It’s been ten hours, and the Nazis still aren’t in power


Up from The Cape: 24 February 2019

I’ve been reading William Shirer’s “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”. It’s not a book that hides it’s subject behind a euphemistic title, so I won’t waste time explaining what it’s about. As Ronseal used to say about its products, it does what it says on the tin. What’s of immediate relevance is how the unfolding history of Nazi Germany has been a revelation to me.

The rise to power of the Nazis was neither inevitable, nor rapid. One evening I realised that I’d been reading the book on and off for about ten hours, and National Socialism still had yet to take power, though they had grown to become the largest single party in pre-war Germany. Along the way, their path was littered with the usual petty squabbles and casualties of any party on the rise. Hitler almost became one of those casualties when, leading an attempted coup in about 1925, he was the first to run for his life when the Police opened fire on his mob and killed several of them. School history makes it all seem a lot quicker and simpler. I suppose you had to be there to make sense of it all and appreciate the timeline, if not enjoy the ride.

Of necessity, history has to be compressed and simplified for school in a way that always leaves tremendous gaps. Along the way some significant nuanced detail gets lost. What we’re left with is a Twitter version of history – something one-dimensional that’s been reduced to a bare shouty minimum for the space and time available. It isn’t always helpful, because sometimes it can lead the unwary astray. I had a classmate when I was in my mid-teens who was a bit of a Third Reich fan. I can’t judge why he was a fan. That secret will probably have to remain with him. Perhaps like me he was an only child (though that never did me any harm I like to say in a shrill attention-seeking voice). It may be that sometimes there are aspects of history that appear glamorous over half a century on from the events. What I can say is, like the Nazi invasion of Poland that kicked off the second world war, my classmate’s interest in all things Third Reich had some unfortunate consequences for him too.

The universal consensus when I was at school was that Nazis were bad. All of the war films said so, along with boys’ war comics. Nazis said things like “ach!” or “himmel!” whenever they were jumped by a Spitfire, or a ruthless British Commando. They weren’t much good for anything beyond that unless it was delusional gloating over a tied-up hostage just before the hostage escaped. Against that background, I can’t begin to fathom why my classmate was so dazzled by the Third Reich, but it’s undeniable that he was.

One of the most reportable instances of Third Reich fandom getting a touch out of hand with my classmate, was an occasion when he took the Hitler Youth movement to heart and adopted it at school. When I was much younger, I’d worn a diagonal sash that looked like part of the Thunderbirds International Rescue uniform (or so I thought). I even wore it at school once. I think it’s excusable because I was about seven at the time, and besides International Rescue didn’t start world war two. What I never did, was try to make myself look like der Fuhrer. My classmate did.

For deeply unconscious reasons my classmate himself probably isn’t aware of even today (if he’s still with us), he “came out” as Hitler Youth briefly in a way that was impossible for anyone to ignore. It started when he snipped off a short length of black insulating tape in a physics lesson. It was about an inch wide. Then, looking perversely excited, as if he were a normal boy about to have his first grope behind the bicycle sheds, he coyly pressed the tape to the space directly below his nose to make it appear like a crude Hitleresque moustache. He then combed his hair over in a Hitleresque way. After a brief furtive glance from side to side to make sure he was being watched, he gave a classic Nazi salute. If he’d done it today the school would likely have been closed and the children compelled to undergo counselling. As it was, we were a hardier breed then. We just hooted and threw things at him.

Like most boys with a disposition in favour of fascism while living in a more liberal culture (if teenage boys can ever be said properly to have a liberal culture), things didn’t always go well for my classmate. An excessive interest in the Third Reich was something that inevitably bled through into other annoying behaviours. Thankfully it never included occupying France or organising mass rallies where he shouted a lot. I can’t say if that was an omnipresent feature of his dreams. If it was, we didn’t know about it. He was, however, inclined to heave about a large brief case filled with academic works about the Nazis. Partly because of this he walked a very fine line between being tolerated and punched. Predictably on occasion he would stray too far to the wrong side of the line, and then bear the immediate consequences.

On one memorable occasion after being especially pompous about something, he was stuffed into a stationery cupboard and locked inside – his muffled resentment giving joy to all as he complained bitterly about the cramped conditions and total darkness. On another, his bag was taken from his desperate clasping arms and emptied out of a second floor window. As his treasured academic Nazi works fluttered down onto the grass below, he actually turned crimson and went berserk, unfortunately to an appreciative cheering audience of baiting callous teenagers.

Later, thinking to get his revenge on the boys who had humiliated him, he presented himself at attention to one of the teaching staff and explained, with some sidelong gestures, that all his books had been emptied out of the window. He was asked if they’d been school books. In a “loyal party member who’s been wronged” sort of way he said “No – they’re my personal property sir”. He looked pointedly in our direction as he did this, incorrectly sensing victory. To his evident shock he received a tremendous whack on the back of the head and was told “Well then you shouldn’t have brought them into school, you bloody stupid boy!” At that moment the face he had on him was probably similar to Hitler’s after the Battle of Britain; dazed, confused, and resentful. It’s an image in my malign imperfection that I still cherish to this day.

The Bubble Bath of Death


Up from The Cape: 22 February 2019

The writer and film director S G Collins said once that “The apparent omnipotence of special visual effects increases linearly with the date of your birth.” This was intended to counter all of the conspiracy theorists who, lacking any knowledge of photography, lighting, video, perspective, or logic, are content to depend on a magic “lost” quantum leap in video technology to have supposedly faked the Apollo lunar landings. The younger someone is, the more likely they are to believe that the standard of CGI available today is something we had, in one form or another, in 1969. It isn’t.

I’m old enough to remember how in the late 1960s for example, “Lost in Space” (and in fact all Irwin Allen TV shows) solved about half of its special effects problems by letting off real controlled explosions on the set. It wasn’t because CGI was so expensive or complicated; it was because it didn’t exist. Bill Mumy, an actor in Lost in Space, commented that the man at 20th Century Fox actually responsible for the real explosions, Stu Moody, liked to assure the actors who were about to experience his work in uncomfortably close proximity “Don’t worry…’ll be fine”. He always emphasised this by holding up two calming hands that were missing various bits of fingers.

Where actual explosions weren’t adequate or appropriate (i.e. if the effect needed to be present for more than a couple of seconds), a lot of special effects directors reached for the next best thing; bubble bath. If it wasn’t bubble bath, it was industrial foam, which for practical purposes looked pretty much the same as bubble bath on-camera, even if it wasn’t something you’d want to settle back into after a long hard day.

From a director’s standpoint the attractive thing about foam (or the bubble bath of death as I came to know it), is that it was like a magician’s cloth thrown over a table. It covered actors while they crawled away off the set. Then the foam could be blown away and reveal……nothing! To anyone with an I.Q. of 12, or the mental age of about four, it appeared that someone had just been dissolved, or had vanished. I’ve always been a realist, so while I understood this was a ridiculous piece of subterfuge even when I was a child, I let it go because I didn’t really care. Most of the stories in the TV I watched were even more unbelievable than the special effects, so there didn’t seem to be much point in worrying about the plausibility of it all excessively.

I had a direct and unexpected encounter with the bubble bath of death in my kitchen one day. For reasons now lost to me (normally a signpost to them having been idiotic), I’d substituted washing-up liquid for washing tabs in my washing machine. I know when I made the substitution I wasn’t at all worried about it. It’s an interesting reprise of Stu Moody’s “Don’t Worry……it’ll be fine.” In this case instead of missing bits of my fingers, I must have been missing bits of my brain. Washing-up liquid is extremely concentrated. A little of it goes a very long way. I’ve a vague recollection of squirting it about liberally all over the washing, adding even more squirts because in my state of ignorance and delusion, I genuinely believed that “it’ll be fine.” I don’t know how many epitaphs have included those words. It’s probably quite a high number.

About fifteen minutes after the fateful start of the washing cycle, I thought it had “gone a bit quiet” in relation to the noises I was accustomed to hearing when the machine was running. I could hear something, but it sounded as if it were coming from very much father away than usual. Unless the machine had developed a Triffid-like ability to uproot itself and go for a walk, something was wrong. Curious, and perhaps with a seed of apprehension beginning to grow within me, I thought it might be prudent to check.

Upon entering the kitchen I saw a solid mass of whiteness that looked as if it had the density of concrete filling the machine’s circular window. Worse, an evil looking wall of foam was advancing silently across the kitchen floor like a new ice-age. It edged towards me in short staccato jolts, fed by the belching heartbeat of more foam discharging from the detergent drawer as the drum chugged around in an eerie silence. Situations like this call for quick thinking, and this one was a no-brainer. I switched off power to the machine and stood in the foam up to my knees wondering where to start to resolve this.

Normally I can get an impressive head of foam from a bowl of water with a short squirt of washing up liquid in it. Looking at it objectively, there must have been about a fifth of a bottle soaked into the clothes in the machine. Water and twenty minutes worth of relentless mechanised agitation had created this entirely predictable disaster. As I stood like someone trapped in an ice-pack, the machine was off and completely silent. Now I could hear the fizzing sound of millions of tiny bubbles bursting very quietly. It sounded like something was dissolving the floor, and I almost wished it had been.

The foam had penetrated into the machine’s vitals to such an extent that when I switched it on again to see if I could do anything to start an emergency drain/spin cycle, it began shorting out the electronics. My only recourse was to unload the machine and leave it to fizz like a distant fuse overnight, with the door open in an effort to dry it out. The clothes didn’t fare any better. I left them fizzing away in the bath.

Whenever a government IT department undertakes a project that fails so massively it’s too embarrassing for them to put any positive spin on it, various “knowing” officials present themselves for a press conference. They attempt to talk confidently about “lessons learned” without anything even approaching conviction. They smile a lot in that abrupt way chimps do when they’re frightened or agitated (though they draw the line at falling off their chairs or cupping themselves repeatedly on the head). These fools are justifiably roasted and ridiculed when that happens. That night there was something like it happening in my head. I won’t go into detail about the comments from my mental press corps, but most of them were words of one syllable, and I was inclined to agree. Not my finest hour.

Mission Event

Up from the Cape: 24 September 2018 (yes, this one’s out-of-place)

We Are Go

The winner of the “What’s the stupidest f***ing TV show we can think of ?” competition has been announced. The winner is…….

“BETTER LATE THAN NEVER – Episode 3: Lithuania: I’m King of the Castle!” (ITV4).

Quote: “US travel reality series. Henry Winkler, William Shatner, Terry Bradshaw, George Foreman, and Jeff Dye judge a traditional goat beauty pageant and stay in a haunted castle in Lithuania.”

There’s absolute majesty at work in taking “The Fonz” from “Happy Days”, Captain James T Kirk, an ex-Quarterback of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers, an ex-heavyweight boxer, and what I’ve discovered after a quick internet search is a stand-up comedian, and then having them converge on a “traditional goat beauty pageant” (which begs the question, what can a non-traditional goat beauty pageant be like?). From there they move on to a haunted caste. Laurel and Hardy could have made that work, but it’s going to be a bit of a reach for Terry Bradshaw and George Foreman. In this context the word “haunted” is likely to have resonance in relation to what all the personalities in this show are feeling as they watch promising TV careers swirl down a plug-hole. 

This is what happens when you have a generation of TV execs who are over-paid crack-heads. 

The first sign of madness is a class three medical certificate

Up from The Cape: 18 February 2019

Anyone seeking a textbook definition of the word “contempt” need look no further than the relationship that exists between pilots and an airfield’s air traffic controller. It’s common knowledge among pilots that controllers as a species have a belief, born it has to be said of some occasional justification, that inexperienced pilots have an inclination to panic and land on the nearest flat open stretch of ground, regardless of where it actually is. Pilot fixation can lead to the odd aircraft settling down on final approach for a car park. I’m not joking, as occasional shocked car owners can confirm.

Normally, the more sharp-eyed controllers intervene quickly enough to prevent this from coming to a tragic conclusion. Unfortunately, there may have been instances where a controller’s loss of patience has been carried on the shoulders of a sense of mischief. It leads controllers to remain silent with a hand poised above the phone for the emergency vehicles, while some tense fool attempts to land in the nearest back garden with a longish path. Stoically, they just let nature take its course because it means one fewer class three medical certificate to be re-issued later. In case anyone’s wondering, a class three medical certificate is something all pilots have to get at the very least. These have to be issued by CAA approved doctors. Re-issue is necessary because the certificate expires every two years. There are a few controllers who think they can reduce the re-issue workload on doctors through a pilot culling process directed by them. I’m not in a position to comment on how successful this has been.

In the event that anyone believes contempt is a phenomenon student pilots can evade, it’s worth mentioning that there are in fact twin jaws of contempt that operate in a pincer movement during flying training (flying training being a technical process also known to pilots as emptying your current account while enduring extreme verbal abuse). The first jaw is of course the controller. The opposing jaw is called “your instructor.” Together they squeeze away money, confidence, and whatever self-respect a student pilot brought to the airport on the first fateful day that learning to fly seemed like a great idea. How do I know? I’ve been there.

The seed that grows into flying is often something planted in childhood. I know mine was. For most children who go on to become pilots when they get older, it all 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 a child will show. It’s a sign any parent should be aware of. I know some parents are concerned when they see a child making use of condensing breath during cold weather as a facsimile of a steam engine. Trust me this is nothing to worry about. It passes soon enough. Even if it doesn’t, nature intervenes and robs a child of it’s steam engine as soon as winter gives way to the milder weather of spring. Only dragon’s breath makes clouds in milder weather. The trouble with aeroplanes is they’re a year-round madness rather than a seasonal one. 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……….you’ve got more serious problems anyway, so your priorities really need looking at.

For me it all began with Thunderbird One, and a flying saucer called the Jupiter 2. As a child I was desperately interested in getting my hands on their controls. Fortunately International Rescue didn’t actually exist, and so therefore neither did Thunderbird One. The odds of me being here to tell this story would be infinitesimally small if, as a seven-year-old, I’d been allowed to pilot a hypersonic rocket-type aircraft, solo. That of course goes double if I’d been allowed anywhere near the Jupiter 2, which was a spaceship. If it had existed, and I’d found my way into the left seat, I’d be light years away by now with my screechy voice fading into the darkness, hopelessly lost and never to return. While some might say that’s a bit of a result, on balance I’m grateful that I wasn’t allowed to get my hands on any controls until I was about 20. That’s when the real fun started, along with the real expense and humiliation.

The gulf between wish and reality turned out to be a canyon, the proportions of which I couldn’t have even begun to estimate before buckling into the left seat of a cockpit. Too many hours spent watching actors, and in some cases puppets, appearing to fly high performance aircraft and spaceships by twiddling knobs, left me ill-prepared for flight in any sense other than that of a passenger. Once the control column is in your hands, and the rudder pedals are more than just a foot-rest, the blizzard of data a novice pilot has to process is frightening. Invariably it overloads anyone who has managed to remain conscious while it’s happening.

On the ground there are very precise ways in which the aircraft has to be handled to remain safe. All of that happens at relatively low speed, and so even the inexperienced student can generally cope. In the air this all changes. Abruptly, what’s been a good-natured “Dr Jekyll” aircraft develops a “Mr Hyde” will of its own, and the mind of an unruly dog that’s been given sight of dinner, or some temptingly filthy puddles to go for.

Novice pilots find they often go into a condition known as “brain-lock” at about this time – always assuming that anyone willing to spend the equivalent of a hostage’s ransom to have a seat in the world’s most expensive and insulting classroom, can be said to have a functional brain to begin with. Students can handle one of the multitude of things they’re supposed to be doing at any given moment, but no more. The nose wants to go up; the nose wants to go down. The wings want to roll to port; the wings want to roll to starboard. The nose wants to veer to the left; the nose wants to veer to the right. While those six things are happening – and it feels like they’re all happening simultaneously – keep an eye on the airspeed, the heading, the altitude, and the temperatures and pressures. After that, if you’re still aware of a world outside of the cockpit rather than being frozen rigid and staring straight ahead, keep a look out for other aircraft.

Throughout, your helpful instructor will be reminding you of each thing you’re failing to do, probably in terms that aren’t entirely complementary. As soon as you abandon whatever it is you’ve managed to get under control so you can attempt to deal with one of the torrent of things you haven’t controlled, that also goes to pieces. All of this frenzy of activity goes on against the reassuring drone of the engine, and the more humiliating drone of your instructor. For this experience you pay an enormous amount of money, and then resolve to do it all again, and again, and again, and again. The next time someone asks for a textbook definition of madness, direct them towards the nearest flying school.