The silence of the lands

It was probably today, but it might have been Friday. Either way it was a long time ago and Easter. I realised years ago that there was something wrong with my hearing. I’d get things wrong, not understand what people said they’d said, be accused of not listening when in fact I was listening as best I could. But the day like today, the day I’m thinking of at Easter all that time ago, it was the silence that was the loudest thing.

It wasn’t a religious experience, or maybe it was. Back in that Easter long ago I’d gone to my school with my friend Phil. We kept two Enterprise dinghies in winter storage under the parquet floor of the solid municipal 1930s assembly room in what had been the old Girls School before the co-ed revolution. The only reason Phil and I were there was to paint the boats for the new season. It took most of the day, a lot longer than we thought it would, to sand them down in a world when 17-year-olds didn’t have power sanders. But then, we didn’t have the right colour paint either, or not the colour we’d thought we were buying.

We spent all that time working on those boats and talking about the girls we knew and our plans, our huge teenage plans, although mostly those involved the desperate difficulty of finding a venue and then possibly less difficult, removing the clothing from those same girls rather than anything more long-term advantageous or profound. I remember that day a lot though, and I remember the silence we had as well, just working together on something we wanted to do, as well as the talk about the other thing we wanted to do. We got the boats painted, at least.

I had a brilliant Easter this year. Walking around Norwich on Friday, exploring Beccles on Saturday, then trying to find breakfast on Sunday, finding the Common Room in Framlingham closed, finding we didn’t want breakfast at The Crown, driving to Aldeburgh and fish and chips there, then realising I’d left my scarf in Framlingham and having to drive all the way back there, then a glass of wine at the Easton White Horse, then a junk shop where I bought a tyre iron and on to Seckford Hall, a secret place we found where for the price of a pot of tea you can pretend Enid Blyton will be along any minute now and you really do live in the style of Downton Abbey every day. It was good in the end, but a bit unsettling and 8 hours is a long time to spend going out for breakfast. It was gone six by the time we got back, the day the clocks sprang forward. Best beloved went to make a headstart on her accounts, I went shooting.

It was ok, considering the light was going and I was having to re-focus the scope to get a clear sight-picture every few shots by the last target, which was this one, a decent card apart from the one stupid flyer.

The range I shoot at is walking distance from where I live, so that’s what I did, walk there. I left the target rest in the boot of my car and just took my best rifle and a bag of ear defenders, ammunition, my sighting target, a pen and a bronze caliper to measure the size of the group of ten shots.

Then I walked back, gone seven in the evening, the few birds singing, the air still. But what I noticed most was the silence as I walked along the lane, the same sound I’d heard that other Easter, at the other end of the span of my life.

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A possible isn’t good enough

When I was a boy I used to shoot at the local rifle club every Thursday. I tried, but I wasn’t much good. I couldn’t see very well, the light was appallingly bad with a lot of glare, we had to lie on kapok mats impregnated with sweat every Thursday since the Boar War, which since you ask was a lot of Thursdays, thanks. I got eczema on my fingers from the lubricant on the bullets and the dust and fumes in that unventilated underground range made my chest feel funny most of the next day.

I shot around 94/100, usually. I was just about good enough to go to Bisley when I was fifteen, and I qualified as an adult marksman, so I can’t have been that bad, but shooting is always about being better.

This was last Friday’s target. Where I live, I’m lucky enough to have a range literally within walking distance, so after work, I put my best gun in its bag, grabbed my shooting bag with its ear defenders and sighting target and a screwdriver just in case, and walked down the hill, along the lane, and across the little bridge over the headwaters of the Deben to the old range. Maybe it started off as a quarry, I don’t know, but I do know that during the war, it was used by the tanks stationed at Glemham Hall to sight in their machine guns, trundling and squeaking and clanking their way down what’s still called Tank Road. It accounts for the sign that’s on the bridge now, saying “No Track Laying Vehicles. The local Home Guard used it for practising when they weren’t doing that.

The Hostile Coast

About a decade ago the local airfield opened the first and so far as I know the only museum to the Auxiliary Home Guard, the real suicide squad, whose job in case of invasion was to go to ground for two weeks and then slaughter as many Germans as they could, along with a select list of people who might be useful to an invading Nazi force. We’re not even ten miles from Shingle Street. This was a hostile coast.

Back in the now, though, or anyway, last Friday, I shot my first ever possible. It was with my lovely HW 77, not the 97 I wrote on the target, the first gun I ever bought new last September. First time out I shot a ten-shot group in 11mm, something I’ve never been able to do since. That’s why my possible 100 out of 100 wasn’t good enough.

As you can see from the picture, the hole at the top right was a snatched shot where I jerked the trigger. It cut the line between the nine and the ten, so it counts as a ten, but that’s not the problem—although obviously, it’s one of them. The big problem is the size of the group—twenty-two millimetres.

It’s not showing off. Ok, it’s a possible. Ok, it’s 100 out of 100. And yes, I was using a rest, thanks. It’s the size of the group. It’s double the spread of the first group I ever shot with this rifle. And I don’t know why. It’s almost as if it’s my shooting that’s at fault, and that can’t be right.

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Nearly Spring

But he was a young man, and the song of the lark made him blissfully happy, stirring the old longing that had accompanied him from Hammont. He felt as if someone were walking behind him with light footsteps, calling his name softly and tenderly.

When he stopped and turned to listen the voice stopped calling out, but when he turned back he felt the presence behind him again, as if it were trying to play a trick on him.

Hans Grimm, “Schlump.” 1928

They turned All Quiet On The Western Front into a Netflix movie, but the year before it was published, Schlump was out in print. It’s similar but not the same, about someone a lot younger than me now, who had the misfortune to be born just before my grandfather’s time and in a different country, so ending up in a trench in France with people like my grandfather, country boys from another country, trying to kill him every day.

I don’t know how that time was. But I’ve had the same feeling sometimes, that something young and happy is looking after me, but only when you’re out of doors, alone, in the sunlight.

And as soon as you stop to think, ‘So what actually is that?’ then it’s gone. I used to know it would be back. This cold, sodden, windy Spring it’s going to be a long time coming.

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Doubling down

Winter is coming.

It really is. There were storms at the weekend, with seaweed blown all over Whisstocks yard. The weekend before the Longshed was flooded, interrupting the work of recreating the ship buried at Sutton Hoo. There was a very high tide and the flood barriers swung shut, but either the water seeped underneath or the holding tank was full or the drain from the holding tank was blocked nobody really knew, but either way all the work on the re-creation of King Raedwald’s ship stopped, assuming it was his ship in the first place.

Monday and Tuesday by contrast have been Force 2 winds, and skies that cleared by ten, but frost on the cars this morning. Not ideal sailing weather, so I went to check the boat over anyway, and to do some basic winter preparations.

The first thing was to make sure the sails were tied to the yards so they literally didn’t flog themselves to death. Someone lost their jib the winter before last when they left their sails to flap for a month. All they had left were rags when they came back to their boat. The second job was to double-up the lines fore and aft. My Drascombe lives on a mooring in Martlesham Creek, tied at both ends to bouys floating in the river. A couple of weeks ago I bought one of those magic mooring sticks at Andy Seedhouse’s used chandlery, to see if they worked and they do, so all the better that I only paid £20 for a used one instead of the £150 figures I’ve seen online. In case you don’t know, it’s a fork with a pivoted bar over the end, with a line tied to one end of the bar. Tie that to the line on your boat you want to go through the ring on top of your mooring buoy, close the bar, push the fork at the ring, then when it’s gone through pull the fork backwards and somehow, like a conjuring trick, you’ve pulled your line through the hoop on the mooring buoy without having to dangle over the side of the boat threading a piece of rope through a moving ring while your boat floats past. Sometimes with un-hilarious consequences. Anyway, played with that for a bit to check the magic was still working. It was.

The next job was to start the engine, for two reasons. I wanted to get all the fuel out of the carburetor as I wasn’t quite sure when I’d be starting it up again, and the best way of getting rid of the fuel in the engine was to run it. But secondly, I wanted to check the fuel can wasn’t leaking anymore. Which it was, out of the junction of the outlet pipe. I’d fitted a new bronze hollow threaded pipe last week, but although that had stopped one leak there was another still going strong. A month ago I lost the better part of £10 of petrol like that, without the boat going anywhere at all. £10 is one thing, but more irritating was the fact that the idea of leaving the petrol can connected onboard was so the boat was ready to go next time I got down to it. Without petrol, it wasn’t. Petrol can back in the dinghy and a trip to the hardware store for some rubber rings and Vaseline.

Next, the cover. I haven’t had the cover fastened on the boat since June, and this year she went into the water the first week of May. It’s now the first week of November, so we’ve had a solid six months of sailing even if we don’t get any more this year. Which I haven’t decided yet. Before I put the cover on though, there’s the bird crap to get rid of. When I was a boy I was told those big, strange-looking black birds, the ones that stand on top of posts with their wings bent outstretched, those are called cormorants and when you grow up you won’t see them any more, because they’ll be extinct.

Well, they aren’t. Not by a long way. There are three main kinds of birds that arse about on my boat when I’m not there. The redshanks and avocets and the sandpipers and egrets leave it alone because they’re too busy wading about on the mud looking for their tea. And yes, I had to look them up to find out their names but they’re all there, all the time. They aren’t the problem. The gulls, the swans and the cormorants are.

Gulls just sit on top of the mast and use it as a hi-rise lavatory. That always falls in the same place, on the thwart at the base of the mast, port side. The swans – you always know when a swan’s been on board, not just by the size of the green pile of droppings but by the massive muddy webbed footprints all over the boat. No swans today. But the cormorants that didn’t go extinct. It’s not just their waste. It’s not just their muddy feet. It’s the way they dismember crabs. I didn’t even know there were crabs in the Deben, but unless they’re flying to Adleburgh deli there definitely are. And they eat them on my boat, so apart from scrubbing away their muddy track marks and the piles of guano I get to pick crab legs out of the gaps in the floorboards as well.

But all done for the day. I think the petrol can is sealing now. There are two lines at the bow and two lines at the stern, holding the boat snug against any gale. The PVC cover is on tight, held up to two peaks by a line strung between the masts. The sails are lashed tight to the yards. There’s a line of algae growth on the hullmaking a mockery of the words ‘anti-foul,’ but there is on every other boat on this river, whatever your boat and whatever brand of antifoul anyone’s used. I’ve paid for the mooring up to the 5th December and maybe, I told my loyal and trusty crew today, she needs to come out of the water then so I can blast away the algae, repaint the hull and maybe fix those hairline cracks in the gel-coat on the deck. Or just paint it, I was told.

I can’t recall how long into the winter we used to sail at school and somehow, although it was about four million years ago, it seems to matter. There won’t always be another sailing season. There won’t be another forty of them ahead, as there were at school. But it’s all snugged down tight and survivable onboard, safe against the winter winds. In six weeks it’ll start to get lighter in the evenings again, quicker than you’ll think possible. All you have to do is stay warm and remember winter goes away. It’s all ok for now.

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That sinking feeling

I’ve only had it once that wasn’t in a dream. Literally, that sinking feeling, when there’s water coming up past the floorboards inside the boat and despite the fact you know, really you know, that thanks to the mud that makes up a large part of the River Deben, your boat can only possibly sink about two feet at most, given the tide, some primeval part of your brain is screaming much louder than the rational part. And it’s screaming something you don’t want to hear.

“You’re going to die! Very soon! do something!”

I’d had my boat out of the water for several years. I bought it when it had been out for at least two. I worked on it, sanded it, varnished it, painted it, antifouled it, made it look what used to be called all shipshape and Bristol fashion, which doesn’t mean it looked like gigantic breasts because that would be too silly. What I couldn’t do anything about was the fact that it had been out of the water for years and it was a wooden boat. They dry out. The wood shrinks. And the gaps between the planks that make up the hull don’t. In fact, they do the opposite.

I’d told Everson’s boatyard, the one with the crane to put it in the slings on Monday and crane it into the water, leave it on the slip in the slings and I’d come down again on Tuesday to sail it away.

A friend took the day off work to come down on Monday with me to see what was happening. As it turned out, nothing was. The crane driver was off sick. Monday. Nothing to do with a hangover, obviously. It never was when staff went sick on Monday at my company, after all. Ever. Whatever the reason, the boat wasn’t in its sling and the sling wasn’t on the crane. Apparently, their phone had broken as well, as they hadn’t told me not to bother driving down there and wasting my time.

When I came back on Tuesday, without my friend who was going to crew, they hadn’t even bothered to start the crane up. When they eventually did get the boat into the water it leaked. A lot. It’s called ‘taking-up.’ It means the water flows pretty much uninterrupted through the gaps between the planks. This is why you put the boat in the water the day before you want it. Except the yard couldn’t be bothered to do that, or to tell me they hadn’t.

The pump worked. It had to.

It’s only about a mile down the Deben to Kyson’s Point. You turn 90 degrees West there and it’s about another much more winding mile to the mooring. I did it all under engine and everything, on this sunny day, seemed fine. The engine started up, the pump was pumping hard, no wind to speak of, it was just gone High Water and I had a new job starting the next day, teaching at a French summer school on the banks of the Stour, then starting a screenplay for Film Suffolk. Plus I had a lovely boat under me. Life was good.


Life started to get less good when I got to the end of Martlesham Creek to find two things I hadn’t planned. First, the boat that was supposed to be out of my berth on the jetty was very much still in my berth on the jetty, and there wasn’t room for two. Second, and more immediately pressing, was the fact that the pump wasn’t keeping up with the inrush of water, as I saw when I looked down into the cabin and saw the floorboards floating. I did that because the odd noise I’d heard was an automatic lifejacket stowed under the seats had done what it was supposed to do when it was under water.

Don’t panic! Don’t panic!

Except I didn’t know what else to do. I’m in a rapidly drying-out channel, I can’t get onto my berth and the boat I’ve spent months making nice is sinking. It’s actually sinking. And I’m probably going to be drowned.

The fact I had a lifejacket on, the fact it could only sensibly have sunk about three feet at most, the fact that I could have stood on the cabin roof if it did without getting my sailing wellies wet, none of that came into my thoughts at all. The only thing that did was a primeval fear of drowning.

And of course, I didn’t drown. And nor did the boat actually sink, or not much more than it had, anyway. The boatyard owner told me to moor on the end of the jetty. When my voice was somewhere near a normal register I told him what was happening, so he told me to just point the boat at the bank and open the throttle. We’d sort it out later. Over there, between those two boats. I went for the gap, Fern softly stopped, we put some lines out fore and aft and that was pretty much that.

We got a big petrol-driven pump onboard and cleared her, then rigged a float so it would kick in if the water kept on coming in. From the streams of water visible under the cockpit floorboards that looked likely. I had to go to school so I couldn’t see Fern for about ten days after that. I ordered some caulking cotton and Stockholm tar but stopped short of buying proper caulking irons which was just as well, as Fern stopped leaking – sorry, taking-up – on the second day in her new berth, the yard told me. They’d checked. I’ve never caulked anything, then or since and never needed to.

I learned what a good boatyard I’d chosen, totally by accident, tucked away at the end of a forgotten creek in Suffolk. I learned that the tide goes out far and fast there too.

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On the road

Snarkness on the edge of town.

There’s a new movie out. In fact, like my revisited reaction to On The Road, the novel, when I saw the 2012 film for the first time the other night, there isn’t. It’s on Channel 4, if you’re interested. And maybe, as I was, you ought to be. It’s about an America that just after the war a group of young-ish people went looking for. Except they weren’t that young, having been you can find out online well out of their teens and for better or worse, having grown-up first in the Great Depression, which affected almost absolutely everybody, and then in the Second World War, which laughably or otherwise after Pearl Harbor charged many Americans with the belief that they had almost a spiritual need, call and duty to save the world, first and foremost by being American and secondly, almost incidentally, by killing Krauts and Japs, much as them pesky Redskins had been in the way of their grandparents’ manifest destiny.

Mommy’s Boy with ishoos has a mahoosive crush on this glamorous waste of space who gives him a free go on his girlfriend and travels across the country with him several times, by car, pickup truck, freight train and hitchhiking. The people they inevitably meet, history being inevitable, as Malcolm Bradbury’s Howard Kirk reminds us all, turn out equally inevitably to be either a) wild crazy hipster cats and proto-Beatniks who know no boundaries; or b) racked with wild and indescribable sadnesses the narrator thinks are the soul of proto-America ( so long as they ain’t Injuns who don’t get a look-in, obviously); or c) both.

The more I watched the movie the more I remembered things from the past, mine and Jack Kerouac’s. I loved this book and the way it changed my life when I was walking the mean streets of Trowbridge on my paper round. It made me go on my own road trip, one I planned for years and finally did, ten years later. It also reminded me how yes, I’d met people like that. And I also remembered I’d learned to avoid total self-absorbed blagging ego-centric arses, but only too slowly. As shop signs about asking for credit used to say, a punch in the mouth often offends, but equally often looking back it would have probably been the right thing to do.

But at thirteen, posting copies of the Bath Evening Chronicle through letterboxes in the gathering dusk on Pitman Avenue, (yes, the shorthand Pitman, he lived in Trowbridge, there’s a plaque about it where that policeman got stabbed) On The Road was a hymn to freedom. Not many years after that I read something written on a barn wall.

“Freedom? Are the sparrows free from the chains of the sky?”

Which for graffiti on a barn full of bits of ancient motorcycles that today would be somebody’s entire and very generous pension fund and then at best was some greasy hippy with a stupid name’s falling-down shed full of rubbish, was a pretty acute observation, then or now. Dean Moriarty’s 1949 Hudson didn’t buy itself. On the truck farm where Sal Paradise met his Mexican – ooops, sorry, Latino – stoop labour girlfriend, if you didn’t work you didn’t get paid and that meant you didn’t eat. Working for a pittance isn’t freedom, as he found out. It was no more real than paying your mortgage off, or getting your book about it published. And it was no more “America” than say, Sergeant York was a typical conscientious objector. The America of Mad Men and Wall Street, let alone Breaking Bad and 24 didn’t even exist in America back when Kerouac rode the range. They didn’t have Interstate highways back then. There wasn’t even a proper road when the US Army drove coast to coast in 1919. Aspen – yes, THAT Aspen, Dallas-opening-credits Aspen – didn’t have tarmac on its Main street until 1960.

But I didn’t know all that on Elmdale, Blair and Eastview, bringing the evening news about Chilean refugees to the good folk of West Wiltshire, first on my rubbish scrap bike then when I was 14, on my lime green metal flake Carlton Continental, £40 on installments to my mother, when £40 was a pretty big deal. What I thought was a pretty big deal by then was Hunter S. Thompson.

For our younger readers, HST was a man who wrote stuff. What he wanted to write was The Great American Novel, so after he was kicked out of the US Airforce, for many of the reasons Kerouac was kicked out of the US Navy, he went off to Big Sur and wrote in the place where Kerouac visited while Thompson was doing odd jobs, where Hemingway shot himself and Richard Brautigan did the same. Maybe it was something in the water. Or maybe it was because all of them were regularly off their face. Either way, Thompson learned that however much he got off his own face absolutely nobody wanted to publish his fiction, although ultimately that’s exactly what happened in a way he didn’t predict.

In San Francisco at the dawn of the 1960s he bought a Triumph motorcycle and rode around with the Hell’s Angels, always something of a high-risk hobby and one that ended the way a six year-old might predict. He wrote what I’ve always thought the best sociological study of a marginalised group I’ve ever read, the not-very-originally-titled Hells Angels: the Strange And Terrible Saga Of The Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, which absolutely no Sociology lecturer I ever met at the University of Bath ever felt necessary to discuss or even acknowledge it existed.

The paralysing straightjacket of the legend Thompson became holds that he was way out there on the edge, feeling no fear. If you watch his post-being-beaten-up-by-them televised encounter with one of the Angels he used to hang around with, you’ll see for yourself what a crock that was.

But I didn’t know that either, back then. All I wanted to do was go to America and meet Hunter Thompson, then make a living writing like him. I did half of that.

I got the opportunity in the early 1980s to go to teach kids to shoot on a summer camp in Wisconsin. I found several things there; guns, cheerleaders called Nancy-Jean, a lake we parked by in the best Meatloaf tradition. I also found a Chevrolet Kingswood, a laughably massive estate car that did nine to the gallon around any town and a thrifty fifteen on the open road. Apart from the time I drove up over the Rockies, stopped for a break and when I tested the new puddle on the road below the exhaust pipe, when it seemed to be blowing petrol stright through, unburned. That was a Kerouac day, getting clean in a creek next to the road, seeing my big toenail turn the same colour as my jeans and only discovering later the water was so cold because it was glacier run-off; blowing a cooling hose on the plateau southeast of Buena Vista and getting a lift from a truckload of Latino migrant workers to a garage open on a Sunday that sold me a top hose for 82 cents. Like the dog named Boo, a screwdriver, a Jubilee clip and another tank of gas and we were back on the road again.

Was it worth watching? Yes. For me, anyway. Was it worth doing it, any of it? Kerouac’s road trip, Thompson’s desert run to Vegas, my own, more pedestrian meandering from Eagle River to Greencastle to Terre Haute, through tiny river towns of Missouri to St Louis guided by the Rand-McNally and stopping at gunshops – the easiest place to talk to strangers if you spoke the language, and thanks to shooting at Bisley and a summer of teaching it, I did, back then. After an abortive Saturday spent first driving through an electric storm, then in definitively the worst bar I’ve ever been in in my entire life, a barn of a place in Colby, KS, where everyone was carded on the door and bar staff wore Mace canisters on their belts I headed southwest towards Colorado Springs and then up over the first ridge of the Rockies.

On the last day of August I drove down Independence Pass into Aspen and my life changed. I don’t think it ever went back to how it had been before, but anyone can say that about pretty much any day they care to name, if they can remember it at all. There were some serious things wrong with the place, like oh, I don’t know, Goldie Hawn not looking like Private Benjamin when she went to the thrift store (no she didn’t and yes she did, respectively), Andy Williams reportedly buying-off the police investigation when someone got themselves shot dead in very odd circumstances, someone else deciding to sort-out who was going to bed with who with an AR-15 one dark night on a quiet backwoods track, or the dealer guy who got into his Jeep one fine day, turned the key and didn’t have time to even sing man, that’s all she wrote when it exploded. But hey, nobody ever said Aspen was perfect. It just pretty much was, a place of sun and snow and good-looking people and what looked like open-ness, a place where the dustman’s dollar was as good as John Denver’s in any restaurant. Cash, obviously.

Fat City

I tracked HST down to his house outside the city eventually. It took a little while, not least because some people thought I was a cop or someone serving a warrant and some just didn’t like him or the attention he brought to the town. He stood for Sherrif in the early 1970s and at least according to him, came within a spit of getting elected. One of the things he proposed still makes sense, renaming Aspen officially as Fat City. That way the people who just wanted to live somewhere quiet and beautiful, or the people who wanted to play music or listen to it instead of being seen going to listen to it, or the people who just wanted to be left alone to ski could get on and do that. Meanwhile the shopping malls and developers and people selling $200 T-shirts would have a hard time getting start-up funding for the Fat City Apres-Skiwear Boutique or Fat City Jetplane Concierge LLC. You can see the problem.

Thompson got himself arrested for sexual assault around about that time, which took the edge off wanting to be like him, for me at least. Last time I saw him was standing alone on West Hyman, very tall and balding in the sunlight, absorbed in something I’d now say was a mobile phone message, but couldn’t have been back then. I never knew what it was. But by then I didn’t care that much what he did. Nor, to be honest, what Kerouac did. I had my own things to do. I just wish I could have done them in that golden place on the Western slope of the Rockies a lifetime longer. Just like paradise by the dashboard light, it was long ago and it was far away. Still, as Bruce Springsteen told me personally, nothing we can say or do is going to change anything now.

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Passing off

According to the BBC today, students buying an essay and calling it their own work is going to be illegal in the UK. It’s sort-of good news, if it puts a stop to the ads essay mills posted for writers that fooled even a PhD friend into applying as a ‘sector-expert’ until she realised her expertise was intended to be used to give rich or lazy – or rich and lazy – kids a free ride – or at least, one they’d paid for – at university.

This was the future.

I looked at those ads too. I’d heard for years of Indian students rioting unless they were allowed to cheat in exams, and heard about Chinese students demanding better grades or the teacher was going to be reported to the principal. As soon as you start treating learners as customers then obviously they’re going to start negotiating on what they’re getting for their money. As the Advertising Standards Association said in 2018, upholding a complaint about a company that sold essays, their website gave the misleading impression that “consumers would be able to submit purchased essays as their own without repercussion”. Consumers seemed to be the key-word.

A better grade is just another way of impressing the boss, after all. How else do you get a better job, when many if not most jobs aren’t really about specific knowledge but more about not punching the nearest David Brent clone in the face before coffee-time?

So far, so good. No more contract cheating. Students will have to write their own essays. Oh dear, how sad, never mind, as Windsor Davies used to say. Personally, I found it sad that guidance was issued to universities on how to deal with the problem of students buying their essays and pretending they’d written them. Some of the measures were obvious, for example, setting university IT networks to block essay writing websites, or not exactly outrageously, getting familiar with students’ writing styles so that a lecturer would notice when Hugo all of a sudden isn’t writing like Hugo, starts spelling words the American way and hasn’t just read The Ginger Man for the first time.

Equally sensibly, the guidance recommended that there should be clear procedures for reporting student cheating, now that most university disciplinary procedures don’t include a frosty stare over the rim of a sherry glass and the ominous ticking of a clock while a coal shifts in the fireplace in a book-lined study.

Some of the guidance though, seemed to be at odds with the whole purpose of a university experience. You could, it suggested, avoid students using fake paid-for essays by, oh, I don’t know, set them fewer essays. Or hey, if they can’t write essays, support the ones that can’t to improve their writing skills.

And here I have to declare an interest, because for the past several years, this is what I’ve been doing and being paid for it. I had a private student. She’d failed her A Levels and I was originally hired to get her through her re-sits. It was her written English that was the problem. She could explain an idea perfectly well out loud. Ask her to put it on paper and all you’d get would be at best blank paper, or a string of un-connected clauses and apparently random ideas that didn’t seem even vaguely linked to each other, let alone the subject. But after a year of once a week really quite hard work on both sides, we won. She passed and got into the university of her choice, to do a performing arts degree. The family thanked me, she thanked me, I got paid, smiles all round and I had the satisfaction of thinking I’d done something well that changed someone’s life for the better, the best thing about teaching.

A few months later I got a phone call from her mother. Um, could I sort of do the same thing again, but at university level? Because the university isn’t all that happy about the essay work. I surprised myself how much I knew about Cabaret, inter-war Berlin and the rise of Nazism, but I’d read Isherwood, met two very old men who had actually been in the Hitler Youth (they loved it, apart from the thought-control bit, apparently), written Janni Shenck and listened to a German girlfriend talking about her grandfather’s trek on foot from Czechoslovakia to Bremen, on the run from the Wehrmacht Heer after he’d laughed at a joke about Hitler and was sentenced to death by firing squad. It wasn’t that hard to help someone write about musicals, once I’d taken Howard Kirk‘s dictum that history is inevitable.

The two old men who had happily marched in their shorts singing Tomorrow Belongs To Me would probably have agreed that if you had any sense and especially if you wanted to keep your head on your shoulders, all you had to do with history was lie back and enjoy it.

South Pacific was much the same. There Ain’t Nothing Like A Dame? Some Enchanted Evening? It’s yer actual sociological context and involuntary geodemographic displacements, innit. That and the prospect of being blown to fly-blown atoms or working on the Burma railway making the prospect of a final quick leg-over pretty darned good, anyway. Discuss, as examiners used to say.

Then we did 42nd Street. What was amazing was how little my student knew pretty much about anything at all that had happened in the twentieth century. And more so, what any of that might have meant to people and their dreams and ambitions. She had no real idea of the Great Depression. The Dust Bowl was something to do with cleaning products. Bread lines, pre-Brexit HGV driver shortages, were a totally novel concept and barely believable at that. Ok, she wasn’t a friend of mine but Dorothy was right, there’s no place like home and 42nd Street isn’t even vaguely like rural Suffolk, which was for this student. But I didn’t chose the degree course.

When I asked for some fact-gathering (How many people lost their jobs in the Great Depression in the USA? What was the population of the USA at that time? Proportionately, was that a lot? Did most people live in towns or in rural areas?) it all seemed an alien concept. I don’t understand how it could be, given the plot of 42nd Street specifically is about a small-town girl coming to the city to make it big. The facts weren’t gathered unless I gathered them. The essay didn’t have a structure unless I structured it. Themes weren’t explored – even purely musical themes and references – unless I not only suggested the links but sketched out a format and wrote a draft.

More than once a week went by without any work at all being done on this essay unless I did it. It was lockdown. Whatever the student was doing, it wasn’t being out being a student. I’d suggested using speech recognition software. Great idea. No follow-up on it at all. I suggested Grammarly, a free app that not only fixes your spelling but touches up your grammar and sentence construction too. Not downloaded. Finally, I talked to the parent. The issue had been going on for years. Talking, fine. Writing, forget it. Which is slightly problematic when you’re enrolled in a learning programme that requires writing. Unless of course, you get someone else to write it.

I didn’t know that who sang Elton John Your Song? is a genuine question online. To me, that question isn’t about knowing Elton John’s repertoire. I thought it was about being able to use English like an adult while calling yourself a university student. But I’m old and the past is a different country. They do things differently there.

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Doing it wrong

Today’s sailing was good. I did loads of things wrong in the four and a half hours I got on the water, following yesterday’s three hours. It’s sunny again after a few weeks of not sunny at all, and 27 degrees on the car thermometer, so shorts and no sweater or coat for a change, and make sure there’s a bottle of water onboard. Which reminds me there isn’t now, so I’d better put one in the car for tomorrow’s sailing.

A couple of days ago there was an odd lifejacket incident. I’d bought a new Crewsaver Hammar automatic lifejacket new last year and thought it was pretty good. Certainly it ought to have been better than the 20 year old manual inflation jacket I’d been using for probably far too long, the one that dated back to Drascombe Scaffie days. I bought that boat the year the Twin Towers came down along with Tower Seven, the one that collapsed because a plane didn’t fly into it. The night before sailing I went to check my lifejacket and found it was partially inflated.

I didn’t really understand how. It hadn’t got wet. The indicator was slightly off centre, suggesting the trigger had been pulled, maybe when I put the jacket in the back of the car, stuffing it tight against the back of the driver’s seat because I had the car roof down and didn’t want the jacket to fly away. But it was only partially inflated. Next morning it was fully up.

None of this made any sense. Nor did what happened next. I checked the jacket all over. On the Hammar trigger that sets off the jacket if it gets wet there is a date stamp. It said to replace the trigger in 2018 or if you can’t see a green dot in the indicator. I could only see half a green dot. And the jacket was bought ‘new’ in 2020.

The seller couldn’t be found. So far, so Ebay. What was odder was Crewsaver’s reaction when I emailed them with the serial number, asking when the jacket was made, describing the partial inflation of the jacket and how it took all night to inflate fully, which is a bit slower than I’d like if I fell overboard unconscious, even though my Drascombe hasn’t got a boom to smack me about and sweep me over the side, one of the things I like about Drascombes. Crewsaver said…..nothing at all.

Nice website. All very straightforward and Ellen MacArthur used Crewsaver when she was wrecking boats and would I like to register for updates and all that blah. And when a customer has a query the response, as so often now, is simply nothing at all. Call me old, but I remember a time when Customer Service didn’t mean simply ignoring the stuff you as a company can’t be arsed to do. Answering emails asking why your product doesn’t work, for example.

I got a new lifejacket, fairly obviously not from Crewsaver, one much, much heavier but oddly much more comfortable to wear. It’s the alarmingly illiterately titled Ocean Safety Kru Sport Pro, with so many Newtons of floaty that if I ever do fall off a boat then conscious or otherwise, I’ll be coming back out of it like a Polaris missile. Without the exploding end bit. If they still make them.

I wore it for the first time today. All the way up to Bouy 30, up with the tide, down with the ebb (it’s a Lugger. You don’t fight the tide in a Lugger) I didn’t fall in or come anywhere close to, although one gust did see the boat heel far enough to see the bow wave visible over the gunwhale. The wind on the Deben is problematic at the best of times. There are hills as well as trees as well as shallows and silting and an anchorage, not forgetting the geriatric arses in boats the size and style of a block of flats who either don’t know or don’t care about ColRegs and seemed utterly indifferent to pointing their boat’s bow at me 30 metres away. As I used to tell gobby smart-mouth kids who thought they were hard when I was teaching, I’ve had several people point guns at me over the years, all of them professionals. It’s still just rude.

Words were spoken

Fairly short words, at some volume. They seemed to have an immediate effect though, which was what I intended.

I had enough to deal with, with the gusting and trying not to run out of water and short tacks through the anchorage, sailing the Lugger as if it was a dinghy, which isn’t ideal as it isn’t. But it was fine. Mostly, anyway. There was a point when the jib shackle came undone which meant firstly that the jib ran off on its own, so half the power gone. More bizarrely, the shackle managed to close itself again, over the starboard shroud. A couple of days ago I’d perfected heaving-too, otherwise known as a sailing crash-stop. You tack, push the rudder away from you making the bow of the boat turn through the wind to go the other way. When it turns you normally let go the jib sheets on the side they were on and tighten the other side after the boat. has turned – you’ve now got the mainsail and the jib out the same side of the boat.

If you want to stop fast, or if you want to stop to sort something out, or even both, you only do half of that. Push the tiller away, the nose of the boat comes through the wind and … No. That’s it. Because the jib is still on the wrong side the boat somehow stalls in the wind, not going anywhere. You’ll drift if there’s a tide but it stops forward progress very quickly and it gives you space to sort things out. So that’s what I did, albeit after more words were spoken, albeit to inanimate pieces of metal.

After that a good long reach doing a decent enough speed for a Lugger back to the entrance to Martlesham Creek, a couple of very short tacks through the little anchorage at Kyson’s Point but the boat and I had the measure of each other now and we managed just fine. We even sailed all the way up the Creek onto our mooring right at the end and only dropped the boathook over the side once. It floated. Loads of things went wrong. And everything worked out fine. It’s what I like a lot about sailing these days. I’m learning a lot of things I’d forgotten. And I’m learning that I actually can do so many things I didn’t really think I could. All you have to do is try.

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Goodbye to all that

My beloved probably life partner, given my age and Kate Bush almost certainly not going to a) phone me b) lose 30 kilos c) look the way she did at 18 again, made a cruel remark the other day. It’s been repeated quite a lot.

My best conference suit, a fetching single-breasted, very dark grey Daks chalk stripe, would look good for someone going to a fancy dress party as a gangster, apparently.

I objected to this on several grounds. Firstly, word on the street, or at least, on The Sopranos, and I’m hip to that jive, tells me that actually, fairly ghastly pastels leisure-wear in XXXL man-made fibres are much more the thing, or were 20 years ago when it was made. Which is probably the root of the problem.

That suit was one of two I bought in Newcastle, en route to Oslo, via Kristiansand, so long ago that they still had a ferry there, sixteen years back. I had to take the ferry because if I flew there was a sporting chance of dying, or more of a chance than usual flying, light packets of flak over Bremen notwithstanding, after I’d managed to get five massive Deep Vein Thromboses from flying too much. I was going to a conference. Not the one where the Financial Times described me as ‘the Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen of market research’ in a piece I wish I’d framed. But after that one I ended up speaking at a lot of conferences and I didn’t have a thing to wear. Actually, I did. I had a rather nice lightweight blue linen job from Cordings bought very late in 2001 which I’m definitely not throwing out. It isn’t just the fact it’s got years of wear in it, nor that it was and is the sort of kit James Bond used to affect for hot weather jobs. That one’s just My Suit. It er, suits me, sir.

For my younger readers, that was the catch-phrase from a comedy show, again about a thousand years ago.

I had the dubious pleasure of being mugged by two Geralds exactly like this in Turnbull and Asser one Christmas. I’d gone for a haircut at Trumpers, where probably on behalf of the Jermyn Street Retail Association they plied the customers with free whisky while you waited for your trim. For not much – or it didn’t seem like much after the whisky – they did your shoes and fingernails while you sat and waited. I’m neither going to listen to nor accept any criticism of this whatsoever. You don’t get full employment any other way. Irrespective, haircut done, tip given to Young Adam, counsellor, confessor and barber, I lurched into the glowing dusk heading West. Which fatally sent me past Turnbull’s Christmas window. If you’ve never seen this then you’ve missed one of life’s considerable treasures. The east window was all ties. Silk ties. Brightly lit. Fantastic silk ties, woven, Italian silk ties instead of the printed Chinese rubbish in Tie Rack. Ties, in those days, at those conferences, mattered. Ten minutes later, after I’d been comprehensively Geralded, two ties up and £105 down, I was back on the street, more than slightly dazed. I still have them both. The ties, not the Geralds, you understand. A hugely brilliant yellow Paisley and a not such a good idea multi-coloured Cubist creation. The Paisley I’d still wear anywhere that needed a tie.

I bought loads of other stuff for conferences. A grey flannel suit by Crombie, which I wore so much it actually wore out. Unlike the wool and cashmere houndstooth check trousers they made which turned an evening in a taverna in Greece into something of a shining memory still. The suit I had to buy when British Airways managed to lose my suitcase somewhere between Heathrow and San Diego didn’t get much wear apart from that one interview I had to do with SURFPAC and then again with SPAWAR, the weekend Sadam Hussein was found in a drain and once again, too often in my life, someone very calm in a uniform seriously considered shooting me. It’s so rude, apart from anything. not what you expect when you go to interview someone by appointment. I’d already told the taxi driver to slow down and don’t approach the gate that had big signs on it saying ‘Do Not Approach This Gate.’ Reading didn’t seem to be part of his core skillset.

The three sets of Italian Super 110 black wool trousers, another Ian Fleming recommendation for hot weather suavery – am I really ever going to wear them again? In rural Suffolk? Seriously? The brown double-monk Lobbs, possibly anywhere. The blue suede double-monk shoes, maybe Aldeburgh on a dry Saturday. But black Super 110 wool trousers…. probably not. And it hurts to type that.

But what do you actually do with this stuff? It’s going to stay in a charity shop forever, unless someone thrifty suddenly decides they need possibly somewhat dated hot climate business kit, which is borderline unlikely. It’s far too good for the clothes bin at the fire station where they probably put everything through a shredder and re-spin the yarn or send it in bundles to Africa. If that still happens. Ebay beckons if I can be bothered to go through the faff of writing it all up and getting tough plastic jumbo size envelopes.

It’s remotely possible that the well-dressed gangster, and possibly even the well-dressed conference-goer, speaker or not, might maybe, just conceivably not wear decent kit this stuff any more. I was moderately shocked when pilot cases were replaced by little rucksacks. I mean, really? A rucksack? And a water-bottle with a drinker thing on the top as if you’re still teething? Seriously? But time apparently moves on. I’m not doing conferences these days. Or market research – thanks to the Internet everyone knows everything now, apart from knowing that liars tell lies, obviously.

So a lot of my wardrobe is going to go. No reasonable offer refused. But not those houndstooth trousers. Nor the haunting strains of Some Enchanted Evening that seem to waft from the cupboard whenever I see them. I think it’s my age or something.

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A New Way Of Doing Business

Have you bought anything online? Well, good for you. No Covid risk, no engagement, no chat, no ‘how does it feel in your hand?’ But hey, that’s all so like last century, daddio.

We don’t do business like that now.

Who we seem to do business isn’t governed by the Consumer Credit Act or the Consumer Rights Act. In case you’re unfamilair with it, (and as someone who buys stuff you shouldn’t be, it’s easy enough to find out about it. Here, for example: on the UK government’s own quite helpful website. It isn’t difficult to understand. If you want the actual text of what these Acts say, that’s pretty easy too, if for example, you want to see what your rights as a consumer are.

Yes, ok, there are no pictures of tits in it and it isn’t presented by Davina McCall or Nigel Farage, (which seems to be the baseline of UK medai and attention now) but despite that, it’s worth reading, whatever your reading ability, because it tells you, without any argument or what this bloke down the pub whose mate used to do all the servicing on a judge’s car said, exactly what your rights are.

As a model, does exactly and precisely what a government website ought to do for its citizens. It’s an index of un-engagement on both sides how few people know about it. In essence, the Consumer Rights Act, introduced, you’ll be absolutely un-astonished to learn not by a Conservative nor by a Labour MP, much less either Party itself, but by Liberal-Democrat Jo Swinson.

So you have rights when you buy something. You have right to get what you ordered. If you didn’t actually see the thing then you have the right to cancel when it turns up on your doorstep and it’s not what you thought it was.

This week this has happened twice, both times with an English company although one of them, registered in England, has a Chinese director and wants to pretend it’s Chinese.

?“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
?“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
?“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Lewis Carrol: Through The Looking Glass

The easy one to deal with was a T shirt. 100% merino wool was what it said on the description. That was what I wanted. What turned up said on the label 100% cotton. In many languages, English being the first. One of the laws of internet commerce seems to be that words mean anything you want them to mean, just as Lewis Carrol had one of his characters say. Cotton, wool, issa T-shirt, innit. Made of sunnink, mate. Merino. I like the sound of that.

Which seems to be the way internet copywriting works now.

The other way internet commerce seems to work depends on whether you pretend your company is Chinese or not, and depends on pretending when you’re sitting in your chair in England, ordering goods from a website displaying a company registered in England with an address in England, the goods being dispatched to, delivered to, and paid from an address in England, that actually, this is a contract made in China and Chinese law applies.

Which, to use a legal term, is utter bollocks. And I’m utterly fed up with it.

I don’t know if they know it is and I do not care. More on Friday if they haven’t paid up.

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