He never touched my dicky

We watched Withnail and I today in class. I meant it to be a full visual equivalent of a textual analysis, but I’m not convinced it worked as an exercise. The key points (‘Bring us the finest wines known to humanity/Are you the farmer?/Flowers – tarts! Prostitutes for the bees!/We’ve gone on holiday by mistake/I called him a ponce and now I’m calling you one./I’ve only had a few ales…“) might have had me stuffing a scarf in my mouth to stop from screaming with laughter, but it wasn’t laughter shared with my group, for once. Maybe it escaped them. Maybe it’s a cultural thing. Maybe – frighteningly –  it’s an age thing.

When I wasn’t laughing I was smiling in memory. The scene where the ludicrous Uncle Monty visits the cottage in pursuit of the narrator, gulled by Withnail into thinking he’s on a promise always reminds me fondly of a place and a person I used to go to a lot, down in Dorset. A house full of good food, happy disorder and it has to be said, lots and lots of wine. But more importantly, sunshine and words tumbling out of all of us, ideas and jokes and stories and the easy, so easy obligation to entertain, above all else, whatever else we could contribute. Say anything, so long as it was entertaining and not hurtful or unkind. Withnail, for me, is a love song to that time, a place rediscovered sometimes when I visit and always happily recalled.

Before that, we ran through Mr Wu. Now ok, a Chinese friend of mine hates this song. Intensely. Not for any casual racism, because there isn’t any in it. Mr Wu scorching George’s best shirt isn’t anything to do with him being Chinese and everything to do with him being in luuuurve, a condition which apparently smote Mr Formby quite regularly.

And the joke, apart from the irritating little cod-Chinese musical coda that’s been used ever since The Mikado, and for all I know before that? As usual, George used innocuous words you could happily say to your granny. It was the words he didn’t use that made the joke.

Now Mr. Wu, he’s got a naughty eye that flickers, you ought to see it wobble when he’s ironing ladies’ blouses.

He does the same again when he mentions that Mr Wu has a laundry kind of tricky, he’ll starch my shirts and collars but he’ll never touch my waistcoat. To get that one you probably need to know that stiff, starched formal waistcoats to wear with a dinner suit used to be called dickies. But once you do you can’t listen to the song without laughing. I can’t anyway. 

Should I be giving my kids a thorough grounding in 1930s smut, the kind of thing that had my mother foaming at the mouth? Given that five Formby songs taught one class 127 new words once, I think so. We’ll see tomorrow.

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With my little ukelele in my hand


Most people of a certain age have at least heard of George Formby, even if they don’t really know anything else about him. David Skinner likes him a lot. So do I. And so, fairly strangely I’ve always thought, do Italian language students learning English. The freakier the student, the more dreadlocked, the more apparently rebellious, the more they rock out to a fine ukelele solo in the classroom.

Which makes no sense to me, but it works.

I give them a lyric sheet. If I feel like it, and I usually do, I tell them how George got really rich doing these silly songs and how the BBC kept trying to ban him for obscenity, and how they actually did ban When I’m Cleaning Windows. I ask them to find the obscene words, which is a bit of a challenge because Mr Formby wasn’t stupid, however he appeared on stage. There aren’t any. Not a single word you couldn’t happily say in front of your grandmother, Lancashire accent or no.

It wasn’t the words he said that got him banned. Like a lot of older English humour, it was the words he didn’t say that did it. And if you can work out what someone didn’t say then your English is coming on pretty well.

There was a laughably intense article in the Guardian claiming that the BBC had banned the record because of the immorality of singing about a window cleaner peering through hotel windows, noting that a bridegroom was doing fine and wishing he had his job instead of a chamois leather, peering only briefly at the Madonna-like film star staying there after seeing on unexpected – and unwanted – inspection that she was nearer 80 than 18.

I don’t think it was that at all. I think it was the seemingly innocuous line ‘pyjamas lying side by side, ladies nighties I have spied.’

The specific mention of ladies’ nighties makes pyjamas conspicuously male. And here, m’lud, there was unarguable evidence of two – and I hesitate to describe the baseness of this allegation to the court, but yet I must – yes, two men sharing the same bed. At a time when they’d both have been sent to prison even if they were lucky enough not to get electric shock treatment to cure them of gayness. Perhaps Mr Rees-Mogg might revise this policy when he’s Home Secretary, but for now the nonsensical non-issue makes it hard to decipher exactly why the BBC foamed at the mouth over this song in particular if that wasn’t the (ahem) root cause. As it were.

But anyway. I tell the kids to mark up every single word on the lyric sheet they don’t understand – yes I know you’re not supposed to do that, and it’s bollocks – and tell them specifically that if they mark every word on the page then utterly good, because they’ll then know them by the end of the lesson. And also that if they don’t mark a word as unknown and they don’t know it when I ask them then there will be trouble.

We put the words on the board, we see if anyone in the class knows them, if they don’t then I draw them, if they still don’t get it I tell them, then they translate it back into Italian and write it down. It doesn’t sound it but it’s hard work. One class got 127 new words out of five songs once. Which given you need 400 to get by in a new language isn’t bad going from listening to silly songs written a long time ago, 99.5% of which are in everyday use now.

New words learned we read through, first me then them. Then we sing it. Growl it, anyway. Nobody’s yet done the air uke solo, but dreadlock shaking and foot tapping is pretty much standard.

Should I be giving teenagers a thorough grounding in 1930s smut? Not in any text book I ever saw. I did it once for a joke, Formby being the only CD in my bag and being desperate for something to do, and it worked spectacularly. So I kept it. On a two-week course you get to dig around the more obscure parts of the Formby back catalogue, but nothing quite stirs the heart so much as deprived teenagers from some Milanese high-rise bellowing about Mr Wu’s mangling of George’s dicky.

Turned out nice, as Mr Formby said, after all.

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Losing my religion

Nothing to do with the R.E.M. song I still think is a bit modern, before I realise it was released a heart-stopping twenty-six (count ’em, as they used to say) years ago.

I went to the British Museum yesterday and saw the mummies, like you do.  On the way I saw an even sadder sight, the old and ageing soldiers of a war that nobody even wants to talk about any more, marching through the streets of London. Justice For Northern Ireland Veterans might actually happen more quickly if they weren’t quite so keen on spouting nonsensical tabloid headlines, I felt. I thought, from the name on their banners and their cry that they were ‘treated worse than terrorists’ that they were protesting disability benefit cuts, or pathetic pensions. I was wrong about that, the same way they were wrong if, like any other soldier, they were surprised that once it’s done with them the Army spits them out and forgets all about them, war or no war.

They claim on their website that their only desire is to lobby Parliament to stop criminal investigations of service personnel who might have you know, sort of shot someone once now and again. Which may or may not be fair enough, given that all sorts of people were shooting all sorts of other people at the time and that the RUC, who at least aren’t the Army themselves, had already had a look over the case and decided there wasn’t one. What demonstrably wasn’t true was the idea that JFNIV doesn’t support any political doctrine.

Now, it might be just me, but I’d say a better way of showing that would be to not actually march through the streets screaming about how much of a (yawn) ‘traitor’ Jeremy Corbyn was for talking to the IRA when Margaret Thatcher was doing exactly the same thing but lying about it, which apparently makes it ok. Which isn’t snark but an opinion held by a number of people not known to be using psycotropics.

It was sad. A tiny parade of mostly portly and quite elderly men, accompanied by a guy in his early sixties who looked as if he’d sooner be ambling glumly along a Burford pavement towing a brace of spaniels and a much more disturbing character the same age but wielding a ’70s Zapata moustache and a camo backpack, running elaborately on the double up the pavement as if he’d just spotted a balaclava and forgotten his L1A1.

The mummies weren’t remotely scary. Just sad. The fact that if you were the king’s favourite blacksmith or swordmaker meant that just like his horse, you were going to be killed when he died, to make sure the afterlife was just the way he wanted it, was pathetic enough. The 250,000 litres of wine one pharaoh had buried with him in case he wanted to throw a party in heaven was tragically stupid too. But for me the saddest thing was the little models of clay pots, the outsides done perfectly but the insides not actually insides at all. After death, buried with the dead, they were supposed to not only grow to full size but to become real pots, hollow, to hold something.

Five, seven, who knows how many thousand years on, they hadn’t. In scientific and theological terms, that was all bollocks. No heaven. No afterlife. Not even empty vessels. Just an idea of something, a something that didn’t happen, at that.


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Another secret



It was about the same time that I discovered Studland and the wartime bunker there. We’d had another job down in Plymouth and drove slowly back with time to kill in that most magical of times, very early summer in the West Country, when the mornings are still cold, when everything sparkles as if your eyes are new. When there really could be a sword in every pond, as Roy Harper put it, so long ago.

Plymouth – well, Plymouth was strange. It had the feel of a Navy town but at the same time, so much of it was nearly new. I sort-of knew it had been bombed heavily in what for my generation we will always just call the war, but I didn’t know how much, like Southampton, the Luftwaffe and after them, the far more destructive town planners had ripped the old heart out of the city.  If you like concrete pedestrian underpasses, don’t miss Plymouth. We marvelled at the huge age of the woman we’d book unseen to host the event we were putting on, at least ninety and thin and spry, if understandably a little slow. But mostly we marvelled at the English Riviera, the first time we’d really seen it as adults. We drove across country, found a little town with new giftshop on three floors and wondered what would happen to it. Nearly twenty-five years on I hope they did ok.

We followed a small road out of that town and ended up on a beach, running parralel to the sea. The weather had changed to cloudy by now, or maybe it was just a seafret. Or a breath of something darker, as we turned a corner and drove astonished past a black tank at the side of the road. It wasn’t hindsight or imagination – there was something brooding about that beach before we saw the tank.

It had been kept secret, in our open, transparent and fundamentally honest society, for fifty years. Along with all the other tanks and ships and men who had died in that bay at Slapton and been shovelled quickly and secretly into mass graves.

It was an invasion exercise. Thirty thousand Americans, practising for D Day. Except that by chance, by accident, by just one of those things, after the Americans had finished shelling their own men on the beach, German E-boats had somehow got mixed-up in the practice invasion too. When they opened fire it wasn’t until lots of people started dying that anyone American guessed that this wasn’t just a hyper-realistic drill.

It was judged, not for the first time and certainly not for the last, that British voters’ heads shouldn’t be unduly troubled by the facts. The dead, hundreds and hundreds of them, were bundled underground. German casualties were zero. So it wasn’t that saying what had happened would have given the game away to them; they were already home, unable to believe their luck. We weren’t told the truth because our betters decided we oughtn’t to be told the truth. Because the truth wasn’t good for us. Because We are Good. They are Bad. We win. They lose. We don’t make mistakes. Forever and ever, Amen. And like good little children after prayers should always do, we went to sleep and forgot all about it.

It wasn’t until the early 1980s that a few people in Dorset started asking questions about why fishing nets kept catching on things that ought not to have been there that the truth belatedly came out. We were lied to by our government, for reasons that aren’t clear. The British government, not the American ones. If it was necessary during the war, it can’t possibly have been necessary a quarter of a century later. Let alone for that time again.

Another secret, like Shingle Street. Call it Exercise Tiger, call it the Battle of Slapton Sands. Call it one big lie, like so many. The information about it was de-classified eventually. Unlike the secrets of Shingle Street.

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Tears in rain



Bladerunner came out in 1982. I thought it was the future and in many ways, it was. I remembered two things about it principally, apart from being vaguely irritated at cool, intuitive Decker going gooey over what was essentially an interactive blow-up doll.

The first thing, obviously, was Rutger Hauer’s tears in rain speech, about how memories are lost, becoming just another tiny detail of existence. Another thing in the film makes me think more and more that the poor consciousness of Roy Batty the replicant missed the point. Completely.

When Decker is on the trail of a replicant working as an exotic dancer, as reporters used to say when they still made their excuses and left, he discovers something odder than the fact that a robot keeps a robot snake as a pet. They stole photos too. The pictures of a childhood they never had, the assertions of mortality, the detail that verifies in its irrelevance, the substance behind the insubstantiality of someone remembering, or pretending to remember, that once they had a dog or swam in the sea and couldn’t see the bottom or how once in an airplane the moon seemed to be below them through a trick of the light.

One of my robot snake scales was just as tiny. I’d gone to Gloucester for the first time, on business. It was a boiling hot day. On the way back we stopped at a stone pub near a mill bridge over a clear stream. I walked down to it on my own. There were three full-grown trout keeping station against the current, there under the bridge. And on the bridge a tiny kitten, half their length, eyes like saucers, was trying to work-out any possible way of catching them. Or even just one of them.

Now, I don’t think these moments are tears in rain, irrelevances. Now, I think they’re all there is of life that is important. We live in a world where people decide to fly airplanes into buildings, where doctors decide to take a rifle in to work, where £1 billion of public money is used by the government to buy a majority in Parliament, for one Party’s benefit and none of this is really strange or exceptional. But the wonder of that tiny kitten long ago an old cat, that survives. And wonder is always more important. Tears in rain at least sparkle and shine. Those moments are never lost. Nothing never happened.


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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


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


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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Comfort food

Once upon a time, when I hadn’t had a massive bill I wasn’t expecting, when I was going up to London to do university interviews instead of wondering how my life would have been if I’d done the degree I knew I should and could have done, when my jeans were tight because that’s how they were supposed to be worn, when I first discovered patchouli and wore it for the same reasons then as now, the mark of the dwindling tribe, I discovered this wondrous food.

We’d always been into vegetables at home, and a series of uncles’ and aunt’s weddings proved that the recipe for bacon and egg flan was not unknown in our circles. But it wasn’t until I went up to my step-sister’s in Notting Hill, those heavy years away when ordinary people lived there and not that thankfully, given that there was plenty of unspecified trouble just waiting to happen to you if you walked around not noticing what was going on, or noticing too much of what was going on. Then I got broccolli quiche for supper.

Almost every time. When years nearer now than then I mentioned it my step-sister wasn’t best pleased. But I was by it. She always made it from scratch, when she came in from law school. Her husband usually got back earlier and we’d drink massive gin and tonics steel blue and then red wine sitting around the table, eating bread cut with a razor-sharp old knife on ancient plates off a Portobello stall, talking of the future and psychology and all the things that were to happen. Some of them did.

So tonight, unable to visit that place in the past, I made broccoli quiche. It goes like this.

The Pastry

300g self-raising flour

About the same of butter.

Mash it all up together, crumble it between your fingers, then add just enough water to make it roll into a ball that stays together. Not too much. You can’t get the water out again if you mess it up.

Wrap it in clingfilm if you’ve got some or silver foil if you haven’t and put it in the fridge for at least half an hour. I gave it a day and half because I changed my mind about what to have for dinner yesterday.


The Quiche Part

Half-boil some chopped broccoli.

Soften some finely-chopped onions, lots of garlic, at least three cloves. Do not burn any of this.

Mix up three eggs, creme fraiche or yoghurt and some grated cheese. Feta works. Anything in the fridge works. No, more than that.

Doing It

Roll out the pastry (use a floured wine bottle if you like) and put it in a heavy flan pan with a removable bottom. About £8. Trust me on this. You won’t regret it. They’re what TK Max is for.

Put little fork marks not all the way through into the pastry then bake it on really hot until it changes colour. You’ll see.

Take it out and put the onions, broccoli, garlic into the pastry shell then pour the eggy cheesy creamy mixture over it.

Bake until it sets without burning the pastry.



Then eat it, talking about Nietsche, the Channel Tunnel, Gurdjieff and if you really want to go for it, Kate Bush.

And don’t worry. You don’t have to know anything about any of them this far back into your comfort zone, just like the first time.

I’ve added another egg to this recipe because I skimped and only used two today. I didn’t use anywhere near enough cheese either. And I burned the onions and the oven was clearly too hot for the blind baking. All in all, it wasn’t quite as good as it used to be. But then, nostalgia never is.





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David Cameron and Me

A year ago David Cameron was Prime Minister. Daddy was a money man, Eton and Oxford his schools, the Queen some kind of cousin, and certainly close enough for someone to make a phone call to tell Carlton TV, which he joined as his first, very first job out of uni, that a) they’d better hire him and b) £90,000 seemed about right for a new graduate. So far, it’s true, we don’t share a lot.

But yesterday David Cameron gave a speech at De Pauw. Which you’ve almost certainly never heard of before. But I have. Just like David Cameron. I’ve been there.

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

Once upon a time in a land long ago I was teaching kids to shoot on a summer camp up in Wisconsin. Like you do. After camp ended I bought an old Chevrolet I found in a barn and drove it down to Greencastle, Indiana, chasing a red-haired cheerleader called Nancy-Jean. Not wanting to spoil a good Springsteen theme I put my work boots on and drove my Chevy across the railroad tracks every morning to go work in the sawmill, alongside a guy who claimed lineal descent from Dan’l Boone. Because that’s how we said it in the mill, with the smell of cedar and Camels all around.

Other days I got a job working construction, but not for the Johnstown Company. I worked demolition on a post-bellum mansion that had been an orphanage. Some people said it was haunted; if it is then I know where the happy ghost walks. I found the names of the people who had worked there when the place was an orphanage, twenty years before, carved into the underside of the stairs to the basement.  I discovered those big porch columns outside the front door were never marble or even stone, but made in Birmingham, England, cast out of iron. It said so on the base.

Lunch we either brown-bagged, made by Nancy-Jean’s mom in the big house with a wooden eagle over the fireplace, up by the golf course, or not often, took a trip to McDonald’s and ate a burger looking out over 150 year-old wooden houses I never got back to then or now. It wasn’t the burgers we went there for but the air-con. Summer was hot in Indiana.

But it’s snowy there now. It’s a place nothing much ever happened. Indiana never knew whether it was the northernmost state in the Confederacy or the southernmost state in the Union, which must have felt familiar to Dave.

There was a bank robbery there once in the 1930s, which might have been the Dillinger Gang’s work, but everywhere a bank got robbed people liked to claim it was one of the big name gangsters who did it. When I was there a policeman was facing jail time for shooting two men who were shooting at another police officer locked in a car boot. The problem was he’d done it with a back-up gun he shouldn’t have been carrying after the bad guys took his issue weapon.

Greencastle still has the only other V1 rocket bomb in the USA stuck on a plinth. The other one is in the Smithsonian. And it’s got a really nice old courthouse square, just like something out of a John Grisham novel. And that’s pretty much it. It’s the middle of nowhere. That’s why IBM chose it for a distribution centre. Because it was in the middle. So why De Pauw hosted a speech for David Cameron there and paid him £120,000 for it beats me. There’s a lot I don’t understand about now. Things change.

I hung up my bandana and traded the Chevy for a Saab. Nancy-Jean became a professor of story-telling, published books about swamp beasts and posted pictures of her C-section online for reasons that as Hunter Thomson used to say, were never made clear. It rather spoiled what had been fond memories of  her lower stomach area. Much the same way David Cameron’s gamble spoiled a lot of things for people not called him.

But the past is a different country. They do things differently there. And that, as they say at De Pauw and the sawmill, that ain’t no lie.

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Gloria mundi

Hemingstone Hall.
Hemingstone Hall. By the mid-1850s no Brands lived there. There were none left.

I’ve always been surprised that there was never an American sitcom with a zany heroine called Gloria Monday, but as Americans used to not do irony maybe not. One thing The Donald definitely has done is blow that stereotype away completely.

You know the quote or you’ve heard it or just saw it most of your life: sic transit gloria mundi. Thus pass worldly glories. Dust to dust. You can’t take it with you, the biggest, most profound and inescapable joke ever played on the unscrupulous, the richest and the worst. Our tomorrow is the night, as Victor Hugo put it.


I don’t know what the Brand family were like. Nobody does, now, because I think they became extinct in the early 1800s. But I know where they lived and from their memorials in a tiny Suffolk church that started-off Saxon I drove past for 15 years, perched high on its hill all alone apart from what I hope is called Church Farm next to it, The Hut, the 1920 wooden village hall a hundred yards away along the ridge.

One sunny afternoon in September I stopped and went in, just to see. Up near the altar were two memorials to the same family in the tiny village of Hemingstone. The dates seemed to tell a sad little story.

Squire John Brand’s wife was first to die, aged XXIIII, just 24, in 1792.  He followed her to their marble plaque on the wall of their church – and being the squire and his wife I’m sure they felt it was actually their church – 9 years later, in 1833, aged 63. Well, if we must then…..That means he was born in 1770. She was two years older than him.

Just two years later, in 1805, Miss Elizabeth Brand died on January XVIII, the 18th, just as the days seemed to be getting longer again. She was 16, meaning she was born in 1789. If she was Elizabeth’s daughter her mother died when she was two.


Then Miss Elizabeth, surely the other daughter with that name, on a tour of the Hebrides, died at Stirling in Scotland, in 1812, aged just 23. She had to have been born in 1789 as well. Twins? It’s hard to see how they can’t have been. All have the same marble slabs on the wall of the church, handsomely carved.

1812 was the time when Mendelsohn was just born, later writing Fingal’s Cave and spurring a whole new strain of mock-Scottish legend. In 1795 Southey and Coleridge had a joint wedding in St Mary Redcliffe, although not to each other. Wordsworth was maundering around the Lake District and fashionable young ladies of a romantic inclination did their own Grand Tour. To be able to afford it in this pre-industrial age the family must have been pretty well-off. Certainly their Jacobean-style house with its Dutch gables that may cover a much older building says so.

But there were a thousand things to die from in 1812, however rich you were. Simple infection from a cut finger could do it, 140 years before antibiotics were around. The squire lingered on, his wife dead, his son and heir dying in the womb even as his inception killed his mother, I’m guessing from the dates, the two twin girls, one named in her likeness, cold and dead as the marble that commemorates them now.


It’s a beautiful little church, high on its hill. The house was shrouded in fog when I went again, yesterday, to find the church busy and being decorated for the Christmas carol service. A welcoming little place, full of grace. And not the worst place to be peacefully remembered on a wall, not quite unknown.

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The kingdom by the sea


It looks like something from years ago around here, where I live. Because it is. The first few people I met when I moved to this forgotten part of England alarmed me. It wasn’t just the nonsense they talked about being over-run by black people. To be fair, I did actually see a single black person in the village once. The shop was run by people from Sri Lanka; I’m not sure if they were included or not.

It wasn’t just that the local district nurse told me that in her professional opinion two families in the village at least hadn’t got out of a Saturday night as often as they ought to have done, with long-term consequences.

It wasn’t just the solid Conservative vote, delivered like clockwork, by people who then spent the next four years complaining about their buses being cut,m the railway being a joke, the road being a deathtrap in summer and useless the rest of the year for getting to That Lunnon, not even 100 miles away, in anything less than two and half hours if you were lucky and knew where the cameras were. They didn’t complain about the village being one of the last places in England to get broadband, nor the fact that when we did get broadband it didn’t work very well when it rained.

Why would they want to know about the outside world anyway? This was a place where some people didn’t go to London from one decade to the next, where people said they didn’t see any need to go outside the village now their National Service was done. National Service ended in 1962. A Southwold barber proudly told me how his daughter had gone to uni and at the end of her first term showed him how to use the Tube. He was surprised how she’d got used to it; she hadn’t been across the bridge till she was 19, he told me. I thought for a second he meant the bridge into Reydon, a couple of hundred yards away. The truth, that it was the Orwell bridge, was hardly any better.

But the most alarming was the man who like many others here, regretted that he wasn’t older. Not five or ten years. Seventy or eighty years older. So he could have been what everyone here still calls The War. It must have been great, he said.

Not much happened in the village from 1939 to 1945, much the same as not much ever happened there. William Joyce called the local American squadron the Yoxford Boys, but they only rarely visited because leave was better spent in London. There was supposed to be a Home Guard Auxiliary weapons dump somewhere that people half-remembered being stocked but nobody really remembered it being de-commissioned, or really, exactly where it was. Cuckfield Hall was bombed, but the single bomb only demolished the ugly Victorian wing someone had added to it. A German Heinkel was shot to pieces over nearby Saxmundham and most of the wreckage ended-up smashing into a farm up the hill.

What he wanted to be involved in wasn’t the killing but the excitement. The thousands of Americans pouring into the area, the 3,500 living in a field at Leiston, the many more at the bomber station at Parham. The strangers at High Street, the 360-foot high Chain Home radar towers so secret there was only ever one photograph of it, taken by accident in the 1950s before it was pulled down.

The kingdom by the sea was the title of Paul Theraux’s book, published back in the early 1980s, one of the first books I bought. Later I read Jonathan Raban’s Coasting; the same year they’d both travelled around Britain in different directions, one on foot, one by boat, but where Coasting is mainly about an inner journey, Theroux’s book is about the awful, deluded insularity this place that used to be the heart of an empire still has notwithstanding that Raban’s comment on the unedifying ever-lasting spectacle of MPs clamouring for a war in a place they couldn’t point to on a map half-way around the world and the nonsense of a fleet supposedly sailing for an officially ‘unknown’ destination was like listening to a country talking in its sleep.

It doesn’t change much, except as the picture shows, every year it’s based on less and less. The dragon’s teeth anti-tank defences’s foundations are undermined; they’re slowly, year by year, tumbling down the little cliff into the sea. And across the water where once truly brave Dutch boys paddled canoes to freedom, where once, maybe, at about this very spot a U-boat might have landed a raiding party, or who else burgled the Hall the very evening Churchill’s double was visiting, the enemy has long gone.



Few memorials here now unless you know where to look for them and know what they are. A place abandoned mainly to dog walkers. The way it should be, if it was ever for anything at all.


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