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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I used to go to Salisbury a lot. A bank manager there thought I was going to shoot him, but I didn’t have a gun. To be fair, I did, but I didn’t have it with me. And I had no intention of shooting him. It was all a misunderstanding. There were a lot of them hanging out with that girl.
She wasn’t the Queen of the Silver Dollar. Salisbury didn’t run to that kind of thing. She was a perfectly ordinary lower-middle class girl who was lucky or unlucky enough to be stunningly pretty and not overly blessed with much of an education, nor much support at home, but home was warm and new and comfortable enough, with fitted carpets and a chest freezer, a boat on the drive and a car loan for the kids, her and her brother.
We used to take her Afghan hound for a walk, her in her ponyskin coat, me in my motorcyle jacket. We’d stroll down to the Old Mill Restaurant where we never went because we didn’t have any money, then the little footbridge across the river, through the watermeadows towards the cathedral. One Spring we watched the cygnets grow to be swans and when the last had shed its grey feathers her dog died. Saturday nights were 6X, Leibfraumilch and crisps and waiting for her parents to go out. She had an orange Ford Escort with a Stage Two race engine. I had a 650cc Triton. Jack and Diane as it might have been written by Thomas Hardy.
It wasn’t always sunny.
There was torential rain when I had to do the best piece of motorcyle riding I ever did. I’d turned off the A36 and blasted up the empty cold road on the last mile to her house. There was a ninety degree left at the end of the straight, then another straight for about a mile until the very last turning. What I didn’t see until I clipped it with the back wheel was the metal drain on the apex of the corner that spat the wheel sideways. I’d opened the throttle on the apex of the bend, the way we did back then. I think I was doing around 60 but I didn’t really have time to look. I got the back wheel back again but it shot out to the left. Then to the right again. Then to the left.
I thought if I braked I wouldn’t be doing much else in my life, so I did the only thing I could think of and rolled the throttle off slowly. It worked. Before long it was hot instant coffee and central heating and don’t put your wet jacket near my mum’s coat, back to normal.
It wasn’t the sort of place spies got poisoned, which probably makes it the best kind of place for spies to get poisoned.
The bank manager was mistaken. All I did was ask him what time she might be getting out of work, but I did it in the street, outside the bank, reaching into my motorcycle jacket for my wallet, wearing jeans and motorcycle boots and he thought I was reaching for a gun. “I don’t have a gun” didn’t seem to help, either. Hey ho. The past is a different country. They do things differently there.
I’ve had a ringing in one ear for the past year after a really bad cold I got from students. Thanks, kids, it makes it all worthwhile. I got so bunged up I had to have my ears syringed for the first time ever after I thought a warning buzzer on the car had packed up. Turned out it hadn’t, I just couldn’t hear it.
It got a lot louder so I went to the doc. Who reassuringly said she’d quite like to see if it wasn’t anything to do with my ear at all, but a brain tumour pushing on it. But don’t worry about brain cancer until we find it, ok? Er …..sure. OK. It’s like saying don’t think about elephants. It can’t be done.
I had my scan and waited. I phoned the doc, who told me to phone the hospital. Who wouldn’t talk to me because I wasn’t a doctor. Reassuring. I wondered how long it would take to do a Data Protection Act query. The doc told me the hospital wouldn’t have been arsing about like this if I actually had a brain tumour, but that wasn’t 100% reassuring.
Yesterday I went to the follow-up meeting with the Senior Registrar. No brain tumour. She stuck a camera up my nose and pressed her boobs into the back of my head. One of these sensations was much nicer than the other. She rolled her eys at the GP’s suggestion that polyps were growing on my eardrums. There aren’t any. She thought it wasn’t great that GPs do the ‘you might have a brain tumour’ spiel. I don’t.
A nurse blew in my ear to see if I had a punctured ear drum. With a machine, obviously. It’s not that sort of hospital. If you can feel the pressure increase ten you don’t. I only could in one ear. The machine was broken. We had to borrow one from the office next door.
What I do have is fluid stuck behind one ear, the aftermath of that bad cold. It should have gone away but it hasn’t due probably to some local inflamation and a tiny, tiny chance something has gone wrong there at some time which we will deal with if it hasn’t sorted itself out in three months.
I’ve got to sniff tolerable drops twice a day for two weeks and do stuff too revolting to mention, but I don’t have a brain tumour. Not today, anyway.
I was supposed to go to work today. Yesterday a one hour commute turned into two hours because of the snow. It didn’t snow overnight, so I thought it might be ok today.
As I was driving down the hill I listened to the radio telling me the A14 was blocked, the A14 was blocked, the A1120 was blocked, the road to Framlingham and the A1120 was blocked and the A12, well, the A12 was described as ‘a nightmare’ but as anyone who ever drove it knows, it just is anyway. There’s one other road out of here, precipitously steep, single track and not even a B road.
My immediate obstacle was getting down the hill safely. The problem here on the edge of this haunted airfield is that it froze last night after it snowed the day before. Then this morning we had a lot of wind that blew the snow off the fields on top of the sheet of ice that used to be the road.
I did what I was taught to do on an off-road driving course to get down any hill safely: put it in first gear and get your foot off the accelerator. Because it’s first gear your car can’t physically do more than about 15 or 20mph anyway, which is plenty fast enough on sheet ice. I tried to ignore the idiot behind me who thought two car lengths was plenty of distance between us.
I turned left at the bottom of the hill onto the bigger road that looked pretty clear. And it was for the first mile. As soon as we’d got through Hacheston the wind had piled fields full of snow onto the road making it just one lane. There were two cars stopped at the top of the hill, one of them slewed sideways and the other turning round, but there was a snowplough spreading grit up ahead so I slotted in behind that.
The lady’s not for turning
Which was a mistake. The snowplough stopped. It took a while to see why. A black Volvo XC 90 was blocking the road, coming the other way. Like lots of big, new 4×4 cars it had never been fitted with a reverse. That’s my charitable explanation.
In darker moments I just believe that the drivers think everyone who doesn’t have a big new 4×4 should just get out of the way like the forelock-tugging plebs we are. I even tried reversing (not for the Volvo. Some hope of that) but my car is front-wheel drive. Good for snow when going forward. Almost useless for snow going backwards.
Eventually it dawned on the Volvo driver that the snowplough wasn’t actually going to reverse all the way to the depot they way they’d expected it to do. I followed the snowplough through. It had taken 30 minutes to do three miles at that point. The A12 looked clear but empty when I saw it, but I remembered the radio warning.
I turned left instead of right and turned up the hill to go home at Marlsford. This hill was sheet ice too, but going up this time instead of down. I didn’t think I would have been able to get up my hill the way I’d come down. I knew something about going up hills in snow too – as soon as you hear the wheels spinning, get off the accelerator fast unless you want a quick one-way journey into the nearest hedge. With the wheels spinning you have absolutely no steering to speak of and you’re just sliding. Off the gas and your steering comes back instantly.
But go slowly. Above everything else, drive as if you’ve got a basket of eggs on the dashboard. But I sitll called it. For the first time in my whole life I emailed work and told them the weather was too bad to get in. It had taken fifty minutes to do a six mile circle around my house. And it was nice of work to write a one-word reply to my email, simply saying ‘Received.”
My life is worth more to me than a day’s pay. Obviously this isn’t a universal viewpoint, which is always nice to get clear. I spent the rest of the day applying for a job. The gig economy works two ways.
I didn’t particularly want to see this when I looked out of the window. I live miles out in the countryside, 5 miles from any town, a short walk to a haunted airfield. We’ve got a letterbox, but no pub, shop or anything else up here on the hill. They’ve got all that fancy stuff down on the main road, such as it is. Except the pub.
Because I do several different jobs, this week I chose the wrong one. The film I was working with had finished shooting and although I’m with three agencies there’s nothing around this week, so I was committed to teaching nearly fifty miles away.
On a decent day it takes just under an hour. It was obviously going to take more this morning. My old Saab was built in a snowy place, so I wasn’t worried about the car. Chiefly what bothered me was other people. When I was a stupid kid every time it snowed I went out for a drive. I can’t have been that stupid, because every time I did by the end of the drive I’d survived situations that would have resulted in me not typing any of this if I hadn’t had the practice. I remember coming back from one jaunt like that and finding a snow plough lorry across the road I’d been planning to use. I put the car sideways into a snowbank and no harm done to anyone.
I didn’t practice any handbrake turns today, not even a little one. But I saw a few people who ought to have done, or at least, their vehicles. The first one was a van half on its side in the ditch that had been trying to go up a hill and hadn’t. The last one that blocked the entire A14 was sad. A small car, not new, on the verge. To be accurate, half-way up the verge, in the trees surrounded by smashed branches. And upside down, with the roof crushed to the top of the doors. There was a police car there. I’m assuming the road had been blocked by ambulances and police crews and the fire brigade getting the people out. They weren’t there. It was hard to see how they were ever going to be again, unless they ducked down under the dashboard, the way people manage to in films. I doubt it, somehow.
It took nearly double the time it normally takes me to get to work, and the same coming home. I’m shattered from concentrating and remembering how to drive in the snow, and from remembering to pack a broom, a wooly hat, gloves, wellies, a camp stove, water, a lighter, a blanket, teabags and two packets of quick-cook porridge, along with a wind-up torch in the car. If you don’t need this stuff, you’ve won. If you do need it it’s no use in the cupboard at home.
I’d like to give special thanks to the two 4×4 owners who decided that ten feet off the back of my boot was an excellent place to drive, except I’d be lying. Total arses though they both were, are and obviously will continue to be, I hope even they get home safe tonight. That little wrecked car in the trees will stay with me.