The introduction and part 1 of Sea Changes are here.
Part 2 of Sea Changes is here, part 3 is here, part 4 is here.
In this extract, we meet Albert Norman, reactionary tabloid journalist and curmudgeonly counterpoint to John Leyden.
Albert Norman was the veteran columnist of the Sentinel, an old and perversely old-fashioned newspaper with a large circulation and modest intellectual pretensions. He was 70, obese, almost completely bald, and his breath smelt of vegetables when it didn’t smell of brandy—and he had only got the job because his father had been the foreign editor.
All the old Sentinel people had gone, with their rose-gardened Edwardian villas and double-barrelled names—all except for him, left behind by the retreating tide like some magnificent wreckage. Almost everyone he knew had been replaced by revolving-door journalists who ebbed and flowed rather too easily to and from other papers, and by editors whose priority was to maximize reader numbers by increasing the celebrity count and accepting advertisements for sex-chat lines.
Albert was an artifact from a robuster past, when the paper had been sued by Lloyd George, lauded the General Strike volunteers and Mussolini’s employment policies, denounced the creation of the National Health Service, supported Enoch then Maggie, opposed the Bilderbergers, and called the EU “a continuation of the Third Reich by other means.”
Those stances had been sloughed off one by one, and the memories of them almost erased, as ever-changing management teams sought to broaden the paper’s appeal. Where there had been informative if partisan news items, conspiracy theories, City reports, and “Palace & Personalities” snippets, now there were horoscopes, health tips, pictures of footballers in Tudorbethan new-builds, and Channel 11’s cheeky chick Jasmine’s underwear (or the piquant information that she had not been wearing any). The hard elements of the paper had been subsumed within lifestyle and lasciviousness—and the formula had been lucrative for the paper’s present owner, a Russian oligarch who collected media outlets in the vain hope of improving his atrocious public image and eventually collecting what he called “a Sir-hood.”
Yet squatting there still like a toad, ugly but reassuring, on the bottom right-hand corner of the Views on the News page was still to be found, twice a week, a redoubt of the Sentinel as it had been—Albert’s “Broadside” column, the column’s name evoking the tactics as well as the attitudes of another time. Embarrassed editors had sought to pension him off, or tried moving his column around within the paper—but the discomfiting fact was that it was the most popular single item amongst readers. Every innovation was greeted with protests from loyalists, with a deluge of letters starting off along the lines of “I have been one of your readers man and boy...” and finishing with a variation of “What will the end of it be?” In the maelstrom of change, the paper’s many small-c conservative readers found Albert’s continuing acerbic presence a sign that all was not yet lost. Such fierce reactions had always frightened the managers, and so editor after editor had deferred making that particular decision until he had taken his golden handshake and left, to make equally forgettable impressions on other papers.
Albert’s articles were the favourite subject of readers’ letters—almost all supportive, many intemperate, some mad. Albert relished the maddest ones, and kept “the crème de la crap” in what he called his Special Vintage File for when he felt despondent. “Let’s SVF this one!” he would say to his shared secretary, Sally, and it would be added to the musty, bulging file. Occasionally, the great man would even condescend to reply to some of the letters, and took malicious joy in writing superficially polite but subtly rude letters to those who had written to warn him of conspiratorial networks, or the advent of a prophet. He often plagiarized Disraeli’s letter to a nuisance correspondent—“Thank you for your letter. I shall lose no time in reading it.” Some of the correspondents had been writing to him for 20 years, never realizing that their heartfelt communications were read out in the office to explosions of mirth. Happily, these same readers also purchased a satisfying number of items from the paper’s advertisers.
Once Albert had had a sort of agenda, if a purely negative one of saying that this and this and this were heaped-up ordure, from which nothing positive could ensue, even if you left the heaps where they were for a million years. And once every 10 years or so, usually after a longer than usual lunch, he had even allowed himself to believe that he was having an inverse impact, in the sense that everything he endorsed was certain to fail. So reliable had this rule been that a few years ago he had experimented by publicly endorsing a peculiarly repulsive Workers’ Party MP—only for that MP to rise to the rank of Prime Minister, the position he still retained at the head of the “Big Tent of All the Talents.” After this disaster, Albert had desisted; it was clearly a fey power he had, only to be wielded by adepts.
So Albert had persisted on the pages and on the payroll, while smaller journalists and a multitude of initiatives swirled around him, hulking massively, cynically in the poky little office on the fourth floor that he shared with the Obits editor (“the Dead End” everyone called it inevitably—even the jokes were venerable in this Rorke’s Drift of Reaction).
That office, which Albert visited only twice a week and then only for a few hours, contained two filing cabinets which had lost their keys, two sad-looking computers with finger-greased screens on coffee- stained tables, the requisite number of swivel chairs (Albert’s bowed by his great weight, even when he wasn’t in it, with foam protruding from the permanently indented PVC cushion—and crunchy with crumbs), and drifts of letters that would never be answered. There was a view from the solitary (and always rain-stained) window into a dank space made up of glass-sided buildings or Portland-faced 1920s blocks with bad guttering, air-conditioning tanks, and dead pigeons. The telephone rarely rang, and it was used mostly by the secretary from Accounts, whose handsomer but less private office was a few doors up. The walls bore a noticeboard with infrequently refreshed company notices, a map of Europe from the 1980s, and some newspaper clippings stuck up with tape.
These clippings reflected Albert’s sardonic humour—such as an exposé of the wildly popular African socialist, who when he wasn’t enjoying films of his opponents being tortured had been secreting the money earned by his country’s cooperatives in his personal account at Geneva (plus a separate item, showing said African socialist being embraced by a damp-eyed Examiner journalist, none other than John Leyden’s present editor). There was also a story about an idealistic American who had worked in Rio’s slums, only to be raped and killed by a man she had been trying to help—and one about an ecologist killed by a shark of the species he had been campaigning to save from extinction.
Another subsection was headed “The Broken Record Award” and contained copied extracts of the most hackneyed political prose he could unearth, and from time to time, he made columnar announcements as to which opinion-former had received this most prestigious “award.” But he had discontinued the practice after the number of contenders had grown unmanageable.
Albert had always liked the idea of self-satisfaction coming to a sticky end. He called the clippings the Wall of Sanctimony, and treated it jokingly as if it were a religious site—like the Western Wall his ancestors had regarded reverentially, and which he remembered seeing as a boy, bewildered by the Homburged men, nodding and muttering beneath punishing sun. He invented rituals for whenever new items were added to the Wall; Sally, designated the “Vestal Virgin (Revisited),” would advance reverentially and place the carefully clipped news item in its final position, while he stood on one leg and recited the first verse of The Ancient Mariner. He had an idea that this kept worse nonsenses at bay.
His columns were waspish, bilious, dismissive, sneering, reactionary, and proudly Philistine—although in his (extremely) private life, he was a dedicated oenophile, a connoisseur of the Antwerp School, and had an informed love of the songs of Purcell, some of which could bring him to tears in the Kensington home he shared with a Ghanaian art- dealer called Anthony, whom he always called his “close male friend.” He occasionally wondered how his readers would react if they had known about his domestic arrangements, but he never worried. He was as happy in his skin as someone of his personality type could ever be, and the contrast between his image and his reality was simply funny. He didn’t need the readers, and he didn’t even need the income; it was just force of habit now, plus a residual enjoyment of the protests that he was sometimes still capable of provoking. Once, dozens of people had chained themselves to the railings outside the Sentinel offices, in protest at a column in which he had called for the return of birching for children. He treasured the memory of one placard—“Albert Norman wants to beat your little lad.”
Albert held the record for being the most-complained about journalist in the British media, having been assailed over many years as snobbish, elitist, heartless, homophobic, sexist and racist. It was a record in which he took considerable pride. In certain circles, his name was a byword for all that was least appealing about Britain, while in wider but less frequently heard circles, he was a lodestar of aggrieved commonsense— or, as Albert called it, “raresense.”
He was often unsure whether he really believed the things he was writing, or just liked being the centre of attention. He relished the memory of the time he had sued the Sentinel for calling him a racist (against the wishes of the Sentinel’s then-owner, who hadn’t wanted to create unpleasantness at the Reform Club)—and had come exultingly out of the court, waving the relevant issue of the Sentinel over his head. The large cheque that paper had been compelled to give him in settlement had done little to improve the relationship. Even now, the Sentinel would snipe constantly at him and pore over his articles, hoping one day he would “go too far.”
Amongst the items on the walls of his office were several Sentinel articles referring to him. His favourite headline was “Race row as ‘wildly offensive’ journalist is warned on Roma.” This was a reference to a late Thursday-afternoon lucubration about “tinker benefit-junkies,” which had led to another demonstration outside the Sentinel’s office, and the delivery of a floppy parcel of excrement—which the alert Albert had thrown unopened out of the window onto the roof below, where it presumably still lay amongst the pigeons and puddles, outside the Accounts Department’s never-opened windows.
It was therefore entirely predictable that when the Beach Bodies were found that the Sentinel would take one position and Albert, whatever was most directly opposite. John Leyden was a regular butt of Albert’s witticisms. Albert had often said that John had never had a real feeling in his life. “Listen to this fucking shite,” he shouted through the open door to Sally, who smiled tolerantly while he read out the article with his usual scornful energy. Albert would probably have been surprised to know that John had at least one real feeling—a deep hatred for him that he masked behind a semblance of amused insouciance. John loathed being laughed at, especially by Albert Norman, whom no-one could ever quite ignore.
John always first opened the Sentinel at the Broadside page to see what the old dinosaur was saying this time. The column was contemptible, of course, but he always read it with a certain fascination. There was a strange near-grandeur about this man who was so curmudgeonly—so consistently on the wrong side of history, and so proud of the fact. John almost envied Albert’s adamantine perversity; it had a strange kind of style. A pity such energy wasn’t used for better ends! Often there were also little snippets of useful information in the Broadside pieces, which John and a surprising number of other journalists filed away for future use—often without even realizing they were plagiarizing the country’s most reviled writer.
So it was with a sense almost of predestination that Albert settled down to write a response. If he could finish by 12 he would be able to claim his corner seat in the Prussian Queen. Another Sentinel tradition he maintained was that of drinking a few pints of bitter at lunchtime, each one chased by a single malt. He used to joke that he was contractually required to support anything named after European royalty, of whom there should be a lot more. With a scratch and a belch, and a slurp of an already cooling coffee (another coffee ring to add to the sticky, brown, overlaid Olympics logos on his desk), he wrote, “Beach Bodies—A Pity But It’s Not Our Fault.” He admired this for several seconds, then went on, breathing heavily:
“No-one can blame anyone for trying to get to Britain. Even under the present government, Britain is still the best country in the world. You’d be mad not to want to live here rather than in some Third World hellhole. But when people come here illegally, creeping into our coastline under cover of night, they know they are taking risks.
The Bodies on the Beach, in their pathetic array, were plain unlucky—expendable pawns in a great criminal game of cat-and-mouse that spans the whole world, but who too often end up here in Britain, the world’s rubbish dump. Had they been luckier, they would have just waded ashore, and disappeared into Britain’s shadowy underworld, criminals amongst hundreds of thousands of other criminals.
While no-one would defend the crimes of the traffickers, this is a problem created in Whitehall and perpetuated by Whitehall and the Quisling press. Britain’s immigration system isn’t a system at all, but a shambles. So-called ‘Fortress Europe’ is really a Bungalow, and the key is under the mat.”
He continued for another 482 words—better immigration controls, a clampdown on “refugee racketeers and professional whiners," deportation of illegal immigrants, the repeal of race relations legislation—strong, if formulaic. He attacked the mainstream parties, the police and immigration authorities, and the “grossly irresponsible Sentinel ‘newspaper,’” and finished with a mixed-metaphor crescendo— “We need to take the bull by the horns and stop Britain from becoming a Labradoodle Nation.”
That would do. The Queen was calling imperiously. He put it onto a disk (he had chosen not to master e-mail), the disk, into a manila envelope marked “Views,” and waddled over to put it into the tray. He waddled on into the lift, declaiming over his shoulder to Sally (as always) the only part of Ulysses he could remember—“We will sternly refuse to partake of strong waters, will we not? Yes, we will not. By no matter of means.”
Sentinel loyalists were not the only ones pleased to see Albert’s column. There was an awkward slot on the Sentinel’s page 3 that needed something exciting, and Albert’s mention of the Sentinel made it personal. Their headline ran across three columns:
Race row as Sentinel calls Beach Bodies ‘criminals’ and Britain a ‘labradoodle nation’—Campaigners say ‘offensive’ journalist must be fired.
There was a large picture with the caption: “Dylan Ekinutu-Jones says Sentinel must sack ‘insensitive’ columnist.” There was a quote from the new era institute, a think-tank with fashionable lower-case initials: “This is a disturbing article reminiscent of the worst invective of racist and populist movements on the continent. It is unacceptable and many people find it offensive.”
The article ended with a bland threat,“A spokesman for the police said that they treated incidents of racial abuse ‘extremely seriously,’ but that they had not yet received a formal complaint about the article. No-one at the Sentinel was available for comment.”
Sitting up in bed in W8 the following morning, drinking bitter black coffee, Albert couldn’t believe his luck. His only regret was that he hadn’t beefed up the article a bit more. “Here we go again!” he called out to Anthony, and wiggled his gouty toes in delight, as the phone started to ring.
The first call was from the Views editor.“What’ll we do? The old man’s livid!” He had not been in the job long and had come straight from the Cornwall local press, so found Albert’s reiterated “Don’t worry!” less than wholly reassuring. Then he rang off, and the legal editor came on the line, annoyed at having his holiday in Mauritius interrupted by urgent phone calls from London, to confirm that the police had received a complaint and would be launching an investigation. “Fuck ‘em!” Albert suggested, and the man, who had been through this before, half-laughed and went back to his beach. There were calls from amused friends, and Sally, who told him that the office phones were alive (pro- him). Then it was the Views editor again; he suggested that it might be wise to backtrack a bit, and had even come up with a form of words. There had been a lot of complaints, he told Albert. “Orchestrated! Ignore them!” Albert replied, and refused even to listen to the approved form of words. “Keep saying ‘No comment,’ and they’ll soon get bored,” he advised. Later, the calls slowed, then stopped. “There, you see,” he said to Anthony—“it’s just a matter of keeping your head.”
But the next day, the race row had migrated and mushroomed— from the Daily Digest & Register inexorably downwards through the Chronicle and City News all the way to Tits & Bums. Dylan’s still- aggrieved countenance obtruded itself into the faces of both CEOs and the unemployable. Albert lounged about in his dressing gown, reading them all with quiet enjoyment. He liked this feeling of being under siege by a world for which he felt nothing but contempt. Anything They hated was ipso facto good. Well, he didn’t really believe that, but it pleased him to pretend that he did.
The phone rang a lot that day, and after a while Albert felt perhaps he ought to answer it. It was the Views editor yet again, wondering where the fuck he had been and what the fuck did he mean by it, and the office is a fucking madhouse, and the old man keeps ringing to ask what’s fucking going on. Albert let him get it all off his chest, while he absentmindedly filled in some clues on the cryptic crossword— (“Chiromancy consonant with devotional author”—PSALMIST). He soon sensed that his calmness was not having the desired soothing effect on the Views editor, who refused—rather rudely, Albert said—to give any help at all with the awkward clue that stretched right down the middle of the puzzle. “Capital adornments for ecologist in trouble.” The call closed with the other man telling him the “old man” wanted a word with him personally at 3, and that he must be there to receive the call. “You will be there, won’t you?” “Fear not, sirrah, I’ll be here.” That was it, and how appropriate—WIGS ON THE GREEN! Overall, it looked like being a good day—maybe even a very good one.
The “old man” came on the line punctually at 3—the Sentinel’s editor, whom Albert had only seen once, and never actually spoken to. The “old man” was actually 32 years Albert’s junior. He had worked mostly on regional titles and had never had a furore like this before. Jangled nerves made his delivery faster than he would have liked.
“Hello, er, Albert—this is Dougie. Although we’ve never met, I feel I know you through your columns. I am very much aware that you’re one of our institutions, whereas I have only been here about five minutes.”
A slight chuckle. A crafty touch, thought Albert—man to man, cards allegedly on the table, plain speaking that wasn’t plain, friendliness that wasn’t friendly, an attempt to enlist sympathy for-the-predicament-I’m-in-you-must-understand. It could have been a powerful approach, if Albert had had that kind of personality. His respect for the lad rose slightly.
“The thing is, Albert, your column today—well-written though it was—is making some waves.”
“What? Oh, yes...Ha, ha. Seriously, um, Albert, the Board and I have been fielding calls and complaints about you all day. And the switchboard and e-mail bulletin boards have been red-hot. There have been some calling in support, but many others who feel very strongly that you are being insensitive and—I’m sorry to say it, but I’m just passing on feedback—racist. And I have to say that reading over the column, while I understand what you wanted to say...one can see why it could, aah, leave that impression—even on someone like me, who’s on your side!”
“Ha!” thought Albert.
“I wonder if you realise how significant this event really is, and how emotional people—very many people—feel about this. The thing is that I think you may not have taken this into account when you were writing.”
There was silence. “Albert?”
“Yes, I’m here. I’m sorry Dougie, but I just don’t think it was racist. “Insensitive,” “offensive,” maybe, whatever they mean—but then that’s what I do. As for the people who say they’re offended, frankly who gives a flying fuck about them? They’re wankers, one and all—and not our readers anyway. Dylan fucking Egregious-Bore, some stupid bitch from some stupid group, and those terminal tossers at the Sentinel—that’s all it is. The same old same olds. This thing will die in a day or two.”
The connection hummed with tension. This time, it was Dougie’s turn to be silent for several seconds. There was a harder edge to his voice. Albert felt almost sorry for him, and started to doodle a small woodland scene on the pad. The pad was covered in tiny landscapes, some quite well-drawn.
“Again, Albert, I don’t think you quite understand the situation. This isn’t a normal article we’re talking about. This story has struck a nerve in everyone. You must have seen that. All these articles, TV reports, Parliament recalled...this is a very, very sensitive subject, and this story’s going to run and run. The Board and I are coming under pressure from readers, shareholders, commercial partners...”
(Here it comes. Advertisers.)
“And the police have said they’ve received complaints, and want a criminal investigation. I’ll tell you frankly, Albert, this has come at a very difficult time for us, with the forthcoming restructuring. The last thing we need right now is to have the police hovering over us when we’re making our arguments. I am not denying you your freedom of expression, but I think you need to clarify what exactly you were trying to say. We’ll make space on tomorrow’s Views. That should do it. I know it’s a bore, but it’s the right thing to do.”
“Look, Dougie—I’d like to co-operate, I really would, but I don’t feel I’ve done anything for which I should apologise. If you think the column was bad, you should have seen the first draft!”
“Albert, you’re making this very difficult—very difficult. You don’t appreciate the pressure I’m starting to face—pressure which can only get worse. I’ve been defending you all day today...”—Albert smiled wolfishly—“...but this isn’t just going to go away, whatever you think. I’m not asking for an apology, I’m asking you just to explain what you meant—you know, put it in context. An old hand like you could have the piece done in about 10 minutes, and then I’m happy and you’ve covered your back, and everything’s fine.”
“Not for me, Dougie—not for me. I stand by what I said, and I have no need to apologise—because dress it up however you like, that is what this would be, a snivelling apology. The people who hate us have always hated us, and always will. We have to ignore them. They’re nebbish, dolts, idiots. If the rest of the world goes mad, then it’s all the more important that we stand firm. That’s what our readers want—a bit of outspokenness, a little scepticism, a bit of salt in the sugar-bowl of modern life.”
“You still don’t get it, Albert. I have told you that I have come under unprecedented pressure. To give you an example, Fonesco—who are, as you know, one of our biggest advertisers—are talking about pulling their ads; it seems they are being put under pressure by their shareholders and customers to dissociate from us until we distance ourselves from your views. Need I remind you that a newspaper depends on advertising revenue? Fonesco and others pay your salary—and mine. I can’t tell them to get lost.”
“We can’t let ourselves be blackmailed by some stinking mobile phone company. They’re whores; that’s all they are. They need us at least as much as we need their shitty advertisements. Wait and see—even if they pull their next batch of ads, they’ll be back for the batch after that.”
This was true, and Dougie knew it (although Albert had only guessed). For some reason, the ads in the Sentinel were far more lucrative for the phone company than those in other papers. That year, Fonesco had put all its advertising budget into the Sentinel, and had not regretted its decision—until today, when they had received complaints about the advertisements from two incandescent-sounding customers. They were reluctant to alienate the emerging ethnic-minority male key demographic, but their calls to their advertising agent and that agent’s calls to the rep at the Sentinel were bluster. They had no real intention of pulling the advertisements, unless the pressure became serious. But they did want a quiet life. Dougie tried again.
“You’re making a mistake, Albert. And you’re making this very difficult. I have certain responsibilities to the board, the shareholders, our readers, and to society. It would be irresponsible of me not to listen to what our readers say...”
“Our readers, eh? I wonder how many of them have complained. I hear the phones have been ringing and ringing, and that almost all of the calls are in support.”
Dougie somehow projected a frown down the line. “I don’t know where you heard that from.”
“I can’t reveal my sources!” Albert tried to lighten the tone to calm his caller, who sounded like he was reading from a script. (In fact, Dougie had made copious notes in advance. His secretary would smile contemptuously later, when she saw them still up on his screen.)
“Look, Albert—I didn’t want to put it this way, but at the end of the day, I am your editor, and you are my employee. If it was the other way round, you could say what you want, but I have the good of this paper to consider. And I feel that from the paper’s point of view, we need to distance ourselves from the kind of sentiments you expressed in your column. Speaking frankly, I have to say that I don’t feel they really belong in this paper in this day and age.”
“What you’re saying is that I don’t belong at the Sentinel. Isn’t that right?”
Dougie had never had to go through such a conversation before, with a man so much more experienced, and who was, furthermore, not only the paper’s chief (maybe only) asset, but a vinegary national institution. Life at the Mitham Messenger had been so much easier, with even redundancies carried out by e-mail. He now had a handsome top-floor office, with St Paul’s in the distance and a building full of respectful servants all instantly summonable (or dismissable) by button or phone, but he felt like a boy who has wandered into someone else’s company. Droplets of discomfort studded the spotty white back beneath his beautifully made shirt. He was not ready for this confrontation—not yet.
And although the Board had not exactly been pleased about the possibility of a police investigation, its members had been more relaxed than he had implied. “It’s just Albert. It’s his way. I don’t think we need to do anything about this just at the moment, do we gentlemen?” the chairman had said with a twinkling smile, just before they all broke for their monthly lunch at La Belle Cuisine. And Dougie had acquiesced with superficial good grace, while the board members whom he had cultivated before the meeting (and who had told Dougie he had a point) smiled back loyally at the chairman. He was not prepared for this confrontation—not yet.
“Of course I’m not saying that, Albert. Please don’t misunderstand me. You’re an institution, and we wouldn’t wish to lose you. I think we’ve both lost our tempers a little bit, haven’t we? I’ve made it absolutely clear that I’m just trying to find a way forward for us all. At the end of the day, we’re on the same side!”
“Dougie, we’ve been here before, and we’ll be here again. This will all be forgotten in a couple of days. Wait and see. By next week, this will all be ancient history.”
By the time they finished speaking to each other a few minutes later, one might have thought they were on reasonably friendly terms. But when they had hung up, both men sat looking for a moment at their phones. This was the most serious warning Albert had ever had, and for a contemptible moment, he even wondered if he should tone down the next column.
But he pushed aside the unworthy thought, and went to make some coffee, humming Wondrous Machine. Now that was a song! It was so perfect it put all of his work into its proper context. When it came down to it, he was a hack writer for one of England’s worst newspapers, while Purcell was a copper-bottomed transcendent genius.
To thee the Warbling Lute, Tho’ us’d to Conquest, Must be forc’d to yield: With thee unable to dispute.
“With thee unable to dispute,” indeed, oh poor dead Henry P.— coughing your lungs up once and for all at 36, while Albert went on and on and on. But which of them would always be remembered?
Meanwhile, a much less composed Dougie was drumming on his desk, while the tightness in his face eased and the sweat below the fine cotton of his shirt dried cold and uncomfortable. Then he picked up the phone again, and rang the Advertising Department. This wasn’t over. This wasn’t over at all.
Next Tuesday - Part 6
Copies of Sea Changes are available from Amazon (a few copies of the first edition still available)
…........................................................................................- Derek Turner has appeared in a number of top-notch news outlets, including Taki's, Chronicles and the Times.
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Some recent articles from Derek Turner:Taking back the city
FALSE FLAGS, AND TANGLED GROWTHS
FLIGHTS OF FANCY