Easter and the ghost dance

Back when chicks had body hair….

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.

I almost felt sorry for the other P.E. teacher. Almost.

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.

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People on Sunday

On Friday, without changing the subject, I got out of work early enough to stop in Woodbridge on the way home. I was looking for some mussels for dinner but somehow never got to the fish shop and by the time I would have done I’d found what I was really looking for anyway. Down a little alley, next to a deli and a bulding society and an upper floor flat that’s been for rent for I can’t remember how long, according to the sign in the window, there was a church hall.

There still is, but that’s not the point. It had a sign outside with two fatal words on it:

Book Sale

For anyone pretending to be civlised, there’s no choice but to go in. Because apart from books, some of which you’ll want, for pennies, you’ll get a glimpse of a life of if not quiet desperation then certainly one that careers masters don’t encourage. The life of the church hall bookseller.

I found a Cormac McCarthy I didn’t know existed (Outer Dark, since you ask. About incest. It’s Suffolk, after all). A history of the English Civil War, which I embarassingly  know next to nothing about, aside from the liturgic Edghehill, Prince Rupert, New Model Army, Naseby, which hardly seems adequate. A magisterial account of the Dunkirk evacuation, where a friend’s father spent a solid week in the water at the end of a human pier, before being rescued and not by anyone looking remotely like Jenny Agutter. A book about the last days of WWII, after Hitler was dead, a time that fascinates me, for reasons I don’t fully understand. I think most of all I have the hugest admiration for people who literally had nothing left, who unlike the British, managed to parlay that into a scuccesful economdy within 5 years. And before any rabid Brexit tries the ‘ah yes, but they got a Marshall. Plan bailout, true, they did. And Britain got a factually much bigger one, and spent it on works outings, chips and a massive investment in cloth caps to tug. /in fact of course, Britain chose to bankrupt itself continuining to pretend it was a world power, first squandering its reputation on Aden and squandering its cash on thermonuclear weaponry, a programme so spectacularly rubbish that it ended up buying American anyway.

I would say I digress, but I don’t. Because the other thing I got at the book sale, apart from a chat with the guy who has read more than 95% of all graduates anywhere, because he does little else, manning the cash box, was a DVD. Yes, I know, how quaint. When you can explain how I can buy a second-hand streamed film I’ll listen.

The thing for me about book sales isn’t just the feeling that life outside has stopped, and there can be days when that’s a bad feeling indeed. It’s the idea that you don’t have to risk huge amounts on books you’ve never read or films you’ve never even heard of. And I’d never heard of People On Sunday. Ever.


Maybe it was because everyone in it died years ago. Or because it was a German silent film made in 1929, or all of those reasons and more. I bought it to learn about telling a story without words. Nobody spoke. Or they did, but you can’t hear them. They were all amateurs. There are about five frames of explanatatory text, but really I don’t think they needed it. Five young people on a Sunday do the things they used to do. I did. They probably still do. Sleep. Get out of the city. Listen to music. Try to cop off with each other in a half-hearted way. Find something a bit more challenging when they succeed.

It’s a moving film. It opens at Bahnhof Zoo and instantly you know something they didn’t. The whole place was going to be flattened. Anyone left there was going to be caught between mass-raping Russians and devoted Nazi death squads acting out thier own personal Gotterdamerung. Hardly a brick would be left. And watching this, none of them know it.

They knew it soon. Most of the people in the film got out of Germany soon after. Thier biographies read like the midcentury itself:

Erwin Splettstößer (de) Himself (taxi driver) – The five leading actors were all amateur actors. He liked acting and appeared later in small roles in two other films also directed by Robert Siodmak: Abschied (1930) and Voruntersuchung. In an unfortunate accident, he was run over by his own taxi in 1931 and died.

Brigitte Borchert (de) as Herself (record seller) – Like her film figure, Brigitte Borchert (born 1910) also worked as a Gramophone seller when she was discovered for this film. It was her only film, she later married the illustrator Wilhelm M. Busch in 1936. She died in Hamburg-Blankenese in August 2011, aged 100.

Wolfgang von Waltershausen as Himself (wine seller) – Born in 1900 into a wealthy family in Bavaria, he was a descendant of Georg Friedrich Sartorius. Waltershausen later had small roles in two other movies. During the Third Reich he worked in the mining industry, in post-war-Germany he sold books and audiocassettes. He was married twice and died in 1973.

Christl Ehlers as Herself (an extra in films) – Born 1910, the daughter of an harpsichordist and an artist. left Germany in 1933 and you know why.  During the Second World War, she lived with her mother in the United States. She had a bit part in the Hollywood movie Escape (1940). She later married and had four more children, in addition to one child from a previous marriage. She worked with her husband in a family-owned aircraft company and also had her own vitamin business. Christina and her husband died in a private plane crash in New Mexico in 1960. All of her children are still living and reside in Northern California.

The one that haunts me most is the last, Annie Schreyer. The model. What became of her? Is she still part of the rubble under the new Bahnhof Zoo? There is no information about Annie Schreyer. Nothing on where or when she was born, nor where she died. Or when, or how, or with who. Just an hour of a girl in her early twenties, modestly but prettily enough dressed in a bathing costume, a skirt, a shirt, a hat, smoking a cigarette in the sun, laughing. Did she get out? Was she part of it? We don’t know anything at all. There is no information about Annie Schreyer. On this night when the dead walk I hope she may tread lightly, this black and white girl.

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The lost time

I nearly died once. Actually, that’s not true. I nearly died quite a few times. The time I crashed a motorcycle, the time I walked into the middle of an Israeli Defence Forces ambush – and don’t even start me on the bullshit behind that name – or the time I jumped onto some railway tracks to rescue someone. Or the more fundamentally stupid time I jumped onto Tube tracks to rescue my hat. Or the time a friend and I got a lift in what we still call the Blue Mazda Truck, whose driver steered up Limpley Stoke hill st 70mph, steering with his knees while he rolled a cigarette, laughing to himself.

Or the time I actually saw a bullet ricocheting towards me and somehow in that slowtime of big accidents skewing how time goes had the time to reason that if I could see it then it was heading toward me and moved and heard it spin through the air by my ear. Ok, that one probably wouldn’t have killed me. It probably wouldn’t have done my eye much good either.

Stuff, you know? Stuff. Everyone has stuff. It’s what you have.

The time I nearly died for four years I was reminded about this week. Someone I sort of know a bit on Facebook (as in we’ve PM chatted but not met) broke a leg in a minor accident. All well. She didn’t fall outside and get left in the snow or drowned in the floods or anything like that. She posted pictures of her cast and what a bore and never mind.

The next thing she knew was the elephant sitting on her chest. Or that’s how she described pulmonary thrombosis, the result of a deep vein thrombosis springing itself loose and going on a wander around your body. The “get well soon”s and “have a glass of wine and sit down” didn’t seem to cover it.

Having a glass of wine is good way of killing yourself if you’re on warfarin, probably the most common emergency anti-coagulant. Except it’s not. A good way of killing yourself would involve things being quick and painless and clean, rather than the long-term cold and pain and messily massive haemorrhaging that screwing-up with your warfarin dose usually brings.

I knew about deep vein thromboses because I had five of them. They took four years out of my life thanks to a series of doctors at Leiston surgery in Suffolk who refused point blank to do a blood test that would have cost about 80p, let alone refer me for a scan. Which would have told them exactly what I told them: I was doing a lot of long haul flights. I’d had the word thrombosis in my head since I was fourteen. I don’t know why. Nobody in my family had had one.

I kept getting sudden skewering pain that dropped me to my knees and five minutes later I was fine. Except I wasn’t. For some reason I couldn’t fathom I’d often, or if not often then regularly vomit for no reason I could see, but associated with the stabbing pain attacks. I felt cold all the time. My pelvis ached and I didn’t want to move. I felt colder and older and slower and sadder, feeling that I was dying. For the simple reason that I was.

DVT is massively serious. Your blood stops flowing. It clots because it’s not flowing. That’s bad enough. If the clot breaks away from where it formed it goes first to your lungs, where apart from being excruciatingly painful it can kill you. If it moves on from there it will go to your heart. Quite often it goes through your heart but gets stuck the other side, so your heart will be happily and very soon unhappily pumping blood into a blocked artery until it literally bursts or gives up wasting its time. If that doesn’t happen your clot will continue its way to your brain and block a blood vessel there, which means if you survive that you might have to learn how to talk again and eat with a plastic spoon. You might want to have a think about whether you actually do want to survive and do all that again. And leave some written instructions for your next of kin, somewhere they can find it in a hurry.

There is nothing good about DVT. In the same way there is nothing good about a Suffolk health service which refuses to even acknowledge DVT as an issue. It should be obvious to anyone that someone with a broken leg is a major DVT risk candidate. In France they’d get an anti-coagulant jab as a precaution. But not here. That would cost about £2 a day. Far cheaper to wait until you have a proper bill for treating a pulmonary embolism. Or the person just quietly dies and stops bothering the doctor, the way the government and some clinicians would apparently prefer.

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Elmer’s Tune

Today is probably the 70th anniversary of something I didn’t do. Obviously, if you saw me, even on a bad day, like the day after I fell off the boat ladder in the yard and banged my ribs into the side of it as I fell. That felt like I was 70 and not in particularly good shape. The time I fell off the earth bank at the side of a sunken lane and landed on both knees, ten feet down on gravel was pretty instantly ageing too. But none of those things are to do with Elmer’s Tune. It was a song someone used to like, back then when this happened.

There are several things I haven’t written and mean to write. It isn’t that I don’t know the stories; they’re very simple and both of them true. The issue – apart from laziness and never knowing whether anyone would want to read them – is what to write, whether to write them as a book, as a stand-up spoken word performance, as a screenplay or what. The screenplay idea isn’t so far-fetched. This one would make a good radio piece though. Visually it would need lots of airplanes that went to a Swiss scrap-heap long ago, a full-size American airfield in Suffolk, a blacked-out town and lots of young women in 1940s clothes, or at least hair-styles, given that getting these women out of their clothes was the major reason this particular story happened.

A young man who happened to be an American fighter pilot went to a dance. Because he was excited, because he wanted to sleep with this English girl, because all kinds of things, he missed his lift back to his airfield. The dance was in Ipswich and the truck picked people up near the railway station, except by the time he got there the truck had long gone and he had to walk. He was due to fly in the morning, escorting bombers on one of the last raids of the war, the last time his squadron fought, flying out of Leiston airfield.

So he walked. Through the blacked-out town. Up the hill along the Woodbridge road, out past what was then Martlesham airfield, where Bader had flown, but silent at that time of night. Over what is now the A12 but then was just a minor road. Over the huge roundabout that wasn’t there, past the huge Suffolk police headquarters that hadn’t been built. Some police officers have sworn that they’ve seen people in there who aren’t really there now, people who used to be there, judging by their clothes. In the 1950s some people swore they’d heard airplanes on the base, ten years and more after they all went home.

Down the hill past the Black Tiles pub, down into Old Martlesham and the Red Lion, all shut and long empty then. Along the low road, past what wasn’t then an antique shop, under the railway bridge and as the road starts rising again, up to the roundabout where the Woodbridge bypass begins, the other side of the valley the old road slid down into, the valley the modern road drives straight across. You can see the old road here for the first time, going straight on where now the road sweeps round to the right.

He may have gone straight on along the bypass. It was built in the 1930s. It’s possible. Or right, through the little town. When he told me this story he couldn’t remember and it was dark anyway. He thought he might recognise the street, but in the dark these narrow thoroughfares look much the same. He would have walked through Wickham Market next, either way. Some of that looks very similar.

Before you get to Wickham there is an avenue of trees on another abandoned stretch of this road. In the 1970s the A12 was upgraded. Part of the old bypass was bypassed and a half-mile stretch of it shaded by big trees sits in a field. Those trees must be seventy feet high; they were just about ten years old when the pilot walked under them. If he didn’t walk through the town.

Out past Wickham the modern road plays tricks again. There are so many places he could have taken a wrong turning. There was no-one to ask, no passing traffic. Petrol was rationed and around here only people like doctors had cars anyway. Military vehicles didn’t pass often and this part of England, so close to the invasion coast was emptied of people five miles back from the shore. The Army confiscated huge parts of this place, all around Iken, Snape, Blaxhall and Tunstall, to practice for the invasion of Europe.

Unlike Imber village, the people were allowed back after the war. In Orford they found some changes to the Jolly Sailor pub. Hardening the building as a defensive strongpoint in 1940 the Army poured concrete on the upper floor. It’s still there, bowing the roof beams in the room below, pushing the walls outwards much heavier than the wood and plaster it sits on top of, but the Jolly Sailor is another story all its own.

Another seven miles from Wickham to Saxmundham and from there straight up the hill the way the leave truck went, the six wheeler everyone piled into when they weren’t flying to take them down to the railway station, London and the Picadilly Commandos, the working girls who knew that American officers, gentlemen even if only by virtues of their wings badge were paid five times the rate British soldiers were given. It would be light by four-thirty. It was today, 70 years on, the day I always think ‘shall I walk it today?’ But it’s a long way and it’s raining and much as I might want to for other reasons, there’s nobody to make me go to Germany today.

Past the Waitrose and the Tesco and the Costa, past the charity shop, the bookies and the factory discount store. One of the pilot’s friends cycled down this hill once. He gave a lift on his bike to a girl in the street and they cycled up the hill the other side of the rialway station to a little triangle of grass at a crossroads. They made love there, overlooked by houses not even fifty yards away that 1945 afternoon.

Past the church, another two miles up that long, long hill, out into open country then left on the corner and over the railway crossing, past the memorial to this squadron and its 82 dead pilots that wasn’t there and on to the changing rooms, kit up and walk to the flight line to report for duty. Last flight of the war. That war, anyway.

023 P-51s LeistonWhen I first came to live here I talked to an older woman who as a girl had played on Leiston airfield just after the war, with her friends. They were airplanes. Boys and girls alike became P51s, arms out for wings, mouths open for take-off, the imagined sound of engines coming from childrens’ throats as they ran across the empty runways, bound for Germany.

Under the empty blue sky of 1946 the phantom tyres stopped rumbling on the tarmac. The shadowy wing tipped a little one way and then the other and then steadied. A silent Merlin engine clawed its way into the forgiving sky as the wheels lifted, folded and locked back. All in a child’s mind on an abandoned airfield.

I met someone who grew up in a town flattened at the end of the war for no reason. It wasn’t a strategic town. It didn’t make anything much. It was just a beautiful place with medieval buildings until one day in March 1945 when half of it was demolished by the pilot’s friends, because it was there.

It made me feel differently to meet someone who described herself as ‘the third generation of the War.” But still at Christmas I come here to this memorial. I stand and read their names out loud so that someone remembers these boys who couldn’t go home.

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A Question of Balance

I wasn’t allowed emotions when I was a child. It wasn’t the done thing. Some children at school were sad, but we, or certainly my sisters and I, were told there was something wrong with them. One boy cried a lot, even thought he was one of the bigger, older boys. In fact there were two boys like that. One smelled and to this day I don’t know why or how that happens. I can hear an adult in my head saying that soap has always been cheap, but now I’m old enough to be an adult it seems to me that having soap isn’t enough, you have to know what to do with it and when, and why it’s a good thing to do.

One of my more abiding memories is almost constantly being told to smile. The reason why a small child has to be told to smile is obvious; because they aren’t smiling. Instead of addressing the problem, which is nothing to do with whether your mouth goes up at the corners as mine was advised to do almost daily, my family simply steamrollered on, as ever. Sad was bad. Or at least showing that you were sad was. And anger was reserved for grown-ups, but in fact it was only realy reserved for the two people who were older in the house I lived in.

To say that they were grown-ups implies that they were fit to have children. Neither of them were. For my father, when he could be bothered to be there, when he wasn’t playing Daddy in his other house, with his other wife and other family, the one we found out about when my mother tried to divorce him, anger was a thing he was good at, unlike, for example, being a decent human being. He had an explosive temper. For a variety of reasons, many of which I now think were to do with the way that children in abusive families are set against each other, I never got on with my sister, then or now. It seemed to me that she was encouraged to be aggressive and her school seemed to encourage stupidity, or at least the way she presented the things that happened there appeared borderline cretinous. The day she came home from school saying that they had had ‘some sort of test’ was the day she failed the 11 Plus. Whether or not the exam was a good thing or not isn’t even
vaguely the issue. Despite seeming to want to appear to be stupid, despite being deliberately provoking she didn’t deserve to be attacked by my father when he pulled the car into a layby in Burrington Combe specifically to get out, open the door and beat her up while my mother sat in the front seat. There was no help in that family. There was no trust. How could there be?

I was bullied at school. I allowed myself to be bullied. By the time I was nineteen I could run faster than our Irish terrier, as he found out several times when he escaped as a puppy. But at school I couldn’t run and I wasn’t allowed to fight. I didn’t want to fight, particularly, but my mother insisted that I mustn’t hit people. Now I think that was to stop her being hit by me, so that she had exclusive rights to violence after my father had gone off with a hairdresser to live in Andover in a gold-painted Mark II Jaguar with a back seat full of carpet of unknown provenance. And yes, that really was my last memory of my father before I learned that he had had a heart attack and died, still causing trouble after he was dead when the car he was driving, a company Audi, ploughed into three other cars. Perhaps because sometimes and unpredictably I can’t hear people properly, perhaps because I retreated into myself and didn’t like football or cricket much, to the extent that I simply refused to play either at school and sat with the boy with asthma and the boy who seemed to be modelling himself on Oscar Wilde, long before any of the pupils at my country church school had any idea who he’d been or what Sir Arthur Saville’s crime had beeen. I did have a fight. Throughout it I knew I was not allowed to hit the other boy. I allowed myself to nearly break his arm and to ram his head into and through a wooden gate, into a brick wall, but I wasn’t allowed to hit him. Obviously this was a one-sided rule. I hated being a child and I hated being in my family.

As I got older I began to allow myself the luxury of anger. Like many luxuries, too much of it isn’t very good for you. I solved the family thing when I was thirty by simply stopping talking to them. There might have been a better way of dealing with them but nobody was going to talk about what it was, so I gave up on it. With other people, especially with women, I put up with a lot then exploded. Drinking did not help. Somehow, especially as I got older, I had girlfriends who left ‘pretty’ for other girls, moving straight into OMG-Stunning category. And like me, being too much of something to be ordinary, they had their own issues with that too. Some of the simply most attractive women I have ever met have had something ripped out of them, usually their confidence. Usually by their parents. It made them needy, but seemingly not of me. It made me angry and I didn’t know how to deal with anger.

All I knew was I was back in the monkey cage with sticks being stuck through the bars. I am trying to learn that everyone gets angry, but they deal with it in different ways. That the best way to deal with it is to wait, to acknowledge it, but not to let it drive you and deal with it when you aren’t angry. Otherwise you end up like the man in Roger McGough poem, probably himself. He wrote that in the middle of an argument some woman had said to him something that was wrong. That shouting didn’t become him. I knew exactly how he felt when I read that, that she was wrong, he begged to differ; shouting did become him. And he became shouting. That’s what it feels like when you give in to it. Shouting and anger does become you. And they are all you become.

I’ve learned to stop the shouting part. I need to stop being driven by the anger until I can see a way of dealing with the thing that caused it. The immediate thing, naturally. I think it’s a bit late to deal with my father without an ouija board. Anger has not helped me. Several times anger has become me. Several times in my life I have become anger. I have not gained from it.

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Das Boot



Das Boot

In the film the sailors were down deep in their submarine

Hunted hunters or hunting, it was hard to tell

Under the water and oil and blood and fire

If not honour. The destroyer was closing in fast

Dropping depth charges, the twin screws churning

The water above the submariners’ heads,

Cavitation whining, foreheads furrowed,

Woollies on, tense glances while they had to keep silent

Or they’d never hear the ping on the hydrophones

That would tell them who was where.

It was just a film

But it made me think of you and I and how

When we met we were both quiet,

Talking almost in whispers

One voice loud enough for both of us to share

When the pings of our sonar echoed back to each other faster

And faster as we got closer until nobody could really hear

Any difference in the two beats, the ping meeting the echo

In one long high sound that almost hurt to listen to it.

It never lasts long, that sound.

They dived deep to get away from the ship hunting them;

Only one option in the face of the evident danger.

The ludicrous flaw in this whole arrangement

The deeper you go the longer it takes for the depth charges

To reach you but because of the pressure all around,

Going deep, running silent, when they find you

The bolts shear more easily and the red lightbulbs smash

With the concussion, the rivets groaning as you look at each other

And wonder looking, each knock -Is this it? Is this the end?

Is that the tap on the hull that’s going to crush this all around us?

This blast of smashing cold that’s going to take our breath away?

And somehow it never is. It’s just that now the hunt’s over

And there’s so much time between each ping, each echo of you,

The air getting stale somehow, the signal fading

And so hard to even get a clear fix on your direction

These days, these nights, I miss the sound of that one long joining

Of that separated out again to two different pulses,

Longer now between each one. And longer still each time.

The sounds the ships make sinking, on the screen,

Their bulkheads blowing as they make the last voyage to the bottom.

It sounds like a scream. As if they had real feelings.

Then the longer silences now and just the echo of you fading too,

Contact broken, skipper. I think she’s gone,

However much I listen, my fingers twisting the dials,

Still here in the quiet, searching, headphones on.

Keep it down in the engine room. They can hear us miles away

On a night like this. But I can’t really hear your echo at all.

We can come up to the surface now. I think we’re in the clear again.

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Through the looking glass

Stupidly, because I might have expected it, page 60 of the Daily Mail March 28th 2014 was an entire page that managed to turn a book review into the author’s fears about the end of the world. Taking his work home with him, John Preston claimed that it often keeps him awake at night, or specifically, worrying about what he will do when the horde of illegal benefit-claiming job-stealing immigrants have given cats TB because we didn’t shoot all the badgers. aliceIt’s EU political correctness gone mad.

His biggest worry wasn’t that the world would end – if it was he wouldn’t have got the job at the Mail – but that he wouldn’t be able to cope with the consequences. Being a Daily Mail person he didn’t bother to do anything to solve the problem by learning how to sew or make a fire for example, but by mangling the language a bit further while saying how terrible it all was.

“Let’s say a terrible pandemic has decimated most of the population,” he gushed. I know this is a favourite Daily Mail fantasy, but let’s stop it right there.

Nothing can decimate most of anything for one simple reason: decimate means reducing something by a tenth. Unless John Preston is stratifying the population, which presumably he’d do along the lines of strivers and scroungers, the sentence is gibberish, like most of the rest of the paper.

Given that he wrote ‘most of the population’ he can’t be stratifying in any major sense. Instead, he’s simply conflating his own ignorance and the desire to use big words to imply he’s really clever and making more of a mockery of his newspaper than presumably the editor also intended.

Decimated does not mean devastated. Yes, it sounds similar. But it’s a different word. For a good reason: it means something else. This is what words are for. Meaning something. Not whatever you want them to mean, or you might as well strawberry blancmange.

It was the Romans, as it so often is in our progressive country. I’m not even going near the arsy ‘no, it’s about the practice of executing one man in ten in a mutinous Roman legion.’ I don’t know if it also means that or not, but it’s irrelevant.

Decimus means ten. In Latin. That’s what it means. No more, no less. Ten. So decimate has to mean reduce by a tenth, whether it’s Roman soldiers, survivors of the apocalypse or eggs in a basket. What it doesn’t mean is destroy a lot of.

There were no WMDs Tony. None. As You Knew.

I blame Tony Blair, a bit but not entirely like the Daily Mail. At least he’d obviously read some Victorian literature when he was at Oxford.

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”

Through the Looking Glass.



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More material

I put Golden Cap in for the Bridport Flash Fiction competition in 2012. It didn’t get anywhere, even though the real Golden Cap, the odd chewed-up hill slowly being eaten by the sea is just a couple of miles from Bridport. I spent a Christmas and New Year near there once. It was cold and snowy and magical. On Christmas Eve what seemed like the whole town streamed out of the pubs, teenagers, old people, the lovers, the estranged, and we all crammed into the stone church overlooking the sea, the same way people had done for hundreds of years there. There seemed to be something in my eye but it was very windy outside, after all.

I got a saxophone that Christmas, a present from a generous girlfriend, in the eighteenth century house we were staying in. One morning we both hunted for the mouthpiece all over the top floor flat we rented, then gave up and went into the town to buy another. We were out of luck; there were no music shops in a town like Bridport, or none selling saxophones. When we got back to the flat the mouthpiece was in the exact centre of the floor of the spare room. It happened in another flat on holiday too, with the car keys.

The rules of the competition were 500 words only; Flash fiction. I’m never sure about that. It’s fun as an exercise, but I don’t buy the line that people haven’t got time for more these days. It’s your job writing it to steal their attention. If you can’t keep it for more than 500 words that’s your fault, not theirs. But anyway.

A decent-ish little short for the forthcoming stand-up set. I need half an hour’s worth of material. And something for the soiree this weekend. What? Want to make something of it?


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First storm of winter

The first storm of the winter came in today as I was driving back along the A14. I could feel the car shaking as the wind took it, saw the trees waving through the windscreen. By the time I got close to the village where I live the road that always floods was under six inches of water, but the high road was flooded too, the water lying where I’ve never seen water on the road in the six years of being here.


It’s been a raw wind all day, a damp chill that cuts through summer clothes and let’s you know you’re in for the long haul now. The radio was saying there’s a good chance the lights will go out this winter, because government after government has decided that having wars is much more fun than building power stations. Let’s face it, nobody is going to move out of your way at the G8 Summit just because everyone in your own country thinks things are going quite nicely for a change. That’s not what being a global statesman is about at all.

Someone had left my gate open and a dog fox was calling as I stepped out of the car into the dark and moved my  bags indoors. There was a spicy bean stew in the freezer and a bottle of wine in the rack. Put  the washing into the machine and unpack the bags, make the list of Stuff To Do and read three really, really nice emails from people who didn’t owe me a nice email but sent one anyway.

There’s food on the table and a bed waiting for me. And some days you count your blessings for those things alone, because there are plenty of people without and more to come. Tomorrow if the weather is ok I’ll cycle down to Caroline Wiseman’s Suffolk Arts Club at lunchtime. There’s always someone interesting to talk to there as well as a glass of wine.

None of us know what’s going to happen next, not anybody at all. I think the secret is wanting to find out.



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Ligging, as it used to be called

When I first went to journalism school (oh, didn’t I tell you? Why don’t you buy me a drink and I will?) we all thought we were going to be fast-tracked onto the free drinks circuit. All the movers and shakers and people who wanted to influence people were bound to want thirty 18 year olds swigging their free champagne and stuffing vol-au-vents in their pockets for supper while we practised our T-Line shorthand and forgot people’s names, starting on the fifth free champagne and an empty stomach, with our own. Bound to. Somehow the 46th Annual Bread, Cake and Confectionary Exhibition at Cardiff City Hall didn’t quite go that way and nor did I.

Cardiff City Hall. Dropped the camera. Bit skew-whiff now. You’re my besht mate. No, really you are. You know that?

But today reminded me what ligging was really about. Not scoring free drinks and some nibbles instead of buying your own lunch, but getting your face about and keeping an ear to the ground, although now not drinking so much that you do that literally.

I was walking down the street, like you do, when I saw a friend of mine walking towards me. Where are you going? Off to a press launch. Invites only. Mind if I come? No, if you like.

It’s that simple. Like many things in life, the hardest thing is believing you can do it. And not acting the arse when you do. I met a few interesting new people. Made some contacts. They might come to something, they might do later. Might have some new guests for the Lifeboat Party radio show at www.radiocastle.com. Gave them my card (thank-you Vistaprint, £6.59 well spent) and something might come of that. Who knows?

Even if it doesn’t it reminded me of two things. More people usually want to meet you than you think. And you don’t always have to buy your own drinks.




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