Reeling in the years

When I was a kid we periodically had no money. Oh, how times change! One of the things then that made life more inconvenient was cars. Specifically, the way they’d fall apart.

Rust was the big killer. It killed a Morris Minor we had, that a scrap man took away and put £1 through the letter box. We thought we might have to pay him. My 14 year-old infatuation with a beautiful Fiat was sensibly sidelined, as Fiats lasted about 20 minutes back then. My first VW Beetle had a hole through the door. A friend’s Peugeot had a hole in the floor you could put your feet through, although it wasn’t recommended. Household monthly budgets would have a similar sized hole driven straight through them when MoT time came and the word ‘sills’ conveyed an almost supernatural dread.

Probably the best.

It was MoT time for my lovely old Saab this week. Or in fact it wasn’t, not until 27th, but as the car’s somehow inexplicably alarmingly 18 years old this year I got the MoT done three weeks early just in case. It was just as well I did.

I replied to some email that came to me from I know not where. It promised that my MoT would be done for £20, not £35. That someone would come and pick my car up from my house and test it and bring it back.

That if anything needed doing they’d phone me before the test, in case I decided that at that age it just wasn’t worth doing. But at that age, at my age, I discovered that I don’t know anything about cars and their ages any more.

A friend’s BMW just died. Literally. It was about eight years old and I quite coveted it, but a month or so ago she switched on, drove down the lane and found that after two hundred yards there just wasn’t any engine. The cam chain had snapped, because someone clever had decided that they shouldn’t use cam chains but cam belts instead, that instead of lasting the life of the car, pretty much last just about 40,000 miles or four years, after which you’re on borrowed time. She got a couple of hundred from a garage which claimed it was doing her a favour. I don’t know if they said ‘luv,’ as well.

And it makes no sense. Cars used to have a life of about six years before they were in falling to bits zone. Rust killed them. Now that it doesn’t, engine life seems to match the useful span of an Austin Allegro. Except on cars as old as the Saab, which still have steel chains doing the business.

The internet garage as I think of them, had a surprise for me. Emissions, guv. Old, innit? Two litre turbo annat. Failed on emissions. Prolly yer catalytic converter. Could be yer fuel injectors but I reckon iss the injector. £650 guv. Plus the VAT acourse. Want us to get on and do it this afternoon?

Oddly, no, I didn’t. I didn’t really know what to do, not least as the garage told me that ‘the law’s changed’ and if a car fails its MoT now, it’s failed. My cunning plan to use the spare three weeks wouldn’t work. I was stuffed, stuck out in the middle of nowhere with a piece of scrap metal. Except it was all a lie.

After I’d calmed down and decided not to lie in the A12 on a dark night I checked online to see a way around the ‘grey area;’ I was told now surrounded the MoT. And it’s what garages used to call total bollocks. The idea that you can’t drive a faield MoT car is true enough, but the old MoT is valid until it would have expired by date, not duie to whatever else has happened. It’s on the government’s own website, clear as day.

As for the catalytic converter. £130 on Ebay, £120 to fit it and we’re back in business. Almost. The Saab failed the re-test back at my proper garage in the next village, after they’d bolted on the new catalytic converter and surprised themselves and me with a reading that implies the government ought to be paying me for cleaning the air each time I start the engine.

There was a hole in the rear wheel arch, inside. Now, I know it’s muddy and around here there’s pretty much no point cleaning your car until March, what with silage, mud, ice, suicidal pheasant and this week kamikase hares littered around the lanes. But it’s a pretty major part of the MoT test. Sills, guv. Another day, £150 cash, with no funny forms and percentages to do and the lovely walnut dashboard reflects my less-worried face again.

Next the brakes. And Ebay again, sourcing £50 discs for a ludicrous £8.33 each, proper Unipart ones, for reasons unclear to me and which astonishes the garage. But that’s the thing about living in an old-fashioned place. You can talk to people and they’re quite happy to share the work you can do with the work they can do. I’ve got a knack for finding things (not like that, officer). They’re just nice and they do that rare thing now: what they say they’re going to do, when they say they’re going to do it.

So cue up the Springsteen car songs, push the button to roll the hood down (yes of course I’ve had the hood down this year. Last weekend in fact, at the request of a friend’s young son and his mate, back from football. Yes obviously we froze. It’s January) and try not to imagine another friend’s description of an encounter she had in the back of one of these.

Try not to imagine because she’s tall and there’s no room in the back. And because it wasn’t my car. And most of all because it makes me inexplicably jealous. But that’s another story altogether and besides, the wench is nowhere near dead.

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Living in the past

In Suffolk it’s always about 40 years ago, but for the past two days it’s been a lot more than that. There was a big storm. It woke me up before the alarm at ten to seven yesterday morning. It’s now seven pm the next day. The electricity has just come back on.

I live in the old brewhouse of a Georgian country house. Everything here is electric. There are no fireplaces in a brewhouse. Luckily, one of my things has been fire. I like making fires. I always have. Which also means I have lots of things to set light to things. No, I don’t know why either officer, but it’s been pretty useful, frankly.

For hot drinks (vital for boosting morale among the troops, skipper) I had my trust Kelly Kettle handy, which is essentially a double-skinned metal chimney. You put the water in the cavity aroujnd the chimney and light a fire at the bottom. It takes one Financial Times special report on engineering investment opportunities in Botswana to boil a litre of water. The only issue was that I had to do this outside, having no fireplace.

Quite a good incendiary bomb.

Heating food was another matter. I have used the firebox on the Kelly Kettle as a stove base, last April in Dorset and idyllic though it was, not something I wanted to repeat kneeling on gravel. I had two other options though, a hexamine stove and an antique Primus. If you have one of these, do yourself a favour and put it straight on Ebay so that someone else can stick a towel under the tap before their kitchen catches fire from the spray of burning biofuel. To be fair, it worked ok-ish on paraffin but I switched to something more environmentally-friendly. Which was a good idea until I became the endangered species. Junk it.

The hexy stove was at nominally safer. Issued by the gazillion to the German army under the name of the Esbit stove and to the British army as hexamine stoves, these burn little white tablets that burn smokelessly to not give away your position to the enemy for exactly seven minutes, enough time to just about boil a pint of water. Two tablets one after the other are enough to re-heat a family-sized amount of vegetable stew to boiling. It’s probably a very good idea not to touch the metal stove for a bit, I found.

Yeah, bye, Alladin….

So much for cooking and drinking. Lighting was another issue. I have a Tilly lamp but after the first pressurised paraffin incident I wanted to avoid another, quite urgently. Luckily I have two Bi-Alladin paraffin lamps. These would have been better if I had mantles for them but they cost about £20 each, so I don’t. Without them they burn dimly unless you turn the wick up high, in which case they guzzle fuel. The good corollary of this is they produce a lot of heat, which was frankly welcome.

Candles. Tea lights. A wind-up torch. One of those stupid headlamps (no, what are they actually FOR? Really?) Best of all, for Day One anyway, was my old paraffin lantern, taken off the boat for the winter.

Day Two wasn’t so good. I think maybe the wick had burned down and I made a hash of taking it apart to adjust it. More accurately, taking it apart, like the motorbikes I used to have, that was pretty easy; it was the getting it all back together so that it actually works that proved problematic.

All in all it was a good learning experience. It taught me that just because something looks good doesn’t mean it’s any good for you.  Admittedly, chosing slightly more partners on that basis in the past would have been a better idea but it’s not a perfect world. It taught me that simple solutions are the best solutions. And that I need to sort out off-grid electricity, at least for basics like lighting, as soon as I can.

Apart from candles (light, cheap, warming, nice ambience), people stopped using old things because they found better things. Not necessarily high-tech things. Just better thought out. Now all I need to do is shake the hexamine headache and I’ll be fine. The past is another country. They do things differently there. And a lot of the things they did were dim. Literally.

 

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Undead babies

Ok, I stole the title from Martin Amis. Me and Marty, we’re like that, you know (elaborately mimes two clenched hands)? But for all that, this actually happened. I didn’t dream it. And I have absolutely no explanation for it. It happened, as many of the most memorable things in my life, in Dorset. Specifically in Lyme Regis, or even more specifically, outside it in the Undercliff. Magical though it is, you can’t see much in there because it’s a ravine, so all the lovely seascapes you came there for are invisible most of the time, so we planned our walk to do both: walk out along the beach, then when we’d got fed-up falling over slippery rocks in the wrong shoes, cut up one of the streams leading off the cliff, find the Undercliff path and go home that way, preferably via the Volunteer.

Pond-hopping along the beach seemed hard work back then and I was really pleased to find it was just as hard when I went back last April, after far too long away. New boots, new coat, new someone I was with that day, but the same Lyme magic, the same sun sparkling off the blue water, the same smell of expectation and hope. It’s just a place that makes me happy, for all its oddness. And what happened was more than a bit odd.

We found some fossils because you can’t avoid it, but most of them, as always, are about three feet across and cemented into rocks that must weigh about a hundredweight so no point even trying to take them home, apart from the fact that I know zip about fossils and I never worked out what you’re actually supposed to do with them. It was Easter, but it’s Lyme, where the sun shines and we didn’t know much about the tides. We learned about them later in our lives and very nearly ended them, but that’s another story for another time.

We knew all the streams flowed down things called chines, little valleys which if they weren’t actually paths would let us scramble up into the Undercliff and find the path. Some of it was literally a scramble, so we did. About half-way up we met a group of people coming down.

It wasn’t imagination but they looked like something out of a Lidl advertisement: clean, long-limbed, Tuetonically athletic and casually blond. About seven of them, aged from late twenties to early sixties. We all said hello. From the back of their group, up the hill, they were passing things down to the bottom and being too far apart they were throwing the things to each other like rugby players cheating. Small packs, a blanket roll. Something else.

As it went past me I had a strange thought. When they’d gone I talked to my friend and asked her what the people had been throwing down to each other, passed by a six or ten foot throw, one to the other. She looked at me, worried. She asked me what I thought they’d been throwing, slightly disturbed, in that English oh-silly-me-it-couldn’t-possibly-be-but-I-thought way that people do when they’re actually seriously worried and don’t want to scare the person they’re talking to.

What we thought one of the things they were throwing, happily, confidently and practiced, down the cliff, one to another, was a baby. Even now, twenty years on, we’re both still sure it was.

 

 

 

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My happy space

I don’t know when I found it. Maybe when I was small, but although I can remember Weymouth and Weston-super-Mare and Clevedon I don’t have any memory of Lyme Regis. Geography field trips went there from school, but I didn’t do Geography A Level, so that wasn’t it either.

I think it was the French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowles’ masterpiece that I read when I was 20. I remember reading it and re-reading it, then The Magus, and Daniel Martin, of course the car-crash can’t-not-look-at-it The Collector, A Maggot and the Ivory Tower and Mantissa. I think the French L’s W did it.

The Collector was a hard act to follow and it rocketed Fowles from ‘Who?” to definitive Sixties Writer with his beard and his Guernsey and bluntly, his gut, according to the sleeve notes pictures. Jealous, me? Damn right. He got out of town and high-tailed it to the kind of place you only found on BBC2 in those days, Lyme Regis, a half-forgotten slice of Georgiana on the instep of the Isles. No railway went there since Dr Beeching sorted that out, but the viaduct is still there.

I used to go there with a friend when she’d bought Thomas Hardy’s sister’s schoolhouse, almost by accident. It was about an hour away. We went there by 2CV, by Harley-Davidson, by company cars and always loved it, each time for the past 30 years and more now. And I still can’t say exactly why I love this place so much. It’s not just the fact it has its own theatre, or the the Undercliff. It’s certainly not the shade of John Fowles, given that nothing of his came close to the FLW, certainly not the bizarre casting of Meryl Streep in the movie. I mean, seriously? Pinter’s screenplay was good, but A Maggot was a bit of showing-off, the Ivory Tower pointless so far as I could see and Mantissa simply priggish as well as showing-off in the manner of later Ian McEwan, all look-how-much-research-I-done as he splurges it all over every single page of the book, pretending to be a lawyer or a neurosurgeon or a man who does something boring with solar panels. Fowles did the same with psychiatry in Mantissa but he did a much worse thing. He wrote every character with exactly the same vocabulary.

But enough of John Fowles. He’s dead anyway. Next I’ll tell you why the Undercliff is one fo the few places you can get killed going for a walk; how I very nearly did when walking in the other direction towards Charmouth; and, dear reader (no, Jane Austen hated Lyme. Strange woman), the strange tale of the baby hurled down the ravine and the Glade of Lounging Homosexuals.

All will be revealed (as it certainly wasn’t by the rather select walking club) but tomorrow, not today.

 

 

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Psst….. Yeah, you……

No posts for months. Two months, in fact, the longest I’ve ever gone without posting. I’d lost my passwords and had a major broadband meltdown at home.

Work – paid-for work anyway – has been various, from supply teaching to language teaching to teaching on a film set, which mostly involves eating free cake in a trailer on your own. In all of these cases, broadband access has been well, variable is probably the fairest description.

My home broadband just broke. I spent weeks trying to fix it but like the nonsense of O2’s mobile phone signal (if that’s not too strong a word for it) in my particular rural area on the top of a hill on the edge of a debateably haunted airfield, it didn’t really happen. So I’m waiting until civilisation returns on 3rd January, when a new provider comes to re-connect me to real life.

That and losing my passwords. You see, if I’d kept them all the same like any normal person there wouldn’t have been a problem. Just that when you’re out of the habit of doing something you forget exactly what you used to do automatically. Matron.

But back now, anyway.

And yes, I missed you too. Happy Christmas one and all.

 

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False shows and seemings

For the past three weeks I’ve been working on a film set. I could tell you more about the film but I’d have to kill you and more importantly, I wouldn’t work on one again. So you’ll have to wait and see about that.

What was impressed upon me was a) how much standing around there is, watching events over which you have no control whatsoever and b) how artificial story-telling actually is.

Inconsistencies in film have always annoyed me. I loved Anthropoid, the story of how two Czech agents were dropped back into their own country by SOE to try to assassinate Heydrich. Which they accidentally managed to do in real life, thanks to nobody being able to get hold of penicillin at the time. It was a great film, tense, exciting, even right up to the end, despite knowing all too sadly how it was going to end (Non-Spoiler Alert: They Get Killed. Along with about 2,000 presumably less photogenic people, when the SS predictably threw a strop after Hitler’s best mate got offed in the street).

But there was this Thing. More a McMuffin than a McGuffin, a silly, irritating detail that bugged me watching it and bugs me now. The two agents parachute in. They land and go to a house. It’s not what you’d call a safe house. There’s a fight. There wasn’t a fight. That’s not what really irritated me. One of the people in the house runs away. The agents let him. That wasn’t what really irritated me either. They steal a truck and drive it to Prague.

So far, this mission is not going well, fairly obviously. They’ve been spotted and someone knows exactly where and when they dropped into enemy territory. You can guarantee he’s going straight to the Gestapo, because there’s been a fight and there’s the detail of a dead body to account for if he doesn’t. So far, so rubbish.

They drive the truck straight into the middle of Prague to their safe house. Just to make sure everyone thinks they’re stupid they leave it in the street with the lights on.

Come on. You don’t even do that going to Tesco, let alone if you’re a spy on a secret assassination mission.

But in films you do, apparently. It conveys urgency.

I went on set in the next scene, just to see what it was like. Fiction. A wonderful thing. An old truck repair building had been kitted out as a hospital. It was a future dystopian sci-fi, and the fact that no hospital has had iron beds like those for the past fifty years has nothing to do with anything. That’s what dystopia looks like, so get used to it.

The smoke bothered me. I couldn’t see where it was coming from so I told the Assistant Director, quietly, so as not to cause a panic, but something was obviously about to go on fire. I felt like Corporal Jones when I was told no, it’s smoke from a smoke machine. It lends depth. It gives the pictures a texture and solidity that otherwise they’d lack. Which makes some kind of sense once you know about it.

They didn’t tell me about Film Rope™ though.

I thought I was going to be able to help when the call went out for rope. The actress had to walk down to the beach and find a boat tied up at the waters edge.

We have water. A boat. An actress. But nothing, somehow, to tie it up with. I found this quite hard to believe, given there’s a six knot tide that rips down the river there and a boat that isn’t tied up isn’t going to be there for very long.

“It’s ok, I’ve got some rope. You can borrow it if you like. In the boot of my car.”

For reasons that were never made clear, my car gets a lot of attention on set. The producer assumed it belonged to someone from the BFI meaning that the set was being inspected. Someone else wants to buy it, even though I hadn’t actually thought of selling it. It’s just a nice old convertible Saab that people assume I’ve had since it was new, so long ago that it’s on the verge of officially making the career transition from Old Car to Classic. I got the new rope I’d bought for my boat out of the car.

OMG! You hero! You saviour! You…… WHAT IS THIS?

Well, it’s rope.

No it’s not.

Er, honestly it is.

It’s the wrong stuff.

It’s blue polypropelene rope. It’s not the best, but it’s more than adequate for tying a dinghy up for half an hour. How big is this boat, anyway?

Not the point, apparently. It’s not Film Rope™.

FilmRope™ is hemp. It’s dark sandy coloured. It’s hairy. Blue poly rope isn’t any of those things. It doesn’t look like FilmRope™.

I say: But this is a future dystopian sci-fi film. Nobody uses hemp rope now, let alone in the future.

And that isn’t the point. They do in films. FilmRope™ is the way rope looks then, now and in the dystopian future, as it was in the beginning, as it is now and as it will be for ever and ever amen. It’s fillums, innit? That’s what rope looks like, not what rope is. Everyone knows that.

We spent a happy afternoon trailling around Woodbridge before we found sisal rope, cheaper than hemp at a modest 85p per metre. It looks like hemp. It looks like FilmRope™.

And in a film, that’s all that matters.

 

 

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And there were no bananas

 

Once upon a time in a land long ago I used to read Viz, before the news made it indistinguishable from the laughable guff we’re daily told is really really true.

One of the characters in Viz was Mrs Brady Old Lady, whose conversation, alarmingly like mine, veered towards the past when she could hear at all, something that bothers me occasionally too. Mine isn’t just advanced age but what used to be called ‘Cocktail Party Deafness.’ Which means the little hairs inside my ear vibrate in such a way that although I can hear a phone ring three rooms away if there is no other sound, if more than one person is talking then I can’t make out their voice from all the other sounds. It’s very isolating and it varies, so people assume it’s selective. Mrs Brady however, used to talk about bananas a lot. Or rather, the lack of them. Thanks to U-boats, and the need to import things a little more central to the war effort than prickly fruit.

Scarce though bananas once were, 200 years before that pineapples were even more scarce. If you go to Cambridge and look up at the roof of Clare College, to Bath and look up at the roofs at The Circus, to Stow-On-The-Wold and walk down the hill to the west, to where there was once, even longer ago than when I lived there, an abortive attempt to build a spa town in the middle of the fields, the only remains now being one not-very-big stone house, you’ll see they’ve all got something in common. Pineapples on the roof.

Pineapple envy

That’s how scarce they were in the 1700s. Pineapple bling was the kind of thing the Beckhams would have gone in for, if Posh Spice could have born to wear an Empire line frock and Becks sported a tricorn hat. Pineapples said something about a person; chiefly ‘Loadsamoney!!’

That’s all it was about. ‘We have so much money that we can afford pineapples and we’re not afraid who knows it. We’ve actually got so much money we can put gold pineapples on the roof.’ Ok, everyone probably knew that it was only gold leaf on the rooftop pineapples, but still, they got the message.

 

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On a hostile shore

The story of Shingle Street has fascinated me for years. One man wrote three separate books about it, all proving to his satisfaction that nothing happened there. Or rather, that something didn’t happen there, the something being a German invasion repelled by fire in 1940.

Shingle Street strikes me as an unlikely place for a serious landing for a number of reasons, the biggest being that the nearest land across the Channel is 140 miles away. That’s a long way for any boat, even today, when it’s going to be shot at and harassed for the entire voyage by airplanes and any naval vessel going, At a respectable fifteen knots that’s still nine solid hours of sea crossing, a lot of it in daylight if the invasion was going to be in summer. And the logic continues; if the incoming invasion fleet couldn’t be harassed by the RAF or the Navy, then surely a shorter route would have been better anyway.

Apart from anything else, Shingle Street is exactly that. Shingle. Horrible stuff to walk on, let alone run and I would have thought almost useless as terrain for wheeled vehicles. Tanks might have an easier time of it, obviously.

The other issue is simply where it is: on a peninsula. Any glance at a map shows how easy it is to isolate the place. Once ashore the river Alde acts as a partial natural block to the north; both the Deben and the Orwell effectively block a breakout to the south. Not a half mile away a deep water course blocks egress to the nearest road. Crossed by a bridge, its guarded by a rare WW1 pill-box which though far from impregnable (like the even more rare 1940 two-man cast-iron pillbox in a hedge a few miles to the north) would have been an ideal place from which to blow the bridge.

And yet two things come to mind. A military friend told me about the importance of Caen to the Allies in 1944, as important as Antwerp, simply because if you need to get men and vehicles and munitions ashore in big numbers quickly then the thing you need is a dock. Ipswich may have turned into the same heap of rubble Caen was reduced to if there had been a real invasion at Shingle Street. The other is that since Napoleon’s time, the military has clearly thought something was going to kick off on this lonely, isolated strand. There are not one or three or four but five Martello towers in a two-mile sentry line down to Bawdsey.

And Bawdsey was where the crucial Home Chain radar was tested and centred on, the sheds full of boffins that the Graf Zeppelin came and parked itself over for a while, back before the war for reasons that were, as Hunter Thompson used to say, never made clear. But I think we can guess they knew something was going on and wanted to make a point: that they knew. And that the last time there were Zeppelins over Suffolk people got killed.

But  I still don’t know. I need to talk to someone in the army. If you know anyone who is and who wouldn’t mind being interviewed, get in touch.

 

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Reeling in the years

For the past fortnight I’ve been teaching on a film set. The law, it’s thought, says that if you’re under sixteen you have to have three hours of education per day, or no ten year-old actress on set. And in this case, that means no film. So me.

For once, living on the edge of a haunted airfield in the middle of nowhere is a desirable attribute, especially given that it takes me just twenty minutes of idling along country lanes to get to the most remote location on the edge of the country, where the road ends pointing its finger towards Holland.

We had a go at some Maths I couldn’t do and did some reading and writing and times tables, as much as we could with too much hot chocolate available. I had a look over the email her day-school teacher had sent. It said there was scant regard for number place, which simply isn’t true. Or it isn’t true now, anyway. She read some of the Short Shakespeares, starting with Midsummer Night and got bogged down in the utterly lovely Twelfth Night.

A ten-year-old can now write a 1,000 word story. Her spelling leaves something to be desired in the first draft, and there is far too much…..punctuation in the modern stylee especially when it comes to recorded speech. A very little of her grammar is Estuary, but there hasn’t been much time to correct this given the other stuff what we done.

We read Sredni Vashtar, the fantastic tale about the sickly boy whose pet ferret kills his aunt. Comprehension: 100%. Eyes like saucers. And I did a pretty darned good reading, though I says it as what shouldn’t myself and that.  I somehow don’t think her school had touched Saki. They ought.

The only time we had a bit of a falling out was over Modern European History, as well we might. I know it’s supposed to start at 1945, but that’s impossible. If you start at 1945 then there’s no accounting for the USSR at all, not unless you go back to at least 1917, so you might as well start at 1914. The fact that the Queen’s family name was Saxe-Coburg Gotha came as an alarming surprise.

“Do you mean the Queen is actually….German?”

Well, her family was. And her husband was born in Greece. And George I was so adamantly German, and the King, that he could never see why he should bother to learn English, which is probably why so many English words borrow so heavily from German to this day.

So the October Revolution because the Czar’s army was a bit fed-up being asked to run at the enemy shouting in the hope that they could get guns from the dead enemy. If there were any of the Czar’s army left. A tactic that their own sons would be forced to adopt twenty-odd years later with their new political rulers’ guns pointing at their backs. Don’t take my word for it, ask Guy Sajer, a Frenchman who was there shooting at them from the front. And the division of Europe and the Iron Curtain, and the first meeting of the UN being in the Methodist Hall opposite the Houses of Parliament in 1946, but first Yalta in 1942, but before that the Non-Aggression Pact and the Danzig Corridor then not one atom bomb but two and Burgess, Philby and Maclean and Blunt and Checkpoint Charlie and the Berlin Wall and Michael Caine and EOKA and India and Pakistan and the Fall of Empire, which my own school never even acknowledged as actually having ever happened, and here we are at Bentwaters airbase, the site of the Rendlesham Forest UFO mystery, which was to have been a front-line airfield when the Russain tanks rolled across Northern Europe again and BAOR and BFPO 52 and the soldiers didn’t come home and refugees and….. I had to stop there on the board, because I’d run out of board for my timeline, which had loops and arrows and inserts where I’d had to put in the Great Depression and Five Year Plans and the pub Lenin used to drink in off City Road.

I had to stop there on the board, because I’d run out of board for my timeline, which had loops and arrows and inserts where I’d had to put in the Great Depression and Five Year Plans and the pub Lenin used to drink in off City Road.

I thought of watching Dr Strangelove and sketched in how utterly magically, Werner von Braun who was responsible for tens of thousands of people’s deaths, dead in the rubble of London, evaporated into nothingness when his V2 hit Highbury Corner and cinemas and fields and tens of thousands more slave labourers forced to build the rocket launch sites and the uncounted thousands more buried alive when the RAF blew the underground facilities to pieces, quite surprisingly, given a man on the radio ended up dancing the Newgate jig, Werner von Braun was suddenly officially Not A Nazi At All by the time he got to Houston. Apparently it was all a bit of a misunderstanding but hey, people make mistakes and would he like to build a much, much bigger rocket, with this crazy new thang called radio telemetry and we could call it, maybe not the V3, but Saturn V. It’s got a nice ring to it, nein?

When I came in the next morning the board had been wiped clean. I asked who had done it. No answers. Nobody saw anything. Then my tiny actress appeared. She’d done it. No sorry. It was a mess. History was all over the place, so it had to go. It was really irritating. She said she was OCD.

I asked how come she was surrounded by empty water bottles and a crisp packet on the floor, none of which were mine, but apparently that doesn’t count. It’s history. It’s really messy stuff. And I have to agree.

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The end of the world

In an adult life that has been for the most part not boring, it should have come as small surprise that I’d be working at the end of the world this week. Or rather, where the end of the world would have started and very nearly did.

I’m teaching a ten year-old actress who turned out not at all to be the bratty monster the words “ten year-old actress” suggested before I met her. If you’re under 16 and out of school you have to have a minimum of three hours of tuition each day. Or you’re not allowed on set. And in this case, given she has a key role, no film.

It struck me that my usual panoply of George Formby-based vocabulary learning might possibly not be entirely appropriate, great for giving Italian nineteen year-olds a thorough grounding in 1930s smut but with entirely forseeable problems here. I bought some Key Stage Two books. I bought some maths puzzles that were so horrible I couldn’t do them. I mean, I designed a formula-based software application, so I’m not exactly dense when it comes to maths, but I can’t do hardly any of the problems in that book.

Even Al the trusty green fluffy alligator that hormone-pumped Continental youths fight over didn’t appear to be making his normal contribution. I did what I usually forget to do when I have a problem. I went for a walk.

This old airbase is haunted. The last base commander said so. On night shifts his guards at the main gate would intercept some hapless pilot who didn’t have his papers and seemed disconnected from things. They’d keep him there while someone who should be able to vouch for him came on down to pick him up. And when they got there the airman had gone, vanished, disappeared to wherever he’d come from, where no-one saw him go. This was where the Rendlesham Forest UFO sighting happened, whatever that was. This was where in WWII a German aircraft crew came in, made a perfect landing, taxi-ed neatly off the runway, switched off and only realised they actually weren’t five minutes from their end-of-flight debriefing when people pointed guns at them. Ooops.

When I went for a walk the base was haunted by deer, a small herd that had managed to get its young one side of the perimeter fence and the rest of the herd the other, both groups running away from the gate long left open that had split them up.  I found machine-gun posts, looking new and clean and free from graffittee but surrounded by new growth pines planted since the airforce left in 1992, without a single footprint marking the sand that had crept in to cover their floors. Nobody has been here for years.

Parts of the base are empty. The decrepit sentinels of rusting watchtowers overlook workshops re-purposed as a hospital film set. A small reservoir oddly sports a dozen Georgian cannon, resting silently in a foot of clear water. And the planes are still here. An aviation restoration company shares the space with the deer, bringing in airframes that its hard to see could ever possibly fly anywhere or be any use to anyone except as film props.

Deception is something Suffolk has done before though. Patton’s fake decoy army was stationed all over this area too, the inflatable tanks and cardboard huts and plywood planes convincing the German High Command that the invasion of Europe would spring from here, via Great Yarmouth and Felixstowe and Ipswich, presumably. You could walk to Shingle Street, where if a German force wasn’t incinerated in local legend then a huge propaganda coup was carried-off, not even ten miles from here. Now rabbits hop around the empty huts where American voices ran through the drills that would launch the jets that would stop Soviet tanks rolling through the fields of Northern Europe. Which luckily for all of us, they both never did.

And today, my pupil has nearly, very nearly completed a 1,000 word story-writing task. The day isn’t over.

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