Thursday, 27 June 2013

Of Concorde and a cat called Rosie

Let's catch up a bit more. I really need to illustrate what I describe with some photos, but I can't include any in posts made using my Android tablet or phone (Windows is required). So, for now, a purely verbal narrative must do. And to avoid two long posts on the same subject, I'll have to be selective and defer some things till I get home.

Last Monday, then. I have three friends in Scotland, and I met one of them at the National Museum of Flight, a few miles south of North Berwick, at East Fortune. She had offered me a free pass if I came to the Flight Museum while she was on the premises. At first, I thought I wouldn't be in the right mood, the emotional surge two days earlier, when I realised that I still had a lot to work through where M--- was concerned, being still very fresh in my mind. But it was a tempting offer, and I realised that it might relaunch my stay in Scotland. It would certainly be better than tearful beachcombing. So I texted this friend and duly met her at the Museum paydesk, where I'd already introduced myself to the very helpful and friendly staff. We had the briefest of meetings - my friend had a job to do - but I was going to see her later in the week anyway. So I was perfectly happy to punt around on my own, with my pass. Well, never quite alone! I encountered more than one visiting couple again and again, whether it was inside a jet plane, or in the café at lunchtime. We laughed and joked at these constant accidental meetings.

The Museum was housed in the various scattered buildings of the former East Fortune RAF base, which was operational in both World Wars. There were some huge hangars, which contained (with one special exception) a range of small and medium-sized aircraft of various types: civil, military, commercial. There were all kinds of smaller buildings, each devoted to some aspect of flight, such as airships, parachutes, the individual case histories of heroic personnel, and themes such as the role of women in air warfare. All these buildings looked authentically old and tatty from the outside, but were state-of-the-art for modernity and audio-visual presentation within. In fact one big thing that struck me was just how good the presentation was. There were a few larger aircraft out in the open, such as short-haul commercial jets, and a mighty military jet: a Vulcan. What a huge bomber! It was awesome. Unfortunately you couldn't go inside it - perhaps access to the flight deck was simply too tricky for health and safety. But, need I say, a wonderful photographic subject!

The star of the show though was undoubtedly Concorde, housed in solitary splendour in the smartest hangar. This was G-BOAA, 'Bravo Oscar Alpha Alpha', the first Concorde to enter commercial service. It flew for some thirty years, although by the early 2000s it needed internal updating and that didn't make economic sense. Also, the freak takeoff accident at Paris, which spoiled an otherwise unblemished safety record, and modern thinking on the most efficient way to transport passengers long distances at reasonable cost, both prompted retirement. Those Concordes in the hands of British Airways all found a museum home around the UK. G-BOAA came to Scotland. She came in sections, by road, and was expertly reassembled.

Concorde was not one of the technological projects brought into being by Harold Wilson's 1964 government. She was conceived in the Conservative era of Harold MacMillan and Sir Alec Douglas-Hume, and given the go-ahead when I was but a child of ten. At first called Concord, she was specifically a joint Anglo-French endeavour. I suspect the later change of name to Concorde, which was done at the insistence of the French, and which seemed like a blow to British sensibilities at the time, was acquiesced to so that the UK's longed-for membership of the Common Market (now the EU), so long opposed by President Charles de Gaulle, would have a better chance of becoming a reality. Names matter in European politics; but we still did not get in until 1973. Back to Concorde's conception. The start of the 1960s was essentially a pre-computer era, a science-fiction era, and it was no accident that the only Eagle annual I ever had - was it Christmas 1962? - had a big spread on the plane, in between the cartoon adventures of Dan Dare and Digby. Dan Dare looked exactly the sort of handsome intrepid pilot of the future who might be placed in charge of this wonderful new flying machine. One imagined boffins getting down to work, to make it real. And Britain did indeed have expertise in building world-class military and commercial aircraft by drawing-board and slide-rule methods. (Perhaps another reason for building the Concorde was so that all that know-how would stay in Britain, and not leak away to the big plane makers across the Atlantic)

In 1960 one was looking ahead to 1970. 'Miss 1970' (or more probably 'Mrs 1970') could be seen on TV or in magazines living a jet-set futuristic lifestyle full of gadgets and holiday travel. Concorde would be an aspirational part of that world. As it turned out, Concorde's super-expensive tickets were strictly for business chiefs and the rich, and not for housewives. But it was always a wonderful supersonic dream, to fly in Concorde and land at New York 'before' one had set off from London. Among the few ordinary mortals to have had a free seat might have been one or two kids on Jim'll Fix It: a sobering thought.

And here I was, finally aboad Concorde itself - not just seeing it far away up in the evening sky, a vapour-trailing tiny paper dart. Except that no paper dart was ever so loud.

This is where a photo or two would say it all. The pictures will come; for now I'll simply mention two things. First, how cramped and narrow it was inside. Fat cats of the business or showbiz world would have had problems! Second, how complicated and cluttered the cockpit was. It was bristling with old-fashioned switches. And dials and levers everywhere. In front of the pilot and co-pilot, between them, on the ceiling, behind them. Some of the dials had a vaguely 'modern' look, and no doubt there was electronic circuitry galore, but big screens were absent. It bore no resemblance at all to the comparative simplicity of the Starship Enterprise in Star Trek on late-1960s TV. I haven't seen pictures of the pilot area on the latest Airbus, but I bet it's all touchscreens, with just a few buttons to press. Nothing like the Concorde's impenetrable forest of switches and dials.

And the cat? Well, on Tuesday I became the proud owner of a cat named Rosie. No, not a real cat! This is a Wemyss Cat. Pictures to come. She's very cute, she has a very cheerful and uplifting smile, and - so far - Fang, the toy collie dog who lives in the caravan and guards it, hasn't made the slightest fuss. And I believe Rosie will get on well with Teddy Tinkoes back at home too. One happy family! When you have no immediate living family left, when death has taken them all from you one by one, when you have to face the world alone, with no backup, no safety net, then threadbare teddy bears and fluffy toy dogs and china cats make all the difference. Believe me.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting that the future can now only be seen in museums...

    Looking forward to seeing a recheered Lucy tomorrow.

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