You Are Go For Orbit


Up from The Cape: 16 March 2019

If rehearsing is an effective way of preparing for an actual event, what does it mean when someone has recurring dreams – especially about falling? That’s really a confusing question because most people don’t often rehearse falling – at least not consciously (unless they’re joining a circus as a clown). There aren’t many people who can rub their hands together and decide just before bed “Right! Tonight I’m going to dream about falling so I can experience fear and panic, and also become good at it.” By the way, if fear and panic rings your bell, I’ve got just the thing for you. My shaving mirror may not be inherently dangerous, but what I see in it every day increasingly frightens me.

In the early 1970s some of the astronauts on Skylab (the first American low Earth orbit space station) found they awoke in a panic occasionally due to the ever-present sensation of falling. If you’re in space, unless you’re experiencing acceleration or deceleration, it feels literally like you’re falling – all of the time. That’s because you are. The conscious mind can adjust to this, but it takes the unconscious mind longer to adapt. In orbit you’re falling with forward momentum of 17,500 mph without air resistance. Because of that momentum you travel so far so fast that the surface of the Earth always curves down away from you as you continue to fall forward. That for practical purposes, is an orbit.

The sense of physical threat associated with falling and falling and falling triggers an occasional panic reaction in some people when they’re asleep. It’s something I’ve also been through, but in my case only on trains when they jolt unexpectedly – most often if I’ve slept on past my stop. When that happens my confused and abrupt awakening has a cattle-prod aspect to it, and probably models the Skylab experience in its essential details, though obviously without me being in low Earth orbit. That’s too far outside of the travelcard zones I’ve got a ticket for.

I also used to encounter the cattle-prod effect in the days when I worked in a corporate environment. It happened most commonly if I had to attend post-lunch meetings. Recollection of these post-lunch meetings was of distant droning voices interrupted by my irregular blackouts. It was an experience punctuated by helpful digs in the ribs from the person sitting next to me as my head listed over in slack-jawed slow motion, or I sagged forwards gradually like someone who’d just been shot by a sniper with a silencer. I’d have been useless on a committee in those days, unless it was for the obvious utility of the gavel-like thud of my forehead hitting the table periodically.

It’s easy to understand why a constant sensation of falling while in orbit triggers a panic “wake-up” call. That’s evolutionary self-preservation at work, probably drawn from our origins as tree-dwelling fruit eaters. Coincidentally I knew a couple of boys like that at school, though one of them preferred a window-ledge to trees. It’s harder to explain why it happens in bed on Earth, because it does to some people. Technically, the Earth is also falling, so in that respect, subconsciously, it may feel like being in a very big lift that’s just had it’s cables cut. If that is the reason, or it’s that our galaxy is falling off into space as well, with its cables cut, there’s not going to be an easy solution. Tablets probably won’t help either. There’s something much more fundamental at work here than car-sickness. Everything’s always moving. Being stationery is an illusion. Just because that’s hard to believe doesn’t mean it won’t seem real when you’re trying to sleep. Sometimes the numbers on my electricity bill look like total fantasy, but that doesn’t put off the energy company; it still demands the money promptly as if the bill were real.

When the sensation of falling is purely a metaphoric one instead of a real one, it’s a new sort of problem to grapple with. Again there’s an incident this touches on that reminds me of my dreary corporate days. Looking back I can see now that my attention span was inadequate to make a go of the corporate world. Predictably, it came to a head when I sent out an email to a group of ten people in which I’d made reference to how having to work on some dull minutes of a lengthy meeting had chloroformed my brain. A moment’s inattentiveness, as they say, can lead to a lifetime of regret. Laziness, disinterest, or sentient fingers with a sense of mischief led me to substitute the word “brian” for “brain”.

For days afterwards colleagues revelled in my evident embarrassment – asking me repeatedly if my brian had woken up yet after being chloroformed. Usually I knew when to expect this. Whenever I saw a cluster of grinning colleagues huddled together at the other end of a corridor, and glancing my way, I braced for the inevitable. My colleagues always looked like cheerful hyenas who’d just stumbled on some road-kill. They were filled with evident glee in anticipation of a feast at my expense. I often smiled back, but it was a hollow mechanical smile, bare of genuine warmth. It was only window dressing for my growing sense of malevolence towards them, and dark thoughts of revenge. I could never hear the silly chatter of their voices; all I heard was the distant thumping of war drums.

During this episode, mine was the sort of expression you don’t want to see on anyone’s face – especially if they’re armed, which fortunately I was not. If you see a face like that, you should leave immediately. For anyone still waiting for the lift to arrive as they jab at the button like a woodpecker, looking back over their shoulder as the lengthening shadow of their predator draws closer, they’ll probably be thinking about the stairs. By then of course it’s too late. This is a story that never ends well unless the lift arrives in time to avert a tragedy.

Attack of the Intelligent Mud


Up from The Cape: 4 March 2019

Anyone who can’t remember a time before Facebook existed will probably benefit from skipping this piece. It’s filled with references to a period of human history called the 1950s and 60s. For the social media generation that will be about as relevant and meaningful as The Roman Empire.

I’m usually disdainful of hoarders, but I wonder if I really should be more tolerant. I’ve been going through my DVD recordings and discovered an early pre-Dracula Hammer film I’d hoarded called “X – The Unknown.” It’s  a pretty commonplace monochrome 1950s story about living intelligent mud that erupts from a fissure in a quarry. Being an apex predator it consumes anyone it discovers not paying attention while it forages to satisfy its own bloated self-serving appetite – somewhat reminiscent of the way mainstream media conducts itself these days. It feeds on radioactive material, and any cheap screaming actors who get in the way.

This is not what I’d describe as a trip down memory lane for me. It’s a story off on one of those barren tracks that end at a rusting abandoned car and tangled undergrowth. What follows are some of the more memorable sights along the way. It’s not in any sense a review, though I do offer a blizzard of personal opinions throughout, for whatever they’re worth. Think of it as “a day out in the 1950s” with a few pictures for illustration.

Below a very young Marty Hopkirk (Kenneth Cope from “Randall & Hopkirk [Deceased]”) is saying “Please Sir – I haven’t had a turn yet”. He means a turn on the Geiger counter rather than having a fit. Note also that as this was a Hammer film, there’s the inevitable presence of Michael Ripper, still at this stage evolving into the ” Coachman” or “Innkeeper” roles he nailed down later. He’s looking doubtful about the whole thing. You can imagine him thinking to himself “I’m in the wrong bleedin’ century I am – where’s me coach an’ ‘orses?”

Mr Grimsdale from Norman Wisdom films turned up as (of all things) the head of an Atomic Research Establishment – on this occasion without Norman Wisdom to look after the atomic pile. Perhaps on balance that was for the best.

An improbably youthful Frazer Hines found time from his school day to appear for a short while. He only seemed capable of repeating “ah cannie….ah cannie” when asked what he and his friend had been up to the previous night (how many public figures have been asked that to their shame?). This is the face he had on him when an adult said “But that was when Willie was fit and healthy wasn’t it?” His answer in 1950s British film industry Scots was “We went ooooot to the toooowerrrr in the marrrrshes.” Pray that isn’t a euphemism.

Below, Mr Grimsdale tried to entertain the actor Leo McKern by standing in front of him like an enormous surreal chess-piece that thinks it’s just won the game. McKern for his part was probably dreaming of better material (and actors) to work with. The distant look on his face is a bit of a clue.

After a sterile closed-mouth kiss, this Lothario (below) said what anyone with a nurse in his arms and a stirring somewhere else would say: “Darling…..why didn’t we start doing this earlier?” Did men really say “darling” when they were squeezing a nurse in the 1950s? I can’t remember. I was too young.

Mr Lothario came to a nasty end after the appearance of Private Fraser’s “slithery thing” from “Dad’s Army.”

The nurse didn’t look too happy either. Because it’s a tight camera shot she has to scream with her hands clawing up against her face (I bet women can confirm there have been wedding nights like this). The image I’m referencing is at the top of this piece.

Anthony Newley put in a passing appearance as a gore-blimey guv’nor squaddie with an edgy central casting Scots squaddie friend. Predictably his Scots friend was called “Haggis” (or ‘Aggis” as Newly truncated it affectionately). The image below reveals the moment when Newley fell prey to “shouting the same word repeatedly” disease. He kept bellowing “‘Aggis………..’Aggis………..’Aggis” into the darkness of a muddy field. I suppose that’s what bored soldiers had to do for entertainment before games on smartphones.

The film also had a stern public address system announcer at the Atomic Research Establishment, though she was only in spirit form (i.e. audio only). She sounded like the Queen would have if she’d been made to go out to work in the 1950s, and didn’t care if her subjects knew what she thought about it; rather cross.

The token American actor employed to improve the film’s chances of US distribution was Dean Jagger. He suffered from the common problem men on the phone had in 1950s films. He kept going deaf for the first part of a phone call, which compelled him to say “Where?” after being given a location. In this case saying “where?” coincided with him looking up when he’d been told that four people had just “been melted in a car”. Evidently he expected to find their remains on the ceiling. Not seeing them there he fumbled about and asked someone for a pencil, so he could write down the location of where the four people had been melted by the slithery thing. Surprisingly, to make a note of the location he seemed to do nothing but draw a single cross on the paper, like an illiterate yokel practising his signature. Then he asked Mr Grimsdale if he had a map. I couldn’t understand why. All he had for a location was the mark he’d made on an otherwise blank piece of paper. A map wasn’t going to help there.

Below – Police spot the slithery thing:

Eventually the principal cast subdued the slithery thing by using a standard portable radar-dish gizmo to which most 1950s monsters were susceptible. Unexpectedly, it was followed by an explosion that appeared to take the actors by surprise. They all stared towards smoke hanging over the set. Mr Grimsdale broke the silence and said “What was that?” – sounding genuinely puzzled. Dean Jagger looked equally confused and said in what sounded like an unscripted moment “I don’t know……but it shouldn’t have happened.” Leo McKern was speechless for a moment in a “thank God it’s almost over” sort of way. As the credits rolled, so was I.

Over sixty years ago, this would have been an evening out for some people, and a very quiet bus ride home afterwards. That journey home would have been spent in contemplation of whether it was time to think seriously now about committing to a newfangled thing called a television set. Ironically of course, that’s exactly where I saw X – The Unknown, decades after it may have driven some from the cinema into television’s treacherous embrace.