Me and JB

 

I should have written more, something JB Priestley probably never said. But I should. I thought, because I was told by my family over and over again, that nobody would want to read anything I wrote. Nobody should.

I started reading books that took me out of my rubbishy, circumscribed world when I was maybe twelve or thirteen. By fourteen I lived in books to an extent that I couldn’t really tell which was their reality and which was mine. I read Lonesome Traveller and loading the bag for my after-school paper round priced-up how much toffee you’d need to buy in the Frome Road post office to keep you going doing that stuff, hi-balling a frieght out of Fresno, whatever that turned-out to actually mean. When Kerouac was writing about being on the road I thought that somewhere down the A361, maybe just over the hill at Farleigh castle, that would be where the desert started, where Springsteen’s passing stranger would put up his sign about counting so many foreign ways to the price you pay. But they didn’t seem foreign to me.

Nor did England when I read Priestley’s English Journey. For me, despite the fact that Jack rode flatcars (we didn’t have those in Trowbridge) and hitchhiked (people still did that then, but not at fourteen) and JB Priestley was chauffered around in a Daimler thirty years before I was even born, the spirit was the same. Both of them looking for the new in the old, the new places and faces and stories locked up in the old brick and smoke and sadness of their times. Both of them had cast themselves as outsiders; I got the idea that maybe both of them weren’t actually that much good with people, or at least the people all around them. Maybe that was why they had to keep moving. I could do that part of being a writer fine well. Gizza job.

And I shared something else with JB that I couldn’t articulate, mainly because I didn’t know about it until this morning when I read in the rubbishy Guardian. Well sorry, but no newspaper has room for sentences like “In it he describes his lifelong search for something ineffable.” None. But there was a JB quote stolen by the ancient male professional hypocrite Muggeridge who bafflingly dominated the TV when I was a kid, alongside Thunderbirds and Crossroads. It was about that feeling I got, a looking for something I couldn’t name, something so nearly under my fingertips. Something I couldn’t name that I’d recognise like it was my own hand or foot when I found it, if only I could say what it was.

“It was waiting for me either in the earth, just below the buttercups and daisies, or in the golden air. I had formed no idea of what this Treasure would consist of, and nobody had ever talked to me about it. But morning after morning would be radiant with its promise. Somewhere, not far out of reach, it was waiting for me, and at any moment I might roll over and put a hand on it. I suspect now that the Treasure was Earth itself and the light and warmth of the sunbeams; yet sometimes I fancy that I have been searching for it ever since.”

Last year I read the same thing written in a different country by someone else who didn’t fit. He liked JB too and put on two of his plays, but his face was the wrong face. The Nazis burned his books because they thought he wasn’t Nazi enough so he joined the Party to keep his head on top of his shoulders. Then they lost and and the Soviets thought he wasn’t anywhere near part of the people’s movement. They made sure he couldn’t be the teacher he’d trained to be, couldn’t be the theatre producer they’d made him be and they weren’t generally that happy with his entire existence. Maybe because reality was all too close he wrote about the First World War, not the Second.

“But he was a young man, and the song of the lark made him blissfully happy, stirring the the old longing thst had accompanied him from Haumont. He felt as if someone was walking behind him with light footsteps, calling his name softly and tenderly. When he stopped and turned to listen, the voice stoped calling out, but when he turned back he felt the presence behind him again, as if it were trying to play a trick on him. Schlump continued on his way, a faint smile on his lips, stroking the ripe corn with his fingers. He didn’t tell anyone about this, and when he was with friends he forgot it altogether.”

That’s how it felt, those times I’d be about to go out, or to start a journey, or just alone in the house I knew and my step-sister knew was haunted, when I’d have combed my hair, done my boots, got the clothes I wanted and suddenly, keys in my hand, knew I had to look for a thing I couldn’t go without, a thing I couldn’t name. It made me smile, but like Hans Grimm, I never found it. I hope he did, before he felt so shut-out that one day he went home while his wife was out and shot himself. It was 1950 and East Germany. He was in the wrong place and definitely in the wrong time. I still look for it occasionally, now and then when the light is right. It still puts a half-smile on my lips.

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Trump, lies and sellotape

Esquire ran the story today but I heard it yesterday and one thing that Trump has showed us all is that yesterday counts for nothing; he’ll have told another four lies since breakfast. When he came out with this one at a press conference there was nothing but reverential silence from the crowd of supposedly impartial Clark Kents and Lois Lanes all devoted to truth ‘N’ freedom, Gahd, Mom ‘N’ apple pie.

Donald Trump just met the Korean dictator, or as Fox News put it, two dictators met each other. After saying that he’d make North Korea give up all their nukes or goshdurnit, them Commies would pay the meeting ended with Trump basically saying what a nice guy Kim Yung Un was and how he, Trump, had done a brilliant thing when nobody else could and how everybody loved him. So far, so normal.

As was the Big Lie slipped in. Trump said he’d managed to secure the remains of GI’s killed in the Korean War, a Very Big Deal because, he said, so many of their parents had come to see him to say gee Mr Donald, when you go to that there Korea, could you bring back whatever’s left of Jim Buck, my boy in the 427th?

The details I made up, but the gist was what he said. The problem being, nobody laughed. The whole Press pack soaked this rubbish up in reverential silence as if God himself was sitting there lying.

For better or worse, the Korean War ended in 1953. Anyone fighting and dying in it from the USA would have had to be at least 18 when they fought and fell, which means at a minimum they’d have to have been born in 1935. Even by Southern States’ standards, an average of 20 probably held right for parenting back then,  which takes us to 1915. This isn’t any tricky statistics, just boring old maths. And according to President Trump, ‘so many’ people aged over 100 years old not only attended his stump meets but came up to him personally to ask him a favour.

Except they didn’t and everybody knows they didn’t. Except the Press corps dutifully, silently, willingly and without comment soaked-up and repeated this stupid, childish, provable lie. It isn’t good enough that a style magazine gets snide about it the next day. Our problem is the mainstream news happily repeats lies instead of falling about laughing at the liar. Maybe God made Man. Maybe,and maybe the mighty should look on these works and despair. But without any question, the Press made Trump and more than just the mighty need to despair at that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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SQL Sequels

 

I applied for what looked like a dream job recently. Down in Dorset, about ten miles from a town I visit every couple of months, a place I know and love, where I have friends and people to say hello to in the street. I’ve been going there since school trips, back when we didn’t so much find dinosaur fossils as dodge them lumbering up out of the primeval ocean. Kidding – we just chatted with old Tom Hardy and gave him some plot ideas. Turned out he only ever used one of them, really.

Not Your Heart Away

Immediately after A Levels I’d bizarrely got into the habit of working and banged-out 82,000 words that became A Day For Pyjamas. Half our lives away I wrote a sequel to it, Not Your Heart Away, which got some nice reviews on Amazon and won a BBC award when I re-wrote it as a screenplay. Another one (Janni Schenck, a story about a nice orphan kid who loves Swing music and just happened to be in the Hitler Youth) was based on fact; that one was entered for Cannes with the Maison des Scenaristes, back in 2017.  I wrote some stand-up performance spoken word and performed them a bit, but got tired of the don’t-get-paid local stand-up circuit. So yes, stories. I can do that. Gizzajob, as we used to say.

I’d also spent two decades analysing business information, from going around the world listening to people to poring over data tables with my lucky ruler (metal, triangular, I think they’re really something to do with woodwork, but hey) to reading hundreds of pages of interview transcripts and spreadsheet print-outs and finding the tiny clues that open-up markets. Which I did more than once. So yes, I can do data. What do you need?

What the committee decided they needed, after a blistering presentation that I could feel in the soles of my feet had rocked everyone’s socks off, was someone who can do that and was a ‘data expert’ at SQL and Python and Tableau. I can do that too, but those are computer programmes. I’ve nothing against computer programmes. I’ve designed and got written two apps myself, one to track HTML 404 errors, the other to compare and assess casualty data. Is that tech enough?

Apparently not. But they’re still two different skills. One you can learn in a month. Sit me or let’s be honest, pretty much anyone down in front of a PC and an online learning course and you’ve got a competent machine-minder. They won’t necessarily know anything about the data they’re interrogating and most of them won’t worry their pretty little heads over the fact that using data this way is akin to regression modelling; it’s great if you know for certain the future is going to be exactly like the past. Which is a pretty massively flawed assumption in lots of areas of life, not least the national economy after Brexit.

You can’t learn to tell stories convincingly and well to an audience of one or a couple of hundred, online, on TV, at conferences or anywhere else, in a month.  Like any performance, it’s an iterative thing. You get better at it the more you do it. You learn from your mistakes. You might even integrate them into the performance to get a reaction to work back to from the people you’re telling the story to. It’s a two-way thing. It’s adaptive. It’s interpretive. And whatever you do it, however much you call it ‘science’ data crunching isn’t, any more than  power loom operators were weavers. It’s reductive, it’s literally codified; it’s not even about understanding numbers and their relationships. Just learning how to get a machine to tell you ‘how many.’ Never how, and don’t even ask why.

 

 

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The big secret

I went to a small village school in Wiltshire. When I was a boy I mean, not yesterday. It would be called a faith school now. It was Church of England and all that meant was that once a year Canon Long (oh how we laughed) came presumably to see that things were done in a godly way, although as a school of that least demanding of faiths presumably an ungodly way would have done just as well. We had hymns and prayers but no more than seems healthy for children even now when for me, hymns are just for Christmas and funerals. I still sometimes think there really is a green hill far away. I see it whenever I go back there. Ours had a white horse on it.

The school had a stone bell tower although we never once heard the bell rung and a cloakroom with sinks which I never, ever liked being in, particularly on my own, because it always felt as if I wasn’t alone there at all.

Hiding in plain sight

None of that was the big secret. That was hanging on the wall, four feet long.

When I went to my next school there was a huge, wall-sized map of the town. It showed things that weren’t there, like shunting yards and engine sheds and a turntable for locomotives on the railway and curiously, a tiny hut labelled as being owned, presumably collectively, by the local branch of the Communist Party of Great Britain. I don’t know if thst had all gone but most of the railway certainly had.

The map at the village school had something much bigger that wasn’t there: the British Empire. It was there on the wall. It was never discussed. Ever. Under any circumstances, other than just to say it was the Commonwealth now, as if Cromwell’s dour shade had banned dancing for hottentots and admired the lack of worldly ornament favoured by Inuit igloo makers. It made no sense.

There were hints that things had gone wrong somewhere. Our Brave Boys who had kept India British for 200 years had saved it from the Japs in 1945 then somehow two years later decided it hadn’t been worth saving and all went home. We could still find books that talked about the Groundnut Scheme as a great prospect for the residents of Tanganyika. The Ealing comedy of the Groundnut Scheme packed-up in 1951. Ghandi’s name came up from time to time too, rarely favourably.

There it all was, coloured red, on the map in our classroom. There it all wasn’t in reality outside. Nobody mentioned it. Nobody said what had happened, nor why. It certainly wasn’t ever even touched on in History, at primary school or even A Levels; I’m not convinced it is now.

The past is another country. They do things differently there. But here or then, we don’t talk about how or why it all fell to bits. Maybe it’s embarassment, maybe it’s denial. It made me wonder then and now what else I’m not going to be told.

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The king’s breakfast

I suppose it comes to us all. When we’re just kids we do mix tapes, or we did and quite how that’s possible with Spotify I don’t really know. Then we do the extravagent and usually inappropritate presents thing. But me, I’ve just crossed a boundary.

Stuff To Impress Girls

I just bought a butter dish. It struck me the other morning as I dug through the cupboard to find an unchipped ramekin that wasn’t blatantly an imperfectly-washed little glass dish that had recently had a Gu pudding in it, that there must be an alternative to slapping a tub of Lurpak on the breakfast table. The company was delightful, the morning sunny, the eggs had scrambled just about perfectly. Add a plastic tub of butter and I felt as if I was Sid James gurning ‘wrap your laughing gear round that, doll.’

I know I had a butter dish at one time. It was terracotta, which made me think it should be left out instead of put back in the fridge in summer, meaning I had a rancid yellow slick of ghee in the bottom of it which would have made anyone think twice about a re-match. But it was gone, along with every other butter dish in every shop in Bridport. Ditto butter knives.

A few years ago in Spain I found an Arab woman who spoke faultless English and German who tempted me with a Brotchenmesser. With elegant thoroughness Germans had not only invented a special knife that cuts your bread rolls neatly, but arranged the blade so it spread butter as well. I wanted one and in one of those so stupid false economies, thought I shouldn’t spend the eight euros or whatever it was but torture myself about it for the rest of my life instead. But that was then. The past is another country and besides, that butter’s been spread. For some reason every junk shop, charity shop, flea market stall and antique shop is seeing a run on butter dishes. Nobody has one. There was just one oh-so-ironic one marked Lurpak in the Oxfam shop, but say what you may I’m not having anything on my table with a grinning dwarf moulded onto it. The rather fetching French glass possible butter dish (as in it possibly was one but I don’t know if the French go in for butter dishes. Do they? Do Thais? Armenians?) was nice but I couldn’t decide if it was 1930s as claimed, 1950s as it could be at a pinch or that 1960s-could-be-any-time-in-the-’80s French design period, so I left it.

I ended-up with what looks like a butter dish but actually is a pate dish, undubitably also French and of a size to take a huge tub of Lurpak big enough to grease a pig. Should the need arise.

For our younger readers who’ve never heard of AA Milne’s The King’s Breakfast, make like a dolphin and click here.

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A bit of a shock

I saved three lives today. Very small lives, and saved two bigger hearts from breaking too. Not a bad day to be able to say that. I wasn’t teaching so I went for a walk before I settled down to learning a computer language I don’t particularly want to learn but need to if I’m ever going to get back into research, which pays rather better. And it’s ages since I learned something new anyway, and I miss the process. I could have picked-up learning German again, but given that a German part of my life no longer talks to me, probably no immediate need for that.

I walked up the hill and turned left at the top, next to the cottage on the pond, next to the wood where I walked a friend’s dog while she slept, unknowing, so she didn’t have to when she woke. Along the lane into the dip and up the other side, past the houses, past the place which looks like a scrapyard, with its steel gantry and dangling chains, thankful I don’t live next door but in part of the Big House, or to be fair, one of the three Big Houses almost within sight of each other, hidden as they are only by folds in the hill.

Left down the little footpath bordered by a hedge on the left and an electric fence on the other side, in the field where someone built a huge treehouse for some lucky and invisible and therefore possibly long ago child. A friend told me she tested electric fences with a blade of grass. She quite often got electric shocks too, on her farm, so I don’t know if that’s a good test or not.

Across the field only just passable now the ground’s dried out a bit after the farmer deliberately and illegally ploughed straight over the footpath, then across the lane and through another field overploughed and seeded. I don’t like walking through crops but I don’t like selfish, lazy, illegal theft of public property and rights either.

Along the bridleway, left at the junction of three tracks on a windswept hill and skirt along the side of the wood following its curve down the hill, past the footpath to go the longer route and already there’s a car parked at the bottom, someone fishing alone at the lake. From here, now, writing this, I wonder if he accidentally played a part in this story.

Turning left to go up the hill I could see movement next to the fence dividing the fishing lake from the field. Three gold and black goslings, tiny, and two adult geese separated by a mesh fence. The goslings and the geese moved quickly away when they saw me, up the hill, but they were still separated by the fence, the mesh too small for anything except the goslings’ heads to poke through. Becauae it had been done properly the fence was bedded into the earth to stop foxes or more likely people getting in, but it was also stopping these little birds reuniting with their parents. I guessed we were about 100 yards from the gate I presumed they’d crawled under. I thought about shooing them back, but 100 yards is a long way to herd goslings and in any case, they were panicing enough already. So were the parents.

I picked one gosling up. It was so small that it didn’t even move when I held it. I put it over the fence and dropped it as gently as I could. It fell over but wriggled to its feet. The big goose nearby was going nuts, hissing and waving its wings at me. It stopped when it saw the gosling trot down to the lake and the other adult bird. I got the second one and dropped it over too. It made more of a thump, which worried me. I thought about throwing it into the long grass the other side of the fence, but I couldn’t see if there were sticks or broken fence posts or anything else there it could impale itself on. It wriggled about a bit, its feet ludicrously big, then remembered where they went and it too waddled quickly down to the lake. The last gosling had pushed its head as far as it could go through the mesh. I thought it would cut its own head off before long so I grabbed that one too and held it over the fence. I thought if I leaned forward as far as I could then it wouldn’t have so far to fall.

There was an odd, soft thumping in my chest as I leaned over. Not my heart. The top strand of the fence turned out to be electric. The gosling wasn’t affected. It landed the same as the other ones, full length, upside down, huge feet stretched out, then trying to use its tiny wings it somehow managed to get itself upright and straight down to the water. The adult goose joined its mate once they were all in and they paddled away. Straight towards another goose which pecked at one of the goslings and got a full scale charging attack from the parent.

They kept watching me as they edged deliberately but not quickly out into the lake. I didn’t feel 100%. Not hurt, but literally shocked.

A few minutes later an old couple came along. If I saw a loose black lab it was theirs. I left them to it. About a minute later an old black labrador pondered along the path on its own, taking it down to where the little goslings would have been squeekily trying to get the rest of their bodies through the mesh fence. We’d all live another sunny day, barring more accidents.

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Not alone

 

 

For the past two days I’ve been helping out a friendwho’d been overwhelmed by DIY, or rather, having to do it. It’s a big old house in the middle of pretty much nowhere and the first day of working on my own there I knew I wasn’t. Alone, that is. It wasn’t all the time. It wasn’t in one room more than another, because I had no reason to go to the two rooms I’d been in before where I knew for a fact that I wasn’t alone. Just a sudden realisation as I was having a sit-down, tea and a think ( a vital, un-mentioned part of DIY) that the house wasn’t empty.

Some people call it ghosts, some people call it tectonic plates shifting and making sounds we can’t register as sounds, some people call it electromagnetic variation and that can very seriously mess you up in terms of what’s real and what isn’t. I don’t really think it matters what you call it. Every culture since the Romans has known and acknowledged presences. There are ghosts in the Bible and not just the Holy one. In that house I’m not the only person who looks over their shoulder in two top-floor rooms, currently un-used.

It took hours to fix that ceiling light. It was an antique, salvaged from some market (and probably not a skip, as I thought when it looked as if it just wasn’t going to go right) and this like that don’t come with instructions. Let’s just say insulated connection blocks inside plastic covers, some very thin battening and a coat hanger, along with some creative uses of a pair of pliers and at one point some very uncreative and repetitive Anglo-Saxon.

And a beaming friend’s young son telling me how much better the landing was now, and personal thanks from his teenage brother, who even looked at me while his wide-screen video game while he was doing it. Surprised didn’t cover it.

So I hope tonight will be a little easier there. It’s still a cracking good tune.

 

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Granularity

 

Everyone likes Krispy Kreme doughnuts, don’t they? So you probably won’t choke on this little daily economic miracle. If they make the series, Johnny Vegas should be in this.

KK are looking for staff down in Somerset. Now Ok, they’re only going to call you a Team Member, but (wink, wink) you’ll be so much more than that. The first bullet point in their job ad says you’ll manage their production line.

Obviously job ads come and go, so I’m going to put this one here, in full. Then I’ll let you into the surprise:

What will I do as a Team Member at Krispy Kreme?

  • To manage our production line, ensuring doughnuts are made to the specification at the right times
  • Measuring and mixing appropriate ingredients as per our specifications
  • Actively adhere to our health and safety and food safety processes
  • Assist the Production Manager and other Team Members with planning our stock levels and how we produce our doughnuts
  • Ensure that every doughnut is produced to the highest standard meeting our customers’ expectations
  • Planning and preparing for the next shift
  • Understand the production plan and what responsibilities you will have on each shift
  • Willing to support other areas within the factory when the business needs

Why choose Krispy Kreme?
At Krispy Kreme, you’ll find a company that thrives on the passion, energy and commitment of its people. Whatever your role, you’ll take absolute pride in a job well done, always looking to show your initiative and reach for the highest standards. And above all, you’ll love having a good time – the ingredient that makes a Krispy Kreme moment so magical.

For you it is about working as part of a team on and off the line to create our spectacular doughnuts, ensuring they are always made fresh daily and they meet our product standards every time.

Benefits
Krispy Kreme takes pride in giving the best experience through great service and quality products. We seek to recognise the achievements of individuals who make this possible. To celebrate your success we have created the following awards:

  • Employee of the month/quarter/year
  • Long service award
  • In store incentives e.g. shopping vouchers, cinema tickets
  • Annual awards evening
  • Employee Assistance Programme – support helpline
  • Opportunity to have your say through engagement surveys

In addition to all of this, we encourage all of our employees to enjoy our products! During your breaks you will be entitled to hot drinks and doughnuts free of charge and if you wish to take home any doughnuts after work you can buy them for a 50% discount. Krispy Kreme also offers great career progression! We really value our people and will provide a culture that allows you to develop your own style and fulfill your potential.
What skills and experience do you need to be successful at Krispy Kreme?

  • Experience in operating machinery, equipment or processes within a manufacturing environment
  • Experience of working in a food environment
  • Experience of working towards and achieving targets/deadlines
  • Experience of working as part of a team
  • Good communication skills
  • Demonstrate a good level of Health and Safety and Food Safety awareness
  • Proof of right to work in the UK
  • Applicants must be 18 or over

Isn’t that great?  And if you can fit any more doughnuts in your face after your shift then you can buy them at half price!! Just so utterly wow!

So you won’t mind this bit. The pay.

It’s um…..£25.

Per hour? Don’t be so utterly ridiculous. Chairmen’s bonuses don’t pay for themselves. What are you, some kind of Communist or something?

£25. Per day. And all the doughnuts you can eat. Let’s face it, you won’t be able to afford anything else.

Oh brave new world.

 

 

 

 

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Heartlands

 

A long, long time ago, although I can still remember how that music made me smile, that’s not what this is about. Mostly, because if you can remember the music you can remember the rest of it, the clothes you wore, the people you knew, the cold through to your bones, that thing she said and all of it, it’s about the fact there was a film called Radio On.

It was Chris Pettit’s first film. It was made deliberately in black and white and not because they couldn’t afford colour stock. It was released in 1979. And it was made in the country I knew, not just as the A4, as a choice because old cars that were all we could afford and the M4 didn’t always go that well together, not just as a deserted, abandoned garage near Silbury Hill that I used as a fairly creepy public bathroom more than once of a night time, not just as a route I wrote about in Not Your Heart Away, the road I drove up and down to get to London and interviews for university and life, but as a psychic space. There. I’ve said it now.

It was and is an odd film. An English road movie. A man has a job that’s now disappeared as a workers’ in-house radio DJ in a factory that’s now disappeared and drives a car that’s long since gone to the Great Scrapyard in the Sky and was pretty close to it then down the A4 to Bristol, trying to find out what happened to his brother who died after sending him a birthday present of some Kraftwerk and Bowie tapes. The German music was from the Kraftwerk Radioaktiv album, the one that was never, ever discounted. He picks up a half-nuts squaddy on the way and luckily gets rid of him on the road just past Silbury. This was a real issue at the time. Hitching lifts, as people did in those days, I remember a soldier exactly like this, except he was driving, who told me about things that never, ever got on the news, like cross-border fire-fights. There were plenty of them back then. Messed-up squaddies as well as things that didn’t get on the news.

The man drives on to Bristol, lets himself into his dead brother’s house and is challenged by dead brother’s girlfriend, who it turns out the flat actually belongs to. It isn’t mentioned whether it’s bought or rented but the decor was instantly recognisable. Indoor plants and Anglepoise lamps. Ashtrays on the bashed-up stripped pine kitchen table. Think Howard Kirk s/Habitat and you’ve just about got it.

The girlfriend doesn’t much like him; he doesn’t much like her so he goes for a walk in what looks now like an ancient and shattered Bristol, which in large part it was, not least thanks to the war. He meets, because half the film was financed from Germany and Wim Wenders produced it and put his wife in the film, a German girl.

German girls were edgy and cool at the time. There was the war thing, but that was for parents. More so there was the Baader-Meinhof gang, back when the idea that only Moslems are terrorists wasn’t close to government policy, name-checked by the ‘Free Astrid Proll’ graffiti sprayed under the Westway.  Knowingly enough, Astrid Proll was arrested when she pulled in for petrol and the guy on the pumps recognised her. As one of the frauleins says, she thought they would sleep together, but now she knew they never would. That was a pretty darned edgy and cool thing to say at the time, especially from a girl.

Instead, Wim Wenders’ ex-wife takes him to her Mum’s in Clevedon, which is a nice period touch. I don’t know if that still happens. It did then. The Mum came over in 1939. She insists on speaking to her daughter in German in front of him, cutting him out of the conversation entirely , so he excuses himself politely enough (despite slouching in his chair – lost parent points there, I can tell you) at which Mum launches into a spiel about how selfish and self-referential and rude young people are, only interested in themselves. It’s a nice touch.

He goes for a drive having nothing much else to do, happily sipping from a can of Guinness which if not expressly recommended in the Highway Code wasn’t entirely unknown back then and ends-up parked in a quarry.  There’s quite a lot of casual, low-level, part-of-life drinking in a way I remember but haven’t done for years and years, thankfully. He shares a half-bottle of Haig with the German girl on Clevedon pier. After saying goodbye to her he goes to a godawful pub where he finds out what Jarvis Cocker didn’t mention when he sang about what happens when you want to do what the common people do. If you’re actually a nice middle-class young man they kick your bar stool out from under you and call you names, whereupon you’re not allowed to do the same thing back.

In a superb piece of period detail now, which then was just how things were if you were young and had a car then, sometimes he needed to start it with a handle but he’d parked too close to the edge of the quarry to stick it in. He can’t start his car. It’s probably still there. He hasn’t found out how his brother died or why. He didn’t get to bonk either of the German girls, which seeing the film, I’d find regrettable. Almost nothign happens, all the way through. Except so much does, at the same time. Eventually our hero got on a train and rode off into the 1980s, the way we all did. Maybe it was in colour when he got there, although as I recall, a lot of it wasn’t.

This was England. It was broken and bombed and broke and messy, full of angry and numb people. Some of the buildings and most of the cars have changed. Watch it. You can make your own judgements as to what else changed.

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Crying wolf

When I was a boy I believed odd things, the same way probably most boys do, anywhere. Most of all, I believed We were right and They were wrong, just the way I was told to. It was easy. Everything I saw and read said so. We had won the war, so we were good. The IRA went around blowing people up and that was very close, because we lived near Warminster, the infantry training town where servicemen were under orders not to wear uniform off barracks in case they were targetted, so they were bad. The IRA I mean, not the army. The army came to my little town quite a lot, in the summer when they literally dropped in by helicopter onto the Nelson Haden school playing fields and piled unloaded FNs and Sterling submachine guns onto wooden trestle tables so all of us little boys could play with them, which if nothing else taught us how to keep small fingers clear of a breech and how much strength it took to cock an SLR, not least as the charging handle was on the left-hand side.

We’d watch a hotel or a department store blowing up on the news, or hear how someone in the army had got shot when he opened the door of his house. What we didn’t hear was why any of this was happening, nor where suddenly out of the blue someone who wanted to start sniping soldiers could find access to anything other than a twelve-bore to do it. Then we dimly heard of NORAID, but that was somehow respectable. Why, a Kennedy was part of it! How bad could that be? The Americans were on our side, after all. I remember once at primary school someone saying that and a teacher going ballistic, raving that the Americans were on their own side and nobody else’s, which made no sense at all and was very much not repeated. We had the evidence of Combat and an almost infinite number of war films to tell us that.

At Christmas, just in case we’d missed the point, the RAF band or the army band would visit the school and play us a selection of hits of the day, which was a pretty good feat of music if not arms. Naturally, the army came along to host a careers day once a year. I made a friend for a long time when I asked in the Any Questions part if there were any plans to bring back conscription. Apparently there weren’t. I’d wanted to ask what happened if you were told to do one thing in the army, like say, go to Northern Ireland, then a week later after an election you were told not to. I didn’t know which one was right, and doing the right thing seemed to me important at the time. When I finally did articulate this I was told that orders were orders. Which was obviously true. I didn’t know then that this hadn’t counted for much at Nuremburg. But of course, that was Them saying that. Not Us.

I thought very seriously about joining the army. More precisely I was going to an interview to be a lieutenant in the Royal Marines, but I had the chance to earn £600 for that one week and in those days that was very serious money indeed so I did that instead.

I don’t know when it changed. I stopped trusting what I was told. It was a combination of things, as life always is. It was partly the Miners Strike. I didn’t want to be a miner and nor did anyone who I ever met whose family had been in any way connected with coal mining, but it was obvious there was something deeply wrong with what I was being told. I began to wonder whether We were still right and They were still wrong.  Then a friend told me about a prison officer she shared a flat with whose hobby, when some people were getting into orienteering or macrame was to put on a police uniform without any identification badges, get in a bus and go and have a fight, safe in the knowledge that so long as she was attacking striking miners absolutely nothing at all would happen to either her or her career.

Another friend was filming for the BBC at a strike when he walked past a police van full of guns. The police and his producer told him it was very much neither in his nor the public interests to film this and put it on the Nine O’Clock news. Years later I talked to him again after the Hungerford Massacre when someone whose lifetime’s work was in ballistics and practical shooting claimed to have photographic evidence that the official version of the shooting wasn’t exactly four-square with where certain bullet holes were. The Prime Minister then and now refused point blank to hold a public inquiry into what was the first mass public shooting in the UK by a civilian. The same thing happened: it’s not going to be filmed. We don’t need to look at this again. We’ve been told what happened. It’s not in the public interest to ask.

Gotcha

Then as now, it seemed that the public agenda was set by the tabloid press. Certainly the politics of Us and Them are exactly the same. The sinking of the Belgrano summed it up for me. Back in the Falklands War an old US Navy aircraft carrier had been flogged off to the Argentinians who claimed that the Falkland Islands belonged to them, a point which the Foreign Office had tabled for discussion with Argentina every year since 1946. Whoever the islands belonged to, a Royal Navy submarine sunk the Belgrano. Somewhere over 300 Argentinian conscript sailors died. In Downing Street Margaret Thatcher appeared on TV, asking us all to ‘rejoice.’ This isn’t a figure of speech; that is exactly what she said. The Sun ran the adult and sober headline: Gotcha.

Which was strange, because when the Argentinians attacked the Royal Navy and killed far fewer British sailors The Sun headline ran: Bastards. The same thing had happened. Young men had been killed. They were all only following orders, every last one of them, and in the Argentinians’ case, without even the choice of whether they joined up or not.  But when one kind of young man died we were told that was bad and another kind of young man died we were told by the head of state on TV to rejoice.

The Conservative Party chairman got his mistress pregnant. He also got an injunction to ensure that the child’s name could never be mentioned in the press and the press loyally went along with this completely. It was OK to say in print that Freddie Starr ate someone’s hamster (he didn’t) or that Elton John raped children (he expensively didn’t), no problems for the press there. It was just the truth that was a problem. Matrix-Churchill helped more. The government was entirely happy to send a businessman to prison for doing what they knew all along he was doing. The Defence Minister Michael Heseltine got one of his staff sent to prison for telling the truth after he’d decided the electorate didn’t need to know that not only were US cruise missiles in the UK but that HMG had no say in it one way or the other. The same way as when in 1986 the US Air Force flew out of Upper Heyford in Gloucestershire to bomb the Chinese Embassy in Libya the Prime Minister was only told about this after the planes were in the air out of politeness, not that there was ever any possibility whatsoever of her being able to cancel their mission. The fact that the Chinese Embassy wasn’t supposed to be the target wasn’t the issue. We didn’t see the tabloids jumping up and down about sovereignty then.

Eventually we had a different government. They told us, with the loyal and unflinching support of the press that there were chemical weapons in Iraq. There were not and the people saying there were knew that every shred of evidence said there weren’t.

I stopped believing we were right. I stopped believing I was being told the truth. I stopped feeling any obligation whatsoever to any idea of country, or patriotism or national identity or the flag apart from being embarrassed being recognised as English abroad and finding the Union flag anything other than a piece of cloth. It baffles me how anyone can think otherwise. So this week, when nobody even bothers to deny that governments of my country in my lifetime have lied to me and every other citizen time and time again, excuse me if I don’t join in.

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