Reeling in the years

For the past fortnight I’ve been teaching on a film set. The law, it’s thought, says that if you’re under sixteen you have to have three hours of education per day, or no ten year-old actress on set. And in this case, that means no film. So me.

For once, living on the edge of a haunted airfield in the middle of nowhere is a desirable attribute, especially given that it takes me just twenty minutes of idling along country lanes to get to the most remote location on the edge of the country, where the road ends pointing its finger towards Holland.

We had a go at some Maths I couldn’t do and did some reading and writing and times tables, as much as we could with too much hot chocolate available. I had a look over the email her day-school teacher had sent. It said there was scant regard for number place, which simply isn’t true. Or it isn’t true now, anyway. She read some of the Short Shakespeares, starting with Midsummer Night and got bogged down in the utterly lovely Twelfth Night.

A ten-year-old can now write a 1,000 word story. Her spelling leaves something to be desired in the first draft, and there is far too much…..punctuation in the modern stylee especially when it comes to recorded speech. A very little of her grammar is Estuary, but there hasn’t been much time to correct this given the other stuff what we done.

We read Sredni Vashtar, the fantastic tale about the sickly boy whose pet ferret kills his aunt. Comprehension: 100%. Eyes like saucers. And I did a pretty darned good reading, though I says it as what shouldn’t myself and that.  I somehow don’t think her school had touched Saki. They ought.

The only time we had a bit of a falling out was over Modern European History, as well we might. I know it’s supposed to start at 1945, but that’s impossible. If you start at 1945 then there’s no accounting for the USSR at all, not unless you go back to at least 1917, so you might as well start at 1914. The fact that the Queen’s family name was Saxe-Coburg Gotha came as an alarming surprise.

“Do you mean the Queen is actually….German?”

Well, her family was. And her husband was born in Greece. And George I was so adamantly German, and the King, that he could never see why he should bother to learn English, which is probably why so many English words borrow so heavily from German to this day.

So the October Revolution because the Czar’s army was a bit fed-up being asked to run at the enemy shouting in the hope that they could get guns from the dead enemy. If there were any of the Czar’s army left. A tactic that their own sons would be forced to adopt twenty-odd years later with their new political rulers’ guns pointing at their backs. Don’t take my word for it, ask Guy Sajer, a Frenchman who was there shooting at them from the front. And the division of Europe and the Iron Curtain, and the first meeting of the UN being in the Methodist Hall opposite the Houses of Parliament in 1946, but first Yalta in 1942, but before that the Non-Aggression Pact and the Danzig Corridor then not one atom bomb but two and Burgess, Philby and Maclean and Blunt and Checkpoint Charlie and the Berlin Wall and Michael Caine and EOKA and India and Pakistan and the Fall of Empire, which my own school never even acknowledged as actually having ever happened, and here we are at Bentwaters airbase, the site of the Rendlesham Forest UFO mystery, which was to have been a front-line airfield when the Russain tanks rolled across Northern Europe again and BAOR and BFPO 52 and the soldiers didn’t come home and refugees and….. I had to stop there on the board, because I’d run out of board for my timeline, which had loops and arrows and inserts where I’d had to put in the Great Depression and Five Year Plans and the pub Lenin used to drink in off City Road.

I had to stop there on the board, because I’d run out of board for my timeline, which had loops and arrows and inserts where I’d had to put in the Great Depression and Five Year Plans and the pub Lenin used to drink in off City Road.

I thought of watching Dr Strangelove and sketched in how utterly magically, Werner von Braun who was responsible for tens of thousands of people’s deaths, dead in the rubble of London, evaporated into nothingness when his V2 hit Highbury Corner and cinemas and fields and tens of thousands more slave labourers forced to build the rocket launch sites and the uncounted thousands more buried alive when the RAF blew the underground facilities to pieces, quite surprisingly, given a man on the radio ended up dancing the Newgate jig, Werner von Braun was suddenly officially Not A Nazi At All by the time he got to Houston. Apparently it was all a bit of a misunderstanding but hey, people make mistakes and would he like to build a much, much bigger rocket, with this crazy new thang called radio telemetry and we could call it, maybe not the V3, but Saturn V. It’s got a nice ring to it, nein?

When I came in the next morning the board had been wiped clean. I asked who had done it. No answers. Nobody saw anything. Then my tiny actress appeared. She’d done it. No sorry. It was a mess. History was all over the place, so it had to go. It was really irritating. She said she was OCD.

I asked how come she was surrounded by empty water bottles and a crisp packet on the floor, none of which were mine, but apparently that doesn’t count. It’s history. It’s really messy stuff. And I have to agree.

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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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