Friday, 14 March 2008


I have not found it easy to hate Napoleon since I learned he shot a publisher. Chap named Palme and I must say I found the symbolism of an outstretched palm, peculiarly apt.

Stitching words onto paper has been a lifetime activity for me and with very rare exceptions I have not warmed to the publishing industry (which is the last word I should use to describe them). One publisher took ten years to publish a book he had commissioned; another has been six years and I am still waiting.

The worst moment was when I wrote for a publishing house run by two partners. One said of my manuscript, “I thought the first half was vivid and exciting but the last half completely lost me. Can you have another go at it?” His partner wrote in the same post, “I thought the conclusion of your book was dramatic and superb but I am afraid the first half needs extensively rewriting.”
I had my copy retyped without alteration and sent it to them and they both congratulated me on a much improved narrative.

When I started writing books nearly half a century ago the thing publishers did best was have lunch. At that they were expert. Usually their lunches lasted for four hours. One publisher would read his mail before lunch and answer it in the brief space between returning from lunch and going home. By that time he had forgotten what the original letter was about so his replies never made sense.

I have had two publishers sell my books to American publishers without telling me. Another took my books on a sales trip to the U.S. When he returned he rang me to say what hell it had all been: meetings, meetings, meetings. Unfortunately his wife was a well known newspaper columnist and I had just read her column in which she talked of the twenty-seven parties they had attended in a three-day visit to the States.

There used to be a tradition in the industry of paper accounting, a term which described the figures you got scrawled on the back of an envelope when you asked about royalties, and as works of fiction qualified for the Booker Prize. Much more sophisticated nowadays. Random House owes me royalties on books of mine which they put on tape and published in the States. They say they cannot pay me until I get an import certificate. I cannot get an import certificate without a valid passport and I do not have a passport in case my wife tries to lure me abroad.

Apart from nepotism, the best qualification for getting a book published is celebrity. I had no difficulty getting twenty-two of my books published but now that I am no longer a celebrity I have acquired a bushel or so of rejection slips for the last four, which include two of the best books I have ever written.

There has only been one exception.

Twenty-five years ago I wrote a comic biography “Forgive Us Our Press Passes”. It was a literary success. I read it on Radio 4 and BBC Wales; it was twice repeated on the World Service and had the highest listening figure of any book read on air that year. The Daily Post said flatteringly that I was the successor to Tom Sharpe and my friend and favourite actor Ian Carmichael described it as a comic masterpiece. You can buy a copy on the internet. A friend tells me that one is offered at £17.99, the next £74.86, another £75.07 and the last one £76.06.

Under the circumstances I would have thought the publishers, Gomer Press, could have managed to sell more than 200 copies.
Bored out of my skull a year ago, I asked my chum Revel Barker, for many years a Head Honcho in the Mirror Group and a fine reporter, how to launch a blog. In gratitude for his help I sent him a copy of “Forgive Us” and the mss of its sequel “Forgive Us More Press Passes” which had been rejected by several publishers.

Something of a polymath and, I fancy, a little bored with retirement in Malta, he suggested he might have a go at publishing the two books in an omnibus edition. That was in December. This Friday, barely three months later, the book was published and I am prouder of it than any I have ever done. New and splendid art work, designed by his wife Paula; very professional publicity material, with pictures, sent to every media outlet in Chester, Liverpool, Leeds, North Wales and East Anglia. A wonder to behold. I expect any day now Revel will mount a takeover for Random House.

I must say that Age Concern was right when it urged pensioners to put down their memories as a pleasant task in old age. My life has been a series of comic disasters with a star cast including Hugh Cudlipp, Charlie Chaplin, President Eisenhower, Harold Macmillan, the Queen and a number of my Lordly Friends. It includes my inglorious military memoirs, my downwards hurl, the Drowning of Flook as recounted by my chum the Great Vince Mulchrone.

Revel has even fixed the booksellers. You can buy it for £9.95 (and that includes the one that would otherwise cost you up to £70). He has even given me the Waterstones website and they are offering it post free.

My Noble Friend had some interesting relations, in one of whom I refused to believe. His Lordship said he had a cousin who was a Show Girl on the West End stage in the Twenties. During the run of one show she was conscious of the same man, in the same seat of the orchestra stalls, at every performance. Eventually at a party she met him.

“What a coincidence,” she said.

“No coincidence,” he told her. “I have been going to every party in London where I might conceivably meet you.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Because I am madly in love with you and I want to marry you.”

“Marry me? You don’t know me.”

“Doesn’t matter. But there is no hurry. Will you at least have lunch with me? I will send my car.”

On the appointed day a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce drew up at her flat. Her swain handed her in but she noticed with alarm they were speeding out of London.

“Where are we going?” she cried in alarm.

“To my home, of course. Where else would I entertain my future bride?”

They drew up outside an imposing country house. The staff was lined up before the Portico and her host introduced her.
“This is the lady who will one day be your mistress,“ he said.

During an exquisite luncheon, served by the butler, her host proposed three times. “Oh all right,” she said finally, “I will marry you if you buy me an aeroplane.”

He didn’t propose again and the girl thought that was the end of it. But in her dressing room that evening there appeared a bouquet of roses and the keys to a light aircraft.

Years later I was a guest at the Lord’s second wedding in Buckingham Palace Gate. “There is someone I want you to meet,” he said.

It was the show girl. Alas, the world of high society and highballs had dealt hardly with her. She still looked like a Queen. But it was Tenniel’s Queen of Spades.


My Dangerous Cuttings

(Not mine but collected by Donald Sinden from the Whitley Bay Guardian about a British Rail clerk who failed in love and death).

“At 7.30 I had a drink and walked into the sea, but it was so wet I turned my back, went home and by 9.15 I had wired up an easy chair to the mains. However, each time I threw the switch the power fused. Following this I broke my mirror and tried to cut my wrists, yet somehow the slashes were not deep enough. After that I tried to hang myself from the banisters, unfortunately the knot was improperly tied. Finally I surrounded myself with cushions and set them on fire. This method was too hot. So I jumped out of the window and telephoned the Samaritans but they were constantly engaged……………………”

Sunday, 9 March 2008


The army was nothing if not determined. Despite my bravura display of incompetence in losing bespectacled soldiers they persisted in the childlike belief that I had in me the golden qualities of an officer. This was despite an incident in which a squad of men I was drilling too quietly did not hear my command to “halt” and marched right off the barrack square, narrowly missing a captain quartermaster who ever after snickered nervously when he saw me. On the outdoor shooting range I not only missed the bull; I came within inches of hitting a cow.

They were deaf to reason...

They had tried to post me to a camp in Elgin, Morayshire, which trained potential officers for the Highland Division. I arrived at 6pm and at 8pm after a hurried meal I was on my way to Aldershot and a new posting to a unit which trained officers for the Royal Army Service Corps. I have always assumed the Kilted Ones must have heard of my cavalier way with valuable soldiers and lost their collected nerve. I further assume the Service Corps was very short of officers.

The Service Corps foolishly sent me to a War Office Selection Board designed to spot putative generals. It was even held in Saighton Camp in Chester, the scene of my earlier incompetence. Like Caesar, they ignored the augurs.

In those class-conscious days potential officers had to be socially acceptable. So there was a reception in the officers' mess where The Board assessed our social skills. At meal times a careful watch was kept on the way we handled knives and forks. I was criticised by another cadet, the son of a general, for holding my knife like a pen, I must stress that Hackett was a very decent chap who wanted to make sure I did not lose marks over it. Had he known that I came from a background where the underpant was the garment of cissies, I doubt he would have spoken to me. I know he was troubled that I went for a bAth rather than a BaRth. I have never felt more alien than I did amongst those public school boys, though I am bound to say that to a man they treated me as a friend.

But if the social mores were alien, the tests the board devised were from another galaxy. We were marched into an examination room and confronted with trays on which were round pegs and boards with square, triangular and round holes and a puzzling collection of Bakelite, metal and wire, which was obviously electrical.

“Right,” said a brisk major. “Assemble me a domestic light fitting from the parts before you.”

I had this sudden picture of a battlefield and myself commanding the remains of a platoon which had been under constant fire for days. A staff officer appears and draws a rudimentary map in the sand. Grimly he points:

“To the left of us are units of the Seventh Panzer Division. In the hills to the right is a division of Italian mountain troops. Immediately ahead, a battery of heavy artillery and a squadron of tanks is blocking off our rear.”

Through tightened lips, his eyes mere slits, he says, “There is only one thing to do.”

“What is that, noble officer and commander?” we chorus.

“Assemble me a domestic light fitting.”

From that moment in that classroom I found it very difficult to take the army seriously. As the years went by it became increasingly my attitude to life.

The odd thing was that I always got on well with officers, especially the aristocratic ones. Indeed, as a member of the working class since the 17th century when my ancestors slipped down the social ladder I always found the aristocrat easier to get on with than the old middle class which has everything to lose and clings pathetically to its world of residential grammar schools. I think that is because in the working class we have nothing to lose and in the upper class they have nothing to gain. The Middle Class clings to a position it never seems quite sure it should be maintaining. The Kwa Hais, as they were known in India.

My oldest friend, the 9th Baron Langford, was my commanding officer on the Air Lift, days he recalls with a well bred shudder which he first used when I set up a comfortable home in a giant packing case that had brought an aero engine to the base at Fassberg.

The Colonel has two precepts, “It Only Costs a Little More to Travel First Class” and “The Best Is Barely Good Enough”, and it was he who observed at 90, after beating cancer and sundry other ills, “Growing Old Is Not for Cissies”.

He is certainly not a cissy. When Singapore fell he escaped the Japanese by sailing a battered
dhow across the Bay of Bengal to Ceylon. It took a month and involved sailing through the Japanese Invasion Fleet.

More recently he was taking me on a tour of his stables at his home near Rhyl when a stallion bit him. Almost by reflex, he bit it back. And when I once drove him exuberantly into the path of an oncoming lorry he could only manage to reprove me with, “Do think of the death duties.”
He was hacking through a village in the Cwm near his home. A motorist who had been delayed in overtaking him called, “Anyone would think you owned this village.”

“As a matter of fact, madam, I do,” he said, raising his hat.

Being superior came early to him. As a young man he was complaining about an item he bought in Fortnum and Masons, grocers to the gentry. An elegant giant in faultless morning dress bore down on him. “Is something amiss, sir?” it enquired.

“And who might you be?” asked the Colonel.

“I am in charge of this floor,” the giant replied.

“Then I should get it swept. It’s filthy,” he was told.


Cambridgeshire fire brigade is at a loss to know what to do about a freelance fireman who has been turning up to emergencies with his own fire engine.
Ian Bowler bought his fire tender, complete with flashing lights, after completing a community fireman’s course run by the local council.
“A group of us felt we had been sat on the shelf after training so we formed our own unit,” he says. Bowler and his eight fellow amateur fire fighters have now promised that they will not attend any fires until asked by the authorities, but this may not be enough to satisfy the local fire brigade, which describes the matter as “a very strange case which we are still investigating.”