Monday, October 08, 2012

keeping track

It’s too late at night for the strong cabin lights. As there’s nothing to be done on the journey but chat, I put the spots on instead. I sit next to Mr Carrington on the edge of the three pools of light that drop from the roof down the middle of the cabin, the last one illuminating the things he has put on the trolley in front of him: a lightweight waterproof jacket, a mobile phone, and a book on the development of radar in World War Two.
‘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.’
He yawns. 
‘What time is it?'
‘Four o’clock.’
I yawn, too.
We pass on through the night, one of hundreds of call-signs, creeping across a controller’s screen.


Crimson Ebolg said...

Are you really from Wisbech Spence? That's a strange coincidence, me too. My family's from Walsoken, so I'm a Fen girl through and through. Do you still live in the area?

Spence Kennedy said...

Born in London, brought up in Wisbech, moved away some time ago now, but Mum still lives there. Can't really say where I'm living now, of course (at the risk of sounding very confused).

Invictus said...

That's really nice. A good conversation with someone who's not crazy. Upbeat from the norm :) I can't put my finger on it, but this one just left me feeling really... good.

jacksofbuxton said...

You never know who you're going to meet Spence.

We were having a family break a few years ago to France.We were flying into Beauvais airport.Chatting about this to one of my senior customers he was able to tell me all about the town,how long the flight would be,whereabouts in France it was,what to look for from the plane as we flew in.

After I'd finished his haircut his son (in his 50s) sat down for a trim.
"Your Dad knows a lot about Beauvais Pat"

"He should do Jack,he bombed it during the war."

Spence Kennedy said...

Thanks Invictus.
I do have more conversations like this during each shift(thank goodness - it's how I stay sane), but I think I tend to write out the wackier or more tragic ones for some reason. I promise I'll try to correct the balance in future.

Hey Jacks. That's a great story!
Funnily enough I was chatting to someone the other day about what it might've been like to fly sorties in a bomber. They were such sitting ducks, esp. with a full load. I remember my mum telling me about a favourite cousin of hers who was a tail-gunner in a Lancaster. She remembered dancing on his shoes as a little girl - but he was lost over the Atlantic soon after, along with so many others.

Invictus said...

Hey, you don't have to change anything. It's the wacky and tragic ones that keep us coming back, I think.