Radio Days. Imagination and The Force.

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Flanagan’s Force

To peer at the glowing valves in the back of an old-style wireless was like looking at a futuristic city, the sort of place the Treens lived in on Venus. You could imagine them flying from skyscraper to skyscraper in their machines and The Mekon of Mekonta hovering around on his brain-powered tea tray. The Treens were almost human, although green but The Mekon, also green, was practically all head. The Treens obeyed his every command because he was so, well, brainy. I really wanted one of those hover trays but I wouldn’t have had the brain power to drive it.  After a certain age the ability to fly through deepest space in a cardboard box or on a bin lid, powered by imagination alone, sort of deserts you. You may of course, sit in the box and make appropriate noises but long before you reach Alpha Centauri, your family will have sent for the good people in the white coats. When adults are described as ‘well grounded’ it is considered a compliment, not a disability. We Earthlings are unavoidably ‘earthbound.’

You might see the Manhattan skyline, all lit up and buzzing with energy. That was where so much music and talk came from. By reaching around to the knob at the front, you could cut off the energy. Wheeeoooo chunkk! Manhattan died. Turn again and the city came back to glowing life.This was a guilty pleasure as we were expressly forbidden to interfere with the wireless. Even the smallest valve is vital to the life of the whole apparatus. The Old Man might have to go down, in high dudgeon, to Oisín Thornton’s shop for a new valve, or to Bernie Clancy to have the whole blasted thing repaired. High Dudgeon may sound like a charming little village in the Cotswolds but it isn’t. My Old Man was there on many occasions. It was not a tranquil place at all. Certainly not in 1940 when his wireless exploded with the surge of the new electricity. The Force was not with him on that occasion. Blasted E.S.B. At least I wasn’t responsible that time.

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Grid Force

Static was the curse of radio, as it came to be called. I believe that the fizzing and flickering on old televisions after ‘shut down’ is the echo of The Big Bang, the reverberation of the creation of the ever expanding Universe. If so, the Big Bang must have occurred somewhere near Skerries, because we got it all the time on radio and later, on television. Amateur wiring and dodgy DIY fuses probably didn’t help. Multiple adapters from a single plug created the perfect electrical storm. Nevertheless the static emphasised the wonder of the whole business. Practically every programme sounded like a dispatch from Nazi occupied Europe,where some brave resistance fighter pedalled  furiously on a bicycle-powered generator to send vital information over the airwaves. Fine tuning was required to locate your favourite programme through the blizzard of static. The needle jerked along the dial from Athlone to Hilversum to Frankfort in search of a clear signal. The needle was powered by strings winding around little wheels. There was a green tuning ‘eye’ that promised clarity. We lived in hope. Sometimes it paid off.

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Force filched from the wind

Always at breakfast time, we got Dvorak and his Slavonic dances from the Home Service, courtesy of the BBC Northern Ireland Light Orchestra. There was Lift Up Your Hearts, a short inspirational talk just before the eight o’ clock news. One of the themes remained with me:……..a clergyman in some far-flung outpost of Empire saw a young shipping clerk supervising coolies as they carried bags of rice up gangplanks and into the hold of a freighter. The sun was hot, even in the early morning. The young man, clad in white, with his sola topee and clip board, was tallying the bags as the coolies struggled up the plank and ran back down.  “Juldi! Juldi!” said the young clerk by way of encouragement. The clergyman saw him in the late afternoon, still tallying and encouraging the sweating coolies. The young man looked exhausted. Even the mad dogs and all the other Englishmen had taken refuge from the heat. ‘”You’ve had a long day,” I said. “Keep your chin up”. The young man smiled in response. He straightened up and carried on with renewed vigour. It is amazing how even the simplest kind word can make such a difference.”‘ He never thought to lift up the hearts of the coolies. Blasted natives. “Juldi! Juldi

The Old Man always encouraged us in the morning: “Get a move on. There’s Lift up Your Effing Hearts. Get out of bed and get off to school.” He improved after a cigarette and a cup of tea. Piiip! Piiip! Piiip. Eight o’clock. Boots on the floor. “Here is the News.(in no particular order)…..Korea, Mau Mau, Cyprus, death of Stalin, The Middle East, (always The Middle East,)King Farouk, Nasser, Suez, Hillary and Tensing, Glubb Pasha,Makarios,Kenyatta, inflation, Budapest, Cold War, Kashmir, Bikini atoll and the hydrogen bomb…” That was before ‘bikini’ took on a new resonance to disturb the tranquility of growing boys. They were only talking about nuclear devastation  and the end of life on Earth.

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Sometimes there was good news; news to make young lads, leave their breakfast,  jump up and down and yell in sheer delight. Sixty years ago, almost to the day, through the firestorm of static, all the way from Melbourne, came the commentary on the Olympic 1500 metres final. The ‘man from Eire’, Ronnie Delaney came through the field, the greatest milers of the day, Landy, Hewson, Lincoln, Tabori and a handful of luminaries, to carry off the gold medal for Ireland. In the apparently relentless and grim Fifties, his achievement stills shines out. The Force was with him that day. I still cheer when I see it on video.

I think it was even better though, on the wireless.

Do you remember The Future?

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What a pretty picture they make; the elegant lady, the top-hatted gentlemen, the fine buildings and of course the deferential, bare-footed boy with his broom. He knows his place. He is, of course, a crossing sweeper. His job was to keep the roads level, especially at junctions where the dust and gravel was rutted and scattered by iron-shod hooves and iron-rimmed wheels. Like the labour of Sisyphus, his work never ended. Like the stone-breaker, the porter, the child chimney-sweep, the agricultural labourer, (women and children on lower rates of pay), factory hands, all those who labour and are oppressed, their work was hard, monotonous and repetitive. Their task was to make the world a better and more comfortable place for their betters. Humanitarians were moved to charitable efforts. Reformers looked for legislative change, new labour laws, better pay, better living conditions, education. Revolutionaries sought to change the system by force, promising a glittering future.. Anarchists sought to blow the whole bloody lot up. Idealists envisaged brave new worlds, tending to be less than tolerant of those who didn’t share their ideals. In many cases, change came about with a great deal of bloodshed—-for the Greater Good, of course. The artist possibly, kept an eye on next year’s fashions, with a view to another edition of his painting. I note that the child has changed his tie. The lady is going for a more autumnal  palette, this season.

I had a (borrowed)book, The Boy’s Book of Aviation, published sometime in the 1920s, that caught the romance of flight for youngsters. There was a chapter on trans-Atlantic passenger flights of the future. Nobody wants to land, like Alcock and Brown, arse over tip, in a bog outside Clifden, County Galway. It would be difficult to maintain a regular schedule on that basis. The book predicted that trans-Atlantic  aeroplanes would hop from one floating runway to another, all the way across, to refuel and let the passengers get out to stretch their legs. It just might work, but not on windy days, or in the dark, or in heavy fog, or in the hurricane season. What happened was that aircraft got bigger, carried more fuel and hopped from London to Paris, Lisbon, The Azores, Bermuda and New York or other destinations westwards. In summer they hopped from London to Shannon, Reykjavik, Gander and New York. As planes got even bigger, all those intermediate airports became obsolete and had to develop other reasons for their existence. Those who plumped for floating runways, had to wait for World War II to get any customers at all. As for Zeppelins, well, you know that story. By the way, I identified the owner of the book some fifty years after I read it. I brought it back. I apologised for the delay.  “Ah!” he said,”I remember that book. I borrowed that from Des McDonough, away back in the Thirties.” That was a roundabout trip for any book. I’m glad that nowadays, we don’t have to land with the aid of trip-wires, on a heaving deck in mid-ocean and take off again by catapult. Even the pilot would need a few gins and tonics in the VIP lounges along the way. (That’s my father-in-law below, by the way.)

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In The Soul of Man under Socialism,   Oscar Wilde paints a romantic picture of how ‘the masses’, released from grinding toil by science and technology, would devote themselves to the arts, to music and poetry. He particularly picked out the crossing-sweeper as an example. Machines would be installed at every crossing to sweep the gravel level. Meanwhile, the liberated crossing-sweeper would be at home composing concerti or polishing up a collection of sonnets. It didn’t quite work out like that. Firstly, tarmacadam eliminated the trade altogether. Lenin and Stalin carried their socialism to extremes. The poor became cannon fodder or merely hands for industry. Intellectuals were seen as a threat. People of Oscar’s proclivities were liquidated or sent to Siberia. Mao carried his version of communism to its logical conclusion– a never ending revolution…thesis/antithesis/synthesis. A grinding equality forced surgeons out of operating theatres, even in mid-surgery, to make steel. Biological science had to bend to conform to Marxist theory. Everyone had to accept a never-ending revolution …but not yet. Jung Chang tells how her pregnant mother walked on The Long March while her father rode a horse, consistent with his dignity as a Party member. James Connolly, a bigger name internationally than Lenin, inexplicably abandoned his socialist ambitions and threw in his lot with militant nationalism. Mr. DeValera, alarmed by the Bolsheviks, was at pains to assure the Irish voters in 1918 that he was not a ‘revolutionary’. Everything would remain the same in a new Ireland, but on his terms. Cue athletic youths and comely maidens….

We particularly looked forward to robots to do all the work, especially in the house. There is already a domestic robot that can stir soup. You prepare and put the ingredients in a pot and a robot arm will stir it. Then you take it out and eat it with a spoon. All this research was misguided as scientists were about to develop pills to take the place of meals. There are some dietary substitute tablets already, but I would miss the accompanying spuds and gravy. Not the washing-up though. There is also a robot/computer lawn-mower that mutters about the garden all night, like a hedgehog, while you get to work on that concerto. Teachers will become redundant too, as children will be placed in classes of hundreds and taught by computers. Mars will be a staging post to other galaxies. Everyone will wear the hideous get-up of Mr. Spock. Politicians will no longer be abused about potholes in the perfect world of the future. I remember Dan Dare, pilot of The Future,putting on a helmet that translated Venusian speech into English….just like Google.

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I loved the occasional visit from the steam-roller and the tar boiler. The road was painted with shining asphalt. It reflected the sky The men shoveled crushed stone onto the gleaming surface. The steam-roller followed, ironing everything flat. The rollers boomed and chimed as they trundled along. The smell was heavenly. On hot days you could assist by bursting the tar bubbles with your fingers. (Butter will remove tar from hands but not, alas, from clothes. Try to remove the tar and gravel from the soles of your shoes before entering your house or the consequences will be dire.) The steam-roller made smoke. It even had a whistle and a bell.  What more could a child ask for? The modern process is impressive and entirely mechanised but not as exciting. No need for crossing sweepers on our long straight motorways.

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Some people are building a road near Baldungan Castle. They have started like MacAdam, with rough stone. When they get to the fine aggregate stage, I may be able to get work for my little grandchildren as gravel and dust sweepers. At four, five, six and seven years of age it’s time they started to earn their keep. On a sartorial note, I shall insist that they wear ties and are deferential to all. In a revolutionary departure from standard practice, I shall provide them with shoes. If a tar-boiler and steam-roller are to be employed, I may even look for a job myself. If it was good enough for Cool Hand Luke, it’s good enough for me.

Sport, diplomacy and war…almost

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After Stalin died, everything was going to get better. When we heard the news, on the BBC Home Service, early in the morning, I asked my mother if Stalin was in Hell.  From what I had heard, he was a sure-fire candidate. I could already picture him down there, surrounded by demons with red- hot tridents. Serve him bloody well right. “Betwixt the saddle and the ground, he mercy sought and mercy found,’  says she.  A bit cryptic. What had that got to do with anything? It sounded like a cop-out to me. What was he doing on a horse anyway?  It seems that he did fall down. Beria, his sycophantic security chief, let a cheer out of him: ‘Hooray! The tyrant is dead.’ Stalin opened one eye and looked up at him. Beria fell to his knees and grovelled. Stalin took a while to die. Beria was a worried man. I’m sure they have sorted out whatever misunderstanding took place on the day, over a glass of brimstone. Anyway, the world was definitely going to be better.

1956 was a good year for diplomacy. Bulganin and Khrushchev  came to Britain in April,  in a Soviet warship on a mission of peace and goodwill. The naval frogman, Lionel, “Buster” Crabb, disappeared while diving under their ship. However, we will all understand what happened, when the British cabinet papers on the matter are released…..in 2057. Feelings may have died down a bit in the intervening 101 years.

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Buster was a hard drinking , chain smoker, overweight and unfit, the ideal chap to send diving under Russian warships. He was an example to athletes who wish to achieve fame. He is still in prison in Moscow. His headless body was discovered weeks later, near Portsmouth. He has been brainwashed and is training Russian divers, to this very day. He was shot dead by watchmen on the Russian ship. Take your pick. We will know soon enough. Diplomacy cranked up again. A major athletics meeting, arranged for The White City in London in August, was cancelled, following the arrest of Nina Ponomareva, for the theft of five hats in a London department store. Nina was a discus thrower of impressive proportions, a godsend to the tabloid newspapers. Her defence was that she had paid for the hats in the Russian way, where the shop assistant kept the receipt. In the pre-bling era of Russian consumerism, the state store, Gúm, supplied everything you might need, if it was in stock. You stated your requirement..e.g. a pair of shoes and you paid a clerk. He or she passed the receipt on to the shoe person who went away and brought back a pair of shoes.  If they were the right size, you then departed. If not you could probably exchange them for beetroot. Poor Nina was confused by the decadent, capitalist, imperialist system.  10742-P0000-000005-1640

Vulcan bombers were put on standby. Nuclear submarines took to the water. Missiles swivelled towards the target cities. Tanks and infantry massed on the borders, ready to plunge the world into Armageddon. However, Nina paid £3-15s-0 d and the matter was dismissed. War was averted. My mother said: “Ah, the poor thing. She had probably never seen a pretty hat in her life.”  Women have a natural instinct for hats. They’re not really very good at war. However, the troops were ready, so they had to be employed.  Britain invaded Suez, where Buster had done some underwater spying in his time, and Russia invaded Hungary.(Stalin was dead but he hadn’t gone away, you know.)  If it hadn’t been for the Melbourne Olympics and Ronnie Delaney’s gold medal in the mile, it would have been a gloomy year altogether. It might seem a long time ago now, but I still cheer when I see Delaney on old archive film. By the way, we had a state Irish language publisher, called An Gúm. ‘I want to buy a book.’ ‘Very good sir. I have one here. That will be five shillings, please.’

Rome in 1960, brought a bright new world of colour to the Olympics. It brought also, Cassius Clay, who lit up the world and still inspires. Tokyo in 1964 brought digital timing and digital display. Athletes broke records, or missed records by on thousandth of a second. It was a triumph for Japanese technology, although ironically, more young people nowadays,  play games on digital gadgets than engage in actual physical activity. I heard a youngster telling his brother :”Hey, I’ve just broken the world record. I’ve beaten Daley Thompson.”  His brother replied. “Huh.” They were both sprawled on a couch, twiddling their thumbs. No victory parade and cheering crowds for our new decathlete champion. Lazy little so and sos.  Good morning Tokyo indeed. Fortius Citius Altius and all that.

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In a funny way, Tokyo 1964 could have ignited a war between Ireland, Italy, Britain and the Soviet Union, if chance and a bit of diplomacy had not intervened. Where would we have put all the prisoners? Everyone who knew Leo Flanagan, has a story about him. He told quite a few, mostly against himself. He had plenty of material.  This one he told me while in philosophical and contemplative mood. “The last young woman I ever looked at with lust, was an Italian gymnast at the Tokyo Olympics. She wore a blue tracksuit. The Azurri.  Ah, yes.” He had blagged his way to becoming chef d’equipe with the Irish sailing team.  He had met a few of the officials in Hong Kong and tagged along. He organised the loan of a boat, a vital piece of equipment. He was kitted out in blazer and slacks and a sporty looking hat. He found himself in the assembly area for the opening parade. He looked around, wondering about his good fortune.There she was, a vision in blue, the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. “I must pinch that young woman’s bottom,” he said to himself. Being a cosmopolitan kind of fellow, he knew that this is a compliment of sorts, to Italian womanhood. I don’t think he had ever verified this with Italian womanhood. Staring straight ahead, he reached sideways and grabbed a good handful of bottom.  He looked furtively to gauge the effect, perhaps envisaging romantic trysts and candlelit dinners.  To his horror, he realised that he had miscalculated. He had pinched a towering Russian female shot putter, an unforgivable error of navigation. In blind terror, he stared straight ahead.  “She darkened the sun. She had thews, rather than arms. Beside her, Nina Ponomareva was the merest slip of a girl. She glared all about her. All my past life flashed before my eyes. She decided that the likeliest culprit was a British boxer, rather than the feeble old man in the Irish blazer.  I think his name was Henderson, a heavyweight and Britain’s best hope of gold. She drew out and punched down at him, splitting his eyebrow wide open.” He emphasised that she had to reach down to the heavyweight. Henderson or whatever his name was, had to withdraw from the games.

There were cries of outrage. The missiles swivelled again. The Vulcans revved up. Leo went to a reception in the Irish embassy.  He met an old friend, a photographer from The Irish Press. “You bastard, Flanagan,” his friend began. “I have the photograph of the entire games…and they won’t let me use it.”. A damn close call. If Leo had started a war, at least we would all have died laughing. Even Brezhnev might have cracked a bleak smile. As for the prisoners, we could have put them in Red Island Holiday camp. It had a wire mesh fence and a big, bearded security man on the gate. Conversely we could have interned them in Leo’s cinema. There was so much chewing gum on the floor and seats, nobody could have escaped.

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That one, by the way, is Berlin in 1936, the first televised Olympics. Nothing funny there.  My mother never mentioned ‘mercy sought and mercy found,’ about  Hitler.  Note: If you go to Tokyo in 2010, keep your hands to yourself, or you will be digitised and put on YouTube..