Monthly Archives: March 2024


I went to a comprehensive school in south Wales where I learnt almost nothing except how much I wanted to get away. Photos of the school’s rugby players adorned the walls of the dining room. Today, the most notable person I can find who attended the same school is a minor Tory MP, one who is almost insignificant, yet who manages to exude a disproportionately huge amount of slime. I’m not a fan.

I realised that if I was going to learn anything I’d have to do it myself. My parents didn’t read books, there were a few around the house, but most of them were inherited from grandparents. There was a Guinness Book of Records and ‘Fun on Wheels’ a book of games to play in the car on long journey.

My parents did buy a set of Encyclopedias, however. They were blue, gold embossed, with my father’s not my mother’s initials, embossed on the covers of each of the 24 volumes. I don’t think either of them ever opened one of them.

That was a long time ago.

But I was lucky that I had a group friends who were interested in the world: politics, art, music, poetry. Some even read books. Books. If it wasn’t for my peer group I would never have read a thing. Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate writes that nature overides nurture but peer group can be decisive in a young person’s future.

When I was a teenager I wanted to know everything. I made a chart of my bedroom wall. In the middle was the word EVERYTHING. And it moved out from there. Well, that was the plan.

I bought books on the basis of their covers. Sometimes I struck lucky. I bought Arthur Koestler’s Act of Creation because ofthe explosively orange cover which I realised later was a painting by Max Ernst.

I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know where to begin. School was just a random mess of stuff, a Shakespeare play, Boyle’s law, algebra, something about chlorophyll. Nothing connected, nothing made any sense to me. No teacher gave me any direction.

But then I came across philosophy. I don’t remember how. And I thought, ah yes, philosophy, that’s a quick way of getting to know everything.

And then there was the Teach Yourself Books, which still exist. Then they had bright yellow covers. Egg yolk yellow. I began with Teach Yourself Philosophy by C E M Joad. My father recognised the name. C E M Joad. He was a sort of know all from the 1940s, an intellectual who, for a short time, had the status of Bertrand Russell or George Bernard Shaw. He died in 1953. This was not a book on contemporary thinking. Look up his Wikipedia page, he was a monster.

But CEM Joad’s book was a start. I skimmed through it, saw words like Metaphysics, Empiricism, Aesthetics and Logic. But, as I tried to read all this it seemed like a lot of fuzzy words about nothing. I bought other books in the same series, I couldget them for less than a pound in the second hand bookshop in the market. The pages fell out, but that was ok. It gave me an excuse not to read them.

David Bowie left school with almost no qualifications (an O level, like a GCSE in art), but wanted to be an intellectual, so he carried a book on existentialism around in a jacket pocket. I can’t remember whether it was Sartre or Camus. He wanted to impress. But then he started to read the book, and so his world began to open up. What began as a pose became an obsession.

I bought Teach Yourself Zen. What a great word Zen. Teach yourself Zen. The author was one Christmas Humphreys. What a first name! Christmas!

Christmas Humphreys was a QC. He was also a Buddhist. I’ll come back to Buddhist QC Christmas Humphreys in a minute.

So, to Amersham with my friend Simon, who runs a workshop out there. I hoped to see the gravestone of Arthur Machen, a Victorian flaneur and writer of weird fiction, who was born in south Wales, but lived his last years in quaint, decorous, Amersham, way out on the far western end of the Metropolitan line.

We walked through some woods, up on to hill, from where he pointed out the horrible mess left by the first excavations for HS2. I don’t want to go on about this, but it was horrible.

And so to the churchyard where we soon found Arthur Machen’s gravestone, bright in the morning sun, newly restored. And so we ambled back along the path, but then Simon saw someone he recognised, a woman in her seventies who he had once known from
one of his workshops and who he described as a pain in the arse. She was half-heartedly weeding around a grave. He hoped she wouldn’t recognise him, but she did, and they had a painfully polite conversation. He mentioned we’d been to see Arthur Machen’s gravestone, but she didn’t know who Machen was, but, she said, you know who else is here, and I’m not supposed to tell you but just over there in an unmarked grave, lies Ruth Ellis.

Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in the UK, in 1955. Ellis didn’t deny the murder of which she was convicted. She was clearly guilty. But like many who fall foul of the law, she suffered sexual and physical abusive. Her father was the abuser. Her sister conceived a child with him.

Yes, Ruth Ellis was guilty. The death penalty has since been abolished but the UK’s penal system is no less fucked up. The UK has one of the biggest prison populations per head in Western Europe. Bigger than Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Belgium, much bigger than then Netherlands, Norway or Iceland. Most of the women serving sentences are victims.

But the UK’s penal system is fucked up because those at the top, the barristers and the judges, are privileged, public school fuck ups. Like our recent political leaders. And much of the blame must lie with this country’s elite public school system. A school system that allows fuckwits with limited empathy and no knowledge understanding of how most people live to swan into top jobs.

Growing prison populations, like obesity, are a sign of inequality, and, let’s say it, of right wing governments. They create inequality, then come down hard on those whose lives are so difficult they can’t cope.

The thing that struck me when reading about Ruth Ellis’ trial was that the prosecution was led by none other than Buddhist QC Christmas Humphreys.

A Buddhist sending a woman to her death. How did he rationalise that?

And then I discovered that Buddhist QC Christmas Humphreys was also prosecting counsel in the trials of Timothy Evans in 1950 and Derek Bentley in 1953. The former whose story is told in the film ’10, Rillington Place’ and the latter in ‘Let Him Have It’ Both were hanged and both were subsequently cleared and declared innocent. Both were of very low intelligence.

So, Buddhist QC Christmas Humphreys was pivotal in the deaths of two innocent and vulnerable men even before Ruth Ellis came to trial.

And then I read that when the Derek Bentley trial went to appeal, one of the judges who took part was none other than Buddhist QC Christmas Humphreys’ dad. His fucking dad! I see no conflict of interests there!

Roughly 7% of the UK population goes to public school. Yet even today, 65% of judges are public school educated. It’s a fucking disgrace.

And if there is any doubt in your mind about the weirdness of our judicial system, of its blatant unfairness, or the underlying social inequalities that pervade it, I ask you to search the name of the judge who passed sentence on Derek Bentley, Rayner Goddard. When you do so also use the words ‘ejaculate’ and ‘trousers’.

Even if during that trial Christmas wasn’t coming, Goddard was ejaculating in his trousers.

(This is a transcript of ‘Amersham’ – from my podcast ‘These Weird Isles’.)

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