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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Scales of concern

I taught last year at Stowupland High School. I complained when a pupil who I disarmed after he had stolen a four-inch blade and threatened another pupil with it was given with a one day internal exclusion. That meant he didn’t have to go to lessons. It also meant I was very suddenly not asked back again.

It’s no loss. Except to the other children who have to spend the rest of their school days with someone who could, according to the law, go to prison for four years.

To quote directly, Section 139 of the Criminal Justice Act (CJA) 1988 prohibits having an article with blade or point, in a public place.

Section 139A of the 1988 Act extends the geographical scope of both of the above offences to school premises. A corridor in a school definitely counts.

Section 139AA of the CJA 1988 makes it an offence to unlawfully and intentionally threaten another person with an offensive weapon or bladed article in a public place or on school premises, in such a way that there is an immediate risk of serious physical harm to that other person.

‘Next time I’ll stab you.’

I heard him say it. He never denied saying it. I think that counts as an intentional threat. Saying ‘I was joking’ after you’ve jabbed someone with a blade and got caught doesn’t cut it in my book. I would also submit, m’lud, that the recipient telling the jabber to ‘fuck off’ doesn’t alter the fact of the threat being made.

The prosecution must prove that the defendant had a relevant article in a public place or on school premises, unlawfully and intentionally threatened another person with it, and did so in a way that there was an immediate risk of serious physical harm to that other person. For the purpose of section 139AA CJA 1988, ‘serious physical harm’ is defined as grievous bodily harm. The term “public place” has the same meaning as in section 139 above and ‘school premises’ has the same meaning as in section 139A above.

Unlike an offence contrary to section 139 CJA 1988, it doesn’t matter whether a person was initially in lawful possession. Stealing scissors from the Science lab doesn’t really count as ‘lawful possession’ anyway.

The school promises ‘outstanding progress for all.’ It doesn’t deliver it, unless you count not being reported to the police for a criminal offence and no record of if being kept in case they find out about it counts as progress. Just take a look at their Ofstead report.

Or if you’re like the minority of pupils there and can’t be bothered, read the highlights, if that’s the right word. I was there in November. The Ofsted inspection was in March. Nothing had changed nearly half a year later.

The behaviour of pupils requires improvement.
? The school’s monitoring records show that this year far fewer pupils are being referred to the internal exclusion room compared to last year. Furthermore, the proportion of pupils excluded from school has fallen this year. Records show that very few permanent exclusions occur.
? Pupils are concerned when their learning is disrupted by others. Inconsistent behaviour management by staff means that these pupils continue to misbehave. Leaders and managers are not fully aware of the scale of this concern, or of the negative impact it
is having on the learning of the majority of pupils who want to achieve well.

Ofsted report March 2019.

As in several other Suffolk state schools, the demands of the few are given precedence over the rights of the many. Disruptive and occasionally violent pupils are allowed to steal a decent education from every other child in the class with them.

And nothing at all is done to stop them.

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And the consequence was…

I haven’t been writing much lately. I live in a country which has changed massively from the country I was born in.

We thought – at least we did in my house – that what we read was true. That Prime Ministers didn’t tell lies. Or at least, not as a habit.

That when people deliberately broke the law there was a punishment for it.

And that isn’t the England I live in, now. The Prime Minister, a man who was sacked from his first two jobs specifically for lying, for making-up stories about the EC and how dreadful it all was and how plucky Brits never, never, never should be slaves and what a corblimey honest working-class geezer eewozinnit, not one of them elites at all, what? Sorry, one means innit, again, has just been found to have acted unlawfully.

Meanwhile a man who looks improbably like Lord Snooty in the Beano isn’t laughed at, is elected and is a government Minister, who having staged a constitutional coup and lost it thanks to the Supreme Court, accuses the Supreme Court of a constitutional coup. US Presidents don’t serially seduce actresses or copulate with willing interns (I mean, nobody would, now); instead, they talk like six year-olds sugared-up at a birthday party. And nobody laughs. Nobody says ‘get tae fek’. Not that I’ve heard on Radio4. At least John Humphries isn’t there to genuflect to David Davies any more.

So the PM has broken the law. And nothing happens.

A big so what?

The Opposition doesn’t want a vote of no confidence, having demanded a vote of no confidence right up to the time they could win a vote of no confidence. Johnson broke the law. His Ministers say he didn’t, despite the Supreme Court saying he did. He isn’t going to prison. He isn’t paying a fine. He’s not even picking-up litter on the A12 wearing a hi-viz vest. Nothing bad will happen to him at all. This is an England where lying is absolutely fine.

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SQL Sequels

 

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

Not Your Heart Away

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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The big secret

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

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

Hiding in plain sight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The king’s breakfast

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

Stuff To Impress Girls

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

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

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

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

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

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A bit of a shock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Not alone

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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