Today is the 100th birthday of the Royal Air Force, the world’s oldest independent air force. Once upon a long ago, I served in the RAF. Why did I choose the RAF? Well, I got a bit too seasick for the Navy. And bullet dodging with the British Army wasn’t something that appealed to me. The application process was quite the balava. In between posting my application form and turning up for basic training at RAF Halton, eighteen months passed. Numerous tests, interviews and a pair of medicals filled the time. Two medicals, rather than the usual one, because I failed the first for being a couple of pounds underweight, courtesy of a ten day bout of flu.
We’re at war. Again. Sort of. I’m not really sure why our latest campaign in Syria is being called a war. Obviously there is a war happening on the ground. We’re not participating in that. We’re just dropping bombs on distance targets from a safe distance. But anyhow. I have a few thoughts.
- Why are we bombing Syria? Well, there’s a very simple answer to this. Its what we do. It’s what we’ve done for hundreds of years. It’s what we’ll continue to do until someone gives us a sound thrashing and puts a stop to it. Even then, it’ll probably only be a temporary stop. It’s in the national psyche. It’s tradition, pride, vanity. If there is a bit of a kerfuffle going on someone in the world, we feel obliged to throw our hat in the ring. Especially if the French are involved. You think this is a ridiculous explanation? The world is, more often than not, ridiculous. Besides, I have evidence. A map of the world. Everything in red is a nation invaded or occupied by the UK at some stage. I know what you’re thinking. How the hell did Luxembourg get away with it??
- I voted Labour at the last election. I’ll be voting for someone else at the next election, unless Corbyn is replaced. I like him. His analysis of a problem is often spot on. He is principled. He is eloquent. He says what needs to be said. But his solutions, when he actually has one, are usually ideological, impractical and devoid of consideration for all other connected factors. The chap is an activist. He is not a leader. He demonstrated that last week. He is 100% against bombing in Syria. Yet, rather than force Labour MPs to vote against military action, he gave his colleagues a free vote. Why? Because his colleagues were going to ignore him anyway and he didn’t want to look weak. He’s not in control of the party and even if he were, his continued leadership is almost certain to see another Tory win in 2020. Who might replace him? Some would now say that Hilary Benn is a candidate. Picture yourself in the year 2020 at a UK/US convention. PM Hilary and Pres Hillary. Cartoonists are going to have a field day.
- The argument in the UK as to whether we should bomb Syria seems to be devoid of substance on both sides. The Right believe they can bomb ISIS into oblivion. The Left want a political solution. A political solution? Who are they kidding? A political solution with who? Russia? Assad? Turkey? The Kurds? That’s like sitting at at table with a bowl of dog shit and declaring that you are going to make a cake. Ain’t nobody gonna be swallowing that, I’m afraid. As far as I see it, there are two types of war. Total war, which is the one we most want to avoid. The other type involves running around trying to put out fires, but doing little to actually stop the firestarter. Which is also unpleasant, but probably better than sitting back and watching the fires spread and burn some more. But when all is said and done, there is no answer to this (or many other) of the world’s problems. Such is life.
- No one seems to be asking the most important question. It’s a simple one. Can our bombs kill radicalized terrorists more quickly than the bombs radicalize new terrorists? There’s got to be someone doing the maths…
- I’ve also noticed that those people I speak to who are most in favour of bombing Syria are also the least likely to approve of us taking in refugees. There has to be a formula out there to calculate the bombs to refugee ratio. Factor in tonnage of bombs dropped, the period of time over which they are dropped and the density of the receiving population per square mile. Plus a few other contributory factors. We can then present the maths to fans of the bomb and explain the concept of cause and effect in numerical form. Getting them to understand the concept of ‘responsibility’ is another matter altogether…
- Putin is nuts. He may sometimes make a valid point. But I suspect that’s by chance rather than design. The Turks are also nuts. They are doing more to prolong and aggravate the Syrian conflict than other nation. They have definitely occupied the moral low ground. I read somewhere recently that Turkey and Russia have waged war against each other more times throughout history than any other pair of countries. Although producing such a stat is a very dubious art. But anyway. They’re not buddies at the best of times. That should be everyone’s biggest concern, perhaps.
- I’ve long needed a post relevant for my warplane photos.
PS. We’re still bombing Iraq, dontcha know?
The UK is littered with airfields and RAF bases, past and present. Mostly past. The majority were opened at the outbreak of WW2 and closed again at the end of the war. There were no airfields terribly close to my current residency in Bournemouth. There were RAF Stations nearby, as you’d expect on the south coast. Radar installations, watching out for Jerry.
Still, Bournemouth has become a destination for fans of flying, both civilian and military. There is a small airport offering cheap flights with RyanAir to places like Barcelona, Pisa, Faro, Malta, Ibiza and more. And in late August, early September the annual Bournemouth Air Festival draws huge crowds to see four days of aeronautical displays. It’s a fantastic show, especially when the owners of the last, creaking Vulcan manage to get that delta winged beast into the skies.
But there is a lesser known, almost hidden corner of Bournemouth’s aviation scene. The Bournemouth Aviation Museum. It’s just £6 for an adult entry ticket, and it’s situated, appropriately, right next to the airport. Perhaps the fact it has a children’s Wonderland park the other side is a hindrance. Or maybe it’s not. Either way, for those that make the trip, there’s a fascinating walk down RAF Memory Lane waiting for you.
First impressions aren’t perhaps that great. Museum or mortuary? There’s a lot of carved up jet carcasses littered about the site. Mostly cockpits. It’s as if an aircraft industry version of al-Qaeda turned up, decapitating planes left right and centre. But having said that, there are a fair few complete models to look at. And besides, this is very much a hands on museum. And if you can get your grubby mitts on any part of an airplane, then the cockpit is the place to be.
In the space of a few minutes I got to act and feel my ages. All of them. I leapt into the single seat of the English Electric Lightning fighter jet with huge enthusiasm and promptly demonstrated the mental age of a four year old, flicking every button and switch and pulling every lever in the cockpit. What’s this one do then? And this one? And this one? None of them, of course, did anything. But that didn’t put me off. I imagined life as one of the glorious few who got to fly this awesome piece of machinery, setting their sights on enemy MiGs. The Lightning was a phenomenal machine, Britain’s first supersonic jet fighter, capable of Mach 2+, the most ridiculous vertical climbs and the ability to fly high enough to intercept a U2.
Then I extracted myself from the plane, and all of a sudden I was no longer a youthful four year old, but a creaking 40 something. It wasn’t a dignified exit. There was bashing of knees and elbows, curses, a pained back, and I ended up crawling away on hands and knees. These jets have seriously cramped cockpits. I had been pleased to see I had the place to myself when I had first entered the park. I was doubly grateful there was no one else about to witness my ungainly departure from the Lightning. But nonetheless, it was worth it. Totally worth it. I repeated the exercise with a few other jets.
Each cockpit was a model of functionality. Very mechanical. These were not computerised fly-by-wire planes. Masses upon masses of dials and switches. With yards of messy, exposed wiring that would be enough to give Steve Jobs a nervous breakdown. It all seems delightfully primitive, in a 1950s and 60s way. Until you get to the cockpit of the Vulcan. You aren’t allowed to sit in the cockpit seats. Nor one of the three rear facing seats for the navigator and his two chums. But there’s an distinct step up in tech with the Vulcan. Still lots of dials and switches. But it’s a different beast.
You can see a few photos below. Click on one of the images for the gallery view. Or go see the whole set on Flickr by clicking here.
Every little boy and little girl dreams of being something special when they grow up. A satisfying, enjoyable job that they’d do just for fun if they could. Some dreams change, some come true, some remain elusive. Mine? Shall I start by excluding the dream of playing football for a living and captaining England to five successive World Cup victories? I have, just recently, accepted that this may not come to pass.
The first career I chose for myself was palaeontology. I must have been about twelve when I became fixated on dinosaurs. If you were wondering where my passion for turtles originates, then there you go. You might think that a young lad who not only knows that such a word as palaeontology exists, but could spell it as well, was nailed on to be an ologist of some sort. Unfortunately, I was an awkward and stubborn school boy if not kept sufficiently entertained. I could entertain myself. My science teacher allowed me to spend the entire last term before exams reading and writing about dinosaurs.
I completely ignored the actual science class in the run up to vital CE exams, but if I was being quiet and not being disruptive/burning things/encouraging the new boy from Indonesia to eat insects/stealing chunks of sodium to throw in sinks, then that was fine by her. The day of the exam arrived, and I hadn’t a clue what anything on the paper meant. The entire one hour exam was multiple choice and I finished it in less than two minutes, randomly ticking boxes and excused myself. I will never forget the look of utter disgust on the face of Mrs Daniels when I passed the exam, scraping a C. Of the eight or nine exams, I passed them all with several As and went to a pretty decent independent school. Did you click the link and check it out? Yes, it’s really that old. As old as the Elizabethan building that makes up part of it.
My education finished abruptly and without qualification at the age of sixteen. I was bored, and the opportunity of working in a local convenience store and earning money seemed more appealing. I know. I have long appreciated, with the joy of hindsight, that this probably wasn’t the smartest move of my life. But there you are. I could have, should have, would have, but….well. Such is life. All too late to worry about what might have been now, isn’t it.
The final straw at that school was with the Divinity class. Religious education. Technically speaking, Divinity is the closest I came to a qualification. I did return one piece of coursework for the GCSE. A number of days late, and after a suspension for failing to do so. I had by this stage developed my own line of thought regards Christianity which ran rather counter to the official school position. As a compulsory subject, it was, I suggested at the time, little more than a brainwashing exercise. The course work required four pages of A4 with something or other about Jesus on it. I returned four pages. Each with one very large word on it. Jesus Did Not Exist. My effort was grudgingly accepted, I left the school shortly after by mutual agreement and about six months later I received a letter through the post grading my Divinity as U for unmarked.
I’ve wandered off topic. I do this too frequently. Back to the subject of careers. My next choice of career was rather more practical. I had a fascination for cars and decided to be a car mechanic. I was in many ways being a realist, and understood that Ferrari were probably not going to ask me to design their next generation of sportsters, not request me to race their F1 models round Silverstone. Being a mechanic was probably my most likely route into working with cars. And yet, anyone who knows me will probably be only too aware that I’m no more car mechanic material than I am divinity teacher material.
My next career crush was to be a barrister. This remains the most far fetched career dream of them all. More so than even the football one. Don’t laugh – I did, after all, at least actually play football. But I did want to pit my wits and exercise my sarcasm in a court of law, prosecuting or defending common criminals. It would have been fun. I think I’d have been good at it. The only draw back being the incredibly lengthy educational process required to get to such a position. It takes drive, determination and sacrifice. And there was absolutely no bloody way I had the time spare to do any of that. I briefly looked at being a Legal Executive. Much easier to do. I settled for giving errant acquaintances advice on how to get themselves out of legal scrapes instead. I invented a number of good stories and had reasonable success. Unpaid success. I then experimented with the military and signed up with the RAF. It was an all too brief encounter. Not, entirely, down to anything I did wrong. For once.
The legal and military urges passed and my attention turned to politics. No qualifications needed. Just have a few ideas, a £500 deposit and a couple of friends nominate you and before you know it, you’re enrolled as a candidate in the General Election. You might even get on TV, especially if you dress up as a clown and think up a cool name. Most politicians are well educated though, and not clowns. Of course. Well…not openly dressed as clowns. Proverbial clowns? Maybe. Although I’ve always rather thought that far too many of them became MPs because they went to good schools that daaddy could afford, passed their exams because they were obedient, but became politicians because they are generally not bright enough to do a proper job. Anyway, I’ve never had £500 to spare. So I’ve not had my moment in the political limelight. Yet.
So instead, I’ve spent the best part of twenty years in retail, with half a dozen years teaching English in Mexico and two years selling home insurance over the phone. None of which were ever the dream. Although the middle one wasn’t a bad job at all. But maybe there is still hope. Throughout all those years there was one other vocation which endured. I always enjoyed writing. Am I any good at it? I feel my blog lets me down. Others might disagree, and I thank you for doing so in advance. But my blog contains far too few posts which could be considered polished pieces of writing.
My blog is awfully spontaneous. If I could just write a post, leave it for a few hours then come back to it, to cut out the crap, to add some substance and to at least check the grammar and spelling….well, I’d have a few more articles to be proud of. As it is, I type furiously away, with frequently interruptions, during scarce moments of free time and slam down on the ‘publish’ button without a second thought. This post will be no exception. Tsk. But still. With more effort, more dedication and more time – I live in hope. Opportunities do come by now and then. I’d love a crack at this job. I have applied.
Otherwise, my writing career will plod on with this blog. Maybe I’ll write a book one day. I know, technically I already have. But I mean I’d like to write a book that someone else would publish, as opposed to the Do It Yourself sort of publishing. Kindle has opened up all sorts of opportunities. I hear that erotic fiction is the niche to go to for a quick buck. Don’t knock it. It’s also a good way into politics…
I have never been naturally inclined to take to the air. That’s not to say that the concept of flight hasn’t ever fascinated me. It has, and still does. I spent many an afternoon on the spectators gallery at Heathrow Airport as a child, wonder struck as Jumbos and Concordes took to the skies. I went to a fair few air shows and airplane museums, and loved them. In my late teens to I took to building a few model airplanes, one of which was a radio controlled petrol engined beast with a 6 foot wingspan. It flew. Once. It now lives in the garage, slowly decaying. I suspect it won’t fly again. And I also served, albeit briefly in the Royal Air Force in my early twenties.
I did all this without ever actually daring step foot on a plane. My dad had served with the Royal Air Force, also briefly – but less so than my effort, at the end of World War II. My grandfather spent most of his working life with British Airways at Heathrow. Air travel should have been in my blood. And I’m sure I was as interested in aircraft as they were. But I had an issue with flying. I wouldn’t say I had a fear of flying. Just an issue.
You see, airplanes are built of chunks of metals and other heavy materials. They weigh hundreds of thousands of kilos. And I know through many experiments, that when I throw a chunk of metal up in the air, it comes down with a thud. A painful looking thud. Yes, yes, I do understand the physics behind flight, and I did put that into practise when building my own planes. I understand that it works. I know why it works. But it simply doesn’t feel as though it should work. It’s hard to trust something that just doesn’t feel right. But logic is like that. Sometimes the obvious is wrong.
There was another reason I didn’t fly. Back in those days I had nowhere to fly to. Sure, I’d like to see some of the world. I guess. But I wasn’t that fussed. I lived in London, and already had plenty of things to do that I didn’t have time for – and none of these things required me to deal with my ‘issue’. But then an opportunity arose back in 2000. A friend was visiting another friend in Egypt. Would I like to go along? You betcha! That was the one place I had always really wanted to go.
Ever since learning about the Pharaohs as a six year old, I’d dreamed of waking up in the morning and seeing the River Nile before me. I’d dreamed of seeing the great pyramids, of touching them, and feeling their history. I dealt with my ‘issue’ got on the plane and lived the dream. I woke up six mornings in a row to see the Nile in front of me, and the pyramids poking above the horizon in the distance. I touched and climbed on the pyramids. And I got told off by the police. You aren’t allowed to climb on the pyramids.
My first flight was at the age of 27 – elderly indeed to be an aviation virgin. But I’ve been flying ever since. More sporadically these last few years. But I’d gotten the travel bug. Only South America is missing from my continental check list. Some would argue that Antarctica is missing too, but I’ve seen the weather forecast, and barring a very significant improvement, I fully intend to ignore Antarctica. I do like penguins, but I don’t imagine they taste so good that I’m missing out on anything extraordinary. In fact, I bet they taste just like chicken.
My next flight departs Stansted Airport next Saturday – direct to Budapest. It’s with an Irish based low cost, no frills airline. Their prices are unbeatable. Their service and reputation largely stink. I’ll hold my nose and grin and bear it while flying them, and won’t mention them by name – they’ll get no promotion from me, good, bad or otherwise. But their prices – too good to turn down. About £60 return, including taxes. Principles can be put on hold for a few hours. It’ll be a cramped, dehydrating and uncomfortable few hours. But I’ll just grin and bear it. You get what you pay for.
Mrs P and I do have a more important flight coming up in a few months though. It’s a rather longer flight, what with the Atlantic Ocean sitting between us and our destination. There’s no grinning and bearing that – comfort is paramount. We’d love to fly with American Airlines. They give a crucial couple of inches extra leg room. When you’re 6 foot 3 inches tall, then every bit of leg room counts. I’ve flown with them before, more than once, and always been impressed with the cleanliness of the craft, the efficiency of the check-in crew and the service on board the plane. And at least they are not Our Lady of the Skies, from Come Fly With Me. So I finish this post and leave you with the compulsory image – a shot of an airplane crossing London, picked from the sky by the enormous lens of my new Fuji.