The price of our soles

Once upon a time in a land long ago I bought some shoes. It was London, between 16 and 30 years ago, it was this time of year, it was Jermyn Street and they were Church’s. And two pairs of Lobbs. Oh, and a pair of Gucci loafers. Sometimes I think there was something wrong in my head.

The thing about paying five times more than a normal High Street pair of shoes is they last. Not the last. They last. Apart from the pair of Lobbs I think I left under someone’s sofa before the cleaner came in after which no mortal eye beheld them since, or not to my knowledge anyway, I still have all of them. None of them were what you’d call everyday shoes, apart from maybe the Church’s which were and are a fairly unexceptional black brogues and of all of them, my least favorite. The sole lets in water and something is pressing up through the inside of the heel, or feels like it.

The Lobbs were both double monk shoes. Not made of a monk, you understand, or even a pair of monks, but those odd shoes with a strap over the top, or two. Not like Clark’s sandals, thanks for asking. One pair black, one pair brown, from the January sales and still eye-wateringly expensive even when you try not to think about it. it was the black pair that went AWOL. The brown ones are fine. Except they’re not. I had them re-soled by Lobb’s about 20 years back. I never, ever wholly got on with the replacement soles, which admittedly don’t slip on station platforms the way the originals did, but always seemed not just monstrously thick but somehow seemed to trip me up because of their thickness, which as both soles are the same thickness and it doesn’t alter ever, hardly makes any sense at all. Except they do and always have, especially on stairs. And yes, stone-cold sober, thanks.

Squidgygate

The Gucci loafers – ah yes, I remember them well, not least as I still have them and they fit in a way that makes you think you forgot to put any shoes on. They’re just brilliant. It was 2003, I think. I didn’t get them because Diana Spencer laughed about one of her numerous (ahem) unofficial consorts’ fondness for them. It wasn’t that more than once after six months on a rowing machine and a habit of drinking in Harvey Nicholls’ top floor bar, the odd minor Sloanette or rather less usefully, cabbie or builder mistook me for Major Hewitt now and again. I just wanted a pair. Not the ghastly ones with red and green ribbon on, as if you’ve just run through a ticker-tape parade or a church fete. Just plain black, the lovely discrete little snaffle-bit decoration on the apron and tiny metal labels on the sole just in case anyone’s missed it, although like finding out a girl’s wearing tights and not stockings, by the time you’re there it’s a bit late to quibble. Anyway, thanks to the rarity of any bona fide opportunity to wear them on a haunted bomber station in East Anglia, they’re fine. Conferences, when I used to do conferences, and dates. According to the Sloane Ranger’s Handbook, gals of a certain type always used ‘look at their shoes’ as a watchword. I’d already taken steps to ensure the worst dating put-down of all could never be uttered, at least about me.

(In case you’re wondering, younger or not fond of hanging around the White Horse on Parsons Green, it was these utterly devastating words:

“White socks! He was wearing white socks!”

Apparently that’s where Conrad got the idea for the last line of Heart of Darkness.)

“The horror. The horror. Exterminate all the brutes.”

Anyway, long and short, the Church’s desperately need a new sole, heel and insole, which is going to cost a cool £190 notes, plus VAT. Because making a new pair takes 200 separate tasks and ripping off the old sole and heel, slapping a new one on and re-cushioning the heel and sole inside comprises 60 separate tasks, by hand, in Northampton. It’s an ethical dilemma, of a kind. Do I say, sure, ok, here’s over £200 for a new pair of old shoes I only wear for best, best these days being funerals or going to court, something I try to avoid doing and pat myself on the back for recycling? Or do I buy a £100 pair of something black which will last two years at the absolute outside, washed individually in Chinese children’s tears?

Then there’s the brown Lobbs to do, which if they had Dainite soles instead of the weird Lobb re-soles that make me walk as if Noddy Holder would have been happy to wear them onstage I’d wear an awful lot more. Maybe in red. Which is going to cost about the same, give or take £50.

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Je ne m’appelle Escoffier

My name is not Escoffier. I know that may come as some surprise. Admittedly, it’s never been a great source of confusion in the limited parts of nautical society I’ve inhabited over the years, from the Trowbridge High School Sailing Club to the Nautical Institute and the Honourable Company of Master Mariners. It’s a long story.

My sailing career, such as it is, went from Enterprise dinghies to fun things called Sunfish on summer camp Wisconsin lakes to a ridiculous Laser to a Drascombe Scaffie, then a Mirador, now a Folkboat and today as well, a Drascombe Lugger.

a little Sunfish A long time ago, in another life.

Enterprises are just lovely and life would probably have been a lot simpler and definitely a lot cheaper if Mr. Escoffier and I had stopped there. Lasers – well. What are they actually for? No, really, actually FOR, apart from an excuse for loud-voiced overweight men the worn side of 50 to squeeze themselves into wetsuits on Sundays without even having the grace to wear shorts over the collection of overstuffed black puddings they always appear to be overly fond of?

I capsized the Laser badly once and scared myself. Capsizing a Laser isn’t exactly news, obviously, but the scary thing was realising that thanks to the water temperature I couldn’t get myself back into the boat, and the longer I was in the less I could feel I could do. I’d never felt increasingly physically helpless before. Starting to die isn’t a nice feeling once you work out what it is. My partner of the day called the Laser a plastic tea tray and refused to have anything to do with it. That was a fairly apt description if you’d stuck too big a sail on the top of a tea tray, alongside the utterly depressing wetsuit element of the exercise. The talcum powder and having to dislocate your arm to reach the long strap which is the only way of doing up the back zip – I mean, please. Really, don’t tell me that’s all about sailing.

A Laser. Seriously.

The Mirador was another frightening disaster. Disaster One happened when the engine stopped working in Southwold Harbour with a tide running out. Southwold is marked Dangerous on the chart, principally because when the wind blows from the East it ramps up big waves all the 140-odd miles from Holland. Stuff them into a tide ripping out at 5 knots – faster than you walk – in the opposite direction, in three feet of water and you can quickly have something of a learning opportunity. When your engine stops, for example. And won’t start. But no matter, because we can just steer for the bank. Except we can’t, because all size six of the woman who claimed her ancestor built the Balcarry Lass on the beach in Kippford – and why would you make that up? – managed to snap the American oak tiller in half with her bare hands. And no, it wasn’t rotten. Afterwards I couldn’t stick a knife in the end we had, anyway.

More fun happened on the next trip, which my by-now mutinous crew sat out. There is a lump in the middle of the river in Southwold Harbour, as well as the notorious three feet of water just outside the harbour mouth, so I thought it was as well the Mirador had a lifting centreboard you could wind down. When it was up the boat pulled just about nine inches of water. It was up. It was still up when I got into the North Sea past the harbour mouth, with big rollers coming in. I couldn’t physically leave the tiller to get to the winding handle without the boat turning itself sideways to the waves, and with just nine inches of hull under the water the whole thing, including me, would have been rolled over and under in a second or two. All I could do was time the waves, get out a bit, away from the concrete posts at the harbour mouth and turn the boat on the outboard, timed to avoid the waves hitting the boat beam on. As we salty sailor boys are wont to say. Sideways, in other words.

It was rubbish. The Mirador was a boat which managed to sink itself on dry land. A big tide in November lifted it off its well-appointed trailer but luckily or not, the boat was tied loosely on so it didn’t go far. It went up though, just enough for the rollers underneath it to flip upright, end-on, which is where they were when the tide went out and the boat settled down onto about a square inch of metal post, which predictably went straight through the hull. The next big tide that night filled the boat up inside. On the dock. It had to go.

This year, with lockdown and furlough and so on, I’ve done more sailing than I have for years, all of it in the Deben in Suffolk. Which means I’ve gone aground more than ever before too, and got not only the Coastguard called out but, it being the Deben, the Mud Rescue team, none of whom were needed in the slightest.

All of which means I have to confess to taking some schadenfreudian delight in much better sailors than me utterly and totally messing it all up. The Sunday Times 1969 Golden Globe race has always been supposed to be one of the cornerstones of modern sailing legend being the first non-stop round the world single-handed race. Bernard Moitsessier became famous for refusing to stop sailing “parce que je suis heureux en mer et peut-être pour sauver mon âme” .

It’s been translated as “because I am happy at sea and perhaps to save my soul.” Or “perhaps because he’s gone a bit nuts” as his wife (yes, he actually had a wife…) probably put it. In 1982 he sailed with an actor who had a sailing film coming up. HIs boat dragged her anchor in Mexico, hit another big yacht, had her mast smashed off and wound-up on the beach full of sand and sold for $20. Even I don’t mess up that badly. I mean, $20.

Donald Crowhurst was another competitor in the Golden Globe Race. He went slightly more nuts than Moitessier and almost certainly ended-up stepping off the back of his boat in the Caribbean and forgetting to ever get back on.

IT IS THE MERCY

Apart from the classic look-I’m-really-seriously-not-coping-well phrase “it is the mercy,” Crowhurst’s logbook noted “The quick are quick, and the dead are dead.’ In ocean racing they’re sometimes very nearly both. Other boats cracked up and literally fell apart during that race. In 1985, Simon Le Bon’s brand new Drum did the same thing. This week it was Kevin Escoffier‘s turn.

Me, I’m not that mad. I don’t want to sail around the world. The Deben and maybe, once I’ve conquered the equally not-to-be-done-lightly entrance to the Deben at Felixstowe Ferry a trip up the Orwell to Pin Mill is about as much as I want to do. It would be nice to trailer down to Dittisham again, to sail under the trees that look exactly like the ones in children’s books I recall.

And maybe I will, because today, after a long lockdown wait, I took delivery of my Drascombe Lugger, a boat that’s been sailed to Australia. I have more modest ambitions. I like the fact the new boat needs only ten inches of water because my name is not Escoffier. But neither is my boat snapped in half.

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Tete-a-tatela

A tetela is, geometrically at least, akin to the samosa. A disc of dough, wrapped around a filling to make a very effective triangular pasty. Cavita rather cleverly makes hers from heritage corn, stuffs them with smooth and gorgeously seasoned mashed potato then crushes them flat enough on the griddle to form a crisp base to a topping of smoked mushrooms.

FT.com/Magazine: November 26/26 2022

Remembering Mexican food as I do, isn’t that utterly wonderful?

Just amazingly who could be cruel enough to Christen (and if she’s Mexican you can safely assume she was Christened, whatever happened afterwards) their little girl-child Cavita, as if that wasn’t enough on its own to get the family slapped on the At Risk register before the ink was dry on their signatures? It turns out that the poor girl was actually called Adriana Cavita and while you can’t get a much more FT Weekend name than that it’s probably also true that anyone called something like that probably didn’t go to the kind of school where reference to her cavities was everyday parlance.

But equally, who could write such fantastically camp copy about gorgeously seasoned mashed potato and very effective triangular pasties? Who could enthuse over “heritage corn” used not even vaguely ironically? Not apparently Damien Trench but someone called Tim Hayward, who also contributed the masterly geometrically at least, as well as the world-class akin.

I was so distracted by the self-parody of that alone that I accidentally remembered the Tex-Mex Hell that once was London, or at least my bit of it, back when red braces and Golf GTis were a thing. Mine were embroidered with little edelweiss and silver. Respectively, since you ask. The recollection proved that Meatloaf was wrong, on that at least. It was long ago and far away but it definitely wasn’t so much better than it is today.

Mexican food was stomach-ache-making sludge

There. I’ve said it now. Every time I ate Mexican I got food-poisoning, didn'[t go home with anyone else, spent far too much, got a splitting headache and had to spend half of Sunday in the bathroom. Now, a doctor might say that was perhaps maybe more to do with not washing hands, or possibly the amount of tequila slammers I’d felt compelled to drink because frankly, there was nothing else to do. There used to be a huge cavernous pit of hell somewhere in Leicester Square that had deafening music and girls in bikinis draped with bandoliers they poured shots from. I’ve always had a hearing issue but it took me decades to realise it; I just assumed I didn’t really like most of the people who I went there with and never really saw the point of going out much because I never met people. It took years to realise that of course I met people, lots of them, when I calculated I went home with a representative sample of them. It was just that most of the time I couldn’t hear them unless I spent most of a date hunched across some Covent Garden table for two desperately trying to get my ear down some poor girl’s throat so I could hear her fifteenth and by then somewhat testy repetition of ‘yes, ok.’ By which time most sensible girls had either got a sore throat, drunk themselves half into a coma, thought ‘oh for Chrissakes’ and/or quite often, gone home.

There was another sludge pit on Queensway, where the corn chips arrived slathered in the cheapest cheddar-type product known to man and half-submerged in three colours of edible mud, accompanied by a soundtrack of Country & Western music, if that’s not too strong a word for it. It was Tex-Mex, you see. Steak or sludge, or steak with sludge. N tortilla chips with everything.

I ate Mexican in Washington D.C. one freezing February and managed to feel ill again. It was practically sub-zero outside, I was hungry, didn’t want to eat what passed for meat in America and just wanted something non-meat, fast and portable. Sludge in a wrap was the obvious answer. I think there was rice and spinach involved as well. I didn’t eat anything the time I went to Mexico for the day, but the less said about that lost Sunday probably the better. One of the consolations about getting older is that quite often nobody else remembers the thing you thought stuck in everyone else’s mind as much as it embedded itself in yours.

I’m not saying all Mexican food is bad. No, actually, yes I am, with an important qualification. All the Mexican food I’ve eaten has been unbelievably bad, as if a mad child made it from Play-Do and something the dog sicked up. The tequila was ok, as well as the bikinis, but I don’t think those are inherent parts of a regional food culture. And in any event, the impossibility of finding a black cab to get home in West End wintery and rather less than wonderland and the inevitable argument with some oik in a fifteen year-old Toyota pretending to be a minicab driver wiped out any pleasure the evening might have suggested, promised being far too binding a word.

If you want to find Adriana’s Cavita, it’s in Wigmore Street. Possibly I should.

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Playing at tramps

Once upon a time there was a swanky posh Lahndahn nightclub called Tramps. I never went there and this isn’t about that anyway. Sorry.

For anyone left, it’s about George Orwell and Pulp. If you have any familiarity with either then you can probably guess the rest.

Somehow inexplicably I sort-of missed Pulp. They started in 1978, which was pretty much when my adult story started too, then as Wikipedia puts it, throughout the 1980s struggled to find success. Still, enough about me. Then after slogging away at it for all what must have felt like forever, they released Common People.

Flashback scene of fourteen and fifteen year-old me reading Down & Out In Paris and London, then a little later, The Road To Wigan Pier. For reasons that were never made clear, I had a taste for books like that. Maybe it came from Jack Kerouac, who in my own view at least cemented my cred credentials because a) it was like, the real thing, man, he’d been there. b) Pretty much nobody in my hometown of Trowbridge had heard of him c) Ultra-cred points: he had a name that caught out people who didn’t like, you know, know. I don’t see what more I could have asked for in a teenage muse. Either which way, all of Kerouac’s stuff was about bums, in a way that Razzle and the more usual teenage publications somehow just weren’t. Even Playboy’s extensive exposure of American bums didn’t treat them the way Kerouac did.

Narcissus Und Goldmund was even more seminal, but in a different way to the stuck-together pages of Fiesta. I thought at the time that was the kind of thing fifteen year-olds were supposed to be reading: two monks are best mates, one gets off with a gypsy, realises he’d better leave the monastery before he’s kicked out, goes wandering, becomes a carver, gets off with the wrong person again, runs back to the monastery, emotional reunion, deep spiritual element and all that blah. OK, so not exactly like life in Trowbridge, but enough to resonate. Goldmund needed to wander but he also needed to return. I read the Earth Mother part of it keenly; It was a big thing back then, at least in Wiltshire. Meanwhile, I had a hugely problematic relationship with my real-life mother of a kind that I never found anyone writing about.

Down & Out was about a real-life safari Eric Blair made in the 1930s, leaving his Mummy and Daddy’s house in Southwold to spend some time, in the words of a girl who knew him then and there, ‘pretending to be a tramp.’ My initial reaction to Down & Out was fascination, which rapidly changed to if not contempt, then definitely a sense of wonder. Contrary to the kind I’d guess Orwell was aiming for, I wondered why he’d done it. I didn’t know about his sort-of girlfriend’s reaction for another thirty years or so. But then, there’s not much in the text of Kerouac’s stuff -where our hero spends most of his time in flop-houses, hitch-hiking, drinking and listening to cool jazz when he’s not bumming around America idolizing junkies or looking for forest fires – about ‘and then I went back to my Mum’s for a bit.’

I heard Common People a few days ago and along with I’m Mandy, Fly Me, it’s stuck in my head ever since. Back when songs used to tell a story, long before the format of three lines repeated twelve times and five “song-writers” to achieve even that, the story was about a rich girl who wanted to do what common people do, somewhat to the surprise of the singer. The central conceit among all these cultural references is the same – you can take the kid out of a moneyed background, but you can’t take the moneyed background out of the kid.

OK, Orwell and Kerouac didn’t have mobile phones, unlike the latest model the latest model in Common People undoubtedly did, but the issue is the same: Think this is uncomfortable? Make a phone call and it’ll stop. The whole ‘look what I endured, just like these – let’s say it – Common People categorically is not what they endure at all.

Never live like common people
Never do what common people do
Never fail like common people
You'll never watch your life slide out of view
And then dance and drink and screw
Because there's nothing else to do

Jarvis Cocker, who wrote the song, said at the time “it seemed to be in the air, that kind of patronising social voyeurism… I felt that of Parklife, for example, or Natural Born Killers – there is that noble savage notion. But if you walk round a council estate, there’s plenty of savagery and not much nobility going on.”[8]

I lived on one for six years, dear reader. I didn’t see much savagery, to be honest, but it wasn’t a fun place and I think Pulp had the better point. Being poor isn’t quaint or noble or brave. It’s not even mostly about money. It leaves a lasting fear that really, that’s what life is all about. Not in the manner of a jolly earnest 1930s reformist putting-down his pipe and exclaiming “And thet is what life is all about, comrade!” More in the sense that the fear never goes; life is like that in the sense that it’ll wait, but it won’t have to wait for ever before it calls you back. The fear that one day it’ll come back and dancing, drinking and screwing won’t be an option by then, whatever your old Master at Eton used to say.

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The Lost Towns

In another life I was helping build a market research company. Between the two of us, we did pretty well at starting with pretty much nothing and unlike Seasick Steve, by the time we’d done with it we didn’t still have most of it left. We got some big clients quickly and we did very good work, although quite often it was a lot better than some clients knew they were getting. 

The oddest thing, maybe the best thing about it was the amount of England I got to see. Unlike a lot of pretend researchers we knew something about sampling, making sure that the necessarily limited number of people we could interview or talk to were representative of the many more people that we physically couldn’t. I’d had to learn about sampling and probability, T-Tests and R factors at university. I wasn’t much good at it at first but the uni solved that by telling me they’d throw me off the course if I didn’t get my finger out, so despite my meager C-grade Maths O Level I managed to come third in my entire year in QMD. It meant Quantitative Methods and something beginning with D but I never knew quite what. ‘Disciplines’ didn’t sound right.

We had an agency who couldn’t handle their contract with the Ministry of Defence as our first client and basically did their job for them at a fraction of their fee to MoD. We picked up work for a High Street computer magazine company and tested and evaluate their existing and putative magazines and artworks, hindered slightly by our direct client there wanting to spend much of the consultancy time talking about her issues with her husband, which I felt were somewhat unavoidable given that she was also shagging the CEO. We had a client whose major source of capital was the Barons Court townhouse he’d bought decades previously, who had to hang on doing group discussions in Newcastle suburbs until he could cash it in. A client who pretty much only worked on cigarette packaging who endured evening after evening in hotels munching his way through curling sandwiches while he listened to respondents arguing over which pack they’d put over here with this pile because of the colour, or because of the embossing of the lettering, maybe over here with these.

I remember a misty trip to a closed, out-of-season Chessington Zoo to interview a chef about squirty cream with wild animals grunting and roaring damply just out of sight; another fog-bound trip in the opposite direction, going back with a taped interview about Chantilly cream if not lace, back from some hotel somewhere on the Fosse Way near Loughborough that I wouldn’t now recognise apart from the black stagecoach standing outside it in a glass case. For reasons that were never made clear as Hunter Thompson said so often, for reasons that were. Hotel after odd hotel in the fog, hideous flock-wallpaper commercial hotels near Swansea, Fawlty Towers dosshouses on the red light strip in Leeds but none of them as glowingly remembered as the trip to Plymouth just as Spring was starting nearly thirty years ago. 

Plymouth was about 150 miles away from where we were; it’s never been easy to get to and more so if you confuse it with Portsmouth when you’re planning the trip. It’s absolutely nowhere near there at all. It was very early April and where we were just outside London it had been rainy and cold for weeks. We got down to Plymouth and entered a world of bright sunlight. I’d never been there. Or rather, I think maybe I had; there’s an inexplicable childhood memory of walking with my family through a deserted naval dockyard, back then still full of big white ships with huge guns on them. Improbable as that sounds, out of all the improbable things I remember from being six years old I think that memory still seems one of the more probable. 

On the journey back from Plymouth we went cross country. I’d been to Brixham on holiday when I was six or seven and it was just about on a roundabout route we could take, so we did, skirting the edge of Dartmoor, stopping at a little town that might have been Kingsbridge with a big crossroads somewhere south of the moor, visiting a great shop that sold marvellous things we didn’t buy, with Django Reinhardt music playing on their CD on every floor. Thirty years ago. I’ve never been back and couldn’t if I tried. Shops like that don’t last, certainly not for thirty years, out in the middle of nowhere, however keen and smiling and alive the two women running it ever were. 

We left the town quietly and drove east, out into more nowhere, taking a short cut towards the sea, driving along a deserted flat beach that went on for what seemed like miles, then turning inland just slightly to find a wartime American Sherman tank painted black and parked on a concrete plinth at the side of the road. 

It was there because a local man had put it there. He’d pulled it out of the sea and it was there because of lies and a massive accident. Before the invasion of Normandy it was obvious that maybe it would be a good idea to practice landing on a beach in force, so one night the US Army practiced doing exactly that, at Slapton Sands, which has much the same beach as those across the Channel. Thousands of untried, untested but trained American soldiers were fully kitted out with the same full load of gear they’d have for D-Day, loaded onto ships, taken out into the English Channel, turned around and brought back in to the simulated looks-just-like-it landing beach. Just before they got there it all went horribly wrong, as wars do. Somehow, by luck or accident, German boats got mixed up in the Allied armada. When they opened fire the Americans on the ships thought it was all just part of the exercise. Around 750 of them were killed. “Around” because only about 250 bodies were recovered, which was important because some of the bodies had belonged to people who knew exactly where the invasion was going to take place. Slapton Sands looked like Utah Beach. There was a massive effort to find the bodies of these key figures in a bizarre inversion of normality where it was better to find a dead body than to hope they’d been captured instead. Dead people tell no tales. And ‘around’ because the Allies weren’t exactly going to advertise any of this just weeks before the invasion. And ‘around’ because governments tell lies. There was a mass grave, as you’d need with 750 dead soldiers. Decades later the British government was still lying about the whole episode, not least as it had been a disaster from start to finish, beginning with a friendly-fire incident that was rumoured at the time to have killed 450 soldiers before the Germans started. Fishermen’s trawls got snagged on things on the seabed that according to Her Majesty’s Government were all in their imaginations. It was harder to officially deny the Sherman tank that a man called Ken Small hauled out of Lyme Bay in 1984. 

We stopped and looked at the tank and wondered why it was there. We didn’t know anything about it at the time. Most people didn’t. They probably still don’t. There was nobody around to ask, just our car, the deserted road with the sea on one side and a lagoon on the other and a tank that shouldn’t have been there.

We drove on again and got to Brixham, where the sun was shining and the tops of the palm trees were slightly swaying in the sea breeze and the English Riviera looked like a Real Thing. We stopped at a cafe near the replica of Drake’s ship, the Golden Hind. I’d last seen that when I was six or seven, but this time I had coffee and the distraction of a couple about my age at a table just behind me to one side. They had Northern accents. He looked a bit weedy. She had the largest breasts I have ever seen in my entire life. Blond, unremarkably dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and a denim jacket, completely average-looking except for those most remarkable things of all. Just astonishing. My partner was somewhat less than impressed.

I know, OK? I mean, I’ve gone on training courses and everything. I do know how un-right-on, how dehumanising, how sexualising, how un-personing all that reducing a woman to a single physical attribute sounds. And probably actually is. But they were unbelievable. Even now.

We drove on in the sunlight back through the West Country I grew-up in. I stopped again at some little silent town to stretch my legs. I walked through a yard of some kind, perhaps an old bus station or something to do with a cattle market. I could hear no sound of any kind at all. It was the West Country I remembered, the beautiful old place you have to leave because there’s nothing there any more, or not for me anyway. Some time later on the A303 we stopped again in a picnic area and saw birds bursting out of a hedge, small birds, twenty or thirty of them, and then saw why as a buzzard or a hawk of some kind swooped low over the hedge in pursuit.

One other trips we discovered Iron Masters’ lodges around Sheffield, a gourmet luxury hotel run by an architect who’d gone bust, where I was asked to return a restaurant critic’s trousers to him next time I saw him, which I never had. I remember an almost perfect Georgian town somewhere in the Midlands, somewhere I’d never heard of before and will never see again, one of those places that was doing rather nicely thank-you until it decided it didn’t need the railway to call there. I wondered about all the people who lived there, what they did for jobs, if they knew there was an outside in the Great Not There as it snuggled itself into the darkening night with another three hours of driving ahead of me before I saw home. 

All of this I’d never seen before. I think most people never do. It was the best part of market research, for me; finding out where I came from, seeing the lost towns of England, wondering where home would ever be. 

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Slash and burn

One year you’ll keep buying gadgets, new stuff to make sailing better, or at least more expensive. This year I’ve bought hardly anything. The secret to true sailing happiness has been keeping it simple, with the three things I can’t be without on a boat, or at least, the three things I miss most when I haven’t got them.

A lighter. Sourced from the pound shop at five for £1, any old lighter will do, especially since I haven’t had my brass Zippo since three decades ago when some Norf Lahndahn tyke decided to put my car window in as he needed a light. He also put fifteen other car windows in in that street, that night. Nobody was ever arrested. Hey ho and lackaday, but you’ll need a lighter to seal rope ends, which I’ve obsessed about before.

Marlow tape. It could be any kind really, and Gaffa tape will do in a pinch, but putting this over a rope or line where you want to cut it makes a world of difference if you do it FIRST, not after you’ve cut it.

The knife. OK, I do get a bit obsessive about sailing knives, mainly because I’ve wanted a Myerchin since I first saw one twenty years ago. But. This one is my current favourite. It’s a Wichard, it’s stainless steel, it has just the one semi-serrated blade for when you can’t be arsed to sharpen it and a shackle key cum bottle opener which doesn’t need sharpening. Wichards are French and it shows in the particular shade of bleu for the handle and something about the simplicity of the design. I like it anyway, not least as I got it covered in oil and toolbox grime for £2 at a boot sale. White spirit on kitchen towel sorted that out. The fey little Occitan touch about the prayer bead/retainer wrist-loop was all my own.

They’re simple things but they make a huge difference, especially when an old line needs replacing or you suddenly think ‘mmmm, maybe if I just shortened this, or ran this line over here but it’s too long… oh, wait….’

You can bodge it. You can even get away with not having the knife and the tape if you’ve got a lighter, some time and a place out of the wind. But this unholy trinity makes life and working with lines a lot easier.

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End of season

It was probably the last day of sailing this year yesterday. Frankly, it can’t happen soon enough. Last year was fantastic sailing; four or sometimes even five days a week, sailing after work, sailing deep into November. Some of those later sailing days weren’t so much fun, to be honest, a combination of not having the main sail downhaul tight enough, the idiotic tendency of the Drascombe Lugger to go backwards and/or turn itself round thanks to the mizzen sail and the absence for the most part of my brilliant crew member, who found she had a load of work on and couldn’t spare the time.

All looking decidedly summer’s end.

High Water was half-twelve at Martlesham, so I was on the water at just after half-past ten. The plan was to go all the way down to Ramsholt or failing that, the Rocks, then back, then boat out and a power wash, then the long slog through the winter of new anti-foul, sorely needed after I tried to get two years out of the winter 2020 application. This winter I want to get everything out of the boat, remove all the interior hull fittings entirely and then repaint the decks. The boat is getting on for fifty years old. It’s very sound, but weed, mud and general being-used has left it looking past its best. But fixable, very fixable if I first have this last sail today.

Except the engine wouldn’t start. Or rather, it started just fine, but it wouldn’t rev and after a minute or so running just above tickover it slowly died. For once the wind was blowing from the west, so I could sail out of the creek. It usually changes enough to get back in two or three hours. Usually. I changed the spark plug for a new one, marvelled that the old one worked at all when I saw the sooty old one but it didn’t make much difference. Whatever it is, it’s not the sparkplug. It still died three quarters of the way through the moorings and the clock was ticking. I untied the jib and pulled the port sheet and we sailed out anyway, centreboard up to go straight across the bends in the creek and save some time. When I finally had time to look at my watch it was 11:20am.

Note to Royal Yachting Association, Sea Scouts or anyone with a boat: Don’t do this. It’s dumb. It’s only safe in fine weather and it takes most of the fun out of sailing.

But I did it anyway, obviously. The plan, such as it was, was get out of the creek, moor to a bouy off Kyson’s Point as usual, sort out the sails, head south down the Deben to the fabled paradise of Ramsholt, failing that the Rocks, failing that go round the island at Waldringfield, all of which looked possible. The wind out in the Deben is usually different to the wind in Martlesham Creek where it was from the West. In the Deben it was blowing from the north. It’s the trees, the hills and the general cussedness of the river, which is why that part is and always has been called Troublesome Reach.

Drascombes don’t sail fast and downwind they sail a lot slower. I saw another boat coming up from Waldringfield; Alex whose grandfather knew Arthur Ransome, in his own modern adaptation, a Deben Lugger, a lug rig and carbon spars. It shifted through the water a lot faster than mine but he was going upsteam, I was going the other way.

The first thing was the main sail wasn’t up, so I lashed the tiller and sorted that, then re-tensioned the downhaul. I’d used some old line I had hanging around. Modern nylon stuff hadn’t worked and now it had been happily absorbing moisture under its cover in October, nor did this stuff. It jammed in the bronze tunnel cleat. It would have to do I thought, but in the end it didn’t. After half an hour the wind had shifted to blow straight up the river from the south, so I was close-hauled into it. And for that you definitely need the downhaul jammed tight. I had to take out to the other side of the river to clear Coprolite Quay, twice. Coprolite, for those who don’t know, is dinosaur poo. When the Victorians discovered it lay in huge quantities under the Suffolk Sandlings it became a huge export industry, sent out by sea, which meant from here. The tide was massive today and I could hardly see the top of the quay. Made of concrete and very, very solid indeed it was something I definitely didn’t want to run into.

I’d changed the mainsheet mid-season because the old one, too thick, kept jamming in the blocks so I swapped that out to use as a mooring warp and substituted some brand-new 8mm slinky braid that slipped through the blocks like a snake. It also slipped through the jamming cleat too, not least because one of them had disintegrated its spring so it didn’t flip closed. I never use the horn cleats Drascombes have because I’ve always thought them an accident looking for somewhere to happen. The only way to use a horn cleat is to loop the line around it, over the end, make a loop, reverse it then drop that over the other end of the horn. It’s neat, with practice it’s quick and it’s tight. It’s also a pain to get undone in a hurry without a knife, which is why on a gusty river with a fickle wind it’s something you don’t even want to think about if you don’t like the idea of being 90 degrees tipped-over. Which I’m too old for.

Because I was pointing too close to the wind progress was slow. We got down into the pool below Coprolite and I looked for a bouy to moor up to so I could sort out the downhaul and generally tidy up. The problem was that every one of them was either a race can or a channel marker. Not one of them had a rope on it, or even a ring to put a rope through. It was time to turn around. I’d planned to go through the New Cut, dug in the 1800s to make the river more manageable for the bigger ships that were coming, with predictable results. The ships kept getting bigger and the New Cut couldn’t make enough of a difference to stop them going somewhere else. I’ve heard all the tales of the old barges carrying grain and everything else down this river to London and how the old boys who sailed them carried on into the 1920s, maybe even the 1950s without engines, but I’ve also thought there’s only one reason anyone would do that; they couldn’t afford an engine.

We turned around and headed up river. Alex was long gone in his carbon StarTrek Lugger and I couldn’t clearly see where the New Cut was in this huge tide. I could see the green hull of Peter Duck, one of Ransome’s boats, clear across where the reedy island usually is and today wasn’t. I didn’t want to get stuck there for twelve hours. A powerboat was coming up behind me and being higher he could see more clearly. He came past to port and I followed him in then turned West towards Peter Duck to pick up one of the mooring buoys there.

Csn you see the problem? Nothing to do with spark plugs.

It all went less than optimal from there. I changed the spark plug because who doesn’t carry a spare? It made zero difference. Started first pull but wouldn’t rev, then what revs there were just died away to nothing. Ok, I’ll sail it back on jib and mizzen, because frankly I couldn’t be arsed to put the main up again and anyway the wind was getting up now, blowing from the south in the Deben and I didn’t want to be overpowered coming-in to the moorings solo. I had to go pretty much all the way to the end of Troublesome to have enough leeway to turn and go straight up Martlesham Creek, where predictably, the wind was blowing from the West again, straight down the creek at me, with the tide going out as well now. I dropped the sails, got the oars out and rowed. It’s only half a mile.

A Lugger happily fantails into the wind when you’re rowing. Add to that that I can’t see behind me and it all took a while to get back. Good exercise, but I was looking for a pleasant sail instead of a workout.

I was out for just over four hours and came away hot, sweaty and not best pleased. I went back today and sorted everything. The engine wouldn’t rev and eventually wouldn’t start because if you look at the picture above, there’s a kink in the fuel line after the fuel filter. Nothing to do with cleaning the filter, blowing through it, dirty petrol, old petrol, bad spark plug, evil spirits, none of that. Just no fuel getting through. A bit of jiggling the line around and it runs fine. While I was there I got rid of the daft German mainsheet arrangement, put a spare block on and attached the other double block directly to the horse. I still need a jammer cleat for the mainsheet, but I know where I can get a nice brass tube cleat that will fit on the tiller arm.

After that pump out the bilge, after that cut some of the nice new red braid line for the downhaul, and that works really well in the brass tube cleat at the base of the mast. Then re-arrange the step fender tied-on at the stern so that if I actually do manage to go overboard singlehanded I stand a chance of being able to get back into the boat.

The last thing was re-tying every line that went around horn cleats, so front and aft mooring warps. I’d watched You Tube and found an absolutely brilliant, quick, safe, fast trick for cleat hitches and horn cleats. The fact I can do it one-handed with my left hand without even thinking and do it much more slowly using my right or both hands is just one of those things. It’s a really seriously good trick.

All in I spent about two and a half hours doing all this today. It was time well-spent. I think I enjoy this stuff more than actually sailing, or certainly sailing on the Deben with its ridiculous wind-shifts. I don’t know if there will be any more sailing this year. The boat’s still in the water if I do but the clocks go back this weekend, the time when I think ‘only six weeks, that’s all you have to cope with, just six weeks and it’ll start getting lighter, you can cope with that.’ And I can. There’ll be another summer on the water. With any luck at all I’ll be there to sail it.

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A question of balance

When I was a kid we got a big coat each winter, which meant a trip to Bath or Bristol, where the big shops and bright lights were. It was a special time, more for the excitement of strange things than the inevitable argument over the fact that actually a coat that made me look like a Poundland Ziggy Stardust probably wasn’t the best option for a West Country January, let alone a Wiltshire school. What was more rubbish was shoes.

While coats were obviously a big-ticket-big-trip item, shoes didn’t seem to be. Ever since I could buy my own they’ve been more or less of a disaster either in terms of being utterly rubbish, like the three-colour 1970s abominations that made me look like one of Ken Dodd’s Diddymen, or in terms of their cost, like the impulse-buy coming-out-of-a-great-meeting-and-finding-a-sale-rack Gucci loafers. Admittedly, for the conference of Greek shipping tycoons in Limassol I was buying them for they were entirely perfect and seventeen years on still are, but £400 and something in a fricken sale does seem a little on the excessive side. It was the same with the John Lobb black monk shoes from Jermyn Street, again bought in a sale. That wasn’t the time I got bounced out of £100 in five minutes for two ties in Turnbull & Asser, when in any event Your Honour, drink had been taken and after the undivided attention of Young Adam at Trumper’s I was in an expansive mood. It’s entirely possible that I should add that yes, I know lots of people can’t afford shoes, let alone £400-in-a-sale shoes. In my defence, when I was a kid my shoes were crap. Now I can fix that. So I am.

But anyway, fast forward calendar to this week. We’re going on holiday, definitely not by accident. We’re going to be doing a lot of serious up-mountains walking (no, really actually mountains) and at the same time we’re going to be near Capri and we’re not talking Ford, so we need to look at least half-way decent. Due to my advanced years and dated preconceptions I don’t think I can walk in anywhere nice in trainers and frankly I wouldn’t want to be there if I could. There’s a perfectly good pair of Italian Zamberlan walking boots in their box in the cupboard but they don’t look the kind of thing you could go to dinner in anywhere half-decent. So, new boots time.

They ought to be ok?

And this is where the balance thing comes in. Seven years ago I bought a pair of Dubarry jodhpur boots in their sale for £99, half-price. They had a Goretex lining, a bit of a cleated sole and all told they were absolutely perfect for pretty much everything from going to the Saturday Market to tour-guiding to teaching to going for a walk in the fields. I got four years out of them before the sole got too thin to wear, when I took them to the local shoe mender. Who promptly messed-them up. To be fair, they did a brilliant job with a pair of Alfred Sargent veldtschoen boots when they put a Dainite sole on them after only ten years on the original leather, but the Dubarry’s were literally unwearable and got banished to the boot of the car, in case of the kind of emergency when you suddenly need a pair of boots that don’t quite fit comfortably. Falling-in sailing, for example. All of which pointed to looking at the Dubarry website for a sale when it came to new boots with some tread that didn’t look as if I’d just climbed the Matterhorn in them.

They arrive tomorrow; Dundas 01s

In between ordering them online and actually getting them today I found something else online, also half-price. The trouble was that their half-price was literally double the half-price of the Dubarry’s, then a bit more. The Dubarry pair, rather to my surprise, were made in Portugal, where they make good shoes very cheaply, but that doesn’t entirely fit with the hand-made in Ireland story I’d come to expect from Dubarry. This other, putative pair of Dundas 01s were made in Norway. I think. They should arrive tomorrow. This picture, below, shows what got me about them.

Renewable, recyclable, pretty much forever.

Now, at current exchange rates, thanks to the overwhelming prudence and sagacity of this Conservative government, these boots should cost £412. Because I am not as rich as creasote (as Wodehouse put it) I didn’t pay that for them, or anywhere near. But the balance point is this: do I pay £100-ish for boots that will last five years or double that for boots that will last literally the rest of my life, and I don’t mean if I die next Tuesday? I know which I should do. I just don’t know if I will. Let’s see what happens when they turn up tomorrow.

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A hymn to stupidity

The song remains the same.

I’ve got Covid. I’m not too ill apart from the kidney ache that I get when I have a bad cold, which is what I thought it was, but something about that ‘having a cold’ experience (also known as Being English) wasn’t right. Before lockdown I used to get a cold twice a year, once in Spring and once in Autumn, so I wasn’t too surprised. Except it’s not a cold. It’s caused by stupidity, lies and selfishness.

This is the third time I’ve had Covid, but I only had it twice. In January 2020 my partner and I both had a bizarre pain in our left arms, sudden left arm weakness that didn’t go away, and hacking coughs. Winter cold, we thought. Bad one, but a winter cold. Funny about the arm thing.

We both think that was the first bout of it, while Her Majesty’s Government was doing what it does best, prevaricating, denying scientific evidence when it doesn’t suit its own dogma and lying.

We had a great lockdown, thanks. Seriously, it was brilliant. I got furlough pay, my partner’s business boomed as people were forced to stay home and look at their curtains, think ‘hmm, these are pretty tatty now’ and order some decent hand-made ones from her. But best of all, we got to walk for a couple of hours every day, along field paths where we never saw anyone else ever. When we got back we’d play three games of chess. Our game improved fabulously. It was a pretty good time, for us at least.

The second time was just before Christmas 2021. My partner had a hacking cough that wouldn’t go away. I didn’t have anything but we both went to our nearest test station, to get the official test. There were about eight people in Hi-viz vests in a carpark. No signs saying which way to go in, so we went in the ‘wrong’ way. After that, and the tongs through the car window and the mix-up with the tests (we saw them do it) I got ‘diagnosed’ positive and my poor partner hacking away in the passenger seat was ‘negative.’

But this. We had all our jabs. Unfortunately, we also had a government led by a convicted liar which basically can’t be bothered to do much, whether it’s keeping its international obligations, enforcing its own immigration laws or having a proper track and trace system that isn’t run by a government Minister’s wife with a consistent track record of failure, a system that managed to chew-up tens of billions when a perfectly usable German system was offered to it free-of-charge. The same government was led by a man who boasted of not wearing a mask, encouraging millions of thick people to do the same. Which they still are. Which they almost all were in London when we went the week before last.

Which is why I now have Covid. I’m not mellowing as I get older. Just getting more angry with the cult of stupid.

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Greencastle blue

About this time a while ago I drove across America in a $200 Chevrolet. I’d haggled the price down and bought it after I found it in Wisconsin where I was working in my first, most memorable job, teaching kids to shoot on a summer camp.

We’d put up the flag in the morning, do breakfast, clean the cabin in those not-so-dear dead days when safeguarding hadn’t been invented, which meant you had to sleep in the same pre-teen room as twelve ten-year-olds, or ten twelve-year-olds. I could never remember which. Most days I’d be on my shooting range, teaching, but some nights we’d get a pass off-camp. I’d get in my car and drive to Eagle River, or because the only thing interesting there was a gunsNgifts shop where I stupidly didn’t buy the 1840s percussion Aston pistols they were practically giving away. Nobody seemed to know what they were, hanging from a nail in the ceiling; take ’em away for $50 apiece. Take ’em both for $75. They must have been there practically from the end of the Civil War.

Gene Fleck’s Meadow Inn Bar was a much more interesting place. It had a bar, for a start. Gene was a Hungarian refugee from the 1956 Russian invasion. He was into guns too, but to be fair, most people had a gun around the house somewhere. Gene’s was a useful Remington 742, a semi-auto with a scope. Gene, like most people around there, used it to take down deer in winter. With the old US wartime 30-06 rounds he could have taken down walls with it. Before that I’d never been in a bar where I was passed a rifle with my drink and told to have a look at it.

But the Meadow Inn Bar had other good things going. Like girl camp counsellors from other nearby camps. One of them ended-up inviting me to her parent’s house after summer camp ended. I’d been meaning to take a drive anyway. The house was in a place called Greencastle, which was as close to Bedford Falls as you could probably hope to get. Railroad tracks split the town in two; Nancy-Jean’s (no, really) folks lived in one of the bigger 1960s houses up on the hill bordering the golf course. Naturally enough. Dad worked for IBM, Mom was a book-keeper at the sawmill across the tracks, there were two cars in every garage, a V1 rocket on a plinth brought home by Our Boys after they done saved Yerp with Patton. Dillinger robbed the bank there in 1932, there was a town square, a courthouse, a diner, a McDonalds, pre-Civil War houses, a university and a rodeo. Apart from the total lack of a bookshop or anything remotely similar to one it sure looked like heaven to me, coming from 1980s Wiltshire.

I worked for about a week in the sawmill there. Like a refugee from a Springsteen song I worked construction on what had been an orphanage. The stone pillars around the Gone With The Wind front door were fake. I found out when I tapped one. They were cast iron and hollow, made in Birmingham, Englandshire, according to the casting on the bottom of them. The names of some of the teachers there were carved into the cellar steps dating from 20 years before and there was a room upstairs I wouldn’t have cared to sleep in, despite it being broad daylight every time I went there in my workboots and bandana.

I drove out on I-70 and got to Aspen, hunting Hunter Thompson (note to self for next life a) do not hunt down teenage idols b) if you have a goal, have another one handy for when you achieve the first one). I came back to London, left London, moved to Suffolk, went back to New York, San Diego, Cupertino and D.C. but somehow never quite made it back to the middle of the Mid-West in a $200 Chevrolet. Early on in lockdown though, I walked past a car restoration place and there she was, in about the same state, the same old Kingswood Classic, even the same colour.

Snarkness on the edge of town.

Sometimes I Googled Greencastle to see what was going on. Tornados that pulled houses apart, Bike rides to see all the covered bridges on gravel roads. Not much. Not much ever did. The nice houses up by the golf course were a lot cheaper than I’d expect if they were in England, but that’s true of pretty much anywhere. A restaurant opened up in the courthouse square that looked like the kind of place the Dukes of Hazard would stop by to see Daisy working the lunch counter. Nancy-Jean’s mom died and I found-out why the house prices never rose that much. A year or two after I was there IBM shut the plant. When you do that in a town of 8,000 people you’re lucky if the whole place doesn’t curl up and die. I thought, back in London, that Springsteen songs were just about places that banged bits of steel together, populated by people too dumb to wear ear-protection. I didn’t even guess that IBM could do the same to a town with white-collar four-car families telling each other those jobs are going boys, and they ain’t coming back.

It was long ago and far away, as Meatloaf used to sing before he got Covid. It wasn’t so much better than it is today, for lots of reasons. But I’m older, and when you’re older you remember the places you can’t go to anymore, not least because they aren’t there, or if they are then you can’t possibly be the same person you were when you were there.

Somehow along the way I found A.E. Housman, whose poetry my school never even touched upon although it really ought to have done. I’d say this was pretty good advice to any Sixth Former, or anyone aged around 21 and gone.

When I was one-and-twenty I heard a wise man say, ‘Give crowns and pounds and guineas; But not your heart away; Give pearls away and rubies; But keep your fancy free.’ But I was one-and-twenty, no use to talk to me.

A.E. Housman

That’s not the stanza from A Shropshire Lad that comes to mind when I think about Greencastle though. It wasn’t the girl, the gunshop, the rodeo, the golf-club, my old car, not even the sawmill and the railroad tracks. It wasn’t John Dillinger, Hunter Thompson, cooking crepes in Aspen nor really, any of it.

It’s just that certain knowledge that time passes and like those jobs and house prices in Greencastle, it ain’t coming back. Those are the Greencastle blues. They’ll go, as all things do, but this summer night they’re back for a while.

Into my heart an air that kills from yon far country blows. What are those blue remembered hills? What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content, I see it shining plain. The happy highways where I went and cannot come again.

Housman, A Shropshire Lad Stanza XL

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Until we go back

My step-sister died on Good Friday. Mine was a family of secrets and lies, secrets about names, especially of those who had died. There were lies about where people had come from and the actually very historically evident members of the family whose existence I’ve had to deduce online. I appreciate that in some ways a dead wife or girlfriend has the most massive advantage over a living one; you can’t have an absolutely massive row about the bins or the particularly idiotic choice of nail varnish colour that might suit a shop-girl 40 years younger but will hardly do for this dinner party, will it? And all the other can’t-speak-ill-of-the-dead stuff that applies. Being dead means never getting older, never putting on weight, never being called that fat cow/stupid bitch/totally mad woman ever again, by absolutely anyone who doesn’t want the entire room freezing them out for the next half hour as an absolute minimum. They’re literally beyond criticism.

None of this, I have to say, applies to my step-sister. It certainly did to her mother, who died over fifty years ago. Until this week, I didn’t know her name, nor when she died. There were two photos in the house in Trowbridge, both showing my step-sister and her brother and the mystery woman whose name was never to be spoken. If it wasn’t actually that then it certainly never was spoken in my hearing. It certainly did to a friend’s Dead French Girlfriend, who he’d talk about when he had drink taken, as it’s sometimes put. He told me once he thought and had reason to think that she’d died carrying his baby, but by then she was engaged to someone French, the past is another country, and besides, the wench is dead. His wife hated Dead French Girlfriend’s name even being mentioned. But omissions are no better than lies. Discuss.

My step-sister didn’t do lies, nor so far as I know, omissions. I hadn’t seen her for a couple of years, but then again, thanks to Covid, who has? And just like Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi, you don’t know what you had till it’s gone.

She was ten years older than me. I wrote about her once. When I was 18 she seemed like looking at a still from a film I hadn’t seen. I knew I would, whether or not it was quite the same, as it turned out not quite to be.

My partner Elisabetta and I dreamed last night, two sides of the same dream. We dreamed about cats and teddy bears. We don’t have a cat. In her dream as she said, “They weren’t real. They were like jelly babies.”

The cat in my dream died seventeen years ago. Even as I write that I think it can’t be true, but it is. My big teddy bear was exactly himself in the dream. So was my lovely cat, except that they were walking to the top of a sunny hill, hand in hand, like Piglet and Pooh, as I followed close behind them.

They had captions in my dream, probably because I speak only a bit of get-you-by Cat and even less fluent Teddy Bear. Hardly any, in fact.

One said, “What should we do?”

The other replied, “Help each other, until we go back into the dark.”

Elisabetta was crying out in her sleep. I woke having to bite my lip really quite hard , then find my big teddy bear and pat his foot, to make sure he wasn’t moving. He was still there, where I knew he was. My step-sister not so.

Christmas 1980 Carl Bennett and Celia Scholes 1949 – 2022

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Walking Back

Today, 77 years ago, the 8th United States Army Air Force flew its last combat mission in WW11. Eleven years ago one of the pilots on that mission was staying with me in Suffolk. He told me how he’d nearly not made it.

Not from enemy action, but because he’d been at a dance in Ipswich the night before and missed his transport back to base. There were no buses, no trains, nothing moving on the roads, so he had to walk back to Station 373, near Leiston. It’s twenty-two miles.

A couple of years ago I walked half of the route to see how it had changed, but also because I had my doubts that it could be done. Like anything else, it depends on when it’s to be done. Being under 21 helps, too. He was, at the time. I’m not, exactly.

Walking Back, produced for Radio Suffolk

I also did it because I’d told him I would. Some of the road has disappeared now, buried under a dual carriageway making all of the walk a lot more dangerous than it was on a cold Spring night in 1945, although of course, I didn’t have people shooting at me later the same morning. To be fair, thanks to the USAAF’s previous attentions to the Luftwaffe, nor did he.

The original radio script was for 30 minutes. It was a bit of a bracer when they told me I had five. Since then I’ve been trying to flesh out the 30 minute script as something more, but I’ve never been clear exactly what. A travel book about a place you can’t go to, perhaps. A history of one evening. I don’t know if it will ever get finished. I don’t think I can do it justice. Nor the old man I knew.

Back on the handstand where his airplane used to be. The only place or time I saw tears.

He told me a lot of stories from those times, some silly, some desperately sad. He told me about the helplessness when two miles up airplanes broke apart nearby and he saw ten-man bomber crews start their fall to earth. He told me about the thing that still made him ashamed; it was thinking how beautiful the colours of the flash were when he saw a German plane explode close by. He was not a saint, in his relationships or his attitudes. I remember the time he was describing the cover of a book I’d loaned him; it showed a German aircraft as he said, “on its correct course….”

“Straight down into the ground with smoke coming out of it.”

I went to take some pictures at the airfield one summer’s day after his last visit. The wind was gusting as I picked my way past the piles of broken concrete that had been runways. There was a hut that had been used for pigs in the 1960s, with dates painted on the walls and doors. 

As I looked through the camera I  tried to imagine how busy this empty place must have been. The wind carried men’s voices, talking as they worked on something, all the time I was taking pictures, but when I’d finished taking pictures and looked around to see who it was there was nobody there at all.

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