Last night to That There London in my capacity as cardboard-and-string flavoured boy journalist, where I was to cover a press event on the subject of a leaked British Government memo, in which the President of the United States reveals plans to attack a civilian television station on the sovereign territory of a friendly government.
Present at The Frontline Club were Wadah Khanfar, Director-General of Al Jazeera, in town to get answers from a government that's gone all quiet on us; and Kevin Maguire, associate editor of the Daily Mirror who knows a man who knows a man who has seen The Memo Of Doom. The whole event was held together by Martin Bell, whose white suit was a disconcerting shade of cream, with a pink shirt that made him look like a penny chew.
After approximately thirty seconds, it became apparent that Maguire wasn't going to suddenly whip out a copy of said memo and wave it about like Neville Chamberlain proclaiming peace in our time; and about six seconds after that the assembled hacks who had dragged themselves up two flights of stairs from the bar especially for the occasion worked out that there was going to be no actual new news coming out of the evening.
Still, the whole thing was carried live to the entire Arab world on Al Jazeera, and it's always nice to get your mug on the telly.
While we're Serious Blogging today, the facts are this:
* A source (which Maguire will not name) approached the Mirror with details of a top secret memo, which had "accidentally" found its way into the papers of a certain MP. Noting that the memo contained, amongst other things, details of UK and US troop movements in Iraq, said MP turned it back to Downing Street.
* The memo also contains details of a conversation between George W Bush, and his London spokesman Tony Blair, in which the Leader of the Free World reveals plans to attack Al Jazeera TV, a civilian broadcaster financed by the government of Qatar. Mr Blair, for all his faults, tells him that this may not be a particularly good idea, and other, unnamed officials tend to concur with Tony's line of thinking.
* The Mirror, out of courtesy, informs Downing Street that they will be publishing details of this memo. Downing Street has a hissy fit, and the White House, according to Maguire "went beserk", leading to threats of the Official Secrets Act against anybody who is even considering publishing the document.
* Of course," said Maguire, "the government wouldn't be using the Official Secrets Act if the reports weren't true. This government will go to great lengths to keep this memo secret."
* Al Jazeera is in town and they're cross. They are also not getting any answers from a government that once prided itself for its openness and honesty. And before you ask, no, they've never shown beheadings, referred to American forces as "the enemy", and waited until US networks showed the Bin Laden video before they aired it themselves. Such are urban myths, spread to good effect by certain, otherwise respectable news outlets.
And this is despite their offices in Kabul and Baghdad being bombed by American forces in unfortunate "accidents", a number of Al Jazeera reporters dying in "accidental" US attacks, virtually every member of the Jazeera Baghdad bureau having been arrested by US forces at some stage or other, and at least two Jazeera workers imprisoned for reasons unknown in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.
Strangely, these big-stick legal threats come from a government that has, on more than one occasion, published Top Secret documents when it suits its own ends, but are loathe to confirm or deny whether such a conversation took place in a meeting between Bush and Blair, and will use the full strength of the law to keep their embarrassment hidden.
So, a government wants to bomb civilians, and spin machines on both sides of the Atlantic try to make out the most powerful man in the world was "joking", much like Ronnie Reagan was when he announced "the bombing starts in five minutes". Now, there's a role model.
More disturbing was the implication that the whole "Bomb Qatar" thing wasn't simply Georgie Boy thinking aloud. Maguire is certain from his sources that the tone of the memo shows Bush was indeed not joking, and this wasn't simply one man's big idea. Indeed, Maguire implied that this policy idea must have been passed around high level circles in the White House before Blair was brought into the loop. If so, whose idea was it?
In 1999, NATO forces bombed the RTS studios in Belgrade as part of operations in the Kosovo war. Sixteen civilian workers were killed in an operation against" a source of propaganda that's prolonging this war and causing untold new suffering to the people of Kosovo". Thank you Clare Short, it's nice to see you've repented your sins now.
Many journalists and media workers were sickened that this kind of slaughter was allowed to happen, even against an organisation that was broadcasting in time of conflict from the opposing side. We thought we had seen the last of this kind of thing from our own governments. How wrong we were. Even if the attack on Jazeera's Doha base never happened, the fact that the so-called defender of the free world, which had praised the channel as "a beacon of democracy in the Middle East" right up to September 2001, was even planning to kill and destroy to silence this voice shows the contempt they really show for peace and democracy.
In London, we found out nothing new of the government memo, but in terms of the secrecy and lies of modern governance, we learned volumes.
I never wanted to do home economics. The trouble was, the metalwork class was far too small and it was bursting at the seams with kids wanting to make ashtrays for their bedrooms and getting wrapped around the lathes. On the other hand, the home economics was virtually empty, with Miss Orton teaching to a small knot of girls made to do the cookery class by their parents.
We were given a choice. Hot sweaty metalwork with the sadistic Mr Callaghan, or the easy life cooking cakes with Miss Orton. Mr Callaghan was the king of the cruel and unusual punishment, normally involving particularly inventive ways of inflicting pain on his hapless pupils. We put this down to the fact that he had lost a foot in a bizarre and unspecified classroom accident, and as such, it was his life’s mission to wreak his awful revenge on the poor kids that came through his workshop. He was known as The Penguin. On the other hand, Miss Orton was a lesbian, something she told us every five minutes, but as far as we knew, the girls she taught weren’t. It was no contest, me and Tim, who really wanted to be a museum curator, and this is as close as the curriculum got, signed up in a flash.
Tuesday mornings became ace. We came in and cooked stuff. Cake. Pie. And once, a whole three course meal, which we then ate, bursting at the seams. Pretty soon, the message got about that Scary and Tim were having a great time stuffing their faces while Mr Callaghan was crushing their bollocks in a vice, and within weeks there were further defections from the metalwork class.
One day, the fragrant Miss Orton came to us with an idea. Mr Bull, the school headteacher was about to celebrate his 60th birthday. Wouldn’t it be nice if we were to make him a cake? Too bloody right it would, that man made our lives hell with petty rules, meaningless punishments and a habit of lecturing us all to sleep in morning assemblies. At the time, there was a strict one-way system operating in the school corridors, punishable by instant death. This was one of Bull’s big ideas to, and I quote “prepare us for our entry into a structured and ordered society”. You had to walk halfway round the school just to get to the class next door, and transgressors were taken away to the “special” classroom, never to be seen again. That was what he was capable of. He was a Justice of the Peace and dreamed of the day he got is stupid long wig and the chance to hang ‘em high in the High Court. He had to pay. We would make the cake. Oh yes.
It was a beautiful cake. We spent a wonderful Tuesday morning all doing our bit to give Bull the happiest of birthdays. Sugar. Magarine. Flour. Eggs. Vim. Icing Sugar. Some mouldy cheese somebody found at the bottom of the fridge. It all went in, and more. Despite our giggling protests that he was taking it too far, Seany dropped a huge green, pulsating loogie right into the mix. Seany had been on the end of Bull’s wrath far too often, and today it was payback. We did, however, physically restrain him from putting his finger up his arse and rubbing the result into the mixture so that “he really would be full of shit”. We didn’t want to poison the old goat. Not much, anyway.
The coup de grace was “Happy 60th Birthday Mr Bull” piped out expertly in green icing by Tim, a skill he is undoubtedly putting to use now in his chosen career as a museum curator. We didn’t have any green food colouring. So we used washing up liquid.
At the end of the lesson, as we all packed up for lunch, the secret door to the forbidden zone opened, and in walked our leader, Mr Bull for a royal visit. Miss Orton grovelled and fawned round him, and it was all we could do to stop her from spreading rose petals on the very ground he walked upon. Eventually, she lead him over to where we stood with The Cake.
There was a brief, sycophantic ceremony. He complimented us on our cooking skills, expressed his deep joy that his students had thought of him on his most special of days. We sung “Happy Birthday”, and he blew out the one oversized candle planted in the middle of our masterpiece. It was all we could find, and after That Thing When We Made A Bomb In Science Club, that was probably not all bad. We hoped, then, it would be all over, but then we heard the words we dreaded.
“Won’t you boys join me in a slice?”
Not on your bloody life, mate, we know what’s in it.
He took a knife, and cut himself the biggest piece you could imagine, the great guts. He wasn’t known as “King Kong” for nothing. He tucked in. We held our collective breath, waiting for the eruption. It never came. He demolished the slice in about two mouthfuls, swallowed, and said, “This is actually rather good. You won’t mind if I take the rest home for Mrs Bull?”
Of course we didn’t mind. As a matter of fact, we were all for making him another one, just to finish off the job good and proper. Fair play to him, he showed up for work the next day showing no ill effects. Hardly surprising, the amount of washing up liquid we used to get the icing the right shade of green probably left him with the cleanest insides in the known universe.
A victory for the kids, for the first time ever. And like that episode of South Park where Kenny didn’t die, I felt strangely dissatisfied. This just wasn’t right, and I’m still waiting to be collared for this one now, over twenty years later. You'll be pleased to hear that Mr Bull is still alive and meting out bizarre punishments from the comfort of his centrally-heated bench in the High Courts. I’m still out here, running free and as guilty as hell. The cycle of crime and punishment is yet to be fulfilled.
The Summer of ‘76 was a scorcher. It didn’t rain for months, and water was rationed as reservoirs ran dry. Instead of a beautiful lush green, England was brown, withered and fit to burst into flames.
Which is probably a very bad thing if you’re a ten-year-old pyromaniac. I just couldn’t help it. I had a thing for fire. My parents didn’t help much by putting me in the cub scouts, which was rubbing sticks together and camp fires all the way. My grandfather had a bonfire almost every weekend, we’d pile anything flammable on top and watch the flames scorch the feathers off birds in a hundred yard radius.
I had a perfectly natural urge to burn things, and that is how I found myself on the wasteland behind Twyford Youth Club with a packet of Swan Vestas rattling in my pocket, looking for flammable materials. I didn't have to look far. That summer, everything from little old ladies to white dog turds was flammable.
A hedge ran along one side the youth club from the park, and that’s where I found the empty glass coke bottle.
It was no good. I had one of those inevitable lightbulb-over-your-head moments. “Wouldn’t it be great", I thought to myself, "if I could light a fire in this coke bottle and carry it around with me?”
To a ten year old son of the television, this genie in a bottle stuff was pretty sound logic, but on reflection, nigh on impossible. I stuffed the bottle with scraps of paper and tinder-dry sticks, of which there were a plentiful supply. I struck my first match and put it in. Nothing. As soon as it passed the lip of the bottle it went out. I tried it again and again with less paper and sticks in the bottle. Clearly this was one bright idea that wasn’t going to work.
My second lightbulb moment.
“What if I lit the fire outside the bottle, and put it in?”
Genius. I set about building a small fire out of the materials to hand. One match, and up it went like Mount Vesuvius. Within approximately five seconds, my small fire had become a raging inferno. There was no way on God's Earth I was going to pick it up and shove it in a bottle.
In fact, the fire was spreading at such an alarming rate over the sun-darkened grass and into the bushes that all thoughts of fire-in-a-bottle were forgotten and replaced by an overwhelming urge to run away from the conflagration I had started as fast as I could and hide under my bed.
So I did.
I only lived a few hundred yards away, and my feet barely touched the ground. A glance over my shoulder confirmed the worst - the entire hedgerow was aflame in biblical proportions. I bet Moses shat his pants in the same circumstances. At least he had a convincing cover story. I ran upstairs and dived under the bunkbed. By the light of a blazing match, I could see that I was barely singed and clearly hadn’t been followed by the forces of law and order.
After a decent interval, I went downstairs. My mother was standing at the kitchen window watching a column of thick black smoke rising into the sky, punctuated by the odd lick of flame. The sound of sirens could be heard.
“Ooh. I wonder what happened there then?”
I wouldn’t know, mother, I wouldn’t know. I just hoped my eyebrows would grow back before she noticed. I vowed there and then never to play with fire again. For at least three weeks, anyway.
More of this lunacy here, if you like stuff about dog's bottoms.
The Duckworth-Lewis method explained, part the second
Thank you for your support, I shall wear it always. Also: thank you for your suggestions for the complete listing of the patented Duckworth-Lewis generic rating system for everything in the whole world. The full list (subject to change on a whim) is as follows:
0. Abi Titmuss 1. Ann Widdecombe giving you the eye 2. Margaret Thatcher leather whip “happy finish” massage 3. Clare Short on page three of the Sun 4. A smiling Margaret Beckett holding a pack of three 5. Ruth Kelly with a strap-on, and a terrible privately-educated gleam in her eye
6. The Princess Anne unnamed many-tentacled woe 7. An unshaven Tracey Emin asking for your help with her next 'art' piece. 8. Lorraine Kelly taking advantage of Eamonn Holmes' morning glory 9. Cherie Blair strap-on action 10. Locked in a cupboard, on a cruise ship, with Monica Lewinski and a large box of battery-operated cigars
11. Carol Vorderman rubbing up against a bollard for cold, hard cash 12. Emma Thomspon on a street corner asking for "business" 13. Katy Hill and Janet Ellis eating a banana suggestively 14. Elizabeth Sladen walking K9 in a naturist camp. 15. Alison Goldfrapp straddling her mellotron
16. Konnie Huq in a bath of beans, whilst that other Blue Peter presenter, you know, the one in the lezzers scrubs her back with a french stick 17. Kate Humble in a wet T-shirt competition 18. Felicity Kendall wrapped in clingfilm, with Penelope Keith talking dirty in the background 19. Kate Winslet keeping her clothes on, mostly 20. Sarah Beeny wrestling Kirstie Allsopp in a paddling pool filled with baby oil
Rejected: 5. Kelly Holmes doing a Paula Radcliffe on a German scheisseporn website. Eye contact maintained throughout.