Going for a cautious paddle with Trump and Farage…

HERE goes – nose-holding time again. Let’s jump into that morally stagnant pool shared by Donald Trump and Ukip.

You can take your pick with those two, but today’s cautious paddle will address Trump and Sweden and Ukip v Ukip.

Trump had a strange moment last week – all right, I need to narrow that down a bit; Trump had a Nordic noir turn last week when he declared to his supporters: “You look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Who would believe this? Sweden!”

Among those who didn’t believe it was the population of Sweden, as nobody had any idea what Trump was talking about. My favourite response came in a tweet from the former foreign minister Carl Bildt: “Sweden? Terror attack? What has he been smoking. Questions abound.”

They usually do when Trump’s around. The president’s apparent belief that a terror incident had occurred in Sweden the previous night turned out to be a misunderstanding garnered from watching a report on Fox News claiming there had been a surge in gun violence and rape following a record number of asylum applications in 2015.

A fact-check column in the Guardian on Saturday reported that Swedish police later said their words had been taken out of context. Tellingly, the facts did not match the wild accusation – “The data tells us that there was no surge in gun violence or rape in 2015, when Sweden accepted more than 160,000 refugees. The rate of gun deaths stood at 0.32 per 100,000 population, compared with 4.04 in the US – 12 times that of Sweden.”

It is not uncommon for people to mask their own sins by pointing to the failings of others, and that is what Trump does all the time. He is obsessed to the point of total delusion by ‘fake news’ – and yet he spouts fake news to his supporters without a thought.

There was a time when a presidential briefing constituted more than: “Hey, I saw this last night on Fox News. Terrible thing, truly terrible.”

The other telling fact in lay in the final statistic – the rate of gun deaths in America is 12 times that of Sweden. Never mind raising your unusually small hand to point a finger at Sweden – what about all the murder and mayhem in your own backyard?

While Trump and his followers endlessly worry about Muslim terrorists, they seem blind to the fact that the average American is much more likely to be killed by another American than by a terrorist. And that’s a fact – although not one you will hear from Trump.

Ukip appears to be unravelling after last week’s failure to win the Stoke Central byelection, and this morning in the Telegraph the party’s former leader, Nigel Farage, demands that his party’s only MP, Douglas Carswell, should be thrown out for trying to damage Ukip.

You may recall that Farage welcomed Carswell aboard the rocky Ukip dinghy when he jumped ship from the Tories. Ever since then, relations between the two men have frostier than a toxic snowman. Can a snowman be toxic? Oh, I didn’t see why not, especially if it is sporting a tattered purple and yellow scarf.

The latest matter of contention – the full skeleton rather than a mere bone – are claims that the Clacton MP blocked an honour for Farage. There had been moves from with the Ukip cul-de-sac for Farage to be given a peerage, but this clashed with his role as an MEP, so a knighthood was suggested instead. Carswell is said to have responded rather wittily that Farage should be given an OBE “for services to headline writers”.

You would be looking at Nigel Farage for a long time before you mistook him for a delicate flower, but nevertheless he insisted his Ukip colleague was “consumed with jealousy and a desire to hurt me”. He called on the current leader – well, this week’s Ukip leader at any rate – Paul Nuttall to expel Carswell.

What a poisonous bunch of political pygmies. A knighthood for Farage would have been the ultimate proof that the honours system was done for. This country is engaged in a massive experiment cum gamble caused by Farage’s endless barracking and ego-trumpeting, and the time for an honour, if such a dark hour exists, will be when we have some idea if this whole Brexit farrago is going to work.

Yesterday, John Major, the former Tory prime minister, added his scepticism over Brexit, saying he had “watched with growing concern as the British people have been led to expect a future that seems to be unreal and over-optimistic”. He added: Obstacles are brushed aside as of no consequence, whilst opportunities are inflated beyond any reasonable expectation of delivery.”

I was never a member of that man’s fan club, but Major is talking total sense there.


A few thoughts on the morning after…

YOU might wonder what connection the Humber Bridge has with this morning’s byelection results. And, no – it’s not just that some Labour supporters might feel tempted to walk halfway across that span and jump off.

The political scientist John Curtice points out in the Guardian this morning that the Tory victory in Copeland represents the biggest increase in support for a government party since Harold Wilson’s Labour government won Hull North in January 1966 – “at the cost, incidentally, of a promise to build the Humber Bridge”.

Clearly some byelection bribes are more impressive than others, and future generations have benefited from that one. No such inducement was offered in Copeland, where the Tories snatched a Labour seat they had not won since 1931.

Professor Curtice again: “Indeed, never before in the whole history of post-war British byelections has a government overturned so large an opposition majority as Labour was defending in Copeland.”

It is tempting to wonder that if Jeremy Corbyn can’t cope in Copeland, where will he be successful? On Today just now, shadow chancellor John McDonnell appeared to blame Tony Blair and Lord Mendelson, saying their disunity was part of the reason for the defeat

Well, it can’t have helped to have had that pair of political ghosts rattling their chains in your corridor – but Corbyn has been in charge long enough now to carry the can for such a disaster.

There will be many competing theories about the causes of this remarkable revival by the Tories, but Corbyn’s confused stance on Brexit can’t have helped. He seems only too happy to fall out with his own anti-Brexit MPs while holding open the door for Mrs Maybe to get whatever she wants.

I think that if you look carefully at Theresa May, you see a very scared woman who doesn’t really have a clue how the mess she inherited will work out, how long it will take, or when we will know if we have arrived. But she has a good accidental friend in Jeremy, who seems curiously inclined to making her life easier.

Not so long ago, anyone who criticised Corbyn came in for hot heaps of abuse. Has the ardour of his supporters dimmed now? Who know, but it must be hard to maintain the fire in that relationship. Have Corbyn and his ardent followers now reached the stage their partnership where one of them goes to bed much earlier than the other?

John Woodcock, the Labour MP for neighbouring Barrow in the Cumbia, said that the byelection loss to the Tories showed the party was “in trouble”. That’s the honest truth rolled up like a carpet if you ask me, but blame Tony Blair if you wish – after all, he carries many sins, some fairly and others less so (Iraq remains the indelible sin for many; winning three elections for Labour seems to be forgotten – or written off as a sin anyway, because he won by not being Labour enough, or something).

Of course, it was a night of two halves, and thankfully Labour saw off Ukip’s new leader Paul Nuttall in Stoke Central – which had been seen by some as UK’s ‘Brexit capital’.

A blow for Ukip is always a warming tot for the soul, although there is another warning for Labour here: if Ukip wobble and the Tories start winning back the purple brigade, then Corbyn and Co are in even deeper trouble that we thought. And that shit they are standing in looks deep enough already.

Incidentally – and I do like an ‘incidentally’ – if you are made of sterner stuff than me, tonight you could watch Nigel Farage on Piers Morgan’s Life Stories on ITV. I think that’s a two-for-one offer I can resist. Farage will tell Morgan that his Brexit victory came with a heavy personal price and cost him is (second) marriage. Asked why he carried on, Farage says: “Well, somebody had to do it. I believed this was the most important political question we would ever face in our lifetime.”

And it will be years yet before we know who was right.

Every day Elvis Costello wrote that book… all 672 pages

THERE are 672 pages in Elvis Costello’s autobiography. Every day he wrote that book…

Chapter One: We didn’t really get along.
Chapter Two: I think I fell in love with you.

And chapter 30 onwards, I meet lots of famous people and waffle on about how great they are, and how lovely my life is now. And my wife. Did I tell you about my wife?

Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink is a brilliant book in parts and a frustrating one, too. I was given the hefty hardback as a birthday present (thanks, Charles) and finally reached page 672 during a sleepless interlude last night.

Perhaps that cumbersome title gives the game away. It seems to be too elaborate, an over-statement – a settling of obscure scores, although mostly with himself.

Costello says that he wrote the book in part to give his three sons an idea of who he used to be (“It was so much easier/when I was cruel…”) and to explain how he came to be the man he is now.

This is a sweet idea and it works up to a point – usually the point where Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus withdraws from personal difficulties, such as his second marriage to former Pogue Cait O’Riordan – 16 years given only a few cautious strokes of his pen, leaving an awkward confessional vacuum in a book which often tells you far more than you need to know (usually along the lines of, ‘And then I met Paul McCartney…’).

The unfaithful music lies in sorry refrains about fathers and sons: Costello’s own father left, and he leaves twice too, ending his first marriage to Mary Burgoyne, and eventually leaving his barely mentioned second before his happy marital conclusion with the jazz musician Diana Krall.

Two great strengths lift this book: Costello writes beautifully about the early ‘cruel’ years, and he writes with equal touching eloquence about his father, the big band singer Ross MacManus, who inspires deep love, even though he left when young Declan was only seven. His account of his father’s death is a properly fine piece of writing, and is as good and sad a farewell as you could wish to read.

Aside from that rich seam of fathers and sons, Costello’s frenzied rise to fame is totally compelling, listing the endless days and nights on the road, with three tours of the US in three months, averaging 27 days in 30 days.

The youthful hurtle is recalled with a vivid sense of late-adolescent anger and bitter brilliance, and includes an unfaithful interlude during one of those tours, a sexual encounter summoned up in an alcoholic haze of shabby shame.

Writing about happiness is always harder to pull off, and Costello loses his way when recounting how he has ended the man he is today.

I don’t know much about the genesis of this book, but it reads as if has mostly be edited by the writer himself. That ‘disappearing ink’ of the title is replaced by acres of ‘appearing ink’ that an unbending editor would have removed. Also, and perhaps it’s a small thing, but the spelling is an annoying mix of American and English, and this at times creates a sense of international statelessness. And the structure is challenging, too – a sort of anecdotal wander that ignores the usual biographic straight pathway, choosing instead to bump along its own random corridors.

But the good parts are fantastic and there is much here for the fan to enjoy. I reckon to have seen Costello three times: once in York, once in Harrogate and long ago at the Albany Empire in Deptford, South East London. I scoured those 672 pages looking for a mention of the Deptford gig but sadly there wasn’t a single word.

Jools Hollands left Squeeze that night and a party was held at the crumbling Empire, which was due to close and move around the corner. Sometimes I have wondered if that night really happened, even though I have a firm memory of Costello turning up as one of the many guests.

It was 1980 and 1980 was modern back in its day. Sometimes it still feels that way to me even how. Online I found a review by Ian Pye, who confirms that the night did happen, and that Costello was there. Pye rites: “Slow Down is delivered with the panache that exudes effortlessly from Costello’s magnificent soul-pop band along with I Don’t Want To Go To Chelsea, Accidents Will Happen, Watching The Detectives and Pump It Up.

“Assured of his crown, Elvis remarks: ‘This one takes just a little less time to perform than it takes to read Dexy’s press statements’ prior to a sublime rendering of New Amsterdam. The real soul rebels leave the stage refusing to come back, making way for some classic pop on the disco.”

That was back when Costello was prickly.

And then Squeeze played out young Jools, who grew into the three-piece-suit-wearing band leader and purveyor of sugary waffle interview we know and sometimes love today. Jools and Elvis have something in common there.

Badminton is poorly served by this decision…

Shuttlecock-up or conspiracy? Oh, there is no doubt in the mind of this semi-competent hitter of the yellow plastic feathers (real feathers being an extravagance at our Thursday night session).

Badminton has been treated shabbily by the decision to cut all funding for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. The sport, along with six other disciplines, has lost its appeal against UK Sport funding cuts, and will not receive any of the £5.7m it was given last time.

GB Badminton said it was “staggered” by the decision to reject its appeal, say the BBC. Putting aside the fact that staggering is mostly what I do on the court, as well as lunatic lunges and occasional flashes of something approaching competence, I sympathise fully.

Badminton is a great game at any level – and truly blinding to watch at the top-flight level.

In a typical display of nonsense-speak, UK Sport chief executive Liz Nicholl said none of the seven sports had provided “critically compelling new evidence” that changed the assessment of their medal.

Further words falling from her mealy mouth regarding the disappointed sports were: “Their position in our meritocratic table therefore remains unchanged and they remain in a band we cannot afford to invest in.”

Their position in our meritocratic table… oh, come off it with your technocratic weasel phrases. It’s just the usual ugly rush to lionise the grabbing of medals in athletics – nothing wrong with athletics, but this national obsession with winning medals at all costs is another poor reflection on the over-moneyed Olympics. Just more public money being pumped into the human medal factory.

Surely some of that cash still should go to badminton – a sport than can be played by anyone at any level. Encouraging participation in sport should be part of the return on our investment, and badminton is the perfect sport for anyone and everyone who wants to give the game a go.

It’s also fantastic to watch at top levels. As you would discover if you saw our bunch on a Thursday night. We may be middle-aged bumblers but we have fun, even if that bald bloke with the glasses does occasionally lose his rag – although not as often as he fails to find it when playing squash.

Shuttlecock-up or conspiracy? Oh, the intrigue and treachery option for sure.

Lost in the mists of lunchtime drinking…

DEPTFORD High Street, 1980. The office, on the second floor next to the station platform, was a long room where the air was filled with smoke and the clattering of typewriters. The editor’s office smelt of cigars and, in the afternoon, spent Guinness.

Leaving the office at lunchtime, you walked past the switchboard lady/receptionist. All phone calls went through her and there was a board into which she plugged the relevant wires. Without her intervention, you couldn’t talk to anyone.

Down the stairs and into the street, there were assorted pubs left and right, including the one where the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe was said to have been murdered. He was killed by a man offended at his atheism, apparently. I didn’t know that then, but fortunately never went in there shouting my head off about God not existing.

Deptford was a rough old place in 1980, so heaven knows what it was like in 1593.In fact, an article in the Daily Telegraph ten years or so back described the place where Marlowe was murdered as a “modest and respectable dining house”.

It was the grotty old Brown Bear pub in my day, and from memory a stuffed bear stood somewhere in the bar. Or perhaps that was just a local who hadn’t moved in a while and had ossified into part of the furniture.

We rarely went in that pub, but instead favoured one at the end of the high street, on the corner with the road to Greenwich.

Everyone drank at lunchtime in those days, and hardly anyone seems to now. Even as a relatively modest drinker, I would often have a couple of pints. The editor had three or four pints of the black stuff sometimes, and in the afternoon his mood could turn, so you learned to keep you distance in the post-Guinness zone.

And if he wishes to dispute that version of events, sadly he can’t as he died some years back. He wasn’t exactly old, so perhaps Guinness isn’t good for you after all. And nobody ever said cigars were good for you, even though I smoked them back then, with a pint (but only in the evening as a rule).

The South East London Mercury was a good and busy newspaper all that time ago. Most of the reporters were young and we’d all go out together for a lunchtime drink. Sometimes we drove to Greenwich or Blackheath, and whoever was behind the wheel had a pint or two as well. People did that back then.

All this came back to me this week on hearing that Lloyd’s of London, the insurance market, has banned alcohol during the working day, according to the Financial Times.

This move brought accusations of big brother and so forth. Maybe it is heavy-handed, but to be honest I can’t really manage a lunchtime drink nowadays. Even a glass of white wine sends my head a little blurry.

People eat at their desks mostly now, and it is tempting to wonder if that is any healthier than leaving the office for a drink. Two of my jobs require me to drive, so that’s drinking out for a start, and the third job requires me to sit at home and either write or think up ideas. The commute would not be a problem with the third job, but the sitting around and thinking might be. I guess a post-pint nap could be passed off as creative cogitating, but to be honest I don’t want to drink at lunchtime any more, unless at a weekend party or when on holiday.

The flip-side to drinking at work comes when the bosses drink too much and return to the office later in the afternoon over-filled with beery belligerence, leading to rows and nastiness. We’ve probably all worked in places like that. I know I have. No names will be given here, but those who know will know.

At the other end of Deptford High Street was the pub where Squeeze once played on the roof, doing their own take on the Beatles’ roof-top performance. Opposite the office was a yard controlled by a rough-diamond type who would let you park there for a weekly fee. I forget the sum but do easily recall the car: my orange MG Midget, a costly treasure when it needed a new engine. What a long time ago it all now seems.

Donald Trump, newsreader…

HERE is the news as read by Donald Trump…

“Today is a great day, great day. We are great, truly great. Don’t believe those other newsreaders. They’re liars, all of them. Telling lies, terrible lies. Every single one.

“The media are liars, terrible liars. I read it in a book. Or somebody read it in a book. I have people, clever people. Good people. They read books. And they tell me stuff. And what they tell me you wouldn’t believe.

“We all know the media today is fake. Terrible people. So now you can get your news straight from The Donald. My news is good news. Not that fake news everyone else has. Good news. The only news you need to hear. You are good people. You need my good news.

“Here are today’s headlines. The Donald is the greatest president, ever. Ever. Those other presidents – useless scumbags, every one of them. You wouldn’t believe the mess Obama left. And Thomas Jefferson – him too. All of them, bad people. I have done more in four weeks than those losers ever did. Losers – all of them.

“Even that Reagan guy people compare me too. He made films. I made billions. He wasted years learning how to be a politician. I am bigger than that. I don’t learn. I just do.

“America is great again. Told you I’d do that. And the big news is it’s only taken four weeks. Four weeks. Those other losers spent years messing everything up. And I’ve sorted it all out. See that pot of gold? End of the rainbow. My daddy left me a rainbow. I made a better rainbow. A bigger rainbow. Pots of gold, folks.

“Here are the headlines. There is only one, only one. I am great. Those other people are all losers. I am great today. I will be even greater tomorrow. And finally, I will be even greater the day after that. Whatever day that is. I have people, good people. And they tell me what day it is. Every day they tell me what day it is, just in case I forgot…”

The trouble is Donald Trump is almost beyond parody, but at least his administration does seem to be good for satire. Witness Melissa McCarthy’s totally brilliant turn on Saturday Night Live as Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer. Or Alec Baldwin’s equally smart turn as the man himself.

Yesterday’s pugnacious press conference was bizarre, boisterous and bonkers. Instead of letting the much-mocked Spicer face the media, Trump did the job himself. That’s the thing about people like Trump. They always know they can do better than anyone else.

From what he said it is clear Trump watches a lot of television. He seems to spend so much time shouting at the television news it’s a wonder he has time left for that other stuff. You know, being the greatest president ever.

In his solo press conference, he went back into campaign mode. I think this is because he needs an enemy. Hillary lost so she is not much cop as a foe. So, Trump turns the media into the enemy, saying yesterday: “I turn on the TV, open the newspapers and I see stories of chaos, chaos. Yet it is the exact opposite. This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine, despite the fact that I can’t get my cabinet approved.”

People like Trump define themselves by their enemies. They see themselves as clearly better than their enemies. But they need that enemy as a sort of self-reflecting mirror.

When he was running for president, his supporters were heard to say that he was a businessman, as if this was some sainted calling. Nothing wrong with being a businessman. But Trump is a megalomaniac tycoon who has always conjured his own truth, and as such has been surrounded by people who nod to his every word, scurry to his every desire. “Yes sir, no sir – three golden towers full, sir.”

As a lifelong member of the fake media, Trump’s attacks worry me. And should worry us all. Basically, he wants the news to be his news. Any news that doesn’t tell his version of the truth is dismissed as fake news. Any news which asks questions is fake news. Any news which isn’t The Donald’s news is fake news.

Leaders who control the news are called something or other. Hang on, I’ll just look it up in one of those things Trump never reads. You know, books. Ah, yes. Dictators – that’s the word for leaders who want to control the news.

Putting the ‘free’ into freelance…

WHATEVER you think of Michael Gove – and feel free to tick the box marked ‘not a lot’ – he is said to earn £150,000 a year for eight hours a week moonlighting at the Times.

I read that in Private Eye on the same day as Press Gazette, the online magazine for journalists, reported that one in three freelance journalists are on state benefits. This information comes from a survey carried out by the National Council for the Training of Journalists, which questioned 621 freelance journalists, “of whom 526 answered questions about their earnings”.

The survey reckons that freelance journalists typically earn around £20,000 a year. That isn’t a lot, but it is a lot more than I managed while attempting to subsist on freelance earnings alone.

The survey follows data from the Labour Force Survey which showed a rise in the number of freelance journalists in the UK to 34,000 in 2016 from 18,000 a year earlier.

What explains this surge? A newspaper industry in deep shit and laying people off would be my best guess. I had been a fulltime, salaried journalist for all my working life until May 2015. When I was made redundant, I added ‘freelance’ to my job title and carried on, although what I carried on with at first was a foolish fantasy of how nice it would be to earn a good living from being a freelance.

I did earn money, but not a lot.

Two respondents to the survey said they earned more than £100,000 a year from journalism, while 73 earned less than £5,000. My freelance earnings fell between those two extremes, but were much closer to the lower figure than the higher.

“Around a third of those questioned said they also did other work outside journalism,” according to the Press Gazette. You certainly need other work if you are not Michael Gove. That’s why I combine a bit of freelance writing with working for the Press Association two days a week and being a visiting journalism lecturer at Leeds Trinity University.

It’s not as lucrative as my old job – which was hardly a money-spinner – but it is interesting to combine different jobs. This week I have taught on two days, written a freelance feature on another, and will be working on Friday and Saturday in my other job.

In the Press Gazette report, there was a link to an item from 2008 when Quentin Letts, described as “possibly Britain’s most prolific freelance journalist”, said that journalists needed to diversify and not count on making a living only from newspapers.

“I think we’re probably the last generation that’s going to make a living out of newspapers,” Letts told the Independent on Sunday at a time when that newspaper still existed. “I suspect in 10 years’ time it’s going to be much harder to turn a shilling.”

I hadn’t realised that Letts was a freelance or that being rude about people in the Daily Mail could turn quite so many shillings. Perhaps I should have been ruder and posher and less morally squeamish. “That conscience don’t earn you no shilling,” as no one has ever said until just now.

I bought a copy of Private Eye because next Monday morning I want to talk to my magazine students about the importance of satire, with the Eye reporting record sales. Over in the US, Saturday Night Live is having a moment too with its Trump parodies. Alec Baldwin does a top Trump, pouting lips and all, while Melissa McCarthy is blinding as Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer.

We certainly need satire now, as I shall be saying on Monday.

Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye, provided me with a quote, which was decent of him. Not all editors and columnists answer my emails for quotes to pass on to students. Tim Dowling in the Guardian’s Weekend magazine was an honourable exception – as, too, was the editor of that supplement.

The Eye item about Gove points out that the Times ran a piece listing former high-profile ministers who were now “out of office but not out of pocket” – and quite forgot to mention Gove the Grovel (did you see that Trump interview? Dear God…).

Top of the money pile are George Osborne, now coining it in working for Black Rock investments, and David Bloody Cameron, accepting thousands to speak about Brexit to a private breakfast of hedge-fund managers.

Run that by me again. Cameron basically causes all this Brexit chaos, and then goes around earning a fortune talking about it. The pink-faced cheek of that man is beyond belief.

York Gate, the soap that disappeared long ago…

A play on the radio this afternoon uses an idea I had years ago. It’s a Valentine’s Day romance by Peter Souter which is going out live and will react to comments on social media.

Hashtag Love concerns a behind-the-scenes romance on The Archers. So far, so very BBC Radio Four, and not my idea at all. No, my now forgotten innovation lay in the interaction.

We were asked to come up with ideas for the internet and I suggested a soap opera. This was accepted and I started writing York Gate, a soapy drama set in York, or at least my cartoonish version of the city.

From the beginning, I wanted this little entertainment to be influenced by the readers. So, I created the scenario and then asked for plot suggestions. When these were supplied, I wrote them into the story.

I don’t watch soaps but I do listen to The Archers, so my soap was probably influenced by that habit.

Much of the action took place in the imaginary street of York Gate, which was a little like Goodramgate, if you know York. There were shops and a pub and – a sign of those times – the Dot Com Café, an internet café.

Everything about the internet was a little untested then; it had arrived, it was going to shape our lives somehow, but we didn’t really have a clue. Newspapers were still trying to decide whether the internet offered a bright new future or a hole in the head. They panicked between the two extremes, and they are still panicking now that we know far too much about the internet, and can’t stop running our fingers over that hole in the head.

I wrote two episodes a week and York Gate ran for two years, until the editor of the day pulled the plug, saying that the writing was keeping me away from my other work. This wasn’t true as I often wrote the episodes at home. Looking back, I suspect my soap didn’t fit the corporate template or some other dispiriting thing, but never mind.

It’s not often that I have been a man before my time, but I was then. Social media hadn’t taken off  – just imagine the interactive fun that could be had nowadays, with a York Gate Facebook page and a Twitter account for the Woman Who Knows, the gossipy narrator who held things together.

Hardly anyone remembers York Gate now, but it still rates as a proud achievement – not big but proud. And isn’t it the way that our lives are measured in modest achievements.

At the time my soap was greatly enjoyed by a small but hardy band of readers, some of whom helped me to shape the story. It’s all long gone now, but on the wall at home we have one of the drawings Richard Stansfield did to accompany my words. People sometimes ask me about the picture, so I tell them the story of the soap that disappeared long ago.

Incidentally, it occurs to me that interaction may have its limitations. Just look at the rancour and chaos which has followed that referendum we had last year.

A few Trump-free snacks from the news menu…

HERE are a few tasty, and occasionally indigestible, items from the news menu. Today’s snacks are guaranteed Trump-free as too many mentions of that man are feared to cause PTSD (Post-Trump Stress Disorder).

There is a greasy little snack on the front page of the Daily Express under the headline “MIGRANT SCANDAL”. The newspaper says that 200 migrants a day were caught trying to enter Britain illegally in the run-up to the Brexit referendum.

These figures are said to have been obtained by the Express after a long battle with the Home Office. They reportedly show that 24,800 people were stopped in the first six months of last year.

Now here’s the odd thing. It’s a puzzle to see why this is a scandal in Express terms. Surely, it’s the opposite of a scandal as those immigrants didn’t make it into the country – and, moral considerations put aside for a moment, that should please the “keep-them-out” readers of that newspaper. A snack to have them smacking their cracked old lips.

The real scandal, of course, is the appalling speech given in the Commons by Home Secretary Amber Rudd as she rowed back on an earlier commitment to admit vulnerable lone child refugees to Britain, under a scheme named after Lord Dubs.

To date, 350 such unfortunate children have been admitted to Britain, where campaigners had hoped that around 3,000 would be brought here. Nothing about this is ideal and bringing lone refugee children here is an act of last resort in an imperfect world – but, importantly, it is the humane thing to do.

This next headline, from the BBC website, may be hard to swallow – “NHS problems unacceptable, says Hunt.” Jeremy Hunt has been Health Secretary for a while now and he only seems to have noticed that. Meanwhile his boss, Mrs Maybe, was overheard in the Commons given that odd robotic chant she does whenever she throws statistics at Jeremy Corbyn – claiming once again that the Conservatives at the true saviours of the NHS.

Over to the Daily Mirror caff, where the chalked-up menu claims that NHS funding is growing at its lowest rate since records began in 1955 – “With the NHS collapsing around her ears, brazen Theresa May yesterday insisted the Tories have lavished record sums of cash on the service.”

The difficulties with running such a service are deep and go back a long way. But here’s another one of those things. These difficulties always seem worse once the Tories are in charge. Oh, and here’s another: is anyone else worried that this mounting chaos will inevitably lead to calls from Hunt to privatise everything as the only solution to the problems?

In the last paragraph, I ground out a bit of anti-Tory pepper. That old condiment can be hard to shake off. Everything somehow tastes better with anti-Tory pepper.

So, in fairness, let’s consider Jeremy Corbyn’s “emergency Labour reshuffle” as reported on the front page of the i-newspaper.

It is traditional to mention the deckchairs on the Titanic at such moments. However, the Labour Party under Corbyn seems ill suited to such a grand metaphor of impending doom. These deckchairs belong to a leaky old tourist boat sailing past the Palace of Westminster. And never mind how much they are shuffled about, that little old boat is still sinking.

Another image of Corbyn is offered by the Daily Telegraph, where a cartoon likens his plight to that of an Australian man who was trapped in a muddy ditch for six hours and survived by keeping his nose above the murky water.

Now Corbyn did nudge his nose above the water this week after fate – in the shape of a misdirected email – bowled him a gift at PMQT with his question about whether Surrey council had been given a special deal over its council tax rise.

Mostly, though, he seems sadly inept, especially over Brexit. Which is a shame as we could do with him climbing out of that muddy ditch.

Instead, Corbyn claims that reports of him stepping down are “fake news”. Oh, really, couldn’t he think of anything smarter to say?

I fear that the novelty value of having a bumbling Labour leader is beginning to wear thin.

You couldn’t make it up. Only now you can. The rise of fake news…

I HAVE been asked to sit on a panel in York about the rise of fake news. So here are a few thoughts ahead of tonight.

It might seem new, but fake news has been around for a while. In 1986, the Sun published the infamous headline: Freddie Star Ate My Hamster – a story as bizarre as it was untrue.

Here is a more serious example from that newspaper. I have been dipping into David Randall’s book The Universal Journalist. He recalls the days when the then editor of the Sun decreed against all scientific evidence that Aids was a disease limited only to drug addicts and homosexuals.

This approach reached its lowest point in the headline: “Straight Sex Cannot Give You Aids – Official.” Aids was also dismissed as the “hoax of the century”.

Eventually the tabloid backed down and printed a tiny apology on page 28.

Not fake news so much as stubbornly biased news. As for the hamster, that was fake news. Fake fur, if you like.

Here are two recent examples from the Daily Express, which campaigned for Brexit with a loud voice and hasn’t stopped shouting yet.

Twice in the past week, the crusty tabloid has been forced by the Independent Press Standards Organisation to flag up corrections about front-page Brexit stories. One story concerned a report that 98 per cent of people who took part in a survey said that the decision to leave the EU should be enacted immediately. The 98 per cent figure had come from a smallish survey of Express readers, rather than the public at large – which was the impression misleadingly given.

The other story went under the headline: “EU exit boosts house prices.” This was ruled inaccurate as the figures used were from a period before the referendum vote – whereas the Express made it appear that the figures were from after the vote.

Fake news or fiddled facts? Take your pick. As for all those mad Express stories about the weather, perhaps the Met Office has something to say about that.

Fake news has always been with us, then, but sadly there is just much more of it around now. In recognition of this, Oxford Dictionaries made ‘post-truth’ its word of the year for 2016 – annoying pedants everywhere, who pointed out that was in fact two words.

One or two words, that coinage does sum up an age where facts are optional at best and where Donald Trump can berate a CNN reporter at a press conference by idiotically chanting: “You are fake news”.

Kellyanne Conway, who massages the truth for Trump, then introduced us to “alternative facts”. You have your facts, we have ours. Suddenly facts aren’t blameless sentries of truth; just something somebody believes.

Many people have pointed out that ‘alternative facts’ has an Orwellian feel, as indeed it does, and sales of 1984 are reported to have risen sharply. Perhaps we should all read that book again.

False information has always been with us, then. What’s changed is that the internet allows falsehoods to spread fast and wide. A lie can be amplified much more quickly now than in the past.

An old quote attributed to many people goes like this: “A lie can run round the world before the truth has got its boots on.”

Nowadays that lie moves so fast the truth hasn’t even learned to do up its laces yet.

You can’t consider the rise of fake news without addressing the Trump problem. During his election campaign, Donald Trump cleverly laid into the media – the “mainstream media” and always said with a sneer – while at the same time using the same mainstream media to report his every stutter and stumble.

As president, he constantly disparages the media – preferring to communicate through Twitter. This could be because he has a short attention span. But mainly it’s because that way he doesn’t have to answer awkward questions. Trump sees questions as an impertinence. He has his truth and he doesn’t want newspapers or nosey TV reporters offering any other version.

Stephen Bannon, one of Trump’s White House advisers, even went as far as to say that the “humiliated” media should “keep its mouth shut”. And his boss repeatedly calls journalists “among the most dishonest people on earth”.

Takes one to know one, perhaps.

Yet the mainstream media is widely distrusted in the US – and that has left a poisoned void in which fake news can propagate. If you dislike the real news, you can just make up your own.

Many blatant lies were told on Trump’s behalf during his election campaign; he spun a good few himself; and one or two untruths were even told about him.

This superfluity of false information is a big worry. How can we have a meaningful conversation about anything if there are no true facts to hand? How can we see any sort of truth through this thicket of lies?

The internet is like a big, messy playground, full of energy and possibility. It is unruly and wild and has the potential to do harm or good. Without the internet, fake news would not spread so far or so fast. But it is spreading far and fast. And the worry is that soon we won’t have any idea what’s what.

One of the clear dangers is that if people take their news from social media, perhaps on Facebook, then fake news looks the same as everything else on Facebook. And this lends it spurious validity.

Perhaps in time the internet will sort this out by introducing better fact-checking. Human fact-checking, instead of algorithms. Or by allowing users to flag up fake news, something which is being experimented with now.

But perhaps in the end we need be smart enough not to believe everything we read. If something looks suspicious or too good or bad to be true, then perhaps it is. Before automatically believing what you read check it out on the BBC website. Or any other reputable news organisation.

Sometimes it’s a case of “reader beware”.

There is a discussion on this theme tonight at 7pm the Priory Centre in York. Have They Got News For You? The future of journalism in a post-truth world will be chaired by Marcus Romer. The panellists include journalist, producer and lecturer Wendy Homewood, Jack Gevertz, O2 2015 Yorkshire Young Journalist of the Year, and myself.