Essays: The Great Hwan |
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The Great Hwan

THERE have been suggestions that last week’s Chinese skipping expert, Hwan Dum Man, was really a Japanese called Katsumi Suzuki. If only it were true.

Alas, after a long career as a daredevil the great Katsumi Suzuki lies with his ancestors. During the war, Katsumi was the only Japanese pilot ever to fail the intelligence test for kamikaze school. But with the coming of peace he forged a new career. Hailing as he did from the brine-bathed island of Nogo, where the sea-food is so tough they regard sea cucumbers as taramasalata, Katsumi had a stomach that could digest anything. When he ate a lawnmower he made headlines throughout the world.

Other exploits followed. Katsumi may not have been the first Japanese to cross the Pacific alone, but he was certainly the first to accomplish that feat at the wheel of a Datsun sports car. He would have also, had he succeeded, been the first to assemble a hang-glider in mid-air after ejecting from a low-flying jet aircraft. As it was, he became the man who brought hang-gliding and pot-holing into the close association they enjoy today.

Hwan, on the other hand, is the survival type. The emphasis is on difficulty rather than danger. The only man to go in the reverse direction during the Long March, he ended up where Mao started. The result was a long period of auto-criticism, from which he emerged determined to redeem himself by mastering the impossible. By turns Hwan became juggler, escapologist, acrobat and Rolls-Royce dealer for Chang How province. Now he is the greatest skipper the world has ever seen.

What has the above, you might ask, got to do with television? Not much, but then neither had the Eurogala (ATV), a fanfare for the EEC brought to you direct from the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Petula Clark was the link-person. By now Petula speaks all the major European languages with equal unease. Her German sounds like French and her Italian sounds like Spanish. Her English, too, is a portent. ‘The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, which has endured so much ... let us hope that the European Parliament will endure in such a fashion.’ Perhaps the day is not far off when we will all share Petula’s polyglottal knack for making ourselves misunderstood.

‘What the world needs now,’ sang Petula in double time, ‘is love, sweet love.’ Male dancers in cat-suits presented their twitching bottoms to the audience as the bongoes beat out the frantic rhythms of synthetic passion. For a change of pace, Mary O’Hara, dressed as Medea for some reason, sang a whimsical ditty entitled ‘Too Much Magic’ — a surfeit the show was in no danger of suffering from. The dancers came back to do a choreographed scene change. On came the Kessler Twins, a classic Euro-act dedicated to the dubious proposition that boredom becomes excitement if it happens twice.

There were speeches at the end. Somebody very big in the British end of Europe — he was either the Secretary of the British European Society or the Chairman of the European British Association — presented someone even bigger to Lord Grade. ‘It is to Lord Grade, a great European, that I want the President of the European movement ... to make a presentation ... to Lord Grade.’ Lord Grade accepted the award, whatever it was. He should have handed it back and half his peerage along with it. The man who gave us the Muppets can be forgiven much but there are limits.

Europe is too vague a subject to get excited about. The Guinea Pig Club (Thames) was about something definite. British wartime aircrew who were badly burned in combat were rebuilt at East Grinstead by the great plastic surgeon Archibald Mclndoe. In many cases he didn’t have much to go on. The fighter pilots, in particular, tended to be roasted to a crisp, since they were practically sitting on the fuel tank. ‘You could see your hands burning in front of you,’ said one of them, out of a face that looked encouragingly close to normal.

There was, however, no blinking the fact that some of the visages on show still looked fairly rugged. Lipless mouths, tacked-on noses, stub ears. But one of the several heartening things about the programme was the way the personalities came shining through the damage. You found yourself getting used to it. Easy for us, of course: we aren’t actually obliged to wear the face. Nevertheless it was some comfort to be able to convince yourself that if the same thing had happened to you it might not necessarily have meant that your life would have been over.

This was to take it personally, but personally Is the only way to take it. These men, after all, burned on our behalf. From people who read one book a year there has lately been much fashionable talk about Britain’s contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany not being very significant. In fact the British fighter pilots saved civilisation if anybody did. Their heroism is not to be written off just because they thought clobbering the Hun was a bit of a lark. Some of the Guinea Pigs still think that, but they have earned the right to think what they like.

One pilot who went through 15 operations to get a semblance of his face back vowed to nail a German for each operation when he got back into the air. He got 17 before the desire for revenge turned into acceptance. The compulsion to get back into the wild blue yonder seems to have been universal. One of the privileges conferred by extreme suffering is the capacity to be frank, and all concerned unhesitatingly admitted that the battles in the air were an unbeatable thrill. The probability that it takes war to bring the best out of people is hard to accept if your devotion is to peace. Just by letting the heroes talk, this excellent programme raised all the questions.

Camera (Granada) is a 13-part series on Victorian photography hosted by Gus Macdonald, the boy who came out of the Gorbels to produce ‘World in Action.’ His new career as a front man should be a raging success. I don’t think he got those teeth in Glasgow, but the voice remains exactly as per the original — deep, warm, friendly and almost always comprehensible as long as you remember that when he says ‘chunning with emotion’ he means churning with emotion.

For students of the Australian accent, Tennis to Win (BBC2) is a must. John Newcombe, Ken Rosewall and Evonne Cawley are all on hand to help you improve your nasal vowels. ‘Ar, Yvonne Cawley’s joined me,’ says Nuke. ‘Yvonne, welcome.’ The whole word ‘welcome,’ consonants included, is delivered smoothly through the nose. Only a master is capable of such relaxation, but the British beginner will soon find that he can say a word like ‘backhand’ in a typically Aussie, winning way.

The Observer, 10th June 1979