Tuesday, 21 December 2010

He Counted The All Out, Then We Did Too

As someone who has always been a bit obsessed with the history of air warfare who also thinks that war is singly humanity's stupidest idea and ultimate downfall, I found our government's decision to scrap our Harrier jump-jets a bit of a tough one to decide how I felt. On the one hand it can only be good that we need less military hardware. On the other hand, it marks the end of a bit of history that has been a fixture of my life for as long as I've been around.

And we do need less military hardware. With the world as allegedly screwed financially as it is, the only place needing to expand on military spending is probably somewhere like Switzerland, who might need to protect their banks. I mean, China won't be needing to expand. No one's going to attack them because they make all the stuff we want to buy, cheaply and often. They won't attack us because 90% of their population is too poor to buy the crap they need to sell to us. It's much easier now to fuck your neighbours over with commerce than it is with genocide and M.A.D.

So there's no place in this world for the remarkable, revolutionary Harrier. Whether you're a hippy or a conservative, if you have any pride at all in the achievements of this great (and it is still great, no matter what the Daily Mail et al tell you) nation, you've got to admit that it has earned its place not just in the archives of military advancement, but in engineering genius. Asking an aeroplane to go straight up in the air from a standing start is a bit like asking water to flow uphill, or a drunk to stand on a stepladder and spin on the spot without falling. Or asking David Cameron to actually think about the future of this country and him actually listen.

This 'plane is possibly the last reminder that we, the British, have at some point been world leaders in something other than invading places that don't have guns. We, the British, created an aircraft that was so unique it has never, in forty years, been equalled, let alone surpassed. And yeah... forty years! That's how long it probably is since we last made such a remarkable impact on world industry. The Harrier was so good even the Americans bought it!

However, going back to my interest in military marvels, I'm really hoping the Harrier will still grace our skies at airshows and public displays for years to come, because we've made a lot of historically important aeroplanes that we've mothballed, dismantled and scrapped. The Vulcan. The Mosquito. The Lightning. Concorde. Incredible, innovative machines all now left to newsreel footage and the loving reminiscence of ageing crew and support staff. Let's not make that mistake with the Harrier. Let's keep it - some at least - airworthy, if only so we can say "Look, we made this and no one's done it better since."

I was twelve when Argentina invaded the Falkland Isles. Even back then I thought the whole thing was a ridiculous idea, both to invade a tiny island and then send millions of pounds of hardware to win it back. But the point was I was twelve, and British, and there wasn't much to feel good about being British back then. If kicking the Argies arses was what was needed to lift our spirits (and draw attention away from the continuing destruction of our industry by a vicious, paranoid, shortsighted, greedy Prime Minister) then that was fair enough. The fact that going to war with Argentina was a bit like the Brazilian national football team playing Accrington Stanley was a moot point.

I got to see things I liked on telly. Our brave soldiers fighting for their lands, and more importantly to a kid who wants badly to be in the RAF, the sight of the Harrier jump-jet tearing up Argentine ground positions and taking down their crappy Mirages, Skyhawks and Pucaras. It was great, and it was made all the more amazing by the solid, factual, sincere reporting of Brian Hanrahan.

Brian died this week, age 61, after fighting cancer. It didn't seem right, somehow, that both he and the Harrier should both see their lives come to an end at roughly the same time. There are some things you just think will always be a fixture of British life, like Bruce Forsyth, complaining about the weather, or, if we're honest, being rubbish at things we invented.

I was impressed in the obituary on the BBC that they focussed on his phrase "I counted them all out, and I counted them all back in" because I can remember him saying that so clearly on the news back then in '82. He did it because he wasn't allowed to say how many jets had been used in the raids. Simple military logic, that one. I can't help thinking that in this day and age the press would push and push and push to get those figures to make the story sell better and attract more viewers.

Ahh. Simpler times. Different breeds of man and machine. Gods rest the both of you. Brian, I'll see you in the newsreel archives.

Harrier, I'll see you in the skies. Even if it's just with my eyes shut.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Just a Bit of Snow, Not Armaggedon

Just short of two years ago I was in Montreal. It was winter there, and on a couple of occasions the temperature dropped to -30c at night, and it hovered around -10c during the daytime. When it snowed, it was thick, heavy, and often wind-driven to an extent that it fell hard and felt like someone was flicking rice in your face. And all the while, the natives of Montreal went about their business, suitably kitted out in warm winter clothing for the cold winter conditions, their cars equipped with tyres to suit the conditions, and their public transport infrastructure solidly maintained and supported by city services that kept the roads clear enough to be used in as safe a manner as is possible, the way people drive in Montreal.

Here I am in England. In the last seven days we've had about the amount of snow that Montreal can realistically expect in a day. And we "can't cope". Apparently this is because the snow has arrived earlier that expected, and in a manner not seen on these shores since 1965. Which begs the question "If we could cope in 1965, how come we can't now?"

What I'm finding funnier is that we do seem to be coping with it. Apart from the obvious and usual bunch of moronic girls that think wearing those stupid flat soled furry boots is a wise choice of footwear on snowy and icy surfaces, everyone seems to be dealing with the cold, and largely driving on the roads as though the roads are as dangerous as they initially appear. Okay, I've had to help get a couple of people moving because they don't know how to set off in deep snow, and I myself have misjudged the traction I can get on a hilly side-road and admit defeat carefully in reverse, hoping no one comes up behind me. But we're coping.

Some of you that read this might think that's not the case. "Yeah Ed, tell the old folks dying in this cold that we're coping." Meh. Old folks die every day. It's what old folks do. And yeah, if you use the trains you'll have been inconvenienced. And yeah, there are people panic buying in the supermarkets. And yeah, we can't all get to our places of work, and we will lose money as a result. But these things are symptomatic of the infrastructure being unprepared. As people of the nation I think we're doing pretty well!

But "WE'RE DOING PRETTY WELL!" is not an attention-grabbing headline, is it? It's so much more media to have headlines alerting us to dead grannies, static snowploughs, abandoned cars, understaffed hospitals (which will be happening, snow or not, now we have the real tories in power) and businesses losing money. We don't get stories of how neighbours are looking out for the elderly in their neighbourhood, nor do we get tales of people digging each other out of the snow and not stopping until everyone's moving. But I know these stories happen because I've witnessed them with my own eyes.

I love this snow. It might keep me from earning a wage from time to time, and it might stop my son's education temporarily, but in the interim there are those magic moments where we're out on a sledge, hurtling down a hill, laughing. We'll be throwing snowballs at each other, laughing. We'll be trying to write our names in the snow, and not with pens, and we'll be laughing. It might keep me from my wonderful girlfriend, but in its own way that's okay too, because it gives me the chance to miss her, and enjoy the moment when I do see her all the more.

I love this cold. It gives me the opportunity to appreciate that I live somewhere where I can get back to a centrally heated home. It makes me think about what the best way to cope with adverse conditions are. It stops me thinking we're the absolute and total masters of our planet, and that nature is always one step ahead of us.

To listen to some people talk over this last week you'd think the world was coming to an end. In a way I hope it is. I hope the world of Britain being temperamentally temperate to the point of rain about 70% of the year is coming to an end. Because it might make the councils stop and think about the way they budget a bit more. Yeah, a little more funding for ploughs, and blowers, and gritters. A little less budget for statues, committees, office improvements and hanging baskets. No matter how many of the latter you put up, Ripley is always going to be a crap-hole, and I don't want to be stuck on the road there in the winter.

But we're Brits aren't we? We've got to have something to complain about in our weather. We want snow on Christmas Day, but not if it inconveniences us. We want long hot summer days, but not if it makes us uncomfortable. We want rain, but only when we're not out in it. We want it all our own way, but we never get it, do we?

I'd like to think - no, hope - that this weather continues, and becomes a fixture of the British mindset. It really will make us reassess how we go about doing things here, particularly at government level, and it will hopefully get us to the point where Canadians don't think we're whining crybabies who can't cope with what they don't even think of as a light dusting.

I've just looked out the window. It's thawing. I think I'll take a nice safe drive over to my girlfriend then!