I was supposed to go to work today. Yesterday a one hour commute turned into two hours because of the snow. It didn’t snow overnight, so I thought it might be ok today.
As I was driving down the hill I listened to the radio telling me the A14 was blocked, the A14 was blocked, the A1120 was blocked, the road to Framlingham and the A1120 was blocked and the A12, well, the A12 was described as ‘a nightmare’ but as anyone who ever drove it knows, it just is anyway. There’s one other road out of here, precipitously steep, single track and not even a B road.
My immediate obstacle was getting down the hill safely. The problem here on the edge of this haunted airfield is that it froze last night after it snowed the day before. Then this morning we had a lot of wind that blew the snow off the fields on top of the sheet of ice that used to be the road.
I did what I was taught to do on an off-road driving course to get down any hill safely: put it in first gear and get your foot off the accelerator. Because it’s first gear your car can’t physically do more than about 15 or 20mph anyway, which is plenty fast enough on sheet ice. I tried to ignore the idiot behind me who thought two car lengths was plenty of distance between us.
I turned left at the bottom of the hill onto the bigger road that looked pretty clear. And it was for the first mile. As soon as we’d got through Hacheston the wind had piled fields full of snow onto the road making it just one lane. There were two cars stopped at the top of the hill, one of them slewed sideways and the other turning round, but there was a snowplough spreading grit up ahead so I slotted in behind that.
The lady’s not for turning
Which was a mistake. The snowplough stopped. It took a while to see why. A black Volvo XC 90 was blocking the road, coming the other way. Like lots of big, new 4×4 cars it had never been fitted with a reverse. That’s my charitable explanation.
In darker moments I just believe that the drivers think everyone who doesn’t have a big new 4×4 should just get out of the way like the forelock-tugging plebs we are. I even tried reversing (not for the Volvo. Some hope of that) but my car is front-wheel drive. Good for snow when going forward. Almost useless for snow going backwards.
Eventually it dawned on the Volvo driver that the snowplough wasn’t actually going to reverse all the way to the depot they way they’d expected it to do. I followed the snowplough through. It had taken 30 minutes to do three miles at that point. The A12 looked clear but empty when I saw it, but I remembered the radio warning.
I turned left instead of right and turned up the hill to go home at Marlsford. This hill was sheet ice too, but going up this time instead of down. I didn’t think I would have been able to get up my hill the way I’d come down. I knew something about going up hills in snow too – as soon as you hear the wheels spinning, get off the accelerator fast unless you want a quick one-way journey into the nearest hedge. With the wheels spinning you have absolutely no steering to speak of and you’re just sliding. Off the gas and your steering comes back instantly.
But go slowly. Above everything else, drive as if you’ve got a basket of eggs on the dashboard. But I sitll called it. For the first time in my whole life I emailed work and told them the weather was too bad to get in. It had taken fifty minutes to do a six mile circle around my house. And it was nice of work to write a one-word reply to my email, simply saying ‘Received.”
My life is worth more to me than a day’s pay. Obviously this isn’t a universal viewpoint, which is always nice to get clear. I spent the rest of the day applying for a job. The gig economy works two ways.
I didn’t particularly want to see this when I looked out of the window. I live miles out in the countryside, 5 miles from any town, a short walk to a haunted airfield. We’ve got a letterbox, but no pub, shop or anything else up here on the hill. They’ve got all that fancy stuff down on the main road, such as it is. Except the pub.
Because I do several different jobs, this week I chose the wrong one. The film I was working with had finished shooting and although I’m with three agencies there’s nothing around this week, so I was committed to teaching nearly fifty miles away.
On a decent day it takes just under an hour. It was obviously going to take more this morning. My old Saab was built in a snowy place, so I wasn’t worried about the car. Chiefly what bothered me was other people. When I was a stupid kid every time it snowed I went out for a drive. I can’t have been that stupid, because every time I did by the end of the drive I’d survived situations that would have resulted in me not typing any of this if I hadn’t had the practice. I remember coming back from one jaunt like that and finding a snow plough lorry across the road I’d been planning to use. I put the car sideways into a snowbank and no harm done to anyone.
I didn’t practice any handbrake turns today, not even a little one. But I saw a few people who ought to have done, or at least, their vehicles. The first one was a van half on its side in the ditch that had been trying to go up a hill and hadn’t. The last one that blocked the entire A14 was sad. A small car, not new, on the verge. To be accurate, half-way up the verge, in the trees surrounded by smashed branches. And upside down, with the roof crushed to the top of the doors. There was a police car there. I’m assuming the road had been blocked by ambulances and police crews and the fire brigade getting the people out. They weren’t there. It was hard to see how they were ever going to be again, unless they ducked down under the dashboard, the way people manage to in films. I doubt it, somehow.
It took nearly double the time it normally takes me to get to work, and the same coming home. I’m shattered from concentrating and remembering how to drive in the snow, and from remembering to pack a broom, a wooly hat, gloves, wellies, a camp stove, water, a lighter, a blanket, teabags and two packets of quick-cook porridge, along with a wind-up torch in the car. If you don’t need this stuff, you’ve won. If you do need it it’s no use in the cupboard at home.
I’d like to give special thanks to the two 4×4 owners who decided that ten feet off the back of my boot was an excellent place to drive, except I’d be lying. Total arses though they both were, are and obviously will continue to be, I hope even they get home safe tonight. That little wrecked car in the trees will stay with me.
It took four years to win the Inmarsat account. But we did win it in my other life, when I was a researcher/analyst. We did something nobody else had ever managed to do and when St Peter asks me why I should be let in, I’ll be able to say something very few people can. I helped 800,000 people make a phone call.
Way back but not so long ago that I can’t remember, someone at Inmarsat, then an NGO which owned all the satellites that let ships talk to the rest of the world, had an idea. Maybe, he thought, maybe the crew would like to make a phone call now and again. Maybe they’d like to phone their mum or their wife or their girlfriend, that kind of thing? He wondered how much they were spending on phone calls. And he accidentally got me in the FT and made me famous enough for people to recognise me at conferences in Australia, quite a long way from here. It was a suddenly different world.
I thought about it today because I was looking for some data to practice some pivot tables. We didn’t have them back then when the research was done. We put interviewers physically onto ships in Southampton and Singapore, after ruling out Baltimore and a host of other locations either because they duplicated (ie the ships at Southampton mostly went to the other port as well) or they were too complex and hostile to get into. At Baltimore for example, every single wharf was owned by a separate company; there was no way we could get onto enough ships in time.
Singapore was hostile enough. The entire interview crew managed to get themselves arrested as stowaways there, which is no mean feat for middle-aged, middle-class English ladies with clipboards. We’d trained them well. On every ship they went to they were told to get specific permission from the captain, no matter that we already had permission from the owner via the agent. They went onboard and asked where he was.
The tradition at the time and presumably still is that if the captain’s cabin door is open you can go in and if not, not. But it was open so they did. The captain was in his cabin. Sadly he was entertaining a newly-acquired friend fairly vigourously and called for the ship’s Mate who was told to get rid of the interviewers pronto. In fact, get them arrested. The Mate asked what for? The captain said the first thing that came into his head, his mind being on other things. Stowaways. The Mate went away and came back quite quickly. The interviewers weren’t reassured by the fact he was now carrying a rusty Sten gun dug up from some totally illegal hiding place in the bilges, which he prodded them in the back with all the way down the gangplank. The Docks police had had a call that something was going on, drove up and arrested the ‘stowaways.’
It all turned out alright in the end. But it’s about time I wrote it all up.
This week’s earth-shattering event wasn’t Jeremy Corbyn finally getting it into his head that opposing the government might be a way to win some votes, or Michael Gove pretending that banning plastic straws was something he could do to save the world if only that pesky EU wasn’t stopping him, dang nabbit. Oh no.
It was the death of Nic Grundy. Who never existed. For those few beyond the Pale who don’t know, the Grundy family are the local yokels in BBC Radio 4’s hardy perennial drama The Archers, billed as an everyday story of country folk. It’s markedly light on things like incest and racism compared to every country village I’ve lived in, where I’ve heard the district nurse insisting that two local families hadn’t managed to get out enough on a Saturday night in her professional opinion. But as radio drama goes, it does, every evening after the seven o’clock news and a marathon collation on Sunday for the weekly worship. Clary and Eddie begat Wiwyum and Edwurd and Wiwyum shacked up with Emmer. Except she got very bored very fast and one Christmas took up with Edwurd while Wiwyum was off to the shops, so far as I could gather. I’m going to stop the voices now because it’s getting silly. Er.
After a breakdown William took up with Nicola, whose name was obviously shortened to Nic who this week cut her arm on an old picture frame and shortly thereafter died. Several people online claimed, with a straight face, that they were in mourning. Not ‘moved by the drama.’ Not ‘touched’ but ‘in mourning. Not for 300,000 people being homeless. Not for 100,000 people dying unnecessarily in the UK thanks to government spending cuts according to the UN, but because a minor character in a radio soap has been written out. The words ‘moral compass’ seem a bit pointless some days.
The character died of sepsis. And dear reader, it could have happened to me. It did to my great-uncle. After a lifetime of messing about with bits of metal one day he got a bit of swarf stuck under his fingernail. It can’t possibly have been the first time he got cut by a piece of metal but it proved to be the last. He got what was called then ‘blood poisoning’ and died in short order.
Because of that I’d always made sure my tetanus shots were up to date, thinking that would fully protect me from anything I might catch from a cut. I reasoned that my office wasn’t exactly the most hostile environment. I was wrong on the first count. Tetanus is a rare bacterial infection, potentially fatal but not, as I’d assumed, the only one going. I cut my right index finger on something. I couldn’t even remember what it was. It was a bit stiff the next day, so I cleaned the wound and slapped some disinfectant on it and a new plaster. It was worse the next day. My finger was swollen. The day after I couldn’t type well at all and my finger was a different colour as well as being swollen and painful.
I was lucky enough to work in the same office as a pharmacist. When he saw it he told me to get to a doctor that day, now, get out of here, unless I wanted to maybe lose my finger or maybe lose my life. I did.
I got a huge dose af antibiotics, promised faithfully to finish the course of tablets and within three days my finger was pretty much back to normal and in a week I couldn’t see any real difference between that finger and any other ones I have.
Sepsis can kill you in days. But I’d have more sympathy for people mourning a fictional radio character if they ever spared a thought for Biggles, Algy and Ginger as they languish in a care home.
I used to shoot. I’m not talking about an air rifle to deal with the rats that worried my chickens, nor even a shotgun to shoot clay pigeons. No. My deep, dark un-English secret was once not a secret and very English indeed.
Back in the Boer War that my great-grandfather went to, the British Army got comprehensively shot-up (not something you’ll see in The Sun or pretty much anywhere else) in large part due to the fact they couldn’t shoot for toffee. A man called Lord Roberts decided that TrueBrits ought to be able to shoot, so in the early 1900s pretty much every town in the country suddenly found itself with a Rifle Hall and some with an outside rifle range as well. Just look at an old Ordnance Survey map. You will be surprised.
A long time later, despite how old I am now, aged fourteen I went along every Thursday to Trowbridge Rifle Club. It was held in the local Territorial Army centre in a town where soldiers from Warminster School of Infantry were forbidden to wear uniform in the shops in case they were targetted by the IRA. There was a six-wheeler Saracen kept in a shed behind the TA centre and if you don’t know what that is then I am very pleased for you. Times change for the better. You could see it through the cracks in the doors.
Thinking about it now, there was probably an armoury somewhere in the building, but we’d brought our own guns. I was about to say they were all .22 rifles, the best of them being the BSA Martini-action rifles directly descended from the ones that didn’t do much good at Rorkes Drift, but some people brought along much more exotic fayre, .22 target pistols and the odd chrome-plated .38. Neither of which they were allowed to shoot in the basement range, but that wasn’t the point. It was the lure of the things. What wasn’t totemic was the discipline around guns, which wasn’t optional or in any way advisory. As a kid you always knew someone close would have been very prepared to knock you to the floor if you’d started arsing around with a gun, loaded or not. I’m not justifying any of this. It was a long time ago. It was the way things were there and then.
I went to Israel after I left school and some things happened where a gun would have been a useful social tool. Pretty much everyone else was carrying one, from the IDF guys with 9mm Lugers stuffed in their waistband to the little family I recall at a beach, where the child was just about able to walk, Mummy looked dark and slinky and utterly stunning and Daddy had a big pistol kept in a replica US Cavalry holster hanging from a belt thrown over his shoulder as they strolled with an ice-cream, the way Daddies there do. Or did then, anyway. I haven’t been back.
My first job out of university was teaching kids to shoot on a camp by a lake in Wisconsin, in a summer of guns, Chevrolets, pine trees and an Indiana cheerleader called Nancy-Jean. I’m not even making this stuff up. By that time I already had, quite legally, after a tussle with Wiltshire Constabulary, my own Model 28 Smith & Wesson. It was nominally a .357 Magnum, but the recoil was as hard on the hand as the cost was on my wallet, so I normally made my own .38 Special cartridges using a punch and a mould on the kitchen worktop in Bath.
When I got my first job in London I spent my first pay cheque on a government surplus 1911A1, a .45ACP semi-automatic. According to the serial numbers it had been built in 1944, but at two different plants, the frame in one and the slide in another. Word on the street or at least in the gunshops you could then find in London (Trafalgar Square, Edgware Road, New Cross, Totteridge and I think another two if I can remember right) these had been languishing in an Israeli armoury since 1948 before being dumped on the market nearly 40 years later.
Dumped was about the word. It took hundreds of pounds to turn my Colt into a decent competition pistol. The magazine well was bevelled out so the magazine would load more easily, the sights replaced, the hammer shaved down so it didn’t nip the web of your hand, the backstrap replaced so make the grip more gripable, the barrel replaced with a Barstow one worth the name, the slide stop and magazine button made bigger and easier to use, the recoil spring replaced and a special retainer installed for it to make it all work more smoothly, before the frame was matte chromed and the slide re-blued and rubber Pachmayer grips wrapped around it. On top of the £200 or so I paid for it as-was, I think it probably cost something like £600+ to customise it.
It was only ever used where it was allowed to be used, on a licenced range, in competition and as I’d done before and would again, I won a few shooting competitions. Somewhere there’s still a little pewter cup I’ve never thrown away.
And then one day Hungerford happened and I didn’t so much want to be around shooting and then Dunblane happened and the government took my guns away. The Smith & Wesson had been sold years before. So had the Mossberg pump-action shotgun that I can’t now fathom what ever possessed me to buy, but there were two injustices, at least, about taking my Colt.
I have very little idea why I had this stuff. Nor so much of it.
Firstly, the original compensation was an arbitrary £150. I appealed and finally got the money I’d spent on it. More galling was a letter I got from my MP when I wrote to him, which said the confiscation was essentially so that the government could be seen to be doing something. They didn’t see fit to do anything about some seriously dodgy policing that played a large part in both the Hungerford and Dunblane massacres, where in the latter the senior officer who over-ruled police who had met Hamilton recommended he should never get a Firearms Certificate and the fact he was in the same lodge as the senior officer who oddly retired on the grounds of ill-health shortly after the last cartridge case hit the floor was never mentioned much again.
Nor were the allegations that Michael Ryan at Hungerford had a history of complaints about his behaviour that would usually disbar him from ever getting a Firearms Certificate, which he also got practically by return of post rather than the months the police usually dragged it out for. Nor was the serious allegation that while he ended-up shot, Michael Ryan didn’t shoot himself at all, not least by an obliging press that didn’t seem to think the coroner’s photos of his body needed seeing any more than the judge thought they did.
I was annoyed. I thought it would make no difference to armed crime at all. I went wholly along with the whole mantra, that bad people do bad things. A gun is only a tool. People kill people. The only gun control you need is a sharp eye and a steady hand.
And then somehow, without even meaning to, I grew up. I was totally wrong. If you take guns away, sure, people can still get them. But somehow they can’t get enough of them easily enough to walk down the High Street shooting people, or they’d have to make more effort to do it, or they’d have to talk to people, or all kinds of real-life obstacles to killing kids in a classroom in a couple of minutes.
Take the guns away. Nobody needs a 30 round magazine on a rifle however many deer they put on the table. Hardly anyone came back from WW11 and bought a Garand so their family could eat. They’d seen what modern military weapons could do.
And so have we. And maybe that’s the issue. We’ve fetishised violence, from action movies to Presidents yelling about crusades to video and PC games where if we’re not peering up Lara Croft’s shorts we’re admiring the way she twirls her own brace of 45s. It’s dumb, it’s childish and it needs to stop. When I became a man I put away childish things. That included my guns.
My doctor told me I might just possibly have a brain tumour, but not to worry. To be fair, she phrased it slightly differently, telling me if not to park that thought, which is about as effective as not thinking about elephants, then that we could think about that after the results of an MRI scan, which she far from comfortingly scheduled urgently.
While I bravely primed the people who might have some passing interest in my untimely demise on the offchance that at least some of them might rent their clothing while I could still witness this event, I did some fairly serious thinking about stuff. The best thing I did was to buy two tickets to the Django Reinhardt festival at Fontainebleu.
Assuming I don’t fall off a ladder or get run over, it seeming statistically unlikely that I have a brain tumour rather than just an irritating form of tinnitus, in July I’ll be sitting in the sun with a friend listening to how back in Nagasaki the fellows chew tobaccy while the women wiggy waggy woo, and rather hoping there might be some of that in the offing shortly thereafter despite previous assurances to the contrary. Now all I have to do is find-out how to get there without bankrupting myself on Eurostar. I’ve outlived Django already. He died of a brain heamorrage long before MRI scanners had ever been thought of. Nine seconds of searing pain and no more. There are much worse ways to go.
I had to go for an MRI scan some weeks ago now. I still haven’t been told the result. This is somewhat worrying given that there was a chance that I had a brain tumour, hence the scan. I still haven’t been told I haven’t got one.
What I have been told instead is that on March 2nd I have an appointment at the Ear, Nose & Throat clinic, which seems to indicate something on a different level of panic and discomfiture.
I’ve had a ringing in one ear for about a year now, after a batch of students who coughed so loud I had to actually stop a lesson gave me a massive cold. I had to have my ears syringed because I couldn’t hear anything and I didn’t think my hearing improved much afterwards, although I could hear a warning tone in the car when the soft top wasn’t latched that I’d thought had stopped working. And that, my doctor thought, could have been the problem. Not the soft top on my car, but the fact the ringing was only in one ear, not both.
Going to an ENT clinic isn’t quite in the same league as gamely battling the effects of a foreign body the size of a grapefruit inside my cranium, so hopefully no gaily-coloured headscarves to hide the baldness after the chemotherapy, no brave smiling and none of that strange unearthly beauty the dying seem so often to have. Or it could of course be that it’s just the ones with a strange unearthly beauty that get photographed.
Either way, unless the ENT clinic is just to give me better hearing in my last few weeks on earth, odds are that I don’t in fact have a brain tumour, despite the loudness of the ringing in my left ear this morning. I think it could have been done a better way though.
It isn’t a maths test, although of course it is. It’s the number of dead from the London Borough of Barking alone, in the years 1914 to 1918. Their names were listed on plaques on thier memorial in the park. I didn’t have a pen so I needed a way to remember the numbers I’d counted.
In case your maths is rusty, it’s 1,170. A lot of the names are the same and while I can think well, obviously a lot of people are called Smith or White, when a surname is Wiffen and there are two sad inscriptions with different initials after them, they have to be related and I’d guess, closely.
Appropriately, death in the shape of a bullet or a lungful of gas or simply being atomised by an artillery shell or drowning in mud being no great respecter of rank, there are no inscriptions on the plaques on the memorial in the park to tell us now whether they were corporals or private soldiers or colonels. If you read anything about the First World War of course, you’ll know that only rarely, when a stray shell obligingly evened things-up did the most senior officers get killed or even wounded by anything more directed than gout or a heart attack.
One of Britain’s most lauded sons, Earl Haig, never bothered to visit the front line trenches at all. He was the man who condemned the ‘cowardice’ of the Pals battalions when they failed to advance to his satisfaction. In his mind they were shirkers, riddled with blue funk as a function largely of them being working class chaps; in reality they were riddled with Spandau bullets, failing to ‘do their bit’ due to the inconvenience of being dead. Prior to that he’d issued orders forbidding them to fire while they advanced; they hadn’t had much training, they couldn’t hit a grouse rising off heather and all in all it would just have wasted ammunition, he felt.
As it was, the artillery barrage supposed to stop the German machine guns only stopped them while the barrage was on. When it lifted and the whistles blew to advance in the British trenches the boys from the factories and potteries and mines rushed up their ladders and walked, as ordered, across No Mans Land. They’d had tin triangles sewn onto the back of their packs so the General Staff could see where they were from a safe distance. Through binoculars it was clear the attack bogged down early, the triangles not moving. The Pals brigades weren’t funking it. They were dead.
It can’t be unreasonable to doubt the sanity of anyone who ordered the exact same action again and again and again, year after year after year, Michael Gove.
The memorial didn’t give the dates or the locations of the sons of this forgotten borough whose glory days ended in a hail of copper-jacketed munitions. Walking around Barking you can see the ghosts of proud buildings erected between about 1890 and 1914. There’s a fine Magistrates Court embellished with Art Nouveau curlicues and at the entrance to Barking Park itself a little Nursery with round windows sporting elongated keystones which presumably was given to the Park Keeper in the days when massively-subsidised housing wasn’t seen as akin to choice-robbing Communism. The First War killed more than just people. Go to Barking and look around.
It was, one thing and another, a bit of a day. I was supposed to take a school trip to Norwich but due to them speaking English a little less ably than they thought – and darn it, I’ve told them again and again that the secret to speaking English is we usually don’t mean literally what we say, or at least, not without more) – they left without me so I had to drive there and catch-up with them, which didn’t put me in the best of moods. I had to find somewhere to park and it was sleeting a bit. By the time they left at 1615 after a bit of very strangeness on the pavement over which I shall draw a discreet veil, I’d drunk less than a pint and half of anything all day. Which isn’t enough.
Then the headlights on the car shorted on so I couldn’t dip the main beam. Fixable certainly, but not on a Saturday evening. Every other car blasted its headlamps at me (FFS, look, I’m not doing it ON PURPOSE, alright?), I took the dreaded Caistor turning by accident because I was sick of being on the ring road however much I knew that here be dragons and you don’t go on that road if you’ve any sense at all.
Because it’s seriously strange, is why.
Because it’s about 70 years ago there.
Because there aren’t any towns or signposts that mean anything and no GPS that works there and most of the time your phone doesn’t either. It took nearly two hours to do a journey that should have taken about 45 minutes. It was like Stephen King’s folds in the map story, those strange places where the map doesn’t really line up when you unfold it, the gap in the road and maybe gaps in more than that.
All of which combined to give me a staggering, ripping headache that paracetamol didn’t even touch, which worried me hugely, which made it worse. I got to my friend’s house and let myself in with no opposition from her dogs. Everyone was out. I sat in the kitchen and stroked the dogs for half an hour or so, on my own. And magically no headache by then. Not a brain tumour at all. O a very variable one if it is.
Not actually a track by Dion and the Belmonts, but what happened to me this week. I spent last Saturday getting my head scanned to see if the ringing in one ear was caused by something wrong with my ear as I suspected, or by a brain tumour, which my GP thinks ought to be checked to see if it exists. In which case a ringing in one ear will be a fairly minor thing to worry about, like making sure the front door of a bombed-out house is locked.
The scan was fine if urgent so not entirely what I’d call fine, it being my head we’re talking about. What was less fine was being told the results would be with me in three weeks. A brain tumour can grow 1cm a month.
I phoned my GP for the second time on Thursday. No, they said, they hadn’t got any results. Call the hospital. After taking ten minutes to get through their incomprehensible automated options that made me think I already had a brain tumour and would definitely get one within thirty seconds if I had to listen to any more options I couldn’t then select, I got through to the MRI department. Three weeks, they repeated. I pointed out that this was an urgent scan. Three weeks again. For a brain tumour. A bit of a silence. What was my name again?IT’s too cold to do cold sweating, but I did some anyway.
Was I a GP? Well no. Not really. The hospital refused to give me any results. MY GP would have to write to them. They didn’t specify whether a quill pen would be better than a biro but they weren’t moving on the writing thing. I phoned the GP. Who emailed instantly and then did something rather sweet. They told me the hospital wouldn’t be arsing about like this if the scan had showed there was something majorly wrong in my head. Other than a high-pitched whining unrelated to working with children and a tension headache, obviously. It’s not a clear result yet. But it’s quite likely to be. We think.