Just a year ago our male cat Perkins crawled down into one of his favourite hiding places in the cellar and purred his last. He was eighteen, a good age, and just a little younger than our son Tom who grew up with him. We knew Perkins was in trouble when he stopped eating. He was taken to the vet who ordered a few hundred pounds worth of blood tests which confirmed what we already knew. We wondered if it would be best to have him put down or just to allow him to die at home. Tom argued that Perkins did not seem to be in pain so why put him through the trauma of another trip to the vet. We watched him over several days. One night he stayed by the television and did not move. I said: " If he is there in the morning I am taking him to the vet to be put down." But Perkins had disappeared. It took a while to find him. He was still alive and we were all out that morning. Tom's mother had gone to France to stay with friends, I had a meeting and Tom was at college. When I got in I could see there were still signs of life so I checked on Perkins every half hour or so. By mid-afternoon I was sure Perkins was dead and put his limp body into a long rectangular wine box to lie in State for when Tom got home. We both shed a few tears and then set about the burial which we had planned. Our little back garden is mostly paved over. We would lift one of these slabs, dig down as far as we could go, put Perkins in, cover him with earth and put the slab back. That way none of the foxes that visit the gardens would be able to dig him up. We had the paving stone up and were digging away when the thought occurred to me that neighbours might be wondering what we were up to and that they had not seen Tom's Mum for a few days. We had a bit of laugh about that. It was hard going with the grave and we gave up when we were barely two feet down. Tom wrapped Perkins in a top the cat used to like to sleep on and lowered him carefully into the hole. Then the slab went down to form a gravestone on which we put a geranium in a pot. Two evenings after the burial we had visitors. One looking out into the garden exclaimed: " Look at all the mice!" We looked and mice were running everywhere as if they were celebrating the news that Perkins was no longer. The mice were there for weeks and they began to invade the house. I had to block holes, put down poison and traps. It took a long time to get rid of them. Was Perkins a great "mouser" then? I doubt it as we did not see any mice until two years before he died. They began to appear when the house next door was gutted and renovated. Perkins, and his sister Mitzy who died not long before, caught any mice that came in to the house. Generally they left the little mangled bundles of fur lying around but on one occasion Perkins swallowed his catch whole. But there were never many mice. Why then the infestation after the burial? I mentioned the strange happening to Sean who runs our local wine merchants highburyvintners who mentioned it to his father who knows a thing or two about these things as he has a farm in Ireland. He had no doubt that we had not buried Perkins deep enough and that the mice had smelled him, as the foxes would have done too. Fortunately the paving stone prevented any exhumation and Perkins now lies in peace with no rodents left to dance on his grave.
I was enticed by excellent reviews to see the Canadian "art house" film Meek's Cutoff recently. It was one of the most tedious pieces of cinema I have ever endured without a beginning, an ending or a plot and featuring only two just about recognisable characters. The director, Kelly Reichardt , was quoted as saying she wanted to portray a different, feminine view of the great trek westwards in mid-nineteenth century America. Sure enough she has a heroine who challenges the macho trapper and guide Stephen Meek's crude and bloodthirsty attitudes towards Native Americans and attempts to bring some civility to the desperate lost wagon train that is the cast of the film. In itself, the film made no sense at all. We just saw the three ox-drawn wagons rumbling over a barren landscape not at all sure where it was headed as their guide seemed to have lost his way. What they are short of is water. We have no idea where their food comes from or what it is. A lone Indian appears on the horizon, sometimes standing, sometimes on horse back. Trapper Meek sets off with a wagontrainer to get him and brings back the hapless Native bound like some kind of human steer. Meek wants to kill him: the heroine points her musket at Meek to stop him. They all wander on with the Native who from time to time emits a chant the meaning of which is known only to himself and Kelly Reichardt the film's director. At the end we do not know what happens to the wagon train. I was reminded of the old satirical re-working of the introduction to radio crime series: " These stories are true: only the facts have been changed to protect the innocent. " I knew nothing about the real Stephen Meek so I looked him up to see if I could make sense of the film. Sure enough there is a modicum of truth in it, but much more in the way of blatant and inexcusable distortion. The experiences of the huge wagon trains that crossed Oregan in 1845 are pretty well documented. Stephen Meek was a well known and respected trapper who was paid $5 dollars a wagon. In the film Meek is a loner. In reality he was married to one of the women on the wagon train. At one time there were 198 wagons, 2299 head of cattle, and 811 head of oxen and more than 1,000 pioneers being led by Meek. They ran in to trouble when he offered to take some of the party on "short cut" and they could not find water. About twenty pioneers, adults and children, died. Meek was blamed. However, the majority survived and they did so partly, if not entirely, with the assistance of native Americans with whom Meek was able to converse in a simple way. In time the Meek Cutoff became a recognised detour on the Oregon trail. In short, as a depiction of the experiences of pioneers on the Oregan trail in 1845 the film Meek's Cutoff is a travesty. Nothing in it is true to character nor does any of it seem to be derived from the many first hand accounts left by these rugged pioneers. A contrast is the film The King's Speech. There are innumerable historical inaccuracies and a few anachronisms, but the relationship between the therapist and the timid and reluctant King, whose stammer makes public speaking terrifying, is essentially true and believable. There are some very odd aspects to the film. Why, for example, would a man with rooms in Harley Street live in the East End of London? Of course, he didn't. It was daft invention but it did not seem to matter. There is an excellent website which monitors the depiction of real historical events on film put together by the historian Alex von Tunzelmann for the Guardian newspaper Reel History. http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/series/reelhistory
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?
Here is a little verse I wrote in May 1977 when I was working on New Society magazine. I had been sent a press release by the Environmental Health Officers' Association with dire warnings of the hazards of the street parties planned for the Queen's Silver Jubilee. The Hazards of the Street party by Gavin Weightman Beware, beware, the Jubilee The hazards of the street party Heed well those men of cleanly stealth Officers of Environmental Health Don't let your cough Pollute the broth Cook well the frozen fowl Keep down the toll Of sausage rolls Safeguard the festive bowel Use paper cups You don't wash up And bandage well your sores Yours boils and spots Could spoil the lot'Tis rash to flout these laws Beware, beware the Jubilee The deafening noise of revelry Keep amps within 200 watts And aim them at some central spot Too fierce a noise Will spoil our joys Don't drown our loyalty Heed the frown And " Turn it down!" In the name of Royalty Beware, beware the Jubilee The dirty cup of poisoned tea The decibels that spoil the fun Then, from Environmental Health "Well done!"
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.