Joe Shea; 1927-2019

I’m not a historian. I don’t know the reasons people do things, except that sometimes they do things for reasons they don’t quite know themselves; for reasons they don’t acknowledge; for reasons they say. And sometimes just because. Because everyone else is doing it. Because it seemed like the right thing to do.

He was born in Iowa. His grandfather rode a horse up there from Texas and it took two weeks. His father took a train up there too; that took two days. In the 1940s Joe flew a jet the same distance in about two hours.

He was a pilot. He was a short, slight boy whose family had been doing pretty well with their jewellery store, putting every present you could wish for under the tree at Christmas until the Great Depression. Then there was pretty much nothing. And the small, short boy wasn’t Mr Popular any more.

When Pearl Harbour happened in 1941 he told people he wanted to be a pilot. He told me most folk laughed their asses off at that idea. But he did it. He got to England in January 1945, on a ship that had to hang around off Le Havre waiting for a U-Boat to be dealt with before landing in England; the airplane he hadn’t yet seen went to Liverpool, like every other P51D Mustang. He told me that when he went to the airpark there with a buddy it was dangerous just walking down the street, two US pilots in uniform and what seemed like thousands of women whose husbands, partners, lovers, sons had gone to the war.

I met him in 2006. He stayed at my house for ten days or so in 2009 and again in 2001, visiting England for the memorial service the Friends of Leiston Airfield held every May. He kept his room spotless and silent, so much so that one morning we were convinced he’d died in his sleep after a long nigh drinking and flying World War Two over Germany and Czeckoslovakia. It opened my eyes. All I knew about military flying back then was based on Biggles and David Niven, 633 Squadron, the Dambusters, Twelve O’Clock High, The Night My Number Came Up and all the other plucky stiff-upper-lip Johnny Head In Air propaganda, where dashing American officer Gregory Peck always cops off with the local squire’s daughter and gets billeted in a house half the size of Kent. Joe told me it was a big day when they got a second stove to heat their eight-man wooden hut.

He told me other things too. The story of a local Suffolk girl he should have married, a girl he left behind when his squadron was sent to Germany. About the one and only time he dated a German girl there, and how when he kissed her gutten nacht someone emptied a magazine full of 9mm at him from a machine pistol when all he had was his service issue Colt, a nearby wood and fast legs. He told me about friends who died and friends who lived. He told me how the weather had changed from fog more days than not, winter into spring of 1945 and how we worked out together that it wasn’t fog, but coal fires. It’s hardly ever foggy here now.

And odder, darker things. He told me early one morning, drinking grappa at 2am, about a friend who couldn’t keep his airplane straight in a dive, practice bombing on the river Orwell; how his wings had folded back and come clean off. About friends who took off in a flight of three, pulled up through the clouds and found there were only two airplanes that came out of the top; the same thing happening to others setting-down through the cloud, with the North Sea waiting below. the flying over the coast coming home, looking for the river running parallel to the sea at Aldeburgh, flying up the coast from there until he found a radio tower at Minsmere, turning 210 degrees on the tower which would put you at the end of the main runway at Leiston, then putting-down through fog, cutting the engine at 50 feet over the place where two hedges met and hoping nobody had parked-up a jeep on the runway. It wouldn’t hurt for very long, he said.

He told me how the weather had killed more of his buddies than the Luftwaffe ever did. He told me about having to fly eight-hour missions, escorting thousand bomber raids, the escorts so much faster than the bombers that they had to cross and re-cross the bomber stream and its ten mile vapour trails every few minutes in flights of four, the inside aircraft having to throttle way back and turn tight while the outside aircraft had to speed up and turn on the outside of the finger formation, then a few minutes later the same thing again, the other way around. Over and again, all the way to the target. He told me about B24s, Liberator bombers, which had a nasty habit of exploding when their bomb doors open; and sitting, five miles high, watching the ten men inside fall to the ground.

And once, way deep into the bottle, when I said I wasn’t clear what happened in that story, he was almost across the table at me, angry, in my face, spitting ‘What do you mean? You were there.” And I wondered at that moment, not just who he thought I was from that time, but whether for a moment somehow I was, for him. Whether we’d called-up something that shouldn’t have been called after so long sleeping. The same thing happened to an American friend way back, visiting an abandoned 8th Airforce airfield one wet and boring Sunday afternoon, wearing an American leather flying jacket. He ordered his girlfriend a drink and almost choked on his own when an old man at the bar in an almost empty, strange pub in the middle of nowhere looked hard at him and said simply, ‘You’re back, then.”

Joe Shea never shot anyone down, although he tried. He left the US Air Force after the war, went home and built a bathroom onto his parents’ house. Then things went a little sour. He told me that little guy had been nothing in that little town outside the airforce; he’d gone back, he said, to being nothing there again, so he re-enlisted. He stayed in the Air Force all the way to being Lt.Colonel, although he hated being called that. I never knew why. He was part of the team that had to find the atom bomb the USAF lost after a plane crash in Spain, wondering if they’d ever find it or whether someone knew exactly where it was while they looked.

And he told me about a time when his airplane just wasn’t making enough power taking off at Leiston airfleld, just down the road from where I sit on the edge of another Suffolk airfield. He switched off, ran over to a spare Mustang on the flight line and borrowed that to fly the mission. Except he was in a hurry to keep-up with everyone else taking off. He was short. And the usual pilot wasn’t, so when he powered down the runway his feet didn’t quite push the rudder bar as far to the right as they needed to, to counteract the torque of the engine pulling the airplane off the tarmac onto the wet mud it slewed onto. Slowing down would have meant that the wheels sank into the mud at about 120mph and cartwheeling across the airfield with full petrol tanks. It wouldn’t hurt for long but he kept the throttle open, the only thing that seemed sensible in that split second. He went straight through a hedge a few inches off the ground. There is still an airplane-sized gap in that hedgerow today.

On July 4th 2004 another Mustang went the same way in Durango, Colorado; once in the air the torque flipped it upside down. That one crashed. Joe’s machine inverted and he had the luck to push the control column instead of pulling it.

He nearly clipped the roof of one of the hangers before he finally, sweating, heart in mouth got the machine pointing the right way up and under control. The control tower laconically told him “You can put your wheels up now, Joe.”

His life for the past twenty years wasn’t easy. For a number of reasons he had to keep working and like anyone his age, while they say time loves a hero, illness and disease loves time, especially when it comes to human bodies and their frailties. Joe Shea died this year, one of a generation whose motivations and drivers, whose strength and resolve I can’t entirely fathom from here. He was not, he said, a hero. He did some things in that aircraft that didn’t help to win any war, that killed people who had done nothing to deserve killing. As people do in every war.

He could be abrasive, demanding and dismissive; he refused to help an old man in Yoxford re-visit a place where a young friend had blown himself up playing with a bomb dump by the side of the road. Apparently there were munitions dumps everywhere. He flatly refused to talk to a re-enactor who had spent thousands on a USAAF Military Police uniform at one memorial service; he told me he’d spent his war avoiding MPs and goosing his airplane up behind them riding motorcycles as they lead the Mustangs along the perimeter track around the airfield, so why the hell would he want to talk to someone pretending to be one now?

We drove him around some of the old sights he’d seen and helped him get some old pictures back home to a museum in America. We gave him a lot to drink and he told us stories he said he’d never shared with anyone before. Then we lost touch, moved house and life went on, the way it does. The way it’s supposed to. He died in his 90s. He felt bad for a long, long time, about the beauty of the colours of a German aircraft exploding in mid-air, this same man who when he saw a book cover with a photo of a crippled Me 110 said calmly it was on the correct course:

“Straight down into the ground with smoke coming out of it.”

In a little lane near Leiston there’s a concrete memorial to the eighty-two pilots who died while they were stationed at the airfield there. An inscription on it is from the King James Bible, the one I always thought was the one true text not as a zealot but because I didn’t know any better, which is maybe the same definition.


They fly away as an eagle toward heaven.

Proverbs 23:5

Who knows? Maybe they did. I remember the fear and the shame and the horror in his voice when he described the beauty of the colour of another man’s life exploding in front of his eighteen year-old eyes. I hope he found peace.

A long time ago a man in uniform said what I hope is true now, the way it was that wet, nearly final day in a Suffolk field: You can put your wheels up now, Joe.

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Oooom Pah Pah

It’s a nicely Boris Johnson-sounding phrase, isn’t it? Suitably, because it was the chorus of a music hall song about making-up stories, something the Prime Minister was sacked for, twice, at the start of his career in a world where clearly lying is no impediment to career advancement.

There is, according to the 1960s musical Oliver! (and how I hate exclamation marks compulsorily joined to words) a little ditty they’re singing in the City.

 There’s a little ditty
They’re singing in the city
Espeshly when they’ve been
On the gin
Or the beer
If you’ve got the patience,
Your own imaginations
Will tell you just exactly what you want to hear…

So far, it’s the story of Brexit, where the pub bore suddenly feels able to pontificate about sovereignty and trade deals while even its most ardent supporters can’t quite articulate what they will be able to do that they can’t do now that the EU is stopping them doing, nor exactly how leaving the UK’s biggest trading partner is going to usher in anything except the golden opportunity to re-start the ground-nut scheme, or whatever else someone can cobble together out of a trade deal with Tanzania.

They all suppose what they want to suppose

I’ve been reading about two very different stories where people heard, saw and believed exactly what they wanted to believe they saw and heard.

When I first went to High School we had to find, remember and illustrate a poem. I chose In Flanders Fields, in large part because it was short but also because thanks to the definitive historical text of the times, the Airfix catalogue, I knew, or thought I knew, a bit about the First World War. Finding a complete set of The Great War in all thirteen volumes and all its dated monochrome glory at an uncle’s house one excrutiatingly boring holiday had helped as well. I’d been taken to see a vicar who had actually served in the First War. I’d even been given what a strange uncle called a Commando dagger, adding enigmatically, ‘they’re cruel, those Japs,’ oblivious of the fact that the Japanese weren’t fighting the UK in 1914-1918 and as it turned out, the dagger was a German First World War trench knife and nothing to do with WWII British Commandos at all. So I’d heard of the Angel of Mons.

It was a fairy tale. If you haven’t heard of it, it goes like this. Battle of Mons, 1915, British Army about to get wiped out by Germans, angels appear, can’t seem to read ‘Gott Mit Uns’ on the Germans’ belt buckles, may or may not have muttered ‘here’s socks’ and turn back the dastardly Hun instead, with or in some versions without the aid of ghostly Agincourt bowmen.

All very well and stirring stuff, and widely believed as fact, except that a man called Arthur Machen made the whole thing up, deliberately and openly. The angles and the Bowmen of Mons were fiction. He always said so right up to until the end of his life. The trouble was, nobody believed him.

Making-up is(n’t) hard to do

Much the same thing happened in France in June 1944. Hundreds of kilometres from the Normandy landings, local Resistance units rose and gathered on a plateau called the Vercors, near Grenoble. They had been waiting for the codewords on the BBC to take-up arms and fight to liberate their country. When the word came, they fought. Except the word definitively had never been broadcast. Some people, according to Paddy Ashdown (The Cruel Victory) claimed long after the war that they remembered the command in clear.

They wanted to believe it was true. It wasn’t. And it didn’t matter.

The problem being that it does matter. Newspaper after parish magazine after sermon after speech exhorted more young men to join up and get blown to pieces, drown in mud or line-up to die of flu by the hundreds of thousands, unsafe in the knowledge that angels or at least St George was looking after them specifically. On the Vercors, 4,500 French civilians stood-up and shot at the Wermacht artillery with left-over Hotchkiss guns and anything they could steal from a police barracks. They were both massacred.

Today we have a Prime Minister who makes-up stories and people who want to believe them too. Just like then, nothing bad will happen to him at all.

The end of the affair

The Overseas Food Corporation working party reported in 1950 that the groundnut scheme was costing six times as much to produce the crops as the crops were worth. Just like today they repeated the mantra that the administration in Tanganyika needed to be ‘much smaller and more flexible’ and released from ‘the burden of preconceived objectives and targets’, as well as ‘undue or premature publicity’. Plenty of time was needed to foster the growth of ‘viable economic units’ suited to the local conditions, which evidently needed to be shielded from both the public eye and eerily reminiscent of today, any particular expectations.

The groundnut scheme was folded in January 1951. Debts of £36.5 million – over a thousand million sterling today – were written off. Just like today, it was all nobody’s fault that people believed in it all.

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Scales of concern

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

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

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

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

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

‘Next time I’ll stab you.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ofsted report March 2019.

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

And nothing at all is done to stop them.

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And the consequence was…

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

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

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

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

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

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

A big so what?

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

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Blame it on the boogie

I’m talking about sunshine, albeit on a day when the temperature is going through the floor here in Suffolk where the wind blows straight from the Urals. Or that’s what they claim here, every winter. Maybe it’s even true. What is definitely true is that once again, it’s time to book the tickets to the Django Reinhardt festival in Fontainebleau. Which gives me two problems.

Problem One: It’s not there

Sure, there really is a Django Reinhardt festival in Fontainebleau, along with nobody who can remember Robert Louis Stevenson and DH Laurence living there in the artists’ colony at Barbizon. There was last year too, when I went for the first time. But the proper festival is up the road in Samois-sur-Seine, the tiny little ‘Allo ‘Allo town where the man lived the last few years of his life after the war, and where early one morning, walking back from the station and Saturday night gig in Paris, he collapsed and died.

This was a man who transformed music. A man who as a gypsy, as a Swing musician and often enough in those days as someone who looked Jewish would and by the lights of the times should have ended his short days ten years earlier, in a camp when the Nazis took Paris. A man who the Nazis ignored, despite people like Heydrich specifically banning pretty much everything that made Swing swing.

The Fontainebleau festival you pay for. That’s not the problem.

Problem two: The Fontainebleau django reinhardt festival isn’t about Django Reinhardt

Now for me, this is something of what I’d call a big problem. It’s corporate. They’ve got flags and chairs and army guys with shooty guns walking around a lot, but they go for that stuff in France to post a letter some days. More to the point, the music isn’t Swing. It’s not that it don’t mean a thing if it’s not, but I don’t really see how you can have a festival named after and for a specific musician playing a specific type of music then churn out music that sounded like the theme from Shaft, which was what happened one Saturday night last year. Sure, it was still real and it was still fun, but it still wasn’t real fun.

Problem Three, that it clashes with a summer job I really like doing, is even more problematic. I did something to my Achilles tendon last year which solved that problem, but still. It’ll be summer here again soon. The music will be hear again soon. And Fontainebleau, and walking in the woods nearby with a friend in a thunderstorm, making the coffee while she got the croissants from the boulangerie, hiring bikes to ride through the woods to listen to that marvellous music, free, at the real festival, all that will be here again soon too.

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Total and Utter State

Another day teaching at what’s described as a High School, a title which now seems to mean simply that it’s not for tiny little children, although some of them physically are. And another day where for all the pious policies in the Teaching Manual, you can’t fight a culture where the majority simply don’t want to learn anything and where there are no sanctions to change their views.

Given I won’t be there after the end of term then luckily that isn’t really my problem for much longer. But it’s sad that so much of what so many kids do actually know is only the internet-sanctioned stuff.

Talking about gun control, nobody had heard of Andy Murray, the tennis player. Not for his tennis, but because he survived the Dunblane massacre, in Scotland. Which they’d never heard of either. Nor knew where it was.

But they could give full-fact disclosure on Columbine.

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A bit of a shock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Not alone

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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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