A few spare tips from Elmore Leonard…

THERE is no shortage of advice for writers or for those having a go. The crime writer Elmore Leonard is a man whose wisdom is often sought.

His tips are good ones. But they are hints for writing like Elmore Leonard. And the person you need to write like is yourself. Having said that, it is always worth listening to Leonard.

His rules were explained in a New York Times article of 2001, headlined: “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle.”

I had to look that last word up. It suggests nonsense writing. Leonard didn’t go in for nonsense writing. His writing was spare and he was known sometimes as an “anti-adverb activist”.

Here are his ten rules, followed by another which is far more important…

Never open a book with weather.

Avoid prologues.

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.

Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”.

Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

And once you have absorbed all that, or if those rules seem too much, Leonard has a final piece of advice: “My most important rule is one that sums up the 10. If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

That last suggestion is easily the most helpful; and, paradoxically, the most unhelpful. It is helpful because it is true and it works; and unhelpful because it involves crossing out treasured turns of phrase and so on.

Journalists who try their hand at fiction are prone to over-writing. This comes perhaps from years of sitting in an office and reading out favourite attention-grabbing sentences, or from having kindly colleagues admire a sharply placed word. How nice to have your ego polished in this manner; and how obstructive to good writing.

Not everyone wants to write like Elmore Leonard. Literature would be a dull place if all writers followed his rules to the letter. But that one sentence is worth its simple weight: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

That advice has been in my head as I give another edit to a thriller I have been writing for 18 months or so.

I have no deal at present and therefore no deadline. This is a shame on two counts: a new publishing deal would be lovely; and a deadline introduces the necessary impetus to finish (that’s one lesson being a journalist does teach you).

I don’t wish to say anything about the story, other than that it partly concerns a man who escapes a life on benefits by becoming a hit-man. I have been re-reading the book and giving it a careful edit – or crossing stuff out, if you prefer. And it’s noticeable how a paragraph or a whole chapter can read better once you have removed the ‘writing’.

I checked my emails earlier. A link to a blog by Rebecca Bradley had just popped in. Rebecca is a former police officer turned crime writer. In her blog, she writes about writing and interviews other crime writers. Today she asks the Hull writer Nick Quantrill about his revision process.

I read this because I know Nick and because it is always interesting to see how other people edit.

Asked how he approaches this task, Nick says: “Other than whisper a silent prayer and pour a strong coffee? Print it out. I find the act of reading it through, on paper with pen in hand, changes the way it reads to me.”

Good and practical advice. I hate those paper-chewing printers, so usually pay someone to print a basic bound proof. Nick is right: seeing a book on paper does help, even if most of my tinkering is done on the laptop.

Sadly, I spotted a typo in Rebecca’s blog: she refers to “Nick’s first daft Q&A” which I guess is not what she intended.

Then again, I shouldn’t have pointed that out as now there is bound to be one in here somewhere.

With luck, I have crossed out all the writing from this blog. Although some may have sneaked through when I wasn’t paying attention.

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Paying to see the GP is a bad idea…

THE question of whether we should pay to see our GP raises its sickly head now and then. This morning the Sun newspaper recommends introducing such a charge.

Its leader article says: “People who can afford it could be asked to pay a small charge to see their GP. Or if you miss an appointment for no good reason you might face a fine. After all, we’ve lived with prescription charges for nearly half a century.”

People in York may not feel like believing the Sun, as yesterday the tabloid said that York was under water when in fact the city was dry but very cold. The Sun reported in a weather round-up: “York yesterday bore the brunt of weather chaos as floods wrecked home and shops, a year after similar devastation last Christmas.”

As my old newspaper pointed out, a photograph of Walmgate during last year’s floods was used in the newspaper, captioned: “Flood misery… York yesterday.”

So, if the Sun can get hold of the wrong end of the paddle when reporting on the weather, perhaps we should ignore its thoughts on the NHS.

The Sun’s opinion on paying to see your GP arises after Britain’s leading GP warned that she was “profoundly concerned” about how doctors will cope with demand over the winter. Helen Stoke-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs Council, said that GPs were “skating on thin ice” and warned that: “Something has to give.” The Staffordshire-based GP says that some patients are waiting weeks to see their doctor, and believes this could have potentially serious consequences for their health.

Dr Stoke-Lampard’s concerns are widely reported today, including on the front page of the Sun – “MONTH TO SEE GP” – which truncates her admittedly lengthy title to “chief doc”.

I am not with the Sun on this one. We shouldn’t have to pay to see the GP for at least two important reasons. One: a charge might put off those who cannot afford to pay, and their reluctance visit their GP could have serious consequences. Two: visiting the GP could end up as expensive as a trip to the dentist.

Before the introduction of the NHS – which, for all its troubles, remains a proud cornerstone of British life – people used to pay to see their GP. Some patients were suspicious of the new National Health Service, fearing that they would no longer receive proper attention if everyone could see the doctor for free.

There were also fears in 1948 that the new health system would be too easily politicised, and it is true today that politicians remain ultimately responsible as the NHS is funded through tax (rather than, say, insurance policies).

The greatest achievement of the NHS at its inception was the idea of universal access at the point of need. This remains its greatest achievement today.

On this matter, the Sun’s editor should go and stick his head in a London puddle. And on the York flood that never was, he should send a reporter to York before he next has a Noah moment.

Incidentally, it is fair to acknowledge that the NHS is hugely expensive, and likely to get more so. But a country that can afford to waste billions on pointlessly renewing Trident missiles can afford to run a decent health service.

Carrie Fisher, gone at 60. Better check my pulse…

Carrie Fisher was 60 and that is my age, too. You tend to notice when people of your age have died. As you grow older you become more aware of this, and sometimes those dying are younger than you.

Carrie Fisher packed a lot of wit, wisdom and pain into her six decades. She was troubled and yet her ups and downs made her smart. She wrote as well as acted, and sometimes her writing was better than her acting. For all that, her role as Princess Leia in Star Wars lasted a lifetime and will outlive Carrie herself. In some ways, the role had already outlived her before she died.

Fisher had only recently revealed that she’d been having an affair with her co-star Harrison Ford during the making of the first film. She was amusing about this and when asked if she and Ford ever discussed the affair, said: “He’s not a big talker. You know, he wasn’t Mr Chuckles.”

We are a Star Wars family. The Lucas love is sort of second-hand in my case. I took our two boys to see the films when they were re-released on their 20th anniversary in 1997. The eldest fell in geeky love with Stars War in that moment in space and his ardour has never since dimmed. He’s 28 now and a primary school teacher. At the end of term the presents he is given always include something from Star Wars (last term his haul included mugs that lit up when warm, illuminating the light-sabre).

His younger brother inherited the love of Star Wars, as too did their sister, and their cousin. We had a family outing to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story just before Christmas. My wife’s parents came too, having been in on the Star Wars act from the beginning.

Rogue One is a good film and worth seeing. Fans will know that already, along with fathers of fans. Sometimes your children inherit your tastes (or rebel against your tastes); and sometimes you reverse-inherit your children’s tastes – although that doesn’t include all those soaps and the X Factor. But I am happy to have been given a liking for Star Wars, even if the finer details sometimes pass me by like so much space debris.

Fisher has a ‘digitally fabricated’ role in Rogue One, which is set just before the time of the sci-fi classic that emerged in 1977 and accidentally made her a global star and, as Peter Bradshaw puts in in the Guardian, “an imperishable part of pop culture at a time when pop culture itself was starting to become more and more important”.

Princess Leia was a fantasy figure for boys and girls, with her weird gowns and ever weirder platted-bread hairdo. In a later film, she was a sex symbol too in that ridiculous but fetching gold bikini.

It is one of the cruellest games on the internet to point out that people, and almost always women, get middle aged and even, heaven forbid, old. “You won’t believe what so-and-so looks like nowadays…” some nasty little bit of click-bait fodder will proclaim, next to a picture of a woman once considered glamorous, urging you to have a look and be ‘horrified’.

Carrie Fisher looked as different as it was possible to look in the 40 years since she first played Leia, not least because 19 to 60 is a journey. She made no apparent attempt to hold on to youthfulness. This may have been choice or her former drug addiction, or just the way things rolled for her. But she was aware of how she looked.

“I Googled myself recently and I came across this posting: ‘Whatever happened to Carrie Fisher? She used to be so hot. Now she looks like Elton John.’ Well this did hurt my feelings, partly because I knew what this person meant. Yes, it’s all too true. I let myself go. And where did I go to? Where all fat, jowly, middle-aged women go to – refrigerators and restaurants.”

Refrigerators and restaurants – a funny, sad turn of phrase. Of her former addiction, she said: “Drugs made me feel normal. They contained me.”

Carrie Fisher wrote well and often too about her mental illness, saying once: “I’m fine, but I’m bipolar. I’m on seven medications, and I take medication three times a day. This constantly puts me in touch with the illness I have. I’m never quite allowed to be free of that for a day. It’s like being a diabetic.”

She was born to famous parents. Her mother is Debbie Reynolds and the singer Eddie Fisher, who later married Elizabeth Taylor, was her father. “I was born into big celebrity. It could only diminish.”

She wrote from the age of 12 and ended up chronicling her life, with its illness and addiction; she cast a sharp eye over Hollywood, too, once observing: “You can’t find true affection in Hollywood because everyone does the fake affection so well.”

Appearing on the Graham Norton show on BBC1 shortly before Christmas, she was sparky but seemed unwell. She looked awful too, not in the sense of having grown older – none of us escape that – but just in the sense of not looking at all well.

2016 isn’t done yet with taking the famous, along no doubt too with the blameless un-famous – we just don’t get to hear about them.

George Michael, the mourning after…

GEORGE Michael’s music didn’t fill my life but it did fill much of Boxing Day. We were out for the day and my wife’s sister was streaming his music non-stop in tribute.

Earlier this year after David Bowie died, I wrote a feature for Mensa Magazine which wondered why we grieve those we only knew through the window of celebrity. Much of what was written then applies now, too.

George Michael died peacefully in bed on Christmas morning, or so it has been reported. As no one else was present, it is impossible to know his state of mind, but dying in bed, possibly in your sleep, is a peaceful way to go. A good exit if you have lived a long life; less so if you are only 53, as George was.

Fans of Bowie were distraught for many possible reasons, but one plausible explanation was that they identified strongly with the singer from their own pasts. His outstanding music defined not one era but many, as did his chameleon-like appearance and shifting celebrity image. He was also blessed with a long career, and that longevity added to the sense of loss.

With Bowie, there were a lot of touch-points; lots of different David Bowies to relate to and to mourn. George Michael was less varied perhaps, but hardly much less of a cultural icon, especially to those who grew up in the 1980s (I’d grown up by then more or less and was aware of Michael without being a fan). Listening to him yesterday, singing out the day, it was possible to be struck by two things: he sang a variety of songs and he had a tremendous voice.

His early Wham! Days with Andrew Ridgeley introduced him as a perfectly formed pop star, and his solo work confirmed him as a mature musical talent. He lived his personal life both in secret by initially denying his sexuality, and in public as his frequent disintegrations were recorded by the newspapers.

There is something distasteful about the way some tabloids harassed George Michael in life and hymn him in death. They gloried in his unravelling and gather to mark his passing with solemnity. Is that hypocrisy or just an acknowledgement of the different sides of a man who was brilliant at what he did, and yet troubled in himself? Probably a bit of both, but the gleefulness at George Michael’s low times was distasteful.

Interestingly, many stories emerged yesterday of how kind George Michael could be, generous to charities and occasionally to strangers, too, once tipping a student nurse £5,000 because she was struggling with debts.

Mourning George Michael seems natural if you were a fan, and he must have had many as he sold 100m albums in total, clearing 25m of his first solo album, Faith. It also seems natural from a human sense, as so much of his life was lived in the public eye, and because his search for happiness and truthfulness mirrors that of everyone else, only conducted more publicly.

In that article for Mensa, I looked back to other famous deaths and the public grief they stirred. Diana was the obvious one, although it would be wrong to suggest that the hysteria began after her death in 1997.

After Charles Dickens died in June 1870, a three-day-long procession of mourners filed past the great writer’s coffin at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Over in America, after silent screen heart-throb Rudolph Valentino died of acute peritonitis at the age of 31 in 1926, 80,000 people attended the funeral, which generated mass hysteria; dozens of women are thought to have committed suicide in the emotional aftermath according to the Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying.

Then there is Elvis.

Presley’s funeral service at Graceland on August 18, 1977 saw 150 police officers and National Guardsman keeping back a 50,000-strong, weeping mob, while 16 white limousines carried the coffin to a local cemetery.

Nowadays some miserable soul or other usually complains that there has been too much fuss over the death of a celebrity. I don’t mind the level of coverage: why shouldn’t we honour cultural figures alongside, or above, others who shuffle through the public sphere, such as politicians. Cultural figures pinpoint emotions, make us feel or think; or, like George Michael, write sweet soulful pop songs that mean something to people.

It would be nice to think that he’d led a happier life, but perhaps he was as happy as he could be; perhaps his talents made him and broke him. It’s complicated. But mourning George Michael seems natural enough to me.

 

Perfume adverts don’t half stink (and what’s Jimi Hendrix doing in there?)…

JIMI Hendrix trapped in a perfume bottle is an odd sort of Christmas sight. But here he is with all his wayward brilliance squeezed into a bottle of Chanel Something Or Other.

Chanel no 28 perhaps, as that’s the age the guitarist was when he died in 1970 from drug-related complications.

Only the good die young enough to be eternally repackaged in the afterlife and to be dragged out for the Christmas TV ads. Perhaps it was the song that got to me. The message in the perfume bottle from Hendrix is his sublime cover of Bob Dylan’s All Along The Watchtower. This is the best cover version of any song anywhere, and I shall leave you all to argue among yourselves while I stroll off along the path of certainty. I am not certain about everything in life, but of that I am certain.

So much vintage wonder from the Nobel Prize-ducking Dylan and the briefly incandescent Hendrix is contained in that song. Now stoppered up in a one-minute perfume ‘movie’ as the advertising people like to call these things. It was the lyrics that did it…

“There must be some kind of way outta here, Said the joker to the thief.”

That image summoned another of Hendrix trying to find a way out of that perfume bottle. “Businessmen they drink my wine…” and then reduce me to the essence of something or other expensive. Did Hendrix wear aftershave himself or was he bathed in the sweat of briefly fleeting brilliance? Who knows, although he would have been sweaty on stage, for sure.

Hendrix is not the only one to have been granted a fragrant afterlife. Janis Joplin was troubled in life and put herself on the track to oblivion early on. The song is Piece of My Heart, a truly great Joplin moment, combining all her roughness and tenderness. I am not even sure what the word is for that tender rough lost sprite. Perfume is not the word you would choose, but here she is, laying her dead heart on the line for Dior.

I just watched the advert online – pardon, not the advert, but the “director’s cut” of the advert. This term usually refers to the long-winded version of a film that a director brings out later, restoring all the bits the studio insisted on cutting out. And now even a perfume ad has a director’s cut. Who knows but perhaps there is a director’s cut of the Lidl carrot; or a director’s slice maybe.

I hadn’t noticed until now that it is Natalie Portman in that perfume advert, running away from her wedding while Janis Joplin hymns her escape.

If you wish to be optimistic, and it’s not a bad idea at this time of year, these adverts do at least keep good dead people in the public mind. But if optimism is in short supply, you might pause to fret over the grubby opportunism of it all.

Perfume adverts are everywhere in the weeks before Christmas. I don’t know where they go for the rest of the year. But come December they fill the screen like so many migrating birds.

I am not sure the ads work. My wife has been telling me that she’d like a bottle of Chanel No 5 for years, and I still haven’t bought her one. Perhaps she would like a bottle of Chanel Jimi.

Coffee companies are in on the act, too. Otis Redding’s (Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay has been remixed by the irksome Will.i.am for a Nescafe ad promoting those ubiquitous coffee capsules. I love the song but don’t much like the ad. Or the coffee. I like my coffee in beans and my Otis Redding in the warm and wistful original.

How low can Nigel go…?

PERHAPS there will come a day when we never again utter the words ‘Nigel’ and ‘Farage’. Perhaps there will come a day when that nasty jumble of letters no longer stains the tongue like the bitter leakage from one of those sour sweets.

But don’t count on it any day soon.

On Sunday as we drove towards Manchester, Nigel Farage was in the car with us. Only on the radio, fortunately, otherwise I might have swerved off the M62. As it was I managed to stay in a straight line, but only just.

Now I love BBC Radio Four’s Broadcasting House for its mixture of seriousness and silliness. On this occasion, though, Paddy O’Connell’s interview with the former Ukip leader seemed unnecessary. All it taught us was that Nigel Farage is an egotist with a toxic level of self-regard; and I think we knew that already.

Roll on a day or so, and Farage was back in the news again. You have to admire his persistence, I suppose. Whatever else is in the headlines, whoever else is making the news, nasty Nigel pops back, jumping up and down with his look-at-me turn.

His latest appearance in the news pantomime gives us hope that perhaps one day he will simply burn himself out. Farage got himself into a spat with the widower of Jo Cox, after accusing Brendan Cox of having links to extremists because of his support for the group Hope Not Hate during a radio discussion about the attack on the Berlin Christmas market.

Speaking on LBC Radio on Tuesday, Farage suggested that Mr Cox “would know more about extremists than me” because of his connections to the campaigning charity. Consider for a moment that Hope Not Hate seeks to combat political militancy, especially from far-right groups; and consider, too, what Farage said – Mr Cox “would know more about extremists than me”.

Most of us would conclude that Mr Cox acquired this knowledge because a right-wing nutcase murdered his MP wife. Not Farage, however. He just jumps straight in and attacks Mr Cox for supporting Hope Not Hate, which he said pursued “violent and undemocratic means”. Again, Mr Cox probably knows about that.

Hope Not Hate has threatened to take legal action unless Farage apologies for the “political smear”. Well, good luck to them with that: apologies are not often witnessed rolling from that man’s mouth. Incidentally, perhaps we should co-opt that phrase and think of Nigel Farage as a political smear; we could even give him capital letters and promote this as his name: Mr Political Smear.

The lack of judgement and empathy here was striking, but hardly unexpected. Like many political stories these days, this one began as a Twitter spat. Farage sent a tweet blaming German chancellor Angela Merkel for Monday’s lorry attack in Berlin. “Terrible news from Berlin but no surprise. Events like these will be the Merkel legacy.” Cox tweeted back, accusing Farage of “blaming politicians for the actions of extremists”, adding: “That’s a slippery slope, Nigel.”

Nick Ferrari, the LBC host, pointed out that the obvious point – obvious to anyone other than Farage – that Mr Cox knew the consequences of extremism. Farage replied: “Yes, it’s a terrible thing what happened, with the murder of his wife. But he continues to be active in the political arena and, as I say, given some of the organisations that he supports, I can’t just stand here and say, well, I’m not going to respond.”

Mr Cox responded by tweeting a clip of Taylor Swift singing the line: “Haters gonna hate.”

Tracy Brabin, who replaced Cox as Labour MP for the Batley and Spen constituency, offered her own tweeted response: “Beggars belief. A new low for Farage.”

A new low but almost certainly not the last one.

Nothing yet is as clear as a bell…

THE mystery of the silent tell tower continues to be a topic of conversation in York and beyond. Is the truth beginning to emerge from the bottom of the cloudy glass? Well, nothing is as clear as a bell yet.

York Minster released a detailed statement last week, three months after sacking 30 bell-ringers. Initially, the mysterious concern at the heart of this affair was being referred to as a ‘health and safety’ issue, which led puzzled observers to assume that perhaps there was a problem with the building.

As pointed out from this ledge before, it was also further hinted that this sort of thing couldn’t be allowed to continue, without the nature of this sort of thing being further explained.

Some comments on this blog pointed out, reasonably enough, that from a public relations and human resources point of view, there was probably something here that the Minster could not spell out in full.

That something came into the light last week when the Minster authorities released a more detailed statement than previously, saying that the row began because one of the bell-ringers had been accused of indecent assault.

The Minster said the person in question was deemed to pose an “ongoing risk” and could not be reinstated. As the BBC website reported: “This was despite an application for a Sexual Risk Order ­­– which can be made by a court against an individual deemed to pose a risk of harm, irrespective of whether an offence has been committed – being refused by magistrates in December 2015 and no charges having been brought.”

The bell-ringers refused to accept the Minster’s decision, and that’s why they were sacked, or so it now appears.

On Friday, the Minster also said that efforts to recruit replacement bell-ringers from other areas over Christmas, including Leeds, had been thwarted by “intimidation”. The York Minster Chapter said: “Bell-ringing leaders from other part of the county and country have been in contact… however we have learned that many of these kind people have been subjected to intimidation on social media.”

The York Minster Society of Change Ringers denied that any of its members had intimidated other bell-ringers and said that Minster bosses had declined attempts to “restore good relations”.

Even writing a sentence containing the words ‘bell-ringers’ and ‘intimidation’ shows what a strange and unsettling affair this is, like something from a Trollope novel gone badly wrong.

The Daily Telegraph reported on Friday that: “The Chapter said they would have preferred to ‘remain silent’ about the details of the decision to disband the group, because of privacy issues, but felt they had no choice that to go public because of the ongoing controversy.”

The Telegraph also included a long statement from the man’s solicitor. This contained the following observation to statements made on October 17 by the Archbishop and the Dean “on nine occasions making reference to an ongoing investigation. This and the contents of their new press release are deeply concerning when one notes the Dean was present in a multi-agency meeting on June 24 where it was stated ‘North Yorkshire Police is not involved in any current investigation linked to [name removed by me]”.

The Telegraph and others named the individual in question. As no charges were ever brought, I have decided not to.

Whatever the causes behind this affair, the bells of York Minster could well remain silent on Christmas Day for what is thought to be the first time since the 14th Century – although now anyone knows that for sure is another mystery.

Have the Minster authorities behaved badly and caused this lasting row or were they faced with an impossible situation? Maybe a bit of both – but whatever view you take, this seems to have been a classic case of a situation getting out of hand, and getting even more out of hand thanks to the efforts of the officials involved.

Have we heard the last of this? Almost certainly not – and we won’t do until we hear those bells ring again.

The world according to Trump…

TRUMP and Twitter go together like ham and eggs. But only if the eggs have salmonella and the ham has gone off.

There is a reason that Donald Trump likes Twitter so much: it is direct, brief and unmodulated, allowing him to spout whatever cancerous nonsense he wishes. It is, in short, the perfect platform for a narcissist with a short attention span and the petulant self-regard of a spoiled eight-year-old.

Scary reminder time: next month, a tantrum on legs who acts like a spoiled eight-year-old will become the most important man on earth.

Other world leaders are available, of course, and it could be argued that Vladimir Putin deserves the ‘most important’ badge at present. This is certainly suggested by persistent allegations that Russia hacked emails and interfered in the US election.

US President Barack Obama has vowed to act against Russia for this alleged interference. “We need to take action and we will,” he told the US radio station NPR.

Naturally enough, the Republicans and their president-elect are having none of it and have dismissed the claims as “ridiculous”. Yet the US intelligence agencies claim to have overwhelming evidence that Russian hackers linked to the Kremlin were behind the hacks – apparently aimed at harming Hillary Clinton, and therefore helping Trump.

What strange events American elections are: Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more than two million votes and yet lost (a quirk of their system) – and her efforts may have been undermined by the Russians hacking emails.

Whatever the truth of all this, there is only just over a month to find out. This is because all the evidence suggests that the Trump administration will take a strong line against news of which it disapproves. Don’t expect to find out anything critical or Trump-sceptical next year.

Earlier this week, Newt Gingrich, a long-time Trump-er, said that supporters of the president-elect were entering a “world in which we get to tell the truth”. An alarming claim when you consider Trump’s meagre acquaintance with the truth.

According to the Guardian, Gingrich gave a speech on ‘The Principles of Trumpism’ in which he attacked the legitimacy of a critical media, singling out the New York Times and the Washington Post as publications “prone to lying”.

Gingrich said: “These people are not news people, they are not reporters, they are propagandists. They write junk and they write junk with a deliberate left-wing bias and we ought to just take them to task every single time they do it.”

If the notoriously touchy Trump intends to run an administration that constantly attacks the right of the media to be critical, the world looks a little bit more worrying.

In the Disunited States of Trump-merica, the media needs to be hyper-aware and hyper-critical – and not cowed into accepting whatever version of the truth the Trump gang prefers.

This is why it is worrying that Steve Bannon, boss of the extreme right-wing website Breitbart, has been appointed as a senior White House aide. Brietbart was, as Bannon acknowledges, a gathering point for extremists of the “alt-right” during the US election. What sort of a man is he to have in the White House?

The worry is that the attention-phobic Trump will be a figurehead president, leaving all sorts of virulent right-wingers from the reborn Republicans to run the country. And that’s not a comforting thought.

So, Google, why am I such a loser?

THERE are so many problems in the world, too many to comprehend sometimes. So, here is one that only bothers me: why do I always lose at squash?

A person considering such a twice-weekly calamity has one obvious resource: Google. I start to type the words and the clever/possibly evil algorithms anticipate my question. Why do I always…feel sick/tired/cold/hungry. When I add the word ‘lose’ the predicted options change to ‘things’, ‘my voice when I drink’, followed by: and ‘at poker’, ‘at chess’ and ‘at the casino’.

I add the word ‘squash’ to help the algorithm out, and a few options pop up. The first of these is a ‘wiki How to do anything…’ guide to winning at squash.

I have played squash for a long time and shouldn’t need to seek out such advice. I used to win now and then, and often forced a mean draw. In the past, I played lots of people, although now in general only two friends have that dubious honour.

My Monday opponent is beatable on a good day, but there haven’t been any of those in a while. My Wednesday opponent has won every session for about a year-and-a-half, although I did force a memorable draw sometime within living memory.

The wiki guide is full of advice, such as drink water before you play (don’t usually remember), bring a spare racket (don’t have one) and a spare shirt (don’t think 40 minutes of antiquated squash requires a change of top).

One section is headlined: “Figure out who your opponents will be…” Ah, I already know that, Mike on a Monday and Phil on a Wednesday. Warm up (yes) and start slow (probably) and ‘stick to your game’.

That last piece of advice is hardly useful if the game you stick to involves running around to little enough effect, mumble-swearing and dropping your racket on the court floor in exasperation every time you lose a game you so very nearly won.

Nowhere does this guide say: “Stop playing at your age, you old fool.” This is encouraging because otherwise I would stop reading straight away, and anyway my Monday vanquisher is five years older than me.

It is true that Mr Wednesday said last night: “Well, you are 60 now” and managed to escape without getting a racket smashed over his head, as if we were in a cartoon rather than a weekly squash match. Or, in my case, a weakly one.

“Never give up…” Oh, yeah, thanks. I do that every week. My shoulders slump, my head goes down and defeat is mine.

“There are no easy shots…” Now they tell me. Over on the Squash Player website there is lots of advice about watching the ball and changing your grip (I tend to lose mine). All very interesting and sensible, but only if you play squash, so I shall spare you the details.

With Christmas approaching, I have two more chances to win before the year is out. The problem is psychological as much as anything else: if you lose at games too often, you mentally take on the shape of a loser. You become the loser you don’t want to be. And afterwards you stalk about the changing room with a red face until the sweat and the shame stops.

And, yes, it is only a game, and a good one, too. But games are meant to be won occasionally. Still, at heart I remain an optimist, even when the evidence all points in the opposite direction. Perhaps next year.

Tonight, there sees the weekly shuttlecock session. To my badminton friends I can only say that the groans and grumps you occasionally witness are as nothing compared with the squash tantrums.

Away from the court, I tend to be mild of manner. Less so on court, but there you go.

Leeds vs York, the new John Lewis and Stallone’s thick neck and locked jaw…

OUR daughter returns from a weekend in London grumbling that people are too unfriendly – “I think I am a northern girl at heart,” she says.

We’ve just had our own weekend break all of 25 Yorkshire miles away in Leeds. Once you would have been mad to swap York for Leeds, unlovely, scruffy Leeds, with its magnificence long since lost down the back of life’s collapsing sofa. Not anymore though, the city is defiantly off its knees nowadays.

We went to lay our hands on the middle-class altar that is the new John Lewis store – the newest and biggest outside of London. This church of good taste consumerism is parked round the back of the market and close to the bus station and the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Once inside it is just another John Lewis store, never knowingly undersold on selling you stuff you can’t afford and only half-need, but fancy having anyway. “Never knowingly undersold” has been the company’s motto since 1925, by the way, or so it proudly proclaims on their website. Is it a price promise or a phrase of runic meaninglessness? I have never knowingly been sure.

Whatever the case, Christmas shopping was duly done. It’s a large store, and very nice if you like that sort of thing. Mostly I do – although I seriously lose patience with the serve-yourself, button-press cappuccino machine that coughs and splutters out a poor cup of coffee.

Most notable of all, this store has what must be one of the most impressive ‘hallways’ around. This takes the shape of the new Victoria Gate arcade-cum-glittery stadium of shops (mostly expensive). What a lovely bit of architecture it is – even if my mistyping digit just hit the £-sign rather than a capital ‘W’, an appropriate sort of finger accident.

Light falls from a fine high roof to be reflected in the mirrored floor made, or so I read in the Observer, of polished concrete. You feel as if you have wandered into Milan rather than Leeds, not that I have ever been to Milan. This new arcade follows on from the city’s old arcades, which now sparkle with expensive splendour.

We shopped until we dropped for lunch – not anywhere costly, but at Humpit, a hummus bar in the Corn Exchange, where the food is delicious and cheap and the surroundings unbeatable. The Exchange has been restored and filled with shops (yes, more shops – but they are quirky and independent), and has a curving span of roof that is worth an admiring gawp.

After that we did more shopping, met friends for a machine-coughed coffee, then trudged off to the Novotel behind the station. There then followed a restorative snore and a spot of knitting – I’ll leave you to guess who did what – before we went for a drink, and then a pizza, and returned with a bottle of wine to watch a terrible film on Channel 5, home of little else.

The Expendables 3 is an arthritic action moving starring Sylvester Stallone and his locked jaw, with a supporting role for his clenched neck. Assorted other actors are in there, including Harrison Ford (not his finest moment) and Jason Statham (who has never knowingly had a finest moment).

My, this film is rubbish, but the sort of garbled nonsense it can be entertaining to half watch over a glass of red. In the morning, we did a bit more Christmas shopping, and then returned home.

York and Leeds have traditionally not been the best of friends, a little like Manchester and Liverpool, but perhaps old antipathies should be overlooked now, as Leeds has brushed itself off.

Like Glasgow, another city that’s had a blood-transfusion, Leeds is newly smart, without having lost the beat of its tarry old heart.