‘That looks interesting,’ I say. ‘A work thing, or hobby?’
‘A bit of both, actually. I’ve had a long connection with the air force as a photographer of planes, but then principally as an air traffic controller. I’m just finishing off some research into the early use of radar.’
‘You know, that reminds me of something I haven’t thought about in a long time. I was brought up in this little town called Wisbech, out in the Fens.’
‘Yes, I’ve heard of it.’
‘There was this guy who used to run an electrical repair shop there, just off the market. Mr Cox. Completely unassuming, you know. Bald head, brown overalls, round glasses. A lovely guy, quietly working away in this tiny little shop with dusty stuff for sale in the window and radios and boxes of bits on the shelving behind him. It didn’t matter what you brought in - a crappy old Pifco torch or a broken radio – he’d always be able to get it going again. It was only years later I found out he’d been some kind of commando during the war. There was a raid on a German radar installation in France...’
‘Bruneval! Yes. Well – famous, of course. They went over, overthrew the garrison, came back with the radar under one arm and a German technician under the other. Amazing! And this Mr Cox, he was one of that bunch?’
‘You’d never guess to look at him. But yeah – a genuine hero.’
I think of Mr Cox in the back of the plane, a parachute strapped over his overalls, the jump light reflecting in his little round glasses.
‘So – air traffic controller? That sounds pretty stressful.’
‘It had its moments.’
‘How on earth do you keep track of everything?’
‘It’s a particular skill. Multi-tasking, on a massive scale. In four dimensions, too – time, distance, height and so on. You have to hold lots of information in your head at one time, always making sure there’s sufficient capacity in the system for any erm.. unscheduled events.’
‘I bet you’re a good chess player.’
‘Chess? Not really. Crosswords, on the other hand...’
‘So how do you select potential candidates?’
Air traffic controller. Maybe I should send off for an application form – except they probably work nights, too.
‘It’s not easy. There are psychometric tests, of course, questionnaires, but none of them tell you all that much. It’s more the case that once you’ve been doing the job for a while, you get to recognise those characteristics in other people that might make them a successful operator. It’s hard to explain – because there’s no set look. When I think back to my time in the tower, the two people who stand out as being particularly good were nothing at all like each other. One was a bank manager type, very dour, and the other was this tall Scot with a bizarre sense of humour. You couldn’t get two more different people, but they both shared the same facility – for moving planes about.’
He folds his arms.
‘Now you’ve done it,’ he says, after a while. ‘You’ve got me reminiscing.’
‘What time is it?'
I yawn, too.We pass on through the night, one of hundreds of call-signs, creeping across a controller’s screen.