Working construction

The green hill far away.

Long, long time ago, I can still remember how that music used to make me smile. That was about all there was to smile about in Bath, the winter of ’83. Stothert and Pitt had shed – sorry, obviously I meant re-structured – about 500 jobs and pre-internet, there wasn’t much of an information economy in a place whose great days were some 200 years previously. It was where I went to university at the top of one of the hills in buildings about as far removed from a UNESCO World Heritage site experience as you could possibly get. It was where I came back to after a pathetic job on a local paper in my hometown that I walked out of after a week and a commission-only horror-show of a sales job in London, working on titles nobody had ever heard of and trapped by the very, very occasional massive cash paydays that kept the crew of ex-cops, mercenaries, public schoolboys, designers, musicians, resting actors and fraudsters at least off the cold streets from nine till five and massive drinks on Fridays. And yes, mercenaries. One of them was an ex-cop as well. The Met, obviously. Another guy’s dad used to command a tank in the war. Unfortunately, it was a Wermacht Heer Panzer and in Russia, so he didn’t talk about it a lot.

I came back to Bath and I’m remembering this today because we’re having work done on the house, which like most of Bath, is a Georgian Grade Two Star listed, 300 year-old rather nice little town-house in a rather nice little Suffolk market town and all rather far removed from the crappy one room I was renting in another Georgian townhouse the year Yvonne Fletcher got killed. The guy we got to paint the woodwork today reminded me of the people I used to know back when the Hat and Feathers and Walcot Nation was a thing, when Walcot Reclamation shared a yard with not so much a commune as a flop-house for left-over hippies huddled with their crappy dogs around a wood-stove until opening time, where now Range-Rovers load reconditioned roll-top bathtubs.

As Bruce Springsteen put it, I got a job working construction, although there hadn’t been much work on account of the economy. If anyone tells you the ’80s were a boom-town goldmine, only some of them were, and only in some places. The ex-army guy I was working for ran a crew of similar misfits, mostly older. We were picked up at silly o’clock in the morning and piled into the back of an ancient Transit van, no seats, let alone seatbelts, and carted off to whichever site he was working that day. Skilled trades had their own transport. We were just grunt work. Because I could talk to him I got to work with him a lot on jobs that required a little finesse. But not a lot of it. I worked demolition.

His best jobs, the ones he made the most on, were the ones I most respected. Now and again he bought a wreck of a Georgian house, not a listed one, and either camped in it onsite while he renovated it, or pulled it down and started again. There was a local bylaw in Bath that made pulling down unlisted houses a great idea – you could only build in Bath stone. The problem/nice little earner was that the last Bath stone quarry shut decades before, so there was a big market in re-usable stone blocks. Even smashed stone blocks could be ground into powder and used to colour modern cement render to make it acceptable.

Every day for a couple of weeks just before I left for America I packed my sandwiches, filled my Thermos, pulled on my hi-top Dutch paratroop boots and my old jeans, made sure I had my gloves and my ancient Israeli army jacket (don’t even ask) and walked across the city to ‘my’ site. It was a tiny house that occupied the entire plot it was on, which wasn’t saying much. Memory puts it in Norfolk Crescent, and looking at Google Maps there’s a suspiciously familiar building in about the right place.

The job was simple. Having given-up trying to renovate something that nobody had bothered to maintain for about a hundred years after gradually declining levels of people were living in it for another hundred, the owner, the guy I was working for, abandoned the idea of spending the rest of his life trying to get rid of dry rot and decided to start again. I am 99% certain now that there is no way on this earth he had any approval to demolish a listed building, but maybe it wasn’t listed then, like so much of Bath that the council in their wisdom decided to demolish in the 1960s and ’70s, before World Heritage Status became a thing.

We dropped the ground floor ceiling first. Once that was all out of the house and into a skip we dropped the bedroom ceiling through and put all that in a skip too. Then we dropped the roof. Our tools were the same the original builders had used – pcikazes, sledgehammers, crowbars and ladders. You can’t use powertools that need mains power when you’re ripping out the electrics, not that there were any electrics anyway and more than that, or perhaps less, there weren’t any battery-powered tools worth the name, back in the impossibly long-ago.

After that, I was left on my own to do the profit part of the job; demolish the walls and don’t smash the ashlar blocks up any more than you can help. Which meant climb the ladder, remove one block at a time with a hammer and chisel and crowbar and carry it gently down to the ground. Backwards. On a ladder fixed to nothing. Ever since then I’ve thought Health and Safety is a really good thing.

Being a bit bored, being a bit young and impatient and quite liking my new-found demolition skillset I had a better idea than balancing my way down a ladder carrying a half-hundredweight of stone without being able to hold on to anything: use the sledgehammer and the big crowbar. Drop the whole wall into the void where the inside of the house used to be. To this day it amazes me how many people can’t use a sledgehammer properly; ditto how many people seem to have no idea how to drop a ten-foot stone wall thirty feet long without a) killing yourself b) killing anyone else c) breaking more than two stone blocks, which was a very acceptable casualty rate.

I remember the first time I went up the ladder to the top of the house and removed the capstone, the stone right at the top of the house. Whoever had put it there carved his initials into the stone and the date, 1805, 179 years before I took it back down the ladder. We stopped work soon after that when there was a knock on the door. It was a little old man who I’d seen hanging around before. I thought he was looking for somewhere to doss; it turned out he just wanted a last look at the house he’d lived in when he was a boy. There wasn’t an awful lot for him to look at by then, just a yawning hole inside the intact facade of the house.

About a week into the job PC Yvonne Fletcher was shot to death in the street in London, outside the Libyan embassy on TV by one of two Arab diplomats who started blasting British Sterling submachine-guns from the embassy windows. Unlike the episode of The Professionals it resembled, this was unfortunately real. My boss, along – and practically every newspaper in the country – was sure that the killer would face good old British best-in-the-world justice. I’d watched enough TV to know that he wouldn’t. Admittedly, my knowledge of jurisprudence was limited to having a country solicitor for a step-father, a Green Room at home full of 1940s law books and extensive experience of the Rockford Files and Murder She Wrote on TV.

Jim Rockford helped me survive two enounters with police in the US, including one where the police stuck a revolver in my stomach, which I thought rather rude of them. All of these venerable sources confirmed the same thing: anyone in the Embassy was going to claim diplomatic immunity and at worst they were going to go to the airport, untouched. Which despite the ravings of the tabloid press, along with the complete avoidance of asking why for example, British submachine guns were the weapon of choice on hand for undiplomatic diplomats, was exactly what happened.

“What did I tell you?”

Two years later Mrs Thatcher, never known for not dipping her handkerchief in other people’s blood if it would get her a few votes, claimed avenging Yvonne was why she allowed US jets to take off from Upper Heyford to go and blow up what turned out to be the Chinese embassy in Tripoli, as they’d bought the building after the intelligence report had located the target which was supposed to be Gaddafi or his high command. And despite the fact she was only told about the mission after the planes were airborn and had no more authority over them than you or I.

I remembered all of this because it’s suddenly Spring and that was a memorable one, and because it reminded me of now, when we live in a society designed for people who did the right thing and our systems, checks, balances and controls simply don’t work when they massively don’t do the right thing. When it comes to shooting-up demonstrators in a London street, or planting bombs in newsagents, or lying to Parliament, or invading Ukraine, or breaking every agreement not to arm the place to the teeth when the Berlin Wall came down, it doesn’t really matter how many times you say “international law” or “human rights.” When any of that happens the only genuine thing you can remember is we have practically nothing in hand to deal with it. For all that a proven liar of a Prime Minister bleats about ‘war crimes’, for all that his police force stood there time after time when he and his staff broke the law, for every time he broke his own Ministerial Code and forgot to sanction himself, for all his partying with KGB men, despite accepting £60,000 from a Russian oligarch whose wife pretended to want to play tennis with him and making the oligarch/KGB man’s son a Lord in ermine, and now pretending to abominate Russia, ‘war crimes’ are always only the things the losers do, in every war.

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Don’t mention the war

I did, but I think I got away with it. I’d written a screenplay that actually got as far as being considered for the Cannes Film Festival (before being placed, possibly even gently, in their Trash folder) by the Maison des Scenaristes, of which I was a member, hem hem.

It was a blend of two true stories, one I’d heard at first hand. Somehow in my life I’d separately met two very old men who had both been in the Hitler Youth. Both of them said the singing, camping, Strength Through Joy part of it was absolutely brilliant, it was the giving up your life for the Fatherland in 1945 that was somewhat problematic, which was exactly what one of them was told he was doing when the American army rolled up to his village. A girlfriend’s grandfather had been a surgeon in the Wermacht Heer stationed in Czechoslovakia. Very early in 1945 he laughed at a joke about Hitler and as a result was sentenced to death, as was his colleague who told the joke. I called the boy Janni Schenck.

Janni Schenck

He lived when his schoolteacher, who was supposed to be the head of the local Jugend gruppen, assembled the boys on parade, beat them up, made them throw all of their guns in the ditch and sent them home crying.

The surgeon lived when as he and his friend were being taken out to be shot partisans attacked, the friend said “Run!”

He didn’t stop running until he got home to Bremen, past Gestapo and SS death squads, past the fires of Dresden, afraid to move in daytime thanks to the RAF and USAAF blasting anything that moved on the roads, without papers or food and starting only with a shirt, jacket and trousers. It’s over 900 miles.

Those stories are being lost with time, as they always are. I wanted to write something that remembered them, not as glorious warriors but people who had nothing left except hope, who somehow built a decent life and a decent society out of the smashed rubble of hate the previous generation had made. I combined their stories and had the surgeon turn up in the boy’s village just after the schoolmaster had prevented the village from being massacred and gave it to a friend to proofread. She gave it back a week later, saying it was good but she never wanted to read it ever again.

She told me most of her family had been killed by boys like Janni. She thought nobody wants to read stuff like this anymore. It wasn’t relevant. And not everything is about what people of our age call The War. That was before JoJo Rabbit. And before tanks started rolling across the Ukraine again.

Something better change

The Stranglers told us that a long, long time ago, but it didn’t really. The thing I’ve been writing lately has gone on hold a bit, thanks to Vladimir Putin. It was about something else that happened in 1945, when an American airman missed the last transport back from a dance in Ipswich and had to walk back to his base at Leiston, 22 miles away. He had to fly his unit’s last combat mission of the war the next morning. I doubted it could be done so I walked it myself.

The problem is, my proofreading friend was wrong. It is relevant. Everything about Russia invading Ukraine is about The War, and specifically how Roosevelt and Stalin carved-up Europe at Yalta, planning how the world was going to be run. Churchill was remarkably like Prime Minister Johnson it seems, claiming and presumably imagining that his and Britain’s influence was what the world listened to, when it was all but completely irrelevant to how things turned-out in Europe after German forces surrendered.

It’s all happening again, just as pointlessly, just as predictable, with exactly the same bombast and weapons-grade lies from the British government about how Our Brave Boys beat Johnny Ruskie at Crimea and we – oh sorry, chaps, I meant you, I’ll be a bit too busy to be there in the trench – can jolly well do it again.

The same people are losing their homes, the same people who lose them in every war anywhere, ever. It never changes. I don’t know whether that makes a little story about a walk through the dawn 80 years ago relevant or not.

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Seven Gusting Eleven

I am not, definitely not, going out in this weather. Force Seven on the Beaufort Scale gusting Eleven means the wind at noon on Friday is going to be 38mph, rising up to 65 mph. That’s the forecast for Storm Eunice, here on the Suffolk coast on Friday, which is supposed to be my day off. Twelve, in case you’re wondering, is a hurricane.

I’ve done Beaufort Six before, on the Deben, by accident, last November. It was not fun. I’d gone upriver, which was the closest similarity to Heart of Darkness you can get in Woodbridge, up past the Tide Mill, where the trees can shield the wind and also set it off in a completely different direction, past the Yacht Harbour that a lot of people blame for silting-up the river downstream of it, all the way almost to Wilford Bridge, which is as far as you can go with any kind of mast. That was a difficult day. What I should have done is what you should always do on a Drascombe Lugger as soon as there’s any doubt – get the mainsail down fast.

One of the things I’m doing this winter is replacing the olde-world allegedly cute parralls which are just loops of string with wooden balls on them which link the sail to the mast. All too well, quite often, because they stick and jam and you’re then stuck with a sail blowing the boat over while a sheet of synthetic canvas flaps in your face or the pulley block on the end of it threatens your bridgework. This year I’ve bought some 10cm plastic creel rings to slide over the mast which will slide a lot faster. By a happy accident I managed to find some proper spring-loaded brass sail hanks on Ebay. Unbelievably, they were less than £1 each, so they spent two days in vinegar and lemon juice which helped clean them a bit, but not as much as Brasso. Just as your gas mileage may vary, your brass may not be quite as brassy as you hoped.

But still, this is what winter evenings are for, apart from finalising my parnter’s application for Italian dual nationality, learning some myself, which might be useful if we ever do get it together to buy a 1901 lighthouse on an island off Corsica for a euro, which is sort-of a plan. That and learning how to use a sextant, which is another story in itself. That and do some work on The Walk, of course, more of which anon.

I managed to sand the gunwhales and get some linseed oil on them last week before rain and wind stopped play. That’s made the woodwork look a lot better but it still needs Tonkinoise over the linseed when I get the chance. The idea is to get the boat in the water around March 1st. All I could do today was make sure the cover was tied on securely, so it didn’t fly away or fail itself into shreds. Proper boat cleaning gunk and polish is on order. So are some new gloves.

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The sky is calling

Back in 2006 I met a Joe Shea, an American pilot who flew Mustang fighters out of Leiston in Suffolk. In 2009 and 2011 he stayed with my partner and I for ten days or so, while he was attending his squadron’s memorial service, the last week of May. That’s why I have the card of the Assistant Air Attache, Embassy of the United States of America on my desk as I write this. I met him, too. He was a Lieutenant Colonel, the same rank as the pilot got to before he retired after 30 years in the US Air Force.

We talked a lot. The first time he came over a lot of stories spilled out about his time in Suffolk, things he hadn’t said for seventy years. The second time, more stories, more memories. I’d stupidly bought a double CD of Swing music – that went on about 9am and went with us in the car as we trundled around the lanes looking for January to May 1945. In Suffolk it’s never that far away.

There’s a passage right at the beginning of Len Deighton’s book, Goodbye Micky Mouse, fiction, written in the 1980s, but Joe recognised a lot of the characters. There’d be a muttered: “I know that guy,” or “That guy that could dance, Major what was his name? Yeah, he wasn’t on our station but…” as he read it. The book opened now, or at least then, with older men in their 60s returning to an airfield in East Anglia, looking over the derelict huts and empty broken tarmac in a field, opening doors in piggeries and peering through cobwebbed windows to find the man each of them couldn’t see anymore, the man they remembered being, 40 years before. Then and now blurred in the book. It certainly blurred at my house one night when Joe and I were up late, listening to Swing music, drinking grappa as he debriefed on a mission eight hours out over Germany more than a half-century before.

He was describing a maneuver interrupted by the Luftwaffe. It was late. I didn’t really understand what he was describing, but it was something to do with his squadron flying in flights of four aircraft, having to swing back and forth across the stream of B17s or B24s because they were about 150 mph faster than the bombers, but not too close otherwise the gunners onboard wouldn’t take a chance of the single-engined fighters not being German and would instead start blasting away with Browning machine guns with bullets half an inch wide. It didn’t take a lot of those to put an airplane down – one solid hit with one bullet would smash a hole through an engine block, then or now.

All this slaloming back and forwards meant no autopilot. It meant the man on the outside of the flight of four had to power-up and turn wide until the flight had crossed the bomber stream, then throttle right back and turn tight back the other way now that he was the inside man on the turn. For six hours. Joe said it was tiring. I could see that it would be, apart from having to keep your head looking all around because although there were nowhere near as many German fighters as there had been they were still around, and now the Luftwaffe had jet aircraft a lot faster than the Mustangs.

Joe said something about another complicated manoevre somewhere high over Germany or Czechoslovakia and I didn’t follow it.

Grappa.

I said I didn’t understand.

Suddenly this little old man was across the table at me, snarling in my face.

“What do you mean you don’t understand? You were there!”

But I wasn’t. I wasn’t born for another fourteen years. I don’t know who Joe thought I was or had been or even at that moment,what year he thought it was now. At that moment I wasn’t entirely certain myself, holed up in the odd room at the old house I lived in, the front of it 200 years old, the alcove off the kitchen where we sat at least another hundred years older than that, the original room in the house. It had a different atmosphere to the rest of the rooms. I loved it. It was timeless and safe.

I gave him a book on strategic air tactics, “the stuff they didn’t bother to tell us about” as Joe put it. The old pilot who had been a young pilot liked it, especially the cover. It showed “a Messerschmitt one-ten on the correct course. Straight down into the ground with smoke coming out of it.” He didn’t hate Germans, now or then. He just hadn’t wanted to be killed by them.

The story that stayed with me more than all the others wasn’t mush to do with the war itself, although I suppose it actually had everything to do with it. Joe arrived in England on January 20th 1945 and met girls attached, unattached, married and (ahem) “working.” Towards the end of April, as the war in Europe was ending and the German airforce was rarely seen for flight after flight, Joe went to a dance in Ipswich and missed his lift back to Leiston. It’s twenty-two miles. He was supposed to be flying the next day, early, so he had to walk all the way.

I wrote a version of that story as a five minute broadcast for Radio Suffolk at the beginning of lockdown. I originally wrote it as a half-hour piece and had to cut and cut again, leaving out most of the things I’d noticed as I walked the route, seeing how the roads had changed. I’d wanted to frame it around the operator’s manual for the P51D Mustang I found online, then lost several laptops ago.

Today I found it again. I’m writing it up now, as I don’t know what to call it. It’s not really a novel. A psychic travel book, perhaps. A historical geography lesson. A psychogeographic exposition, in a rural version of Iain Sinclair’s or Peter Ackroyd’s urbanist explorations. A simple story about a walk from Ipswich to Station 373, seventy-seven years ago. A love story, a story about change, a story about what happened, because these stories are fading.

I told Joe I’d do that walk one day. I did half of it two years ago, which became the radio piece. It wasn’t enough and in the nature of time, it’s far too late to tell him now. I’m trying to keep a promise, even if nobody else remembers it except me.

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The price of our soles

Once upon a time in a land long ago I bought some shoes. It was London, between 16 and 30 years ago, it was this time of year, it was Jermyn Street and they were Church’s. And two pairs of Lobbs. Oh, and a pair of Gucci loafers. Sometimes I think there was something wrong in my head.

The thing about paying five times more than a normal High Street pair of shoes is they last. Not the last. They last. Apart from the pair of Lobbs I think I left under someone’s sofa before the cleaner came in after which no mortal eye beheld them since, or not to my knowledge anyway, I still have all of them. None of them were what you’d call everyday shoes, apart from maybe the Church’s which were and are a fairly unexceptional black brogues and of all of them, my least favorite. The sole lets in water and something is pressing up through the inside of the heel, or feels like it.

The Lobbs were both double monk shoes. Not made of a monk, you understand, or even a pair of monks, but those odd shoes with a strap over the top, or two. Not like Clark’s sandals, thanks for asking. One pair black, one pair brown, from the January sales and still eye-wateringly expensive even when you try not to think about it. it was the black pair that went AWOL. The brown ones are fine. Except they’re not. I had them re-soled by Lobb’s about 20 years back. I never, ever wholly got on with the replacement soles, which admittedly don’t slip on station platforms the way the originals did, but always seemed not just monstrously thick but somehow seemed to trip me up because of their thickness, which as both soles are the same thickness and it doesn’t alter ever, hardly makes any sense at all. Except they do and always have, especially on stairs. And yes, stone-cold sober, thanks.

Squidgygate

The Gucci loafers – ah yes, I remember them well, not least as I still have them and they fit in a way that makes you think you forgot to put any shoes on. They’re just brilliant. It was 2003, I think. I didn’t get them because Diana Spencer laughed about one of her numerous (ahem) unofficial consorts’ fondness for them. It wasn’t that more than once after six months on a rowing machine and a habit of drinking in Harvey Nicholls’ top floor bar, the odd minor Sloanette or rather less usefully, cabbie or builder mistook me for Major Hewitt now and again. I just wanted a pair. Not the ghastly ones with red and green ribbon on, as if you’ve just run through a ticker-tape parade or a church fete. Just plain black, the lovely discrete little snaffle-bit decoration on the apron and tiny metal labels on the sole just in case anyone’s missed it, although like finding out a girl’s wearing tights and not stockings, by the time you’re there it’s a bit late to quibble. Anyway, thanks to the rarity of any bona fide opportunity to wear them on a haunted bomber station in East Anglia, they’re fine. Conferences, when I used to do conferences, and dates. According to the Sloane Ranger’s Handbook, gals of a certain type always used ‘look at their shoes’ as a watchword. I’d already taken steps to ensure the worst dating put-down of all could never be uttered, at least about me.

(In case you’re wondering, younger or not fond of hanging around the White Horse on Parsons Green, it was these utterly devastating words:

“White socks! He was wearing white socks!”

Apparently that’s where Conrad got the idea for the last line of Heart of Darkness.)

“The horror. The horror. Exterminate all the brutes.”

Anyway, long and short, the Church’s desperately need a new sole, heel and insole, which is going to cost a cool £190 notes, plus VAT. Because making a new pair takes 200 separate tasks and ripping off the old sole and heel, slapping a new one on and re-cushioning the heel and sole inside comprises 60 separate tasks, by hand, in Northampton. It’s an ethical dilemma, of a kind. Do I say, sure, ok, here’s over £200 for a new pair of old shoes I only wear for best, best these days being funerals or going to court, something I try to avoid doing and pat myself on the back for recycling? Or do I buy a £100 pair of something black which will last two years at the absolute outside, washed individually in Chinese children’s tears?

Then there’s the brown Lobbs to do, which if they had Dainite soles instead of the weird Lobb re-soles that make me walk as if Noddy Holder would have been happy to wear them onstage I’d wear an awful lot more. Maybe in red. Which is going to cost about the same, give or take £50.

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Ring out solstice bells

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

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

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

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

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

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

A is for apple

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

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

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

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

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

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Masks, Medmenham and morality

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

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

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

Fay ce que vouldras

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

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

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

Rabelais

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

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

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

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

Opinion is not fact

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

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

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

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

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It’s official.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A fantastic aid to concentration.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Caught on a lee shore

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

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

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

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

Brilliant Crew in better weather.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Johnny, we’re sorry

Sorry always seems to be the hardest word.

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

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

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

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

Isiah Berlin. How many army divisions has he?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But nothing happened.

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

The Peace Dividend

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

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

Nobody knows the trouble you feel

Nobody cares, the feeling is real

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

We worry, won’t you come on?

What is wrong in my life

That I must get drunk every night?

Johnny, we’re sorry.

Roland Gift/David Steele: Universal Music 1989

Postscript

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

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

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

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