False show and seemings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, it’s rope.

No it’s not.

Er, honestly it is.

It’s the wrong stuff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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And there were no bananas

 

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

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

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

Pineapple envy

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

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

 

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On a hostile shore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Reeling in the years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The end of the world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A long time dying

This is the second blog post with something about dying in the title. I don’t want to do it and although one day I’m obviously not going to get out of it, that isn’t today or any day I’ve got planned. No thanks to the GPs at Leiston surgery in Suffolk, who felt that if I only bucked up and stopped moping about dying they could get on with whatever else it was they were doing when they couldn’t be arsed to give me a blood test.

If they had it would have found something I thought I had, on the basis of no evidence other than a word in my head since I was fourteen. Thrombosis. A blood clot. Mine was a rare one, in the iliac vein.

The iliac vein is a big one. It goes up your left leg and crosses over your spine, just about at the back of your belly button. Your femoral artery crosses over it in front. If you fly for more than an hour you ought to read the next bit carefully.

When I was in the womb my iliac vein grew curled around my femoral artery. When I got on an airplane and we went up through the clouds my artery expanded, as arteries do. Hugely. I’ve seen it on close circuit TV. I don’t recommend this and nor does any doctor I ever met. It gives you nightmares for a week. But I didn’t know that then. Just the way I didn’t know my own blood in my artery was crimping my iliac vein tight shut against my spine.

When blood stops flowing it clots. Mine clots fast. Cuts that other people have for a while disappear on me. A couple of seconds of pressure on a cut finger on me and it stops bleeding. Inside me, a big blood clot grew. A deep vein thrombosis.

These aren’t fun. Apart from messing you up when they’re stopped, slowing your circulation right down, the much more dramatic danger starts if they begin to move. Veins bring blood back to the heart, via the lungs. If you get a lump of blood stuffed into your lung, just like a bullet, by the time it’s stopped ripping things up you can be unhappily drowning in your own blood.

If it goes through your lung to your heart the fun just multiplies. The ‘Out” side of your heart has smaller holes than the “In” side. Your blood clot will go through your heart and jam in the exit holes, blocking the artery. Your heart is only designed to do one thing though and that’s pump. Which it will keep on doing until you die. Unfortunately, if your artery is blocked that might not be a very long time coming, because as any Mech. Eng. knows, fluid doesn’t compress. Your heart will keep pumping blood but there won’t be anywhere for it to go. Until it rips holes in your heart, after which it will go everywhere, unlike you.

But that might not happen. Your travelling thrombosis might slide right through your heart, through the artery and go on up into your brain. If you think you had problems before then you didn’t know what a problem really was. With the other stuff you die. Quite painfully and hopelessly, true, but at least quite quickly and nothing much else happens to you. A blocked artery in your brain though, that’s a whole new barrel of evil kittens.

I didn’t want a stroke. I didn’t want to have to learn how to eat with a spoon or shout abuse at the sound of my own name or have someone clean up after me more than our paid cleaner already did when she didn’t skive out of cleaning by standing very, very close to me and smiling a lot while she talked to me for two hours, an arrangement which suited us both at the time.

I didn’t want any of this. And I didn’t want to go on living the life I remembered my mother’s family living, or several of the older males anyway, sat in chairs inside in summer, sleeveless jumpers on, next to a roaring coal fire. Eleven years ago this year I knew exactly how they felt. They got fat and blocky because every time they moved their joints hurt and because they didn’t move their circulation got worse and they got fatter. And colder. And on, more and more miserably, uncomprehendingly on. I thought it was normal. I thought that’s what happens when you get older. When you have a congenital medical condition, it is. They didn’t

I thought it was normal. I thought that’s what happens when you get older. When you have a congenital medical condition, it is. They didn’t know what it was before they died uncomfortably. I do. And I find it very, very hard to forgive a GP surgery that took three years of my life because they simply couldn’t be bothered to do a blood test.

 

 

 

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When I was dying

I have to credit the amazing-notwithstanding-that-it’s-true title to a friend. She had pneumonia and because she smoked and I think because a lot of different reasons, she thought she had something else. It didn’t matter. It didn’t hurt. There was just no energy. Just every day the light burned a little lower.

I had it once, about a year and a half ago. I can’t remember anything much of that time, apart from being cold and having no energy and the light seemed strange all the time. Yellow. I wrote an entire screenplay in two weeks, the most productive two weeks I’ve ever had, despite that I was ill.

That wasn’t the time I was dying. That was eleven years ago this January past. The fact that I didn’t die had nothing to do with the incompetence, penny pinching and venality of the GPs at Leiston surgery in Suffolk and everything to do with the genius of my surgeons at Ispwich General, which isn’t a phrase I thought I’d ever be using.

I knew something was wrong. I felt old and cold and slow all the time. My joints hurt and there was something wrong with my feet. For three whole years it got worse, until I was wearing a sweater deep into the summer and two sweaters and the heating on at my desk in September. I just thought it was what happened as you got older. The vomiting was unusual, I thought. Every so often, maybe every three or five or seven weeks or so, I’d be hit with a pain inside me so huge that it dropped me to my knees vomiting. Ten minutes later I was fine. Shaken, but fine. I thought for a while I might be losing my mind. It made no sense.

I went to the doctor. The word thrombosis had been going through my head for years and I don’t know why to this day. Nobody in my family had ever had one, to my knowledge. I was just over forty. I was suddenly flying long-haul quite a bit, but I had my stupid flight socks and drank water and did all the exercises you’re told to. And still I’d wake up five miles high and know I was dying. A flight from Miami to Limassol via London in Business Class was one of the worst of my life. No amount of free champagne and luxury bedding got rid of the feeling that the sand was running out and most of it was already gone.

The first doctor felt my calves, because in Suffolk that’s apparently how you look for a thrombosis. He didn’t find one but said sometimes doctors never find out what’s wrong with people. Next please.

I tried another doctor after he suddenly retired with a mental illness. This one was a female army doctor. Nothing wrong with you if you can cycle twenty miles, I was told. Buck up.

But I didn’t. The next GP decided to test for testicular cancer. It’s the fashion, apparently. If you’re under 25 anyway. And the doctor gets a little sub for testing for it. Flattering though it was to be mistaken for a slip of a lad albeit one with wonky balls, that still didn’t explain the cold, the joint pain, the vomiting. Who cares? Next please.

By the third December I thought my life had gone on quite long enough if it was going to go on like this. I remember cycling out on an errand and taking a short cut back across a field. I wasn’t sure where I was exactly, the light was fading, my fet were soaked and cold and my ankles hurt and I did not want any more of this. I stopped in the middle of the field for a while, but moved on again. I didn’t want to stay in the field. I didn’t want to be anywhere.

A few days later we went to Portugal. It was nothing. I was cold, sick, hurting and felt alone, the way I felt almost all of that time, which was hard on the person who was there with me throughout. When we got back I drove us to Wales to stay in a cottage with relatives. I recall the drive through the dark. I remember walking on a wet beach. I remember driving back and being dropped to my knees with pain tearing me apart in a car park, somewhere I will never see again. And as always, ten minutes later the pain had gone. Just the memory of it stayed.

A few days after we got back the nightmares started. I got practically no rest for three nights. The fourth night I woke from a nightmare to go to the bathroom and found my left leg hurt incredibly as soon as it touched the floor. I thought I must have been lying oddly. I thought it would be ok.

When I woke in the morning it still hurt. More. My left leg was about a third bigger than my right leg and the colour of a raspberry. My partner called the doctor, the same doctor who had been insisting there was nothing wrong and it was probably all in my head. Even he had to admit there was a problem now.

I went to hospital by taxi because it was quicker than getting an ambulance out to me in the remote corner of the world I live in. The boy doctor in Casualty was scared witless. He arranged a scan immediately, the thing I’d been asking my rubbish GPs for, because I thought I had DVT – Deep Vein Thrombosis. The boy doctor told me my situation was, as he put it quietly, ‘grave.’ I had been telling his colleagues that for three years.

There was a simple blood test that diagnosed DVT at the time. It cost 80p to administer, but the reason Leiston surgery said they didn’t want to use it was because it sometimes gave false positives. In other words, it told some people they had DVT when they didn’t. If that happened they’d have an ultrasound scan, the kind I was having now.

It turned out I didn’t have a DVT. I had either three Guinness Book of Records DVTs or five massive DVTs. Either way they couldn’t really work out how I wasn’t dead. I didn’t say I’d been there and got the T-shirt. It just felt like that anyway.

I was lucky to find a brilliant surgeon on my ward who gave me a choce: join my experiment or go on Warfarin/Couperin for the rest of your life. Which he said would probably be about ten years because after that on Warfarin you’re quite likely to uncontrollably haemorrhage one day. No choice.

The tale of how I got stented can wait for another day.  It didn’t hurt then and unless I get really tired, or get a bad cold, or both, as now, it doesn’t hurt at all. When I have a cold and get tired it hurts in a way painkillers won’t even touch. But at least I’m not dying now. Although, like my friend, I remember when I was.

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I read it in a magazine

He’s got electric boots, a mohair suit. I know, I read it in a magazine.

A long, long time ago, notwithstanding I can still remember how that music made me smile, I was a bit hipNhappening. I’d cut my own hair in a manner which my best friend found alarming. I had a sheepskin coat and black needle cords and a blue stripey collarless shirt and John Lennon glasses and one of those grey and brown and black sweaters you used to be able to get from head shops when there were any, back in the days when they didn’t so much sell patchouli in every shop in Bath as spray it out of crop-duster planes on continuous low passes over Walcot Street. Talkin’ bout a revolution? Baby, I was there.

I’m sorry, where was I? Feeding the enemy, as I recall. Once upon a time there was a thing called the wine lake and another thing called the butter mountain. Even then, a news story wasn’t a proper news story unless a suitably babyish name could be slapped on something important, life-changing and complex, so people didn’t have to think too hard about it.

The EU had decided to subsidise the British farmers who voted to leave it last year by buying-up their butter to keep the price at a respectable level. In one of the inherent problems of a supply economy, if there’s too much of something the price goes down. And down. And down. And people starve. The EU guaranteed to buy farmers’ butter. So farmers don’t starve. Brilliant, said farmers. I think next year we’ll turn over all our milk production to butter. But we’ve got too much butter, said the EU. Your problem, said the farmers. Where’s our subsidy?

And so it continued for a while. Up to a point. But then some odd things happened. In pretty much the same breath we were told the evil totally reprehensible Soviet Union, President Reagan’s ‘evil empire’ had invaded Afghanistan and that was a Bad Thing. It’s only good when we do it, and then we ‘help,’ not ‘invade.’ Everyone knows that.

At almost exactly the same time we were told the problem of the butter mountain had been solved; we’d flogged it to the USSR for about 47p. Job done.

Which, as I declaimed loudly in the Rose & Crown in Trowbridge of a Saturday night to anyone who would listen and many people who wouldn’t, was what this song was about. Listen. No, listen. Then hear the ping of my brass Zippo as I light a Camel. Hawken to the sound too, of scratching as my jumper moults itchily.

Naturally, with a Prime Minister selling weapons to the same regime which is the biggest exporter of terrorsim aimed at the UK, nothing like that could happen now. These days we do guns, not butter.

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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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