One year you’ll keep buying gadgets, new stuff to make sailing better, or at least more expensive. This year I’ve bought hardly anything. The secret to true sailing happiness has been keeping it simple, with the three things I can’t be without on a boat, or at least, the three things I miss most when I haven’t got them.
A lighter. Sourced from the pound shop at five for £1, any old lighter will do, especially since I haven’t had my brass Zippo since three decades ago when some Norf Lahndahn tyke decided to put my car window in as he needed a light. He also put fifteen other car windows in in that street, that night. Nobody was ever arrested. Hey ho and lackaday, but you’ll need a lighter to seal rope ends, which I’ve obsessed about before.
Marlow tape. It could be any kind really, and Gaffa tape will do in a pinch, but putting this over a rope or line where you want to cut it makes a world of difference if you do it FIRST, not after you’ve cut it.
The knife. OK, I do get a bit obsessive about sailing knives, mainly because I’ve wanted a Myerchin since I first saw one twenty years ago. But. This one is my current favourite. It’s a Wichard, it’s stainless steel, it has just the one semi-serrated blade for when you can’t be arsed to sharpen it and a shackle key cum bottle opener which doesn’t need sharpening. Wichards are French and it shows in the particular shade of bleu for the handle and something about the simplicity of the design. I like it anyway, not least as I got it covered in oil and toolbox grime for £2 at a boot sale. White spirit on kitchen towel sorted that out. The fey little Occitan touch about the prayer bead/retainer wrist-loop was all my own.
They’re simple things but they make a huge difference, especially when an old line needs replacing or you suddenly think ‘mmmm, maybe if I just shortened this, or ran this line over here but it’s too long… oh, wait….’
You can bodge it. You can even get away with not having the knife and the tape if you’ve got a lighter, some time and a place out of the wind. But this unholy trinity makes life and working with lines a lot easier.
It was probably the last day of sailing this year yesterday. Frankly, it can’t happen soon enough. Last year was fantastic sailing; four or sometimes even five days a week, sailing after work, sailing deep into November. Some of those later sailing days weren’t so much fun, to be honest, a combination of not having the main sail downhaul tight enough, the idiotic tendency of the Drascombe Lugger to go backwards and/or turn itself round thanks to the mizzen sail and the absence for the most part of my brilliant crew member, who found she had a load of work on and couldn’t spare the time.
High Water was half-twelve at Martlesham, so I was on the water at just after half-past ten. The plan was to go all the way down to Ramsholt or failing that, the Rocks, then back, then boat out and a power wash, then the long slog through the winter of new anti-foul, sorely needed after I tried to get two years out of the winter 2020 application. This winter I want to get everything out of the boat, remove all the interior hull fittings entirely and then repaint the decks. The boat is getting on for fifty years old. It’s very sound, but weed, mud and general being-used has left it looking past its best. But fixable, very fixable if I first have this last sail today.
Except the engine wouldn’t start. Or rather, it started just fine, but it wouldn’t rev and after a minute or so running just above tickover it slowly died. For once the wind was blowing from the west, so I could sail out of the creek. It usually changes enough to get back in two or three hours. Usually. I changed the spark plug for a new one, marvelled that the old one worked at all when I saw the sooty old one but it didn’t make much difference. Whatever it is, it’s not the sparkplug. It still died three quarters of the way through the moorings and the clock was ticking. I untied the jib and pulled the port sheet and we sailed out anyway, centreboard up to go straight across the bends in the creek and save some time. When I finally had time to look at my watch it was 11:20am.
Note to Royal Yachting Association, Sea Scouts or anyone with a boat: Don’t do this. It’s dumb. It’s only safe in fine weather and it takes most of the fun out of sailing.
But I did it anyway, obviously. The plan, such as it was, was get out of the creek, moor to a bouy off Kyson’s Point as usual, sort out the sails, head south down the Deben to the fabled paradise of Ramsholt, failing that the Rocks, failing that go round the island at Waldringfield, all of which looked possible. The wind out in the Deben is usually different to the wind in Martlesham Creek where it was from the West. In the Deben it was blowing from the north. It’s the trees, the hills and the general cussedness of the river, which is why that part is and always has been called Troublesome Reach.
Drascombes don’t sail fast and downwind they sail a lot slower. I saw another boat coming up from Waldringfield; Alex whose grandfather knew Arthur Ransome, in his own modern adaptation, a Deben Lugger, a lug rig and carbon spars. It shifted through the water a lot faster than mine but he was going upsteam, I was going the other way.
The first thing was the main sail wasn’t up, so I lashed the tiller and sorted that, then re-tensioned the downhaul. I’d used some old line I had hanging around. Modern nylon stuff hadn’t worked and now it had been happily absorbing moisture under its cover in October, nor did this stuff. It jammed in the bronze tunnel cleat. It would have to do I thought, but in the end it didn’t. After half an hour the wind had shifted to blow straight up the river from the south, so I was close-hauled into it. And for that you definitely need the downhaul jammed tight. I had to take out to the other side of the river to clear Coprolite Quay, twice. Coprolite, for those who don’t know, is dinosaur poo. When the Victorians discovered it lay in huge quantities under the Suffolk Sandlings it became a huge export industry, sent out by sea, which meant from here. The tide was massive today and I could hardly see the top of the quay. Made of concrete and very, very solid indeed it was something I definitely didn’t want to run into.
I’d changed the mainsheet mid-season because the old one, too thick, kept jamming in the blocks so I swapped that out to use as a mooring warp and substituted some brand-new 8mm slinky braid that slipped through the blocks like a snake. It also slipped through the jamming cleat too, not least because one of them had disintegrated its spring so it didn’t flip closed. I never use the horn cleats Drascombes have because I’ve always thought them an accident looking for somewhere to happen. The only way to use a horn cleat is to loop the line around it, over the end, make a loop, reverse it then drop that over the other end of the horn. It’s neat, with practice it’s quick and it’s tight. It’s also a pain to get undone in a hurry without a knife, which is why on a gusty river with a fickle wind it’s something you don’t even want to think about if you don’t like the idea of being 90 degrees tipped-over. Which I’m too old for.
Because I was pointing too close to the wind progress was slow. We got down into the pool below Coprolite and I looked for a bouy to moor up to so I could sort out the downhaul and generally tidy up. The problem was that every one of them was either a race can or a channel marker. Not one of them had a rope on it, or even a ring to put a rope through. It was time to turn around. I’d planned to go through the New Cut, dug in the 1800s to make the river more manageable for the bigger ships that were coming, with predictable results. The ships kept getting bigger and the New Cut couldn’t make enough of a difference to stop them going somewhere else. I’ve heard all the tales of the old barges carrying grain and everything else down this river to London and how the old boys who sailed them carried on into the 1920s, maybe even the 1950s without engines, but I’ve also thought there’s only one reason anyone would do that; they couldn’t afford an engine.
We turned around and headed up river. Alex was long gone in his carbon StarTrek Lugger and I couldn’t clearly see where the New Cut was in this huge tide. I could see the green hull of Peter Duck, one of Ransome’s boats, clear across where the reedy island usually is and today wasn’t. I didn’t want to get stuck there for twelve hours. A powerboat was coming up behind me and being higher he could see more clearly. He came past to port and I followed him in then turned West towards Peter Duck to pick up one of the mooring buoys there.
It all went less than optimal from there. I changed the spark plug because who doesn’t carry a spare? It made zero difference. Started first pull but wouldn’t rev, then what revs there were just died away to nothing. Ok, I’ll sail it back on jib and mizzen, because frankly I couldn’t be arsed to put the main up again and anyway the wind was getting up now, blowing from the south in the Deben and I didn’t want to be overpowered coming-in to the moorings solo. I had to go pretty much all the way to the end of Troublesome to have enough leeway to turn and go straight up Martlesham Creek, where predictably, the wind was blowing from the West again, straight down the creek at me, with the tide going out as well now. I dropped the sails, got the oars out and rowed. It’s only half a mile.
A Lugger happily fantails into the wind when you’re rowing. Add to that that I can’t see behind me and it all took a while to get back. Good exercise, but I was looking for a pleasant sail instead of a workout.
I was out for just over four hours and came away hot, sweaty and not best pleased. I went back today and sorted everything. The engine wouldn’t rev and eventually wouldn’t start because if you look at the picture above, there’s a kink in the fuel line after the fuel filter. Nothing to do with cleaning the filter, blowing through it, dirty petrol, old petrol, bad spark plug, evil spirits, none of that. Just no fuel getting through. A bit of jiggling the line around and it runs fine. While I was there I got rid of the daft German mainsheet arrangement, put a spare block on and attached the other double block directly to the horse. I still need a jammer cleat for the mainsheet, but I know where I can get a nice brass tube cleat that will fit on the tiller arm.
After that pump out the bilge, after that cut some of the nice new red braid line for the downhaul, and that works really well in the brass tube cleat at the base of the mast. Then re-arrange the step fender tied-on at the stern so that if I actually do manage to go overboard singlehanded I stand a chance of being able to get back into the boat.
The last thing was re-tying every line that went around horn cleats, so front and aft mooring warps. I’d watched You Tube and found an absolutely brilliant, quick, safe, fast trick for cleat hitches and horn cleats. The fact I can do it one-handed with my left hand without even thinking and do it much more slowly using my right or both hands is just one of those things. It’s a really seriously good trick.
All in I spent about two and a half hours doing all this today. It was time well-spent. I think I enjoy this stuff more than actually sailing, or certainly sailing on the Deben with its ridiculous wind-shifts. I don’t know if there will be any more sailing this year. The boat’s still in the water if I do but the clocks go back this weekend, the time when I think ‘only six weeks, that’s all you have to cope with, just six weeks and it’ll start getting lighter, you can cope with that.’ And I can. There’ll be another summer on the water. With any luck at all I’ll be there to sail it.
When I was a kid we got a big coat each winter, which meant a trip to Bath or Bristol, where the big shops and bright lights were. It was a special time, more for the excitement of strange things than the inevitable argument over the fact that actually a coat that made me look like a Poundland Ziggy Stardust probably wasn’t the best option for a West Country January, let alone a Wiltshire school. What was more rubbish was shoes.
While coats were obviously a big-ticket-big-trip item, shoes didn’t seem to be. Ever since I could buy my own they’ve been more or less of a disaster either in terms of being utterly rubbish, like the three-colour 1970s abominations that made me look like one of Ken Dodd’s Diddymen, or in terms of their cost, like the impulse-buy coming-out-of-a-great-meeting-and-finding-a-sale-rack Gucci loafers. Admittedly, for the conference of Greek shipping tycoons in Limassol I was buying them for they were entirely perfect and seventeen years on still are, but £400 and something in a fricken sale does seem a little on the excessive side. It was the same with the John Lobb black monk shoes from Jermyn Street, again bought in a sale. That wasn’t the time I got bounced out of £100 in five minutes for two ties in Turnbull & Asser, when in any event Your Honour, drink had been taken and after the undivided attention of Young Adam at Trumper’s I was in an expansive mood. It’s entirely possible that I should add that yes, I know lots of people can’t afford shoes, let alone £400-in-a-sale shoes. In my defence, when I was a kid my shoes were crap. Now I can fix that. So I am.
But anyway, fast forward calendar to this week. We’re going on holiday, definitely not by accident. We’re going to be doing a lot of serious up-mountains walking (no, really actually mountains) and at the same time we’re going to be near Capri and we’re not talking Ford, so we need to look at least half-way decent. Due to my advanced years and dated preconceptions I don’t think I can walk in anywhere nice in trainers and frankly I wouldn’t want to be there if I could. There’s a perfectly good pair of Italian Zamberlan walking boots in their box in the cupboard but they don’t look the kind of thing you could go to dinner in anywhere half-decent. So, new boots time.
And this is where the balance thing comes in. Seven years ago I bought a pair of Dubarry jodhpur boots in their sale for £99, half-price. They had a Goretex lining, a bit of a cleated sole and all told they were absolutely perfect for pretty much everything from going to the Saturday Market to tour-guiding to teaching to going for a walk in the fields. I got four years out of them before the sole got too thin to wear, when I took them to the local shoe mender. Who promptly messed-them up. To be fair, they did a brilliant job with a pair of Alfred Sargent veldtschoen boots when they put a Dainite sole on them after only ten years on the original leather, but the Dubarry’s were literally unwearable and got banished to the boot of the car, in case of the kind of emergency when you suddenly need a pair of boots that don’t quite fit comfortably. Falling-in sailing, for example. All of which pointed to looking at the Dubarry website for a sale when it came to new boots with some tread that didn’t look as if I’d just climbed the Matterhorn in them.
In between ordering them online and actually getting them today I found something else online, also half-price. The trouble was that their half-price was literally double the half-price of the Dubarry’s, then a bit more. The Dubarry pair, rather to my surprise, were made in Portugal, where they make good shoes very cheaply, but that doesn’t entirely fit with the hand-made in Ireland story I’d come to expect from Dubarry. This other, putative pair of Dundas 01s were made in Norway. I think. They should arrive tomorrow. This picture, below, shows what got me about them.
Now, at current exchange rates, thanks to the overwhelming prudence and sagacity of this Conservative government, these boots should cost £412. Because I am not as rich as creasote (as Wodehouse put it) I didn’t pay that for them, or anywhere near. But the balance point is this: do I pay £100-ish for boots that will last five years or double that for boots that will last literally the rest of my life, and I don’t mean if I die next Tuesday? I know which I should do. I just don’t know if I will. Let’s see what happens when they turn up tomorrow.
I’ve got Covid. I’m not too ill apart from the kidney ache that I get when I have a bad cold, which is what I thought it was, but something about that ‘having a cold’ experience (also known as Being English) wasn’t right. Before lockdown I used to get a cold twice a year, once in Spring and once in Autumn, so I wasn’t too surprised. Except it’s not a cold. It’s caused by stupidity, lies and selfishness.
This is the third time I’ve had Covid, but I only had it twice. In January 2020 my partner and I both had a bizarre pain in our left arms, sudden left arm weakness that didn’t go away, and hacking coughs. Winter cold, we thought. Bad one, but a winter cold. Funny about the arm thing.
We both think that was the first bout of it, while Her Majesty’s Government was doing what it does best, prevaricating, denying scientific evidence when it doesn’t suit its own dogma and lying.
We had a great lockdown, thanks. Seriously, it was brilliant. I got furlough pay, my partner’s business boomed as people were forced to stay home and look at their curtains, think ‘hmm, these are pretty tatty now’ and order some decent hand-made ones from her. But best of all, we got to walk for a couple of hours every day, along field paths where we never saw anyone else ever. When we got back we’d play three games of chess. Our game improved fabulously. It was a pretty good time, for us at least.
The second time was just before Christmas 2021. My partner had a hacking cough that wouldn’t go away. I didn’t have anything but we both went to our nearest test station, to get the official test. There were about eight people in Hi-viz vests in a carpark. No signs saying which way to go in, so we went in the ‘wrong’ way. After that, and the tongs through the car window and the mix-up with the tests (we saw them do it) I got ‘diagnosed’ positive and my poor partner hacking away in the passenger seat was ‘negative.’
But this. We had all our jabs. Unfortunately, we also had a government led by a convicted liar which basically can’t be bothered to do much, whether it’s keeping its international obligations, enforcing its own immigration laws or having a proper track and trace system that isn’t run by a government Minister’s wife with a consistent track record of failure, a system that managed to chew-up tens of billions when a perfectly usable German system was offered to it free-of-charge. The same government was led by a man who boasted of not wearing a mask, encouraging millions of thick people to do the same. Which they still are. Which they almost all were in London when we went the week before last.
Which is why I now have Covid. I’m not mellowing as I get older. Just getting more angry with the cult of stupid.
About this time a while ago I drove across America in a $200 Chevrolet. I’d haggled the price down and bought it after I found it in Wisconsin where I was working in my first, most memorable job, teaching kids to shoot on a summer camp.
We’d put up the flag in the morning, do breakfast, clean the cabin in those not-so-dear dead days when safeguarding hadn’t been invented, which meant you had to sleep in the same pre-teen room as twelve ten-year-olds, or ten twelve-year-olds. I could never remember which. Most days I’d be on my shooting range, teaching, but some nights we’d get a pass off-camp. I’d get in my car and drive to Eagle River, or because the only thing interesting there was a gunsNgifts shop where I stupidly didn’t buy the 1840s percussion Aston pistols they were practically giving away. Nobody seemed to know what they were, hanging from a nail in the ceiling; take ’em away for $50 apiece. Take ’em both for $75. They must have been there practically from the end of the Civil War.
Gene Fleck’s Meadow Inn Bar was a much more interesting place. It had a bar, for a start. Gene was a Hungarian refugee from the 1956 Russian invasion. He was into guns too, but to be fair, most people had a gun around the house somewhere. Gene’s was a useful Remington 742, a semi-auto with a scope. Gene, like most people around there, used it to take down deer in winter. With the old US wartime 30-06 rounds he could have taken down walls with it. Before that I’d never been in a bar where I was passed a rifle with my drink and told to have a look at it.
But the Meadow Inn Bar had other good things going. Like girl camp counsellors from other nearby camps. One of them ended-up inviting me to her parent’s house after summer camp ended. I’d been meaning to take a drive anyway. The house was in a place called Greencastle, which was as close to Bedford Falls as you could probably hope to get. Railroad tracks split the town in two; Nancy-Jean’s (no, really) folks lived in one of the bigger 1960s houses up on the hill bordering the golf course. Naturally enough. Dad worked for IBM, Mom was a book-keeper at the sawmill across the tracks, there were two cars in every garage, a V1 rocket on a plinth brought home by Our Boys after they done saved Yerp with Patton. Dillinger robbed the bank there in 1932, there was a town square, a courthouse, a diner, a McDonalds, pre-Civil War houses, a university and a rodeo. Apart from the total lack of a bookshop or anything remotely similar to one it sure looked like heaven to me, coming from 1980s Wiltshire.
I worked for about a week in the sawmill there. Like a refugee from a Springsteen song I worked construction on what had been an orphanage. The stone pillars around the Gone With The Wind front door were fake. I found out when I tapped one. They were cast iron and hollow, made in Birmingham, Englandshire, according to the casting on the bottom of them. The names of some of the teachers there were carved into the cellar steps dating from 20 years before and there was a room upstairs I wouldn’t have cared to sleep in, despite it being broad daylight every time I went there in my workboots and bandana.
I drove out on I-70 and got to Aspen, hunting Hunter Thompson (note to self for next life a) do not hunt down teenage idols b) if you have a goal, have another one handy for when you achieve the first one). I came back to London, left London, moved to Suffolk, went back to New York, San Diego, Cupertino and D.C. but somehow never quite made it back to the middle of the Mid-West in a $200 Chevrolet. Early on in lockdown though, I walked past a car restoration place and there she was, in about the same state, the same old Kingswood Classic, even the same colour.
Sometimes I Googled Greencastle to see what was going on. Tornados that pulled houses apart, Bike rides to see all the covered bridges on gravel roads. Not much. Not much ever did. The nice houses up by the golf course were a lot cheaper than I’d expect if they were in England, but that’s true of pretty much anywhere. A restaurant opened up in the courthouse square that looked like the kind of place the Dukes of Hazard would stop by to see Daisy working the lunch counter. Nancy-Jean’s mom died and I found-out why the house prices never rose that much. A year or two after I was there IBM shut the plant. When you do that in a town of 8,000 people you’re lucky if the whole place doesn’t curl up and die. I thought, back in London, that Springsteen songs were just about places that banged bits of steel together, populated by people too dumb to wear ear-protection. I didn’t even guess that IBM could do the same to a town with white-collar four-car families telling each other those jobs are going boys, and they ain’t coming back.
It was long ago and far away, as Meatloaf used to sing before he got Covid. It wasn’t so much better than it is today, for lots of reasons. But I’m older, and when you’re older you remember the places you can’t go to anymore, not least because they aren’t there, or if they are then you can’t possibly be the same person you were when you were there.
Somehow along the way I found A.E. Housman, whose poetry my school never even touched upon although it really ought to have done. I’d say this was pretty good advice to any Sixth Former, or anyone aged around 21 and gone.
When I was one-and-twenty I heard a wise man say, ‘Give crowns and pounds and guineas; But not your heart away; Give pearls away and rubies; But keep your fancy free.’ But I was one-and-twenty, no use to talk to me.
That’s not the stanza from A Shropshire Lad that comes to mind when I think about Greencastle though. It wasn’t the girl, the gunshop, the rodeo, the golf-club, my old car, not even the sawmill and the railroad tracks. It wasn’t John Dillinger, Hunter Thompson, cooking crepes in Aspen nor really, any of it.
It’s just that certain knowledge that time passes and like those jobs and house prices in Greencastle, it ain’t coming back. Those are the Greencastle blues. They’ll go, as all things do, but this summer night they’re back for a while.
Into my heart an air that kills from yon far country blows. What are those blue remembered hills? What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content, I see it shining plain. The happy highways where I went and cannot come again.
My step-sister died on Good Friday. Mine was a family of secrets and lies, secrets about names, especially of those who had died. There were lies about where people had come from and the actually very historically evident members of the family whose existence I’ve had to deduce online. I appreciate that in some ways a dead wife or girlfriend has the most massive advantage over a living one; you can’t have an absolutely massive row about the bins or the particularly idiotic choice of nail varnish colour that might suit a shop-girl 40 years younger but will hardly do for this dinner party, will it? And all the other can’t-speak-ill-of-the-dead stuff that applies. Being dead means never getting older, never putting on weight, never being called that fat cow/stupid bitch/totally mad woman ever again, by absolutely anyone who doesn’t want the entire room freezing them out for the next half hour as an absolute minimum. They’re literally beyond criticism.
None of this, I have to say, applies to my step-sister. It certainly did to her mother, who died over fifty years ago. Until this week, I didn’t know her name, nor when she died. There were two photos in the house in Trowbridge, both showing my step-sister and her brother and the mystery woman whose name was never to be spoken. If it wasn’t actually that then it certainly never was spoken in my hearing. It certainly did to a friend’s Dead French Girlfriend, who he’d talk about when he had drink taken, as it’s sometimes put. He told me once he thought and had reason to think that she’d died carrying his baby, but by then she was engaged to someone French, the past is another country, and besides, the wench is dead. His wife hated Dead French Girlfriend’s name even being mentioned. But omissions are no better than lies. Discuss.
My step-sister didn’t do lies, nor so far as I know, omissions. I hadn’t seen her for a couple of years, but then again, thanks to Covid, who has? And just like Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi, you don’t know what you had till it’s gone.
She was ten years older than me. I wrote about her once. When I was 18 she seemed like looking at a still from a film I hadn’t seen. I knew I would, whether or not it was quite the same, as it turned out not quite to be.
My partner Elisabetta and I dreamed last night, two sides of the same dream. We dreamed about cats and teddy bears. We don’t have a cat. In her dream as she said, “They weren’t real. They were like jelly babies.”
The cat in my dream died seventeen years ago. Even as I write that I think it can’t be true, but it is. My big teddy bear was exactly himself in the dream. So was my lovely cat, except that they were walking to the top of a sunny hill, hand in hand, like Piglet and Pooh, as I followed close behind them.
They had captions in my dream, probably because I speak only a bit of get-you-by Cat and even less fluent Teddy Bear. Hardly any, in fact.
One said, “What should we do?”
The other replied, “Help each other, until we go back into the dark.”
Elisabetta was crying out in her sleep. I woke having to bite my lip really quite hard , then find my big teddy bear and pat his foot, to make sure he wasn’t moving. He was still there, where I knew he was. My step-sister not so.
Christmas 1980 Carl Bennett and Celia Scholes 1949 – 2022
Today, 77 years ago, the 8th United States Army Air Force flew its last combat mission in WW11. Eleven years ago one of the pilots on that mission was staying with me in Suffolk. He told me how he’d nearly not made it.
Not from enemy action, but because he’d been at a dance in Ipswich the night before and missed his transport back to base. There were no buses, no trains, nothing moving on the roads, so he had to walk back to Station 373, near Leiston. It’s twenty-two miles.
A couple of years ago I walked half of the route to see how it had changed, but also because I had my doubts that it could be done. Like anything else, it depends on when it’s to be done. Being under 21 helps, too. He was, at the time. I’m not, exactly.
I also did it because I’d told him I would. Some of the road has disappeared now, buried under a dual carriageway making all of the walk a lot more dangerous than it was on a cold Spring night in 1945, although of course, I didn’t have people shooting at me later the same morning. To be fair, thanks to the USAAF’s previous attentions to the Luftwaffe, nor did he.
The original radio script was for 30 minutes. It was a bit of a bracer when they told me I had five. Since then I’ve been trying to flesh out the 30 minute script as something more, but I’ve never been clear exactly what. A travel book about a place you can’t go to, perhaps. A history of one evening. I don’t know if it will ever get finished. I don’t think I can do it justice. Nor the old man I knew.
He told me a lot of stories from those times, some silly, some desperately sad. He told me about the helplessness when two miles up airplanes broke apart nearby and he saw ten-man bomber crews start their fall to earth. He told me about the thing that still made him ashamed; it was thinking how beautiful the colours of the flash were when he saw a German plane explode close by. He was not a saint, in his relationships or his attitudes. I remember the time he was describing the cover of a book I’d loaned him; it showed a German aircraft as he said, “on its correct course….”
“Straight down into the ground with smoke coming out of it.”
I went to take some pictures at the airfield one summer’s day after his last visit. The wind was gusting as I picked my way past the piles of broken concrete that had been runways. There was a hut that had been used for pigs in the 1960s, with dates painted on the walls and doors.
As I looked through the camera I tried to imagine how busy this empty place must have been. The wind carried men’s voices, talking as they worked on something, all the time I was taking pictures, but when I’d finished taking pictures and looked around to see who it was there was nobody there at all.
I love the Real England, but I hate more than anything on earth (except cowardice in looking at the truth) the intellectual sloth, the gross mental indolence that prevents the English from making an effort of imagination and realising how shameful will be their portion in history when the story of this last year in the biography of democracy comes to be written. Shameful foolish and tragic beyond tears, for the toll will be paid in English blood. English lads will die and English lads have died, not one or two, but hundreds of thousands, because their elders listen to me who think little things, and tell them little things, which are so terribly easy to repeat.
I didn’t write that. Rudyard Kipling did, writing about the Russian revolution a hundred years ago, his point proven by how pathetically little has changed. The Prime Minister, who likes to pose as the ultimate Englishman despite being an American citizen until 2017 appointed a Minister specifically to find the benefits of Brexit, unable, along with the UK media who enabled it, to tell the truth about the lunatic lake of half-truths, conditional clauses, delusion, racism and xenophobia that bred it. After two months the Minister has somehow inexplicably failed to make his findings public. Meanwhile, lorry drivers crap on the roadside waiting for the technological solution the government promised would simplify import and export, in the absence of which the whole process has become more difficult. This year, apart from intending to send people to camps in Africa, Australia being no longer available, the main item on the Parliamentary agenda has been not just shamefully foolish and tragic beyond tears, but all the evidence anyone could ask for of a failed state. The main item, even bigger than the pretence that a disease killing 500 people per day has somehow not just gone away but was personally cured by the Prime Minister dressing up as a nurse, has been avoiding telling the truth about his lies and lawbreaking.
There were, unarguably, parties at Number 10 Downing Street, during a Covid lockdown where parties were banned by the man who was there. Nobody even disputes that now. Even the Prime Minister, who used to claim he didn’t know about that happening in his own house, despite being filmed at the event, now says OK, he was there, maybe, but not for long and anyway, he didn’t know it was a party. Adults in the UK are being asked to believe that an adult who genuinely does not know what a party is, is fully capable of say, being responsible for the launch of nuclear missiles in defence of the nation.
Even without a handy little military unpleasantness far away, the preferred English kind notwithstanding that it usually resulted in a colossal English defeat (vide Mons, Dunkirk, Norway, Singapore), a man who pretends everything, from not knowing how many children he has to not knowing that PG Wodehouse was kidding to not knowing that airborne disease transmission can be mitigated by wearing a mask to pretending it’s all just not happening and doesn’t matter anyway so long as he’s still Prime Minister is still Prime Minister.
And the hundreds of thousands of dead? That only happens in the kinds of wars we don’t have anymore. Except of course, it doesn’t, as a direct result of the policies of the Party the Prime Minister leads. 130,000 preventable deaths in 2019, well before Covid. Another 170,000 on top of that caused directly by doing too little, too late, having a lockdown, not having a lockdown, pubs being too dangerous to enter, totally safe to enter and too dangerous to enter all in the course of a single day, pretending that science was just something girly swots did, that adhering to medical advice was subsidiary to the unassailable right to infect anyone, anywhere at any time because Freedom.
“We have seen progress in reducing preventable disease flatline since 2012. At the same time, local authorities have seen significant cuts to their public health budgets, which has severely impacted the capacity of preventative services. Social conditions for many have failed to improve since the economic crisis, creating a perfect storm that encourages harmful health behaviours. This health challenge will only continue to worsen.”
Institute for Public Policy Research 2019
Most unforgivably of all, the cowardice in the refusal to face facts is something the Prime Minister is or was or pretended to be aware of. More contemptible still is the way it’s almost impossible now to decide which of these is ever true, or at what time, or whether it just changes according to who he talks to, but that’s just a given now.
One of the big things affecting lives and deaths is the fact that UK trade is down 15% post-Brexit, according to the government’s own figures from the Office of Budget Responsibility, still shamelessly called that without the slightest trace of irony. Handily though, that’s hardly ever mentioned in most UK media, let alone repeated around the bar in every pub. The little, easily repeatable things still matter more. And as everyone knows, when it comes to the UK’s problems it’s all down to them forrins, innit?
We have to make our own entertainment in the fields, here in Suffolk, so part of my Monday, for the past fifteen years or more, has been going to the auctions. It’s mostly stuff people don’t want anymore, but because a fair number of people who live in these parts are seriously wealthy, old and have more than one house then sometimes you can find not just bargains but really interesting stuff as well. If you’re lucky you can find interesting bargains too, now and again.
The best thing I ever found, or at least the most profitable, was a Moulton folding bicycle. They’re rare. I was hoping nobody else knew what it was but two other people had an idea and bid it up from the £30 I was hoping it would go for to the £140 I paid for it. I folded it up, put it in the back of the car and ordered two new tyres, two new inner tubes and a pair of folding pedals. I had a spare Brooks B17 saddle in the shed, so that went on and the test ride I gave it told me what I thought anyway – I don’t like tiny wheels because they feel unstable. I put it on Ebay and it turned out the Japanese person who bid it up to £1,200 plus £250 shipping wasn’t kidding. It paid the mortgage that month.
The last of the line.
A month or two ago I found something similar, a Freiburger sextant. I’d first seen one – or at least, a picture of one – about twenty years ago, when I was running half a business information research agency and we had a load of maritime work for companies like Inmarsat, Cap-Gemini, Jeppesen, UK Hydrographic Office and I had to spend a lot of time getting up to speed with a whole hidden world of Big Steamers and dealing with a linear descendant of Captain Bligh, which gave me an insight into exactly why the mutiny on the Bounty happened. It saw me elected to the Nautical Institute and made a member of the Honorable Company of Master Mariners, as well as propelling me around the world to conferences every couple of months in Miami or Limassol, Oslo or Hamburg or Sydney or interviewing in San Diego or D.C.. The walk I did there on a frozen February Sunday morning, and the appalling scalping I got in a barbershop when they heard “I’m interviewing at Coastguard Headquarters” and took it as “I’m being interviewed at Coastguard Headquarters are both going to have to be another story. Jesus, my head was cold though.
Last week I found a thing I didn’t know I was even looking for. A typewriter. But not just any typewriter. It looked like the best typewriter you could think of, so utterly well-designed that if I asked you to draw one it would look like the one I bought. An Olivetti Lettera 22. The absolute high-water mark of mechanical inky ribbon-smacking perfection.
It was designed in 1950. In 1959 the Illinois Institute of Technology nominated it as the best design product of the past 100 years. Now, OK, that was a while before the Ipod, Ipad, the Iphone and this MacBook Pro, and even before the Mach One Mustang, but you can’t type a letter or a novel on any of those things anyway. I paid a ridiculously small amount at the auction for it, paid another £2-something for a new ribbon, stuck the airline at the garage into it and blasted out 70 years of skin flakes and grime and started typing this evening, just like those other famous Leterra 22 users, William S. Burroughs, Will Self, Gunter Grass, who had three of them, one in each house and Jan Morris.
It was odd. I haven’t typed for years. Not on a typewriter, anyway. And it’s very different. Not where the keys are – they’re in almost exactly the same place, apart from the inverted comma key. But the pressure is different. When I first started using computer keyboards in an office my boss used to tell me I didn’t have to hit the keys so hard. What did he know – I’d learned to type on a proper type-writer. My first novel, A Day For Pyjamas, was written on a type-writer. I lived in the modern world, baby. I had my radio on.
Immediately before I started typing this evening I’d been reading old airfield records from 1945, sent to me by the ever-helpful US government archive office. And obviously typed. Some pages were sharp and clear, some not so much and several showed typing like mine, where individual letters looked faded and indistinct. The biggest difference isn’t working out where the backspace key is (apparently there is one but obviously it isn’t marked, to make things more fun, presumably), but consistency. If you don’t put the same amount of pressure on each keystroke the letters won’t come out the same.
It didn’t help that I hadn’t screwed up the caps on the ribbon spools tightly enough; with a new ribbon everything was clear and sharp, but six lines in it had all started to look as if it too, had been hammered out on a slack afternoon at Neibiberg airfield one October day nearly 80 years ago, the war over and almost everyone already sent back to the USA, the biggest problem being how to get enough civilian workers physically onto the base when a) you don’t speak German and b) you aren’t supposed to fraternise with them anyway. I knew a story about one airman who did, and found his evening took a turn for the worse after kissing his fraulein goodnight – as soon as she’d stepped inside her house someone loosed off a magazine full of Schmeisser 9mm at him. He never found out who did it, some jilted boyfriend or the Werewolf revenge squads he’d been warned about, but he didn’t stop running and hiding long enough to ask. He kept a cocked and locked Colt automatic under his pillow the whole time he was there, he said. Most folks on the station did.
I don’t know whether it’ll help write his story or if it’ll just turn out to be another excuse not to finish it, and it’s taken nearly two years in different formats already. Obviously, if I type it then it’ll all have to be typed out again on a laptop anyway, but maybe that could be part of the editing process. It hurts your back, sure. But it feels like writing. It sounds like it, too. There’s nothing remotely like it. Joan Didion would tell you the same.
A thing of beauty and a joy forever…
“To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed… The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind,” she wrote. and all of that is true. But there’s also something about the literal impact of the word, the click, the ‘ting,’ the sound of the carriage-return that alters the meaning and the arrangement too. You find yourself writing “it is” because it’s simply physically easier than levering up the Shift key.
But the ghostly imprints are still in my mind, from reading my own musings on typing which I used to try out this old machine, to the mis-hits and key-tangles and faded ribbons that described the 357th Pursuit Group’s move to Germany at the end of the war, telling how on 8th July 1945 the first group of 30 officers and 65 men left Leiston, how at midnight July 19th the main convoy of trucks left and took until 31st to get to Munich, and steam heat and running water, all of that a big improvement over the coke-stoves in tin huts they’d all been used to in a field outside Theberton.
I found the name of the old pilot I’d met and got to know in the records several times. Some of his stories fit the dates in the records, and I haven’t read all the records yet. I can see the date he got promoted, the date the group got told it wasn’t part of the 8th Air Force any more, but the 9th now. The date he got transferred out to the 14th Liaison Squadron. I can’t see the date of the incident he told me about, barrel-rolling a Mustang aircraft around a lumbering B17, then finding the B17 was carrying someone ten ranks higher than him, who went predictably ape about it, but I can see a date where I would have expected to see his name and finding it not there, which might coincide.
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.