Thursday 23 June 2022

The Coal Black Sea

I am extremely proud to announce that after eight years of research, my new book, The Coal Black Sea, Winston Churchill and the Worst Naval Catastrophe of the First World War is published today by The History Press, (ISBN: 9780750999601). 

On the morning of 22 September 1914, when three Royal Navy armoured cruisers were sunk by a German U-boat, in the southern North Sea, just six weeks into the First World War, 1,459 men and boys lost their lives, shocking the entire British nation. When HMS Hogue, Aboukir and Cressy sank, the coal from their bunkers turned the sea inky black for as far as the eye could see, as hundreds of naked men struggled for their lives in the frigid water.

One of those lost that day was my great Uncle, my grandmother’s older brother, Leading Seaman William J Potter RFA. Six of those lost came from my home town of Whitstable in Kent. The ships were originally designed and built on the Clyde in Scotland for the China Station in Hong Kong. There was next to nothing in the way of support for the victim’s families ashore, apart from an embryonic armed forces charity called SSFA (later SSAFA). There were lots of personal connections for me.

Initially, I was intrigued why such a high profile wartime naval incident which made such a dramatic impact could have such a low profile. When I served in the Royal Navy, none of my family told me about Uncle Will being a First World War hero or his death in HMS Cressy. The incident had been successfully brushed under the carpet for a century, until a retired Dutch physics lecturer called Henk van der Linden, wrote a book about the so called Live Bait Squadron and initiated a major commemorative event at Chatham Historic Dockyard in 2014. Even then, it was never explained why it had taken so long for these brave men to be recognised.

My aim was to dramatically recreate the story of the incident as a gripping non-fiction narrative from the perspective of those serving at sea based on numerous press reports from survivors, from official records and accounts from respected historians. It quickly became apparent that things didn’t add up. At the time, this was the biggest story of the war—it made international headlines and questions were asked in parliament. The king was distraught and the Prime Minister Asquith distressed. The death toll was greater than Trafalgar or the sinking of the Lusitania. It was only a few less than the Titanic’s death toll, yet hardly anyone has heard of it. The incident struggled to escape from the margins of official histories. It was never classified as an official action and was generally described as a sort of tragic anomaly of little relevance to the war at sea. It didn’t even have a proper name. Something didn’t make sense.

In search of an explanation, I explored the dusty corridors of Whitehall and the lumbering bureaucratic edifice that was the Admiralty—responsible for all aspects of the largest Navy in the world, from pay and uniforms to shipbuilding and weapons development.

And it led me to the man in charge. The 39-year-old charismatic, energetic, industrious intellectually agile, brash, controversial and highly ambitious, First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. The man with the Midas touch.  

I knew little about Churchill other than his glowing reputation as the greatest Briton of all time. I certainly had no axe to grind but the more I discovered about the first nine months of the First World War at sea, and Churchill’s response when things stated to go wrong on his watch, the more horrified I became.

If you read the book you can draw your own conclusions but even the most ardent admirer of the great man would have to concede it was not his finest hour, by any means.

My own conclusion, for what it is worth, is that, not for the first time in history, or the last, brave men (it was men in this case) were sent to war and performed their duty with distinction and cheerful stoicism, without the necessary tools for the job. They were then artfully and brutally stitched up with sophistry and spin for political expediency, while their grieving families were left to fend for themselves.

Some might say, nothing changes but at least a humble and noble attempt has been made to put the record straight on behalf of the 1,459, and Uncle Will. 

 Even 108 years later, the truth should still matter.


Wednesday 10 November 2021

Locked up in Q Prison Hong Kong


These days, you are more likely to be locked up than locked down, in Hong Kong.

This once freewheeling, transient, cosmopolitan and welcoming city has adopted the themes of captivity and isolation with remarkable enthusiasm. If you are looking to visit from the UK or just about any other western nation, you might as well forget it - unless you are an official resident with a valid ID card, double-vaccinated, desperate and/or deranged.

At 21 days, Hong Kong holds the world record for the world’s longest and strictest COVID-19 quarantine incarceration requirement. It's known locally as Q Prison. Even gaining entry to this enforced hotel imprisonment is a protracted test of patience.

The last time I saw Hong Kong airport in May 2020, it was mostly deserted but it still resembled an airport. This time, it resembled a mass human transit station. Long lanes; multiple signs; make-shift Perspex cubicles; solemn officials; forms to be completed and checked; QR codes to be scanned; PCR tests to be performed; certificates to be issued and advisory booklets to be read. 

One masked man behind one of the many cubicles cheerfully informed us that if our 21-day compulsory hotel quarantine was breached for any reason, we were liable to a HK$25,000 fine and six months imprisonment.

Having been officially processed and duly warned, inmates stumbled, exhausted, to the holding area.  Wearing green identity labels, secured around our necks on a red lanyard, we all located our coded and designated white table and chair.  A matching white neatly-folded plastic trash bag was assiduously placed in the left-hand corner of every identical white desk.  This must be what it’s like to be a bewildered specimen in a large-scale laboratory experiment.

Knowing this could be my last opportunity to walk more than five paces in the same direction for three weeks, I frantically paced and jogged up and down the polished marble floors of the airport concourse, like a demented marathon runner, warming up for the big race. No one would be departing from these departure gates for anywhere exotic, any time soon. These are all human holding zones now, full of weary and compliant passengers, all awaiting to start their sentence in Q-Prison.

Hong Kong has a zero-tolerance policy towards COVID-19. In the last two years it has seen about 12,300 cases and recorded 213 COVID-related deaths. The city is about the same size as London which has suffered more than 19,000 deaths from COVID-19, over the same period.  Hong Kong has done well but now it has a serious problem simply because most of the rest of the world has not done such a great job. So, the city’s leadership desperate to re-open its border with Mainland China, is terrified of importing cases that might damage its COVID-free status, offend Beijing and wipe out its older residents, many of whom are reluctant to get vaccinated.

Hence, this once vibrant entrepot has just about cut itself of from any physical contact with the rest of the world.  It is effectively isolating and throttling itself, simultaneously.  Even returning residents must comply with the extremely stringent 21-day quarantine regime which incorporates no less than nine PCR COVID- tests before even parole will be considered. Good behaviour is not taken into account.  

Much of the local news concerns the latest unfortunate citizen to be jailed for falling foul of the recently imposed National Security Law.  Even showing a movie the authorities don’t approve of, can land you in the clink. Detention seems to be the way forward in Hong Kong. Not surprisingly, airline traffic between here and London is almost one way.  

After one of the many gender-neutral Hazmat suits had handed out yet another form, passengers were permitted to proceed through immigration control, collect their bags and join yet another queue – this one for the bus to town. Four hours had passed in a slowly unfolding bureaucratic torture and there was nothing in the way of good humour or irreverent banter to alleviate the pain.

The HKSAR government carefully selected the most dilapidated mini-bus for the final leg of our epic journey, some 26 hours after arriving at Heathrow Terminal 5. After our bags were sprayed with some noxious substance, we were allowed to board and sitting in separate seats, grinded and bumped our way through the dark, lesser-known back streets of Causeway Bay district.

Our tour guide for the evening, was a humourless and officious woman with large black spectacles, wearing the obligatory blue Hazmat suit, rubber gloves with matching shower cap and visor, who squawked instructions into her mobile phone and snapped impatiently at the driver. Zombie passengers were deposited furtively, in the concealed rear entrance lobbies of their designated hotels.

Check-in formalities for our room on the 23rd floor of the Best Western Plus Hotel in Sai Ying Pun, were undertaken at a tatty office desk, surrounded by an uneven makeshift wall of Perspex. Hotel staff were dressed ready for any unexpected chemical and biological attack. A bank of glowing CCTV screens displayed multiple hotel room corridors and doors. Staff are monitoring them to check no one steps outside their room during their 21 days of captivity. The police are called if there is a breach.

It’s all very serious and as we were ushered towards the lift to commence our custodial sentence in Q Prison, no one laughed when I asked them what time the hotel bar opened.

Thursday 4 February 2021

I tested positive for COVID 19- let's celebrate

I tested positive for COVID-19 yesterday.

There is nothing exceptional about that of course. The day that I sat in my car on a grey and desolate airfield in Kent (right), carefully sticking a swab into my nose and throat, there were 16,840 new COVID-19 cases reported in the UK.

There have been in excess of 7.8 million confirmed cases in the UK to date and 1,449 people in Britain died of COVID-19 just on the same day I was tested.

One of them, was the national hero, Captain Sir Tom Moore. That was his reward for raising more than £32 million for the NHS and offering a heart-warming news story during bleak times.  In a political gesture so cynical, it made me wince; the Prime Minister initiated a public clap last night in Captain Moore’s honour, when a public apology might have been more appropriate. I assume the Prime Minister calculated that the more we stand, slapping our hands together like well-trained performing seals, the less we might notice the catastrophic scale of the death toll, including so many of the frail and elderly, like Captain Moore.  

The Prime Minister stated, without irony, this was a suitable way to honour Captain Moore and the NHS staff, he raised money for.  Surely, containing the disease which killed the Captain would have been a more fitting and lasing tribute. As usual, Mr Johnson omitted to mention the many thousands of other UK victims of COVID-19, who have all lost their lives on his watch.

Mr Johnson is not fit to lace the boots of men like Captain Moore but by perfidiously associating himself with a nationally admired figure, Mr Johnson neatly deflected attention from his own bungling incompetence. ‘You can fool most of the people most of the time,' seems to be the Prime Minister’s sole political mantra.

My COVID-19 case hardly merits a mention. Fortunately, my symptoms are minor but my more pressing concern is that I made a routine care visit to my 86-year-old mother, the day before my symptoms kicked in. Mum’s Alzheimer’s is acute now and apart from her dedicated carers, the visits from me, or my brother, are the only human contact she has. I wore a surgical mask as I always do, but Mum told me she was feeling cold, so I wrapped her in a cardigan and a blanket. In doing so, I may have inadvertently killed her but we won’t know for sure for another six days. Ironically, she received her first vaccination the day after my drop in.

Not that it makes much difference now, but my wife and I have been very cautious throughout the pandemic and complied with the so-called lockdown rules. Having witnessed the impressive public response to the coronavirus in Hong Kong, we remain avid mask wearers and meticulous hand-washers. The only person to enter our home since October last year, was the man who replaced our boiler and that was several weeks ago. We have no idea where we might have caught it. The location of our local infection hot spots remains a mystery. A year after this all started, it’s like stumbling around a minefield, wearing a blindfold.

So, forgive me if I don’t embrace the febrile celebration of the great British vaccination roll out or any government-inspired bouts of mass applause. Somehow, the experience at the Manston Covid-19 Test Centre, followed by a rushed explanatory email to Mum's carers on receiving the result, while feeling like a victim of a violent mugging, did not quite put me in the party mood.

There is zero justification for celebratory rhetoric or triumphant bombast. It’s not only inappropriate, it’s disrespectful to those who have lost family members due to the Prime Minister’s abject mishandling of this crisis. A recent You Gov poll reported that one in eight Britons know a friend or family member who has died of COVID-19.  Another indicates that as of today, only 34% of people believe the government has handled the pandemic ‘very well’ or ‘somewhat well’.

More than 108,000 people have died in the UK within twelve months from a single cause. It’s the third largest per capita death rate in the world.  When I told the NHS track and trace representative who called me today about the one person, I had spoken to on the day I became symptomatic, he advised me that unless I could confirm that the contact had definitely come within 1 metre of me, or within two metres for a 15-minute duration, he would not include it.

“We don’t want to ask people to self-isolate unnecessarily,” he assured me.  How many more deaths before it will be necessary to tell someone who has been in direct indoor contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case, to isolate for ten days?  

No surprise that the UK has a worse record than the USA, Brazil, France or Italy. And it’s much, much worse than Hong Kong, Australia, Taiwan, Korea or Vietnam, which have largely contained the pandemic with proven measures like strict border controls and rigorous track/trace/quarantine protocols. The UK government refuses to adopt these measures even after 108,000 deaths.  

This failure is possibly grounds for a public enquiry or even a series of private criminal prosecutions but it is certainly not a reason for celebration or applause.



Monday 16 November 2020

Lest we forget


Remembrance Day was observed in the UK last week with a dignified two minute’s silence but there was no commemoration for the tens of thousands of families mourning the victims of COVID-19.

There were no crowds at the Cenotaph in London this year, or ranks of marching veterans of course, because the nation is in lockdown. Yet the unprecedented combination of Remembrance Day and a lockdown to combat a deadly pandemic, did not prompt any sort of memorial event for those lost to the disease. 

Of course, these grannies, grandads, uncles and aunts, were not in uniform; they did not die in battle or while defending freedom; though surely their families deserve a whisper of comfort. An ounce of common compassion.

The official total is 56,698 COVID-19 deaths registered in England and Wales, up to 30 October 2020 (31,339 men and 25,359 women) but there have been no two minute's silence, no floral tributes, no doorstep applause and no high-profile services of remembrance.

The number of deaths from COVID-19 in England and Wales is greater than the Luftwaffe caused during the Blitz of London in World War Two. It’s now a greater loss of life than the Black Death and the Great Plague. It’s more lives than the Royal Navy lost in the whole of World War One and that took four years, not eight months.

Yet even on Remembrance Day, it seems these dead are already forgotten and their families apparently abandoned to grieve alone.

Just imagine, if 56,698 people had all died in a terrible fire in a sports stadium, or in a brutal terrorist attack or in a natural disaster- a tsunami or an earthquake say. It’s hard to imagine everyone would just carry on. No black armbands, no services of remembrance, no tragic personal anecdotes of grief and loss, inundating TV and social media.

The British are sometimes accused of being over enthusiastic to embrace an orgy of grief  but when 56,698 all die of COVID-19, most just look the other way. It’s a mass denial. A taboo.

Officially, one in 85 people in England and Wales are currently infected with COVID-19 but many people I speak to think the pandemic has been “over blown”. A few think it doesn’t really exist at all. Others point out that lots of people die in winter anyway or suggest it only seriously affects ethnic minorities in the north of England.

There is an online petition to establish a UK national holiday in remembrance of the victims of COVID-19; as of today, it has 56 signatures.

 According to the Office of National Statistics There were 1,379 deaths involving the coronavirus (COVID-19) in England and Wales in the week ending 30 October 2020 but we are not told who they were, or where they were, or how they may have contracted the disease. It feels like a conspiracy of silence.

These are dangerous levels of delusion and denial about a deadly disease on a grand scale and my suspicion is that it is no accident.

Because if more attention is drawn to the epic scale of this public health disaster and the mass aggregate of personal family tragedies that it consists of, some people might want to ask the forbidden question which those in authority must fear most: why are so many people in Britain people dying?

According to John Hopkins University, the UK’s per capita death rate from COVID-19 is the fifth worst in the world.  Only Belgium, Spain, Argentina and Brazil fare worse than the UK in terms of deaths per 100,000 of population.

More people might also wonder why a rich nation like the UK, with a well-established public health organization and a comprehensive state- funded national health service, staffed by dedicated professionals, is doing quite so badly ?

Britain may have talent and it may have a great bake off too but, lest we forget, compared to most nations in the world its government has proven to be abject at preventing tens of thousands of its own people dying from an infectious disease. 

The least they might do is acknowledge the scale of the tragic loss and offer a dignified commemoration for the dead and a crumb of comfort to the grieving.



Tuesday 30 June 2020

The taste of China

Please spare a thought for the people of Hong Kong today. After more than a year of protest and more than 23 years of aspiring for nothing more than the democracy and basic civil liberties they were promised, the people of Hong Kong have been betrayed and face defeat.

Might triumphed over right today at 11pm local time, when Beijing approved a new security law to be imposed on Hong Kong in violation of the 'one country - two systems' principal. It lists four categories of offences – secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with a foreign country or external elements to endanger national security. The maximum penalty for each crime is life imprisonment and a new Gestapo-style security agency will be established in Hong Kong to investigate political cases and “strengthen the management” of foreign non-governmental organisations and media agencies.

Make no mistake, this new law sanctions a police state and outlaws anything that Beijing considers to be a threat to national security which is a euphemism for anything that the ruling Communist Party of China (CCP) disapproves of.

As I write this, citizens I have been following on Twitter for months are cancelling their accounts and pro-democracy activists are disbanding their groups for fear of being arrested, extradited to Mainland China, denied a fair trial and spending the rest of their lives behind bars in a grim prison in an unknown location. This isn’t a theoretical civil rights issue; this is raw fear.

One year ago, on July 1st 2019, hundreds of thousands, including me, marched against the proposed Extradition bill. It was a positive, peaceful and creative campaign which was ignored and then oppressed until it descended into a series of street confrontations between police and protestors.

I make no claims to be one of the regular battle-scarred front-line news reporters from that period but by November, I found myself taking refuge in a small burger restaurant in the Wan Chai district of Hong Kong, weeping and sniffling uncontrollably from tear gas inhalation.

I had spent the previous few hours covering the local election hustings in nearby Victoria Park which was broken up by baton-wielding riot police firing tear gas indiscriminately into the crowds which included families with young children. I witnessed an election candidate called Richard Chan, a grey-haired middle-aged man with spectacles, being pepper sprayed in the face by police officers, violently wrestled to the ground and made to kneel while he was handcuffed. He was clearly shocked and distraught and he told me he had no idea why he had been arrested.

The burger bar had become an improvised first aid station for press, election candidates and protesters as a street battle raged outside. Staff calmly sealed the glass doors with wet towels to keep out the tear gas.  I could see residents, shoppers and tourists outside dashing for cover to avoid the toxic fumes billowing around.

Police had just started using a new type of CS gas sourced from undisclosed suppliers in Mainland China. It penetrated most types of gas mask (including mine) and had a thicker and more acrid synthetic taste. It hurts. While I knelt on the floor of the restaurant and cursed about the new gas, a volunteer paramedic washes my eyes out with saline solution.

“What the hell is that stuff?” I asked him.

“That my friend, is the taste of China” he replied.

This draconian law is more of the bitter taste of the authoritarian government of China but few will stand up for the courageous people of Hong Kong and their ideals. Senior pro-Beijing figures in Hong Kong were enthusiastically endorsing the law before they knew what it contained. There is too much money at stake and too many craven vested interests ready to kow-tow for any serious objections to be raised.

Hongkongers will be left to fight for themselves despite the impossible odds but who will be next to sample the taste of China?

Wednesday 31 July 2019

Shopping for Justice in Yuen Long 27/7

Despite the intense heat, an estimated 280,000 people reclaimed the town of Yuen Long in north-western Hong Kong in a mass act of defiance, last Saturday.

It was their collective response to the shocking mob violence by thugs at the town’s MTR railway station and the police failure to react to it, the week-end before.

The authorities had already declared the march illegal, on public safety grounds but attendees were undeterred. Many joked, saying they were just shopping, sightseeing, praying or on a Pokémon hunt.

“I am shopping for justice,” says Edward Ng Ka-fung a quietly spoken IT consultant waiting in the shade of a municipal building for the march to start. Ng says he has been on every recent protest march with his wife but with this one declared illegal by the authorities and with widespread fear of clashes with local villagers and Triad thugs, she has stayed at home this time.

“I don’t want to get beaten up but I just want to send the message that we not accept it (the violence of last week-end),” he says as we set off with thousands of others down Castle Peak Road, towards Yuen Long railway station. Many marchers wear hard hats, many wear black masks and most carry umbrellas to shield them from the fierce afternoon sun. There are young people, old people and I count at least three people in wheelchairs.

Yuen Long resembled one of those remote cowboy towns in classic Hollywood Westerns. Shutters pulled down on shop fronts, buses parked up and driverless at the bus station and shopping malls deserted except for protesters enjoying the chilly air conditioning. Only tumbleweed blowing down the street was missing from the scene.

The crowd had started gathering near the sports stadium opposite Yuen Long police station, a large concrete compound with conical watch towers on each corner like a fort. The cavalry who failed to arrive last week-end at Yuen Long MTR station, were safe and secure inside.

As always, the march started peaceful and orderly, despite the absence of any obvious leadership, the posters were witty and the shouted slogans subversive.

“Har-geng-haw-zee,” was a popular chant, meaning shame on the police. 

Those attending made little or no reference to the unpopular Extradition Bill which triggered the latest wave of mass protests. Instead, they condemned what they see as police collusion with criminals and they call for the “liberation of Hong Kong” from Beijing-backed crony capitalism. In case you hadn’t noticed this is more than a protest now, it’s a revolution; the hard hat revolution. A revolution of our times.

During a brief refreshment break, I am approached by an “independent observer” from the Mainland, a euphemism for a PLA spy. He tells me how Western governments are influencing events on the streets. He speaks very polished English with a Beijing accent and says he is an export businessman from Guangzhou, specializing in trailers. He has all the sincerity of those scammers who hang around the Imperial Palace in Beijing and invite tourists for a cup of coffee, so their daughter can practice her language skills and then rip you off.

As he leaves, the hardcore protesters are preparing to get “geared up” in alleys and side streets. A ripple of spontaneous applause from bystanders greets one platoon of black-suited activists in masks and hard hats and armed with metal poles, as they march past purposefully.

It’s approaching party time in Yuen Long.  As the main crowd surges in silence towards the Yoho Mall which is adjoining the MTR station,  it’s time to put a hard hat on, just in case.

Monday 22 July 2019

Blood, bombs and pollution- welcome to Hong Kong

It’s genuinely shocking. Watching such a great city unravel in the intense summer heat.  

White shirted mobs assaulting members of the public with bamboo poles in an MTR station while the police turn a blind eye. There was human blood shed on the polished marble floor of a public transport hub in Hong Kong last night. It’s hard to digest. This is the safest city in the world, or at least it was.

There is no shortage of phone video footage from Yuen Long MTR station of terrified passengers standing in an open train carriage, trying to defend themselves with umbrellas, as thugs hurl abuse and attempt to beat them with sticks and poles. One unconfirmed report suggests a pregnant woman was beaten to the ground and one male passenger is in a critical medical condition.

The police were nowhere to be seen for more than 30 minutes and no arrests were subsequently made. There are widespread allegations that the mob had Triad affiliations and may even have been paid to exact some retribution on protestors, returning from a demonstration in Central that evening.

From all accounts the town of Yuen Long is now shut down with mobs prowling the streets like a dystopian scene from 1970s Haiti.

It was reported this morning that bomb making equipment was miraculously found in premises rented to pro -independence political groups who reported a break-in to police a few months ago. Police were reportedly "acting on a tip off". Really? Do they think we are all stupid and will all just swallow this garbage?

The sea is polluted, the air is polluted and now the entire political system is polluted.

The political establishment is now running on empty in terms of credibility or legitimacy. Propped up by Beijing, by the corporate elite and now, it seems by organized crime syndicates. They remain completely impervious to the demands of ordinary Hongkongers.

No-one knows where we are all headed. It feels like a revolution but it also feels like a pending catastrophe. No-one is predicting a happy ending.