Swifts are back and all is right with the world. I wait eagerly for a first sighting at the end of April and then for the morning when they are suddenly all there wheeling in the sky and dashing about with their excited screeching. As the arrival of the swifts excites me so much I mention their return to people in the local shops. You can tell they think I am mad. They have seen and heard nothing:oblivious. These birds have travelled 14,000 miles from Southern Africa to nest in the rooftops of London, to perform nightly fantastic aerial displays and to inject excitement into any evening. Yet few take the slightest notice of them. I have been in the gardens of houses about here in the evening drinking and talking and the swifts will whizz by with a great shriek: when they are very low you can here the waft of their wings. I will follow them with a quick turn of the head and say: Did you see that? The answer invariably is: Did they see what? One of the remarkable things about these mysterious birds is that they were coming to London even when I was a boy and the air was thick with coal smoke. Young ones sometimes got caught in the gap between opened sash windows and I remember one occasion when I went with my father to release a bird trapped in this way in a house across the road from us. Swifts do not perch like swallows. They spend nearly their whole life on the wing. They nest under the eves of houses flying in at what appear to be impossible speeds. There is a concern that modern roofs, insulated to save heat, do not provide nest sites. Tonight I sat out watching the swifts. There is something about them that raises my spirits. Their return each year is a confirmation that despite all the tragedies in the world life goes on. They do not stay long after their young have fledged. For the last few days before they disappear, about the middle of August, they race around the rooftops screaming loudly. Nobody is sure what route they take back to Southern Africa. It is thought they might fly very high: on clear days they do disappear into the blue. Nobody knows their history nor can anyone say how these extraordinary birds have come to perform this astonishing migration each year. They are a wonderful mystery, a kind of miracle and each year they make my summer in London.
Quite often we are asked to spell out our name or an address over the phone and to make sure the person on the other end gets it right we do it letter by letter. Like many other people I just say the first thing that comes in to my head. I live in Highbury: that is H for Harry, i for, er, Ink, g for George, er h for harry again, er b for er, Bertie, u for, er Uraguay, r for Robert and y for, er yellow. When the word is read back to me a familiar set of representative words is used which I always think I should remember but never do. H for Hotel, i for India, g for Golf.........fragments of the so-called International Phonetic Alphabet float in from the memory bank: Oscar, Whisky, Tango. The other night we had a game trying to remember the agreed alphabet that was adopted internationally in 1956 and is both familiar and difficult to remember if you don't use it every day. I wonder how many people can rattle it off. I also wonder how the decision was made that "L is for Lima". There were quite a number of other adopted phonetic alphabets before the one most widely used today. The purpose was always to look for words which, when spoken on a crackly telephone in the heat of battle, could not be misinterpreted. Here it is, clear as a bell: Oscar, Victor, Echo, Romeo, Alpha, November, Delta, Oscar, Uniform, Tango. Where does the punctuation go?
The stories of the discovery of survivors in the rubble nine days after the tsunami bulldozed whole townships in Japan are a reminder to all rescue teams that, even when hope is fading, they should remain alert to the slightest signs of life. This was a lesson learned in London during the Blitz when after every air raid there were people trapped alive in bombed out buildings. Finding and excavating survivors after a raid fell to the Heavy Rescue teams composed chiefly of men too old to fight but with knowledge of the building trades and still vigorous enough to pick their way through rubble. They had nothing in the way of sophisticated search equipment but evolved a way of working which is still of value. Firstly, they tried not to disturb the flimsy structures of collapsed buildings by trampling over them. They moved very cautiously using a kind of careful "pick-a-stick" approach. And then, at regular intervals, there would be a call for silence, an appeal would be made to anyone trapped to make themselves heard, and everyone would listen intently. When a voice was heard the task of excavation could take many hours as the rescuers worked their way through the mass of bricks and timber. Sometimes miners put in a form of pit prop to burrow into the rubble. There were some truly astonishing stories of survival, including two I came across while researching my book Rescue. Writing just after the end of the war a doctor recalled in the British Medical Journal the gruesome discovery of the dead and the living in the ruins of a row of houses which had cellars used as shelters during air raids. The bomb had dropped at 1 am on a Thursday morning (the report does not say which month or year) and it was known that there families asleep in the house. An elderly lady was found alive at 6pm on the Friday but she died of her injuries. The Rescue team went on searching, calling for silence, and at 7pm on the Sunday there heard a voice deep in the rubble. The doctor was sent for. "On arrival made contact with the trapped girl, one of my own patients, Miss F.B. aged twenty-one, whose voice could faintly be heard, obviously at some distance below the surface. She told me her name, that she knew her father and mother were dead, and that she was quite immobile except for a little movement of the left hand. It was completely astonishing to find her completely intelligent, and throughout the six hours before she was finally removed at 1am on Monday–exactly 96 hours from the time she was first trapped–she retained her intelligence and was of great help in guiding the rescue squad in their difficult task." As bits and pieces of debris were removed the doctor was able to feed the woman water through a tube and later some tea and a " third of a grain of morphine". They discovered that she was face down in a crouching position and that her dead father was lying across her back. To get her out they had to burrow in sideways and ease away her father's corpse. She made a full recovery and told them that her father had survived for two days and they could both hear the rescue workers above them. But there was too great a thickness of rubble for their cries of help to be heard. It was only when some layers had been removed that they could respond to the call for silence. As the woman was being finally released she told them they had heard a woman calling out next door and she believed she was still alive. When the rescue team began to search for this other survivor they soon made contact. She said she was walking about in the cellar with her baby, which was not very well, but that she had some bottles of milk. When they finally found her they discovered that her baby was dead and she was completely trapped on a staircase but in her delirium imagined she was free and her child alive. The woman was 34 years old her son, clutched in her arms, just three. When she recovered she thought the boy had lived for two days. She too could hear the rescuers but they could not hear her. Though new listening devices have become available, as well as sniffer dogs and infra-red cameras which pick up body heat, the surest way of looking survivors is still the call for silence. During the blitz the heavy rescue squads developed a great many techniques for tunnelling in to rubble and these were passed on to Civil Defence units after the war when Britain began to make plans to withstand a nuclear attack. Those Civil Defence manuals were still in use around the world when my Rescue book was published in 1996 and I expect they still are today. I would imagine some of the lessons learned in the Blitz are being put into practice in Japan today as the search goes on for survivors.