From David Maughan Brown in York: Fiction and fact

September 9th

Most of my time is currently being divided between painstakingly working through the page proofs of a novel scheduled for publication at the end of November, and trying to ensure that members of our York U3A who are venturing cautiously out of their homes to involve themselves once again in their widely differing interest groups are going to be as safe from Covid-19 as we can make them.

Were I ever to venture an application to become a Mastermind contestant, my specialist subject would not be either Risk Management or Health and Safety.  But the basics are relatively straightforward as long as the parameters within which one is working are clear and relatively constant.   We pressed the starter button on indoor meetings last week with a ream of cleaning, access and other requirements in place, only to find our selves suddenly subject to the Boris & Matt ‘Rule of Six’ Act.  Having been heavily, and justifiably, criticised for increasingly confused messaging for the past few months, Matt Hancock declared that the time had come for the message to be ‘absolutely clear’, which inevitably meant that for some people it is anything but clear.  The rule precludes ‘social gatherings’ of more than six people, but is not applicable in educational and business settings.   Our language classes, for example – German, French, Italian and Latin – are unquestionably educational, but the Friends Meeting House where we rent rooms is not an ‘educational setting’ – or is it, given our educational activities there?  It is a ‘business setting’ in that it rents the rooms to us, but would the government regard it as such?  It is undoubtedly a ‘religious’ setting, but we aren’t using it for religious purposes.  We are still waiting for absolute clarity, as is the Third Age Trust to whom we look for guidance (and insurance cover).

Proof reading wouldn’t be my specialist subject either.  Last time around I sent back 84 out of 440 pages that needed minor corrections – typos, the odd word left out, punctuation (mainly misplaced or absent commas), and so on – and felt it was a job pretty well done.  That was until the proofs came back for checking and I decided not just to check that the corrections had been made, but to proofread the whole lot again.  That time I sent back 90 pages.   I also try to be alert to plausibility where the minor details are concerned as I go along.  Could a protest march from the assembly point to the City Hall in Sheffield, for example, really be completed in the time I allowed?  By the time it gets to the proof reading stage it is much too late to start asking oneself whether the major points on which the plot depends are plausible.   But that, like Covid-19 risk management, is time-dependent too.

I wrote about fictional plausibility in my entry for July 10 and chose, as an example of what wouldn’t be regarded as plausible in a novel, the appointment of Chris Grayling, ‘Failing Grayling’, to the Chair of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee – ironic as the ‘Intelligence’ bit would have been.  As it happens, Boris’s cunning plan was foiled and Grayling wasn’t appointed.   In July it would have been regarded as too wildly implausible to choose as an example of possible fictional implausibility the idea of a government Minister of any political complexion standing up in Parliament and brazenly acknowledging that the legislation our government was about to introduce would be a deliberate transgression of international law.   A Conservative Government of the United Kingdom deliberately reneging on a treaty it had willingly signed up to less than a year ago? Come off it!

More implausible still would be a Prime Minister boldly declaring that the international illegality he was embarking on was, in fact, to protect the one precious thing his actions seemed ineluctably bound to destroy.   There is no way the extraordinarily hard-won Peace Accord in Northern Ireland could survive the erection of physical check-points for customs and excise purposes along the border with Ireland, which Johnson is effectively daring the EU to set up to ensure the integrity of the European single market in the absence of the checks at the Northern Ireland ports which Johnson signed up to in the Withdrawal Agreement, but is now intent on ratting on.  On reflection, describing Johnson’s behaviour as ‘ratting’ is unfair to rodents that can’t be expected to abide by any moral code as they go about their business of eating, sleeping and breeding.   Boris Johnson isn’t stupid.  He way well have been, probably was, too lazy to read the detail of what it was he was signing up to, but its full implications will have been explained to him, and he is now, for once, refusing to make one of his regular U-turns.  He isn’t stupid, but he is deeply immoral, and the way he is behaving is as far out of bounds where fictional plausibility is concerned as it is when it comes to international law. But then one would only have to go back two or three years for it to have seemed wildly implausible that any dystopian writer could get away with imagining that a man like Boris Johnson could ever be appointed as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Cunning Plans

July 19th

I concluded my entry on July 10th by saying: ‘I am certainly not going to feel that my security will be in any way enhanced by knowing that Chris Grayling will be chairing our national Intelligence and Security Committee.’   After successfully managing to stall the operation of this important committee for six months via the simple expedient of avoiding getting round to nominating its Tory membership, it had become clear to Cummings and Johnson that they would have to succumb to the inevitable and allow it to start functioning – but only on their own terms.   Baldrickian cunning plan B was to make sure that whatever it is that they are so anxious to keep hidden would stay under wraps via the appointment of one of their less intellectually gifted Brexiteer yes-men to the chair of the committee.   The constitution of the Intelligence and Security Committee, which, uniquely, sees the chair being independently elected by the other members of the committee, would be no obstacle.  When had a mere principle stood in the way of either Johnson or Cummings getting what he wanted? 

Alas, even Machiavelli and Rasputin must have had their off days: their cunning plans, unlike those of the A Team, will sometimes not have come together.   There will have been days when, distracted by side-issues like an outbreak of the plague or the after effects of a bad batch of vodka, or perhaps even concerns that their eye-sight might be failing or that a recent dalliance might come to light, they allowed themselves to be outmaneuvered.  So to Tory consternation and unexpected schadenfreude for the rest of us, as it turned out, Grayling wasn’t elected after all.   Julian Lewis, a Tory right-wing Brexiteer who is obviously less biddable than his Tory right-wing Brexiteer counterpart Grayling, was elected instead, thanks to collusion with the Labour members of the committee.   This coup put paid to both parts of the Cummings/Johnson cunning plan in one fell swoop.  Not only did they not end up with their ventriloquist’s dummy in the chair, but, potentially even more problematic, they have been landed with a chair who actually knows something about Intelligence and Security.  Lewis has been a member of the Defence Select Committee since 2010, and a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee since 2014.   So the bit of the plan that involved having Grayling make the same mess of chairing, and thereby discrediting, the Intelligence and Security Committee as he has of every government department he has ever been put in charge of disappeared out of the window at the same time.

In normal circumstances arch manipulators would tend to keep quiet about it if they had tried illegitimately and unsuccessfully to manoeuver their stooges into the chair of a committee they shouldn’t have been interfering with.   They would go back into their darkened room and concoct cunning plan C.   But that is all too evidently not the Johnson and Cummings bullyboy style.  They clearly don’t give a damn that the world knows they have been involved in skull-duggery, or even that they have been outmaneuvered in the dirty tricks department, provided it also knows that they have exacted appropriate revenge.   Nobody had better try to do anything like that again, particularly not if it involves colluding with members of the opposition.  No doubt regretting that their whips are not allowed to take their titles literally, they have had to content themselves with having Julian Lewis thrown out of the Conservative party.   As a shining example of how to ‘Take back Control’ that may yet prove something of a double-edged sword:  while it demonstrates a ruthless vindictiveness towards any party member who might have the temerity to cross them, and could serve its purpose as a deterrent, it simultaneously ensures that the Chair of this key committee is genuinely independent of any political party and that the long delayed report on Russian interference in the general election will see the light of day very soon.   It might yet prove not to have been a particularly brilliant tactical move on the part of a Prime Minister who has a lot to hide, extending from the number of children he has fathered to who knows what else, to alienate and antagonise the chair of parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee and, in the process, deprive his party of its majority on the committee.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Fiction and Reality

July 10th

Writing fiction has been one of the things I have tried my hand at since I retired in 2013.  I spent much of the first year writing a cathartic historical novel, subsequently published as Despite the Darkness, based in part on our experience during the apartheid years of being harassed by the South African Police’s Special Branch who objected to what I was writing and what their spies were reporting back to them about my lectures and speeches.  I then wasted three years going through the motions of getting a literary agent to take the novel on and try to sell it; getting tired of waiting for him to do so; and finally deciding to self-publish after all.  During the last of the three years I wrote a sequel that is currently with the publishers.  People have asked me whether I will be writing another one, to which the answer is ‘probably not’ – not just because I am too busy doing other things, even in lockdown, but because these days fiction has grave difficulty in staying ahead of reality.  In plotting the kind of fiction I write one always has to be asking oneself ‘is that plausible?’  With historical fiction the question becomes ‘could that really ever have happened?’   In recent times too much has happened which, had one been writing a novel, one would have had to discard as simply being far too implausible.

The enjoyment of literature usually depends to some extent on what Coleridge referred to as ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’.   How many people, to take a current example, would willingly suspend their disbelief when reading a political novel if the author were to cast Chris Grayling in the role of Chair of the UK’s Intelligence and Security Committee?  The response would be likely to involve a heavy sigh, a ‘Get Real!’ (that’s the bowdlerised version), and the novel being put aside in favour of something less wildly implausible.  

It would be doing a disservice to the military to draw any parallel with the old saw which holds that ‘military intelligence’ is an oxymoron.   Chris Grayling’s record as a cabinet minister could be deemed to have demonstrated the opposite of the Midas touch: everything he touched turned to dust, but it wasn’t gold dust.  Grayling is probably best known for awarding a £14 million contract to a start-up company, Seaborne Freight, to ship medical supplies to the UK in the event of a no-deal Brexit.  The fact that the company had no ships and no port contract, and a set of legal terms and conditions that had been cut and pasted from a pizza delivery company, was not seen as any kind of hindrance to the award of the contract.  Nor, apparently, is his copy-book seen to have been blotted by the mere £33million that had to be paid out to Eurotunnel for the breach of public procurement rules that was involved in the award of that contract.

Grayling was transport secretary in 2018 when the railway timetable debacle took place, and was criticized by the rail regulator for not scrutinising plans for the change-over carefully enough.  His ideological compulsion towards shrinkage of the State led him to the disastrous part-privatisation of probation services that has recently had to be rescinded.  But his ministerial record is not one of consistently benign incompetence.  Some of his policies have been malign to the point of vindictiveness.  One of the nastier and stupider ones was his introduction, as Minister of Justice, of a ban on prisoners being allowed to receive books from friends and relatives, and his imposition of a limit on the number of books prisoners were allowed.  This was found to be unlawful by the high court in 2015.  I think I am right in saying  that every single one of Grayling’s major policy innovations has had to be reversed by his successors in the various departments unfortunate enough to have fallen into his clutches. The Guardian reported last year that decisions Grayling had made while heading those departments had had been estimated by Labour to have cost the taxpayer £2.7 billion.  Who would believe such hopeless incompetence if anyone were to put all that into a novel?

All this begs the question, of course, as to why on earth Boris Johnson (read Dominic Cummings) would want to nominate a man with a record like that to chair the UK’s parliamentary Intelligence and Security committee.  It isn’t as if, in the age of Novichok, Huawei and Russian interference in elections, intelligence and security aren’t important.  There seem to be two plausible reasons.  One would be that Johnson (read Cummings – always) wants a yes-man Brexiteer at the helm of a committee that has traditionally been independent and tried to avoid party political allegiances.  The other would be that as part of his strategy to disrupt the Westminster ‘establishment’ Cummings would like to discredit and undermine one of its key parliamentary committees.  You, quite literally, couldn’t make it up.  But, speaking for myself, and leaving ‘intelligence’ out of it for obvious reasons, I am certainly not going to feel that my security will be in any way enhanced by knowing that Chris Grayling will be chairing our national Intelligence and Security Committee.