Essays: The girls -- and Len |
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The girls — and Len

FOR once the weather smiled on a beauty contest. Usually the girls must parade in the wind and rain, but in Miss Great Britain 1980 (ITV) there were definite patches of sunlight alternating with the usual low cloud and driving sleet.

Details of the contest need not detain us long, except to say that the girls were into a whole new range of activities this year. Instead of being interested in things, the girls are into them. They get their dialogue from ‘Charlie’s Angels.’ So do the commentators. ‘She’s into jogging with her boyfriend.’ ‘Ann is into weight-training.’ The occasional girl is into altruism. ‘Her ambition is to help other people.’

The North East Country Synchronised Swimmers from Halifax do their thing, which looks like formation drowning. Here come the girls again. ‘Debbie’s helping to renovate a railway steam engine.’ Past thinly populated deck-chairs, along the concrete esplanade of a swimming-pool tiled like a loo, the girls come awkwardly striding, their costumes cut so high on the sides that underarm hair shows below the hem-line. ‘She would like to live in the sun and not have to go to work.’ The same ambition as a lizard.

Or as Len Murray, a cruel voice might have added. Len has as much right to his holiday as anybody else. Nor is it ever nice to see the tabloids hounding somebody. But you can’t say that he has great timing. The holiday had been arranged in advance, he told the Nine O’Clock News (BBC1), and he was back on schedule, all ready to supervise the Day of Action, the TUC’s name for a day of inaction.

While he was saying all this you couldn’t help reflecting that he was bloody lucky to be back on schedule. As soon as the sun comes out the air traffic controllers usually start arranging days of action on their own account, thereby ensuring that passengers are unable to depend on getting back on schedule, there on schedule, or anywhere on schedule. But perhaps Len Murray knows in advance when all the days of action are going to be, and takes action accordingly.

One thing you can depend on from this column: it will never feature an overall plan for national recovery. I think there is something to the argument that individual talent has been stifled in recent years by too much tax. On the other hand I like the Welfare State, which has the great merit of being reasonably decent to people not overly endowed with individual talent. On the third hand I can see how too much mollycoddling might stifle individual talent. On the fourth ... No. Better leave it to Margaret Thatcher and Len Murray. Meanwhile The Flying Machines of Ken Wallis (BBC1) showed what an individual talent is like.

Ken Wallis, who sounds as if he might be Barnes Wallis’s raffish younger brother, looks like Fyfe Robertson and builds autogyros. A self-taught aerodynamicist and engineer, he has been building autogyros in his back yard ever since the war. We weren’t told how this magic back yard was capitalised in the first place, but there is every possibility that he started by just picking up bits of junk and welding them together at various odd angles.

After years of development, the Wallis autogyro now looks like a high-heeled dodgem speared by a rotary clothes-line. It flies beautifully, especially with its designer at the controls. Undoubtedly it will sell thousands of copies, since it provides a stable platform for an airborne camera and has no down-draught. Here was private enterprise on the wing — untrammelled, possibly slightly potty, but fruitful and robust.

Not to be interfered with by the Government is rare in Britain. In America it is an article of faith, written into the Constitution. So is the principle that the people’s right to bear arms shall not be infringed. In Whicker’s World (Yorkshire) the itinerant investigator broached the subject of private hand-guns in California, where it seems that almost every solid citizen now packs a gun in order to ward off rapists, muggers, thieves and mad people who carry guns. Which gun-owners were solid citizens and which were mad people was a question Whicker kept bringing up, but it was hard to get an answer, since in California a lot of sane people sound crazy, while in Los Angeles almost everybody does.

Housewives were shown being trained to shoot. The instructor was enough by himself to frighten you into carrying your own bazooka. ‘I’m not gonna turn you into vicious killers per se. I’m just gonna teach you to blow the guy’s head off. Boom!’ Within days each portly matron had learned to spin around, whip a .38 howitzer out of her handbag, identify the target, aim and fire.

The target was usually a cardboard cut-out, but it was impossible to quell the thought that it might have been you, asking her for directions to the airport. ‘So you’re learning this for one specific purpose,’ yelled the instructor dementedly. ‘If it’s necessary you’re gonna BLOW SOME SUCKER’S CHEST OUT!’

‘This,’ Whicker suggested with rare tentativeness, ‘is a deterioration of the quality of life.’ But the trainee counter-killers didn’t want to hear about the quality of life deteriorating. As far as they were concerned, it had already deteriorated. One lady had been sexually attacked on three separate occasions by the same man in the same parking lot. All the bad guys carried guns. There was nothing left for the good people to do except carry guns as well.

Nobody concerned seemed to think that gun control was even a possibility. Juliet Mills’s husband showed off his collection of guns. The collection is so valuable that he needs guns to protect it. When he goes away anywhere he takes the best guns with him and booby-traps the rest. California is the richest seam Whicker has ever mined. There’s a weirdo behind every wall.

Almost forgot to mention the FA Cup Final (BBC1), which broke precedent this year by keeping me awake throughout. Perhaps I’m getting the hang of the game at last. Whichever team is less tired by the preliminary interviews wins. Arsenal went into the match groggy from answering questions about whether they were superstitious. Bob Wilson, who used to be a footballer himself, but who has since climbed high in the nebulous world of commentating, asked the players whether they had any superstitious observances on the day of the big match. Almost invariably it turned out that they hadn’t.

West Ham came on as the underdog and immediately began enjoying the privileges of that lowly animal. They ran the other end of the field and scored. The Gunners spent most of the rest of the match wearing themselves out trying to equalise. Heat, heavy grass and 67 previous matches took their legs away. Meanwhile Brooking did a Beckenbauer for the Hammers, who towards the end looked like scoring again, although Willie Young put a stop to that with a well aimed judo kick from behind. He looked shame-faced afterwards, but it was only half his fault. Even to a casual viewer it is obvious that the rules need changing so that a professional foul earns a penalty every time. Football players are supposed to be heroes, not saints.

The Observer, 18th May 1980