Monday, 29 November 2010

Lies, damned lies and grasshoppers

At school we had a CCF, Combined Cadet Force, a throwback to pre-First World War militarism. On Thursday afternoons everyone had to change into military uniform and play at soldiers. There was an army section and a much smaller RAF section. Both were officered by teachers who were so inclined, while lads who enjoyed that kind of thing provided the NCOs to bawl commands and stamp booted feet and find fault with gaiters imperfectly clarted with a sort of khaki mud called blanco.

The RAF section was looked after, incongruously, by an ex-Royal Navy sub-lieutenant, Mr Blee. Outside of Thursday afternoons, Mr Blee taught music. He and I got on well. After a year in the army section learning basic square-bashing drill I asked to be transferred to the RAF section. I was marched into the presence of the CO, Major Hawke, who taught maths when not in uniform. The following interview* took place, as near as I can remember it:

Cpl Harmer (whom I sat next to in Latin and sometimes allowed to copy my work): Detail, halt. Salute the officer.

Major Hawke:
At ease, soldier. What do you want, what's-your-name, Willie Wormy?

I'd like to join the RAF Section, Sir.

Major Hawke:
Oh yes? Nancy boy, are you?

Me (not really knowing at fourteen what a nancy boy was, but having my suspicions):
I don't think so, Sir. But my uncle was a distinguished RAF officer. And I'm interested, Sir.

Sub-Lieutenant Blee:
What better reason?

Major Hawke:
Take him away, Lieutenant Blee. We want men in the army, not your bloody pint-sized musicians. Request granted. Dismiss.

Cpl Harmer:
Detail, 'shun. Salute the officer. About turn. Quick march, left, right, left, right.

Parents paid good money for this sort of education. Well, some did: I won a scholarship to this place, with funds provided by a cathedral foundation, so I suppose it came free.

In the RAF section some sort of introduction to flying was provided by the Grasshopper. The Grasshopper was a skeletal glider, only to be used on windless days. The unfortunate chosen to 'pilot' it strapped himself on to a plank just forward of the wings. Each foot rested on a pedal, hands clasped a joystick. Clamps prevented all movement of the controls except one, a trigger to release the anchor that held the glider in its corner of the playing field.

Once the pilot was installed an immense bungee rope was attached in a V to a hook somewhere about the nose, like a catapult, or those rubber bands we used to flick pellets with. Two groups of cadets, like tug-of-war teams, spread outwards from the glider, took up the bungee, taking care to stand behind it, and on the order marched forward. When the sweating grunts had marched far enough and had created enough tension, the pilot was ordered to release the anchor and the grunts to drop the bungee.

At this point the Grasshopper lurched forward a few yards, sliding on its runner like a grass ski, and came to a halt. Other non-bungee erks were instructed to run alongside the wing-tips and to hold them up when the apparatus slid to a halt, to prevent damage to the mountings when it tilted over.

I resent the implication of the photo above. It is clearly false. Never to my knowledge did the Grasshopper ever leave the ground.

On one glorious occasion - I wasn't present, unfortunately - the officer commanding failed to instruct the heaving erks to take station behind the bungee rather than in front.

I was never in much sympathy with the CCF. I fiercely resisted promotion out of the ranks to lance-corporal, let alone corporal or sergeant. So did the authorities.

* I've lifted this dialogue from an earlier blog incarnation.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Midnight. One more night without sleepin'...

... actually it's 2.33am. I wake up, restless and wide awake. Blast. That's the third night in a row. When my back was really bad a couple of months ago, they prescribed something tetrapazam-based called Myolastan, a muscle relaxant. For weeks on end I took it last thing at night and slept perfectly and without pain. There were some declared side effects that I won't trouble a lady or gentleman like you with. Also it might become addictive, the notes in the pack said. The notes didn't say anything about total suppression of the creative imagination. Not good. Now that things are improving, three nights ago I felt it was time to wean myself off it. Easier said than done.

I get up, go downstairs and make a cup of tea, take a couple of chunks of F & N and turn the television on, but without the sound. One does not wish to cause household disturbance at quarter to three in the morning. Our TV package has hundreds of Europe-wide channels. Our regular channels have closed down for the night, but there's still a vast choice for the nighthawk and the sleepless. I try channel 30 at random.

Channel 30 has bought in some Venezuelan all-in wrestling. Various muscle-bound muchachos, some hideously made up and costumed, descend a flight of stairs to the ring amid strobe lights and swirls of coloured smoke, accompanied by adoring hip-swaying chicas in spangled bikinis. There are no rules. The wrestlers just throw each other about the ring as they feel like it. Presently a blonde bloke appears, classically beautiful, could have modelled for Michaelangelo, with a slight hint of camp about him. He has 'Marco' in sparkly letters across the front of his codpiece-tight shorts and 'Ocram' across his bume. A wit, evidently. The muchachos set on him. No swaying chicas accompany his stretcher back up the stairs. The crowd waves and stamps, delirious, ecstatic with pleasure.

I move on. Maybe a film will fill the wakeful hours? Our package groups films between channels 100 and 112. On 100 there's a film about Eric Tabarly, the epic French solo yachtsman. It's mostly black and white and depends on sound, so I move on.

On 101 a terrified girl with a torn dress is being threatened by grinning demons. On 102 some poor woman is being viciously attacked by some bloke in the toils of anguish. (I should recognise this film, but I don't.) On 103 a young couple are having a violent argument in a hotel bedroom. When a knife appears I move on to 104, where a gang of unlovely youths is arguing about a girl, pulling her this way and that. On 105 a not very beautiful woman is being raped. I go back to Eric Tabarly, who has just lost his mast. Is this a sly metaphor for our condition?

It occurs to me that 102 is in fact The Piano Teacher, a very fine film - tho' very Austrian - starring Isabelle Huppert and featuring some sublime pathos-ridden Schubert*. I return to it, but it's the sacrificial end, Mlle Huppert has just stabbed herself and is wandering away into the Viennese night to bleed to death.

I give up and go back to bed with much to think about. There's a thesis claiming that any cultural product, film, play, painting, novel, whatever, can only exist to fulfil or reflect a sometimes subconscious social need. What kind of people are we?

Maybe tonight I'll sleep better. I deserve to.

*Piano trio in E flat, Op. 100. Here's the slow movement. (If all three players don't appear, click on the image. The original You Tube excerpt should come up. Thank you, Vicus, for pointing this out.)

Friday, 12 November 2010

England, my England

Scene: Small Essex retirement home, a comfortable, friendly and well-run place where the staff are such saintly stars that I wouldn't mind putting my name down in due course. My son Nibus and I are visiting.

In the main day room there's a new resident, an elderly man with a gift for Herculean coughings, hawkings and phlegmings. Two or three places down an elderly lady, the only resident with a mild dementia, occasionally utters wild fortissimo shrieks and moans. It's one of the periods of the day when the television is on. (The residents' committee, partly guided by our visitee, has banned continual television.)

Mr Hawker is at full throttle. Mona is in mid-season form. So far their utterances have been separate. Suddenly for an instant they coincide, a simultaneous massive viscous rumbling and eerie banshee howl, a sort of transcendental geriatric coition. At that moment there's a burst of enthusiastic and prolonged cheering and applause from the television. Nibus and I daren't look each other in the eye...

...we eat that night in a little restaurant specialising in Tex-Mex cuisine. We've been there before, just often enough to know the staff, mostly stunning Essex blondes of which S. the chef/proprietor seems to have an unending supply, by their first names. I've nearly finished my fajita and Nibus his Big Beef Bummer when S. comes and sits next to us.

For no clear reason he tells us about the time when during a deep-sea dive he had been seriously alarmed by a presence his limited field of vision and the semi-opacity of the water prevented him from identifying exactly. The presence followed him continually, keeping just out of sight. At last he caught a glimpse of a single eye, staring balefully, as though it was trying to give him the evil eye. (I wonder. A distant memory comes to me, something legendary about looking into the eye of a whale and seeing certain visions of a higher truth.) At length the fish revealed itself. It was a cod, a big bugger, the chef/proprietor says. Nibus and I have more eye-to-eye trouble. S. punctuates his sentences with 'yeh', like David Brent in The Office.

Why is he telling us this? A possible answer is that he's deliberately engaging customers in conversation in order to escape some menial washing-up task that he's left to his wife in the kitchen.

We order dessert. Nibus chooses a Lemon Lush, a gooey confection consisting of a viscous glob of lemon curd nestling in vanilla ice-cream, surrounded by whipped cream. I ask, as always when I go out, for strawberry ice-cream. When it arrives I see it has been expressly, and suggestively, sculpted to resemble - well, there's a Russian cigarette set at an angle of about 60ยบ between two pink globes. The waitress excuses herself: it's nothing to do with her, she says, she's a pure girl, unspoiled and untainted. So it's come like that from the kitchen. By what right...

...oh, never mind. We don't get to England very often. We should relish these authentic glimpses of the Old Country more.