Priorities

I had two girlfriends who worked in banks, although not at the same time. They were nice girls; both had dogs, one was an authority on potato crips: harmless, pretty girls from Wiltshire who smiled a lot and didn’t want much out of life, I thought at the time. In spite all that and their general willingness to please something struck me as odd then. It still does now. They were the first people the customer saw and talked to. They were young, inexperienced and that role, the crucial interface between the bank and the people whose money they used was left to those two, before they either worked their way off the counter, as it was called, or left for babies and mortgages and the long trek to now. The least trained, least experience, least paid staff got one of the jobs they could really mess up. They didn’t, so far as I ever knew.

Today Radio 4 is debating whether ‘being in a socially valuable job is reward enough’ with the clear implication that it should be. They mean specifically, should teachers and firemen and nurses get their first pay rise over 1% in seven years, or should they shut up and vote Conservative?

The PM has predictably trotted out the nursery-level homilies about living within our means, having bunged one billion pounds at the DUP this month and approved a six million pay rise for the Queen, to go with the hundreds of millions to renovate Buckingham Palace and more for the renovation of the House of Parliament, overlooking the fact that the one billion was borrowed, the same as government projects are always borrowed. That isn’t the issue.

Nor is the fact that any sensible discussion of public finances has to include tax avoidance and the ludicrous situation whereby the Inland Revenue’s main landlord is an offshore company that doesn’t pay UK corporation tax, the same way Starbucks and Amazon and a huge number of other large companies like to pretend that really, they only do it because they love the job, it’s not something they make any money on.

For teachers, it’s the same deal as those two country girls faced when they could wear an Afghan coat down the street without being ironic, or only a bit, anyway. Teachers get paid a low wage. The youngest, with the least experience, get the least. They also get the worst classes and the least attractive schools. How many people would reply to a real job ad for teaching?

Would you like to break up a real fight once a week?

Can you explain why it’s not ok to throw tables at each other? Do you know why this behaviour is acceptable, week in, week out, however many kids’ education gets messed up to suit one kid who shouldn’t even be in this school? Would you like to be exposed to germs you didn’t even know existed and live on Echinacea tea? Would you be happy looking at the same kid’s unexplained cuts and bruises every week, however many times you log their appearance? Would you like to take work home with you, have to teach World War sodding One until you’d happily go over the top when the whistle blows and then get defamed on Facebook by someone you’re not allowed to retaliate to, whatever they do? Would you like to do all that for about the same you could earn doing overtime in Tesco?

If your answer is yes to all of these, you’re unlike the number of people streaming out of the profession, the same way they’re streaming out of nursing. One in five English lessons isn’t taught by an English teacher. Because they left. Most teachers haven’t taught for ten years. For the same reason.

Getting paid properly to do a job isn’t some kind of communism. It’s something MPs demand, along with everyone else. But then, they got the pay rise they wanted. They voted it through themselves.

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Telling people what to think

I'm old enough to remember a time that sounds like a fairytale. Long, long ago, when men wore lapels big enough to pass for aircraft carriers for flies, two journalists decided that whatever it took, they were going to uncover the truth. They did.  They uncovered the fact that the President of the USA had not only sanctioned a burglary but had lied about the fact. Those two men digging for the truth got President Nixon out of the Whitehouse. I wanted to be a journalist back then.

I was brought up in a household full of lies, half-truths and ommissions. Maybe that was part of it. My father, for reasons that as Hunter Thompson, another famous journalist and sometime liar, often said were never made clear, used to pretend to be Australian. That was the family truth. When one day in my twenties I’d had about enough of this I went and found his birth certificate records. He was as Australian as I am. And I can’t really remember all the words of Waltzing Matilida.

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A couple of days ago Grenfell Towers burned down. As there was with the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, there was a lot of nonsensical hysteria. With the disappeared airplane, people were demanding to know exactly where the airplane was, not least because the airline couldn’t or wouldn’t tell the unfortunate truth, that it was 99.9999999% certainly at the bottom of the sea.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we regretfully announce the unscheduled arrival of Flight MH370.”

Even when they eventually said pretty much exactly that, many people, especially on social media, demanded the Latitude and Longitude of the crash-site and in its absence insisted there was a cover-up, an alien abduction, a Bond-style villain holding everyone hostage, the CIA holding everyone hostage and/or a Lost-style TV drama scenario where a jetliner miraculously lands on a desert island without explooding and killing everyone on board. I thought at the time it would have been less heartbreaking for everyone concerned if the airline had just been able to treat everyone as adults, and say openly ‘look, sorry, they’re pretty certainly dead.’

With the destruction of Grenfell Towers the hysteria has gone another way, with people demanding to know why ‘they’ couldn’t be told the exact number of people dead in the fire, even though at the time the fire brigade hadn’t even left the building. The original official estimate of just 17 people didn’t help.

There are lots of obvious reasons: they haven’t got all the bodies out. Some of them bodies won’t have physically been found yet. Quite possibly, in the intense heat inside the buidling, bodies won’t resemble bodies at all.

But I remember a time when the same media that accepted this phenomenally low figure accepted another set of figures.

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Without blinking, when they were told maybe 40,000 people had died on 911, the mass media reported this without hesitation. When the figure was revised down to 25,000, that was the figure that stuck. The reality, let out days or weeks later, that in fact, around 3,500 people died in the Twin Towers attack, wasn’t exactly banner headlines. The same media, most especially the BBC, happily reported the collapse of Tower 7, the one that fell down because an airplane didn’t crash into it, nearly half an hour before it collapsed. Think about that for a moment. Why did the BBC do that? Why did the reporter stand there in front of a screen showing the very tangible Tower 7 and claim it wasn’t there? The answer is depressingly simple: because somebody told them to.

Seventeen people didn’t die in the Grenfell Flats. Nor did 40,000 people die on 911. You are not being told the truth. No President or pretty much anyone else is ever going to have to worry about losing office as a result of journalism ever again.

 

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The soft click of the safety-catch

I read a thriller the other day. Ken Follet’s Eye Of The Needle. As war-time thrillers go, it went. It had pretty much everything on the tick box list and rave reviews from the New York Times (‘pulse pounding”, which they cribbed directly from Publishers Weekly, who called it, er, “pulse pounding..”), going on to call it ‘frighteningly realistic’ and all the rest of the blah.

I paid £2 for it in a PDSA shop in Edinburgh, mainly to read on the train but also because I was feeling guilty about not giving the PDSA something. And I was in a hurry and I was ill. I wasn’t thinking straight.

As thrillers go, it’s alright, except you can see the end coming for about half the book. That’s the problem and the attraction of history – you know how it ends, as well as what happened next. A bit like an Oasis song.

Except it’s full of mistakes. Really, seriously basic everyday mistakes that in a thriller, where the job is to build an inclusive, logical world around the reader, smash that world to pieces as soon as the reader has to start making allowances for the writing. For me, when I have to say ‘well that’s not true but…” Then I know I’m wasting reading time. And it happens a lot.

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The most-used gun in fiction. Albeit mistakenly.

The first, massive, seemingly compulsory mess-up was when the anti-hero as usual, thumbed the safety-catch on his revolver. Which is problematic as only one revolver ever had one. The Fosberry-Webley, a massive, unusual, anachronistic Heath-Robinson contraption which Bogart used in a single film, which was never issued to any army anywhere.

So far, so thriller.  There’s a submarine in the story and the thing that anyone knows about them is that they go underwater. This isn’t really technical stuff, is it? Nor the fact that if they ran the diesel engines under water either they’d leave a trail of handy bubbles, not really being very secret, or they’d all die from the exhaust fumes, which is why submarines had electric motors for underwater use.

Then the jeep’s side window gets shot out, which is a neat trick when jeeps didn’t have side windows, or at least not back in 1944 they didn’t. It’s handily not explained quite where a civilian could have got hold of a jeep for his own use, or the wherewithall to convert it to automatic transmission anyway, but no matter.

The heroine escapes in this same jeep. Has she left the keys in it? Of course. Irrespective of the fact they didn’t have keys. She turned the starter, forgetting that she ought to have pressed it instead.

OK, so far so bollocks. It’s a thriller. It’s not a manual or a how-to. It’s not important.

Except it is.

“A marvellously detailed suspense thriller based on a solid foundation of fact.” Sunday Times

When mainstream media calls errors and inaccuracies ‘ a solid foundation of fact,’ it’s not just that the author, the editor, the proof reader and everyone else who read it didn’t know, didn’t care and didn’t check. The fact that this is called fact is fundamentally frightening. This is just a crappy thriller for the train. It begs the issue of what else gets passed off as truth. And why. And why nobody cares.

 

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False hopes and seemings

Seemings, certainly, although this odd little episode had its share of hopes, false or otherwise, as well.

Once upon a time in a land long ago, or Dorset when I was younger as I prefer to call it, my oldest friend bought an old schoolhouse. It wasn’t just any old schoolhouse, but Thomas Hardy’s sister’s one, in a tiny village near Sherbourne. I lived in London at the time, but I’d drive down fairly often for a taste of green fields and the things I’d never really left behind.

The Gleaners

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She had a picture hanging up behind the kitchen door, under the stairs. I always wondered why it was there where nobody could see it, but my friend did things her way and it was after all her house and her picture.  I thought so, anyway. I knew where it was any time I wanted to look at it.

I thought about it a lot over the years. It seemed to sum up something of the life I didn’t have, the one that thankfully most people don’t. The gleaners were looking for grains of corn or wheat, anything left over from the harvest. Because they were dirt poor. Life was not fun, nor easy. But hey, let’s talk about the pictures.

I discovered that there was another painting by Millett (presumably before he sold chepa camping gear) the year before, in 1857; The Angelus, one that always struck me as plaintive and sad, as if even while praying their crops would grow, this pair of peasant farmers lived with the knowledge that they might well not. This was real life for most people 150 years ago; it’s up to us if we chose this to be the way of things again.

The Angelus

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I was thinking about both paintings a lot recently; namely how much I missed that house and how if I could find a copy of either of them I’d buy it, if the price was ok and if I could find either one, which didn’t look likely these days. Apart from anything, they’re pretty huge and in a style I haven’t seen anywhere for years.

And then I did at the local auction. I left a bid of £10 on them and much to my surprise it won. I collected themn and cleaned the frames and the glass and stripped off the binder twine used to hang them and the silver paper used to back them and hung them.  I rang my friend, who was a bit bemused when I told her I had a copy of the picture she used to have under her stairs. I sent her a picture of both of them, just in case my memory had confused which one she’d actually had.

She rang me back.  She liked them. They were the kind of things that if she’d seen them she’d have bought, if they were that kind of price. But she hadn’t. She’d never seen either one. She’d never owned either of them. She’d never had them in the house. They never hung under her stairs or anywhere else. Except in every visit to that house in my mind.

Memory isn’t always true. But then, truth isn’t always memory, either.

 

 

 

 

 

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The homecoming

Thomas Hardy’s dead. I know, ok? The people he described were charicatures, quaint yokels. A bucolic garden chorus behind the main characters who were all basically Thomas Hardy, including the women. And yes, I know the real locals didn’t think much of him because one of them spoke to a friend of mine. Actually, my very best friend of all.

In one of life’s circularities, one Hardy might like, I’m doing a job a friend did a long time ago, straight from university via working in a pub. In the way you could then, she bought a little stone house about fifteen miles from where she was working. It was and is magical, despite or perhaps especially as it’s somewhat problematically infested with owls.

Haunted too, the ghost seen walking by my friend’s straight-down-the-line brother, who thought for a second as the woman stood next to his bed, that my friend was bringing a cup of tea, then decided that the best thing he could do was to put the covers over his head. The house had been a school in a tiny village down ancient sunken lanes in Dorset, the school Thomas Hardy’s sister had been headmistress of.

The place, all of it, was part of our own dreamscape, “half-real, half dreamed” as Hardy himself wrote of what I came to call Wessex, a place that stretches from Lyme Regis past Weymouth, north to past Bath, possibly even to Oxford if Jude The Obscure can be trusted. Possibly it can’t; it’s a very long time since I read it. But it’s still ours.

Before we left school we’d started exploring the place where we live in a way I’m not certain most people do. We’d borrow a car and drive to Stratford on Avon, us crazy, wild, rebellious kids. We had a cup of tea in a cafe high on a hill on frosty day outside Shaftesbury, the walls lined with posters advertising the surreal selection of Stax soul bands this place on the edge of nowhere attracted. Unless they just collected posters, but that seemed somehow more unlikely.

I can’t even vaguely remember why we were anywhere near Shaftesbury, except that it was our land, our country. And still is. Not in the way we’re all supposed to say “our country” now, meaning “and you keep out of it.” The idea would have been laughable.

Our country meaning this is where we belong. Where we go in dreams. Where we’re from. Heartlands. This once and future thing.

I got back there just after Christmas. It was cold, damp and there were patches of freezing fog making driving unpredictable. My friend was there, with some of her children and another friend I met again after an unknown absence of decades. There weren’t enough beds and we had to keep going outside, putting on shoes, finding a torch, stumbling around in the dark to get wet logs for the fire without trashing our clothes before we gingerly, discretely, appraisingly assessed who we were going to be sleeping on the next sofa over from. It was absolutely perfect.

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Before the flowers

January and the mornings get lighter. January and most days here near the coast the air is clear and now, just a month past the solstice, it’s just about light at half-past five. Just.

A girl stood in the door of the staff room, grinning and half-laughing, unable to really believe what had happened when she opened the letter from UCAS; an offer from Cambridge. I don’t know if she knows how much the rest of her life is going to change.

But I remember this time. Interview time. I went all over. Warwick. Brighton. Goldsmith’s in Virginia Waters. Sheffield. Southampton. It was always cold, it was always somewhere I’d never been. It was always somewhere I went on my own to, by train. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Goldsmiths was a farce. Because my school was a bit useless and because the internet wasn’t even a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye, I hadn’t any clue that Goldsmith’s English course back then was heavily, loony-tunes religious. I couldn’t then and don’t now understand why the question “Are you a practising Christian?” has any place in an interview for an English degree, any more than I later understood the question “Who do you know in advertising?” when I was trying to be an account exec. at BMP. The phrase “WTUF?” hadn’t been invented then. Pity.

I walked back to the station in the fading light, past the pub with a Ferrari parked in the car-park, too young, too dim to realise that it almost certainly wasn’t the landlord’s but a rich drunk’s, left there the night before. I was amazed. The past is a different country. Coming from Trowbridge, then home of Bowyers pork pies and Ushers brewery, Virginia Waters was, too.

Falmer was no better. Brighton didn’t want me there under any circumstances whatsoever, either to do Psychology the first time I tried nor to do English and American Studies the second. I’d read no Melville, way too much Kerouac and not enough Hemingway and I hadn’t yet met the friend who blagged her way through an entire degree with the fictional Hemingway all-purpose quote: “That is the way it is in the mountains.” Far from any mountains, I posed on the train, looking out the window at the Kaakinen-designed halls of residence so derided in The History Man with my big boots and copy of AE Coppard’s Dusky Ruth. In my combat jacket. Over my black velvet jacket. Since you ask. It was freezing.

I don’t know if the mountains thing would have helped. What didn’t was me almost laughing out loud that the alleged American Studies expert had never heard of Horace Greeley. I mean, seriously?  The father of American journalism? The man who gave up his desk job and wrote about the ’49 goldfields? The man who coined the phrase “Go West young man?” But you’re fine to teach English and American Studies. Oh, ok. “FFS” hadn’t been invented either.

They should have let me in just for attitude, but as Bruce Springsteen put it:

Maybe you got a nice car, Maybe you got a pretty wife. Well mister, all I got is attitude. And I had it all of my life.

Except attitude wasn’t all I had. I had a friend in Sheffield, my best friend of all, the one I met when I was seventeen on a school trip to Dorchester, who I spent hours on the phone with last night. So I went to see her when I was up in Sheffield that snowy January, doing an interview to do Experimental Psychology which would have meant playing with monkeys instead of working with them. I don’t know how my life would have been different if I’d done that. There was snow head-height in Sheffield that winter. My friend transferred her Law degree to Cardiff, after almost deciding to quit altogether. We bought Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance LP off a record shop stall in the street. Record shops. That’s how long ago it was. They do things differently there.

But that January feeling, with the world still cold but opening up, getting bigger every single day, that’s still there. This time before the flowers are out. Everything’s still growing. There’s everything still to play for.

 

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Mushrooms unseen

I was taught this recipe I don’t know when. We ate it a fair bit because we didn’t have much money I think, but there are lots of other reasons to do it. It tastes good. It’s quick. It’s actually pretty good for you. I don’t understand why hardly anyone I know has ever heard of it.

It’s winter. It’s cold, your shoe feels like it’s leaking, it’s dark, you don’t know what you want, but you want something easy, hot, tasty and above all, quick. But that’s probably not going to happen tonight, so you’d better get some dinner instead.

OK, it’s not really called Mushrooms Unseen. But they are. Until now. I just call them Mushrooms On Toast. If you want to be fancy, or don’t like toast, or like me,  your toaster has just half-broken, so it only does one slice at a time, like every darned toaster I’ve had for the past few years that give-up the day after the warranty expires, call them Poached Mushrooms.

And do them like this.

Get some mushrooms. Preferably brown chestnut ones from the market at £1 a paper bag. Although of course you might not go to a market, in which case more fool you.  A pound/half kilo is too many for one, but choose how many you think you can eat.

Put some toast on.

Wash the mushrooms and cut them. I used to just chunk them, but slices look nicer.

Put them in a saucepan with a little milk and a knob of butter. Soya milk works fine. A knob of butter is the size of a walnut, and that’s way too much butter, so make it a small knob of butter.

Boil. Until they soften. The milk will go mushroom colour, astonishingly enough. It will also thicken, so don’t let it catch and burn on the pan. I like loads of black pepper with them. I can’t really imagine adding salt. This is a sweet, earthy taste. Add enough mushroom juice poured over the buttered (or better, Marmited) toast to make it soft.

That’s it. Less than ten minutes for a really nice, simple, tasty, quick, cheap, healthy lunch, good winter breakfast or supper. Every student should know about it. Every adult too. And I still don’t understand why hardly anybody I know has ever even heard of it.

Thank me later.

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Following yonder star

I was brought up with Christmas carols. I went to Midnight Mass two years ago, at Blythburgh, in the church they call the Cathedral of the Marshes that once a year has its carpark full of Porsche Cayennes and RangeRovers and Bentleys as the houses that go without lights most of the year suddenly boast a tasteful wreath on their Colefax & Fowler-tinted front doors. I even had a girlfriend called Carol once, who I met in the Christmas holidays. How much more Christmas can one person be?

For me, there has to be a journey. A physical one. Or it’s not a proper Christmas. And I have absolutely no idea why.

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It’s taken me to Lyme Regis, 130 miles from where I lived, for a magical break that lasted into the new year. We very nearly died on that one, forced to climb cliffs marked “Impassable” on the Ordnance Survey map, one step up and sliding several more down on shale that came away under our feet. I’d read the tide tables wrong. It was that or drowning, but somehow the map was wrong. They weren’t impassable. Not quite. We went to Midnight Mass that year, in a tiny stone church shining like a beacon on top of the sea-cliffs, the church packed with teenagers, couples, old people, children, a huge crowd we had seen hurrying past the windows of the Volunteer as we sat inside. I’ve never seen anything like it. But I’d never seen anything like English police acting as if they were in the Dukes of Hazard on New Years Eve.

Two police cars came into town in opposite directions, passed each other on the main street and half-pulled a bootlegger turn, sideways, blocking the road so that everyone who poured out of the pubs to hear the landlord of the Bolly play Auld Lang Syne on a saxophone in the street didn’t get run over. The few cars that wanted to drive through had to wait. Quietly, if they had any sense and didn’t want to be breathalysed. It was fabulous, real community policing with no fuss or fanfare.

Most of the other Christmas journeys weren’t quite as dramatic. Two Christmases in Spain. Last year a trip out into rural Suffolk, the year before that a trip back ‘home,’ to the West Country I never wanted to leave to see a friend I was at school with. My, those ten years have just flown past.

A trip to Leicester, when we’d been working there and left a sound recorder in a hall next to the enormous market I didn’t know even existed. I drove up the old roads, not the motorway in flat grey December weather, coming home with a bed for our big new cat, adopted in a hurry and with nothing to call his own. I think that was the best one, somehow, driving up through Towcester along A roads laid out by the Romans, back near the first Christmas time.

I’m not religious. But it’s still Christmas. And every year I dream of being in Bath Abbey for Midnight Mass, the stone angels climbing up to Heaven, floodlit to help them find their way. I won’t be there again this year.

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The price you pay

Once upon a time, in a land long ago, I was at a rodeo.

No, seriously.

Snarkness on the edge of town.
Snarkness on the edge of town.

It was in a place called Greencastle, In.,  and the only way you’ll ever have heard of it is if you work for IBM, know where one of two V1 rockets in the USA are (apart from Werner von Braun’s den, obviously), or you’re an alumni of De Pauw university. Or you know something about Dillinger or the way any old bank robbery in the 1930s got attributed to the famous robbers if the actual robbers didn’t get caught and escaped in a car. Or maybe, like me, you were chasing a red-haired cheerleader called Nancy-Jean and driving a ludicrously big old car that probably extinguished three species on its own.

Anyway, it was a Saturday, Nancy-Jean was out of town, I was staying at her folks’ place in her room with the rainbow painted on the wall (as Werner used to say, ach, it vas all so long
ago…), I’d done a week’s worth of pretending to be in a Springsteen song working in a sawmill the other side of the tracks and apart from golf, which I don’t do because I don’t, there wasn’t a whole lot else to do. As we used to say.

I sat there on the bleachers (oh because that’s what they’re CALLED, ok?) and had myself a darned fine time. The steer wrestling was good. They got a steer and let it loose and anyone who thought they were hard enough grabbed it by the horns and wrestled it to the ground. Then they let it go. They didn’t have a whip or a gun or a stick, just their hands. It looked pretty equal to me.

Look, I know, ok? I’m not like that now. It was the past, it was definitely another country and they did things very differently there. But actually not so much, speaking as someone who had to get a lorry load of bullocks out of a pen and into a truck one dawn at Bridgewater Market. I was fourteen. I learned that bullocks are more scared of you than you are of them but it’s close. That if you twist the ring in their nose they’ll go anywhere you want. And that if you don’t you might end up sneezing your lungs out of your nose after they’ve slammed you into a metal fence and trodden on you.

I still wasn’t gonna go an wrassle a bull and that ain’t no lie.

I just watched and listened. A guy who was about my age now, wearing a cowboy hat, was talking a few feet away. I liked him. He was one of those people who could turn pretty much anything he said into a story and a good-natured one at that.

Even when what he was saying was serious. And sad. He told a woman a few seats away and pretty much anyone else who wanted to hear about his daughter. She’d bought herself one of those fancy Japanese cars, a Honda or a Toyota or something. And in the real world of Indiana back then, you didn’t do that. So he stopped talking to her. It had been months.

He said it was for a reason. Sure, it was a good car. Maybe better than a comparable American car. In fact no, definitely. She was smart. And it was cheaper. But if everybody did that there wouldn’t be no car industry. And that meant Americans, real ones he knew, up in Flint and Gary not even a hundred miles away, wouldn’t have jobs.

I don’t have much sympathy for the people who voted for Trump for a lot of reasons, but this one is up at the front. Actions have consequences. The first time I went to the US all the clothes in shops were from the USA. The second time, 12 years later, I couldn’t find any that were and they were less than half the price. If you buy cheap import stuff I don’t think you have the option of complaining about the lack of jobs at home.

And before anyone writes that off as elitist, that people on low incomes don’t have those choices, they do. They chose to buy a phone made in China and a network data plan instead of a $40 shirt from the USA. But they still need a shirt so they get a $15 one made in Guatamala instead. Funny how that factory closed and there ain’t no jobs here no more. Dang Democrats and their elitist globalisation. Trump all the way.

Tom Petty had to live with some hard promises. Springsteen told us we could count so many foreign ways to the price we paid. And now I’m as old as the guy in the cowboy hat back at the rodeo, I know they were both right. And Trump and his supporters are wrong and always wrong. Because there aren’t easy answers. What you do comes back to you.

Life, as Dr Hook put it, ain’t easy and nothing ain’t free. And cheap stuff isn’t. Sometimes you have to do without the things you want because of what will happen if you get them. Don’t want globalisation? Then don’t buy its products. People like Trump always promise it’s about personal responsibility; Thatcher did it too. But their biggest message was always the opposite: the bad stuff, that’s  always someone else’s fault.

I ate a hot dog, watched the men wrassling steers and drove my big old Chevrolet back to Nancy-Jean’s house, up on the hill by the golf course, the good side of the tracks. A week later I drove down to Bloomington to see her, then drove out west on I-70 into my life, leaving her to hers.

 

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It’s happening again

Once upon a time, I thought I knew things. Now I think I never will. And that quite often, actually knowing things isn’t what’s wanted at all.

It happened writing Hereward. Charles Kingsley, the Victorian author of the Water Babies (a hundred plus years before Martin Amis wrote Dead Babies, but Kingsley could usefully have borrowed the title save for the fact that nobody then would have bought it, most families being knee-deep in them) wrote Hereward’s story up as The Last Englishman.  You can see the tabloid headlines:

Plucky Brit Brexit Rebel Defies Normans

Except Hereward wasn’t the fantastic Pure Brit of racist fiction. Because there’s no such thing. He was a Saxon, whose people came from Denmark, Holland and Germany, which is why it’s called Saxony, which is near where the Queen’s family come from too.The Normans came from Normandy, but not even a hundred years before that, they came from Denmark too.

Chin up, fantasists. I’m sorry if this is news to some of you. Big boys don’t cry.

Hereward’s cousin was the King of Denmark, one of the Sweynes. One of the more confusing thing about writing about those times was the appalling shortage of names they seemed to have. If you weren’t called Leofric then Sweyne was pretty much compulsory, unless you went down the Aelf-suffix route. From the Other World, the land of faery. Yes, as in Aelf Garnett. Satire doesn’t change.

Hitler's left-hand man.
Hitler’s left-hand man.

On Sunday I started writing Double Vision, based on the tale of Rudolf Hess.

How about this for a fiction plot?

It’s 1941. The British Army has been hammered at Dunkirk, the year before.  Get your flags out, because plucky Britain Stands Alone. America’s not in the war yet because it didn’t suit it.  Russia’s still best mates with Germany, or thinks it is. Hitler’s deputy steals an airplane. He flies a rectangular course over the North Sea for no clear reason and seems quite proud of this in his interrogations.

He eventually parachutes out to land a little south of Glasgow in Scotland. He announces he’s called Captain Albert Horn and he wants to see the Duke of Hamilton. He has the idea that the Duke (serving in the RAF quite nearby) will talk to people like Lord Halifax who will lever Churchill and the King into peace negotiations.

He’s bundled off to Trent Park interrogation centre, then the Tower of London and finds himself in the dock at Nuremberg with something of an uncertain future.

For reasons unclear, a spitting-furious Hitler doesn’t hunt down and kill Hess’s family, which he could have done in half a breath. As he threatened to do to Goering’s family, when Goering asked if it was ok to carry out the order Hitler had given him previously.

Hess refuses to speak in his own defence. The Allies hang most of the people in the dock. But not Rudolf Hess, architect of the final solution. He didn’t recognise someone he worked with daily. He refuses to see anyone in his family for 20 years.

He claims he has stomach aches. Herman Goerring (head of the Luftwaffe, sentenced to death) falls about laughing at Hess in court. His wife notes that his voice has got deeper in 20 years, when the opposite is normally what happens. Everyone else in Spandau Prison is let out in 1966. Not Hess. He’s the only inmate there for another 22 years.

During this time a British army doctor treating him claims the patient’s medical records don’t match the historical record of what happened to the Rudolf Hess who was shot through the lung in 1916.

It’s not the first time that someone has said that the Rudolf Hess at the Nuremberg trial isn’t the same Rudolf Hess who sat next to Hitler.  Goerring sat next to him and said it first, in court:

“Hess? Which Hess? The Hess you have here? Our Hess? Your Hess?”

Clearly one of the lighter moments at the Nuremberg Trails.
Clearly one of the lighter moments at Nuremberg.

Eventually a 93 year old man who couldn’t move his arms higher than level with his shoulders ties a noose with electric cord and hangs himself from a window catch 1.4 metres above the ground.

A British nurse who arrived to find the body said that she wasn’t the first person there. She gave that honour to two people she was very specific in saying were dressed like American soldiers. She did not say that they were.

Except it’s not a fiction plot. We’re told that’s exactly what happened, with no logical inconsistencies whatsoever.

I don’t know what happened, or who he was, or whether he went insane, or whether it wasn’t him at all. But I’m finding out I don’t know. I think it’s important.

 

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