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.
We tend to fall in love with new technologies and to imagine that in no time they will solve all our problems. In the autumn of 1881 the pretty Surrey town of Godalming pioneered a public supply of electric lighting with a generator powered by a watermill on the river Wey. This, thought a correspondent for The Daily Telegraph was the beginning of a new gas and coal free era in civilisation. Wey ahead of his time, you might say: " It has been reserved for little Godalming to turn its river, the slender and rippling Wey, into a piece of machinery, and set it, just like any other mechanical servant to the task of lighting the streets....The days when gas companies can pump into our houses a noxious, explosive vapour like carburetted hydrogen, through uncertain machines called meters and charge an abnormally extortionate price for it are numbered. ...We shall not want the stoke and the collier so much if only the example set by the good people of Godalming be followed. "The waterfalls, millheads and rivers will quietly be making all our electricity by day and we shall be consuming it as easily at night, or the winds and tides will be made to labour for us. Nature in all her varied moods will be called in to help us fight against the dark, and we shall be able eventually to turn night into day by the bright lights which Nature herself kindles for us. " Sadly, when the river Wey flooded the generator ceased to turn and a steam engine had to be brought in. It was too expensive to run and within four years the gas lamps were back on in Godalming. This was a story I researched from my book Children of Light: how electricity changed Britain for ever. Another was the dawn of another technology which promised to free us from dependence on coal and gas: atomic energy. At the official opening of Calder Hall, the world's first industrial scale nuclear power station in 1956, Her Majesty the Queen said: " As the power begins to flow into the National Grid all of us here know that we are present at the making of history. For many years now we have been aware that atomic scientists, by a series of brilliant discoveries, have brought us to the threshold of a new age. We have also known that, on that threshold, mankind has reached a point of crisis. Today we are, in a sense, seeing a solution of that crisis as this new power, which has proved itself to be such a terrifying weapon of destruction, is harnessed for the first time for the common good of our community. " Calder Hall, sited in the wilds of Cumbria, was not, in fact, built just to produce electricity. Its reactors enriched uranium to supply the material for Britain's" independent nuclear deterrent. " The heat generated in this process was used to turn it into a glorified steam engine. Chapman Pincher, star reporter of the Daily Express, was there in October when the power was turned on: " The giant uranium furnace which has been producing high-pressure steam for more than a month was secretly linked with the dynamos last week. Top men of the project stood by as steam roared through the turbines, and the dynamos began to hum. As the output mounted, more lamps, more heaters, and more machines were fed with the new power on which so much of Britain's industrial future is being staked." The production of what Pincher called " atomic electricity" was exciting, promising a bright future. There appeared to be no concerns about safety, which is perhaps surprising as Calder Hall was opened just eleven years after the terrible destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 by atomic bombs. Among scientists at the time there was a confidence that the dreadful power of nuclear fission could be reigned in and promised a wonderful future for the post-war world. " More power for Britain–in the nick of time" was the headline of a piece in the left-wing News Chronicle, the paper my parents used to buy, heralding a piece by the President-Elect of the British Association, Professor P.M.S. Blackett in which he wrote: " It is nearly true to say that the prosperity of any nation is proportional to the energy at its disposal Vastly more energy will be needed to maintain and advance the prosperity in the next few decades than can easily be got from coal. For the world as whole, nuclear power has come at the right time: for Britain only just in time. " Professor Blackett waxed lyrical: " The world in which our children and grandchildren will live depends on our efforts, now and on the legacy of material power and scientific and technical know-how which we bequeath to them. The houses they will live in, the clothes they will wear, the health they will enjoy, the leisure in which they will be able to cultivate and appreciate the worthwhile and beautiful things of life......all these things will depend on our material command over nature and especially on the amount of energy we can extract from the natural world. " Only a year after the inauguration of power at Calder Hall, a graphite core in the nearby Windscale reactor caught fire. The same children who had come to see the Queen open the nuclear power station were told they could not drink the milk from local dairy herds. High counts of radioactive iodine had been found and milk from farms within a radius of 200 miles of Windscale was poured down the drain. Even after the fire and the milk ban, the leak of radioactivity was not considered to be very serious. Dr. W.G.Marley, head of the health physics division at the atomic research station at Harwell, was quoted in the Times as saying that the radioactivity resulting from the leak was considerably less than the “background level” in many other parts of the world–particularly India and Brazil. The chief atomic safety officer, Mr F.R. Farmer, reported that only two people living in the area had taken advantage of the offer to be medically examined. Only a few employees at Windscale were contaminated, said Mr Farmer, and in most cases a wash with soap and water was enough to give them a clean bill of health. What confidence there was then in the ability of scientists and engineers to tame the awful destructive power of nuclear fission. Certainly Japan, only a few years after the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was investing in nuclear power, confident that its peaceful use would not endanger the nation intent on rapid recovery and economic advance.