Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Cold weather, cold reason

'THEY must do something' ... 'THEY can't do their jobs' ... 'THEY should be fired'.
I know for a fact that if I'd been forced to sleep rough at Heathrow or shuffle forward in a seven-hour queue at St Pancras I'd be one of those shouting loudest, calling for 'THEM' to do something and snarling at the 'incompetence' of it all.
I might even have agreed with Labour's Denis McShane that the Prime Minister should be out there with a shovel, or with the Conservative Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, that:
"It can't be beyond the wit of man surely to find the shovels, the diggers, the snowploughs or whatever it takes to clear the snow out from under the planes, to get the planes moving and to have more than one runway going."
I did enough of that kind of thing when the Eyjafjallajökull ash cloud threatened to hold me under casino arrest in Las Vegas in April or while repatriating son #1 from the Netherlands this time last year.
That doesn't make it rational.
And it's the lack of rationality in so much "Arctic Britain" coverage that is a genuine weakness in our adversarial media and politics. That makes it very hard to lift our eyes from 'somebody must resign' or 'bungling bosses' and take a hard look at what's really happening - and what we should do about it.

Assumptions

Breaking away from the conventional wisdoms and assumptions might be one place to start.
It's pretty astonishing to still be reading or hearing 'Europe or America can cope, why can't we?' - though the chaos in Switzerland, Germany and France, let alone the US, was pretty lightly reported at first, we all know about it now, surely?
Even the most efficient operations in the most efficient countries don't expect life to go on uninterrupted when two feet of snow falls. They talk instead of resilience, which means reasonable recovery time - 'reasonable' in this context meaning 24 to 36 hours. Not even the Finns have found a way of preventing the snow from falling.
But yes, Helsinki airport does keep going - because it has three runways (third runway for Heathrow anyone?), using only one at a time while clearing the other two when the snow is heavy. Comparisons with Heathrow should, but rarely do, take into account that it also has half the traffic and a fifth of the number of passengers.
It's not just about de-icing fluid and grit and snowploughs - and the wages of the people required to drive them or stand-by when it's not snowing - it's about big, expensive, controversial decisions on infrastructure. Or reducing our passion for cheap flights, always available.
Does our media coverage encourage or discourage that kind of debate?
Then there's the expectation that it's 'THEY' who must do something to ensure that life goes on without missing a step - and they don't because they're stupid or 'bungling' (again) and should resign.
Now, as it happens, there probably is something in Ferrovial's management of the British airports it bought back in 2006 that needs proper journalistic inquiry - the answer to the question of whether it's invested properly in resilience is almost certainly hidden away there in its balance sheets and annual reports.
Anyone looking? Or is that just too complicated? Simpler to call for the minister's head - though, of course, he has no power over BAA whatsoever.

'THEM' and 'US'

Then, of course, there's 'US'. In those European countries which do recover relatively quickly from big snowfalls, people themselves play a large part. The communes, 'THEY', are responsible for some things; you, the motorist or house owner, for the rest. And part of resilience is accepting the inevitable.
In my part of France - where, incidentally, it doesn't snow much more often than the UK - when the snow starts, the main roads up and down the valleys are ploughed, salted and gritted pretty well straight away; farmers pitching in to help. Whether nagged, pressed or as volunteers, I don't know.
Valley-side roads and those over the hills aren't even touched. Signs go up telling you the limit of snow treatment. No-one expects anything different.
Down in the Vosges and Alps, some roads and passes just stay closed 'til the spring. You go a different way. No-one expects anything different.
In some departments, car owners have to own winter tyres and/or snow chains - and use them when they're told to. No-one expects any different.
Want the track to your house cleared? Clear it then. One of the biggest selling items in the hypermarkets and garden centres is 50kg sacks of coarse salt. Everyone seems to buy it; everyone seems to use it. No-one expects any different.

Hibernation

It's some way, of course, from the hibernation that used to grip France in the Middle Ages and which, as Graham Robb explains in his excellent book The Discovery of France, persisted right up to the start of the 20th century.

"Human hibernation was a physical and economic necessity."


Robb writes:
"The tradition of seasonal sloth was ancient and pervasive. Mountain regions closed down in the late autumn ... Other populations in the Alps and Pyrenees simply entombed themselves until March or April ... According to a geographer writing in 1909, 'the inhabitants re-emerge in spring, disheveled and anaemic'."
Perhaps the most macabre acceptance of hivernal necessity was dealing with the dead. For obvious reasons, it was impossible to bury those who couldn't make it through the long winter night - so granny's corpse would be unceremoniously lobbed up onto the roof, where the snow would keep it preserved until March or April and when the proper obsequies could take place.
That's probably taking acceptance a bit too far - for the 21st century anyway. But it does illustrate the central point.
Our insistence that our world continue uninterrupted whatever the conditions of flood, storm or snow - and that 'THEY' have to ensure it for us - is such a corrosive idea it makes it almost impossible for us to think what we really should do.
How much extra - both privately and publicly - are we prepared to pay to ensure a better resilience, knowing that it will never be 100%?
Which are the private and what are the public responsibilities? What are reasonable expectations?
How much are we prepared to change or modify our lifestyles, either to mitigate the effects of a crisis or to try to avoid it?
How much do we just have to accept?
And so on. Importantly, though, do we have a mature enough, rational enough media to feed a mature and rational public discourse where we can expect our politicians to make mature and rational decisions?
Or should we just carry on shouting a lot?

Monday, 6 December 2010

Wikileaks - the salient point?

Pretty well everything that could be said about the Wikileaks diplodocudump has been said. Everyone's made up their mind about whether it's good or bad for the world/diplomatic communication/good government etc etc.

But here's something else to think about: what does it do to journalism?

It's an important question because, as I wrote earlier, we really do have to take care we don't lose investigative journalism and all it entails because we believe ersatz, hollowed out versions are the real thing.

We have to keep in focus, too, Wikileaks' agenda as set out by its oddly self-regarding founder Julian Assange. It and he are not friendly to journalism as we know it - and it wouldn't take too much conspiratorial insanity to construct a theory that this is all about busting traditional journalism.

Here's what Assange told an audience in London back in the summer, as reported by City University's Journalism Professor, George Brock.

Wikileaks, George Brock reports, started with a focus on places where government was least transparent:

"Then they moved on to places where 'the power structure is so sewn up that the press doesn't matter much' ... 'It's all bankrupt' he said ... 'All current political theory is bankrupt, all political thought, because we don't know what the hell is going on'.

You might have guessed by now that the established media are part of the problem. Journalists, he argues, are creating unreasonable public expectations. Their 'original sin' is to enjoy the imbalance of power. Why does someone want to read what a journalist has written? 'They're ignorant and you're not. You know more ... You can't lie but the opportunity to distort is large and prevalent.'

The reader can't see the whole picture so Wikileaks has to fill the gap. Once 'primary source material' is up on the web, the 'lying opportunities' shrink."

In essence, it's the journalism bypass theory, as popular with new media gurus as it was with Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson in the decade 1994-2004.

The diplodocudump was underwhelming - but that doesn't mean it was a Bad Thing; no journalist should argue that revelation itself doesn't serve the public interest. At the very least, it's about a partial correction of the information asymmetry between power and people.

But it wasn't and couldn't ever be an end in itself. Without the attentions and mediation of the very journalism he's declared broken, Assange may as well have fed the leaked diplomatic telegrams straight into the shredder (and, yes, I know they weren't actually on paper - cut me some figurative slack here) or indeed re-recorded Lady Gaga back onto the CD.

Journalism - especially investigative journalism - has many shortcomings. There's no science about what gets investigated and what doesn't; no guarantee that it's the biggest scandals - for want of a better word - that get nailed, nor that some lesser 'scandals' don't get a place in the public sphere they don't quite deserve.

No guarantee, either, that the evidence stacks up or that the 'truth' revealed is incontestable.

But because of the way most investigative journalism comes about - through a whistleblower who rightly or wrongly senses some kind of moral violation - it has that magic thing we call salience.

And it's salience that leaking on an industrial scale lacks. Leaking for the sake of leaking or in the hope of overwhelming both power and journalism as we know it.

Whistleblowing that lacks salience does nothing to serve the public interest - if we mean capturing the public's attention to nurture its discourse in a way that has the potential to change something material.

And the risk is this: that we persuade ourselves that Wikileaks-style transparency is a substitute for investigative journalism rather than the precursor of journalistic possibilities.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Let's talk investigations

There's a lot of chatter about 'new' ways of doing investigative journalism - those 'new' ways being, inevitably, online, connected, networked, two-way, global and local etc etc.

The problem is, very few of the acts of journalism that the 'new' ways enable are actually investigative. Sure, they're ways of getting below the surface of data and issues and public policy - but 'investigative journalism' they just ain't.

This matters. Because there's any number of external pressures squeezing genuine investigation out of mainstream journalism. And it would be journalism's and the public's loss if we journalists stood by and allowed the name 'investigative journalism' to become hollowed out - but that's what's happening.

Examples. This from Vadim Lavrusik - who teaches social media at the Columbia School of Journalism in the US and for that reason alone is unlikely to be lukewarm about the journalistic possibilities of networking.

His is a beguiling account of "a society more connected than ever" in which "investigative journalists ... are now taking advantage of their online community relationships to help ... uncover potential wrongs".

He goes on to argue that 'tomorrow's reporters' will be able to:

"create contextualized social story streams that reference not only interviewed sources, but embedded tweets, Facebook postings and more."

And already, journalists are:

"leveraging the vast reach of social networks in unprecedented ways ... social media is enabling watchdog journalism to prosper."

Fine. As far as it goes. No-one could possibly argue with the benefits of networks that enable journalists to dig into any story. Or to tap into the experience and expertise that's out there. Or to commission communities and audiences to wear out some of the real or figurative shoe-leather that has to be sacrificed in the interests of reporting.

But this is, rightly, called Distributed Reporting. And it's a long way from investigative journalism, though it might well throw up leads that generate an investigation. But in essence, it's no more than .. well, basic journalism. All journalism has inquiry at its heart - anything else is PR or advertising. But inquiry is not the same as investigation.

Crowd sourcing, or community sourced mapping, is often cited as another 'new' form of investigation - but again, it's anything but and often falls some way short of even being journalism's raw material.

While it's possible to point to examples of mapping that have been robust, timely, accurate and of public use, there are - as I wrote here - those that haven't been and which, in spite of good intentions, ended up lacking rigour, being quickly out of date, misleading and inciting community behaviour that was anything but beneficial.

The third main category of 'new investigative journalism' is more properly a form of watchdog journalism' - the best UK example is Paul Bradshaw's beta site Help Me Investigate. It's a hugely successful site, of immense value which delivers a new form of networked journalism and has seeded a number of successful investigations.

But in itself, it's not investigative journalism - actually, Paul doesn't claim that it is. At its best, it's an exciting, broadly based watchdog journalism - helping keep the community's attention on the things power does in its name. And seeking answers.

All in the name?

Perhaps all we have here is a difference in terminology - but it's one that matters and matters a lot.

Investigative journalism is much more than sifting data or collecting data that would otherwise be uncollected. It's much more than asking the pointed, significant questions that take journalism beneath the surface facts. More than ensuring power is challenged.

In truth, all journalism is about one or more of those.

At some point, all investigative journalism is about uncovering something that's being deliberately hidden. Something that's it's in someone's interest to keep out of the light.

And it's about assessing the veracity, motives and context of sources that help you uncover what's hidden ... often without anything other than strong, circumstantial evidence to rely on.

It's about persistence - getting the key player to speak. Getting sight of the key document. Joining the dots hidden in confusing and often contradictory testimony.

And the relentless, self-critical checking and counter checking, testing hypotheses, testing alternative interpretations of the limited facts you have ... making the call on what you can and can't say. What's true not just in the detail but in the overall account.

The obvious point. It takes time, it takes money and it takes commitment - both of the individual reporter and of the news organisation.

Of course, inviting audiences and communities in, to use those networks to grind through what can be ground through or to add the expertise that's out there. But does anyone really think that we could have networked our way to the truth about Thalidomide or uncovered the 'third man' or identified the Omagh bombers. Or crowdsourced or community watchdogged our way to those hidden truths?

No. Thought not.

And the danger is, if we allow the term 'investigative journalism' to be applied to something that can be made to look and feel a bit like it's 'investigative' but really isn't. And which, into the bargain requires nothing of the same time, money and commitment - is a hollowed out shell - we'll lose the real thing.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Can you hear me?

Whatever you think of Jon Stewart, his 'Rally to Restore Sanity' sticks an interesting question across the press coverage here of Al Qaeda's latest murderous plot.

Sure, that wasn't its purpose; that was more about creating a counter-voice to the vehement certainties that dominate US mid-term politics. Hence those banners:

"We could be wrong" or "If your idea can fit on a sign, you need a bigger idea."

Ho, ho. But deep inside is something that's more than just a parochial American, left/right, Tea Party/East Coast Liberal, Republican/Democrat thing. Take a look at this; it's part of Jon Stewart's closing homily:

"The press could hold its magnifying glass up to our problems, bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen.

Or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire. And then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected, dangerous flaming ant epidemic.

If we amplify everything, we hear nothing."

Ring any bells? Probably.

But what's it got to do with us. And Al Qaeda. And coverage of the printer ink bomb plot?

Well, this was what Clark Kent Ervin (honestly), interviewed on BBC Radio 4's The World This Weekend, had to say; he was Inspector General when the US Department for Homeland Security was first set up. He resigned and is now a member of the Department's advisory council:

"We always tend to fight the last war.

Al Qaeda finds one vulnerability in our system, exploits it and then we close that vulnerability without anticipating what the next vulnerability they might exploit is."

Which brings us to the obvious question. Is the way that the British press tends to cover stories like this calculated to help us - citizens, voters, politicians - focus on anticipating future vulnerabilities?

Or is it - by raising alarm and fear and hunting for 'bunglers' - better calculated to ensure our political discourse and decision-making is backward looking and aimed principally at career preservation?

Take the Daily Mirror: its paper edition had the headline:

More Air Bombs Head for UK

Frightening headline suffering only from a complete lack of supporting evidence. It's almost as if truth doesn't matter. The Mirror website has the more restrained:

"Al-Qaeda may be plotting new Lockerbie-style bombing, experts warn"

adding it

"may herald the beginning of a new wave of al-Qaeda terror attacks"

and

"Britain could be among the frontline targets"

It could, of course. Or not. Without evidence, take your pick.

But what does this feel most like? "Holding a magnifying glass up to a problem" or "lighting ants on fire"?

And while it's vital, of course, that any security loopholes are closed, is this kind of fact-free, fear-focused journalism more likely to produce sound judgments about the true threat or decision-making that's more anxious to show it's across the last terror threat than that it's trying to anticipate the next?

The Attention Deficit of Crowds

Few of us haven't read James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds. Its positive slant on wise crowd behaviour is striking, compelling and - if you don't think too hard about it - persuasive. Striking, too, is the total absence of counter evidence; the testimonies of individuals crushed under the heels of history's self-harming rabbles.

If you haven't come across TWOC, the notion is this, concisely expressed in its subtitle: 'The many are smarter than the few.' Obviously, it's not quite that simple. There are conditions, but, once met, crowds - the argument goes - are wiser than you would predict or expect; often wiser than the experts.

They can guess the weight of an ox, for example, without much knowledge of bovine density. While so-called experts, on the other hand, locked in groupthink, will do daft things like invade the Bay of Pigs or precipitate the Wall Street Crash.

It's an idea that matters to us journalists. A lot. One of the transformations we've undergone in the past decade is to realise that 'the people formerly known as the audience' (the crowd) may be wiser, usually, than the few experts (we journalists). They might be closer to, or in, the story.

So we tell ourselves that our jobs now are a conversation with those wiser than us. We work with our former audiences, devise new ways of networking them and the information they have.

One approach to networked journalism that caught on fast was crowdsourcing ... and please don't pretend you don't know what it is.

In theory, crowd-sourced news and investigations are networked journalism perfection. In the same way that in classical economic theory markets are perfect and consumers perfectly rational. That's to say, not at all. Not a bit. Substitute 'herd' for 'crowd' and you start to get the drift.

Here's an example.

Penurie

During the October, anti-Sarkozy strikes, my local paper in France - Le Journal de Montreuil - launched what was, on the face of it, a fantastic piece of crowd-sourced journalism. But it turned into a journalistic travesty.

Now, Le Journal is a fantastic local paper - it's tragic that more British papers aren't as assiduous, public-minded and community-focused. It's not very 21st C - it's only been online for a year and its photographers still turn their lenses to the audience rather than players at any event.

Google Map of petrol shortages in France.

When petrol deliveries began to be interrupted - on 18 October - Le Journal had a brainwave and set up a simple Google Map to log 'penuries d'essence' - the petrol stations that had run out. The idea was that readers emailed the paper when they found a station that was voided of fuel.

Great idea. Over the next four days, the map sprouted blue flags marking empty stations. It was exactly what real people in real communities wanted to know. Real networked news.

Except two Bad Things happened. Or rather, one Bad Thing happened and another thing didn't. Which was a Bad Thing.

After the first few days, the rush of info slowed - so the map never became complete. Worse than that, as the blue flags sprung up over the map, car owners started to panic. For most of the region, there are only three or four petrol stations within 10km. Once the nearest one was flagged, people got in their cars - with tanks 7/8 full - and headed off to the next nearest without a flag. Just in case.

Of course, the absence of a flag didn't mean the presence of petrol - just that no-one had flagged it. So when the slightly panicking driver turned up at an unflagged station to find it had no petrol ... slight turned into total turned into queues, forecourt fistfights etc, etc.

Wise crowd?

After four days, deliveries restarted. Again, at first the newly replenished stations were flagged ... until there was enough petrol in the system for no-one to care enough about the map to email the paper - though not enough to ensure there was petrol everywhere.

Le Journal's experiment highlighted the problems with crowds and crowd-sourced journalism. First - crowds aren't always as wise in practice as the theory predicts they ought to be or could be. Self-interest is a powerful driver, even within the context of an exercise in public good.

Second - networked journalism needs a much higher level of journalistic 'curation' than its advocates will usually concede. Le Journal's flagging was haphazard and failed to reflect the true situation on the ground, especially when deliveries began once again and the crowd's enthusiasm for the exercise waned.

In the end, because it promised more than 'traditional' journalism but delivered less, it was worse than useless. Worse than a reporter's daily ring-round. And you don't get much more old-media than that.

In one of the villages on the way to one of my local petrol stations, there's an old church. In the 1790s, a 'crowd' of revolutionaries took over the building and renamed it a 'temple to reason and sanity' - words they scratched into the chalk brickwork of the exterior.

'Crowds', 'reason', 'sanity'. I'm not convinced.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Did we do well?

So, are we happy with the way the Miliband business turned out? As journalists, I mean.

Job well done? Our politics better as a result of the way we, as a whole, scrutinised the Labour leadership contest, the vote and David Miliband's self-exile to the back benches?

I don't mean, of course, are we happy with the outcome of the contest itself. Nor whether David rather than Ed should have won or "really" won. Nor whether one would be better at leading HM Opposition than the other.

No, it's more about the strength of adversarial politics which tend to work best when there's talented, eloquent advocacy emanating from the opposition benches, irrespective of which party's sitting on them. And the belief that, whichever party you support, politics is better conducted with the opposition's strongest and most experienced performers sitting at the front rather than the back.

So it's about whether we're happy that it was the failings, the limited framing of much of our journalism rather than any reality that made it inevitable that David would not be able to join Ed's shadow cabinet.

Genuine differences

It's true that there were and are genuine differences between the new Labour leader and his brother. Ed's unequivocal disowning of the Iraq war. The pace of deficit reduction.Tuition fees.

And it's true - as the BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson reported - that David thought that, to some extent, Ed's overall victory was compromised by his defeat in two of the three sections of the electoral college. (Nick Robinson's work, incidentally, was an egregious exception to this broad winge.)

We will never know whether any of these genuine differences were in and of themselves insurmountable. Genuine, ideological barriers to David serving in Ed's shadow cabinet - especially as Labour renews and repairs itself after one of its worst election defeats ever and its leadership passs from one generation to the next.

What we do know, however, is that the insistent framing of the David/Ed story made any difference between them, perceived or real, potentially crippling to effective opposition - not because there was no possible resolution to any difference of view or approach but because it was inevitable that any difference (and not all of them real) would be the sole focus of journalists in search of an easy headline.

And if it wasn't clear before the press and TV coverage of Ed's leadership address to the Labour conference that David couldn't join the shadow cabinet, it was pellucid after it.

"I think that raising a wry eyebrow with Harriet yesterday shows the dangers that can come,"

David wrote.

As Iain Watson puts it in his excellent analysis, the coverage:

" ...all but convinced him that every nuance between him and his brother would be pored over by the media at the expense of scrutinising potentially far more divisive differences at the heart of the coalition government."

Or as David Miliband himself described it:

"perpetual, distracting and destructive attempts to find division where there is none and splits where they don't exist"

Now, you can, of course dismiss this as the pseudo-rationalisation of a disappointed sibling. A way out of a tricky corner, of avoiding a fight for which he has no stomach. Perhaps, even, an admission that Labour is by nature fissiparous.

Or you can stop a moment and ask whether there might be a grain of truth here. And that whether you happen to respect the former Foreign Secretary or not, whether you agree or not with any of his views ... the loss of any talented individual of any party, however temporarily, to front line politics is not necessarily calculated to improve our self-government.

And when that loss is not about genuine, real, ideological differences beyond resolution but rather about the way in which lazy journalism's narrow, habitual and infantile framing would cast any mature debate, any mature attempt to resolve differences ... well, you have to wonder whether that's scrutiny deserving of the name.

Did we do well?

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

The best job in Britain ...

... is, without doubt, Controller Radio 4, in spite of the conventional wisdom that the R4 audience excels all others in cantankerous 'nein sehen'.

All the ones I've known - controllers, that is, rather than audiences, including Mark Damazer who's currently handing over to his successor, Gwyneth Williams - found themselves eventually on the receiving end of some very pointed tut-tutting, whispered 'well I nevers' or even 'I says'.

Or worse. There were the Long Wave riots; the Woman's Hour uprising; the UK Theme intifada. Etc.

But it was James Boyle who attracted the most withering looks and sottissmo voce susurrations when he tore up the pre-1998 schedule and replaced it with ... well, with the schedule that remains largely intact to this day.

There are those who think that the best thing a CR4 can do is as little as possible. Manage to do nothing at all - no Anderson's Country, no Go 4 It - and you might be spared the chorus of suppressed sighs that a decision of any kind inevitably triggers.

This is not true. CR4s can do lots if they want - as Mark Damazer quite rightly insists. And he should know, because he did a lot. All of it improving.

At the handing over of the torch, then, here are my three suggestions for Gwyneth Williams; suggestions I am confident will not be embraced. Which explains, of course, why I would never be invited to have a crack at the best job in Britain ... however long I might sit by the 'phone.

Restore Yesterday in Parliament (YIP) to its 0830 half-hour FM slot:

This was the one big thing I think James Boyle got wrong back in 1998.

Before then, Today ran from 0630 to 0830 most of the year - with YIP on both FM and LW from 0830 to 0900 during the parliamentary terms.

But James wanted to do two things: open the network earlier, at 0600, and try to carry as many of Today's 6 million across to the rest of the schedule. YIP on both FM and LW was seen as a barrier - which it was, though not as great a barrier as it seemed to some.

It was a balanced judgment. On the one hand, the possibility of adding a percentage point or two to the 0900 (and beyond) audience. On the other, losing a prime time outlet (morning is prime time in Radioland) for that most basic function of journalism: reporting to us citizens/voters what our representatives are doing in parliament in our name.

If we're serious about restoring the status of parliament - and, as voters in a representative democracy, can we be other than serious about that? - surely there is no better first step than to restore a daily, comprehensive, mainstream report on its business in addition to the late-night Today in Parliament.

Extend The World at One and The World This Weekend to an hour:

OK ... so this might look like special pleading. Perhaps I never quite came to terms with the cut from 40 to 30 minutes ... but listening to WATO and TW2 over the election period should have been enough to persuade anyone that an hour of serious, sober, public affairs journalism in the middle of the day is little short of essential.

Martha Kearney and Shaun Ley have continued the fine forensic interviewing tradition of Hardcastle, Day and Clarke ... but in 30 minutes the opportunities for reporter investigations are fewer than they could be.

Commission a new multimedia, multiplatform World News strand:

The Radio 4 audience is clear on this - they want more world news. It was, perhaps, the most persistent theme of the letters and emails they used to send me.

There's an opportunity here - the BBC has the most extensive global newsgathering operation of any news organisation. Increasingly, its reporters are recruited locally and can offer the kind of insights that British journalists posted from London - however brilliant - never quite achieve.

Plus, audio is finding a new life on the web. Either as deeper, more involving podcasts or in combination with still images or video in those multimedia slideshows I keep ranting on about. Like this; or this; or this multimedia show on the 2010 Iraqi elections.

So what about a new WN title ... created from the ground up as part radio programme, part podcast, part interactive web product?

Like I say, I won't be waiting by the 'phone.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

News of the World and the scalp hunt

It would be a pity if the News of the World phone hacking scandal reduced itself to a hunt for Andy Coulson's scalp.

That's not to say Mr Coulson doesn't have many questions to answer - he does. But so do NewsCorp's management, the Metropolitan Police and the Press Complaints Commission. And arguably, their (selective) inaction in the face of criminal activity is at least as reprehensible as anything Mr Coulson is alleged to have done.

The NotW scandal brings into crisp focus all of the questions about the British press that make it one of the least trusted in the world. Not least the fact that it took an American paper, the New York Times, to mount and publish a proper investigation that finally got people to sit up and take notice.

The British press - with the egregious exception of Nick Davies et al at the Guardian - has been criminally silent. It is impossible to imagine that they would have held their tongue so tightly if this scandal had been about a government department or the nuclear industry.

Andy Coulson is, for all sorts of obvious but unsatisfactory reasons, the chief target. Some of the NotW's victims would relish the prospect of landing a blow on David Cameron - whose press chief Mr Coulson is. The danger is that such an outcome - which would then move the story on to the PM's "judgment" - would leave unexamined stuff that is very, very whiffy indeed.

And we should remember that when Andy Coulson's defenders tell us these new, damning allegations are coming from an unreliable source, they are from a journalist Mr Coulson was, for a time at least, perfectly happy to have working on his staff. And when they tell us that last year's Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee could find no evidence that Mr Coulson knew about routine phone hacking ... they're only telling us part of the story.

A story that's worth reminding ourselves of - or, if your main news source is a NewsCorp title, reading for the first time since those titles virtually ignored the select committee's report when it was published, and wholly ignored any criticisms in it of NewsCorp's obstructive management.

"No evidence"

Let's start with that 'no evidence that Andy Coulson knew' illegal phone hacking was a routine newsgathering technique on his paper - which it was - and that Clive Goodman, who went to jail, was a "rogue".

Here's what the committee says:

439. We have seen no evidence that Andy Coulson knew that phone-hacking was taking place.

Ok ... that seems clear enough. Except;

... that such hacking took place reveals a serious management failure for which as editor he bore ultimate responsibility, and we believe that he was correct to accept this and resign.

And as if to help us judge the veracity of Mr Coulson's assurance that he knew nothing, the committee reminds us:

431. Mr Coulson also said he had "never read a Gordon Taylor story, to the best of my recollection" although, as we have been told, it was Mr Coulson who spiked the story.

Hmmm ... Anyhow, the committee goes on.

440. Evidence we have seen makes it inconceivable that no-one else at the News of the World, bar Clive Goodman, knew about the phone-hacking. It is unlikely, for instance, that Ross Hindley (later Hall) did not know the source of the material he was transcribing and was not acting on instruction from superiors. We cannot believe that the newspaper's newsroom was so out of control for this to be the case.

441. The idea that Clive Goodman was a "rogue reporter" acting alone is also directly contradicted by the Judge who presided at the Goodman and Mulcaire trial. In his summing up, Mr Justice Gross, the presiding judge, said of Glenn Mulcaire: "As to Counts 16 to 20 [relating to the phone-hacking of Max Clifford, Simon Hughes MP, Andrew Skylett, Elle Macpherson and Gordon Taylor], you had not dealt with Goodman but with others at News International."

All of which makes the testimony of Sean Hoare, to both the New York Times and the BBC R4 PM programme, feel a bit like one piece of the jigsaw the select committee couldn't put its finger on.

The big question, though, always was about the apparent failure of NewsCorp, the Met or the PCC to take NotW's routine illegal phone hacking as seriously as it warranted. Yes, there were the prosecutions over the royal phones ... but as we know, those weren't the only victims of this criminal activity.

Here's what the committee says about this - there's a lot of it, but it's worth reading in full:

442. Despite this, there was no further investigation of who those "others" might be and we are concerned at the readiness of all of those involved: News International, the police and the PCC to leave Mr Goodman as the sole scapegoat without carrying out a full investigation at the time. The newspaper's enquiries were far from 'full' or 'rigorous', as we - and the PCC - had been assured. Throughout our inquiry, too, we have been struck by the collective amnesia afflicting witnesses from the News of the World.

449. The News of the World and its parent companies did not initially volunteer the existence of pay-offs to Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire ...

the private investigator who worked with Clive Goodman and others

... and their evidence has been contradictory. We do not know the amounts, or terms, but we are left with a strong impression that silence has been bought.

455. Gordon Taylor was cited in one of the charges over which Glenn Mulcaire was convicted in 2007. In the civil action, however, the News of the World nonetheless initially resisted the claim, and on a false basis. We consider there was nothing to prevent the newspaper group drafting its confidentiality agreement to allow the PCC and this Committee to be informed of these events, so as to avoid, at the very least, the appearance of having misled us both. We also believe that confidentiality in the Taylor case, and the size of the settlement and sealing of the files, reflected a desire to avoid further embarrassing publicity to the News of the World.

467. In 2006 the Metropolitan Police made a considered choice, based on available resources, not to investigate either the holding contract between Greg Miskiw and Glenn Mulcaire, or the 'for Neville' email. We have been told that choice was endorsed by the CPS. Nevertheless it is our view that the decision was a wrong one. The email was a strong indication both of additional lawbreaking and of the possible involvement of others. These matters merited thorough police investigation, and the first steps to be taken seem to us to have been obvious. The Metropolitan Police's reasons for not doing so seem to us to be inadequate.

472. We accept that in 2007 the PCC acted in good faith to follow up the implications of the convictions of Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire. The Guardian's fresh revelations in July 2009, however, provided good reason for the PCC to be more assertive in its enquiries, rather than accepting submissions from the News of the World one again at face value. This Committee has not done so and we find the conclusions in the PCC's November report simplistic and surprising. It has certainly not fully, or forensically, considered all the evidence to this inquiry.

It's hard to fault the select committee's reasoning and conclusions - hard, too, not to feel their frustration at being blocked at every turn in trying to get at the truth.

And that's why this scandal shouldn't be allowed to slide into obscure memory the moment someone is able to hang Andy Coulson's bloodied scalp from their belt.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Stained or Sullied

"I am afraid that all of us who blog have been sullied by this experience" writes Conservative blogger Iain Dale today on his friend and, one supposes, rival Paul Staines - who writes pseudonymously as Guido Fawkes.

For it was Paul Staines who led the way in circulating rumours and innuendo about William Hague. If you were to read his latest (1200 Thursday 2 Sept) post, though, you'd have no idea of the nature of the 'story' as he originally developed it.

After the Foreign Secretary's unequivocal statement, the 'story' is, according to Staines, about Mr Hague's failure to employ an efficient press handler. That, and the Foreign Secretary's mistake in releasing the statements he did responding to the innuendos on Staines' blog. Oh, and judgment:

"All in all, he has only himself to blame for being ill-advised and has shown a staggering lack of judgment."

More on 'judgment' in a moment.

But it's the story about the story that's exercising the traditional press: Sky this morning ran a 'moving on' story; while the Mail wondered why Mr Hague felt the need to say so much about his marriage; the Sun, on the other hand, featured a thing it calls 'baby fight heartache'; the Telegraph played it as a straight denial; while the Mirror wondered whether Mr Hague protests too much.

Like so many other political stories that we can't quite put our finger on, it's reduced to the catch-all crime of poor judgment.

But hang on. Poor judgment about what?

Let's not be disingenuous - this was never only, or even principally, an allegation that the Foreign Secretary's judgment was poor in the way he recruited staff ... though, as above, that's part of what it's become. Nor about his sure-footedness at handling the press ... though, again, as above, it's become that.

On 24 August, Staines was 'Just Asking' why:

"young Christopher Myers (25) should go from driving William Hague (49) around his constituency during elections, where according to the Mirror, "they became close during campaigns"

to a special adviser?

And in case you didn't quite get the point, the following day's post was entitled "Looks Like a Bentley" (geddit?), an apparent answer to a question posed by Mandrake in the Daily Telegraph. And if the innuendo in the headline was lost on most of us, it wasn't on Staines' readers ... take a look at the comments, though, with discretion if Sniggering Homophobia isn't your usual setting.

By Sunday 29th, the innuendo had become less subtle in 'Flashback: Hague's Gay Special Adviser":

"This is not the first time that William Hague's choice of Special Adviser has raised questions."

What sort of questions, Paul? Well ...

"what special talent, unseen by the rest of us, does Mr Myers possess?"

And, of course, the post told us, William Hague has form. He'd previously hired a "young, openly gay, relatively unknown figure" as a special adviser.

By Tuesday 31st, all innuendo had been stripped away:

"Exclusive: Hague Shared Night in Hotel Bedroom with SpAd"

'At least one night', the post tells us. And that:

"One witness told Guido that the room sharing couple's body language at breakfast was eye opening."

And that:

"Two national Sunday papers have the evidence but, despite journalists putting considerable resources into the story, their editors are reluctant to pursue it. Perhaps because in the words of the song, 'no one knows what goes on behind closed doors'."

Evidence of what, Staines declines to say.

What's most disappointing about all of this isn't just that a political blog has given currency to unsubstantiated allegations. Nor that it's been done in a way that's encouraged some pretty shocking verbal homophobia.

No, what's most disappointing is that the whole episode shows we still can't shift our political journalism out of a mode in which slurs and innuendo insinuate themselves, even if those slurs aren't even on nodding terms with the truth.

Is it good enough for a political blogger to argue, as Staines does, that his "is only a blog, and it is intended to entertain not save the world" when his 'entertainment' produces real effects in the real world?

And is it good enough for us traditional political journalists to sigh wearily and report on the way a politician is 'tested' ... even if that 'testing' is based on their reaction to untruth, rumour and innuendo we wouldn't ourselves ever report?

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Do journalists care?

This article in the online Scottish Review is a must read - especially for any journalist involved in covering the Cumbria shootings. It's by Lorn Macintyre - a writer - and it echoes many of the things I've heard from listeners over the decades, usually after (or during) coverage of traumatic events.

Make what you will of its direct criticisms of the organisation I work for, the BBC, and two of the programmes I've edited over the years, The World at One and PM - that's not the point of this blog post. The article raises much more profound questions about the assumptions we journalists take into covering events like this.

And it shines a light through the gap between those assumptions and the sensibilities of our audiences. By all means, read the article in full and reflect on it as you will - but these are, for me, the most striking questions:

Were the media engaged in "an obsessive and unsavoury inquisition into the circumstances of the deaths"?

Any journalist worth his or her salt takes it as an absolute given that the job is to act as the eyes (and ears) of the wider public. Even when the facts and details are grim. Especially when they're grim.

Could there have been anything to be gained from suppressing - or not reporting - known facts and details about the circumstances of the victims' deaths? Few journalists would answer 'yes'.

And yet ... there are limits. Over the years, there have been many images of death that - rightly - neither the BBC nor any other Western broadcaster has shown. We draw the line at the gruesome details of sexual abuse.

If we accept the need for limits, then, why are they here rather than there? And in whose interests are they drawn?

The media has an "obsession with interrogating witness after witness, those who escaped death, and those who witnessed it".

I don't know a single journalist who would describe interviewing witnesses and those who'd escaped death as an "obsession with interrogating" them. It's gathering the facts, surely; assiduous rather than obsessive.

And yet ... do we journalists stop (should we stop) to think about the effect of what, to us, is an unquestionable necessity of the job? Are we right to argue that our job ends with the disclosure of 'facts'?

How does a family member, a friend, feel when they hear these details repeated over and over in bulletin after bulletin?

I've never found this one easy to deal with - though I've been told often enough that, as a journalist, you have to harden your heart. Many news stories upset someone - but, the conventional wisdom goes, that's no concern of yours; your job is to get the facts out there.

I'm sure that's right as far as it goes. And I'm not sure what the alternative is. But this is a concern you hear over and over from audiences - and are we totally certain their expectation of us is an unreasonable one?

Is it really therapeutic for the wounded, and those who escaped the pointed barrels, to keep repeating their terrifying experiences on air?

Is it?

It's something you will often hear journalists say to those who've had an awful experience and it's advice that's often given to young reporters nervous about approaching people in distress.

'Tell them they'll feel better talking about it.'

That might be true for some; it might make them feel better or start the grieving process. But we also know that it isn't true for everyone. Do we - should we - care? So long as we get our story.

"Surely it is the duty of the police and not the media to amass evidence on each killing ... (they) should be allowed to proceed with their harrowing duties, rather than being harassed by one of the many reporters dispatched to the crime scene?"

Again, seeking to find the 'why' is a duty that every journalist would say is beyond question. After disclosing the 'who, what, where, when', it's the job of the journalist to give context; to bring expertise to bear on the known facts. To keep adding to those facts. It's what the job IS.

And yet ... when you look at the sum total of the media's job on the 'why' of Derrick Bird's killings, are we confident that they've done or are doing an unequivocally brilliant job?

Depending on the paper(s) you've read over the past few days ... the cause is a family feud; a will; a tax bill; teasing over trips to Thailand; an 'unhealthy' obsession with a Thai girl etc, etc. Or that Derrick Bird was a quiet man ... or he had a history of violence. He'd planned the killings months ago ... or suddenly snapped. His targets were chosen ... and they were random.

We know that journalism's search for the 'why' can be a messy, sometimes rambling, often chaotic job. We accept that ... but what if our audiences don't?

Is "the motive for the media's insensitive and intrusive behaviour in such cases ... not sympathy for the murdered or the bereaved, but ruthless competition"?

Very few journalists want to be second with the facts; journalism is about the new, making known something that previously wasn't known. Competition is essential to the job and, while it may not seem "ruthless", "insensitive" and "intrusive" to us ... what if that's the way it looks to our audiences?

And if we seem to have removed ourselves from 'normal' human sympathy ... does that matter? More: should we allow our motivation, either to report or not to report, to be "sympathy for the murdered"?

Which brings us to Lorn Macintyre's summary accusation ...

The microphone and the lens intrude into personal grief, exploiting the fragile psyche.

... and to the blunt question all journalists should ask themselves. What if this is true?

We might know it's not. Or feel it's not - or at least not our intention. But what if it's true?

Do we care? Should we care? And if we do/should ... what do we do?

Monday, 31 May 2010

Laws law

Journalism has its first scalp of the new government. Inside 17 days. A new personal best. Should we be proud?

Have we, once again, brought power to heel with our watchdoggery? Stood firm in defence of the honest man and woman?

Or has journalism, true to type, proven its inability to understand its civic purpose? That the point of journalists' scrutiny is to improve the way we govern ourselves? Without that, it is just self-regarding noise.

There's a real dilemma at the heart of this and we journalists should, at the very least, recognize that. Perhaps even, whisper it quietly, be prepared to try to resolve it. As things are, we excuse in ourselves behaviour we would accept in no other institution - a behaviour that is at best arrogant, at worst delinquent.

You don't have to take sides or be soft on politicians to have been dismayed by the assertions of some in the press that, in spite of David Laws' explanation of his actions in the light of the Telegraph's disclosures, they knew what it was really all about. What was really going on in the former minister's mind.

'Sobvious innit. MP = greedy. Snouts, Trough, Boots. Fill. Nothing's changed, they're all as bad as each other. Bad as the last lot. Chuck 'em all out.

Thus the Sun: Mr Laws "channeled more than £40,000 of taxpayers' money to his long term partner" - the verb, intriguingly upgraded at the subbing stage; the original story had the more bland 'paid' ... as you can see from the url.

Thus the Mirror: a simple expenses scandal - his apology groveling (oh, come on ... you can do better than that: surely it was at the very least 'sniveling' ....)

And thus Barbara Ellen in the Observer ... who you might have thought should have known better.

Don't we - in the interests of both scrutiny and accuracy - have to begin with David Law's own explanation of why he did what he did? If we can disprove it through proper scrutiny .. fine. But if we simply dismiss it - because we really know - we also have to explain why one of the cleverest and most economically astute men in the country, let alone Parliament, didn't arrange his affairs to cash in to the max. Something he could have done entirely within the rules both as they were then and as they are now.

And this matters. Matters way beyond the detail of this one story.

It's likely - most sensible commentators seem to agree - that that the Laws affair is about judgment distorted not greed. That what we've learned about a (former) cabinet minister is that people - even those in positions of leadership - do daft things for complex reasons. Usually because they understand themselves less than they understand anything else.

Yet that lazy default - "we know they're all on the make" - is doubly dangerous; it looks like scrutiny without being anything of the kind. And it damages our politics, if for no other reason than that it reduces our various publics' understandings to yet another pointless, misleading binary; venal or honest ... with the centre of gravity very definitely on the venal side.

There is a genuine dilemma around disclosure and its effects.

As Roy Greenslade writes:

"The press exists to reveal what those in power seek to keep secret. The raison d'être of journalists is disclosure."

And it's impossible to argue that having bought the information - part of that CD whose contents it began publishing just over a year ago - the Telegraph should not have revealed what they had. And the measured language of its first report can't be faulted.

But is it enough to say that "disclosure" is all? That our responsibilities as journalists end once the revelation has been made? Don't we also - as people with pride in our craft - have the responsibility to make sure that disclosure is scrutinised in ways that are both rigorous and accurate. That we don't hunt scalps just for the sake of it or as means of validating our own purpose in life?

The Guardan's Michael White goes further:

"I do not think the public interest has been well served
by the
Telegraph exposé. Laws is a clever, serious fellow who could have
opted for a life of idle self-amusement but plunged in public life
where dreadful things can happen.

So I regret his going and hope
the
Telegraph's more thoughtful readers are as unimpressed as I am.
Perhaps the newspapers really are losing the plot in their - our -
battle to retain sales share."

Whether it's about the business of sales share alone, I'm not so sure. There's something so deeply ingrained in the culture of British journalism that the alternative, thinking whether the way in which we treat disclosures like the Telegraph's is proportionate, is just not an option.

So we've got our £40,000 back ... at what cost we will only know when or if the £160bn debt mountain is finally climbed.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

More 'oxy' than 'moron'

Frederic Filloux is a blogger and teacher, based in Paris. He edits a blog/newsletter called Monday Note - worth sticking on your GoogleReader (other readers are available).

His latest post - The Oxymoronic Citizen Journalism - has generated ... well, mostly yawns, except amongst the ubercitjguruklasse - e.g. NYU's Jay Rosen who Tweeted in response to it that - "from Paris, the worldwide professional freak out over the term 'citizen journalist' continues ...".

"Freak out" there is a noun, by the way. Verb or noun, though, no freak out.

Like I say, mostly yawns at that old 'would you trust a citizen neurosurgeon to remove your kid's neuroblastoma?' gambit. Answer: 'No'. Answer continues: 'Nor would I trust one of those journos who made up over 100 totally false stories about the McCanns to tell me how many legs I had. Let alone offer me something with "more professionalism than mere crowd-powered demagoguery".'

Let's be honest, too much of our journalism is exactly that - 'crowd-powered demagoguery' ... except the crowd is populated by journalists in what Tony Blair once called a hunting pack of 'feral beasts'.

Too much journalism is too bad to make the claims that Frederic, and others, make in defence of it. Differentiating it from random rumour and the "utterly superficial" by virtue of its "painstaking" professionalism - a differentiation that Frederic himself concedes is all too rare.

There are differences and distinctions between those of us paid to do journalism and those of us not - but 'professionalism' isn't it. Especially since more of us would trust a total stranger than a journalist to tell us the truth.

To be fair to Frederic, he acknowledges that 'citizens' have a role in telling their own story about themselves to themselves - but the mask slips when he talks about "newsrooms" having "a challenge on their hands"; that what non-journalists have to say about their world is an "input" that needs "handling".

Frederic seems to think 'citizen' and 'journalism' are contradictions - he probably didn't mean to but, put like that, you see it for the nonsense that it is. And you have to be careful, you know, with 'oxymoron' - it doesn't quite mean what you think it means. If you want to sound really clever, do the Greek: oξύς (sharp) and μωρός (dull) ... which kinda reads across to citizen=sharp, journalism=dull ... though, of course, in French that would be the other way round.

Journalists forget at their peril that the facts they deal in - assuming they are dealing in facts - don't actually belong to them. And they have no right to manipulate them on the other side of some 'professional' membrane, separated from the citizens whose lives they're both describing and - potentially - changing.

And if you don't get that, you kinda don't get very much.

Anyhows, all of this will be on the agenda at what we hope will be the biggest ever Citizen Journalism conference in the UK - it's at the LSE on 11 June.

The Value of Journalism (#voj10 on Twitter) will look at CitJ from every angle - especially, what it means to the so-called 'professional tribe' and how it nurtures and supports our civic lives.

My hunch is that 'oxymoronic' is not a word we'll be using much.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Crystal ball or book?

Nick Clegg's short intervention this morning - that the party with most votes and seats, the Conservatives, should seek to form a government - could be a hint that things are moving faster than they might seem.

The assumption has been that the Lib Dems key demand - an agreement to, at the very least, a referendum on PR - is anathema to the Tories and effectively rules out any coalition between them. Certainly, that was the assumption of this morning's 0810 interviews on BBC Radio 4's Today - and with good reason.

Need that be so? And need we spend too much time looking at the crystal ball?

The 2008 election in New Zealand provides a good example of a 'confidence and supply' agreement; an agreement between parties - none of whom has an overall majority - in order to form a stable government but which does not tie the partners together as tightly as a formal coalition with a single, agreed, full legislative programme.

The basis of 'confidence and supply' is, very crudely, that the smaller partner agrees not to vote against the incoming government's Queen's Speech or a confidence motion nor to vote against supply measures, enabling the government to pay its bills and raise credit.

In the case of New Zealand, the centre-right National Party - which was the biggest party, three seats short of an outright majority - drew up a 'confidence and supply' agreement with the (broadly) Liberal ACT.

Its preamble is interesting:

"Recognising that National and ACT have a duty to give effect to the will of the people as expressed at the general election, in particular the strong mandate for a change in New Zealand’s economic and social directions ..."

Remind you of anything?

And here's something else to think about. What if part of a 'confidence and supply' deal between David Cameron and Nick Clegg is that the Tory leader agrees that a vote in parliament for a referendum on PR isn't a confidence measure ....?

We'll know, I guess, at 2.30.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Vegas to London: the final leg

**This was written on Eurostar on Monday 18 April - posted later**

Why am I not surprised?
Of course, the Eurostar part of Brussels Midi is swamped. Mostly with people trying to buy tickets which they will not be able to do. Long, long queues. Crying, crying children and the depressing, rattling ostinato of those bloody bags on wheels that, apparently, even able-bodied grown men drag around behind them without the slightest embarrassment.
There are two ticket collection machines. Both are en panne - of course - but there is a mending man grovelling in the innards of one of them. I ask him if it will be working in a moment and he says it will.
He is sort of right. He presses some buttons and sucks through his teeth and pulls and pushes paper into slots and the screen comes alive and pretends to work. He moves onto the next machine.
We are so, so close now. I key in my code. My reservation comes up on the screen. It asks me to confirm my identity with the card I used to buy the ticket. A tense moment - let's hope RBS haven't been as dozy as Egg or that at least they have read the papers and know something is up.
It is fine.
'We are printing your ticket' the screen says. For a long time. A very long time. Until it changes to say: 'There has been an error in printing your ticket. Refer to information desk' - or something like that - and then shuts down.
That scream is mine. The mending man looks up from the bowels of the other machine. Perhaps it is the hyperventilation that alarms him enough to come and have another go at the machine in front of me. Again, buttons, lights, paper, slots. And the screen comes on.
I key in my code again but of course the machine now thinks it's issued the ticket and tells me it can't issue another, before shutting down again.
It is own-a-Eurostar-employee time. There is one to hand. She tries to brush me off and tells me I have to join the long queue of crying people in the ticket office but this will not do and I tell her she must find someone to print the ticket for me. There is a stand off so I do something that surprises even me. I say: 'OK' and begin to walk through check-in towards passports and security. This causes a kerfuffle but fortunately they do not shoot me and instead another woman breaks off from whatever she was doing on her computer and prints me a boarding pass.
As it happens, the long queue of people who were standing behind me waiting to use the en panne ticket printing machines have followed me and now stand queueing at her desk demanding she print their boarding passes which she really cannot refuse.
It is a small triumph and it appeals to my vindictive side.

It is almost time to be relieved but I will not be until we actually leave Brussels. For the first time in days, I have lunch. In the sunny square by Midi station and go back to Eurostar at two - as instructed.
They have managed to manufacture a small riot.
There are no tickets now until Wednesday - they say ... but then, they said in Milan there were no tickets north from there until Tuesday - and so all the supplicants have been thrown out.
So, bizarrely, have all the passengers who have tickets and were waiting to check in for the 1429 or 1459 trains. Perhaps it was for the sake of neatness.
There are two burly but unfrightening bouncers on the door and a non-burly but extremely frightening woman barking instructions in three languages to anyone who tries to get into the office or passenger lounge.
Only 1429ers are let through and they have to join a long queue since both passport and security controls have been stepped up. It is half past two before we 1459ers are allowed in and there are still over a hundred 1429ers being critically examined for bombs and surly expressions.
It is a shambles and impossible to guess why the 1429ers weren't checked in hours ago. Don't they know there's a crisis???
Odd how irritating half an hour delay has become when, in Rome I was happy that a delay was only five hours and in Milan I was prepared to hang around for 30 hours.

We leave half an hour late. And there are empty seats. Lots of them.

Vegas to London: the Brussels leg

**This was written on Eurostar on Monday 18 April - posted later**

It is an unremarkable morning in Koln.
The hotel is on the raw side of the station. All station's have a raw side, the side you're not supposed to see. The side where the prostitutes work; where something is always being built or demolished and the roads are always coned and dug.
Some have four raw sides.
From the room's balcony, you can see this mucky, bleak, platz. A place to scuttle through and hundreds of schoolchildren and office workers and labourers are scuttling.
I have a headache. Dehydration. I seem to have forgotten the basics of day to day.
My shoulders and back hurt beyond what is simply annoying. My bag isn't very heavy but it is heavy enough to pull my spine to one side - 'unstable vertebrae' was how the osteo once described what I have. And to bruise my shoulders. And to pull on my sternum which is held together by metal bands after Bashir - the sawsman on Mr Pugsley's cardiothoracic team - unzipped me sixteen years ago.
The gammy leg and its filigree of op scars is more swollen than ever and one of the scars is starting to show the signs of an infection. I hope there's not another bout of cellulitis in waiting but at least I have some emergency antibiotics with me.
It is good to know that I have tickets through to London but I am now regretting that I did not book a seat to Brussels. Still there is little sign of of stranded types but who knows.

Down to breakfast and the hotel lobby is piled high with suitcases. I am now worrying about the Brussels train.
The breakfast restaurant is piled high with British pensioners. I am now worrying even more about the Brussels train but it turns out that, incredibly, they are going the other way. On a 'no-flight' tour of Europe.
Perhaps they feel vindicated in their decision never to travel by air.
They talk about Knutsford and travel insurance and peace of mind and one of them is telling her table about a new breed of foreign pickpocket who work in twos; the first picks your pocket and the second replaces your wallet or cash with a wad of papers so you don't notice 'til it's too late. You can never be too careful.
I do hope they have a lovely holiday and I'm sure they will but I also wish they would hover a little less over the buffet. Especially the fruit. I need fruit.
For a very long time, one of the senior travellers seems to think he needs some too. But he hesitates. And then hesitates some more. And then some more still. And then he decides fruit is a bit too foreign for breakfast and moves on to the speck and gruyere but I do not imagine he will find what he wants there either.

Now I really wish I'd booked a seat. The platform is crowded and it turns out only half of the train from Frankfurt goes on to Brussels, the rest to Amsterdam. And it is late.
There is nothing else for it. It is down to luck or guesswork or fate or whatever but since luck has been good to me so far - and the harder my family and friends in London have worked on my behalf, the luckier I've been - I am not too despondent.
I pick a place. If the door stops opposite me, I will be fine. If not, well ... There is no chance of moving up or down the platform to chase the door, so this is it.
And what about that. The door stops at the exact spot I am standing. I am first on and find one of the few unreserved seats.
The train fills. And fills. And fills with standing passengers. There is a loud bilingual row at the end of the carriage because someone is sitting in someone else's reserved seat. The line of passengers trying to get on spills out of the door and the guard/conductor makes a long and complicated announcement in German which is the first or second language of about 1% of the train passengers.
It amounts to 'if you don't have a reservation you must get off the train'. This is insane. Everyone thinks so and no one moves. The standing passengers reason that since they are standing two abreast along the entire length of the train, the guard will not be able to check any tickets but they are wrong.
He forces his way into the train and starts checking tickets and throwing people off. Perhaps he really will throw all the standing passengers off.
In the event, he sees sense and leaves the train without having made a huge impact on the number of standing passengers. We depart half an hour late but I am on the train, with a seat and will arrive in Brussels with three hours in which to make sure I can get the ticket I've bought.

Vegas to London: German Homecomings

**This was written in Koln on Sunday 18 April - posted later**

Zurich station is not chaos
. It is instead a model of Swiss order.
I know the station well from many trips to Davos both for the WEF and for family skiing holidays.
I am swayed by the guard's advice about Basel ... on the other hand, there are other routes through Germany and perhaps I should be thinking about those too.
Or perhaps Paris.
It is the total ignorance of what lies ahead that is the problem. Even with the SMS lifeline to Mrs Marsh, it is possible only to know so much. Railway routes are no more than serving suggestions, timetables no more than aspirations.
It is three o'clock and walking down the platform to the main concourse, I devise a plan. Well, it is not so much a plan as a decision to let fate decide.
There is a huge board over the main concourse at Zurich station and it lists all the departures for hours ahead. If there is a train to Basel soon, I will take it. If not ... well, I'll look for the first one that seems promising.
There is a train to Basel in an hour and I can buy a ticket from the machine. You can only buy tickets to Swiss destinations from the machines. So that kinda clinches it. Basel.
Decision made and I have an hour to kill. I wander into the Reiseburo. It is packed but they have a ticket system - you take a numbered ticket and when it's your turn, your number flashes over one of the dozen or so windows. The highest number flashing is 413. I take a ticket. It is number 491. I leave.
But by the Reiseburo are the ordinary 'international' windows. This is one of the infuriating things about European trains. There is a fantastic network of wonderful fast trains ... but the ticketing is 19th century.
I have nothing else to do with my fifty minutes before the Basel train so I join one of the, relatively, short queues. They go very slowly but even at ten minutes per customer in front of me, I will be able to reach the window.
At the front of the queue, the Utrecht quartet are negotiating passage to Amsterdam. One of them comes to me at the back of the queue and asks if I want to travel with them. They have a train and it leaves at six in the morning - they will buy a fifth ticket if I want them to.
It is a temptation. It would mean a night in Zurich and then ... then what from Amsterdam? A ferry from the Netherlands, I guess.
But I have the ticket to Basel and perhaps if I have to spend an overnight that would be better and there is still something pulling me more towards Calais rather than Ostende or Rotterdam.
I thank them but stick with the Basel plan.
The young couple in front of me want tickets to Paris. There is nothing until Wednesday they are told; 'you have to have a reservation to travel on the TGVs'. She adds that, of course, the French trains will be affected by strikes.
Again, I wonder whether the true nature of what's happening is fully understood in the chancelleries of Europe ... and the boardrooms of the transport operators.
The young couple are crestfallen; 'My mum is coming over to pick me up in Calais' the young man says, his voice cracking just slightly.
He asks about a coach station but the clerk does not know. They walk slowly away and I do not know what they will do.
It is my turn and I ask for a ticket from Basel to Koln. The clerk is a little shruggy and tells me she can sell me a ticket but doesn't know whether I can get on the train. It is a risk I will take because it means I can at least travel to Basel knowing I have a plan of sorts.
And Koln is within the pick-up zone - a place from which, if all else fails, someone can pick me up in a car.
The train to Basel is about half full and hardly any passengers are stranded types such as me. I have just seven minutes to change trains in Basel but this is Switzerland and I am confident and indeed we pull into the station not early, not late, but exactly on time.
The Mannheim train is busy but a long way from full. There are seats and rouged old ladies with lapdogs who have perhaps been visiting reluctant children and grandchildren. And sad faced young men going home perhaps after a weekend with a girlfriend. And students cramming for the week ahead. People making their way home. But homes in Germany. Again, there are no stranded types.
There is WiFi, though, and I buy an hour's worth hoping that the laptop battery will hold out. The intention is to post a blog or two ... but first I look at trains from Koln to anywhere north, intending to go to Lille which is even more into the pick-up zone.
The Lille trains go through Brussels ... so, with the laptop battery on a shouty shade of red, I take a look at the Eurostar website. Just in case.
And there are trains. From Brussels to London. Tomorrow afternoon. At a ridiculous price, but they are there.
Yesterday, the Eurostar website was teasing with the promise of trains but they could not be booked. The site timed out or refused to accept payment.
I choose the 1459. It lets me. I put in my payment details. It likes them. It tells me I have a seat. It gives me a confirmation code. It thanks me for my purchase. The laptop battery dies.
We speed north up the Rhine valley and it is difficult not to think of it as a tour of WW2 bombing targets, the place names characters in every black and white war movie featuring young men with white scarves and pipes and bouncy dogs with names it would be wrong to use these days.

Vegas to London: Koln and another beggar

**This was written in Koln on Sunday 18 April - posted later**

The train pulls into Koln at half past nine. For the first time, I am something close to optimistic though I will not allow myself to feel good until I am in my seat on the Eurostar and the train is moving.
Again, I have no idea what it will be like at Koln station. Perhaps the relative quiet and normality of the Rhine journey was an illusion and thousands of stranded types are already recreating the bung that was Milan.
They are not. Again, the station is busy but it is German people getting home in time for bed and work in the morning.
I will feel better if I get a ticket to Brussels tonight. There are no queues at the ticket machines but you can only buy some types of ticket through the machines. Again.
My ideal train is a Thalys at 1044 but you cannot buy Thalys tickets through the machine - only Deutsche Bahn. And I cannot find the right button.
From my left, a smartly dressed Asian man asks me if I want to buy a day pass 'for all trains'. I say no but he appears not to understand and begins to tell me that it will take me anywhere I want to go. I say no but he appears not to understand.
From my right a small man in a red jacket asks me where I'm going. His breath smells lightly of beer but he is not at all drunk and speaks perfect English with no more than a hint of an accent.
I am annoyed and tell him I'm going to the ticket office because I need a train to Brussels.
'You can buy that here. Look ...' His fingers are already playing the buttons on the touch screen like some silent musical instrument.
'Here. You can buy this ticket. The 0843.'
It is earlier than I want. I am tired. Very, very tired and the thought of waking up early dismays me. But it is a train. And I will feel happy to be on something. I say OK.
'Here. First or second class?' Second.
'You wanna book a seat.' For some reason I say no.
'OK. Here. Put your card in. You won't need your PIN.' He is right. I don't. He has done this before. Clearly. Often.
I pick up the ticket.
'So maybe you could give me some change?'
I give him five euros and he is content. It is not begging. He is running a small service industry which is better value than most.

My son has booked a hotel for me. It is right opposite the station and the Dom; the stark and slightly scary Koln cathedral. It is perfect. Two minutes from the station.
In the hotel room, there is a strange, alien smell. It is me.
During the night, there is a small riot in the platz outside the station and policemen smashing batons into people but I hear nothing. It happens in the couple of hours that I'm asleep. Not a long sleep but a very deep one.
I hear about it in the morning.

Vegas to London: To Zurich and the Utrecht Quartet

**This was written on the train from Milan to Zurich on Sunday 18 April - posted later**
A time to reflect. On the conflicting emotions, apart from anything else. The high that I'm on the move and the anxiety at what will happen in Zurich when I will have to decide what to do next.
I have left Milan ... feel that it is a kind of escape.
It's idiotic, of course. But Milan felt like the Athens Olivia Manning described in her cloying but oddly compelling Balkan Trilogy.
It's idiotic. We were not forced to eat lung and rodent and Prince Yaki did not have to sell his overcoat at the last and we were not fleeing before a lethal enemy. But there was a sense of desperation, magnified no doubt by our ludicrous early 21st century assumptions about the way the world should work. Comfortably. Conveniently. Without setbacks.
And people from all over Europe milled and mixed, queued and quarreled. There was no obvious way out of the city. At least, that was the official version and it turned out not to be true.
We are four days into this and I can see no sign that anyone has got a grip. It is not the EU's finest moment.
As a BBC man through and through, I understand the arguments both in favour of and against the 'ever closer union'. (Though I do wonder what happened to that phrase - haven't heard it for a long time.) But whether you are a phile or a phobe, the EU is there ... and surely this is the sort of EU wide crisis that a suprantional institution is meant to manage. After all, it was a Europe wide body that pressed the alarm button in the first place.
But there are no additional trains; no fleets of coaches; no advice on the best route to take; no relaxation of ticketing rules; no emergency accommodation ... though the piazza in front of Milan station is already filled with tents which house the market there.
I see no sign of a EURO-COBRA. But perhaps they are videoconferencing in secret.

My seat is in the middle of a group of four elderly - they are probably not much older than me - Dutch people. From Utrecht, or close by.
They speak perfect English, of course. One, the oldest of the men I think, speaks perfect Pall Mall Club. He also coughs relentlessly and I cannot understand how he has not had an aneurysm. Or perhaps he has. It is impolite to ask about these things.
We talk about our journeys and about Utrecht which is a beautiful city. Like me, they are travelling stage by stage. They have no Big Plan and at one point they say they will try to hire a minibus in Zurich and offer me a ride to Amsterdam. It is very kind of them but I do not think this will happen. But they take my mobile phone number just in case.
The train pushes through low cloud and up the St Gotthard pass through Como and Lugano which are dripping and gloomy. But the mountains and lakes are beautiful even if it is impossible to enjoy them.
The road over the pass runs to our right and it is a long, long, traffic jam. Had I taken the taxi to Paris, I guess I would be in that queue and it is not moving.
We are and we are soon over the pass and into Switzerland where the angled pastures are sprinkled with yellow flowers and the train's air conditioning fills with pollen. This I know because my eyes begin to itch and swell and I sneeze and the hayfever makes the approach to Zurich miserable as well as anxious.
The guard on the train predicts chaos in Zurich and advises we head to Basel. I text Mrs Marsh who works out for me the route from Basel to Koln. It seems an option and the anxiety if not the misery lifts for a moment.





Monday, 19 April 2010

Vegas to London: Part 1

** When the Iceland volcano blew, I was in Las Vegas selling a website to the Americans. Here is the first instalment of delayed posts describing the journey back to London. More follow.
For the genuine blog experience, read from the bottom up. Or the top down if you can't take the suspense.**


The ticket to Zurich: 18 April

I get more money from more cash machines until I have the €750 in cash that I’m prepared to pay.
But there are none of the long distance taxis outside the station now. At least, not so far as I can see.
So. Tweak the plan. One more try to get a train ticket but it doesn’t look good. The lines are longer and the signs and announcements are saying no trains north … well, ever really.
But the queues at the machines are short so what to lose by trying them again.
Miraculously, the machines are refreshed and I am able to by a ticket to Zurich for Monday. How? Maybe the announcements about no tickets north means all the way north. To the channel. But if we go bit by bit … ?
And I feel suddenly calm since that is a new plan. I have a cheaper hotel for Sunday evening.
I walk towards the new, cheaper hotel and pass a small travel agent with, astonishingly, no queues. Two or three people – most, as it happens, trying to get refunds on tickets they now don’t want to use. I go in to see if I can book anything on from Zurich.
No, I cannot.
But behind me is a man offering a taxi share to Paris for €300. And since that is three times as far as Geneva at half the price I was prepared to pay to go there, I am tempted.
Then another man asks ‘Did I hear you say you want a ticket to Zurich ??’
He has a ticket for the train about to leave for Zurich. He is Milanese and says he doesn’t want to go any more.
I take it. €100 for a first class ticket in a reserve seat. I pay and immediately think – ‘fool … it must be a forgery’ and regret not taking the offer of the taxi to Paris.
I take my seat on the train, convinced that the real owner will show and I do not help things by misreading the ticket and sitting in the wrong seat – 81 – instead of mine – 86.
But it is not a forgery.
And in seat 86 I meet the Utrecht Quartet.

The First Beggar: 18 April

It’s Sunday morning in Milan and it is raining.
The walk to the station is gloomy, dreary and even though I have a plan everything feels very low.
I stop at the first cash machine I see and where there are cash machines in Milan, just as in any tourist town, there are also beggars.
This one was clever. Perhaps I would find them all clever. No, I know that I find anyone who lives on their wits clever.
He was a tall, middle-aged man who came from Africa in one sense and nowhere in another. In that I didn’t see him there.
He appeared by the cash machine and asked what nationality I was.
‘French, English, Spanish’ he asked with a word or two of each language.
I said Greek – in the expectation that he knew none and that if he did, I might know more. Being Greek for the time being, I now had to commit to gestures – indicating that I needed to focus on getting my cash.
He paused until I’d got the money and then said goodbye, stretching out his hand. I shook it and he pressed into it a small, cheap figurine of the Buddha.
‘It is a gift’.
I said thank you. He asked how many there were in my family. I indicated four with four fingers. I was still ‘Greek’.
He stretched out his hand again, saying, ‘you’re so lucky to have a lovely family’.
I took his hand again and he pressed four more tiny buddhas into it.
‘For your family. Now you could give me ten euros.’
I gave him ten euros.

Desperate in Milan: 17/18 April

Is that what I look like?
In the hotel, I see myself for the first time in a while and it is a mess. Creased, dirty, greasy. My right leg – the one with the operation scars – is very swollen. The sternum staples feel stretched from carrying my bag.
I have something to eat. A bath. Wash some clothes – well, the more noisome portions at least. It’s never a great idea to wash entire shirts and so on – hotel rooms don’t have radiators any more and they would never dry and if they did they would be so creased you couldn't wear them.
I try to sleep but it is not going to happen. I have no plan. I have never felt more powerless.
This is the lowest point so far.
I do not know what it is like to have no idea what to do next. The one thing I have is resource. I have no other usable or useful qualification except that I can always see a way through anything. Always see an answer. Sometimes, even the right one.
Except tonight.
I can’t settle to the idea of just waiting it out in Milan. If I were going to do that, I’d still want to know when and how I was going to get out of here. I can't just see what happens.
So I make a plan. However improbable, I make a plan.
There are taxis outside Milan station that go long distances – I know this because they wouldn’t take me the mile or so to my hotel in the city.
I start to work out how much would be too much to pay one of them to drive me to Geneva. €500? €1,000? It’s about 200 miles. About a three hour drive.
I settle on €750. That’s how high I’d go. Then maybe a train. Or maybe a friend in Geneva who works at the UN might know someone going north.
So that’s what I’ll do. Get the cash out in the morning – it’ll need cash, I guess – and do that.
A plan.
Sleep.

The Milan train: 17 April

Everyone is going to Milan.
The train is chaos. There are more passengers than seats but nothing to say which seats are reserved and there is constant commerce in places to sit.
I guess lucky and sit all the way to Milan. We go through Firenze and Bologna but they have no charm. Not today.
Mrs Marsh has booked me a hotel in Milan. At a ridiculous price but it is the only option. A room that would normally be €160 is €360.
Milan station a little before ten in the evening boils with despondency.
The ticket machines have become moody and the queues into the ticket office are long and long and long. Younger people seem to have decided they must sleep in the station, resting like upturned turtles on their rucksacks.
Boards and announcements say there are no tickets north until Monday – that’s in two days time. There will be no ticket tonight and I need sleep more than I need another plan. So I go to the hotel, resigned to the idea of an enforced holiday in Milan where it is raining.

More in Rome: 17 April

That’s the second time today I’ve had this collision of emotions. The high of a barrier overcome with, almost simultaneously, the anxiety and uncertainty about what the next move can be.
I need to get to Milan. Unlike most capital cities, Rome is nowhereland when it comes to railways. It is like Bristol or Coventry but with older and generally more impressive ruins.
If you want an Italian train to somewhere, Milan is where you have to be.
I find a machine to sell me a ticket. At first try, it rejects my Egg card. That’s Egg.
Apparently, I have made ‘a number of atypical transactions’ and they suspect fraud. I know this because they leave a voicemail message on my mobile. One of the ‘atypical transactions’ is a $3 charge for WiFi on the NY flight.
I am glad that they are protecting my card security but wondering why they do not realise that ‘atypical’ conditions – like most of Europe’s airspace closed – might lead to one or two ‘atypical transactions’.
That’s Egg, by the way. Useless in a crisis.
I get a ticket for a train in five hours time and my mindset is now so changed that this seems good news. It is a train. Out of here. And only five hours to wait.
Batteries are now a problem too. The mobile especially. Without it, I am blind. I persuade the woman in a cafe opposite the station to let me charge my phone while spinning out two cappuccini over an hour or so.

In Rome: 17 April

It is clearly very bad.
Countries are falling like falling things. North Italian airspace is closed soon after we arrive. Hungary. Slovenia submit as we go through customs.
There is no news on Kuwait airways but Paris has reclosed and Rome is frantic and vile. It is not the place to stay and though I had protectively booked a room at a Rome airport hotel, it would be insane to wait here so the room is canceled.
I am now committed to getting home overland and so it is into Rome and head for the station.
I am not the only one who has had this idea.
I do some more sums. There’s no way of knowing how long this will take and I went to Vegas as light as possible.
Only just enough shirts socks etc for three days.
It is now day four.
Importantly, only just enough of a vital medication for three days. Pills I have to take daily to prevent me having that stroke I considered feigning in Vegas.
It is now day four and I need a plan within a plan.
The drug I need is warfarin – it’s very strictly controlled in the UK and everywhere else as far as I know. I imagine I will have to find a doctor to write a prescription. On a Saturday. And there will be no pharmacies open on Sunday. We are in the sphere of the social chapter.
Evoke pity is a good plan within a plan within a plan.
I find a pharmacy and in Italian owing more to Vergil than Dante explain what I need. I am prepared to weep, collapse, clutch my chest or anything if need be.
‘Certo’ he says. And hands me a box with enough blood thinner in it to eradicate all the rodents in a small underground station. For €2.50.

The Rome flight: 16-17 April

JFK seethes with lost and abandoned Europeans. A sort of latter day Ellis Island except that the Europeans are trying to get out and they are mostly really rather rich. And shouty. In a 4x4 sort of way.
Ticketing is starting to collapse and the only way through it is to ‘own’ a Delta employee. Make your problem their problem. So I do this and in spite of all machines rejecting my passport I manage to get a boarding card for Rome but only just.
If it had not been ‘the last flight to Europe’ – it probably wasn’t but that’s what they said – it would have been the plane to avoid. Two or three parties of teenage schoolchildren, each one a testimony to American orthodontics. The hormones crackled.
My seat buddy is a living wheezing incarnation of American obesity. I’m sure the dismay shows on my face as I approach and I am a lesser person for that.
Doubtless she is a very sweet and kind and gentle woman. But just right now and for the next eight and a half hours it is about practicalities. One third of her spills over the armrest and occupies one third of my allotted space.
Worse, she fits so tightly into her seat that every movement – like breathing or blinking for example – telegraphs itself through our miserable settle and, for all I know, the entire plane.
I have unkind thoughts. Especially when we hit heavy turbulence over Newfoundland. The sweet, large lady cannot hold her arms near her body and when we drop a few hundred feet or so, her tumbler of red wine is levered sharply up then down … and …and … and …
I do not know how long I will have to wear these trousers, newly freckled. But it was all right because she was screaming ‘Oh my God … Oh my Lord’ as the plane bucked and dived. And the teenagers, confident in their own immortality, whooped.
No-one slept.

To New York: Friday 16 April

It is early Friday morning at the airport and everyone seems to be leaving Las Vegas. That would make such a good film title.
The plan is now extended with a Kuwaiti airways flight to Paris from Rome but I do not believe this will happen.
I check in to NY. But the machine will not let me check in for the flight to Rome. I do not like the feel of this.

The plan: Thursday 15 April

We are at the Vegas convention centre. A depressing carpeted hangar somewhere … somewhere. This ash thing is looking serious and I have begun to do the sums.
There are 400 odd people on each direct UK/Vegas flight. Pretty much full, especially at the end of the Easter holiday.
So one canceled flight means 400 to slot in on later pretty much full flights. Two means 800. Three 1,200 … and so on.
Time for a plan.
Fly. Fly anywhere. Antarctica. Somalia. Anywhere but NY is nearer London so I think there.
My mobile becomes a lifeline. That and wonderful people in London to do stuff for me.
I get a seat on a flight to New York at seven in the morning. And then to anywhere in Europe still open. Turns out, only Rome.
Hurrah. Got seat on that. Looks on the website like it was the last one.
We now start to think about ‘the event’ – the thing I’ve actually come here to do.
It is just half an hour before my presentation and a very long time since I slept properly. Fatigue erupts and I lose the power of speech and of rational thought.
This is a pity since all I need right now is the power of speech and of rational thought. To my ears I am slurring my words so I rehearse and begin with the easy stuff at the beginning.
‘Good’ and ‘evening’ each sort of works on its own . Running them together is asking for trouble.
I consider feigning a stroke.

The News: Thursday 15 April

Wake up in Las Vegas to a text from Mrs Marsh apologising for the cloud of volcanic ash that has closed British airspace.
It is not her fault I think. But it seems Iceland has not finished with us. Dodgy banks and Bjork were only the beginning.
The news seems incredible but then I am surrounded by the incredible. Las Vegas. So it must be true.
It’s easy to be snobbish at Vegas’ vulgarity. But then, there is nowhere more vulgar on the planet. There are queues for everything except the gambling tables and the wedding chapels.
It is what the late-Roman empire or that of Justinian and his part gymnast part whore empress Theodora would have become had it got the hang of petrol and pre-stressed concrete.
Whatever else happens, I cannot stay here. If my flight is canceled tomorrow, I’m out of here.