Uneasy Lies The Head That Wears The Crown

Logged: 16 October 2019

Dreams are pitiless exercises in unreason. I keep a short list of my worst and compare notes with someone about them just to give me a benchmark of how lunatic they can be. For over a year my reigning crackpot dream was a freakish tableau where I was detonating small amounts of explosive charges in a cupboard in an hotel room. Someone else in the room was watching, and I became anxious when one of the charges blew a small hole through the wall into whatever lay beyond (and who knows what lies beyond in a dream?). The most relevant question I could think of at the time was “How am I going to cover that up?” Perhaps a more rational question would have been “is there a good reason you shouldn’t stop doing it before you blow a hole in the wall, or yourself?” Reason of course has no place in dreams, any more than it has in politics or mainstream media today.

More recently a legitimate challenger emerged that took the crown from my dreamland incumbent. I won’t dwell on the swirl of details leading up to the key part of my new dream. Those are just the foothills. Instead I’ll concentrate on the key part itself because, like mount Everest seen from a distance, it has a certain majesty and grandeur. All dreams are fundamentally crackers. A dream’s insanity is directly proportional to how much effort is made to understand it. The harder anyone attempts to reason it out, the madder it gets.

In touching upon my most recent dream, I have to take a deep breath and dive back into the jumbled landscape of a mishmash building that somehow I recognised, but at the same time was not strictly anywhere I knew. I found myself in a large office building filled with items of office furniture that were familiar, but inside a structure that was a vast atrium as wide as 4 large sports fields shunted together. I and some others were making our way to a meeting there. The roof must have been over 300 feet from the floor. It was like the Vehicle Assembly Building at Cape Canveral.

Along the way as we weaved between desks and cabinets, we passed a number of meeting “guidance” LCD screens. These were blank until looked at. A second or so after being looked at, they appeared to tap into the thoughts of whoever was going to a meeting, and indicated with an arrow in which direction to proceed. I recall thinking “that’s clever, but if it ever goes wrong and starts showing what’s actually on our minds at any given time, there’s going to be trouble.” Anyone who has worked in a corporate environment will understand what a weapon of career destruction inadvertent truth can be, especially in relation to the management, or the HR department. In some companies that’s just the left and right forks of the same tongue. If thoughts like that are released unguarded into the wild, someone will be clearing their desk under the stern watchful eye of security the same day.

Our destination was a long rectangular glass topped table, surrounded by tubular chrome metal chairs. There was seating for about eight. As we took our places I saw there would be a seat vacant at the far end of the table. Abruptly a short portly figure dressed in a well made light grey pinstripe suit came huffing and puffing up hurriedly, evidently a bit late for the meeting. Instead of taking the vacant seat, unaccountably he sat cross legged on the carpet at my end of the table in silence. I recall thinking a little petulantly “I’m not going to keep leaning over to hand down stuff to you there when it’s being circulated.”

Now I’m awake and my reason has un-docked from the fog of insanity that dreams are, I can say with absolute objectivity I didn’t find it extraordinary that this late arrival sat on the floor with his eyes below table top level. I just thought it was stupid. I rationalised it didn’t matter, however. He’d be able to see up through the glass top of the table for any PowerPoint presentations. I didn’t find it extraordinary that nobody paid any attention to him. Curiously, I didn’t even find the most extraordinary feature of the dream at all extraordinary. This late arrival in a grey pin stripe suit had the head of an elephant, complete with big flappy ears, an articulated trunk, tusks, and tree-trunk sized arms and legs that ended in flat elephant stumps. The single thing I did find extraordinary, bordering on actually outrageous, was that the elephant didn’t take the vacant seat at the other end of the table.

The implication here is I was absolutely fine with an elephant arriving late to a meeting in an office, dressed in a pinstripe suit, and sitting cross-legged (with some difficulty due to the very stout legs) on the carpet at my end of the table. But when it came to an elephant arriving late to a meeting in an office, dressed in a pinstripe suit, and sitting cross-legged on the carpet at my end of the table when there was a vacant seat available, that crossed a line. Judgmentally I thought Oh…that’s a bit weird.”

I remember looking at the elephant as it sat in silence with its trunk held just above the rim of the table, and thinking “There’s a seat you can use at the other end. What do you think it’s there for? Keep up.” It’s a perfect illustration of how logic in a dream is a chain that’s only as strong as its weakest link. Mine had snapped at the first gentle tug, and was left dangling and clanking in the breeze of irrationality. It led to a coronation, with the old champion of madness leaving the throne to a new champion. The crown had been passed.

Birdman or Birdbrain?

Logged: 03 October 2019

It’s common knowledge among pilots that air traffic controllers as a species have a belief, born it has to be said of some justification, that inexperienced pilots can be more hazardous in the vicinity of airports than a flock of birds. Some would say they’re more hazardous than terrorists. When events overwhelm them they have an inclination to panic and land on the nearest flat open stretch of ground, regardless of where it is.

There’s no hard data about the number of pilots who have turned onto final approach for a car park, but the figure is probably embarrassing. Nobody knows what it is because pilots are a close-knit and suspicious group, like mutant villagers in a Hammer Film from the 1960s. They doodle self-consciously on table tops in an abstract way when asked about near-misses, and don’t talk to strangers. In their defence, and unlike Hammer film villagers, they don’t chase anyone across the moors armed with pickaxes and baying hunting dogs; not often anyway, unless it’s in pursuit of someone from the Civil Aviation Authority. If it is, anything goes.

Alert controllers are usually all that stands between a child-like voice saying “Xray Echo – turning finals” and a brisk afternoon’s business for the emergency services. Experience has trained them to intervene quickly enough to prevent a tragic conclusion to short finals for a car park or the bus lane. Unfortunately, there may have been instances where a controller’s loss of patience has been elevated by a sense of mischief. It can lead controllers to remain silent, while a tense fool attempts to land just ahead of a dawdling bus. With an air of resignation that “this is for the best” the controller just lets nature take its course. It means one fewer class three medical certificate to be re-issued later, but that’s the way it goes sometimes. It’s the harshness of Darwin applied to aviation; survival of the fittest.

In case anyone’s wondering, a class three medical certificate is something all pilots have to seek prior to going aloft. These have to be issued by Civil Aviation Authority approved doctors following a physical examination. Re-issue is mandatory because the certificate expires every two years. Cynics might say this is because two years is the maximum life expectancy of a stupid pilot, so their certificates don’t need to be valid for any longer. Aviation isn’t inherently dangerous, but it is inherently very unforgiving.

Student pilots who weather the initial storms of sensory overload when first introduced into a real cockpit, then go on to being hosed with venom by flying instructors, apparently just for the effrontery of occupying physical space in the aircraft. From there eventually they graduate to a phase known as learning. These lessons comprise the bricks of knowledge that will build the platform from which a pilot’s license is issued. Just as bricks require mortar, learning for pilots requires contempt from instructors. It’s the cement that holds all of the lessons in a fixed position. Without it, students would be all over the place, like dogs going through puddles. The underlying message is don’t make excuses, and pay attention.

Within the context of a very unforgiving environment, it makes sense for instructors to be harsh. It’s rare to get a second chance at 2000 feet when you’re on your own. You can’t pull over to the side of the sky and think something through, or wait for somebody to come and rescue you. Whatever it is you have to deal with, you have to deal with it now. Don’t expect fairness or coddling. Being savaged on a regular and routine basis is sound preparation for the harshness of circumstance in relation to random weather, or aircraft component failure. What it teaches above all else is the necessity of dealing with the situation immediately, and not wasting any time in a thumb-sucking fantasy that “it’ll probably all be alright if I just carry on”. If aviation has its foundations in anything, it’s in an absolute reverence for the truth.

The seed that grows into flying is often something planted subtly in childhood. I know mine was. For most children who go on to become pilots when they get older, it starts innocently enough. Swooping about with aircraft models, or with arms extended while making an approximation of jet or propeller engine sounds, is the first worrying symptom (though it’s a lot more worrying if someone’s doing this as an adult). Most small boys used to go through a phase where they made instinctive use of condensing breath during cold weather in a naive quest to pass as a steam engine. They grow out of it quickly enough. Even if they don’t, nature intervenes and robs a child of it’s steam as soon as winter gives way to the milder weather of spring. Aeroplanes, however, are a year-round madness. They don’t only manifest when it’s cold. Wherever there’s air, a child can make aeroplane noises. If there isn’t any air, well, you’ve got much more serious problems, so your priorities really need looking at if noises are all you’re concerned about.

First flying lessons are an odd compendium of thrills and utter humiliation. Light aircraft are exceptionally lively in the air. They twitch unexpectedly at the slightest gust, and produce corresponding twitches from novices. Pilots try vainly to stop the nose from going up or down, the wings from rolling one way or the other, and the nose from yawing to port or starboard all at the same time, plus monitoring heading, airspeed, altitude, engine rpm, temperatures and pressures, and (during the early stages of training at least) position in the circuit. This leads inevitably to a condition in novice pilots known technically as brain lock. It’s a phenomenon that occurs along with a droning sound that should not be confused with the engine. The droning is the voice of a weary instructor reminding a pilot of everything they’re not doing that they should be doing. The list is generally a longish one.

Typical student pilots emerge from their first lesson haggard and humiliated, though the hardier among them can manage a weak smile. Aviation is in their blood if at that juncture they buy a log book and resolve to do it again, and again, and again, and again, all at enormous expense to their finances and dignity. If ever anyone asks for a textbook definition of madness, direct them towards the nearest flying school.

The Missing Link

Logged: 01 October 2019

Back in the strike-riddled days of the early 1970s when the love generation had become considerably less loving in the light of experience, and fashion had slipped through a temporal rift into a parallel universe inhabited entirely by Afghan Hounds, the attitude television had towards animals was generally ambivalent. Animals on television were treated a lot like jobbing actors on television, which is to say as a commodity to be used without any thought to their feelings or dignity.

The 1960s Australian TV show “Skippy” featured a Kangaroo in the lead role. The production crew admitted later that Skippy’s dressing room was a sack. They knew the best way to keep the animal quiet between takes was to put it in total darkness. Effectively Skippy just shut down like a solar-powered mechanism when deprived of light. I haven’t seen any reports of the same approach being taken with actors, though it might be worth checking with the Australian networks to see if their archives reveal anything useful. The odd theatre company might be interested.

Today, while television’s attitude towards animals has transformed from ambivalent to reverent, it’s attitude towards most actors has remained anchored in contempt. For the sake of actors I hope there’s nothing significant in that. It can be a cruel and humiliating profession. Life might go easier if they would just shut up whenever someone put a sack over them. In fairness that doesn’t just apply to actors, though obviously they tend to be at the forefront because they have so much to say for themselves so often. Kidnap victims are a lonely exception to this rule. Put a sack over one of them and they’ll never give it a rest.

One of the most arresting examples of animals being treated almost as badly as actors occurred in 1971. It was in a series that strained the boundaries of good taste and just about everything else. The show was called “Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp.” Lancelot Link was the logical outcome of two basic needs; the need for cheap labour on television and the need to raise a laugh. Chimps stepped into this gap. Chimps have great comic timing. It’s common to hear people saying of Chimp “antics” videos “they’re so funny.” Nobody says that about cheap actors, though it’s also rare to get videos of them anywhere with more than about a dozen hits. Most of the cheap actor videos are on memory sticks that have been sent in unsolicited hope or desperation to profoundly grasping second rate agents.

Because of their innate sense of fun, monkeys in general and Chimps in particular, were pressed into service for commercials. Advertising execs loved chimps because they were inherently comic. Well executed comedy shifts products off the supermarket shelves quickly. Lancelot Link took this process to its logical conclusion by targeting the summit. Instead of replacing one or two of the actors in a TV show with animals, it replaced all of them. It’s hard to judge whether or not anyone noticed this subtle bloodless coup. I’m not sure I did. The standard of acting on British television in 1971 was at best variable. There were times when the chimps were measurably better. Overall they were a lot funnier.

Lancelot Link was as far out on the ragged-edge as it was possible to go in the early 1970s without hallucinating. Its roots (other than those set in the fertile soil of alcohol abuse) lay in Bond films of the 1960s, and a runaway successful spoof TV spy series called “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” While films and TV during the spy craze drew their casts from conventional sources, Lancelot Link sidestepped the problem of competing for talent by drawing its cast from zoos or the central casting equivalent. There’s an element of genius to this. The acting from a chimp was never going to be nuanced or predictable, but the same (or worse) could be said of a lot of the jobbing actors of the 1960s and 70s as they bellowed their lungs out while making random expressions that were completely out of synch with what they were saying.

If cheap actors could remember a line and keep their eyes open, the general consensus of harried production crews was “that’ll do.” Affordability and sticking to the schedule was what mattered to executives in those days. Talent was something a show could do without. It’s a belief still with us today on some channels. It’s even become commonplace in Public Services. The film industry was not not immune either. Italian co-production horror films of the 1970s and 80s usually had a roomy bucket dipped deep into that ample well, as each squealing turn of the winding mechanism was testimony to.

Lancelot Link ran for only 13 episodes. Its short run was predictable. There must be massive overheads inherent in getting monkeys to behave like actors instead of getting actors to behave like monkeys. Strangely it’s a rule that doesn’t apply to a lot of large bureaucracies. There the monkey/actor ratio favours monkeys heavily, though actors still have a few roles to play. Life in large bureaucracies now is a lot like being on the Planet of the Apes.

Of course it’s in the nature of all things to change. Today with the drive towards much higher standards on the television channels where such things matter, actors have stopped behaving like monkeys. It doesn’t matter. As it clattered to the ground, the monkey baton was picked up nimbly by today’s political class. They’ve shown little inclination to drop it, or even slacken their entitled grip on the prize any time soon. If a politician makes you laugh, check to see how hairy the arms are. You might be surprised at who you’re about to vote for.