Walking home

About a month ago I got back from heaven. I’d done something I’d promised my self I would do for at least ten years and the thing I was afraid of didn’t happen. It was so, so much better than I could even imagine. And for once, the best things in life were free.


Every year for the past thirty-odd years, jazz manouche fans and musicians make thier way quietly and un-announced to the place where Robert Louis Stevenson, Django Reinhardt and Monet once lived. At different times of course , but the three of them had that in common. Must be funny, Abba told us, in a rich man’s world but Django was never that rich. He was born in 1910. He died in 1952. He came within a whisker of dying several times before that. You can find his history on line but I found him years before the internet even existed, thanks to British Rail.

While Jimmy Saville was feeling-up crippled patients in Stoke Mandeville and leering ‘ow’s about that then, guys and gals?’ an ad agency came up with a better idea than fronting a celebrity pervert: just show some pictures of a train rolling along and play the most complicated, most relaxing, happiest guitar music ever written or played.

And he still spoils everything. He spoils learning and playing my beautiful Hofner Verithin guitar, (the one that makes girls actually stroke the thing) not just because he didn’t much like electric guitars but because even though he only had two working fingers on his left hand he played approximately four zillion times than I’ll ever play. You want to talk about guitar heroes like Clapton or Page? Please do while I die laughing. .Listen to Django Reinhardt play and you can’t switch Radio 1 on for a month or more. Ther’e no moronic repitition. No children’s skipping rhymes masquerading as popular culture. No whiny nonsense about how haters gonna hate but baby you save me, or as they say in Scotland, any a that shite. There aren’t even any words in almost all his songs apart from Nagasaki where as is well-known, the fellows chew tobaccy and the women, well the women wiggy-waggy woo. Until they got atomised, obviously, but the song pre-dates the hiatus.

I went to Fontaineblue with a friend and learned the thing about the Django Reinhardt festival the hard way. It’s not at Fontainebleu. I’d bought tickets for all four days. I won’t be doing that again. Not just because most of the acts, certainly the ones the guests in the corporate hospitality tents had come to hear and be schmoozed over were nothing, absolutely nothing to do with his music, but more because the real festival is free.

We got the Eurostar to Paris then a commuter to the town. We got an AirBnB that we wouldn’t have looked at twice in England. We bought fresh croissants for breakfast and spoke O-Level French and didn’t, for once, buy espadrilles. Luckily, because we did what Django did; we hired bicycles one day and walked the next, 8km past the railway station at Avon, along the banks of the Seine to Soissons.

If you’ve got a thing about stateless refugees, or gypsies, look away now. Django Reinhardt was one. So was his wife. So are most, if not all, the real musicians who pitched-up in the camp on the north bank of the river; so were their ancestors who were put, as Django was going to be, into more sinister camps in the war. These were beautiful, handsome, proud, wistful, quiet people a million times removed from the travellers with dogs on a bit of string shambling around the west country. And they played. They played double bass, violin, melodica and guitar all without sheet music, for hours at the camp and in the village, free. For the joy of it. A whole day’s fabulous music was ours for the price of coffee and pastis and marguez, salad and frites – a bill for all of that music and food for the better part of the day for less than 2 Euros.

In the evening we wandered back to the paid-for festival to hear big names hamming-up what sounded like the incidental music from ancient episodes of Starsky and Hutch. We felt the same then as I feel now, as I’ve always felt Django Reinhardt’s own unique music. There is nothing like it. There never will be again.

 

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A sword in every pond

Those of a certain age and inclination will recognise the words from Roy Harper’s classic One Of Those Days In England and as he says, those much younger cannot understand by half. He sings about an England I recognise, one I grew up with in the West Country, surrounded by myths and legends and vanishing hitchhikers and UFOs and ponds, with or without swords. Just about an hour’s drive away, not far in miles or epochs, we had Glastonbury, the old pre-festival one of hills and marshes and our once and future king. We took it seriously to the extent that it wasn’t questioned. Once there was a king. He didn’t die, he slept. He will come again, whoever he was, Roman trying to hold back the Dark Ages, Saxon trying to tie the knots of a dissolving empire together again, Jesus allegory, saviour, myth, nonsense: our king in the west, where the sun goes down over Lyonesse. And his sword in the pond, where he threw it, like the Grail at the bottom of the Chalice Well. See, why’s it called Chalice Well if the Grail isn’t in it? Heh? Answer me that! S’obvious.

There’s a pond near me too, but this one holds no swords I know of.  About five weeks ago I rescued three goslings stuck the wrong side of a mesh fence and threw them over the fence, into the grass where their parents were frantic. As I threw the last one over I got a jolt off the electrified top strand of the fence that I hadn’t realised was electric. Then I didn’t see them again. I thought they’d died, either bleeding internally from the fall or their little hearts had just given out from too much excitement; either way, they weren’t there when I looked for them, two or three times a week as I walked the fields.

Then just at the end of last week, out in the middle of the pond, almost exactly where I’d last seen the little family, stopped, staring at me, there they were, exactly in the same formation, three goslings and two adult geese, one in front, one behind. Again, staring at me. I thought they couldn’t be the same ones because they’d grown so much, but when I looked closer one of them still had down on its head. As my friend said wisely, almost as if it had had an electric shock.

That little pond where the railway used to be holds something much more mysterious, more precious, than any immortal sword. Three little lives I saved. Maybe it is the Excaliber pond after all.

 

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Me and JB

 

I should have written more, something JB Priestley probably never said. But I should. I thought, because I was told by my family over and over again, that nobody would want to read anything I wrote. Nobody should.

I started reading books that took me out of my rubbishy, circumscribed world when I was maybe twelve or thirteen. By fourteen I lived in books to an extent that I couldn’t really tell which was their reality and which was mine. I read Lonesome Traveller and loading the bag for my after-school paper round priced-up how much toffee you’d need to buy in the Frome Road post office to keep you going doing that stuff, hi-balling a frieght out of Fresno, whatever that turned-out to actually mean. When Kerouac was writing about being on the road I thought that somewhere down the A361, maybe just over the hill at Farleigh castle, that would be where the desert started, where Springsteen’s passing stranger would put up his sign about counting so many foreign ways to the price you pay. But they didn’t seem foreign to me.

Nor did England when I read Priestley’s English Journey. For me, despite the fact that Jack rode flatcars (we didn’t have those in Trowbridge) and hitchhiked (people still did that then, but not at fourteen) and JB Priestley was chauffered around in a Daimler thirty years before I was even born, the spirit was the same. Both of them looking for the new in the old, the new places and faces and stories locked up in the old brick and smoke and sadness of their times. Both of them had cast themselves as outsiders; I got the idea that maybe both of them weren’t actually that much good with people, or at least the people all around them. Maybe that was why they had to keep moving. I could do that part of being a writer fine well. Gizza job.

And I shared something else with JB that I couldn’t articulate, mainly because I didn’t know about it until this morning when I read in the rubbishy Guardian. Well sorry, but no newspaper has room for sentences like “In it he describes his lifelong search for something ineffable.” None. But there was a JB quote stolen by the ancient male professional hypocrite Muggeridge who bafflingly dominated the TV when I was a kid, alongside Thunderbirds and Crossroads. It was about that feeling I got, a looking for something I couldn’t name, something so nearly under my fingertips. Something I couldn’t name that I’d recognise like it was my own hand or foot when I found it, if only I could say what it was.

“It was waiting for me either in the earth, just below the buttercups and daisies, or in the golden air. I had formed no idea of what this Treasure would consist of, and nobody had ever talked to me about it. But morning after morning would be radiant with its promise. Somewhere, not far out of reach, it was waiting for me, and at any moment I might roll over and put a hand on it. I suspect now that the Treasure was Earth itself and the light and warmth of the sunbeams; yet sometimes I fancy that I have been searching for it ever since.”

Last year I read the same thing written in a different country by someone else who didn’t fit. He liked JB too and put on two of his plays, but his face was the wrong face. The Nazis burned his books because they thought he wasn’t Nazi enough so he joined the Party to keep his head on top of his shoulders. Then they lost and and the Soviets thought he wasn’t anywhere near part of the people’s movement. They made sure he couldn’t be the teacher he’d trained to be, couldn’t be the theatre producer they’d made him be and they weren’t generally that happy with his entire existence. Maybe because reality was all too close he wrote about the First World War, not the Second.

“But he was a young man, and the song of the lark made him blissfully happy, stirring the the old longing thst had accompanied him from Haumont. He felt as if someone was walking behind him with light footsteps, calling his name softly and tenderly. When he stopped and turned to listen, the voice stoped calling out, but when he turned back he felt the presence behind him again, as if it were trying to play a trick on him. Schlump continued on his way, a faint smile on his lips, stroking the ripe corn with his fingers. He didn’t tell anyone about this, and when he was with friends he forgot it altogether.”

That’s how it felt, those times I’d be about to go out, or to start a journey, or just alone in the house I knew and my step-sister knew was haunted, when I’d have combed my hair, done my boots, got the clothes I wanted and suddenly, keys in my hand, knew I had to look for a thing I couldn’t go without, a thing I couldn’t name. It made me smile, but like Hans Grimm, I never found it. I hope he did, before he felt so shut-out that one day he went home while his wife was out and shot himself. It was 1950 and East Germany. He was in the wrong place and definitely in the wrong time. I still look for it occasionally, now and then when the light is right. It still puts a half-smile on my lips.

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Trump, lies and sellotape

Esquire ran the story today but I heard it yesterday and one thing that Trump has showed us all is that yesterday counts for nothing; he’ll have told another four lies since breakfast. When he came out with this one at a press conference there was nothing but reverential silence from the crowd of supposedly impartial Clark Kents and Lois Lanes all devoted to truth ‘N’ freedom, Gahd, Mom ‘N’ apple pie.

Donald Trump just met the Korean dictator, or as Fox News put it, two dictators met each other. After saying that he’d make North Korea give up all their nukes or goshdurnit, them Commies would pay the meeting ended with Trump basically saying what a nice guy Kim Yung Un was and how he, Trump, had done a brilliant thing when nobody else could and how everybody loved him. So far, so normal.

As was the Big Lie slipped in. Trump said he’d managed to secure the remains of GI’s killed in the Korean War, a Very Big Deal because, he said, so many of their parents had come to see him to say gee Mr Donald, when you go to that there Korea, could you bring back whatever’s left of Jim Buck, my boy in the 427th?

The details I made up, but the gist was what he said. The problem being, nobody laughed. The whole Press pack soaked this rubbish up in reverential silence as if God himself was sitting there lying.

For better or worse, the Korean War ended in 1953. Anyone fighting and dying in it from the USA would have had to be at least 18 when they fought and fell, which means at a minimum they’d have to have been born in 1935. Even by Southern States’ standards, an average of 20 probably held right for parenting back then,  which takes us to 1915. This isn’t any tricky statistics, just boring old maths. And according to President Trump, ‘so many’ people aged over 100 years old not only attended his stump meets but came up to him personally to ask him a favour.

Except they didn’t and everybody knows they didn’t. Except the Press corps dutifully, silently, willingly and without comment soaked-up and repeated this stupid, childish, provable lie. It isn’t good enough that a style magazine gets snide about it the next day. Our problem is the mainstream news happily repeats lies instead of falling about laughing at the liar. Maybe God made Man. Maybe,and maybe the mighty should look on these works and despair. But without any question, the Press made Trump and more than just the mighty need to despair at that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Granularity

 

Everyone likes Krispy Kreme doughnuts, don’t they? So you probably won’t choke on this little daily economic miracle. If they make the series, Johnny Vegas should be in this.

KK are looking for staff down in Somerset. Now Ok, they’re only going to call you a Team Member, but (wink, wink) you’ll be so much more than that. The first bullet point in their job ad says you’ll manage their production line.

Obviously job ads come and go, so I’m going to put this one here, in full. Then I’ll let you into the surprise:

What will I do as a Team Member at Krispy Kreme?

  • To manage our production line, ensuring doughnuts are made to the specification at the right times
  • Measuring and mixing appropriate ingredients as per our specifications
  • Actively adhere to our health and safety and food safety processes
  • Assist the Production Manager and other Team Members with planning our stock levels and how we produce our doughnuts
  • Ensure that every doughnut is produced to the highest standard meeting our customers’ expectations
  • Planning and preparing for the next shift
  • Understand the production plan and what responsibilities you will have on each shift
  • Willing to support other areas within the factory when the business needs

Why choose Krispy Kreme?
At Krispy Kreme, you’ll find a company that thrives on the passion, energy and commitment of its people. Whatever your role, you’ll take absolute pride in a job well done, always looking to show your initiative and reach for the highest standards. And above all, you’ll love having a good time – the ingredient that makes a Krispy Kreme moment so magical.

For you it is about working as part of a team on and off the line to create our spectacular doughnuts, ensuring they are always made fresh daily and they meet our product standards every time.

Benefits
Krispy Kreme takes pride in giving the best experience through great service and quality products. We seek to recognise the achievements of individuals who make this possible. To celebrate your success we have created the following awards:

  • Employee of the month/quarter/year
  • Long service award
  • In store incentives e.g. shopping vouchers, cinema tickets
  • Annual awards evening
  • Employee Assistance Programme – support helpline
  • Opportunity to have your say through engagement surveys

In addition to all of this, we encourage all of our employees to enjoy our products! During your breaks you will be entitled to hot drinks and doughnuts free of charge and if you wish to take home any doughnuts after work you can buy them for a 50% discount. Krispy Kreme also offers great career progression! We really value our people and will provide a culture that allows you to develop your own style and fulfill your potential.
What skills and experience do you need to be successful at Krispy Kreme?

  • Experience in operating machinery, equipment or processes within a manufacturing environment
  • Experience of working in a food environment
  • Experience of working towards and achieving targets/deadlines
  • Experience of working as part of a team
  • Good communication skills
  • Demonstrate a good level of Health and Safety and Food Safety awareness
  • Proof of right to work in the UK
  • Applicants must be 18 or over

Isn’t that great?  And if you can fit any more doughnuts in your face after your shift then you can buy them at half price!! Just so utterly wow!

So you won’t mind this bit. The pay.

It’s um…..£25.

Per hour? Don’t be so utterly ridiculous. Chairmen’s bonuses don’t pay for themselves. What are you, some kind of Communist or something?

£25. Per day. And all the doughnuts you can eat. Let’s face it, you won’t be able to afford anything else.

Oh brave new world.

 

 

 

 

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Heartlands

 

A long, long time ago, although I can still remember how that music made me smile, that’s not what this is about. Mostly, because if you can remember the music you can remember the rest of it, the clothes you wore, the people you knew, the cold through to your bones, that thing she said and all of it, it’s about the fact there was a film called Radio On.

It was Chris Pettit’s first film. It was made deliberately in black and white and not because they couldn’t afford colour stock. It was released in 1979. And it was made in the country I knew, not just as the A4, as a choice because old cars that were all we could afford and the M4 didn’t always go that well together, not just as a deserted, abandoned garage near Silbury Hill that I used as a fairly creepy public bathroom more than once of a night time, not just as a route I wrote about in Not Your Heart Away, the road I drove up and down to get to London and interviews for university and life, but as a psychic space. There. I’ve said it now.

It was and is an odd film. An English road movie. A man has a job that’s now disappeared as a workers’ in-house radio DJ in a factory that’s now disappeared and drives a car that’s long since gone to the Great Scrapyard in the Sky and was pretty close to it then down the A4 to Bristol, trying to find out what happened to his brother who died after sending him a birthday present of some Kraftwerk and Bowie tapes. The German music was from the Kraftwerk Radioaktiv album, the one that was never, ever discounted. He picks up a half-nuts squaddy on the way and luckily gets rid of him on the road just past Silbury. This was a real issue at the time. Hitching lifts, as people did in those days, I remember a soldier exactly like this, except he was driving, who told me about things that never, ever got on the news, like cross-border fire-fights. There were plenty of them back then. Messed-up squaddies as well as things that didn’t get on the news.

The man drives on to Bristol, lets himself into his dead brother’s house and is challenged by dead brother’s girlfriend, who it turns out the flat actually belongs to. It isn’t mentioned whether it’s bought or rented but the decor was instantly recognisable. Indoor plants and Anglepoise lamps. Ashtrays on the bashed-up stripped pine kitchen table. Think Howard Kirk s/Habitat and you’ve just about got it.

The girlfriend doesn’t much like him; he doesn’t much like her so he goes for a walk in what looks now like an ancient and shattered Bristol, which in large part it was, not least thanks to the war. He meets, because half the film was financed from Germany and Wim Wenders produced it and put his wife in the film, a German girl.

German girls were edgy and cool at the time. There was the war thing, but that was for parents. More so there was the Baader-Meinhof gang, back when the idea that only Moslems are terrorists wasn’t close to government policy, name-checked by the ‘Free Astrid Proll’ graffiti sprayed under the Westway.  Knowingly enough, Astrid Proll was arrested when she pulled in for petrol and the guy on the pumps recognised her. As one of the frauleins says, she thought they would sleep together, but now she knew they never would. That was a pretty darned edgy and cool thing to say at the time, especially from a girl.

Instead, Wim Wenders’ ex-wife takes him to her Mum’s in Clevedon, which is a nice period touch. I don’t know if that still happens. It did then. The Mum came over in 1939. She insists on speaking to her daughter in German in front of him, cutting him out of the conversation entirely , so he excuses himself politely enough (despite slouching in his chair – lost parent points there, I can tell you) at which Mum launches into a spiel about how selfish and self-referential and rude young people are, only interested in themselves. It’s a nice touch.

He goes for a drive having nothing much else to do, happily sipping from a can of Guinness which if not expressly recommended in the Highway Code wasn’t entirely unknown back then and ends-up parked in a quarry.  There’s quite a lot of casual, low-level, part-of-life drinking in a way I remember but haven’t done for years and years, thankfully. He shares a half-bottle of Haig with the German girl on Clevedon pier. After saying goodbye to her he goes to a godawful pub where he finds out what Jarvis Cocker didn’t mention when he sang about what happens when you want to do what the common people do. If you’re actually a nice middle-class young man they kick your bar stool out from under you and call you names, whereupon you’re not allowed to do the same thing back.

In a superb piece of period detail now, which then was just how things were if you were young and had a car then, sometimes he needed to start it with a handle but he’d parked too close to the edge of the quarry to stick it in. He can’t start his car. It’s probably still there. He hasn’t found out how his brother died or why. He didn’t get to bonk either of the German girls, which seeing the film, I’d find regrettable. Almost nothign happens, all the way through. Except so much does, at the same time. Eventually our hero got on a train and rode off into the 1980s, the way we all did. Maybe it was in colour when he got there, although as I recall, a lot of it wasn’t.

This was England. It was broken and bombed and broke and messy, full of angry and numb people. Some of the buildings and most of the cars have changed. Watch it. You can make your own judgements as to what else changed.

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Crying wolf

When I was a boy I believed odd things, the same way probably most boys do, anywhere. Most of all, I believed We were right and They were wrong, just the way I was told to. It was easy. Everything I saw and read said so. We had won the war, so we were good. The IRA went around blowing people up and that was very close, because we lived near Warminster, the infantry training town where servicemen were under orders not to wear uniform off barracks in case they were targetted, so they were bad. The IRA I mean, not the army. The army came to my little town quite a lot, in the summer when they literally dropped in by helicopter onto the Nelson Haden school playing fields and piled unloaded FNs and Sterling submachine guns onto wooden trestle tables so all of us little boys could play with them, which if nothing else taught us how to keep small fingers clear of a breech and how much strength it took to cock an SLR, not least as the charging handle was on the left-hand side.

We’d watch a hotel or a department store blowing up on the news, or hear how someone in the army had got shot when he opened the door of his house. What we didn’t hear was why any of this was happening, nor where suddenly out of the blue someone who wanted to start sniping soldiers could find access to anything other than a twelve-bore to do it. Then we dimly heard of NORAID, but that was somehow respectable. Why, a Kennedy was part of it! How bad could that be? The Americans were on our side, after all. I remember once at primary school someone saying that and a teacher going ballistic, raving that the Americans were on their own side and nobody else’s, which made no sense at all and was very much not repeated. We had the evidence of Combat and an almost infinite number of war films to tell us that.

At Christmas, just in case we’d missed the point, the RAF band or the army band would visit the school and play us a selection of hits of the day, which was a pretty good feat of music if not arms. Naturally, the army came along to host a careers day once a year. I made a friend for a long time when I asked in the Any Questions part if there were any plans to bring back conscription. Apparently there weren’t. I’d wanted to ask what happened if you were told to do one thing in the army, like say, go to Northern Ireland, then a week later after an election you were told not to. I didn’t know which one was right, and doing the right thing seemed to me important at the time. When I finally did articulate this I was told that orders were orders. Which was obviously true. I didn’t know then that this hadn’t counted for much at Nuremburg. But of course, that was Them saying that. Not Us.

I thought very seriously about joining the army. More precisely I was going to an interview to be a lieutenant in the Royal Marines, but I had the chance to earn £600 for that one week and in those days that was very serious money indeed so I did that instead.

I don’t know when it changed. I stopped trusting what I was told. It was a combination of things, as life always is. It was partly the Miners Strike. I didn’t want to be a miner and nor did anyone who I ever met whose family had been in any way connected with coal mining, but it was obvious there was something deeply wrong with what I was being told. I began to wonder whether We were still right and They were still wrong.  Then a friend told me about a prison officer she shared a flat with whose hobby, when some people were getting into orienteering or macrame was to put on a police uniform without any identification badges, get in a bus and go and have a fight, safe in the knowledge that so long as she was attacking striking miners absolutely nothing at all would happen to either her or her career.

Another friend was filming for the BBC at a strike when he walked past a police van full of guns. The police and his producer told him it was very much neither in his nor the public interests to film this and put it on the Nine O’Clock news. Years later I talked to him again after the Hungerford Massacre when someone whose lifetime’s work was in ballistics and practical shooting claimed to have photographic evidence that the official version of the shooting wasn’t exactly four-square with where certain bullet holes were. The Prime Minister then and now refused point blank to hold a public inquiry into what was the first mass public shooting in the UK by a civilian. The same thing happened: it’s not going to be filmed. We don’t need to look at this again. We’ve been told what happened. It’s not in the public interest to ask.

Gotcha

Then as now, it seemed that the public agenda was set by the tabloid press. Certainly the politics of Us and Them are exactly the same. The sinking of the Belgrano summed it up for me. Back in the Falklands War an old US Navy aircraft carrier had been flogged off to the Argentinians who claimed that the Falkland Islands belonged to them, a point which the Foreign Office had tabled for discussion with Argentina every year since 1946. Whoever the islands belonged to, a Royal Navy submarine sunk the Belgrano. Somewhere over 300 Argentinian conscript sailors died. In Downing Street Margaret Thatcher appeared on TV, asking us all to ‘rejoice.’ This isn’t a figure of speech; that is exactly what she said. The Sun ran the adult and sober headline: Gotcha.

Which was strange, because when the Argentinians attacked the Royal Navy and killed far fewer British sailors The Sun headline ran: Bastards. The same thing had happened. Young men had been killed. They were all only following orders, every last one of them, and in the Argentinians’ case, without even the choice of whether they joined up or not.  But when one kind of young man died we were told that was bad and another kind of young man died we were told by the head of state on TV to rejoice.

The Conservative Party chairman got his mistress pregnant. He also got an injunction to ensure that the child’s name could never be mentioned in the press and the press loyally went along with this completely. It was OK to say in print that Freddie Starr ate someone’s hamster (he didn’t) or that Elton John raped children (he expensively didn’t), no problems for the press there. It was just the truth that was a problem. Matrix-Churchill helped more. The government was entirely happy to send a businessman to prison for doing what they knew all along he was doing. The Defence Minister Michael Heseltine got one of his staff sent to prison for telling the truth after he’d decided the electorate didn’t need to know that not only were US cruise missiles in the UK but that HMG had no say in it one way or the other. The same way as when in 1986 the US Air Force flew out of Upper Heyford in Gloucestershire to bomb the Chinese Embassy in Libya the Prime Minister was only told about this after the planes were in the air out of politeness, not that there was ever any possibility whatsoever of her being able to cancel their mission. The fact that the Chinese Embassy wasn’t supposed to be the target wasn’t the issue. We didn’t see the tabloids jumping up and down about sovereignty then.

Eventually we had a different government. They told us, with the loyal and unflinching support of the press that there were chemical weapons in Iraq. There were not and the people saying there were knew that every shred of evidence said there weren’t.

I stopped believing we were right. I stopped believing I was being told the truth. I stopped feeling any obligation whatsoever to any idea of country, or patriotism or national identity or the flag apart from being embarrassed being recognised as English abroad and finding the Union flag anything other than a piece of cloth. It baffles me how anyone can think otherwise. So this week, when nobody even bothers to deny that governments of my country in my lifetime have lied to me and every other citizen time and time again, excuse me if I don’t join in.

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A little lane in Islington

Islington wasn’t always Islington. Or rather, it was, but the meaning of the name changed over the years, as meanings do. Just in my own life-time it transformed from a place where there were precisely two wine bars (The Actors Retreat with its lethal wet spiral staircase outside leading down to the basement it was in and Serendipity, or Dips as it usually was for those whose office was next door, literally two doors down the corridor in the upstairs of the converted tram garage we thought was so wonderfully trendy) to a place lampooned on TV as being full of them.

Keith Waterhouse wrote about how rubbish it was when he moved in and how rubbish it still was in 1970ish. Even when I moved into Bromfield Street (formerly King Edward Street, but after that business with the Simpson woman, well, you know…) it was endearingly crap. There was a bombsite at the end of the road known as the Cats Carpark, because it was infested with feral cats that animal protection people trapped, neutered and released back to the carpark staffed by huge tough-looking blokes who seemed like extras from The Sweeney and may well have been, all of whom kept a weather-eye out for the cats and their helpers. There was a shop where you could buy second-hand gas cookers for £50, like something out of Minder. A barber which was also a tailors, Chapel Market for fruit and veg and a strange, tiny shop that sold the oddest of odd things, freshly made pasta for about £40 a plate-load. So far ahead of its time and all long before that godawful multiplex cinema was astral-projected straight into the middle of our manor. Prostetnic Vogan Jeltz would have been so pleased.

Don’t Panic

While Hotblack Desiato was a bona fide estate agent the house next door was a squat, which was a pain because they kept having loud fights until one night the police literally carted everyone away, after which it was blissfully quiet. There was a gay pub at the end of the road which regularly had its windows put in, as gay pubs did in those days, usually by the National Front according to the graffiti. Quite why a group of young men exclusively fond of each other’s company in skin-tight jeans, figure-hugging shirts and big rufty-tufty boots should have been so exercised about gay pubs was always a bit beyond me. I wasn’t that comfortable when I went there when I first moved in one winter, not knowing it was a gay pub and the warmest clothes I had were motorcycle leathers, but I never got clothes right in London anyway. It didn’t make me want to smash their windows.

Not having much money I read a lot. One of the books I read was the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, which featured Islington quite a lot. Douglas Adams still lived there in those days and if you read the second book in the five-part trilogy carefully enough you could find his converted warehouse easily enough, round the back of Screen on the Green.

He and I shared the same parking garage, in a time when it seemed totally normal to drive around Central London, cutting down along the route of the 19 bus along Roseberry Avenue and Picadilly to get to the M4 and westwards. Every year Douglas Adams got a brand-new Porsche 911. Every year within weeks the inside would be even more fantastically messy than my cars get. He always had in those blissful pre-satnav days, a huge envy-making AA roadmap of the UK. I mentioned this to the Significant Other of the time, and added that if I was Douglas Adams the temptation to paste the words Don’t Panic on the cover would be simply too much. She said that was why I wasn’t Douglas Adams.

I moved, Douglas Adams died and the Hitchhikers Guide is back on the radio. I hate to say it, but it’s nowhere near as good as it was. It’s not just that the voices have got older. Maybe it’s because now we have iPads the idea of the Guide itself is so much more ho-hum than the oh-wow-wouldn’t-that-be-great thing we thought it would be, in a world where the USSR still had a huge wall around it and for any right-thinking person the EU meant cheap drinks and sunshine a zillion light-years from the rain and aggro of what became bafflingly trendy North London. Trust me, the past was a different country. They did the Hitchhikers Guide differently there.

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Calling home

It took four years to win the Inmarsat account. But we did win it in my other life, when I was a researcher/analyst. We did something nobody else had ever managed to do and when St Peter asks me why I should be let in, I’ll be able to say something very few people can. I helped 800,000 people make a phone call.

Way back but not so long ago that I can’t remember, someone at Inmarsat, then an NGO which owned all the satellites that let ships talk to the rest of the world, had an idea. Maybe, he thought, maybe the crew would like to make a phone call now and again. Maybe they’d like to phone their mum or their wife or their girlfriend, that kind of thing? He wondered how much they were spending on phone calls. And he accidentally got me in the FT and made me famous enough for people to recognise me at conferences in Australia, quite a long way from here. It was a suddenly different world.

I thought about it today because I was looking for some data to practice some pivot tables. We didn’t have them back then when the research was done. We put interviewers physically onto ships in Southampton and Singapore, after ruling out Baltimore and a host of other locations either because they duplicated (ie the ships at Southampton mostly went to the other port as well) or they were too complex and hostile to get into. At Baltimore for example, every single wharf was owned by a separate company; there was no way we could get onto enough ships in time.

Singapore was hostile enough. The entire interview crew managed to get themselves arrested as stowaways there, which is no mean feat for middle-aged, middle-class English ladies with clipboards. We’d trained them well. On every ship they went to they were told to get specific permission from the captain, no matter that we already had permission from the owner via the agent. They went onboard and asked where he was.

The tradition at the time and presumably still is that if the captain’s cabin door is open you can go in and if not, not. But it was open so they did. The captain was in his cabin. Sadly  he was entertaining a newly-acquired friend fairly vigourously and called for the ship’s Mate who was told to get rid of the interviewers pronto. In fact, get them arrested. The Mate asked what for? The captain said the first thing that came into his head, his mind being on other things. Stowaways. The Mate went away and came back quite quickly. The interviewers weren’t reassured by the fact he was now carrying a rusty Sten gun dug up from some totally illegal hiding place in the bilges, which he prodded them in the back with all the way down the gangplank. The Docks police had had a call that something was going on, drove up and arrested the ‘stowaways.’

It all turned out alright in the end. But it’s about time I wrote it all up.

 

 

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It tolls for thee

This week’s earth-shattering event wasn’t Jeremy Corbyn finally getting it into his head that opposing the government might be a way to win some votes, or Michael Gove pretending that banning plastic straws was something he could do to save the world if only that pesky EU wasn’t stopping him, dang nabbit. Oh no.

It was the death of Nic Grundy.  Who never existed. For those few beyond the Pale who don’t know, the Grundy family are the local yokels in BBC Radio 4’s hardy perennial drama The Archers, billed as an everyday story of country folk. It’s markedly light on things like incest and racism compared to every country village I’ve lived in, where I’ve heard the district nurse insisting that two local families hadn’t managed to get out enough on a Saturday night in her professional opinion. But as radio drama goes, it does, every evening after the seven o’clock news and a marathon collation on Sunday for the weekly worship. Clary and Eddie begat Wiwyum and Edwurd and Wiwyum shacked up with Emmer. Except she got very bored very fast and one Christmas took up with Edwurd while Wiwyum was off to the shops, so far as I could gather. I’m going to stop the voices now because it’s getting silly. Er.

After a breakdown William took up with Nicola, whose name was obviously shortened to Nic who this week cut her arm on an old picture frame and shortly thereafter died. Several people online claimed, with a straight face, that they were in mourning. Not ‘moved by the drama.’ Not ‘touched’ but ‘in mourning. Not for 300,000 people being homeless. Not for 100,000 people dying unnecessarily in the UK thanks to government spending cuts according to the UN, but because a minor character in a radio soap has been written out. The words ‘moral compass’ seem a bit pointless some days.

The character died of sepsis. And dear reader, it could have happened to me. It did to my great-uncle. After a lifetime of messing about with bits of metal one day he got a bit of swarf stuck under his fingernail. It can’t possibly have been the first time he got cut by a piece of metal but it proved to be the last. He got what was called then ‘blood poisoning’ and died in short order.

Because of that I’d always made sure my tetanus shots were up to date, thinking that would fully protect me from anything I might catch from a cut. I reasoned that my office wasn’t exactly the most hostile environment. I was wrong on the first count. Tetanus is a rare bacterial infection, potentially fatal but not, as I’d assumed, the only one going. I cut my right index finger on something. I couldn’t even remember what it was. It was a bit stiff the next day, so I cleaned the wound and slapped some disinfectant on it and a new plaster. It was worse the next day. My finger was swollen. The day after I couldn’t type well at all and my finger was a different colour as well as being swollen and painful.

I was lucky enough to work in the same office as a pharmacist. When he saw it he told me to get to a doctor that day, now, get out of here, unless I wanted to maybe lose my finger or maybe lose my life. I did.

I got a huge dose af antibiotics, promised faithfully to finish the course of tablets and within three days my finger was pretty much back to normal and in a week I couldn’t see any real difference between that finger and any other ones I have.

Sepsis can kill you in days. But I’d have more sympathy for people mourning a fictional radio character if they ever spared a thought for Biggles, Algy and Ginger as they languish in a care home.

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