PC 185 Virtual Stuff – Funerals

One of the aspects of living through a global pandemic is that you experience a few ‘firsts’, such as city streets clear of traffic, skies empty of aeroplanes and their vapour trails, the air we breathe noticeably cleaner, and queuing for even the simplest of items. The hairdresser at the top of our road, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, has been occupied cuckoo-like by a greengrocer; the chairs, mirrors and other paraphernalia remain. We hadn’t done ‘hot yoga’ online before and the little fan heater hasn’t really produced the 40°C heat we are used to. And as all of us, we have had to get used to strangers seeing what’s behind us as we practise – for us, as the laptop is perched on the dining room table, the fridge freezer with its attendant magnets form the backdrop!!

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I queued at our local Post Office Depot yesterday to collect a parcel. The sun was out and it was warm. When you queue with ‘social distancing’ you invariably look on the others in the queue with suspicion, imagining they’re Covid 19 carriers. In pre-pandemic days I would probably have passed the time in idle conversation with those in front or behind; not now!

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At lunchtime on Tuesday we were, and I struggle to find the right verb here, part of a funeral service at Mortlake Crematorium, except of course numbers were limited to immediate family and we were attending virtually. I have to say it was very strange, being rather like a spy on the wall, the camera showing us the scene an owl might have seen from the rafters, and there was no acknowledgement from the funeral celebrant of our out-of-crematorium online existence!!

Normally of course going to a funeral service requires a degree of thought as to what to wear, getting the right balance between being too Victorian and all in black or too colourful and offending other attendees. Given that no one else was going to see us, you might have thought we could have stayed in our PJs ….. but it was taking place after our 90 minutes strenuous yoga and shower, so a proper shirt and blazer seemed to be a brief nod to the solemnity of the occasion; the light green shorts were not in view!

The other thing that was odd was a lack of input into the other senses, the ones you take for granted when you walk into a chapel – a slight coolness maybe, smells of age and of dust and of sorrow and of sadness, and the sounds of silence, of noises outside the building intruding into the inner space. You could see the family mourners and the celebrant and the bier where the coffin would rest on its arrival ….. but the sound was turned off right up until the start-time so you couldn’t hear anything! Very weird!

David’s wicker casket arrived, the celebrant took us through the service, we listened to a poem read jointly by his sons, to the eulogy from his Godson and then sang Jerusalem. You might think I would know the words, and I can get 70% of them, but I needed to Google the lyrics to get really stuck in, for no one had thought to provide an online service sheet. Good to have an iPad handy!

The ‘Virtual Wake’ was more difficult, so we simply imagined that those who had been at the crematorium were having a lovely boozy lunch somewhere, social distancing notwithstanding, and raised a glass in David’s memory later in the evening.

Watching the proceedings got me thinking about other funerals I have been to or participated in – Monkey Mind invariably gets in the way here, despite trying to concentrate on the events from our pitch up on the rafters!

I think my first funeral was actually the worst to handle. During my Army days in Germany, one summer we were at the Bergan-Hohne NATO training grounds north of Hannover. Work hard, play hard was our motto and when we weren’t out on the ranges practising our art, we were propping up a bar somewhere. Two officers went off to a party at the local Officers’ Mess’ and, on the way back, their car left the road and impacted a large concrete culvert. Major Dick Jones, married to Hazel with three children, was in the passenger seat and died instantly; the driver climbed out unharmed. It was decided the funeral service would be in the nearest Garrison Church. As the senior Lieutenant I was added to the pallbearers’ list of his fellow Majors. I remember we practised with a filing cabinet full of sandbags and that dug into our shoulders. Fortunately the coffin was easier.

My nephew Hugh’s brother died of cancer aged 18 and his death came four days after my Mother’s. Attending two close family funerals within a fortnight freezes that period in a dark part of my memory. But my mother had lived her ‘four score years’ and some, as had both my father and my step-father, so their departures were more easily assimilated. Celina’s father Carlos also made those years (See PC 60) so the sadness is coloured by the celebration of a life well lived. All were cremated. For William the dice had rolled badly.

I have only attended four burial services. One was of my chum Alwin’s sister-in-law (see PC 22 October 2014). It fittingly rained, was a cool cloudy morning and the little village churchyard a very sombre place, made more so when I remember Victoria was only 60. The other concerned one of my daughter Jade’s uncles, Justin. With his wife Sue they suffered the heartache of the death of their first child Claire after six weeks. The only thing I remember about the funeral service was the sight of the baby’s coffin, and thinking about it now brings an ache to my heart that is as deep today as it was some forty years ago.

 

Richard 26th June 2020

PC 184 News? No news – no common sense.

There are a great deal of items in the newspapers here in the UK and on the television news that makes me shout: “Really? Wow! What a surprise!”

For instance, last week some government organisation announced that the UK economy had shrunk in April by 20%. This surely is not news? When you lockdown a population and close all the shops, no one indulges in their favourite activity so there is no exchange of goods for cash and the economy suffers. Pre-school mathematics I reckon – all that QED stuff! And as if to reinforce this, when on Monday the ‘non-essential shops reopened here in the UK, there were long queues outside Primark, a cheap outlet, from 0300!!

Another issue here seems to be the completely unsubstantiated link between Covid19 and the currently installation of our 5G mobile telephone network. One is believed to cause great harm to individuals but I am not sure which way around it is. To add to the mystery, our 5G network is being built in part by Huawei a Chinese company that is rumoured to be part State owned and often accused of being a front for the CCP ……. for the conspiracy theorists this is manna from heaven …… ergo Covid19 is a state-sponsored global pandemic. For other conspiracy theorists Covid19 doesn’t even exist and all the news reports from around the world are false, or as the Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro claims: “it’s simply a bad ‘flu”. (Some Brazilians wish he would catch it!)

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Just love this representation of being in tune – heart and head!

A twenty year old footballer Marcus Rashford, who plays for Manchester United and for England, has shamed our government into continuing to provide free meals to disadvantaged children during the coming school holidays – a bit of a misnomer this year as most children have not been in school since March. He added weight to his singled-minded campaign that children would be going hungry in poor households by recalling his own childhood when he remembers a lack of food. Some of us might argue that if you have more children that you can afford to clothe and feed this is a result; in this case his mother had five and was a ‘single mother’ – whatever you can make of this statement.

The Black Lives Matter campaign has gained a great deal of traction here and in other countries. Britain was of course a maritime nation whose ships transported black slaves from the west African coast to the Americas. This is a fact, however you look at it; we recoil in horror at the very thought of it, this trade in humans, but it took a huge effort by William Wilberforce before the British Government banned it in 1833, such were the vested interests that supported it. You could, if you wanted to, blame the slave traders for making Britain in the C21st the fattest nation in Europe, as their ships brought sugar back to Georgian England …… and so started our addiction to sweet things. Good to blame someone distant from one’s own love of sugar ie the slave traders. Of course it’s convenient to forget who brought the slaves from the African interior to the ports and sold them to the European traders and it’s convenient to believe this is a single issue between Europe and North America. Ten times as many slaves, over five million, were transported to Brazil by the Portuguese. In PC 117 I wrote about ancient and modern slavery; as sure as eggs are eggs it still exists in certain countries, in differing forms.

Even before this country got a good grip on Covid 19, the Government was being blamed for the fact that more BAME (Black, Asian and Mixed Ethnicity) people are dying of Covid19 than their statistical representation would forecast; the latter is 14% of the British population and the former 36%.   No doubt statisticians will pore over the numbers to provide some ideas where healthcare policy might lead. We already know that 50% of those who have died were obese and a similar number were diabetic; the majority are men. If there are proportionally more BAME deaths due to Coivd19 then they must be more obese ….. and this comes down to life style, traditional food choices and a whole raft of other issues you can’t legislate against. Another statistic doing the rounds is that British people of South Asian origin are more likely to die of Covid19 due to a higher-than-normal incidence of diabetes And to add to the complexity, those with A positive blood group are more likely to die than those of us who are O positive! Oh! And BAME lack vitamin D ……. so they should now all take Vitamin D supplements. In summary, if you are a man of South Asian heritage over 65, have blood group A positive, have diabetes and a BMI over 30 ….. self-isolate until the end of next year (2021)

I read that those who suspect that Covid19 is not a real pandemic are also not supporters of vaccinations and of wearing facemasks. Funny world!

Every evening on the BBC news I listen as the newscaster highlights how many people have died from Covid19 and gives us the cumulative total. What needs checking is how these figures are compiled and how accurate are they. For sure, more people have had some form of the virus than the figures reflect: my daughter and son-in-law both got it …. but not badly enough to need calling any healthcare organisation, so not being counted. And there seems to be some variation about whether the death was caused by Covid19 or whether the fact they were 94 had some bearing on it?

And this week we are told that if we for instance break an arm or a leg, before you arrive at your local hospital you need to book an X Ray!

A few weeks ago the news was drenched by the fact that our Prime Minister’s adviser Dominic Cummings had broken the lockdown rules. This was a classic case of ‘Do as I say, no it as I do’. The sadness is he would have got more credit from the chattering classes if he had simply said: “I am sorry. I will resign.” But he didn’t …… and the whole episode left us with a nasty taste in our mouths. Of course those that expressed outrage the most were not necessarily behaving as saints!!

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Enough! Just some scribbles ….

Richard. The day after the Longest Day (Northern Hemisphere). 2020

 

PC 183 Beirut Lebanon 1983

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It had been a bit of a whirlwind but, as I sat in the back of the helicopter flying low over the sea towards the Lebanese capital Beirut, I had time to review what I had to do when I arrived and what had happened to get me here, at 0900 on Monday 25th April 1983. Commanding the only shoulder-launched SAM Battery in the UK, I was the obvious choice when Major David Godsell, running the armoured car squadron currently in Beirut as part of the Multinational Force in Lebanon (MNFIL), needed some advice.

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Since 1975 the Sunni Muslims and Christians who occupied the coastal cities, the Shi’a Muslims in the south and in the Beqaa Valley, and the Durze and Christians in the mountains, had been engaged in a civil war, each faction wanting to control this nation in The Levant. 120,000 people had died and the Paris of the East, as Beirut was known, was being destroyed street by street, square by square. The United Nations had authorised MNFIL to deploy as a buffer between the conflicting groups, so that peace talks might eventually start. The UK, France, Italy and the USA provided forces.

MOD Operations had called me at home in Fleet, Hampshire on Saturday just after breakfast. What did I think about deploying Blowpipe, a short range Air Defence missile system, to strengthen our forces in Lebanon? I really hadn’t appreciated what we had provided to the MNFIL but gave a considered opinion that the operational constraints would be too many to overcome. “Wait out!” was the reply. On the Sunday morning the telephone rang again. “Duty Officer MOD Operations here. There’s a C130 Hercules leaving for Cyprus at 2100 tonight from RAF Lyneham. Be on it. That will get you to Cyprus; I am working on how to get you to Beirut. Bye!”

Collecting some gear and a pistol from the Regimental Lines in Wing Barracks Bulford, I made my way to Lyneham. The cargo hold of the C130 was full of a spare jet engine and a Landrover …… and one seat ….. mine! The aircraft is noisy and vibrates quite a lot, so it was a relief to land at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus …… in time for breakfast and a visit to the duty free shop to get some supplies for my host. Ninety minutes after landing, I walked across the apron to the waiting Puma, its rotor blades turning lazily in the morning warmth, and strapped myself in. We lifted off and headed east on the short flight.

I listen to the radio traffic as we approach the coast, am somewhat alarmed that the pilot can’t raise the French sector Air Traffic Controllers to say who he was, and more alarmed when he said “Oh! Well! I am sure it’ll be OK” to his crew. The side door is open and the GPMG Gunner alert.

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Beirut, reduced to rubble, still trying to function

We approach the city from the east, aiming for the Charles Helou bridge over the Beirut River. On arrival we bank to the right over the rush-hour traffic, and zigzag low along the deep-sided river banks, going south. Suddenly we lift up over the top and land on a dusty, sandy, local football pitch. The pilot gives me the thumbs up and I disembark, not at all sure where I am! As the dust subsides I spot a couple of British Army vehicles and make my way over, relieved to have made contact.

Once into the tower block that is the base for C Squadron, Queens Dragoon Guards, I meet my host and he briefs me. Operation Hyperion is part of MNFIL, whose task is to try and create the right conditions for peace talks to take place between the various fighting factions in Lebanon. “We have rules of engagement for fighting in the streets and we have contingency plans to deal with a suspected truck bomb aimed against us. What we don’t have is anything to protect us from a suicidal air attack.”

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The Ferret Scout Car used by C Squadron QDG

We talked through some of the options and then I was left to do a ground recce of likely approach routes etc. Later I gave my initial thoughts to the MOD. They didn’t change and by the end of the long afternoon of discussions, we drew a line under the idea of providing a Blowpipe section on the flat roof of the block. The problems were identification and reaction time (see note).

The British Army is always good at making the most of where it finds itself and after dinner in the little Officers Mess with its table silver and hunting prints on the walls, one or two frames disconcertingly showing a bullet hole, it was up to the top of the block to watch the locals firing at each other. Occasionally a tank shell went overhead, tracer rounds lifted into the night sky, a flare hanging from a small parachute illuminated a particular street corner  …….. and I sipped my coffee, drew on my little cheroot and hugged my glass of Port.

The following morning I was taken to the airport (note 2) and boarded a C130 for Cyprus. I realised as I landed I had about two hours before the RAF VC10 left for the UK. I bummed the use of a car and drove out into the countryside, to visit my then mother-in-law’s half-brother. I knew the name of the village but not much else; a few questions and we meet for a coffee. Then a mad dash back to RAF Akrotiri; I was so late I had to run to the steps of the waiting aircraft, the doors closing as soon as I was on board.

I was home in time to read a bedtime story to two year old Jade. At work the following morning I got a funny look when people asked where I had been on the Monday and Tuesday. “Beirut.”

 

Richard 12th June 2020

PS     In PC 182 I mentioned a Peter Brookes cartoon. I have since found an old photocopy of the cartoon; it wasn’t by Brookes but by Jak.

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Note 1. In every peace-keeping operation there are ‘Rules of Engagement’ defining when and how you can open fire. The difficulties of having Rules of Engagement for an ‘air’ scenario are huge, as the speed of the potential threat calls for advanced action. There was no ‘no fly’ zone in and around Beirut, so it would be impossible to distinguish a potential suicide pilot with a playboy out for a Sunday afternoon jolly ….. until it was too late!

Note 2 Someone took a photograph of me with the bombed city in the background ….. and promised to send it to me. Sadly it never arrived (Oh! For an iPhone!)

PC 182 Guns and Carnations

You may recall my conversation with Ron outside the tiny hamlet of Eagle in Alaska (PC 43 written in 2015) as he filled our hire care with petrol.  “What do you do?” he had asked, having already nailed his opinions to the mast of gun ownership.

I had felt that an expression of a liberal view would not go down well: safer to be succinct and, talking to someone I guessed would be an appreciative audience, I said was an ex-military man.  “Oh! Well! So you know how to shoot!” he said, visibly relaxing; “Of course only the criminals in England can get a gun! Here, you can walk into a shop, choose a gun from any number of types, buy a box of slugs, walk out the door and  …..”  I thought, “start shooting innocent people in Charleston”, but didn’t say it aloud! (Ed. This was days after a chapel shooting in Charleston in 2015)

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A British Sub Machine Gun circa 1950

A recent newspaper article explored whether, when push comes to shove as far as guns as concerned, there is an innate reluctance to kill a fellow human – despite the fact that in the UK 60 and in the USA 11,000 die each year from gunshot wounds. It seems the majority of us would find it difficult. Historical examples are numerous – after the American Civil War Battle of Gettysberg, fought over two days in early July 1863, of the twenty seven thousand muskets recovered 90 per cent were found to be still loaded. Six thousand had 3 musket balls in their barrels, suggesting that the soldiers had spent the battle loading their muskets, rather than firing them. George Orwell observed that during another civil war, this one in Spain in the C20th, most combatants always tried to miss!

We can all recall photographs of international demonstrations against the involvement of people in war – and the odd flower stuck down the barrel of a rifle. In Portugal the overthrow of the dictatorship of Marcello Caetano in 1974 became known as the Carnation Revolution as carnations were the flower of choice (In Georgia it was roses, in Kyrgyzstan tulips).Browning 9mm Pistol

The British Browning 9mm pistol (standard officer weapon!)

This article got me rummaging in the grey matter as to what guns I had fired, although I immediately realised none in anger. At school I belonged to the Combined Cadet Force; it was a welcome distraction from academic studies – and we were all trained to use a Lee-Enfield .303 rifle. They were heavy and old-fashioned.

Then I enrolled for my Officer training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Here the standard rifle was the SLR (self-loading rifle), with a calibre of 7.62. At the end of the 10 mile Battle Fitness Test not only did you have to carry your buddy 100m, climb a six foot wall, jump some ditch but also fire off a magazine of 20 rounds and get a qualifying score. We did have fun firing the General Purpose Machine gun …….. but it ate ammunition at an alarming rate and someone had to carry it!

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Before embarking on a three day exercise in Belgium as an officer cadet, we had to carry a lot!

At the Royal Military College of Science we studied other nations’ firearms – the Russian Kalashnikov AK47 and Israeli Uzi for example.

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The 25 Pounder we used during Young Officer training at the Royal School of Artillery

Then I joined the Royal Regiment of Artillery and was introduced to proper guns. My choice of arm meant I was teased by my Uncle Bill, who had had a career in The Somerset Light Infantry. As a young lieutenant during the invasion of Normandy in 1944, his battalion had suffered many casualties in the battle for the French city of Caen – often as a result of our own artillery fire falling short of its target – hence the rather snide moniker for the Royal Artillery of ‘drop shorts’! When I finished my training I joined a regiment in Devizes; in the Officers’ Mess was a cartoon of an elegantly uniformed artilleryman surveying the battlefield, with the infantry engaged in muddy hand-to-hand combat. The caption read: “Artillery brings a degree of dignity to what would otherwise be a vulgar infantry brawl.” I thought of my Uncle Bill.

This regiment was equipped with towed field guns of 5.5 inch calibre. They had been used in the Second World War and were large and unwieldy but were, for their time, accurate. We didn’t wear any ear protection in those days and if you were too close to a gun when it fired, you couldn’t hear anything for hours. This of course gave rise to another infliction – ‘gunner ear’!!

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The classic 5.5 inch Howitzer

The regiment moved to Germany and was equipped with another medium gun, the M109

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The M109, a self-propelled 155mm gun

Having served all my regimental time with ‘field’ artillery ie surface-to-surface, it was obvious to those who ran the officer posting system (AG6) that I should command an Air Defence Battery!! Lloyd’s Company was equipped with a ‘command-to-line-of-sight’ SAM system called Blowpipe that was fired from the operator’s shoulder; it had a range of about 3 kilometres. It was to the credit of the training of the soldiers that two Argentinian aircraft were destroyed during the Falklands War when the Battery was deployed in support of The Parachute Regiment.*

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Blowpipe Operator at San Carlos Bay, Falklands 1982

Fourteen of my soldiers were on a rotational six-month deployment to Belize in Central America. During my time in command I had to visit them …… and we conducted a practice live firing from a deserted caye tens of kilometres off the coast. Just us, the sound of the sea, pristine clear warm tropical waters; such hard work!

By the time I joined the sales force of Short Brothers, Blowpipe had been replaced by Javelin. The first name often made me think of natives in Amazonian jungles looking for their next meal. As a missile manufacturer based in Belfast, there were often unsavoury characters sniffing around, anxious to get their hands on one. Peter Brookes in The Times had a wonderful cartoon of two IRA thugs on the streets of Paris, negotiating to buy one, with the caption: “Seamus. Which end do you blow through?”

Apparently in the USA today liberal as opposed to republican Americans have been buying guns like they might go out of fashion. Their desire for gun ownership is driven by the effect the Coronavirus pandemic is having on society and a negative perception of what might happen; for this to make news in The Times last week suggests it’s serious! Three days later an African-American George Floyd is killed by a policeman in Minneapolis and it seems the difference between peaceful and violent demonstrations is a hair’s width touch on a trigger finger. One of the justifications of gun ownership in the USA is the fear of federal intervention in state affairs. Now, what is the President proposing? Using the 1807 Insurrection Act as his authority to deploy the US Army into State’s affairs.

Richard 4th June 2020

Note * I took over command during the conflict, did not deploy to the South Atlantic, but took part in the intensive debriefs of the operators.