Essays: Achtung! OTRAG! |
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Achtung! OTRAG!

‘ACHTUNG! ACHTUNG!’ cried a German missile scientist in Panorama (BBC1). Vier, Drei, Zwei, Eins! Up from the heart of Africa flamed a German rocket. It was a bad dream.

But it was all true. A West German industrial outfit called OTRAG has apparently been presented by General Mobutu with a large tract of Zaire. Atop their very own plateau, OTRAG have built their very own State, policed by themselves according to laws of their very own devising. A quarter of a million locals can be moved about at OTRAG’s behest.

The aim is to launch spy satellites into orbit. It is presumed that every Third World country will want its own spy satellite and be ready to pay for getting it put up. The Germans have the know-how. Some of the scientists and technologists involved go all the way back to the dear old days at Peenemünde.

In fact the wartime Wasserfall rocket was the direct ancestor of the OTRAG launcher. Where the V2 had a lot of moving parts and tended to fall down, the Wasserfall was simple. It used a compressed air system instead of fuel pumps. An ancient scientist fondly conjured up a picture of zer compressed air compressink zer fuels in zer tanks and zer combarshan chamber.

As I remember, the Wasserfall used to fall down all the time too, but there can be no doubt that the OTRAG launcher works. It is compiled on a modular system, so that all you need do to lift a bigger payload is add more units. ‘Panorama’ did its best to become het up about the prospect of OTRAG filling the sky with what it called ‘primitive satellites.’ One assumes that a primitive satellite is carved out of wood and has a ring through its nose.

But upon reflection — never easy to achieve when German scientists are shouting ‘Achtung!’ — it is hard to see why Third World countries should not have their own spy satellites. If Idi Amin had his own spy satellite, he might at last find out that everybody hates him. Nor was any evidence forthcoming that OTRAG has been falling into any bad habits concerning the local people.

The only real message concerned the impact of sophisticated technology on an unsophisticated country. As usual, the incongruity looked more ridiculous than sinister. Mobutu suffers from an 80 per cent inflation rate, delusions of grandeur and an unprepossessing personal appearance. He has no more business launching satellites than flying to the Moon — although the Germans are presumably ready to help him do that as well.

What technology is doing to Africa is nothing beside what it is doing to James Burke. For the past few years Burke has been roaming the world, digging up facts for a series on the hidden history of technology. These travels have necessarily resulted in his absence from our screens — a deprivation that I, for one, have been able to face with equanimity. But recently it was made evident that Burke was on his way back with the finished series, to be called Connections (BBC1).

We got the early warning In Radio Times, which was suddenly inundated with the interrogative sentences that are Burke’s call-sign. ‘What are the links between an Austrian piano-maker and Concorde? Between frilly knickers and the invention of printing? What has the recipe for Chicken Marengo got to do with air conditioning?’ What has all this, you thought, catching the querulous habit, got to do with the price of fish?

Switching on the introductory programme should have brought you the answer. Instead, it brought you more questions. Burke was bursting with information, but characteristically he seemed doubtful about our capacity to understand it, unless everything was spelled out very carefully, a bit at a time, with lots of teasing to hold our interest. ‘You’d never believe the extraordinary things that led to us being the way we are today,’ he twinkled.

Picking up gadgets and putting them down again without telling you what they were, Burke abruptly strode off, talking as he went. Unfortunately the camera went with him. ‘Well that ... is what this series ... is gonna be all about ... search for clues ... strange places ...’ Gradually his theme emerged. After an immense rigmarole about the famous power failure in the eastern United States, Burke informed us that we are living in a ‘technology trap.’ We are dependent on networks of technology that nobody can any longer understand in their entirety. ‘Change anything in that network and the effects spread like ripples on a pond.

‘You take one thing away and the whole thing falls down and leaves you with nothing.’ When Burke is helping to spend so much of the licence-holder’s money, he should be more careful not to talk claptrap. In fact you can take lots of things away and the whole thing stays there. You can bomb whole sections of it flat and it still won’t collapse. ‘Do you know where to go ... in order to survive?’ Burke suggested that when Armageddon came ‘you might have to kill someone if he doesn’t let you into his house.’

Burke will have some interesting things to say about which discoveries led to what inventions. If a Roman senator hadn’t been cured of athlete’s foot we wouldn’t have had the particle accelerator, etc. ‘Look! See that? Hah! I mean ... take a look at this!’ Yet he might miss the biggest story of all, which is all about how a group of BBC executives attempted to get rid of a tiresomely keen presenter by sending him on a wild goose chase through 20 countries and 150 locations. ‘With any luck the twit should be away for years, perhaps forever.’ But he has come back, and once again the air is full of stimulating questions. Why is James Burke the way he is? Does he know what he looks like when he looks quizzical? What is he doing with his finger?

Nina (BBC1), by Jehane Markham, was a good play about Russian dissidents in Western exile. In her circumstances Nina was obviously based on Voikhanskaya, while Yuri’s history had something in common with Bukovsky’s. But presumably the personalities were fictional. Anyway, here was a love affair going wrong. Yuri (Jack Shepherd) emerged from Russia a hero, but in an English context rapidly revealed additional qualifications as a drunk, a bum and a nut. Nina (Eleanor Bron) soon loathed him. In Russia a common cause had brought them together, but freedom left them free to fall out of love.

The playwright’s father, David Markham, was instrumental in springing Bukovsky. What happened subsequently must have been a bitter education for all concerned. The dissidents are extremely brave, but they are only human. We probably expect too much of them and they certainly expect too much from the West.

Jehane Markham deserves praise for her subtlety of insight. As for Eleanor Bron, this was the best acting I have seen her do: controlled, economical and touching, she faithfully reflected the likelihood that Voikhanskaya is not only among the most intellectually impressive of the dissidents, but has been quietly living out the biggest tragedy.

The Observer, 22nd October 1978