Chanson d’Armour

One thing I never wanted to hear on a motorcycle was the Ra-ta-da-ta-da of my head, elbows, hips, knees and toes bouncing down the tarmac having come off it. Ok, you might have to be of a certain age and indeed of a more than certain pretentiousness to recognise the song and the joke in the title, if that’s not too strong a word for it, but if you ride, you’ll have thought about buying the stuff, if you haven’t already. Which I’m feeling as if everybody else in the universe already has.

Back when I started riding motorcycles, rider armour was something I read about in Bike magazine, something strictly for people like Barry Sheen, who was the nearest thing to the Bionic Man I’d ever heard of. For our younger readers, Barry Sheen dropped his bike at Daytona somewhere around 170mph when he was 24 when his tyre blew up.

“I was rolling, and I could feel all my skin coming off. I didn’t feel the leg because all I could feel was the skin tearing off my shoulders. I went to get up and looked down, and my leg was right-angled, poking under the other one.”

Barry Sheen

He broke his left femur, right wrist, forearm and collarbone, six broken ribs, and a few vertebrae, sandpapered a lot of his skin off and got himself a 40cm steel plate screwed into his leg bone to hold it together. I don’t know what it’s like to do 170 on a motorcycle, and on my antique BMW F650, it’s not something I’m likely to find out. But I do know I never want to feel anything like Barry Sheen that day. Or any other.

I’d seen a kid at school who came off his bike at something under 40mph, but as he was wearing one of those sleeveless tops with a strap over each shoulder, the kind of thing they made you wear at English schools for Games back in the days when the P.E. teacher would wander around the shower room to “make sure” everyone was washing. This kid had one big scab from his wrist to his shoulder for a couple of weeks. He’d given up gloves to keep cool. 

My view back then was that the more I looked like Mad Max, the cooler I’d look, so I bought myself a leather jacket. The one I wanted was in a proper motorcycle dealer in Bath, just about affordable, padded with something at the shoulder and the elbow and bulked me up massively. It was also an unseemly shade of orange, which was probably why it was affordable. The other problem was all I had was a Yamaha FS1E. Seriously.

Instead, I got a jacket made for me by a chain-smoking hippy in a weird shop in Bath’s Walcot Nation. He got the leather from cutting up old jackets, handbags, or wherever he could find it for free, then lined the coat with an old wool blanket he’d probably dug out of a decommissioned Cold War bunker under Box Hill. I got full marks for recycling and alternative cred, but it was about as protective as the mini-skirts it was probably made from, and it stank of cigarettes for months until the wind blew the smell away. 

When I got a 650 Triumph, I had to get something more becoming, so when I was on holiday and visited Truro market, I bought the Stranglers-style black leather jacket I’d always yearned for, for a massive £35. As Meatloaf used to tell us, it was long ago and far away. According to Google, that would be about £180 today, so it’s not so much better after all. When I got my Sportster, I got myself a Schott A2. Luckily, I never got to test either of these out seriously, but after that, I turned my Harley into a laser printer and a laptop to start a business that saw me around the world for 15 years or so, during which I didn’t have a bike and being dumb, gave away or sold all my kit, gloves, Ashman boots, Belstaff boots, open-face Bell 500, goggles, jackets, waxed cotton over-trousers, Rukka suit, the Schott, the lot.

Then, just before Christmas, Santa brought me a BMW 650. Before I rode it anywhere, I had to start from scratch, starting with a helmet. I drove up to Harleston on one of those crisp December days to find a shop full of bikes I didn’t even know the names of, where they totally ignored me, then on to a shed (always a sign of a better bike shop) full of guys my own age and more who tried very quietly but firmly to sell me a nice Triumph but didn’t have any helmets. When I got home, Best Beloved, who fondly recalled her tasselled leather jacket and Yamaha 650, took me to the nearest bike shop in Ipswich, marched me to the helmet racks and whipped out her bank card. She chose a flip-front helmet I’d never heard of. I tried it on in the shop, and the sales guy told me it was the right size. After talking me out of buying a Scott chain oiler, agreeing it would be ideal if I was riding Route 66 coast to coast but also pointing out quietly and firmly that, in fact, I wasn’t, she walked me to the till and then her car. 

The biggest problem was my head. It’s huge. Seriously. It’s 63cm and 64 if I need a trip to the barber. I tried the shiny new, never-heard-of-the-maker polycarb (I know..) helmet on in my home office and couldn’t believe three things: How heavy it was. How much my head hurt. That the nice guy in the shop was lying when he’d told me the helmet was my size.

It clearly said 61cm on the label on the back of it, and yes, I most definitely had said 63 in the shop. Another Saturday, another trip to the store, and a full refund. I got a Bell online instead, with the Gold ACU sticker. 

I’d forgotten, or rather never really knew, how fashion was now a massive part of motorcycles. This is good because it means old stock is Out Of Fashion, and the seller still has to sell it, so there’s a whole load of good stuff being sold off cheap because Oh-mi-Gard it’s last season’s gear. 

The same day we went to the bike shop in Ipswich I answered an ad on Gumtree that promised leather jeans for £30. After a tour of the town’s lesser architectural gems southeast of the railway station we found the house and the guy who said he was giving up riding motorcycles. Whether or not that was true, £30 bought a fantastic pair of leather bike jeans, padded at the knee. Ok, they zip from the wrong side and possibly, just possibly the cut makes them fit slightly like jodhpurs, more as if I was going to co-pilot Amy Johnson than ride a motorcycle, but hey. £30. A significant upgrade on Levi’s for protection anyway, and I’m too embarrassed to say when I remember Levi’s were £30 anyway.

The brand new Halversen gloves donated to a charity shop on Ebay were better than the ones I used to ride with, despite the Mad Max-style knuckle dusters that seem to be a legal requirement for riding gloves these days. The Bering jacket was the best thing though. I was intending to use my old leather jacket. Not the Schott that went to Ebay about five years back but the one I bought one Christmas in Fuengirola about 20 years back when it wouldn’t stop raining. After waxing it, soaking it in neatsfoot oil, daubing it with cocoa-butter and generally stinking my office up I realised that I might as well just buy something with armour and have done with it. 

The Bering was a ludicrous £89, and that’s from a man who still thinks £4.95 is a benchmark price for pheasant pie, chips and peas, which I used to get for quiet evenings on my own in Stow-On-The-Wold back when I had a 400-year old house there. It’s got armour in the elbows and the shoulders, and a slot to stuff more armour down the back. It’s blue instead of leather coloured, with a twin zip up the front and a zip across the shoulders at the back, so that in summer you can ventilate yourself on the three weeks it ever gets above 80 Fahrenheit in the U.K. It’s made of 600 denier Cordura with a woven aluminium zip-in full lining for winter, and a handy strap and a brass buckle at the throat. More to the point, despite all the protection and windproofing, it doesn’t make me look like I’m auditioning for a Mad Max film. Best Beloved, who sews for a living, took one look at it and said “That’s a £300 jacket.”

Now, maybe it’s me, but if I’m spending £300 on a jacket I’m only going to wear in one eventuality, on the back of a motorcycle or anywhere else, then I want it to look pretty special. Some lizard skin detailing, maybe, or a paisley lining. Instead I get armour and fine-spun aluminium. When I started riding the biggest deal in protective clothing was whether you could find white sea-boot socks to turn down over the top of your knee-length zip-up boots, the ones where the only armour insert was a steel plate in the right instep, for the kick-starter.

The older I get the more I realise that saying is true: the past is another country. They do things differently there. And just sometimes, at least when it comes to motorcycle clothing, they do some things a whole lot better here.

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A possible

Once upon a time, in a land long ago, there was a thing called the Frome & District Pistol Club. That’s how long ago it was.

I’d learned how to shoot rifles, or .22 rifles at least, at the local TA Centre in the town I grew up in, back in the days when no air conditioning, an underground 25-yard range, canvas-covered kapok mats that Lord Roberts had probably personally specified just after the Boer War and no shortage of adults who would have quite happily clubbed to the floor any kid arsing around with a gun in a nano-second passed for a totally normal Thursday evening in a small town.

I loved it. I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be, and that was the point. I wanted to get better. Slowly, I did. The rifle club sent me to Bisley and somehow at fifteen I shot well enough to get my badge as an adult Marksman, which now I think is just a first and not a great step, but a decent start. I couldn’t afford a decent rifle then, and let it lapse through Sixth Form, but took up shooting again when I went to the University of Bath, and hence the Frome & District. There were other ranges, at Devizes and the weird tunnel range somewhere out towards Radstock in a converted railway cutting under the Mendips. I recall someone shooting a “bullet-proof” vest with a black powder .36 caliber pistol there, to see what happened. It was ok, nobody was wearing it. Except it wouldn’t have been ok, because although on examination the ball hadn’t penetrated the vest, it set fire to it instead, and we had no way of measuring blunt-force trauma.

The Smith & Wesson Model 28

I shot all through university. When we weren’t doing .22 pistol shooting at our indoor range built in some old quarry scrape we used the Number Two range at the School of Infantry in Warminster, backstopped by the escarpment of Salisbury Plain. That was when I bought my first gun, a .357 Smith & Wesson Model 28. The frame was too big for my hand and more so with rubber Pachmyer grips on what was a heavy brute of a gun designed back in the 1950s for the American police market. I should have bought a six-inch Model 19, but I couldn’t wait. Mr State Trooper, please don’t stop me, as Bruce Springsteen sang.

Maybe you got a nice car. Maybe you got a pretty wife.

Well mister, all I got is attitude. And I had it all of my life.

Writing this the lyric ‘Pappa go to bed now, it’s getting late. Nothing we can say or do is gonna change anything now’ might be more apt, but as the Boss said. Number Two range was freezing cold, but not so Heytesbury Battle Range, up on top of the Plain where the Army used to let us play on their big boys range now and again if we’d been very good. There were trenches to jump over, electric pop-up targets, and buildings to clear and it was generally all good fun for a growing lad. I met the Special Boat Services guy who invented and luckily for him, patented the SPAS 12, which might have been manufactured by but I can guarantee certainly wasn’t developed by Franchi.

The S.P.A.S 12 I tested on Salisbury Plain.

He’d designed this combat 12-bore shotgun to shoot semi-automatically, meaning it would fire every time you pulled the trigger, re-loading itself, and if you pressed a button it worked as a pump-action, I think in case it jammed. It was a long time ago but I think he’d also tried making it fully automatic, so if you pulled the trigger it simply discharged every cartridge in it, but as there were only seven or eight there didn’t seem to be much point, and it was uncontrollable anyway unless you were built like King Kong, or at least like the chunky kinds of guys the SBS hired in those days.

After university I got a job through BUNAC, teaching kids to shoot on a summer camp in Wisconsin, bought a $200 twelve-year-old Chevrolet and a .22 AR7, and had the best summer of my entire life, thanks to a red-haired cheerleader, a lake, free ammunition, my shooting range and Hunter Thompson, who I tracked down to Woody Creek after driving 1,100 miles to get there. The AR7 didn’t last long, not through any fault of the gun, although it did have the fault of shooting high right and didn’t have adjustable sights. About two weeks after I bought it the police showed up at summer camp and told me I wasn’t allowed to have it because I wasn’t a US citizen. Without citizenship I could buy any kind of shotgun if I wanted, or anything that used black powder, maybe a nice .44 of the kind cowboys used to holster, but nothing using a modern smokeless powder cartridge, however tiny compared to a .44. I didn’t make the rules.

They had an odder rule in America anyway. Back in 1934 when Bonnie and Clyde roamed the land the National Firearms Act set a fee of $200 payable to the Bureau of Alcohol. Tobacco and Firearms if you were a citizen and wanted to buy a machine gun. Today that law, and weirdly, that fee, $200, still stands. Even more weird, in 1968 the US Supreme Court decided that that original NFA was unconstitutional. Not because it banned people from having machine guns unless they had a license. Oh dear me, no. If your idea of your inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness happens to include burning through ammunition at 800 rounds per minute then no American court is going to say that maybe that wasn’t quite what the Founding Fathers had in mind. No, ma’am.

The reason the Supreme Court effectively chucked out the 1934 Act was that if you had a machine gun in 1933, then the Act came in the next year and you thought, gosh darn it, I’d better register this shootin’ iron and stay legal, then you’d be incriminating yourself; by applying for the licence for the machine gun you had, you’d be saying in writing that you had a machine-gun, and that’s against the law, bud. Trying to stay legal and register your unregistered gun meant you were saying you possessed an unregistered gun, which you or I might say was, like some other parts of the Constitution, a fact we find to be self-evident. And that fact also violated the individual’s privilege from self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Get out of that, in the land of the free.

I drove across America un-armed anyway, and nothing ever happened to make that the wrong decision, wherever I went.

The AR7 I had to hand back.

And then London, and no decent ranges I could find and arsey London attitudes when I did track them down, and the dismal Stone range, a train ride and a twenty-minute walk away in darkest Kent. I stopped shooting then and didn’t really start again until I took up clay pigeon shooting when I’d moved out to the edge of the M25. All of that pretty much stopped as a regular thing with Dunblane. I didn’t much want to be associated with that, nor the sickening virtue-signaling of the Home Office Minister I wrote to, protesting the confiscation of legal firearms would do nothing whatsoever to stop gun crime. I wish I’d kept the letter he wrote and signed, saying m maybe not really, but the government “had to be seen to” be doing something. Or in code, The Sun won’t stand for it if we aren’t.

For a very long time, I thought that was that. There isn’t any shooting apart from clays and after I lost half a tooth exactly where my cheek met the stock of my rather nice Winchester skeet gun, the prospect of losing more of them somewhat paled. Until about this time last year, when I discovered not only that yes, there actually were still shooting ranges around, but you could join them, go through a monitored probation period, and after that, shoot pretty much any time you chose, at mine anyway. Which even more amazingly, was walking distance from where I live.

I bought myself an air-rifle about ten years ago when thanks to keeping chickens we were plagued with rats. Big rats. They eat chickens if you let them, which I had no intention of doing, and as my very old cat wasn’t stupid enough to take them on alone I had to give him a hand. I thought it was getting a bit too Country Living when I found myself sitting in the sun at six in the morning, wearing only a dressing gown and wellies, cradling a mug of tea and an air rifle, waiting for the rats to come for their breakfast.

Home on the range

For my birthday last year, I bought myself a better one, a rather beautiful Wierauch 97 with an unbelievable Czechoslovakian telescopic sight that does one thing well: it shoots exactly where you aim it, which if you know anything about shooting at all, you’ll know to be a fairly rare thing. Three weeks ago I managed to do the almost impossible, shooting a possible. In other words, if the bullet did actually cut the line on the target, which it looks as if it did, means 100 out of a possible 100.

My beloved partner likes to shoot some Sundays too and from a standing start, after just a couple of months regularly shoots in the high 90s and about half the time, better than I do. Her challenge is being consistent but then, that’s what shooting is about. Get the group small and in the same place and you can move it onto the bull using the adjustments on the sights; if you don’t shoot consistently then it doesn’t matter what you do, you’ll never get better. It’s about controlling yourself, your breathing, your posture, your relaxation, your mindfulness, I suppose now. All of that. And some of it’s about remembering a summer, with a lake, a shooting range, a flag and a cheerleader called Nancy-Jean.

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You Must Be Joaquin

I’ve got a special deal with my local cinema. You pay them £90 and you can see any new film they’re screening, as many times as you want, any day. It’s a good deal, except it doesn’t cover older films, like It’s A Wonderful Life, and what kind of Christmas is it if you have to pay to see that? Jimmy Stewart would have had something to say about it. Elmer would, anyway.

On Tuesday, because I’m on a week’s leave (Twas the week before Christmas, I wasn’t at work, I’d bought all the presents, this wasn’t a perk..) I went to see Napolean. The film, you understand, the one with Joaquin Phoenix who apparently isn’t the same Joaquin I saw dancing flamenco in Manchester about a hundred years ago and didn’t like. It’s confused me for years.

It’s Ridley Scott, so you know the lighting is going to be epic and it’ll all be ten times better on a big screen. And according to Indiewire, Joaquin turned the whole film around.

“Joaquin is about as far from conventional as you can get. Not deliberately, but out of intuition,” Scott said. “That’s what makes him tick. If something bothers him, he’ll let you know. He made [‘Napoleon’] special by constantly questioning. Joaquin is probably the most special, thoughtful actor I’ve ever worked with.” 

Scott ended up rewriting the whole “goddamn film” to focus on what Napoleon Bonaparte was like in real life. 

Like anyone else with access to Google, I know a bit about Napolean. Corsican. Hat. One hand shoved in his tunic front. The Nile. Nelson. Trafalgar. Waterloo, where the glorious and victorious by God’s good grace faced-down Johnny Frenchy and taught the Continent the doctrine of peace through superior firepower entirely single-handed, apart from those pesky Germans who turned up to help at the last moment, and the Russian Winter, obviously. I thought making one of the characters took tath too far. Joaquin was that you who did that? Stop it. It’s corny. They practically said it in inverted commas and did the fingers thing at the same time.

So I know some things about Napolean. And I know something Joaquin Phoenix and Ridle Scott apparently don’t know about him.

Napolean wasn’t American.

I nay! Like, amazeballs, ya?

Whatever else he did or didn’t do, Napolean never, not once, ever, spoke with an American accent. Yes, I know it’s a film. No, I think maybe making the character speak in French might not have worked, although it didn’t do Das Boot or Der Untergang any harm. But Napolean speaking like a minor player in The Sopranos, I’m 99.9% sure that never happened.

“With ‘Napoleon, I think we dug in and found the character, or as close to what he may have been,” Scott added. “With Joaquin, we can rewrite the goddamn film because he’s uncomfortable. And that kind of happened with ‘Napoleon,’” he said. “We unpicked the film to help him focus on who Bonaparte was. I had to respect that, because what was being said was incredibly constructive. It made it all grow bigger and better.

You know what, as Tony Soprano might have said? I think that’s bullshit. I can see there might be a good Napolean-Tony Soprano dramatic link, the outsider striving to get in, the quest for dignity, the allergic reaction to being contradicted and all that schtick. But it rings hollow. The German characters in the film speak with a German accent. The British characters speak with a British accent. Most of the French characters speak with an accent that ok, wouldn’t get them a part in ‘Allo ‘Allo, but their accents aren’t noticeably American. Not so our hero.

And I’m really afraid that’s what it’s all about. In the dying days of a time when America could credibly call itself the global policeman, even though the Sherrif isn’t supposed to elect himself, this is the story. If you have a big budget film, you’d better make sure that the kid in Ohio knows who the good guy is, and conflicted and violent though he is, he’s American, kid, you betcha.

Right at the end, in what can only loosely be described as the closing credits, there was a body count of how many people died thanks to Napolean, something that US forces didn’t bother to do in Afghanistan or Iraq because unless they were going home under the Stars and Bars they literally did not count. And six million people dead thanks to this Corsican guy, isn’t that a bit like Hitler? Despite the American accent? And the violence? The waste, the obsession, the futility of having a Republican revolution and declaring yourself Emperor? Well hey, you can’t make an omelet, as Tony would spell it, without breaking legs. Maybe it’s all a really clever allegory, but I don’t buy it. I think it’s the biggest plea to that kid in Ohio I’ve ever seen.

Yeah, there may be all these folk talking about moral ambiguities and freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose but kid, remember this. We’re OK if we keep shooting the bad guys. And I don’t know why you did it, Ridley. I thought you were better than that. Or maybe it’s just a dumb movie.

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The Walk

The problem is, I don’t know what to call it. Except that’s not the only problem.

I started it ten years ago. And five years ago. And two years ago and again last year, this year, as it’s not quite the end of this one, but there’s a thing I do at the end of the year that I’ve done for a long time now. I drive to a field where once there were 3,500 people, every one of them younger than I am now, some of them a third my age and younger.

I get out of my car and read their names off the stones that record them. Sometimes it’s been in this thin winter daylight, more often I only remember at the last moment and the field is in the wrong direction and it’s Christmas and there’s stuff to do and anywya, usually it’s raining.

Lt. Col Joseph Elmer. Shea.

I go to this field anyway and read their names out loud. So that they aren’t forgotten at the side of this road that used to be their perimeter track, that ran around the ends of the three runways that used to be here. It takes a while to read the eighty-two names written on these stones and get the names right, most of them Anglo, but a lot of them Hispanic, a few more of them German, here on these stones at the edge of an American airfield, in the rain, somewhere in Suffolk.

So maybe this year will be the year I finally write it, if I can, and tell the story of how the eighty-third name, the one not written on these stones, the one I have to add now because he went to join the others gone before, missed his transport back from a dance and had to walk back to base, all twenty-two miles from Ipswich, along roads that don’t exist now, past houses that didn’t exist then. Tracing the route has been difficult, not least as maps back then didn’t show airfields, and didn’t for a long time after the war. I think I know the way now. I’ve walked half of it, albeit in two stages, Ipswich to Woodbridge, then later, Woodbridge to Glemham the old way, through Melton and Wickham Market, the way the road ran then. Maybe this year. Because I said I would.

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At the speed of sight

If you’ve ever shot clay pigeons you’ll know that because they’re moving, and some distance away from you, you have to shoot not where they are, but where they’re going to be. If you haven’t then given the hysteria around shooting I’d better explain that a clay pigeon is a flat disc of er, clay, thrown into the air by a launching machine. It’s supposed to be similar to shooting pigeons or pheasants or grouse but I’ve never had any interest in shooting anything living, so I don’t know. Clay pigeons don’t taste so good, I do know.

Back when the world was young I had a friend called Simon. He was an Old Etonian to whomlife hadn’t been altogether kind; I met him when we both worked, if that’s not too strong a word for it, taking people out to lunch in London and trying to get them to buy market research reports of varying degrees of antiquity. He had a fairly dreadful girlfriend about whom possibly more but as the poet said, the past is a different country and they do things differently there. She certainly did, anyway. Simon, my girlfriend at the time and I decided one day that we’d all appreciate a day at a country show, so after about two hours of driving that’s where we ended-up. It wasn’t the Royal Show and I can’t exactly remember where it was, other than Aylesbury and keep on going for at least an hour. I remember it was a blisteringly hot day and I’d been forbidden to buy anything after I’d come back from the Badminton Horse Trials with white moleskin jeans and WM Williams jodphur boots on my credit card. Both of which would have been fine if I’d been tying kangaroos down, or waiting for my billy to boil, but living in Kings Langley such opportunities were rare. Although I did find a white wallaby within walking distance, somewhat to my surprise.

Simon and I both shot. Him because an ancestor once held William the Conqueror’s horse for ten minutes and got given half of Oundle or somewhere as thanks and that’s what you pretty much have to do with a country seat; me because I’d learned how to shoot at a school that most definitely wasn’t Eton and I was good enough at it to win my Marksman badge at Bisley at the age of fifteen and a couple of cups and things for clay pigeon shooting. Back then I had an old but nice Aya Number 4, a light side-by-side 12-bore which was a good working farm gun if not very smart, and a Winchester Super Trap, which was a heavy, nicely-made American over and under specifically built for shooting clay pigeons.

I didn’t have either of them with me that day, although back then people took their own shotguns to country shows to compete in clay pigeon events, either for the prizes, to swank about in the pub afterwards or again, because back then, that’s what you did in the countryside.

To be clear, competition shooting is nothing to do with killing anything except clays or pieces of paper. It’s about competing, in something that has an immediate result, which is what I like and liked about it, then and now. You hit the target or you don’t, and try as you might, 95% of the time you’ve got nobody to blame except yourself if you don’t. It’s about control, calculation and calmness, almost like a Zen thing and on those perfect days, when you’re balanced and centred and it’s going right you don’t need to see the target to know you hit it exactly where you wanted to. You can sense it. You feel it. And somehow the feeling is almost always right.

Simon and I weren’t looking for a fight, or a challenge, nor anything else, but while we were looking at the laser shoot some farm boys heard our accents, which back then were a bit full-on Lots Road Bray, yah? As we, and most of the girls we were interested in used to say far too often, even on holiday in France, where they assumed I was German.

Rarely! SAY funny, yah?

Rarely funny or not, the farm boys quite reasonably assumed that city boys with that sort of voice might talk a good game but probably couldn’t shoot as well as them. So we all had to find out.

Simon and I were one team, the two farm boys on the other. We didn’t put money on it, but it was probably the most seriously competitive shooting I’ve ever been involved in, Bisley included. It wasn’t about money, because there wasn’t any involved. It was more being thought to be rubbish at something I knew I wasn’t rubbish at. Whether or not that was a family hangover I’m not getting into here, but I think it was the same for Simon too. The five years leading up to that had given him a bit of a kicking too.

Challenge accepted, the thing was these were laser shotguns. Real shotguns, but they weren’t firing cartridges. When you pulled the trigger nothing came out of the barrel except a laserbeam. Whether the clays were normal clays or not I don’t know, but a buzzer sounded to show if you’d hit the clay with the laserbeam or not. An instant result. And that was pretty much the acclimatisation problem too. Laser beams are just light. Light travels at 983,571,056 feet per second. Ask Einstein. Pellets in Number 7 shot, a normal clay pigeon load, travel at 1,200 feet per second. I’d say you can see the difference, but you can’t. At about 100 feet away and 50 or 60 feet in the air a high clay crossing right to left would need maybe the width of two imaginary fingers to the right, between the muzzle and the clay. You have add some lead, (no, not as in Led Zeppelin, lead, as in the blind leading the blind, although hopefully not with shotguns) which means shoot where the clay is going to be, not where it is. The cluster of shot is going to take some time, albeit fractions of a second, to get to where the clay is and by the time it does, it isn’t. With light, no lead. The virtual shot is travelling at the speed of light. You still have to swing the gun onto the target and follow it. You still have to judge the clay’s trajectory. You still have to anticipate where it’s going to be. But no lead.

It was a long challenge. There were never more than two clays in it. We lead, then the farm boys did, then we got it back, then it was level. I think in the end we won, Simon and I, but not by more than one clay out of fifty. Every one of the four of us had learned something by the time we all shook hands. Shooting teaches you about yourself. It certainly teaches you about patience and self-control, anticipation and precision and planning.

Simon died over ten years ago. I wish he hadn’t.

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They called their grandmother over

Once upon a time in a land long ago my father told a lot of lies. One of them was that he wasn’t married when he met my mother, which caused a series of complications but wasn’t extraordinarily uncommon after what when I was a boy was called The War. Another was that his mother was dead and that he had no brothers or sisters, which was why they weren’t at the wedding with my mother. That wasn’t true.

In fact, there were five other brothers and sisters, not none. Thomas, Dora, Alfred, Phylis and Hilda, one of whom lived a full 30 years after the 1957 wedding to my mother, dying a decade after she re-married more happily. Another lie was that my father was born in 1918 in Australia. He wasn’t. He was born in 1920 in what’s now known as St Mary Cray, in Kent.

For years I just assumed that if you’re a bigamist then yes, telling lies would be pretty much part of the job description, but by accident I’ve recently found another reason he would have had for lying. It would also account for his Daily Express snobbery and also his derision towards manual labour, although as I’ve found out, possibly that didn’t stem from some inate gentility but came from another reason altogether.

His mother, Kate Ramsey I found through, bless it, came from Mitcham in Surrey. So did a lot of other gypsies. The line about the grandmother comes from the old song, the one about the raggle-taggle gypsies o! It’s about a woman who runs off with the Rom and the oddness of the line is thought to be a mishearing of ‘they cast their glamour over her.’ A glamour was a spell. That’s what we’re like, us quarter-Romany. Buy me lucky heather deary, or I’ll put a quarter of a curse on you.

I didn’t know any of this. I’ve taught Romany children after they were withdrawn from school because they were being bullied. They were some of the nicest, most eager learners I’ve ever taught and their parents were certainly some of the most hospitable, not to mention some of the cleanest people I’ve met in my life. And the Romany link explains two things that have puzzled me for decades. Every summer I get brown quickly, which isn’t much of a big deal, but I do.

Odder than that was something a doctor wondered about years ago. He asked me if I had any black ancestors. I told him that so far as I knew all my ancestors were boringly peasanty village folk from Kent and Somerset, not a black face among them. Well, you don’t get scarring like this without it, the doc told me. It’s there somewhere. Turns out they do actually know stuff at medical school.

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Yon marble skies

I have seen the future. And it hurts

Back about ooooh, twenty years ago, when I still thought Wired magazine and Herman Miller chairs were the future, back when I invented a software app that went some of the way to IPO and millions of pounds before it just didn’t, I thought I’d waxed my circuit board and was pretty much up riding the back of Toffler’s Third Wave. I took time out from planning what pantone shade of black my putative Porsche was going to be to talk about Early Adopters and sine wave curves, read books about Chaos theory, thought Philippe Stark was probably about the best motorcycle designer ever and went to conferences in Amsterdam where people actually took my stuff seriously (the stuff I said, I mean, not (ahem..) mirrored-bedroom client-entertainment low-jinks in five-star hotels, which is a whole other story) and spent hours each day wondering how much of an early adopter I was cut out to be. 

These we have loved.

I wasn’t quite dumb enough to spend £600+ on a Herman Miller chair – not before the IPO anyway – but I ended up with one after giving the guys at the local dump £5 for them to look the other way while I climbed into their aluminium recycling skip to haul out the couldn’t-really-be-but-actually-unbelievably-was stupid chair that I couldn’t admit for years actually gave me a bit of a backache instead of preventing one. The Salli stool I spent about £400 on did, but that had its own drawbacks, notably that you couldn’t lean back in it if you had a hangover, back when hangovers were a regular thing. Glory days, as Bruce Springsteen told m-m-m-my generation. 

All of which is how today I gave ChatGPT a go. If you’re a journalist, a teacher, a student, anyone writing pretty much anything, you ought to give it a go. Because it’s going to put you out of a job unless you’re a student, in which case it’s going to make you think you deserve better marks, but everyone else is going to be using it as well, so you won’t get them. It’s Artificial Intelligence and no, apart from it probably looks around the internet a bit somewhat faster than I do when I get home, I don’t know how it works. It just does. You type in a question and it writes you the answer. If you’re not entirely stupid writing an essay you’ll paraphrase bits of it, but essentially it does all the work for you. In seconds. If you write and you’re not scared yet, you should be.

To start with, I asked the chatbot an easy one: Who was Biggles? I got this:

Biggles is a fictional character who appeared in a series of adventure novels written by W. E. Johns. The character of Biggles is a pilot and adventurer who works for the fictional air police of the Royal Air Force (RAF).

The first Biggles story was published in 1932, and the series continued to be popular throughout the 20th century. The character of Biggles was depicted as a hero, and he was often portrayed as being resourceful, brave, and quick-thinking in the face of danger.

The Biggles stories were popular with both children and adults, and they were especially popular during World War II, when the stories helped to boost morale and inspire a sense of patriotism. The character of Biggles has since become an icon of British popular culture, and the books have been translated into many languages and adapted for film, television, and radio.

I thought I’d see if the chatbot shared some of the outrage that stirred some of the more idiotic debate at Bath University when Thomas Dolby was a thing and asked why Biggles had been accused of racism. ChatAG didn’t even pause to raise an eyebrow and suck pensively on its metaphorical meerschaum before it told me:

The character of Biggles has been accused of racism due to the portrayal of certain characters and situations in the books. The accusations mainly stem from the fact that the Biggles books were written in the early to mid-20th century, a time when racist attitudes were more prevalent in British society.

Some critics have pointed out that in some of the early Biggles stories, the characters of non-white races are often portrayed in a negative light, as being primitive, backward, or dishonest. In some cases, non-white characters are depicted as being subservient to white characters.

In addition, some of the language used in the books is considered to be racially insensitive by modern standards. For example, the books use terms such as “n*****” and “w*g” which are now considered to be highly offensive.

It is worth noting, however, that while some elements of the Biggles stories may be considered racist by modern standards, it is important to view them in their historical context. The books were written at a time when attitudes towards race were different than they are today, and it is important to recognize that the books reflect the cultural attitudes of their time.

I thought I’d read a lot of Biggles but I don’t remember any N-words, notwithstanding that now the New Issues Group of distinctly Anglo peers in the House of Lords think it’s an absolute hoot to call themselves that. What larks.

I’ve shot since I was fourteen and back at university the only reading material you could find was American police manuals, which seemed obsessed by that thayar furrin 9mm round replacing the Gahd, Mom n’Apple Pie-endorsed .45 Colt Automatic Pistol cartridge which was dang sure good enough for Sergeant York. Even more sacrilegious, the US military dropped the Colt 1911A1 pistol designed by John Browning and made in Murca and for reasons that Hunter Thompson would have agreed were never made clear, bought hundreds of thousands of 9mm Beretta pistols instead. From Italy. Remembering all this dim and fairly dull history I asked the chatbot whether the .45ACP round was more effective than 9x19mm Luger cartridges. I thought I’d give it the opportunity to do some heavy technical research for me.

In well under thirty seconds it did, telling me:

The effectiveness of a handgun cartridge is a topic of ongoing debate among firearms enthusiasts and professionals. The .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) and 9x19mm Luger (also known as 9mm) are two popular cartridges used in handguns, and both have their strengths and weaknesses.

The .45 ACP cartridge is generally considered to be more powerful than the 9mm cartridge. The .45 ACP cartridge is a larger, heavier bullet that travels at a slower velocity than the 9mm bullet. The .45 ACP cartridge also has a larger diameter than the 9mm cartridge, which can result in a larger wound channel.

However, the 9mm cartridge has several advantages over the .45 ACP cartridge. The 9mm cartridge is generally lighter and has less recoil than the .45 ACP cartridge, making it easier to shoot accurately and quickly. The 9mm cartridge also has a higher capacity, which can be an advantage in self-defense situations where multiple rounds may be necessary.

Ultimately, the effectiveness of a handgun cartridge depends on a variety of factors, including bullet design, velocity, and shot placement. Both the .45 ACP and 9mm cartridges are capable of stopping a threat with proper shot placement, and the choice between the two is largely a matter of personal preference and situational considerations.

I hadn’t expected ChatGPT to look me in the eye and snarl “aim it straight and it don’t matter, dummy.”

As a more erudite version of conversations on Heytesbury Number Two Battle Range that’s not bad. I thought I’d delve a little deeper into history, at least my own, and try out an A-Level Eng. Lit. Fav: The character of Iago in Shakespeare’s Othelo has been described as being driven by ‘motiveless malignity.’ What motives did Iago have for his behaviour?

ChatGPT had this one down in seconds: 

The character of Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello is often described as being driven by “motiveless malignity” because his motivations for his actions are not entirely clear. However, there are several factors that may have contributed to Iago’s behavior:

  1. Resentment towards Othello: Iago is passed over for promotion by Othello, who chooses Cassio as his lieutenant instead. This seems to be a major source of Iago’s resentment towards Othello.
  2. Desire for revenge: Iago may also be motivated by a desire for revenge against Othello, who has married Desdemona, a woman Iago has feelings for. Iago is also upset that Cassio has been chosen over him, and he may want to get revenge against Cassio as well.
  3. Jealousy: Iago is jealous of Cassio’s position as lieutenant and may be jealous of Othello’s relationship with Desdemona.
  4. Racial prejudice: Iago is often seen as being racially prejudiced against Othello, who is a black man. This prejudice may be a factor in Iago’s actions.
  5. Psychopathy: Some scholars have suggested that Iago’s behavior may be the result of psychopathy, or a lack of empathy and conscience.

Ultimately, Iago’s motivations are complex and multifaceted, and it is difficult to pinpoint any one factor as the sole cause of his behavior.

Frankly, I’d have expected the attribution of the motiveless quote to Samuel Johnson, the bane of my Sixth Form existence. Actually, not seeing anywhere near enough of the skin of one of the Lower Sixth girls was the bane of that, but that’s neither here nor sadly, there. But not bad for the bones of a decent Tuesday night essay, I’d say. You’d need more, so I thought I’d try another old favourite. My English teacher seemed convinced Shakespeare had never been anywhere near Italy because of the “yon marble skies” line one of his characters recalled seeing in dear old Venice, saying that Venice means Italy means sunny as a man who had very obviously never been to Isola d’Ischia in January and fervently wished he’d brought an umbrella. I asked the bot what evidence there was to suggest Shakespeare actually had gone to the land of carb overload. It told me what there was:

There is some evidence to suggest that Shakespeare visited Italy, although it is not conclusive. The primary source of evidence comes from the plays themselves, many of which are set in Italy and contain detailed descriptions of Italian cities and landmarks.

For example, Romeo and Juliet is set in Verona, and contains many specific details about the city, including references to its streets and buildings. The Merchant of Venice is set in Venice and contains detailed descriptions of the city’s canals and architecture. Othello is set in Venice as well, and contains references to the city’s customs and laws.

In addition, some of Shakespeare’s contemporaries wrote about his travels. For example, an Italian author named Giulio Camillo wrote in 1550 that Shakespeare had visited Venice and had seen the city’s Jewish ghetto, which is depicted in The Merchant of Venice.

There is also some indirect evidence to suggest that Shakespeare may have visited Italy. For example, it was common for English nobles to take the Grand Tour, a journey through Europe that often included a visit to Italy. Shakespeare was known to have had connections to the nobility, and it is possible that he may have accompanied a nobleman on a journey to Italy.

While the evidence is not conclusive, the many references to Italian cities and landmarks in Shakespeare’s plays, combined with contemporary accounts of his travels, suggest that he may have visited Italy at some point in his life.

And that’s me told. Almost, anyway. I slipped effortlessly back into my school desk above the quad in the old Boys School buildings, not this time thinking about the drum line in Mud’s Tiger Feet, but about the line ‘yon marble skies.’ And coughty years of smirking about the mistake I’d been sure my English teacher made were blown out of the water when I asked who wrote about ‘yon marble skies’?

The phrase “yon marble skies” appears in the poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” by Lord Byron. The poem was published between 1812 and 1818 and tells the story of a young man named Childe Harold who embarks on a journey through Europe. The poem is notable for its vivid descriptions of the landscapes and cities that Childe Harold encounters on his journey, and “yon marble skies” is one such description of the sky above a Mediterranean landscape.

I tried again, asking ‘Which Shakespeare play contains the phrase ‘yon marble skies’?” I got an apologetic ChatGPT this time. 

I apologize for the error in my previous response. The phrase “yon marble skies” does not appear in any of Shakespeare’s plays. It is actually a phrase from the poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” by Lord Byron. I apologize for any confusion my previous response may have caused.

Hmm. No confusion caused, Chatbot, just a fondly-held preconception shattered. I was sure I’d seen the line in print in my copy of Othello, but I can’t be arsed to leaf through every single page of it to prove a point. That’s what AI is for.

As it is, none of these answers are enough to write a whole essay. But stick five questions together about pretty much anything and there definitely would be enough to play both sides of Dark Side Of The Moon before bedtime and hand in the homework next day. It works.

It isn’t everything, but it’s enough of everything to get the grunt out of grunt work. And it’s going to transform the vaunted knowledge economy in the same way the steam engine transformed cottage industry. It’s going to wipe it out. Starting now. 

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Not that sort of hostess

Once upon a time in a land long ago I had to go to visit companies to tell them how utterly wonderful CACI’s geodemographic ACORN system was. If the company name means anything at all to you, you’re probably thinking Abu Ghraib, the torture camp they ran in Iraq, the one Lynndie England got her jollies in, the one that had been given so much authority by a grateful President in his War On Terror/Abstract Nouns that not even the Department of Defence were allowed in the prison without CACI’s say-so.

Lynndie England: Honour bound, defending freedom.

Given that honour wasn’t so much as bound as tasered, shackled, extraordinarily renditioned and water-boarded, I’m proud to say all that happened considerably after my time at a company whose only other claim to fame was not launching the Tesco Clubcard, which was essentially invented by an ex-CACI staffer, ex because he couldn’t stand working for a company that didn’t seem to know what it was it sold. Apart from a geographic analysis system linking postcodes to Census information in a manner it was never designed to do. So far so blah.

CACI and I really didn’t get on after they wanted me to pitch the Conservative and Unionist Party of Great Britain to offer to help them win the election, chiefly on the basis that I had an accent they judged more Conservative than my Essex Girl boss. One of CACI’s frequent misapprehensions on at least two fronts.

The good bit in a period of frankly not that many good bits was getting to drive around the country using someone else’s petrol in someone else’s car, even if the CACMobile happened to be a white XR3i my boss would have been orgasmically happy driving. On a sunny day when the world was younger I went to see an Electricity Board somewhere deep in the leafy Surrey heartlands between London and the sea.

Surrey didn’t seem to be the hardest word. “Trolley” however, was. This was so very long ago that the electricity company sold the appliances that used electricity as well, everything from electric fires, washing machines, irons and what they forthrightly called Load Builders, things like tumble dryers and fan heaters, the stuff that then and again now, chewed up electricity as if it was going out of fashion, unlike the chairman’s bonus which never does.

Deep penetration

This thing wasn’t the problem.

The thing in the picture was called a hostess trolley. Pausing only to check her hair in the hallway mirror, while her husband (of COURSE he was her husband!!! How very DARE you!!!!) offered the people from three doors down a nice little drop of something for you, Mark, and a very nice little Liebfraumilch for your good lady (and yes, of course they drove there. New Cortina, and Mark’s in line to be upgraded to a Granada…) while Mrs Suburbia could pop the almost-ready food on a hostess trolley to keep it warm while she nervously necked rather too much Asti Spumante than was perhaps entirely decorous. Pardon me!

In other words, hostess trolleys were a mobile way to keep food warm, so you could relax at your dinner party, especially if Carol and Mark were up for seconds. CACI and many otherwise sane adults spent its entire working life helping people sell this crap. They claimed they truly believed it was a science, almost a priesthood, to which your business too could be admitted on payment of a very reasonable fee. The proportion of potential customers for say, a hostess trolley who actually bought the things in a given area (do please call it a geography. It sounds so much more sciencey) was called the market penetration level. Which was fine, except I was presenting to two women at the electricity company. One was about ten years older than me, competent, friendly, interested in what I had to say so far as business was concerned. And she’d worked on marketing hostess trolleys, which was how we began talking about them.

“I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.”

The other one was my age. And OMG gorgeous. Cartoon, can’t-look-at-without-your-mouth-dropping-open, Jessica Rabbit gorgeous. Every time I looked directly at her I was lost for words. I couldn’t even say “Load Builder.” Unfortunately, another of the words I was lost for was “trolley”. And “market.”

I spent nearly twenty minutes staring at her with what I hoped was a wise, worldly, friendly, above-all approachable half-smile playing lightly on my lips in a manner I hoped she might be at some point in the foreseeable future, while I talked about hostess penetration levels.

She didn’t say much. She kept smiling and so did the older one, her boss. It was a happy, sunny, slow afternoon and we were all having as much fun as you ever usually got working in that kind of job.

I didn’t realise what was happening until nearly the end of my pitch. I made my excuses and left. Surprisingly, they never spoke to me again.

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Another little boy

Once upon a time in a land long ago, Christmas came slowly to a small village in Wiltshire, where a small boy looked excitedly for the presents he hoped would come.

Dear reader, I was that small boy. And I found them. Under the stairs, in the dark, brand new in boxes but not yet wrapped, was what looked like a huge collection of model soldiers. They weren’t Airfix, so points and some excitement lost there, but there were loads of them and I hadn’t seen them before.

The family, so fas I knew, was Mum and Dad, my two sisters and me. In those days my younger but oldest sister got literally hysterical about Christmas, as about much else. The year before, or before that, she woke me up around 3am insisting she’d seen Father Christmas. We had a tradition that a mince pie and a glass of whisky or sherry was left out on top of the piano for him and in the morning it was always gone; proof, if proof were needed. But this was different. She’d actually SEEN him. She was adamant.

My village friend Andrew had a weird uncle who’d told us about the Red Ghost of the Barn. It frightened me so much one night that I woke up screaming, even though I knew as soon as I was awake that what had been described as a Victorian ghost was pretty unlikely to spend the rest of eternity tramping up and down the landing of a 1960s estate house. Now, I think the mad uncle had been trying to tell us about the Red Barn Murder* despite that it had happened 200 miles away and adding a ghost into it to scare us. It was a thing some adults did in those days.

All of that made for a creepy atmosphere with a hysterical small girl claiming to have actually seen Father Christmas, who next said she could hear bumps on the roof and soon after, the sound of sleigh bells. Which I then heard myself, but that’s not really part of this story and in any event hysteria is remarkably infectious. But none of that was under the stairs one quiet afternoon when I found the stash of model soldiers Father Christmas had forgotten to hide.

I don’t know if children do this now, or if other children did this then, but I found it easy to believe two contradictory things at once, that there really was a Father Christmas and that it was really my father and/or mother, depending whose turn it was, which perhaps isn’t actually contradictory really, at all.

Beleiving both things at once, I told my father I’d found my presents, or at least the model soldier part of my presents.

No, said my father. You haven’t. I have though. They’re model soldiers. Under the stairs. They weren’t wrapped up. No, my father told me again. Those are for another little boy.

And they were.

I never saw them again. I certainly didn’t see them on Christmas morning, nor at any other time. I don’t think shops took things back in those days, and I’d think certainly not just on the basis that a little boy had found them before he should have done. Which brought me to the conclusion that yes, my father wasn’t lying, although we later found out he had about much else. They were for another little boy.

It turned out, a decade later, he was a bigamist. I found out that a lot of what he said was a lie. He wasn’t born in Australia, but instead in Kent. His entire family weren’t dead, in the war or otherwise; I found out last year there were at least four of them, including his mother, alive at the time he married my mother, by which time he was also supposed to be married. If he was however, it was under another name as I can’t find any record of that event, although his name appears with a woman’s name I don’t recognise in exactly the right village at exactly the time he was ‘away on business’ a lot. I don’t know.

I also don’t know how much of this was known and colluded with, in my own family, in my own household, or as much of it as a disappointed model soldier-less six year old can claim. How do you explain to your wife that yes, ok, you know those model soldiers, the ones I thought he’d like, well, maybe he wouldn’t, so I’m going to er…chuck them in the bin. No, not here, obviously. Somewhere else. It doesn’t make sense, does it? None of it does.

I do know one thing about all of it though, something that’s been confirmed again and again, the more I dig, finding relatives in Valparaiso, not finding anyone in the Royal Air Force, a body which had been an obsession of my father’s for as long as I can remember. I’ve never got on with families. I don’t know what to do with them. I don’t trust them, or their motives. It’s taken much too long to acknowledge this out loud.

  • The Case of the Red Barn was a very, very famous Victorian murder indeed, so famous that they even made pottery Red Barns to put on your mantelpiece next to the Staffordshire dogs and the match holder and mantle clock. A girl called Mariah (who I inevitably think of as Mariah Carey, who it definitely wasn’t) got herself killed while having an argument with her farmer boyfriend, who she was probably pregnant by. He denied all knowledge of her visit and took himself off to London. A year or so later, letters started to appear at her parents’ house, purporting to be from Mariah, who according to the letters, was doing fine but really, really busy so can’t visit, must dash, stuff to do and so on.

The boyfriend, definitely ex by this time, got to feeling a bit lonely and stuck adverts in the local newspaper looking for a wife. Mariah’s mother, who’d predictably never liked him, began to have dreams that Mariah wasn’t just dead but was buried underneath the Red Barn. She sent her husband with what we used to call a dibber, what they called a mole spud, but whatever it was called a long stick with a pointy end that he jabbed into the floor of the barn, looking for soft patches. He found some. He also found his daughter, very dead indeed and stabbed multiple times. It didn’t occur to anybody back then that maybe, just maybe, the multiple stab wounds had happened a very long time after the poor girl was dead, nor that the gunshot wound to her skull would have done the job on its own, nor that it was at an unusual angle for someone else to have shot from, but a quite explicable one if there had been a struggle, that Mariah had grabbed her boyfriend’s gun (at a time when anyone with some substance would have thought taking a small gun with them out at night was a sensible and normal thing to do) and threatened to blow her brains out if he didn’t marry her before he grabbed the gun to stop her and it went off, as he alleged at his trial.

He was easy to find, from the Victorian lonely farmer ads he’d paid for. The jury was having none of it. He danced the Newgate jig. To make his life not entirely pointless his skeleton was used as a training aid and as a joke date by nurses in Bury St Edmunds for another hundred and twenty years. Some of the skin off his back was used to bind a book you can see for yourself in the town’s museum. An everyday if horrific story of country folk. But not the story Andrew’s mad uncle told us, entirely. And certainly not the fictions my father told me.

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A tetela is, geometrically at least, akin to the samosa. A disc of dough, wrapped around a filling to make a very effective triangular pasty. Cavita rather cleverly makes hers from heritage corn, stuffs them with smooth and gorgeously seasoned mashed potato then crushes them flat enough on the griddle to form a crisp base to a topping of smoked mushrooms. November 26/26 2022

Remembering Mexican food as I do, isn’t that utterly wonderful?

Just amazingly who could be cruel enough to Christen (and if she’s Mexican you can safely assume she was Christened, whatever happened afterwards) their little girl-child Cavita, as if that wasn’t enough on its own to get the family slapped on the At Risk register before the ink was dry on their signatures? It turns out that the poor girl was actually called Adriana Cavita and while you can’t get a much more FT Weekend name than that it’s probably also true that anyone called something like that probably didn’t go to the kind of school where reference to her cavities was everyday parlance.

But equally, who could write such fantastically camp copy about gorgeously seasoned mashed potato and very effective triangular pasties? Who could enthuse over “heritage corn” used not even vaguely ironically? Not apparently Damien Trench but someone called Tim Hayward, who also contributed the masterly geometrically at least, as well as the world-class akin.

I was so distracted by the self-parody of that alone that I accidentally remembered the Tex-Mex Hell that once was London, or at least my bit of it, back when red braces and Golf GTis were a thing. Mine were embroidered with little edelweiss and silver. Respectively, since you ask. The recollection proved that Meatloaf was wrong, on that at least. It was long ago and far away but it definitely wasn’t so much better than it is today.

Mexican food was stomach-ache-making sludge

There. I’ve said it now. Every time I ate Mexican I got food-poisoning, didn'[t go home with anyone else, spent far too much, got a splitting headache and had to spend half of Sunday in the bathroom. Now, a doctor might say that was perhaps maybe more to do with not washing hands, or possibly the amount of tequila slammers I’d felt compelled to drink because frankly, there was nothing else to do. There used to be a huge cavernous pit of hell somewhere in Leicester Square that had deafening music and girls in bikinis draped with bandoliers they poured shots from. I’ve always had a hearing issue but it took me decades to realise it; I just assumed I didn’t really like most of the people who I went there with and never really saw the point of going out much because I never met people. It took years to realise that of course I met people, lots of them, when I calculated I went home with a representative sample of them. It was just that most of the time I couldn’t hear them unless I spent most of a date hunched across some Covent Garden table for two desperately trying to get my ear down some poor girl’s throat so I could hear her fifteenth and by then somewhat testy repetition of ‘yes, ok.’ By which time most sensible girls had either got a sore throat, drunk themselves half into a coma, thought ‘oh for Chrissakes’ and/or quite often, gone home.

There was another sludge pit on Queensway, where the corn chips arrived slathered in the cheapest cheddar-type product known to man and half-submerged in three colours of edible mud, accompanied by a soundtrack of Country & Western music, if that’s not too strong a word for it. It was Tex-Mex, you see. Steak or sludge, or steak with sludge. N tortilla chips with everything.

I ate Mexican in Washington D.C. one freezing February and managed to feel ill again. It was practically sub-zero outside, I was hungry, didn’t want to eat what passed for meat in America and just wanted something non-meat, fast and portable. Sludge in a wrap was the obvious answer. I think there was rice and spinach involved as well. I didn’t eat anything the time I went to Mexico for the day, but the less said about that lost Sunday probably the better. One of the consolations about getting older is that quite often nobody else remembers the thing you thought stuck in everyone else’s mind as much as it embedded itself in yours.

I’m not saying all Mexican food is bad. No, actually, yes I am, with an important qualification. All the Mexican food I’ve eaten has been unbelievably bad, as if a mad child made it from Play-Do and something the dog sicked up. The tequila was ok, as well as the bikinis, but I don’t think those are inherent parts of a regional food culture. And in any event, the impossibility of finding a black cab to get home in West End wintery and rather less than wonderland and the inevitable argument with some oik in a fifteen year-old Toyota pretending to be a minicab driver wiped out any pleasure the evening might have suggested, promised being far too binding a word.

If you want to find Adriana’s Cavita, it’s in Wigmore Street. Possibly I should.

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