Brexit to win. It was a protest movement. It was against the EU, and often against it with a visceral hatred, but it was not really in favour of anything, certainly nothing very coherent and nothing that its Heinz 57 varieties of supporters could agree on.

If only it had lost, Leavers could have gone on happily complaining about the EU, while the rest of the country got on with its business of being reasonably efficient and content. Instead Leave won, and found itself lumbered with implementing a pile of undeliverable, often contradictory promises. Soon its supporters were complaining more vociferously than they had when the UK was in the EU.

But to make things worse, those who had understood the benefits of EU membership and had now been robbed of them, were up in arms too. The whole country, Leavers and Remainers, were at worst furious at and at best cynically contemptuous of a whole English political establishment they felt had betrayed them. While it seemed the only people to have benefited were politicians like Johnson, Patel and Braverman who were promoted way beyond anything their extremely modest gifts justified.'


Sunday 25 June 2023

I-Spy Penang, Malaysia. A reward for losing America

This is Fort Cornwallis, built by the British East India Company in the late 18th century to defend Penang against pirates. It was named after Earl Cornwallis, who lost America. Maybe I should have lost America, then I could have had a fort named after me!

Actually, that's a bit unfair to Cornwallis. There were plenty of British defeats and disasters in the American War of Independence (see my book Britain's 20 Worst Military Disasters, Spellmount), but the British never recovered from Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown in 1781 and the following year parliament voted to end the war. Cornwallis went on to become Governor-General of India, and Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland.

Thursday 22 June 2023

How I became a victim of piracy!


My book Assassins' Deeds. A history of assassination from ancient Egypt to the present day (Reaktion Books) has apparently been translated into Persian without the permission of the publisher or of me, and without, of course, any payment being made for the rights. I assume that is its cover pictured above.

I owe this interesting piece of information to the 'Iran's Book News Agency' which reports that the work has been translated by 'Abbas-Gholi Ghaffari-Fard' and published by 'Tehran-based Negah Publishing'. Apart from that, the 'story' just reproduces a Reaktion press release issued when the book was published in the UK.

I understand from Reaktion that Negah has form and has pirated other books, and that it ignores communications. I hear from other sources that Persian publishers also translate magazines without permission. Rogue-state Iran is not a signatory to the Berne Convention which protects the rights of authors.

Wednesday 21 June 2023

The 5 most fascinating assassinations in history - my podcast

Dr James Rogers has just issued a challenge to me on his fascinating Warfare podcast - 'talk about the 5 most interesting assassinations in history'. Apparently it's the most popular episode this month.

We discuss methods, motives, causes, consequences, strange coincidences and weird twists of fate, drawing on my book 'Assassins' Deeds. A history of assassination from ancient Egypt to the present day.' (Reaktion Books).

Who did I pick? Do you know who was the only British prime minister to be assassinated? Which assassin did John Wilkes Booth quote when he shot Abraham Lincoln? And what role did love play in the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand?

The answers are here. See what you think of my choice:

Tuesday 23 May 2023

Brexitwatch: A warning from the future, for Labour

 Working painstakingly with paper and glue I have managed to put together another passage from The New Oxford History of England: Brexit 2015-, presented to me by Sybil, the emissary from the future, in the obscure corner of North London pictured above:

‘Labour was in power for 13 years under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. It could have brought in proportional representation for electing MPs, which would have made it impossible for a Conservative government ever again to win power when the majority had voted against it.

Unfortunately, Labour decided that stopping this disaster was less important than preserving the chance for its own MPs to lord it over the country even when the majority had opposed them. The result was that in 2010, after 13 years of Labour, the Conservatives were back for even longer, with what was up to then the most right-wing government the UK has seen in modern times, which took the disastrous decision to leave the EU.

So when Sir Keir Starmer won the general election of 2024, there were some hopes that Labour might have learned from this bitter experience, and that this time it would put the interests of its voters and the country before narrow party advantage, but history repeated itself.

The size of Starmer’s parliamentary majority was enough to obscure the uncomfortable fact that once again most of those who had turned out had voted against the government now given virtually absolute power over them. Hardly anyone in the Labour Party had the courage to point out that this could not be regarded as democratic, and proportional representation was rarely mentioned.

While Labour wrestled with the dreadful mess the Conservatives had left them, their opponents regrouped and ruthlessly attacked the new government's performance, so that after five years of Labour, the Tories were back again with a working majority on yet another minority share of the vote, with all the catastrophic consequences we have seen.


Sunday 30 April 2023

How assassins work and does assassination work? My podcast now available


What motivates assassins? What are their favourite methods? What was the first assassination in history? What was the strangest? What was the first terrorist group? And does assassination work?

These are some of the questions Matt Lewis asked me in a wide-ranging podcast interview about assassinations over more than four thousand years from ancient Egypt to the present day, drawing on my book Assassins’ Deeds (Reaktion). 

Follow the link to access the podcast – mine is episode 7. The series is inspired by the popular video game Assassin's Creed.

Tuesday 11 April 2023

Brexitwatch: how to talk like a Conservative minister

Ever wanted to be a Conservative cabinet minister? No reason you can’t be, but one thing you will need is the right speech. So, as a public service I am providing, free of charge, the Tory Self-writing Speech Kit.

Write each of the phrases below on a card, then put on a blindfold, and arrange them in a random order. Fill in the gaps between with any old guff that takes your fancy (fact-checking not required).

These are the phrases:

evil gangs of people smugglers (put this on 3 separate cards to ensure repetition)

illegal asylum seekers (again on 3 cards)

economic migrants

a lot of them are young men, you know

stop the boats (3 cards)

abusing Britain’s hospitality

proud record of taking in refugees (though not ones arriving in small boats obviously)

delivering the people’s priorities

activist lefty lawyers

opportunities of Brexit

global Britain

I am available to promote any business of your choice in return for shedloads of money [actually, maybe leave this one out] 

Friday 31 March 2023

How historians will see Brexit. I have been granted a privileged glimpse: the CPTPP

 I have managed to decipher another section of the fire-damaged New Oxford History of England: Brexit 2015- which was offered to me by Sybil, an emissary from The Future (see my post of 7 March). This is from what appears to be the section on the CPTPP.

‘After a brief attack of courage when he faced down the Brexit fanatics who wanted the UK to welch on the agreement we had made with the EU over Northern Ireland, Sunak sadly soon reverted to spineless type, and decided he had to offer the ‘head-bangers’, as they would become known, a consolation prize.

Most British people soon saw that even among the multiple absurdities of Brexit, the UK’s ludicrous decision to join a trade group on the other side of the world in preference to neighbours 20 miles away, stood out.

It was presented by Sunak as one of those highly elusive ‘Brexit benefits’, but this argument soon fell apart when it was revealed that, on the government’s own figures, it would benefit the UK's economy by about 0.08 per cent, while Brexit impoverished the country by fully 4 per cent, fifty times as much.

Instead it became clear that joining the CPTPP had only two functions: 1. As one of those endless empty gestures designed to fool people into thinking that there was some upside to Brexit, and 2. To try to put another obstacle in the way of the UK ever rejoining the EU, so imprisoning the country permanently in the Brexit disaster.’

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 am Sybil. 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, 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  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.