Although he does not moralise, the fact that Dardis has one thesis to prove leads to a fair amount of repetition. This is excusable since previous biographers have contrived to cover up the extent to which the subjects were dominated by alcohol. But, for disinterested readers, the catalogue of drinks consumed and injuries, both mental and physical, sustained. may prove tedious. And, while Dardis’s argument that alcohol poisoned these lives is irrefutable, what he fails to consider is that. at least early in their careers. drink may have given these insecure men the stability they needed to proc‘uCc any work. The book’s main value is twofold: it serves as a highly readable introduction to four of the century’s most important literary figures; and it is, literally. a sober debunking ofthe myth about the

joys of hard drinking. (Stuart Bathgate)


Plots and Paranoia Bernard Porter (Unwin Hyman £14.95) This is a peculiarly English book. Porter, Reader in History at Hull University, writes like a man who might have joined the SDP back in the early 1980s. His treatment ofthe subject the history ofpolitical espionage in the UK 1790-1988— ls rather reserved and rather ‘wet‘. Given that the subject matter takes in the use of torture by security services in Ireland since the 1970s, and the ‘Wilson plot‘ which may have entailed parts of M15 setting in train events which led to Thatcher’s victory at the ‘79 election, Porter’s tendency to hover above the moral question is persistently annoying.

However. his main concern is that attitudes to a political secret service have changed radically in recent hiStory. His assertion that the mid-Victorians were disdainful of espionage because ‘it just wasn’t cricket‘ might seem rather fanciful to a late 20th-century readership: another assertion, that we are all more cynical now and raise less of an outcry over the activities of Special Branch/MlS/etc, would be reluctantly accepted.

The long arm of the British secret police was not always as long. It really took off in the 1910s with the excuse of domestic unrest. Ireland. imminent war with Germany and the Russian revolution.

Porter doesn’t draw out the obvious link between the growth of the security services and the rise of organised labour that would be someone else‘s book.

His concluding critique is that the antics of our secret police undermine the legitimacy of the state by making it untrustworthy (someone should be finding this quite funny). The problem with the book is that Porter can get nowhere near the information he really needs because ofofficial secrecy. Given that the regulations have been tightened by the recent Official Secrets Act, it’s unlikely that anyone will ever write a decent book getting to the heart of

this subject. (K. A. Davidson)


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Ross Parsons meets the men who work the machines. Trivia machines that is. The people who can tell you Pele’s middle name or Dick Turpin’s birth sign without batting an eyelid.

I was dressed smart; real smart. I had to be. These were no pee wee punters I was calling on. They were real operators, the Kings ofTriv, the latest bétes noires of the guttcred press: guys who make their living from trivia machines.

We faced each other across a cigarette fog in the backroom of a bar ‘somewhere in Strathclyde’. As they quaffed champagne and carelessly lit five pound notes. my obsessively secretive companions revealed how the tabloids had woefully underestimated their earnings.

They were an odd pair. A tall. dissipated, gorilla who makes Charles Bukowski look like an inhabitant of Toytown. and his diminutive deformed friend. The short one wore a false black beard and insisted on being referred to as Miss X. Weird. since his real name is Dave MacPherson. Both spoke in thick Polish accents.

So, what is ‘making a living’ from their pursuit? According to the tabloids. up to £26,000 a year in loose change can flood into the sweaty paws of a trivia fiend. Miss X kicked off, ‘1 average £140 a week. plus whatever I spend on booze and fags, y’know. the essentials. The rest I spend frivolously.’ A grunt of

5 B z < E C E

amusement oozed from his companion. ‘However. given the undereducated. overpaid state of our English brethren. the punters down there could be stupid enough to make it possible for a hustler to win that much.’ As ifon cue. the skinhead bar manager appears with a supply drop of ‘the essentials.‘

As the cigarette fug engulfed us. they stressed it‘s not an addiction like playing the puggies. more a way of living off their wits. I sipped my pint and came up for air. ‘After a while it becomes about 60 per cent memory and speed of recall.‘ admitted Miss X. In the background. the skinhead picked out the first few bars of Memories on the tinny piano in the corner.

The machines first landed here in the spring of‘86. Since then. both have been playing them almost continually. The smaller. talkative one. discovered his talent on a ferry trip. when his winnings paid for the ubiquitous booze and fags. His morose mate. having dropped out of Oxford where he was on course for a First in Classics. answered the call around the same time. For, though their bloodshot eyes throb like varicosed thighs. they also harbour a fiery glint ofintelligence.

‘In the beginning‘. preached the

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gorilla. ‘the machines were bland. with programmes that were easy to memorise. given. that is, that you were a smart fucker.’ ‘Aye, then came the great flood,’ volunteered X. ‘Loads of machines and loads of programmes. The Give us a Break machine is a good example of the way they have evolved. The early editions were easy enough. general knowledge then they moved to total trivia and you got questions like, “How many thousand ton of cauliflower does the EEC dispose of annually? 58,000. right?”

Oh yeah, ofcourse.

Like a gnarled ‘Nam vet’ he reminiscenced in a way only initiates can comprehend. ‘That particular machine also contained one of the most surreal answers I’ve come across. The question was, what did my true love give me on the fifth day ofChristmas? Right, the correct answer was obviously five gold rings. But one of the dummies was: a goat in an empty bar! Weird.’

‘Very drole, Carruthers,’ butted in the gorilla.

Are there any questions that defeat them? ‘Which English cricketer weighed 9lbs eight and a halfounces at birth? Always gets me that one. How tall was Attila the Hun? That was a real bastard.‘ The question, or just Attila? ‘Both, see on the early machines the answer was three foot five and a half. Which isnae right.’ We could have been there all night . . . Who won the Swedish Open Golf Championship in 1973? What was the profession of the author of Thomas the Tank Engine? Who was lead singer of the Faces? All ofwhich they knew. More recently, spelling errors or badly phrased questions can put them off. ‘Aye, the standards going downhill,’ the mountain managed to squeeze out between drinks. Both shook their heads. The skinhead at the piano tinkled As Time Goes By.

The constant round of hours toiling at the machines is interrupted by car trips around the country. Not that they’re alone, they stress; all major cities are patrolled by hustlers. Miss X adopts a flawless Andy Roxburgh voice, ‘Aye. there are no easy games in national trivia these days.’ Obviously. boredom does occasionally set in but the big grouching point is bar managers. ‘Most couldn’t give a toss though we‘ve had one or two run-ins,’ Miss X's companion snorts into his pint. ‘Some are happy to take your money for drink, but won‘t let you go near the machine. It’s a pisser. but what can you do? One bar owner in Partick accused us of using ‘computer wizardry' to foil her machine, and insisted we play it one-handed. Which we did. When we still won she confiscated the winnings!’

The piano accompanist hit the Andy Pandy theme Time to go Home. I took the hint. How long will they keep doing it for? The gorilla smiled "Till I die, or the machines do.‘

82 The List 23 February— 8 March 1990