I applied for what looked like a dream job recently. Down in Dorset, about ten miles from a town I visit every couple of months, a place I know and love, where I have friends and people to say hello to in the street. I’ve been going there since school trips, back when we didn’t so much find dinosaur fossils as dodge them lumbering up out of the primeval ocean. Kidding – we just chatted with old Tom Hardy and gave him some plot ideas. Turned out he only ever used one of them, really.
Not Your Heart Away
Immediately after A Levels I’d bizarrely got into the habit of working and banged-out 82,000 words that became A Day For Pyjamas. Half our lives away I wrote a sequel to it, Not Your Heart Away, which got some nice reviews on Amazon and won a BBC award when I re-wrote it as a screenplay. Another one (Janni Schenck, a story about a nice orphan kid who loves Swing music and just happened to be in the Hitler Youth) was based on fact; that one was entered for Cannes with the Maison des Scenaristes, back in 2017. I wrote some stand-up performance spoken word and performed them a bit, but got tired of the don’t-get-paid local stand-up circuit. So yes, stories. I can do that. Gizzajob, as we used to say.
I’d also spent two decades analysing business information, from going around the world listening to people to poring over data tables with my lucky ruler (metal, triangular, I think they’re really something to do with woodwork, but hey) to reading hundreds of pages of interview transcripts and spreadsheet print-outs and finding the tiny clues that open-up markets. Which I did more than once. So yes, I can do data. What do you need?
What the committee decided they needed, after a blistering presentation that I could feel in the soles of my feet had rocked everyone’s socks off, was someone who can do that and was a ‘data expert’ at SQL and Python and Tableau. I can do that too, but those are computer programmes. I’ve nothing against computer programmes. I’ve designed and got written two apps myself, one to track HTML 404 errors, the other to compare and assess casualty data. Is that tech enough?
Apparently not. But they’re still two different skills. One you can learn in a month. Sit me or let’s be honest, pretty much anyone down in front of a PC and an online learning course and you’ve got a competent machine-minder. They won’t necessarily know anything about the data they’re interrogating and most of them won’t worry their pretty little heads over the fact that using data this way is akin to regression modelling; it’s great if you know for certain the future is going to be exactly like the past. Which is a pretty massively flawed assumption in lots of areas of life, not least the national economy after Brexit.
You can’t learn to tell stories convincingly and well to an audience of one or a couple of hundred, online, on TV, at conferences or anywhere else, in a month. Like any performance, it’s an iterative thing. You get better at it the more you do it. You learn from your mistakes. You might even integrate them into the performance to get a reaction to work back to from the people you’re telling the story to. It’s a two-way thing. It’s adaptive. It’s interpretive. And whatever you do it, however much you call it ‘science’ data crunching isn’t, any more than power loom operators were weavers. It’s reductive, it’s literally codified; it’s not even about understanding numbers and their relationships. Just learning how to get a machine to tell you ‘how many.’ Never how, and don’t even ask why.
I went to a small village school in Wiltshire. When I was a boy I mean, not yesterday. It would be called a faith school now. It was Church of England and all that meant was that once a year Canon Long (oh how we laughed) came presumably to see that things were done in a godly way, although as a school of that least demanding of faiths presumably an ungodly way would have done just as well. We had hymns and prayers but no more than seems healthy for children even now when for me, hymns are just for Christmas and funerals. I still sometimes think there really is a green hill far away. I see it whenever I go back there. Ours had a white horse on it.
The school had a stone bell tower although we never once heard the bell rung and a cloakroom with sinks which I never, ever liked being in, particularly on my own, because it always felt as if I wasn’t alone there at all.
Hiding in plain sight
None of that was the big secret. That was hanging on the wall, four feet long.
When I went to my next school there was a huge, wall-sized map of the town. It showed things that weren’t there, like shunting yards and engine sheds and a turntable for locomotives on the railway and curiously, a tiny hut labelled as being owned, presumably collectively, by the local branch of the Communist Party of Great Britain. I don’t know if thst had all gone but most of the railway certainly had.
The map at the village school had something much bigger that wasn’t there: the British Empire. It was there on the wall. It was never discussed. Ever. Under any circumstances, other than just to say it was the Commonwealth now, as if Cromwell’s dour shade had banned dancing for hottentots and admired the lack of worldly ornament favoured by Inuit igloo makers. It made no sense.
There were hints that things had gone wrong somewhere. Our Brave Boys who had kept India British for 200 years had saved it from the Japs in 1945 then somehow two years later decided it hadn’t been worth saving and all went home. We could still find books that talked about the Groundnut Scheme as a great prospect for the residents of Tanganyika. The Ealing comedy of the Groundnut Scheme packed-up in 1951. Ghandi’s name came up from time to time too, rarely favourably.
There it all was, coloured red, on the map in our classroom. There it all wasn’t in reality outside. Nobody mentioned it. Nobody said what had happened, nor why. It certainly wasn’t ever even touched on in History, at primary school or even A Levels; I’m not convinced it is now.
The past is another country. They do things differently there. But here or then, we don’t talk about how or why it all fell to bits. Maybe it’s embarassment, maybe it’s denial. It made me wonder then and now what else I’m not going to be told.
I suppose it comes to us all. When we’re just kids we do mix tapes, or we did and quite how that’s possible with Spotify I don’t really know. Then we do the extravagent and usually inappropritate presents thing. But me, I’ve just crossed a boundary.
Stuff To Impress Girls
I just bought a butter dish. It struck me the other morning as I dug through the cupboard to find an unchipped ramekin that wasn’t blatantly an imperfectly-washed little glass dish that had recently had a Gu pudding in it, that there must be an alternative to slapping a tub of Lurpak on the breakfast table. The company was delightful, the morning sunny, the eggs had scrambled just about perfectly. Add a plastic tub of butter and I felt as if I was Sid James gurning ‘wrap your laughing gear round that, doll.’
I know I had a butter dish at one time. It was terracotta, which made me think it should be left out instead of put back in the fridge in summer, meaning I had a rancid yellow slick of ghee in the bottom of it which would have made anyone think twice about a re-match. But it was gone, along with every other butter dish in every shop in Bridport. Ditto butter knives.
A few years ago in Spain I found an Arab woman who spoke faultless English and German who tempted me with a Brotchenmesser. With elegant thoroughness Germans had not only invented a special knife that cuts your bread rolls neatly, but arranged the blade so it spread butter as well. I wanted one and in one of those so stupid false economies, thought I shouldn’t spend the eight euros or whatever it was but torture myself about it for the rest of my life instead. But that was then. The past is another country and besides, that butter’s been spread. For some reason every junk shop, charity shop, flea market stall and antique shop is seeing a run on butter dishes. Nobody has one. There was just one oh-so-ironic one marked Lurpak in the Oxfam shop, but say what you may I’m not having anything on my table with a grinning dwarf moulded onto it. The rather fetching French glass possible butter dish (as in it possibly was one but I don’t know if the French go in for butter dishes. Do they? Do Thais? Armenians?) was nice but I couldn’t decide if it was 1930s as claimed, 1950s as it could be at a pinch or that 1960s-could-be-any-time-in-the-’80s French design period, so I left it.
I ended-up with what looks like a butter dish but actually is a pate dish, undubitably also French and of a size to take a huge tub of Lurpak big enough to grease a pig. Should the need arise.
For our younger readers who’ve never heard of AA Milne’s The King’s Breakfast, make like a dolphin and click here.
I saved three lives today. Very small lives, and saved two bigger hearts from breaking too. Not a bad day to be able to say that. I wasn’t teaching so I went for a walk before I settled down to learning a computer language I don’t particularly want to learn but need to if I’m ever going to get back into research, which pays rather better. And it’s ages since I learned something new anyway, and I miss the process. I could have picked-up learning German again, but given that a German part of my life no longer talks to me, probably no immediate need for that.
I walked up the hill and turned left at the top, next to the cottage on the pond, next to the wood where I walked a friend’s dog while she slept, unknowing, so she didn’t have to when she woke. Along the lane into the dip and up the other side, past the houses, past the place which looks like a scrapyard, with its steel gantry and dangling chains, thankful I don’t live next door but in part of the Big House, or to be fair, one of the three Big Houses almost within sight of each other, hidden as they are only by folds in the hill.
Left down the little footpath bordered by a hedge on the left and an electric fence on the other side, in the field where someone built a huge treehouse for some lucky and invisible and therefore possibly long ago child. A friend told me she tested electric fences with a blade of grass. She quite often got electric shocks too, on her farm, so I don’t know if that’s a good test or not.
Across the field only just passable now the ground’s dried out a bit after the farmer deliberately and illegally ploughed straight over the footpath, then across the lane and through another field overploughed and seeded. I don’t like walking through crops but I don’t like selfish, lazy, illegal theft of public property and rights either.
Along the bridleway, left at the junction of three tracks on a windswept hill and skirt along the side of the wood following its curve down the hill, past the footpath to go the longer route and already there’s a car parked at the bottom, someone fishing alone at the lake. From here, now, writing this, I wonder if he accidentally played a part in this story.
Turning left to go up the hill I could see movement next to the fence dividing the fishing lake from the field. Three gold and black goslings, tiny, and two adult geese separated by a mesh fence. The goslings and the geese moved quickly away when they saw me, up the hill, but they were still separated by the fence, the mesh too small for anything except the goslings’ heads to poke through. Becauae it had been done properly the fence was bedded into the earth to stop foxes or more likely people getting in, but it was also stopping these little birds reuniting with their parents. I guessed we were about 100 yards from the gate I presumed they’d crawled under. I thought about shooing them back, but 100 yards is a long way to herd goslings and in any case, they were panicing enough already. So were the parents.
I picked one gosling up. It was so small that it didn’t even move when I held it. I put it over the fence and dropped it as gently as I could. It fell over but wriggled to its feet. The big goose nearby was going nuts, hissing and waving its wings at me. It stopped when it saw the gosling trot down to the lake and the other adult bird. I got the second one and dropped it over too. It made more of a thump, which worried me. I thought about throwing it into the long grass the other side of the fence, but I couldn’t see if there were sticks or broken fence posts or anything else there it could impale itself on. It wriggled about a bit, its feet ludicrously big, then remembered where they went and it too waddled quickly down to the lake. The last gosling had pushed its head as far as it could go through the mesh. I thought it would cut its own head off before long so I grabbed that one too and held it over the fence. I thought if I leaned forward as far as I could then it wouldn’t have so far to fall.
There was an odd, soft thumping in my chest as I leaned over. Not my heart. The top strand of the fence turned out to be electric. The gosling wasn’t affected. It landed the same as the other ones, full length, upside down, huge feet stretched out, then trying to use its tiny wings it somehow managed to get itself upright and straight down to the water. The adult goose joined its mate once they were all in and they paddled away. Straight towards another goose which pecked at one of the goslings and got a full scale charging attack from the parent.
They kept watching me as they edged deliberately but not quickly out into the lake. I didn’t feel 100%. Not hurt, but literally shocked.
A few minutes later an old couple came along. If I saw a loose black lab it was theirs. I left them to it. About a minute later an old black labrador pondered along the path on its own, taking it down to where the little goslings would have been squeekily trying to get the rest of their bodies through the mesh fence. We’d all live another sunny day, barring more accidents.
For the past two days I’ve been helping out a friendwho’d been overwhelmed by DIY, or rather, having to do it. It’s a big old house in the middle of pretty much nowhere and the first day of working on my own there I knew I wasn’t. Alone, that is. It wasn’t all the time. It wasn’t in one room more than another, because I had no reason to go to the two rooms I’d been in before where I knew for a fact that I wasn’t alone. Just a sudden realisation as I was having a sit-down, tea and a think ( a vital, un-mentioned part of DIY) that the house wasn’t empty.
Some people call it ghosts, some people call it tectonic plates shifting and making sounds we can’t register as sounds, some people call it electromagnetic variation and that can very seriously mess you up in terms of what’s real and what isn’t. I don’t really think it matters what you call it. Every culture since the Romans has known and acknowledged presences. There are ghosts in the Bible and not just the Holy one. In that house I’m not the only person who looks over their shoulder in two top-floor rooms, currently un-used.
It took hours to fix that ceiling light. It was an antique, salvaged from some market (and probably not a skip, as I thought when it looked as if it just wasn’t going to go right) and this like that don’t come with instructions. Let’s just say insulated connection blocks inside plastic covers, some very thin battening and a coat hanger, along with some creative uses of a pair of pliers and at one point some very uncreative and repetitive Anglo-Saxon.
And a beaming friend’s young son telling me how much better the landing was now, and personal thanks from his teenage brother, who even looked at me while his wide-screen video game while he was doing it. Surprised didn’t cover it.
So I hope tonight will be a little easier there. It’s still a cracking good tune.
I used to go to Salisbury a lot. A bank manager there thought I was going to shoot him, but I didn’t have a gun. To be fair, I did, but I didn’t have it with me. And I had no intention of shooting him. It was all a misunderstanding. There were a lot of them hanging out with that girl.
She wasn’t the Queen of the Silver Dollar. Salisbury didn’t run to that kind of thing. She was a perfectly ordinary lower-middle class girl who was lucky or unlucky enough to be stunningly pretty and not overly blessed with much of an education, nor much support at home, but home was warm and new and comfortable enough, with fitted carpets and a chest freezer, a boat on the drive and a car loan for the kids, her and her brother.
We used to take her Afghan hound for a walk, her in her ponyskin coat, me in my motorcyle jacket. We’d stroll down to the Old Mill Restaurant where we never went because we didn’t have any money, then the little footbridge across the river, through the watermeadows towards the cathedral. One Spring we watched the cygnets grow to be swans and when the last had shed its grey feathers her dog died. Saturday nights were 6X, Leibfraumilch and crisps and waiting for her parents to go out. She had an orange Ford Escort with a Stage Two race engine. I had a 650cc Triton. Jack and Diane as it might have been written by Thomas Hardy.
It wasn’t always sunny.
There was torential rain when I had to do the best piece of motorcyle riding I ever did. I’d turned off the A36 and blasted up the empty cold road on the last mile to her house. There was a ninety degree left at the end of the straight, then another straight for about a mile until the very last turning. What I didn’t see until I clipped it with the back wheel was the metal drain on the apex of the corner that spat the wheel sideways. I’d opened the throttle on the apex of the bend, the way we did back then. I think I was doing around 60 but I didn’t really have time to look. I got the back wheel back again but it shot out to the left. Then to the right again. Then to the left.
I thought if I braked I wouldn’t be doing much else in my life, so I did the only thing I could think of and rolled the throttle off slowly. It worked. Before long it was hot instant coffee and central heating and don’t put your wet jacket near my mum’s coat, back to normal.
It wasn’t the sort of place spies got poisoned, which probably makes it the best kind of place for spies to get poisoned.
The bank manager was mistaken. All I did was ask him what time she might be getting out of work, but I did it in the street, outside the bank, reaching into my motorcycle jacket for my wallet, wearing jeans and motorcycle boots and he thought I was reaching for a gun. “I don’t have a gun” didn’t seem to help, either. Hey ho. The past is a different country. They do things differently there.
I’ve had a ringing in one ear for the past year after a really bad cold I got from students. Thanks, kids, it makes it all worthwhile. I got so bunged up I had to have my ears syringed for the first time ever after I thought a warning buzzer on the car had packed up. Turned out it hadn’t, I just couldn’t hear it.
It got a lot louder so I went to the doc. Who reassuringly said she’d quite like to see if it wasn’t anything to do with my ear at all, but a brain tumour pushing on it. But don’t worry about brain cancer until we find it, ok? Er …..sure. OK. It’s like saying don’t think about elephants. It can’t be done.
I had my scan and waited. I phoned the doc, who told me to phone the hospital. Who wouldn’t talk to me because I wasn’t a doctor. Reassuring. I wondered how long it would take to do a Data Protection Act query. The doc told me the hospital wouldn’t have been arsing about like this if I actually had a brain tumour, but that wasn’t 100% reassuring.
Yesterday I went to the follow-up meeting with the Senior Registrar. No brain tumour. She stuck a camera up my nose and pressed her boobs into the back of my head. One of these sensations was much nicer than the other. She rolled her eys at the GP’s suggestion that polyps were growing on my eardrums. There aren’t any. She thought it wasn’t great that GPs do the ‘you might have a brain tumour’ spiel. I don’t.
A nurse blew in my ear to see if I had a punctured ear drum. With a machine, obviously. It’s not that sort of hospital. If you can feel the pressure increase ten you don’t. I only could in one ear. The machine was broken. We had to borrow one from the office next door.
What I do have is fluid stuck behind one ear, the aftermath of that bad cold. It should have gone away but it hasn’t due probably to some local inflamation and a tiny, tiny chance something has gone wrong there at some time which we will deal with if it hasn’t sorted itself out in three months.
I’ve got to sniff tolerable drops twice a day for two weeks and do stuff too revolting to mention, but I don’t have a brain tumour. Not today, anyway.
I was supposed to go to work today. Yesterday a one hour commute turned into two hours because of the snow. It didn’t snow overnight, so I thought it might be ok today.
As I was driving down the hill I listened to the radio telling me the A14 was blocked, the A14 was blocked, the A1120 was blocked, the road to Framlingham and the A1120 was blocked and the A12, well, the A12 was described as ‘a nightmare’ but as anyone who ever drove it knows, it just is anyway. There’s one other road out of here, precipitously steep, single track and not even a B road.
My immediate obstacle was getting down the hill safely. The problem here on the edge of this haunted airfield is that it froze last night after it snowed the day before. Then this morning we had a lot of wind that blew the snow off the fields on top of the sheet of ice that used to be the road.
I did what I was taught to do on an off-road driving course to get down any hill safely: put it in first gear and get your foot off the accelerator. Because it’s first gear your car can’t physically do more than about 15 or 20mph anyway, which is plenty fast enough on sheet ice. I tried to ignore the idiot behind me who thought two car lengths was plenty of distance between us.
I turned left at the bottom of the hill onto the bigger road that looked pretty clear. And it was for the first mile. As soon as we’d got through Hacheston the wind had piled fields full of snow onto the road making it just one lane. There were two cars stopped at the top of the hill, one of them slewed sideways and the other turning round, but there was a snowplough spreading grit up ahead so I slotted in behind that.
The lady’s not for turning
Which was a mistake. The snowplough stopped. It took a while to see why. A black Volvo XC 90 was blocking the road, coming the other way. Like lots of big, new 4×4 cars it had never been fitted with a reverse. That’s my charitable explanation.
In darker moments I just believe that the drivers think everyone who doesn’t have a big new 4×4 should just get out of the way like the forelock-tugging plebs we are. I even tried reversing (not for the Volvo. Some hope of that) but my car is front-wheel drive. Good for snow when going forward. Almost useless for snow going backwards.
Eventually it dawned on the Volvo driver that the snowplough wasn’t actually going to reverse all the way to the depot they way they’d expected it to do. I followed the snowplough through. It had taken 30 minutes to do three miles at that point. The A12 looked clear but empty when I saw it, but I remembered the radio warning.
I turned left instead of right and turned up the hill to go home at Marlsford. This hill was sheet ice too, but going up this time instead of down. I didn’t think I would have been able to get up my hill the way I’d come down. I knew something about going up hills in snow too – as soon as you hear the wheels spinning, get off the accelerator fast unless you want a quick one-way journey into the nearest hedge. With the wheels spinning you have absolutely no steering to speak of and you’re just sliding. Off the gas and your steering comes back instantly.
But go slowly. Above everything else, drive as if you’ve got a basket of eggs on the dashboard. But I sitll called it. For the first time in my whole life I emailed work and told them the weather was too bad to get in. It had taken fifty minutes to do a six mile circle around my house. And it was nice of work to write a one-word reply to my email, simply saying ‘Received.”
My life is worth more to me than a day’s pay. Obviously this isn’t a universal viewpoint, which is always nice to get clear. I spent the rest of the day applying for a job. The gig economy works two ways.
I didn’t particularly want to see this when I looked out of the window. I live miles out in the countryside, 5 miles from any town, a short walk to a haunted airfield. We’ve got a letterbox, but no pub, shop or anything else up here on the hill. They’ve got all that fancy stuff down on the main road, such as it is. Except the pub.
Because I do several different jobs, this week I chose the wrong one. The film I was working with had finished shooting and although I’m with three agencies there’s nothing around this week, so I was committed to teaching nearly fifty miles away.
On a decent day it takes just under an hour. It was obviously going to take more this morning. My old Saab was built in a snowy place, so I wasn’t worried about the car. Chiefly what bothered me was other people. When I was a stupid kid every time it snowed I went out for a drive. I can’t have been that stupid, because every time I did by the end of the drive I’d survived situations that would have resulted in me not typing any of this if I hadn’t had the practice. I remember coming back from one jaunt like that and finding a snow plough lorry across the road I’d been planning to use. I put the car sideways into a snowbank and no harm done to anyone.
I didn’t practice any handbrake turns today, not even a little one. But I saw a few people who ought to have done, or at least, their vehicles. The first one was a van half on its side in the ditch that had been trying to go up a hill and hadn’t. The last one that blocked the entire A14 was sad. A small car, not new, on the verge. To be accurate, half-way up the verge, in the trees surrounded by smashed branches. And upside down, with the roof crushed to the top of the doors. There was a police car there. I’m assuming the road had been blocked by ambulances and police crews and the fire brigade getting the people out. They weren’t there. It was hard to see how they were ever going to be again, unless they ducked down under the dashboard, the way people manage to in films. I doubt it, somehow.
It took nearly double the time it normally takes me to get to work, and the same coming home. I’m shattered from concentrating and remembering how to drive in the snow, and from remembering to pack a broom, a wooly hat, gloves, wellies, a camp stove, water, a lighter, a blanket, teabags and two packets of quick-cook porridge, along with a wind-up torch in the car. If you don’t need this stuff, you’ve won. If you do need it it’s no use in the cupboard at home.
I’d like to give special thanks to the two 4×4 owners who decided that ten feet off the back of my boot was an excellent place to drive, except I’d be lying. Total arses though they both were, are and obviously will continue to be, I hope even they get home safe tonight. That little wrecked car in the trees will stay with me.
I used to shoot. I’m not talking about an air rifle to deal with the rats that worried my chickens, nor even a shotgun to shoot clay pigeons. No. My deep, dark un-English secret was once not a secret and very English indeed.
Back in the Boer War that my great-grandfather went to, the British Army comprehensively lost (not something you’ll see in The Sun or pretty much anywhere else) in large part due to the fact they couldn’t shoot for toffee. A man called Lord Roberts decided that TrueBrits ought to be able to shoot, so in the early 1900s pretty much every town in the country suddenly found itself with a Rifle Hall and some with an outside rifle range as well. Just look at an old Ordnance Survey map. You will be surprised.
A long time later, despite how old I am now, aged fourteen I went along every Thursday to Trowbridge Rifle Club. It was held in the local Territorial Army centre in a town where soldiers from Warminster School of Infantry were forbidden to wear uniform in the shops in case they were targetted by the IRA. There was a six-wheeler Saracen kept in a shed behind the TA centre and if you don’t know what that is then I am very pleased for you. Times change for the better. You could see it through the cracks in the doors.
Thinking about it now, there was probably an armoury somewhere in the building, but we’d brought our own guns. I was about to say they were all .22 rifles, the best of them being the BSA Martini-action rifles directly descended from the ones that didn’t do much good at Rorkes Drift, but some people brought along much more exotic fayre, .22 target pistols and the odd chrome-plated .38. Neither of which they were allowed to shoot in the basement range, but that wasn’t the point. It was the lure of the things. What wasn’t totemic was the discipline around guns, which wasn’t optional or in any way advisory. As a kid you always knew someone close would have been very prepared to knock you to the floor if you’d started arsing around with a gun, loaded or not. I’m not justifying any of this. It was a long time ago. It was the way things were there and then.
I went to Israel after I left school and some things happened where a gun would have been a useful social tool. Pretty much everyone else was carrying one, from the IDF guys with 9mm Lugers stuffed in their waistband to the little family I recall at a beach, where the child was just about able to walk, Mummy looked dark and slinky and utterly stunning and Daddy had a big pistol kept in a replica US Cavalry holster hanging from a belt thrown over his shoulder as they strolled with an ice-cream, the way Daddies there do. Or did then, anyway. I haven’t been back.
My first job out of university was teaching kids to shoot on a camp by a lake in Wisconsin, in a summer of guns, Chevrolets, pine trees and an Indiana cheerleader called Nancy-Jean. I’m not even making this stuff up. By that time I already had, quite legally, after a tussle with Wiltshire Constabulary, my own Model 28 Smith & Wesson. It was nominally a .357 Magnum, but the recoil was as hard on the hand as the cost was on my wallet, so I normally made my own .38 Special cartridges using a punch and a mould on the kitchen worktop in Bath.
When I got my first job in London I spent my first pay cheque on a government surplus 1911A1, a .45ACP semi-automatic. According to the serial numbers it had been built in 1944, but at two different plants, the frame in one and the slide in another. Word on the street or at least in the gunshops you could then find in London (Trafalgar Square, Edgware Road, New Cross, Totteridge and I think another two if I can remember right) these had been languishing in an Israeli armoury since 1948 before being dumped on the market nearly 40 years later.
Dumped was about the word. It took hundreds of pounds to turn my Colt into a decent competition pistol. The magazine well was bevelled out so the magazine would load more easily, the sights replaced, the hammer shaved down so it didn’t nip the web of your hand, the backstrap replaced so make the grip more gripable, the barrel replaced with a Barstow one worth the name, the slide stop and magazine button made bigger and easier to use, the recoil spring replaced and a special retainer installed for it to make it all work more smoothly, before the frame was matte chromed and the slide re-blued and rubber Pachmayer grips wrapped around it. On top of the £200 or so I paid for it as-was, I think it probably cost something like £600+ to customise it.
It was only ever used where it was allowed to be used, on a licenced range, in competition and as I’d done before and would again, I won a few shooting competitions. Somewhere there’s still a little pewter cup I’ve never thrown away.
And then one day Hungerford happened and I didn’t so much want to be around shooting and then Dunblane happened and the government took my guns away. The Smith & Wesson had been sold years before. So had the Mossberg pump-action shotgun that I can’t now fathom what ever possessed me to buy, but there were two injustices, at least, about taking my Colt.
I have very little idea why I had this stuff. Nor so much of it.
Firstly, the original compensation was an arbitrary £150. I appealed and finally got the money I’d spent on it. More galling was a letter I got from my MP when I wrote to him, which said the confiscation was essentially so that the government could be seen to be doing something. They didn’t see fit to do anything about some seriously dodgy policing that played a large part in both the Hungeford and Dunblane massacres, where in the latter the senior officer who over-ruled police who had met Hamilton recommended he should never get a Firearms Certificate and the fact he was in the same lodge as the senior officer who oddly retired on the grounds of ill-health shortly after the last cartridge case hit the floor was never mentioned much again.
Nor were the allegations that Michael Ryan at Hungerford had a history of complaints about his behaviour that would usually disbar him from ever getting a Firearms Certificate, which he also got practically by return of post rather than the months the police usually dragged it out for. Nor was the serious allegation that while he ended-up shot, Michael Ryan didn’t shoot himself at all, not least by an obliging press that didn’t seem to think the coroner’s photos of his body needed seeing any more than the judge thought they did.
I was annoyed. I thought it would make no difference to armed crime at all. I went wholly along with the whole mantra, that bad people do bad things. A gun is only a tool. People kill people. The only gun control you need is a sharp eye and a steady hand.
And then somehow, without even meaning to, I grew up. I was totally wrong. If you take guns away, sure, people can still get them. But somehow they can’t get enough of them easily enough to walk down the High Street shooting people, or they’d have to make more effort to do it, or they’d have to talk to people, or all kinds of real-life obstacles to killing kids in a classroom in a couple of minutes.
Take the guns away. Nobody needs a 30 round magazine on a rifle however many deer they put on the table. Hardly anyone came back from WW11 and bought a Garand to put venison on the table. They’d seen what modern military weapons could do.
And so have we. And maybe that’s the issue. We’ve fetishised violence, from action movies to Presidents yelling about crusades to video and PC games where if we’re not peering up Lara Croft’s shorts we’re admiring the way she twirls her own brace of 45s. It’s dumb, it’s childish and it needs to stop. When I became a man I put away childish things. That included my guns.