If you’ve ever shot clay pigeons you’ll know that because they’re moving, and some distance away from you, you have to shoot not where they are, but where they’re going to be. If you haven’t then given the hysteria around shooting I’d better explain that a clay pigeon is a flat disc of er, clay, thrown into the air by a launching machine. It’s supposed to be similar to shooting pigeons or pheasants or grouse but I’ve never had any interest in shooting anything living, so I don’t know. Clay pigeons don’t taste so good, I do know.
Back when the world was young I had a friend called Simon. He was an Old Etonian to whomlife hadn’t been altogether kind; I met him when we both worked, if that’s not too strong a word for it, taking people out to lunch in London and trying to get them to buy market research reports of varying degrees of antiquity. He had a fairly dreadful girlfriend about whom possibly more but as the poet said, the past is a different country and they do things differently there. She certainly did, anyway. Simon, my girlfriend at the time and I decided one day that we’d all appreciate a day at a country show, so after about two hours of driving that’s where we ended-up. It wasn’t the Royal Show and I can’t exactly remember where it was, other than Aylesbury and keep on going for at least an hour. I remember it was a blisteringly hot day and I’d been forbidden to buy anything after I’d come back from the Badminton Horse Trials with white moleskin jeans and WM Williams jodphur boots on my credit card. Both of which would have been fine if I’d been tying kangaroos down, or waiting for my billy to boil, but living in Kings Langley such opportunities were rare. Although I did find a white wallaby within walking distance, somewhat to my surprise.
Simon and I both shot. Him because an ancestor once held William the Conqueror’s horse for ten minutes and got given half of Oundle or somewhere as thanks and that’s what you pretty much have to do with a country seat; me because I’d learned how to shoot at a school that most definitely wasn’t Eton and I was good enough at it to win my Marksman badge at Bisley at the age of fifteen and a couple of cups and things for clay pigeon shooting. Back then I had an old but nice Aya Number 4, a light side-by-side 12-bore which was a good working farm gun if not very smart, and a Winchester Super Trap, which was a heavy, nicely-made American over and under specifically built for shooting clay pigeons.
I didn’t have either of them with me that day, although back then people took their own shotguns to country shows to compete in clay pigeon events, either for the prizes, to swank about in the pub afterwards or again, because back then, that’s what you did in the countryside.
To be clear, competition shooting is nothing to do with killing anything except clays or pieces of paper. It’s about competing, in something that has an immediate result, which is what I like and liked about it, then and now. You hit the target or you don’t, and try as you might, 95% of the time you’ve got nobody to blame except yourself if you don’t. It’s about control, calculation and calmness, almost like a Zen thing and on those perfect days, when you’re balanced and centred and it’s going right you don’t need to see the target to know you hit it exactly where you wanted to. You can sense it. You feel it. And somehow the feeling is almost always right.
Simon and I weren’t looking for a fight, or a challenge, nor anything else, but while we were looking at the laser shoot some farm boys heard our accents, which back then were a bit full-on Lots Road Bray, yah? As we, and most of the girls we were interested in used to say far too often, even on holiday in France, where they assumed I was German.
Rarely! SAY funny, yah?
Rarely funny or not, the farm boys quite reasonably assumed that city boys with that sort of voice might talk a good game but probably couldn’t shoot as well as them. So we all had to find out.
Simon and I were one team, the two farm boys on the other. We didn’t put money on it, but it was probably the most seriously competitive shooting I’ve ever been involved in, Bisley included. It wasn’t about money, because there wasn’t any involved. It was more being thought to be rubbish at something I knew I wasn’t rubbish at. Whether or not that was a family hangover I’m not getting into here, but I think it was the same for Simon too. The five years leading up to that had given him a bit of a kicking too.
Challenge accepted, the thing was these were laser shotguns. Real shotguns, but they weren’t firing cartridges. When you pulled the trigger nothing came out of the barrel except a laserbeam. Whether the clays were normal clays or not I don’t know, but a buzzer sounded to show if you’d hit the clay with the laserbeam or not. An instant result. And that was pretty much the acclimatisation problem too. Laser beams are just light. Light travels at 983,571,056 feet per second. Ask Einstein. Pellets in Number 7 shot, a normal clay pigeon load, travel at 1,200 feet per second. I’d say you can see the difference, but you can’t. At about 100 feet away and 50 or 60 feet in the air a high clay crossing right to left would need maybe the width of two imaginary fingers to the right, between the muzzle and the clay. You have add some lead, (no, not as in Led Zeppelin, lead, as in the blind leading the blind, although hopefully not with shotguns) which means shoot where the clay is going to be, not where it is. The cluster of shot is going to take some time, albeit fractions of a second, to get to where the clay is and by the time it does, it isn’t. With light, no lead. The virtual shot is travelling at the speed of light. You still have to swing the gun onto the target and follow it. You still have to judge the clay’s trajectory. You still have to anticipate where it’s going to be. But no lead.
It was a long challenge. There were never more than two clays in it. We lead, then the farm boys did, then we got it back, then it was level. I think in the end we won, Simon and I, but not by more than one clay out of fifty. Every one of the four of us had learned something by the time we all shook hands. Shooting teaches you about yourself. It certainly teaches you about patience and self-control, anticipation and precision and planning.
Long, long ago, it was Easter and the quiet that comes over country places came over the town I lived in. It was on the edge of Salisbury Plain and Easter was on the edge of summer. I remember two Easters really well, both of them for their near-silence, the same silence I felt this year, before the birds really start singing for Spring again.
The first one was a real awakening. I was fourteen, at school, and although we had the traditional fetishisation of football, cricket and rugby, we also had two utterly cool teachers who took Games too. They did Other Stuff. Like Sailing. Like taking me gliding. Encouraging me to do tennis lessons.
Which I did, in my own time, and loved it, to the extent that a decade later I bought one of the very last wooden racquets, living in London, to play mixed doubles in Clissold Park. It seemed to me a very normal thing to do, but looking back I’m not really so sure that in fact it was, then or now. Not buying a wooden racquet – I’ve still got it and I still think it’s better than any awful metal twangy thing. It’s more controllable and it still gave enough punch to make the utter arse who was serving straight at my eight year-old partner, the host’s daughter, one Suffolk summer weekend extremely sorry when he tried the same thing with me and got the ball straight back in his face. Not that, but the whole “I say chaps, let’s play tennis, me, the girl I was at uni with who lives round the corner now, her brother and his girlfriend, who I rather fancy and who may well, I dare say, be moderately impressed by my rather spiffing new racquet.” Not that she seemed to be, but it was worth a shot.
The cool Other Games Stuff teachers, both of whom are probably dead by now, were Mrs Shearn (Physics, normally) and Joe Collins (P.E.). Not that you’d call him anything except Sir to his face. There were two P.E. teachers, Joe Collins and a horrible runty one with a brand new tracksuit and immaculate trainers who tried so very, very hard to be cool and hard and fit and PE-teachery and who could never in a million years be as cool as Mr Collins in the fit/hard/Proper Teacher stakes, however hard he tried. And he did. He drove around the town in his new Ford Escort slowing down at every pub and peering through the windows to see if he could spot anyone from school inside, which in those long-ago days was a thing. But it didn’t make any difference.
Whatever he did he could never in a million years be as cool/fit/hard/see above for other adjectives as Mr Collins because Mr Collins had been a paratrooper. And of an age – and this was so long ago – that that meant he’d been a paratrooper in what was then called The War. You know. Arnhem. Crossing The Rhine. Probably not the invasion of Crete, given that was the other lot. But still so far from anything the runty one could do to ever match-up. These days I almost feel sorry for him, looking back. But not much.
Somehow Mr Collins and Mrs Shearn had carved themselves out a niche looking out for kids like me, kids who didn’t like games much. Apart from sailing, which they took us to every Wednesday through all of Summer term and Autumn term until ice covered the lake where we kept our boats and they were put away until Easter, stored under the Edwardian parquet floor of the old Girls School dining room, where my friend Phil and I went to paint them one Easter. Every year around this time, while I’m getting my own boat ready, making mistakes with the paint the same way Phil and I did back then, but now on my own, in a boatyard by the water, 200 miles and far too many years away from that time, I think of it still. Back then we bought the wrong colour paint; now, using a roller instead of a brush I’ve managed to speckle my boat with flecks of dried paint stuck in the liquid paint from the tin, giving it a clean finish only slightly marred by the bright white topsides pebble-dash effect. That was the second Easter I remember a lot.
The first one involved Mrs Shearn as well. She’d driven I think three of us up to Nympsfield, near Stroud, where unbelievably we went gliding. We didn’t go to Eton or anything out of the very ordinary type of school in rural Wiltshire, but somehow we went there and flew, just for one day. A hugely odd thing happened after the flight that I can’t explain. It wasn’t a dream or a memory thing because I remember talking about it immediately after it happened. We did our flights and went to the gliding club, marvelling slightly at the wooden propellor on the wall and the handlebar moustache of the man behind the bar, then after we’d had our Cokes we walked back across the field that served as the airstrip. I could see us walking across the field, but from about 200 feet up, as I was walking. I’ve never been able to explain it. After that, Mrs Shearn drove us the hour or so back to Trowbridge in the school Ford Transit bus we used for the weekly sailing trips. I remember sitting in the bus waiting for I can’t recall what when we got back. The Budget was being broadcast on the van’s radio, as the Spring built its strength up in the shade of the big trees on Wingfield Road.
I think I remember these silences because they were beginnings. And because I loved the people there, even though I didn’t know it or anything like it. Beginnings are always special times. Those two Easters always will be, for me.
Once upon a time in a land long ago my father told a lot of lies. One of them was that he wasn’t married when he met my mother, which caused a series of complications but wasn’t extraordinarily uncommon after what when I was a boy was called The War. Another was that his mother was dead and that he had no brothers or sisters, which was why they weren’t at the wedding with my mother. That wasn’t true.
In fact, there were five other brothers and sisters, not none. Thomas, Dora, Alfred, Phylis and Hilda, one of whom lived a full 30 years after the 1957 wedding to my mother, dying a decade after she re-married more happily. Another lie was that my father was born in 1918 in Australia. He wasn’t. He was born in 1920 in what’s now known as St Mary Cray, in Kent.
For years I just assumed that if you’re a bigamist then yes, telling lies would be pretty much part of the job description, but by accident I’ve recently found another reason he would have had for lying. It would also account for his Daily Express snobbery and also his derision towards manual labour, although as I’ve found out, possibly that didn’t stem from some inate gentility but came from another reason altogether.
His mother, Kate Ramsey I found through Ancestry.com, bless it, came from Mitcham in Surrey. So did a lot of other gypsies. The line about the grandmother comes from the old song, the one about the raggle-taggle gypsies o! It’s about a woman who runs off with the Rom and the oddness of the line is thought to be a mishearing of ‘they cast their glamour over her.’ A glamour was a spell. That’s what we’re like, us quarter-Romany. Buy me lucky heather deary, or I’ll put a quarter of a curse on you.
I didn’t know any of this. I’ve taught Romany children after they were withdrawn from school because they were being bullied. They were some of the nicest, most eager learners I’ve ever taught and their parents were certainly some of the most hospitable, not to mention some of the cleanest people I’ve met in my life. And the Romany link explains two things that have puzzled me for decades. Every summer I get brown quickly, which isn’t much of a big deal, but I do.
Odder than that was something a doctor wondered about years ago. He asked me if I had any black ancestors. I told him that so far as I knew all my ancestors were boringly peasanty village folk from Kent and Somerset, not a black face among them. Well, you don’t get scarring like this without it, the doc told me. It’s there somewhere. Turns out they do actually know stuff at medical school.
Back about ooooh, twenty years ago, when I still thought Wired magazine and Herman Miller chairs were the future, back when I invented a software app that went some of the way to IPO and millions of pounds before it just didn’t, I thought I’d waxed my circuit board and was pretty much up riding the back of Toffler’s Third Wave. I took time out from planning what pantone shade of black my putative Porsche was going to be to talk about Early Adopters and sine wave curves, read books about Chaos theory, thought Philippe Stark was probably about the best motorcycle designer ever and went to conferences in Amsterdam where people actually took my stuff seriously (the stuff I said, I mean, not (ahem..) mirrored-bedroom client-entertainment low-jinks in five-star hotels, which is a whole other story) and spent hours each day wondering how much of an early adopter I was cut out to be.
I wasn’t quite dumb enough to spend £600+ on a Herman Miller chair – not before the IPO anyway – but I ended up with one after giving the guys at the local dump £5 for them to look the other way while I climbed into their aluminium recycling skip to haul out the couldn’t-really-be-but-actually-unbelievably-was stupid chair that I couldn’t admit for years actually gave me a bit of a backache instead of preventing one. The Salli stool I spent about £400 on did, but that had its own drawbacks, notably that you couldn’t lean back in it if you had a hangover, back when hangovers were a regular thing. Glory days, as Bruce Springsteen told m-m-m-my generation.
All of which is how today I gave ChatGPT a go. If you’re a journalist, a teacher, a student, anyone writing pretty much anything, you ought to give it a go. Because it’s going to put you out of a job unless you’re a student, in which case it’s going to make you think you deserve better marks, but everyone else is going to be using it as well, so you won’t get them. It’s Artificial Intelligence and no, apart from it probably looks around the internet a bit somewhat faster than I do when I get home, I don’t know how it works. It just does. You type in a question and it writes you the answer. If you’re not entirely stupid writing an essay you’ll paraphrase bits of it, but essentially it does all the work for you. In seconds. If you write and you’re not scared yet, you should be.
To start with, I asked the chatbot an easy one: Who was Biggles? I got this:
Biggles is a fictional character who appeared in a series of adventure novels written by W. E. Johns. The character of Biggles is a pilot and adventurer who works for the fictional air police of the Royal Air Force (RAF).
The first Biggles story was published in 1932, and the series continued to be popular throughout the 20th century. The character of Biggles was depicted as a hero, and he was often portrayed as being resourceful, brave, and quick-thinking in the face of danger.
The Biggles stories were popular with both children and adults, and they were especially popular during World War II, when the stories helped to boost morale and inspire a sense of patriotism. The character of Biggles has since become an icon of British popular culture, and the books have been translated into many languages and adapted for film, television, and radio.
I thought I’d see if the chatbot shared some of the outrage that stirred some of the more idiotic debate at Bath University when Thomas Dolby was a thing and asked why Biggles had been accused of racism. ChatAG didn’t even pause to raise an eyebrow and suck pensively on its metaphorical meerschaum before it told me:
The character of Biggles has been accused of racism due to the portrayal of certain characters and situations in the books. The accusations mainly stem from the fact that the Biggles books were written in the early to mid-20th century, a time when racist attitudes were more prevalent in British society.
Some critics have pointed out that in some of the early Biggles stories, the characters of non-white races are often portrayed in a negative light, as being primitive, backward, or dishonest. In some cases, non-white characters are depicted as being subservient to white characters.
In addition, some of the language used in the books is considered to be racially insensitive by modern standards. For example, the books use terms such as “n*****” and “w*g” which are now considered to be highly offensive.
It is worth noting, however, that while some elements of the Biggles stories may be considered racist by modern standards, it is important to view them in their historical context. The books were written at a time when attitudes towards race were different than they are today, and it is important to recognize that the books reflect the cultural attitudes of their time.
I thought I’d read a lot of Biggles but I don’t remember any N-words, notwithstanding that now the New Issues Group of distinctly Anglo peers in the House of Lords think it’s an absolute hoot to call themselves that. What larks.
I’ve shot since I was fourteen and back at university the only reading material you could find was American police manuals, which seemed obsessed by that thayar furrin 9mm round replacing the Gahd, Mom n’Apple Pie-endorsed .45 Colt Automatic Pistol cartridge which was dang sure good enough for Sergeant York. Even more sacrilegious, the US military dropped the Colt 1911A1 pistol designed by John Browning and made in Murca and for reasons that Hunter Thompson would have agreed were never made clear, bought hundreds of thousands of 9mm Beretta pistols instead. From Italy. Remembering all this dim and fairly dull history I asked the chatbot whether the .45ACP round was more effective than 9x19mm Luger cartridges. I thought I’d give it the opportunity to do some heavy technical research for me.
In well under thirty seconds it did, telling me:
The effectiveness of a handgun cartridge is a topic of ongoing debate among firearms enthusiasts and professionals. The .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) and 9x19mm Luger (also known as 9mm) are two popular cartridges used in handguns, and both have their strengths and weaknesses.
The .45 ACP cartridge is generally considered to be more powerful than the 9mm cartridge. The .45 ACP cartridge is a larger, heavier bullet that travels at a slower velocity than the 9mm bullet. The .45 ACP cartridge also has a larger diameter than the 9mm cartridge, which can result in a larger wound channel.
However, the 9mm cartridge has several advantages over the .45 ACP cartridge. The 9mm cartridge is generally lighter and has less recoil than the .45 ACP cartridge, making it easier to shoot accurately and quickly. The 9mm cartridge also has a higher capacity, which can be an advantage in self-defense situations where multiple rounds may be necessary.
Ultimately, the effectiveness of a handgun cartridge depends on a variety of factors, including bullet design, velocity, and shot placement. Both the .45 ACP and 9mm cartridges are capable of stopping a threat with proper shot placement, and the choice between the two is largely a matter of personal preference and situational considerations.
I hadn’t expected ChatGPT to look me in the eye and snarl “aim it straight and it don’t matter, dummy.”
As a more erudite version of conversations on Heytesbury Number Two Battle Range that’s not bad. I thought I’d delve a little deeper into history, at least my own, and try out an A-Level Eng. Lit. Fav: The character of Iago in Shakespeare’s Othelo has been described as being driven by ‘motiveless malignity.’ What motives did Iago have for his behaviour?
ChatGPT had this one down in seconds:
The character of Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello is often described as being driven by “motiveless malignity” because his motivations for his actions are not entirely clear. However, there are several factors that may have contributed to Iago’s behavior:
Resentment towards Othello: Iago is passed over for promotion by Othello, who chooses Cassio as his lieutenant instead. This seems to be a major source of Iago’s resentment towards Othello.
Desire for revenge: Iago may also be motivated by a desire for revenge against Othello, who has married Desdemona, a woman Iago has feelings for. Iago is also upset that Cassio has been chosen over him, and he may want to get revenge against Cassio as well.
Jealousy: Iago is jealous of Cassio’s position as lieutenant and may be jealous of Othello’s relationship with Desdemona.
Racial prejudice: Iago is often seen as being racially prejudiced against Othello, who is a black man. This prejudice may be a factor in Iago’s actions.
Psychopathy: Some scholars have suggested that Iago’s behavior may be the result of psychopathy, or a lack of empathy and conscience.
Ultimately, Iago’s motivations are complex and multifaceted, and it is difficult to pinpoint any one factor as the sole cause of his behavior.
Frankly, I’d have expected the attribution of the motiveless quote to Samuel Johnson, the bane of my Sixth Form existence. Actually, not seeing anywhere near enough of the skin of one of the Lower Sixth girls was the bane of that, but that’s neither here nor sadly, there. But not bad for the bones of a decent Tuesday night essay, I’d say. You’d need more, so I thought I’d try another old favourite. My English teacher seemed convinced Shakespeare had never been anywhere near Italy because of the “yon marble skies” line one of his characters recalled seeing in dear old Venice, saying that Venice means Italy means sunny as a man who had very obviously never been to Isola d’Ischia in January and fervently wished he’d brought an umbrella. I asked the bot what evidence there was to suggest Shakespeare actually had gone to the land of carb overload. It told me what there was:
There is some evidence to suggest that Shakespeare visited Italy, although it is not conclusive. The primary source of evidence comes from the plays themselves, many of which are set in Italy and contain detailed descriptions of Italian cities and landmarks.
For example, Romeo and Juliet is set in Verona, and contains many specific details about the city, including references to its streets and buildings. The Merchant of Venice is set in Venice and contains detailed descriptions of the city’s canals and architecture. Othello is set in Venice as well, and contains references to the city’s customs and laws.
In addition, some of Shakespeare’s contemporaries wrote about his travels. For example, an Italian author named Giulio Camillo wrote in 1550 that Shakespeare had visited Venice and had seen the city’s Jewish ghetto, which is depicted in The Merchant of Venice.
There is also some indirect evidence to suggest that Shakespeare may have visited Italy. For example, it was common for English nobles to take the Grand Tour, a journey through Europe that often included a visit to Italy. Shakespeare was known to have had connections to the nobility, and it is possible that he may have accompanied a nobleman on a journey to Italy.
While the evidence is not conclusive, the many references to Italian cities and landmarks in Shakespeare’s plays, combined with contemporary accounts of his travels, suggest that he may have visited Italy at some point in his life.
And that’s me told. Almost, anyway. I slipped effortlessly back into my school desk above the quad in the old Boys School buildings, not this time thinking about the drum line in Mud’s Tiger Feet, but about the line ‘yon marble skies.’ And coughty years of smirking about the mistake I’d been sure my English teacher made were blown out of the water when I asked who wrote about ‘yon marble skies’?
The phrase “yon marble skies” appears in the poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” by Lord Byron. The poem was published between 1812 and 1818 and tells the story of a young man named Childe Harold who embarks on a journey through Europe. The poem is notable for its vivid descriptions of the landscapes and cities that Childe Harold encounters on his journey, and “yon marble skies” is one such description of the sky above a Mediterranean landscape.
I tried again, asking ‘Which Shakespeare play contains the phrase ‘yon marble skies’?” I got an apologetic ChatGPT this time.
I apologize for the error in my previous response. The phrase “yon marble skies” does not appear in any of Shakespeare’s plays. It is actually a phrase from the poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” by Lord Byron. I apologize for any confusion my previous response may have caused.
Hmm. No confusion caused, Chatbot, just a fondly-held preconception shattered. I was sure I’d seen the line in print in my copy of Othello, but I can’t be arsed to leaf through every single page of it to prove a point. That’s what AI is for.
As it is, none of these answers are enough to write a whole essay. But stick five questions together about pretty much anything and there definitely would be enough to play both sides of Dark Side Of The Moon before bedtime and hand in the homework next day. It works.
It isn’t everything, but it’s enough of everything to get the grunt out of grunt work. And it’s going to transform the vaunted knowledge economy in the same way the steam engine transformed cottage industry. It’s going to wipe it out. Starting now.
Once upon a time in a land long ago I had to go to visit companies to tell them how utterly wonderful CACI’s geodemographic ACORN system was. If the company name means anything at all to you, you’re probably thinking Abu Ghraib, the torture camp they ran in Iraq, the one Lynndie England got her jollies in, the one that had been given so much authority by a grateful President in his War On Terror/Abstract Nouns that not even the Department of Defence were allowed in the prison without CACI’s say-so.
Given that honour wasn’t so much as bound as tasered, shackled, extraordinarily renditioned and water-boarded, I’m proud to say all that happened considerably after my time at a company whose only other claim to fame was not launching the Tesco Clubcard, which was essentially invented by an ex-CACI staffer, ex because he couldn’t stand working for a company that didn’t seem to know what it was it sold. Apart from a geographic analysis system linking postcodes to Census information in a manner it was never designed to do. So far so blah.
CACI and I really didn’t get on after they wanted me to pitch the Conservative and Unionist Party of Great Britain to offer to help them win the election, chiefly on the basis that I had an accent they judged more Conservative than my Essex Girl boss. One of CACI’s frequent misapprehensions on at least two fronts.
The good bit in a period of frankly not that many good bits was getting to drive around the country using someone else’s petrol in someone else’s car, even if the CACMobile happened to be a white XR3i my boss would have been orgasmically happy driving. On a sunny day when the world was younger I went to see an Electricity Board somewhere deep in the leafy Surrey heartlands between London and the sea.
Surrey didn’t seem to be the hardest word. “Trolley” however, was. This was so very long ago that the electricity company sold the appliances that used electricity as well, everything from electric fires, washing machines, irons and what they forthrightly called Load Builders, things like tumble dryers and fan heaters, the stuff that then and again now, chewed up electricity as if it was going out of fashion, unlike the chairman’s bonus which never does.
The thing in the picture was called a hostess trolley. Pausing only to check her hair in the hallway mirror, while her husband (of COURSE he was her husband!!! How very DARE you!!!!) offered the people from three doors down a nice little drop of something for you, Mark, and a very nice little Liebfraumilch for your good lady (and yes, of course they drove there. New Cortina, and Mark’s in line to be upgraded to a Granada…) while Mrs Suburbia could pop the almost-ready food on a hostess trolley to keep it warm while she nervously necked rather too much Asti Spumante than was perhaps entirely decorous. Pardon me!
In other words, hostess trolleys were a mobile way to keep food warm, so you could relax at your dinner party, especially if Carol and Mark were up for seconds. CACI and many otherwise sane adults spent its entire working life helping people sell this crap. They claimed they truly believed it was a science, almost a priesthood, to which your business too could be admitted on payment of a very reasonable fee. The proportion of potential customers for say, a hostess trolley who actually bought the things in a given area (do please call it a geography. It sounds so much more sciencey) was called the market penetration level. Which was fine, except I was presenting to two women at the electricity company. One was about ten years older than me, competent, friendly, interested in what I had to say so far as business was concerned. And she’d worked on marketing hostess trolleys, which was how we began talking about them.
The other one was my age. And OMG gorgeous. Cartoon, can’t-look-at-without-your-mouth-dropping-open, Jessica Rabbit gorgeous. Every time I looked directly at her I was lost for words. I couldn’t even say “Load Builder.” Unfortunately, another of the words I was lost for was “trolley”. And “market.”
I spent nearly twenty minutes staring at her with what I hoped was a wise, worldly, friendly, above-all approachable half-smile playing lightly on my lips in a manner I hoped she might be at some point in the foreseeable future, while I talked about hostess penetration levels.
She didn’t say much. She kept smiling and so did the older one, her boss. It was a happy, sunny, slow afternoon and we were all having as much fun as you ever usually got working in that kind of job.
I didn’t realise what was happening until nearly the end of my pitch. I made my excuses and left. Surprisingly, they never spoke to me again.
It isn’t just at New Year that I’m reflective, but something about the season encourages it. I did three ultra-reflective things this week. Two of them were good, the other one I’m not so sure about.
The first was a walk. It wasn’t a very long walk, according to the magic Garmin solar watch my wonderful partner gave me for my birthday, but despite the cold wind it was a good one, and one I do most years. I met a man called Joe Shea three times in my life. He stayed at my house for ten days, twice, over ten year ago now, when he came to England for a memorial service to his squadron. He was American, from the absolute middle of Nowhere, Ohio and the first time he came to Leiston airfield was January 20th, 1945. He was eighteen. He flew P51 Mustangs back then, flying escort to the B17s and B24s flying out of Debach, Parham where I live now and any other airfield in the 8th US Army Airforce. His unit lost 82 men killed from that airfield; nothing much compared to the more than ten times that number who took off from Parham and never walked the ground again. The only difference was that Joe’s group flew single-seaters; here at Parham there were ten men in a B17 crew.
Joe’s stories weren’t much like the movies. For one thing, his group lost more airplanes to the weather than the Luftwaffe ever managed to put down. He told me about two separate occasions where flying out and coming back to Leiston on the coast here, there would be clear air with fantastic visibility up to about 50 feet in winter, then a layer of cloud, then clear bright sunlight above that, all the way to the stratosphere. And how once flying out and another time coming back, he was in a group of three airplanes going into the cloud and one of only two that came out. Those two are somewhere in the North Sea, just four miles away, not even two minutes after take-off, not even two minutes short of home.
It was foggy all the time back then, Joe told me. But it wasn’t. It’s foggy here about three days a year. It wasn’t fog. It was coal fires and temperature inversion, and maybe, for those three days, fog as well. It didn’t make any difference, but the films all leave out the fact that the people you’re protecting are actually a big part of getting you killed. If that didn’t do it then 18 year-olds charging around the sky at 450 mph, or making tight turns and finding their wings literally fell off, that would. Joe told me about seeing that. He told me about seeing bomber crews five miles up above the earth suddenly without an airplane that had disintegrated around them and there being nothing you could do except watch.
We had a famous airplane explode here, over the marshes near Southwold. President Kennedy’s older brother was flying it. It was packed full of explosives to destroy U-boat pens and the idea was that after take-off the pilot and co-pilot would arm the remote control system, parachute out and another aircraft would literally fly what was now a closely guided missile onto its target. It was a B24 Liberator, the same planes that flew out of Debach and when Kennedy switched the controls to Remote it blew the atoms of him and the co-pilot over about 20 square miles. Joe thought that was unremarkable when we visited a tiny part of the crash site.
He told me what he’d seen, over and again. Whether that happened because they took a direct hit from anti-aicraft fire flying straight on a steady heading, or whether as he seemed to imply, it was something about the airplane that made that happen didn’t matter. The result was the same. And all he could do was watch.
“Those things used to blow up as soon as they opened the bomb doors.”
So when I can get the time and the space on my own, at Christmas I go to the memorial on the old airbase and read out the names there. It’s always a surprise how many of the names are German. It sort of seems the least I can do. These days I have to add Joe’s name to the list. I do that last.
The other thing I did is something I do much more often, a regular-ish walk around Parham Wood, out of the farm gate, up to Silverlace Green, along the lane where usually in the afternoon there’s a little herd of deer, as there was today. Not the fat scuttling muntjacs that come into the yard and eat the plants, but proper roe deer, their heads about level with your shoulder, dark on top and almost silver underneath, their own camouflage on this old airfield. They don’t want to be near people and these were a good three hundred yards away, which suited us both.
I walked up the hill through a little hamlet so small it doesn’t even have a name, then took a shortcut on a footpath across a field, slipping on the stile. For some of the years I’ve been here the farmer has ploughed over the footpath through here; every year whoever else walks this field makes sure we trample down whatever gets planted where it shouldn’t be. This year the farmer’s done the sensible thing and run a tractor along the route of the footpath, showing everyone where it is and leaving a brown muddy stripe through the crop. That takes you across a little lane, then across another field, across the little bridge, skirting another field until you get to a fingerpost pointing down the hill you’ve been climbing, flanking Parham Wood.
I’ve got a detailed old map of this area, made in 1959 when the difficult path along the stream cutting diagonally across this route was officially described as a road. Someone here much older told me it was, and they used to take their children along it in a pushchair, but I can’t see how. Things change though. Also on that map there was a house at the corner of the wood.
It was there in ’59.
On the left of the picture is Parham Wood, where once there was a Home Guard Auxiliary post, overlooking the railway that used to run from Framlingham to Snape. That’s gone, too. The odd thing about this disappeared house though, is where it is. There’s no road to it, just a track and not a big one at that. There are no telegraph poles, so no telephone and around here that probably also meant no electricity either. No mains drainage. And if it was like a lot of Suffolk farm buildings, no foundations either, which is probably why there isn’t a single brick standing now. The husband of the woman with the pushchair told me something odd though. He lived here all of his life. His family and then he himself owned a lot of the land around here, as well as this farm. He remembered when you couldn’t cross the airfield to get to Great Glemham after the war, because it was still fenced off and the road that was closed by the RAF in 1939 was still closed, over a decade after that. But he didn’t remember that house, at all. He was puzzled to see it on the map I have. Odd. It’s not even a mile away, well within small boy range.
Unsettling and comforting, dream and reality, fact and fiction.
The other thing wasn’t important. I re-read Not Your Heart Away, the book, as Ernie Wise used to say, what I wrote. When I was at school I found a copy of Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar, in a pile in the Music Room. I don’t know why it was there; it wasn’t on the syllabus for O or A Levels and it wasn’t set to music (although it did make it as a (OMG, OMG, OMG..) Julie Christie film and a nowhere-near-as-good TV serial). Being Billy Liar’s age (and irrespective of ten years later sharing a bar with Keith Waterhouse and thinking him something of a disheveled and drunken old arse rather than the sharp folk-hero I’d wanted him to be – see also Hunter Thompson ibid), I identified massively with Billy. OK, I didn’t live in a northern town, didn’t work in the town I grew up in for more than a week before I did what Billy didn’t, and managed to escape to London and didn’t get engaged even once, let alone twice simultaneously. But like Billy I’d got myself stuck with a girlfriend who although somewhat more enthusiastically accommodating than the dread Barbara in the book, wasn’t something I wanted to encourage long-term. The problem being I was massively in lurrrrve, with a capital LUR. And it wasn’t with her. That’s what my book turned out to be about, and it’s become my Billy Liar, something I re-read again and again, to the extent that sometimes I have problems recalling what parts are total fiction and which bits were actual things that happened or I know of that had happened, that I recycled and hung around the necks of my characters in Not Your Heart Away.
Read it. Buy it. Double my sales. It doesn’t fit neatly into any literary category, and certainly not into any commercial one I’ve ever found. I wrote it primarily because I wanted to read something like Billy Liar but based outside a big town, in the kind of place I grew up in, in the times I grew up in. I couldn’t find anything at all like that, so I wrote it. Friends have the same problem reading it. I’ve been asked about when I was driving that Aston-Martin, however many times I explain that yes, I have driven one and yes, that feeling was exactly the way I described in, but that was in my thirties, not when I was half-drunk stuck in a country pub that isn’t there any more. Tragically also, I didn’t do the real Claire, contrary to the needling the central character’s lifelong friend repeats for decades. And no, obviously that wasn’t her name.
I suppose if you can re-read something you wrote nearly ten years later and still think hmm, there really isn’t much I’d change, then it’s got to be sort of OK. OK enough to win the BBC Writer’s Room anyway, when I turned it into a screenplay. It was one of five winners out of three and a half thousand other scripts; the fact that life is totally unfair was demonstrated again when my very first pitch to my very first production company didn’t actually result in them making the film.
Billy Liar was there in ’59 too. As Michael Caine used to say, not a lot of people know that. I didn’t until today. You do, now.
Once upon a time in a land long ago, Christmas came slowly to a small village in Wiltshire, where a small boy looked excitedly for the presents he hoped would come.
Dear reader, I was that small boy. And I found them. Under the stairs, in the dark, brand new in boxes but not yet wrapped, was what looked like a huge collection of model soldiers. They weren’t Airfix, so points and some excitement lost there, but there were loads of them and I hadn’t seen them before.
The family, so fas I knew, was Mum and Dad, my two sisters and me. In those days my younger but oldest sister got literally hysterical about Christmas, as about much else. The year before, or before that, she woke me up around 3am insisting she’d seen Father Christmas. We had a tradition that a mince pie and a glass of whisky or sherry was left out on top of the piano for him and in the morning it was always gone; proof, if proof were needed. But this was different. She’d actually SEEN him. She was adamant.
My village friend Andrew had a weird uncle who’d told us about the Red Ghost of the Barn. It frightened me so much one night that I woke up screaming, even though I knew as soon as I was awake that what had been described as a Victorian ghost was pretty unlikely to spend the rest of eternity tramping up and down the landing of a 1960s estate house. Now, I think the mad uncle had been trying to tell us about the Red Barn Murder* despite that it had happened 200 miles away and adding a ghost into it to scare us. It was a thing some adults did in those days.
All of that made for a creepy atmosphere with a hysterical small girl claiming to have actually seen Father Christmas, who next said she could hear bumps on the roof and soon after, the sound of sleigh bells. Which I then heard myself, but that’s not really part of this story and in any event hysteria is remarkably infectious. But none of that was under the stairs one quiet afternoon when I found the stash of model soldiers Father Christmas had forgotten to hide.
I don’t know if children do this now, or if other children did this then, but I found it easy to believe two contradictory things at once, that there really was a Father Christmas and that it was really my father and/or mother, depending whose turn it was, which perhaps isn’t actually contradictory really, at all.
Beleiving both things at once, I told my father I’d found my presents, or at least the model soldier part of my presents.
No, said my father. You haven’t. I have though. They’re model soldiers. Under the stairs. They weren’t wrapped up. No, my father told me again. Those are for another little boy.
And they were.
I never saw them again. I certainly didn’t see them on Christmas morning, nor at any other time. I don’t think shops took things back in those days, and I’d think certainly not just on the basis that a little boy had found them before he should have done. Which brought me to the conclusion that yes, my father wasn’t lying, although we later found out he had about much else. They were for another little boy.
It turned out, a decade later, he was a bigamist. I found out that a lot of what he said was a lie. He wasn’t born in Australia, but instead in Kent. His entire family weren’t dead, in the war or otherwise; I found out last year there were at least four of them, including his mother, alive at the time he married my mother, by which time he was also supposed to be married. If he was however, it was under another name as I can’t find any record of that event, although his name appears with a woman’s name I don’t recognise in exactly the right village at exactly the time he was ‘away on business’ a lot. I don’t know.
I also don’t know how much of this was known and colluded with, in my own family, in my own household, or as much of it as a disappointed model soldier-less six year old can claim. How do you explain to your wife that yes, ok, you know those model soldiers, the ones I thought he’d like, well, maybe he wouldn’t, so I’m going to er…chuck them in the bin. No, not here, obviously. Somewhere else. It doesn’t make sense, does it? None of it does.
I do know one thing about all of it though, something that’s been confirmed again and again, the more I dig, finding relatives in Valparaiso, not finding anyone in the Royal Air Force, a body which had been an obsession of my father’s for as long as I can remember. I’ve never got on with families. I don’t know what to do with them. I don’t trust them, or their motives. It’s taken much too long to acknowledge this out loud.
The Case of the Red Barn was a very, very famous Victorian murder indeed, so famous that they even made pottery Red Barns to put on your mantelpiece next to the Staffordshire dogs and the match holder and mantle clock. A girl called Mariah (who I inevitably think of as Mariah Carey, who it definitely wasn’t) got herself killed while having an argument with her farmer boyfriend, who she was probably pregnant by. He denied all knowledge of her visit and took himself off to London. A year or so later, letters started to appear at her parents’ house, purporting to be from Mariah, who according to the letters, was doing fine but really, really busy so can’t visit, must dash, stuff to do and so on.
The boyfriend, definitely ex by this time, got to feeling a bit lonely and stuck adverts in the local newspaper looking for a wife. Mariah’s mother, who’d predictably never liked him, began to have dreams that Mariah wasn’t just dead but was buried underneath the Red Barn. She sent her husband with what we used to call a dibber, what they called a mole spud, but whatever it was called a long stick with a pointy end that he jabbed into the floor of the barn, looking for soft patches. He found some. He also found his daughter, very dead indeed and stabbed multiple times. It didn’t occur to anybody back then that maybe, just maybe, the multiple stab wounds had happened a very long time after the poor girl was dead, nor that the gunshot wound to her skull would have done the job on its own, nor that it was at an unusual angle for someone else to have shot from, but a quite explicable one if there had been a struggle, that Mariah had grabbed her boyfriend’s gun (at a time when anyone with some substance would have thought taking a small gun with them out at night was a sensible and normal thing to do) and threatened to blow her brains out if he didn’t marry her before he grabbed the gun to stop her and it went off, as he alleged at his trial.
He was easy to find, from the Victorian lonely farmer ads he’d paid for. The jury was having none of it. He danced the Newgate jig. To make his life not entirely pointless his skeleton was used as a training aid and as a joke date by nurses in Bury St Edmunds for another hundred and twenty years. Some of the skin off his back was used to bind a book you can see for yourself in the town’s museum. An everyday if horrific story of country folk. But not the story Andrew’s mad uncle told us, entirely. And certainly not the fictions my father told me.
A tetela is, geometrically at least, akin to the samosa. A disc of dough, wrapped around a filling to make a very effective triangular pasty. Cavita rather cleverly makes hers from heritage corn, stuffs them with smooth and gorgeously seasoned mashed potato then crushes them flat enough on the griddle to form a crisp base to a topping of smoked mushrooms.
FT.com/Magazine: November 26/26 2022
Remembering Mexican food as I do, isn’t that utterly wonderful?
Just amazingly who could be cruel enough to Christen (and if she’s Mexican you can safely assume she was Christened, whatever happened afterwards) their little girl-child Cavita, as if that wasn’t enough on its own to get the family slapped on the At Risk register before the ink was dry on their signatures? It turns out that the poor girl was actually called Adriana Cavita and while you can’t get a much more FT Weekend name than that it’s probably also true that anyone called something like that probably didn’t go to the kind of school where reference to her cavities was everyday parlance.
But equally, who could write such fantastically camp copy about gorgeously seasoned mashed potato and very effective triangular pasties? Who could enthuse over “heritage corn” used not even vaguely ironically? Not apparently Damien Trench but someone called Tim Hayward, who also contributed the masterly geometrically at least, as well as the world-class akin.
I was so distracted by the self-parody of that alone that I accidentally remembered the Tex-Mex Hell that once was London, or at least my bit of it, back when red braces and Golf GTis were a thing. Mine were embroidered with little edelweiss and silver. Respectively, since you ask. The recollection proved that Meatloaf was wrong, on that at least. It was long ago and far away but it definitely wasn’t so much better than it is today.
Mexican food was stomach-ache-making sludge
There. I’ve said it now. Every time I ate Mexican I got food-poisoning, didn'[t go home with anyone else, spent far too much, got a splitting headache and had to spend half of Sunday in the bathroom. Now, a doctor might say that was perhaps maybe more to do with not washing hands, or possibly the amount of tequila slammers I’d felt compelled to drink because frankly, there was nothing else to do. There used to be a huge cavernous pit of hell somewhere in Leicester Square that had deafening music and girls in bikinis draped with bandoliers they poured shots from. I’ve always had a hearing issue but it took me decades to realise it; I just assumed I didn’t really like most of the people who I went there with and never really saw the point of going out much because I never met people. It took years to realise that of course I met people, lots of them, when I calculated I went home with a representative sample of them. It was just that most of the time I couldn’t hear them unless I spent most of a date hunched across some Covent Garden table for two desperately trying to get my ear down some poor girl’s throat so I could hear her fifteenth and by then somewhat testy repetition of ‘yes, ok.’ By which time most sensible girls had either got a sore throat, drunk themselves half into a coma, thought ‘oh for Chrissakes’ and/or quite often, gone home.
There was another sludge pit on Queensway, where the corn chips arrived slathered in the cheapest cheddar-type product known to man and half-submerged in three colours of edible mud, accompanied by a soundtrack of Country & Western music, if that’s not too strong a word for it. It was Tex-Mex, you see. Steak or sludge, or steak with sludge. N tortilla chips with everything.
I ate Mexican in Washington D.C. one freezing February and managed to feel ill again. It was practically sub-zero outside, I was hungry, didn’t want to eat what passed for meat in America and just wanted something non-meat, fast and portable. Sludge in a wrap was the obvious answer. I think there was rice and spinach involved as well. I didn’t eat anything the time I went to Mexico for the day, but the less said about that lost Sunday probably the better. One of the consolations about getting older is that quite often nobody else remembers the thing you thought stuck in everyone else’s mind as much as it embedded itself in yours.
I’m not saying all Mexican food is bad. No, actually, yes I am, with an important qualification. All the Mexican food I’ve eaten has been unbelievably bad, as if a mad child made it from Play-Do and something the dog sicked up. The tequila was ok, as well as the bikinis, but I don’t think those are inherent parts of a regional food culture. And in any event, the impossibility of finding a black cab to get home in West End wintery and rather less than wonderland and the inevitable argument with some oik in a fifteen year-old Toyota pretending to be a minicab driver wiped out any pleasure the evening might have suggested, promised being far too binding a word.
If you want to find Adriana’s Cavita, it’s in Wigmore Street. Possibly I should.
Once upon a time there was a swanky posh Lahndahn nightclub called Tramps. I never went there and this isn’t about that anyway. Sorry.
For anyone left, it’s about George Orwell and Pulp. If you have any familiarity with either then you can probably guess the rest.
Somehow inexplicably I sort-of missed Pulp. They started in 1978, which was pretty much when my adult story started too, then as Wikipedia puts it, throughout the 1980s struggled to find success. Still, enough about me. Then after slogging away at it for all what must have felt like forever, they released Common People.
Flashback scene of fourteen and fifteen year-old me reading Down & Out In Paris and London, then a little later, The Road To Wigan Pier. For reasons that were never made clear, I had a taste for books like that. Maybe it came from Jack Kerouac, who in my own view at least cemented my cred credentials because a) it was like, the real thing, man, he’d been there. b) Pretty much nobody in my hometown of Trowbridge had heard of him c) Ultra-cred points: he had a name that caught out people who didn’t like, you know, know. I don’t see what more I could have asked for in a teenage muse. Either which way, all of Kerouac’s stuff was about bums, in a way that Razzle and the more usual teenage publications somehow just weren’t. Even Playboy’s extensive exposure of American bums didn’t treat them the way Kerouac did.
Narcissus Und Goldmund was even more seminal, but in a different way to the stuck-together pages of Fiesta. I thought at the time that was the kind of thing fifteen year-olds were supposed to be reading: two monks are best mates, one gets off with a gypsy, realises he’d better leave the monastery before he’s kicked out, goes wandering, becomes a carver, gets off with the wrong person again, runs back to the monastery, emotional reunion, deep spiritual element and all that blah. OK, so not exactly like life in Trowbridge, but enough to resonate. Goldmund needed to wander but he also needed to return. I read the Earth Mother part of it keenly; It was a big thing back then, at least in Wiltshire. Meanwhile, I had a hugely problematic relationship with my real-life mother of a kind that I never found anyone writing about.
Down & Out was about a real-life safari Eric Blair made in the 1930s, leaving his Mummy and Daddy’s house in Southwold to spend some time, in the words of a girl who knew him then and there, ‘pretending to be a tramp.’ My initial reaction to Down & Out was fascination, which rapidly changed to if not contempt, then definitely a sense of wonder. Contrary to the kind I’d guess Orwell was aiming for, I wondered why he’d done it. I didn’t know about his sort-of girlfriend’s reaction for another thirty years or so. But then, there’s not much in the text of Kerouac’s stuff -where our hero spends most of his time in flop-houses, hitch-hiking, drinking and listening to cool jazz when he’s not bumming around America idolizing junkies or looking for forest fires – about ‘and then I went back to my Mum’s for a bit.’
I heard Common People a few days ago and along with I’m Mandy, Fly Me, it’s stuck in my head ever since. Back when songs used to tell a story, long before the format of three lines repeated twelve times and five “song-writers” to achieve even that, the story was about a rich girl who wanted to do what common people do, somewhat to the surprise of the singer. The central conceit among all these cultural references is the same – you can take the kid out of a moneyed background, but you can’t take the moneyed background out of the kid.
OK, Orwell and Kerouac didn’t have mobile phones, unlike the latest model the latest model in Common People undoubtedly did, but the issue is the same: Think this is uncomfortable? Make a phone call and it’ll stop. The whole ‘look what I endured, just like these – let’s say it – Common People categorically is not what they endure at all.
Never live like common people
Never do what common people do
Never fail like common people
You'll never watch your life slide out of view
And then dance and drink and screw
Because there's nothing else to do
Jarvis Cocker, who wrote the song, said at the time “it seemed to be in the air, that kind of patronising social voyeurism… I felt that of Parklife, for example, or Natural Born Killers – there is that noble savage notion. But if you walk round a council estate, there’s plenty of savagery and not much nobility going on.”
I lived on one for six years, dear reader. I didn’t see much savagery, to be honest, but it wasn’t a fun place and I think Pulp had the better point. Being poor isn’t quaint or noble or brave. It’s not even mostly about money. It leaves a lasting fear that really, that’s what life is all about. Not in the manner of a jolly earnest 1930s reformist putting-down his pipe and exclaiming “And thet is what life is all about, comrade!” More in the sense that the fear never goes; life is like that in the sense that it’ll wait, but it won’t have to wait for ever before it calls you back. The fear that one day it’ll come back and dancing, drinking and screwing won’t be an option by then, whatever your old Master at Eton used to say.
In another life I was helping build a market research company. Between the two of us, we did pretty well at starting with pretty much nothing and unlike Seasick Steve, by the time we’d done with it we didn’t still have most of it left. We got some big clients quickly and we did very good work, although quite often it was a lot better than some clients knew they were getting.
The oddest thing, maybe the best thing about it was the amount of England I got to see. Unlike a lot of pretend researchers we knew something about sampling, making sure that the necessarily limited number of people we could interview or talk to were representative of the many more people that we physically couldn’t. I’d had to learn about sampling and probability, T-Tests and R factors at university. I wasn’t much good at it at first but the uni solved that by telling me they’d throw me off the course if I didn’t get my finger out, so despite my meager C-grade Maths O Level I managed to come third in my entire year in QMD. It meant Quantitative Methods and something beginning with D but I never knew quite what. ‘Disciplines’ didn’t sound right.
We had an agency who couldn’t handle their contract with the Ministry of Defence as our first client and basically did their job for them at a fraction of their fee to MoD. We picked up work for a High Street computer magazine company and tested and evaluate their existing and putative magazines and artworks, hindered slightly by our direct client there wanting to spend much of the consultancy time talking about her issues with her husband, which I felt were somewhat unavoidable given that she was also shagging the CEO. We had a client whose major source of capital was the Barons Court townhouse he’d bought decades previously, who had to hang on doing group discussions in Newcastle suburbs until he could cash it in. A client who pretty much only worked on cigarette packaging who endured evening after evening in hotels munching his way through curling sandwiches while he listened to respondents arguing over which pack they’d put over here with this pile because of the colour, or because of the embossing of the lettering, maybe over here with these.
I remember a misty trip to a closed, out-of-season Chessington Zoo to interview a chef about squirty cream with wild animals grunting and roaring damply just out of sight; another fog-bound trip in the opposite direction, going back with a taped interview about Chantilly cream if not lace, back from some hotel somewhere on the Fosse Way near Loughborough that I wouldn’t now recognise apart from the black stagecoach standing outside it in a glass case. For reasons that were never made clear as Hunter Thompson said so often, for reasons that were. Hotel after odd hotel in the fog, hideous flock-wallpaper commercial hotels near Swansea, Fawlty Towers dosshouses on the red light strip in Leeds but none of them as glowingly remembered as the trip to Plymouth just as Spring was starting nearly thirty years ago.
Plymouth was about 150 miles away from where we were; it’s never been easy to get to and more so if you confuse it with Portsmouth when you’re planning the trip. It’s absolutely nowhere near there at all. It was very early April and where we were just outside London it had been rainy and cold for weeks. We got down to Plymouth and entered a world of bright sunlight. I’d never been there. Or rather, I think maybe I had; there’s an inexplicable childhood memory of walking with my family through a deserted naval dockyard, back then still full of big white ships with huge guns on them. Improbable as that sounds, out of all the improbable things I remember from being six years old I think that memory still seems one of the more probable.
On the journey back from Plymouth we went cross country. I’d been to Brixham on holiday when I was six or seven and it was just about on a roundabout route we could take, so we did, skirting the edge of Dartmoor, stopping at a little town that might have been Kingsbridge with a big crossroads somewhere south of the moor, visiting a great shop that sold marvellous things we didn’t buy, with Django Reinhardt music playing on their CD on every floor. Thirty years ago. I’ve never been back and couldn’t if I tried. Shops like that don’t last, certainly not for thirty years, out in the middle of nowhere, however keen and smiling and alive the two women running it ever were.
We left the town quietly and drove east, out into more nowhere, taking a short cut towards the sea, driving along a deserted flat beach that went on for what seemed like miles, then turning inland just slightly to find a wartime American Sherman tank painted black and parked on a concrete plinth at the side of the road.
It was there because a local man had put it there. He’d pulled it out of the sea and it was there because of lies and a massive accident. Before the invasion of Normandy it was obvious that maybe it would be a good idea to practice landing on a beach in force, so one night the US Army practiced doing exactly that, at Slapton Sands, which has much the same beach as those across the Channel. Thousands of untried, untested but trained American soldiers were fully kitted out with the same full load of gear they’d have for D-Day, loaded onto ships, taken out into the English Channel, turned around and brought back in to the simulated looks-just-like-it landing beach. Just before they got there it all went horribly wrong, as wars do. Somehow, by luck or accident, German boats got mixed up in the Allied armada. When they opened fire the Americans on the ships thought it was all just part of the exercise. Around 750 of them were killed. “Around” because only about 250 bodies were recovered, which was important because some of the bodies had belonged to people who knew exactly where the invasion was going to take place. Slapton Sands looked like Utah Beach. There was a massive effort to find the bodies of these key figures in a bizarre inversion of normality where it was better to find a dead body than to hope they’d been captured instead. Dead people tell no tales. And ‘around’ because the Allies weren’t exactly going to advertise any of this just weeks before the invasion. And ‘around’ because governments tell lies. There was a mass grave, as you’d need with 750 dead soldiers. Decades later the British government was still lying about the whole episode, not least as it had been a disaster from start to finish, beginning with a friendly-fire incident that was rumoured at the time to have killed 450 soldiers before the Germans started. Fishermen’s trawls got snagged on things on the seabed that according to Her Majesty’s Government were all in their imaginations. It was harder to officially deny the Sherman tank that a man called Ken Small hauled out of Lyme Bay in 1984.
We stopped and looked at the tank and wondered why it was there. We didn’t know anything about it at the time. Most people didn’t. They probably still don’t. There was nobody around to ask, just our car, the deserted road with the sea on one side and a lagoon on the other and a tank that shouldn’t have been there.
We drove on again and got to Brixham, where the sun was shining and the tops of the palm trees were slightly swaying in the sea breeze and the English Riviera looked like a Real Thing. We stopped at a cafe near the replica of Drake’s ship, the Golden Hind. I’d last seen that when I was six or seven, but this time I had coffee and the distraction of a couple about my age at a table just behind me to one side. They had Northern accents. He looked a bit weedy. She had the largest breasts I have ever seen in my entire life. Blond, unremarkably dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and a denim jacket, completely average-looking except for those most remarkable things of all. Just astonishing. My partner was somewhat less than impressed.
I know, OK? I mean, I’ve gone on training courses and everything. I do know how un-right-on, how dehumanising, how sexualising, how un-personing all that reducing a woman to a single physical attribute sounds. And probably actually is. But they were unbelievable. Even now.
We drove on in the sunlight back through the West Country I grew-up in. I stopped again at some little silent town to stretch my legs. I walked through a yard of some kind, perhaps an old bus station or something to do with a cattle market. I could hear no sound of any kind at all. It was the West Country I remembered, the beautiful old place you have to leave because there’s nothing there any more, or not for me anyway. Some time later on the A303 we stopped again in a picnic area and saw birds bursting out of a hedge, small birds, twenty or thirty of them, and then saw why as a buzzard or a hawk of some kind swooped low over the hedge in pursuit.
One other trips we discovered Iron Masters’ lodges around Sheffield, a gourmet luxury hotel run by an architect who’d gone bust, where I was asked to return a restaurant critic’s trousers to him next time I saw him, which I never had. I remember an almost perfect Georgian town somewhere in the Midlands, somewhere I’d never heard of before and will never see again, one of those places that was doing rather nicely thank-you until it decided it didn’t need the railway to call there. I wondered about all the people who lived there, what they did for jobs, if they knew there was an outside in the Great Not There as it snuggled itself into the darkening night with another three hours of driving ahead of me before I saw home.
All of this I’d never seen before. I think most people never do. It was the best part of market research, for me; finding out where I came from, seeing the lost towns of England, wondering where home would ever be.