shaking up the House

In the light of whatever Chris Huhne does/has done to him next, the whiff of ‘reshuffle’ is in the air. Politicos like their reshuffles – it’s a day of intrigue and cunning, and often on a wing and prayer desperation. 3D Chess it ain’t.

Read any diary or memoir from those at the heart of Government – or those who wish they were – and the dreaded reshuffle period would lay behind their words as a ghost, a constant narrative waiting beneath the surface. Alan Clark would spend days plotting his move across the board – who is up, who was down, who did “The Lady” prefer to keep close? He would write about the sharks scenting the first drops of blood in the water – exactly, I presume, what is happening now around the Department for Energy and Climate Change.

Reshuffles are bewildering for most observers outside Britain. The soap opera which is the Westminster bubble goes as cuckoo-bananas as a shed load of Crossroads scriptwriters, with all the traditional trappings of news gathering thrown into one overflowing pot of nonsense. Doorstepping ministers, zoomed in close-ups of a ministerial car driving along Downing Street, the BBC reporter within the Houses of Parliament talking about “sources close”, which can often mean “what I’ve just been told directly” as much as it can mean “what Twitter is currently assured is happening.”

The ups and downs of Ministers and Secretaries of State is a world away from other businesses. It’s when politics becomes more ‘sport’ than ‘statesman’, with each self-taught expert in a specific field suddenly whisked off to another patch where they know nothing. Stephen Dorrell was sent to the newly created Department for National Heritage with no knowledge of modern British cinema – Gyles Brandreth writes in his diary how the new SoS was given a video of ‘Four Weddings and Funeral’ in his ministerial red box. Yes, the “Zeitgeist Tape” really does exist.

Chris Mullins writes in his diaries of the Blair years how his time in the lowly foothills of Government was markedly annoying by the very nature of the merry-go-round process of reshuffling. Just as one Minister for Africa builds up a list of contacts, off he goes somewhere else, sometimes sideways, rarely up, often straight out.

The only comparable business is football management, less so in modern times though it’s still there. Familiar names, similar gossip behind the scenes, who is up and who is unfavoured, who shall spend more time playing golf? There is an understandable amount of exhaustion at the same-old same-old around football managers and the merry-go-round of sackings and hirings. It’s a game within a game, with backs recently stabbed quickly patted, and often by the same person. Politics would be richer for giving Ministers a full 5 years to understand their jobs – but it would be far less interesting for the rest of us. It’s a game we’re addicted to; we’re all a little bit like the sharks in the water.

It’s my currency…

Gyles Brandreth, Kenneth Williams, Lord Alanbrooke, Alan Clark, even ex-Torquay manager Garry Nelson – all diarists whose published works are on my bookshelf up against assorted Margaret Atwood novels and back issues of High Voltage.

Reading and writing published diaries has been the subject of some recent programmes on BBC Four. Richard E. Grant questioned whether Kenneth Williams had ever written a true word throughout his acerbic journals; Mariella Frostrup wondered if fictional diaries contain thinly disguised truths from the author. And then there are the likes of me, whose scrawled jottings and inspired mutterings, not to mention bad poetry, has been a largely secret record of the events of the past with varying degrees of accuracy and proportionate emotion. At least the poetry appears to have stopped.

With only a 17-month break in 10 years – that gap spanning the period from my grandmother’s death to the first Weatherspoon’s breakfast of 2010 – my diaries are as much or as little a valid record of the 21st century as the countless real-time online message boards and blogs covering the same period. Diarists are fairly odd sorts, with their daily duty (or chore?) involving no more equipment than a pen and a Collins page-a-day.

If my keeping a diary is because of the frustrated writer inside me, the only reason why I keep a penny-jar is for the teaching of a little restraint. People who know me will be quite surprised to learn that my diaries haven’t been torn to shreds in a fit of pique; it must be picking-up-from-the-floor-time when you all discover my cup of loose change hasn’t been thrown at a wall or carried to work for a splurge on meat pies and Manchester Tarts.

Having had the snooty treatment from bank clerks who think the changing of change is somehow beneath them, I will cart my screw-top jar of shrapnel to the nearest supermarket magic machine sometime summer-wards. Money tends to burn a hole in my pocket, so anything which promotes restraint can only be beneficial. Heck, I’ve knocked the glass over enough times to think, “Screw it, you are coming with me to Tesco and you’re going to get spent.” When full, the contents of the glass will be transferred to the screw-top, and the whole process will begin again.

Unlike blogging – where the author expects readership, maybe comments, possibly recommendations and quotations – diary writing can be as insular or full of expression as the writer dictates. It’s no more “self obsessed” than the first-time author getting his characters to mention in-jokes halfway through a chapter. Penny-jar husbandry must seem just as alien, some outdated act alongside making pastry from scratch or sewing buttons. There is something to be said of the age when the walk from my house to the bus station can often result in a £1 profit from the haul of the previous night wallet-fall.

I don’t keep a diary “so as to have something scandalous to read on the train”. Nor do I put 20p coins in a jar to kill off the sudden pang of hunger for Fox’s Creams at the dead of night. It’s how I go about wandering around this great big cloister-fach of a gameshow we call life, if it’s anything at all. If the opposite of doing either is spray-painting my name on bus-stops or slotting every last penny into an arcade machine, then I’ll carry on being uncool.

Oh, and the Garry Nelson diaries, “Left Foot In The Grave”, are very good…but I donated them to one of the solider charities at Christmas…Sure some brave boy out in Helmand really wants to know about the daily life of a lower league football club…


London – aim one. Maybe I could find the pub half-way up the Northern Line with the French “mathscore” band upstairs, the place from which I had to belt down towards the Underground station due to complete ignorance about matters relating to Night Buses. Many years ago now, thinking about it. My hotel was way out East, employing only – it seemed at the time – surly Spanish women and clearly bored West African men.

But any future plans could be turned upside down, they often are. Everything slots into place in my brain rather like the placings in school sports day races. Once such a thing and t’other things are done, only then can I do Activity C followed by subsequent pencilled-in ideas. There is a way through, most things are not always as complex as they seem.

Financial matters are quite another matter. Got the dreaded Television License letter through the post – for the first time in….ten years, now….I have to pay the whole thing rather than being one part of a shared household. Oh growing up, you never promised me so many outgoings when I was younger….

But you know things are going alright, really. Routines are easily returned too following holidays, after all. The same people are catching the same bus, just as ever, indeed the 126 retains the peculiar “arbitrary stop” half-way to Brig as though there’s some ritual among bus-drivers. Maybe there’s a reason.

Bury (football, for FC United. T’was good to see Burscough winning last night. It took me two-and-a-half-hours to get to Moorthorpe for Frickley on Saturday. Never thought West Yorkshire was quite so far away until I was in the arms of Northern Rail). Then London? What to do on pay-day weekend, if owt? There’s something that needs slotting in….what is it….Health Insurance, darn it, still not got that sorted. Or the gas meter people.

Right….until the next time….I’ve got more ad hoc diary preparing to sort out….


Songs once had context. Closing my eyes would invite my imagination to paint new images to accompany whichever music was playing in the background. An implied audience, an assumed crowd, something close to self-hypnosis. So much repetition over the lonelier years has effectively re-written certain songs on a permanent basis. But after so many years the realisation of what is actually going on is pretty embarrassing. Singing to yourself if an empty room fitting alternative lyrics to music that no-one else will hear.

You’re too honest said a man, once, in a context of his own. My assumption was that our conversations were effectively pre-ordained. Something close to fate and fortune, I supposed then, and still do to some extent. The other quotes which slosh against the shore of night-time contemplation endanger any potential calmer dreams; you’re a very good liar, said a friend, which hurt. Not sure of the position at which I stand, now, or how far along this route I want to go at this hour. Or indeed within this month. Some dark shadow hides most of the year’s end, appearing in my mind as a darkness dissolving the calendar.

I don’t know how to take the implication that, as a writer, I can only be recommended if my work is limited to 140 characters. Polite laughter, then silence, eyes around the room and slight sips of drink. Polite smiles, voiceless mouthing of promises to sit down again but mingling needs to be done, it is a party after all, thanks, see you in a…Eyes front, inspect the fingernails. Always end on a handshake, says the old wise man, whose beard is a phone-pad scrawl and whose eyes are framed by the curves of magnetic fields. I cannot remember what became of the old wise man. Worryingly his voice remains clear but his face hides in fog and crackle. Worryingly I am starting to convince myself that he does not exist.