All posts by David Griffiths

It’s Always Later Than You think

Logged: 22 April 2020

Watching The Time Tunnel has become a treasure hunt for those special moments in a script where actors’ souls die a little from the humiliation of what they have to say in exchange for money. I partially watched (i.e. watched parts of the episode in real time, and the remainder in fast forward) an episode where the two lead characters landed in the Biblical character Joshua’s camp outside the walls of Jericho.

It was the usual 1960s take on ancient history; everyone is dressed in blankets that looked like they’d just been bought at K-Mart (which to be fair they probably had); there’s a sneering wrong-un wearing an acorn-shaped helmet who’s obsessed with the idea of “loosening tongues”; there’s the local bigwig who behaves badly just for the sake of it because a stone god who looks a lot like the late comedian Marty Feldman is apparently on his side; there’s the obligatory dungeon guard who leers and turns his back on his prisoner so that he can be rescued (and on the subject of prisoners, they always seem to end up against a wall with a few bits of straw at their feet and their wrists crossed above their heads so they can chat to each-other and plot their escape); and of course there’s the ever popular scheming servant who betrays everyone for gold. Into this mix came a moment of genuine crackpot grandeur. A writer deliberately and with forethought had the actor portraying an Airfix kit sort of take on Joshua (a fabulously-named man called “Rhodes Reason”) blurt out without shame or irony:

“Let the Rams’ horns be blown!”

The Time Tunnel is what happens when ambition and business meet a punishing and soul destroying work schedule. In the 1960s it was common for a prime time American TV series to demand 30 episodes per season. Actors and crews could be working from 07:00 to 19:00 six days a week for eight or nine months of the year. Under those conditions television is little more than a meat grinder. That any shows of genuine value and entertainment were made during that period is a tribute to the stamina and professionalism of the people involved (many of whom it’s worth mentioning also worked on Hollywood feature films and brought those high production values to children’s TV).

Time Tunnel was an idea whose ambition could never be realised under the conditions that existed at the time. It’s a shame because it’s an interesting idea, and many of the actors involved really gave of their best under the most punishing circumstances. At this juncture it’s worth just touching upon how the two lead characters are almost polar opposites. Robert Colbert was an actor of some subtly and presence. What he lacked in Time Tunnel was the material to give a proper account of himself. James Darren by contrast was the eye candy. His was the sort of face that looked down from posters on the bedroom walls of pre-pubescent teenage girls. He did his best with what he had, but ultimately his presence was that of a man who had made tortured anxiety his soul mate – perhaps comprehending dimly even as The Time Tunnel was in production how the scripts would never get any better. Everything he said seemed born of inner agony and dread.

Time Tunnel staggered on for a single season. Although the premise is that “Two American scientists are lost in the swirling maze of past and future ages” the reality is they were lost in the swirling maze of 20th Century Fox’s stock film vaults where clips from films involving great historical events could be re-used for little additional cost. Typically this gave brief outings for men dressed in medieval costumes who thundered about on horseback to the accompaniment of a 72 piece orchestra before the action switched from Cinemascope back to a few self-conscious actors clustered on a sound stage to fit into the 4:3 aspect ratio TV screen of the day. 

In essence, Time Tunnel is a blizzard of unintentionally comic moments, high production standards for the time, and some occasional truly sublime performances from guest actors such as Carrol O’Connor. Beyond that it’s assembly line disposable 1960s American children’s TV at its best and worst. 

Enjoy.

Breathe In

Logged: 30 November 2019

WARNING: This is a long-haul flight

I’ve become quite nostalgic about chloroform. There was a time when no self-respecting TV criminal would have been found without it, along with a handkerchief. A quick lunge accompanied by some token struggling and what sounded like someone trapped in a baggage trunk was all a director needed to speed the plot on its way. Today chloroform is treated by the film and TV industry like motorists’ hand signals; redundant. Fictional criminals have lost some of their versatility because of that.

Food packaging today sometimes carries the text “Warning: May contain nuts”. Films and TV shows of a certain vintage should come with the caption “Warning: May contain predictable idiocy.” So many film and TV clichés have passed out of use now, it’s worth taking a few minutes to remember the best of them, if only for their assistance in nudging a limp production towards a merciful end.

The No. 1 top-table cliché has to be the bowl or jug of cold water thrown into the face of someone unconscious as a device to wake them up. Did that ever work? If it did, why isn’t it being used in hospitals to awaken patients from general anaesthetic? Assuming it does work hospital patients could be up and about in 30 seconds after an operation.

At other times criminals had to delve more deeply into their box of creative tricks. If the relative complexity of a plot or the equally relative stupidity of the audience demanded an explanation of what was going on, the options were limited. A device that had particular utility here was the smiling gloating villain with a gun. He could be depended on to inform his captives (and his audience) about how the story was progressing, albeit in a slightly robotic and self-satisfied manner.

This was of course a time when clichés hammered onto viewers’ retinas like hail driven against a window. Everything’s quieter now, but I don’t believe it’s because clichés are a lost art. They’ve just mutated so they’re harder to see. In celebration of the golden age of clichés, however, I’ve compiled a list of some of my favourites in no particular order:

  • Pillows under the sheets: A go-to device used to fool stupid guards into thinking that someone who has got away is still sleeping in bed with the covers (conveniently) over his head like a dead body. This clever ruse allowed Barry Newman in “Fear is the Key” to escape from planned captivity, then be flown fifty miles or so to an offshore rig by some colleagues, discover that a supposedly lost submersible was moored under water there, then get back, change out of his wet clothes (it had been raining), and get back into bed. Now go to “I’ve been out but nobody’s noticed.”
  • I’ve been out but nobody’s noticed: The hero escapes for a while using the “pillows in the bed” gambit so he can scout around. He gets back eventually after hiding in some bushes under his window while a guard with a dozy whining inattentive dog walks past within six feet of him. When he climbs back into his room he checks his bed and finds the pillows are untouched. He smiles wryly and then goes back to bed in time to be “awoken” by a surly contemptuous guard. Now go to “Shoving”.
  • Shoving: A surly, contemptuous guard “awakens” the hero by shoving him while he’s still “asleep”. He compels the prisoner to get up and come with him to “see the boss”, shoving him repeatedly all along the way. The hero staggers occasionally, and shakes his head, sometimes saying “OK….OK”. Now go to “advanced shoving”.
  • Advanced shoving: After one shove too many the hero stops and says “If you do that once more.……..” and leaves it hanging . The surly, contemptuous guard then shoves him once more. Now go to “postgraduate shoving”.
  • Postgraduate shoving: A surly, contemptuous guard who has shoved once too often gets a punch in the face from the hero and falls down some stairs in a very careful, choreographed way. Note: Postgraduate shoving should not be confused with pushing academics around – that’s another pleasure entirely. Now go to “It would appear our friend is indispensable….for the moment”.
  • It would appear our friend is indispensable….for the moment: The Surly, contemptuous guard who has been knocked to the foot of the stairs awakens and shakes his head like a dog that has just come in out of the rain. He rubs his chin and says “Why I oughta……“. Just in time a more senior henchman stops him with a wagged finger and inclines his head towards the hero: “It would appear our friend here is indispensable………” . The last time I saw this I was poised like a gun dog and I finished the full sentence before the henchman did. “…for the moment!” I said aloud. “For the moment” said the henchman a beat later, followed by a loud appreciative clap of the hands from me.
  • How much stuff can we knock over?: During a fight, men grab each other’s forearms and grimace as they force each-other against book shelves and anything else that has content they can knock to the floor. They also think that throwing a coffee pot or an empty gun will tip the fight in their favour. It infuriates and confuses them when their opponent simply ducks out of the way.
  • Release the dogs: Whenever a production goes to a large palatial house set in its own grounds there is always a chorus of barking dogs to be heard in the background. This appears to imply there are a lot of impatient dogs who go in for property investments.
  • Useless decorative women: A useless decorative woman who has been standing with one hand over her mouth while men grab each-other’s forearms and grimace in lieu of actually fighting, decides finally to intervene when the hero is on the floor and in danger of being shot. Naturally instead of doing something useful like breaking a vase over the villain’s head, instead she bites his arm or hand. Incredibly that buys the hero enough time to rejuvenate, spring back into the fray, and knock out the villain. Afterwards the hero stands looking straight into the face of the woman (typically in tight close-up), panting with the supposed exertion of the fight. He wipes a trickle of lipstick-red stage blood from his mouth or forehead and just says “thanks” quietly. If it were me in that spot I’d be saying (and not quietly) “Let’s hope you’re never called up by the army during a war. Think about it” 
  • The accusing stare: Whenever someone receives a phone call and has a serious disagreement that’s terminated by the caller hanging-up abruptly, the person receiving the call will hold the phone handset away and stare at it, implying that the phone itself is responsible. Why blame the phone? Phones aren’t actually intelligent, though to be fair, that’s also true of some callers. Only actors do this, by the way. People never do.
  • Divers: When there aren’t any foam rubber giant octopus tentacles that divers can wrap around themselves and then dig a knife into repeatedly (followed by a release of octopus/squid ink in the water), divers love to fight each-other over a knife or spear-gun. Whoever wins cuts the air hose of their opponent. The loser then has a sort of fit and thrashes about instead of just holding his breath and calmly swimming to the surface.
  • Evil workers: The sleeping accommodation of evil workers (henchmen and the like at an “evil lair”) has walls covered with sanitised 1950s “pin-ups” that would be laughed at even by children. Evil workers apparently spend so much of their time drinking, playing cards, and sleeping, they don’t need much in the form of visual stimuli to keep them happy. Now go to “Advanced Evil Workers”.
  • Advanced Evil workers: Evil workers, when they aren’t drinking, playing cards, or sleeping, always shout at each-other jovially like Nazi guards. This is especially true if they’re in corridors and the hero is hiding from them. Now go to “The hero is hiding from them”.
  • The hero is hiding from them: The hero hears someone coming along a corridor and in desperation presses himself against the wall around a corner. As the evil workers pass, bellowing at each-other like stricken beasts, they never spot the man standing as tall as a fridge against the wall, sucking in his gut in the naive belief it will make him invisible. I say “naive belief”, but amazingly it always seems to work.
  • You’re getting warmer: Evil workers or evil guards who search a room for a terrified escapee, move unerringly towards any closet with slats in the door through which the escapee is watching paralysed with fear. They stare at the door for a long moment, and then pull or slide it open abruptly and leer. By way of full disclosure I have to say that I have dreams like this, and not usually as the one hiding.
  • Suspenseful build-up of music: A suspenseful build-up or rising crescendo of music is a useful way of telegraphing to the audience that anyone searching for quarry is getting closer. It’s a musical variant on sonar, though it rarely ends in depth charges and men in the water.
  • Complex machinery: Complex machinery with lots of flashing lights is always started or shut down by someone flicking rows of switches rapidly in line succession. If the hero has “shut down” a system by turning each switch off in precise order left to right, he will then announce to the bad guys “You’ll never work out the right order to get the system up again.” In fact anyone could do it blindfolded simply by flicking all of the switches in the reverse order. When taunted like this bad guys then hold a gun out with a stiff arm. They blink a lot and say “Listen buddy….are you askin’ to be shot?” The hero always responds with contempt, saying “Who are you kiddin’? You need me or we’re all dead.” That confuses the bad guys who glance at each-other nervously and go on to ask “OK wise guy…..what is it you really want?” By this point in the script all anyone would really want is to be released from their contract with the film studio and get a new agent.
  • That gun’s going off in a minute: During a fight between two characters, one of whom has a gun, they will move together in a sort of clinch as the music reaches a cliff-hanger climax (note: not to be confused with “Suspenseful build-up of music”, which is altogether slower). I watched this very scene unfold in a film recently and said “Pow!” aloud at the height of the music. A beat later the gun went “pow!” The two characters stared at each-other briefly like a pair of goats about to butt heads just before one of them slid to the floor. A variant on this is that whoever gets shot will smile fleetingly before collapsing.
  • People do things because the script needs them to, not because it makes any sense: In a film called “Fear is the Key” the hero was piloting a submersible craft at gun-point. The lead villain had directed him to a crashed DC3 aircraft on the sea bed. Behind the cockpit windows of the aircraft there were two cheerful looking skeletons propped up in the seats. It looked like a ghost train variant on air travel. The hero shut down the sub’s systems (click-click-click-click-click in line order across the main panel) and then said to the bad guys that he was going to let them all die of suffocation by shutting off the air and venting it. One of the bad guys did the usual blinky, stiff arm with the gun routine while saying something like “C’mon….what do you want? You’ll die too!” The hero then pointed to the skeletons grinning out of the aircraft cockpit and said “The one on the left is my brother, the one on the right is my wife.” That was my cue to add with characteristic callousness “and they look suspiciously alike for people who are supposedly just in-laws.” The grinning skeleton of a 3-year-old boy was held to be in the back too, though at least he didn’t come up to the glass and wave.

Note: At this juncture you need to know that the aircraft in the preceding cliché had been shot down because it was carrying millions in gold bullion and a crate of emeralds as part of a “dangerous and secret operation to fund an arms deal”. If I were a family man with wife/child (I know that’s a stretch for anyone to imagine), and had a brother I didn’t despise, the odds are I’d spend the money and send them off safely by scheduled airline. What I wouldn’t do is say “Hey you people I prize above all others….guess what! There’s a rickety old DC3 that’s going to be carrying a fortune in gold and emeralds. Unscrupulous men who will stop at nothing are angling to shoot it out of the sky to get their greedy hands on it. Here’s an idea…why not hitch a ride instead of buying a ticket on a scheduled flight? What can go wrong?” Check the newspaper headlines if you really need to know.

  • I have a dream: Whenever someone recalls a dream or something disturbing from their childhood, it’s always to the accompaniment of theramin music. It makes dreams feel like the 1950s version of “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, though usually without Gort the robot and Michael Rennie.
  • Piranhas – Come and get it: Whenever someone falls into water inhabited by piranhas it turns into what looks like a deep fat fryer. The victim waves and screams madly before vanishing, never to be seen again other than as an obscure name way, way down on the end titles. Sometimes after the boiling of the water subsides, someone will shake their head and say in a tone mid-way between fear and admiration “all they leave is a skeleton”  (there’s a similar unsubstantiated comment people make about swans when they say knowingly “they can break your arm you know”). Evidently piranhas were stowaways on that DC3 with the bullion that was shot down. Now you know where the skeletons came from.

  • Spiders – Come and get it: Everyone knows spiders as big as a hand like nothing better than to walk about on a man’s face or chest. God knows why. The move as if they’re on their way back from a hard night’s drinking, and so are acutely sensitive to noise or rapid movements. Snakes seem to enjoy it too (getting onto a man’s chest or face, not drinking). The outcome is variable, depending on whether or not the script has condemned a character to death. If it’s a thumbs-up, then the spider or snake gets flicked away, and one or more people stomp about in a corner of the room in a manner reminiscent of a folk dance. If it’s thumbs-down then to spare the studio from actually killing an actor, they get someone to dangle a limp arm and hand off the side of the bed, supported by a few bars of dramatic music. The audience is left to fill in the blanks.

In closing I’m going to add a general category of “Gone but not forgotten”. What clichés reference would be complete without someone opening a combination lock safe by listening for the clicks (with or without a  stethoscope), or air conditioner ducts that are large enough for fully grown people to crawl through without attracting the attention of anyone in the building. 

Honourable mention: Under the heading of “happens more often than it should among professional hit-men”, there should be some polite applause for the break-down sniper rifle that a hit-man can assemble on a rooftop or hotel room, and find that it’s 100% accurate from 2000 yards despite not being having been calibrated.

There may be a test on this next week. Don’t try substituting a pillow for yourself on exam day. That only works in a bed.

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.

Who’s Sorry Now?

Logged: 06 October 2019

I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but at some point in my life I became a mutant. I should add at once, and with indecent nervous haste, I don’t mean a mutant in the classic science fiction sense. When I look in the mirror there’s no obvious bulbous, insect-like head, saucer-sized eyes, and lobster claws in place of hands. Equally I lack the incomprehensible appetite science fiction mutants have for startled 1950s women with conical breasts – the type who scream excessively and lose the use of their legs in a crisis. I mean a mutant in the generic sense of being hard wired or genetically engineered to be anti social media.

The roots of this deviation may lie in my childhood. I was an only child, and to some extent with all that implies. There were many occasions on which I had to make my own entertainment. At home there were few opportunities to fill the void of otherwise uneventful hours with the eccentricities, personal tragedies, and frankly shocking habits of other children my age. This may go some way towards explaining my complete absence of any need for a smartphone to keep me mesmerised throughout my waking hours, and the equally complete absence of the vulture-like stoop, goat-like stare, and incipient psychiatric problems that commonly go with one.

A solitary upbringing should have led to me creating an army of imaginary friends who could be pressed into service to amuse me as the whim arose. That it didn’t was probably an early sign of what some would consider a dreary and unimaginative sense of logic that I applied to the world then and now. Many years ago I was asked in idle conversation if I’d had any imaginary friends during my childhood. My immediate answer was no – all of the friends I had were horribly real. That simple fact may have spared me the lowest common denominator addictions of social media, and the invented world that goes with it.

One friend from the early part of my childhood used to express his extremes of fury by doubling his tongue back on itself and clenching it between his teeth until it looked ready to burst. It lent him the aspect of a child with terminal constipation. This illusion was added to by the accompaniment of some very disturbing bat-like screeching noises that led any dogs within a hundred yard radius to whine or bolt for cover. His emotional instability wouldn’t have made him an ideal candidate to work for the Samaritans. Conceivably he might have given them an incoherent ring as a client at some point in his life. It’s hard to judge what the result of that would have been. It’s doubtful that anyone would have understood him unless they had leathery wings and a disposition to hang upside down from some rafters.

A few years later, another friend (and you may well ask “where did you keep finding them?”) used to threaten to urinate in his pants when we were out. It began with something akin to the two-minute warning that supposedly existed during the cold war to tell everyone they were about to die because of an imminent nuclear attack. Obviously in this case it wasn’t broadcast on TV and radio as far as I’m aware. The effects of my friend urinating in the street were much more limited than the effects of a 20 megaton nuclear warhead, so I was the only one who cared.

My friend was aware that on some level his actions embarrassed me deeply. Because of that he would wait until adults were nearby and then start glancing between them and me like a psychopath about to witness a train crash. My heart always sank at this juncture because I knew he was about to make an attention-seeking announcement of what he proposed to do. I can still hear his increasingly shrill threats in my mind even to this day. His siren-like voice punctuated with hysterical giggles told the world “I am…..I’m going to……”. Inevitably there were times when he actually did.

During these memorable events I remember a few adults looking askance at him over their shoulders, and one just shaking his head. Presumably he thought I had just banged a six-inch nail into my friend’s head for the perverse fun of doing it, and his behaviour was the outcome. Don’t think I wasn’t tempted. Meanwhile, as my friend danced about with a steady and localised cascade dribbling from his trousers, he chattered away gleefully like a cockatoo as he basked in my agony. Set against that background, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that I have no inclination to be liked or have friends online. People online are often bigger crackpots than the friends I had as a child, and always without any of the charm.

It didn’t get appreciably better for me in my later years at at school. An adventurous claim was made decades ago that we only use about ten percent of our brain capacity. That isn’t strictly true, but in any event, I was able to counter it by stating categorically that I was at school with some boys who didn’t use any – and they all managed to get jobs later. They’re probably thriving on twitter.

Effectively, social media has recreated all of the lunatic elements of my childhood with none of its benefits. Worse, it’s recreated them in a petri-dish culture that allows crackpots and nutcases to multiply like bacteria under optimum conditions. Circumstances like that lead to plague. It’s something we’re completely unprepared for. Instead of wasting our time fretting about asteroids that might hit the Earth, we should be doing something now about Facebook, twitter, and smartphones.

If Atlantis ever existed, it wasn’t nuclear Armageddon that wiped it out. It was mass communal suicides brought about by people who didn’t get enough “likes” on their birthday. I’m even inclined to question the prevailing theories about why dinosaurs became extinct. If Tyrannosaurus Rex was “unfriended” by Brontosaurus it would have kicked off a chain-reaction of carnage. One day somebody will find fossilised evidence of how many “likes” these creatures gave each-other, and science will have to think again. If ever you’re you’re tempted to post details of your birthday on social media, the evidence tells us you’ll be sorry.

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.

The Dirty Suit Men

Blimey we’re not toffs – we’re working class mate!

Logged: 21 September 2019

One day an archaeologist will shine a tentative light into a dark abandoned film vault, examine some grainy archive documentary film, and conclude correctly there was once a strange breed of men who worked at the London Docks. They dressed in a manner that defies logic. It had nothing to do with the complete illogic of dressing in a ludicrous ceremonial way beloved of the priesthood, the judiciary, the House of Lords, and Rap artists. I call them the “Dirty Suit Men”. As the name is one I invented, it’s unlikely academics will adopt it. They’ll probably arrive at something similar with a more fancy technical name that means essentially the same thing. I’m not upset about it. The papers academics publish are aimed only at other academics. I don’t begrudge them their own specialised language.

For those who don’t know, The Dirty Suit Men were dock labourers who, perhaps surprisingly from the standpoint of our casual dress-down era today, routinely wore three-piece suits and ties while loading and unloading ships. Their only apparent concession to being labourers was a flat cap. It’s possible they had anxieties about being mistaken for the gentry or bankers if they’d looked too smart on the dockside. Because of that they did whatever they could to ensure their suits were absolutely filthy, and drew attention to it by wearing a ceremonial flat cap of hard labour. This was not an odd choice made by a deranged few, but the absolute required uniform of the day. A scene in a documentary showing a large group of these men waiting for their work assignments at the docks makes it appear that Dirty Suit Men were being bred in captivity like Salmon – though obviously without the cages, water, and posh restaurants queuing up to cook and serve them to hungry customers.

Suits in our modern era have a single phase of life, after which they are left in the wardrobe, or find their way to a charity shop. Occasionally they’re just binned from the fear of being shamed as “unfashionable.” In the 1950s a man’s suit had four times as many phases to its life. Each was a step to a lower rung of the ladder. Each occurred once a suit had dropped to a certain level of wear and deterioration. Unlike today, a suit’s actual stylistic appearance then was never a factor, as owners of the notorious “Demob” suit would doubtless confirm if any survivors from that time weren’t justifiably embarrassed at having owned one.

The descending phases of a 1950s suit’s life are worth dwelling upon briefly:

Phase I): Sunday Best.
Phase II): Everyday work clothes for one’s employment.
Phase III): A suit for gardening in.
Phase IV (and normally the terminal phase): The suit to dress a guy in on bonfire night.

There may have been other lesser known phases, but they were all aberrant offshoots that didn’t occur very often. The bookends that defined the lifespan of a suit in the 1950s were “Sunday Best”, and “Bonfire Night.” How long it took to make that agonising journey depended on how much churchgoing the suit enjoyed during its initial phase, how many “dirty loads” the wearer worked on at the docks, how much gardening he did, and ultimately how much he enjoyed fireworks.

One renegade and showy refinement to the Dirty Suit Man uniform fell to those workers who were required to stand in huge vats of grain as they shovelled it towards a suction hopper, and others who dealt with assisting the passage of coal into a hold amid lethal turning machinery. They were rewarded with a dizzy badge of rank that involved tying straps around their trousers at regular intervals all the way up the legs. The theory or principle behind this was a practical one. It certainly wasn’t an aesthetic one. The legs were just strapped-up in the hope they wouldn’t flap about quite as much.

Trousers in the dark monochrome days of the 1950s generally had legs wide enough to smuggle an entire body in and still be worn. A stiff breeze would cause them to flutter alarmingly like flags during a storm. They even allowed some men to pretend to have a waistline that started around their chests, like a clown. This, inevitably, led to ties that were six inches long – again like a clown. Thankfully this uniform was spared the big floppy shoes. The only period in which I can recall men looking more ridiculous voluntarily was the 1970s – interestingly an era with trousers that shared some of those characteristics. Short ties are now making an unfathomable comeback at some schools. They looked idiotic in the 1950s, and they still look idiotic now. That’s probably why the kids love them.

Any trousers readily accessible for snagging by lethal, callous 1950s machinery capable of dragging a man to an abrupt and horrible death, needed a few cursory precautions. In this context of course, the word “precautions” is a relative one. Health & Safety regs then tended to be looked upon as slightly wimpish, and men who depended upon them even more so. The compromise between manliness and safety was a few straps on each leg. I haven’t been able to find any stats regarding their effectiveness, reminding me again of the joke about parachutes; nobody ever comes back to complain when they don’t work.

It wasn’t uncommon for social events involving dock workers of a certain age to look like a gathering of men who had been cannibalised for spare parts. Many of them lacked fingers, or some other useful appendage that when torn away didn’t result in immediate death. My father spent more than a decade working in that sort of environment. He was gifted with a macabre sense of fun, and indulged it by holding up a hand in greeting (when introduced to people who’d never met him before) that had half a finger missing. He was one of the lucky ones.

The odd occasions when my father slipped or was knocked into the dock water from a ship, always led to him spending a few days in hospital. The dock water was so polluted at that time it was like falling into a vat at a chemical plant. People who wrinkle their delicate noses and wave their hands in the air self-righteously whenever they’re in the vicinity of someone using an e-cig might want to think about that and develop a sense of proportion. Your parents and grand parents had it much worse.

Actors

Logged 16 September 2019

A witty American said once that he could never tell if actors talked like Englishmen, or if Englishmen talked like actors. That’s an adventurous thing for an American to say when he’s been bought up with a language that has its roots in Elizabethan English and all of the elastic rules that implies. I think he had a point, though, at least in relation to films from the 40s, 50s, and 60s. It was a land where actors could sound very strange indeed. By coincidence they were also condemned to say the most ridiculous things in equally ridiculous voices. For example an early British talkie had a scene where a man had been discovered rifling through someone else’s cabin on a ship. Instead of being arrested he was instructed rudely to “Make an account of yourself!” The spasm of over-acting that vented those words onto the sound stage was like listening to someone sitting on a “whoopie” cushion.

Actors have a harder time with language than just about anyone else because so many of the words they have to use in their professional capacity are someone else’s. There are times when I struggle to make myself clear even with my hand leading the script. If I were compelled to use a script by the hand of another there’s no telling what I’d say. Actors for the most part don’t get much choice – especially (I’m told) on all of the many permutations of Star Trek: Next Gen, where creative deviations from the script are frowned upon with considerable ire.

Old films, with all of their quirks of language, are actually portals into a lost age. The age they’re closest to is ancient Egypt because of a still and dusty sense of preservation about them. One aspect of this is especially noticeable in 60s and 70s television plays. The world passed at a much slower rate of spin then, and the pacing of drama was matched accordingly. It wasn’t unusual for a television play to be a lot like watching paint drying, albeit quite intelligent paint. In defence of these plays I should add that what they lacked in action they more than made up in Pinteresque dialogue. 

Harold Pinter, for anyone who isn’t old enough to remember him (which obviously includes almost everyone below pension age today), was a famous playwright with a reputation for squeezing the subtlest nuances out of a script. Like most successful writers, his style was copied reflexively without any sense of shame, and sometimes without any sense of knowing when to stop. The dialogue that grew from those plays was tagged as “Pinteresque”, often unjustly in that it just combined the repetitive aspects of subtlety and nuance but lacked the innate talent of the master.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s it was commonplace for earnest writers to fill TV scripts with agonisingly long scenes where actors stared open-mouthed at each other to the accompaniment of a dubbed-in ticking clock (probably to give the audience a metronome sound to hold on to, or think they’d slipped into a coma). There was usually a moment in the script where one actor would “surprise” another by appearing “unexpectedly”. After the requisite minute or so of silence while they goggled at each other and/or examined ornaments within arm’s reach, one of them would make a verb-based statement:

“I’m going out for an hour.” 

The shock of breaking the silence was like a voice from a table top seance:

“Going out?”

“Yes……..going out…….for an hour.”

“An hour?”

“Yes…..just for an hour.”

“Ah….just for an hour then.”

“Yes….going out….for a walk…….for an hour.”

“You won’t be going far.”

“Far?”

“If you’re only going out for an hour………you won’t be long…..on your walk….your walk for an hour. You can’t walk far and back in an hour.”

“No…..I’ll only be out walking for an hour.”

Just an hour?”

“Yes….just an hour.”

“Well then you can’t walk far and back…….if it’s only an hour.”

“No, it won’t be far. I’ll only be an hour. I have to get back in an hour.”

More silence.

“See you later then.”

Some of those plays were 90 minutes long, though obviously it seemed like 90 days. It’s a lost embalmer’s art.

While playwrights and scriptwriters were indulging themselves by trying to be Harold Pinter, actors (well…..some actors) were indulging themselves in quite another way. A film called “Georgie Girl” is a perfect example. In it, James Mason confined his statesman-like indulgence to a brusque “no-nonsense” northern accent. Lynne Redgrave was content with re-inventing herself as Joyce Grenfell’s younger sister (there just isn’t space for me to explain who Joyce Grenfell was – sorry). Alan Bates, however, was where the fun veered off the tracks. He personified what would happen if a four-year-old had been allowed an adult’s power and free access to stimulants. In fairness, that aspect of his performances were the same regardless of what he appeared in. For good or ill it nudged the red line for me in Georgie Girl.

Alan Bates passed through Georgie Girl like a blast of air from a window that had just crashed open in a storm. Whenever he had some dialogue his voice, eyebrows, and nose all elevated at the same moment in a twitchy preliminary filled with the sort of tension that precedes a steam pipe about to blow. After a moment of insane hyena-like grinning he strikes an abrupt pose and says, in a very cheerful, fake-posh voice, something like “I say………have you met my father-in-law? He’s awfully grand.” Alan Bates is what would happen if William Shatner’s DNA were exposed to the same radiation that created The Hulk. 

It’s alright – you did your best

kodak-brownie-44a
Kodak Brownie 44a
Logged 6 September 2019

I built my first camera when I was six. It was made out of clay. It had a working viewfinder born of a mad, though essentially meaningless sense of attention to detail. I’d punched a hole through the “camera” in the viewfinder position from the back. The hole was big enough to see through. It’s worth stopping to think about what sort of logic was at work. Why was it an absolute necessity for a camera made out of solid clay to have a viewfinder? In essence this was my first experience of a simulator. It was also my first experience of being ahead of my time by using a simulator to accustom me to handling something real later without risking any of its hazards. I have to be honest and admit that fact slipped by me unnoticed at the time. I was foolishly (or delusionally) proud of it upon reflection decades later.

Obviously being solid, my first camera lacked many of the other prerequisites of photographic gear, not least of which was a shutter mechanism. It follows there was obviously no dark chamber to accommodate film either as there was actually no space to accommodate anything. That ruled out any possibility of the camera being functional other than as a trophy, or something with which to smash a window in an act of impulsive vandalism.

Astute readers will have guessed by now this entire exercise was an attempt by an experienced teacher to keep very young children in a classroom quiet for a while by giving them something recreational and creative to do. It met with complete success at my desk. I worked in absolute silence with my chin hooked down on my chest in concentration. I’m inclined to believe it would have seemed worryingly obsessive to normal adults. Fortunately the only adult present was a teacher. While I’m not in a position to say categorically that teachers aren’t normal, it has to be said my behaviour didn’t appear to trouble ours. Draw your own conclusions. Perhaps she was practically-minded and astute enough to know how to create order from chaos by that stage of her career, and not complicate it with over-analysis.

In the same lesson, and with more ambition than sense, I also made a clay submarine. It was my first experience of diversifying (and to be fair my first marine engineering project). The submarine was a more hurried project than the camera had been. Unfortunately it showed. It lacked the basic blueprint of me having one at home to use for guidance during the construction phase. What that project revealed to me subsequently, although I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, was the value of having multiple irons in the fire because of the extent to which life is filled with disappointment and failure.

If I’d had the experience and comprehension to think it through, the relative speed with which I built the sub in comparison to the length of time I took over the camera would have been a warning. I’ve a vague recollection of my teacher spotting me adding the sub’s conning tower as a separate prefabricated unit, rather than extruding it from the main body. Then as now, I was contemptuous of advice, come what may. My recollection of her voice, if I have one, is of a distant muffled drone from afar to which I nodded absent acknowledgement while paying absolutely no attention. What did she know about building submarines? I knew what I was doing. I’d drawn upon the same manufacturing technique with complete success using plasticine on many previous occasions. Here was a material that looked and felt the same. What could go wrong? Exactly what could go wrong became clear a day or two later when the camera and the sub were fired to finish them off. It has to be said the sub did not emerge anywhere near as well as the camera.

The camera was a triumph, even down to the pedantic if unevenly carved letters “K..O..D..A..K “ – a critical detail I’d picked up from a Kodak Brownie 44a roll film camera at home. Because of my unsteady hand with the pointed end of a spatula, this engraved brand name on my clay camera looked a lot like the name of a murderer written in desperation by a dying victim. I didn’t care. My teacher applauded the functionally useless viewfinder borehole, and my head swelled with a sense of accomplishment. It was a short-lived swelling, however. The submarine project was a barb that popped my ego.

My marine engineering project was delivered to me in two sorry pieces that illustrated how far assumptions or inattentiveness can lead us into disaster. The conning tower had dropped off during firing because I’d attached it after building the vessel itself. It was a fundamental manufacturing flaw my teacher had warned about. In my ignorance I assumed clay was the same as plasticine because it looked and felt the same. This was a harsh lesson learned; don’t take anything for granted (especially in engineering). In that sense it was hands-on education at its best.

If nothing else, this was definitive evidence that I was right to follow my instincts later and became a photographer rather than a marine engineer. We live in a very litigation-minded society today. People are abruptly intolerant of mistakes, especially when they’re at sea and a torrent of water is cascading in through a hole, rather than draining out as it does from a bath. Nobody’s going to be tolerant of human error while they’re struggling to put on a life jacket and find their way up a slippery ladder to escape. “It’s alright – you did your best” is what kind parents say when a child has left splayed fingerprints everywhere after cleaning the family car windows. It isn’t something anyone says when Air-Sea Rescue have just received another scramble call because some idiot has realised too late that not everything floats, and clay isn’t the same as plasticine.

Bad Dinner Guests

Logged 4 September 2019

Zombies throughout film history have been burdened with a variety of appealing or appalling personal habits. Opinions on them, pro or con, vary according to whether you’ve led them or been eaten by them. Opinions on cannibals have a tendency to be very similar.

Film-makers can never agree exactly on what typical zombie behaviour is, and that’s clouded the subject for the rest of us. The most consistent behaviour I’ve identified (with zombies, not film-makers) is that of being impatient diners. Their impatience is pathological and impulsive – characteristics they share with smokers who are equally impulsive, though obviously not – I hope – for the same reasons. In defence of smokers, I’ve yet to see them gnawing on anyone in the leper-sheds they’ve been banished to outside of some office buildings. At worst their gnawing targets fingernails.

In today’s judgmental, born-again prohibitionist world, smokers are treated disgracefully – much worse than the reanimated dead. It’s impossible to justify. If you have a zombie round for dinner it’s always going to end in a mad clatter of plates and cutlery, shrieking, and overturned furniture (and perhaps a visit from the Police). I hold smokers in higher regard because none of them have ever tried taking a bite out of me at dinner. Contrast this with the behaviour of zombies who, routinely, tuck into anyone who strays within grabbing distance. Trust me, it’s not smokers who need legislating.

Government, as ever when dealing with controversy, is silent about the persistent lawlessness and general lack of hygiene of zombies. Grudgingly, it looks askance at some of their more extreme behaviour, but that’s all it does. Government is like Dennis Hopper in “Apocalypse Now” when he saw Martin Sheen gaping at a mass of decapitated heads jammed onto spikes:

Awww…man….you’re looking at the heads. Sometimes he goes too far.”

At this juncture I should declare that I haven’t smoked since I was aged ten. When I did it was an experiment that a friend and I executed in conspiratorial silence (twice) like members of the resistance, though without a clue of how to do it properly. We grasped enough of the basics to light the right end of a cigarette and dock the other end with our eager mouths. The rest was guesswork based on casual observation that drew on unimpeachable sources such as episodes of “The Saint” and “Man in a Suitcase”, or just about any 1960s TV show, including (bizarrely) Thunderbirds and Stingray. In the 1960s, even the puppets on TV smoked (they made commercials too, but for lollies rather than cigarettes).

My friend and I didn’t persist with the smoking experiments. The only tangible success we had throughout was drawing on the cigarettes until we had hamster cheeks. We held the smoke in our mouths for a few seconds, presumably looking like Popeye, then blew it all out as if it had been an accomplishment. “So that was smoking” we thought. Fantastic! We finished one cigarette apiece in this idiot manner, then put the pack away feeling like we’d made an advance, though without really understanding why. I still don’t understand why.

Some element of this must have troubled us dimly. A day or so later we repeated the experiment using the same methodology. Predictably and depressingly it brought us to the same inconclusive results. As a vehicle for establishing our radical credentials it was completely useless. It followed that we didn’t attempt the experiment a third time, or at least I didn’t. I lost touch with my co-conspirator when life’s events parted our ways a couple of years later. I don’t know if he was ever tempted again. I suspect not. Smoking was just a phase we went though in the same way that some young people become communists while at University.

It’s likely I’m better disposed towards smokers than zombies because I’ve actually tried smoking, albeit in an imprecise way, while I’ve never tried eating anyone. Call me a traditionalist, but I prefer it when my food stays still on the plate rather than fighting back or trying to escape. I’ve also found smokers to be good company for the most part. I’m not convinced the same can be said for zombies for any part. Even when they’re quiet there’s a sense they bring with them of being trapped in a car with a wasp walking about on the back window. You can’t help but keep looking over your shoulder at where it is and what it’s doing.

For me the worst aspect of zombies is their complete absence of versatility. Smokers throughout history have been able to do virtually anything but stop smoking without becoming irritable. All zombies can do (if the film and TV people are right) is sway about making ridiculous noises and lunge abruptly at anything that moves. Although that’s never prevented someone from having a successful career, especially in mainstream media, nobody’s going to be discovering the next great advance on penicillin that way. Zombies are also a novelist’s nightmare. There are pockets of readers who still take some pleasure in descriptions of shafts of light projecting obliquely into a smoke-filled room. Nobody’s going to linger over a tender scene where the major component the author has to work with is carnage, other than Hannibal Lecter.

Ultimately the choice between zombies and smokers is a simple one that can be given form with an equally simple checklist. What do you want someone to bring to the table (sometimes literally)? If the answer is good conversation, wit, and agreeable company, smokers tick all of the boxes. If the answer is horror, a rank smell, and bad table manners, then zombies are what you want, and my blessings (for whatever they’re worth) go with you. They just go with you from afar.