The Zargon Hydraulic Fluid Plague

And much more in issue 1 of my all-new newsletter!

IDLE HANDS, AGAIN

I’m happy, I’m happy; I’m happy, I’m happy;

I’m happy, I’m happy;

And I’ll punch the man who says I’m not.

- Ivor Cutler, I’m Happy

Hello there. If you’re reading this then you’ve subscribed to my newsletter, so thanks very much.

This all started back in March when I started posting daft videos on Facebook to keep me out of mischief during what is now known as The First Covid Lockdown. People seemed to like them, so I kept going until May when lockdown was eased and we entered the period which is now known as The New Normal.

For a while we thought we were over the worst. We partied in the streets and in our houses, Ate Out To Help Out, got our hair cut and our nails done. It was like VE Day every day for what seemed like forever.

But deep down we all knew it wouldn’t last.

Sure enough we now find ourselves in The Second Covid Lockdown. This time they say it’ll all be over by Christmas, but nobody believes them.

To keep myself out of mischief I started doing Facebook videos again, this time with added robots. But then I thought: what the hell, I write for a living – why not add some words to the mix?

So here’s the first stab. I hope you like it. If you do, I’m aiming to send one of these out every couple of weeks or so.

Meanwhile feel free to spread the word because apparently if I get enough subscribers I can put the whole thing behind a paywall, you cheapskate bastards.

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ONE THING AT A TIME

PSYCHODRAMA: As Trump thankfully keeps the US election alive, I’m relying on Greta Thunberg to keep her counsel on the looming evironmental catastrophe.

The problem with UK general elections is they are over too quickly. After all the build-up, Big Ben dongs 10pm, Huw Edwards tells you who’s won - and that’s it. If your team is victorious you gloat for a while on social media, if they lose you go to bed, and if you don’t care either way you might stay up to see if some high-profile cabinet minister gets turfed out of his seat, a la Michael Portillo.

The US Presidential election went on for four days, and with Trump refusing to concede and every prospect of his last two months in office turning into a scene from Downfall, there’s a long way to go in this psychodrama.

Bring it on, I say. I have enjoyed every minute of the wall-to-wall coverage so far, for the simple reason it has kicked Coronavirus off the front pages and Bojo and his assorted doomster/gloomsters off our TV screens. As a result, lockdown has been a lot more tolerable than it would have been had we been reminded of it every 10 minutes.

God forbid Trump decides to be a good loser. Give me the ravings of his lawyer Rudi Giuliani to the deadly monotone of Professor Chris Whitty any day.

On a related subject, I notice that Greta Thunberg has been quiet lately. But then she’s a highly intelligent young woman with a keen sense of the public mood.

For the last few years you couldn’t turn on the TV without seeing her scowling face, but she’s clearly realised that Now Is Not The Time. People just can’t be faffed with being told off about the environment at the moment, not when they’re getting told off for everything else.

So here’s to you Greta, and thanks for thinking of us. Now maybe you could have a quiet word with your pal David Attenborough.

Recently, in a programme ominously entitled Extinction, Sir David catalogued in lip-smacking detail, and in glorious Ultra High Definition,  the many and various ways in which the planet is screwed and we’re all going to die.

I have no doubt he’s right. But as I watched, I couldn’t help thinking: do I really want to be reminded of this at this precise moment in time? Don’t I have enough on my plate?

Of course Sir David would argue that now is exactly the right time to warn us of impending eco-doom. But under the current circumstances it’s rather like kicking a man when he’s down – and I can’t help resenting it. FFS, I know, Dave! And when I don’t have to wear a mask to go to Spar or sit behind a Perspex screen in the pub I promise I will give the matter my full attention.

Selfish? Perhaps. But I regret to say I had a similar reaction last month when I saw Prince Harry and Meghan Markle launch their campaign to end “structural racism” in Britain.

It wasn’t the campaign which irked me, nor the fact it was being launched from their $20m bolthole in Santa Barbara (which when I last looked was 5,500 miles from Britain), but the tin-eared timing.

I would love to know more about structural racism, honest I would. But right now I have to work out whether I’m allowed to visit my mother at the weekend, and my daughter’s just been sent home from school for two weeks because one of her pals has tested positive, and a friend of mine has just been laid off, and another has just had a cancer diagnosis, and I can’t get Zoom to work, and David Attenborough is telling me the planet is doomed, and quite frankly I’m fed up and so is everyone else I know, so back the fuck off, Sussexes!

It’s no coincidence that in the early 1970s, when the country was going to hell in a handcart with union disputes, soaring oil prices and the Three Day Week, more than 26 million people regularly tuned in to watch the Morecambe & Wise Christmas Special. Less woke days, to be sure - but if they’d replaced Eric and Ern with a documentary about shrinking polar ice caps and endangered orang-utans there would have been blood on the streets.

Oh, for the sheer joy of the Andre Previn sketch now! Or even Sir David Attenborough singing There’s Nothing Like A Dame in a sailor suit. For now, we must thank the Lord for the labyrinthine US electoral system and the ongoing tantrums of Donald Trump.

As for Greta Thunberg? Well, she’ll be back, of course – and all power to her sharp elbows when she is. The regularity with which I am scolded by my teenage daughter for grumbling about that hectoring tone suggests Greta has seized the imagination of Generation Z in a way that can only be good for the planet once I am thankfully dead and gone.

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BESTSELLING HOMES

I live near Carlisle, but if writing ever makes me rich I will buy a second home in France somewhere, and maybe a third in Tuscany or California.

Then I will make a point of including this information prominently in the author biog at the front of my bestselling books – specifically, that I divide my time between all three locations.

A lot of bestselling authors divide their time between their homes, according to their biogs. A random search of my own bookcase has unearthed three: Kate Mosse (Chichester and Carcassonne), William Boyd (London and Paris), and Irvine Welsh (Edinburgh, Dublin and Chicago).

I have no doubt this impresses their readers.  It certainly impresses me.

But at the same time I suspect it’s also a coded message to the 99.6 per cent of authors, who make no money at all out of writing, that here is someone who makes lots of it – the literary equivalent of parking a Maserati next to your neighbour’s clapped-out 2CV.

I mention this because the proofs of my new book have just arrived, and I’ve been asked to include an author biog. Currently I can only claim to divide my time between the attic and the kitchen, but that may change if enough people buy a copy.


BLOOD AND GUTS

The new book is about a washed-up golf pro who ends up looking after his 12-year-old nephew.

As such, it is a departure from my usual blood-soaked fare – but I always maintain I gave up writing crime thrillers because I had run out of inventive ways to kill people.

That particular pattern was set in the first paragraph of the first Kenya-based book, Bait, which begins:

As a boy, George Malewe had gutted thousands of fish for the white men who came to catch game off the coast of Mombasa. But, as he plunged the blade of his favourite teak-handled filleting knife into the soft underbelly and eased it upwards through the stomach wall with a smooth, practised sawing movement, it struck him that he had never before gutted a white man.

In my defence, as a young journalist I was always told that the first paragraph of any story had to grab the readers’ attention. That said, the stories I was writing in those days usually involved missing dogs, charity champs or old ladies who had reached the age of 100 – so making an ocean-bound evisceration sound interesting was a piece of cake by comparison.  


THE ZARGON HYDRAULIC FLUID PLAGUE

Join Matthew, Brian and Raveena for more android japes. Ha! Ha! Ha! etc…


BIGG NEWS

I started my journalistic career at the Evening Chronicle in Newcastle, which in those days was based at Thomson House – a vast concrete monolith in the Bigg Market which was also home to The Journal, the Sunday Sun, and a state-of-the-art colour printing press. I was just one of hundreds of journalists, photographers, sales execs, copytakers, librarians, printers and delivery drivers who made up the workforce.

These days the whole operation is based in a small room overlooking Eldon Court, and from what I hear the editorial staff for all three titles now consists of two hollow-eyed teenagers who spend all day trawling social media feeds for stories involving Geordies.

Meanwhile I read with sadness that plans have been approved to knock down Thomson House and replace it with a couple of hotels.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Members of the public - including Elvis Costello, apparently - gather excitedly for the first edition of the Evening Chronicle.

C’est la vie, unfortunately. Print media has been in a death spiral for several years, and with advertisers preferring to use Facebook and Instagram the Chron is not alone in having to cut its cloth accordingly.

The danger is that inexperienced, sleep-deprived reporters, under pressure to churn out clickbait at a moment’s notice, will drop embarrassing clangers as a result.

Recently news that high street store Woolworths was reopening was traced back to a Tweet by a 17-year-old schoolboy from York that nobody had bothered to check.

But the most egregious example was when some unfortunate drone at Huffpost UK broke the news of comedian Bobby Ball’s death on Twitter but used a photo of Professor Robert Winston instead.

Huffpost later claimed it was a wrongly-labelled agency photo – but I like to think in my day somebody would have noticed before it was too late, even if it was one of the delivery drivers.


FROM THE ARCHIVES

Over the last 30-odd years I’ve accumulated an awful lot of crap on my computer hard drive: scraps of half-finished novels, truncated short stories, opening paragraphs, ideas strangled at birth…some OK, some terrible, and some I can’t even remember writing, like this bizarre opener I apparently wrote in 2003. No idea what I intended to do with it (I suspect I was bored, or drunk). Any suggestions for a plot gratefully received!

Tora-Bora Mountains, Afghanistan: 0800hrs

TWATT-TWATT-TWATT!

Bullets thudded into my Bergen like a boxer’s fist smashing into an overstuffed punchbag.

This is it, pal, I thought as I jammed the last magazine into my SA-80. It’s been nice knowing you.

Already I could taste sour-smelling sweat on the back of my throat as the Pieheads edged towards me along the tunnel, their banshee cries of ‘Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar!’ echoing like a cat’s chorus from the stone walls.

There was only one chance, and I had to take it now.

Leaping up from behind the Bergen I sprayed the chamber, hearing the satisfying slap of lead against yielding human flesh and somehow finding time to enjoy the screams of agony from the semi-darkness. Tracers were flashing past me, close enough to touch, but I was scarcely aware of them. My only concern was laying down enough fire so I could reach for the frag grenade strapped to my leg.

Seconds seemed to last for hours as I ripped the pill from its binding, flipped the pin with my thumb, and threw it with all my might into the shadows. There was blinding light all around and a thunderclap that threatened to burst my eardrums.

I hit the dirt, sheltering behind the bullet-pocked Bergen as dust, smoke and debris spilled through the tunnel.

Then there was silence. Total silence.

I peered over the Bergen and saw something lying on the ground in front of me. It was a Piehead’s arm, ripped away at the elbow, a copy of the Koran still clutched in its twitching fingers…

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NO INHIBITIONS

A couple of weeks ago I was sent to interview a young Carlisle band called The Inhibitions, average age 17, who are making a bit of a noise on Spotify.

I was old enough to be their grandfather, and felt like it too – especially when the lead singer told me he planned to wear a dress on stage as a statement against “toxic masculinity”.

I resisted the temptation to tell him that I too am in a band, Reiver, average age 48, who make a noise every Sunday afternoon at Gretna village hall. Our lead singer, Gordon, doesn’t wear a dress – but he’s got a natty line in bandanas, and as I’m the drummer I get first dibs on the band defibrillator.

Sadly the only thing we’ve got in common with The Inhibitions is that, thanks to Covid, we have yet to play live. When we do - sometime in 2024 at this rate, assuming we’re still compos mentis - we might invite the youngsters to support us, both on and off the stage. Watch this space, music lovers!

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HAIL TO THE CHIEF

As Joe Biden wins the US Presidential election and Donald Trump continues to insist that he hasn’t, our correspondents consider America’s future and the legacy of its 45th President…