Storm at Sea and the World Cup

Friday night, (the 13th of course) and the Captain has already warned in his midday address (position, distanced travelled since last port and weather) of the same day that we will be passing 200 miles from the epicentre of Tropical Cyclone Nanouk in the Indian Ocean. Sounds a long way away? Storm in Leeds, calm in London? Well, in tropical storm terms it is not, because the centrifuge effect of a cyclone pulls in wind from a circle of up to three hundred miles and we are going to be a hundred miles within that circle– just to let you know. “The ship may move a little,” the Captain has said. But you know, and a sense of foreboding in your stomach confirms this prescience, that he is combining English understatement with a captain’s duty not to alarm passengers, or disturb their daily round of eating, sleeping, playing carpet bowls and emptying their bowels – the latter, while making every effort not to spread the current “minor” (in the captain’s words, again) outbreak of the novo virus.

All well and good as we cross the Gulf of Oman, and even when we enter (at about 4 p.m.) the Arabian Sea (a north eastern subsection of the Indian Ocean) movement is tolerable. Gradually the swell builds, but calmly and methodically. Repeating valleys form and we climb up the side of one, slip down the side of the next. “Five metre swell to be expected,” the captain had said, and this is all right if you have good ocean legs and don’t mind doing your daily deck walk in alternating moments of uphill and downhill with the horizon appearing and disappearing completely at either end of the ship.  One senses that the swell, the sea, is still benign even if the ship is moving like a seesaw with a fifteen foot drop at either end. If this is what the captain means by “the ship may move a little”, we (the collective ‘we’ of a herd of cruise passengers) can live and sleep with it and still stuff ourselves.

So, in this womblike state of undulation, we drift off to bed around ten o’clock – except for those two or three passengers under sixty, who wish to gyrate (while also undulating fifteen feet up and down) in the disco (still called THAT here) — and are rocked to sleep. Up, down. Mm! Good night.

And then: boom!

Horribly awake. Alarm bells ringing at full volume in mind and body.

‘What was THAT?!’

There it is again: Boom!

I – the collective ‘we’ cancelled, because survival is a ‘me’ thing – am NOT a happy embryo now.

That fifteen foot, five metre undulation, or slow moving see saw, has become a jagged fifteen foot drop into which the bow of the boat (where my cabin is positioned on the lowest passenger deck) is smashing (with a noise that sounds like the hull MUST have cracked open) every fifteen seconds.

 I try earplugs, but the boom blasts straight through to the fear centre of my psyche.

Again: Boom! Well, ker-boom, shudder, shake actually! Followed by a fifteen foot stomach-losing lift that you know is going to be followed by a fifteen foot stomach turning drop and another – wait for it, tense, suppress scream  –ker- boom, shudder, shake. The shudder is me and the ship, whose whole frame shudders back and forth and then tries to shrug of the shudder with an even more alarming shake. Movie cataclysms, even with wrap around sound and 3D, have nothing on this.

We (or is it just I?) have forgotten about the gale force winds mentioned en passant by the captain. These have now whipped up the undulations into jagged, irregular and very angry fifteen foot waves, though which the ship has to ride. No, ‘ride’ sounds too benign. Fifteen foot jagged waves within and on top of which the fourteen story, ocean-going liner is tossed about like a rubber ball: fifteen foot up in the air (about two and a half storeys) and then, down, down, down to your doom — ker-boom: a fifteen foot drop to the ground below with no more gentle valley side to ease the drop. And it is NOT ground. It is water with a depth of two and a half thousand metres: the Captain always tells us the depth beneath in his noonday message – so we don’t forget the Peril of those on the Sea.

Earplugs fail.

Go-with-the-flow – a sea-goer’s standby – fails miserably, too, and produces nausea. The bed is moving too much, the noise too loud, alarming and apocalyptic to be ignored.

I check the time. 2.30 a.m. The bleakest hour of the night. The fact that it is now Saturday 14th June is little consolation, as the ominous influence of a Friday 13th must, I know, extend until dawn.

I sit up and, like an off duty soldier in the trenches, prepare myself for the next boom. I try a homeopathic, anti-panic remedy Aconite and then negate it with an allopathic 2 mg diazepam.

Five minutes and twenty booms later, still no relief.

So for the first time in my ocean-going career – I am a writer who finds he writes best on a cruise ship, though this may change – I get up in the middle of the night. And that is no easy feat in a storm.  I stumble across the cabin trying to put on shorts and T-shirt mid drop and socks and shoes, mid-rise. Boom! I fall back on the bed, get up and finally make it to the door.

I lurch along the silent corridor of closed cabin doors with inmates silently sweating through their own gloom and doom of the boom scenarios. Or perhaps going much further with their allopathic sleeping pills than I did with my diazepam, deciding to black out and hope for the best rather than face the reality of this First World War at sea.

On to the atrium (cruise ships use hotel terminology), normally a hub of activity but now deserted apart from one member of staff.  I make human contact with a woman from Serbia on duty behind the hotel style reception desk. We exchange the ‘moving a bit’ understatement (probably not a natural reaction to rough sea for a Serb, but British sang-froid and Aussie understatement is mandatory) and I tell her about the booms, which thank God are not so audible here in the centre of the ship. Would I like a technician to come and check the noise? she asks. Or a complimentary set of earplugs? I smile and shake my head and then add:  If the technician can calm the sea, yes, and if the earplugs can soothe my panicked soul, yes, otherwise no point. This is too metaphysical for a Serb – or anyone else – at 2 a.m. in a storm at sea, so she makes a note of my observation and I stagger off.

The open access restaurant on deck fourteen is my next goal. I start walking the fourteen flights of stairs – a fitness gambit on good days — but the movement is too much and my body says it is the middle of the night. I press a lift button and hear the clanking and crashing of the lift cables far above – almost as bad as the booms, because it sounds like the ship IS falling apart, right now.

The lift sways and lurches up fourteen floors and I emerge. But here the sway and judder is worse though the sea-level noise reduced to a distant thud. I head for the restaurant. No longer open I know, but with a self-service tea and coffee facility available before breakfast starts at 5 a.m.

The restaurant area is moving like an off centre Ferris wheel about to lose its balance and I only just make to the teabags. Two Filipino lads are cleaning the place, but let me help myself. Their usual cheery countenances are grim and we do not even bother going through the ‘moving a bit’ ritual.

And then an unwitting saviour arrives – the first fellow passenger I have seen since leaving my cabin. A rugged, no nonsense sort of man with a pot belly, leathery skin and overfed, expressionless face.

‘How you doing, mate?’ he asks, in a strong Oz accent. ‘All good?’

I know Oz greeting rituals well enough to reply ritually and 100% untruthfully as we crash into each other on the way down to a sea-level boom and fourteenth floor level thud, shudder and shake:

‘All good.’

‘Moving a bit,’ he adds.

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Moving a bit.’

He helps himself to coffee. I go for mint tea to calm the angst – no, terror – of a storm at sea.

‘Couldn’t sleep?’ I ask, hoping to share my terror in a therapeutic, co-counselling sort of way.

‘Nah, sleeping fine, mate. Just got up to watch the World Cup game. Australia versus Chile.’

I swallowed my amazement and nodded.

This man had woken himself on purpose having been fast asleep despite the ker-booms and fifteen foot drops and rises to watch a football game?  Was I imagining this storm? Had I over reacted?

BOOM! A ker-boom of nuclear proportions, so loud it made it to the fourteenth floor in one, undiluted mega-decibel and sent the ship shuddering and shaking in every direction at once.

‘Moving a bit,’ the man repeated, just a hint of nervousness behind the ‘all good’ façade.

He set off with his coffee. I followed him on the basis of ‘any port of call in a storm is better than none’ – for me, at that moment, this man was a haven of calm verging on the psychotic.

We went out onto the open deck, also on the fourteenth floor, where a giant TV screen dominates the swimming pools and deck lounging area. And there, the World Cup match between Australia and Chile was being broadcast live at full volume to beat the howling wind and driving rain. The image shook and shuddered with the ship, but as we were all shaking and shuddering with the ship this did not seem to matter to my haven mate, who took a seat and no further notice of me.

I watched for a while, the inane observations of the two football commentators briefly leading me to believe that I was at home watching the match. But after a first Chilean goal and a groan from my haven mate, I could take the swaying and lurching and distant thuds of valley-bottom hits no more.

I headed back to the fifth floor, past the Serbian receptionist – who waved at this, in his imagination, already drowning man – and on along the empty, swaying creaking corridors to the back of the ship.

 Here I found a final surreal sight and sound. In the area where professional videos and photos of the trip are sold at outrageous prices, a promo film was playing on half a dozen screens to no one: happy music, soft-sell voiceover, images of calm blue seas in Thailand – and not a soul to watch or listen.

Was anyone looking after the ship? Did anyone know or care that thud by thud and boom by boom the sea was shaking our boat to bits? Or would we go down with the promo video – and the World Cup on deck fourteen – still playing at full volume and everyone else asleep in their cabins.

It didn’t bare thinking about, so I curled up in a chair in the tiny library next to the video counter, closed my eyes and prepared for the worst. At least at the back of the ship the booms and thuds were almost inaudible, even if the shuddering and straining and creaking and cracking of everything around and about me seemed even louder.

 A storm at sea is an all-embracing event.

I did not sleep and the storm continued until the afternoon. But after 5 a.m., I was no longer alone, lurching and shaking as one of the herd with countless ‘Moving a bit’ exchanges to ease the angst and anaesthetize the reality of imminent shipwreck. I hope the Aussie man with the nerves of steel enjoyed his game – despite the storm, and despite the fact that Australia lost three goals to one.


The young filmmaker tries to cross back from East to West Berlin with forbidden goods


(Part of the novel Friends & Enemies included in a different form in published version)

I reached the Friedrichstrasse crossing point just before midnight.

I was well-oiled with cheap East Berlin beer and schnapps, but not drunk. My friend Lothar – DDR museum worker, passive dissident and surface conformist – had given me something, though he had not said what, to take across to West Berlin and I had to be on my guard.

There was no queue.

The guard checked my battered blue British passport with its imperious request to allow the bearer to proceed without let or hindrance and stamped an empty page. I returned it to my coat, donated my unspent East Marks to the orphaned children of North Vietnam and walked towards the remotely controlled doors that accessed the S-Bahn trains to West Berlin.

But they did not open and, as I stood waiting for them to do so, a voice behind me shouted: “You! Come back!” And then more than one voice, “Zurueck, bitte! Zurueck!”

I turned and saw two guards approaching. They asked me to remove my coat – an old trench coat loaned to me by Lothar to ward off the late November snow that had started falling as I left his flat, and, presumably, to hide the goods, which, Lothar had said, it was better I know nothing about.


The older guard took the coat, while the other, a rotund youth with acne, led me back across the hallway to a room beside the passport desk.

“Please sit!” he said, indicating a chair in front of a scuffed, Formica-topped table.

I sat and surveyed the cream coloured walls stained with nicotine and, in my imagination, the faded blood of previous detainees.

After a minute or two, another guard entered. He was tall, blonde-haired and judging from the insignia on his uniform, an officer.

He stood for a moment and then perched on the edge of the table opposite my chair

“Good evening!’ he said in perfect English.

“Good evening,” I replied, disconcerted by the fact that my first line of defence – ‘I don’t speak German’ – had been undermined.

“As you were walking way,” the officer continued, “my guards noticed something moving in the back of your coat.”


“Yes. I think you know what I mean.”

“I have no idea,” I said, shaking my head.

“Then,” snapped the officer, unrolling a sheet of card in his hand, “what is this?”

I stared in amazement at the image in front of him: Lothar’s favourite collage; the one that had hung on the wall above his bed in the Prenzlauerberg apartment – a gem of humorous subversion and light-hearted satire.

I rubbed my eyes and shook my head, feigning ignorance and innocence.

“Never seen it before.” I paused and tried a polite English smile. “Not bad. Where did you find it?”

“In the lining of the coat,” snapped the officer, unimpressed by the smile or my misplaced flattery of a subversive piece of art. “Are you telling me, you did not know it was there?”

“No idea,” I said, dropping the smile but upping the level of Michael Caine nonchalance in my voice.

“I find that hard to believe. Where did you get it? ”

I thought fast.

I must not involve Lothar, if I did he would lose his job at the museum and most probably be charged with subversion.

“At a shop,” I said, improvising a beginning without middle or end in sight.

“You bought this picture, this piece of counter-revolutionary propaganda in a shop? I don’t think so. No one would want to sell you something like that.”

“Not the collage, the jacket.”

“And the picture was inside it?”


“Without your knowledge?”


The officer stared at the image and then at me.

Sweat formed on my forehead, perhaps from the heat, perhaps – in the interrogator’s eyes – from the effort of lying.

“And where was this shop?”

“In the centre… near the television tower.”

“There are many shops near the television tower. Which one?”

The officer stood up and paced around the room. The youth with acne left and I felt panic pinch the pit of my stomach and tighten the edges of my brain. Could they arrest me? Hold me indefinitely? There were no official diplomatic relations between the GDR and Britain, artists on the DAAD programme had been reminded of this in a circular from the British Council: ‘All visits to East Berlin undertaken at own risk.’

My heart palpitated, the sweating intensified.

“I can’t remember.”

“Convenient,” laughed the officer, going to the door. “Well, I have time. So please, over the next five minutes, try and improve your memory!”

He left the room.

I stared at the picture on the table and despite the feeling of anxiety chuckled.

The collage showed Karl Marx and Lothar – both bearded, both middle-aged – sitting at a table for two in an East Berlin bar drinking People’s beer with People’s schnapps chasers. On the wall above, portraits of Lenin, Stalin and the DDR’s first leader, Walter Ulbricht, stared down in stony silence and obvious disapproval. Beside them a blank fourth canvas indicated where Mr Marx should have been if he had not been having such a good time with the hoi polloi below: imprisoned in a frame, a grey-bearded, graven image painted to look as stern and impassive as the three successors who had co-opted and corrupted his name.

The door opened and the youth with acne entered, a cup of coffee in his hand.

“Thought you could use this,” he said.

Nice cop, hard cop routine, I thought, but the youth did not stay.

I took a sip of the hot but tasteless liquid and tried to think through the shop story.

But I didn’t know any clothes shops near the television tower.


My brain misted over and before I knew it, before I could step on the brake of adult self-control, I started crying. Crying like a small child who has lost its mother and doesn’t know how to get home. No, not crying – wailing.

The door swung open and the officer stood on the threshold.

“What is the matter, Mr Cruft?” he demanded.

I shook my head and continued to wail.

“Have we treated you so badly?”

Again I shook my head.

“Then where is your famous stiff upper lip?”

I shook my head for a third time.

The officer turned on his heels, slammed the door shut and disappeared.

I continued to bawl.

The exhaustion of a hard night’s drinking with Lothar, the long walk in the cold night air from Prenzlauerberg to Friedrichstrasse, persistent worries about my new film in West Berlin, and my girlfriend’s sudden defection to a Maoist had all combined to reduce me to an infantile state of self pity and despair.

If I could have got up and danced, if I could have shaken a leg, waved my arms and screamed ‘Star Fucker!” with Mick Jagger then dropped dead-tired into bed, the hopelessness I now felt might have sweated itself out and been flattened by the overriding need to sleep. But here I could not sleep and I could not dance, so I howled. The officer had been right: where was it – that symbol of British sangfroid and cold civility? Gone with the wind, gone to a graveyard every last bit of it. When will they ever learn? Boys cry too. They do. They do.

“Mr Cruft?”

I looked up and through my tears saw a man in a suit with a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles perched on his nose.

“Mr Cruft,” said the man in a soft, heavily accented voice. “We are sorry you are so upset. On January 1st, 1974 – tomorrow as we speak – a new Four Power Agreement comes into effect regulating all matters related to Berlin. We hope this agreement will improve understanding between East and West and in the light of its imminent enactment and your obvious distress we have decided to overlook this unfortunate incident.”

He pointed to the collage on the table and without further comment tore it into little pieces and threw the resulting remnants into a waste paper basket beneath the table.

“You are free to go. Auf wiedersehen!”

The destruction of Lothar’s work led to a new bout of tears from me, but this time the guards were ready. They lifted me from my chair and walked me out of the room and across the hallway to the automatic doors where the youth with acne held out Lothar’s trench coat.

“Expect you could use this,” he half-whispered, a pimply smile on his round face.

I took the coat, but before I could say thank you the door released and the guards deposited me on the far side: somebody else’s baby, a wimp for the West to whip into order.

And by the time I had rattled over the wall past the burnt out ruins of the Reichstag and the floodlit modernism of the Academie der Kuenste to Zoo station – staring into the neon-lit night sky from my empty S-Bahn like a dropout on Valium or a hippie on lysergic acid – I had recovered. Thin skin healed over, emotions in custody, British upper lip stiff as a military crease. And when, after leaving the train and braving the snow covered streets, two West Berlin policemen stopped me near the Tiergarten, asked me for my passport and searched me – out of boredom or on the off chance of finding a red terrorist from the Baader Meinhof gang – I accepted the intervention as meekly as a lamb and as quietly as a mouse.

Governments were always obsessed with something, always on guard against subversion, always under threat. In East or West, there were always enemies, enemies within, enemies without; the skill of a good citizen lay in reading between the lines and recognising friends.


The young filmmaker shoots an experimental  film in a West Berlin commune, but proceedings are disrupted by a surprise, anti-formalist demonstration. 

Image - Still from subtitled version of Inside and Oustide

(Part of the novel Friends & Enemies included in a different form in published version. Though events described are partly fictional, a version of the film Drinnen und Draussen exists and is included as an extra on the BFI boxset An Unflinching Eye)

On the 30th December 1973, snow fell. I stood at the window of the commune’s front room in the Stephanstrasse, Moabit, West Berlin and sighed with relief as – despite the cold – a crowd began to form. I had finished editing my window film, Kniephofstrasse, and was now shooting a project using two performers, a pianist and people on the street. Scripted action was located inside, unscripted on the pavement outside where passers-by would, I hoped, stop and watch the actors in the same way that an audience watched them on screen.

“Ready to go in five,” I said turning from the window to Franz Schmidt, the Academy technician now acting as my cameraman.

The DAAD, my bursary benefactor in Berlin, had designated the German Film Academy (DFFB) as my support base, but since my visit there in September to show my early work and talk about Structuralism, the students – Maoists to a man and in line with their Helmsman as anti avant-garde as ever – had voted to withhold assistance from my ‘elitist’ projects. They said I should make agitprop documentaries using conventional cinematic language, not muddle the masses with experimental pieces about how they were being manipulated by Hollywood. Franz had ignored them and persuaded Brigitte, the academy secretary, to act as production manager and a colleague from SFB to sound record. The actors were participating free of charge and Edith from the commune was doing art direction. The other communards, including my friend Reinhardt, were away.

“Director!” the actress called to me. “How real do you want this kiss?” 

The high point of the film, and the scene we were about to shoot, involved the two performers kissing each other to the accompaniment of a Mozart slow movement played live by the on-set pianist. Given the crowd outside, I had decided not to do any prior rehearsal, but allow the action to develop of its own accord.

“How real can you make it?” I replied, walking over to a tall, blonde-haired woman in a beige blouse, three-quarter length brown skirt and sensible shoes.

“That depends on Wolfgang,” whispered Ulrike, nodding her head in the direction of the male actor. “And on what you want. You’re the director.”

“I want a real movie kiss that moves the viewer to tears,” I replied. “Bacall and Bogart; Leigh and Gable; Crawford and that violin player in Humoresque.”

“John Garfield,” exhaled Ulrike, rotating a shoulder to relax her diaphragm. “I will be Dietrich. Distant but determined, detached but passionate – ice and fire rolled into one.”

“Good! Shall I warn Wolfgang?”

“No, let him be surprised. I take the initiative, no?”

“Yes, Mrs East kisses Mr West. But make sure your lips come together slowly – in the classic Hollywood manner. I want maximum pre-touch tension.”

Jawohl, Herr Regisseur.” 

I crossed the room to Wolfgang, a man of twenty-six with Cary Grant features.

“All set, Wolfgang?”

Wolfgang glanced at the crowd outside.

“It will be difficult in front of them.”

“Imagine you’re on stage,” I soothed.

“I can’t see the faces on stage.”

Wolfgang had been harder for me to deal with than Ulrike. He worried that the characters had no personality, that they were cardboard cutouts without motivation or emotions.

“Why are we kissing?” he asked now.

I glanced at my notes.

“‘To signify the similarity of social codes in East and West; to cement – seal with a kiss – two systems that, despite surface differences, seduce and cajole their citizens into obedience and passivity; to emphasise the common bond of bourgeois family values and traditional role-playing prevalent in consumer capitalist and state socialist countries.’”

Wolfgang raised his eyebrows.

“Doesn’t help much.”

“Follow Ulrike’s lead,” I coaxed, giving him a pat on the shoulder. “And relax! Imagine it’s your first kiss, the first time a woman’s lips have touched yours.”

“Ready to go in one,” Franz shouted, as he switched on a two-kilowatt light and bathed Wolfgang in a golden glow.

I crossed to the camera and squinted through the eyepiece. The frame was set just as I had requested: Wolfgang in chair, centre left; Ulrike at doorway, far right; pianist at piano in the room behind; fifty odd faces pressed to the window in the background. Perfect! I made my way between Franz and the soundman and plopped down on my haunches beside Theo the piano player – a tall, sixty-year old Prussian junker’s son with tufts of grey hair and a twinkle in his eye that put him somewhere between Einstein and Harpo Marx.

“Give it all you’ve got, Theo. Elvira Madigan and then some”

Theo nodded.

“All set!” shouted Franz.

“Right!” I called, returning to my position by the camera. “Let’s go for one!”

I put a finger to my lips to quieten the crowd, waited for the boom to steady above Ulrike’s head and then raised my hand.

“Roll sound!’

“Sound rolling!’

“Roll camera!’

“Camera rolling!’

“Scene ten, take one,” Edith called, clapping the board and ducking out of view.

I let her settle and glanced at my leading lady. She gave a nod and my hand fell.


Ulrike dusted. Wolfgang opened a beer and sat back to watch the woman at work. Ulrike turned and their eyes met. A moment’s pause, then Theo sounded the opening arpeggios of the Mozart – gently, seductively. As the melody developed, Ulrike sidled across to the table where Wolfgang sat. The crowd behind the window held its breath. 

“May I, schaetzchen?” Ulrike whispered.

Wolfgang patted his knee. Ulrike lowered herself onto his lap. The melody swelled, chords cascaded towards the dominant. Ulrike’s face approached Wolfgang’s. The 10-120 Angenieux Telephoto eased inwards. And, finally – as the melody hit high C, the chord modulated to the tonic and Franz reached the limit of his lens’ prying capacity – the two sets of lips met and the crowd let out an enormous cheer.

“Bravo!” “Long Live Love!” “Brilliant!” “More!” “Encore!”

Staring eyes streamed tears or twinkled with the titillation of an erotic act at one remove; children giggled or buried their faces in parental legs. A collective release beyond my expectations and, as the final chord faded, I experienced the moment in triplicate – as a future cinemagoer on the camera’s side, as a participant centre stage and as part of the crowd beyond. Quadraphonic emotion bouncing back and forth and melding in the middle; feel, touch, weep and wallow – the essence of a movie’s manipulative power exposed, exactly as I had intended!

Then trouble started.

Chanting on the far side of the street and banners waved above the crowd’s head: ‘Reflect workers’ struggles – NO art for art’s sake!’ ‘Down with dilettantism and the DAAD!’

The Academy Maoists had arrived. Not content with boycotting the film’s shoot, they had now decided to disrupt it. Shit! Franz, still zoomed in, remained unaware of the disturbance and awaited my signal to cut. I hesitated. The banners and placards advanced, the crowd parted to let them through, the front row turned to check the action behind.

I reviewed my options at stop-frame speed and then tapped Franz on the shoulder.

“Don’t cut! Pull out! Smooth and fast!”

Franz nodded and signalled to the soundman to raise his boom. Ulrike and Wolfgang broke their kiss and turned to the window.

“Keep staring out!” I hissed. “Don’t look at me!”

The crowd, disconcerted by the Maoist presence, began to drift away. The demonstrators lined up along the window, placards and banners pressed to the glass. The chanting began in earnest:

Imperialism is what we hate, make films workers can appreciate.”

“Theo, open the door!” I shouted at the pianist

Theo’s willowy, aristocratic figure stood up bowed and then opened the door to face the revolutionaries’ wrath. The volume of the demonstrators increased, their gestures grew fiercer. I tensed. Would the mob enter? Rip the film from our camera and beat me – the errant formalist and recipient of imperialist DAAD funds – up? Or demonstrate at a distance and provide a backdrop against which we could continue to film?

A new chant began:

Stop this dilettante crap, leave Berlin and don’t come back!”

Theo retreated to the piano and struck up Mozart’s Marche a la Turque. Ulrike and Wolfgang glanced at each other – too professional to turn and scream ‘Help!’ at the camera, too nervous to outstare the thirty or so demonstrators.

 “Go to the door,” I hissed, deciding to up the dramatic ante. “Invite them in.”

 “What?” retorted Wolfgang without moving his lips. “You must be joking.”

“Please,” I persisted. “They’re not dangerous, just deluded.”

 “Come on,” said Ulrike, pulling at Wolfgang’s arm.

 Wolfgang stayed put. Ulrike headed to the door. She listened to the chants and then leant across and planted a kiss on the cheek of the nearest demonstrator.

 “Please,” she smiled, “come in and discuss with us.”

 The man continued to chant. Ulrike stepped outside and, squeezing along the front row, repeated kiss and invitation to each of the demonstrators. She then turned to the window, shook her fist and joined in the chanting:

 “Imperialism is what we hate, make films workers can appreciate!”

 “Stop this dilettante crap, leave Berlin and don’t come back!”

I watched. Perhaps this was the ending I needed. Mrs East joins Maoists in condemnation of decadent art, while Mr West looks on with disdain and the stoicism of repressive tolerance.

Theo completed his march. I prepared to call ‘Cut!’

But just then, sirens sounded. The Maoists glanced from left to right. Ulrike hurried along the frontline, re-entered the commune and closed the door.

“Darling,” she said to Wolfgang. “The police are here.”

A megaphone became audible. The Maoist leader scowled at me, assuming I had called the police. I indicated my innocence with a shrug of the shoulders, pointed at the door and invited the demonstrators to use it. This time there was no hesitation and the nearest man ran in followed by thirty colleagues. Edith guided them through to the courtyard, whilst I shouted at them not to look at the lens – I wanted orchestrated drama now, not fly on the wall documentation. 

When the last one had passed through, a policeman appeared, baton drawn.

“Can we proceed?” he asked, raising his visor and wiping sweat from his face.

“Proceed with what?” inquired Ulrike from her position at the table – a born improviser I thought to myself, a performer cool under fire when the curtain fails to fall.

“With the arrest of the people disturbing you,” the policeman panted. “We were called by a neighbour.”

Ulrike bent and whispered something to Wolfgang, who nodded and stood up.

“These people are our friends,” he said, “their presence here is intentional.”

The policeman glanced at the microphone and pointed to the hallway.

 “You’ll be all right, then?”

 “Yes,” replied Ulrike and Wolfgang together. “Thank you.”

The policeman shrugged his shoulders, mumbled something into a radio and retreated.

“Cut!” I shouted, when he had closed the outside door and disappeared. “That’s a wrap!’

“About bloody time too!” Wolfgang exclaimed.

“I enjoyed it,” said Ulrike. “Let’s do another take!’

I hugged them both.

“Brilliant! All of you,” I added, turning to the crew. “Fucking brilliant.”

Franz stood up and stretched.

“One meter of film left!” he whistled. “But we got it. The whole thing.”

“Brilliant,” I repeated. “Fucking brilliant!’

Edith appeared and announced that the Maoists were now assembled in the courtyard.

“I told them we had to lock the doors to stop the police getting in,” she grinned.

“Are they chanting again?” I asked.

“No, quiet as mice. What shall we do with the bastards?”

I shrugged my shoulders.

“Let them go, I guess.”

“No punishment?’ Edith pouted. “No hosing naked bodies with cold water?”

I laughed and turned to Franz.

“What do you think, Franz?”

Franz did not reply. He sat unloading the camera’s magazine, his hands moving inside a black changing bag, his forehead furrowed in concentration. When he had transferred the exposed film to an empty can and taped it up to ensure no light could get in, he removed his arms and unzipped the bag.

“A ten minute single take,” he said holding up the can. “Brigitte!”

Brigitte took the can and went to the table to fill in a lab report sheet.

“And the Maoists?” inquired Edith.

“I’ll talk to them later,” replied Franz. “Their action is most unprofessional.”

I sat on the floor, leant back against a wall and glanced outside. Snow falling again; flakes drifting down past street lights, their fluorescent lamps triggered by encroaching darkness: winter in Berlin, Berlin in winter. The filming had gone better than expected – the final scene a vindication of my original idea, the comments on the Maoists banners a neat example of self-reflectivity. And later tonight, a wrap party to reward the team: raucous reminiscences of the shoot’s ups and downs; food, alcohol and wild dancing to the Stones and Lokomotive Kreuzberg. I felt exhausted, but ready to enjoy myself – to be the life and soul of the party, my last duty as director.


Or why a missed train connection in the UK may entitle you to a taxi

Blog - York Station

Not long ago I was returning from London to York after a busy day in the metropolis keeping book and screenplay projects on the boil – writing is very much like cooking, with pots on the creative stove all in need of attention at the same time – when I made a useful discovery about the legal liabilities of our country’s railway network.

The train I had caught was due in York at 8.28 p.m. leaving me ten minutes to get the 8.38 p.m. connection to Malton, a market town fifteen miles to the east of York, where my car had been parked since a very misty 8 a.m that morning. Ten minutes out of York, with the train on time, we began to break and grind to a halt. An announcement from the train supervisor (guards have long since disappeared) regretted that due to ‘a track side issue’ we would be a few minutes late arriving. ‘A few minutes,’ I thought, ‘does that mean what it should mean – not long? Or will we be stuck here for the next hour?’ To my relief, we began to move again, and I relaxed. But un-hatched chickens should not be counted and the train not only failed to pick up speed but continued to creep past the ‘track side issue’ at the speed of a broody hen crossing the road with no answer to the question ‘Why?’ I glared at my mobile phone (not smart, but smart enough to tell the time) and saw the minutes tick by: 8.25, 8.30, 8.32.

The chances of making my connection were diminishing and the sense of annoyance ignited by the train supervisor’s formulaic announcement began to metamorphose into righteous anger. When, finally, we pulled into the station at 8.37 p.m., I grabbed my ageing, overweight laptop, jumped off the train, ran up the steps of a footbridge and down on to platform five just in time to see the Malton train disappear: a cliché scene of pathos or farce in the movies, a nightmare in real life, when, as a quick glance at the display board told me, the next train was not due until 10.20 p.m.

Fuelled by an anger, now not only righteous but on the verge of turning psychotic, and rehearsing killer arguments about the iniquity of a railway privatisation programme that meant one company could no longer wait for another company’s delayed train, I remounted the footbridge and strode across to the station concourse determined to vent my wrath on the first uniformed person I met. By chance this hapless human being, selected by fate to hear me out, happened to be wearing the uniform of East Coast, the company whose train had been delayed and arrived too late.

His first reaction to my furious but icily coherent fume on the particular and general issues at stake was, I sensed, a holding operation.

“There’s another train,” he said, glancing at the display board as I had done. “You’ll not be stuck.”

Despite his Yorkshire brogue and corporately-inculcated sense of calm, I was neither soothed nor returned to that state of resigned sanity which makes Anglo-Saxons (and some Celts) so good at grinning and bearing it, or, more often, at grumbling, mumbling and moving off to vent frustration on the spouse via a mobile phone.

“In an hour and half, yes,” I snapped in a crisp, military manner, narrowly avoiding use of an obscene incendiary. “And what about my mother waiting at Malton station to meet me – what will she do?”

My mother died sixteen years ago, and introducing a lie into my already strong case was unnecessary, but the writer in me had entered the fray and fiction would now fight side by side with fact.

“You could call her,” the East Coast official suggested.

A weak response easily shot down.

“She has no mobile phone and why would a call help? She’d still have to wait for an hour and a half.”

The official nodded and changed his approach. By resisting his initial attempts at pacification, I had, it seemed, passed some test, or crossed some Rubicon, and would now be treated as a serious complainant who could not be fobbed off with the company’s first line of defence: ‘You’ll not be stuck.’

“Follow me, love,” he said, adding the Yorkshire term of endearment in a non-corporate, man to man manner. “I’ll get you sorted.”

We crossed the concourse and entered an unmarked corner office squeezed between Starbucks and Hertz. A large woman in a darker, less well-kept uniform than that of the man stood behind a desk, monitoring a series of screens and nursing a coffee container. She glanced up and caught my eye.

“Missed connection?” she asked, switching her gaze to the East Coast man and taking a sip of Latte.

”Aye,” said the man, “Late 8.28 from London, onward journey to Malton. He’ll be wanting a taxi.”

 The woman checked her screens again, picked up a phone and muttered something into it. The man filled in a form and handed it to me.

“Sign here, please, sir.”

Promoted from ‘love’ to ‘sir’, but I was not yet ready to be pacified and drop my protest.

“A taxi? And who will pay for that?”

“It’ll be taken care of,” said the woman without looking up.

“I don’t want to end up filling in a lot of claim forms,” I persisted, keen to continue the fight.

“No forms, except one you’ve signed,” said the man ushering me from the office. “And I’ve filled in that. Now if you go out to taxi rank you’ll see a grey unmarked, car in the far lane. That’s yours.”

Before I could offer thanks, the man had disappeared leaving the concourse deserted apart from two passengers, perhaps off the same train as me, heading to the bar to grin and bear it or grumble and mumble into their mobile phones. There was no one else in uniform to be seen (the information desk had closed, the newsagent was shuttered), and it occurred to me that if I had not bumped into my East Coast man, I too would have been left with no option but to grin and bear it, or bear the considerable cost of a taxi to Malton myself.  As it was, by chance, and because of my refusal to be fobbed off, I had stumbled on a little known regulation (explained to me in more detail by the taxi driver in the unmarked taxi) that requires the UK railway network to facilitate the completion of a passenger’s journey if that passenger has been on an officially delayed train and, as a consequence, will have to wait longer than one hour for an ongoing connection.

“I’ve taken people to London, Glasgow, Birmingham and Manchester,” said the driver, “even Penzance once. As long as you fill conditions and have a ticket to show where you were meant to end up, you get a ride at the taxpayer’s expense – or maybe it’s railway companies that pay, I’m not sure on that. But either way there’s legislation from the 70s – ‘Completion of Journey Act’ or something like that – that means people like me are kept busy and remunerated year in year out.”

I shook my head in disbelief.

“First I’ve heard of it,” I said, thinking of all my missed connections over the years and imagining the chaos that might ensue if the British public – both passive and active wings – got wind of this freebie.

“Aye,” said the driver, as we pulled onto the A64 and sped off to Malton and my fictional mother. “They don’t shout about it from tree-tops,  just apply it when customer puts his foot down.”

So, if you miss a connection and the wait for your train is more than an hour, assert your rights and settle for no less than a taxi home. If, that is, you can find an official to facilitate the ride. The Catch 22: ‘Availability of appropriate staff at the relevant station.’

Good luck!


A four-mile tramp on the Indian Ocean – or how to cope with a cruise



6pm and a sand dusted sun of deep orange is preparing to set over the Arabian Sea in the North Western corner of the Indian Ocean. Our boat – somewhere south of the Arabian Peninsula, and in the preferred zone of operation for Somalian pirates (in readiness for whose possible appearance we have already done a drill involving a return to cabin, drawing of curtains and sitting as far from portholes as possible) – is cruising along at twenty miles an hour on course for Mumbai and its ultimate destination Sydney.

I have finished my writing for the day, but am not yet ready for my evening meal taken in the self-service, free-seating restaurant on Deck Fourteen where a mountain of food awaits me whether I have earned it physically or not. My cabin is on Deck Eight and is just one floor up from the Promenade Deck (Deck Seven) where a well-scrubbed boardwalk encircles the ship from port to starboard and fo’csle to stern. Three laps of this are the equivalent of one mile and my aim this evening is to do twelve – laps, not miles.

It has been 35C during the day and overfed (male) stomachs and underused  (female) thighs – all stretching too-tanned and prematurely aged Caucasian Aussie skin to its leathery limits – have been much in evidence on the Lido Deck (Deck Twelve). I do not inhabit this zombie-like zone of inertia and excess where royal blue sun loungers, azure blue pools and overheated Jacuzzis vie with free ice cream, burgers, hotdogs and French fries for the attention of the atrophying muscles, jaded palates and over-exercised intestines of cruising Australia. Ninety-nine percent of fellow passengers hail from that country, but I have not yet met one indigenous person – not even a neighbouring Polynesian or Maori. Still, no point in taxing my social conscience: the boat, whether I like it or not, is a living, breathing metaphor for the injustices, inequalities and economic imbalances of the world. White European and Australian passengers serviced by Indians and Thais (in the restaurants), Filipinos (in the cabins), Indonesians (in the engine room) and, only at officer level, a handful of Brits and Italians on permanent contracts with paid holidays. I am, after all, one of the privileged first world passengers too, and unless I am prepared to start, stoke and lead a mutiny – for which there would be little support, given the importance of the hire and fire wages to the lower crew echelons – I must accept the status quo.

With this salve applied to the militant tendency in my mind, a mental complement, perhaps, to the factor fifty lotion on my skin, I exit the over cooled Atrium – where the early-to-bed, early-to-rise wizens of Oz are gathering like bats at dusk to drink beer, sip coffee and listen to the world’s worst pianist croon standards no one has heard of – hit the evening heat (now 28C) and, dressed in my beige shorts and brown v-necked leisure shirt, set off for my walk on water.

The first mile: Laps One, Two and three

A florid-faced man slumped on a lounger (there are loungers here too, though they seem less decadent than those on the burger-fuelled Lido Deck) greets me with a ‘How you doing, mate?’ and, as an afterthought, after I am well past him and picking up speed, a yell of ‘Going for gold?’ I wave in acknowledgement of this immobile support for the mobile, but block further bonhomie by fixing an expression of ‘deck walker at work, do not disturb’ on my face. My scrubbed plank path is clear because I have timed my tramp to coincide with the first sitting of dinner in the formal dining rooms, where fixed seating and waiter service appeals to those who like to sit in the same place with the same people every night. Most white Australians, in line with their white British working class heritage, eat the evening meal (‘tea’) early and thus clear the decks for walkers like me who prefer a later ‘dinner’.

Lap one passes without incident. I clock the usual landmarks of a white wash stretching out at the stern of the ship – marine equivalent of a jet’s vapour – bleary-eyed casino staff taking a break by a staff-only door, and defiant smokers on a wagon train encampment of loungers at the forward end of the starboard side. These puffers and coughers, like pioneers of the Old West exploring the frontier of death, clap and mock the self-righteous walkers with aggressive expulsions of smoke and acerbic anecdotes of non-smoking joggers dropping dead mid-jog. Smoking is not allowed inside the ship and at only two designated points outside. The Oz smokers, unlike the Oz over-weights and the Oz over-eighties, see themselves as a persecuted minority and cling together like cowboys on whom the sun is setting fast.

At the start of lap three, having navigated the forward tunnel that separates anchor and mooring gear from maintenance storerooms, a figure shoots past – the first to have done so since I started. One of that rare species aged between twenty and thirty and seen as neither lower nor upper class in the ship’s hierarchy. In this case one of the six female dancers who, together with four males, offer song and dance shows once a week. Schmaltzy extravaganzas in which the ‘girls’ show off their bodies for the titillation of male seniors and their (mostly female) other halves, reminding the former of limitations in the late prostate era and the latter of how lithe and beautiful they once were, or weren’t. Also in this young-blood group are: Spa staff who massage bodies well past sell-by dates into a semblance of freshness; Reception staff with the patience of saints and the memories of sieves; and Cruise staff whose job it is to corral loose-enders (a majority) into collective capers and afternoon bingo. These middle-rank staff are allowed to eat in the anytime, any amount restaurant (perhaps why the pert buttocks passed me at such speed), but unlike passengers they have to clear away their dishes.

The second mile: Laps Four, Five and Six.

I count my laps by shifting my cruise card (a credit card clone that gets you into your cabin and into trouble in the Casino) from left hand pocket (odd numbered laps) to right hand pocket (even numbered laps). Now, as it slips into my right hand pocket and I use the opportunity to adjust my genitalia to a more comfortable position, I notice the swell has swollen. Swell, of noticeable size, occurs in oceans not in enclosed seas like the Med or the Black or the Baltic. It may have been caused by a storm miles away or (in its benign form) be no more than the sloshing that a large amount of water, left to its own devices on a ball revolving at speed around another ball, would make in any context. For landlubbers swell can be disconcerting, discombobulating calves, thighs and feet and requiring readjustments disapproved of by osteopaths and trainers. Imagine the landscape tilting up and down like a seesaw and then from side to side like a – well, like a ship in swell. When side on to swell, a ship rolls; when head on, it pitches. Diagonal swell can produce a mixture of the two movements as the boat’s hull (made of riveted segments) adjusts and resettles. Like turbulence in a plane, but without fasten-your-seat-belt signs and with a duration of twenty-four hours plus rather than ten minutes. In swell there is no choice but to soldier on as if nothing’s afoot – apart, that is, from the undulations beneath your feet. This flexing sensation is when some people throw up, but today the swell though present is not disruptive to a seasoned sea traveller. That said it takes most of the second mile, and the odd near miss with fellow walkers on the narrow sections, to adjust to the fact that the earth is, once again, moving for me.

The third mile: Laps Seven, Eight and Nine.

Nothing of note occurs during my third mile. The swell stabilizes to an acceptable pattern; the deck fills with strollers summoning appetites for the second sitting and getting in my way; the sun disappears and darkness descends with the rapidity of a sub-tropical clime. The smokers have enlarged their wagon train and need to be given a wider berth if passive smoking is to be avoided; my greeter on his lounger outside the Atrium has fallen asleep so will fail to see whether I go for gold or not; the dancer has disappeared, her dancing toes perhaps too discombobulated by the swell. Now the black sea is at one with the black sky and only the deck lights distinguish us from the void. A feeling of a fair at night, or a promenade in a 1950s seaside resort with nothing but the heat to remind me of where I am. That is the role of a cruise ship: wherever you are in the world, you are still in its safe, demarcated interior world – still able to define your existence in terms of its familiar smells and angular points of view. Some find this limiting, or boring, but, for a writer, its consistency allows the mind to roam.

The fourth mile: Laps Ten, Eleven and Twelve.

I am tempted to head indoors at the end of lap nine – my eat-anytime appetite is growing, my sweat pouring and the boardwalk turning into an unattended obstacle course. But then, as with the dancer, I am overtaken by someone who has come up, without warning, behind me. I watch as the figure, speed walking not jogging, powers past and draws ahead inch-by-inch and then foot-by-foot. No twenty-something this time, but an elderly woman with a slightly dislocated hip whose age I would put at 70. She is, to coin a phrase, motoring, and whether it is because of my competitive male instinct, or because of a sense of guilt at only having done nine laps, I start to motor too. A second wind becomes a second turbo charge. And, yes, it is a competitive instinct kicking in, or perhaps more of a ‘if a seventy-year old woman can do it, I can too!’ challenge. I up my speed, dodging strollers more boldly and threatening those who sabotage my dodges with a collision. ‘Where’s the fire, mate?’ someone says, and I want to reply ‘Up ahead, that woman in the red shirt and white trousers doing ninety miles an hour!’ But I don’t, I just follow in my new pacesetter’s wake – she is a more determined and effective clearer of obstacles than me – and bit-by-bit I narrow the gap.

By the middle of lap two I am within striking distance, when, despite the apparent fragility of her hip, and an age that I now put closer to seventy-five, the speed queen ups her tempo and, in the process, almost knocks a smoker lighting up into the sea. ‘You should watch where you’re going, mate’ the smoker (male) exhales at me, preferring not to chase the real cause of his near demise. ‘There could be an accident’, he adds, as if his flaming lighter weren’t danger enough. I smile, the Englishman’s defence, and push on.

Speed Queen swerves round the left hand bend at the top of the starboard side and into the forward tunnel. When I take the turn, she is not there and I fear she has cheated and broken into a trot. But no, after the second bend at the end of the tunnel, I see her striding down the port side, her faulty hip falling and rising like the well-oiled piston of a steam engine. This is my last lap and I decide that I have to catch and overtake her before it ends – otherwise, she will think I have just given up and thrown in the towel.

If that is, she has given me a second thought.

We thunder down the port side, scattering strollers and forcing a wheelchair to take a pit stop in the jigsaw room. Hard left into the stern section, the wake now bubbling in the glare of neon deck lamps, and hard left out of it. The last starboard leg and I’m gaining. The second sitting strollers have fled to the second sitting, the smokers have smoked their last cigarette and the deck is almost empty. The tunnel looms, but I will not be able to pass her there – too narrow. Then we are out of the tunnel and suddenly she turns and smiles at me. She has been aware of my presence. I make a supreme effort and catch up as the Atrium door and the end of my twelfth lap approach. ‘Thank you!’ I gasp, ‘you’ve been a marvellous pacesetter.’ ‘You stop now?’ she says with a faint French accent. I nod and slow. ‘Quel dommage!’ she adds, motoring off at full speed. ‘Ten more for me tonight! Au revoir!’


The young film maker joins illegal and violent demonstration in West Berlin to protest at death of Red Army Fraction (Baader Meinhof) member Holger Meins

Berlin (West) Demo image 2

(Part of an early draft of novel Friends & Enemies not included in published version)

After a year in Berlin, I had reached some sort of alternative Cloud Nine. I had friends in the West and friends in the East and when I stood in the control hut at Checkpoint Charlie with East German guards staring at me and my passport – back and forth, up and down – I felt a heightened sense of being somewhere, of being someone, of being here and being now.

And it wasn’t just the Wall. In Berlin, I had, at last, came across like-minded people; people, with a serious approach to life, trying to understand how they fitted – or had been fitted – into society and how they could break out. In autumn 1974, West Berlin was a place for discussion and practice of everything from revolution to relationships and communal living to open sexuality: ‘Need for tenderness’, ‘Compul­sion to orgasm’, ‘Whole body relating’, ‘An end to genital fixation’ – the list was end­less and, in many ways, far ahead of its time. Everyone, women and men, felt oppressed by the sexist adverts on the hoardings and in the U-Bahn; everyone accepted that things would have to change, inside and out. Marx had met Freud and women had stated their case; the notion of simple futures where wives would nurture hard working husbands had been blown away. The uphill climb by me, the lone male mountaineer with an over-sensitive take on gender and life in general had become a communal caravan across the desert of capitalism. Now people saw where they were going, helped each other on the way and did not doubt they would get there in the end.

Some, of course, wanted to take a short cut – Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof sat in cells in Stammheim, condemned for blasting their way through the sand – but I did not support violence and saw it as a form of capitulation to the psychotic ways of the ruling class. I had, however, demonstrated against the prison conditions of Holger Meins, another member of the Red Army Fraction. He was not in Stammheim, but in Moabit jail in West Berlin where he had gone on hunger strike in protest at his solitary confinement. He had not eaten for three months, the authorities refused to transfer him to a hospital and his death was expec­ted soon.

It finally came on November 10th, a grey and unpromising day. I was reading a book on semiotics in my room at the back of the commune, when the news broke. The door burst open and Gisela bounced in. She was a round woman with red cheeks and a permanent air of enthusiasm. Along with my friend Dieter, she was the founder of the commune where I lived and had roped me into her Sponti political movement after a Sunday seminar on undogmatic Marxism a few weeks earlier.

“Come on, Joe! We’re meeting at Turm­strasse and marching down to the prison.”

“What? Why?”

“Haven’t you heard?” Gisela’s eyes gleamed as she warmed her hands on the tiles of a brown coal oven. “Holger Meins is de­ad.”


“Last night. They only let the news out this morning. The Senate’s banned marches so we’re keeping the meeting place secret, spreading it by word of mouth. I’m to tell sympathisers round here. Will you help?”

“Of course.”

We ran through courtyards, climbed staircases and left notes informing people where to go. We hammered on doors, cajoled and persuaded, and, at our last port of call, dug out Stefan, the lover of Gisela’s best friend Hanna and a man more into movies than Marx.

By the time we reached Turmstrasse, the demonstrators were forming into rows. I spotted Hanna and waved. She ran over and gave me a hug.

“My favouri­te Englishman!” she cried.

Then she saw Stefan attempting to hide behind Gisela.

“You’ve come? You told me you were ill?”

Stefan shrugged his shoulders.

“You told me you couldn’t get off work and you’re here.”

“That’s because I was speaking from the teachers’ common room.”

Gisela pushed her way between the lovers and linked arms with them both.

“Come on, you two. No arguments today. All right?”

A police bus – light flashing, siren wailing – screeched past the demonstrators and pulled across the road. Riot police jumped out and positioned themselves in front of the first row. The way to the prison was blocked.

“Someone must have informed,” said Hanna, taking hold of my right arm.

A loud-hailer declared the demonstration illegal and ordered all participants to disperse. A group at the back began shouting. Somebody threw a bottle.

“RAF,” said a voice to my left. “They provoke on principle.”

I turned and found a tall man with blonde hair standing next to me.

“Your first demonstration?” the man asked as he linked arms.

“Oh no,” I replied.

“But the first with action, yes?”

“Well,” I said, ducking as another bottle smashed in front of the police, “I was nearly in Grosvenor Square in ’68.”

The man laughed.

“Nearly in Grosvenor Square in ’68. I like it. English humour, no?”

“Yes. Yes.”

I laughed, too.

The police gave a second warning and said they would charge if the crowd did not disperse. I was in row six. I turned to see how many were behind us and was surprised to find people complying with the order. Row by row the demonstration was dissolving.

“We’re not moving,” hissed Hanna to the tall man. “Right, Manfred?”

But someone had tapped Manfred on the shoulder.

“New tactic,” a voice whispered. “Pretend to cave in. Regroup at the Ku’dam.”

Manfred passed the message on to me and peeled off.

“Manfred, you shit!” yelled Hanna.

I explained the tactic to her and soon everyone was heading for the Ku’dam – ambling off in twos and threes, pretending to be out for a stroll.

Near the entrance to Tiergarten, Manfred glanced up at the sky.


I followed his gaze and saw helicopters approaching from the south.

“Should we scatter?” asked Stefan hopefully.

“No, we should not,” said Hanna. “Straight on for the Ku’dam!”

“I only asked,” whined her boyfriend.

“If you don’t want to come, don’t,” snapped Hanna. “Go to a stupid film instead.”

“Hanna!” hissed Gisela.

At the junction of Kurfurstendam and Joachimstaler­strasse, demonstrators had already occupied the pavements. Reinforcements were emerging from the U-Bahn and spilling on to the road. A whispering began, like wind in the willows.

“Make a circle. Block the traffic.”

People formed into lines of five and walked round the centre of the junction – one after the other, closely packed, column after column. Motorists hooted. A policeman blew his whistle. But they were powerless to break the human wheel.

My group linked arms and squeezed in behind five Red Army men in crash helmets.

“The state has murdered Holger Meins – Holger, Holger, Holger Meins!”

A white Mercedes tried to push its way through. An RAF man forced open the driver’s door. Manfred pulled him back. The driver reversed away.

“That’s what the authorities want us to do,” said Manfred, rejoining the line. “Beat people up, behave like animals. It doesn’t help our cause. We must win the public’s sympathy.”

I nodded and joined in the chant. I had never felt better, never felt so much. Acting for justice with no self doubts, a rebel with a cause – no dream of what might be, just action now.

“The state has murdered Holger Meins,” I shouted at the top of my voice, “Holger, Holger, Holger Meins!”

Hanna laughed and yelled in my ear:

“Your accent is atrocious.”

Then the sirens began. A chill ran down my spine. Tank-like vehicles clea­red a path through the cars – blue mon­sters with blank faces.

“Water canons,” Manfred shouted.

The line in front stopped. A helmeted man turned and yelled.

“New formation. Rows of twenty across the Ku’dam!”

He indicated that my group should move forward and link arms with his.

“Oh no,” wailed Stefan. “We’re in the front line.”

“That’ll make a change for you,” said Hanna, but her voice sounded nervous too.

The cannons halted behind a phalanx of shield-wielding riot police with visors down. I glanced over my shoulder. Row upon row of demonstrators stretched back towards the ruined shell of the Gedaechtniskirche – faces alert, tense, determined.

Die bullen sind bloed!” yelled a Red Army man.

Police are stupid.

“Don’t provoke,” said Manfred.

“Shit liberal!” the man replied, but stopped his chant.

Night had fallen and a cold wind from the East cut through the seams of my worn sheepskin coat. The advertisements flashed and winked, mocking the protesters with their message of stabi­lity. In Kempinskis, ladies in fur hats sipped coffee and toyed with cakes, faces turned towards the street waiting for the show to start. Press photographers positio­ned themselves near the police, flashguns firing. TV cameras took aim from rooftops or patrolled – tape recorders in tow – up and down no-man’s land. One reporter argued with her direc­tor about where to stand. She wanted to be in front of the demonstrators, the director wanted her with the police. In the end, she and the camera walked around in circles.

Then the space between the front-lines was cleared. A new chant rolled for­ward from the back of the demonstration, picking up momentum and volume as it approached us.

“No repression by the state! We have the right to demonstrate!”

The Red Army men added ‘Holger, Holger, Holger Meins’ and as the chants met they doubled in force and surged across no-man’s land to the waiting police, drowning out an officer calling on the demonstrators to ‘Disperse or face the consequences!’

“This is it,” hissed Manfred.

The police moved forward followed by the water cannons. Slowly. Steadily.

Then they fired.

“Stand firm!” shouted Manfred, as water slammed into his stomach.

I bent to help him but was hit too, a block of ice smashing into my skull.

“Turn your back!” Hanna shouted.

I couldn’t breathe, could­n’t move.

Another jet of water smashed into my groin. The police were only yards away – truncheons high, shields out. The crowd surged forward, pushing me towards the truncheons that now began battering batons on shields in a deafening cacophony of terror.

“Fall back and regroup!” came the command.

I turned and ran. Manfred ran. We all ran. Retreating head over heels in front of the drums, lines disintegrating as the din approached. I glanced back and saw a policeman beat a Red Army man across the back – not once, but on and on and on. A woman was hit between the legs and dumped into a van that moved forward with the canons picking up human refuse as it was clubbed into submission.

My coat felt heavy – soaked through, weighing me down. But I kept on running.

Suddenly a pair of arms grabbed me. I ducked, ready for a blow to the head, the back, the balls. The arms held me, but didn’t abuse me.

I turned. It was Manfred.

“No good running. Police are everywhere. We must regroup.”

I locked arms with Manfred and counted a dozen rows ahead of us – we were no longer in the front line.

I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned. It was Hanna. Her long hair soaked with water, her face blue with cold. She locked arms, too, and huddled close.

“Stefan’s been hit. Gisela’s taken him home.”

“Is he all right?”

“I think so.” She wiped away a tear. “He was trying to stop a pig hitting me.”

“And Gisela?”

“Cut in the face – best for her to go with him.”

With the column reformed, the chan­ting swelled again. We surged forward as one – at a run this time – charging headlong at the state’s protective wall, the words of the chant coming fast and loud.

“No repression by the state! We have the right to demon­strate!”

I kept my eyes on the front line. When it hit the police, it would stop dead.

“No repression by the state! We have the right to demonstrate!”

I concentrated on the words – spitting out each sylla­ble, fighting off the cold.

“No repression by the state! We have the right to demonstrate!”

Shots broke across the chanting. Four rows in front of me, lines scattered as a plume of smoke rose from the ground. More shots and a canister landed by my feet.

“Tear gas! Cover your mouth and nose!”

Manfred thrust a scarf at me. I pressed it to my face, but gas had already reached my lungs. I wretched. I no longer cared what happened, as long as I could stop and lie down. I tried to cover my mouth, but the gas numbed my brain and my hands would not move. I collapsed to the ground coughing.

“Get up!” – Manfred’s voice – “Get up! Head for Zoo Station!”

I struggled to my feet, fighting off nausea, willing myself to move.

All around people coughed and screamed. Beyond the fog, sirens wailed.

“Can you walk?” Hanna yelled.

“I think so,” I replied.

“Good. Keep your face covered and follow us.”

Figures loomed from the shadows clutching scarves to mouths. Red Army men ran past with iron bars, guided by the sound of breaking glass. Onlookers cowered too terrified to move.

One old lady crouching by a kiosk on the corner of Kantstrasse held a cardboard carton over her head with the word ‘Hilfe!’ scrawled on its side. Men in suits, emerging from the peep shows behind her – eyes stained with prurience, expressions blank and empty – ignored her plea, fastened their trousers and ran for safety.

I struggled across the street and took hold of the woman’s hand.

“Where are you headed?” I asked.

“Anywhere,” she stuttered.

“Want to come with us?”

The woman nodded.

Manfred took her other arm and we pressed on.

Baton-wielding policemen appeared from an alley and charged. Manfred pointed at the woman. The police took no notice. Manfred and I hoisted her onto our shoulders and ran as best we could.

The police pursued. A flashgun fired. Aimed at us, I hoped: ‘Demonstrators save granny from police!’

“Ought to be ashamed,” the old lady mut­tered into Joe’s ear.

“Who ought?” I gasped. “The demonstrators?”

“No! The police.”

Near Zoo station, the pursuers were diverted by a fire and gave up. Manfred and I, out of breath from our exertions, lowered the woman to the ground and entered the station. It was packed. Wounded demonstrators lay in rows tended by medical students. Unhar­med protesters huddled in corners discussing tactics. Members of the public wiped eyes and dusted down clothes, unsure what to do next. The station regulars – junkies and unemployed Turkish workers – stood in front of the exchange office too bemused to ask for money. Beyond them a crowd pushed up against the ticket counter, desperate to get home.

Hanna bent down to the woman.

“Where do you live?”

“In the East. Prenzlauer Berg”

“In the East?”   Hanna queried, and then burst out laughing. “You can tell them it’s true then. We are oppressed and brutalised.”

“I know,” said the woman. “I was here in ’68. I always come for the riots.”

I wondered how she could have crossed the wall, and then remembered that pensioners were free to travel back and forth.

“The East – that’s a good idea,” said Manfred, as a group of policeman arrived to block off the entrance to the street. “Let’s go to Friedrichstrasse.”

“Coming too?” I asked the woman.

“No thank you, but I’m grateful for your help.”

I squeezed her hand and ran after Hanna and Manfred.

At the S-Bahn entrance Man­fred ducked under the barrier. Hanna and I followed suit. On the platform most people were heading west, and when a train for Frie­drichstrasse clattered in we were the only ones to board. We collapsed on to the slatted wooden seats and sighed with relief when the doors shut and the train pulled out.

As it rolled through the Tiergarten, we saw blue lights flashing in the trees and a gas cloud hanging low over the Ku’dam Ecke. The cross on the Ge­daechtnis­kirche shone forth, the Mercedes sign winked.

We win, it said. You lose.

Hanna took my hand and squeezed.

“You all right? You were in a bad way back there?”

“A bit cold.”

“A bit cold? Is that all? You English understate everything. Aren’t you exhilarated, terri­fied, exhausted, happy, sad?”

“Yes, that to.”

 Hanna leant across and hugged the sheepskin coat. I put an arm around her and an arm around Manfred and together we rattled past the ruins of the Reichstag, over the Spree and across the wall – today a welcome barrier against the hypocrisy and conflicts of capitalism. When the train reached Friedrichstrasse – with its East German guards on gantries above and kiosks selling duty free goods below – we found a bench and declared it free of East and West. Manfred bought whisky and Swiss chocolate and we sat getting drunk against the cold – happy to be in no man’s land, happy to be alive, happy to wait a little longer for the revolution.

HELLO TO BERLIN, 1973 – Part Five

The young English filmmaker goes East with his East Berlin friend to meet a Goddess of the Steelworks, and very seductive socialist, in the DDR hinterland

Goddess of the Steelworks - off duty

(Part of an early draft of novel Friends & Enemies not included in published version)

Lothar waited beside the sealed up Metro station of Berlin Mitte on the northern side of Checkpoint Charlie – or Grenzuebergang Kochstrasse as his government called it. The sky hung low and cold, and he wore a woollen scarf and fur-lined Russian hat.

Jon the filmmaker, who Dieter had reintroduced to Lothar at the Berliner Ensemble, had, at last, got in touch and agreed to meet up today, Sunday the fifteenth of November. The Englishman, with a visa for travel outside East Berlin, would bring Dieter’s old Mercedes and drive with Lothar to the East German hinterland for an inspection of a steelworks under the guidance of Lothar’s secondary, proletarian lover, Brigade Leader Almuth Wietz.

A car hooted. Lothar glanced towards the checkpoint: a Trabant stalled at the crossroads, guards coming off duty, an American military Jeep asserting – like a child from the wrong side of town – its right to drive in the Russian zone. Not much traffic at three o’clock on a Sunday – too late for tourists wanting to view the Red Threat, too early for Turkish guest workers seeking prostitutes priced in East Marks. The horn sounded again, and this time Lothar saw a figure climb out of a mud-spattered vehicle across from the Metro entrance. The figure wore a scarf, blue jeans and an anorak longer at the back than front. A Westerner, thought Lothar. Lost or wants to sell me his jeans.

He turned back to the checkpoint, hoping to catch a glimpse of Dieter’s Mercedes. He was cold and impatient for the warmth of a comfortable car.


A hand tapped him on the shoulder. Lothar swung round and found himself face to face with the Westerner.

“Yes?” he snapped, preparing to lecture the young man on the importance of clean cars and respectable clothing in a socialist country. “How can I help?”

“It’s me. Jon.”

Lothar put out a hand and pulled down the scarf covering the stranger’s mouth.

“My God,” he said. “So it is. Where’s the car?”

“There,” replied Jon, pointing to the wreck across the road. “The mini-van. The one you found me in on the Berliner Ring.”

“Mini-van?” exclaimed Lothar. “What about the Mercedes?”

“Reinhardt had to go to Karlsruhe. His father’s ill. So…”

“We’re going to Schwedt-an-der-Oder, number one new town of the GDR and the country’s most model of model socialist communities, in that?”

“Afraid so,” laughed Jon. “Not the same as a Merc. But it drives all right.”

Lothar shook his head, straightened his hat and followed Jon. He should not be making a fuss, he knew, but he had looked forward to drawing up at the steelworks in a Mercedes. Looked forward to Almuth’s expression of amazement as he stepped out, held the rear door open and invited her to step inside and feel the luxury of leather seats. She was more of a socialist than him, but would still have been impressed – still have felt her fading sensibility for glamour and the world of the rich and famous touched.

“You all right?” Jon asked, as Lothar attempted to close the passenger door with a piece of string doubling as a handle. “That side’s a bugger to shut.”

Jon leant across and slammed the door, breaking the string in the process.

“Damn! You’ll have to use my side, now.”

“And in an emergency?”

“Not sure,” replied Jon with a grin. “Hope for the best, I guess.”

The car started. They swung left into Kochstrasse, took a right down Unter den Linden and after circling the television tower twice found the road to Schwedt.

“Hopefully, the Vopos won’t stop us”, Lothar remarked in a piqued tone, as they swept through the outer suburbs of North Eastern East Berlin. “I’m not sure they could deal with you, the car and the presence of a leading GDR citizen inside it!”

Jon slowed to let an old lady cross the road and, as he did so, leant over to Lothar.

“Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It’s Super-Gran!”

Lothar’s demeanour of disgruntlement remained in place for a moment and then cracked, as a chuckle broke free from its straitjacket. The Englishman was irresistible and he had remembered his host’s interest in Western comics. A kindred spirit, an anarchist at heart, an oddball artist with a sense of humour. He was also young – Lothar’s junior by twenty years – and his youth infectious, an invigorating tonic for an ageing alcoholic. Why be grumpy? Why carp? Who cared what car they were in? Who bloody cared? Status was stultifying, keeping up appearances a game for mugs and party hacks. Together, Jon and he would have fun and if they frightened a few Vopos in the process, so what? Conformity be damned! Long Live the Marx Brothers!

Lothar leant forward and thumped the dashboard with his fist.

“Or this!” he yelled. “Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It’s Super-van!’

The two men roared with laughter, waved at the old lady, now safely across the road and – on Lothar’s prompting – burst into a dual language version of the Internationale.

By the time they reached Schwedt, it was dark. But Lothar’s spirits were light as a feather, his soul full of a joie de vivre normally associated with drunkenness or that moment where orgasm is in sight and assured, but not yet paid for in prostate pain. As they approached Almuth’s workplace, sparks from the smelter lit up the night sky.

“The heartland of our socialist republic,” exclaimed Lothar, as they drew up at the gates of the People’s Own Steelworks.

Jon climbed out and gazed up at the smelting tower.

“Amazing!’ he cried. “In the West, steelworks are monsters – blots on the landscape. But this…this is beautiful…a Cathedral!”

“Perhaps, because here it is the workers we worship,” Lothar said, putting an arm round his friend’s shoulder.

Jon nodded and the two men stood in silence watching the miracle of molecular fusion forge steel from the stone of iron ore.

“Lothar!” cried a female voice behind them. “Is that you?”

Lothar and Jon turned. A tall, well-built woman in hard-hat, heavy-duty boots and green overalls with a small red star above the left breast was approaching from the gates.

“Almuth!” shouted Lothar, moving to meet the Wagnerian apparition. “Jon, meet the High Priestess of our Workers Cathedral, Brunhilde of the Bronze Smelting Process, Mother Superior of Steel Ingots and Iron bars, the Goddess of…” – Lothar reached Almuth, planted a passionate kiss on her burnished lips and turned back to Jon – “Meet Brigade Leader Comrade Almuth Wietz.” Jon moved forward and shook the outstretched hand.  “Almuth, meet Mr Jon Cruft, our artist from the far off land of Anglo-Saxons.”

“Hello, Jon,” said Almuth, pointing back at the works. “A fine moment to arrive.”

Jon nodded, overcome with admiration for a woman he had only just met and about whom he knew next to nothing – the overalls, the grime, her man’s job.

“Shall we go round the works, now?” she asked. “What do you think, Lothar?”

“Whatever Jon wishes,” replied Lothar. “I’m merely the facilitator of this field trip.”

“Fine, let’s go,” she said, heading back to the gates. “You coming with us, Paul?”

“I’d love to, but as a lowly intellectual, I must at all times and in all places remind myself of how real workers, live, think and drink! I’ll be in the works bar when you return.”

Almuth laughed, took Jon by the arm and led him off through the pearly gates.

Jon enjoyed the tour – not so much for what he saw, but for what he heard. Almuth was no propagandist paid to persuade dignitaries from the third world of the East’s superiority, but a woman who believed in the system. A system, she said, that may not have bought people the wealth of the West, but had ensured there were no fat cats, few criminals and a ruling party which – though not a paragon of virtue in its sometimes paranoid perception of duty – outlawed self-aggrandisement along with the speculators and Mafioso who, in the West, had turned the making of money into a religion of death and destruction. Yes, there were disappointments and frustrations and, as a brigade leader, she knew all about them. Socialism, in her book, should not claim to be able to cleanse the human condition of suffering. Existence, physically and psychologically – getting from birth to death in one piece, as she put it – was tough, regardless of where a government stood on the political spectrum. But helping people live together in moderation and with a common purpose – rather than playing them off against each other for bigger cars and better houses – was feasible and eminently practical. Not everyone had a car, but those who did shared. Not everyone had a television, but those who did allowed others to watch.

Like in the war, suggested Jon, as they watched molten steel flow across the floor into massive moulds and acknowledged the waves of workers overseeing the procedure. Yes, agreed Almuth, in a way. The solidarity that scarcity brings; coming together in a struggle where defeat of the enemy is more important than individual comfort; the sharing of resources and personal good luck for the good of all. Yes, that was socialism.

“But surely,” Jon persisted as they headed to the canteen. “Surely the disaster is past, the war over, the struggle won. You have your republic and now you can reap the rewards.”

“Yes,” said Almuth. “And life is better. But we still have a common enemy – the enemy you in the West, despite the sacrifices of your soldiers, have given into.”

“And that is?” inquired Jon.

“Greed. The wish to have more than your neighbour, the right to have more than your neighbour, the duty to have more than your neighbour. The motor of capitalism.”

Jon stopped and stared back at the glow of the smelter.

Was it that simple?


Samurai fighters on film                                “How your tender touch excites me, dearest!”.

Recently, while watching a film with hit and miss subtitles, I was reminded of an incident that occurred, when I lived in West Berlin in the early 1970s. At the time, I spoke German fluently and was sometimes asked by the Arsenal Art Cinema (Kino Arsenal) to translate foreign films ‘live’ during projection – from English into German.

This was before most educated Germans spoke, or at least understood, English, but at a time when English had already become the language in which a transcript of the dialogue was provided by filmmakers and companies submitting films. The festival or cinema could then decide whether to pay for subtitling, or not. If not, in the Arsenal’s case, it gave a translator a copy of the dialogue transcript, a beer or two and a cubbyhole at the back of the cinema with a microphone. During the film’s projection, the translator translated – in my case, not always one hundred percent up to speed, but vaguely in sync with the action – and the audience listened on headphones.

One time (in the Berlin equivalent of an NFT all night screening) I was given the English dialogue transcript for a rare Japanese film – the title escapes me now – that had received a great deal of publicity and drawn a big audience to the Arsenal. All went well for a reel or two, though simultaneously keeping an eye on the written word and the screen action proved a nerve-racking challenge given that the viewers were dependent on me for their understanding of the film and its eminent director’s intent.

Half way through reel three, it dawned on me that I was translating dialogue for a romantic love scene (Japanese style) in the middle of a Samurai battle (Japanese style) on screen. The transcript pages had been mixed up and there was no way of knowing where I was. I had little option but to struggle on and, to begin with, the audience – used to ‘difficult’ art films – accepted the disparity between sound and image in a grave manner, diligently trying to fathom the meaning of the filmmaker’s daring audiovisual deconstruction and formalist sang-froid. But when, minutes later, the situation was reversed and a love scene (very Japanese) appeared on screen with dialogue (very Japanese) from the Samurai battle, giggles and titters began to surface. I decided to stop the film and announce over the loudspeaker system that I had lost my place. But, when I did, the audience shouted, “No matter! Go on! Go on!”

So I did, and, by the end of the movie, a serious art film had become a rip-roaring comedy with the entire audience rolling in the aisles. Luckily the filmmaker was not present, otherwise I am sure he or she would have been mortified – we do not always like our work to be laughed at for the wrong reasons! Now of course digital subtitling on digital copies of films makes the costly process of getting text onto celluloid redundant, but sometimes I think that the more we solve technical difficulties the less opportunities there are for spontaneous creative chaos based on honest human error.

The Beastliness of British Soldiers – Systemic Abuse in Iraq and elsewhere.

British soldier in Iraq - imageReports of the extensive abuse, torture and rape of prisoners and civilians in Iraq by British soldiers is one of the most disturbing pieces of news to appear in recent days.

Disturbing and sad for those of us who like to think of our nation as civilised and compassionate even in a combat zone, and unpleasant proof – almost unpalatable, when you see the images of ‘our lads and lasses’ at work – of the hypocrisy of holier than thou attitudes peddled by British Governments from the colonial era through to the present day with regard to the beastliness of others. Hopefully, as a result of recent publicity, something will change in the way the army is allowed to act when abroad, but the fact that a large group of Iraqis is having to go to court to show how they were victims of systemic British brutality – i.e. not of rogue soldiers or local commanders acting off their own bat – is unfortunately not surprising.

Britain has a long and dishonourable tradition of brutality and uncivilised behaviour towards the inhabitants, as well as the soldiers, of ‘foreign’ places that it has invaded and./or is occupying – including the Irish. It is a shameful history that stretches back into the ‘glorious’ days of empire when there was, in the name of white ‘settlement’, systemic mistreatment of Maori in New Zealand and indigenous peoples in Australia and Canada, as well as the setting up of concentration camps in the Boer War. Earlier in the 19th century, in a previous invasion of a far off land called Afghanistan, whole villages were laid waste systematically and their inhabitants abused or killed. More recently the revelations regarding extreme torture in Kenya, and the likely execution of a similar government policy in places such as Malaysia and Aden are further evidence of a tradition that is not based on the behaviour of sadistic individuals (though the army does not discourage the recruitment of such people), but is part of a concerted military (and thus government) strategy to terrorise local populations and force them into submission.

The Second World War with its largely conscript army seems to have been, on the whole, an exception, but when the war or conflict being engaged in by Britain has not had a clear ‘just war’ tag (or is a form of occupation, or so-called settlement, of a foreign land) – and, in particular, when the people affected are non-Caucasians – military brutality is given its head as a (covert) part of official policy. Add to this (a) the top down brutalisation of soldiers in military training through unquestioning obedience to authority and the turning of a blind eye to bullying and sexual abuse in barracks, and (b) the imitation of sadistic sexual practices seen on Internet, and we have the perfect recipe for a fighting force ready to torture others, almost, it appears, for fun and in our name.

It may not be possible to rule out the presence of sadists in the armed forces, but it is possible to disseminate and demand an ethos of humane treatment of prisoners and civilians in combat – in other words, to stop sadism and brutality from being a sanctioned mode of behaviour that is accepted and encouraged as a necessary evil by the political and military authorities. It is possible to have a civilised army, as countries such as Germany, who have learnt the lessons of history, have proved. Britain, it seems, has yet to learn – perhaps because it has never been defeated and had its practices held up to the light by outsiders. Until it does, or the government introduces real safeguards, the arrival of British troops in your country will be no guarantee of safety – or civilised behaviour.



The following excerpts are taken from the autobiographical novel BACK IN 1984


We dressed, downed coffee and with the sky still dark headed off to fetch a fellow watcher – a member of the Mili­tant Tendency – from the Hyde Park estate. She was waiting when we arrived, her breath visible in the cold air. She climbed in and we raced on to a col­lie­ry in Kilnhurst.

We entered a tiny NUM office. Burly miners smoked cigarettes without filters and supped pint pots of tea. They eyed up the women, checked out their bodies and then said ‘Hello’ – or so it seemed to me, a man immersed in the battle of the sexes, unversed in the battle for jobs. The Militant woman had told of picketing miners shouting ‘Show us your tits!’ at Police Watch women, of cops telling dirty jokes in loud voices to ‘tease the ladies’. So squeezed like a sardine into this male den, I felt doubly nervous: for the women exposed to potentially sexist miners and for myself – a man scared of big toug­h men, especially big tough working-class men. But Mary seemed unconcerned. So I hid behind her, smiled and talked about the weather.

We were instructed to follow a miner’s car. It drove off at speed through the misty dawn light of a surreal South Yorkshire countryside: autumnal woodlands, desolate slag heaps, babbling brooks and decaying factories. We screeched to a halt in a villa­ge called Toddy, where miners had congregated to divert police from another pit. They seemed cheerful, cracking jokes and singing songs. Then six armoured transits sped past – blue lights flashing, sirens sounding – and the mood changed. The vans formed a line at one end of the stree­t. The men linked arms. I felt nervous. Suppose riot police emerged and gave chase? Beating us with batons like they did on television? Would the girls save me?

No time to find out as we crammed back into the car, decoy duty done, and headed on to Kiveton – a pit where the Coal Board was bussing in scab labour on a daily basis. Police were everywhere, hemming in villagers on the High Street or herding them like sheep into sealed side streets. Outside one pub we counted thirteen police vans with thirteen policemen in each van – a military occupation in all but name. We walked to the first gate and found police and pickets coexisting in relative harmony.

“South Yorkshire boys are all right,” explained the Militant woman, pointing her zoom lens down the line of blue. “It’s the Met you have to watch.”

We hurried on. Near the second gate Mary broke into a run.

“The horses are out!” she shouted over her shoulder.

I glanced down to my left, towards the grey mass of the pit and saw lines of policemen on horseback moving in formati­on towards the second gate. On top of a slagheap overlooking the scene two outriders stood silhouetted against the sky.

“John Wayne and bloody Tonto up there,” said a grey-haired man with coal-stained skin, happily mixing screen genres as he poin­ted at the apocalyptic horsemen.

We reached the gate too late. Twenty working miners had been brought out and the pickets were trudging back with mounted police behind – batons raised, visors down.

“Any trouble bringing scabs out?” Mary asked a passing miner.

Funny to hear her middle-class voice say ‘scab’, but the miner answered in a friendly man­ner.

“No trouble, love. Didn’t set horses on us this time.”

Rain began to fall and as the column tramped past us up the hill we turned and walked with it. I wondered how the strikers kept this up – day after day, week after week, month after month. People here had not been paid for eight months and most families were on relief food. Yet there was still determination, still the will to win. One woman misunderstood our badges and shouted abuse, until a friend explained what Police Watch meant. They must be bitter. Jobs threatened, villages occupied day and night.

I thought of the tiny bronze miner’s lamp that the striking Nottinghamshire miners had sent me, a token of gratitude for my donation. I wished I could go on giving, wished my private means could multiply and turn the tide. And as the marching pickets and watching wives began to sing, the picture of a community on the edge of physical defeat changed to an image of a moral victory that would last for ever.

Miners strike police and picket line


Alice rang and insisted we go to the Labour party’s fund raising event. She had bought enough food for us all to take something: Shredded Wheat packets for me, tins of baked beans for Mary, dog food for herself.

The dog food led to raised eyebrows amongst collectors standing with super­market trolleys at the entrance to City Hall, but who cared – miners have dogs too. Alice’s twelve-year old son Ken wanted to sit in the gallery, so we climbed the stairs and found seats at the front. Down below bag after bag was being unloaded from trolleys and stacked across the front of the stage. Cans of this, cans of that, boxes and cartons, bags and bottles – like some unordered supermarket shelf or first prize in a Win a Year’s Groceries competition. I stared at the scene and felt my melancholy shift to sadness. I sensed the hopelessness of the miners’ situation – fighting impossible odds, dependent on haphazard donations. I knew that others in the audience felt the same and that belief in victory was fading. The first speaker could not lift the mood and the first act – a depressed and depressing folk singer from Rotherham – made matters worse. Spirits rose briefly when Stan Orme, the shadow minister of energy, appeared, but sunk back when party leader Neil Kinnock – who has refused to attend rallies or publicly back the strike – was mentio­ned.

Then the tide turned. David Blunkett, the blind leader of Sheffield City Council, was guided on to the stage with his dog Ted. Once in position he thundered like a Baptist minister – rallying the congregation, deriding the Tories, defending the right to strike and the right to liberty. Law and order, he pointed out to loud applau­se, was available in dictatorships throughout the world, liberty a less common commodity. I leant forward on a brass handrail that ran along the parapet in front of our seats. The decorated roof of the city hall with its glass petals and tarnished metal strips seemed less oppressive and pompous now; it began to represent past struggles, past victories, hope for the future. The mood of the meeting lifted. Roy Bailey sang a song about the Diggers, its words and music placing us in history – this meeting, this strike, all part of a long tradition of struggle against oppression and exploi­tation. My eyes lit up. I clapped. The gap left by loss of religion filled with new faith. Evensong for socialists, the struggle praised and honoured, the glorifi­cation of God and death replaced by the fight for human dignity and life.

Two miners read from a book of poems written by strikers: one about a scab injured down the pit and rescued by his striking workmates; one about the picket killed by a coal lorry at the start of the strike. Next a repre­sentative of the Women’s Support Group spoke: women were fully involved in the strike, she said, no wives to be pictured by the papers taunting their husbands back to work. She was on stage for less than two minutes, but received a standing ovation. Then local M.P, Richard Caborn, held an auction-in-reverse for donations: che­ques for five thousand pounds, cheques for a thousand pounds, cheques for five hundred and so on, down to one-pound notes and coppers:

“Shadwell Steelworks, five thousand pounds!” – enormous cheers.

“Sheffield Asian Community, seventy five pounds!” – more cheers as a shy looking Asian man stood up and bowed.

I pushed ten pounds into a collecting can, not daring to descend to the stage where others were pressing money into the hands of waiting miners. Mary tried to persuade Alice’s son Ken to run down with a pound note, but he was too shy. The money flooded in, the sense of solidarity grew. We were together, supporters and supported, all playing our part. The final speaker was from the NUM in Durham and in a high-pitched staccato voice and broad Geordie accent – ‘I hope you can understand me dialect’ – he laid into all and sundry with biting humour and settled the problem of Neil Kinnock once and for all: ‘If he don’t want to come, we can do without him.’ Loud cheers. ‘It’s rank and file of Labour Party that mat­ters. They’re ones supporting us. They’re ones to thank.’  Louder cheers.

Swept up by the emotion of the speech, I glanced across at Mary. I was so proud of her. She was in the Labour party out every Saturday collecting, up at all hours on Police Watch. She was rank and file and she mattered. She turned and smiled, happy that I was enthusiastic too – both of us removed from melancholy and certain of our selves.

Miners strike - foodstore


Yesterday I visited a soup kitchen near Wakefield. Barry, the official in charge, welcomed me in and introduced the dinner ladies. I felt uneasy and when a plate of food arrived on the counter in front of me, I assumed it was for the miner behind. I stepped aside.

“For you, love,” said one of the women. “We’ve kept it hot.”

I took the plate – piled high with potato, peas and steak and kidney pie – and sat down. Two miners ate in silence beside me.

“You’ve got it well organised,” I said.

“Aye,” said the younger one.

“I’m in the ACTT,” I added by way of introduction. “The film union.”

“You can put me in film and all,” said the older one. “I’d tell ’em a thing or two.”

I had arrived late and the dinner session was almost over. The five women finished serving up, sat down and ate together at a table by the door. They asked if the food was all right. I nodded and tried to think of a suitable compliment. But before I could speak, Barry joined me and lit up a cigarette.

“We’re grateful for what you’ve done, Joe.”

I didn’t know I’d done anything, but nodded.

“Union rep brought over five hundred pounds last week – presented it to ladies.”

That would be Dave Hampden, Rachel’s boyfriend, one step ahead of me as usual. It must have been the money he collected with the ACTT’s round robin letter.

“It’s good of you to come. We very much appre­ciate these visits.”

The two miners drained their mugs and left. I finished my steak and kidney pie. A bowl of sponge pudding arrived.

“No, thank you,” I said.

“Please yourself,” said the woman who had brought it.

“Can’t eat sugar, you see.”

“Don’t worry, love. There’s plenty what’ll eat that tomorrow..”

Barry offered me a cigarette and explained how they ran the canteen. It was open three days a week for miners and wives, but not for the children who got a meal at school.

“Most food comes from cash and carry – rest from union. Here, I’ll show you.”

Barry led me out of the canteen and into a room with a battered billiard table. He pulled open a warped hardboard door to reveal a jumble of pre-packed foods: pasta from unions in Italy, dried milk from France, coffee beans from Belgi­um.

“Don’t have much use for them,” Barry said lifting up a bag of beans. “People don’t know what to do with ’em.”

“I could get them ground for you,” I said thin­king of all the lefties with cappuccino machines and state of the art electric grinders.

“Can’t do much with these either.”

He handed me a can with a faded yellow wrapper. I recognised it from Berlin: tinned meat from Russia with a drawing on the side that might have been a chicken.

“Chicken?” I said.

Barry laughed.

“Not when you smell it. I mean we’re grateful to Soviets and that, but I can’t give people stuff when I don’t know what it is. They won’t take it.”

“Where do you get your meat then?” I asked.

“Local butcher’s good with scraps. But mostly out of tins. Bread we get from Lyons in Wakefield – leftovers at end of day. Union there’s helped organise that.”

“And what about food for people at home?”

“I do food parcels. That’s in t’other store though.”

He closed the cupboard door and led me back through the canteen. The women were busy clearing the tables and washing up.

“Skiving off are we, Barry?”

“Just showing Joe what’s what,” said Barry.

“I normally do washing up, you see,” he added, turning to me.

We walked across the school yard, in through a swing door and down a corridor.

“This is the real store,” said Barry, taking out a key and unlocking the entrance to a windowless room off the corridor. “Tight security on this one.”

He ushered me in. Cans of beans, soup, meat and custard powder alongside jars of jam, boxes of tea bags and packets of sugar – all neatly stacked and ordered this time.

“This lot’s for Christmas. When each stack’s up to ceiling, I know I’ve enough.”

“It’s amazing,” I said, worried that there were no fresh fruit and vegetables.

“Each parcel will have one can from each pile,” Barry continued, “plus a jar of jam, twenty tea bags and either custard powder or dried milk.”

“That’ll be good,” I said, feeling like the Queen on a day-trip from the Palace. “And do you do parcels every week?”

A Queen’s question.

“Aye, but not with as much as that in them. Just five tea bags for instance. Can’t really afford more, you see. I don’t want to let any stack get down to floor, don’t want to be in position of having nowt in store cupboard – in case there’s a real emergency.”

As if there weren’t one already!

Barry watched with pride as I surveyed the store. When I peered at something, he picked up the item in question and explained its contents.

We finished our inspection. I reached into my pocket and pulled out an envelope.

“A little contribution,” I said.

“Give it to ladies, Joe.”

Barry locked the storeroom door and led me back to the canteen.

“Joe’s something for you girls,” he grinned.

I held out the crumpled envelope and a woman with grey hair approached me, drying her hands on a tea towel.

“Thanks very much, love,” she said, taking the envelope.

The other women crowded round behind her.

“It’s not much, I’m afraid.”

“Can we open it?”

A younger woman smiled at me and took the envelope from her friend.

“Of course,” I said

She opened the envelope, took out the money and counted the notes.

“Should be fifty pounds. We,” – I didn’t want to make the gift personal – “took it out of our script development money.”

“Right, girls,” said the younger woman. “We’re having a drink wi’ this.”

“It’s going straight in kitty,” said Barry.

I laughed.

“I make it a condition that each of the kitchen workers has a drink.”

“That’s right, love,” said the woman with grey hair. “Give ourselves a treat, eh?”

“We’ve been doing this since May,” added the younger one. “With no break.”

I was given a cup of tea and told to sit down. The women sat round me. Barry took his turn at drying dishes behind the counter. For the next fifteen minutes, I listened to stories of the current strike, memories of 1974, folklore from 1926 and finally the tale of a man – desperate for money – who had been sacked by the Coal Board for stealing a generator and cable and now couldn’t get help from the Union or Social Security.

“He had no money to pay bills, see,” said the grey-haired woman. “Young kids to keep warm and no heat. But union can’t condone stealing, can it?” The other women shook their head. “So he’s not even allowed in here now. It’s a shame, really.”

The women nodded, followed by a moment’s silence.

“SS says he can’t claim till he shows them a UB40,” added the younger woman, lifting her eyes to me. “But management won’t let him have that till strikes over.”

I wished Mary were there to offer advice. She knew about benefits.

“It’s a shame,” repeated the grey haired woman.

“Aye, it is,” chorused the others.

Again the silence, filled with the weight of a struggle almost too heavy to bear.

“I must go now,” I said, standing up.

The women rose too. I shook hands with each of them and then with Barry.

“Goodbye, Joe,” he said. “Thanks for dropping by.

I wished them a happy Christmas and squeezed out through the door.

“Bye, Joe!”

“Come and see us again!”

“We won’t forget you, love!”


The feeling of warmth was so intense it hurt. I wanted to find them all the money in the world, to hug and assure them that not just me, but milli­ons were on their side. I climbed into my car, hidden round a corner, and drove back to Leeds. There was nothing else to write about at the moment. Nothing.

Miners strike - soup kitchen party