Ring out solstice bells

It’s the 21st of December. For me, for a long time, this has always been the best day of winter. It’s the shortest. From November onwards, in previous years I’ve held out, counting down to today, thinking ‘it’s ok, you can get through, it’s just six weeks to the twenty-first.’ Or twenty days. Or ten.

I don’t know if I had SAD as I never had it diagnosed, but life during winter was rubbish for a long time. It wasn’t Sudden Affected Disorder, but a very real thing, Seasonal Affective Disorder and like any real depression in my own experience, you can get through it only if it’s explained to you – and you actually believe – that just as it came, it will go. The trouble is, like the flu, you won’t know when.

I could tick off all the symptoms in the NHS list, for years:

  • a persistent low mood
  • a loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities
  • irritability
  • feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness
  • feeling lethargic (lacking in energy) and sleepy during the day
  • sleeping for longer than normal and finding it hard to get up in the morning
  • craving carbohydrates and gaining weight

I tried a SAD lamp and that helped a bit, but there isn’t much fun in shining bright lights in your face for half an hour, even without being strapped to a chair and the absence of a sinister voice whispering “Ve haf ways of making you talk. Say all do in the end..”

So today was the day. After today it gets lighter in the evening. In a month it won’t get dark until five, then six, and before you really know where you are it’ll be the golden time, when tides allowing, you can sail in the evenings again, increasing age and infirmity allowing. But increasing age isn’t a luxury everyone gets to enjoy.

A is for apple

Today wasn’t the day for someone back in 1943, I remembered yesterday. We were in Halwesworth, where there is a little stone, much like a gravestone, in the Thoroughfare, the main road through the town. It commemorates Flying Officer Field and his crew, who on the night of 20th December 1943 flew his Lancaster bomber back from Germany shot to bits, on fire and more inconveniently, without having dropped its bombs. They were stuck. Landing it in the state it was in would have been difficult at the best of times, but with a full, armed bomb load onboard it would have been almost certain suicide. I don’t know what his plan was – probably get back to as near his own airfield as possible, then order the crew to bail out, would be my guess – but the airplane ended-up crossing the coast near Halesworth, where RAF Holton had a runway long enough to get down on when things started going wronger than having an airplane full of bombs on fire was already.

The crew was ordered to bail out while the pilot tried to avoid stuffing ten tons of bombs, steel and petrol into the middle of sleepy little Halesworth at 300 miles an hour. He managed to avoid doing that and lived for many, many years after the war, jumping out of the aircraft at just 800 feet, the last man out for obvious reasons. One man’s parachute didn’t open, but the rest of the crew also survived. You can listen to the story here.

I live on another airfield nearby. On 27th December 1944 we had our own disaster in the village. There were no such things as wing ice warning indicators then. The B17 almost took off, but really, as the airfield is on top of a hill, it just powered off the end of the runway and just about glided down until it hit the Methodist Chapel. All nine of the crew were blown up, along with the chapel, which would have been full a few minutes later. Suffolk wasn’t always a peaceful place, at all.

The good news though, apart from it being solstice day, and the days getting longer now, isn’t sad at all. I haven’t had it this year. I’ve lost weight. Ok, there’s still some irritability, but given the stew of lies, half-truths, corruption, pretence, jingoism and incompetence that passes for this government and presumably pleases everyone who voted for it who surround me in this county, I think any other reaction would make even Polyanna squirm a bit. Normal, then, or what passes for it.

Depression is an odd thing. It will go. It’s remembering it will that’s the hard part. But this year, I can say Kate Bush was right. December has been magic again.

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Masks, Medmenham and morality

I’ve officially got Covid, whether or not my partner’s test result was mixed up with mine, as we both believe is what happened. Whichever of us got it, there is no doubt whatsoever that it was contracted by inhaling Covid virus from another person. There is only the tiniest shadow of doubt that that person was not wearing a mask.

In most places you don’t have to. Notwithstanding that it’s the best way of reducing the spread of a potentially fatal disease, you don’t have to wear a mask in a pub or a restaurant, in a school classroom full of 30 happy little disease vectors, or really, anywhere you don’t feel like it. You ‘have to’ in shops, but I’ve certainly never, ever heard of anyone being prosecuted for not wearing one. Your mileage may vary, but I doubt it.

Medmenham was and is a place which in the 1700s there was a famous meeting place for politicians and sex parties, as well as, allegedly as Devil-worshippers. Above the gate these words were carved:

Fay ce que vouldras

It means do what you will. It seems to be the motto of this government’s approach to Covid control, for all the cant about “following the science.” No scientist in the UK is currently saying do whatever you like at Christmas, but that’s exactly what the Prime Minister is categorically saying WITH his usual random EMPHASIS.

This strategy has been called libertarian, hence the reference to Dashwood and Medmenham. And it’s total and utter anti-science populist bollocks which inevitably is going to get people killed. The consequence to the Prime Minister is going to be absolutely nothing at all, because so long as the cult of appeasing the most selfish anti-science and/or ignorant people in the community continues then the majority of the UK press will stay onside. It doesn’t matter that newspaper sales are in free-fall; all of the red-top press have very active, very popular websites.

Do What Thou Wilt; because men that are free, well-born, well-bred, and conversant in honest companies, have naturally an instinct and spur that prompteth them unto virtuous actions, and withdraws them from vice, which is called honour.


These words could have come straight from the Prime Minister, or his best mate William Rees-Mogg, a massive fan of anything ancient which you can only guess he imagines makes people assume he’s part of some noble and ancient aristocratic lineage. Notwithstanding that the family made its money in newspapers and my dear, that’s simply Trade, whichever way you choose to dress it up.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary, notwithstanding that it’s American (don’t get me started on momentarily as in ‘the aircraft will be leaving momentarily’ – What would be the point of that? ), cites the adjective Rabelasian as meaning someone or something that is “marked by gross robust humor, extravagance of caricature, or bold naturalism”.

Gross humour probably covers calling black people picanninies with watermelon smiles, the way The Right Honourable Alexander Johnson did, although personally I’d simply call it open racism. Similarly, it would be hard to be more extravagant caricaturing a Prime Minister who chooses to present himself like a fatter, more decrepit Benny Hill, albeit a Benny Hill who’d soiled his nappy.

The one in the middle, in case you can’t beleive that’s anybody’s Prime Minister.

Opinion is not fact

Unfortunately, as 150,000 people dead of SARS-Covid 19 can attest, opinion has been elevated to the exact equivalent of fact, at least in the UK. If your opinion is that masks don’t make any difference to the spread of infection then the fact that they do and have been proven to is irrelevant; you can do as you please.

If you don’t want to self-isolate, you can do as you please. If you want to stand within six inches of total strangers, kiss them with their consent or do anything else with them with their consent, then in the UK right now, with 150,000 people dead of Covid, you can do exactly as you please. Unless you’re in a shop or on public transport, obviously, because this virus is so selective that it can’t infect anyone in say, a restaurant, at a football match, in a nightclub or a concert. You have to wear a mask in a school corridor, but you don’t have to wear a mask in a class of thrity children. All of which is obviously nonsense, but it’s the nonsense put out by the Prime Minister, who now feels it’s time to stop the “we’re following the science” schtick his Ministers used to parrot, and go straight to flatly contradicting them in public.

It’s popular, but then, so was the old Marie Lloyd song which seems to sum-up government science-following. They should listen to it still. We’re not all Falklanders now, as The Times going full jingo put it in 1982. But we can all recognise a leading public figure in the singer. It’s getting dark, they’re a bit pissed, they don’t know where they can find any shelter from what’s about to come, they don’t know where their friends are and above all, they haven’t a clue where they’re going.

Still, so long as that 80-seat majority holds up, who cares?

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It’s official.

I’ve got Covid. Although actually, I don’t think I have. The reason I don’t think that is a brilliant illustration of the way the country is run, which seems completely acceptable to the people who voted Johnson an 80-seat majority.

Two days ago my partner started coughing a lot. She said she felt ok apart from that and a mild headache, but kept saying the milk in the fridge was off. It wasn’t. She said her dinner tasted funny too, but as it was what looked like a totally indigestible mound of cauliflower, spinach and broccoli slathered in vegetable soup as no-meat ‘gravy’ I couldn’t quite see how she could tell. A lot of coughing that night. In the morning I had some sneezing and a tiny bit of a sore throat. But it’s November in England. What do you expect?

At school, a thousand years ago where they did pretty much everything differently (oh you know, free school milk, outside lavatories, racism, adults Not Mentioning The War) we’d been told how our noble, brave and diligently Protestant ancestors had shown their superiority over poor benighted Johnny Foreigner by choosing this sceptred isle, where like Goldilock’s porridge, the weather was not too hot and not too cold but just right for inventing spinning jennies, making cigarettes, building railways and all the other glories of the Industrial Revolution. Unlike those poor people who lived in places where it was so hot that all they could do was sit about in the sun all day. The Italians, for example.

Two things struck me about this at the time. Firstly, one of the few Italians we had in Trowbridge was the ice-cream man who had to work on Sundays, so didn’t seem particularly indolent. Neither did Mr Difazzio, scribbling his designs literally on the back of an envelope before translating them into an amazing motorcycle suspension system 30 years ahead of its time. Ah yes but, as a not-particularly bright but extraordinarily pretty girlfriend used to say when she thought she’d borrowed Occam’s razor, but only to do her legs with, that was probably because Mr Difazzio left Italy and moved to Frome. Stands to reason. If he’d never left Italy he’d have had to invent the Gaggia or Lambretta or Vespa or Ferragamo shoes and change the world while sitting in the sun that way. Or something.

All of which is long-hand for ‘when we thought we might have a bit of a cold we weren’t that surprised’ but we did our lateral flow tests from the free kit we’d got from the chemist a month ago and tested. She tested positive, I tested negative.

Obviously, we immediately booked a PCR test and drove off there seeing nobody on the way yesterday lunchtime. it was being held in the open, in a carpark. There were no signs of any kind, just six people standing around in orange or yellow hi-viz jackets. After we’d driven into the exit because no signs and been directed into the enter part, we were given our test packs in coded plastic envelopes handed to me through the driverside window. We both did the test, sealed the plastic envelopes and handed them back.

The first thing that happened was the girl checking off names asked me which pack was whose. As I said, I don’t know the answer to that. But they’re coded, right? There’s a number code on the packet. You know which code was on which bag when you gave it to me, no?

And apparently no. My partner got her email this morning, testing negative, coughing heavily albeit intermittently. I tested positive, with just a bit of a metallic taste in my mouth. We’re 99% certain they mixed the tests up. Because they weren’t coded by name. Because the packets weren’t checked out by name. Because the girl taking the test packets from us didn’t ask us to do the test again to make sure the one positive/one negative result wasn’t a 50:50 blind guess as to whose was whose. Which she obviously did.

A fantastic aid to concentration.

Which is a pretty good illustration of how the Covid epidemic is being handled in the UK. As if by eleven-year-olds who just found the Haribo stash before they did anything.

Today, with no option to say to anyone ” I think you’ve got the wrong test” I’ve had to register all the places and people I’ve seen during the infection window period, which seems to be 10 to do 7 days for me (but NOT me!!!! Her!!) to get it and the past five to three days, counting down, which is apparently when if I had it I was passing it on to people.

We have our own ideas where we could have got it. At one of the places where nobody could be bothered to wear a mask. Or where nobody could be bothered to use the Track and Trace check-in bar code. Where nobody bothers to say “Sorry mate, mask on and check-in please, or you’re not coming in.” I can’t be the only person left in the world who remembers not getting into clubs in London because I had the wrong shoes on, or in different kinds of clubs because I wasn’t wearing a tie.

Another of the more idiotic things about the entire Track and Trace system is that after £27 billion has been spent on it you have to enter your test results manually into the same NHS online system that told you thirty seconds before that you tested positive. Or hadn’t. Why? Nobody knows. I would say apart from Dido Harding, but it’s obvious she doesn’t, or if she does then it’s rude for any media to actually ask her directly.

I don’t think I’ve got it. But I still have to self-isolate and I don’t object to that. I do object, strongly, to a system where everything is done on the nod, on the utterly fatuous assumption that people will ‘do the right thing’ when the Prime Minister can’t be bothered to say what that actually is, when there is clearly one rule for parties if they’re inside Number 10 and another for the peasants outside the gate, when the police are so demonstrably complicit in making sure that nobody in Number 10 is going to face any consequences for breaking any rules whatsoever. And I am disgusted to live in a society where the national broadcaster simply will not even ask the police outside the door how they didn’t know a party was going on inside, given they had to personally allow people in through the door they were pretending to be guarding.

But it doesn’t matter. Eezalarf that Boris, innee? Eez doonis best. Especially with an 80 seat majority and an Opposition that seems determined not to oppose.

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Inconstant billows dancing

Catchy title I made-up, no? Well, sadly, no. Shakespeare did, in Henry V. Henry was born in 1386 and became king of England in 1413. In those days the first thing to do if you were king was have a war, preferably with France. Fifty years before he was born Edward III did the same thing, sending an army to Flanders, a long-standing English leader’s hobby. The ships to take them gathered in the Kings Fleet, a quarter of the way up the Deben from Felixstowe Ferry, where it flows into the sea.

Heading Out

I sailed towards that today. My boat lives at the head of Martlesham Creek, which as any chart shows, is very shallow indeed, so much so that I suspect at low water my boat is actually touching the bottom of the river. It’s also a wriggly little river here; coming off my mooring towards the Deben you have to turn hard north at the green pole, up and around the red cans near the north bank keeping tight on the turn to head south near the south bank, left around the green cans and only then can you start heading fairly straight east, at least for another two red cans until you have to turn south again to pass two more green cans then head north to a red can, hard right and aim for the final big green buoy and the two white leading marks on the south bank. When they line up and look like just one white stick you turn north, out into the channel. East of that is where I went aground in the Folkboat, stupidly taking a short cut across the shallows on a falling tide nearly two hours after high water.

High Water today was 13:50 and it wasn’t quite 11:00 yet when I got on the boat. There was a stiff wind blowing from the north, 11 mph according to the Met Office but it felt like a lot more than that. That should have been ideal to get off the mooring with the bow pointing east to start off with, but somehow it didn’t work out like that. After skewing round to face dead north (thanks, mizzen sail) I finally did what I should have done in the first place, pull the line to furl the jib and start the engine. The main was still up, sheeted in, and the rudder was still down, although I had got the centreboard up. It was all a bit hectic by now and we’d only just left the mooring.

I wanted to get down to Ramsholt and back today. It’s just over five nautical miles down the river and the plan was to get there an hour before High Water, turn there and use the last of the flood to make sure I could get back, given the wind was going to be pretty much dead ahead all the way back up the Deben until I turned into Martlesham Creek again, if it held.

What didn’t hold was my course. Somehow, on those southerly green cans we went too wide. It wasn’t ‘somehow’ at all of course. I hadn’t taken the mizen mast down, which would have taken to minutes and with the outboard running the throttle tiller fouls the mast if you’re turning to port, left, if you insist, which with an outboard you do by pulling the tiller to the right. Obviously. It’s boat stuff.

If it isn’t a bit stressy then it’s not proper sailing.

Going too wide around the green cans near the south shore three hours before High Water means you go aground, which isn’t unusual in Martlesham Creek and usually it’s no big deal. Except I’d managed to find the only stretch of shingle in the Deben, from the grinding sound, and I couldn’t steer out of trouble because of the mast. By the time I got the engine in reverse it didn’t make any difference. The rudder was stuck in the mud at the bottom of the river, the bows were being blown into the bank and the only way to get out of this was pull the rudder up. Which wouldn’t come up, because the rudder stock on a Drascombe is a straight piece of metal pipe which was now a bent metal pipe jammed in the rudder housing.

I used the long oar to pole us off the shingle, a bit concerned about the rudder which still worked but obviously wasn’t going to come back up in a hurry or at all. I couldn’t see how it was going to, which was going to be a problem when we moored but I decided that was a problem for the future. We goose-winged down past Coprolite Quay with its friendly Absolutely No Mooring Here sign, listening and feeling for anything odder than usual. The series of dull, flat bangs turned out to be pheasants being shot somewhere I couldn’t quite see. We were overtaken by a small yacht, but Luggers don’t sail fast.

According to my Savvy Navvy app on the phone we were running down the river at one point at 4.2 knots, which is pretty much maximum speed and felt respectably fast. More than respectably; the wind had been blowing down river for hours and with the tide against it, flooding in still, there were waves building up that the Lugger was surfing down until they outran us. Waves aren’t something you see on the Deben a lot. I started to regret sailing single-handed again, but my best and brilliant crew was working flat out, as she said she would be all month. She played a part later although the Savvy Navvy app in time didn’t, because it flattened the battery in my iPhone after two hours with the GPS function running.

We rocketed through the moorings at Waldringfield, past the Maybush pub leaving the island in mid-stream to port, then steering north east again once we were clear of it. A green buoy, then two reds and turn south, down the river. We were past halfway to the lost village of Ramsholt I’d been aiming for. There isn’t much at Ramsholt now, apart from a pub that sells the most expensive pint of Aspalls in the universe, a tiny round-tower church and a concrete quay which still has its own harbour-master with his office in a land-locked boat. Every February there’s a rather touching memorial service to remember the time a B17 with an engine on fire attempted a crash landing in the river. They misjudged the tide, but with a full bomb load they didn’t have much choice with trees both sides of the river. Most of the crew died.

but I’d misjudged the time. If you can only sail at 4 mph then you aren’t going to get somewhere five and a half miles away in an hour. I didn’t want to but with the wind building and still blowing from the north, straight down the river, for once I did the smart thing and turned for home an hour before High Water. At least I’d have the last of the flood tide if the wind was impossible. And the engine, of course. And the oars, if it came to it. Which I hoped it wouldn’t.

We had to tack twice to set the boat up to take the eastern channel around the island, luffing up every time there was a gust to gain as much to windward as we could and it worked. We got clear into the big pool above Waldringfield. The wind gusts a lot there, for reasons that were never made clear as Hunter Thompson used to say. While the reasons weren’t clear, the water that came over the lee rail was, which was something I hadn’t planned for. It drained out the way it was supposed to and when I went to get rid of the rest using the pump later there really wasn’t much there to pump, which surprised me a lot. It wasn’t a great moment; water coming over the side into an open boat often isn’t. For lots of people it’s meant there aren’t going to be many more moments of any kind. Percy Shelley for one.

But it was fine. We got all the way back to Martlesham Creek with just one tack to windward before Coprolite Quay, then luffed and bore away, luffed and bore away all through the moorings above it, then turned west straight running 100 yards south of the red buoys marking Troublesome Reach, which today, for once, wasn’t troublesome at all. Then about 300 yards past Kyson Point, closing on the second red buoy in the Creek, the wind died to nothing. Jib furled, main sheeted in, engine on. Because it was pretty much dead on High Water now I sailed straight up the Creek and cut the engine about 20 yards short of the mooring. Predictably there was wind now, blowing from the East, straight up the Creek, against the ebb tide.

I got the sails tied down and the mooring lines on and tried to call the boatyard about the rudder, but my phone was completely dead by now. I pulled in the inflatable and rowed ashore, found the owner and got him to get the tractor started up while I got the trailer down from the blackberry bushes that had grown up around it since it came here in April.

We got the boat almost onto the trailer on the slipway before the rudder grounded and stuck, with the tide falling. The only solution was to get the other tractor with the shovel hydraulic lift on the front, put a sling around the back of the boat, haul that end out of the water and jiggle the rudder out. The shaft was too bent to pull it upwards the way it normally comes out. By the time we’d finished and got the boat tidily on its trailer, parked up for the winter, the rudder was totally bent out of shape.

Do I make an insurance claim? Or do I find a welder to bend it back the way it was? Or do I go to a metalwork place and get them to fabricate a new one in stainless steel? There’s one just 600 yards away from where I’m sitting, in an old Quonset hut on yet another abandoned USAAF bomber station in Suffolk, where the past never really goes away.

Thus with imagined wing our swift scene flies

In motion of no less celerity

Than that of thought. Suppose that you have seen

The well-appointed king at Hampton pier

Embark his royalty, and his brave fleet

With silken streamers the young Phoebus fanning.

Play with your fancies and in them behold,

Behold the threaden sails,

Borne with th’ invisible and creeping wind,

Draw the huge bottoms through the furrowed sea,

Breasting the lofty surge. Oh, do but think

You stand upon the rivage and behold

A city on th’ inconstant billows dancing,

For so appears this fleet majestical

Holding due course to Harfleur.

Follow! Follow!

Grapple your minds to steerage of this navy

And leave your England as dead midnight still.

Henry V, Act III

In a touching post-script, as I charged my phone in the car the yard owner’s daughter came over and tapped on the window. She hoped I didn’t think she was being nosey or anything, but they’d had a phone call. My partner. She’d said I was quite safe and just getting things off the boat for the winter now. It was dark as I drove up out of the yard onto the tiny lane leading to Martlesham church. And seven calls from my Best Crew and partner, wondering what had happened to me, trying to see if I was alright.

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Caught on a lee shore

Sailing is coming towards its end this year. So far it’s been brilliant in the Drascombe, but one of the last sails – voyages is too strong a word for a potter up the Deben – didn’t go to plan at all.

The wind has been funny in Martlesham Creek lately. I’m used to it changing nearly 180 degrees in two hours. I’m used to knowing why Troublesome Reach is called that and it’s not just because it’s flanked by unlikely shallows and the deep water goes very close to Kyson’s Point, much closer than you’d think. But lately the wind has been blowing straight up the Deben from the south, which has made things awkward. I got rid of my Drascombe Scaffie in 2006 because I couldn’t make it point into the wind. The Lugger I have now does that much better, with a sprightly turn of apparent speed for a Drascombe, but it’s very slow sailing with the wind behind it, which makes no sense to me at all.

That means when you come out of Martlesham Creek before High Water you have a choice – either sail against the tide into the wind or with the tide with the wind behind you. And the last few weeks the wind has been high and more to the point, gusting. I didn’t bring the anemometer with me and it turned out I had more to do than use it, standing on the side of the centreboard casing, but the Met Office forecast said it had been gusting 6 on the Beaufort scale.

Force Six is a windspeed of definitely not that much fun at my age single-handed. With my brilliant crew it would have been different – I could have ordered the mizen mast or the jib furled and after only the briefest ‘Don’t talk to me like that’ it would have got done, crisply and properly, the way my brilliant crew always does things.

Brilliant Crew in better weather.

But Brilliant Crew was at work, far too busy to furl my sails or stow my mizzen for me. I’d gone north, seeking the source of the Deben, up to Whisstocks Bend, as I call it, near the TideMill which you’ll know from any tourist picture of Woodbridge. I toyed with the idea of landing and claiming the town for the Crown, or at least the Principality of Sealand, where I’m a Baron (no, I really am. I paid £5 for that, I think).

It’s ok, I do actually realise I can’t do that, but every time that thought crosses my mind I think how utterly maniacally ridiculous it was that people like Raleigh and Drake and Cook and hundreds of others did exactly that, sailing off to somewhere they knew nothing about, trading with or shooting the people who lived there as the mood took them, then saying that all this land and the people on it belonga Big Queen across the water now, you savvy?

That first time I’d sailed up to Lime Kiln Quay before I turned around to head back, but the wind stopped me. With the mizzen sail up there are conditions where the Lugger will sail backwards. Unfortunately, this was one of them. I couldn’t get the boat to sail the way I wanted at all, dead into the wind. I needed to get the mizzen furled to stop going backwards but couldn’t do that without letting go of the tiller, which was going to mean the boat going backwards, then sideways, then probably over, which is something I’ve managed to avoid. I managed it that time too, until the short line I’d lashed the mizzen with just blew off, as the second one did as well. There’s never time to get the anchor out and to be honest, it’s a matter of stupid pride as well. I just had enough time to get all the sails down so we weren’t blown into the line of house boats moored at the Quay, then engine on all the way back. That was that week. This time, the week before last, was a bit less fun.

It’s not like this all the time, honestly….

I’d really, seriously explored the upper reaches of the Deben, the wild, inhospitable waters off Wilford Bridge. To be honest, the only thing inhospitable about them was the wind, and the irritating fact that you can only see the top of water, with no idea whether there’s an inch or twenty feet of water underneath. I’d followed a huge yacht cheating its way to its mooring under power, bow thrusters and everything, which isn’t an everyday sight in my sailing. They showed me where the channel was so I followed, and passed their mooring. I didn’t want to go all the way up to Wilford Bridge itself because pretty as it is, I could feel there was no space to tack round and come out again with the river not very wide and the wind where it was.

For once I’d timed it so it was High Water. The problem is that that doesn’t really matter when you’re at the edge of the water anyway. It still stops, just like my boat did when the rudder bit into the mud. I guessed that was what had happened when the outboard wouldn’t pull us backwards out of the reed bed we’d been blown into. Rudder up, engine on again, reverse gear and off we go.

I should have just motored all the way home, but the whole point of sailing seems to me to be doing that. At the big bend above the Yacht Harbour I moored-up to a bouy on the second attempt, which was when I decided to buy the magic mooring stick in Andy Seedhouse’s shed. Predictably, there was some windswept Cathy and Heathcliff couple on a bench on the bank about 15 yards away, so I had a good audience for what happened next. Sails all furled on their masts. Good. I don’t like the noise of the engine any more than necessary and the fuel container seems to have blown its seals so I’m never a hundred percent sure exactly how much fuel I have left. I’ll row. Unlike starting the engine to get off a mooring you can’t start rowing and keep doing that while you untie and get rid of the mooring line. Which was another reason I needed Brilliant Crew onboard.

I cast off the bouy and started rowing dead into the wind. But too late. The Drascombe was blown backwards, mizzen sail furled or not, straight towards a group of houseboats. Luckily there was a gap between them. Sort of luckily anyway, because although I managed not to smash straight into them backwards and turn a little we were now stuck nose-in in a tiny harbour about 20 feet wide and 30 feet long, with steel hulls either side of us and ahead. There was a rope across the entrance to this little bay to keep boats out. I can tell whoever put it up that it doesn’t work. Sails were out of the question. I can’t row out of here because there isn’t room to use the ten foot oars. And I can’t put the engine on because of that stupid rope which is going to foul the propeller as soon as I start up and if it doesn’t somehow and I get turned around is going to foul the skeg in front of the prop and stop us getting out anyway. You can only get over that rope with the engine tilted up on its mount. Where the prop isn’t under the water. This wasn’t going well.

I thought it was going to get worse when the lady owner of one of the houseboats came to see what the unexpected noise against her hull was and asked Englishly if everything was alright. I told her it very obviously wasn’t, which didn’t exactly ignite a lasting friendship on the spot. I just about managed after her shoving my bows round with a boathook and me trying to get clear with a ten foot oar much too long to row in this little metal box of a harbour and much too short to scull. I flipped the rope out of the way instead of slashing at it with the boat knife, which would have been much more satisfying and eventually managed to get back to the bouy and moor up where I’d left a quarter hour before.

Stow the oars, engine on, cast off and hope we don’t run out of petrol motoring all the way back. We didn’t.

Not every day on the Deben is like that but even the worst day sailing is better than a day not sailing. It teaches you. Mostly it teaches you that actually, you can cope and however much you’re blushing and annoyed at your own stupidity and the wind and the sails and the tide or anything else you might be, you’ve just got to fix this situation and there is nobody else who can, so best just to get on with it.

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Johnny, we’re sorry

Sorry always seems to be the hardest word.

Yesterday in 1989 I was 32 years younger, but like the man in the song, I can still remember how that music used to make me smile. Usually it was the Fine Young Cannibals, that summer.

But yesterday, November 9th, 1989 what I thought was the biggest, most important thing in my life happened. And Johnny, we’re sorry, because we just wasted it. Because we wanted to.

Quick history lesson for my younger readers. 1945 World War Two ends in Europe, chiefly not actually due to Tom Hanks in any of his incarnations, not Private Ryan nor even the Band of Brothers themselves, but more to do with the unbelievable final advance of the Red Army, which rolled straight through what was left of the Wehrmacht Heer at up to 700 km per day.

All went to plan. The three leaders of the enemies of the Nazis when it suited them, Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed at Yalta in February 1945 that the USSR got to decide what happened in Eastern Europe. As the Red Army occupied most of Eastern Europe at the time that made sense, even if people like Isiah Berlin (who I always confuse with Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil, which never, ever helps) thought determinism and historical inevitablity – the idea that things are the way they are because of the things that made them the way they are – was implausible.

Isiah Berlin. How many army divisions has he?

Whether or not Stalin actually said that about the Pope doesn’t matter; in 1945 Stalin had plenty of army divisions, outnumbering the German army four to one. One of the first things they did after killing lots of Germans was to split Germany in half, followed by occupying Poland, just in case it was used as a corridor to attack the USSR. If you see something with Made In West Germany stamped on it you know it was made before 1989. All the countries around the USSR had to be friendly to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics according to the USSR, and if they weren’t then the Red Army would show them how to be. As it did in Hungary in 1956.

By 1961 it had became obvious to the that people in an East Berlin de facto controlled by the USSR didn’t like living there so much as they thought they’d like to live somewhere a bit further West, which wasn’t. Three and a half million East Germans, one in five of the population voted, peaceably, with their feet and left.

A river runs through Berlin, the Spree, but that wasn’t enough to stop the exodus. The German Democratic Government built a concrete wall, with armed guards and searchlights and a strip of sand raked so that footprints would be obvious and just to make it clear they weren’t playing, outside Berlin anti-personnel mines were dug into the sand. What Churchill had described as an iron curtain was made of concrete. it split Berlin in half but more than that, it split Germany in half. More than that, it split Europe in half. Over a thousand people were killed getting out.

This was the wall. This was a fact of my life.

Kennedy came to Berlin and made a speech about freedom, holding the Wall as its antithesis, only slightly marred by the fact that as a non-German speaker, and someone who clearly didn’t know as much about the country as he wanted to be seen to identify with, he didn’t know that “Ich bin ein Berliner” actually meant “I am a coarse-cut pork sausage.”

“Every stone bears witness to the moral bankruptcy of the society it encloses”

Although I hated to agree with Margaret Thatcher who said that about the Wall, I had to acknowledge she was fairly well-qualified to speak about moral bankruptcy. What happened next came out of the blue, at least to me, and to someone I used to know who was there. She was working for the BBC and on the spot, unlike the BBC man with the microphone, who did the broadcast but couldn’t see what was happening. She told him, from on the spot, what was. He told the world, on air. He got famous for the broadcast. She didn’t. But what was happening was even more unbelievable.

People started tearing the wall down. The East German guards shot dead the first person to go near the Wall in 1961. In 1989, for the first time in nearly 30 years, they didn’t shoot at all.

Here in East Anglia three hundred years ago Mathew Hopkins decided he had the ability to find witches, and that he was better at it than almost anybody else except John Stearne. Between them they had hundreds of people, mostly women, tortured and after confessing to hanging-out with the Devil, killed. One story goes that at the end of this nonsense, with people writing to Hopkins much in the same way as they later did with Jimmy Saville to fix it, one vicar who found himself accused of witchcraft and told to present himself to trial simply refused to go. He waited for the watch or the pre-Elvis Costello version of the New Model Army or anyone else to come and arrest him and take him for trial and utterly predictable verdict and death.

But nothing happened.

Nobody came, as soon as one person had stood up and said no, this is nonsense, I’m not doing this any more. The fall of the Wall reminded me of that.

The Peace Dividend

You don’t hear about that now. Because we wasted it. Media used to talk piously about all the money we could save now we didn’t have an enemy and didn’t have to have James Bond and Dr Strangelove and B52s tooled-up with nuclear bombs in flight on constant airborne watch, with their pilots wearing one eye patch so when they were blinded by the brightness greater than a thousand suns they still had one eye left to blow-up the rest of the world and all the rest of it. All that was going to stop. We’d suddenly said this is nonsense. We’re not doing this anymore.

By 1992 the US Air Force had mostly left Suffolk, where they’d been on watch since 1943. But the rest of it we rubbished. We just stopped talking about nuclear bombs. They’re still there. James Bond died in his latest movie, just three decades after the Wall came down. As for military spending, since 2001 we’ve spent far more on armies than we spent from 1945 to 2001, invading countries on made-up pretexts and losing to a bunch of extremely militant hippies in beards and sandals with a few rifles. All that kit, all that money and all those lives spent so that we could continue to have an enemy. After all, where would we be without someone else to blame?

Nobody knows the trouble you feel

Nobody cares, the feeling is real

Johnny, we’re sorry, won’t you come on home?

We worry, won’t you come on?

What is wrong in my life

That I must get drunk every night?

Johnny, we’re sorry.

Roland Gift/David Steele: Universal Music 1989


A German woman born in 1976 got in the car with her mother when the wall came down. She’d been told about the pretty town her mother came from, before the war. They hadn’t ever been able to go there, because it was in the other half of Germany, the Eastern half. With the Wall down and the USSR collapsing they drove East into a different world.

They forgot that the past is a different country. They do things differently there. They found the place with the same name, but they never found the town. First the Red Army had flattened it. Then the Wehrmacht had counter-attacked. Then the Red Army rolled through once and for over thirty years, all. There wasn’t much left of the town by then. What there was fell to bulldozers and got buried under 1950s concrete tower apartment blocks.

I think of the blond teenage girl in the 1990s car, her mother next to her at the wheel, parked up and tired, all their landmarks gone, looking at stark concrete buildings as the dream of little wooden-framed buildings vanished through the windscreen. And it feels to me the same as the feeling about the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain falling apart. Hardly anyone can even remember it now and like Mathew Hopkins, the Knights Templar, Smiley’s People, the Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Rutger Hauer’s Tears In Rain speech in the original Bladerunner film – that was then. It all changed. Maybe there isn’t any historical inevitability and it just doesn’t matter anyway. Or maybe, just like being accused of consorting with the Devil by Mathew Hopkins, Isiah Berlin and Howard Kirk got it wrong; in fact there was only ever going to be a single, utterly predictable outcome.

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Doubling down

Winter is coming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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That sinking feeling

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pump worked. It had to.

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


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

Don’t panic! Don’t panic!

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

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

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

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

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

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On the road

Snarkness on the edge of town.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fat City

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

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

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Passing off

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

This was the future.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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