You Are Go For Orbit

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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.

If You Park Hear You Will Be Toad

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Up from The Cape: 9 March 2019

English is a subtle and complex language. Because of its relative complexity it has the flexibility and scope to express shades of meaning. Sometimes that occurs in a contextual way, and sometimes it occurs through metaphor. As with many elegant structures, it can sway like a tree in high winds, or even fail catastrophically, wrenching away from the roots of meaning when someone either hasn’t understood or taken the trouble to learn the basic framework of spelling. “To” and “too” have meanings that are not interchangeable, though it’s a tribute to the human spirit that so many continue to try. The YouTube comments section provides the next level up. Comments are have become the text equivalent of a Terracotta Army of rigid abominations. The possessive “your” is now used routinely as an abbreviated substitute for “you’re”. It’s a solution that “busy” people with more fingers than sense reach for habitually. YouTube comments are in fact a rich and bountiful harvest of just about everything other than reason. If you’ve ever watched dogs fighting over a rag, you’ve got the picture.

Within any domain there’s always going to be a hierarchy. That’s what gives a domain its utility. Within the language domain there’s a scale of ignorance that starts at a low level with simple spelling errors. Eventually that graph sweeps upwards in an almost vertical climb to an altitude of outright idiocy (see SMS-speak) where even birds can’t fly. Unfortunately, bird-brains can fly there, and do. If only they had some natural predators, comments sections would be readable again. These things matter because when words lose their meaning through laziness and ignorance, anything is possible. Misunderstandings are the least of the consequences. If someone can’t be bothered to pay attention to the detail of something as fundamental as language – the very tool that allows what’s inside your head out into the public domain in a comprehensible way – what else are they missing?

We enjoy ranking things because doing that gives us a sense of how they relate to each-other in terms of inherent value. It won’t come as a surprise then to find that in my world spelling mistakes have a league table all of their own. Generally I ignore the commonplace errors because they’re just too commonplace. Occasionally, however, a rare few manage to climb to the thin atmosphere above cloud cover where the errors are so enormous they hang in space like bloated indictments of state education. I suppose it’s no surprise that I should have a few favourites. One honourable mention goes to people who think it’s possible to “tow the line” – though they never say where they’re planning to tow it to. Another, less honourable mention goes to a TV guide that described how an investigation into the remains of crewmen from the Mary Rose would reveal what their “roll” on the ship was. In their place I’d have gone for a ciabatta rather than a roll if Henry VIII had thought to pack any.

By far the best example which has reigned from its throne serene and unchallenged in my memory for about twenty five years, is a handwritten message on a ragged strip of cardboard. I saw it attached to a fence. It stated in handwriting that betrayed an elevated state of agitation, emergent psychiatric problems, and some basic confusion “If you park hear you will be toad.” This is a curse from an incoherent wizard who has confused the act of tugging on a rope with a frog, and offered a nod to a hearing aid at the same time. The long straight lines of each word written in black marker pen on the notice, gave it the aspect of a kidnapper’s non-negotiable ransom demand breaking through a window. Predictably, there was a loose accretion of exclamation marks at the end of the sentence, some leaning up against each-other like umbrellas about to fall over. Obviously I don’t know what the author’s home life was like, but the evidence pointed to it being a minefield. One can only hope whoever wrote that notice found professional help in time, and by professional help I don’t mean a book on spelling and grammar.

A hybrid development of this randomness has occurred since on-line language translators have been available. The days of appealing to expertise when asking for something to be translated from one language to another are long past. It manifests not so much as errors of spelling, as errors of understanding or meaning. Mechanised (or automated) translations don’t always grasp the more subtle meaning of a word or sentence. Instead they just batter away at words until they submit. It’s a linguistic variant on “Robot Wars.” What emerges from that fun factory can be like having a cigar explode in your face, and not in a funny way.

Menus translated into English are among the weirdest of the mechanoid works. I’ve never been adventurous when it comes to food. Food is something too serious to be left to chance or gambled with. A voice from my childhood said once “My stomach and I are old and dear companions. We’ve enjoyed some delightful experiences together – and some tragic ones too I might add.” In that context it’s understandable I’ve been casting a nervous eye over a menu I’ve compiled from bad menu translations. The more I read it the more I wonder if there are risks to food (and language) I haven’t considered.

I swear that all of the following are real:

Starters:

Prisoners of fat baked comedy

Retreat and think of cakes

This product

False cancer

Fight against landlords

Various types of dread**( Author’s star choice)

Main Courses – Chicken:

Chicken rude and unreasonable

Unique chicken smell

She would evaporate slippery chickens were north

Hill bacteria stupid chicken

If you’re not in the mood for chicken there’s always:

Jumbo Cock Irony Barbecue

Jumbo Hormone Barbecue

Appetising Groping** (Author’s star choice)

Seafood:

Rude and unreasonable sheatfish

Infant consumption of fish farmers

Lady Boy Crab

Queer crab sukiyaki

The demon moustache squid roasts

If you feel like something a little more adventurous then you could try:

Nestle stir-fries an emperor for a short time

Frog raised by man-power in casserole

A lampshade is broken

Derived from Italian, trousers, topped with ham and like a dumpling

Stir-fried wikipedia with pimientos

Fear of farmers, like duck blood

Side-orders:

Mountain delicacies miscellaneous bacteria pot monsters

Whatever

Variety of opinions

The fragrance of dog

Customer get angry

Donald Duck tits salad** (Author’s star choice)

Desserts:

Choco Cake – Over-optimism modest chocolate and a soft marshmallow lead you in elegant tea time

Milk Caramel – A caramel is very sweet. And it is delicious. Everybody is pleased with it. I also laugh together. It is my pleasure. Do you eat?

To drink:

Cruel fruit juice

Grave juice

Boss Guts

Black Boss

Silky Black Boss

Peculiar coffee

Chinese herb tea bags – getting drunk last night

Intoxicant Fertile Jianshi

The beer of high official manifestations** (Author’s star choice)

In fact, just keep that beer coming please. After “Various types of Dread”, “Appetising Groping”, and a side order of “Donald Duck tits salad” I need something robust to wash it down.

Attack of the Intelligent Mud

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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.

This potato is armed and dangerous

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Up from The Cape: 1 March 2019

Every generation has its heroes. One of my parents was a Nelson Eddy worshipper. For anyone unfamiliar with film history during the first half of the 20th century, Nelson Eddy was an amiable plank of wood with an impressive classical operatic singing voice. Based on the Sherlock Holmes principle that when you’ve eliminated the impossible, then whatever remains – however improbable – must be the truth, it’s probable that Nelson Eddy didn’t get his film roles for the scope and depth of his acting. The ability to stand completely rigid while delivering his lines like an “I Speak Your Weight” machine, can hardly have been a draw for most film producers. The power and depth of his singing voice had to be the answer.

This phenomena of casting someone in a starring role for reasons other than acting talent, at least on the jagged scale that actors attempt to climb, has lingered. It’s still with us today. Steven Seagal throws a long shadow in that respect. Back in the 1990s when I first became aware of him in films, it was through an Aikido club I belonged to. Seagal had gone to Japan as a youth and learned Aikido in the hard traditional Japanese way. He emerged from that process sufficiently accomplished to be the first westerner to run an Aikido dojo in Japan. Through fate or good fortune, those accomplishments came to the attention of a casting director for a martial arts thriller, and Seagal hopped ably into the mahogany shoes once worn by heavyweight marionettes such as Nelson Eddy and Zeppo Marx.

What’s endearing about Seagal as the decades have fallen from the calendar is not just his persistence and longevity in films. As he became considerably richer along the way (and it has to be said, as the ageing process that respects none of us gained ground on him), he began to take on the aspect of an inflatable actor, much like the legend that is William Shatner. It was especially unfortunate for close-cropped publicity images where he scowls from behind a gun held up at eye-level. Good living has caught up sufficiently for him to look like an armed, dangerous, and furious potato in those pictures.

I suppose one of the reasons I have a warm place in my heart for Seagal, Aikido aside, is that he’s the personification of the “hope for us all” principle in films. The tottering robotic path he’s cut through the jungle of a career in films is something the rest of us could follow on our own wooden, stilt-like legs. My only abortive lunge in that direction is preserved like a failed Frankenstein experiment in a music video made in 2010. I’d been covering the video as a photographer, and was called upon randomly to fill in a personnel gap on the shoot. For seven aching seconds it was necessary for me to dig deep, stretch my resources to the limit, and pretend to be “an angry man on the phone”. Given that in 2010 I was angry for pretty much most of the time (for reasons I won’t burden anyone with), that piece of work was just an exercise in releasing what was festering inside my head. Watching it become manifest isn’t uplifting. I don’t watch the clip very often because on the occasions I do I find myself aghast, saying aloud “did I really look like that for most of 2010?” It’s not a happy thought. It’s certainly not a question I ask whenever anyone that knew me at the time is present.

It’s likely that Seagal’s acting career and mine diverged because he had something to offer other than acting. All I had was the ability to occupy a physical space while looking very cross about it. Back in the creaky days of cheap British television, satisfying the checklist of two arms, two legs, and one head was more or less all that was required to be in with a chance on the likes of a 60s or 70s episode of Dr Who. On those terms I’d have probably found an agent willing to take a punt. All of that’s changed. There’s as much chance of me becoming an actor now as there is of me making it as a gigolo. Trust me, I’ve looked in the mirror recently.

I suppose the other more serious problem I’d have with acting as a career option is the humiliation I’d have to go through if I were to take formal training as an actor. I’ve watched too many documentaries with grown men scrabbling about on the floor because their acting class assignment was to pretend to be leaves. I have, for good or ill, an innate sense of dignity (also known as “common sense”). It won’t allow me to be fashionable, use social media, or do Karaoke. It won’t allow me to pretend to be leaves either. The other significant hurdle is that today it’s almost impossible to become a British television actor without having a regional accent. This was a long time coming in reaction to the dreary grey days when all male RADA graduates sounded like jolly chaps from Eaton. It was no different for the girls either. They all sounded like the Queen. What’s happened is that with predictable knee-jerk judgementalism, today’s generation has just substituted it’s prejudices for the old prejudices on the grounds that it’s “justice.” If it is justice, then it’s the sort I associate with Judge Dredd, albeit a Judge Dredd who used to work down the pit.

If you’re going to risk having heroes, confine them to people who’ve done something other than acting. That goes double for having a profession. The practised ability to pretend, abruptly, to be a pile of leaves may seem funny after a few hours in the pub, but it won’t be so funny if you’ve got a looming deadline and a shouty client or manager on the phone about it.