A long time dying

This is the second blog post with something about dying in the title. I don’t want to do it and although one day I’m obviously not going to get out of it, that isn’t today or any day I’ve got planned. No thanks to the GPs at Leiston surgery in Suffolk, who felt that if I only bucked up and stopped moping about dying they could get on with whatever else it was they were doing when they couldn’t be arsed to give me a blood test.

If they had it would have found something I thought I had, on the basis of no evidence other than a word in my head since I was fourteen. Thrombosis. A blood clot. Mine was a rare one, in the iliac vein.

The iliac vein is a big one. It goes up your left leg and crosses over your spine, just about at the back of your belly button. Your femoral artery crosses over it in front. If you fly for more than an hour you ought to read the next bit carefully.

When I was in the womb my iliac vein grew curled around my femoral artery. When I got on an airplane and we went up through the clouds my artery expanded, as arteries do. Hugely. I’ve seen it on close circuit TV. I don’t recommend this and nor does any doctor I ever met. It gives you nightmares for a week. But I didn’t know that then. Just the way I didn’t know my own blood in my artery was crimping my iliac vein tight shut against my spine.

When blood stops flowing it clots. Mine clots fast. Cuts that other people have for a while disappear on me. A couple of seconds of pressure on a cut finger on me and it stops bleeding. Inside me, a big blood clot grew. A deep vein thrombosis.

These aren’t fun. Apart from messing you up when they’re stopped, slowing your circulation right down, the much more dramatic danger starts if they begin to move. Veins bring blood back to the heart, via the lungs. If you get a lump of blood stuffed into your lung, just like a bullet, by the time it’s stopped ripping things up you can be unhappily drowning in your own blood.

If it goes through your lung to your heart the fun just multiplies. The ‘Out” side of your heart has smaller holes than the “In” side. Your blood clot will go through your heart and jam in the exit holes, blocking the artery. Your heart is only designed to do one thing though and that’s pump. Which it will keep on doing until you die. Unfortunately, if your artery is blocked that might not be a very long time coming, because as any Mech. Eng. knows, fluid doesn’t compress. Your heart will keep pumping blood but there won’t be anywhere for it to go. Until it rips holes in your heart, after which it will go everywhere, unlike you.

But that might not happen. Your travelling thrombosis might slide right through your heart, through the artery and go on up into your brain. If you think you had problems before then you didn’t know what a problem really was. With the other stuff you die. Quite painfully and hopelessly, true, but at least quite quickly and nothing much else happens to you. A blocked artery in your brain though, that’s a whole new barrel of evil kittens.

I didn’t want a stroke. I didn’t want to have to learn how to eat with a spoon or shout abuse at the sound of my own name or have someone clean up after me more than our paid cleaner already did when she didn’t skive out of cleaning by standing very, very close to me and smiling a lot while she talked to me for two hours, an arrangement which suited us both at the time.

I didn’t want any of this. And I didn’t want to go on living the life I remembered my mother’s family living, or several of the older males anyway, sat in chairs inside in summer, sleeveless jumpers on, next to a roaring coal fire. Eleven years ago this year I knew exactly how they felt. They got fat and blocky because every time they moved their joints hurt and because they didn’t move their circulation got worse and they got fatter. And colder. And on, more and more miserably, uncomprehendingly on. I thought it was normal. I thought that’s what happens when you get older. When you have a congenital medical condition, it is. They didn’t

I thought it was normal. I thought that’s what happens when you get older. When you have a congenital medical condition, it is. They didn’t know what it was before they died uncomfortably. I do. And I find it very, very hard to forgive a GP surgery that took three years of my life because they simply couldn’t be bothered to do a blood test.

 

 

 

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When I was dying

I have to credit the amazing-notwithstanding-that-it’s-true title to a friend. She had pneumonia and because she smoked and I think because a lot of different reasons, she thought she had something else. It didn’t matter. It didn’t hurt. There was just no energy. Just every day the light burned a little lower.

I had it once, about a year and a half ago. I can’t remember anything much of that time, apart from being cold and having no energy and the light seemed strange all the time. Yellow. I wrote an entire screenplay in two weeks, the most productive two weeks I’ve ever had, despite that I was ill.

That wasn’t the time I was dying. That was eleven years ago this January past. The fact that I didn’t die had nothing to do with the incompetence, penny pinching and venality of the GPs at Leiston surgery in Suffolk and everything to do with the genius of my surgeons at Ispwich General, which isn’t a phrase I thought I’d ever be using.

I knew something was wrong. I felt old and cold and slow all the time. My joints hurt and there was something wrong with my feet. For three whole years it got worse, until I was wearing a sweater deep into the summer and two sweaters and the heating on at my desk in September. I just thought it was what happened as you got older. The vomiting was unusual, I thought. Every so often, maybe every three or five or seven weeks or so, I’d be hit with a pain inside me so huge that it dropped me to my knees vomiting. Ten minutes later I was fine. Shaken, but fine. I thought for a while I might be losing my mind. It made no sense.

I went to the doctor. The word thrombosis had been going through my head for years and I don’t know why to this day. Nobody in my family had ever had one, to my knowledge. I was just over forty. I was suddenly flying long-haul quite a bit, but I had my stupid flight socks and drank water and did all the exercises you’re told to. And still I’d wake up five miles high and know I was dying. A flight from Miami to Limassol via London in Business Class was one of the worst of my life. No amount of free champagne and luxury bedding got rid of the feeling that the sand was running out and most of it was already gone.

The first doctor felt my calves, because in Suffolk that’s apparently how you look for a thrombosis. He didn’t find one but said sometimes doctors never find out what’s wrong with people. Next please.

I tried another doctor after he suddenly retired with a mental illness. This one was a female army doctor. Nothing wrong with you if you can cycle twenty miles, I was told. Buck up.

But I didn’t. The next GP decided to test for testicular cancer. It’s the fashion, apparently. If you’re under 25 anyway. And the doctor gets a little sub for testing for it. Flattering though it was to be mistaken for a slip of a lad albeit one with wonky balls, that still didn’t explain the cold, the joint pain, the vomiting. Who cares? Next please.

By the third December I thought my life had gone on quite long enough if it was going to go on like this. I remember cycling out on an errand and taking a short cut back across a field. I wasn’t sure where I was exactly, the light was fading, my fet were soaked and cold and my ankles hurt and I did not want any more of this. I stopped in the middle of the field for a while, but moved on again. I didn’t want to stay in the field. I didn’t want to be anywhere.

A few days later we went to Portugal. It was nothing. I was cold, sick, hurting and felt alone, the way I felt almost all of that time, which was hard on the person who was there with me throughout. When we got back I drove us to Wales to stay in a cottage with relatives. I recall the drive through the dark. I remember walking on a wet beach. I remember driving back and being dropped to my knees with pain tearing me apart in a car park, somewhere I will never see again. And as always, ten minutes later the pain had gone. Just the memory of it stayed.

A few days after we got back the nightmares started. I got practically no rest for three nights. The fourth night I woke from a nightmare to go to the bathroom and found my left leg hurt incredibly as soon as it touched the floor. I thought I must have been lying oddly. I thought it would be ok.

When I woke in the morning it still hurt. More. My left leg was about a third bigger than my right leg and the colour of a raspberry. My partner called the doctor, the same doctor who had been insisting there was nothing wrong and it was probably all in my head. Even he had to admit there was a problem now.

I went to hospital by taxi because it was quicker than getting an ambulance out to me in the remote corner of the world I live in. The boy doctor in Casualty was scared witless. He arranged a scan immediately, the thing I’d been asking my rubbish GPs for, because I thought I had DVT – Deep Vein Thrombosis. The boy doctor told me my situation was, as he put it quietly, ‘grave.’ I had been telling his colleagues that for three years.

There was a simple blood test that diagnosed DVT at the time. It cost 80p to administer, but the reason Leiston surgery said they didn’t want to use it was because it sometimes gave false positives. In other words, it told some people they had DVT when they didn’t. If that happened they’d have an ultrasound scan, the kind I was having now.

It turned out I didn’t have a DVT. I had either three Guinness Book of Records DVTs or five massive DVTs. Either way they couldn’t really work out how I wasn’t dead. I didn’t say I’d been there and got the T-shirt. It just felt like that anyway.

I was lucky to find a brilliant surgeon on my ward who gave me a choce: join my experiment or go on Warfarin/Couperin for the rest of your life. Which he said would probably be about ten years because after that on Warfarin you’re quite likely to uncontrollably haemorrhage one day. No choice.

The tale of how I got stented can wait for another day.  It didn’t hurt then and unless I get really tired, or get a bad cold, or both, as now, it doesn’t hurt at all. When I have a cold and get tired it hurts in a way painkillers won’t even touch. But at least I’m not dying now. Although, like my friend, I remember when I was.

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I read it in a magazine

He’s got electric boots, a mohair suit. I know, I read it in a magazine.

A long, long time ago, notwithstanding I can still remember how that music made me smile, I was a bit hipNhappening. I’d cut my own hair in a manner which my best friend found alarming. I had a sheepskin coat and black needle cords and a blue stripey collarless shirt and John Lennon glasses and one of those grey and brown and black sweaters you used to be able to get from head shops when there were any, back in the days when they didn’t so much sell patchouli in every shop in Bath as spray it out of crop-duster planes on continuous low passes over Walcot Street. Talkin’ bout a revolution? Baby, I was there.

I’m sorry, where was I? Feeding the enemy, as I recall. Once upon a time there was a thing called the wine lake and another thing called the butter mountain. Even then, a news story wasn’t a proper news story unless a suitably babyish name could be slapped on something important, life-changing and complex, so people didn’t have to think too hard about it.

The EU had decided to subsidise the British farmers who voted to leave it last year by buying-up their butter to keep the price at a respectable level. In one of the inherent problems of a supply economy, if there’s too much of something the price goes down. And down. And down. And people starve. The EU guaranteed to buy farmers’ butter. So farmers don’t starve. Brilliant, said farmers. I think next year we’ll turn over all our milk production to butter. But we’ve got too much butter, said the EU. Your problem, said the farmers. Where’s our subsidy?

And so it continued for a while. Up to a point. But then some odd things happened. In pretty much the same breath we were told the evil totally reprehensible Soviet Union, President Reagan’s ‘evil empire’ had invaded Afghanistan and that was a Bad Thing. It’s only good when we do it, and then we ‘help,’ not ‘invade.’ Everyone knows that.

At almost exactly the same time we were told the problem of the butter mountain had been solved; we’d flogged it to the USSR for about 47p. Job done.

Which, as I declaimed loudly in the Rose & Crown in Trowbridge of a Saturday night to anyone who would listen and many people who wouldn’t, was what this song was about. Listen. No, listen. Then hear the ping of my brass Zippo as I light a Camel. Hawken to the sound too, of scratching as my jumper moults itchily.

Naturally, with a Prime Minister selling weapons to the same regime which is the biggest exporter of terrorsim aimed at the UK, nothing like that could happen now. These days we do guns, not butter.

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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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Extra time

Time terrifies some people. A friend was convinced that she wouldn’t outlive her mother. Given that her mother was beheaded in a tragically stupid car crash rather than fading away in a care home, this worried her quite a lot. She was the front seat passenger. On a Highland road miles from anywhere she popped off her seatbelt to take her jumper off. At that exact moment a car came around the corner ahead on the wrong side of the road. She was not an old woman.

My friend continues to outlive her. And I realised, looking for paperwork about something else yesterday, that I’d outlived my father by more than two years, when I found the copy of his death certificate I’d obtained to clear up a mystery. In fact it wasn’t much of a mystery, just the bullshit combination of lies and collaboration that defines abusive relationships. My father, and after he left we were never told otherwise, said he was born in Australia. My mother repeated this to us as children, modifying this later to ‘nobody knows where he was born.’ In 1990 I went to Somerset House where then all the records of births, marriages and deaths were kept. It took me less than an hour of that sunny afternoon to find out he’d been born in Orpington, half a world away from billabongs and kangaroos, tied down or otherwise.

There were two lies there, then. Where he was born and that nobody knows. And another, by omission, that some people were happy enough to accept this fiction and tell themselves and anyone else who would listen that the truth was impossible, the truth could not be found.

But it could.

My fathers’ influence was disruptive, even after he was dead. Immediately after he was dead he smashed-up someone else’s car, which sounds quite an achievement; less so when you read on the death certificate that he had a heart attack at the wheel.

I wasn’t invited to the funeral. I don’t know where he was buried, nor even if he was. There is so much to uncover that I don’t know where to start.

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These signs shall follow them

Everyone I know has got one. I mean, not everyone I’ve ever met, but everyone who I can just pitch up at their house and be welcome without phoning, everyone I recognise as my tribe, they’ve all got one.

It’s not a Barbour. That’s pretty much just me these days, and mine’s not a traditional wax kind that newborn lambs have died on, but a modern techno-fabric one you can stick in a washing machine. Nor RayBans, not any more anyway. Persol do the job better these days for looks, and Vuarnet for optical quality, more so on a dull day.

No, the real signifier, the thing that makes you go mmmm, that’s got to be a Roberts solar-powered digital radio. Even though they’re pretty rubbish really, especially for the price.

To be fair, they’ve got a nice big speaker inside, so they don’t sound like a wasp in a tin or someone making a tune by blowing through a comb with tissue paper over it, if that’s still a thing. The big idea though is that we can show how eco-friendly we all are by…not buying batteries! Impressed yet? We hardly ever burn orang-utangs, even by proxy, being really careful to scan the ingredients of anything and if it says palm oil emphatically put it back on the Waitrose shelf, sometimes even muttering ‘Palm oil – you’ve GOT to be joking.’ I’ve pretty much managed to stop pronouncing it ‘jaking’ these days too. That’s how progressive I am. That and spending seventy quid on a radio that however long you get the sun to charge it gives you about 90 minutes of Radio 4 Extra, top whack.

As Mark put it, borrowing Hunter Thompson’s habit of quoting the Bible (Mark 16:17-18 in fact and look, I’ve been to his house ok? When he was alive. Very disappointing actually, but anyway) although we’ve pretty much stopped drinking any deadly thing, mostly, we shall cast out devils, we shall speak with new tongues. We might, one day, get a radio that you can actually listen to without a plug, too.

 

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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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Fighting them on the beaches

“… in the whole course of the war there was no story which gave me so much trouble as this one of the attempted German invasion, flaming oil on the water and 30,000 burned Germans.”[67

I went to Studland Bay once, by accident, a long time ago. We were working, it was late and far too far to drive back. It was late in the season, or maybe it was early – either way, there weren’t many people about. It had to be eighteen years ago now. I remember it well though.

We found a hotel perched out on a headland overlooking the Bay. After breakfast I took a walk in the soggy garden and wandered down to a spot where I could see the sweep of the beach. I stumbled over something, but I didn’t know how important it would become, then.

It was a concrete bunker, left over from the war. Unusually, this one was a long corridor of a shelter, painted in green camouflage. It’s probably still there. They’re hard to get rid of. I went inside. Fifty years before, a man with a camera had been there too. I didn’t know that then. He took the picture you can see at the top of this screen; a sea of flame. A barrage. A fougasse.

I don’t know why this story became so closely associated with Shingle Street, over 250 miles away from Studland, in Suffolk. Something happened there, although what, we’ll probably never know.  Even the BBC only has the version not kept secret. But anything connected with military compulsory purchase is subject to a hundred-year rule, to protect people’s privacy. It could be that’s all it’s about.

I don’t know. I don’t even have a theory. I do know that as a child I was haunted by a deep fear that the sky would catch fire; a fear of nuclear war conflated with descriptions of sunsets. I think that’s the attraction of the Shingle Street story I’ve written a version of as a screenplay. We like to scare ourselves.

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