Sitting uncomfortably on explosive secrets

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The Independent Online
I STILL do not understand much of what Sam Brittan writes in the Financial Times, but that does not stop me ploughing through his columns as I wait outside the house wondering if it will be a Lugg Valley Motors, a Primrose Motors, or even a prosaic Midland Red bus that will take me into the city.

The last time I made this trip it was to have my hair cut. The barber's shop was the kind to awaken fears of short back and sides, but the elderly cove inside was chatting to a rather smart young couple whom I took to be his customers and whose hair looked pretty. So I entered. It transpired they were relatives in for a gossip and they left, probably having had their hair glamorously cut somewhere else.

Anyway, Muggins was stuck. The barber had a hairdo that looked as if it had been designed to reduce girl munitions workers to rubble at about the time when the virgins in this part of the country were in danger of yielding to GIs' charms. He wore a jacket that had once been cream and now had dirty cuffs. Even so, I suggested that - for reasons that will become clear later - my hair might be rather dirty and he might like to wash it.

Grumpily, I thought, he cut my grimy hair and then washed what little of it was left after his ministrations. I had not liked to tell him his business, but was deeply embarrassed. One's relations with barbers are hardly less one- sided than those with dentists.

Anyway, I have taken to staying up late at night and listening to Sam Brittan's occasional lucubrations on the Jeremy Paxman show. Sam does not alter his tuneless song for anyone. He has a mesmerising superiority that crushes the most robust interviewer. It came as no surprise when a reader complained in the letter columns of the FT about Mr Brittan's line that he had not passed on his prior knowledge about the imminent collapse of sterling, and perhaps the entire world, because it would have happened all the sooner if he had. Hang on, said the letter writer: who are you working for, Sam: Western civilisation as we know it, or the FT's readers?

Suddenly, I have found myself in Sam's position, not once but twice. I know something so shattering about one of the more significant people in this village that if it were to get out, well, there would be a serious cats-and-pigeons situation and that is all I can tell you. It is much more exciting than the sort of idle gossip I have retailed before, although even those meanderings have recently featured in a comedy evening that had an audience in the village hall splitting its sides.

For similar reasons of discretion, I fear I abused my reporter's contract with the reader a few weeks ago. It happened that I was cruising the lower Thames estuary in a wartime, 85ft, steam- driven cargo ship which had spent most of its smoke-belching life ferrying ammunition out to bigger ships in the Clyde. It is now owned by an ardent conservationist who takes a lot of stick from his friends about its profligacy with fossil fuel of the dirtiest kind.

We had a mixed crew of serious-minded people, one of whom was my ex-soldier friend. On being shown the galley, in which he had promised to rustle up something that would constitute a major advance in the science of the all-day breakfast, he whispered to me: 'The last time I saw a kitchen that dirty it was being used by an Iraqi foot patrol.' Naturally I retailed this to the skipper, who harrumphed, 'Nothing wrong with honest coaldust', in the way of a man who distrusts people neurotic enough to wash their hands after peeing.

We had to drop some people off at Gillingham, which took us sedately past an interesting piece of history. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary Sir Bedivere, a navy supply ship, was lying at anchor in this muddy, out-of-the-way creek, a red explosives flag fluttering at its mast, being loaded with what the ex-soldier identified as ancient anti- tank mines. The scene was one that in every detail must have reminded our old rust-bucket of her youth.

More to the point, we worked out that this must be a bit of quiet loading for what we knew to be the controversial last dumping at sea of ammunition, about which there had recently been a stink although no change of the Government's intention to proceed.

Any halfway decent right-on would have got on the phone pronto and let Greenpeace's inflatable protesters know: they could have stormed this little scene, and television would have loved the drama and the Government's further embarrassment.

The really Brittanish pickle came a couple of days later. I was longing to write about the trip in my last column, but I thought a little delay might be wise in case some Greenpeacer's eye should stray here and the ship still be a- loading. I am no fan of environmental sloppiness (although sea dumping has not always been the worst option by a long chalk), but I dislike Greenpeace almost as much. Nothing would have stopped the dumping. Still, I am not sure I was right, although Greenpeace is so deliberately wrong- headed that it is no fault in me to distrust the organisation profoundly.

Back on the tub (whose progress the skipper likens to a double-decker bus powered by a lawnmower engine), we fell to discussing what damage water-logged explosives will do on the bottom. It was unresolved but scarcely irrelevant. The next morning, on the bosom of a sea so grey and calm and under skies so shimmeringly misty that our almost silent progress was like drifting in the midst of an oil painting, we passed close to the half-submerged wreck of an American Liberty ship, made in a hurry and in batches - as was our own ship - to see off the Hun.

It was full of explosives when it sank during the war, and it is full of them now. One gives it a wide- ish berth and wonders what the fish thereabouts taste of.

I shall remember best the late evening when we used the wooden derrick to lower an ancient leaky sailing boat into the fast-flowing tide, and I put on the kind of life- jacket Kenny More used when the Brits knew how to make proper films, and tautened the yellowed cotton sail against the evening breeze. There was nothing but the slap of salt on clinker, the sunset, the mud, the cry (always called mournful, because that is what it is) of wetland birds. There was the noble old steamship, standing high in the water, her working days done, but still game for an outing.

For all that stoking her fires was enormously good fun, and gave one a glorious excuse to get as grubby as anyone could want, it was the unexpected sailing that somehow got to me more. I do not know whether my head was fuller of images from Swallows and Amazons or from The Snow Goose. I am plagued by the question: would Arthur Ransome or Paul Gallico have sneaked on the MoD? Would Uncle Sam?