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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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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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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Who’s Hegel?

For those of a certain age, this is an important question. One which should always but ALWAYS be followed by: “Did he know everything?”

It was and is a book, a film and for all I know a play too. I’d go and see it if it was. Because there is something of me in it and something of it in me. Apart from the fact that I went to a university and read Sociology (well ok, I read some Sociology, not very often and not very thoroughly or well) just like the anti-hero (who firmly believes he is the hero) Howard Kirk. For quite some time I wanted to be like him; a university lecturer, a social scientist, a man free from the fascistic oppression of owning property. I failed at that quite soon after, but I’ve somehow managed to put that right, almost without trying.

Howard Kirk was a Sociology lecturer who believed that conflict was always good. That right would triumph. That right was historic inevitability and Right was wrong. I didn’t share that view then, but I was young and fairly stupid. As a friend told me the other night, I was far too self-absorbed in my twenties.

“But you didn’t know me in my twenties. And you mean I’ve changed a lot, yes?”

She said no. Which was ok. Ish. But Howard Kirk, he was the man. Those were the times. There was this thing called social progress and another thing called class mobility. So quaint!! And free education all the way through university. Ludicrous, isn’t it? Almost anybody would have gone. In fact, they didn’t. Only about 5% of the school population ended up at uni in those days. The rest got jobs, for the most part, when unemployment was an un-massaged one million and you could get a job driving a lorry in the holidays on a car licence.

It was a time when there were student demos, when Labour voted not to join in with American wars and when squatting meant taking over a derelict Georgian house and making it livable again. This was too, a time when councils gleefully pulled down Georgian terraces instead of selling the houses off for a million each. They did it, unbelievably, in Bath, which is now a World Heritage Site thanks to its Georgian houses.

Hegel’s identity was asked about by one of Howard Kirk’s newer students. Whether he knew everything as asked by her friend, both of them keen to impress Howard with their enquiring minds, in much the same way that I overheard an equally keen student once at a Sociology lecturer’s party, thumbing through the pile of LPs and hesitating to chose one because as she said, she didn’t ‘know the Sociological significance of Genesis.’ As if she couldn’t not.

Times change. The past is another country. They do things differently there. And as Conrad would have had to have written it now, Mr Kirk, he dead.

 

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Turned out nice again

George Formby played the ukelele when his father George Formby died and he got too heavy to train racehorses. After a year or two he was earning what would now be £15,000 a week. All he did was sing, write silly songs and play the ukelele. So it’s a bit hard to see why the BBC banned him.

But they did.

The song that got most up their nose was ‘When I’m Cleaning Windows.’

Pretending to be a window cleaner the song romps through the things a window cleaner sees. Honeymooners billing and cooing, a drunk so dehydrated he drank his bath, a woman who must surely be Madonna’s grandma ‘nearer 80 than 18.’ There isn’t a single swear-word or explicit sexual reference in the song. Not one. There never was in any of Formby’s stuff. He had more sense and the past is another country; they did things differently there. And he made people laugh. A lot.

Forty Years On

He managed it, churning out films and songs all of that time, because the audience was in on the joke. And it was a joke. Nothing he sang was even as risque as a Carry On film, although Sid James probably would have appreciated Formby hugely, I’d guess.

So why the ban?

The Guardian, bless it and its teenage writers scribing Comment Is Free (or as close to free as anyone desperate for what they fondly beleive will be a start in serious journalism with out an Oxbridge education will settle for, £80 being the going rate last time I checked), though it was this verse that made the BBC go full Whitehouse:

Pyjamas lying side by side/Ladies nighties I have spied/I’ve often see what goes inside/When I’m cleaning windows.

They thought it was the ‘ladies nighties’ reference, thinking an oblique reference to nudity would do it. Given that there are references to flashing and proto-cougarism later in the song, I don’t think that’s it at all.

If nighties are synonymous with ladies’ night attire, it follows that pyjamas, for the purpose of the song, serve as cladding for men during the hours of darkness. And here, m’lud, we have clear evidence of the depravity this buch toothed grinning corruper of a nation’s morals was capable of; the veritable torrent of filth that flowed from his lips. This was, after all, a society that rewarded Alan Turing, the man who if anyone did, won the war singlehanded by setting up the mechanism to crack the Enigma code and inventing modern computing by  chemically castrating him because he liked going to bed with people of the same sex.  They kept on at him until he killed himself. Well done, Alan. Congrats and all that, a tad obliged and so on, but we think you’re a disgusting pervert and frankly, we’re better off without people like you. As a grateful nation put it at the time.

So if this chippy Lancastrian thought he was going to get away with this kind of smut polluting the airwaves then he’d jolly well got another thought coming. I think that was the reason. But who knows now? Perhaps they just didn’t like ukeleles.

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Dealing with the truth

It’s something the British aren’t good at. Brexit showed that. As the FOREX markets constantly show, sterling isn’t a strong currency. The UK is not an economic powerhouse. We don’t have an export market, or certainly not one in credit. We don’t talk about what used to be called the balance of trade, because we don’t have a balance of trade. We’re nearly $9 billion overdrawn on that, unlike say, Germany, which manages to export $300 billion more than it imports. This does not make us a strong trading partner able to dictate terms, any more than going into Tesco the day your unemployment benefit is paid gives you leverage over the prices on the things on the shelves there, or how long the store is going to stay open. When people state these facts they’re accused, as they have been for the past 30 years, of talking down the economy, while the reason people actually do talk like this is that there really isn’t much of one to talk about.

We’ve done it since the war. And we made up some really good lies about that. Much the same as Cameron’s ‘we’re all in it together,’ ‘they were all in it together’ is still pretty much what many people believe. Because it gives Brits something to believe in, a fantasy to replace the dreary slide into nonentity that real-life Britain plc actually holds as its core values.

“We were living in a society where despotism, hate, and lies had become the normal state of affairs.” Inge Scholl

Alone in Berlin is probably the best film I have seen. It followed Hans Falada’s book hugely accurately to tell a true story.

Berlin 1940. The city is paralyzed by fear. Otto and Anna Quangel are a working class couple living in a shabby apartment block trying, like everyone else, to stay out of trouble under Nazi rule. But when their only child is killed fighting at the front, their loss drives them to an extraordinary act of resistance. They start to drop anonymous postcards all over the city attacking Hitler and his regime. If caught, it means certain execution.

Soon their campaign comes to the attention of the Gestapo inspector Escherich and a murderous game of cat-and-mouse begins. But the game serves only to strengthen Otto and Anna’s sense of purpose and a renewed love for each other. Slowly their drab lives and marriage are transformed as they unite in their quiet but profound rebellion… as the makers Xfilme put it. Oh, grow up.

Very ordinary people did an extraordinary thing, knowing perfectly well that they would almost certainly be killed for it. As of course, they were. An oddity of the People’s Court was never explained by Falada or the film; why the couple were only executed months after their sentence, whereas the much better-connected Sophie School, who did much the same thing in Hamburg, was bundled out of the court with the usual speed and efficiency as soon as the sentence was read out. Presumably to save time the People’s Court in Nazi Germany pretty much only had once sentence to read anyway.

And it was a true story. It took the Gestapo over two and a half years to track down this unfunded, apolitical factory foreman. Of course they were going to execute him, just the same way the British were of course going to execute Lord Haw-Haw, the Nazi propagandist, for ‘treason,’ irrespective of the fact he wasn’t actually British, making the issue of how he could be acting against ‘his’ king when he had no allegiance to him anyway more than moot. We went in for state-sanctioned murder just as devotedly as anyone else. But you won’t find that in history books.

Nor, in British schools, unlike German ones, will you find a single mention of Sophie Scholl. Or her brother Hans, or Christoph Probst, or anyone else in the White Rose. Or the Eidelweiss Pirates. Or any other resistance to Nazism that annoyed the Gestapo and belied the British and American fiction that ‘they’ were all Bad and ‘we’ were all good that we’ve been fed and obediently swallowed for the past 70 years. And still do.

There’s a problem when you take-on an enormous goverment agency and a whole state that thoughtlessly, the ‘they were all in it together’ believers never consider, that the film and the book dealt with well: when you see the police, th army, the courts, the whole system of justice failing, what do you do? When you see the police take someone away and kill them, what are you going to do? Call the police? Or look the other way and hope they don’t take you? Or believe a simplistic lie, the way it all started?

And by the way: Nightmare in Berlin is the exact same book with a different title for the US market. Don’t get fooled again.

 

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