A lifelong buddy

Tench: always there for me, even after years of neglect

by Paul Halas

Most anglers have a favourite fish, even if, like me, they don’t spend their entire lives obsessing about a single species. I’ve fished for well over sixty of my seventy-plus years, and a great affection for the first “serious” fish I ever caught has stayed with me. It was a tench; not a very bright one.

A quick internet search shows that tench are incredibly widespread worldwide – found across most European countries, parts of South America, the Antipodes, swathes of Asia, the USA, southern Africa and even Alaska and Mongolia. Allegedly. Although the last two sound like tosh to me. In most of these countries the tench is an introduced, non-native species – valued presumably for its sporting prowess because only masochists would ever eat them. They’re laconic, sedate, hard-fighting, summer-loving, grub-eating, still or slow moving water dwelling – and sometimes prone to contradicting all of those generalisations. They don’t grow to a vast size, I still find a six pound fish a real thrill, while the rod caught record (British and worldwide I believe) stands at a little over fifteen pounds.

(Although the UK went metric around fifty years ago anglers still use pounds and ounces as units of weight. To my surprise I’ve frequently heard French carp anglers talking about their fish in livres too – British carp fishing has been very influential over the past few decades. The Academie Francaise would be apoplectic if they knew.)

tench are incredibly widespread worldwide

My first attempts at fishing were absolutely dismal. As a nine-year-old with no one around to teach me, I’d make my way to the ponds on Hampstead Heath (North London) with a midget rod and reel bought on holiday in Cornwall and catch nothing. Everything I was doing was wrong. Eventually, a kindly adult angler gave me a fishing float and some hooks appropriate for the task and one or two small roach came my way…

Hampstead Heath ponds

Then, one day, fishing my bait at a depth of eighteen inches in six feet of water, I somehow managed to hook a tench, and by some fluke I even landed it too. (It may have been feeding in amongst some dangling willow twigs. Everyone knows they feed on the bottom… except when they don’t.) There at my feet, all chunky, olive greeny-brown with tiny red eyes, was a tench of perhaps a pound and a quarter. God, it was absolutely enormous! I was instantly surrounded by a crowd of admiring kids, my fifteen minutes of celebrity.

They [the tench] are laconic, sedate, hard-fighting, summer-loving, grub-eating, still or slow moving water dwelling – and sometimes prone to contradicting all of those generalisations. 

That bolt from the blue set me on a path. I cajoled better tackle out of my parents. I tried to figure out how to catch bigger fish than the tiddlers I’d been content with before, and became a vestigial “specimen hunter”. I started catch the odd bream, up to maybe a pound and a half, and some magical roach of maybe up to twelve ounces. It was a long time before I caught another tench, but when it came it was deserved. And tench were the fish I aspired to, the rarely attained pinnacle of fishing on the Hampstead ponds in the late 1950s and early 1960s. (Carp were present, but regarded with such reverence no one presumed to fish for them. Captures were incredibly rare, and always by accident.) I spent years trying to crack the three pounds barrier, but in those far off years I never did. A friend boasted of a four and a half pounder he’d landed – the stuff of dreams – but a couple of years later he confessed he’d lied.

There at my feet, all chunky, olive greeny-brown with tiny red eyes, was a tench of perhaps a pound and a quarter. God, it was absolutely enormous!

When I was around sixteen my parents bought a weekend cottage in Wiltshire. I loved it. Within cycling distance there were a few small farm ponds, which contained roach, rudd and tench – all of which had a liking for bread. Now I was catching three and four tench in a session, plus roach to over a pound, but that magical three pound tench just wouldn’t appear.

Small water heaven

That didn’t happen until I spread my wings a little wider and discovered the gravel pits of the Cotswold Water Park. The club book declared the “specimen weight” for each species present, and the threshold for tench was four whole pounds.

(To anglers now a four pound tench is pretty meagre pickings, but in the early 1960s it was a serious fish. For a variety of reasons many species have been growing far larger over the years. There’s numerous factors, including excessive nutrients entering the water system and global warming – but while some fisheries have improved dramatically many others have gone down the pan.)

Tench inflation. Between the 1960s and the 1990s the record almost doubled

Float-fished bread caught us all a stream of tench, and over the years anglers’ personal bests improved steadily. When the tench didn’t fancy bread they hoovered up maggots and casters (maggot chrysalis), and sometimes lumps of spam or pork luncheon meat. Or worms. Or sweetcorn.

(In the 1970s sweetcorn fever swept across the British coarse fishing scene (freshwater, excluding trout and salmon) like the Golden Horde. That was one of the very rare times I was ahead of the game. I’d holidayed by Lake Balaton in Hungary, where cooked, exploded maize was a favourite bait for carp and rudd. Back home I experimented with tinned sweetcorn and caught tons of tench before the trend caught on. While the going was good I’d be catching ten fish to other anglers’ one. Did I do the decent thing and share my secret? Did I balls!

While the going was good, I’d be catching ten fish to other anglers’ one. Did I do the decent thing and share my secret? Did I balls!

For most of my life the gravel pits of the Cotswold Water Park were my home venue, especially after moving from London to the West Country in 1980. Waters change over time, and for a couple of wonderful decades one of the lakes became a superb winter tench fishery. Tench aren’t supposed to feed in cold weather, and while people made the odd surprise catch in winter only a nut would set out to catch them. Except in this lake. At the beginning of a cold snap they’d go off the boil, but after a few days’ acclimatisation they’d bite again even in horribly bitter weather. We would fish with two rods, one for pike (noted winter feeders) and the other for tench. (One time my brother-in-law hooked a fish on his whole sardine bait intended for pike and yelled it was fighting like a tench. I told him not to be soft in the head; everyone knows tench aren’t carnivores. It was a large tench that evidently hadn’t read any textbooks.)

Later, as carp fishing fever gripped the country – the Cotswold Water Park was no exception – carp methods crept into my tench fishing. Using scaled down carp rigs and baits I caught an awful lot of tench, and bigger ones. For a while this new wave fishing outperformed traditional methods in the same way that sweetcorn once outfished bread. But fish wise up, nothing lasts for ever.

As carp have taken over more and more fisheries, tench have been outmuscled and forced into the background. At the same time I fell out of love with the Cotswold Water Park. Scandalously sold to a leisure company by the county council for £1 (perfidy at least on a par with Pearl Harbour), it became commercialised, corporatised, fenced in and hideously expensive (a parable for the UK). I stopped going there.

Cotswold Water Park, paradise lost


While I’ve gone through long phases of fishing for other species – lots of carp fishing, barbel, chub, trout, pike, zander, perch, grey mullet, bass, roach, eels, catfish… I’ll dangle a line where I’m able) – tench have always tended to be nearby.

I lived for a year in Ireland during the late 1970s. The lakes of County Clare were a happy hunting ground for tench, as was the Grand Canal in County Kildare and the River Shannon, especially at the famed Lanesboro power station outlet hot-spot. There was something very alluring about tench and Guinness.

Using scaled down carp rigs and baits I caught an awful lot of tench, and bigger ones. 

I’ve spent a lot of time in the south west of France, and of course I fished. Carp mainly, but that’s because the tench fishing was never very good. I’ve caught tench in the Rivers Garonne, Baise, Lot and Gers, plus several stillwaters. I’d spend sessions of several days fishing one large public lake, which held carp to fifty pounds plus. I caught carp to over thirty pounds and giant roach of over three pounds that somehow picked up my big carp baits. I also pulled in a tench of around four and a half pounds. This, astonishingly, drew much admiration from some nearby French carp anglers, with gasps of “ooh, la belle tanche!” I’ve had to conclude south west France and tench aren’t an entente cordiale.

The mighty Garonne. Raging floods, vast catfish, impressive carp and some very modest tench


With advancing age my fishing world has contacted somewhat. I’m now a fair weather angler because I can no longer withstand the cold – no matter what I wear. I can’t afford expensive fisheries any more, nor a big petrol bill, so I stick to a couple of local club cards and fish a modest carp lake and a big canal. The lake produces carp any month of the year you choose to go, plus a few other species too. When I catch a tench, even if it’s only the same size as the first once I landed at Hampstead Heath, I’m overjoyed. It’s a very old friend.

Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.

War on wokies

Is “our” culture in peril?

By Paul Halas

The right wing press doesn’t pull its punches: an army of do-gooders, snowflakes and lefty killjoys are out to rob us of our freedoms and force us to abandon our cherished traditions. Our history is being re-written, monuments are being torn down, our favourite books, films and TV programmes are being censored. Comedians daren’t tell jokes any more, inclusivity has hijacked the airwaves.

They seem to be everywhere now – gaggles of painfully-sincere, well-meaning folk cavorting in support of some cause or other, unwashed-looking people daubing buildings with paint or sitting and blocking thoroughfares, and all manner of other nuisances. Even to many of us on the left, some highly worthy forms of expression can come across as pretty ridiculous. Pan pipes for peace, macrame against the cuts.

May Day, 1920 (Clement Moran)
Raised consciousness or silly and out of touch?

When people start singing at the end of demonstrations I’ve often thought how effective it is at clearing the streets. Wokeism isn’t to everybody’s taste, but is it a threat to our national culture?

If our national culture is under threat, maybe we need to reflect on what that culture is and how it evolved…. and what parts of that culture are in urgent need of further evolution. For a start, the UK’s national culture is predominantly white. (And that goes for the rest of Europe as well, and the countries taken over by white people. Britishness has its own individual flavour, but it has a great deal in common with the other European cultures – especially those with a colonialist past.)

In recent years the UK has begun to embrace multiculturalism and made a start at owning some of its past. And even the progress that has been made is met with resistance from large sections of the media, and the population at large… Which isn’t surprising when you look at hundreds of years of “our” cultural history.

Art, entertainment, literature and more recently cinema and TV all reflect a society’s values and also shape them. And our cultural values have an awful lot of baggage – racist baggage, class based baggage and misogynist baggage.

Racism and the assumed superiority of Europeans goes back to the Crusades and probably considerably before. We come across it in Shakespeare. If Othello wasn’t an outright racist play, it certainly was about racism, and The Merchant of Venice was overtly antisemitic. (It’s a moot point that nearly all productions of Othello until very recently involved white actors in blackface.)

Thomas Keene in Othello 1884 Poster - Vikipedi:Seçkin resimler/Eğlence, kültür ve yaşam tarzı/Tiyatro - Vikipedi
Blackface production

Concurrent with Shakespeare was the birth of the East India Company. Envious of the Dutch and Portuguese, who were raking in fortunes via the spice trade in the “East Indes”, the British and French set up their own East India companies in order to grab a slice of the pie. I find the British East India Company fascinating. It was the first example of modern multinational corporate capitalism – a trading company formed on modern lines with a board of directors and shareholders, which grew into a ruthless colonial power – and set a template for exploitation on a truly massive scale.

While British enterprises had joined in the lucrative slave trade between Sub-Saharan Africa and the New World, and had quickly come to regard their “cargo” as less than human in order to be able to carry out that shamefully inhuman business, the first European traders to set up shop in India tended to regard the Indians they dealt with on a much more equal footing. That was hardly surprising, as the Mughal Empire far surpassed its European counterparts in wealth, power, opulence and learning. Indeed, the Europeans were regarded as somewhat uncouth and lacking in manners. “…A handful of traders who have not yet learned to wash their bottoms.” The Europeans were tolerated, however, because the trade they brought was mutually beneficial.

Through chicanery, good fortune, military prowess, brutal repression, treachery and sheer ruthlessness the British East India Company gradually became a force to be reckoned with, and in time the dominant force in India. To begin with the main source of discrimination between all the players was class rather than ethnicity. Europeans deferred to powerful Indians and vice versa. Intermarriage was common (although it’s doubtful whether many European women married Indian men).

The East India Company. A shift in the balance of power

Without doubt the expansion of the East India Company’s power was driven by commercial greed, but what had started as a trading venture turned into out and out colonialism, and, realising how wealthy and powerful the company had become, the British government muscled in and gradually took over. The Raj was born. Indians increasingly laboured for British overlords rather than Indians – and of course that made them inferiors. The caste system was nothing new in India, but now the top caste was all white, and the humblest of colonists considered themselves superior to anyone with brown skin. The remaining Indian potentates and maharajas were now mere puppets. Intermarriage was forbidden; miscegenation took place behind locked doors. As so often through history, the implementation of racism came about through exploitation and money-making.


It’s impossible to underestimate the extent to which colonialism has shaped British culture. And that goes for the various cousins across the Channel. Our wealth grew from it, people went to the colonies to make their fortunes, it contributed enormously to our sense of self-importance. The subjugation of other peoples was painted as philanthropy, the theft of their wealth and resources was bringing development and civilisation, the obliteration of their religions and cultures was our sacred duty. You might have laboured in a factory in Manchester or stoked the boiler of a new-fangled steamship, you might have been the bottom of the heap but at least you weren’t black. And you could always prove your worth by taking the Queen’s shilling and joining in the carnage.

What was painted as heroism was frequently genocide.

Racism, snobbism and misogyny are deeply entrenched in British and the white world’s culture. As a baby boomer I’ve seen these traits perpetuated through every decade that I’ve lived through, and although we’re starting to acknowledge and admit to them a little more nowadays they’re still part of our cultural fabric.

One of the more demeaning parts of the prejudice engrained in society is the use of stereotypes. They’ve been a constant.

With the Chinese Labour Corps. NCO. "Don't yer know er own bloomin' number yet?" Chinaman (proudly). "One - seven - six."
In humorous magazines
Punch Magazine’s affectionate view of the Irish
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In advertising
This contains an image of:
In political publications
In pulp magazines
Image result for Casablanca Movie
In much loved movies
See the source image
In sitcoms that should be forgotten
In sitcoms that should be dead and buried

As well as demeaning and patronising people of colour, our culture also strove to keep women in their place.

Buy the right bread to keep your man

The lower orders had to be kept in line too. And anyone who didn’t conform – vegetarians, teetotallers, intellectuals, left-wingers…

H M Bateman’s brilliant observations were usually about snobbism – but they were also usually very snobbish

My own field, comics, has not been immune. Comics I have grown up with and loved have been guilty of some pretty crass stereotyping. Two in particular spring to mind.

See the source image
Tintin. Herge evolved a bit in later life. Even so…
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I always adored Asterix comics, and while much of the humour derived from affectionate stereotyping this crosses a line

Most of this imagery is pretty old, but it’s part of the white world’s legacy; maybe more mine than younger generations’, but if anyone believes we’ve outgrown such primitive attitudes they should think again. Our culture, our media, our education have all been fuelled by such attitudes. We have become multicultural – but there can be few people from families that immigrated to Europe at some point who haven’t been made painfully aware of our cultural failings. There may no longer be signs on doors saying no dogs, no Irish, no blacks, but we haven’t eradicated snobbism, we haven’t eradicated inequality, we haven’t eradicated misogyny and we certainly haven’t eradicated racism. Just ask the young English footballers who failed to score their penalty kicks in the Euro final last year.

As a society we are evolving, or sections of society are. But there’s a large rump who remain entrenched in the old attitudes. The consumers of right wing news, the Daily Express readers, those who believe the BBC is dangerously left wing. Those who think colonialism was a good thing and that exploitation by the rich and powerful somehow benefits us all. Having been a political activist I’ve locked swords with them countless times on letters pages, at street stalls and on doorsteps. We have a long way to go.

So, getting back to the subject of wokeism, and whether or not it’s imperilling our culture, I’d say I bloody well hope so. Let’s keep the good – John Betjeman, larks ascending, parish churches, the Mersey Beat, cream teas, J M Turner… – but let’s not kid ourselves that we don’t still have a toxic legacy to address. So when it comes to clog dancers against climate change, or foot massaging to save the rainforests, or basket weaving for world understanding, I’ll do my best to swallow my cynicism and be supportive. They’re on the side of the angels. War is being waged on wokies, and we have to support them or the dark side wins.

Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.

The Labour Party – sifting through the wreckage

Will activism become a cottage industry?

By Paul Halas

The news that the selection process for prospective Labour candidates is to be changed to allow yet more Tories to represent the party will surprise no one. It is only the latest increment in Keir Starmer’s drive to make the party a safe place for venture capitalists, oligarchs, tax-dodging corporations and those who deliberately confuse the distinction between criticism of Israeli apartheid with prejudice against Jews. If anyone reading this article actually believes Starmer is doing a good job stop now: you’re either complicit in his charade or terminally gullible.

The idea of Labour as a force to bring about democratic socialism is a wonderful fantasy, an illusion, albeit one that many of us dared to believe in between 2015 and 2019. But in spite of saying democratic socialism on the tin, it ain’t in the contents. The party of the working person has always been infiltrated and occupied by the right, even although there have been a few glorious examples of socialist advances being forced through – despite all the obstacles. The post-war Atlee government gave us a wonderful legacy (that the neoliberals have diligently destroyed over the past forty years), but following him was Hugh Gaitskill and a sharp swing back towards the centre. Harold Wilson’s centre leftism was always under attack from right wingers in the party, as well as the establishment, and he ended up sidelined by Sunny Jim and Bushy Healey. Michael Foot fought a constant battle against his own party plus the weight of the media (Private Eye’s nickname for him, Worzel Gummidge, certainly caught the public imagination), while Neil Kinnock declared open warfare against the left.

There was a national sigh of relief in 1997 when the tired old Tories were swept away by Tony Blair, whose dynamic platform of not being a Tory produced a sense of national euphoria… until of course the penny dropped that actually he was a Tory. Okay – one could argue that he was at least a One Nation Tory, that we got Sure Start centres and some more dosh went into health and education, but creeping privatisation continued unabated, cronyism was almost as rife then as it is now, we were lumbered with PFIs here, there and everywhere, and inequality, which had been rising since 1979, just carried on rising. We all know the quote, Tony Blair was Margaret Thatcher’s proudest achievement. He was, and is, a Tory.

As is Keir Starmer. Surely any illusions about him have now been swept away: he represents the establishment 100% and is making absolutely sure that the Labour Party is a socialism-free zone – even at the expense of bankrupting and sinking the party out of sight. The sorry mob at the helm now resemble a low budget caper movie, getting the old gang of bastards back together: Blair, Mandelson, David Miliband, Campbell, and given the chance I’ll bet they’d dig up Margaret Thatcher too. Add to that many of the kindly apparatchiks who helped scuttle two general elections and you have to conclude that the dark side has won. Good friends of mine are still saying stay and fight. Sorry. It’s over.

A great many activists and former members, especially those like me who joined the party because of Jeremy Corbyn, now find themselves disenfranchised, rudderless and quite frankly depressed. From having no faith in party politics, to becoming highly energised, card-carrying party workers, to losing that faith again, all in a few short years, is a hulluva trip. For a while we believed a mainstream political party could and would usher in a fairer, more sustainable society. But it turns out that was just a dream some of us had (to quote Joni Mitchell).

For many like me becoming a party member was something of a culture shock. I’d never been part of any sort of organisation, having led the sheltered life of a freelance story-writer, and entering a hierarchical, structured set-up like the Labour Party was a strange experience. But I quickly got with the espirit de corps, did my best to be a team player, was happy cannon-fodder. What always struck me as odd, though, was that in amongst all the fund-raising, leafleting, arranging lifts, meetings, getting stuff printed, all the activities part and parcel of belonging to a CLP, nobody seemed to be talking about politics. Yes, politics in terms of personalities, myriad rues and regulations and various snippets of gossip and personality clashes, but not political ideas – not the big issues. The only times we were officially sanctioned to talk politics was when we were out canvassing or running stalls – a wonderful and eye-opening experience. It’s as if that stuff was above our pay grade. Sure, those of us on the left socialised and discussed these matters (and boy, so did those on the right), however, such talk never seemed to be an integral part of CLP life. Bureaucracy rex. But still, we were buoyed by the idea that as members our voices counted, and collectively we could steer the party towards our goal of a more equitable society. Ha! Now look where we are.

So, sifting through the wreckage, what are we left with? The ideas Jeremy Corbyn represented are still in our hearts and minds. I’m a bit mistrustful of the sainthood that’s been conferred on him by some on the left, as I’m sure he is, however, in spite of his flaws I’m still very much a Corbynista. But no longer having a national, mass membership political party to fall in with, we have to look at other ways of achieving change. The Peace and Justice Movement is a very positive step in the right direction.

Belatedly I’m bringing up the subject of climate change, as it certainly should be the first item on any agenda (even if I’m 900 words into this piece). It’s such a major deal that many people – and governments it appears – react by throwing up their hands, emitting an existential scream and then carrying on doing exactly what they were doing before. Yesterday the media was screaming we’re all going to die; today it’s back to who’s shagging who on Love Island. It’s as if it’s too much to take in… except it’s really happening. Nationally, the Tory government grunts and makes vague noises about sustainability (while slyly trying to open new coal mines and investing yet more billions in fossil fuels), while Starmer’s alternative Tory Party rounds on the government for its inactivity with all the ferocity of a comatose teddy bear. Internationally we wait for action by India, China, the USA, Brazil and others with great interest. A benevolent world dictatorship could maybe bring about some meaningful changes, but we don’t have that luxury. China could perhaps implement the right kind of draconian measures, but they’d have to drop their “it’s good to be rich” mantra first.

The big elephant in the room, climate wise, is capitalism. A cynic might say that unless going green becomes a bigger revenue source than continuing to screw up the environment the outlook is not kosher. Technology will no doubt play a big role in any solution to the climate change problem, but my faith in this is tempered by the fact that most R&D is now largely funded by the corporate sector, and those people by and large aren’t motivated by a love of humanity. Add to that the fact that we’ve already passed a number of tipping points, and millions of lives are already in jeopardy from the ravages of climate catastrophe, it’s all very, very scary.

Where do we go from here? Governments can and should do far better than they’ve managed thus far. Some are better than others. The EU member states tend to be a bit less crap than we are, Brazil and India are worse (though not on a per capita basis). The question is how much worse do things have to get before meaningful (and I mean serious) action is taken? How many more millions will perish? Will Bangladesh slip beneath the waves? Will the grain-belts turn into dust-bowls? Will melting permafrost unleash billions of tons of methane? Will the Gulf Stream seize up and deep-freeze northern Europe? Will Parliament be any less complacent when the Thames barrier is overwhelmed? I don’t see the end of humanity on the horizon, but I do think we’re going to see a succession of seismic changes – not the least for all the other life-forms that inhabit the planet. People have been warning about this for more than 100 years. We can be awfully slow on the uptake.

Normally doom and gloom articles try to end on a positive note. We don’t want people jumping off cliffs or becoming troglodyte survivalists up in the Boondocks. Many people are becoming more aware that actions have consequences and there are better ways of running societies. Cooperation is growing within communities, and we’re becoming more conscious about how wasteful we are as people and as a society. Green new deals are at last on people’s lips, and at some point it is to be hoped that the great and the good are coerced or shamed into more responsible behaviour. Of course those with a few horses, multiple gas-guzzlers and a darling hideaway in Dorset, who think of themselves as vastly over-taxed and on the verge of penury, will take some convincing, but they’ll have to be made to toe the line.

With the demise of the Labour Party many are taking direct action to improve people’s lives. Community schemes proliferate, (some) unions battle for progress, collectivism is on the rise. Some of the smaller political parties, such as the Socialists and Communists, less tainted by corporate corruption, have powerful voices. We cannot control what takes place in governments worldwide but we can do better on the ground, here. As Candide said, at the end of Voltaire’s classic fable, “…but we must go and work in the garden.”

It would be wonderful to have a Labour Party that battles with the people, for the people and for the environment. That has a grasp of the issues at stake and will take on the might of big business. For the many, not the few. But we don’t – that party flickered brightly and was then extinguished. So we just have to do the best we can. Maybe for now cottage industry activism is our best choice.

Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.

the fishing question

You need to add a widget, row, or prebuilt layout before you’ll see anything here. 🙂

Is there a place for angling in the 21st Century?

By Paul Halas

I’m going to declare an interest, because I’ve been a keen angler for over sixty years, but during that time angling has been the subject of its fair share of controversy. My more Woke friends know I practise “the gentle art” and I’m guessing they’re too well-mannered to take me to task – but the odd askance look hasn’t gone unnoticed.

One time at junior school a group of girls tied me up with a skipping rope to teach me what a worm feels when it’s on a hook. It wasn’t that enjoyable an experience, but even remembering something that happened to me aged eleven demonstrates I’m aware that the sport has many opponents.

On the face of it, trying to stick a hook into a living creature – for our pleasure – doesn’t sound too good. I’ve read plenty on whether fish feel pain or not, and as far as the scientific consensus is concerned neither the ayes or the nays have landed a knockout blow. Research has shown that fish have very limited cognitive abilities, and function largely through instinct and learning from repeated experiences. (There is, however, a fascinating exception: an African freshwater fish called the Mormyrdae, which communicates what appear to be quite complex messages via electrical impulses, and have consequently developed a proportionally very large cerebellum. This makes the Mormyrdae the Brain of Fishdom, but otherwise nearly all fish, including the revered carp, have a brain that would make a chicken look like Einstein.) I’m not a scientist, but as for knowing what happens when you catch a fish I have a fair bit of experience. When hooked, a fish usually does its utmost to swim away from the direction it’s being pulled in, or it heads for the nearest cover. Once landed and returned to the water (unless you decide to eat it), it swims off and quickly resumes what it had been doing.

Sometimes a fish appears to be unaware that it has even been hooked for several seconds or longer. A sizeable catfish I caught in France behaved like a sack of flour until after a minute or so I really started heaving at it, whereupon it decided to make a rush downstream towards the Bay of Biscay. Most anglers who fish for large specimens have experienced something similar. It seems it’s the pressure on the line rather than the hook that is producing the reaction.

Silurus glanis 02.jpg
Catfish. A 56 lbs (25 kg) specimen didn’t know it had been hooked.

Fish that are caught and released don’t tend to suffer too much from the experience. The most outrageous example was in the 1980s, in one of the lakes at the Cotswold Water Park. A perch of around two pounds (approximately 900g) used to hang around in the margins of a couple of fishing spots, waiting for odd maggots or worms to come its way. You could see it hovering in about two feet of water, saying “c’mon, feed me!” We called it Muggins or something similar. It was too easy to catch, and anglers would actually go out of their way to avoid its attentions. It didn’t appear to mind being hooked at all, and after every capture it would resume scrumping maggots without a care.

Perch, photo by Dellex, Wikimedia commons

Repeat captures are commonplace. Last month I caught the same 11.5 lbs (just over 5kg) mirror carp twice within a half hour. A few years back I managed to lose a small lake’s largest inhabitant, a 25lbs (11.4kg) koi carp, only to return the next week and complete the capture. The angling club’s log book recorded that the gullible koi would come out around four times a year – and certainly showed no sign of ill-effects.

Here’s the odd thing that non-anglers simply don’t get. We fishermen and women absolutely adore fish. We think they are the most wonderful, beautiful, enigmatic, fascinating creatures on the planet. Just look at almost any photo of an angler holding a specimen-sized fish and see the ecstasy and wonderment in their eyes. It seems an anomaly to be besotted by them and at the same time want to catch them – but when you’ve got the bug it’s the most natural thing on Earth.

Carp fishing. Catch and release. Lucky fisherman holding a big common carp. Freshwater fishing. Catch of fish stock photo
Object of obsession and desire.

Look at the world fish live in, under the water’s surface it’s the law of the jungle – squared. Most fish lay a lot of eggs; a mature roach will spawn around 200,000 eggs, which compared to other species isn’t at all unusual. For a water’s roach population to remain stable 199,998 of those little roachlets are going to perish, nearly all of them violently. There are very few fish that at some point in their life cycle are not cannibalistic. A good bait for catching a big pike is a much smaller pike. Big fish eat smaller fish, as do grebes, herons, kingfishers, cormorants, mink, otters… It’s underwater warfare, a daily ritual of massacre and be massacred. Fish are chomped, maimed, impaled and gulped, and viewed through the distorting lens of human sentiments – which habitually anthropomorphise the natural world – Mother Nature is endlessly cruel and wasteful. Angling is pretty small beer compared to what fish experience throughout their lives. And compared to commercial fishing, where billions of fish are hoovered up by giant trawlers and left to suffocate in the holds – a mere bagatelle.

While Mother Nature holds sway under the water, most of our UK waters are far from being natural. Human development has dammed, drained, polluted, abstracted, re-channelled and generally degraded our watercourses to such an extent that we have virtually no waters left that aren’t affected by our activity. I was going to make an exception for some northern lakes and lochs, but then climate change is killing off some of their native, and in a few cases unique, fish populations, so we can safely say we’ve acted like a bunch of egotistical, insane ecological terrorists, and fish have suffered more than most from our actions.

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Ecological terrorism

So isn’t angling fanning the fires of our pressured fishes’ problems? Well, quite the opposite in fact. A few years ago a spokesperson for Friends of the Earth was asked how the organisation viewed angling. It has a positive effect on the environment, was the answer, anglers act as guardians of our rivers. While the Environment Agency carries out much valuable research and helps with numerous conservation schemes, it often has a far too cosy relationship with the (privately-owned) water companies, which get away with polluting and unsustainable water abstraction on an industrial scale. Fish in our rivers have to contend with diminishing water levels, industrial effluent, poorly-treated sewage, agricultural run-off and hormones, fertilisers and in some cases an imbalance of predation. (Where fish populations are already under pressure, the reintroduction of otters has had an adverse effect on the fish, small aquatic mammals, waterfowl and ultimately otters themselves.) It was found in some rivers that fish not only had deformities caused by hormones entering the water, they also contained a shocking amount of cocaine. Coked-up carp – amazing.

The most effective protectors of fish are anglers. There are over three million of us, and that creates a powerful voice. Angling organisations such as the Angling Trust take the fight to the polluters and despoilers in the law courts and by applying pressure to politicians. Angling is a major boost to the economy, and while those in high places may only shed crocodile tears over the environment a deficit in the balance book, not to mention credibility, concentrates minds wonderfully well. And if Lord Snooty McBooty uses his wealth and privilege to keep his salmon beat on the River Spey pristine and pure, well and good… I’ll come and have a go for the salmon after the Revolution.

The beautiful river Itchen is the preserve of wealthy anglers, photo Phil Hall

Back to the original point: is there a place for angling in the 21st Century? Some people will always have misgivings about it. But for the way it brings us closer to nature, for the peace of mind it can give us, for the thrill us getting close and personal with the most wonderful creatures, for the sense of achievement of catching a personal best, for the feeling of well-being produced by leaving the rat race for a few hours, for the well-being of fish themselves and the environment, yes, it definitely has a place.

Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.

a socialist at number 10…

…but how long would they stay there?

It could happen – not soon, and probably not for a very long time – but let’s indulge ourselves and imagine a Labour Party that’s rediscovered its soul, led by a true socialist, someone trusted by the people and trusting in the people, winning a general election. And let’s go one step further and fantasise that there are sufficient left-wing MPs to push through a truly radical, transformative programme. The stuff of dreams, but isn’t that what many of us would dearly love to see? What would “The Establishment” have to say about that? How would the grandees of the Civil Service, the heads of industry, the aristocracy, the media, Global big business, the military, MI5, the CIA, shadowy organisations such as the Ditchley Group, the dark money brokers, the Trilateral Commission, the City, the Chipping Norton Set, the hedge funds, the oligarchs, and all the other unelected holders of power react to a socialist UK? They have an absolute belief in their entitlement, something akin to the divine right of kings – democracy be buggered.


The first Clem Atlee government (1945-1950) is rightly lauded for ushering in a programme of reforms that changed the face of the nation. It’s overlooked that that in winning its landslide election victory, the Labour Party was not only opposed by the Tories and a press that was promising Bolshevism and Soviet tanks on the streets if it won, but also by a centrist rump within the party that was distinctly lukewarm on socialism. By the time Atlee won his second short term (1950-1951) the rot had set in; the Establishment was reasserting its authority.

Few prime ministers have aroused as much mixed feeling as Harold Wilson (1964-1970 and 1974-1976), and few such controversy. He was that horrible little man, or a Soviet agent, or a milksop centrist, depending on where one stood. His premiership was enabled by a Conservative Party, low on intellect, that had simply run out of steam, and an Establishment that had been caught with its trousers round its ankles too many times. Sleaze is nothing new. It was a time of great change and it was time for a change.

Harold Wilson

Elements within MI5 believed Wilson had been a Soviet agent. He’d certainly been to Moscow on occasions in the 1950s, fulfilling roles within the shadow cabinet – as had many others. Soviet defector Anatoliy Golitsyn maintained that Wilson was a Russian agent planted expressly to take over from Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell, who’d allegedly been poisoned. Although Golitsyn was soon discredited, the theory about Wilson proved to have a lot of staying power.

(In his novel Midnight Swimmer, the novelist/historian Edward Wilson tells of a diplomat making a covert mission to East Germany in 1963 to help diffuse the Cuban Missile Crisis. That diplomat, he maintains, was Harold Wilson. Fiction, yes, but maybe HW is owed a brownie point or two.)

The 1960s brought in the Beatles, Swinging London, a World Cup victory and what Wilson termed “the white hot heat of the technological revolution.” How left-wing was the Wilson government? It oversaw advances in education, health, housing, gender equality, price controls, censorship, divorce, child poverty, pensions, the decriminalisation of homosexuality and the abolition of capital punishment. It increased taxation (to a top rate of 98%) and kept the UK out of the Vietnam War. Could it have done better? Absolutely! But… The Establishment hadn’t simply gone away. Indeed, it was seething and doing its utmost to block left-wing reform at every turn. Maybe Wilson was a very canny operator, maybe he was pushing as hard as he dared.

The Establishment certainly plotted against Harold Wilson. Numerous sources, including the very mainstream TV dramatisation “The Crown”, tell of the 1968 meeting between Hugh Cudlipp, newspaper editor (the Mirror among others), Cecil King, head of the International Publishing Corporation, Sir Solly Zuckerman, Chief Scientific Advisor to the British government, and Lord Mountbatten. King was the leading advocate for the removal of Harold Wilson and the implementation of an interim government – comprised of industrialists, bankers, aristocrats and the military. The country had clearly gone to the dogs under Labour and only a coalition of the great and the good would be able to save it. While intrigued and evidently sympathetic, Lord Mountbatten thought the scheme a tad undemocratic and refused to be part of it. The plan lost its impetus, but it was typical of the Establishment’s mindset at the time.

After stepping down from office in 1976 Wilson was convinced that he’d been the subject of constant surveillance and dirty tricks. Both he and Marcia Williams, his political secretary and confident, revealed information to BBC journalists Barrie Penrose and Roger Courtiour that pointed to both continuous MI5 bugging of Number 10 and military plotting against him and the Labour government. A litany of dirty tricks and black propaganda. The two journalists describe that episode as “the British Watergate” and retrospectively deeply regret not following up on what they later became convinced was compelling evidence. The incoming 1974 Labour government was greeted by an unsanctioned military exercise at Heathrow Airport involving numerous troops and tanks. This was taken as a warning shot fired across Labour’s bows, although the given explanation was that it was an anti-terrorism rehearsal. There are numerous reports of ex-SAS Colonel Blimps gathering clandestine paramilitary groups to claim the streets in the event of an insurrection. And numerous high profile military figures privately and not so privately believed Wilson’s centre-left government was led by Communists.

Peter Wright, ex-MI5 and author of “Spycatcher”, talks of colleagues spelling out “We’ll have him out this time,” and labelling Wilson “a bloody menace.” Wilson and his close colleagues were also also hit by over ten burglaries in two years, in which only sensitive files and documents were taken. Was Wilson bugged? It seems highly unlikely that he wasn’t. MI5 went to the extraordinary length of issuing a public rebuttal of the spying accusations; that could be seen as the most compelling evidence that they’d been up to no good.


In the excellent Channel Four film “A Very British Coup”, 1988, adapted from Chris Mullin’s 1982 novel of the same name, adapted by screenwriter Alan Plater, a genuinely socialist Labour leader, Harry Perkins, is swept into Number 10 by a landslide election victory.

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Harry Perkins

Implementing a policy of re-nationalisation and open and honest government, along with withdrawal from NATO and unilateral nuclear disarmament, the new government is soon under attack from the media, MI5, the CIA, the Civil Service, right wing union leaders and fifth columnists within the party (one is actually dead ringer for Andrew Adonis). When a campaign of increasingly desperate and unscrupulous dirty tricks only leads to a snap election and another Perkins landslide, the Establishment falls back on its last resort: sending in the military. Although fiction, the film has an absolute ring of authenticity about how the Establishment reacts to threats to the status quo.


Since Wilson we’ve had Labour governments led by Blair and Brown, but evidently the Establishment didn’t see them as at all threatening. Because of course they weren’t. Since then there just happened to be a brief beacon of hope in the form of Jeremy Corbyn.

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A four year beacon of hope.

While there’s little doubt that in his heart Corbyn is a democratic, humane socialist, the programme on which he tried to get Labour elected was far from firebrand socialism. It was pretty mainstream social democracy – a European-looking mix of public ownership, constrained capitalism and the building of a greener infrastructure. But the Establishment is so far to the right, so confident that it can get most of the population to swallow its messaging, that it succeeded in painting Corbyn as some sort of Red menace. He was hung out to dry by all and sundry, including his own party. What the Establishment would do to a real life Harry Perkins would turn “A Very British Coup” into a documentary. We now have a Labour leader who’s a paid-up member of the Establishment, and the prospect of a transformative, socialist government is farther away than ever… And if we did get one, it would face the very worst the Establishment could throw at it..

Where to go for the left? Maybe there’s a chance that the nation’s ever growing inequality will rouse people from their selfies, TVs and reassuring certainties. Maybe as things get tougher people will begin to see the value of community action and projects a bit more. Maybe local, micro-economies will make inroads into the hegemony of the big corporations. Maybe people will want to have more control over their lives and also decide to look at worthier representatives. Only by seeing socialism in action will a majority of the people come to see the benefits of socialism. Hopefully at some point there will be a groundswell of people power, because as things stand the Establishment is sitting very pretty and conventional party politics is a busted flush.

A socialist in Number 10? Someone trusted by the people and led by the people? A fervent hope. Would that tenure be cut tragically short? A mass, populist movement willing to take to the streets might just deter the forces of reaction – but we underestimate the Establishment’s reach, lack of scruples and malevolence at our peril.

Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.

Stroudwater Magic

Everyday natural wonders.

By Paul Halas

ON THE TOWPATH of the Stroudwater Canal a curious woman stopped and asked what I was staring at so intently. Across the water from us, perched on a twig, scanning the shallow water margin for tiddlers and tadpoles, was a kingfisher. Suddenly aware of our presence it flew off, a flash of blue, quickly disappearing upstream. The woman was amazed. She explained she had walked along the canal for a number of years but that was the first time she had ever seen a kingfisher. It occurred to me that a great many people have little awareness of the wonderful habitat on their doorstep.

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Look – and you will see.

The Stroudwater Canal, otherwise known as the Severn and Thames Canal, was completed in the late Eighteenth Century, and as the name illustrates formed a link between the country’s two main rivers. It was an impressive feat of engineering, involving what was at the time the longest ever canal tunnel, under the Cotswold escarpment, at a little over two miles in length. There were always issues with the water supply for the canal. Its lower sections were fed at its western end by the river Frome and in the east by the rivers Churn and Coln, but the main problem was at its summit stretch (which encompassed the tunnel), where the springs at Thames Head proved inadequate for the task – with much of the water seeping into the porous Cotswold rock. A number of ingenious pumping schemes were tried, with none really solving the problem satisfactorily.

The canal was never the success its designers and backers anticipated. As well as the problems with water supply, the River Severn at its western end was prey to unpredictable and often treacherous currents while the Thames to the east was difficult to navigate due to the narrow and bendy nature of the river’s upper reaches. The canal suffered a gradual decline, which was exacerbated by the spread of the railway network. The eastern section of the canal was closed in the 1920s and the rest of it abandoned by 1941. A couple rock-falls in the tunnel only served as a gratuitous coup-de-grace.

For some years now there has been an ambitious scheme to restore the canal – which deserves an entire article to itself. In short, however, the good folk at the Cotswold Canal Trust are working wonders to revive the waterway, with the backing of the Lottery Fund, Stroud District Council, the Canal and River Trust, Gloucestershire County Council and many other organisations. While to the east of the tunnel the task of restoration remains dauntingly vast – much of the old canal course has been obliterated – work to reconnect Brimscombe and Stroud with the Gloucester-Sharpness Canal at Saul Junction is well underway.

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An old map, but it shows the navigable section of the canal..

In the next few years Stroud, a smallish market town that nestles into the side of the Cotswolds, will be back on the national waterways network, which will certainly boost the local economy. As things stand around five miles of canal are now functional, with Stroud at its centre. The old towpath has been restored, and serves as both as a useful link for pedestrians, joggers, dog-walkers and cyclists – and a wonderful resource for nature spotters.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and the Stroudwater Canal is a magnet for all sorts plants and animals – far more than at first meets the eye, but you have to look out for it. It is possible to spot a kingfisher on most days, but they tend not to show if the towpath is busy. Seeing one actually fishing is a rare treat, so cold, wet, beastly days are best.

Dippers and wagtails have an affinity with moving water, and are often seen that the canal’s weirs and water spills. Along the reedy margins it is quite common to see a statuesque heron waiting to skewer some unwitting prey: small fish, frogs, and the odd duckling at this time of year. Swans, moorhens, coots and mallard are plentiful, along with occasional visitors mandarin ducks, all playing out their quotidian dramas oblivious to the passing humans.

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Mandarin ducks – colourful visitors.

Coots are known for their feistiness, moorhens can be vicious to one another, while serene and disdainful swans can have what in human terms would be described as a distinctly nasty streak. I have seen swans trying to kill ducklings and young Canada geese, and on one occasion, in the stretch of the canal at Stonehouse, a fight to the death between two young cobs in front of a horrified collection of onlookers.

In the trees and shrubs that line some sections of the canal one spots bullfinches, tits, wrens and treecreepers, along with the blackbirds, thrushes, sparrows and robins you see in most gardens.

At this time of year the waterside vegetation is growing at full throttle. The bullrushes and reedmace in the margins are shooting up with the speed of tropical bamboos, the weeping willows cascade magnificently, and below the surface patches of water lily leaves, looking like shimmering cabbages, are reaching for the air.

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Cascading willow.

The different varieties of waterweed, which have never really died back due to the absence of harsh winters in recent years, are motoring: milfoil, mare’s tail, the ubiquitous Canadian pondweed and, in the faster stretches, streamer weed – all providing cover for emerging insect life and shelter for fish. Back on the verges, nettles and cow-parsley are taking over, along with patches of wild garlic, while soon flag-irises will produce spectacular clumps of yellow. Later, when summer is past its prime, the campions will will turn the bank-sides crimson.

Many varieties of insects are now hatching out, but what the canal does best – damsel- and many varieties of dragonflies – await the warmer weather before showing. Hot sun, vivid red and blue dragonflies, the sound of miniature buzz-saws as they zigzag past. Magic.

The delicate damsel-fly.

Aquatic mammals seem to be something of a rarity in the Stroudwater. I would love to have spotted water-voles but I haven’t (however they can be found in the River Frome, which dovetails with the canal). I have seen otters on a couple of occasions. I expect they were in transit, as the canal probably doesn’t contain an adequate head of large fish to sustain resident otters. With insufficient fish to feed on they turn to wildfowl, eggs and any other available sources of food. I have yet to see any mink – but I would be surprised if they were not present.

Being a lifelong fisherman, I’ve saved what I consider the best until last. The canal is full of fish – or rather there are fish in most sections of the canal, and loads of them in some. But I am pretty sure that most people seldom notice them, if ever. You have to look, and be practised at looking. Polarising sunglasses are very useful as they can cut through the water’s surface glare. Be still, no sudden movements, and look very hard. If you see no fish move on a little and repeat – until you do. You will be surprised.

The canal abounds with tiddlers – minnows and sticklebacks. But the most common fish you are likely to spot is the roach, the most common fish in English waters (not so widespread in Wales and Scotland), and certainly the most common fish in the Stroudwater Canal. When the water is clear – and it often is in warmer weather, due to the very low volume of boat traffic – they can be seen in their thousands, mostly fish in the three to six inch bracket, with a few bigger ones, up to around eight or ten inches maximum. A handsome, silvery fish, with reddish fins – but mostly they appear grey in the water. They grow bigger in other waters, as do all the species found in the canal: the size of fish is mostly determined by the size of their watercourses and availability of food.

The humble, dainty roach.

Those great shoals of roach will be whittled right down over the course of the coming year. Spawning fish will each release many tens of thousands of eggs, filling the canal with hundreds and hundreds of thousands of fish fry, 99.9% of which will meet a violent end. Under the surface it is the law of the jungle – squared. Poor roach: pike, perch, herons, cormorants, grebe, otters, mink, the whole damn lot have it in for them. Nature is not cruel – that is a human construct – but it is highly brutal.

Apart from roach you may be lucky enough to spot some rudd. They look very like roach but are rarer, a little bigger, their fins are ruddier and they are a gorgeous burnished golden colour. Stripy perch are quite common. They hunt in packs and eat bugs, worms and smaller fish. They in turn are likely to be eaten by pike, which have the deserved reputation of being freshwater sharks. (There was rumoured to be an outsized pike of twenty-seven pounds resident at the Ryeford Basin of the canal. How anyone knew it weighted twenty-seven pounds is a mystery as no one ever caught it, but of course it was just another of those fisherman’s tales – no fish of that size would be possible is such a small, shallow canal. Most waters have their own bit of folklore, and the twenty-seven pounder is far from the most outrageous I have heard.)

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Streamlined assassin – the pike.

Another opportunist predator in the canal is the eel. I’ve only ever seen one in the Stroudwater, quite a big one, but then eels are expert at not being seen. As are tench: laconic, olive/bronze flanked, paddle-finned, with tiny red eyes, bottom feeders, which none-the-less show in late spring and summer by the weed-beds and lily-patches (I have a very soft spot for tench. So do most anglers).

The much loved tench.

Last in the fish parade is the brown trout. Not a species associated with canals, but several streams feed into the Stroudwater, and it is connected to the River Frome via several small weirs and a convenient fish ladder. Some sections of the canal look more like a river, with water flowing at a moderate pace over streamer-weed, and that’s where you see the trout rising.

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A compulsion to gaze at water.

I am always drawn to any water, be it canal, beck, creek, river, pond, lake or sea, and each habitat is populated by wonderful animal and plant life – where humankind has not completely screwed it up. But I count myself as very lucky to have the Stroudwater Canal a very short walk from my door. These places are sheer magic when you take the time to look.

Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.

“Though cowards flinch…”

If not Labour, then who?

In football you write off teams that miss open goal after open goal, and that is precisely what Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has done for the past year. Remember the centrists’ mantra during the Corbyn years, “with the Tories making such a mess of things Labour should be at least twenty-five points ahead in the polls.”?

Just consider the Tory shenanigans over the past twelve months: botched Covid response, multi-billion PPE scandal, Dominic Cummings scandal, record-breaking inequality, Carrie Symonds’ Marie-Antoinette impersonation, below inflation wage rise for nurses, Robert Jenrick property scandal, Brexit bungling, Priti Patel, Gavin Williamson, Liz Truss, Dido Harding, Matt Hancock… The list of disasters could go off the bottom of the page, yet Labour has failed to make any capital from them.

Leave aside the fact that Starmer has by and large supported most Tory measures over the past year (or otherwise abstained), one would think that just not being the Conservatives would be enough to gain support after the pigs’ breakfast Johnson and his chums have made of running the country. But a look at current polling shows that Labour are slipping further and further behind the Tories, and Sir Keir’s personal rating is also in free-fall.

Whether Starmer is setting out to destroy the Labour Party on purpose or whether his poor showing is down to a mixture of misguided personal ambition and muddled vision I don’t know, but the party’s lurch to the right clearly isn’t having the desired effect. My own opinion is that Starmer is probably simply power-hungry and morally bankrupt rather than a deep state plant (in spite of belonging to the Trilateral Commission), but his leadership has only exacerbated a trend that was set in motion in 1979.

A recent poll has shown that among working class voters over fifty percent back the Tories while only twenty-seven percent are for Labour. Among middle class voters the split is nearly even, with a majority of Labour supporters being graduate level city-dwellers. Even taking Brexit into account, this is a shocking reversal of the demographic that existed prior to the 1980s.

Created to further the cause of democratic socialism, and borne of the trades unions’ struggles, the Labour Party oscillated over the decades of the Twentieth Century between democratic socialism and social democracy, carrying the working class with it. Its mandate was to serve the interests of the working class and promote greater equality. As a rule one’s politics were determined by one’s class. Of course there were always exceptions: working class Tories in the Alf Garnett mould, and upper class socialists such as Tony Benn (not to mention my father). But if you were working class you probably voted Labour.

So what changed all that? I would suggest the influence of neoliberalism is the chief factor, with Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair as its figureheads. Wrecker Thatcher destroyed industries, blitzkrieged unions and devastated working-class communities. At the same time she dangled the carrot of a stakeholder society (a word she detested) in front of anyone with two brazoos to rub together in the form of shares in the public utilities that were being flogged off. She also began the selling off of council houses. The grand plan was to create a nation of shareholding homeowners, each clamouring for their little portion of crumbs from the proceeds of Great Britain plc. The exponential expansion of Little Britain. And if you couldn’t afford take part in the clambake, tough – you didn’t matter anyway.

Traditionally the Labour Party had always (supposedly) represented the interests of working class people. Thatcher said you too can aspire to more – believe in better – and plenty did. Many of the old communities either no longer existed or became neglected backwaters of no consequence. While still considerable, Labour’s working class base was shrinking. And while Thatcherism created victims – by the million – it succeeding in creating a more aspirational, materialistic Britain. The price of everything and the value of nothing.

With the shrinking of traditional working class support, Tony Blair and the New Labour architects rumbled that in order to take power Labour needed to woo a new demographic. The nation had tired of the Conservatives, the wheels had eventually fallen off a party that had run out of ideas. With shiny teeth and slick publicity Tony Blair, and his seductive brand of social democracy, wooed the middle classes. The message was: we’ll create a better society, and what’s more we’ll do it without redistributing your wealth or upsetting the City oligarchy. For all those who found voting Tory a bit of an embarrassment, New Labour was a godsend.

We all know Thatcher regarded Tony Blair as one of her proudest achievements. Under New Labour inequality continued its relentless rise, and the shift from manufacturing to service and high-tech industries continued unabated. And in the process Labour became the servant of Capital and continuously ignored the needs and aspirations of working-class people. In the areas where industry had once flourished and provided real jobs, there was a shameful and myopic lack of investment and regeneration. No longer could it be said that Labour was the party of the working class.

As stated at the beginning of this piece, polling shows that 27% of working-class voters are still loyal to Labour. In recent years I’ve canvassed for Labour in three very different constituencies – Stroud, Swindon, and Newport West – and that statistic is borne out by my personal experience at least. Brexit had an effect on voting intentions in 2019, but the number of people who stated that they no longer voted Labour because they felt it was a middle class party was startling. I often met real hostility, only slightly tempered by the fact that I’m an old man with glasses. And although there was always a core of working class socialists, most of the Labour supporters I met were middle class.

(Mea culpa. While canvassing in Newport West I earned the nickname Champagne Sherpa. Sherpa because I was happy to ascend the steepest hills to knock on doors, and Champagne because as soon as I open my gob it’s very easy to place me. I’m an idealistic Corbynista – shoot me.)

The wheels should have fallen off the Conservative Party bus by now (not the least because of that big red bus), but this time it isn’t happening. Keir Starmer is making his pitch at the middle classes because one thing he has got right is that working class support for Labour is poor. But it isn’t working a second time. His more Tory than the Tories strategy has gone belly-up. His boast that he’d unite the party is deader than a kipper. His purge on the left has been so toxic that floods of members have torn up their cards – including me.

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Steve Bell nails it.

Those of us in our various political bubbles are frequently out of touch with what the rest of society is thinking. That’s why canvassing and running street stalls is such a valuable insight into what people really feel. Again, Starmer has half understood problem, insofar as he appears to rely very heavily on focus groups. The trouble is, his apparatchiks only seem to draw the most crass conclusions from the results. What his focus groups won’t tell him is that what people are missing is vision, the prospect of a society that doesn’t just meet their aspirations, but which is fairer too.

The Tories hold sway by appealing to people’s more selfish instincts. It has worked for forty years, and Starmer’s instinct to buy into the same mindset offers little cause for optimism. If that’s the best our two main political parties can offer us then we’re in deep trouble. The Project for Peace and Justice understands the problems we face and offers a range of non party-political solutions. But surely Labour should be better than it is now, surely we should have a major political party that actually offers some hope. Under Corbyn the party was blitzed by a hostile media and subverted by many of its own MPs and party workers. The cunning plan to lead it back into the “safe” centre ground is failing miserably, and probably condemning it to many more wilderness years.

I’d be interested to know more about the idealogical make-up of the party membership, ie, what is the proportion of genuine left-wingers? It’s easy to lose perspective when one’s in one’s own bubble, and to complicate matters further some people have a distressing habit of telling fibs. Is a member-led revolt remotely possible (not me any more, sorry), or would it be stillborn in the face of lumpen party machinery control-freakery?

The country is in the hands of the most morally corrupt brigands to have ruled since Henry VIII and it appears there is no real party political opposition. Labour in its present incarnation is impotent, but if not Labour then who?

Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.

So you want to be a comic strip writer

Story-writing for comics

By Paul Halas

It’s surprising how often I’ve been asked how one becomes a comic strip story-writer. My first reaction is usually to try to figure out if the person asking me is a, just being polite, b, gobsmacked that anyone should ever dream of entering such a bizarre profession, or c, actually interested. Anyone in the last category, read on…

There really are people who want to write for comics. I first realised this when I attended the Lucca Comics and Animation Festival (now comics and games), as a fledgling Disney comics writer back in the early 1980s. We creators were outnumbered 100-1 by all the fans and comic nerds, most of whom wanted nothing more than to be in your place. No matter that you were involved in kids’ comics, these were genuine aficionados and they were very clued-up on everything we had churned out. Writers and artists were met with a mixture of envy and awe, scripts and drawings thrust into your hand at every opportunity, as if your being a tiny cog in a great machine automatically gave you the powers of a commissioning editor.

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Comics and games festival at Lucca, Italy.

Anyone wanting to make money should stay well clear of creating comics, unless they are ready-made geniuses. In fact delete that; I know a few creators I’d class as comics geniuses, and they still don’t make big money. I’d hazard a guess that if your brain is hard-wired to creating comics it’s probably completely lacking in the personality defects that turn people into high powered CEOs or hedge fund managers. No one goes into the creative side of comics creation to make big bucks. You can do okay – I made a decent living writing comics for forty years – but the suits invariably hold all the cards, and know how to keep you just hungry enough to keep you hard at it without your telling them to shove their one-sided ‘buy-out contracts’ where the sun doesn’t shine. In the end, we comics people do what we do because we love doing it – and we’re probably ill-suited for doing anything else.

At festivals, the fans pester you with their work. No matter that it’s your jobs they’re after, and you have precious little power to help them even if you could. So what would give them a better chance of getting started?

First and foremost, one has to have a little bit of story-making flair to work with. Without it all the learned technique in the world will be of little use. The good news is that many of us don’t know we have it until we try. Raw talent can be refined; no talent means one’s talents lie elsewhere.

Get good at it. The easy part of it is reading loads of comics; no one wanting to go into the business would not be an avid comics reader to begin with. But it’s also important to read comics critically. See what the story is about, does it follow logic, are the characters in character, does it flow or is it ponderous, does it make sense, what is it about it that makes one want to keep reading, what’s the hook. Many comics are wonderfully cinematic, and others can resemble the best in TV situation comedy – when the writing and illustration are working well enough. I attended a couple of seminars on comics creation in the distant past, but felt that if you measured the benefits against all the woffle they were not a profitable use of time. The best grounding I ever had was film editing classes at film school. There I learnt about economy of visual storytelling, about economy of verbal narrative, when to pause and when to expand, about points of view, angles, continuity, all about pacing. There are numerous videos on editing in YouTube, and I have no doubt many would be useful.

Write, and keep writing. Some people use matchstick people storyboards to help them, others just visualise a finished comic in their heads. I do the latter, but the important thing is to keep the stories coming until they’re whole and satisfying. Get critiques. Other people see flaws one may be oblivious to. And if they’re too fulsome in their praise, take it with a pinch of salt. If anyone is really brilliant from the word go I hate them; it takes time and effort.

There are two ways to go for the proficient comics creator. The first is to create one’s own comic from scratch – make a brand new concept/set of characters/periodical/web-comic/graphic novel. One’s own creation. It helps enormously if the writer and illustrator are the same person, but to even stand a chance the product must be first rate. Going down this route is a brave venture, because the investment in time and effort to produce something worth showing a prospective publisher or backer – or even just popping it online – is enormous. I doff my hat to those who succeed. I’ve been down this route a few times without success, but every graphic novel to reach the book-stands has surmounted these obstacles.See the source imageThe other route is to work for an established publication or web-comic. This offers slightly fewer impediments, but is still not easy. Many of the hundreds of Disney comics fans I met would have loved to work for the magazine, and would get frustrated and sometimes resentful at meeting a what seemed to be a brick wall. There are ways of shortening the odds, whether it be for Disney or any other comics.

First of all, don’t go in half baked. It should go without saying, but I’m still saying it and for good reason. If one wants to write for say, DC Comics, get to know the comics in question through and through. Know everything about the characters, what they do in any situations, the universe they exist in, know all the rules. Immerse oneself in it. A commissioning editor will sniff out anything that doesn’t jive instantly, and won’t make any allowances. They will have scores of better options battering down their door.

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(That I’m able to pontificate on this is down to the most outrageous good luck. When I “auditioned” for Disney comics in the late 1970s the Swedish editors who ran the rule over me forgave a poor, very undercooked first attempt at a Disney story because at the time they were recruiting established UK sit-com writers who didn’t know the Disney universe very well. They gave me a second try, for which I made sure I was much better prepared. That would not happen now.)

To approach a commissioning editor one must know one’s stuff inside out. Read the comics and find out everything possible about who is publishing or producing them. By all means swot up on the normal channels for submitting work to editors, but forging personal connections really gets you ahead of the game. Do go to the festivals and conventions. Schmooze people shamelessly (but don’t expect many favours from fellow writers. Go above their heads). Make contacts and nurture them. I know that a lot of us don’t find it all that easy, because many of us story writers are not only hopeless at business, but hopelessly introverted too. That’s why we read comics and sit at home writing. But making contacts is the way to go. One has to earmark the people with with the power to give you a chance, but don’t pass up chances to create contacts – even ones that don’t look initially promising. Unlikely contacts can lead you to unlikely places. It was through getting outrageously drunk with an American science fiction novelist that I was given an introduction to the Swedish Disney editors. Work on the skills, work on the contacts, and work on getting that stroke of luck. And it’ s best not to get outrageously drunk when one’s writing. It only seems a work of genius at the time.

Paul Halas is a writer of Jewish heritage whose escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader. He is a self described Corbynista. As a result he has been a Labour activist for the past five years – and most of his current writing is political. He is currently hoping to find something funny to write about.

Where’s your vision Sir Keir?

By Paul Halas

The blame game continues. Meanwhile…

While the general public and the media obsess about Coronavirus – both those who are terrified of it and the others who think the whole issue’s blown out of proportion – and while the planet is steadily passing various tipping points of climate change, the Labour Party has busied itself gazing at its navel.

As was said throughout the Corbyn era, the Conservatives should be there for the taking. If Theresa May’s government was accident-prone, Boris Johnson’s is the Frank Spencer of administrations. The one thing they do well is getting people to vote for them. At the last election they played their hand exceedingly well, tapping into popular discontent and appealing for the first time to a demographic of have-nots with a diet of gung-ho nationalistic Brexitism, dog-whistle xenophobia and faux anti-establishmentism. They were also able to take their traditional voter base for granted, because the only genuine alternative on offer was was viewed as highly tainted for a variety of reasons

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God save us all.

The Tories still have some of their potent weapons. Thanks to Dominic Cummings and his shady little pals they still have a distinct advantage when it comes to cyber-campaigning, data mining and targeted canvassing. They still have the weight of dark money and wealthy corporate backing to bolster them. But thanks to the pandemic their rabble-pleasing, blagging front man has lost his lustre far quicker than anyone would’ve expected. The normally supine press has started to turn on him. And Dominic Cummings, previously portrayed as a back-room mastermind, is now seen as a shifty, Rasputin-like figure, reviled rather than respected.

The Conservatives will be thanking their lucky stars they still have four years in which they can steady the ship. Remove the figurehead and appoint a leader with a little more credibility – although last year’s sacking of anyone with any gumption from the cabinet will hinder the cause. But the party is not in good shape. They will be under intense scrutiny as the world eases its way out of the Coronavirus crisis, and lumping the cost of bailing out the economy on the poor for the second time in a decade will not go down well.

Meanwhile the silence from across the House is palpable. You get the impression that the Labour Party has its mind on other things – and indeed it has. The party may have a new leader, but all the soul-searching and recriminations following the general election defeat continues to occupy minds. Much as the new leadership would like to draw a line under the wrangling, it shows no sign of abating just yet.

The left and the right of the party have very different takes on what transpired, and, with the unsubtle support of many media commentators, it’s the right – aka the Centrists – whose voices are being heard the loudest.

The Centrist perspective is that Corbyn’s Labour Party was unelectable. Under him the party’s ideas were way too far to the left, its policies were pie in the sky, questions had to be asked about Corbyn’s connections with numerous controversial figures, and then there was his supposed tolerance of antisemitism. Add to the mix that Corbyn was weak on the EU and should’ve declared outright for Remain, and that the public had developed a high degree of personal antipathy towards him, and you have a narrative that demands that every trace of Corbynism be expunged from the party henceforth. To quote Polly Toynbee in the Guardian – itself no friend of Corbyn of the Labour Left – “The memory of Jeremy Corbyn will take years to erase. Starmer has sought unity, but he will have to challenge the Corbyn legacy before long.”

The Labour left, however, sees these issues differently. Labour’s policies under Corbyn were mainstream centre-left, pretty much in line with many of the UK’s near neighbours, and the loony-left scenario was a fabrication by an antagonistic media commentariat and hostile right wingers in the party. In fact, the argument goes, many of Labour’s policies were shown to be very popular with the public, which explains why Corbyn’s opponents usually chose to play the man rather than the ideas. Brexit was seen as a fiasco, with formerly safe seats falling to the Tories because the party failed to back Brexit wholeheartedly… according to many. The media had it in for Corbyn, and used every low down trick in the book to smear him – especially over the antisemitism issue. The last straw was the exposure of the party’s internal report into antisemitism, which showed that many Labour Party workers had pursued a hate campaign against the left, especially targeting some BAME members, and conspired to help lose two general elections. While one or two of the rogue apparatchiks have been suspended, this long history of subversion couldn’t have taken place without the support of the Labour right’s backers and more than a few anti-Corbynites in the PLP.

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The ever loyal Tom Watson

And will the twain ever be brought back together? The new management’s ‘new broom’ approach appears to be to sweep the left away. Starmer and his backers’ thinking appears to be that Labour will only ever regain power by swinging sharply towards the perceived centre ground. He certainly has support for this from the media – which is perhaps acknowledging that the Good Ship Tory is sailing in reef-strewn waters – and also from the City. And this, by implication, suggests that the establishment doesn’t see Starmer’s New Improved Labour as any sort of threat to its vested interests.

The left is under pressure. Numerous left wingers have left the party, saddened that many of the ideas they held dear are apparently no longer shared by party leaders, and many who are still hanging in there feel their days may be numbered.

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There was always a degree of control freakery within the party mechanism, but now many members feel increasingly worried that speaking their minds could land them in hot water. The opinion is growing that the ‘members upwards’ approach to forming party policy is under attack, but the extent of it will only really become apparent whenever the next party conference takes place. There is a feeling that Keir Starmer will pander to establishment interests as much Tony Blair did, and neither his words nor his actions appear to contradict this.

What does Keir Starmer actually stand for? What is his vision for the future? Like others before him in the prelude to their taking power – Tony Blair and David Cameron spring to mind – Starmer is very sparing with specifics, light on policy. He is trading on his image of being prime-ministerial and electable, of appealing to the broad centre, the possessor of a safe pair of hands.

We need rather more than that, especially now. When the Coronavirus issue recedes we’ll still have a far larger and infinitely harder problem to combat: climate change. To cope with the vast societal changes that’ll have to take place in the swiftly deteriorating world situation that we’ll face over the next five, ten, forty years, we’ll need a politics with the will and ability to implement enormous and far reaching changes over a short period of time. The Labour Party currying favour with the establishment and the numerous vested interests that always seek to maintain the status quo, that desperately cling to an obsolete neoliberal system that has imploded twice is the last dozen years, does nothing to inspire confidence that it’s willing or able to do so. The current Labour leadership is harking back to an outdated, busted paradigm, when a completely fresh approach will be necessary if we’re to stand any chance of an equitable, sustainable future.

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Over the past three years the Labour Party took the climate change issue very seriously, producing plans for a Green New Deal to help combat the twin evils of inequality and climate change. Alan Simpson (Corbyn and McDonnell’s advisor on sustainable economics) has since produced an updated vision for a GND, but it’s almost as if the issue has become a niche interest under the present leadership – just something to placate the muesli-eaters. Climate change is alluded to in some communications – but it should be front and centre in everything the Labour Party is speaking about. It’s deeply worrying that it isn’t.

The party is no longer a comfortable place for left wingers, but they have to stay and make their voices heard. Labour needs its Jiminy Cricket voices – and will do so more and more as our worrying and uncertain future unfolds. It will be up to a future Labour government – perhaps in collaboration with other smaller, progressive parties – to effect the seismic changes that’ll have to take place.

So come on Sir Keir, show us what your vision is. Playing safe just shouldn’t be an option.

Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.



Image result for donald duck

By Paul Halas

To this day there’s still an intellectual snobbery about comics in the UK, which is a shame as no other medium can communicate so well with so much economy. On mainland Europe, in the USA, in countries throughout Asia, comics are widely read by a large cross section of the public, but in the UK, despite a relaxing of the attitude that ‘comics are just for kids and simple-minded nerds’, comics remain the poor cousin of the other communication media. Over the years the UK has produced some fine comics creators, but comic books and graphic novels remain a niche interest.

Comics have been an ever present companion to me throughout my life. There was always something appealing about sequential pictures accompanied by words, and comics provided fodder for my desire for subversiveness to win out over conformity, for cocking a snook at authority. None did it better than ‘The Bash Street Kids’ in the Beano, a strip that was so rumbunctious and absurd that its creator, Leo Baxendale, became an icon of the notorious American ‘underground comix’ artists of the 1970s.

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I was lucky. My parents, animated film-makers, were interested in the artwork of various comics and bucked the trend of looking down on them. I has ample access to a wide range comics that included L’il Abner, Jane, Dick Tracy, Rupert Bear, the occasional strips in Lilliput Magazine, and of course the 1950s staples such as the Beano, Dandy and Topper… Then my comics horizon suddenly widened when my parents bought me my first Tintin book, ‘King Ottakar’s Sceptre’. No matter that it was in French – at the age of seven I had enough of a problem deciphering English, let alone French – it opened my comics universe to adventure, foreign lands and more engaging characters, such as Capitaine Haddock, Professeur Tournesol, les Dupont… Comics could run to fifty pages and more, just like films. And if I couldn’t read them, I could still follow the story in pictures.


Throughout the 1950s there was a constant influx of comics from the United States. In spite of the prevailing notion that comics were supposedly subversive, I had little time for most of them. With the publication in 1954 of his book ‘The Seduction of the Innocent’, the reviled Dr Wertham led a McCarthy-like crusade against the comic book industry which imposed a code of conduct on US comics production that led to a blandness and conformity of vision that I as a young kid found pretty unappealing. I make an honourable exception for ‘Mad Magazine’, which somehow avoided the censor’s scalpel and came with the added bonus that all adults tut-tutted it furiously. As for the superheroes comics, I had no time for them then and can’t abide them now. I think we have Dr Wertham to thank for that.

Until the age of 20 I carried on enjoying the Tintin books, which were now supplemented by Asterix, which I could by then read in the original French. I was charmed and amused by them, but always on the lookout for anything new. And then it happened – and how it happened…

The first American underground comix I laid eyes on simply knocked me for a loop. It’s no exaggeration to say the experience was life-changing.

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I’d started started to embrace the subculture of the day – a sort of Jeckyll and Hyde amalgam of budding political awareness and the druggy world of Freakdom. Then I picked up my first copy of ‘Zap’ Magazine. The mix of bizarre storytelling, weird characters, way out psychedelia, uninhibited sex and occasional mind-boggling violence blew my mind.

The inhibitions and controls that applied to every form of art and communication I’d ever come across before were completely absent in this new movement.

Robert Crumb was the unassuming high priest of underground comix (the ‘x’ distinguished them from their tame, overground distant relatives), but there were scores of other very fine creators dashing out hundreds of titles. Some were ecological (oh yeah, we knew about global warming back then), some feminist, some political, some pornographic and others arty, drugged-up, absurdist, surreal… What they all had in common was their independence and disdain for “straight society”… for the establishment. I was entranced. I bought and I collected. I still have about 200 of these survivors from the 1970s, but they’re so loved and so re-read they’re all falling to pieces.

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I didn’t simply read about the permanently zonked counter-culture, I took it rather too much to heart. To quote Gilbert Shelton’s ‘Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers’, “Dope will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no dope”. Having studied film-making I’d thought that was going to be my career trajectory – only I dropped out of my first post-college job. Through my twenties I did spells of work at different jobs – often painting in colours for animated film celluloids – but it was a hand to mouth existence. All freelance stuff and long spells of not ‘needing to work’. I tried my hand at making my own underground comix, but poor drawing and limited application meant they died a sad and lonely death. And all the time I was taking more than my fair share of recreational drugs. They’d lied about the effects of the evil weed, so all the other stuff about ‘hard drugs’ was baloney too, right? Or so I believed for far too long. 1970s London had become a very toxic place for me.

So where does this stuff about Donald Duck saving my life come into this? Nearly there.

While doing some freelance painting work in (by coincidence) my parents’ animation studio, a need arose for help writing a couple of German kids’ comics that had been commissioned alongside a film series. No one had a clue about comics writing. My father’s secretary knew I was always joking and scribbling nonsense and suggested I had a try at them. I’d never actually considered writing the things – not professionally, anyway. I loved it. And the stories weren’t too bad.

At the same time a well-regarded science fiction novelist was contributing to a completely different project at the studio. He told me about these crazy guys who were paying him good money to recycle his old stuff into Disney comics, and gave me an introduction.

I met with two editors, a Dane and a Swede, who explained they were with a Danish publishing group that produced Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse comics under licence from Disney. Their magazine was something of an institution in Scandinavia, as much read by adults as children, and they would come to England to tap up TV sit-com writers in order to get good quality stories. The writing all was in English, then the scripts would be translated into the language of wherever the magazine appeared. I was given a try-out.

My first effort was dismal and the editors tore it apart. I immediately realised this was something I would not be able to blag, and fortunately I was given a second bite of the cherry. I swotted up on how the characters function and the universe they live in, I applied some logic and the lessons I’d learned about dramatic structure from editing classes at film school, and the result was rather better. I was told to keep ’em coming, I obviously had some talent to work with. The next few efforts improved. I was getting the hang of them.

It was timely. I needed to remove myself plus partner from London and its malign influences, and Donald Duck had thrown me a lifeline.

It was seismic change, West London to the Wiltshire countryside, but being out in the boondocks was evidently good for my inventiveness. I wrote Disney stories and scripts for nearly forty years. Did Donald Duck save my life? The intervention of my father’s secretary and the science fiction writer were certainly ‘Sliding Doors’ moments.

Working for the ‘Evil Empire’, albeit indirectly, might seen an odd thing to do for someone with deeply left wing sympathies. It was first and foremost a job, and even if the Disney ethic was repellent to me the work itself and the people I was dealing with were far more palatable. You still couldn’t get away from the notion that you were part of a machine, and that machine was making a fortune out of you: the writers and illustrators were paid a one-off fee – no royalties for the likes of us. But it was a take it or leave it situation, and I took it.

(At one point a couple of colleagues and I tried to get the Writers’ Guild to lobby the publisher to pay out royalties. That, we were told, was never going to happen.)

I became good friends with my editors and would get totally engrossed in the work. To make the stories work – and in comparison with any similar comics they were pretty damn good – you had to immerse yourself in the world of talking ducks and mice. My second wife found it absolutely bizarre listening to an editor and me discussing what Donald Duck would do when faced with a certain situation. But that was my life; you took it seriously or you did a bad job, and any story idea that wasn’t up to scratch was tossed straight out.

Over four decades, through good times and bad, through alcoholism, heart surgery and divorce, through times of happiness, parenthood and good friendships, I kept the stories coming out. More than a thousand of them all told. They appeared in magazines in the States, across Europe, India, Indonesia and even in Japan, the stronghold of Manga. I went to comics festivals in Italy, Denmark and Spain, where eventually a new generation writers and illustrators told me they grew up reading my stories. It was never ever easy – had it been, the results would’ve been poor. During that period I took on other work – a handful of cartoon films, comics for other publishers, books for other parts of the Disney empire – but it was the Duck that paid all the bills.

All things eventually end. As sales of the magazine started to drop – thanks to the relentless development of computer and online entertainment – American know-how was brought in to boost the ‘Disney product’. Sales dropped further. For years our workloads had been diminishing, and the inevitable happened about eight years ago when the editor who handled all my work and I received our fare-thee-wells.

This fall from grace occurred three years before Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party – which was another life changing event for me. After following politics for decades I knew I had to be properly involved. From not knowing how to fill my enforced retirement I was suddenly as busy as ever once again – campaigning, leaflet and letter writing, getting involved in the local CLP. I had writing to attend to once more, even if to my wife’s chagrin it was unpaid. Being politically active is important to me now, but comics have been my whole life…

Comics have remained vitally important to me; writing them, reading them, keeping an eye on what’s new. And while the political scene in this crazy world gives me much to write about, I don’t half miss the sheer, joyful silliness of creating comics. Boy, do I miss the laffs. I’m not through with them yet.

Paul Halas is a writer of Jewish heritage whose escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader. He is a self described Corbynista. As a result he has been a Labour activist for the past five years – and most of his current writing is political. He is currently hoping to find something funny to write about.


How we regained faith in politics

By Paul Halas

Jeremy Corbyn was a phenomenon. This relatively obscure politician emerged from the backbenches to lead the party five years ago, and almost tripled the Labour Party membership. Labour became the biggest political party in Europe. While his ascension came about almost by mistake, there’s no mistaking the effect Corbyn had on British politics. What was his appeal?

He reached out to those who had lost faith in party politics in a way no one else had done for at least three generations.

I first became interested in politics at college in the late 1960s, while learning the craft of film-making. Many of my cohort were “politicos”, who were more interested in polemic and producing propaganda than the tedious processes involved in movie-making. A particular small group, with a radical left agenda (they were chummy with some people who went on to form the Angry Brigade), wanted to make a short film on the hardship of life on the dole, but, realising it should be lit properly, approached me to join them. What were my politics? Left wing of course, but beyond that I was a bit vague… They weren’t actually too bothered, they just wanted their film to look good, which we achieved. And in the process, through osmosis, I learned a fair bit from them.

From then on I always took a keen interest in left wing politics, but was also drawn to libertarian hippidom as well. While I considered the Labour Party far too intertwined with the establishment – a lost cause – I couldn’t really connect with any of the far left political groups either. It was all too “Life of Brian”, with various groups expending more energy on in-fighting and slagging off everyone else than working constructively for societal change.

As the 1970s wore on it became clear that a major show-down was taking place. The working class and the unions versus the nation’s antediluvian employers and the government of the day. And while some emerging voices on the left of the Labour Party, such as Tony Benn, Ken Livingstone, Diane Abbott and a certain Jeremy Corbyn, were making a lot of sense, the likes of Dennis Healey and Jim Callaghan ensured that the party remained a no-go area for many of us.

And the 1980s? Labour had our sympathy and our votes. By that time I had quit London and was living in deepest rural Wiltshire, where to support Labour was not so much infra-dig as utterly beyond this galaxy. As Thatcher made a bonfire of the nation’s cohesiveness and decency many of us simply seethed impotently. While the unions and people’s lives were shattered, while our council houses and utilities were flogged off, while spivs and speculators became a new aristocracy and malignant globalism started to grow, mainstream politics appeared to hold no answers.

In the Nineties we were going to have a Labour government but Neil Kinnock tripped and fell in the surf… No matter, in 1997 things could only get better. At the time I was living in Tetbury, a small town in rural Gloucestershire, and a surprising number of people there – nearly all affluent men in their 40s and 50s – were passionate about New Labour. To be “old Labour” instantly became a form of insult. I drank with them in the pubs but I couldn’t join them; this was not a club I wanted to be a part of.

For some the Blair/Brown years were just fine, for others the lustre wore off as betrayal followed betrayal… but many others never bought into the project to begin with. By the time Blair teamed up with Dubya to go search out them WMDs I was thoroughly fed up with the Blair administration. Much is talked about Tories who fail to do the right thing and resign following disastrous mistakes, but if ever there were an instance when falling on one’s sword was called for, it was when the premise for invading Iraq was proven to be baloney. Shamelessness in office is nothing new. New Labour was style over substance, masterminded by Manipulative Mandy and the sultan of spin, Alastair Campbell.

Blair’s role as a Thatcherite continuity leader became ever more transparent, despite all the gloss and despite the real advances such as increased spending on health and education. Inequality was still on the rise; creeping privatisation was still on the march. For a while it even seemed as if Charles Kennedy’s Liberal Democrats had a more radical agenda than New Labour…

And that betrayal of True Labour principles eventually told at the ballot box.

Ed Millband came and went. Politics under New Labour and then the Coalition just seemed to become shabbier and shabbier. How thousands upon thousands of us yearned for a bit of authenticity, for some integrity. For a modest leader who was for the people and not the neoliberal elite. And suddenly that call was answered.

Paul’s signed photo of Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn wasn’t polished, wasn’t slick, didn’t have a media-friendly demeanour. He was the outsider who’d stuck to his ideals through thick and thin, who’d championed those without a voice and who’d constantly challenged his own party when he considered it was wrong. For the first time in most people’s living memories we had a real left wing leader. Hundreds of thousands of us loved him for that. It could have been anyone with those qualities, it happened to be Jeremy Corbyn. We feasted on his appearances and speeches; this slight, allotment-tending, veggie beardo assumed almost rock star status. We flocked to join the party, and when his leadership was challenged countless thousands more signed up to defend him.

For people like me, who’d for years been cynical and disillusioned with politics, especially party politics, here was a cause one could give oneself to wholeheartedly. We could all make a contribution, make a difference. In my retirement, I was suddenly busier than I’d been for years – and together we were going to change British politics forever.

Many of those already in the party, some of them with many decades of dedicated service behind them, had very mixed opinions about Mr Corbyn. Some liked him, some didn’t, most tolerated him. Some had soldiered on throughout the New Labour years with heavy hearts but a stoical loyalty to the party, while others had embraced the prevailing neoliberalism of the Noughties and were alarmed at the new leader’s perceived radicalism. Most, I suspect, harboured a degree of misgiving at the influx of arrivistes in a party mechanism that they had been running for years. New people with a mix of naivety and enthusiasm…But weren’t we ever good when it came to campaigning and canvassing.

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2017 was exhilarating, even if we didn’t pull it off. We’d caught the establishment and the media on the hop, but they weren’t going to make that mistake again. If 2017 left us still optimistic 2019 left us numb and demoralised. Corbyn, a thoroughly decent man, despite a number of shortcomings, had been laid low by his political enemies, the establishment, the media, and by many of those who were supposed to have been his political friends. On a global scale his ideas were not even that radical, but in 21st Century Britain they were certainly way too egalitarian for the powers that be.

Now we have Keir Starmer at the helm. In his quest to re-take the political centre ground it appears he is willing, eager it would seem, to throw the left under a steamroller. A series of actions, such the forthcoming whitewash of the “leaked report”, give ample evidence of that direction of movement, the latest being the increase in various forms of disciplinary action against left-wingers, mostly on absurdly flimsy pretexts. Control freakery is on the march. Party membership had dropped by about 70,000 since the general election, and I strongly suspect that many of the ones who have “had enough” are people who’d been enthused by Jeremy Corbyn.

I’m still a Corbynista. That’s why I joined the Labour Party, and that’s why I’ll stay if I’m able to. Certainly change can take place through non-party political means, but the scale and breadth of systemic change that will will be necessary if we’re to have any sort of future can only be brought about by enlightened governments. And in the UK I’m convinced that will have to be a True Labour government. A government that believes in democratic socialism and a government that’s serious about tackling climate change.

Let’s make sure Corbynism isn’t dead, and that we’ll get back on the right track in the future.

Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.

Brave Green World

Can we look forward to a more sustainable future when the Coronavirus virus recedes?


For the first time in years the smog has cleared over San Francisco, Beijing, Delhi and Los Angeles. The criss-cross vapour trails in the sky have been decimated and for a while bird-song could be heard in urban streets instead of the roar of traffic. The Coronavirus outbreak has led to a massive reduction in global CO2 output.

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Illuminating as this is, it is still some distance short of the decrease in CO2 output that would be necessary to stay within the Paris Climate Accord of a 1.5 degree climb in global temperature.

Will this breathing space we’ve been given be the wake-up call we need to begin implementing measures that will really tackle the climate problem, or will governments and the corporate sector succeed in getting us back to business as usual – with all that entails? Will the window that has let in this breath of fresh air be slammed shut?

That window is still open. While governments are trying to get countries back to work, in some cases most precipitously, the economic landscape has changed. Riding through the pandemic has been expensive, and the knee-jerk reaction of nations such as the UK – to load the debt accrued onto the people through austerity – will only hinder economic recovery… as well as ramping up already unacceptable levels of hardship for many.

Jobs have disappeared, myriad businesses have gone under. In the UK the government’s insistence on making employees and tenants pay for losses rather corporations and rentiers has been short-sighted. A nation of shopkeepers cannot thrive when the shoppers are skint. The entertainments and hospitality industries are on their knees, and the travel industry will undoubtedly contract greatly.

We’ve learned that our supply chains are fragile, especially international ones, and we’re only ever a matter of days from real shortages. Our wonderful, foolproof economic structure, shaped according to the monetarist tenets of Thatcher and Reagan, is once again exposed as a fragile creature – in need of finance transfusions from the state whenever things get tricky. We’ve also learned that in times of hardship we need better planning at governmental level and far greater self-reliance at local level.

We would do well to heed those lessons. A global contraction, with all the big players facing problems with various degrees of debt, looks inevitable. Their vast stakes in the increasingly fragile fossil fuel industries now look like liabilities. Will we see globalism in retreat? To an extent, it’s bound to happen. If we want to feed ourselves and keep the lights on, we need to be better at growing our own produce and creating our own energy. It will make more and more economic and environmental sense.

Labour’s Green New Deal of 2019 outlined a radical change of direction, and Alan Simpson, Jeremy Corbyn’s advisor on sustainable economics from 2015-19, has recently written on how we can implement these ideas in a post-Coronavirus world.

He is insistent that things will not and cannot revert to the way they were before. Large numbers of consumption-based jobs will simply no longer exist; we won’t be defined so much by what we buy but how we live. He points out that the technologies we need for greater sustainability and self reliance already exist – or will very shortly if we have the will to develop and implement them. We can build a new kind of economy, one that involves the complete replacement of our outdated carbon addicted infrastructure with a sustainable one.

This will all come at a cost, but whichever way nations drag themselves out of the post-Coronavirus slump, a lot more finance will have to be procured. Eyebrows were raised when the Conservatives doubled the UK’s national debt between 2010 and 2019, but on the international stage that is nothing exceptional. Britain hocked itself to the hilt bringing in the Welfare State, and no one except our current administration believes that was money badly spent. Whatever it costs, we cannot afford not to make that investment. The time to begin is now; the impediment is status quo politics.

While the technological know-how to transform nations exists, there is another factor that has to be taken into account before we can even think about environmental sustainability: inequality.

In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher’s assault on the British working class – the destruction of whole industries, communities and social structures, and their replacement with a stakeholder economy peopled by aspirational homeowners – reversed a tendency towards increasing equality that had been in effect since the Second World War. Thanks to Thatcher’s Monetarism people were no longer in it all together, greed became good and sauve qui peut the prevailing credo. And thirteen years of New Labour did little to halt the trend.

As for being “all in it together” during the Coronavirus pandemic, the Dominic Cummings episode has been illuminating. His liberal interpretation of rules he helped formulate unleashed a torrent of people flouting lock-down restrictions. If he could do it, when not everybody?

On a global scale, maybe folk in the richer nations may be coerced and cajoled into adopting more sustainable lifestyles, but such measures will only become acceptable when they are made to apply to everyone.

In the world’s poorer nations, the conditions of most people in the developed world will continue to look like an impossible pipe-dream.

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For countless millions bare subsistence is the normality. It may well be that one’s first priorities are food to eat and somewhere to live, but once those conditions are met people are entitled to ask why they shouldn’t be able to do a little better…

Across the developing world people live in abject poverty, but with an awareness that there are others enjoying considerably more. The slum hovels in the shadow of the high-rise condos. Long hours working for pittances while glimpsing lives of unbelievable opulence on TV. Hanging onto trucks and buses while limousines sweep by.

Poverty exists almost everywhere, in affluent nations as well as poor. If there is going to be sustainability in a Green New World, then that great swathe of humanity who currently “do without” must be accommodated too. In their books “The Spirit Level” and “The Inner Level” Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett describe how greater equality benefits all, both rich and poor. They cite ‘status insecurity’ as one of the most powerful forces driving inequality, the factor that dives the hedge fund manager to an early heart attack and the benefit claimant to want a better phone. The playing field must be levelled. Somehow, the global tax-avoiding magnate must be reined in and the slum dweller in Jakarta should be able to get the motor scooter and TV she hankers after. Without a levelling, it’s not so much that sustainability will be hard to implement – it’ll be unsustainable.

All being in it together is the key to it all, as Mr Cummings has kindly demonstrated to us. The nations making a better fist of both equality and sustainability – as Wilkinson and Pickett state, they go hand in hand – tend to be those to the left of the political spectrum. Those that use the state to invest sustainably and humanely, and respect human rights.

The world appears to be a million light years from any solutions while demagogues, imbeciles and puppets hold sway in so many influential nations, but as the world’s climate – both physical and political – becomes more volatile, perhaps change will come quickly and unexpectedly.

We can all do our bit, but more than adopting a vegetarian diet or switching to an electric car, the most effective thing we can do is strive for the renaissance of left wing politics. The biggest, most far reaching changes will have to be state-led, and I believe the only means of delivering them is through various forms of democratic socialism.

At home in the UK I’m afraid we have our work cut out with the Labour Party – but strive we must.

Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.


By Paul Halas

Why would a sane person go fishing?

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How many times have I been asked that question: what’s the big deal about going fishing? For the past few decades I’ve resorted to giving a glib answer slotted into the ten or so seconds before the questioner’s eyes start to glaze over. How do you do it? How do you begin to explain a lifetime’s romance in just a few paragraphs of text?

Maybe a good starting place is trying to express the commonality of fishing with rod and line – a simple sounding activity that actually has as many variations and offshoots as there are religions. Not only are there a thousand ways to angle for a fish, the field is rife with technicalities and jargon that are incomprehensible to the lay person – who will have zero interest in understanding any of them anyway. But from the tribesman luring taimen in Siberian torrents to the Buenos Aires businessman flicking out a fly for trout in Patagonia, the tycoon trolling for marlin in the Baja California to the the factory worker bamboozling small roach in the Bridgewater canal, there is a commonality. And it’s not simply the action of pulling in a fish.

I thought I’d seek help in the vast world of angling literature. Tens of thousands of books have been written on the subject, the majority in a golden age for the genre dating between the mid points of the 19th and 20th Centuries. I have about thirty titles. But somehow for me the most poignant writing about going fishing is by George Orwell in his novel “Coming Up for Air.”

In my memory the book is about fishing, but on re-reading it I realise its main themes are the asphyxiating effects of the quotidian, disappearing worlds on the cusp of two world wars, and the nature of memory. But if Orwell hadn’t been a fisherman at some point in his life, he certainly had an uncanny understanding of how it gets under your skin. To quote George Bowling, the book’s main character: “Here I’ll make a confession, or rather two. The first is that when I look back through my life I can’t honestly say that anything I’ve ever done has given me quite such a kick as fishing. Everything else has been a bit of a flop in comparison, even women…” He continues, “…if you gave me the choice of having any woman you care to name, but I mean ANY woman, or catching a ten-pound carp, the carp would win every time. And the other confession is that after I was sixteen I never fished again.”

What is it that drives anglers? Mystery and fascination comes into it. Beneath the water’s surface film there’s a completely different world, an alien world, just a few feet from you. It’s a world where the rules are different, where to sustain numbers species must produce progeny in the tens of thousands, where cannibalism is the more the rule than the exception, and where existence is most usually brief and brutal. It is also an astonishingly beautiful, surprising, timeless and ever changing world. It is populated by a host magnificent creatures, small and great, and the greatest of all of them, for the angler, are the fish… To be sought, to be understood, to be lured, to be admired and, in most cases, gratefully released with a minimum of disturbance.

Angling begets rumours, legends and folklore. Sometimes absurdly, sometimes in fact. Most waters have tales of unlikely, mysterious leviathans, which keep anglers returning time after time for even the remotest chance of striking it lucky. There was the tiny drainage pond in the middle of a Wiltshire field that supposedly contained a monster carp. Of course it didn’t, but that didn’t deter fishermen from far and wide. The Stroudwater Canal contained a 27 pound pike at Ryeford Lock, although no one had ever caught it and a fish one third of that size would be exceptional from that water.

Yet monsters exist, and in unlikely places. Not so many years ago receding floodwaters on the River Cherwell left the decaying corpse of a pike in the corner of a field that fishery experts estimated at between 55 and 60 pounds – near enough a world record. The Cherwell is only a smallish sized river. My closest encounter with an exceptional fish was a pike caught from a modest sized gravel pit on the last day of 1989. Suffering from a rotten hangover I miscast my sprat bait just a few feet from the bank, and felt too poorly to bother recasting. Instants later I found myself attached to a large fish and twenty minutes later it lay upon the grass… and I had gone into shock. My companions and I tried weighing it, but our scales only registered up to 32 pounds and the fish was obviously considerably heavier. From the instant it went back into the water that fish’s reputation grew, helped by the fact that the Polaroids we took of it were of poor quality due to the cold. For months afterwards anglers turned up trying their luck with the beast, but if any of them they succeeded they kept very quiet about it.

At school some of my fishing friends were naturals; they just seemed to have an instinctive knack for “reading the water” and catching fish without much evident effort. Me not; I was always a plodder, always had to work at it. But graft has its rewards and as a famous sportsman once said, the harder I work the luckier I become. The thrill never leaves leaves me, whether it’s latching onto a large catfish in the south of France that’ll take forever to bank and leave me with days of backache, or seeing that I’m pulling in a gold-flanked rudd that must weigh all of a pound. I get a boost of adrenaline, I start to shake. The buzz never diminishes.

And that I hope starts to explain why we do it. From the commercial cod fishermen of Nova Scotia who spend all their free time and holidays with a rod in their hands, to the carp fanatics who camp out for weeks on end in hope of that single bite that will lead to the fish of a lifetime. The stressed Japanese salarymen trying to fool rainbow trout in their squeezed hours off and the young kids at the local brook pulling out gudgeon and minnows, all have something in common. The fascination with that strange other world at their feet, and their passion for the things that swim in it.

For all the heartbreak when you realise your own stupidity has cost you the fish of a lifetime, all the times you’ve endured fishless cold and wet, longing for the point when you’re fed up enough to go home, all the times you’ve carefully baited up your own secret spot only to find it taken over by Yahoos – it’s all worth it.


Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.



The demoralisation of grassroots Labour.

Stroud Labour canvassers November’19

By Paul Halas

The Stroud Labour CLP meeting to nominate its preferred leadership candidate back in January was packed, yet the atmosphere was sober and subdued. Members were permitted a two minute slot to talk up their choices, with the majority speaking for Starmer, citing his electability, his dependability, the fact that he was a safe pair of hands. Strong and stable, was the message. He proved to be the CLP’s outright choice, gaining twice as many votes as Rebecca Long Bailey, his nearest challenger. What had happened? Many of the people speaking up for Starmer I knew as Corbyn supporters; together we had spent the past five years passionately extolling the gospel of Corbynism – we believed a fairer, more equitable society was a real possibility.

Stroud is an atypical constituency. Stroud itself is smallish Cotswold market town with an industrial heritage more in keeping with a northern mill town than its more genteel, green-wellied neighbours. It has strong “alternative” credentials, being the cradle of Extinction Rebellion and home to many green socialists and socialist Greens. There are a couple of smaller towns, with similar characteristics, within the constituency borders, but the rest of it is true blue rural. Over the years it has ping-ponged between Labour and the Conservatives, and at the last election Labour was defending a majority of under a thousand.

During the weeks leading up to the general election Labour ruled the streets. We had the numbers; there were hundreds of us. We had stalls, we had teams of canvassers roaming the towns and many of the villagers. Being a marginal, help poured in from all over. Momentum was magnificent, doing what it does best: getting droves of activists out. We knew the Greens were a threat and they fought a dirty campaign, but we outnumbered them and carried the narrative. As for the Tories, their candidate and a few councillors were seen seen in Stroud High Street for a couple of hours every weekend, but largely they kept to the smaller villages and estates where their support was the strongest. They had the money but we had the people. Surely we’d done enough to hang onto the seat; as for the country as a whole, we tried not to think too hard about that.

During the weeks leading up to the general election Labour ruled the streets. We had the numbers; there were hundreds of us.

We lost. We lost the nation and we lost Stroud. Some of us blamed the Greens, but no matter: we were saddled with a vanilla Tory MP who didn’t appear to know which county she had been parachuted into. As a hyperventilating commentator babbled after Norway beat England in a World Cup qualifier many years ago, “…Winston Churchill, Maggie Thatcher, your boys took one hell of a beating!” We’d been licked. Like countless thousands of us up and down the country, we’d taken a hell of a beating. Again. Party members were demoralised and fed up with it. Fed up with losing.

At our CLP meeting we chose Keir Starmer. Good friends of mine said give the man a chance. He’ll appeal to a wider demographic, he’ll bring the party together, he’ll heal the wounds. With his fine legal mind he’ll take Boris to the cleaners. The argument that as a member of the Trilateral Commission he’s embedded in the Establishment cut no ice. Nor that he was part of the failed “Chicken Coup”, nor that he’d so far refused to disclose the backers of his leadership campaign, nor that his insistence on a Remain stance had been an electoral millstone. Trust him, we were urged. His policies were mostly leftist, and even if it meant the dilution of some of our cherished ideas, surely that was a price worth paying to get back into power?

Since that time, Starmer’s credibility has suffered blow after blow. Not only has he agreed to the Board of Deputies of British Jews’ unconstitutional “Ten Commandments”, he has also okayed Labour staff training on anti-Semitism by Jewish Labour Movement members. Neither organisation represents or has the legitimate authority to speak for all UK Jews.

The biggest issue, however, the motherlode of dismay on the political left, is the internal report on anti-Semitism

Nearly all Corbynistas have been sacked from the shadow cabinet; the front bench has been steered sharply to the right. Starmer has been quick to distance himself from the 2017 and 2019 manifestos, giving rise to the fear that economically his instinct will be to follow Milliband’s “austerity lite” policies, rather than the large scale investment advocated in Corbyn and McDonnell’s Green New Deal. Those expecting a large scale return to public ownership will probably see those plans watered down over time. And now that the full official list of Starmer’s backers has been belatedly revealed – oh my! With friends like those…

The biggest issue, however, the motherlode of dismay on the political left, is the internal report on anti-Semitism intended for submission to the EHRC… which was leaked when it became plain that Starmer was going to ignore it. Is there any need to go into the nitty-gritty of it? It is seismic, the biggest scandal to hit British politics in decades. The UK’s own Watergate. And Starmer’s every instinct is to cover it up: the make up of the panel investigating its contents and release gives ample evidence of that. And while a great number of instances of malefaction will no doubt be revealed, many wider implications, such as the consequential electoral fallout, and all the connections between the rogue staff and the lobbyists, politicians and backers they were in league with, is tellingly not part of the commission’s brief. If members are not outraged some vital part of their DNA is missing. Hundreds of thousands of activists were betrayed – not to mention our country’s political process and electorate.

If members are not outraged some vital part of their DNA is missing.

Trust in Starmer, many colleagues insisted. As far as I am concerned any trust that existed between Keir Starmer and the Labour membership has been broken. He never gave any clue as to what sort of vision he had and now we know he has none – bar gaining power, without losing the support of the highly suspect figures who are backing him. I consider that he has made a Faustian pact. And part of that arrangement is to ditch the left.

Left wing members are leaving the party in droves. At local level control freakery and the centrists are in the ascendancy once more. And if the activists, the ground troops who flock out at election time, are culled, the party will be in a position to emulate the Tories and use copious amounts of wealthy donors’ money to fight the next election.

Some of those who backed Starmer back in January are having second thoughts, though many still cling to the hope he’ll come good. I suspect that as his leadership progresses that optimism will erode further, but for the time being it will make little difference. Like it or not, barring cataclysms Starmer will be Labour leader for the next few years. There are no simply no viable alternatives at present, although the signs are positive regarding possible young leaders from the left in the future. Presented with the dilemma of whether to stay in the party or quit, I’m staying while Labour still has a left wing to fight for. Whether that remains in my hands or not is another matter.

Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.

Mon Oncle

German soldiers in Paris during the war

By Paul Halas

On my very infrequent visits to Paris, passing Drancy Station on the RER suburban line between Orly Airport and Paris is always a poignant experience. My Uncle Ladis – Ladislaw – spent some time there during World War Two.
In 1966, as a seventeen year old, I had a heavy crush on a girl at my boarding school. It was not to be. Her family, part of a rich Persian dynasty, took a dim view of her consorting with anyone from the wrong milieu – especially someone with my family background. She was promptly whisked away to Paris to continue her studies. Naturally I wanted to follow.
This was the deal: pass my French O’ Level re-take and I’d be allowed to spend the summer holidays with my relatives in Paris – which is how I came to enjoy the hospitality of Uncle Ladis and Aunt Henriette.
The romance? No sooner had I set foot in Paris than my paramour was bundled onwards to New York, where she eventually married a banker. I stayed for another seven weeks, and my broken heart was quickly filed away under life’s rich pageant.
My father’s family was Hungarian. There were seven Halasz brothers. My father was the youngest and Ladis the oldest of the clutch – the only two to emigrate. Four of them survived WW2, but not without some astonishing survival stories, as I was to learn.

Ladis had three things going against him during WW2. He was Jewish, he belonged to the Communist Resistance, and he was captured.

When I stayed with Ladis and Henriette they lived in a small flat in the working class district of Goncourt, a melting pot of Jews, North Africans and native Parisians. Henriette made the couple a meagre living by assembling plastic flowers, whereas Ladis did little more than run errands for l’Humanite, the Communist newspaper.
During my stay Ladis took me all around Paris, to various museums, to the Humanite offices, to the Fete de l’Humanite, a great celebration of the Left, famed for its mergeuz sausages, and to various sites where the French Resistance had been active during the war. Ladis had three things going against him during WW2. He was Jewish, he belonged to the Communist Resistance, and he was captured.
Drancy achieved notoriety as a transit camp for Jews, before they were taken onwards to the extermination camps. But before that it was a detention camp, a repository for undesirables of all
descriptions. For a while Ladis survived there by trading cigarettes for the almost non-existant food rations. At length, however, it was his turn to be interrogated by the Gestapo. He was left for dead, with smashed-up hands and feet, and a badly broken jaw. The details of how he got out of there are sketchy, but Henriette corroborated that the Resistance managed to spring him, and she was one of their helpers.
The couple were successfully hidden until Liberation. Ladis was never the same afterwards. He’d suffered brain damage, he was clumsy, his walk was a hobble, and his crooked jaw made understanding him difficult, especially for a seventeen year old who’d just passed his O Level. His main, and frequently only topic of conversation, was the Communist Party. But he was well liked by all, and very affectionately indulged by all his comrades at l’Humanite.

My weeks chez les Halasz in Paris laid the foundations for my lifelong affection for Paris and for France – warts and all. And during the war the Halaszes experienced both the very worst and the very best of humanity.
As a footnote, a couple of years after my stay Ladis was awarded the Legion d’Honneur for his efforts and tribulations during the war. He point blank refused to shake DeGaulle by the hand, but was more than happy to accept the very generous pension that came with it. Henriette never had to put together another plastic flower.


Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.


By Paul Halas

Our television has led a charmed life in recent weeks. Every time a Conservative minister appears behind a lectern emblazoned with “Protect the NHS” it’s a miracle the set isn’t smashed by a flying vase.

Abraham Lincoln somehow failed to mention that you can fool most of the people most of the time, but looking at the Tories’ popularity ratings that appears to be the case. Keir Starmer’s less than scintillating opposition could be a factor, but how on earth has a party that has systematically run the NHS into the ground, ignored the 2016 Cygnus Report that warned of our acute unreadiness for a respiratory virus pandemic, and followed such a flawed strategy that we now have the largest number of Covid deaths in Europe, managed to hoodwink so many? The media – with a few noble exceptions – has acted as an uncritical government mouthpiece, repeating misinformation and failing to challenge ministers for a string of failures. We truly deserve better, and regarding the NHS the government really should be held to account.

… [the government] hasn’t just taken a leaf out of Tony Blair’s book in finding a good time to bury bad news, it’s nicked the entire book.

Perhaps the most outrageous aspect of the government’s hypocrisy over “protect the NHS” is the fact that it’s still running it down while the country is in lockdown. In fact it hasn’t just taken a leaf out of Tony Blair’s book in finding a good time to bury bad news, it’s nicked the entire book. In recent weeks ministers have been using special powers to bypass normal tendering and award new contracts to private companies without competition. The Tories’ own rules are being broken!

A string of corporations, many with ties to Tory figures, are getting new business regardless of their suitability or expertise. These include Deloite, Mitie, Boots, Sodexo and Serco, and Covid data processing is now in the hands of an American organisation. All, let’s not forget, at taxpayer’s expense. Dismantling and privatisation continues unabated.

Margaret Thatcher, Nicholas Ridley, Theresa May, George Osborne, Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab, Jeremy Hunt, Nick Hancock, Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove, to name but a few, have all at various times stated their ideological disapproval of a state welfare system and preference for an insurance-funded private health service instead. A few thousand extra deaths aren’t going to throw that off course.Protect the NHS? They’re having a laugh. Our TV remains in a high risk category.


Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.

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