Memories of the hot summer of 1976… and of Kippa Matthews, too

DENNIS Howell was a Government minister in the Seventies,  but he might also have been the patron saint of politics as accidental satire.

In the heatwave summer of 1976, he was appointed minister for drought, and when the long hot summer ended and the rains fell with a vengeance, he was appointed minister for floods.

From drought to floods with barely a moment to change the sign on his door or find his wellies: it almost had a biblical ring, and certainly saw real life trumping Yes Minister. That beloved series didn’t actually start until four years later, but the general point can stand. And satire has had trouble keeping up ever since, as evidenced by the gruesome possibility that Donald Trump could become president of the US.

Anyway, let’s forget all that and think of long hot summers. They were longer and hotter back then, as the winters were longer and colder (snow blocked roads for weeks, at least in memory, and the milk bottles left on the doorstep froze, with a stalagmite of cream pushing off the silver cap).

And 1976 was certainly a hot one. A feature in the Guardian magazine yesterday brought back heat-hazy memories of Chopper bikes and Space Hoppers (invented, if that’s the word, by someone from the estate where we lived); of endless hot days and ministerial advice to share baths and tip the washing-up water on the garden.

Harold Wilson stepped down as prime minister after his success in the European Economic Community referendum, leaving James Callaghan to win the leadership contest and become the unelected Prime Minister (nothing in politics is new, it seems).

Anyway that summer was the hottest on record, with the temperature in somewhere in England reaching 32.2C for 15 consecutive days. And I went on a short canal-boat holiday with my drummer friend Chris.

Many of the details are lost to time and the haze, but I do remember that the locks were shut to conserve water, and that this interrupted our little, and rather beery, voyage. We hung cans of beer over the side of the boat so that they cooled a little in the water. And sometimes we moored the boat next to a pub, hopping from the deck to the beer garden. It wasn’t a big boat or a narrow boat, just a boat, but large enough for two people to sleep in.

It is also possible that short voyage took place on another hot summer, but my money is on 1976, when I was part-way through university. The waterway was probably the Macclesfield canal, although I couldn’t swear to that either.

Fifty years since England won the World Cup, and fifty years too since the release of Revolver, the only Beatles album I own, and forty years since the longest, hottest summer on record. Southampton FC beat Manchester United in the FA Cup final, which will have pleased my Dad, and Bjorn Borg won Wimbledon for the first time, which will have pleased Bjorn.

And if it all seems a long time ago, that’s because it was.

LIKE many others in York, I was shocked and saddened to learn that the photographer Kippa Matthews had died at the age of 54. I knew Kippa a little, enough to chat to, and he was always charming company, as well as a top photographer.

My old newspaper ran a nice tribute, which you can find online if you wish. This praised Kippa’s skill as a photographer who had worked in York for about 35 years, covering many of the city’s biggest news stories and cultural events.

Not enough, perhaps, was made of Kippa’s national profile. For a while Kippa’s excellent photographs often appeared in national newspapers, including The Guardian. When the newspapers started cutting back, he found the national work harder to come by, as was the case for many. Lately, or so I heard from a mutual friend, he had been doing a bit of landscape gardening on the side as well.

The comments section on the Press website contained a lovely tribute from Martin Wainwright, former northern editor of The Guardian. Here it is: “This is such sad news. Kippa was a marvellous photographer with a warm understanding of his patch and the people who live there. It was a privilege and always fun to work with him. When I saw that he was posted to join me on a job, it made my day. He leaves a great legacy of work and a store of memories for many, many people. RIP.”


Josh Coombes, kind demon barber who cuts hair for the homeless…

SO here I go, skimming. And something stops me in my tracks. This is one of those stories that makes you feel better about the world, even as your inner cynic raises a heckle.

If you go onto the BBC website, you will find a short film and report about a 29-year-old hairdresser from London. Josh Coombes cuts a dash with his neat beard and flat cap (how did the old Yorkshire man’s favoured headgear suddenly become so trendy?) and looks very much the modern man about town.

The sort who probably likes expensive coffees and more expensive craft beers. Almost a hipster but not quite as his beard is too tamed for that.

Coombes carries on his back a rucksack filled with his hairdressing equipment. As he walks about the streets of London, he keeps an eye out for people who might need a haircut. This is not a scissors scam or anything so mean and he doesn’t push into their hands a leaflet offering ten per cent off or whatever.

No, his haircuts are free and he offers them to homeless people. Coombes has been doing this for a while and posts photographs of his clients on Instagram. His before and after pictures are lovely and spirit lifting. In one frame his clients look hunched and haunted, their hair a dirtied tangle; in the next they are smiling and sporting a natty haircut. The men have often had a shave, too.

There is something moving about these pictures. You know how better people feel after a visit to the hairdressers (even a man who only needs a quick buzz with a number two razor). Well these pictures take that feeling and amplify it many times. Have you ever even wondered how or where homeless people get their hair cut? Well, I confess I hadn’t. Mostly perhaps they don’t. A good haircut, and Josh Coombes seems to be talented with his scissors and razors, restores self-esteem and makes a person feel better about themselves.

Last November a story on the Mail Online website featured Josh offering haircuts to homeless people in his native Exeter in Devon. That report said he had the idea after seeing a similar idea on a trip to New York. Now he seems to have moved to London and continued his kind-hearted deeds.

Most of us walk by homeless people without a glance or we drop a coin into their hands if we are touched by fleeting kindness. Few of us would stop and do something so personal and intimate as to give them a haircut.

This uplifting short video on the BBC website shows his homeless clients looking quite restored. A haircut alone won’t solve whatever problems they have, but it will make them feel better about themselves. And maybe that will be a start.

Some of Josh’s clients are seen smiling shyly as they head off. One woman, who has lived on the streets since she was twelve, looks well chuffed. She is 36 and looks well into her sixties, but she clearly enjoyed the attention and her new look.

According to the BBC website, the haircuts are “part of a campaign by Josh and friends Matt Sprankle and Dave Burt which is using the hashtag #DoSomethingforNothing to encourage people to help others anyway they can”.

Well good on them and shame on those of us who don’t do such things. Josh is too kind or polite to mention lice or uncleanliness, both of which he must encounter. Perhaps that modish flat-cap is a form of defence.

Will the homeless always be with us, haunting the edge of our lives? Perhaps they will, and maybe their problems cannot be solved, but lots of good work goes into trying.

There are homeless people here in York, as everywhere else, and the other day at home we were discussing the problem in King’s Square, where the homeless congregate outside shops, potentially harming business and putting off the tourists.

They sit there getting drunk and there have been reports in the area of needles used for drugs and so on. Many people will feel cross about that, and who can blame them? But Josh Coombes shows a different way and reminds us that homeless people are just that. People. And people whose problems are more visible and more socially inconvenient than those most of us have.

I cannot cut hair and don’t know what services I could provide to the homeless. Unless they wanted to learn how to write a blog.

A user’s guide to working at home, minus the pyjamas…

PROBLEMS with working from home, a user’s guide.

Wearing slippers all day probably isn’t good for your feet or your soul. I have just put some shoes on after wondering why my feet felt like a pair of exhausted flounders that had given up the ghost on the seabed.

So this advice is fresh off the press: wear proper shoes even you are still in your pyjamas. Not that I approve of pyjamas unless it is a minute to bedtime on a cold night. So no daytime pyjamas for me as I sit at the laptop. Just old Levi’s and one of those striped T-shirts I always seem to buy. And don’t wear a tie because that would be ridiculous. Ties and old T-shirts is not a good look.

Staying in all day and typing isn’t good for posture or soul. Stand up sometimes, stretch and step away from the laptop. Same again for not talking to anyone. Phone somebody up. Or at least have a deep and meaningful moment with the cat. Unless she is curled up asleep on the computer chair you are about to sit on. Then have a grumble instead; grumbling out loud to a cat that is pretending to be asleep is almost a conversation.

Go outside occasionally and take a breath. Yes, that’s called fresh air. Or it is unless the farmers are muck-spreading. The other day the sewage stink was dreadful and we don’t even live in the country, although if you leave the house and walk along the road you will spot those green things in the near distance. You know, fields.

Back indoors for those annoying automated interruptions. “This call is very important, please listen…” No it isn’t; it’s very annoying, nothing to do with me and whoever you are you phone six times a day. So please shut up and stop harassing me, right? Oh, sorry mother, didn’t realise it was you this time.

At least some calls have that split-second hanging delay, as if the line to India or wherever has a bouncing sag. If you are quick you can put the phone down before the pestering begins.

And, no, there is no one in the house called Daniel who once took out a loan with you. We have lived here for nearly six years and haven’t encountered a Daniel once in all that time. I’ve just had another look and cannot locate any indebted Daniels anywhere. It is unlikely that further phone calls will result in the sudden materialisation of the Daniel who owes you money. That’s if this Daniel ever existed in the first place.

The trouble with social media, part one. Facebook isn’t real life although it’s as close as you get some days. Some good friends hang around there and it does double up as the old kitchen at the office, that point of congregation for people avoiding work or simply desirous of a chat.

But Facebook isn’t real life, and neither is Twitter, especially Twitter. If you stick your head in the Twittersphere for too long, you’ll go dizzy and turn green, likely as not.

The trouble with social media, part two. You get very little work done. Facebook isn’t work, although occasionally it is, if you spot something that may lead to some work. This has happened at least once or maybe twice. But when you are trying to write, be strong and step away from Facebook. Don’t touch it again for a self-agreed period. An hour is good, two hours even better.

Have a routine for work. And have a routine for not work, too. I cycle to the university twice a week to lose a game of squash. This isn’t good for telling yourself you are a winner, but it is exercise for the slippered soul.

Cycling back from the university yesterday, I bumped into a Facebook friend in real life. Now that was a shock. I’d almost forgotten what he looked like, but there he was in flesh and blood and all that (hello, Steve).

According to today’s Daily Telegraph, office work is bad for your health – “Working in an office as bad as smoking”. Nothing here that I could see about working at home in your slippers (now removed), but some of the lessons must apply. The paper says a study published in The Lancet concludes that sedentary lifestyles are as bad as smoking and cause more deaths than obesity. And if you are an overweight smoker sitting in an office chair wondering whether you have the energy to go outside for a cigarette, please check your pulse. You may well be dead already.

Has my year of working from home been good or bad for my health? No idea, but I feel all right, especially now I have stepped away from the slippers. And I do leave home occasionally. This week has seen me sweep across the globe in pursuit of my freelance career. Oh, all right. Malton and Huddersfield. But getting out with an armful of questions is good. Better than staying at home without any answers.



Fifty years from 1966 and it’s still all over…

SOMETIMES the most famous words, the ones that stay on history’s wall, are the simplest ones.

In sport that honour belongs to Kenneth Wolstenholme’s commentary on England’s 4-2 victory over Germany in the 1966 World Cup final. “Some people are on the pitch! They think it’s all over!” Wolstenholme says in the proper tones of old England. Then as Geoff Hurst scores to put England two goals ahead, he adds: “It is now, it’s four!”

Time has edited his words to the neat phrase: “Some people think it’s all over… it is now!” Nine simple words that say so much. I guess what no one realised at the time was that something else was all over too: England’s days as the sort of team that won things.

While the BBC footage to go with Wolstenholme’s words is in grainy black and white, a Pathé newsreel captures the victory in colour, complete with the Queen in canary yellow coat and matching hat as she hands over the cup.

The newsreel doesn’t contain the famous phrase, but it does end with a dollop of hopeful pomposity about having similar luck in the 1970 World Cup.

Days before the 50th anniversary of that great win in 1966, the modest semi where England’s captain Bobby Moore lived when he was growing up has been commemorated with one of those blue plaques more normally dedicated to the lives of great statesmen we have forgotten. I like this idea very much. From a similar era, another blue circle marks the place where the guitarist Jimi Hendrix lived at 23 Brook Street, in Mayfair, London W1. History we can remember instead of history we have forgotten.

Moore’s address is more modest: 43 Gardens in Barking, east London. He lived there from birth until after he made his England debut in 1962.

His daughter, Roberta Moore, said this was a “wonderful honour”, adding: “This is where it all began – kicking a ball out here in the street with his friends before embarking on an incredible journey which as we all know led him up the steps to collect the World Cup from the Queen at Wembley 50s ago this week.”

Ah, yes. The Queen in her canary yellow hat, the Queen who is still here today, and still wearing a hat whenever she goes outdoors. I am not much of a royalist but sometimes the continuity can be a comfort.

The headlines of history weave with those of our own past. Fifty years ago, we were on holiday in France, our regular destination as a family then. As mentioned here before, we travelled in a Mini-van packed to the tin rafters with a tent and everything we needed for the long trip.

I have a memory of the World Cup. I was nine and we were staying with a French family in Bayonne in the south-west. As a boy my father had gone on an exchange with the family, and he’d kept up the friendship (and maintains it still, all these years later, with those who remain).

Here are a few scraps from those days. Mystifyingly long meals. My mother screaming and pulling us indoors when her French counterpart took a chicken into the yard to kill it for lunch. My younger brother, only about four at the time, going upstairs to the toilet and causing some sort of flood with the bidet. Long and hard tubular pillows. Bowls of milky coffee for breakfast, with crusty baguettes. Small lizards darting over stone walls. Cornflakes on campsites. And so on.

On the day of the World Cup, there was an expedition up into the foothills of the Pyrenees. From distant memory we were driven most of the way in cars that could handle the rough track. We walked the last stretch to a restaurant where we ate fish. I think the place was some sort of fish farm, but that might not be true. Perhaps my mother will be able to tell me. Like the Queen she is still around, although minus the hat, unless it is a woolly walking hat on a bracing day.

What I do remember, and my mother backs this up, is that the French wanted the Germans to win, which was odd when you remember that it was only 21 years after the end of the war.

Next week I will be returning to France with my mother, now 84, and my brother who caused the mini flood. We are visiting the other brother, the one who lives in France, staying with him and his wife in Brittany for a few days.

The France we visited then was different to the country we will visit next week. Perhaps in time the old France, or something like it, will come back into focus.

And as for today’s blog, they think it’s all over. It is now.

Is there just too much news nowadays?…

“I would like less news…” Five simple words in a Tweet from the crime writer Linwood Barclay and a very polite plea indeed (well, he is Canadian after all).

Barclay is unlikely to be granted his simple wish, made in the aftermath of Nice and everything else; Munich and everything else; and, well, just everything else.

It is hard not to agree lately. Some days you wake up to hear news of a tragedy in which masses of innocent people have died. And you think how awful that is. Then you realise that this isn’t the familiar tragedy from yesterday. No, it’s a whole new tragedy. And for a moment your brain whirs and stutters. How much more of this can you take; how much more can the world take?

As if to illustrate the seemingly bottomless enormity of the news, I had this idea late last night, and found Barclay’s Tweet (which he had mentioned in Harrogate last Friday, raising a sigh of recognition from the audience). As I prepared to switch off the laptop, the headlines popped up: Japan knife attack leaves 19 dead.

Once again I had been sucked into the vortex of too much news. I have always been a bit of a news addict, wanting to know and to keep up with events. Partly this has been down to my line of work; partly because being informed has always seemed important to me.

But lately I have begun to wonder. Not about whether or not we should stop reporting on the endless cycle of gloomy events. Well not exactly. How could I advocate such a withdrawal from keeping an account of what is happening in the world? But still. The news does seem relentless in its awfulness of late, the tragedies queueing up as if in some sort of gruesome contest to win the bad news cup or something.

As I write the radio burbles dejectedly in the background as the BBC Today programme prods the day’s news. I don’t think I could ever not be connected to the news. I am too deep into the ink and the words and the pictures; too drawn in by the roll of history on the hoof.

But still. There is an awful lot of bad news nowadays and sometimes it seems just so relentless. Does all this news make us better informed; or does it reduce us to being impotent observers having a nervous breakdown on the sofa?

I would certainly like less news of terrible terrorist incidents inflicted on the innocent by those unhinged by a perverse version of religion. Will the demented likes of Isis be the end of us all; or will the rest of the world, the mostly decent majority, find a way to deal with this problem without making matters tragically worse?

I would like less news about many things. But most of all I would like less news about Donald Trump. His dark-hued vision to the Republican convention in Cleveland last week touched on the “too much news” vein, but only in an obscenely manipulative manner.

He ranted about the general growing fear of violence – a fear he has helped to stir up for his own ends, and never mind statistics that say he is wrong – and then made an astonishing claim.

He promised that violence would end and safety would be restored overnight simply by electing him as president. A statement so boastful, vain and idiotic that you wondered if you had heard properly. No details, of course; no explanation of how this would happen: just a bald statement that it would happen.

Yes, I would like less news about Donald Trump. And I pray we never get the awful news that he has been elected president. That really would be an excuse to go and hide in a cave somewhere.

I’d like less news too about Sir Philip Bloody Green, knighted by the Tories and now an embarrassment all round. And how odd that the Daily Mail should bang on about “Sir Shifty” while generally upholding the cut-throat capitalism he represents. And it is rich for Theresa May to plead for responsible capitalism when her party has historically been in thrall to whatever form of capitalism works.

But still. To end here is some good news. The Solar Impulse aircraft has just completed the first round-the-world solar-powered flight. How great is that. For once man’s ingenuity is being used to a good and higher purpose. A small step but a big one too. I’d like more news like that, please.

Who knew the Belgians could be so darkly funny…

I DO like to have a good foreign TV show on the boil. So I was pleased last night to discover The Out-Laws on Channel 4’s import channel, Walter Presents. This Belgian drama is shaping up to be a happy new addiction, although it did revive a sad memory.

You know how it can be at a funeral. You sit listening to the oration and wonder if you might have wandered into the wrong service. The gap between the person you knew and the person being summed up can sometimes be wide.

This happened to me almost twenty years ago. My great university friend, John, died far too young, in his early forties. His family were staunch Catholics and as a boy he had been to a Catholic public school, his memories of which were far from happy. The oration at his service, on a day when the rain never stopped falling, re-cast his life as a model of Catholic rectitude, picking up the pieces and placing them as a memorial to his religion.

The friend I had known hadn’t seemed religious at all. I didn’t know John’s other friends who were there on that day, but they too looked surprised at this holy account of his life.

Anyway that was a long time ago, although I still think of John. This idea of the gap between the person being honoured and the reality was given a delightful twist in The Out-Laws, a drama about five sisters, one of whom is married to a dreadful man called Jean-Claude Delcorps.

The sisters who weren’t married to the deceased all refer to him affectionately as “the Prick”. We soon discover why through a series of flashbacks capturing his appalling behaviour as a hateful, crank-calling, racist misogynist who makes his wife’s life a misery. The wife, Goedele, sticks up for her dreadful man, something that only further infuriates her four siblings.

Walter Presents says of this show that “this visually stunning Belgian blend of black comedy and crime thriller comes on like Desperate Housewives on acid”. Fair enough, although I rather thought the days when anything was compared to something else “on acid” were long behind us.

Aside from that unhelpful cliché, the description stands up.

When they were young, the five sisters made a blood pact to protect each other. In the spirit of that childhood pledge, the four women not married to the Prick decide to bump him off. These sisters really are doing it for themselves. They obviously succeed in the end, as the man lies in his coffin in his pyjamas, although why he is dressed like that has not yet been explained.

The running joke here is going to be how hard it can be to kill a man. In the first episode the sisters attempt to dispatch him by arranging a gas explosion at a summer hut where he is camping for the night. It all works beautifully, apart from one technical detail: their victim wanders out to find a signal for his phone just before the hut goes up. We know that they manage to kill him somehow, but not that way, and the drama is built around a series of failed murder attempts.

In the present, two insurance investigators undercover the murder plot in a desperate attempt not to bankrupt the family firm by having to pay out on the dead man’s life.

The writer of the show, Malin-Sarah Gozin, said in an interview with the Guardian: “I didn’t mean to write a comedy, it just turned out funny in a dark and disturbing way.”

There are parallels with Desperate Housewives and Gozin did visit that camp show’s writing room when she was developing her idea. She prefers to cite Danny DeVito’s Hitchcockian Throw Momma From The Train as a key inspiration: and that’s a good place to start.

Anyway I have only seen the first episode but on that basis, The Out-Laws promises to pull off the difficult trick of making a crime thriller funny and dark at the same time. It looks fantastic too.

Watching foreign TV is a great way to keep a handle on the rest of the world; and watching other European dramas keeps us in touch with the continent – never more important that now in the post-Brexit muddle that is modern Britain.

Tuning into other European TV shows also reminds us that while our own TV can be very good – and I am also loving The Secret Agent on BBC1 – other countries can show us a clever thing or two as well.

At the scene of the crime in Harrogate…

IN my head I play the guitar like Richard Thompson and have the literary skills of Kate Atkinson or Graham Greene. I sell as many books as Lee Child, can bake the buns off Paul Hollywood and write a blog which is read by more readers than Polly Toynbee and Kelvin MacKenzie combined (now there’s an ideologically odd combination).

Sadly, the inside of my head is not a place much concerned with reality.

So I can half-play a few Thompson songs, I write like me, I’ve sold a few books in America and readers of this blog number more in the faithful few, a congregation of kind souls indeed. But I do bake a mean loaf of bread.

Writing is usually on my mind in some way or other. More so today as I have just returned from my annual visit to the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate.

I listened to many talks and met many people, including the five crime writers I have interviewed for the Yorkshire Post: Val McDermid, Mark Billingham, Frances Brody, Nick Quaintrill and Helen Cadbury.

This festival is always popular and always enjoyable, although I do have one cavil: who ordered those bloody awful chairs? They were uncomfortable and so close together that your knee risked becoming intimate with the behinds of the people sitting in the row in front.

Small moan over, there was much to savour as usual. Mark Billingham did a warm and lively interview with Linwood Barclay, who was very amusing and had one main piece of advice: your book needs a hook. Once you have that, everything else sorts itself out in the end.

In a session on the role of real-life cases, the perhaps unexpected star of this panel was the Icelandic writer Yrsa Sigurdardottir, a civil engineer who is billed as Iceland’s answer to Stieg Larsson. You always come away wanting to read someone new and she goes onto the list.

A domestic suspense panel featured Paula Hawkins, author of super-hit The Girl On The Train, which has not yet been read by the man on the ledge. But I have read Clare Mackintosh’s hit debut I Let You Go, which was crowed this year’s crime novel of the year. Julia Crouch chaired a lively and interesting session.

Good sessions followed on the legacy of crime’s golden age, with amusing interjections from Simon Brett – and more names to add to the list. I have read Frances Brody but not Ann Granger, Catriona McPherson or Ruth Ware. The following session dwelt on the science of catching a killer.

I was the man on the train by the time the comedian Susan Calman interviewed Val McDermid, which was a shame as that sounds like an inspired combination. Val, incidentally, was honoured this year for a lifetime achievement award.

Yesterday’s sessions opened with Mark Lawson, always good value, interviewing Jeffery Deaver, who was illuminating, thoughtful and a real gent. His main piece of advice was that you had to plan, plan and plan – worrying to those of us who do not (although in a different session, Alex Marwood said that she did not plan beyond a signpost or two). Shamefully, I have yet to read Deaver so he goes onto the list too.

Also yesterday, the veteran ITV reporter turned author Gerald Seymour gave a charming turn, McDermid introduced four new writers for her New Blood session (always popular that one), and the prolific and ever charming NJ Cooper chaired a session on Murder Out of Africa, which provided more names for the list, including Deon Meyer, who writes in Afrikaans before being translated into English (and 27 other languages).

My last session was France Noir – Le Roman Policier, chaired by Barry Forshaw, which offered another name to the list: the Frenchman Pierre Lemaitre. Incidentally, much of that session reached the audience, or the non-French speaking members of it, through an interpreter.

I didn’t see everything because you can’t, but I did learn a lot. Now I am off to think up a hook like Linwood Barclay and plot like the charming devil who is Jeffery Deaver.

Murder on the 7.54 train to Harrogate and other mysteries…

“The man on the train cannot quite remember when he began to feel like this. He looks across the flat fields bumping by the window, but their uneventful passing doesn’t help. Maybe it was that afternoon in the office a few weeks ago. The Friday that saw the end of everything…”

A YEAR ago I murdered a man on the 7.54am train from York to Harrogate. He was a newspaper executive reading a report entitled How To Bury Journalists. I couldn’t help myself. It was a tender topic at the time.

I brooded as the flat fields went by the window, giving way to that stunning view from the viaduct in Knaresborough (a man could push another man over there for sure, I thought).

Well, I say murdered but I chickened out in the end. I left the train at Harrogate and the faceless man continued on his way to deliver bad news to journalists somewhere or other.

That imaginary scenario formed the basis for a blog I wrote a year ago in time for the crime festival in Harrogate. Now the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival is back and I will be sitting on the 7.54 train again this morning. Perhaps I should keep my head down this time.

At first Man on Ledge was a post-redundancy blog. I shuffled out here to peer at the view, a scary panorama with nothing on the horizon. A year on and I can make out a few more landmarks, but the vista is still misty some days.

Being a freelance isn’t easy. Too many people either no longer employ freelances, as in pay them actual folding money. Or they simply turn their noses up at you.

My ‘favourite’ response so far has been from the Radio Times. After pitching an idea by email, and getting nowhere, I somehow managed to pierce the triple barbed-wire defences of their switchboard and spoke to a real person. A real snooty person who said: “Oh we don’t use freelances unless we commission them ourselves. Goodbye and please remove yourself from the bottom of my shoe” (or something like that).

The lack of a regular wage is unsettling, although not knowing what you are doing from day to day is interesting. A few weeks ago I had a busy spell that involved travelling to Darlington for three days in a row for a spot of journalism mentoring; proof-reading in the evening; and then writing two features for the Yorkshire Post.

After that the work dropped off, so I gave another final polish to one of the two novels I have written in the past year or so. Nearly there now, although whether they will be published is as yet a story without a denouement.

As well as those books, more than 200,000 words have been produced on this windy ledge now. So no one can fault me for lack of wordy effort. Too few of those words have generated any income, it is true, but that small freelance pot contains more coins than it did. And now this latest quiet spell has ended as two good features have rolled up for next week.

I started this unstable life when my solid perch was knocked from beneath me. That old life was mostly good but did not involve enough writing; the new one involves lots of writing but not enough money. I guess you can’t have everything.

And I do love the writing, especially when you get out and meet people.

My old job went for reasons that are no longer interesting. In short: part of what I did was transferred to Bradford and some of it went to Newport in Wales, of all the unlikely places.

The other night I learned that the work being done in Bradford was coming back to York, but with some of it being done by people travelling from Bradford. And that York no longer uses Newport. It’s a complicated way to run a newspaper business, but there you go.

What was all that upheaval last year for exactly? Who can say, certainly not me. Life would be easier if nothing had happened a year ago, but I wouldn’t be writing all those features. And writing is still the best part of journalism, the sometimes forgotten soul of what it’s all about. So I’ll stick to that for as long as possible.

And with that I am off to the Old Swan Hotel to overhear the murderous mutter of a crime festival.

Cruising back to the past with Trident…

AT a time when MPs have just voted massively in favour of wasting untold billions on the renewal of the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons system, it is interesting that the CND protests of the 1980s should pop into the news again

The vote on Tuesday was partly designed to embarrass Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has always opposed renewing Trident, against the views of many of his MPs, who joined the ‘yes to mutual destruction’ lobby which won by 472 votes to 117. Labour was split over the vote, with 140 of its 230 MPs backing the motion.

The result sealed the deal on the manufacture of four replacement submarines at a “current estimated cost of £31 billion”, according to the BBC. Well, you know what it’s like when you get the submarine builders in: the cost is bound to rocket after some tutting and head-shaking. I do hope we have a contingency fund.

I don’t count myself as a Corbyn follower, partly because the disciples of Jeremy seem wilfully blind to their man’s faults. But I am with him on Trident, which seems like a massive national vanity project.

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told MPs in the debate that nuclear threats were growing around the world and Trident “puts doubts in the minds of our adversaries”. Does it really? Trident seems like an old-world solution to old-world problems, with the threat to our security likely to come from any number of new directions.

Also nuclear submarines rely on being undetectable – and this invisibility could well be undone by rapid advances in underwater drone technology.

Paul Ingram, the chief executive of the British American Security Information Council, is among those who have warned that watery drones could reveal the whereabouts of submarines that need to stay stealthy to work. These deep-sea drones sound like something out of a James Bond film, but are real enough.

Anyway MPs voted for this wasteful doomsday scenario, partly because they like to be seen as being tough and manly on these matters. Even the women, especially our new prime minister. Mrs May said she would be very happy to press the button or however it is that these things are operated.

The problem with a nuclear deterrent is that once you’ve used it, the thing is no good anyway – and by that point the world will probably have ended. So we waste untold billions on military swagger.

None of this is new, as the latest release of Downing Street files reveal that Margaret Thatcher – you know, Mrs May Mark One – was privately warned by her foreign secretary, Francis Pym, in 1983 that the anti-nuclear movement could become so “widespread and powerful” that it threatened to halt the deployment of US cruise missiles in Britain.

It is easy now to see the days of Greenham Common as some sort of quaint hard-line feminist issue. Yet the CND anti-nuclear movement was a powerful force at the time, worries about the nukes were widespread, and the Thatcher government was concerned.

The new papers contain some splendidly bonkers details that remind us how often governments make things up on the hoof and arrange distractions to deflect attention from what they don’t want us to see.

The distractions suggested to diminish CND, although not acted on, included Thatcher’s press secretary, that Yorkshire growl on legs Bernard Ingham, recommending the release of official footage of royal baby Prince William over the 1983 Easter weekend, in order to keep the CND protests out of the headlines.

An even more bonkers suggestion came from defence secretary Michael Heseltine that he should be filmed at the Berlin Wall on Good Friday when CND was planning a human chain of 12 miles between the nuclear warhead factories at Aldermaston and Burghfield to Greenham Common. Tarzan to the rescue.

Heseltine is an old lion these days, Prince William is all grown up and balding, and still we are arguing over nuclear deterrent. Interestingly, the newly released papers show that concerns about hosting American cruise missiles were more widespread than those CND protestors.

Sir Anthony Parsons, a retired ambassador who advised Thatcher, told her that a “wide spectrum of personal friends” were preoccupied with the nuclear debate. One reason for their concern, he said, was that President Ronald Reagan was “of lower intellectual calibre and less grasp of international issues that any incumbent since the second world war”.

Just imagine if the voters of US were dumb enough to choose someone that stupid all over again…

Boris versus the world and Kelvin’s offensive hijab remarks…

THIS morning let us honour Boris Johnson and Kelvin MacKenzie, newspaper columnists who certainly know how to make themselves look stupid. Well done, boys. You win today’s Right Pair of Tits Award.

For Johnson, who must still look at himself in the mirror and say, “I am the foreign secretary – how did that happen?”, his new government role sits uneasily with his past as a high-profile newspaper columnist. Now he has to face those parts of the world he has earned a fortune insulting. And to be fair to Johnson, he is a good columnist when on form, as well as one of the most highly paid, rumoured to have been coining in £250,000 a year (so his government role could actually cost him money).

But his opinion-splattered past caught up with him yesterday at a joint press conference with US secretary of state John Kerry, when he was forced to defend himself during his first London press conference in his surprise new comedy turn. Hostile questions from US journalists repeatedly asked the foreign secretary to explain the “outright lies” and insults to be found in his journalism, including calling Barack Obama part-Kenyan and hypocritical.

Johnson launched into a rambling defence of “stuff that I’ve written over the last 30 years… all of which in my view have been taken out of context, through what alchemy I do not know”. Ah, the old “out of context excuse”, that favourite shabby note waved by a columnist in a corner (although I do admire the construction of “through what alchemy I do not know”).

There is more of this, too much to include here in full, for Boris did go off on a splendid bumble, beginning: “There is a rich thesaurus of things that I have said that have one way or the other I don’t know how that has been misconstrued. Most people when they read these things in their proper context can see what was intended, and indeed virtually everyone I have met in this job understands that very well particularly on the international scene. We have very serious issues before us today…”

Ah, yes. Those serious issues. And a man for the job who appears to still think he’s appearing on Have I Got News For You – except that’s a little unfair, for Boris Johnson is a smart and serious man beneath the mock-Tudor bumbling.

The trouble comes in giving such high-profile roles to outspoken journalists. They step into the room carrying a whole lot of potentially embarrassing baggage, in Boris’s case a Gladstone bag stuffed with colourful insults he has hurled at the world. And now he has to tote that bag wherever he goes. “Ah, sorry, chaps…”

But at least Boris Johnson is a clever columnist, although not to all tastes. Kelvin Mackenzie is more of a clod-hopping controversialist, a dull preacher of plodding populism. In his column in the Sun, a paper he used to edit, MacKenzie approached the Nice massacre by having a go at the Channel 4 News presenter Fatima Manji, “a young lady wearing a hijab”, adding: “Was it appropriate for her to be on camera when there had been yet another shocking slaughter by a Muslim? Was it done to stick one in the eye of the ordinary viewer who looks at the hijab as a sigh of the slavery of Muslim women by a male-dominated and clearly violent religion?”

Manji needs no defence from me as she is robustly capable of looking after herself, as she did with an article in the Liverpool Echo newspaper. Here is some of what she said: “Mr MacKenzie’s article was but one wild screed in a long-running and widespread campaign to intimidate Muslims out of public life.

“[He] has attempted to smear 1.6 billion Muslims in suggesting they are inherently violent. He has attempted to smear half of them further by suggesting they are helpless slaves. And he has attempted to smear me by suggesting I would sympathise with a terrorist.

“I will not be deterred… by the efforts of those who find the presence of Muslims in British cultural life offensive.”

In MacKenzie’s defence, he was writing an opinion column in a popular tabloid newspaper, and he stirred up a storm – which is part of his role. Freedom of speech involves people being free to express opinions that may cause offence. I’d say that MacKenzie was being offensive in a dull and clanging manner. And in a free society that is his right, even if what he had to say was on the wrong side of the stupid line. And Fatima Manji was free to defend herself, which wrapped the situation up neatly.

While I don’t share or enjoy the sort of opinions Kelvin MacKenzie puts on the page, it is right that he should be able to do so. And even better if saying such things ends up making him look a bit of a tit.