22 July 2007


I've been out of sorts the past fortnight, and it's not just the usual stuff - getting a bit too drunk at a family function, the thankless grind of work, the weather. It's that I don't have my pub right across the road from me any more. The Horse and Groom, Woodbridge Road, Ipswich, shut down a fortnight ago - and I feel like I've lost a limb.

It's not the booze: it's the people. The Horse and Groom, aka the Doom and Gloom, was a proper old-fashioned working-class boozer. The landlord, Eddie, and his wife, Sarah, ran the place as pubs used to be run. There was a crib team, a darts team, a pool team. And there were regular quizzes, a meat raffle, a lottery syndicate and an annual coach trip to the Newmarket races. You could sit there and read the papers or talk as you fancied. And now - it's sinking in - it's all over.

They had a great send-off the weekend before last, but then the shutters went up - or rather the corrugated metal sheets they now screw over windows and doors to stop squatters and break-ins. And now ... well, now, it's a choice between the Dove or the Grinning Rat (previously the Olive Leaf) 100 yards away or the Milestone 200 yards in the other direction.

So what, you might think. But the reason Ed and Sarah got out was that they'd been made an offer they could only refuse by the company that owned the pub freehold - increased rent plus a continuation of a disgraceful tied deal on booze that meant they were forced to buy most stock at wholesale prices that were beaten by every local supermarket's retail offers. On those terms, they couldn't make a living.

And the reason the company made that offer was that it saw the pub simply as real estate. With Ipswich's dockside redevelopment moving apace, you can get £250,000 no problem for a two-bedroom flat round here - and the pub could easily be turned into four or five bijou dwellingettes. Conveniently, because there are so many boozers within walking distance, change of use is a potential walkover, particularly with a Tory council. No one has been moved in to manage the pub.

Three weeks ago, this time on Sunday, I was thinking of going over for a pint - and I did. Today, I could catch one somewhere else before closing-time if I went out now. But all the other pubs are anonymous places where I don't know anyone. I still see my neighbours, but there's no longer an automatic meeting point: the football and rugby and cricket on the telly, the Saturday lunchtime get-together of the old Labour guys, Nick two doors up very late on a Friday, old Terence talking about books at opening time early evening when the cricket's on.

The point is simple: closing proper pubs wrecks communities, and the criminally anti-competitive practices of the property companies that now run so many of them deserve to be busted. But as things stand there is nothing we can do to stop our boozers being shut and turned into yuppie residences. Time for some serious legislation, Gordon?


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 20 July 2007

Bah! I was going to treat you all to a pastiche of the Alastair Campbell diaries in this column – but that’s already been done by all the Sundays and Private Eye and I don’t want to appear a copy-cat. So instead of sending up Campbell’s deathless prose, I’ll just write about what’s in the book.

Which is, of course, precisely what everyone else has done, but so what. The Blair Years is the UK political publishing sensation of the past decade – I can’t think of a political book that has had anything like its impact since Will Hutton’s The State We’re In way back in 1995, and that was a much slower burner – and I want to share my twopence-halfpenny-worth.

Not that I have deep insider knowledge to impart on the events described by Campbell: far from it. I met him on many occasions in the 1990s when I was working as a political journalist, but the only one that sticks in my mind is a New Statesman lunch at the Groucho Club in summer 1995 when we had a shouting match. He suggested that we should tell him in advance when we were about to publish a story that might embarrass New Labour. I suggested that he could go fuck himself, and it went downhill from there. Nine months later, the Statesman was bought by Geoffrey Robinson, who installed as editor the ultra-Blairite Ian Hargreaves, who in turn fired me and all the other lefties on the magazine apart from John Pilger. So maybe I should have been more diplomatic in dealing with Campbell.

Whatever, I decided around that time that I’d had it with political journalism, at least in the sense of hanging around Westminster chasing stories, covering the party conferences and all that. I’d done 10 years at Tribune and the Statesman, and it had mostly been fun. But I’d had enough of dealing with poisonous spin-doctors and I was sick of politicians who acted as if they had a god-given right to interfere with the left press. I was jaded. It was time for a change. A book on the Labour Party, then goodbye to all that.

I didn’t quite manage the definitive breach – I’m still writing this column, still addicted to political news – but for the past 10 years I have been pretty much spin-doctor-free. I’m in touch with a few politicians I meet for lunch or a couple of beers. But that’s just about it. I’m almost completely out of the loop, which makes me feel just a tad twitchy.

But you know what? It doesn’t matter. Having read the Campbell diaries from cover to cover, I realise that I’m not that much worse informed about what’s going on than the journalists who are closest to the action.

There might not be much that is news in The Blair Years, though there is a lot more than the first dismissive reports of the book’s contents suggested last week. But there is a great deal that is new. The picture the book paints of life in Tony Blair’s court is more vivid and more detailed than anything an outsider could produce – and it is also at odds in crucial respects with received journalistic wisdom.

On the internal dynamics of the Blair government, for instance, most accounts have hitherto stressed Blair’s dominance of the government or the fraught relationship between Blair and Gordon Brown. But it’s clear from Campbell that, in the first term at least, it makes much more sense to think of the government in terms of a complex series of trade-offs among a “big four” of Blair, Brown, John Prescott and Robin Cook.

No one before Campbell has ever captured the extraordinary intensity and drama-queen pettiness of the rivalries at the heart of New Labour. Nor is there any previous account that makes clear just how neurotic Blair and his entourage were about public opinion. There is also a vast amount in The Blair Years that is genuinely revelatory on the Irish peace process, the Kosovo crisis, Europe and the “special relationship” with the US.

Yes, the Campbell diaries are a self-serving effort by someone whose reputation for truth-telling is not what it might be. Yes, they reveal him to be hate-filled and hate-fuelled. Yes, they have been cut to comply with the Official Secrets Act and to remove anything likely to damage Gordon Brown. There is nothing much in them on policy, and the sections on the build-up to the Iraq war and the post-invasion bust-up between Campbell and the BBC are particularly disappointing, adding little to what is already in the public sphere.

In short, The Blair Years is not trustworthy, nor is it the last word on anything. But it is an important work of contemporary history that will change the way we look at Labour’s first decade in office after 1997. It’s funny how it seems so long ago...

11 July 2007


I might be late on this, but I wonder whether Simon Jenkins's sour piece today on Ali's little tome has something to do with Campbell's perceptive estimation of Jenkins on page 178:
He struck me as a total wanker: very self-important.

9 July 2007


The National Union of Journalists' national executive decided on Friday to do no more about its annual delegate meeting decision to call for a boycott of Israel. My tame NEC hack tells me:
The original motion called for the NUJ to call on the TUC to organise a boycott of Israeli goods. The motion having been passed, we wrote to the TUC with this suggestion. The TUC said "no". On Friday the NEC decided that this should be the end of the matter - we have done what we were asked, and will now do no more.

6 July 2007


Paul Anderson, Tribune, 6 July 2007

Douglas Hill, the reviews editor of Tribune from 1971 to 1983, has died after being run over by a double-decker bus as he walked over a pedestrian crossing in north London. He was 72.

A charming Canadian polymath with a razor-sharp but self-deprecating wit, he was a prolific author. The best-selling of his 50-odd books were children’s science fiction and fantasy titles: before the arrival of Harry Potter he was the most popular children’s author in Britain. But he also wrote science fiction for adults and several non-fiction titles, among them an anthology-cum-history of this newspaper to mark its 40th birthday 30 years ago, Tribune 40: Forty years of a socialist newspaper, which remains the only book-length account of the first half of its life.

Born in Manitoba and educated at the universities of Saskatchewan and Toronto, he arrived in Britain in 1959 with his then wife Gail Robinson, becoming an editor at a publishing company. He joined Tribune as reviews editor in 1971, taking over from Elizabeth Thomas. “My intention was to carry on, in my way, what she and others before her had established as the proper roles and obligations of the reviews section of a socialist paper,” he wrote modestly in 1977, but it is no insult to Thomas, herself a great reviews editor, to say that he did much more than that.

Under his stewardship, the reviews pages started to fizz, just as the rest of the paper became increasingly worthy-and-dull in its obsession with the arguments against Britain joining (and then remaining in) the Common Market. His choice of reviewers was inspired in its eclecticism, and the column he wrote most weeks, “Platform”, was the closest the paper has come to emulating George Orwell’s “As I Please” column of the 1940s in its intellectual range and in its humour. Many of the people he recruited as writers are still valued contributors more than 20 years on.

He remained in touch with Tribune long after he left: he wrote reviews until well into the 1990s and was a regular at the editorial lunches organised by Sheila Noble, the paper’s production editor, chief sub and unofficial social secretary. Although he joked about being past-it when I last saw him a few months ago, he looked as spry as he was in the 1980s – and his repartee was as dazzling and as mischievous as ever. His sudden death is a shock, and everyone lucky enough to have known him will miss him. He is survived by his son and his former wife.