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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

 

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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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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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They don’t tell you

I started drinking beetroot juice a while ago.

At first I hated the taste, but it’s grown on me. Beetroot juice with a bit of ginger in it is even better. It’s meant to be fabulously good for you. It fights free radicals, which sounds like it’s a bad thing, except free radicals aren’t people like Will Self or of course, me, but stuff that acts like rust on your skin, oxidising it so I’d have to spend much more on moisturiser and being generally vain than I already do. And I don’t at this point, actually want to talk about what happened in June with the sales girl in Bond Street on a really hot day. It was expensive though. Like,

Like, RARELY...

So, beetroot juice, which oddly you never find in Poundland or anywhere at much under £2.50 a litre. Except oddly this week in Saxmundham Tesco. Now to be fair, I hardly ever go there. But I was feeling thrifty and economical (it has to happen once a year, after all. Law of averages) and I was price comparing between there and the Waitrose literally across the road.

Tesco won on price, with organic beetroot juice from the same local maker nearly 70p a litre cheaper than Waitrose. I suspect because nobody in Tesco buys organic beetroot juice and they were trying to get rid of it in favour of stuff people actually do give their cash for.

 

But they don’t tell you the thing about beetroot juice. Nobody does.

You drink it. Half a pint of it. It’s good for you. If you don’t breathe at the same time it’s actually an ok taste. (No, I don’t know how that works). You feel you’ve drunk something that’s going to make life better, make your teeth whiter, make you feel like someone in a cornflakes ad on TV 20 years ago. Almost refreshed. You sort-of spring out of bed, just avoiding stepping on the belt buckle on your jeans you dropped on the floor because you didn’t have company. You go to the bathroom and do the things everyone always does. And then you think:

OMG I’M GOING TO BE DEAD IN THREE DAYS!!!!

Because what they don’t tell you, the thing they don’t put a BIG warning about on the bottle is this: drinking half a pint of beetroot jiuce turns your urine scarlet.

It’s totally harmless. Except it doesn’t look that way. And you can’t mention it to anybody. What do you say?

“You know that thing with your best friend I didn’t tell you about, look, I’m going to be dead soon.”

“You know that time I was mean to you about – look, I’m going to be dead soon.”

“You know that £5 I owe you, look, I’m going to be dead soon.”

“You know how I’ve always fancied your wife, look, I’m going to be dead soon.”

And luckily, by the time you’ve not said any of these things, you’ve Googled it. But it’s still worrying. A real, serious, sick in your stomach, maths test in the morning bloody red bleeding worry.

And I wish they’d just TELL you…….

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Into the light

Now I’m older I can admit it.

Now I’m older I can realise there actually is a problem.

It’s not me. And it’s not my fault.

No amount of ‘snapping out of it,’ ‘stopping feeling so sorry for myself,’ no ‘up at the corners’ is ever going to change it. Only one thing does. The thing I don’t want to do. That’s part of it, somehow.

It’s the light at this time of year. It wrecks me. Light seeking light might light of light beguile, but when there isn’t any, you’re stuffed, Mr Shakespeare. And some, not a lot at all, but some of your stuff was frankly bollocks. Like this quote, for example.

It makes me keep the lights off in doors, which makes it ten times worse. I have no idea why I do that. I have to stop myself doing it, consciously, and turn on lights. But I know I don’t want to. I have lights all over the house. A massive silver Anglepoise that would sear the retinas of a German gynaecologist. But I don’t want to put it on. Or any of them. I want to cave. It’s the light.

It makes me clumsy and disorganised. I’ve hurt my left hand five separate times today, doing simple things that got out of hand. My knuckles are cut where a spanner slipped; sorer because of the bedstead and cupboard and something else I hit the same hand on. I wanted to go out tonight, but because of this I think it’s safer to stay at home. I went out this morning. I need to go out tomorrow. I need to do this and I know I need to do this. It’s just that I don’t want to. Because of the light.

It makes me tired all the time. By four in the afternoon I’m ready to just sit on the sofa, because it’s too early to go to bed. So I watch films or read or play my guitar or all of these and then it’s half-past one in the morning and the next day is going to be more difficult. And the next.

It’s the light. And there’s nothing I can do to change it.

I’ve got one of those Seriously Affected Dysfunction lamps, or whatever they call them. That actually helps. Except it also floods the entire room (well, dur!!!) with ghastly rays brighter than a thousand suns, which doesn’t make for a relaxing evening. And because my sleep is shot what I feel I need is a relaxing evening. And morning. And lunchtime.

It makes me stay indoors when I need to be out in what light there is. It’s not helped by the fact that I haven’t any more students to teach this year. If I had to go out, get in the car, drive to the school and stand-up on my hind legs telling people they can do things they don’t think they can it would be different. I could do that. Not doing it doesn’t help.

In two weeks it will start to get better. All I have to do is get through to the 21st and suddenly and faster and faster the evenings will get lighter, the days longer until by the end of freezing January it will be back to tolerable light. I’ll start going to walks again without feeling it’s a penance.

I can get through. I have my lamp. I have wonderful, caring friends who recognise what’s happening and text me to say ‘turn your lamp on.’ I am so lucky with that.

I still have to deal with it. But at least these days I know it’s not me.

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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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Days are hastening on

In not even three weeks now it’s going to be Christmas. Somehow. Just as I’d bought a new scarf to replace the brilliant one I found maybe five years ago, hanging on the door of a pub where it had been for more than three months, the one a Scottish girlfriend loathed on the grounds, big, triangular, gold, red and brocade with tassels on it as it was that ‘THAT’S A WIMMIN’s SKERF!’

Somehow, the words ‘Aye, wittabootut?’ didn’t seem to calm things down at all. Rather the opposite, in fact.

I’d got my fingerless gloves out of the drawer this morning, pausing once more to regret not buying those elk-skin ones in that shop in Dam Square must have been fifteen winters back, but they were about 150 euros so there were reasons.

scan-9-version-2But more than that, the last few days I’ve been waking up thinking it’s Christmas. The first time was because I’d left the heating on and being British and of a certain age and type of person who just does and doesn’t do certain things, and I suspect, probably from not having had children, I turn the heating off about an hour before going to bed. Unless, well, you know. If I have guests who might feel the cold, as it were.

The second because I’d lit some scented candles because I’d forgotten to take the bin out after making a fish thing and it was that or set light to the house and walk away from the smell.

But the rest, I don’t know. I’ve been teaching, the last intake of students were the best and worst I’ve ever had, their behaviour got so bad that my class was actually moved so we didn’t disturb other classes and I came home that day feeling I had to either stop teaching forever and do something else or sort out what was going wrong that evening. I did the second, to the extent that for the rest of their course they worked solidly, hard, well and as near as makes no difference, in silence except when they should have been talking.

And then it stopped. No more students this term. No more commute. And no teachers, books, Alice Cooper or evening walks around a crisply cold Christmas Fair in the reflected glow of floodlit a Norman tower solidly brooding the centuries into millennia.

It makes me think of Christmas holidays years ago, at school and just after, when everyone I knew drove out in a cavalcade of cars and motorcycles people pretend are classics now to a pub that’s become someone’s house, deep in the fields, to sit under gas space heaters in sub-zero temperatures, marvelling at each other’s new coats and stories and boots and leg warmers and jeans and the certain knowledge that as Chris Rea put it, in so many ways, like the time a girl said no, don’t open this gate down a lane you think is a shortcut, just no. A lane that turned out to lead to an unfenced quarry late one night; past here there was no place to go.

And everything, as Ben said.

I wake up every morning right now, thinking it’s then. Maybe I’m getting old. Maybe it’s because people are showing some interest unexpectedly in Not Your Heart Away again. Maybe it’s because I’m writing again, properly, doing the thing I should always have done.

I don’t know. But I like this feeling, these ever-circling years on the wing.

 

 

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Scavenging

Because I never had much money when I first started riding motorcycles and driving cars; because once when I was a student I took a car to a garage and the brakes failed leaving (I mean none. At all. After it had just gone for its MoT. In Bath, at a garage renowned for the foxiness of the mechanics’ girlfriends if not the mechanics’ other manual skills); because another garage charged me a couple of hundred pounds i didn’t have to not fix something I fixed myself using a £10 part from a scrapyard, I always at least try to fix things that go wrong with my vehicles. IMG_0218

Sometimes of course, you just can’t. I never even tried to fiddle about with the really seriously annoying fault on the Mercedes I had, that would just shut all its systems down, apparently for good, if you left a window open when you locked it. Everything. Nothing. Zilch. Zip. Under the bonnet everything was covered in plastic shields to stop you even thinking about having a look, so I left that.

This year though, I’ve got an old Saab convertible I’m strangely fond of. It suits me. And like apparently a lot of Saabs of that time, the cutesy information display that tells you how laughably few miles you’re getting to the gallon if you use the accelerator the way the Garett turbo likes you to, never worked properly since I got it. Given that it’s an older car and this was an electrical thing to do with pixels, I assumed it was going to cost hundreds, wasn’t worth doing and was best left well alone.

So obviously sooner or later I had a go at fixing it.  Equally obviously, it didn’t work. You pry the display out of the walnut dashboard with an old British Army REME pocketknife (assuming your pockets are the same size as King Kong’s) which has a nice thin and wide flat blade, making it ideal for this and yes, that’s why it lives in the glove box officer, what about it? Then you pull the box out, go into the kitchen, switch off the radio because it’s too distracting and fit a new data cable.  Clean all the glue off the contacts with a wooden lolly stick and meths. Carefully tape the contacts on the cable onto the metal contacts they need to mate up with exactly.

Which does nothing. So order a new data cable joined to a new screen. Which leaves you with a big line of no pixels across the screen worse than before. So give up and watch the instruction video on YouTube.

And realise that someone, at some point, had a go at doing this before. And left two screws out of the reassembly. Which means that however new the parts, if they aren’t joining up then it’s not going to work properly. Which is where my box of parts came in.

This is a plastic box full of stuff so odd and useless even I’ve thought of chucking it. But where else would I have found two screws just exactly and completely the perfect fit for the job? Not in B&Q or Halfords, that’s for certain.

So given that you don’t know what you got till it’s gone, nor when it’ll come in handy, the box stays. Along with the other five. I’ve got a double gallery lamp standard to fix, after all.

 

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Among the ruined cities

 

 

Thomas Mair in a hat, who obviously had nothing to do with Britain First.
Thomas Mair in a hat, who obviously had nothing to do with Britain First.

Back in June a man called Thomas Mair shot MP Jo Cox.  He denies murder and everything else he’s been charged with, despite there being a dead woman, lots of witnesses and his words to the effect that ‘it’s me you’re looking for’ when he was arrested.

Witnesses  say he was screaming ‘Britain First,’ a fact that not one single MP has felt it necessary to mention let alone condemn. Just in case anyone was in any doubt that the attack was politically motived, in court Mr Mair announced that he was ‘a political activist.’

Today’s revelation in court was that Thomas Mair had quite a collection of books about Nazism. Which gave me pause for thought, because between you, me and the internet, so do I.

Last year I finally wrote a screenplay called Janni Schenk, a story about a very normal boy who had the misfortune to be born in Germany in 1930. I’d heard the story at first hand from the old man I always thought of as Janni, although that wasn’t his real name; now I very much doubt I’ll ever know what his real name was.

I heard the story about 20 years ago. He was old then. I didn’t know how to write it. I’m not sure I do now, but I gave it a go after 17 years of thinking I couldn’t do it. For two years I read everything I could find about then and there. I knew a German girl but despite her describing herself as ‘the third generation of the war’ naturally she didn’t have any first-hand knowledge; neither did her parents.

I read about what people ate, the clubs they joined, the clothes they wore, all of which I thought was probably more important than what battles were fought. Each week the shelf grew. Another week, another book with a hakencruz on the spine on the bookshelf.

It wasn’t something I was very happy about but I couldn’t see any other way to find out the things I needed to know. I don’t have any other Nazi stuff, apart from a cap I found for pennies that I needed for a photo-shoot.

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                                         Shot last year, not 71 years ago. And only with a camera.

Admittedly, I do have a stabby German knife my uncle gave me when I was fourteen. He thought it was a “Commando” dagger but it was far more interesting as well as older. Rather than being the Birmingham-made stilletto my uncle presumed, it turned out to be a recognised model of First War German trench knife instead. Nothing whatsoever to do with Nazism.

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I beleive

I was reading about RAF Watton. There’s a website, where people who remember the base like to write the things they remembered about it. It was the same as any other base, full of people uprooted out of their lives, ordinary people doing extraordinary things, usually not by choice.

One entry was this:

“one of the pilots who did not return that night had been in the habit of taking his dog, a golden Labrador, on missions. But the C.O. stopped it. The dog used to lie up on the airfield, waiting for him to come back. On this occasion, it lay up there for about four days. It refused water, and food. Then one evening, approaching dusk, a plane flew low over the airfield, and the officer in charge of the guns alerted the crew and gave the order to fire. Suddenly the dog started jumping up and down and barking in excitement. The officer in charge had the sense to tell the gunners to hold their fire. Somehow the Labrador had recognised that his owner was flying the plane. If the dog had not been left behind, they could have been killed as they returned. A few of the men who were shot down had parachuted out of their planes and were still fit to fly. They managed to commandeer planes to get them home, and some had landed at other airfields. We were so glad to welcome them back.”

I used to do a lot of travelling. I remembered a day when I really didn’t know when I’d be back at all, because of the three trains and a taxi I had to get to get from the airport to home.

My old cat knew though. He went to the front door at about the time my plane landed, 120 miles away. He stayed there until I got in the door. Maybe the dog on the airfield saw his owner through the windscreen in the dusk. Maybe. Maybe my old cat just wanted to sit by the door, although he never did at any other time except when this happened on another trip.

But 300 years ago nobody knew what electricty was, either.

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