Category Archives: Journalism

Specializing in investigative journalism, well-being stories, Middle Eastern politics and stories of creative interest.

RIP Tony Benn

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Tony Benn, who has died today aged 88, was one of the last truly socialist politicians left in Britain. I met him several times, and always left feeling somehow buoyed up, more confident, sharper…

Benn was an MP for 50 years and a cabinet minister under Harold Wilson and James Callaghan.

Unlike many of his fellow politicians, his actions matched his words. He was born into an aristocratic family, but early in his career denounced the unfair advantage of inherited rank. Determined to give up his peerage (he would have become Lord Stansgate) he championed legislation – finally passed in 1963 – which allowed him to renounce his title. ‘I am not a reluctant peer,’ he told a challenger. ‘I am a persistent commoner’.

Tony Benn was unusual among politicians (and the general public) in that he moved more to the left than to the right as he got older. The more injustice he observed, he said, the more fiercely he felt the call to fight it.

When he was 83 years-old, he hi-jacked BBC radio 4’s flagship morning programme ‘Today’ in support of the people of Gaza shortly after the 2008/9 Israeli ‘Operation Cast Lead’ onslaught which killed  1330 and left a million and a half people without shelter, water or electricity. The BBC was the only station to refuse to broadcast an aid appeal for the children of Gaza and Tony Benn had been invited to comment. Instead, he challenged an astonished Ed Stourton to ‘throw him out’, and delivered the appeal himself, including address and payment details. He repeated his action on BBC television shortly afterwards accusing the BBC of ‘capitulating’ to Israel.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E21MdXe3BOQ

Benn became President of the highly influential Stop the War movement which mobilized two million people to march through London in protest at the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Discussing the subsequent insurgency, he outraged many when he declared, ‘There is no moral difference between a stealth bomber [plane] and a suicide bomber. Both kill innocent people for political reasons.’

Tony Benn always saw the wider political picture – He argued against the military intervention in Libya and strongly opposed one in Syria. One of his last interviews contained some piercing analysis of neo-colonialist interference in the ‘Arab Spring’ https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/resources/interviews/6990-tony-benn-on-the-middle-east

In his earlier years the media liked to portray Tony Benn as ‘the most dangerous man in Britain’ but more recently he was seen more as a ‘national treasure’… something he found amusing, telling a Telegraph journalist, ‘I might be kindly and old, but I’m not harmless’.

He was a truly inspiring person to know, disciplined and principled, a teetotaller and vegetarian. I remember him best, not speaking – and he was one of the greatest living orators – but listening. He always had time for the many people who approached him, strangers, opponents, comrades, whoever they were; he would give them his undivided attention before answering, often with wit and humour. He made it his mission to encourage others, bolstering their sense of their own power. ‘There are two ways in which people are controlled,’ he used to say. ‘First of all frighten them and then, demoralize them’.

Asked how he would like to be remembered he said, ‘What we need in the world is more encouragement. I would like “Tony Benn, he encouraged us” on my gravestone. That would be all I would need.’

Tony Benn is survived by his four children Hilary, Joshua, Melissa and Stephen.

The Time I Totally Dominated Pseuds’ Corner in Private Eye

This interview with the late and wonderful artist Helen Chadwick resulted in quotes which filled the whole of one issue’s Pseuds’ Corner in Private Eye!!!

My dreams seep into an unprocessed soup: In Bed With Helen Chadwick

SUSAN DE MUTH

Wednesday, 20 July 1994
Helen Chadwick is an artist who works with unusual materials. Her latest exhibition, ‘Effluvia’, which opens today at the Serpentine Gallery, London W2, includes a large fountain of melted chocolate.

I DIMLY recollect childhood dreams about tubs of excrement and the chocolate fountain is related to these. Chasing dreams, dredged up from the unconscious, is the starting point for creating something implausible. A work often begins as an impossible half-whim and you say: ‘I’m going to make that happen’.

If I’m working with certain materials the squeamishness that I have managed to suspend during the day will come out in my dreams. I stitched a lot of little lambs’ tongues together for one piece and the physical feeling of digging the needle through, trying not to tear the flesh, pervaded my sleep for a few nights afterwards. It was a rough roller-coaster ride and I would wake up exhausted.

Most of my ideas for works crystallise in that reverie between sleep and wakefulness, when you idle into neutral and follow funny little chains of thought that flow.

Sometimes they become so lucid that I jump out of bed to write them down. This is quite disturbing for David, my partner, who groans and complains, but I’m scared I’ll forget them.

I’ve resisted the temptation to record my dreams. As soon as you try to remember them you start embellishing. I just let them all seep, unprocessed, into the same soup that everything else is fed into. And that soup occasionally farts out an idea.

I don’t set much store by a psycho-analytical perspective on dreams. I try not to give them any superstitious significance, although my mother was famous in the East End of London for her ability to read dreams. She deliberately blighted that facility in herself when she correctly predicted some terrible tragedies. The only time I do worry is if I dream of a particular person – I have this ridiculous notion that someone in danger can send out a signal. I usually phone them the next day to see if they’re all right.

I like to sleep more than I like exploring the night and consequently have few other nocturnal activities. I like socialising but the problem is getting there – I tend to forget about invitations. I wind down by watching a bit of rubbish television from bed or reading. At the moment I’m reading The Foul and the Fragrant, about the cultural perception of smell in the 19th century – it’s fascinating.

I rarely have trouble going off but the quality of my sleep varies enormously. Because I’m under a lot of pressure preparing for the show I’m having very turbulent nights at the moment. Images of things I’m making are scrambled together with strange little fractional incidents that are generally things going wrong. I wake up frequently with a cloud of dreams around me into which I fall again.

A lot of my work relates to sex – something else I do at night. How to describe sexual pleasure in retrospect – and I want to – is an amazing problem. It would be farcical to try to express those states where the mind and senses are all scrambled up together – that you can also feel when eating or going to the loo – in spoken language. Art is one way to explore that synaesthesia of experience.

When David and I had been together for about a year we were living in different countries. There’s nothing like separation to sharpen up desire and out of that sense of urgency the concept of the ‘piss flowers’ was formed when we met again in Canada. We heaped up piles of snow and first I would piss into it and then he would piss around my mark. I made casts of the indentations which were eventually exhibited as bronze sculptures.

That was a unique form of love-making, a metaphysical conceit for the union of two people expressing themselves bodily. And we’ve been together ever since.

(Photograph omitted)

A Very American End To the Affair

I’m loving this from an article by Hannah Betts in today’s Telegraph ruminating on the Hollande-Treirweiler affair:

‘A comrade whom I hold in the highest regard separated from an American spouse, with whom he had endured the conventional to-may-toe / to-mah-toe disputes.

As the ink dried on their decree nisi, she remarked that it was “the end of an era”. No less gravely, he corrected: “No, it is the end of an error”; a retort that gave him rather more satisfaction than the marriage.’

Karren Brady – I Don’t Much Mind About Anyone Else

Glorious goals and credit without limit: Susan De Muth in bed with Karren Brady

Post-script October 2013. I met Karren Brady when she was just 25. She was the manager of Birmingham City FC and brimming with confidence and self-belief. it was clear she was a material girl who meant to forge ahead with her career and it is no surprise that she is now Lord Sugar’s right-hand woman on ‘Apprentice’ and David Cameron’s favourite business woman. She had just got engaged to Paul Peschisolido when I met her, and they are still together…I hope she has learned to share the duvet!

 

SUSAN DE MUTH

Wednesday, 24 August 1994
Karren Brady, 25, is managing director of Birmingham City Football Club. She lives in the countryside outside Birmingham with her two dogs, Zoro and Mugsy.

NIGHT is a time of fear for me. I’ve been mugged and attacked in the past, so the slightest noise makes me panic. The two dogs are meant to be my protection but they’re a bit too small and certainly too fat to frighten off any intruder.

Zoro and Mugsy share my bed and we have baths together, too . . . they’re really spoilt. My fiance Paul (Peschisolido, former Birmingham City player) was sold to Stoke during the summer and is away quite a lot. I feel safer when he stays with me but we both have our jobs to do. I’m quite used to being alone.

It was very difficult for me to move up to Birmingham, leaving all my friends and family behind in London. I lived in a hotel by myself and became a bit of a hermit. I still don’t have any allies here. I can’t be too friendly with my staff – go out and get drunk with them one night and come in and be the boss the next day.

If I do go out at night I quite often get hassled because I’m well known. There’s always some bloke who’s got an indispensable word of advice about the manager or the players. Then there’s the type that says: ‘Oh, you’re that bird that runs the football club’ in a sarcastic manner, thinking that’s very cool and not realising he’s making a total dick of himself.

The supporters do think I’m their property to a certain extent: I’ve had a lot of propositions. They send me necklaces or weird pictures of themselves and letters saying: ‘I’ll take you out for a bag of chips and show you a good time.’ I always send a courteous acknowledgement. Sometimes it’s a bit frightening – I had one man who would wait by my car late at night; he left notes saying he was going to kill himself if I didn’t talk to him. I had to call the police.

I’m actually very shy in my personal life and that’s one of the things I had in common with Paul when we got together last Christmas at the club party. We were both finding it difficult being alone and away from home (Paul is Canadian). Despite all the pressure – I was, in effect, his boss, and we had the press camping out in my front garden for ages – we’ve stuck together and he proposed to me a couple of weeks ago.

Though I’m very happy about my engagement it’s no consolation for the fact that Birmingham City, now relegated to the Second Division, lost its first match this season. I haven’t slept since. I am terrified of another run of disappointments and failures. Before matches I often dream we’ve won, that we’ve scored several glorious goals . . . then I wake with that awful sinking feeling as I realise it isn’t true.

Most of my dreams are nice, though. The best one I have is that I’ve got a wonderful credit card that someone else is paying for and I can buy whatever I want in a huge department store. Another recurrent dream is that I’m walking down a dark street looking for something I can never find. I don’t see this as symbolic. I think dream interpretation is a load of rubbish. Desperate people cling on to desperate things – when they can’t find their own logic they turn to something which will make decisions for them: ‘I dreamed I was scratching my foot – that means I should go on holiday’ and such nonsense.

Insomnia is something I haven’t really experienced before. If we win this week I’m sure it’ll go. Usually I read for a while and then I fall asleep. I read business books and newspapers. I think everyone should read at least one quality and one tabloid a day – to keep up with what’s going on. My bedroom has to be an open space. I can’t stand clutter. My mother always had hundreds of china knick-knacks all over the place when I was a child and I was constantly in trouble for breaking them.

When I’m sleeping I take all the covers and hang on to them. I don’t much mind about anyone else – I’m always freezing for some reason. Once I’m asleep I don’t want to be touched or disturbed. It particularly bugs me if someone leans on my hair and pulls it. I take sleep very seriously because if I don’t get enough I can’t function and my job is tough – I work on average 12 hours a day.

It’s always been my ambition to have a family. I made a conscious decision to be successful early on in life so that I could give up my career – if I chose to – by my late twenties. I seem to be pretty much on target.

(Photograph omitted)

Mandy Smith: I was 13 the first night I slept with Bill Wyman

Satisfaction is a cuddle, not sex: Susan de Muth interviews Mandy Smith

SUSAN DE MUTH

Wednesday, 6 July 1994
Mandy Smith, 23, is a model and television presenter. Divorced from Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones, she now lives in London with her new husband, Pat van den Hauwe.

THE FIRST night I spent at Bill Wyman’s country home, when I was 13, he told me the story of the house ghost. A young girl had married the much older lord of the manor who destroyed her, body and soul. She finally starved herself to death there.

I’m about 90 per cent recovered from the allergies and depression that sent my weight plummeting to 5 1/2 stone at the end of my marriage to Bill. I’m stronger both mentally and physically, but I’m still not free of the past. It does come back to haunt me, especially at night.

I sometimes dream about Bill, that we’re together or at a party with Mick Jagger and Ronnie Wood and I’m back in that time. I wake up with a rush of panic and nausea before I realise, praise the Lord, that I’m out of it. Then I start to feel angry because of him. He was 47 when we met – surely old enough to know right from wrong and not to take advantage of a teenager’s naive love.

What makes me most angry is that, because I felt abused and demeaned by Bill, I am still edgy about sex. He used it to manipulate me and he also used it as a weapon. When I was really ill the last thing I wanted was to make love. Memories like that still come back to me when I’m in bed with Pat.

I’ve only ever slept with four men in my life, but my opinion is that men are a lot more sexual than women. I like cuddling and kissing, but I freeze, even with Pat, when physical affection is misinterpreted as an overture. I think, ‘If you love me why are you just sexual towards me?’ and I don’t like it.

I can enjoy making love, but I still feel the confusion – that this is wrong but right – that I did when I was under-age with Bill. I wear my bra and knickers in bed, which I suppose is a kind of security thing.

For a long time after my illness I really hated going to bed because it reminded me of the months I spent too weak to get up, weighed down with sickness and depression.

I’ve always been scared of the dark and when I was really bad my mum used to sleep in the bed with me. It didn’t make any difference to the frightening symptoms I developed, though: I could hear talking and voices repeating themselves. When I closed my eyes I felt I was going so deep and distant that I would die.

I started to pray a lot during those months in bed. I had nothing to guide me except God and I clung on to my faith. I used to pray about which foods I could eat without getting an allergy and the answers would come in dreams.

I believe He took me to the depths of despair and broke me down to build me up better than I was before. I still have my Bible and prayer books by my bed and pray all the time.

Since marrying Pat last year I have developed a sense of luxury about going to bed and often have a little lie-down in the afternoons. My two Yorkshire terriers come with me and we all snuggle up with my fluffy toys.

For the first time in my life I’ve got curtains in my bedroom – though they are thin enough to let light through from the street lamps – and can sleep with the light off at night. I have no problems drifting off into a peaceful sleep with Pat’s arms around me – unless we’ve had an argument.

Our relationship hasn’t been easy – we’ve both been married before – and my problems with sex do cause distances between us. We try to work things out and spend most evenings together at home – though if I do go out I like to party all night]

A little difficult patch has just ended – which Pat heralded by leaving me a massive love message pinned to the bedroom mirror so it was the first thing I saw when I woke up.

Because I know it could all be taken away at any moment, I enjoy every minute of my new life while it lasts. I’m blessed with the love of my husband, my mother and my sister and with a great deal of happiness. I’m leaving the nightmares behind me and Pat says that recently I’ve started to wake him up – by laughing in my sleep.

(Photograph omitted)

Christina Dodwell – Explorer

I’ve slept with six snoring reindeer herders: Susan de Muth in bed with Christina Dodwell

SUSAN DE MUTH

Wednesday, 25 May 1994
Christina Dodwell, 43, has been travelling for the past 20 years. She writes books and makes radio programmes about her voyages. She is based in London, but is now somewhere in Madagascar.

WHEN I start dreaming that I’m riding an elephant through the Milky Way, I know my subconscious is kicking me back into action: it’s time to pack a rucksack and flick through my atlas, trying not to have any preconceptions about where to go.

Travel is a wonderful emptiness just waiting to be filled, and I love not knowing what will happen next. I never know where I’m going to sleep at night: the art of travelling is being able to sleep anywhere, at any time, and to stay that way. Improvisation is all – any fool can be uncomfortable.

I often camp out but never use a tent. It’s too conspicuous to loiterers and the curious. But most of all, I don’t want to be cut off from the night. I put my sleeping bag on piles of dried grass, on top of springy bushes, on the ‘hot rocks’ after my fire dies down – whatever I can find – and sleep with the sky above me. In lion country, I suspend my hammock between two trees, and wake with a ripe mango or avocado within arm’s reach for breakfast.

Night is very much for sleeping because, when I’m travelling, I get so tired – but every so often there is a spectacular exception.

Once I was on horseback in South Africa, and the moonlight was so incredibly bright that I just kept riding over these silver hills, through a landscape transformed into a black-and-white negative. And how could I merely sleep in the desert when, lying on top of a sand dune, I could see the galaxies moving and count shooting stars?

When I embarked on my first journey – it lasted three years – I still had my childhood fear of the dark. Then one night by the Congo river, my camp was attacked by bandits. As I waded through pitch-black, crocodile-

infested waters to save my canoe from their clutches, I suddenly realised I wasn’t scared any more. There simply wasn’t time.

I refined my ‘tested exits from tight corners’ in Iran. If you deal with uninvited nocturnal visitors calmly, they’ll often give up any dastardly intentions and say: ‘Would you like to visit our village in the morning?’ Sometimes they’re just curious and wake you to have a look at you.

Nevertheless, in my experience all the worst things do happen at night. In Kenya, I was sitting by my camp fire when I was bitten by a spider. Within half an hour I was completely paralysed. Involuntary muscular spasms shot the poison up and down my spine – it was mind-blowingly painful.

I thought I might die and that this night would never end. When dawn finally came, it was extraordinarily beautiful . . . and it brought redemption in the form of some tribesmen who watched over me for the next 10 days until I could move again.

I love solitude, with nothing to remind me of humanness for days on end, associating only with the weather and the earth. I often indulge this antisocial streak, yet have also enjoyed the enormous hospitality of people around the world.

Last year in Kamchatka (east of Siberia) I joined up with a group of reindeer herders for a month. It was minus 40C and I was glad to sleep in a tent, huddled up with six men, listening to six varying snores.

Unwelcome sexual advances have been rare. People in the developing countries tend to accord me the privileges and respect due to a male because I am doing what their women cannot do. It was out of consideration rather than lechery that some young men in Papua New Guinea once politely said to me: ‘We hear you’re alone and travelling a long way. Would you like some sex?’ I asked them for directions instead, and no one was offended.

I finally got married three years ago – to an Englishman. It’s hard for Stephen when I travel, but he knew I wasn’t going to sit in the kitchen studying new recipes. Of course, I miss him when I’m away – especially at night – but I wouldn’t want to take him with me. I need to rely on my own inner resources, otherwise it’s a completely different experience.

I feel at home wherever I am in the world – security has nothing to do with walls and houses, it is inside you. But I do love opening my own front door when I return, and knowing that I’ve got a bed to sleep in . . . though I’m still not quite used to always finding someone in it.

Christina Dodwell’s latest book, ‘Beyond Siberia’, is available in paperback from Sceptre, price pounds 6.99.