He never touched my dicky

We watched Withnail and I today in class. I meant it to be a full visual equivalent of a textual analysis, but I’m not convinced it worked as an exercise. The key points (‘Bring us the finest wines known to humanity/Are you the farmer?/Flowers – tarts! Prostitutes for the bees!/We’ve gone on holiday by mistake/I called him a ponce and now I’m calling you one./I’ve only had a few ales…“) might have had me stuffing a scarf in my mouth to stop from screaming with laughter, but it wasn’t laughter shared with my group, for once. Maybe it escaped them. Maybe it’s a cultural thing. Maybe – frighteningly –  it’s an age thing.

When I wasn’t laughing I was smiling in memory. The scene where the ludicrous Uncle Monty visits the cottage in pursuit of the narrator, gulled by Withnail into thinking he’s on a promise always reminds me fondly of a place and a person I used to go to a lot, down in Dorset. A house full of good food, happy disorder and it has to be said, lots and lots of wine. But more importantly, sunshine and words tumbling out of all of us, ideas and jokes and stories and the easy, so easy obligation to entertain, above all else, whatever else we could contribute. Say anything, so long as it was entertaining and not hurtful or unkind. Withnail, for me, is a love song to that time, a place rediscovered sometimes when I visit and always happily recalled.

Before that, we ran through Mr Wu. Now ok, a Chinese friend of mine hates this song. Intensely. Not for any casual racism, because there isn’t any in it. Mr Wu scorching George’s best shirt isn’t anything to do with him being Chinese and everything to do with him being in luuuurve, a condition which apparently smote Mr Formby quite regularly.

And the joke, apart from the irritating little cod-Chinese musical coda that’s been used ever since The Mikado, and for all I know before that? As usual, George used innocuous words you could happily say to your granny. It was the words he didn’t use that made the joke.

Now Mr. Wu, he’s got a naughty eye that flickers, you ought to see it wobble when he’s ironing ladies’ blouses.

He does the same again when he mentions that Mr Wu has a laundry kind of tricky, he’ll starch my shirts and collars but he’ll never touch my waistcoat. To get that one you probably need to know that stiff, starched formal waistcoats to wear with a dinner suit used to be called dickies. But once you do you can’t listen to the song without laughing. I can’t anyway. 

Should I be giving my kids a thorough grounding in 1930s smut, the kind of thing that had my mother foaming at the mouth? Given that five Formby songs taught one class 127 new words once, I think so. We’ll see tomorrow.

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With my little ukelele in my hand

 

Most people of a certain age have at least heard of George Formby, even if they don’t really know anything else about him. David Skinner likes him a lot. So do I. And so, fairly strangely I’ve always thought, do Italian language students learning English. The freakier the student, the more dreadlocked, the more apparently rebellious, the more they rock out to a fine ukelele solo in the classroom.

Which makes no sense to me, but it works.

I give them a lyric sheet. If I feel like it, and I usually do, I tell them how George got really rich doing these silly songs and how the BBC kept trying to ban him for obscenity, and how they actually did ban When I’m Cleaning Windows. I ask them to find the obscene words, which is a bit of a challenge because Mr Formby wasn’t stupid, however he appeared on stage. There aren’t any. Not a single word you couldn’t happily say in front of your grandmother, Lancashire accent or no.

It wasn’t the words he said that got him banned. Like a lot of older English humour, it was the words he didn’t say that did it. And if you can work out what someone didn’t say then your English is coming on pretty well.

There was a laughably intense article in the Guardian claiming that the BBC had banned the record because of the immorality of singing about a window cleaner peering through hotel windows, noting that a bridegroom was doing fine and wishing he had his job instead of a chamois leather, peering only briefly at the Madonna-like film star staying there after seeing on unexpected – and unwanted – inspection that she was nearer 80 than 18.

I don’t think it was that at all. I think it was the seemingly innocuous line ‘pyjamas lying side by side, ladies nighties I have spied.’

The specific mention of ladies’ nighties makes pyjamas conspicuously male. And here, m’lud, there was unarguable evidence of two – and I hesitate to describe the baseness of this allegation to the court, but yet I must – yes, two men sharing the same bed. At a time when they’d both have been sent to prison even if they were lucky enough not to get electric shock treatment to cure them of gayness. Perhaps Mr Rees-Mogg might revise this policy when he’s Home Secretary, but for now the nonsensical non-issue makes it hard to decipher exactly why the BBC foamed at the mouth over this song in particular if that wasn’t the (ahem) root cause. As it were.

But anyway. I tell the kids to mark up every single word on the lyric sheet they don’t understand – yes I know you’re not supposed to do that, and it’s bollocks – and tell them specifically that if they mark every word on the page then utterly good, because they’ll then know them by the end of the lesson. And also that if they don’t mark a word as unknown and they don’t know it when I ask them then there will be trouble.

We put the words on the board, we see if anyone in the class knows them, if they don’t then I draw them, if they still don’t get it I tell them, then they translate it back into Italian and write it down. It doesn’t sound it but it’s hard work. One class got 127 new words out of five songs once. Which given you need 400 to get by in a new language isn’t bad going from listening to silly songs written a long time ago, 99.5% of which are in everyday use now.

New words learned we read through, first me then them. Then we sing it. Growl it, anyway. Nobody’s yet done the air uke solo, but dreadlock shaking and foot tapping is pretty much standard.

Should I be giving teenagers a thorough grounding in 1930s smut? Not in any text book I ever saw. I did it once for a joke, Formby being the only CD in my bag and being desperate for something to do, and it worked spectacularly. So I kept it. On a two-week course you get to dig around the more obscure parts of the Formby back catalogue, but nothing quite stirs the heart so much as deprived teenagers from some Milanese high-rise bellowing about Mr Wu’s mangling of George’s dicky.

Turned out nice, as Mr Formby said, after all.

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Losing my religion

Nothing to do with the R.E.M. song I still think is a bit modern, before I realise it was released a heart-stopping twenty-six (count ’em, as they used to say) years ago.

I went to the British Museum yesterday and saw the mummies, like you do.  On the way I saw an even sadder sight, the old and ageing soldiers of a war that nobody even wants to talk about any more, marching through the streets of London. Justice For Northern Ireland Veterans might actually happen more quickly if they weren’t quite so keen on spouting nonsensical tabloid headlines, I felt. I thought, from the name on their banners and their cry that they were ‘treated worse than terrorists’ that they were protesting disability benefit cuts, or pathetic pensions. I was wrong about that, the same way they were wrong if, like any other soldier, they were surprised that once it’s done with them the Army spits them out and forgets all about them, war or no war.

They claim on their website that their only desire is to lobby Parliament to stop criminal investigations of service personnel who might have you know, sort of shot someone once now and again. Which may or may not be fair enough, given that all sorts of people were shooting all sorts of other people at the time and that the RUC, who at least aren’t the Army themselves, had already had a look over the case and decided there wasn’t one. What demonstrably wasn’t true was the idea that JFNIV doesn’t support any political doctrine.

Now, it might be just me, but I’d say a better way of showing that would be to not actually march through the streets screaming about how much of a (yawn) ‘traitor’ Jeremy Corbyn was for talking to the IRA when Margaret Thatcher was doing exactly the same thing but lying about it, which apparently makes it ok. Which isn’t snark but an opinion held by a number of people not known to be using psycotropics.

It was sad. A tiny parade of mostly portly and quite elderly men, accompanied by a guy in his early sixties who looked as if he’d sooner be ambling glumly along a Burford pavement towing a brace of spaniels and a much more disturbing character the same age but wielding a ’70s Zapata moustache and a camo backpack, running elaborately on the double up the pavement as if he’d just spotted a balaclava and forgotten his L1A1.

The mummies weren’t remotely scary. Just sad. The fact that if you were the king’s favourite blacksmith or swordmaker meant that just like his horse, you were going to be killed when he died, to make sure the afterlife was just the way he wanted it, was pathetic enough. The 250,000 litres of wine one pharaoh had buried with him in case he wanted to throw a party in heaven was tragically stupid too. But for me the saddest thing was the little models of clay pots, the outsides done perfectly but the insides not actually insides at all. After death, buried with the dead, they were supposed to not only grow to full size but to become real pots, hollow, to hold something.

Five, seven, who knows how many thousand years on, they hadn’t. In scientific and theological terms, that was all bollocks. No heaven. No afterlife. Not even empty vessels. Just an idea of something, a something that didn’t happen, at that.

 

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Extra time

Time terrifies some people. A friend was convinced that she wouldn’t outlive her mother. Given that her mother was beheaded in a tragically stupid car crash rather than fading away in a care home, this worried her quite a lot. She was the front seat passenger. On a Highland road miles from anywhere she popped off her seatbelt to take her jumper off. At that exact moment a car came around the corner ahead on the wrong side of the road. She was not an old woman.

My friend continues to outlive her. And I realised, looking for paperwork about something else yesterday, that I’d outlived my father by more than two years, when I found the copy of his death certificate I’d obtained to clear up a mystery. In fact it wasn’t much of a mystery, just the bullshit combination of lies and collaboration that defines abusive relationships. My father, and after he left we were never told otherwise, said he was born in Australia. My mother repeated this to us as children, modifying this later to ‘nobody knows where he was born.’ In 1990 I went to Somerset House where then all the records of births, marriages and deaths were kept. It took me less than an hour of that sunny afternoon to find out he’d been born in Orpington, half a world away from billabongs and kangaroos, tied down or otherwise.

There were two lies there, then. Where he was born and that nobody knows. And another, by omission, that some people were happy enough to accept this fiction and tell themselves and anyone else who would listen that the truth was impossible, the truth could not be found.

But it could.

My fathers’ influence was disruptive, even after he was dead. Immediately after he was dead he smashed-up someone else’s car, which sounds quite an achievement; less so when you read on the death certificate that he had a heart attack at the wheel.

I wasn’t invited to the funeral. I don’t know where he was buried, nor even if he was. There is so much to uncover that I don’t know where to start.

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These signs shall follow them

Everyone I know has got one. I mean, not everyone I’ve ever met, but everyone who I can just pitch up at their house and be welcome without phoning, everyone I recognise as my tribe, they’ve all got one.

It’s not a Barbour. That’s pretty much just me these days, and mine’s not a traditional wax kind that newborn lambs have died on, but a modern techno-fabric one you can stick in a washing machine. Nor RayBans, not any more anyway. Persol do the job better these days for looks, and Vuarnet for optical quality, more so on a dull day.

No, the real signifier, the thing that makes you go mmmm, that’s got to be a Roberts solar-powered digital radio. Even though they’re pretty rubbish really, especially for the price.

To be fair, they’ve got a nice big speaker inside, so they don’t sound like a wasp in a tin or someone making a tune by blowing through a comb with tissue paper over it, if that’s still a thing. The big idea though is that we can show how eco-friendly we all are by…not buying batteries! Impressed yet? We hardly ever burn orang-utangs, even by proxy, being really careful to scan the ingredients of anything and if it says palm oil emphatically put it back on the Waitrose shelf, sometimes even muttering ‘Palm oil – you’ve GOT to be joking.’ I’ve pretty much managed to stop pronouncing it ‘jaking’ these days too. That’s how progressive I am. That and spending seventy quid on a radio that however long you get the sun to charge it gives you about 90 minutes of Radio 4 Extra, top whack.

As Mark put it, borrowing Hunter Thompson’s habit of quoting the Bible (Mark 16:17-18 in fact and look, I’ve been to his house ok? When he was alive. Very disappointing actually, but anyway) although we’ve pretty much stopped drinking any deadly thing, mostly, we shall cast out devils, we shall speak with new tongues. We might, one day, get a radio that you can actually listen to without a plug, too.

 

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Another secret

 

 

It was about the same time that I discovered Studland and the wartime bunker there. We’d had another job down in Plymouth and drove slowly back with time to kill in that most magical of times, very early summer in the West Country, when the mornings are still cold, when everything sparkles as if your eyes are new. When there really could be a sword in every pond, as Roy Harper put it, so long ago.

Plymouth – well, Plymouth was strange. It had the feel of a Navy town but at the same time, so much of it was nearly new. I sort-of knew it had been bombed heavily in what for my generation we will always just call the war, but I didn’t know how much, like Southampton, the Luftwaffe and after them, the far more destructive town planners had ripped the old heart out of the city.  If you like concrete pedestrian underpasses, don’t miss Plymouth. We marvelled at the huge age of the woman we’d book unseen to host the event we were putting on, at least ninety and thin and spry, if understandably a little slow. But mostly we marvelled at the English Riviera, the first time we’d really seen it as adults. We drove across country, found a little town with new giftshop on three floors and wondered what would happen to it. Nearly twenty-five years on I hope they did ok.

We followed a small road out of that town and ended up on a beach, running parralel to the sea. The weather had changed to cloudy by now, or maybe it was just a seafret. Or a breath of something darker, as we turned a corner and drove astonished past a black tank at the side of the road. It wasn’t hindsight or imagination – there was something brooding about that beach before we saw the tank.

It had been kept secret, in our open, transparent and fundamentally honest society, for fifty years. Along with all the other tanks and ships and men who had died in that bay at Slapton and been shovelled quickly and secretly into mass graves.

It was an invasion exercise. Thirty thousand Americans, practising for D Day. Except that by chance, by accident, by just one of those things, after the Americans had finished shelling their own men on the beach, German E-boats had somehow got mixed-up in the practice invasion too. When they opened fire it wasn’t until lots of people started dying that anyone American guessed that this wasn’t just a hyper-realistic drill.

It was judged, not for the first time and certainly not for the last, that British voters’ heads shouldn’t be unduly troubled by the facts. The dead, hundreds and hundreds of them, were bundled underground. German casualties were zero. So it wasn’t that saying what had happened would have given the game away to them; they were already home, unable to believe their luck. We weren’t told the truth because our betters decided we oughtn’t to be told the truth. Because the truth wasn’t good for us. Because We are Good. They are Bad. We win. They lose. We don’t make mistakes. Forever and ever, Amen. And like good little children after prayers should always do, we went to sleep and forgot all about it.

It wasn’t until the early 1980s that a few people in Dorset started asking questions about why fishing nets kept catching on things that ought not to have been there that the truth belatedly came out. We were lied to by our government, for reasons that aren’t clear. The British government, not the American ones. If it was necessary during the war, it can’t possibly have been necessary a quarter of a century later. Let alone for that time again.

Another secret, like Shingle Street. Call it Exercise Tiger, call it the Battle of Slapton Sands. Call it one big lie, like so many. The information about it was de-classified eventually. Unlike the secrets of Shingle Street.

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Fighting them on the beaches

“… in the whole course of the war there was no story which gave me so much trouble as this one of the attempted German invasion, flaming oil on the water and 30,000 burned Germans.”[67

I went to Studland Bay once, by accident, a long time ago. We were working, it was late and far too far to drive back. It was late in the season, or maybe it was early – either way, there weren’t many people about. It had to be eighteen years ago now. I remember it well though.

We found a hotel perched out on a headland overlooking the Bay. After breakfast I took a walk in the soggy garden and wandered down to a spot where I could see the sweep of the beach. I stumbled over something, but I didn’t know how important it would become, then.

It was a concrete bunker, left over from the war. Unusually, this one was a long corridor of a shelter, painted in green camouflage. It’s probably still there. They’re hard to get rid of. I went inside. Fifty years before, a man with a camera had been there too. I didn’t know that then. He took the picture you can see at the top of this screen; a sea of flame. A barrage. A fougasse.

I don’t know why this story became so closely associated with Shingle Street, over 250 miles away from Studland, in Suffolk. Something happened there, although what, we’ll probably never know.  Even the BBC only has the version not kept secret. But anything connected with military compulsory purchase is subject to a hundred-year rule, to protect people’s privacy. It could be that’s all it’s about.

I don’t know. I don’t even have a theory. I do know that as a child I was haunted by a deep fear that the sky would catch fire; a fear of nuclear war conflated with descriptions of sunsets. I think that’s the attraction of the Shingle Street story I’ve written a version of as a screenplay. We like to scare ourselves.

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Screening Shingle Street

Once upon a time something happened here. The army threw everyone out. On VE Day the army blew up the derelict pub. They wanted, to build a celebration bonfire. The pub wasn’t supposed to be derelict; someone took a few potshots at it, some time during the war.

The Graf Zeppelin parked over this place for a couple of days, loitering about over Bawdsey Manor, where they were busily inventing radar.

Down at Swanage the army were building a flame barrage, to deal with any German invasion. The kind they were expecting daily. And in London, Dennis Wheatley, the writer of supernatural tales, was busily churning out propaganda. Just along the coast the army built concrete blast shelters to test the triggers for atom bombs. The local US Air Force base commander swears blind that a UFO landed near his airfield. Anything that happened at Shingle Street has been kept secret for over 70 years. It’s going to be kept secret for a lot longer.

All of this is true.

And other things might have happened there too.

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We don’t need no education

We’re all a bit tired of experts, after all. The Minister for Education said so. Which tells you pretty much all you need to know about Britain, about how politicians feel about the people they’re supposed to represent, about education in Britain and the reasons for its place in the world.

It’s a country which has always pretty much despised education and cultivated the idea that decent people don’t know much, don’t want to and don’t need to, along with the idea that education in itself is suspect. It’s a country where you can definitely know too much for your own good.

At school I was advised by my Careers master not to do Psychology; employers would think I was always trying to find out what was in their heads. This wasn’t said as a joke. It was very definitely serious careers advice, at what was then a decent-enough school that produced some seriously rich adults, if not that many academics.

Any study of comparative educational attainment shows the UK lagging far, far behind in pretty much everything, starting with literacy. You can see the government’s own comparisons here. It lists the countries we’re encouraged to sneer at, the bad haircut Koreans, the we’re-absolutely-terrified-of-them-so-hush-Chinese, the hippy Finns, the close-to-communist-yet-inexplicably-affluent-and-modest-and-happy Norwegians, chocolate-munching Belgians, clog-wearing Anne-Frank-betraying-Dutch-who-we-helped-so-much and the dangerous-to-bankers-Gordon-Brown-defying Icelanders. The best of them have kids whose reading age is a year and a half above that of a British child of the same age. On average. Twenty countries do solidly better than the UK in mathematics, presumably ones which don’t pretend to be American and call it Math. Likely. Ten countries race ahead of the UK at Science in schools. And we get exactly what we deserve. With a UK population whose collective reading age is about nine years old perhaps it’s not surprising that social policy is dictated by the tabloid press.

I haven’t worked in all of these countries, but I’ve taught a fair few Chinese kids. They do things differently there. Here, we spend hours trying to work out new ways to involve the kids, how to make the lessons appeal, integrate learning into their life experience, make it bogusly ‘relevant’, because obviously knowing how to read enough to get a job compared to say, Pa knowing the boss, isn’t relevant to anything in the UK. In China the approach seems to be much the same as the one I remember from a rural primary school when it wasn’t just films that were black and white: sit down, shut up, open your books.

I’m not convinced that’s always the best way to do things. A practical lesson I did on how to make and lie in a hammock goes down as the happiest and most productive I remember, where even the ‘bad’ boys got involved. And were suitably chastened, even downright frightened when I told them about the last stitch at sea, the one through the septum to close the hammock over the dead sailor prior to chucking him over the side, just in case he wasn’t able to move or speak. Over, under, around, through, back over, up, down, we learned them all. Relative prepositions of place, in a sunny field by a stream one August morning. That time, Pink Floyd got it wrong. And some days, dark sarcasm is the only thing that keeps you going. I’m English, after all.

 

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Radio on

 

There’s this film. It’s a story about a murder, an exploration, a road-trip from Londond to Bristol and out beyond, to the sea.  A story about boredom and factories and despite it having ended 34 years earlier, this is a story about the war for which England had clearly, for all its lights and industry, not really fully recovered, inside or out.

A story where a multi-millionaire pop star pretends for reasons of his own to be an Eddie Cochran fan playing guitar in a caravan, working in his dad’s garage somewhere way down the A4 that’s gone now, the same way the Driver’s old Rover car is gone now; the same way Utility furniture and big factories are gone now, along with the M4 Junction 2 skyline, even as far out as Windsor; the way telephones with dials and cords and big black and white televisions and rooms without central heating are gone now.

That was the world I grea up in. That was the world I expected to live in. And while lots of things are better, like not being cold all winter, a lot of it I miss in a way I don’t often think about, but the ache is still there, like an old tennis injury. Or a psychic scar.

Radio On has a simple story.  A man is found dead in his bath. One of his last acts was to send his brother three Kraftwerk cassettes for his birthday and beleive me, that would have been a pretty big present. The brother works, until he walks out of the job, as a radio DJ in a factory on the Great West Road, an in -house radio host lost in the kind of job that has gone now too, the kind of job some of us thought would be pretty cool; the kind of job that couldn’t now even vaguely possibly sustain a rented flat in Hammersmith. It did then. And also the sort of job that left the DJ bored and numb. Or maybe that was just the death of his brother.

We walks away, or rather drives away, to find….well, it isn’t made clear. A short haircut when that was pretty revolutionary in itself. Bristol. The cause of his brother’s death. The revolution, by way of Astrid Proll, the Red Army Faction and a new German maybe girlfriend, because the old one reckons he’s doing her head in with all his stuff.

The literally Dickensian decay of pretty much everything around oddly doesn’t clash with the music that to me at least, sounds new and now. The quaint old cars, the cold, the decision to shoot the film in black and white, the decision to shoot the film at all when it was so much of a non-road trip, down the M4, come off at Theale, pretty much the way I used to run that road, not crossing the M25 because there was no M25 to cross, off onto the A4, the old road of shepherds and stagecoaches and Johny Morris’s son’s pub, the Pelican. And snow that winter. I remember that too. The smell of the cold. The feel of its teeth in the bones of my arm.

And good contrasts. The jukebox left over from an imaginary benevolent USA blasts out “I saw the whole wide world’ as the Driver looks out of the bleak windows of an almost empty pub somewhere outside Newbury. The 1950s Rover rolls sedately along near Heathrow while a Jumbo jet soars into the future at the end of the bonnet. Except it doesn’t look like the future, this vision of England’s glory. Like the future, there didn’t seem to be one, back then.

And Ireland. And the Provos. And Bader-Meinhof. And squaddies hitch-hikinbg and spilling thier PTSD fallout stories, the same ones I’d heard of corss-border firefights, smashing down a flat’s front wall with a Browning .50 calibre, stories that never, ever made the papers because the papers, then as now, lied to give a one-sided story. We just didn’t know they did. We didn’t beleive they did, anyway. All of this airbrushed out of history now by the same papers, so we know that all terrorists are and always have been Moslems because it suits the government and its sponsors for us to think that.

These garages, these farms seen through the windscreen, the blue remembered thrills, the same farms and garages of lost discontent I saw through my own windscreen, out past Silbury Hill. And does any of this matter?

These cars, these phones, those demons are dead. Aren’t they? Cars always start these days. Nobody’s even seen a starting handle, nor a Rover P4 if they’re under 40, or Sting hamming it up in a caravan outside Hungerford, nor a garage where a man comes out to pump your petrol for you.

The Driver asks Sting: “Are you going places?”

Of course not.

This is all old stuff. I should leave it where it lay. We’ve all got new phones. But I can’t forget David Bowie stopped singing Heroes and asked us a question instead. Where Are We Now?

 

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