My step-sister died on Good Friday. Mine was a family of secrets and lies, secrets about names, especially of those who had died. There were lies about where people had come from and the actually very historically evident members of the family whose existence I’ve had to deduce online. I appreciate that in some ways a dead wife or girlfriend has the most massive advantage over a living one; you can’t have an absolutely massive row about the bins or the particularly idiotic choice of nail varnish colour that might suit a shop-girl 40 years younger but will hardly do for this dinner party, will it? And all the other can’t-speak-ill-of-the-dead stuff that applies. Being dead means never getting older, never putting on weight, never being called that fat cow/stupid bitch/totally mad woman ever again, by absolutely anyone who doesn’t want the entire room freezing them out for the next half hour as an absolute minimum. They’re literally beyond criticism.
None of this, I have to say, applies to my step-sister. It certainly did to her mother, who died over fifty years ago. Until this week, I didn’t know her name, nor when she died. There were two photos in the house in Trowbridge, both showing my step-sister and her brother and the mystery woman whose name was never to be spoken. If it wasn’t actually that then it certainly never was spoken in my hearing. It certainly did to a friend’s Dead French Girlfriend, who he’d talk about when he had drink taken, as it’s sometimes put. He told me once he thought and had reason to think that she’d died carrying his baby, but by then she was engaged to someone French, the past is another country, and besides, the wench is dead. His wife hated Dead French Girlfriend’s name even being mentioned. But omissions are no better than lies. Discuss.
My step-sister didn’t do lies, nor so far as I know, omissions. I hadn’t seen her for a couple of years, but then again, thanks to Covid, who has? And just like Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi, you don’t know what you had till it’s gone.
She was ten years older than me. I wrote about her once. When I was 18 she seemed like looking at a still from a film I hadn’t seen. I knew I would, whether or not it was quite the same, as it turned out not quite to be.
My partner Elisabetta and I dreamed last night, two sides of the same dream. We dreamed about cats and teddy bears. We don’t have a cat. In her dream as she said, “They weren’t real. They were like jelly babies.”
The cat in my dream died seventeen years ago. Even as I write that I think it can’t be true, but it is. My big teddy bear was exactly himself in the dream. So was my lovely cat, except that they were walking to the top of a sunny hill, hand in hand, like Piglet and Pooh, as I followed close behind them.
They had captions in my dream, probably because I speak only a bit of get-you-by Cat and even less fluent Teddy Bear. Hardly any, in fact.
One said, “What should we do?”
The other replied, “Help each other, until we go back into the dark.”
Elisabetta was crying out in her sleep. I woke having to bite my lip really quite hard , then find my big teddy bear and pat his foot, to make sure he wasn’t moving. He was still there, where I knew he was. My step-sister not so.
Christmas 1980 Carl Bennett and Celia Scholes 1949 – 2022
Today, 77 years ago, the 8th United States Army Air Force flew its last combat mission in WW11. Eleven years ago one of the pilots on that mission was staying with me in Suffolk. He told me how he’d nearly not made it.
Not from enemy action, but because he’d been at a dance in Ipswich the night before and missed his transport back to base. There were no buses, no trains, nothing moving on the roads, so he had to walk back to Station 373, near Leiston. It’s twenty-two miles.
A couple of years ago I walked half of the route to see how it had changed, but also because I had my doubts that it could be done. Like anything else, it depends on when it’s to be done. Being under 21 helps, too. He was, at the time. I’m not, exactly.
I also did it because I’d told him I would. Some of the road has disappeared now, buried under a dual carriageway making all of the walk a lot more dangerous than it was on a cold Spring night in 1945, although of course, I didn’t have people shooting at me later the same morning. To be fair, thanks to the USAAF’s previous attentions to the Luftwaffe, nor did he.
The original radio script was for 30 minutes. It was a bit of a bracer when they told me I had five. Since then I’ve been trying to flesh out the 30 minute script as something more, but I’ve never been clear exactly what. A travel book about a place you can’t go to, perhaps. A history of one evening. I don’t know if it will ever get finished. I don’t think I can do it justice. Nor the old man I knew.
He told me a lot of stories from those times, some silly, some desperately sad. He told me about the helplessness when two miles up airplanes broke apart nearby and he saw ten-man bomber crews start their fall to earth. He told me about the thing that still made him ashamed; it was thinking how beautiful the colours of the flash were when he saw a German plane explode close by. He was not a saint, in his relationships or his attitudes. I remember the time he was describing the cover of a book I’d loaned him; it showed a German aircraft as he said, “on its correct course….”
“Straight down into the ground with smoke coming out of it.”
I went to take some pictures at the airfield one summer’s day after his last visit. The wind was gusting as I picked my way past the piles of broken concrete that had been runways. There was a hut that had been used for pigs in the 1960s, with dates painted on the walls and doors.
As I looked through the camera I tried to imagine how busy this empty place must have been. The wind carried men’s voices, talking as they worked on something, all the time I was taking pictures, but when I’d finished taking pictures and looked around to see who it was there was nobody there at all.
I love the Real England, but I hate more than anything on earth (except cowardice in looking at the truth) the intellectual sloth, the gross mental indolence that prevents the English from making an effort of imagination and realising how shameful will be their portion in history when the story of this last year in the biography of democracy comes to be written. Shameful foolish and tragic beyond tears, for the toll will be paid in English blood. English lads will die and English lads have died, not one or two, but hundreds of thousands, because their elders listen to me who think little things, and tell them little things, which are so terribly easy to repeat.
I didn’t write that. Rudyard Kipling did, writing about the Russian revolution a hundred years ago, his point proven by how pathetically little has changed. The Prime Minister, who likes to pose as the ultimate Englishman despite being an American citizen until 2017 appointed a Minister specifically to find the benefits of Brexit, unable, along with the UK media who enabled it, to tell the truth about the lunatic lake of half-truths, conditional clauses, delusion, racism and xenophobia that bred it. After two months the Minister has somehow inexplicably failed to make his findings public. Meanwhile, lorry drivers crap on the roadside waiting for the technological solution the government promised would simplify import and export, in the absence of which the whole process has become more difficult. This year, apart from intending to send people to camps in Africa, Australia being no longer available, the main item on the Parliamentary agenda has been not just shamefully foolish and tragic beyond tears, but all the evidence anyone could ask for of a failed state. The main item, even bigger than the pretence that a disease killing 500 people per day has somehow not just gone away but was personally cured by the Prime Minister dressing up as a nurse, has been avoiding telling the truth about his lies and lawbreaking.
There were, unarguably, parties at Number 10 Downing Street, during a Covid lockdown where parties were banned by the man who was there. Nobody even disputes that now. Even the Prime Minister, who used to claim he didn’t know about that happening in his own house, despite being filmed at the event, now says OK, he was there, maybe, but not for long and anyway, he didn’t know it was a party. Adults in the UK are being asked to believe that an adult who genuinely does not know what a party is, is fully capable of say, being responsible for the launch of nuclear missiles in defence of the nation.
Even without a handy little military unpleasantness far away, the preferred English kind notwithstanding that it usually resulted in a colossal English defeat (vide Mons, Dunkirk, Norway, Singapore), a man who pretends everything, from not knowing how many children he has to not knowing that PG Wodehouse was kidding to not knowing that airborne disease transmission can be mitigated by wearing a mask to pretending it’s all just not happening and doesn’t matter anyway so long as he’s still Prime Minister is still Prime Minister.
And the hundreds of thousands of dead? That only happens in the kinds of wars we don’t have anymore. Except of course, it doesn’t, as a direct result of the policies of the Party the Prime Minister leads. 130,000 preventable deaths in 2019, well before Covid. Another 170,000 on top of that caused directly by doing too little, too late, having a lockdown, not having a lockdown, pubs being too dangerous to enter, totally safe to enter and too dangerous to enter all in the course of a single day, pretending that science was just something girly swots did, that adhering to medical advice was subsidiary to the unassailable right to infect anyone, anywhere at any time because Freedom.
“We have seen progress in reducing preventable disease flatline since 2012. At the same time, local authorities have seen significant cuts to their public health budgets, which has severely impacted the capacity of preventative services. Social conditions for many have failed to improve since the economic crisis, creating a perfect storm that encourages harmful health behaviours. This health challenge will only continue to worsen.”
Institute for Public Policy Research 2019
Most unforgivably of all, the cowardice in the refusal to face facts is something the Prime Minister is or was or pretended to be aware of. More contemptible still is the way it’s almost impossible now to decide which of these is ever true, or at what time, or whether it just changes according to who he talks to, but that’s just a given now.
One of the big things affecting lives and deaths is the fact that UK trade is down 15% post-Brexit, according to the government’s own figures from the Office of Budget Responsibility, still shamelessly called that without the slightest trace of irony. Handily though, that’s hardly ever mentioned in most UK media, let alone repeated around the bar in every pub. The little, easily repeatable things still matter more. And as everyone knows, when it comes to the UK’s problems it’s all down to them forrins, innit?
We have to make our own entertainment in the fields, here in Suffolk, so part of my Monday, for the past fifteen years or more, has been going to the auctions. It’s mostly stuff people don’t want anymore, but because a fair number of people who live in these parts are seriously wealthy, old and have more than one house then sometimes you can find not just bargains but really interesting stuff as well. If you’re lucky you can find interesting bargains too, now and again.
The best thing I ever found, or at least the most profitable, was a Moulton folding bicycle. They’re rare. I was hoping nobody else knew what it was but two other people had an idea and bid it up from the £30 I was hoping it would go for to the £140 I paid for it. I folded it up, put it in the back of the car and ordered two new tyres, two new inner tubes and a pair of folding pedals. I had a spare Brooks B17 saddle in the shed, so that went on and the test ride I gave it told me what I thought anyway – I don’t like tiny wheels because they feel unstable. I put it on Ebay and it turned out the Japanese person who bid it up to £1,200 plus £250 shipping wasn’t kidding. It paid the mortgage that month.
The last of the line.
A month or two ago I found something similar, a Freiburger sextant. I’d first seen one – or at least, a picture of one – about twenty years ago, when I was running half a business information research agency and we had a load of maritime work for companies like Inmarsat, Cap-Gemini, Jeppesen, UK Hydrographic Office and I had to spend a lot of time getting up to speed with a whole hidden world of Big Steamers and dealing with a linear descendant of Captain Bligh, which gave me an insight into exactly why the mutiny on the Bounty happened. It saw me elected to the Nautical Institute and made a member of the Honorable Company of Master Mariners, as well as propelling me around the world to conferences every couple of months in Miami or Limassol, Oslo or Hamburg or Sydney or interviewing in San Diego or D.C.. The walk I did there on a frozen February Sunday morning, and the appalling scalping I got in a barbershop when they heard “I’m interviewing at Coastguard Headquarters” and took it as “I’m being interviewed at Coastguard Headquarters are both going to have to be another story. Jesus, my head was cold though.
Last week I found a thing I didn’t know I was even looking for. A typewriter. But not just any typewriter. It looked like the best typewriter you could think of, so utterly well-designed that if I asked you to draw one it would look like the one I bought. An Olivetti Lettera 22. The absolute high-water mark of mechanical inky ribbon-smacking perfection.
It was designed in 1950. In 1959 the Illinois Institute of Technology nominated it as the best design product of the past 100 years. Now, OK, that was a while before the Ipod, Ipad, the Iphone and this MacBook Pro, and even before the Mach One Mustang, but you can’t type a letter or a novel on any of those things anyway. I paid a ridiculously small amount at the auction for it, paid another £2-something for a new ribbon, stuck the airline at the garage into it and blasted out 70 years of skin flakes and grime and started typing this evening, just like those other famous Leterra 22 users, William S. Burroughs, Will Self, Gunter Grass, who had three of them, one in each house and Jan Morris.
It was odd. I haven’t typed for years. Not on a typewriter, anyway. And it’s very different. Not where the keys are – they’re in almost exactly the same place, apart from the inverted comma key. But the pressure is different. When I first started using computer keyboards in an office my boss used to tell me I didn’t have to hit the keys so hard. What did he know – I’d learned to type on a proper type-writer. My first novel, A Day For Pyjamas, was written on a type-writer. I lived in the modern world, baby. I had my radio on.
Immediately before I started typing this evening I’d been reading old airfield records from 1945, sent to me by the ever-helpful US government archive office. And obviously typed. Some pages were sharp and clear, some not so much and several showed typing like mine, where individual letters looked faded and indistinct. The biggest difference isn’t working out where the backspace key is (apparently there is one but obviously it isn’t marked, to make things more fun, presumably), but consistency. If you don’t put the same amount of pressure on each keystroke the letters won’t come out the same.
It didn’t help that I hadn’t screwed up the caps on the ribbon spools tightly enough; with a new ribbon everything was clear and sharp, but six lines in it had all started to look as if it too, had been hammered out on a slack afternoon at Neibiberg airfield one October day nearly 80 years ago, the war over and almost everyone already sent back to the USA, the biggest problem being how to get enough civilian workers physically onto the base when a) you don’t speak German and b) you aren’t supposed to fraternise with them anyway. I knew a story about one airman who did, and found his evening took a turn for the worse after kissing his fraulein goodnight – as soon as she’d stepped inside her house someone loosed off a magazine full of Schmeisser 9mm at him. He never found out who did it, some jilted boyfriend or the Werewolf revenge squads he’d been warned about, but he didn’t stop running and hiding long enough to ask. He kept a cocked and locked Colt automatic under his pillow the whole time he was there, he said. Most folks on the station did.
I don’t know whether it’ll help write his story or if it’ll just turn out to be another excuse not to finish it, and it’s taken nearly two years in different formats already. Obviously, if I type it then it’ll all have to be typed out again on a laptop anyway, but maybe that could be part of the editing process. It hurts your back, sure. But it feels like writing. It sounds like it, too. There’s nothing remotely like it. Joan Didion would tell you the same.
A thing of beauty and a joy forever…
“To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed… The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind,” she wrote. and all of that is true. But there’s also something about the literal impact of the word, the click, the ‘ting,’ the sound of the carriage-return that alters the meaning and the arrangement too. You find yourself writing “it is” because it’s simply physically easier than levering up the Shift key.
But the ghostly imprints are still in my mind, from reading my own musings on typing which I used to try out this old machine, to the mis-hits and key-tangles and faded ribbons that described the 357th Pursuit Group’s move to Germany at the end of the war, telling how on 8th July 1945 the first group of 30 officers and 65 men left Leiston, how at midnight July 19th the main convoy of trucks left and took until 31st to get to Munich, and steam heat and running water, all of that a big improvement over the coke-stoves in tin huts they’d all been used to in a field outside Theberton.
I found the name of the old pilot I’d met and got to know in the records several times. Some of his stories fit the dates in the records, and I haven’t read all the records yet. I can see the date he got promoted, the date the group got told it wasn’t part of the 8th Air Force any more, but the 9th now. The date he got transferred out to the 14th Liaison Squadron. I can’t see the date of the incident he told me about, barrel-rolling a Mustang aircraft around a lumbering B17, then finding the B17 was carrying someone ten ranks higher than him, who went predictably ape about it, but I can see a date where I would have expected to see his name and finding it not there, which might coincide.
Long, long time ago, I can still remember how that music used to make me smile. That was about all there was to smile about in Bath, the winter of ’83. Stothert and Pitt had shed – sorry, obviously I meant re-structured – about 500 jobs and pre-internet, there wasn’t much of an information economy in a place whose great days were some 200 years previously. It was where I went to university at the top of one of the hills in buildings about as far removed from a UNESCO World Heritage site experience as you could possibly get. It was where I came back to after a pathetic job on a local paper in my hometown that I walked out of after a week and a commission-only horror-show of a sales job in London, working on titles nobody had ever heard of and trapped by the very, very occasional massive cash paydays that kept the crew of ex-cops, mercenaries, public schoolboys, designers, musicians, resting actors and fraudsters at least off the cold streets from nine till five and massive drinks on Fridays. And yes, mercenaries. One of them was an ex-cop as well. The Met, obviously. Another guy’s dad used to command a tank in the war. Unfortunately, it was a Wermacht Heer Panzer and in Russia, so he didn’t talk about it a lot.
I came back to Bath and I’m remembering this today because we’re having work done on the house, which like most of Bath, is a Georgian Grade Two Star listed, 300 year-old rather nice little town-house in a rather nice little Suffolk market town and all rather far removed from the crappy one room I was renting in another Georgian townhouse the year Yvonne Fletcher got killed. The guy we got to paint the woodwork today reminded me of the people I used to know back when the Hat and Feathers and Walcot Nation was a thing, when Walcot Reclamation shared a yard with not so much a commune as a flop-house for left-over hippies huddled with their crappy dogs around a wood-stove until opening time, where now Range-Rovers load reconditioned roll-top bathtubs.
As Bruce Springsteen put it, I got a job working construction, although there hadn’t been much work on account of the economy. If anyone tells you the ’80s were a boom-town goldmine, only some of them were, and only in some places. The ex-army guy I was working for ran a crew of similar misfits, mostly older. We were picked up at silly o’clock in the morning and piled into the back of an ancient Transit van, no seats, let alone seatbelts, and carted off to whichever site he was working that day. Skilled trades had their own transport. We were just grunt work. Because I could talk to him I got to work with him a lot on jobs that required a little finesse. But not a lot of it. I worked demolition.
His best jobs, the ones he made the most on, were the ones I most respected. Now and again he bought a wreck of a Georgian house, not a listed one, and either camped in it onsite while he renovated it, or pulled it down and started again. There was a local bylaw in Bath that made pulling down unlisted houses a great idea – you could only build in Bath stone. The problem/nice little earner was that the last Bath stone quarry shut decades before, so there was a big market in re-usable stone blocks. Even smashed stone blocks could be ground into powder and used to colour modern cement render to make it acceptable.
Every day for a couple of weeks just before I left for America I packed my sandwiches, filled my Thermos, pulled on my hi-top Dutch paratroop boots and my old jeans, made sure I had my gloves and my ancient Israeli army jacket (don’t even ask) and walked across the city to ‘my’ site. It was a tiny house that occupied the entire plot it was on, which wasn’t saying much. Memory puts it in Norfolk Crescent, and looking at Google Maps there’s a suspiciously familiar building in about the right place.
The job was simple. Having given-up trying to renovate something that nobody had bothered to maintain for about a hundred years after gradually declining levels of people were living in it for another hundred, the owner, the guy I was working for, abandoned the idea of spending the rest of his life trying to get rid of dry rot and decided to start again. I am 99% certain now that there is no way on this earth he had any approval to demolish a listed building, but maybe it wasn’t listed then, like so much of Bath that the council in their wisdom decided to demolish in the 1960s and ’70s, before World Heritage Status became a thing.
We dropped the ground floor ceiling first. Once that was all out of the house and into a skip we dropped the bedroom ceiling through and put all that in a skip too. Then we dropped the roof. Our tools were the same the original builders had used – pcikazes, sledgehammers, crowbars and ladders. You can’t use powertools that need mains power when you’re ripping out the electrics, not that there were any electrics anyway and more than that, or perhaps less, there weren’t any battery-powered tools worth the name, back in the impossibly long-ago.
After that, I was left on my own to do the profit part of the job; demolish the walls and don’t smash the ashlar blocks up any more than you can help. Which meant climb the ladder, remove one block at a time with a hammer and chisel and crowbar and carry it gently down to the ground. Backwards. On a ladder fixed to nothing. Ever since then I’ve thought Health and Safety is a really good thing.
Being a bit bored, being a bit young and impatient and quite liking my new-found demolition skillset I had a better idea than balancing my way down a ladder carrying a half-hundredweight of stone without being able to hold on to anything: use the sledgehammer and the big crowbar. Drop the whole wall into the void where the inside of the house used to be. To this day it amazes me how many people can’t use a sledgehammer properly; ditto how many people seem to have no idea how to drop a ten-foot stone wall thirty feet long without a) killing yourself b) killing anyone else c) breaking more than two stone blocks, which was a very acceptable casualty rate.
I remember the first time I went up the ladder to the top of the house and removed the capstone, the stone right at the top of the house. Whoever had put it there carved his initials into the stone and the date, 1805, 179 years before I took it back down the ladder. We stopped work soon after that when there was a knock on the door. It was a little old man who I’d seen hanging around before. I thought he was looking for somewhere to doss; it turned out he just wanted a last look at the house he’d lived in when he was a boy. There wasn’t an awful lot for him to look at by then, just a yawning hole inside the intact facade of the house.
About a week into the job PC Yvonne Fletcher was shot to death in the street in London, outside the Libyan embassy on TV by one of two Arab diplomats who started blasting British Sterling submachine-guns from the embassy windows. Unlike the episode of The Professionals it resembled, this was unfortunately real. My boss, along – and practically every newspaper in the country – was sure that the killer would face good old British best-in-the-world justice. I’d watched enough TV to know that he wouldn’t. Admittedly, my knowledge of jurisprudence was limited to having a country solicitor for a step-father, a Green Room at home full of 1940s law books and extensive experience of the Rockford Files and Murder She Wrote on TV.
Jim Rockford helped me survive two enounters with police in the US, including one where the police stuck a revolver in my stomach, which I thought rather rude of them. All of these venerable sources confirmed the same thing: anyone in the Embassy was going to claim diplomatic immunity and at worst they were going to go to the airport, untouched. Which despite the ravings of the tabloid press, along with the complete avoidance of asking why for example, British submachine guns were the weapon of choice on hand for undiplomatic diplomats, was exactly what happened.
“What did I tell you?”
Two years later Mrs Thatcher, never known for not dipping her handkerchief in other people’s blood if it would get her a few votes, claimed avenging Yvonne was why she allowed US jets to take off from Upper Heyford to go and blow up what turned out to be the Chinese embassy in Tripoli, as they’d bought the building after the intelligence report had located the target which was supposed to be Gaddafi or his high command. And despite the fact she was only told about the mission after the planes were airborn and had no more authority over them than you or I.
I remembered all of this because it’s suddenly Spring and that was a memorable one, and because it reminded me of now, when we live in a society designed for people who did the right thing and our systems, checks, balances and controls simply don’t work when they massively don’t do the right thing. When it comes to shooting-up demonstrators in a London street, or planting bombs in newsagents, or lying to Parliament, or invading Ukraine, or breaking every agreement not to arm the place to the teeth when the Berlin Wall came down, it doesn’t really matter how many times you say “international law” or “human rights.” When any of that happens the only genuine thing you can remember is we have practically nothing in hand to deal with it. For all that a proven liar of a Prime Minister bleats about ‘war crimes’, for all that his police force stood there time after time when he and his staff broke the law, for every time he broke his own Ministerial Code and forgot to sanction himself, for all his partying with KGB men, despite accepting £60,000 from a Russian oligarch whose wife pretended to want to play tennis with him and making the oligarch/KGB man’s son a Lord in ermine, and now pretending to abominate Russia, ‘war crimes’ are always only the things the losers do, in every war.
I did, but I think I got away with it. I’d written a screenplay that actually got as far as being considered for the Cannes Film Festival (before being placed, possibly even gently, in their Trash folder) by the Maison des Scenaristes, of which I was a member, hem hem.
It was a blend of two true stories, one I’d heard at first hand. Somehow in my life I’d separately met two very old men who had both been in the Hitler Youth. Both of them said the singing, camping, Strength Through Joy part of it was absolutely brilliant, it was the giving up your life for the Fatherland in 1945 that was somewhat problematic, which was exactly what one of them was told he was doing when the American army rolled up to his village. A girlfriend’s grandfather had been a surgeon in the Wermacht Heer stationed in Czechoslovakia. Very early in 1945 he laughed at a joke about Hitler and as a result was sentenced to death, as was his colleague who told the joke. I called the boy Janni Schenck.
He lived when his schoolteacher, who was supposed to be the head of the local Jugend gruppen, assembled the boys on parade, beat them up, made them throw all of their guns in the ditch and sent them home crying.
The surgeon lived when as he and his friend were being taken out to be shot partisans attacked, the friend said “Run!”
He didn’t stop running until he got home to Bremen, past Gestapo and SS death squads, past the fires of Dresden, afraid to move in daytime thanks to the RAF and USAAF blasting anything that moved on the roads, without papers or food and starting only with a shirt, jacket and trousers. It’s over 900 miles.
Those stories are being lost with time, as they always are. I wanted to write something that remembered them, not as glorious warriors but people who had nothing left except hope, who somehow built a decent life and a decent society out of the smashed rubble of hate the previous generation had made. I combined their stories and had the surgeon turn up in the boy’s village just after the schoolmaster had prevented the village from being massacred and gave it to a friend to proofread. She gave it back a week later, saying it was good but she never wanted to read it ever again.
She told me most of her family had been killed by boys like Janni. She thought nobody wants to read stuff like this anymore. It wasn’t relevant. And not everything is about what people of our age call The War. That was before JoJo Rabbit. And before tanks started rolling across the Ukraine again.
Something better change
The Stranglers told us that a long, long time ago, but it didn’t really. The thing I’ve been writing lately has gone on hold a bit, thanks to Vladimir Putin. It was about something else that happened in 1945, when an American airman missed the last transport back from a dance in Ipswich and had to walk back to his base at Leiston, 22 miles away. He had to fly his unit’s last combat mission of the war the next morning. I doubted it could be done so I walked it myself.
The problem is, my proofreading friend was wrong. It is relevant. Everything about Russia invading Ukraine is about The War, and specifically how Roosevelt and Stalin carved-up Europe at Yalta, planning how the world was going to be run. Churchill was remarkably like Prime Minister Johnson it seems, claiming and presumably imagining that his and Britain’s influence was what the world listened to, when it was all but completely irrelevant to how things turned-out in Europe after German forces surrendered.
It’s all happening again, just as pointlessly, just as predictable, with exactly the same bombast and weapons-grade lies from the British government about how Our Brave Boys beat Johnny Ruskie at Crimea and we – oh sorry, chaps, I meant you, I’ll be a bit too busy to be there in the trench – can jolly well do it again.
The same people are losing their homes, the same people who lose them in every war anywhere, ever. It never changes. I don’t know whether that makes a little story about a walk through the dawn 80 years ago relevant or not.
My father claimed he was born in Australia and was brought up near Orpington in Kent. My father was a liar. I’m beginning to find out why.
One obvious reason was that when my mother tried to divorce him she found that you can’t divorce people you’re not actually married to, which came as some surprise to her as she’d been to the church and wore the dress and everything. He was a bigamist, running two parallel families. According to her, anyway.
I started to look into the truth or absence of it back in the 1980s and got as far as establishing he wasn’t born in Australia at all. That took a good half-hour; in those days you just walked into Somerset House in the Strand and looked in the big books, gave them some money and they gave you a copy of the birth certificate.
The 1980s, people keep insisting, were a long time ago. They probably still are. One good thing that’s changed since then is more and more genealogical websites make it far easier to check who was where and when. I’ve just discovered something that ties up. I think I might have discovered something quite odd, as well.
Odd things have happened throughout my life to do with my appearance. It’s not normal. So I’ve been told, anyway, meaning my face is let’s say, distinctive rather than having, for example, an unusual number of fingers for Suffolk. Someone who I’d thought was a great friend once spent an evening wondering out loud how I always got such attractive girlfriends, musing “because you’re not.” Actually, I am of course, and in any event, you can often get to go to bed with very attractive albeit slightly unhinged women just by listening to them droning on about their boyfriend or husband for a bit. Allegedly.
Why any of that matters is because of something that happened in the town I grew up in, Trowbridge in Wiltshire. In those days you insured a car by going to the insurance broker’s office. I NAY! Amazeballs, yah? But everyone did. Including me, one day, trying to insure some Sunbeam Rapier or VW Beetle. The insurance broker asked me what I’d done with the car I insured last week. Which was odd, because I hadn’t. And people don’t look like me. They just don’t.
Be that as it may, today’s discovery is a bit unsettling. Either my paternal grandfather married a woman with the exact same name as his sister, the two of them in the middle of a string of eight children on a farm that’s still there in Kent, or I don’t really want to consider the alternative. I think it has to be the former, not just because I’ve got the right number of fingers, but because the two Kate Bennetts, despite being weirdly the same age, were born in different places, one in Mitcham, Surrey, one in St Paul’s Cray, Kent.
Kate Bennett, born 1877, is the mystery figure in all this. She produced my father at the age of 43, the youngest of three children, two of which I’d never heard of until this morning. But those were the children who survived – I’d discounted her as too old to have children in those days, thinking there was only one, but my father was the last child or the last child that didn’t die before being registered, at least.
The other big mystery is the place. It doesn’t exist. The Urban District Council changed and changed again between 1920 and now, which really does not help track down addresses. A map puts the family of five at a Vachard Place, near what’s now Orpington, in 1921. And it’s massive. The farm the man who appears to be my paternal grandfather came from is still there, a couple of miles from the 1921 address, but he had moved to Mitcham then back again; I’d guess his father died and he either inherited some part of the farm or felt he had to go back to help. But this Vachard Place place is a mystery. It fits with things I remember my father telling me – he grew up in the countryside, there were trees and fields all around, it was beautiful. It’s a country park now so presumably, it hasn’t changed much in the past hundred years and more. But the house is massive. Extremely expensive-looking. Unlike the farm, which according to Companies House has assets of £20,000, or at the least the company registered at that address does.
He was dead by 1939. Or at least he isn’t living with my father and Kate, who was by then widowed and ill, as people often were in their sixties back then. There was another unknown girl living in the same house by then, although whether she was a servant or someone taken in from charity I don’t know – she was never mentioned.
But so much wasn’t.
If I’m honest, this has been an unsettling morning. Either my father’s father shagged his sister, which for obvious reasons I’d prefer not to believe, or there were other relatives I’ve never heard of. I accept that my mother probably didn’t have the wherewithal to go and check the 1921 Census. But she could have walked into Somerset House the same way I could and did. She could have seen or asked to see my father’s birth certificate in the same way my partner and I have that on the list of stuff we’ve shown each other. I can’t think of a reason why we wouldn’t. She was disconcerted to find she had Irish ancestors not that long ago who she’d never heard of. I’m disconcerted today finding ancestors whose existence was denied by omission and collusion.
People tell lies. They tell lies for a reason. People cover-up lies too. I don’t know the reason for that.
I am not, definitely not, going out in this weather. Force Seven on the Beaufort Scale gusting Eleven means the wind at noon on Friday is going to be 38mph, rising up to 65 mph. That’s the forecast for Storm Eunice, here on the Suffolk coast on Friday, which is supposed to be my day off. Twelve, in case you’re wondering, is a hurricane.
I’ve done Beaufort Six before, on the Deben, by accident, last November. It was not fun. I’d gone upriver, which was the closest similarity to Heart of Darkness you can get in Woodbridge, up past the Tide Mill, where the trees can shield the wind and also set it off in a completely different direction, past the Yacht Harbour that a lot of people blame for silting-up the river downstream of it, all the way almost to Wilford Bridge, which is as far as you can go with any kind of mast. That was a difficult day. What I should have done is what you should always do on a Drascombe Lugger as soon as there’s any doubt – get the mainsail down fast.
One of the things I’m doing this winter is replacing the olde-world allegedly cute parralls which are just loops of string with wooden balls on them which link the sail to the mast. All too well, quite often, because they stick and jam and you’re then stuck with a sail blowing the boat over while a sheet of synthetic canvas flaps in your face or the pulley block on the end of it threatens your bridgework. This year I’ve bought some 10cm plastic creel rings to slide over the mast which will slide a lot faster. By a happy accident I managed to find some proper spring-loaded brass sail hanks on Ebay. Unbelievably, they were less than £1 each, so they spent two days in vinegar and lemon juice which helped clean them a bit, but not as much as Brasso. Just as your gas mileage may vary, your brass may not be quite as brassy as you hoped.
But still, this is what winter evenings are for, apart from finalising my parnter’s application for Italian dual nationality, learning some myself, which might be useful if we ever do get it together to buy a 1901 lighthouse on an island off Corsica for a euro, which is sort-of a plan. That and learning how to use a sextant, which is another story in itself. That and do some work on The Walk, of course, more of which anon.
I managed to sand the gunwhales and get some linseed oil on them last week before rain and wind stopped play. That’s made the woodwork look a lot better but it still needs Tonkinoise over the linseed when I get the chance. The idea is to get the boat in the water around March 1st. All I could do today was make sure the cover was tied on securely, so it didn’t fly away or fail itself into shreds. Proper boat cleaning gunk and polish is on order. So are some new gloves.
Back in 2006 I met a Joe Shea, an American pilot who flew Mustang fighters out of Leiston in Suffolk. In 2009 and 2011 he stayed with my partner and I for ten days or so, while he was attending his squadron’s memorial service, the last week of May. That’s why I have the card of the Assistant Air Attache, Embassy of the United States of America on my desk as I write this. I met him, too. He was a Lieutenant Colonel, the same rank as the pilot got to before he retired after 30 years in the US Air Force.
We talked a lot. The first time he came over a lot of stories spilled out about his time in Suffolk, things he hadn’t said for seventy years. The second time, more stories, more memories. I’d stupidly bought a double CD of Swing music – that went on about 9am and went with us in the car as we trundled around the lanes looking for January to May 1945. In Suffolk it’s never that far away.
There’s a passage right at the beginning of Len Deighton’s book, Goodbye Micky Mouse, fiction, written in the 1980s, but Joe recognised a lot of the characters. There’d be a muttered: “I know that guy,” or “That guy that could dance, Major what was his name? Yeah, he wasn’t on our station but…” as he read it. The book opened now, or at least then, with older men in their 60s returning to an airfield in East Anglia, looking over the derelict huts and empty broken tarmac in a field, opening doors in piggeries and peering through cobwebbed windows to find the man each of them couldn’t see anymore, the man they remembered being, 40 years before. Then and now blurred in the book. It certainly blurred at my house one night when Joe and I were up late, listening to Swing music, drinking grappa as he debriefed on a mission eight hours out over Germany more than a half-century before.
He was describing a maneuver interrupted by the Luftwaffe. It was late. I didn’t really understand what he was describing, but it was something to do with his squadron flying in flights of four aircraft, having to swing back and forth across the stream of B17s or B24s because they were about 150 mph faster than the bombers, but not too close otherwise the gunners onboard wouldn’t take a chance of the single-engined fighters not being German and would instead start blasting away with Browning machine guns with bullets half an inch wide. It didn’t take a lot of those to put an airplane down – one solid hit with one bullet would smash a hole through an engine block, then or now.
All this slaloming back and forwards meant no autopilot. It meant the man on the outside of the flight of four had to power-up and turn wide until the flight had crossed the bomber stream, then throttle right back and turn tight back the other way now that he was the inside man on the turn. For six hours. Joe said it was tiring. I could see that it would be, apart from having to keep your head looking all around because although there were nowhere near as many German fighters as there had been they were still around, and now the Luftwaffe had jet aircraft a lot faster than the Mustangs.
Joe said something about another complicated manoevre somewhere high over Germany or Czechoslovakia and I didn’t follow it.
I said I didn’t understand.
Suddenly this little old man was across the table at me, snarling in my face.
“What do you mean you don’t understand? You were there!”
But I wasn’t. I wasn’t born for another fourteen years. I don’t know who Joe thought I was or had been or even at that moment,what year he thought it was now. At that moment I wasn’t entirely certain myself, holed up in the odd room at the old house I lived in, the front of it 200 years old, the alcove off the kitchen where we sat at least another hundred years older than that, the original room in the house. It had a different atmosphere to the rest of the rooms. I loved it. It was timeless and safe.
I gave him a book on strategic air tactics, “the stuff they didn’t bother to tell us about” as Joe put it. The old pilot who had been a young pilot liked it, especially the cover. It showed “a Messerschmittone-ten on the correct course. Straight down into the ground with smoke coming out of it.” He didn’t hate Germans, now or then. He just hadn’t wanted to be killed by them.
The story that stayed with me more than all the others wasn’t mush to do with the war itself, although I suppose it actually had everything to do with it. Joe arrived in England on January 20th 1945 and met girls attached, unattached, married and (ahem) “working.” Towards the end of April, as the war in Europe was ending and the German airforce was rarely seen for flight after flight, Joe went to a dance in Ipswich and missed his lift back to Leiston. It’s twenty-two miles. He was supposed to be flying the next day, early, so he had to walk all the way.
I wrote a version of that story as a five minute broadcast for Radio Suffolk at the beginning of lockdown. I originally wrote it as a half-hour piece and had to cut and cut again, leaving out most of the things I’d noticed as I walked the route, seeing how the roads had changed. I’d wanted to frame it around the operator’s manual for the P51D Mustang I found online, then lost several laptops ago.
Today I found it again. I’m writing it up now, as I don’t know what to call it. It’s not really a novel. A psychic travel book, perhaps. A historical geography lesson. A psychogeographic exposition, in a rural version of Iain Sinclair’s or Peter Ackroyd’s urbanist explorations. A simple story about a walk from Ipswich to Station 373, seventy-seven years ago. A love story, a story about change, a story about what happened, because these stories are fading.
I told Joe I’d do that walk one day. I did half of it two years ago, which became the radio piece. It wasn’t enough and in the nature of time, it’s far too late to tell him now. I’m trying to keep a promise, even if nobody else remembers it except me.
Once upon a time in a land long ago I bought some shoes. It was London, between 16 and 30 years ago, it was this time of year, it was Jermyn Street and they were Church’s. And two pairs of Lobbs. Oh, and a pair of Gucci loafers. Sometimes I think there was something wrong in my head.
The thing about paying five times more than a normal High Street pair of shoes is they last. Not the last. They last. Apart from the pair of Lobbs I think I left under someone’s sofa before the cleaner came in after which no mortal eye beheld them since, or not to my knowledge anyway, I still have all of them. None of them were what you’d call everyday shoes, apart from maybe the Church’s which were and are a fairly unexceptional black brogues and of all of them, my least favorite. The sole lets in water and something is pressing up through the inside of the heel, or feels like it.
The Lobbs were both double monk shoes. Not made of a monk, you understand, or even a pair of monks, but those odd shoes with a strap over the top, or two. Not like Clark’s sandals, thanks for asking. One pair black, one pair brown, from the January sales and still eye-wateringly expensive even when you try not to think about it. it was the black pair that went AWOL. The brown ones are fine. Except they’re not. I had them re-soled by Lobb’s about 20 years back. I never, ever wholly got on with the replacement soles, which admittedly don’t slip on station platforms the way the originals did, but always seemed not just monstrously thick but somehow seemed to trip me up because of their thickness, which as both soles are the same thickness and it doesn’t alter ever, hardly makes any sense at all. Except they do and always have, especially on stairs. And yes, stone-cold sober, thanks.
The Gucci loafers – ah yes, I remember them well, not least as I still have them and they fit in a way that makes you think you forgot to put any shoes on. They’re just brilliant. It was 2003, I think. I didn’t get them because Diana Spencer laughed about one of her numerous (ahem) unofficial consorts’ fondness for them. It wasn’t that more than once after six months on a rowing machine and a habit of drinking in Harvey Nicholls’ top floor bar, the odd minor Sloanette or rather less usefully, cabbie or builder mistook me for Major Hewitt now and again. I just wanted a pair. Not the ghastly ones with red and green ribbon on, as if you’ve just run through a ticker-tape parade or a church fete. Just plain black, the lovely discrete little snaffle-bit decoration on the apron and tiny metal labels on the sole just in case anyone’s missed it, although like finding out a girl’s wearing tights and not stockings, by the time you’re there it’s a bit late to quibble. Anyway, thanks to the rarity of any bona fide opportunity to wear them on a haunted bomber station in East Anglia, they’re fine. Conferences, when I used to do conferences, and dates. According to the Sloane Ranger’s Handbook, gals of a certain type always used ‘look at their shoes’ as a watchword. I’d already taken steps to ensure the worst dating put-down of all could never be uttered, at least about me.
(In case you’re wondering, younger or not fond of hanging around the White Horse on Parsons Green, it was these utterly devastating words:
“White socks! He was wearing white socks!”
Apparently that’s where Conrad got the idea for the last line of Heart of Darkness.)
“The horror. The horror. Exterminate all the brutes.”
Anyway, long and short, the Church’s desperately need a new sole, heel and insole, which is going to cost a cool £190 notes, plus VAT. Because making a new pair takes 200 separate tasks and ripping off the old sole and heel, slapping a new one on and re-cushioning the heel and sole inside comprises 60 separate tasks, by hand, in Northampton. It’s an ethical dilemma, of a kind. Do I say, sure, ok, here’s over £200 for a new pair of old shoes I only wear for best, best these days being funerals or going to court, something I try to avoid doing and pat myself on the back for recycling? Or do I buy a £100 pair of something black which will last two years at the absolute outside, washed individually in Chinese children’s tears?
Then there’s the brown Lobbs to do, which if they had Dainite soles instead of the weird Lobb re-soles that make me walk as if Noddy Holder would have been happy to wear them onstage I’d wear an awful lot more. Maybe in red. Which is going to cost about the same, give or take £50.