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A voice arises...

Jeremy McClintock is a freelance journalist based in Oxford who covers war. But only the good ones

"When I was 17 I thought I could take on the world; make all the aggressors see reason. It was during the Falklands and I just knew that if I could speak to Margaret Thatcher and General Galtieri, I could stop the maddening death spin that is war. So I got an Argentine pen-pal. Carlos was his name. Unfortunately, MI5 intercepted my first letter and my parents were arrested for collaboration and I was commended for exposing them. I never heard from Carlos and 20 years later I made a documentary about my search to be reunited with him. It didn't work out because Carlos and his family were executed late in 1981 for treason. I think that proves something about trust - it's a currency non-gratis with these people (I don't mean foreigners, just people you can't trust).

"This incident taught me one lesson: never look back because it wastes precious time.

"My childhood was idyllic until Jonathan Rumpmast broke my finger in a geography lesson (I went to Gordonstoun - I know, my parents' later arrest was clearly retrospective justice!). I hated that boy and it was the first time I wanted to see somebody hurt, seriously hurt. I meditated on the whys and wherefores of physical violence before rounding up a group (I've always been a natural leader) of guys who put him in hospital for a year. Needless to say, nobody ever played me at mercy again."

At this point in the interview, Jeremy McClintock pauses and looks sad for three and a half minutes.

"I want to talk about Iraq," the interviewee demands. If it were anybody else you might think that this might be prima donna behaviour. It's something I put to him. He holds me in a cold stare for an uncomfortably long time before calmly stating: "That's your opinion, which you are entitled to, but I can assure you that I have a unique take on the recent events in the country that we invented. I am not a nationalist; just a realist. My bank balance has benefited to a not insubstantial degree as a result of this unique reportage and I regard that as the only vindication readers understand." He hastily concludes and smiles contentedly.

So: "When the hostilities, for the second time in my memory, started in Iraq I was having a tooth-measuring contest in Kuwait City with a great friend of mine, the BBC's Gavin Hewitt. Although we knew it was going to happen (and were eager for assignment), we quickly dropped our measuring rods and tapes (and whisky, sshh!) and started to arrange transit to the frontline. Gavin was appointed squad mascot to an American brigade and I could have killed him for that.

"I had an arrangement with the Hungarian state broadcasting network to cover the war for them, owing to my great access to the upper echelons of the British military but tore that up when Berlusconi's boys at Rai Uno came a-knocking. Let's face it, who's ever heard of the Hungarian state broadcasting network, apart from Gaby 'the dead red' Rado? The money wasn't as good but then war reporting isn't about money for me, it's about letting the public see the reality of military conflict - up close and personal.

"Anyway, I soon fell in with the Royal Horse Artillery on their way to Basra. The spirit was good and so were the spirits! The lads were joking with me that they'd send me out to negotiate with Saddam's Republican Guard if we got cornered and we all laughed because that couldn't happen. There's no way they'd risk their military careers by endangering a high-profile journalist.
"We were soon passed by the Royal Marines, who had that bastard Clive Myrie with them. How did he get that job? Political correctness gone mad, I'd say, I mean, they've already got Omar doing some reasonable reportage, what more do they want?
Standards are slipping at the BBC. They need the discipline of the private sector to keep………" (the interviewee trails off into a rant about the journalistic excellence of Sky and how, ultimately, everybody wants to reproduce the sort of growth in viewing figures achieved by Fox in the United States).

"Sorry, I got side-tracked. Where was I? Oh yes, berating the beeb. One of my hobbies I'm afraid! Anyway," it has become clear (if only from his constant consultation with his pocket watch) that the interviewee is becoming restless, "the whole war in Iraq was designed to achieve one thing - peace in the Middle East. I know it sounds crazy and that disgrace Pilger will make another documentary trying to get people to think about alternatives but it really is easy, perhaps too easy for people to truly take on board.

"This is where my originality comes in," the interviewee confides. "Iraq will become a democratic lesson to all despotic Middle East states (and elsewhere in the world for that matter) that we pale o'skin people of the West have got the right recipe for a stable society and ain't no tin-pot dictator gonna prevent us from spreading it across the world.

"It's what all decent people want and what all right thinking people in the West should seek to help with, either by enlisting as a military volunteer or speaking up for their government whenever they encounter any of the backward thinking people who believe the momentum of peaceful conflagration can be stopped. There are many of them. But not for long."

And with that ominous conclusion, the interviewee demands his payment, becomes angry when he hears that it is to be paid straight into his account and knees the interviewer in the balls when he suggests that he might want to use his fee to cover the situation in Afghanistan. Jeremy McClintock: journalistic freedom fighter.

Simon Shattenstone 2003 ®

More from Jeremy McClintock here

Cookery corner: cheese sandwich

Two slices bread
Two slices cheese

Place the bread on a flat surface. Remove all your clobber. Begin masturbating wantonly over the bread with a tulip stapled to your eyes until indeterminate sex piss flees your cunt baton, or jets out of your fangita. Butter up your balls. Slap the cheese loudly on a cat, retaining a crumb for a politician. Smash a window. Take the bread and hose it down, juicing up the balls en passant. Flick until raw. Big up yasel'. Serve with Cornish crab. Enjoy!


On England's pleasant
pastures seen
(better days)

With such patriotic verse, William Blake masturbated over this country for cash centuries ago, with his Jerusalem propaganda. If he surveyed it today by train he'd only come to the conclusion that it's an unsalvageable shithole

My game was in Manchester at 4pm. I made it to Euston before 11, plenty of time for a two-and-a-half-hour job. Then the 'Essential Engineering Works' euphemism flashed in front of me eyes from the departure boards: Virgin's flash new Pendolinos and their majority older, shitter rolling stock would not be leaving Euston 'til 2:30. That's that option fucked. Down Euston Road, checking St Pancras to try and get on the recently-introduced alternative Midland Mainline service: no information on those whatsoever - perhaps its service would also be affected by those legendarily bad northwest line works. So I crossed this sick district of road, underground and building works into King's Cross tube, aiming for a Golders Green tube so I could get the National Express. No chance, the ticket area is completely congested. Then my queuing for a zone 4 is unrewarded as the machine seems unmoved by my ticket request. Fuck that.

Back to St Pancras, perversely more intent on making it now despite these indicators. Hitting on the idea of getting any old Mainline service and changing, I got my ticket and was told to change at Sheffield. A bit far up I thought for my junction station, but nevertheless I should get there in good time so got on in good spirits. Some hope, because although the GNER service to Leeds typically does the journey in a little over two hours this line takes FOUR to get to Steel City. Umm, I'll be missing the pre-match pints then, I texted my mates. It was then that I remembered a recent Roy Hattersley column stating that trains to Sheffield are on average slower than they were 50 years ago. Four hours felt like fourteen by the time it had staggered past Leicester, Derby, Chesterfield and the like and spluttered into its terminal station.

And how long it can take to cross to Manchester, 30-40 minutes? Nah, an hour and ten. This just gets better. "C u at HT" was the gist of the next text.

And just what kind of ridiculously irrational market survey tells Central Trains to put on just two cars for this service? Needless to say the seats were full and so were the aisles by the time us Sheffield alighters were on (and it was late). The journey through the Peak District may well have been a picturesque one, but it was camera obscura from my standing-up point in the aisle stuffed full of travellers. Into Piccadilly, down round and out. The place looks impressive these days, certainly better than the services it provides.

The departure paled into significance when compared with the return. After a drab game, I went for my pint and then got driven back to Piccadilly for 7, plenty of time I thought for a respectable return home, especially now the main northwest line would be open. My optimism was out of place. No usual Mainline London services (and no information about why not), and I didn't fancy giving Branson 50 quid. This didn't augur well, but like a fool I dismissed possibilities of staying with mates, relatives or hotel chains and set off for the Sheffield connection. Two cars again, but joining those scrambling for any bit of floor I was grateful it wasn't as packed. Small mercies (it got there a bit quicker too). Reduced aspirations. Certainly, complaints were scarce. What we should be doing is petitioning the operator's head office and demanding more rolling stock. Our famous stoic reserve shits in our face again. There for just after 8, I'd be soon bound for home.

'Fraid not, no more London trains, and the corollary absence of information as to why. Crisis time in my cranium, the Nottingham connection convinced me (it's further south innit?). The 45 minutes' wait was filled skinning up and smoking a joint; diverting thoughts away from this dire situation and into the random, hiding from the reality, relishing the uncanny. Sheffield is a big ghost station full of space so I had no problems tugging away. The Notts train pulled up, I landed next to a burly but remedial East Mids lad, who was well able to prey on my paranoia. Every now and then he'd direct comment to a seat further down, gesticulating about his baggage. Turned out he was sat apart from sister or girlfriend, probably the former, and wanted to offload his latest high street purchases. Once she came over to relieve his burden he still seemed at unease, clenching his fists and huffing and puffing away.

Luton Bus Station, 2am

Another hour on the train I thought would be rewarded with a London service. No, Nottingham would be my nemesis. At 9:30pm there were TWO trains left, one for Birmingham one for Leicester. Plenty of trains coming in from St Pancras but all stopping there. I followed a few hardy commuters round to Station St to check the replacement coach services out. Runs to Burton, Brum and so on. here I had my first bit of active help. One luminous-jacketed assistant sprinted up to the ticket office to find out the score. "You've got no chance," was his reply on return, as all the while a middle-aged guy avec can of lager was talking to the driver, a young white couple were alighting with pub booze and a black guy was not getting all the information he needed from the driver. And what the frig was I going to do now?

At the main entrance were legions of lost souls looking to get to London, Derby, Birmingham, Ulan Batur. Some were spunking cash on cabs. I found out a bit more from the guy at the desk, going to Brum by any means would be useless as by the time we arrived there would be no London service left: My wife found out that the situation was the same via Leicester. This was a region-wide collapse of basic services you see. It's only one day, I bet they're thinking, just work on it all. Though 'they' implies something rather less amorphous than the diverse scores of operators plying their for-profit trade on the network's railways. Anyway, the National Express place was down the road, he also said, just before the Broadmarsh Shopping Centre. Other options appeared to me as I walked - £20 a room in the Bentinck or Gresham hotels; why not sack it, go for a few drinks, rue the day, pay more? No, I would be getting home tonight, even more determined despite reality farting in my face. At the bus station the news was, if not brilliant, better. I could get the 11:30 Airport Service to Luton, arriving at 1:30. Then maybe a cab, I dunno. Once again, my wife did the job of the trainpeople by finding out that I could get a train from Luton to the relative shangri-la of Kentish Town at 2:18. That would do. Anything would do, like so many other commuters I'd become grateful for the far-more-costly Option F, moaning only to myself in the face of this abject lack of 'top-down' advice.
So more time to kill now. Nottingham's inner ring-roads were filled with souped-up cars speeding round for the pleasure of scores of onlookers dotted round the pavements. Parked cars elsewhere were blaring out the latest chemical beats. The boy racers had the tacit approval of the filth it seemed. The spectacle was not unique to this East Midlands city, and neither were the uniforms of Reebok, Le Coq, Nike and Adidas trackies, hoods and caps. And that was just the women. As I wandered further away from the ring-roads the cars' revving reverbed around my brain. I went back past the station and found a take-away; terrible shop but spanking spicy shish on nan. Ate that inside - nothing else to do, nowhere else to go, see? Back into the station main entrance - here I had a glimpse of the plethora of 'Engineering works' notices. It was dire. Some were settling down on the benches for the night. I returned to the bus depot, choosing to ignore the CCTV warnings to install more internal circuitry through skinning up. The chances of anyone actually monitoring the screens this late on Sunday were minimal. Lost in the art of building, one driver walked straight past me; didn't seem too bothered. Thought better of smoking it there, moving round away from the neon glare to the relative isolation of a bench nearer the correct bay. All the while the souped-up, full-throttle sports cars throbbed in me shell.
"It's just as bad in Mansfield," the driver said, referring to the boy racers. "I used to prat about in cars, but not like that," his assistant replied, further admonishing da yoof. Small mercy #3 out of shit situation #27 presented itself in the form of an empty coach, but why couldn't the printed timetable be honest about the extra stops? Twenty quid and two hours for an easy jaunt down the M1. Hello Luton, its bus stop desolate at 1:30, affording opportunity for the last 'essential engineering works' of my own.

That last coping mechanism was smoked on a freezing platform as I waited for the Kentish Town 2:18. And waited. And waited. In a marketplace of undercapacity trains, unregulated services and ill-thought out mass engineering days (no need to leave some bits of the network open), I wanted to praise Thameslink for its early-hours service. But the 2:18 never came, me and the other numbskull had to wait for the 2:48. The platform shop had its tea, chocolate and fresh croissants tantalisingly on view, but the station assistant wouldn't help us out. It's not in his description, it would be more than his job's worth, et cuntin' cetera. Into Kentish at, what, 3:30 or so. A new trend, the trustworthy cabbie wants his money straight away. Yeah, course u do boss.

Piccadilly at 7pm, London for 4am. Nine hours of numbing travel in between. This is England. If you like it, just don't travel at the weekend. Britons have been moaning about the state of railways since Thatcher - the blunt fact is that those same gripers do not expect to get them any better. They know Jarvis, Midland Mainline and any of the other players have no public concerns at all, but they have the 'Safety is Paramount' alleviator. So what if Railtrack reformed to become a not-for-profit firm. Any good come out of it? Can you ever imagine England implementing a north-south high-speed line like that in France? No, what would happen would be more like the Connex experience. Come in and effect only cosmetic change: the stations are clean but the service is shit.

Of course the horrors of cold platforms, cramped trains and costly food could have been averted if I'd avoided my big Friday night and thus might have contemplated my travel options with more assiduous mental rigour. As it was I turned up on Sunday still out of sorts and brainlessly viewed the lack of options open to me. I should have admitted defeat at 11am. Further narcosis was frequently the only way of dealing with my own and the network's shambles; retreat into self or, if you work for the rail op, from the platform, away from the commuter. Take flight from your ignorance. Improve the situation only piecemeal. Neither of us has been trained to deal with such a sad state of affairs. My selfish carelessness and consumerist desire - got to get the game, after all I paid top-dollar for that ticket - seemed in tune with how the rail operators work.

Get a car and further pollute our already-septic isle for to rely on 'public' transport is folly.

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