My grandfather spent the Blitz as a fire warden, exempted from front line military service after accidentally shooting his own ear off in the 1930s. I once asked him what he’d done in the aftermath of this – it rendered him partially deaf and ‘made hats slip down on that side’ – to which he replied, ‘I shat myself, and then had to walk home like it’. Undeterred, the Whiteheads of Mile End dealt Hitler a slap in the chops at D-Day when his brother wandered ashore at Sword beach with the County of London Yeomanry and ‘hid behind things until we were winning’. I am certain that this insight into a civilian army at war is more typical than history would have us believe. In a satisfying postscript, one of his sons also saw beach combat, against the Rockers at Clacton in 1964, and thus a family tradition was born.
Runton Hall has a colourful wartime history. German Field, the huge organic vegetable patch near the Old Servant’s Quarters, was started by beastly Hun officers held here during the conflict, hence the name. I mentioned this to some Second World War re-enactors camping in the woods on the south side of the estate recently, among the uniforms and equipment of the 1st Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron. Actually, now I come to think of it, they might not have been re-enactors, but ghosts of former actual soldiers, although this seems unlikely because there are several 1940s events across East Anglia at this time of year and I presume they were something to do with one of them. They were a friendly bunch, and it seemed unkind to point out that the elite airborne warriors they had gone to such lengths to portray were twenty-five years younger and forty pounds lighter than any of them. Then again, combat troops of that size would have provided valuable cover to my great uncle during amphibious assaults, and for that we must salute them.
They had a large, drooling dog, who drew the attention of Graham, Runton’s Romany beast master. Dogs are controversial at Runton, in case they alarm the Forest School kids or annoy the glampers, although these two groups are scarcely in evidence at this time of year. Graham has seven assorted sight hounds and terriers, but they are professionals, in so far as a dog can grasp such a concept, and have no interest in being anything other than gentle to humans, who they adore. The re-enactors’ dog, slobbering among replica ammunition cases, presented an unimpressive sight. Graham nodded towards a thick white string of spittle hanging down from the left side of its mouth.
‘If I pull that’, he said, ‘does he say stuff?’
‘He’s a secret weapon,’ replied one of the fat warriors, ‘pull that and ten seconds later he’ll explode’, a good comeback under the circumstances, especially to a man surrounded by highly trained canines and carrying a loaded firearm. From what I gather, the dog spent his time at Runton in a tent, his endless drool turning the woodland into marsh, while the re-enactors endeared themselves to Graham by knowing a lot about guns, and to Beggar’s Canyon, our resident survivalist and tent expert, by knowing a lot about starting fires with flint sparks and dry moss.
For all their girth, the would-be 1st Airbourne Reconnaissance Squadron represent the sort of thing I’d like at Runton next year, if only because I have a soft spot for people who are really into stuff. I’m quite happy for them to go chucking smoke grenades about and attacking things very slowly. I have mentioned this in the Smith Report, which as you may recall is my blueprint for how to make the place profitable enough to pay for its own restoration work while preserving its low profile. It’s tricky, because we have to invent a way of advertising it, without going so far as to advertise it. This conundrum can be contemplated over winter. As I write, it is September, and the year is unravelling. Sevastopol the Peacock, hated by all, caws his last caws of summer across the copses and fields and outbuildings, louder for being back in his winter quarters near Joe, Becka and their numerous children. The sunlight is thinner, the yellows browner, the reds rustier, and the morning mist no longer in a hurry to burn off from between the clumps of trees in the East Field. ‘Anton’ and I put up and take down fewer glamping tents, with the glampers all but vanished, taking our income from tent hire with them. In our former lives, mid-September was the pistol shot announcing the coming of Christmas, a hundred-day charge through the street markets of London, finishing in a delirious heap at the Duke of Wellington public house, Toynbee Street, E1 after the last trading Sunday of the year. All that, we reflected while stacking tents under tarpaulins in the Restored Barn for winter storage, was when we were in an environment we understood. I am not a great sentimentalist, but the realisation that we might not be about to wake with a jolt on the Northern Line at Archway after all is well and truly sinking in.
Main: I have no idea what this once was, but it might be an idea to find out before we spend £120,000 to restore it.
Inset top: Norfolk car boot sale road side A-board. Where have you seen an apostrophe in an abbreviation for a day of the week, Sal? The world is watching, so make an effort, you fucking imbecile.
Inset middle: Keep your Hans to yourself, Adolf! Plucky British lesbians prepare to defend East Anglia.
Inset lower: A rather chunky SS assault battalion determined to get a seat near the buffet in this recreation of an attack on a railway station. This isn’t my picture – it’s from the Daily Mail, and also rather accurately depicts their target readership I should think.