Monday, 31 October 2011

Turbulent Priests

Twenty-five years ago yesterday (Sunday) the body of missing Polish priest Father Popieluszko was pulled out of a canal outside Warsaw, where it had been dumped by Communist security police.

The 37-year-old priest and his demonstrable sympathy for Gdansk shipyard workers of the trades union Solidarity made him a target of the fearful Polish Communist state. Murdering him did not change the course that history was taking; if anything, it added to the current which swept away the regime within a few years of Father Popieluszko's assassination.

The part played by churches in the political events of the late 1980s among the members of the Warsaw Pact appears to have been obscured in this country by the dust kicked up over the anti-capitalism protest outside St Paul's Cathedral - admission £14.50.

The dust is likely to get thicker following today's resignation of the Dean, the Very Reverend Graeme Knowles, with the threat of bailiffs looming larger.

By and large the English prefer their priests to remain good shepherds watching over their flocks. The likes of Trevor Huddlestone, Donald Soper and the former Bishop of Durham, the Right Reverend David Jenkins, were the exception rather than the rule.

We don't like to see men of the cloth (let alone women of the cloth) getting arrested outside nuclear submarine bases, commissioning reports about poverty or taking on elected governments - leave that to Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It was alright for the Archbishop of York, Dr David Sentamu, to rail against Robert Mugabe because hardly anybody here liked Zimbawe's dictator.

A priest who offends against the conservative expectations of the silent (agnostic) majority, especially if he seems to be acting out of faith, is likely to end up as a caricature trendy vicar in an Alan Bennett story, as in A Bed Among the Lentils.

Elsewhere, expectations are different. Just after October 9, 1989, the Lutheran church of St Nicholas in Leipzig became the centre of a Monday evening peace demonstration against the Communist East German Government. The state was still celebrating its 40th anniversary when an estimated 50,000 people gathered.

In the weeks that followed, those Monday evening church-based demos grew to 120,000 and then more than 300,000. Reportedly, they continued in Leipzig (and in other cities) until March 1990 - long after the GDR had been tossed into the dustbin of history.

I daresay there are would-be turbulent priests in this country who would love to play a part, probably a central part, in stirring up history-shaping change. You would have thought the goings on at St Paul's was their opportunity; but, as far as I know, the outspoken ones have remained silent, preferring instead to moralise about events in Libya.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Thin Spite OK, Vi...

That's an anagram of THINK POSITIVE, the inspirational exclamation that is the watchword of Bradford's ninth or tenth attempt since 1986 at a community cheer up campaign, to encourage the sceptical among its long-suffering citizenry to always look on the bright side.

Count me among them. When marketing chuggers and politicians bang on earnestly about the importance of being positive, corporate, collective, my instinct is to lift up a corner of the carpet to see what they've been sweeping under it.

I tend to feel the same way whenever English film critics are universal in their praise. I thought No Country For Old Men, which most of them adored, was tedious and incomprehensible. The book wasn't much better. Virtually everyone else I know who has seen it think the film's a masterpiece I saw it again recently, partly to test my own opinion; alas, it was even worse. The villain with his gas tank and 1970s Leonard Cohen hairstyle looked like a sleepwalking dentist. I'd rather watch Hombre. Now that is a masterpiece, dealing with the same themes of nihilism, greed and violence, but much more coherently.

The remake of True Grit, lauded as truer to the spirit of the novel than the John Wayne film, was wordy, worthy, but tiresome, in spite of the best efforts of Jeff Bridges. I suppose I am not a fan of the Cohen Brothers.

Having read some four and five-star reviews of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy I hurried along to see it, in anticipation of a great evening in the cinema. Within five minutes the thing struck me as misconceived. Gary Oldman, who had gained widespread acclaim as George Smiley, was miscast. Not out of his depth but in the wrong part. At the end I knew it was a film I would not want to watch again. Friends, however, thought it was superb.

Peter Hitchens, I have just discovered, felt even more let down than I did. He knows Le Carre's novel, which I don't, and remembers the BBC television serial with Alec Guinness as George Smiley, which I didn't see. Some of his readers found the film too slow and left before the end. For me the telling of the tale was slow but the technique of telling it, fast choppy cuts across time, was confusing. At the end I had no idea how Smiley had discovered that Bill Hayden was the Russian double agent. The film deterred me from buying the book, whereas Hombre had me grabbing for Elmore Leonard's slim novel the first time I saw it.

An old woman with sly sniper's eyes once remarked that I had a closed mind. Not being particularly quick on the verbal come-back, I didn't tell her that people who know me have little trouble finding the equivlalent of 'Open Sesame' to engage my attention. In my defence I went to see The King's Speech simply because a shred of it had been filmed in Bradford. The critics loved it, so I was sceptical. I came away thinking it a fine film, centring on the unlikely friendship between two very different characters.

I have no problem with emotionalism or 'love interest' except where, Hollywood style, it is added in for commercial interest, which I think of as slop. Men and women with perfect teeth, impeccable personal hygiene and untroubled by the imperatives of hunger, thirst, belly and bowel movements, declare their undying love as the world goes up in flames or their trains leave the station in opposite directions. THINK POSITIVE! I hear the deceitful voice of my bad angel say, until the voice of my good angel says BOLLOCKS!

My tendency is to move, after due consideration, from a negative to a positive. That's not how it is for everybody, merely how the key seems to fit my lock.

Friday, 8 July 2011

The Hacker...

There is a scene in the movie The Lives of Others where a writer, a loyal support of the East German state, indignantly asks the former head of the state security police why the Stasi had not considered him dangerous enough to place under surveillance.

"Oh but you were, constantly," the slug-like secret policeman tells him, nodding ironically at the writer's revealed conceit.

As one of life's refusniks, who refuses to subject himself to a mobile phone's ring-tone and the idiot prattling that usually follows, I am unlikely to be one of the gallant 4,000 hacked into by former News of the World journos.

Unlike Hugh Grant who, I thought, probably accurately described the Metropolitan Police, News International, 10 Downing Street cartel as a "protection racket". The higher-ups move in the same social circles thinking they are immune to the Law of Unforeseen Consequences - what goes around eventually comes around. The Prime Minister is discovering that.

Anyone who has glanced at books such as Phillip Knightley's The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Propagandist From Crimea to Kosovo and John Simpson's Unrealiable Sources, will be aware that 'rat fucking', a phrase coined by President Richard Nixon's henchmen, has a long history. He was brought down by his association with people arrested, charged and indicted for organising the Watergate building burglary, including his special counsel Charles Colson.

For Colson read Coulson?

About the only new thing in the latest revelations about how some members of the press operate (more than 300 of them according to Newsnight) is the technology.

This bear of staggeringly inadequate brain power is neither shocked nor appalled. Those epithets of moral outrage, so righteously voiced by most of yesterday's old Question Timers remind me of the protestations of those public notables who, not so long ago, used their economic power to take out Super Injunctions to prevent hacks from revealing the truth about their extra-curricular activities.

In The Lives of Others the writer does his best work in spite of the sanctions of the state, stung into risking his liberty because of the suicide of a despairing black-listed friend.

To do it, however, he has to resort to subterfuge; in effect he has to break the law of the German Democratic Republic. His adherence to truth rather than party loyalty is tested. But any feeling of moral superiority he feels is crushed by the death of his lover, a woman blackmailed by the Stasi into betraying him.

I'd like to be able to say with conviction that as long as the rich and powerful are free to use the law to protect their dirty little secrets and maintain their public image, the media will be obliged to use whatever means deemed necessary by unscrupulous news executives to get at the truth.

But it's not that simple. Just as the poor usually prey on the poor rather than the rich, the press gangs up on insignificant celebrities and the victims of crime and war to keep us boobies, to use George Bernard Shaw's expression of contempt, distracted from what's really going on.

With all eyes on Downing Street and News International's Wapping HQ, British Gas slyly chose to announce it was jacking up energy prices next month. After Sunday The News of the World won't be able to screw you; but there are plenty of other organs that will.

As for Rupert Murdoch, I wouldn't be surprised if he is awarded the BSkyB contract - after he has got rid of red-top Rebekah Brooks, kicked son James up the arse and issued a public mea culpa. He has too many friends in high places, probably has an oil-field of dirt on all of them including past and present incumbents of Number 10.

In spite of his promised inquiries, David Cameron's position is far more precarious than the Dirty Digger's. DC may be BC before the year is out.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

The Green Thing...

Following Panorama's piece about junk mail and the costs of disposing of it (at least £700,000 as in-fill in Cornwall), I decided to post the following item, passed on to me by my friend David Knight:-

In the queue at the shop, the young cashier told the old woman that she should bring her own bags in future because plastic bags weren't good for the environment.

The old lady apologised, explaining to the young man: "We didn't have the green thing back in my day."

The cashier said sententiously: "That's our problem today. The former generation did not care enough to save our planet's environment."

He was right: that generation didn't have the green thing in its day.

Back then, people returned their milk bottles. They got money back for pop bottles and beer bottles (a practice still in place in Sweden). The shop sent them back to the plant to be washed, sterilized and refilled; the same bottles were used over and over. So they were recycled.

But they didn't have the green thing back in that customer's day.

In her day they walked up stairs because they didn't have escalators in every shop and office building. They walked to the shops and didn't climb into 300-horsepower machines every time they had to go a mile or two for milk or bread.

Because they didn't have the green thing.

Back then, they washed nappies because they didn't have the disposable kind. They dried clothes on a line, not in an energy-gobbling machine burning up 220 volts. Wind and solar power really did dry the washing.

The green thing was sadly lacking.

Kids got hand-me-down clothes from their brothers and sisters. There was one radio or television in the house, and the TV had a small screen not one the size of Wales. In the kitchen they blended and stirred by hand because they didn't have electrical appliances to do everything for them.

When they packaged a fragile item to send by post they used screwed-up newspaper not polystrene or plastic bubble wrap.

Back in the dark old days they didn't burn petrol just to cut the grass, they pushed a mower that ran on human muscle. They exercised, played games, so they didn't need to go to a health club to run on an electric-powered treadmill.

But, as the lady said, they didn't have the green thing then.

People took the tram or bus and kids rode their bikes to school or rode on the school bus instead of turning their mums into a 24-hour taxi service. They had one electrical socket in a rtoom, not an entire bank of them to power a dozen appliances. Nor did they need a computerised gadget to receive a signal beamed from satellites 2,000 miles out in space in order to find the nearest Pizza Hut.

What sad buggers they were, without the self-satisfying green thing to make them feel good about themselves.

Friday, 27 May 2011

The Cost of Democracy

The other day I stumbled upon a web entry written in praise of the late Militant Tendency supporter and Bradford North MP, Pat Wall.

What struck me was the fact that he and other MT supporters in Parliament - Dave Nellist being among them - reportedly took from their MP's salary the average pay of a working man.

However risible you may think that as a gesture, compare and contrast that with the greed of Lord Hanningfield, former Tory transport spokesman; Tory peer Lord Taylor of Warwick; Elliot Morley, former labour environment minister; Labour MP David Chaytor; former Labour MP Jim Devine and former Labour MP Eric Illsley.

The infamous five were found guilty in courts of law of falsely claiming more than £77,000 in expenses and mortgage payments. There were others who left Parliament before last year's General Election; there will be others whose cases have yet to come to court, I dare say.

The point is, no one is surprised any more by the culpable cupidity of the people's representatives. And to think that I used to defend the Mother of Parliaments against attacks by Muslim fundamentalists who declaimed: "Democracy is hypocrisy!" I'll take a little bit of political corruption any time over a theocratic dictatorship, I used to say, thinking of the odd backhander, free lunch or fact-finding mission to the Seychelles. Systematic fraud by the well-paid and the privileged, however, is something else.

Henry VIII and his daughter, old Gloriana, had a short way with erring courtiers: they cut their heads off - in public. Rather than return to that Saudi Arabian-style solution, I think MPs should be made to pay their own travel expenses and mortgage payments, just like the people they supposedly represent.

There are 650 MPs in the Commons and 792 Peers in the Lords. There used to be far fewer Lords a-leaping, but David Cameron has reportedly ennobled 117 new ones so far this year. Parliament costs Joe Public nearly £500m a year to run. MPs' salaries and pensions cost £157.2m in 2009. That year they also claimed £90.7m in all types of expenses.

However, these figures look slight compared to the cost of the 751 MEPs, sashaying between luxury buildings in Brussels and Strasbourg. These foreign bodies reportedly cost the European Union's tax-paying fodder at least £1.61 billion, including in the region of £220m for expenses, £161m for assistants and £108m for 'other staff'.

These costs exclude the civils servants who service them - more than 524,000 in Britain's Home Civil Service alone. To that figure must be added the Carlton-Brownes' in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the johnnies in the Northern Ireland Office.

No matter that four or five members of the Eurozone are bankrupt or nearly bankrupt, the gravy train rattles on with ever-bigger budget claims. There may come a time when 'blood on the tracks' is more than the title of a Bob Dylan album.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011


Richard North, who is forever banging on about the stupidity, laziness and gullibility of the Main Stream Media (MSM), will find vindication in the case of Germany's Tom Kummer - highlighted in one of North's pet hates, The Guardian.

For years this man successfully deluded publishing groups such as the Axel Springer organisation in Berlin, persuading them to buy interviews with celebrities that were in fact fictions of Kummer's vivid imagination - Mike Tyson talking about Nietzsche, Pamela Anderson discussing William Gibson's Necromancer, Bruce Willis on human development:-

I understood pretty early on that we do not advance through morality, but immorality, vices, cynicism.

Kummer, now the subject of a documentary called Bad Boy Kummer, says he got away with it for so long because everybody involved loved what he invented:-

I guess they were addicted to some kind of illusion that stars talk like I made them talk. They all loved it and wanted more: readers, movie distribution people, advertisers and editors.
I was convinced that editors knew everything - nobody asked for tapes, nobody asked for any kind of proof for more than six years - but they refused to admit it...

I can almost hear Richard North rolling about the floor in laughter. Kummer, of course, isn't the first bright bad boy to expose the media's greed and stupidity. In the spring of 1983 West Germany's Stern magazine announced the publishing coup of the century: the personal handwritten diaries of Adolf Hitler.

I remember going through pages of the stuff reproduced in The Sunday Times in spite of doubts cast on the authenticity of the diaries - dozens of them - by revisionist historian David Irving. The likes of mighty Sir Hugh Trevor-Roper was one of several experts who examined the documents and announced them kosher.

The publishing coup of the century turned out to be the publishing hoax of the century. The diaries and their contents were created by a bent genius called Konrad Kujau. For years he had been making a nice living from selling forged Nazi artefacts, feeding the nostalgic wishful thinking of people such as Stern journalist Gerd Heidemann, who persuaded his editors that fantasy was reality.

But for Kajau's attempt to make his hero Hitler a more affable historical figure, more concerned with getting tickets for himself and Eva Braun to the 1936 Berlin Olympics than annihilating the Jews, he could be considered an exposer of enormity, like another German bad boy Gunter Wallraff.

I first came across Wallraff's daring brand of investigative journalism in the late 1970s. Unlike Woodwood and Bernstein on The Washington Post, trying to get to the bottom of the Nixon administration's culpability in Watergate by asking questions and double-checking, Wallraff went undercover to get at the truth.

In a recent project Wallraff disguised himself as a black man to explore racial discrimination in the new Germany. He described his exploits in a book, Black on White, and in a film, Out of the Beautiful New World, which came out a couple of years ago.

The late journalist William Donaldson was a gifted wastrel with a talent for exposing the conceit of celebrity. Pretending to be Henry Root, a bigoted London wet fish merchant, he wrote a series of letters on a range of matters to the great and the good, eliciting their sympathy and support.

The results may be read in The Letters of Henry Root. Sir James Goldsmith and James Anderton, then Chief Constable of Greater Manchester, were among those who thought the correspondence was genuine. Ity only goes to show that you can fool some of the people all of the time.

My favourite faker Tom Keating proved that. A technically accomplished painter but unrated by critics and connoiseurs, he got his own back by painting some 2,000 'old masters', duping the experts with his "Sexton Blakes" - fakes.

Titians, Turners, Czezannes - it was all the same to Keating, a Captain Birdseye figure. After his exposure in The Guardian he redeemed himself by taking part in a series of television programmes showing how fakes were made but, more importantly, how great artists created their paintings.

American writer Clifford Irving showed that while money isn't the root of all evil, excessive love of it is. He conned publisher McGraw Hill out of $750,000 for a biography of billionaire recluse Howard Hughes using forged documents, including Hughes' forged signature.

As Hughes was without doubt one of the most extraordinary men of the Twentieth Century, the publisher's commercial interest was understandable. Whether by accident or design Irving's scam, driven by the desire for money, showed up the cupidity of the establishment.

Last Saturday I walked away from the Manet exhibition in the Musee d'Orsay, Paris, feeling that I had been conned by the art experts and art critics. Was this painter of sober men in ducktail coats and top hats really "the inventor of the modern"?

Great poet though Baudelaire was, he wrote about Manet in that fashion to suit his own purposes, I concluded. No one will convince me that he was a more original contributor to Western art than, say, Caravaggio, El Greco (the true father of Cubism) and Goya. One bent lamp post by Van Gogh says more to me than Manet's accomplished salon pictures.

Who decides what is real, what is authentic? Picasso, who knew more about this question than most, said that to get at the truth (in art) one had to lie.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

On Thinking Well of Yourself

Anyone who doesn't have the wit to think well of himself is a fool; but anyone who is foolish enough to think too well of himself is a conceited ass.

This aphoristic profundity passed through my brain after reading an article in a 1958 edition of Encounter, the Anglo-American cultural magazine (1953-1991) by up-and-coming Bradford novelist John Braine. It was an account of a post-prandial Q&A between the author of Room at the Top and J B Priestley, Bradford-born author of numerous novels, plays, essays, newspaper articles and radio broadcasts.

Braine was clearly of a mind to think well of himself in the company of the creator of works as various as The Good Companions, An Inspector Calls, English Journey and Postcript. Priestley, born in 1894, the year the Independent Labour Party was founded in his home town, was the grand old man of English letters even if the dons of Oxbridge didn't think him worthy of a footnote in their fabricated great traditions: he was beyond thinking well or badly of himself.

Braine's self-imposed mission was to explore his mixed feelings about the legend of "Jolly Jack, the successful Bradford businessman who dealt in words instead of wool."

After a "very good lunch" at Priestley's apartment in the Albany, Braine fired his opening shot. Priestley had been on the Western Front during the 1914-18 War; why hadn't he used his experiences in his writing? Priestley ducked the shot, saying by the time he had accumulated the necessary experience as a novelist a number of very good books about the War had appeared; then he fired back: "Incidentally, I wonder if you remember my account of the battalion reunion in English Journey? If you don't know the book, you might take a look at that chapter sometime. You'll find your War there."

First blow to Priestley. Braine then changes tack, raising the subject of the the snobby division of literature into popular best sellers and serious novels. "...haven't you suffered from it?" he concludes.

"Yes," says Priestley. 'Best-seller' is a trade term and should not be used by critics as if it had some literary significance. Some bad books have been best-sellers, but then so have all the world's best books too...The books I published before The Good Companions were generally praised in the weekly reviews. Then by accident - for what I wanted to do was to write a long picaresque novel and neither my publishers nor the booksellers, who only subscribed three thousand copies, thought it would be popular - I brought out a novel that everybody's aunt wanted to buy and read, so that six months after publication it was selling five thousand copies a day - and in the sight of the weekly reviews I stopped being a promising literary man and became an adroit Bradford businessman...If I'm left out of those solemn lists and assessments of contemporary English authors, it serves me right, partly for doing so many different things and also for not caring a damn."

Room at the Top was on its way to first-year sales of 35,000 copies. Braine would be receiving royalty cheques for anywhere between £12,000 and £15,000: riches that, in 1958, would have turned almost anyone's head, let alone the creator of Joe Lampton, who lusted after his own Aston Martin.

As though to establish his bone fides as a serious man of letters, Braine asserts that Bright Day is Priestley's "very best novel". Priestley counter-punches: "Well, that's what you say. Somebody else would say Angel Pavement...I've been told so often that only some particular book or play has justified my existence, that I've lost interest in the subject."

Braine tries to recover ground by including Priestley's observation. "As long as a lot of people all like different ones among your books or plays, that seems to me quite a satisfactory state of affairs." He goes on to ask the great man if writing should always be a full-time job and receives what could be a back-handed complement.

"I think you ought to make it a full-time job - you have the right temperament, the right attitude," says JB. "But I also think that a great many young writers, by no means without talent, would be happier not trying to earn a living with their writing. Delicate temperaments and talents are better off as amateurs. A professional writer should be tough and copious."

Braine had started out delicate - he had been in a TB sanitorium for more than a year - but after many rejections, had learned to be tough - and unpleasant with it. As though to demonstrate his toughness he tries again to take Priestley on.

"...You've never done anything better than An Inspector Calls...But They Came to a City, to my mind, is a classic of how not to do it. In the first, real people expressed a universal truth; in the second, abstract ideas were stated by puppets."

Priestley, rather like a literary Matt Busby, responds benignly, apparently. "They Came to a City was a play written for a specific period - the middle of the war. It said something that needed to be said at that time, when, by the way, it was enormously successful. I try to discourage people from producing it now. Incidentally, aren't you in danger of being rather negative in your criticism, or worrying too much about work you don't like?"

There is more, but this exchange gives a flavour of what I mean by thinking well of one's self. John Braine, whose debut novel I both like and admire - Priestley did too, although he said it wasn't "big enough" - concluded by saying he had to his own satisfaction exploded the legend of Priestley as "Jolly Jack, the Hard headed Yorkshireman". Priestley's reputation in England as a serious writer was far below what it deserved to be.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Want to Change the World? Then Change Your Life

"I don't know how I ever got a Nobel Peace Prize, because when I see children die the anger in me is just beyond belief," Mrs Betty Williams told school children at Brisbane City Hall in 2006. "It is our duty as human beings, whatever age we are, to become the protectors of human life."

Since winning the honour with Mairead Corrigan in 1977 (for the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize), her career has become the embodiment of the truth that if you want change to come you have to be prepared to change your life first, even at the risk of being disowned by those who claim to love you.

The former Belfast receptionist changed her life in more ways than simply divorcing husband Ralph and marrying James Perkins. She persuaded Protestants and Catholics alike to come out on to the streets in their thousands and protest against sectarian violence. The IRA said she was a "dupe of the British".

She travels the world lecturing on the subjects of peace, justice and equality, a trinity of values some find as hard to swallow as atheists would the Eucharist. Justice and equality before the law are still widely subjugated to cultural values more in keeping with nomadic desert tribes than the urban reality of 21st century Western life.

For instance, forced marriage (for males and females) and honour killings. Here are some statistics from Jaswinder Sanghera, whose charity Karma Nirvana campaigns on these issues in the north of the UK.

. At least 12 so-called honour killings occur every year although the Crown Prosecution Service thinks there may be many more.

. The Home Office's Forced Marriage Unit deals with 5,000 calls for support annually and 400 cases of repatriation a year, a third of which are for under-16s.

. South Asian women aged 16 to 24 are two to three times more likely to commit suicide or self-harm.

Jaswinda told me recently: "I am perceived as a threat by people who have a mindset, who operate in an honour code, who don't want their children to integrate or have choices. They see me as a cultural threat.

"What I deem culturally unacceptable is when they abuse their child to maintain their own idea of what's right and what's wrong...Professionals know what's happening, but have been disarmed when dealing with other communities. They fear getting it wrong and being called 'racist'.

"The perpetrators of forced marriage and honour killings are gaining power through using the race card."

There is still much work for the likes of Jaswinder Sanghera and Betty Williams to do.

Monday, 14 February 2011

The Last Train to Clarksville - or Anywhere...

Those old enough to remember the days of train travel, before the triumph of privatisation, may recall the television commercial featuring Sir Jimmy Savile in which the public were encouraged to take the strain out of long-distance journeys by taking a British Rail train.

If, unlike me, you own a car and like your own company, the only reason you might choose public over private transport is likely to be for the purpose of helping the environment. Take issue with that as you may, lots of ordinary people do that because they believe, in good faith, that care of the environment is their responsibility. Some of them even listen to earnest eco advocates like Prince Charles.

Having given up driving in 1989 - my car kept getting stolen - I used buses and trains ever since. On Saturday, in a burst of pre-Valentine's Day passion, I was due to meet the woman of my dreams at Kings Cross in London at round about 9.45am. We used to go out when we were 17, had recently fallen in love, but had not met for 44 years.

That's why I got out of bed at 4.15 on Saturday morning, to make sure I caught the 6.20am Grand Central from Bradford to King's Cross. I trusted the train to get me there at the appointed, time-tabled time. Having made this journey in late October to visit my sister, I had no reason to suspect things might be different.

I arrived at 6am. No train in sight. Alarmed, I made inquiries, to be told that the train had been cancelled due to engineering works at Doncaster. There was one at about 8.30am, which got to King's Cross at 1.15pm. That was no good. I was advised by an apologetic station staff man to take the next train to Leeds and buy a ticket for the 7am East Coast service to London. Which I did, at a cost of £89.50 for a return.

At Leeds I was told that, due to engineering works at Doncaster, the 7am was cancelled. The one at 8.05am stopped at Huntingdon where a bus would take me to another station for a local through train. That was no good. I was directed through the barrier to the information office, where four people in uniform were having a natter. Only when I banged by bag down on the counter did one of them look up.

My best option, apparently, was to go to Doncaster and wait for a London train from York or Edinburgh. By this time I was in a state of near panic. Not having a mobile phone (my fault entirely), I couldn't alert my true love to the chaos on the railways.

On the Doncaster platform, a large woman with ginger hair asked if I would mind taking part in a 'customer survey'. Although I was the very kind of person she should have questioned, she retreated when I intimated that my day was being ruined by the railways.

By chance I glanced at the electronic information board to see there was a 7.34am East Midlands train to St Pancras, next door to King's Cross. None of the rail staff I had spoken to had suggested this alternative, in spite of their computers and radio links. I boarded this train and got to London at about 11.20am in a state of extreme anxiety. I had to do breathing exercises on the way in to calm down.

Fortunately, the light of my life had had the bottle to wait, trusting me to turn up. I collapsed into her arms and was virtually speechless for a minute or more, as the tension eased. But for her I think I might have had a turn for the worse.

We had a happy time together until the time came for us to go our separate ways. Eventually, I and several thousand others, lots of them England supporters who had been to Twickenham, stuffed on board the 6.55pm East Coast train to Leeds. Standing room only. It was quite alarming. The 5pm and 6pm trains North had been cancelled, presumably due to engineering works at Doncaster, in spite of the fact that at least 150,000 people had converged on the capital for matches at Arsenal and Twickenham.

Departure time came and went and still the train hadn't moved. A voice over the pa system told us in broken English that departure would be delayed by at least 30 minutes, due to the late arrival of the guard. We were given regular updates on his estimated time of arrival. Turned out he was travelling south on another East Coast train that had been delayed two hours at Doncaster, due to a householder who had thoughtlessly chopped a tree down in his garden that had fallen across power lines and across the railway track.

Forty-five minutes late, our train got moving, only to stop before Stevenage, after Stevenage and several points between right up to Doncaster, where it stopped for about 30 minutes or more. The attitude of passengers around me was remarkable, especially the group of England rugby fans from Newark. They chatted and laughed, cheerfully taking the tension out of a stressful situation. They bought strangers drinks and, all in all, kept up the spirits of all within earshot. They performed the job that the train crew were being paid to do and didn't.

One or two people for whom the situation evidently proved too much had a sneaky smoke in the toilets. The official reaction was to announce that anyone caught smoking would be reported to British Transport Police. Meanwhile, just after Peterborough, we were told the bar was out of beer.

We got into Leeds at midnight, after all connecting services had stopped. Passengers who had missed trains were directed to approach station staff for help. No one met us off the train. About 50 of us went to the customer services office to inquire, politely, what was happening. A squat man declared it was nothing to do with him. Someone from East Coast would be along to sort it out, although he couldn't say when. After receiving a rather civilised bollocking from a man waiting to get back to Hornby, this Jobsworth simply buggered off, leaving us to it.

A decent chap in a red East Coast cap did arrive and sorted out taxis for us. It took a while, but what impressed me was the kindness of these people to one another. We all did our best to be helpful rather than irate. Even the chap in the cap was thanked for doing his best. I got home at 1am, exhausted from the emotions of the day and the stress of the journey.

If a train is an hour late you can claim for your ticket money back. I've done that. But supposing my day had been completely wrecked by the mixture of official incompetence and indifference that I experienced: how was that damage going to be repaired?

During the big snows, thousands of people had even worse problems at British airports. I gather passengers are regarded as "self-loading baggage" by airport staff. The rugby fans were saying that next time they ventured South to support England they would be going by car. Can you blame them?

Of course the rail companies would say that updated information about delays and cancellations had been put up on their website, implying it was the fault of ticket-holding passengers for failing to check this information before setting out. This is known as passing the buck - having already taken the bucks from trusting fools like me.

If this was a microcosm of the true state of this nation, God help us. It was clear to me that the majority of people paid to run things efficiently weren't bothered, while a stream of useless or patronising information was constantly relayed over tannoy systems to frustrated passengers. In spite of being entangled in a nightmare of regulations, warnings and idiotic announcements, most people remained robust and resilient, laughing at officials who, bound by more rules and regulations, were unable to adapt flexibly to a bad situation.

Every day we are lectured by the likes of Prince Charles on how we must lower our standard of living to benefit others in the Third World. The last time I saw HRH in person, he was making his way through Bradford's Forster Square station with a handful of officials, en route to his rather large private train. He made a joke to commuter passengers being held back from theirs until his train had left.

I very much doubt that His Royal Highness will ever find himself in the predicament of his future long-suffering, train-travelling subjects.