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Free Books!

This Friday we’ll be giving away a free copy of our humorous and fictionalised barrister’s memoir MAY IT PLEASE YOUR LORDSHIP to three UK residents drawn at random from our giant electronic hat.

To get into the hat, just retweet or share this post somewhere (and let us know).

We’ll contact the winners on Friday afternoon and send the books out over the weekend.

May It Please Your Lordship - AI Cover

(If you enjoy it, it would be nice if you could review it on Amazon, tweet about it, tell your friends, and otherwise help us get the word out. But there’s no requirement or obligation to do any of that.)

Here’s a free extract. A nervous Toby, not long called to the Bar, is making an early appearance at Snaresbrook Crown Court:

As I made my way to Court Thirteen, I contemplated the prospect of my first jury trial with understandable trepidation. I was hardly prepared for the task ahead, through no fault of my own. I thought about the reviewing lawyer’s clear belief that there would be a plea of guilty. Some review! Some lawyer! And to cap it all, Cantwell as my opponent, with the bit between his teeth. I’d have to be at my sharpest to win the shining hour. But then, the evidence did seem overwhelming.

With five minutes to go, there was no sign of the CPS law clerk, who was supposed to hold my hand and steer me effortlessly through the stormy waters. As I was contemplating my next move, the usher popped her head around the door. Addressing nobody in particular, and in the manner of a fishwife shouting the odds, she bellowed, ‘The case of Pedder will be heard in Court One!’

Bellowing was almost endemic at Snaresbrook Crown Court.

I shuffled into court, with Cantwell barging his way forward and studiously ignoring me, all the time under the watchful gaze of His Honour Judge ‘Bonkers’ Clarke, the Resident Judge.

Snaresbrook was not exactly the jewel in the Crown Court hierarchy, and finding a resident judge to hold sway and bring much-needed gravitas to the post proved almost a bridge too far. However, more by luck than good judgment, word reached the Mandarins in the Lord Chancellor’s department that His Honour Judge Bonkers Clarke, recently separated from his wife following unfounded salacious revelations in the tabloid press, had been advised to look for a change of scene well away from his usual watering hole if he were ever to enjoy his index-linked pension. Such advice from the Lord Chancellor was not to be lightly discarded, so, after a suitable period in retreat, he was duly installed. The fact that he was known by one and all as Bonkers from his earliest days on the Bench made the appointment almost apocryphal.

‘The judge, without knowing how or why,

Made still a blund’ring kind of melody,

Spurred boldly on, and dashed through thick and thin,

Through sense and nonsense, never out nor in.

Free from all meaning, whether good or bad,

And in one word, heroically mad.’

After ten years at the helm, Bonkers modestly accepted the Honorary Recordership of Epping Forest, bestowed upon him by the grateful burghers. He was nothing if not fully committed to his resident status, throwing himself energetically into every aspect of court life. Arriving each morning at the crack of dawn, and sporting an old knitted cardigan, he was regularly to be seen patrolling the corridors, noting down broken light bulbs and unemptied waste bins, bringing his own brand of order out of chaos. He was accompanied, as always, by Max, his faithful black Labrador, who possessed a wet and inquisitive nose as many a court usher would attest. An irresistible combination.

I was about to take my seat when Bonkers addressed me. ‘Now, let me see, Mr… er… Potts,’ he began. ‘I don’t think much of this indictment. How do you justify the count of attempted criminal damage to an automatic door?’

‘I agree, your Honour,’ smarmed Cantwell, rising from his seat.

‘Not yet, Mr Cantwell, you’ll have your turn, I’m sure of it. Who was the idiot who drafted that particular count, Mr Potts?’

I turned to the law clerk, Tracey by name, as I was subsequently to discover. She might as well do something. After all, this was supposed to be a team effort. ‘Who was the idiot who drafted that particular count?’ I whispered. ‘Can you help?’

‘That’ll be our Mr Newman,’ she whispered back, and took out a form, ominously headed, ‘Advocate’s Evaluation’.

So be it, I thought, if you can’t stand and fight, better cut and run. ‘I am instructed that it was our Mr Newman, the reviewing lawyer. If your Honour will rise for five minutes, I can take instructions.’ Tracey was not amused, and made a note to that effect on the form – ‘found wanting under fire’.

‘Bunkum!’ scoffed Bonkers. Clearly he was even less amused. ‘I shall enter a verdict of not guilty on that count.’

Could he do that? I wondered, plunging into my Archbold.

‘You can close that book now, Mr Potts. I am the law in this court!’ There was no answer to that. Then Bonkers paused, peering intently at me over his spectacles. ‘Have we met before?’

I peered back, and a vision of the strange figure on the parapet, bellowing at me as I strolled across the grass outside, loomed large in my mind’s eye. ‘Er… I don’t think so, your Honour. This is my first appearance at Snaresbrook.’

There was a long pause. ‘Very well,’ he said, at last. ‘Let’s hope it’s a memorable one. Now, Mr Cantwell, what’s the defence to the charge of theft? The defendant was caught red-handed.’

Cantwell oiled his way to his feet. ‘The defence will be placed fairly and squarely before the jury in the course of the trial…’

‘Yes, yes, I have no doubt, but what is it?’

‘Your Honour presses me.’

‘I do.’

‘Very well, the defendant will say that whilst on a legitimate shopping expedition in the One-Stop Shop to buy a DVD player, he was suddenly caught short following a particularly powerful vindaloo curry the night before, and, in his understandable anxiety not to disgrace himself, he made a dash to the nearest evacuation point, forgetting he still had the DVD player under his arm. His progress was thwarted by the malfunctioning automatic doors, with the result that, after the inevitable acquittal of this spurious charge, he has engaged my services to sue the store for negligence and the replacement cost of a pair of soiled trousers. Your Honour will be familiar with the case of Palmer and Camley Borough Council?’

In all his years on the Bench, Bonkers thought he’d heard it all, but this was the best by far; he raised his eyes to the ceiling in total disbelief.

‘And what about the confession he made when he was arrested?’ Bonkers looked down at the case papers. ‘“It’s a fair cop, guv.” What does the defendant say about that?’

Cantwell was equal to the task. ‘He didn’t say it, your Honour, but, if he did, the word he used was “shop”, not “cop”.’

‘What? He said “It’s a fair shop, guv”? Is this what you are telling me?’

Bonkers’ eyebrows were now hovering several inches above his head.

‘Your Honour has it in one,’ smarmed Cantwell, totally unfazed by the absurdity of his instructions. ‘But, pausing there, do I detect a certain scepticism about the defence in your Honour’s remarks?’

‘You do indeed, Mr Cantwell. This is a complete waste of public time and money.’

‘Then may I remind your Honour, with the greatest of respect, of course’ – Cantwell was now positively dripping – ‘that the defendant is entitled to a fair trial in front of a jury of his peers, regardless of the apparent merits or otherwise of the defence…’

‘Don’t lecture me on the law, Mr Cantwell. I am perfectly well aware of the defendant’s rights, and as for merits, as you so delicately put it, there are none. That said,’ he continued with a full head of steam, ‘I have no intention whatsoever of wasting my time trying this case.’ He glanced down at his court list. ‘I shall release it back to Court Nine and Mr Recorder Twigg,’ and, so saying, he slammed the file shut and threw it at the court clerk. ‘Don’t let me detain you,’ he glowered. ‘Call on the next case.’

The Afghanistan commemoration service at St Paul’s Cathedral may officially have marked the end of the British campaign, but for the families of the 453 service personnel who died – and for the many badly injured – the pain may never truly end.

Twenty of those dead soldiers are remembered in our book At The Going Down of the Sun (you can read the story of one of them here, and find out more about the other nineteen via the links at the end of that piece).

Some relatives didn’t want to attend, for personal reasons: Lucy Aldridge, whose Rifleman son William was at eighteen the youngest soldier to die, was among them.

Others were prevented from doing so by more prosaic issues: the mother and father of Lance Bombardier Mark Chandler missed the whole thing after they were caught up in London traffic.

Marine Steven Birdsall – a much-loved son, big brother and grandson – was just twenty years old when he was shot by a sniper near Sangin in 2010.

Steven’s boyhood friend, Private Tom Sephton, died on the same tour; he was blown up by an IED aged nineteen. He, too, left behind a shattered family.

Steve and Tom together on a night outSteven and Tom together on a night out, not long before they died

Their mothers and other family members travelled down for the service – you can see a slightly shaky video of a TV news piece with them here.

Jenny Birdsall, Steven’s mum, later told journalists how she had met Prince Charles.

‘We’ll never forget Steven and still have our good and bad days,’ she said. ‘He was only two and a half years out of his training but he loved what he was doing. He was very selfless, brave and fearless. It has been a long and difficult road even getting to the point that we can talk about what has happened so publically. But Prince Charles was wonderful. He was hugely sympathetic. He told me how much Prince Harry had loved his service in Afghanistan and would have gone out there in a heartbeat again if he had been able to. It meant a great deal to us to be able to share Steven’s story with him.’

The book has been something of a hard ‘sell’ – either people don’t want to read about dead soldiers, or they don’t know about it – but we’ll keep plugging away.

To ‘our’ twenty and all of those who died, Rest In Peace.

A while back, we published a book called Generation F by a supported housing worker calling himself Winston Smith.

Not the most original pseudonym, but it reflected his view that working in this environment was like living an Orwellian (or perhaps Kafkan) nightmare, where truth was lies, and lies was truth, and children’s lives were ruined by afterthought, or no thought.

Winston wrote a blog which won the Orwell Prize, and we turned it into a book. It’s a fascinating if chilling read which helps to explain the various and ongoing scandals about the sexual abuse of girls in care, which at least in part seem to happen because the children are allowed to come and go on a whim.

The politicians and lawyers and top police officers and senior council people who have conspired to allow this situation would sure never tolerate it for their own children; why is it okay for the children of poor and uneducated people?

I do urge you to read the book. Here’s an extract:

The first place I find myself at is Tom Parsons House – a large, five-bedroomed place which is home to three young girls, aged fourteen, fifteen and sixteen. I flick through their files as part of the preparation for my first day.

Of the three, one has already had an abortion, all have criminal records and two are currently tagged and are supposedly being monitored by the youth justice system for various offences. Chelsey – an extremely wild fourteen-year-old – is constantly running away from the home for days on end, and I hardly ever see her. Sammie, fifteen, is nearly as bad; sixteen-year-old Rachel, although not averse to a night on the tiles, seems to spend most of her life sitting down, channel-hopping on the TV and gorging on junk food.

Both she and Sammie are grotesquely fat; this is a tragedy for them, with life-altering consequences. But what really baffles me is the ease and regularity of the absconding. After all, there are always three members of staff – and sometimes four – in the house, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. I wonder why they don’t just put a stop to this, and say as much to Jenny, the senior support worker…

‘Jenny, I’m just curious,’ I say. ‘Do the staff not notice when these young girls are leaving the premises?’

Generation F AI Cover

‘Well, sometimes they just run off without telling us,’ she says, ‘but often they tell us they are going out and don’t know when they’ll be back.’

‘But why don’t we stop them?’ I say. ‘I mean, why don’t we lock the doors, or something? After all, they’re supposedly in care. They’re only fourteen and fifteen, and very vulnerable. God knows what could happen to them and what they could get up to.’

‘Look, I agree the whole system is mad,’ says Jenny. ‘But as you know we’re not allowed to touch them, physically. We can’t grab them and pull them in to the house. That could be construed as assault and we could get in trouble.’

It seems to me that it’s an odd kind of system that believes it’s better to allow fourteen-year-old girls to roam free about the area for days on end without supervision, rather than grab them by the arms and scruff of the neck and bring them back into a home where they can be properly supervised.

‘Do they usually stay away for long?’ I say.

‘Usually it’s only a couple of nights at a time,’ she says. ‘Sometimes it’s longer, though. Once they were away together for four nights. What happens is the cops find them, or they get fed up and run out of money or places to stay and then they telephone us and ask us for a lift back to the home. It’s a bit of a pain, because it can often be at three or four in the morning, and we have to get up out of bed and drive and collect them.’

‘Really?’ I say. ‘That does sound like a pain.’

‘We have a duty of care towards them, you see.’

They may well end up in a secure juvenile unit, should they continue to abscond and be involved in low-level crime. However, seeing as the youth justice system fails to deal effectively with more serious youth crime, I’d say a tag is as bad as it will get for these two girls, which is a shame because to my mind they need protecting from themselves.

Rachel tears herself away from the telly for a moment. ‘Stop flirting with Winston, you fat fucking slag Jenny,’ she says. ‘He’d never fuck a dog like you.’

PC Bloggs experienced the police end of this issue, and here (in an extract from Diary of an On Call Girl) she talks us through a typical incident:

I am still in custody, waiting for Will to find me, when the radio pipes up once more.

‘Could you attend the Benucci Foundation. Colin Roach has gone missing again.’

The Benucci Foundation is a Care Home, providing twenty-four hour supervision of troubled under-sixteens, and the name of Colin Roach is more familiar to me than my own. He goes for a jaunt two or three times a week, and the staff at the home do little to prevent it.

One of the rules of the twenty–four hour supervision is that it is the police’s responsibility to keep track of the youngsters who live under it. Thus, when a Missing Person is reported, a police officer will be dispatched to the relevant home, where a five-page description and Risk Assessment will be completed. This is actually the most crucial part of the whole process, as without knowing whether the Person is classified as High, Medium or Low Risk we are unable to determine which rank of officer will be fired if they are found dead.

Luckily, we are proficient at finding them alive. Not only do we have the ability to telephone their family members and ask if they’ve seen them, but we’re also good at driving to their favourite haunts or texting them on their mobiles to ask them where they are. These skills take many years to master and should not be attempted by civilians.

Most Missing Persons are regulars. They are usually in care or foster homes, and have poor criminal or behavioural records. They are between thirteen and sixteen, they drink, smoke and do drugs, and they ain’t scared of no Feds.

All of these factors mean that their carer is under a legal responsibility to inform the police when the Person goes Missing, even if Missing just happens to be going down the shop for a Mars bar. No matter: the police delight in spending hours on pointless tasks, so we are more than happy to cruise the streets of Blandmore searching for these youngsters, and, when we find them, it’s always a joy to spend half an hour trying to persuade them to go home without any actual power to make them do so.

Colin is thirteen, and I have located him three times already this year. On each occasion I found him in the same place: back at the Foundation sitting in front of the television.

This time, we are shown in by Carlita, one of the live-in carers. She makes me a cup of tea and apologises for having to call us out.

‘So,’ I say. ‘Why did he go this time?’

‘He went for some fags. We usually let him have one after doing his homework, but he wanted one now. So he just left.’

I look at the front door, a sturdy-looking PVC thing with two bolts. ‘How did he get out?’

‘He opened the door.’

‘Did anyone try to stop him?’

‘We aren’t allowed to do that!’ She looks horrified at the suggestion. ‘If they become violent, we retreat.’

‘But couldn’t you just lock the door?’

‘We don’t lock them in,’ she says. ‘That might make them violent.’

Perhaps I have misunderstood the nature of the Foundation. I ask for a recap. ‘Why are kids here again?’

‘High risk offenders. Most of them have committed rapes or sexual assaults on younger kids. Colin raped a younger boy last year.’

‘And they aren’t in prison because… ?’

‘Well, most of them were also abused as kids,’ Carlita explains. ‘They’re not even sixteen, so it wouldn’t be fair to just chuck them in jail and throw away the key. They’re mixed-up kids.’

‘So let me get this straight: you have a house full of boys who have been victims of sexual assault, living in a house with boys who have committed sexual assaults?’

‘Well, they aren’t allowed in each others’ rooms.’

DiaryOnCallGirl_frontcover

Colin is under a Supervision Order from the court and Carlita shows me the Order. It lays down in no uncertain terms that Colin is to stay indoors at the Benucci Foundation all day, except when escorted to school and back by staff or taken on outings authorised by staff. He is to abide by the rules of the house and is not allowed to be rude or threatening or to assault anyone.

‘So he breaks this Order every time he goes storming out?’ I ask.

She nods. ‘If he does it again he’ll be put in a high security home.’

Will takes out the paperwork. ‘He’s done it… let’s see… thirty times in the last three months.’

Sadly, this is no exaggeration. Colin and others like him really exist, as do their records of going ‘missing’.

She shrugs. ‘Well, like I say. One of these days he’ll be put in high security.’

I shake my head, and go to look for the little ragamuffin. First stop, the park. As we drive into the park our car is surrounded by a gaggle of ten-year-old boys in school uniform and we chat to them for five minutes. On leaving, I look in my mirror and see some parents pull up to collect the kids. I wonder what those parents would say if they knew that a thirteen-year-old child rapist wanders through that park two or three times a week, untroubled by the court order designed to protect their children from him.

After searching for a while, Bloggs has to return to the station to deal with some paperwork concerning a domestic incident call she attended, and a call to the greatest comic character of the 21st century, Blandshire Constabulary ‘Scrutineer’ Enid Pimento.

I discover another message from the Scrutineer and remember that I am due to phone her back about the mystery domestic in my virtual docket.

Will enters in time to hear me say, ‘Hi Enid, it’s PC Bloggs here.’

He tries to hide a grin, puts down my sandwiches and leaves the room again.

‘Ah, PC Bloggs.’ Her tone is that of a woman pulling up a chair for a long chat.

‘I got your message about this Ratchet Path job. You’ll have to jog my memory.’

Enid taps at her keyboard for a minute. ‘Domestic… caller reporting drunken fight between her neighbours. It says here that you attended and classified it as assault.’

I scour my memory. ‘I don’t think I went to that one.’

Enid logs into another few systems as I wait patiently. While I sit there, Will comes back in with Lloyd and Becks in tow.

‘Bloggsy’s on the phone to the Scrutineer.’ He says. ‘Always good for a laugh.’

I glower as they all sit down around me to listen.

‘Here we are,’ says Enid, after a minute or two. ‘You went with PC Mitchum.’

‘Guy…?’ A distant image of a brass dog, a stained glass porch and a pair of torn trousers begins to surface. ‘Ah… yes.’

‘Oh, good,’ says Enid, clearly expecting an admission of guilt.

‘But it wasn’t a domestic,’ I say. ‘I updated the crime report to say that the occupants of the address had no knowledge of any incident.’

‘Then why did it go down as assault?’

‘I have no idea. I certainly didn’t put it down as assault.’

‘So what you are saying is that this is a no-crime.’

‘Well, in the sense that no crime whatsoever has happened, yes.’

‘Can you update the crime report to reflect that?’

I open it up myself. ‘I have, here where it says, ‘Officer has attended and no domestic had taken place.’

There’s a triumphant silence on the end of the phone which lasts about three seconds. ’Ah! That won’t do I’m afraid,’ says Enid. ‘Put in a fuller update explaining exactly what did happen, and why you believe no crime has taken place, and forward the paperwork to me.’

‘There is no paperwork, because no crime took place.’

‘What about the Domestic Risk Assessment?’

‘There isn’t one, because there was no domestic.’

‘So… are you saying that no offences have taken place at all, not even a domestic?’

‘Yes.’ I mean, is it me?

‘Right, well forward the paperwork to me and I will get it sent up to Headquarters for no-criming.’

‘Did you not hear me just say that there is no paperwork?’

Lloyd, Becks and Will are listening avidly, with encouraging grins on their faces.

Enid is stumped. ‘Well, I can’t no-crime it without anything… let’s see, did you get a pocketbook entry signed by the caller, to say that there was no domestic after all?’

‘No, because the caller was anonymous.’

‘So how do we know there was no domestic?’

‘Because the people who were meant to be having one said nothing had happened and were obviously fine.’

‘Well we will need something in writing from them.’

‘Something in writing?’

‘A signature, to confirm that they don’t wish to make a complaint.’

I gasp for breath, for several seconds. ‘Right, fine.’

Once again a conversation with Enid ends in my hanging up the receiver in a manner far too abrupt to be representative of a professional 21st Century Police Officer.

It’s all down to my naïvety, again: I had not realised that part of the police’s job is to knock on people’s doors and get signatures from them to confirm that they have not called the police.

Meanwhile, Colin Roach has been located.

While the sergeant is there, I trick him into signing his name on my Missing Person paperwork; that means it is now he who will be fired if Colin Roach is not found. Even as he realises what he has done, the radio controller interrupts us to inform me that Colin is now back at the Foundation and could I please go and lay eyes on him so the incident log can be closed.

I lay eyes on Colin from about fifty metres away: he is standing on the roof-top outside his bedroom and when he sees me he screams that he will jump. I race out of sight and inform Sergeant Woodcock by telephone that he is about to be fired after all. Fortunately, Colin is coaxed down from the roof by Carlita and a packet of Marlboro Lights, whereupon he kindly informs me that if he ever sees me again he will smack my pretty face in.It is one of the more complimentary threats I have received, so I thank him and record this on the Missing Person report for the officer who will be carrying out the same procedure again on Wednesday.

Carlita apologises once again and I depart with the satisfaction of someone in possession of paperwork that is ready for filing.

 

 

…is now live on the Kindle store.

Currently available as an eBook only, and written by Jack Summer, it’s a compendium of frankly bizarre deaths from around the globe.

It’s named in honour of Ivanka Perko, who survived Hitler’s concentration camps and Stalin’s death squads, but was killed by a banana in Australia.

(She dropped the banana, it scratched her leg, and the cut became infected. Mrs Perko was a tough old lady who noted on her deathbed the strange irony of escaping the Nazi and Communist terrors and dying in so strange and unforeseeable a way.)

There are lots of incredible stories in the book – they’re often sad, sometimes hilarious, always most peculiar (and a great reminder to us all to enjoy life while we have it).

Like the demise of the appropriately-named Louis Dethy, a retired engineer who rigged his home with deadly booby traps designed to kill his own family, but ended up being killed by one of them himself when he forgot about it.

Or that of Sylvester Briddell, Jr., whose friends bet him that he wouldn’t place a pistol containing four bullets into his mouth and pull the trigger…

Or the case of mass drowning in Jordan in 1997. As Jack puts it:

A GROUP OF men were doing something – who knows what – near a well in northern Jordan in October 1997, when one of them dropped his car keys into it.

He jumped in to recover the keys, promptly got into difficulty, and started drowning.

A second man jumped in to help the first man, promptly got into difficulty, and started drowning.

A third man jumped in to help the second man, promptly got into difficulty, and started drowning.

A fourth man jumped in to help the third man, promptly got into difficulty, and started drowning.

A fifth man jumped in to help the fourth man, promptly got into difficulty, and started drowning.

In the end, there were no more men, either to jump in and help, or to get into difficulty, and they all drowned.

Reuters named the dead men as brothers Qassem, Hamdan and Musleh Saleh, all in their twenties, and brothers Rateb and Firas Khalil.

 Death by Banana Cover

OK, so it wasn’t a resounding success at first…

WE all know the story of the Wright brothers – the Americans who flew the world’s first powered aeroplane in 1903.

It’s a fascinating and romantic tale which has spawned books and films and turned the pair into US – indeed world – icons.

Deservedly so – what they achieved was amazing.

There’s just one problem: the real story of flight starts on this side of the Atlantic (and it is told in our book of ludicrous national self-biggage, So THAT’S Why They Call It GREAT Britain.

Sir George Cayley (1773-1857) is the real ‘Father of Aerodynamics’.

In 1849, he launched a glider at Brompton, Yorks – it was the world’s first flight. Wisely, he employed an unnamed ten-year-old boy as his test pilot.

(If Monday Books were building aircraft, then, being terrible cowards, this is the strategy we would employ.)

200px-George_Cayley

Cayley: wise

(Sir George, a Scarborough baronet and MP, was a prodigious inventor who also worked on self-righting lifeboats, caterpillar tracks and seat belts).

John Stringfellow was a tool-maker from Sheffield who moved to Chard in Somerset to work in the lace industry.

Slightly eccentrically – it was 1842, and airliners were many decades away – he dreamed of setting up the world’s first international airline.

With engineer William Henson, he set up the Aerial Transit Company and commissioned brochures which showed aeroplanes carrying passengers on sight-seeing trips over exotic locations like the Pyramids.

You can’t fault them for thinking big, but unsurprisingly they failed to attract any serious financial backers.

The disillusioned Henson emigrated to America, but Stringfellow (1799-1883) continued undeterred, working out optimum wing shapes and materials, and calculating the surface area of wing needed per pound of weight to produce lift.

He built a working aircraft, which had a three-metre wing made from silk with cane struts, featuring a rigid leading edge combined with a looser trailing edge, and a steam engine which powered two propellers.

However, it was so delicate that outdoor flights proved impossible – the silk became heavy with atmospheric moisture and gusts of wind could be disastrous – so early attempts at flight took place inside a large silk mill in Chard.

Finally, in 1848, Stringfellow’s machine took to the air, unmanned. Although it travelled less than 10 metres, this was the world’s first demonstration of powered flight.

Perhaps disheartened after his years of labour for little reward, Stringfellow – the modern-day, straggle-haired lap dance guru Peter of perpetually confused mien is descended from him – put his machine on ice.

A model of his aeroplane is on display at the Science Museum.

The quest for manned flight remained.

In 1899, the British engineer and glider pilot Percy Pilcher (1867-1899) came very close to being a household name and scooping the Wright brothers by several years.

Pilcher had earlier designed and built a glider called Hawk, and had set a gliding distance record of 250 metres near Eynsford in Kent.

Then he set about developing a powered aeroplane, and settled on the idea of a three-winged triplane (multiple wings give extra lift without the huge increase in weight that a single wing of the same total area would need.) Power came from a small internal combustion engine.

He had arranged to demonstrate his triplane to the public on September 30, 1899, at Stanford Hall near Rugby, Warwickshire.

Unfortunately, it was not ready and, so as not to disappoint the crowd, he decided to fly Hawk instead.

Conditions were very blustery, and the glider’s tail snapped off in flight, sending it crashing to the ground, killing Pilcher, then thirty-two, ‘as the result of a rapid and unforeseen reduction in the distance between his homemade wooden glider… and the well-kept lawns’ below.

This was a bit of a downer – for everyone except Orville and Wilbur Wright.

PercyPilcherPilcher: downer

In 2002, BBC’s Horizon commissioned the construction of a replica of his triplane at Cranfield University.

It flew for over a minute and was a better machine than the Wright Brothers’ ‘Flyer’, but today almost no-one remembers him while the Wrights enjoy top spot in the pantheon of flight.

A monument to Pilcher was built on the spot where he crashed; the original Hawk is at the Museum of Flight in East Lothian, and a replica can be seen at Stanford Hall.

Not to downplay the brilliance of the Wright Bros, and the pioneering spirit and outstanding bravery they showed – characteristic of our American cousins – but this does appear to be a resounding win for Britain!

Number One in a series of lots, designed to allow uppity Brits to win petty arguments, at home and abroad. Please feel free to comment – we’re open to correction from outraged furriners (or locals). Do let us know where we’re claiming stuff we shouldn’t, or forgetting stuff we should.

 

Digital proof copies of ANIMAL QC, the forthcoming book by Gary Bell QC, arrived today.

We think it looks pretty good (bearing in mind the final version will be a hardback).

Gary digital copies

 

 

We all know the truth about Iraq – it just depends on your point of view.

But to have a point of view it helps if you’ve actually been there.

Colin Freeman went to Baghdad in the early post-war days, and he did it in the hardest way for a civilian – living with no security in a backpacker hotel (the Al Dulaimi) well outside the relative safety of the Green Zone, with the daily risk of kidnap, torture and death.

To get to Iraq, Colin gave up a safe, reasonably well-paid but ever-so-slightly dull staff job on the London Evening Standard, where he doubled as the paper’s pothole/roadworks correspondent and a showbusiness ‘doorstepper’, and travelled as a freelance.

No income, no contacts, no guarantee of work, no security guards – just a few dollars he’d saved up, and his wits.

The anti-US, anti-British uprising was in full swing, and every day could quite easily have been his last. People he knew were taken by jihadists (and later, in Somalia, Colin himself ended up Kidnapped, too).

Out of this nerve-wracking experience he eventually got a job as a Sunday Telegraph foreign correspondent and a book, which we published.

The Curse of the Al Dulaimi Hotel and Other Half Truths From Baghdad is, I think, one of the best books produced about this troubled country and its poor people in that awful time.

If I could change one thing it would be the cover – my idea, it looks terrible, and I’m sure it adversely affected sales.

Here’s a free extract – Colin decides to put Fleet Street behind him for a while after a moment of truth one Christmas Eve:

THE PATH TO IRAQ – for me, anyway – began on Christmas Eve 2002, on a sunny pavement outside Cheryl Barrymore’s house.

Cheryl lived in a block of maisonettes in a posh street in Swiss Cottage, a part of London that ‘boasts’ – as we journalists like to say – more celebrities in a few square miles than the rest of Britain put together. Like many who have spent time in the lower echelons of British journalism, I’ve visited a lot of them – generally getting about as far as the doorstep, where I’d pitch camp for as long as my editor wanted me to.

‘Doorstepping’, as the practice is known, is no more than legalised stalking. The idea is that if you hang around outside somebody’s house long enough, they will eventually talk to you just to get you to go away. Or throw something, which always makes a good picture.

The trouble is that this seldom actually works. These days, even the thickest, most publicity-addicted Big Brother has-been is media-savvy enough to say ‘No comment’ or ‘Call my PR’ if he doesn’t want to talk. In all my years hanging around outside celebrity addresses – and it probably does add up to years – all I’ve ever got out of it is a skin as thick as a rhino’s and a collection of extremely banal celebrity anecdotes.

Liam Gallagher from Oasis told me to fuck off.

The late George Best said something similar, I think (it was unintelligible).

Various nonentities have called me a ‘ghoul’, a ‘vulture’ and a ‘sad, sleazy little twat’.

A few minor royals have called the police.

Cheryl, of course, was the ex-wife of Michael, the TV ‘entertainer’ whose life has resembled a sort of slow motion car wreck in recent times. Yet another unflattering tale about her ex-husband had appeared on the front page of the Sun that day, and my newspaper, the London Evening Standard, wanted her reaction to it.

I’d got to the office at five o’clock that morning – despite having the word ‘Evening’ in its title, the Standard‘s first edition actually comes out at around 11am. I’d had a heavy night at a Christmas party and could barely see as I was briefed by Mike Leese, the paper’s deputy news editor and unofficial newsroom enforcer.

Most newspapers employ at least one hard nut like Mike to keep the reporters on their toes, and they give the place a permanent frisson of danger. I read an interview once with a former warden at Broadmoor psychiatric hospital: he said most of the time everything was fine, but the moment you dropped your guard someone would try to stab your eyes out with a Biro. It’s a bit like that in newspapers.

Mike had stood over my desk under the harsh office lights, puffing on a strange plastic cigarette he used during his periodic attempts to quit smoking; judging from the ferocity of his drags, he had some way to go.

‘Get down to Cheryl’s, see if you can get some reaction,’ he had muttered, brandishing the front page of the Sun. ‘Take a photographer with you.’

Then he was gone. News editors rarely hand out detailed briefs, preferring you to use your alleged skill and judgment as a reporter to work out the finer points yourself, and Mike was no exception.

So there I was. Sat outside an eight-story mansion block set back from the road behind a high brick wall.

December 24th. Early morning. No sign of Cheryl.

It looked like a long wait.

The concierge refused to tell us which flat she lived in, whether she was in, or even if we had the right address, which we weren’t sure of. Newspapers’ information on celebrities’ whereabouts isn’t as accurate as you might think. It’s not unknown to spend several days on a doorstep only to find that your intended victim has been coming and going all week from a house round the corner, or has just been photographed at a movie premiere in Los Angeles.

The photographer, Cavan Pawson, and I sprawled in his car for a while, drinking coffee, moaning, and getting bored, like we were stuck in a stake-out scene from a bad episode of Starsky and Hutch (playing supporting roles, obviously).

By about 9.30am, we had weighed up the options. There were at least three possible entry and exit points to Cheryl’s block. Which meant that if she left the building and we didn’t spot her we could hardly be blamed. Not much, anyway.

‘Starbucks?’ asked Cav with a yawn, starting the engine. I nodded. Out of sight and out of mind, with any luck we could spend the rest of the day doing nothing and then knock off early for Christmas.

Unlike mine, Cav’s star was in the ascendant at the Standard. For a while he’d been a journeyman like me but on September 11, 2001, he’d been in America covering New York Fashion Week when the news broke that two aircraft had just been hurled into the World Trade Center.

With only around half an hour until the Standard’s final deadline, he jumped in a taxi and got close enough to reel off several brilliant shots of the towers before they collapsed. The photo on the Standard’s front page won him the British Photographer of the Year award, and Cav’s fortunes had been transformed. He’d gone to New York to photograph skirts and dresses, but came back as someone who could handle himself in a Major World News Story.

As a result, Cav was now off to war.

Nobody knew exactly when the much-talked of invasion of Iraq was going to take place, but by December 2002 there was little doubt it would happen. All the whispers from government to the Standard’s political and defence correspondents suggested it was cut and dried.

After all, Britain and America were already sending 250,000 soldiers out the region, something they wouldn’t do if they thought it’d be resolved diplomatically.

What was even more certain was that I wouldn’t be there to report on it. The Standard was planning to send a whole team of journalists to cover the war, but it would be the usual coterie of their most favoured news and feature writers. Of which, it was fair to say, I was not one.

To my intense frustration, and despite working as hard as I realistically could, I’d never quite made it to the top rung at the paper.

The only assignment I’d ever been hand-picked for was to cover London’s roadworks. With its large commuter readership, roadworks were a subject the paper was obsessed with, but reporting on potholes every day was less exciting than filling them.

I’d made the mistake of doing a good job at it, assuming I’d get rewarded with something more interesting after a few months. Instead, they’d mistaken my eagerness to please for genuine enthusiasm, and now refused to let me palm the job off on anyone else.

So while Cav would be out covering the biggest story of his life, I would be revealing that the A23 through Streatham had been dug up because of a gas leak.

‘When are you off then?’ I asked, half-hoping he’d say, hadn’t I heard, I was going, too. The roads were going to be bombed to shite in Iraq, after all.

‘Sometime in January,’ he said. ‘We fly out to Kuwait, then follow the Brits in when the invasion starts. But that might not be till February or March.’

‘Scared?’

‘A bit. I’ve never done a war before, I suppose. But I might not get another chance.’

‘You lucky bastard.’

There was a silence, while we slurped our coffees.

‘Didn’t you put your name down for the war team?’ he said.

‘Nah.’

‘Why not?’

‘Already been decided, hasn’t it? The team’s picked already, plus all the reserves. I’m not even on the subs’ bench.’

‘Have you asked?’

‘No point, is there? Not flavour of the month, me.’

Cav looked at me. ‘If they won’t send you, why don’t you just go yourself?’ he said. ‘As a freelance?’

Freelance? To a war?

‘Why not? You don’t even have to go Iraq itself. Once it starts, it could spill into all the neighbouring countries. Turkey, Syria, Jordan. The Standard will want their own people there as well in case anything happens. And you could work for other papers too.’

I mulled it over, briefly. I wouldn’t even know where to start. I could see myself turning up wherever nothing was happening and getting precisely nowhere.

‘What have you got to lose?’ he said.

What had I got to lose? Well, my job. My savings. And my life.

Cav gestured back up the road towards Cheryl’s house. ‘You might be still on that doorstep in ten years’ time, wishing you’d done it,’ he said.

Jesus Christ.

Saddam Hussein or Cheryl Barrymore.

Two hours later, we wandered back up Cheryl’s flat. Still no sign of life. We rang the office and got permission to knock off for Christmas. A few days later I heard she’d been in Spain the whole time.

 

* * * * *

Curse Of The Al Dulaimi Hotel_Al Dulaimi cover jpegOne of our best books, with one of our worst covers: mea culpa

Cav’s words echoed round my head later that afternoon as I sat in the pub with Max, my ex-girlfriend. We’d gone out together for eighteen months before splitting up in the summer. It wasn’t that we didn’t get on well – just that when the question of getting married and having children came up, I couldn’t get enthusiastic.

Unfortunately, with no problems in our relationship other than its lack of long-term prospects, we’d continued to spend nearly all our time together. Until two weeks ago, that was, when Max had given me an ultimatum. Either we started going out properly again, or, with New Year beckoning, we made a resolution to stop seeing each other.

‘How was your day?’ she asked, draining a glass of pinot grigio.

I debated whether or not to tell her what Cavan had said about Iraq.

In all practical terms, his suggestion of going to Iraq as a freelance seemed about as feasible as going there as a mercenary.

I had a full-time, salaried staff job on a proper newspaper in London, even if it was a bit crap. Wasn’t it a bit silly to give all that up?

Yet I couldn’t deny the spark of hope inside me, the thought that, somehow, my stagnating career might find direction again.

Best to keep quiet though, until I’d actually checked out whether it was possible or not.

‘Max, I’m thinking of going to go to the war as a freelance.’

Well, I never was much good at keeping my mouth shut.

‘Which war?’

The war. How many are there? The one in Iraq. The one that’s going to start in the spring.’

‘Yes, yes, I know. But isn’t a bit difficult to get into Iraq?’

‘I thought I might base myself in one of the neighbouring countries. Saddam might invade them or something. Or, er, fire chemical weapons at them. Then I’ll be right on the spot.’

A less understanding woman might have stressed the potential drawbacks of this but Max was both a fellow journalist and at the end of her tether: she’d heard me whingeing about my stalled career so often that she was like a probation officer stuck with a persistent re-offender. Any new resolve, in no matter what direction, represented potential progress.

‘So which countries might you go to?’ she said, an encouraging expression on her face.

‘Er… dunno. Jordan, maybe, or Syria.’

Max knew even less about the Middle East’s geography than I did.

‘Are they next door to Iraq?’

‘Er… Jordan is. And Syria is, too, I think. To the left, and down a bit.’

‘Will they let you in?’

‘Dunno.’

‘Would you get any work?’

‘Dunno.’

‘What sort of stories would you do?’

‘Dunno.’

‘Where did you suddenly get this idea from?’

‘Dunno. Well, Cav suggested it outside Cheryl’s today. I… I need to look into it a bit more, obviously.’

Max had met the crackpot barstool explorer in me before. Last January, in a fit of despair at work, I’d suggested we both resign and backpack across Africa for six months. She sensibly dithered, while I actually got as far as handing in my notice. Then, forced to think about it properly for the first time, I realised I’d get fed up within about a fortnight. There were only so many epic bus rides, vibrant markets and historic temples that I could handle before I’d get crashingly bored. Humiliatingly, I’d asked for my job back, and returned to work.

I tried to make my case. ‘This wouldn’t be like Africa, though. I’d be working, so I wouldn’t get fed up. And if it didn’t work out, it’d just be like backpacking with a difference. But yeah, I doubt it’s possible. It’s probably a daft idea.’

‘No, it’s not,’ she said. ‘It’s exactly what you need.’

She also knew what else it meant. Unlike Mission Africa, this particular birdbrained scheme would potentially mark a final parting of our ways.

‘So we won’t be getting back together, will we?’ she said.

I stared at her, pouring white wine into my mouth where profound or soothing words should have come out.

‘No.’

She smiled. ‘I don’t mind, you know. I just want you to be honest.’

We headed off to spend Christmas with our respective families.

Six hours before, the Iraq war had been something to discuss while killing time outside Cheryl Barrymore’s. Now it was shaping up as my future.

George W Bush had better not cancel it.

 

* * * * *

 

I rapidly realised that one big drawback to my new plan was that I knew nothing about war reporting whatsoever.

I’d seen it done on TV, by people like Martin Bell, the BBC man with the ‘lucky white suit’ who got shot in the Balkans. You’d see them crouched down in a trench somewhere, explosions and gunfire going off around them. Occasionally their colleagues – Spanish cameramen or Japanese sound guys – would get killed.

They came across as earnest, serious individuals, who enjoyed great respect for the bravery and integrity of their reporting. They were the polar opposite of anything I did. Interestingly, even the big names complained that the reports they risked their lives to get were being chopped to make room for more ‘news’ about celebrities – the kind of rubbish I was trying to leave behind, in fact.

If I knew little about war reporting, I knew even less about the Middle East. The Standard covered international news, but we rarely sent staff on anything but the biggest of foreign stories. Most of rest of the time we relied on the Reuters and Associated Press wire services, rewriting their copy in the office and running it under the byline ‘By our foreign staff’.

I was an unchallengeable expert on the New Roads and Streetworks Act 1991, and my Mastermind specialist subject might have been The Love Life of Anthea Turner, but virtually all I knew about Iraq was from watching a bit of TV coverage of the first Gulf War in 1991, when I’d still been at university. We’d had a party the night Operation Desert Storm began, beers and spliffs in hand as if it was a football match.

After a couple of hours of watching green explosions, we’d got bored and switched channels.

The only way to find out how to freelance out there was to ask around, but that would be tricky in itself. For a start, people with war zone experience weren’t exactly thick on the ground in Kensington. I’d also have to be careful that nobody at the Standard found out I was making inquiries. I was already a marked man for having resigned and then un-resigned the year before. Any further evidence, rumour or otherwise, that I was thinking of quitting again would be seen as a further sign of disloyalty.

Over the first few weeks of New Year I asked around. I vaguely remembered that Allan Ramsay, a New Zealander who’d left the Standard recently, had tried freelancing during the Balkans wars in the early 1990s. I rang him up and arranged to go out for a beer.

Allan’s tale of war started brilliantly.

‘Another Kiwi hack just rang up one day and said, “There’s a bunch of us driving down to the war in Bosnia, do you wanna come?”’ he said. ‘I figured I could work for the Standard and freelance for some of the Kiwi papers, so off we went.’

‘Excellent. How did it go?’

‘When we first got there we stayed in some tower block in the middle of a small town. Then during the night, a huge firefight broke out, with one half of the town firing at the other. It was bloody terrifying, actually. You could hear injured people screaming.’

‘Blimey,’ I said. ‘The Standard must have loved it.’

‘To be honest, mate, I was so frightened I couldn’t write a thing. And they weren’t interested anyway. That sort of thing was happening all over the place. Just because I’d seen it myself didn’t make it a story. In the end, I decided it wasn’t for me, and went back home again.’

‘But at least you tried, though. Must’ve raised your standing at the paper?’

‘Not really. When I got back, the news editor just asked me if I’d enjoyed my little bit of war tourism.’

At least Allan had been able to get to where the action was. The more I asked around, the more it seemed that going to Iraq itself was completely out the question.

‘Not really a place for freelancers, mate,’ said a Daily Telegraph photographer I knew, who’d just come back from Baghdad. Iraqi government officials had made it impossible for anyone other than staff correspondents to work there, he said, because of their desire to screw as much money from everyone as possible. Not only did they charge you astronomical rates for a bugged hotel room, you coughed up hundreds of dollars a day for Ministry of Information ‘minders’ to watch you, hundreds in visa ‘renewal fees’ every week or so, and hundreds to ‘rent’ a telephone line. All for the privilege of being there when America flattened the place.

‘You want to try Kurdistan,’ he said. ‘That’s the Holy Grail for freelancers. Great access, but very difficult to get in.’

‘Yes, good idea,’ I said, having no idea where Kurdistan was, or whose side they were on.

A session in the Standard’s cuttings library revealed all. Kurdistan was a small, mountainous enclave in northern Iraq which had broken away from Baghdad’s control after the first Gulf War.

The Kurds loathed Saddam for massacring 5,000 people in a gas attack on the Kurdish Iraqi town of Halabja in 1988. Now they were hoping to get revenge by helping the Coalition stage a northern assault on Saddam’s frontlines. The assault would be spearheaded by the Kurdish peshmerga militias, whose name translated as ‘those who willingly face death’.

It was potentially even more perilous than being in Baghdad: because of his long and nasty history with the Kurds, it was widely predicted that Saddam would unleash the bulk of his feared chemical weapons arsenal against them. Maybe it was a Holy Grail for the combat-hardened, but it looked a bit vertical, learning curve-wise, for a novice.

Still, I looked into it. As Kurdistan was a NATO protectorate, rather than a proper country, it didn’t really exist, diplomatically-speaking. The only way in or out was via its other neighbours, Iran, Turkey and Syria. Because they had restive Kurdish populations of their own, they were reluctant to recognise Kurdistan officially, and therefore rarely gave permission to foreigners – especially journalists – to cross the border.

A few freelancers had somehow managed it, either by smuggling or bribing themselves in. But when I emailed them asking for tips, I got no response whatsoever. It gradually dawned on me that I was, potentially, their competition. The only people who could really help me, in other words, had a direct interest in not doing so.

Eventually someone put me in touch with a guy who’d been to Kurdistan before and was planning to go again for the coming war. Marcus Bleasdale was exactly how I’d imagine a war zone photographer: wiry and serious, with a heavy growth of stubble on his face. I’d never met this kind of photographer before, which wasn’t surprising since he seemed to spend most of his time in places like the Congo or Afghanistan as opposed to drinking coffee outside Cheryl’s.

He generously agreed to meet up for a beer to answer any questions that I might have. Like, how to get to Kurdistan, where I did I stay, how did I find stories, and how did I avoid getting killed.

To his credit, he didn’t snort contemptuously when I grilled him. It could be done, he reckoned, even by someone without experience. You could get into Kurdistan via Iran, as long as the Iranian Embassy in London would grant you a transit visa.

Then, once the war started, you just stuck with other hacks at first and didn’t take too many risks. But it would still be seriously expensive. Translators and drivers were at least £30 a day each, as was a hotel for the night.

For communications with the outside world, I would need a satellite phone, which cost around £1,000 and a dollar-a-minute for calls. Plus a laptop, flak jacket, helmet, gas mask and chemical protection suit, coming in at a further £3,000 minimum.

And that was just for starters. Once the fighting got underway, war zone economics would kick in. Translators and drivers would demand danger money, doubling or trebling their charges. Hoteliers, shopkeepers and purveyors of virtually every other commodity would do likewise.

I did the maths.

Even if I was lucky enough to be able to share drivers and translators with some other freelancers, as Marcus suggested, my bills could easily be £200 a day – £6,000 a month.

The flak jacket, satphone, laptop, flights and so on would push it to around £10,000.

Worst of all, because Kurdistan had no functioning banking system, your entire money supply for the trip had to be taken with you, in $100 bills.

I’m the kind of bloke who gets nervous withdrawing £50 from the cash machine in case I’m mugged. Taking half my entire life savings and wandering around with them in a war zone didn’t seem like a good idea.

‘What happens if you get robbed?’

‘Make sure you don’t.’

‘But if every journalist is carrying that kind of cash around, won’t all the locals realise that you’re a target?’

‘Yes.’

‘Is there anything you can do about that?’

‘No.’

I thanked Marcus for his time and said I’d buy him another beer if I ever saw him in Kurdistan. He smiled in a friendly sort of way, but I suspected he’d lie low the moment he heard I was in town.

A couple of weeks later, I headed down to my favourite beach in Devon for a surfing break. The weather was beautiful, spring sunshine lighting up the mist off the waves as it streamed over the sand dunes. I savoured every moment. Never in my entire life had my future seemed more up in the air. It was now late February, and some time in the next month or two the war was expected to start. I’d applied to the Iranian embassy for a transit visa, but so far I’d heard nothing back from them. And the closer the invasion got, the more likely they were to seal the border altogether. Overall, the odds on getting out there seemed about as promising those on Saddam winning the war. Sooner or later, though, the call would have to be made. Either give up the job, lash out vast amounts of money, and leave my old life behind, or stick it out at home.

When I got back that weekend my mind was made up. Come what may, I’d give it a try.

First I told my parents. To my surprise, they didn’t seem horrified at all. If anything, they were a little too encouraging.

‘You’ve been so down in the dumps recently, dear,’ said my mum, breezily. ‘If it cheers you up, I think you should do it.’ It was as if I had announced I was joining a local church group.

The Standard, when I told them, seemed equally blasé. All they asked for was a week or two’s notice.

Anyone would have thought they were happy to get rid of me.

 

 

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