Essays: Bomb-happy Colonels |
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Bomb-happy Colonels

The dingbats were really swarming in a World About Us (BBC2) about the Confederate Air Force, a Texas outfit that preserves old aircraft and is obviously ready to fly them into action at the drop of a Stetson.

Ian Wooldridge was the narrator. All he had to do was stand there while the headcases raced towards him, often at the controls of a Second World War fighter aircraft in impeccable working order. ‘This country,’ one Colonel averred grimly, ‘is goan down the drink towards Socialism a damn sight too fast.’ All the other Colonels agreed. Everybody who has taken out a subscription to the Confederate Air Force automatically attains the rank of Colonel. Female Colonels are called Angels. The Colonels wear a Confederate uniform adapted for flying and salute while taking the oath, which happens every few minutes. Meanwhile the aircraft are going by in a constant stream and usually at very low level. An Angel is not allowed to salute. What she must do is put one hand on her heart.

While the Angels quelled their leaping hearts and several thousand Colonels saluted, the planes of the Confederate Air Force blackened the sky. Wooldridge was not too hot on naming the various types. Small boys eager to achieve the rank of Colonel would have been able to tell him that some of those Confederate planes are a lot rarer than hen’s teeth, especially that Twin Mustang. One slip was enough to prove that Wooldridge lacked the required background in air recognition: if a Second World War bomber pilot made a mistake over Germany, the aircraft he saw last would have been unlikely to be a Heinkel 111. But this is perilously close to the way the Colonels talk over a thick shake.

Bweeeeooowww! Japanese fighter-bombers with rising suns like hot tomato pizzas on their sides came racing at nought feet towards the assembled audience while planted bombs erupted in a fair reproduction of what Pearl Harbour would have looked like if everybody on the receiving end had just been promoted to the rank of Colonel. The Angels suddenly needed two hands to hold their hearts. It was Air Show day — the day the Confederate Air Force shows its power. The power includes, incredibly enough, a fully operational B-29 flown by the man who dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

For any Japanese among the prospective Colonels it must have been a stirring sight when B-29-san came pounding towards them like a silver dream from the past. The Confederate Air Force do not actually own their own atomic bomb yet but no doubt they have plans in that direction. After all, as one Colonel confided, they are ‘tryin’ to do a jarb the guvmint hasn’t dern.’ Some of the Colonels get dressed up as Kamikaze pilots, which made you a bit nervous about their possible next move. Stanford Tuck and Adolf Galland, old enemies from the fighting over Britain, came to pay a call and be awarded the honorary rank of Colonel. Adolf was reassuring about the German youth of today. ‘I am convinced they would do zair duty as we haff done, whizzout wondering who gave the order.’

What stayed in the memory, however, was not the pious vapourings of the super-patriots but the sheer loveliness of a P-51 Mustang stunting in a clear sky. It gets harder to blame people for having silly dreams when what inspires them has so much glamour. To have flown those beautiful machines in the great air battles can’t help but seem, in retrospect, a lot more exciting than life today. At the time, however, the thrill was somewhat tempered by the prospect of getting killed. Nor do the Colonels seem willing to entertain the possibility that it is not the aimlessness of today’s youth they are so incensed about, but the emptiness of their own lives.

Of the four judges who each read 35,000 poems entered in the great Arvon/Observer poetry competition, three were brought on stretchers to the South Bank Show (LWT) and placed in the sitting position by Melvyn Bragg. One of them, Charles Causley, was able to maintain an upright posture but could say nothing, presumably because the verbalising areas of his cerebral cortex had been reduced to the neural equivalent of wood shavings. The field of judges was thus effectively thinned down to only two runners, Seamus Heaney (bogs, eels) and Ted Hughes (crows, violence).

Both Seamus and Ted are telegenic to such a high degree that they make you worry for the future of poetry, which has traditionally been written to sustain itself, and not to be put over by a charismatic author. It isn’t Seamus’s fault that he looks such a woolly cuddle and sounds smoother than a pint of Guinness going down a dry throat. Nor is it on Ted’s head that his craggy features look as if they should be stuck at an angle in Easter Island. Both poets explained that the task of reading 35,000 poems by other poets had turned their own wells of inspiration into pits of alkali ringed by bleached bones, or words to that effect.

Here was proof that a studio discussion need not be balanced between two conflicting opinions. People who broadly agree with each other can still be illuminating, if they are as bright as Seamus and Ted. One interesting divergence was on the subject of the great modern Russians. Heaney suggested that the efflorescence of Akhmatova and Mandelstam was proof that poetry could flourish in troubled times. Hughes pointed out, surely correctly, that the troubled times were exactly what did them in. A gripping argument could have developed here, but it would probably have been necessary to feed Charles Causley intravenously.

Andrew Motion read the poem for which he had just been awarded the five thousand greenies. He, too, it transpired, was telegenic enough to take over a leading role in ‘Starsky and Hutch.’ It would have all boded ill for the future of poetry as a contemplative medium if it had not been for the inspired absence of the fourth judge, Philip Larkin. The top man wasn’t there. Presumably he was exercising his usual judicious reticence, although there was always the possibility that the 35,000 poems had had an even more devastating effect on him than they had had on Charles Causley, and that he had been sent back to Hull in a plastic bag.

I would have liked to hear more of the second prize winner, perhaps because I like long poems in technically demanding stanzas and think that short, suggestive lyrics tend to flatter the reader. It was amusing to note, incidentally, that one of the minor prizewinners was B. Wongar. The famous Australian aboriginal poet B. Wongar has the same corporal existence as Kilroy, but no doubt he can still use a hundred quid.

The Zeroes were back again in The Kamikaze Ground Staff Reunion Dinner (BBC1), a play by Stewart Parker which was first presented on radio, where it instantly attracted wide attention, if only because of possessing the best title of any dramatic work since ‘Mourning Becomes Electra.’ The television production revealed the piece to be pretty thin. It was fun to watch British character actors playing Japanese without bunging on oriental accents, but the gags made you smile rather than laugh. Not many tricks were missed with Japanese detail, although Osaka should be stressed on the first syllable rather than the second and Nakajima on the second rather than the third. I know these things only because it was in Osaka that I met a Japanese taxi-driver who had flown Nakajima torpedo-planes at Midway. This curriculum vitae would have made him an ideal candidate for a full colonelcy in the Confederate Air Force but I think he figured he’d already done all that.

The Observer, 22nd February 1981
[ This piece also appears in Glued to the Box ]