Like A Christmas Tree

When I was at school I had a brilliant friend called Philip. There were three of us, in fact, not due to split personalities but because we both had this other brilliant friend called Marcia. We’d play with words and try to make them dance for us. Sometimes they did. Sometimes it must have sounded like a collection of nervous ticks. Others, it must have just sounded like three kids who didn’t like sports.

Eeh, us 'ad proper bikes in them days, like....
English bikes for English weather.

Back then and still now I liked riding my bicycle. That was more difficult sometimes then because my fantastic bike got stolen. It was a metal-flake lime green Carlton Continental, hand-made in Birmingham as bikes were in those days. It was the best bike I’d ever had. Back then lights were a problem. They were big, they were heavy and they didn’t put out much light. That applied to almost every light you ever saw, in those days, but almost every battery light would fit every bicycle. Front lights had a slot that you slid over a metal tongue that was part of the bike, either just above the front mudguard or on the side of the forks. Back lights were usually bolted to the right hand side of the frame as high as you could get them without your coat covering them when you rode.

Times change. Lights are cheap, light and bright now. But they don’t fit everything. I’ve had to replace a lot of lights simply because they don’t fit the little plastic bracket on the bike, leftover from another lighting idea. It’s a waste, but unless you reach for the gaffa tape there isn’t a solution. It can’t be beyond the wit of lights manufacturers to make one standard bracket that fits everything. But who cares, apart from pinko cycling people who niggle about the environment?



The thing is, lights don’t always work. I’ve just read about a man who was run down by a van on his way home from work, 17:10 in Dorset one December day. He said his bike was ‘lit up like a Christmas tree.’ Philip, like Peter Cook before him but I didn’t know that then, would have immediately said ‘no thanks, I’ve just had one.” But then, Phil had a Saturday job in a record shop, so he could get all that stuff on a staff discount.

I nearly got in a bike accident when I was lit up like a Christmas tree too. It still doesn’t make any sense to me, more than accidents usually don’t. I was cycling to Orford, going to the Jolly Sailor five miles away one December night. It was cold and it was very, very dark and it’s not the busiest road. In fact it’s out in the middle of the nowheres, half of it pine forest, the other half an original medieval landscape, broadleaved trees and open heathland, a pretty little church, hardly any houses, deer roaming free. No streetlights and certainly no road drains. The only street furniture out there is a single red pillar-box on a post at the crossroads, with the letters E11R on it, from a time in the current Queen’s reign when investment in public services was obviously more affordable than it’s supposed to be now.

I had two armbands on, one on each arm, flashing red lights inside yellow reflective plastic so that any car at a junction could see which way I was turning. I had a yellow hi-visability vest on too, which I don’t often wear but I did that night. One yellow reflective bicycle clip because back then I didn’t have a Hebie chainguard A flashing back light. One flashing front light and a steady front light too.

I wanted to make sure if anyone ran me down they couldn’t stand there in court and be believed when they came out with the traditional ‘I didn’t see him.’ Obviously, experience says that they’d then have added ‘anyway, it was only a bike, your Honour’ and been acquitted and probably reimbursed for their inconvenience, but that’s something else.

It was pitch black, no cars, just me and the flash of the lighthouse out on Orford Ness three miles away, just over to the right in front of me. That’s when I heard the clicking. Then more of it.

It was odd. It wasn’t anything metal. But there was a lot of it. Then something dark moved, right at the edge of where my front light was shining. It wasn’t human.

I mean, it really wasn’t human. I stopped the bike, because I knew it was. Despite all the lights, a little herd of deer had wandered across the road just as I got there. Now they were all around me, about ten of them. I stopped because I’ve seen them run and once one of them does they all do. I didn’t want three hundredweight of deer running into me, then nine more of them running over me with their sharp hooves. That’s what was making the clicking on the road.

Somehow I’ve mixed up brackets and lights again, so it’s time to have to get a whole new light. I’m going into town later so I’ll have a look at what’s around, the old fashioned way first before I go on Amazon or eBay because that’s how I am. I’ll still be lit up like a Christmas tree again. And hopefully the deer still won’t care.




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Clouded hills


I cycled nine miles to a friend’s farm the other evening to be there for a meeting at seven. We were going to discuss the business plan I’m writing for her, changing her experimental pastoral herd to one that can sustain a modest living for more than just the cows.

It was a sunny, late June evening and the back-from work rush-hour was starting in Butley. There must have been four cars altogether, two behind me and two coming towards me, one of them waiting to turn into the side-road on my left.

It was a little red car, about 15 years old by the P-plate. The woman driving it was a bit tanned, wearing shades with her hair in a top-knot. All the car windows were down and there was music blasting out. I didn’t recognise it at first. You don’t normally hear anything in Butley. When the Butley Oyster was open there used to be old photos on the wall, memories of a time when things ever happened in this tiny, usually silent village. The pub used to be confused with the Butley Oysterage at Orford, four miles away, famous for its food and when people from London phoned to try to book a table, the landlady, who never, ever served food, thought it was terribly clever and amusing to pretend she’d never heard of the Oysterage and that she had no idea what anyone was talking about. We simply roared. Odd that the pub is shut now. But like most of Suffolk, despite what the more moronic inhabitants like to pretend, it hasn’t always been like this at all.

The photos on the wall of the pub proved it. All of them in black and white, faded with time. One of them showed a crashed Heinkel in a field, a wrecked German bomber surrounded by British policemen, civilians and a man in un buttoned RAF tunic, holding a machine-gun from the aircraft at waist-level, pretending to be Jimmy Cagney over 70 years ago. The other photo I always noticed was from the same period, when Suffolk expected to be the front line and over-run. Especially this part of Suffolk. This whole area was off-limits to civilians for most of the war. Whole villages were simply confiscated and everyone told to leave for the duration. Iken was one, where thousands of Allied troops charged up the beaches of the Alde in practice for Normandy. Shingle Street, just a few miles away, was another and to this day, no-one really knows what happened there, nor whether or not there really was a German landing that resulted in hundreds of burned bodies being washed up along the shoreline. The photo showed the local Home Guard unit, the men too old or too young or too infirm for active service, kitted out in their uncomfortable-looking serge uniforms and re-cycled WW1 Lee-Enfield rifles, leftovers from the War to end all Wars.

There are lots of sad things about old photos, not least the fact that in any photo seventy years old, its likely that even the youngest people are actuarially likely to be dead. But there was always another sadness about this photo of the halt and the lame. The Home Guard were by definition the men who couldn’t join the regular Army. The sad thing was the number of them in the photo, more old and young, more men unfit for active service than live in the whole village today.

Suffolk more than many rural places has changed. The communities are fragmented. If you’re young you have to move away because there are no jobs. If you’re old you almost certainly didn’t make your money in the area and want to preserve the picture postcard fantasy that ‘it’s always been like this,’ without inconvenient children playing or teenagers snogging each others faces off in the bus shelter, thank-you very much. Without any motorways and a farcical, un-commutable railway service that means the 97 mile journey to London takes around two and a half hours, once the farms mechanised there simply wasn’t anything for anyone to do. The farms weren’t the bulwark of society people like to pretend. They got rid of the horses and got rid of the men who worked on farms. That got rid of the whole point of most of these villages. The people drifted away, apart from the ones too old to do anything except hang on in the twilight of rural zombie world until the end.

We will not sleep

The music was still hammering out of the little red car when I recognised what it was the girl with the top-knot and the shades was listening to somewhat unbelievably: Jerusalem. William Blake wrote the lyrics, one of the weirdest artists and poets who ever lived in the middle of London. I used to walk past where his house had been most days, just round the corner from where Karl Marx lived in a two-room flat writing so passionately about the exploitation of the proletariat that he got his maid pregnant. The song became the anthem of the Labour Party long before Blair re-branded it Tory-Lite (‘I’m Bombin ’ It’™). But it used to mean something, Blake’s Albion, the Labour-landslide 1945 generation’s self-reward for its blood sacrifice twice in what was so obviously not then an average lifetime.


Blake must always have sat uncomfortably with the buttoned-up church folk. Like Dickens, he only once saw a ghost and then one no-one else saw or had ever heard of.  He and his wife once sunbathed naked at a time when most decent people didn’t even take their clothes off to wash once a week. And the paintings, the poems about tigers, the rays of sun, the tablets of stone, the amazement and the wonder that radiates from everything this strange man painted and wrote, the power of the imagery and the dark undertow beneath dull little rhymes about diseased roses and flying worms. All of this, belting out of an old Nissan in a country lane one Friday teatime.





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