Undead babies

Ok, I stole the title from Martin Amis. Me and Marty, we’re like that, you know (elaborately mimes two clenched hands)? But for all that, this actually happened. I didn’t dream it. And I have absolutely no explanation for it. It happened, as many of the most memorable things in my life, in Dorset. Specifically in Lyme Regis, or even more specifically, outside it in the Undercliff. Magical though it is, you can’t see much in there because it’s a ravine, so all the lovely seascapes you came there for are invisible most of the time, so we planned our walk to do both: walk out along the beach, then when we’d got fed-up falling over slippery rocks in the wrong shoes, cut up one of the streams leading off the cliff, find the Undercliff path and go home that way, preferably via the Volunteer.

Pond-hopping along the beach seemed hard work back then and I was really pleased to find it was just as hard when I went back last April, after far too long away. New boots, new coat, new someone I was with that day, but the same Lyme magic, the same sun sparkling off the blue water, the same smell of expectation and hope. It’s just a place that makes me happy, for all its oddness. And what happened was more than a bit odd.

We found some fossils because you can’t avoid it, but most of them, as always, are about three feet across and cemented into rocks that must weigh about a hundredweight so no point even trying to take them home, apart from the fact that I know zip about fossils and I never worked out what you’re actually supposed to do with them. It was Easter, but it’s Lyme, where the sun shines and we didn’t know much about the tides. We learned about them later in our lives and very nearly ended them, but that’s another story for another time.

We knew all the streams flowed down things called chines, little valleys which if they weren’t actually paths would let us scramble up into the Undercliff and find the path. Some of it was literally a scramble, so we did. About half-way up we met a group of people coming down.

It wasn’t imagination but they looked like something out of a Lidl advertisement: clean, long-limbed, Tuetonically athletic and casually blond. About seven of them, aged from late twenties to early sixties. We all said hello. From the back of their group, up the hill, they were passing things down to the bottom and being too far apart they were throwing the things to each other like rugby players cheating. Small packs, a blanket roll. Something else.

As it went past me I had a strange thought. When they’d gone I talked to my friend and asked her what the people had been throwing down to each other, passed by a six or ten foot throw, one to the other. She looked at me, worried. She asked me what I thought they’d been throwing, slightly disturbed, in that English oh-silly-me-it-couldn’t-possibly-be-but-I-thought way that people do when they’re actually seriously worried and don’t want to scare the person they’re talking to.

What we thought one of the things they were throwing, happily, confidently and practiced, down the cliff, one to another, was a baby. Even now, twenty years on, we’re both still sure it was.

 

 

 

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My happy space

I don’t know when I found it. Maybe when I was small, but although I can remember Weymouth and Weston-super-Mare and Clevedon I don’t have any memory of Lyme Regis. Geography field trips went there from school, but I didn’t do Geography A Level, so that wasn’t it either.

I think it was the French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowles’ masterpiece that I read when I was 20. I remember reading it and re-reading it, then The Magus, and Daniel Martin, of course the car-crash can’t-not-look-at-it The Collector, A Maggot and the Ivory Tower and Mantissa. I think the French L’s W did it.

The Collector was a hard act to follow and it rocketed Fowles from ‘Who?” to definitive Sixties Writer with his beard and his Guernsey and bluntly, his gut, according to the sleeve notes pictures. Jealous, me? Damn right. He got out of town and high-tailed it to the kind of place you only found on BBC2 in those days, Lyme Regis, a half-forgotten slice of Georgiana on the instep of the Isles. No railway went there since Dr Beeching sorted that out, but the viaduct is still there.

I used to go there with a friend when she’d bought Thomas Hardy’s sister’s schoolhouse, almost by accident. It was about an hour away. We went there by 2CV, by Harley-Davidson, by company cars and always loved it, each time for the past 30 years and more now. And I still can’t say exactly why I love this place so much. It’s not just the fact it has its own theatre, or the the Undercliff. It’s certainly not the shade of John Fowles, given that nothing of his came close to the FLW, certainly not the bizarre casting of Meryl Streep in the movie. I mean, seriously? Pinter’s screenplay was good, but A Maggot was a bit of showing-off, the Ivory Tower pointless so far as I could see and Mantissa simply priggish as well as showing-off in the manner of later Ian McEwan, all look-how-much-research-I-done as he splurges it all over every single page of the book, pretending to be a lawyer or a neurosurgeon or a man who does something boring with solar panels. Fowles did the same with psychiatry in Mantissa but he did a much worse thing. He wrote every character with exactly the same vocabulary.

But enough of John Fowles. He’s dead anyway. Next I’ll tell you why the Undercliff is one fo the few places you can get killed going for a walk; how I very nearly did when walking in the other direction towards Charmouth; and, dear reader (no, Jane Austen hated Lyme. Strange woman), the strange tale of the baby hurled down the ravine and the Glade of Lounging Homosexuals.

All will be revealed (as it certainly wasn’t by the rather select walking club) but tomorrow, not today.

 

 

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Psst….. Yeah, you……

No posts for months. Two months, in fact, the longest I’ve ever gone without posting. I’d lost my passwords and had a major broadband meltdown at home.

Work – paid-for work anyway – has been various, from supply teaching to language teaching to teaching on a film set, which mostly involves eating free cake in a trailer on your own. In all of these cases, broadband access has been well, variable is probably the fairest description.

My home broadband just broke. I spent weeks trying to fix it but like the nonsense of O2’s mobile phone signal (if that’s not too strong a word for it) in my particular rural area on the top of a hill on the edge of a debateably haunted airfield, it didn’t really happen. So I’m waiting until civilisation returns on 3rd January, when a new provider comes to re-connect me to real life.

That and losing my passwords. You see, if I’d kept them all the same like any normal person there wouldn’t have been a problem. Just that when you’re out of the habit of doing something you forget exactly what you used to do automatically. Matron.

But back now, anyway.

And yes, I missed you too. Happy Christmas one and all.

 

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False shows and seemings

For the past three weeks I’ve been working on a film set. I could tell you more about the film but I’d have to kill you and more importantly, I wouldn’t work on one again. So you’ll have to wait and see about that.

What was impressed upon me was a) how much standing around there is, watching events over which you have no control whatsoever and b) how artificial story-telling actually is.

Inconsistencies in film have always annoyed me. I loved Anthropoid, the story of how two Czech agents were dropped back into their own country by SOE to try to assassinate Heydrich. Which they accidentally managed to do in real life, thanks to nobody being able to get hold of penicillin at the time. It was a great film, tense, exciting, even right up to the end, despite knowing all too sadly how it was going to end (Non-Spoiler Alert: They Get Killed. Along with about 2,000 presumably less photogenic people, when the SS predictably threw a strop after Hitler’s best mate got offed in the street).

But there was this Thing. More a McMuffin than a McGuffin, a silly, irritating detail that bugged me watching it and bugs me now. The two agents parachute in. They land and go to a house. It’s not what you’d call a safe house. There’s a fight. There wasn’t a fight. That’s not what really irritated me. One of the people in the house runs away. The agents let him. That wasn’t what really irritated me either. They steal a truck and drive it to Prague.

So far, this mission is not going well, fairly obviously. They’ve been spotted and someone knows exactly where and when they dropped into enemy territory. You can guarantee he’s going straight to the Gestapo, because there’s been a fight and there’s the detail of a dead body to account for if he doesn’t. So far, so rubbish.

They drive the truck straight into the middle of Prague to their safe house. Just to make sure everyone thinks they’re stupid they leave it in the street with the lights on.

Come on. You don’t even do that going to Tesco, let alone if you’re a spy on a secret assassination mission.

But in films you do, apparently. It conveys urgency.

I went on set in the next scene, just to see what it was like. Fiction. A wonderful thing. An old truck repair building had been kitted out as a hospital. It was a future dystopian sci-fi, and the fact that no hospital has had iron beds like those for the past fifty years has nothing to do with anything. That’s what dystopia looks like, so get used to it.

The smoke bothered me. I couldn’t see where it was coming from so I told the Assistant Director, quietly, so as not to cause a panic, but something was obviously about to go on fire. I felt like Corporal Jones when I was told no, it’s smoke from a smoke machine. It lends depth. It gives the pictures a texture and solidity that otherwise they’d lack. Which makes some kind of sense once you know about it.

They didn’t tell me about Film Rope™ though.

I thought I was going to be able to help when the call went out for rope. The actress had to walk down to the beach and find a boat tied up at the waters edge.

We have water. A boat. An actress. But nothing, somehow, to tie it up with. I found this quite hard to believe, given there’s a six knot tide that rips down the river there and a boat that isn’t tied up isn’t going to be there for very long.

“It’s ok, I’ve got some rope. You can borrow it if you like. In the boot of my car.”

For reasons that were never made clear, my car gets a lot of attention on set. The producer assumed it belonged to someone from the BFI meaning that the set was being inspected. Someone else wants to buy it, even though I hadn’t actually thought of selling it. It’s just a nice old convertible Saab that people assume I’ve had since it was new, so long ago that it’s on the verge of officially making the career transition from Old Car to Classic. I got the new rope I’d bought for my boat out of the car.

OMG! You hero! You saviour! You…… WHAT IS THIS?

Well, it’s rope.

No it’s not.

Er, honestly it is.

It’s the wrong stuff.

It’s blue polypropelene rope. It’s not the best, but it’s more than adequate for tying a dinghy up for half an hour. How big is this boat, anyway?

Not the point, apparently. It’s not Film Rope™.

FilmRope™ is hemp. It’s dark sandy coloured. It’s hairy. Blue poly rope isn’t any of those things. It doesn’t look like FilmRope™.

I say: But this is a future dystopian sci-fi film. Nobody uses hemp rope now, let alone in the future.

And that isn’t the point. They do in films. FilmRope™ is the way rope looks then, now and in the dystopian future, as it was in the beginning, as it is now and as it will be for ever and ever amen. It’s fillums, innit? That’s what rope looks like, not what rope is. Everyone knows that.

We spent a happy afternoon trailling around Woodbridge before we found sisal rope, cheaper than hemp at a modest 85p per metre. It looks like hemp. It looks like FilmRope™.

And in a film, that’s all that matters.

 

 

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The end of the world

In an adult life that has been for the most part not boring, it should have come as small surprise that I’d be working at the end of the world this week. Or rather, where the end of the world would have started and very nearly did.

I’m teaching a ten year-old actress who turned out not at all to be the bratty monster the words “ten year-old actress” suggested before I met her. If you’re under 16 and out of school you have to have a minimum of three hours of tuition each day. Or you’re not allowed on set. And in this case, given she has a key role, no film.

It struck me that my usual panoply of George Formby-based vocabulary learning might possibly not be entirely appropriate, great for giving Italian nineteen year-olds a thorough grounding in 1930s smut but with entirely forseeable problems here. I bought some Key Stage Two books. I bought some maths puzzles that were so horrible I couldn’t do them. I mean, I designed a formula-based software application, so I’m not exactly dense when it comes to maths, but I can’t do hardly any of the problems in that book.

Even Al the trusty green fluffy alligator that hormone-pumped Continental youths fight over didn’t appear to be making his normal contribution. I did what I usually forget to do when I have a problem. I went for a walk.

This old airbase is haunted. The last base commander said so. On night shifts his guards at the main gate would intercept some hapless pilot who didn’t have his papers and seemed disconnected from things. They’d keep him there while someone who should be able to vouch for him came on down to pick him up. And when they got there the airman had gone, vanished, disappeared to wherever he’d come from, where no-one saw him go. This was where the Rendlesham Forest UFO sighting happened, whatever that was. This was where in WWII a German aircraft crew came in, made a perfect landing, taxi-ed neatly off the runway, switched off and only realised they actually weren’t five minutes from their end-of-flight debriefing when people pointed guns at them. Ooops.

When I went for a walk the base was haunted by deer, a small herd that had managed to get its young one side of the perimeter fence and the rest of the herd the other, both groups running away from the gate long left open that had split them up.  I found machine-gun posts, looking new and clean and free from graffittee but surrounded by new growth pines planted since the airforce left in 1992, without a single footprint marking the sand that had crept in to cover their floors. Nobody has been here for years.

Parts of the base are empty. The decrepit sentinels of rusting watchtowers overlook workshops re-purposed as a hospital film set. A small reservoir oddly sports a dozen Georgian cannon, resting silently in a foot of clear water. And the planes are still here. An aviation restoration company shares the space with the deer, bringing in airframes that its hard to see could ever possibly fly anywhere or be any use to anyone except as film props.

Deception is something Suffolk has done before though. Patton’s fake decoy army was stationed all over this area too, the inflatable tanks and cardboard huts and plywood planes convincing the German High Command that the invasion of Europe would spring from here, via Great Yarmouth and Felixstowe and Ipswich, presumably. You could walk to Shingle Street, where if a German force wasn’t incinerated in local legend then a huge propaganda coup was carried-off, not even ten miles from here. Now rabbits hop around the empty huts where American voices ran through the drills that would launch the jets that would stop Soviet tanks rolling through the fields of Northern Europe. Which luckily for all of us, they both never did.

And today, my pupil has nearly, very nearly completed a 1,000 word story-writing task. The day isn’t over.

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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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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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