Reasons to believe

If I listened long enough to you
I'd find a way to believe that it's all true
Knowing that you lied
Straight-faced, while I cried.
Still I look to find a reason
To beleive.

I didn’t write that. Well, obviously I did, but I wasn’t the first to do it. So far as I remember it was the B side of Maggie May when Rod Stewart first released it, when it was the first single I ever bought. Back when there wasn’t much music around to listen to, so if you were into any music at all then you listened to it again and again and again, no matter how many times your Mum banged on the floor or ceiling screaming at you a stream of non-sequiturs about other people living in the house too.

The song was called, oddly enough, Reason To Beleive. It ought to be the national anthem now.

It’s week I don’t really know what of Covid19 lockdown. I can’t see any end to it and I don’t think anyone can. The biggest problem for me is that I can’t trust pretty much anything outside my front door now. I can’t trust people I don’t know not to kill me. And I certainly can’t trust this government, specifically because they told me not to.

When I was a boy we watched a lot of TV at home, despite there being only two, then three channels and not enough programmes to go round, to the extent that HTV, my station back home as they called it on heart-wrenching posters above the buffers at Paddington Station (they should have strap lined the whole railway ‘We’ll take you home,’ except they never did) used to have to run pictures of daffodils to a Russ Conway soundtrack in the daytime on the rare occasions a pre-epidemic cold was bad enough to keep me at home. When they weren’t broadcasting daffodils and knees-up piano music they ran Combat.

It was written, filmed and screened in the early 1960s on for the prime target audience, the men who’d actually fought through northern Europe not even twenty years before, just turning forty and beginning to appreciate a comfy chair and their memories of a time when they didn’t need to worry about trouser buttons popping when they sat in one. My father hated it for the way the “trigger-happy Yanks’ never had their helmets fastened, though quite when called-up RAF groundcrew who pretended they were pilots got so finicky was always unclear. But then, so was my father’s whole war along with the rest of his life and that’s another story in itself.

The format was simple. GIs invade Normandy and fight their way through France to beat the Nazis. Despite hardships, goodness eventually and always prevails. So far, so simple. You’re sitting there watching it, ain’t you? There are plenty of guys you knew that ain’t.

How it was as a six year-old is something I’ve begun remembering a lot now when practically anyone you meet can kill you, not with a burst of Schmeisser fire in an idyllic French hamlet but by silently giving you a dose of a fatal virus without even meaning to. Every simple walk outside becomes an episode of Combat.

A gap in the hedgerow? Don’t rush through it. Stop. Listen. An empty narrow trail across that field? Binoculars. It looks empty, but look at that path coming into it in the next field. The one that’s got (cue title sequence and dramatic music) …. SOMEONE WALKING ON IT!

But that’s how a walk through the fields is now. You can’t sensibly get on a path through crops if there’s a chance you’ll meet someone halfway across. Around here if you startle wildlife you have a decent chance of a deer running smack into you, and we have some big deer in my part of Suffolk, most of which never seem to have heard of social distancing. Maybe it’ll all be over by Christmas.

And maybe it won’t, because the one thing that has become absolutely clear is that the government doesn’t have the first idea what to do. The second thing that’s become clear is that pretty much everything said by them turns out to be a lie less than a week later.

We’re expected to believe in the same breath that the Prime Minister was fully in command of everything in the UK and literally wrestling the Grim Reaper at one and the same time. That it’s ok when the Prime Minister boasts about shaking hands with people with corona virus but everyone else shouldn’t go within two metres of anyone they don’t live with. That it’s all something from Foreignland, but there’s no need to test anyone coming into the ?UK, let alone track and trace their contents, and at the same time just 300 people were quarantined. But most of all, the constant drumbeat for the masses:

We’re following the science

Which is palpably untrue when other countries’ science hasn’t just been different but resulted in rather less than 32,000 deaths, one of the worst fatality rates in Europe.

Now the PM has announced, simultaneously, that a) we’re past the peak of infections and b) oh by the way, here’s 6,000 death figures we just found down the back of the Office of National Statistics’ sofa, but that doesn’t count. Because science. And anyway, it’s difficult to compare, which seems to be the standard response any time the government is questioned now.

All of this from a government which told us that we’ve all had enough of experts, except when experts can be rolled out to agree – or at aleast stand there not disagreeing – with anything the PM says.

It’s insulting. It’s the new normal. And I don’t have anyone to believe any more.

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Mailchimp chumps

I tried to watch the Mailchimp instruction video about menijing yer campeen. I meant, of course, managing your campaign, but it sounded like that.

Which is why I’ve just had to abort listening to the Mailchimp training webinar thing.

I just couldn’t stand the mangled vowels any more.

It was odd. Lockdown or not, if you’re going to have presenters then maybe don’t have pictures of them looking as if they got their clothes from a skip behind the worst local charity shop. I’d say the same if they were men, but they weren’t. Given they were static photos and neither of them appeared anywhere else other than the intro up until the halfway point where I had to switch their voices off, I don’t know why they were in the webinar at all. What was the point?

But the voices. Both American, which apart from New Hampshire isn’t a bad thing in itself. Seriously. Have you ever heard a rural New Hampshire accent? It leaves you thinking how sad it is that mental health programmes are so few and far between in the USA. None in rural New Hampshire, apparently, given the evidence of your own ears.

But like omigard? That rising inflection? At the end of every sentence? Like seriously? What’s it for? It always sounds like a question, which is irritating enough. But in a how-to-do-this-thing video, as we old people call anything with moving pictures on a screen, we don’t want questions. We’ve GOT questions. What we want are answers. Not answers?

Even more weirdly, the woman couldn’t say permission in any context whatever without pronouncing it as permission? With the rising inflexion at the end? For no reason? This is a time when WTUF FOR??? really is a question.

It wasn’t just that one of the women doing the presentation not only managed to speak in a monotone almost all of the time except when she was doing an irrelevant rising inflection. It wasn’t just that she did it every time she said permission?

It wasn’t even that she chewed up her vowels so that manage your campaign became menij yer campeen and by the time you’d worked out what she meant she was half-way through the next mangling.

She diverted attention from the message. So far as I can see it, and I know this is ridiculously old-fashioned, language is to communicate. If it doesn’t do that, if people can’t understand what you’re saying, because of the words you use, the speed of delivery, or the way you say things, then it’s failed. You haven’t communicated. You just made a noise. Like a farmyard animal.

I wanted to know what they had to say at Mailchimp. I wanted to understand more about how to use it. I just wish they’d understood how to tell people in a way that didn’t have them switching the sound off.

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Never mind the quality

We are where we are doesn’t mean anything. But we ought to know, so we don’t go there again.

I first went to the USA in 1984. It was America, just like in the movies. I bought an old Chevrolet. I taught kids to shoot on summer camp. I *cough* ‘parked by the lake.’ I nearly got myself shot by the police. I dated a cheerleader called Nancy-Jean. So far, so road movie. I was in heaven.

I saw signs everywhere for things made in America. Pendleton coats, a faded painted advert on a brick wall in Eagle River, from a time when they were definitely for working stiffs, not an Amerind virtue-signalling fashion statement. My car was the definition of Made In America. It was ludicrously big, crudely finished, fatuously thirsty and sounded great.

I went back in 1997, twice, to New York for work. I went to DC and San Diego again in 2003 on two trips and then to Cupertino and Denver the year of Katrina.

It wasn’t the same at all.

Over nearly twenty years I didn’t expect it to be. What I also didn’t expect was how much shopping would have changed. The first time I went it was hard to buy anything that wasn’t made in America. The last time I went it was hard to find anything that was.

For one reason, the same one that’s bugging me here in the UK today. Call it globalisation (as if it’s a new thing, not something we had two hundred years ago and which defined London, Glasgow, Liverpool, Bristol and pretty much every other port in the UK, and certainly every port involved in the Great Slave Triangle (rubbish UK goods out to Africa, sell them/exchange them for slaves, take the slaves to the New World, rum, coffee, sugar back to Blighty). You didn’t know? Really?

We always wanted to buy it cheap. Cheap become the obsession. In places like China wages are a small fraction of the amount you’d have to pay someone in the UK to stand in a factory. Their idea of copyright law seems to be that you make it, we’ll copy it. Then try to sue us and see how far you get. Quality control is to say the least, variable. And the returns policies are a joke.

I bought a converter plug for my new MacBook a couple of weeks ago, because suddenly all my USB plugs don’t fit the oh-so-tiny Thunderbolt plugs the Mac has, which magically do electricity as well as data stuff. I’m so old that a Thunderbolt as an American airplane, if it wasn’t a cowboy hero’s horse.

Long and short being that it didn’t work. Surprise! The one for £2.99 worked fine, even after I bent the end of it. The one that cost £20+ that did ten other things as well didn’t do them as well. Or at all. Or anything, really, except cost me money.

No problem, email and tell them.

Last time I had a problem with a Chinese IT stuff supplier they told me as a special deal they’d repay me the postage so I didn’t have to send it back and I could leave it there.

I emailed to ask why I’d put up with that as their product didn’t work. They emailed me back to say they didn’t make a lot on them, and basically, take it or leave it.

This time they asked for a video of the plug not working, so a technician could have a look. It doesn’t really need a technician to look at a home movie of a plug not working to see that a plug isn’t working. But the inference is clear: you’re doing it wrong.

But there probably wasn’t an inference to be made, other than: “We don’t speak English very well.”

Which is fine. I don’t speak Mandarin at all, so they’re one up. Now if I could just stop doing the English thing, and the American thing: buying it cheap then wondering why it isn’t made the way it used to be.

For anyone saying ‘don’t buy Chinese stuff, they gave us corona virus’ (and there are just such people, dear reader), a question. Do you want to maintain a totally false sense of prosperity by being able to buy cheap rubbish in Poundland, or not? And you do. It’s better than asking real questions about the economy, productivity, investment and incomes, after all.

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As an eagle towards Heaven

I’m not going to apologise for the capital letter. It’s the way I was taught. And I never heard Hunter Thomson asked to check caps in any of the Biblical quotes he used to litter his prose with, before the sexual assault case. His, not mine, you understand.

Wilt thou set thine eyes upon that which is not? For riches certainly make themselves wings; they fly away as an eagle toward heaven.

It’s from the Book of Proverbs, 23.5. You knew that anyway, didn’t you? It’s the inscription on a memorial to the 82 men who died at Leiston airfield between 1943 and 1945. And it’s wrong. I was at another memorial today, to the eight Americans who died when their B17 put down in the River Deben. Some of the memorial to them was wrong as well.

It sounds really good, the last part of that quote. But what happens when you only take the bits you like isn’t pretty. Especially when you try to quote the Bible as authority. Slap that on a memorial and God said it. Or at least, King James. Except neither of them did. The quote means sic transit gloria mundi. You can’t take it with you. And you don’t know what you got till it’s gone, to mix my metaphors with a liquidiser.

What it doesn’t mean is that those dead men flew away as eagles. A huge number of them crashed into each other. A lot got disoriented in cloud down to a couple of hundred feet and went to the bottom of the North Sea. According to the pilot I met and talked to, their airplane had a bad habit of shedding its left wing if you pushed it into a turn.

Today at Ramsholt in Suffolk it’s the 75th anniversary of the day a wartime B17 airplane crashed into the river on fire. It had flown for just six minutes from Debach airfield. The river looks shallow, like a lot of Suffolk rivers, but it’s about twenty feet deep at high tide at that part. More than enough to drown you if you’re weighed down in sheepskin jackets, boots, jumpers, gloves and canvas and metal body armour. Only two of the crew got out alive, the pilot and the flight engineer who’d been standing behind him.

It was a touching, simple ceremony. First the landlady of the Ramsholt Arms introduced the event. The vicar of Ramsholt, his little parish church lost in the trees, lonely where its flock of medieval houses had long since dissolved into the fields again, said some prayers. The local school children read poems they’d written to mark the anniversary. The man from Debach airfield museum who’d played a big part in organising the event said his bit, then the daughter of the pilot spoke. She told how her father had never mentioned the war; how she’d only found out about what happened a couple of years ago, online, almost by accident. The son of the flight engineer spoke too.

A piper played Flowers of the Forest, then two US aircraft from RAF Mildenhall flew past, slowly up the river at about 500 feet. It wouldn’t have been in the best taste to have flown down the river from the direction of Debach airfield, recreating the flightpath.

Hey, lookit, this is pretty much exactly how your dad put the plane into the water and killed nearly all his crew! We’re gonna skip the last part if that’s ok, ma’am.

The band played the Star Spangled Banner and the wind blew.

The poor woman whose father survived (and how are you going to tell your kids that story? “Did I ever tell you about the time I drowned eight kids only a couple of years older than you?” Aw Dad, we heard that one so many times already…) kept it together almost until the very end before the tears came.

It was packed. There were cars parked up all the way along the lane. Children, old people, a detachment from the Air Assault Battalion lead by a young Captain drinking coffee in the pub afterwards, families, definitely not just ghouls and re-enactors.

It was exactly the kind of thing that should happen, a serious remembrance of people who didn’t want to die but weren’t given much of a choice about it, who had to die, too soon, one day a long time ago. A living memory in a place almost forgotten.

It was exactly the kind of thing the local primary school should have been and were involved in. Teaching children what happened where they live gives them a grounding about who and where they are, even if it’s just knowing that Kansas is a good place to be from.

Nobody expected primary school kids’ poetry to be something Coleridge would have been happy to knock out. Nobody expected under-tens to declaim poetry in public in a cold wind gusting 40 mph the way John Betjeman would have aspired to. That wasn’t what I objected to.

It was the silliness. And the lie they repeated. Not dulce et decorum est but something more jarring. And just as untrue.

“They felt no fear.”

Sorry, but they did. I’ve talked to WW11 pilots, to soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, to a Vulcan jet bomber pilot and they all say the same thing: anyone who says they weren’t afraid either has something wrong in their head or they’re a liar. Or maybe both.

It’s no insult to eight young Americans – or anyone else – to tell the truth. If you’re sitting inside thirty-five tons of petrol and metal on top of six tons of bombs, your airplane is on fire and you’re crashing into the river then you are going to be scared witless.

We do remember them here. You don’t get the choice in Suffolk, where there’s a wartime airfield every ten miles. But let’s remember them as real people, each one of them a man, not Superman.

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Stepping out

Over ten years ago I met Joe Shea. He was in his 80s then. When he was 18 he’d been a pilot flying P51 Mustangs for the 357th Fighter Group of the 8th US Army Airforce, at Station 373, Leiston Airfield.

He stayed with us a few times when he came over for the Memorial service at the end of May, each time for about ten days. It was hard on the liver. And he told stories. The first time it was hard to get stories out of him until he’d had a few drinks. He didn’t want people to think he thought he was a hero, he said. It’s hard to find a way of saying ‘yes sure, but you’ll be dead soon and those stories are going to be gone with you.’ The second visit the stories came tumbling out.

One of them made the hair on the back of my head go up. We were sitting in the oldest part of the house, which meant it was built probably before 1600, while the rest of the house extended around it, once in the early 1800s, once long before that and again in the 1980s. I loved that oldest part of the house. It protected you. I used to sit in there on my own up late when my partner was away, completely secure. It’s where we had the kitchen table. That night with Joe it was where we also had leather-smelling grappa, which sadly, I tend to drink like squash. Joe had never heard of it. He liked it too.

It was gone midnight. Joe was telling us about how his airplane was about 200mph faster than the bombers they were supposed to be escorting. 400mph faster the time they picked up a tail wind above 30,000 feet, got to Berlin in just over two hours from Suffolk and never even saw the planes they were supposed to protect. He told me how you never wanted to get too close to the bombers because they’d shoot at you anyway on general principles, as well as how B24s in particular had a habit of exploding as soon as the bomb doors opened. And how you sat there and saw people start to fall five miles and there wasn’t anything you could do about it at all. You’re eighteen.

Then he told me how he flew in a finger-span of four airplanes and how they had to cross and re-cross the bomber stream continously, for five hours or more, the inside plane throttling right back as it turned, the outside one speeding up and turning wide, then a minute later doing the same thing in reverse.

He told me about the time a whole pack of them found one single German airplane miles below and dived on it, firing, turning it into powder.

He told me you had to be careful in a dive like that, with 700 on the airspeed indicator. Firstly, you had to scream to level out the pressure inside your ears. Secondly, if you couldn’t keep the bubble level in the indicator where it should be there was a good chance your wings would just come off. It happened to a buddy he was following over Bawdsey once, when someone decided they should practice dive-bombing. I didn’t really understand what he meant by this bubble.

Suddenly this old man was up on his feet, leaning across the table, shoving his face in mine, shouting.

“What do you mean, you don’t know? You were there!”

I don’t know who he thought I was, that moment. Nor when he thought we were.

There was a pause, then time sorted itself out in his head and everything was back to normal. Sort of. I still remember it.

But I also remember the story he told me about the time he walked out of a dance in Ipswich to go home, or at least back to Leiston airfield and discovered his last transport had gone. He was flying next day. He had to walk.

I’ve meant to do this walk for the past ten years. I walked the first part two weeks ago, from Ipswich station to Woodbridge. That’s five miles. It’s another twelve to Saxmundham, another three to the airfield from there.

I’m recording the walk for Radio Suffolk this weekend. I’ve written a half-hour script and I still need a female voice and some 1940s vehicles; I’m recording them tomorrow at Ramsholt, where a group of them are gathering as a memorial to the ten men who died there when their plane ditched in the Orwell, 75 years before.

I tried cycling it today but the A12 isn’t the place for a bike and there are no footpaths for a lot of that section. I found maps from 1947, 1955 and 1969; first Woodbridge got a bypass after the war, then the A12 was dualled in 1976. I walked the old roads, stepping out into the past.

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A slight interruption

Obviously, there’s been a gap of quite a while since I wrote anything here or anywhere else. Which isn’t quite true, as I’ve just today finished the third and hopefully final draft of Walking Back, a documentary for Radio Suffolk about a walk from Ipswich railway station to Leiston airfield in 1945. That’s being recorded this coming Sunday.

i haven’t been writing much for two reasons. The election and the ludicrous pantomime of Brexit was one of them. Why bother to try to write anything truth or fiction, when straightforward lies that a six year-old could see through pass as political nous nowadays? It’s certainly good enough to get you the premiership you think you’ve always deserved.

The more proximate reason was that my Apple Macbooko Pro died. Or the screen did, anyway, which comes to the same thing. There wasn’t any point putting a new screen in it because I spilled lentil soup on the keyboard three years ago. Putting a new screen in would cost a couple of hundred – you can buy a reconditioned one for that. Which doesn’t get your photos off the old one, nor the 5,000 words of a story I’d started to write.

So using an old Toshiba the size of the Encyclopedia Britannica, I’m back. And fingers crossed for Sunday.

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Living in the past

This isn’t about voting. I’ve been researching family trees with my partner. We’ve got back to the mid-1700s so far, with some surprising finds.

There are not one, not two, but three American families so far identified. Two of them on the eastern seaboard, as you might expect, but one pioneer in the truest sense of the word, born in Devon, ended up dying in Troy, Doniphan County, Kansas, in 1861, in his early 20s. I don’t know whether it was Indians, something to do with the Civil War, Act of God or just the natural course of events in a world with few doctors, no anaesthesia or antibiotics and a sketchy idea about germs – Louis Pasteur didn’t work out how to make milk safe to drink until 1870.

I was going to say I don’t know what would drive anyone to Kansas in 1861, given that I drove there on I-70 in 1984, following Eisenhower’s footsteps from 1919, but I do know. Poverty. Desperation. How else do you explain it?

If you know anyone called Chapple in Troy KS, say hi for us. Richard from Devon died there. His brother, William Henry, died there too, in 1915. One thing about this bloodline – if they lived to adulthood they lived a good long time. 90 isn’t that uncommon in this research, all through the 1800s and the first half of the 20th century.

There are sailors and blacksmiths and soldiers, including the expected slain in the First World War and although I expected to find that, I didn’t expect anyone to be a Private soldier at 42, volunteering at 40 in 1915, to be killed in Belgium and leave his name at Tyne Cot, along with 35,000 other British and Commonwealth soldiers who don’t have a grave worth the name. They are why I don’t, won’t and can’t ever support Brexit: the EU has given Western Europe the longest period of peace it’s ever enjoyed.

Losing my religion

Some other surprises too. Either there were twins both sharing the same name in Ireland where the female line came from, or someone walked out on his wife and married bigamously in Hampshire; either way, he almost certainly gave up his faith to get married in a Church of England parish. Or did one run away to sea, then liking living dangerously, came back to the village he’d run out of to have a baby with the new wife? She’s the right one to have had the right other offspring in the right places, so what’s the story? A tolerance I’d not expected from a wronged wife? An arrangement that would raise eyebrows today, in rural Ireland in the 1860s? I don’t know. I doubt I ever will.

The child rapist was something of a surprise too. Not someone who raped children but a distant, distant ten year-old who was convicted of rape in the first half of the 1800s. I’m not sure that’s physically possible; the fact that someone else in that court session got life while the ten year old got two years makes me wonder about it even more.

Why is it important? Because a friend of mine was wrong when she said she’d done her family tree and they were ‘a long line of nobodies.’

None of them were nobody. They were everybody.

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How to kow tow

If you haven’t had a childhood spent reading old books because there was nothing else to do then you might not know what kow tow means. There’s always Wikipedia, which tells you that one meaning is

the act of deep respect shown by prostration, that is, kneeling and bowing so low as to have one’s head touching the ground. … the highest sign of reverence. It was widely used to show reverence for one’s elders, superiors and the Emperor.

In English academic circles today, it’s widely used to show reverence for the money Chinese students bring. I’ve spent the summer teaching them. I’m now taking a break from teaching because my forehead is worn thin from being expected to bow down to students who flatly refuse to do any work, simply because their parents did pretty well out of the pretend capitalism China adopted over the past twenty years.

I thought for a while it was just me. Understandably, as the Brexit government has shown clearly that Europeans are at best problematic, a lot of them have stayed away this summer. Their places were filled by Chinese instead.

The last class was pretty much the worst I’ve ever had. I’ve been almost pushed out of the way by angry students before, but until this summer I hadn’t been pushed out of the way by students simply because I was where they wanted to stand or walk. In class their behaviour was more problematic. They didn’t do anything.

We’d been told that this batch were B1. In case you ever wondered what the EU does, one of the things that passes their time is developing common standards across lots of different countries, specifically here the Common European Framework of Reference for languages, or CEFR.

It’s a sensible arrangement, laying down common guidelines so that whatever the student’s nationality or foreign language competence you can assess what level they are and judge what level of lessons they should be getting.

According to the framework, B1 students:

Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc.
Can deal with most situations likely to arise while travelling in an area where the language is spoken.
Can produce simple connected text on topics that are familiar or of personal interest.
Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes and ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.

When someone can’t tell you their name, where they’re from and how many people there are in their family it doesn’t take an expert linguist to realise they aren’t B1 students. There is no shame in not speaking another language fluently at a language school. Learning how is what you’re there for; there’s not much other point in it. Where it goes wrong is when en bloc or singly, you lie about your capabilities then consciously do nothing at all to learn anything.

Almost all my class couldn’t tell me more than their names. About half had adopted what they thought were English names, some of them almost as bizarre as the Nissan Cedric, presumably named to impart some idea of superior class distinction regardless of the fact that not even Conservative Cabinet Ministers are called Cedric today. In a nutshell, most of these students were A1 at best.

Nobody knows everything

You go to school to learn things. I thought it was so fundamental it didn’t need saying, but time and again I’ve been proved wrong. Some learners are sent there for free daycare. Some to actually learn stuff that might be handy when they’re older. And some are sent there to impress the neighbours. Mine seemed to be the last category.

Saving faces

The concept of face is another Eastern thing familiar to any student of W.E. Johns, Conan Doyle or Sapper. It’s about making sure people continue to respect you. If you lose your job you still get on the 07:50 every morning so that next door don’t know you got canned. If your teacher did the language assessment for you then gave you all the answers, leaving you completely flummoxed then you can save face by not trying.

Can’t speak, won’t speak. Can’t write, won’t write.

Try it. You can never be wrong. It’s simple. But it’s not a good way of learning a language.

Naturally enough, I mentioned this issue to the Chinese teachers who accompanied the class. Three of the four of them had next to no English themselves. The one who did told me several students were uncomfortable in my class. Personally, I’m glad that a student who sits in class doing absolutely nothing for a week, wearing a surgical mask because of the disgusting level of air pollution in a rural Suffolk market town and doing her eye make-up at her desk instead of writing a single word of English feels uncomfortable. She ought to.

The reaction of the school when the teachers raised the issue was immediate. It was tough luck. Sure, the students might not actually do anything in class. They may refuse to speak. They might refuse to write. They may be totally unable to follow any instructions or to be anywhere on time, although miraculously, their English might improve at lightning speed when they want something, disappearing just as fast when asked why they thought it was ok to barge people out of their way. They’re paying the fees. Deal with it.

China in your hands

Hideously, I find myself agreeing with Chris Patten, whose Guardian article lays into Chinese government control of universities there and the way the current UK government seems to feel all this talk about standards and independence is all very well but doesn’t really fit with the demands of the real world. On Radio 4 this morning he went further, accusing Liverpool University of allowing a curriculum to be developed on its Chinese campus that would only teach things the Chinese government liked and nothing that it wouldn’t, in much the same way that the fearlessly independent creators of truth, justice, open source information and Google saw no difference in saying ‘first cause no harm’ and saying to the Chinese government sure, ok, of course we’ll block sites you don’t like on our search engine if you let us into China. He thought it was laughable that any academic institution would be so craven as to kow tow to the students. He ought to try teaching.

Billy Liar‘s tarty girlfriend Rita used to sneer at him ‘get off your knees.’ I didn’t realise that I’d be living in a world where grovelling only that low wasn’t low enough.

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Joe Shea; 1927-2019

I’m not a historian. I don’t know the reasons people do things, except that sometimes they do things for reasons they don’t quite know themselves; for reasons they don’t acknowledge; for reasons they say. And sometimes just because. Because everyone else is doing it. Because it seemed like the right thing to do.

He was born in Iowa. His grandfather rode a horse up there from Texas and it took two weeks. His father took a train up there too; that took two days. In the 1940s Joe flew a jet the same distance in about two hours.

He was a pilot. He was a short, slight boy whose family had been doing pretty well with their jewellery store, putting every present you could wish for under the tree at Christmas until the Great Depression. Then there was pretty much nothing. And the small, short boy wasn’t Mr Popular any more.

When Pearl Harbour happened in 1941 he told people he wanted to be a pilot. He told me most folk laughed their asses off at that idea. But he did it. He got to England in January 1945, on a ship that had to hang around off Le Havre waiting for a U-Boat to be dealt with before landing in England; the airplane he hadn’t yet seen went to Liverpool, like every other P51D Mustang. He told me that when he went to the airpark there with a buddy it was dangerous just walking down the street, two US pilots in uniform and what seemed like thousands of women whose husbands, partners, lovers, sons had gone to the war.

I met him in 2006. He stayed at my house for ten days or so in 2009 and again in 2001, visiting England for the memorial service the Friends of Leiston Airfield held every May. He kept his room spotless and silent, so much so that one morning we were convinced he’d died in his sleep after a long nigh drinking and flying World War Two over Germany and Czeckoslovakia. It opened my eyes. All I knew about military flying back then was based on Biggles and David Niven, 633 Squadron, the Dambusters, Twelve O’Clock High, The Night My Number Came Up and all the other plucky stiff-upper-lip Johnny Head In Air propaganda, where dashing American officer Gregory Peck always cops off with the local squire’s daughter and gets billeted in a house half the size of Kent. Joe told me it was a big day when they got a second stove to heat their eight-man wooden hut.

He told me other things too. The story of a local Suffolk girl he should have married, a girl he left behind when his squadron was sent to Germany. About the one and only time he dated a German girl there, and how when he kissed her gutten nacht someone emptied a magazine full of 9mm at him from a machine pistol when all he had was his service issue Colt, a nearby wood and fast legs. He told me about friends who died and friends who lived. He told me how the weather had changed from fog more days than not, winter into spring of 1945 and how we worked out together that it wasn’t fog, but coal fires. It’s hardly ever foggy here now.

And odder, darker things. He told me early one morning, drinking grappa at 2am, about a friend who couldn’t keep his airplane straight in a dive, practice bombing on the river Orwell; how his wings had folded back and come clean off. About friends who took off in a flight of three, pulled up through the clouds and found there were only two airplanes that came out of the top; the same thing happening to others setting-down through the cloud, with the North Sea waiting below. the flying over the coast coming home, looking for the river running parallel to the sea at Aldeburgh, flying up the coast from there until he found a radio tower at Minsmere, turning 210 degrees on the tower which would put you at the end of the main runway at Leiston, then putting-down through fog, cutting the engine at 50 feet over the place where two hedges met and hoping nobody had parked-up a jeep on the runway. It wouldn’t hurt for very long, he said.

He told me how the weather had killed more of his buddies than the Luftwaffe ever did. He told me about having to fly eight-hour missions, escorting thousand bomber raids, the escorts so much faster than the bombers that they had to cross and re-cross the bomber stream and its ten mile vapour trails every few minutes in flights of four, the inside aircraft having to throttle way back and turn tight while the outside aircraft had to speed up and turn on the outside of the finger formation, then a few minutes later the same thing again, the other way around. Over and again, all the way to the target. He told me about B24s, Liberator bombers, which had a nasty habit of exploding when their bomb doors open; and sitting, five miles high, watching the ten men inside fall to the ground.

And once, way deep into the bottle, when I said I wasn’t clear what happened in that story, he was almost across the table at me, angry, in my face, spitting ‘What do you mean? You were there.” And I wondered at that moment, not just who he thought I was from that time, but whether for a moment somehow I was, for him. Whether we’d called-up something that shouldn’t have been called after so long sleeping. The same thing happened to an American friend way back, visiting an abandoned 8th Airforce airfield one wet and boring Sunday afternoon, wearing an American leather flying jacket. He ordered his girlfriend a drink and almost choked on his own when an old man at the bar in an almost empty, strange pub in the middle of nowhere looked hard at him and said simply, ‘You’re back, then.”

Joe Shea never shot anyone down, although he tried. He left the US Air Force after the war, went home and built a bathroom onto his parents’ house. Then things went a little sour. He told me that little guy had been nothing in that little town outside the airforce; he’d gone back, he said, to being nothing there again, so he re-enlisted. He stayed in the Air Force all the way to being Lt.Colonel, although he hated being called that. I never knew why. He was part of the team that had to find the atom bomb the USAF lost after a plane crash in Spain, wondering if they’d ever find it or whether someone knew exactly where it was while they looked.

And he told me about a time when his airplane just wasn’t making enough power taking off at Leiston airfleld, just down the road from where I sit on the edge of another Suffolk airfield. He switched off, ran over to a spare Mustang on the flight line and borrowed that to fly the mission. Except he was in a hurry to keep-up with everyone else taking off. He was short. And the usual pilot wasn’t, so when he powered down the runway his feet didn’t quite push the rudder bar as far to the right as they needed to, to counteract the torque of the engine pulling the airplane off the tarmac onto the wet mud it slewed onto. Slowing down would have meant that the wheels sank into the mud at about 120mph and cartwheeling across the airfield with full petrol tanks. It wouldn’t hurt for long but he kept the throttle open, the only thing that seemed sensible in that split second. He went straight through a hedge a few inches off the ground. There is still an airplane-sized gap in that hedgerow today.

On July 4th 2004 another Mustang went the same way in Durango, Colorado; once in the air the torque flipped it upside down. That one crashed. Joe’s machine inverted and he had the luck to push the control column instead of pulling it.

He nearly clipped the roof of one of the hangers before he finally, sweating, heart in mouth got the machine pointing the right way up and under control. The control tower laconically told him “You can put your wheels up now, Joe.”

His life for the past twenty years wasn’t easy. For a number of reasons he had to keep working and like anyone his age, while they say time loves a hero, illness and disease loves time, especially when it comes to human bodies and their frailties. Joe Shea died this year, one of a generation whose motivations and drivers, whose strength and resolve I can’t entirely fathom from here. He was not, he said, a hero. He did some things in that aircraft that didn’t help to win any war, that killed people who had done nothing to deserve killing. As people do in every war.

He could be abrasive, demanding and dismissive; he refused to help an old man in Yoxford re-visit a place where a young friend had blown himself up playing with a bomb dump by the side of the road. Apparently there were munitions dumps everywhere. He flatly refused to talk to a re-enactor who had spent thousands on a USAAF Military Police uniform at one memorial service; he told me he’d spent his war avoiding MPs and goosing his airplane up behind them riding motorcycles as they lead the Mustangs along the perimeter track around the airfield, so why the hell would he want to talk to someone pretending to be one now?

We drove him around some of the old sights he’d seen and helped him get some old pictures back home to a museum in America. We gave him a lot to drink and he told us stories he said he’d never shared with anyone before. Then we lost touch, moved house and life went on, the way it does. The way it’s supposed to. He died in his 90s. He felt bad for a long, long time, about the beauty of the colours of a German aircraft exploding in mid-air, this same man who when he saw a book cover with a photo of a crippled Me 110 said calmly it was on the correct course:

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

In a little lane near Leiston there’s a concrete memorial to the eighty-two pilots who died while they were stationed at the airfield there. An inscription on it is from the King James Bible, the one I always thought was the one true text not as a zealot but because I didn’t know any better, which is maybe the same definition.


They fly away as an eagle toward heaven.

Proverbs 23:5

Who knows? Maybe they did. I remember the fear and the shame and the horror in his voice when he described the beauty of the colour of another man’s life exploding in front of his eighteen year-old eyes. I hope he found peace.

A long time ago a man in uniform said what I hope is true now, the way it was that wet, nearly final day in a Suffolk field: You can put your wheels up now, Joe.

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Oooom Pah Pah

It’s a nicely Boris Johnson-sounding phrase, isn’t it? Suitably, because it was the chorus of a music hall song about making-up stories, something the Prime Minister was sacked for, twice, at the start of his career in a world where clearly lying is no impediment to career advancement.

There is, according to the 1960s musical Oliver! (and how I hate exclamation marks compulsorily joined to words) a little ditty they’re singing in the City.

 There’s a little ditty
They’re singing in the city
Espeshly when they’ve been
On the gin
Or the beer
If you’ve got the patience,
Your own imaginations
Will tell you just exactly what you want to hear…

So far, it’s the story of Brexit, where the pub bore suddenly feels able to pontificate about sovereignty and trade deals while even its most ardent supporters can’t quite articulate what they will be able to do that they can’t do now that the EU is stopping them doing, nor exactly how leaving the UK’s biggest trading partner is going to usher in anything except the golden opportunity to re-start the ground-nut scheme, or whatever else someone can cobble together out of a trade deal with Tanzania.

They all suppose what they want to suppose

I’ve been reading about two very different stories where people heard, saw and believed exactly what they wanted to believe they saw and heard.

When I first went to High School we had to find, remember and illustrate a poem. I chose In Flanders Fields, in large part because it was short but also because thanks to the definitive historical text of the times, the Airfix catalogue, I knew, or thought I knew, a bit about the First World War. Finding a complete set of The Great War in all thirteen volumes and all its dated monochrome glory at an uncle’s house one excrutiatingly boring holiday had helped as well. I’d been taken to see a vicar who had actually served in the First War. I’d even been given what a strange uncle called a Commando dagger, adding enigmatically, ‘they’re cruel, those Japs,’ oblivious of the fact that the Japanese weren’t fighting the UK in 1914-1918 and as it turned out, the dagger was a German First World War trench knife and nothing to do with WWII British Commandos at all. So I’d heard of the Angel of Mons.

It was a fairy tale. If you haven’t heard of it, it goes like this. Battle of Mons, 1915, British Army about to get wiped out by Germans, angels appear, can’t seem to read ‘Gott Mit Uns’ on the Germans’ belt buckles, may or may not have muttered ‘here’s socks’ and turn back the dastardly Hun instead, with or in some versions without the aid of ghostly Agincourt bowmen.

All very well and stirring stuff, and widely believed as fact, except that a man called Arthur Machen made the whole thing up, deliberately and openly. The angles and the Bowmen of Mons were fiction. He always said so right up to until the end of his life. The trouble was, nobody believed him.

Making-up is(n’t) hard to do

Much the same thing happened in France in June 1944. Hundreds of kilometres from the Normandy landings, local Resistance units rose and gathered on a plateau called the Vercors, near Grenoble. They had been waiting for the codewords on the BBC to take-up arms and fight to liberate their country. When the word came, they fought. Except the word definitively had never been broadcast. Some people, according to Paddy Ashdown (The Cruel Victory) claimed long after the war that they remembered the command in clear.

They wanted to believe it was true. It wasn’t. And it didn’t matter.

The problem being that it does matter. Newspaper after parish magazine after sermon after speech exhorted more young men to join up and get blown to pieces, drown in mud or line-up to die of flu by the hundreds of thousands, unsafe in the knowledge that angels or at least St George was looking after them specifically. On the Vercors, 4,500 French civilians stood-up and shot at the Wermacht artillery with left-over Hotchkiss guns and anything they could steal from a police barracks. They were both massacred.

Today we have a Prime Minister who makes-up stories and people who want to believe them too. Just like then, nothing bad will happen to him at all.

The end of the affair

The Overseas Food Corporation working party reported in 1950 that the groundnut scheme was costing six times as much to produce the crops as the crops were worth. Just like today they repeated the mantra that the administration in Tanganyika needed to be ‘much smaller and more flexible’ and released from ‘the burden of preconceived objectives and targets’, as well as ‘undue or premature publicity’. Plenty of time was needed to foster the growth of ‘viable economic units’ suited to the local conditions, which evidently needed to be shielded from both the public eye and eerily reminiscent of today, any particular expectations.

The groundnut scheme was folded in January 1951. Debts of £36.5 million – over a thousand million sterling today – were written off. Just like today, it was all nobody’s fault that people believed in it all.

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