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Posts Tagged ‘cold war’

Image1I found this little Raketa alarm clock at the weekend. It was on a junk stall,and the seller wanted £1.50 for it. It’s an old clockwork model, and wasn’t running. You can buy a new alarm clock, pretty much like this one for a couple of quid these days, a modern battery version – so £1.50 for a broken clock might not seem much of a bargain, but I like stripping and cleaning old clocks and seeing if I can get them going. Human beings aren’t always logical creatures and our emotional drivers are usually too complex to explain to others. Indeed, if we have to explain them at all, we’re probably wasting our breath and better finding someone else to talk to.

Like broken human beings, what old clocks and watches like this are mostly suffering from is neglect. This one was simply gummed up with decades old 3 in 1 oil, and it responded well to a bit of TLC. I dismantled it, cleaned it up in white spirit, then reassembled and sparingly oiled the jewels with proper watch oil. It was very satisfying to see it come to life.

The unassuming exterior of the Raketa hides a very fine 19 jewel movement, originally designed for a pocket-watch, but adapted to take a nicely engineered timer and striker mechanism. By contrast the modern alarm clock is not designed to come apart much, other than to change a battery. They are not intended for repair. If it broke, you’d throw it away. This is the natural evolution of Capital, to make something deliberately beyond economic repair from the outset.

With an occasional service by a watchmaker, the Raketa will last a hundred years, but at forty quid a service who’s going to pay that? There’ll be no watchmakers in a hundred years, only tinkerers like me. Clocks and watches like this are to be our natural inheritance, also the reasons why we bother in the first place.

The Raketa was built in Soviet era Russia, a period when east-west tensions had us all talking about Nuclear Armageddon, a period that taught me there was no surviving such a thing, that the lucky ones would be those sitting under the first bombs as they fell – at least in Europe where the population density is high and the targeted cities are insufficiently far apart to provide safe havens in between. In a nuclear war, there are no safe havens, you see? You either die fast or you die slow – and the former is obviously preferable. What you cannot do is survive. And those weapons haven’t gone away, we managed to pretend for a while they had, but now we’re talking about them again, talking up the likelihoood of a nuclear war.

Imagine the other side have launched their nukes (Russia, North Korea). You’re going to die one way or the other. What would you do? Launch yours as well, simply to ensure the other side is wiped out along with you? Imagine you have a potential leader who says they wouldn’t hesitate to do it, that their readiness to do it is in fact our best defence. Or you have another potential leader who says they’d not launch under any circumstances, that it was immoral. Who would you vote for? And what kind of civilisation would be asking such questions in the first place?

But we were talking about clocks.

Time-pieces interest me on many levels. On the scientific and engineering level it’s a question of how you design a device to accurately shadow the movement of the earth with respect to the sun and provide a globally synchronised reference for conducting human affairs, so for example sixteen hundred hours on the twelfth of January 2027 means the same to everyone. But we can also think in more philosophical and existential terms, a time-piece being then a construct that maps our place in time, the hands sweeping up the history of our lives as they circle.

I prefer mechanical timepieces, even though they are less accurate. There’s something about analogue mechanisms being themselves a metaphor of life – each piece visible, open to scrutiny and doing its bit, responding to the rhythm of life, its function being to assist in recording the history of its greater self.

My little Raketa has known a great deal of modern history – it’s perhaps thirty or forty years old. It’s known the ending of the cold war, and the reunification of Germany. But I’m not sure how long its been asleep, and what it’s missed – a couple of gulf wars perhaps, the Syrian civil war, Libya,the European refugee crisis? What it will witness in the future one can only guess – the breakup of the European Union seems likely, also Scottish independence, the forced reunification of Ireland, and perhaps a new American war with North Korea?

Perhaps I’d’ve been better leaving it on the shelf. Some things I’m sure, like me, it would rather not know about. I’m reminded that I retire in 2020, that alarm clocks will then no longer be necessary, though I could make a decent hobby out of tinkering with old clocks and watches – and writing of course. A question for myself then: do I build a writing cabin in the back garden, or a nuclear bunker?

It has to be a writing cabin. The nuclear bunker is a waste of time, though I notice they are very much back in vogue.

Duck and cover?

Yea right!

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Our financial institutions are having a hard time at the moment, having brought the world closer to ruin than all our terrifying stockpiles of thermonuclear weapons ever did. I’m not sure I understand where the money’s gone, who’s got it, or indeed if it ever existed in the first place and, like the cold war, wasn’t in the end some kind of monumental bluff. Anyway, the banks and building societies are at least conscious now of a deficit in terms of their public image and seem to have been taking corrective action, but in ways that, for me at least, backfired spectacularly recently, and had me thinking only how much we’ve lost over the decades. I’m not talking about money here, but something far more vital and it concerns our sense of what is real.

For most of us, our contact with these financial institutions is through the front line counter staff. The women on those counters are the most human face of the “industry” (and they are mostly women). We know them. They are our wives, our sisters, our nieces, and they are the girls we knew at school.

Cue my little story:

There was this girl. We’ll call her Chrissy. At school, Chrissy was a lovely young woman, pleasant, easy going, very pretty, and I don’t mind admitting I carried a bit of a candle for her. But, you know how it is? Being a shy kind of bloke I never did get around to, well,.. so much as speaking to her as it happens. We left school in 1977. She went on to college to do her A Levels, while I got myself an engineering apprenticeship, and I lost sight of her for a bit, but then, quite unexpected, some thirty years ago, I spotted her working behind the counter of the building society in my local town, and I thought to myself – I wonder if she remembers me? If she ever serves me, I thought to myself, I’ll say: “We were at school together, Chrissy.” It wasn’t that I wanted to make a big thing about it – we’d both moved on romantically, and I’d simply thought it would be nice to see her smile, or even to struggle to remember me – it made no difference. It was the touching base with some point in my distant past that seemed to be the important thing here.

Now, I don’t go into the building society very often, but when I do, I take my turn in line, and I have a one in five chance when it comes to drawing an individual cashier. And would you believe it, in thirty years I never drew Chrissy once? The fact she’s still working there is no small miracle in itself, but it seems even more incredible to me that not once in thirty years did she ever update my passbook. I’d watch her from the corner of my eye as I stood in line, and I was always impressed by how little she seemed to have changed. Indeed for a woman of 51 she still has a very lovely look about her and is instantly recognisable from the old form photographs I’ve kept of those olden times. She has something, at least for me – embodies something. But it’s complicated.

Fast forward to the present day:

One evening, recently, I had a call from someone doing a survey on behalf of that building society. They were checking up on the customer “experience” and how I rated it, having recently used the branch. Had the counter staff addressed me as “Mr Graeme”? Had the counter staff, on conclusion of the transaction asked if there was anything else they could help me with today? There was a lot of other useless guff as well. I answered in the affirmative, whilst thinking to myself the poor b@$t@rd$ – they’d all been sent on a course on how to speak to customers, how to be human, and present a caring face! I gave them a top score because in this respect, and as a fully paid up member of a trades union we’re all brothers and sisters and it’s us against the ever present spectre of the hare brained management type bastard gurus and their fiendish plots to outwit us.

Now, I was in the branch again, last week, and I drew Chrissy. At last! For the first time since 1977 I was standing in front of her, and thinking to myself $h1t, what do I say? I mumbled something about a passbook update, and she spoke so efficiently to me, handled that passbook like it was greased, and before you knew it I had it back in my hands, and she was smiling her dismissal at me while at the same time asking if there was anything else she could do for me today, “Mr Graeme”. It was a polished performance. Perfect, and as human as a machine.  And I thought,… where had Chrissy gone? The building society had once had a real treasure there – a charming, personable lady, efficient at her job, loyal to the branch, having been there all that time, and they’d replaced her with an effing robot.

So I said nothing about having known her at school – that little balloon I’d carried all those years had been suddenly popped.  I and walked out, feeling a little disappointed, a little thoughtful, and I sat down in the coffee shop and I wrote about it.

We are each of us human, obviously, but how an institution can come to believe it presents a more human face by imposing a scripted “behaviour” on its front line staff beggars belief. To be human is to be spontaneous, to smile sincerely, to listen to the irrelevant aside of the lonely old lady, to take that bit of extra time with people because we are all people and do not make good machines. You cannot script that kind of “behaviour”. And the last thing we need as human beings is to worry constantly as we’re doing our jobs that there’s some phantom cold caller ringing up your customers and asking them to score you for the scripts you’ve used, and that if you get less than perfect performance you’ll have a suited moron taking you to one side for a bit of behavioural correction. That’s not how you build a more personal face, nor an efficient organisation. That’s how you break people.

Anyway, you most likely wouldn’t have known me, Chrissy. In 1977 I had hair down to my collar and a rather goofy, naïve expression. Now I’m follically challenged and grizzled and occasionally grumpy, but come to think of it still pretty naive, so maybe you’d’ve have recognised me after all. But what I’d really like to say here under the veil of total anonymity is that I do still think of you, and when I see you I think of the times we shared, and though they were pretty chaotic in their own way, they seemed a little more human, a little less “scripted”,  a little more “real”.

I’d also like to say that in my book you’ll always score 10 out of 10.

Graeme out.

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Oh, how I wish I still had this beauty. My father bought it in 1972. Those were peculiar times: the Cold War. Remember that one? Too young perhaps? Well, once upon a time we free Europeans were expecting a Soviet led invasion any day – massed tanks poised across the Rhine, ready to press perilously deep like a plague of mechanised locusts into the goodly and godly lands of west, unless we nuked them first. The problem with that one though is the Soviets had their own nukes targeted at every city in England, including Manchester and Liverpool, and since  I lived around about where the zones of destruction for these places overlapped, things didn’t look too promising for me.

I remember plotting an escape route on foot, using the footpath network, since I reasoned all the roads would either be gridlocked or toasted. It was my little contingency to be followed at the first sign of trouble – a vague idea of heading north – to the Lakes, or failing that a boat to Ireland. But at the same time common sense told me the best I could hope for was to be sitting right under the first warhead when it went off – anything else was simply unimaginable. Remember children, there is no surviving a global thermonuclear war!

They were horrible times – and hard to imagine now. My biggest fear as a kid when I woke up each morning was literally the end of the world. Nowadays its the possibility that the guy sitting next to me on the aeroplane is carring a bomb in his underpants. Jeez, the youth of today – they don’t know they’re born.

But I digress.

In spite of the threat of annihilation hanging over us, it was hard to think of the Soviets as bad people. It was just the times. It was a kind of ideological insanity. And actually, many of us in the west had a sneaking admiration for Soviet built kit. It was cheap for a start, and seemingly just as good as anything we could buy at twice the price from anywhere else. All right, it was never pretty and it usually weighed a ton – but it was functional, robust, even manly. I had Russian binoculars, an MZ motorbike, a Zenith camera, a Sekonda wristwatch,…. and a VEF 206 radio.

I remember listening to Radio Luxemburg on that VEF, every Tuesday night: Bob Stewart and the top 40. The first time I heard ABBA’s Fernando, it was coming through the static on my VEF. Technically speaking 2010 is a better time to be alive than 1972 and you can now get better reception from a device the same size as a playing card. As I write I’m listening to an obscure Canadian radio station on my iPod Touch. The reception is perfect and it sounds like the lady who is speaking could be sitting in the same room. Back in 1972, Radio Luxemburg sounded like it might have been coming from the other side of the Galaxy.

Something like an iPod Touch or an iPhone would have been inconceivable back then – but 1972 wasn’t a bad time to be alive in other ways – all right, apart from the threat of nuclear war and the annoying way that Radio Luxemburg would drift off station just as that week’s number one was about to play. But we’re an adaptable species and when it comes to material things we tend to adjust very quickly and take them for granted – we just find new things to moan about – like I just crashed my iPod trying to update it. How much sense would that have made in 1972?

But love and loss and loneliness were pretty much the same then as they are now.

I treasured that old VEF. I even made a cabinet for it in woodwork at school, from an old desk – English oak. I still have the cabinet because English oak has a way of improving with age. But the old VEF wore out. Its pots became scratchy. It got dropped and anyway it ate batteries – but I’d give anything to listen to rustling of those scratchy old pots just one more time and the ghost of Bob Stewart presenting the top 40 on Tuesday nights.

Peter Stuyvesant cigarette anyone?

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