Forty-three times twenty-six plus fifty-two

It isn’t a maths test, although of course it is. It’s the number of dead from the London Borough of Barking alone, in the years 1914 to 1918. Their names were listed on plaques on thier memorial in the park. I didn’t have a pen so I needed a way to remember the numbers I’d counted.

In case your maths is rusty, it’s 1,170. A lot of the names are the same and while I can think well, obviously a lot of people are called Smith or White, when a surname is Wiffen and there are two sad inscriptions with different initials after them, they have to be related and I’d guess, closely.

Appropriately, death in the shape of a bullet or a lungful of gas or simply being atomised by an artillery shell or drowning in mud being no great respecter of rank, there are no inscriptions on the plaques on the memorial in the park to tell us now whether they were corporals or private soldiers or colonels. If you read anything about the First World War of course, you’ll know that only rarely, when a stray shell obligingly evened things-up did the most senior officers get killed or even wounded by anything more directed than gout or a heart attack.

One of Britain’s most lauded sons, Earl Haig, never bothered to visit the front line trenches at all. He was the man who condemned the ‘cowardice’ of the Pals battalions when they failed to advance to his satisfaction. In his mind they were shirkers, riddled with blue funk as a function largely of them being working class chaps; in reality they were riddled with Spandau bullets, failing to ‘do their bit’ due to the inconvenience of being dead. Prior to that he’d issued orders forbidding them to fire while they advanced; they hadn’t had much training, they couldn’t hit a grouse rising off heather and all in all it would just have wasted ammunition, he felt.

As it was, the artillery barrage supposed to stop the German machine guns only stopped them while the barrage was on. When it lifted and the whistles blew to advance in the British trenches the boys from the factories and potteries and mines rushed up their ladders and walked, as ordered, across No Mans Land. They’d had tin triangles sewn onto the back of their packs so the General Staff could see where they were from a safe distance. Through binoculars it was clear the attack bogged down early, the triangles not moving. The Pals brigades weren’t funking it. They were dead.

It can’t be unreasonable to doubt the sanity of anyone who ordered the exact same action again and again and again, year after year after year, Michael Gove.

The memorial didn’t give the dates or the locations of the sons of this forgotten borough whose glory days ended in a hail of copper-jacketed munitions. Walking around Barking you can see the ghosts of proud buildings erected between about 1890 and 1914. There’s a fine Magistrates Court embellished with Art Nouveau curlicues and at the entrance to Barking Park itself a little Nursery with round windows sporting elongated keystones which presumably was given to the Park Keeper in the days when massively-subsidised housing wasn’t seen as akin to choice-robbing Communism. The First War killed more than just people. Go to Barking and look around.



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Undead babies

Ok, I stole the title from Martin Amis. Me and Marty, we’re like that, you know (elaborately mimes two clenched hands)? But for all that, this actually happened. I didn’t dream it. And I have absolutely no explanation for it. It happened, as many of the most memorable things in my life, in Dorset. Specifically in Lyme Regis, or even more specifically, outside it in the Undercliff. Magical though it is, you can’t see much in there because it’s a ravine, so all the lovely seascapes you came there for are invisible most of the time, so we planned our walk to do both: walk out along the beach, then when we’d got fed-up falling over slippery rocks in the wrong shoes, cut up one of the streams leading off the cliff, find the Undercliff path and go home that way, preferably via the Volunteer.

Pond-hopping along the beach seemed hard work back then and I was really pleased to find it was just as hard when I went back last April, after far too long away. New boots, new coat, new someone I was with that day, but the same Lyme magic, the same sun sparkling off the blue water, the same smell of expectation and hope. It’s just a place that makes me happy, for all its oddness. And what happened was more than a bit odd.

We found some fossils because you can’t avoid it, but most of them, as always, are about three feet across and cemented into rocks that must weigh about a hundredweight so no point even trying to take them home, apart from the fact that I know zip about fossils and I never worked out what you’re actually supposed to do with them. It was Easter, but it’s Lyme, where the sun shines and we didn’t know much about the tides. We learned about them later in our lives and very nearly ended them, but that’s another story for another time.

We knew all the streams flowed down things called chines, little valleys which if they weren’t actually paths would let us scramble up into the Undercliff and find the path. Some of it was literally a scramble, so we did. About half-way up we met a group of people coming down.

It wasn’t imagination but they looked like something out of a Lidl advertisement: clean, long-limbed, Tuetonically athletic and casually blond. About seven of them, aged from late twenties to early sixties. We all said hello. From the back of their group, up the hill, they were passing things down to the bottom and being too far apart they were throwing the things to each other like rugby players cheating. Small packs, a blanket roll. Something else.

As it went past me I had a strange thought. When they’d gone I talked to my friend and asked her what the people had been throwing down to each other, passed by a six or ten foot throw, one to the other. She looked at me, worried. She asked me what I thought they’d been throwing, slightly disturbed, in that English oh-silly-me-it-couldn’t-possibly-be-but-I-thought way that people do when they’re actually seriously worried and don’t want to scare the person they’re talking to.

What we thought one of the things they were throwing, happily, confidently and practiced, down the cliff, one to another, was a baby. Even now, twenty years on, we’re both still sure it was.




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My happy space

I don’t know when I found it. Maybe when I was small, but although I can remember Weymouth and Weston-super-Mare and Clevedon I don’t have any memory of Lyme Regis. Geography field trips went there from school, but I didn’t do Geography A Level, so that wasn’t it either.

I think it was the French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowles’ masterpiece that I read when I was 20. I remember reading it and re-reading it, then The Magus, and Daniel Martin, of course the car-crash can’t-not-look-at-it The Collector, A Maggot and the Ivory Tower and Mantissa. I think the French L’s W did it.

The Collector was a hard act to follow and it rocketed Fowles from ‘Who?” to definitive Sixties Writer with his beard and his Guernsey and bluntly, his gut, according to the sleeve notes pictures. Jealous, me? Damn right. He got out of town and high-tailed it to the kind of place you only found on BBC2 in those days, Lyme Regis, a half-forgotten slice of Georgiana on the instep of the Isles. No railway went there since Dr Beeching sorted that out, but the viaduct is still there.

I used to go there with a friend when she’d bought Thomas Hardy’s sister’s schoolhouse, almost by accident. It was about an hour away. We went there by 2CV, by Harley-Davidson, by company cars and always loved it, each time for the past 30 years and more now. And I still can’t say exactly why I love this place so much. It’s not just the fact it has its own theatre, or the the Undercliff. It’s certainly not the shade of John Fowles, given that nothing of his came close to the FLW, certainly not the bizarre casting of Meryl Streep in the movie. I mean, seriously? Pinter’s screenplay was good, but A Maggot was a bit of showing-off, the Ivory Tower pointless so far as I could see and Mantissa simply priggish as well as showing-off in the manner of later Ian McEwan, all look-how-much-research-I-done as he splurges it all over every single page of the book, pretending to be a lawyer or a neurosurgeon or a man who does something boring with solar panels. Fowles did the same with psychiatry in Mantissa but he did a much worse thing. He wrote every character with exactly the same vocabulary.

But enough of John Fowles. He’s dead anyway. Next I’ll tell you why the Undercliff is one fo the few places you can get killed going for a walk; how I very nearly did when walking in the other direction towards Charmouth; and, dear reader (no, Jane Austen hated Lyme. Strange woman), the strange tale of the baby hurled down the ravine and the Glade of Lounging Homosexuals.

All will be revealed (as it certainly wasn’t by the rather select walking club) but tomorrow, not today.



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Psst….. Yeah, you……

No posts for months. Two months, in fact, the longest I’ve ever gone without posting. I’d lost my passwords and had a major broadband meltdown at home.

Work – paid-for work anyway – has been various, from supply teaching to language teaching to teaching on a film set, which mostly involves eating free cake in a trailer on your own. In all of these cases, broadband access has been well, variable is probably the fairest description.

My home broadband just broke. I spent weeks trying to fix it but like the nonsense of O2’s mobile phone signal (if that’s not too strong a word for it) in my particular rural area on the top of a hill on the edge of a debateably haunted airfield, it didn’t really happen. So I’m waiting until civilisation returns on 3rd January, when a new provider comes to re-connect me to real life.

That and losing my passwords. You see, if I’d kept them all the same like any normal person there wouldn’t have been a problem. Just that when you’re out of the habit of doing something you forget exactly what you used to do automatically. Matron.

But back now, anyway.

And yes, I missed you too. Happy Christmas one and all.


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Long day-works

Summertime. And the living is queasy.
Summertime. And the living is queasy.

Back when I was at uni, when now-respectable professors happily got their kit off for photos, which is a story that needn’t bother you now, I did Sociology. Or as Paul McCartney nearly put it, Sociology did me. One of the pitifully few things I remember about any of it was the concept of time being introduced to work with the introduction of factories, whistles, time-sheets and clocking-on. Before that in summer there were long day-works and in the absence of artificial light in winter, short ones.

Tomorrow is going to be a long one, not just because it’s summer, although the weather says otherwise here. More because I’ve got to get s train ticket with a code and codes, in my experience, don’t always work. If that sounds like me just being old, I bought one of the first airline ticketless tickets, back in 2003. It didn’t eork. Nobody knew what to do with the bit of paper with the code on it at Heathrow, the printer there wasn’t working, the last plane I’d tried to catch there someone had tried to blow up and I’d spent £2,500 on Business Class tickets. Chiefly because someone else was paying. The ticket still didn’t work though.

Tomorrow I could go and get my tickets after I’ve gone to the post office and the opticians and just casually stroll up, tap my code receipt in and like a normal person, go to London. But what if it doesn’t work? If I go now and it doesn’t work at least I get a whole evening to panic about it. Because tomorrow is a bit important. I’ve got a job interview tomorrow lunchtime for something I’d like to do. After that, almost unplanned, or certainly not planned when I bought my ticket, I’m pitching Janni Schenck, the screenplay what I wrote, at Raindance. In front of money people. In front of producers. In front of people who could say “we’re going with this. Here’s some money to not sell it to anyone else while we sort out some stuff about it.”

I haven’t thought about what accent they’d use, yet. Might not happen. But it could. If my ticket works, obviously. If I can decide what to wear. And I can find somewhere to park. All kinds of things.

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Closing down the options

There are things you’re allowed to say, these days. And other things you’re not. Increasingly, you’re not allowed to ask certain questions.

An opinion for all seasons. But you aren't supposed to mention that.
        An opinion for all seasons. But you aren’t supposed to mention that.

Not because you don’t need to know, but because the answers will embarass somebody else. Somebody who doesn’t have the answers.

Who ought to. Because that’s their job. But becaue they patently havent done their job that’s not their fault, but yours. So we won’t be talking about it and that’s official. Now get back to watching Kendra On Top or The Only Way Is Essex or whatever it is people like you do all the time.

Allowable debate.
                                 Allowable debate. Talk about this all you like.

You can’t have failed to notice Boris Johnson (eezalarf, innee?) doing his usual “as Pericles put it” act over Europe. This week he doesn’t want to be part of a Europe that will let 77 million Turks come to the UK. Let’s assume, for a second, that that’s what they’d all do, because of the generous benefits system and the bountiful job opportunities which benefit Schrodinger’s Immigrant, the one who takes your job and sits on the dole at the same time.  Let’s assume Turkey gets membership of the EU. Which is more than moot, for a host of reasons. Why or more pertinently how won’t Turkish people be able to come into the UK if the UK isn’t part of the EU? And what will the IRA have to say about it? Or the Ulster Unionists? Or Sinn Fein?

It’s a serious question but nobody even wants to ask it. Because if the UK did leave the EU, the only physical way it could stop EU migrants coming into the UK would be to close the border with Eire. Passport control. Visas. A big, big fence. Customs posts. Immigration checks. At the moment you just drive through a border that’s just a line on a map. Nobody checks your pasport. Nobody asks you the purpose of your visit. There isn’t anybody there to even ask you. A bit like the fearless UK media, and this question itself.

If the UK leaves then any EU citizen who wanted to get in would Easyjet to Dublin and get on the next coach north. And they’re in, miraculously taking your job and sitting around doing nothing at the same time, according to the tabloid press. Who haven’t mentioned any of this.

Docklands, 9/2/96. Non-allowable debate.
Docklands, 9/2/96. Non-allowable debate.

In case you’ve forgotten, not very long ago there were riots and bombs taking out half of Docklands because some people wanted a united Ireland. A whacking great wall across it isn’t going to significantly further this ambition, so far as I can see.

It’s not debated. It’s not discussed. It just isn’t a question anyone is allowed to ask. And it makes me sad that this is the level of debate now. Tony Blair gets wheeled out to make people do the oposite of anything he says, presumably, while this fairly big issue, one which could kick over the whole balance of the Good Friday agreement and make every tabloid editor re-calibrate the dial on the suto-hate press machine from Moslems to Irish people isn’t even being mentioned. But obviously, we needn’t trouble our pretty little heads about it. Grown-ups like Boris and Blair will sort it all out, the same way they always do. With a big war we can’t afford, that’s built on lies, whcih does nothing but destabalise the area and that we’ll lose, if their track record is anything to go by.

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