An unofficial transcript of the podcast episode by Alexis Kennedy and Lottie Bevan.
LB: Hello and welcome to Skeleton Songs!
AK: Spooky welcome.
LB: Ooooooooh! Last time wasn’t spooky enough, actually— we did get some comments from people saying it was interesting, but you lied to me.
AK: Did I?
AK: I was unreliable.
AK: Well, today, er, is, uh, validated by both history and blood.
LB: Like all the best things.
AK: And… this is very loosely themed, er, a gothic podcast, and, uh, we were talking, Lottie and I, about some of our family background, and realised how many peculiar tales of death… buried secrets, strange hats…
AK: …and, erm, attempted murder…
LB: (chuckles louder)
AK: (chuckles as well) Or possibly successful murder, were involved in, in, in this. Now, before we…
LB: I reckon that if you go far enough back…
AK: Tell some of the stories.
LB: Um, everyone has a successful murderer in their family history.
AK: Ah, I— that’s—
LB: Think about that!
AK: —plausible, yeah.
AK: I mean, Cain and Abel, right?
LB: I mean, if…
AK: The Bible says we’re all descended, so…
LB: And… we may not gainsay the Book.
LB: Do you want to go first, with yours? ‘Cause your family, I’ve— I will warn listeners…
LB: …that I’m slightly nervous about this episode, because Alexis’ family have a history of basically doing amazing things, and being really interesting. And my family are totally obscure, and we have occasionally whimsical anecdotes that we occasionally mention to one another…
AK: So Lottie’s being typically modest, and I think it’s worth pointing it out…
LB: Listeners can judge.
AK: All, all our listeners will, will probably be able to think of at least one person in their family who’s done something interesting or bonkers or both. But, um, I, I guess the salient point here is that a lot of my family, up until my generation, were Armed Forces types, particularly but not exclusively the Air Force. And, um, my great-grandfather, my great-grandfather Algernon…
LB: Was he really called Algernon?
AK: He was really called Algernon. Um…
LB: You see, already he’s winning.
AK: And, er, my great-uncle Gilbert…
LB: It’s not as good as Algernon, but it’s still pretty good.
AK: Er, were both in the Royal Flying Corps, back when that was a thing. So this is the First World War, this is 1914 to 1918, and there was no Royal Air Force yet, because there barely were any airplanes yet, but, er, at the outbreak of war, ah, the, it became apparent that aeroplanes were a big, good thing to be able to look down from, if you wanted to see where troops and trenches were. And then, it became apparent that, um, if you had aeroplanes up there, and the other side had aeroplanes up there, they might want to shoot at each other in order to discourage that, and I think by the end of the War they were strafing people and bombing people, but initially it was the reconnaissance arm of the British Army, the RFC.
LB: And to be clear, I don’t think your family ever did any of the strafing or the bombing. Did it?
AK: Ah, they might well have, I have no idea.
LB: But I was trying to give you an out. But—
AK: Oh, no, I ended up…
LB: Now, now you’re compromised.
AK: Yeah, I’ve got another, another possible taint later.
AK: But, my grandfather and, um, great-uncle— great-grandfather, great-uncle, were, who were less posh than the names sound, I think, because…
LB: They sound really posh.
AK: They do, but they were sons of a dentist.
AK: It wasn’t like, they were landowners. It’s just, you know, this, this was the nineteen-teens. And they both signed up, er, like good patriotic enthusiastic English lads, to the First World War, and fortunately for them, didn’t end up in the meat grinder, because, although they’d signed up for the Army, they, erm, volunteered very early on for the RFC, and the reason they volunteered for the RFC, ah, the Royal Flying Corps, is that, that one of the officers said, “Oh, you two, you’ve, you’ve got experience with aviation, haven’t you?”, and, and Algernon kind of went “Yeah, I do”, er, and what he actually meant was, that, er, he and his brother had been fans of aviation when they lived in Paris, when, with my (yawn) great-great-great-grandfather, um, great-great-grandfather, great-great-grandfather, was a dentist in Paris. And, um, they’d gone out to the aerodrome in order to go up in, in fact, just one trip, ah, with er, I think Blériot, the guy who flew over the Channel, ah, because he was hired, when he was plain out, just to take people up for trips. So that was the whole of their aviation experience, and that’s why they ended up in the RFC. And, it probably helped them to survive the war.
LB: Brave British soldiery right there!
AK: But in fact, so you say, say, brave ironically, but one of the things that was (alarmsome?) about war was how fucking young everyone is.
LB: I was gonna say, I wasn’t actually going off on, like, the bravery, I think there probably are people in the Army who have also, ah, professed more experience than they have…
LB: And maybe we shouldn’t give them guns quite as early as we do, but, but, I don’t want to take away any of the bravery it takes to go—
AK: No, well, my, my…
AK: …Algernon, my great-grandfather, er, wrote a book about it— his experience. In the beginning he says he, he went into a recruiting office and filled in the form and gave it to the recruiting officer, and the recruiting officer read it and gave it back and said, “I, I think you’ll need to make a small adjustment before we can take you”. Because he was only seventeen, and he needed to be eighteen before he could sign up, so…
LB: That’s ridiculous, isn’t it?
AK: Anyway, so they both, they both, ah, got into these absurdly dangerous flying machines, which were still, I think, less dangerous than marching through mud into the teeth of machine-gun fire, and Gilbert, ah, did very well for himself— he, um, ah, he got shot down, which wasn’t doing well for yourself, but it, but it happened, um, and he landed, under fire, just inside the British lines, and the Germans, ah, objected to a British aeroplane being parked within shell range, so they demonstrated their…
AK: …objections by firing, apparently, about over the course of the night, a hundred and fifty shells.
LB: Oh my god.
AK: And, er, my great-uncle and his mechanic, ah, w—worked away through the night trying to repair the plane enough to get it back into the air, while all these shells are bursting around them. But there were no direct hits, er, and, ah, by dawn they had the plane in good enough shape, that they managed to…
LB: That’s insane!
AK: …to take off and fly home.
LB: I felt heroic when I did an all-nighter for an essay at university…
AK: (laughs) Well, we live in a, a gentler age, thank God.
LB: We do!
AK: But, ah, then he got the Victoria Cross for that, which is the, um…
LB: Which is huge.
AK: Which is, yeah, the highest British thing for gallantry, and then—
LB: I once worked with a gentleman who, um, was another, ah, Armed Forces, ah, heir, all of his family had been in, in the military, and I once casually mentioned something about the Victoria Cross, and he knew every single, um, person who had ever been awarded the Victoria Cross, because it is that to people, they respect it so much, if you get a Victoria Cross specifically, because it means that you have done something utterly badass—
AK: Well, some people get excited about, about medals. But he got shot down again after that…
AK: …because you know, the planes flew (quite alone?)…
LB: …and then they were like, “We’re taking the medal back!”
AK: Well, no, actually, (they gave him?) another one as well, and he got shot down, and he, um, and then while he was trying to repair the plane a, a German came up behind him with a pistol, ah, and, and so he, he surrendered, um…
LB: Sensible lad.
AK: And he and his mechanic got taken away, and during the being shot down a second time, he got a piece of— quite a large, apparently, sort of half a kilo, ah, shell, er, chunk, lodged in the base of his spine…
AK: So the Germans obligingly took it out for him, and gave it to him to keep as a souvenir…
LB: No, you’re getting this confused with Rimworld.
LB: You’re always sorting out people’s spine in Rimworld, but this is the real world…
AK: So it didn’t, it didn’t actually damage his spine, it just, you know, it fortunately, the spinal column protected him.
LB: Oh my god!
AK: Ah, and then he, he, ah, tried to escape, er, and…
LB: (chuckles) Limping away, poor man…
AK: …er, the, it didn’t work, so he tried to escape again, ah, and it didn’t work, ah, and then he tried to escape a third time, and this time he came up with a plan!
LB: (hums a theme [To The Great Escape?])
AK: Well, it was, it was like this, although the previous war.
LB: (keeps humming)
AK: He modified his jacket…
LB: (humming intensifies)
AK: His flying officer’s jacket so that it looked, when turned round, like, I’m not really clear that it was the German officer’s uniform, or a, a civilian uniform, and he reversed it, and sort of walked briskly out the front gate…
LB: I mean this is… has so much, like, chutzpah, like, unbelievable!
AK: And then he, he, he managed to hike to Holland and, ah…
LB: Became Steve McQueen.
AK: Heh… and stayed there for the rest of the, the rest of the war, but they gave him the Military Cross, ah, for that. And he stayed in the Air Force, and he got, um, er, ascended quite high in the end. But the other random exploit is, he was— in, in 1925, the date, in fact, of the, ah, Cultist “Exile” DLC, I realised when I was doing this, he was flying over Salisbury Plain on an exercise, he was, um, squadron commander by then, and they’d actually turned the RFC into the RAF by that point, they combined the… it’s not interesting. Anyway…
AK: Ah, but, ah, and he noticed these peculiar pits in the ground, a formation of pits, and he took a photo, um…
LB: He discovered Woodhenge!?
AK: He discovered Woodhenge. Woodhenge, ah, as you might guess from its name, was made of a less durable material than Stonehenge, so…
LB: And then the wolf came and blew it down, and we had to build a Stonehenge instead.
AK: So it survives mostly as, as a series of pits in the ground, but yeah, he was a pioneer of, ah, aerial archaeology.
LB: You see what I mean, listeners? About, like, it’s quite a hard act to follow. And I think, before we move on from, from him…
LB: His jacket, which is the reversible one…
LB: I believe is in, is, er, on display, in a London…
AK: In the Imperial War Museum, yeah.
LB: In a London museum about the war, Imperial War Museum.
AK: There’s, there’s a painting of him as well, looking very dashing…
LB: So you can verify that this is not always a total bag of hot air, as a podcast!
AK: Anyway, so that’s, that’s him— do you want to, do you want to do a story, or shall I move on to his son?
LB: Um, I think we should alternate.
AK: Then you go.
LB: So, um, my family from, ah, either from, erm, they’re, they’re either Geordies, which is, for people who aren’t, erm, British, it’s basically north-east of England, and we have our, I have now learned, um, apparently the, ah, most beloved British accent in 2008…
AK: [Wow, yeah?]
LB: Everyone said ‘Geordies are the best’. And unfortunately I have a very posh accent, so I don’t sound like a Geordie at all, and I’m not gonna impersonate one, because um, my ancestral ghosts will rise up and hit me round the head. But, but it’s a lovely accent, think of Ant & Dec, if you’ve ever seen them, they’re probably the most famous Geordies, or the Hairy Bikers, um, ah, and the other side of the family…
AK: Your mother still sounds a bit Geordie when she gets cross.
LB: And my grandma, um, sounded very Geordie when she said certain words, she’d sort of speak like I speak, and then every so often she’d talk about a “bûk”.
LB: And that was very confusing. Um, but that’s, um, mum’s side, and dad’s side, um, is, again, kind of posh-sounding but basically from Yorkshire. And he was born in the, ah, brilliantly named town of Kirby Muxlowe. So, he didn’t like that very much, and we left, and now we live in the posh south of England. But as a result, my family are not military, or like I said, particularly exalted stock, they’ve just kind of been bumbling around all their live, and I had a…
AK: Doesn’t your name mean ‘sheep-stealer’?
LB: Yes, well, my, uh, (chuckles) Purdie, which is my mother’s…
LB: Maiden name, literally does mean ‘sheep-stealer’. Um, so maybe we were, you know, cat-burglar sheep-stealing infamous people, um, and Bevan, my actual surname, my father’s surname, simply means ‘son of Evan’. (Tries to sound Welsh:) We come from the valleys, there’s Welsh stock in us.
AK: Whereas Kennedy, to my, ah, daughter’s lasting fury…
AK: …means something like ‘ugly head’…
LB: ‘Big ugly head’, isn’t it?
AK: In Middle Irish. Ugly head or helmet head or big head or something like that.
LB: Which we will actually come back to later on in this podcast. Um, but yeah, so um, my great-great-grandfather wasn’t a dentist, he was a baker. And his son hated it, and didn’t want to grow up and become a baker either, because he just didn’t fancy it. So what he did, um, and this was, sort of, late 19th century, is he and his friends all got together and they all bought penny-farthings…
LB: And they all decided that, rather than, you know, sort of like a, early gap year I guess, rather than go straight into whatever, um, discipline that the Lord had decided for them, by who their parents were, they decided to essentially run away on their penny-farthings, and they cycled all the way up and down England, um, and, again, if this was, um, from, from Geordieland, which was kind of, Newcastle, Tyneside, that’s the north-east of England, all the way down to, you know, the Jurassic Coast at the south, um, and every so often they’d stop and they’d fly their kites…
LB: And they’d get on their penny-farthing again, and they’d trot along until the next kite opportunity. And they did that for a, for basically a year, until they got back to reality and had to be bakers.
AK: I want to do that.
LB: It’s really sweet, isn’t it? There is a slightly more apocryphal version of the story that I did try to research, and couldn’t find any evidence for, so I think it is apocryphal, that they actually tried to cycle on their penny-farthings to Africa and they all died…
LB: But I haven’t seen any evidence of, you know, him living a long and happy life, so maybe they did that, and what a way to go!
AK: (long pause, then chuckles)
LB: That’s my story!
AK: So! The second half of the, the Insall saga is David Insall, um, Gilbert Insall’s son, so this is, I, I’m never sure whether it’s, second cousin or something, my mum’s cousin anyway. And, erm, that whole side of the family is eccentric in a good and slightly alarming way…
LB: You’re eccentric in a good and alarming way, dear…
AK: And, I mean, ah, just, I don’t have a patch on him, so David, um, sadly, um, he, he died a few years ago, but he was an astonishing guy. He alternated between being a sheep farmer, um, near [Welsh name] in North Wales…
LB: Watch out for my mum!
AK: Yes! Maybe, maybe we’re, we destined. Um, and a, um, an environmentalist, um, or, or, um, and a, I believe the term he preferred is ‘contract officer’, um…
LB: I’m sorry?
AK: He was a mercenary for the Sultan of Oman, er, where he did a lot of his environmental work.
LB: I’m literally quitting this episode!
AK: (Chuckles) Well, you, you’ve got the hat story, haven’t you though?
LB: It’s not a story, it’s just lame! But go on about your amazing contract killer story in Oman…
AK: He wan’t a con— excuse, no. No, he was, as far as I can tell…
LB: He was James Bond.
AK: So the thing is, my, my, er, Gilbert Insall, er, was posted to— again, it was weird seeing the, the history intersect: I was researching Mandatory Iraq, when, when, um, Iraq, after it, er, was, was broken off from the, er, defunct Ottoman Empire, became a League of Nations protectorate and was put under the mandate of Britain. Um, and my great-uncle was posted there, towards the end of his career— fortunately, as far as I can tell, after the British government had stopped gassing and bombing the population, to try to impose the Hashemite King on them.
LB: Oh, what.
AK: And was involved mostly in the Ikhwan rebellion, which was a super-interesting thing on its own, but we’d need a whole episode on that.
AK: But, ah, so, so my family had this connection with the, er, Middle East, and my mum actually was in, er, Bahrain for a bit under completely different circumstances, she was an air, air hostess, who didn’t (inaudible).
LB: But David…
AK: But David, yes. Um, he had this connection with Oman, he, he got hired, I think, basically to train the army, so although notionally a mercenary, he wasn’t being paid to go out and kill people, he was being paid to, to train troops and occasionally, um, blow up, erm, er, passes blocked by rocks. Ah, and then got involved in conserving rare Omani animals. And my mother was in Bahrain at the time, er, which isn’t far, so he, ah, visited her on occasion, and they got quite close, and on one occasion he was coming to a dinner party, ah, and she— he rang her up and said, “Can I bring an extra guest?”. And she said, “Does he eat steak?”, and he said…
LB: I love that, as a first question.
AK: Yeah. “Yes.”
AK: So she said “Oh, okay, then I’ll just make sure we’ve got some extra”, and he turned up, and he brought a wolf.
LB: No he hadn’t.
AK: He brought an actual wolf.
LB: He had a dire wolf! This is James Bond and a dire wolf!
AK: No, it was, it was, it w—
LB: I hate you.
AK: It was a wolf. Because you know, ah, this—this was sort of rough and ready, er, wildlife eve…
LB: What do you mean, “It was a wolf, you know”?!
AK: He, it, it was some—
LB: Was it on a leash?
AK: It, ah, it was a baby wolf, apparently. My mum said it was like a wolf cub, and was quite cute.
LB: But he just sort of found it?
AK: No, it was, it was some sort of environmental thing where they’d been preserved— but you know, like I say, I don’t think this had to be approved in terms of, of environmental protection, wildlife conversation, conservation: these days you can’t just pick up a wolf, but— either it was a foundling or [one he had imported?], and he brought a wolf.
LB: And it sat at the table and had a steak!
AK: I don’t know if it sat at the table, I’ll ask my mum, I suspect there might have been a plate on the floor.
LB: That’s ridiculous
AK: But that was, that was his thing. Anyway, (inaudible), he spent the rest of his life alternating between collecting wolves and looking after sheep.
LB: And he didn’t get— I mean, firstly, that is a problematic… spread of interests, right there.
LB: And secondly, he didn’t get eaten by wolves, did he? That’s not how he died.
AK: No, no, no, no. He lived a long happy life and died of, of whatever people die when, when they’re old.
LB: OK, fine.
AK: He tried, very briefly, to teach me to shoot, when my mother and I, um, we used to go up to, to, ah, the farm and stay with his family sometimes.
LB: And you being essentially Fotherington-Tomas, and, and wanting to talk about poetry…
AK: Yeah, this is, to put this big thing next to my ear and I had to pull the trigger and it went BANG, and went up in the air, and I didn’t hit anything and I hated it…
AK: And I’ve, ah, never fired a gun again.
LB: (continues to laugh)
AK: What’s yours?
LB: Well you mentioned it! Um, so, ah, you’ve got a cool contract killer and a wolf…
AK: He’s not a— no, don’t say the contract killer thing. It’s actually a bit…
LB: (about to interject)
AK: A bit off.
LB: But I thought that’s what you meant, by calling him (inaudible).
AK: No. Contract officer, as opposed to mercenary, but—
LB: It sounds very…
AK: I know it does! But it’s not—
AK: He wasn’t paid to kill people.
AK: He was paid to train people.
LB: Okay…. Um, heh, well I’ll slightly revise what I was gonna say then.
LB: Um, my family has, has no discernible, sort of, heirlooms or, or particular money or possessions to pass along, like, we’re, we’re fine but it’s not like we have, you know, the, the, the family mansion or, or, ah, fa— the sort of [Mon Aise?] or whatever it is. But we do have one thing that is passed down generation to generation, um, and, ah, if you picture the scene, in a dark dark corner of a dark dark house, in a dark dark box is a small dark thing that can kill you. And that’s what we pass down from generation to generation. And that thing is…
AK: A hat.
LB: A poisonous hat!
LB: Um, and I’m sure many people will have probably heard of, um, the Mad Hatter, from Alice in Wonderland, and this is actually erroneous, but a lot of people think that it was, ah, that Carroll called him the Mad Hatter because of the famous link between making hats— originally, making top hats, that is…
LB: And madness. Um, and the reason for this is the process of, I’ve learnt this now, the process of felting, which is essentially taking the fur, usually from a rabbit, of, um, a small animal, and processing it, in a process that I now know is called carroting, which is great— stick here for more hat-making tips!— um, it, it used mercury. Or, um, more specifically, erm, ah, mercuric nitrate…
LB: And these would release fumes that would slowly but surely drive whoever was making the hat mad, and give them what is now called, um, what is it called—oh, I can’t remember, ere— ere—
AK: Hatter’s brain.
LB: Eretheum or something. Um, erethism, that’s it.
LB: Or, called mad hatter’s disease. And, ah, now we don’t make top hats with mercury, because we all know that it’s super poisonous and it will definitely kill us and it’s a disaster, but we have the ignorant outcome of pre-modern medicine hat, and it’s firstly very small, I think everyone knows that people in the past used to be smaller than, than they are now, but it’s actually quite surprising when you find a sort of remnant from a, a bygone age and you realise, like, ‘If I put that hat on, I would look like a sort of steampunk beach ball.
AK: Have you put it on your head?
LB: It’s very small. Well, I have actually put it on my head, my mum said ‘Don’t do that, it’s poisonous’…
LB: And I took it off my head and put it back in the box, and I think every Bevan goes through that at some point in their life, um…
AK: Did it speak to you?
LB: (laughs) No, but it did put me in Slytherin.
LB: So that was good. Um— yeah, so it was very small, and then of course it is, it is totally poisonous and we can never really touch it, so we can’t look at it our touch it or open it or do anything with it, but we have it, and that’s fun. Ta-da!
AK: Well, I’ve shot my bolt. So I’m gonna cheat— because you, you, you’ve been building up my family as this, um, hive of heroes. And actually, you know, like most families, they only got a couple of, of notables in it. And so I’m going to go on to friends of the family, who, ah, have a connection I’ll describe.
LB: Well, I was going to make some sort of tenuous discussion about the gothic, before we moved on to anything else.
AK: Yeah, go on.
LB: Well, just that— I think it’s interesting that, that, you know, we’re actually talking about roughly the right gothic period, which is…
LB: …to, to remind people, kind of, what, 1880s to 1910s, maybe? A kind of thirty-year period of high gothicness and, and… realistically it’s more end of 19th century than the start of the 20th—
LB: —but we can be lenient (inaudible).
AK: Well, you can go all the way back to, like, Radcliffe and her [inaudible], can’t you? [Inaudible]
LB: Yeah, yeah, so kind of, what, eighteen-, eighteen-, sort of, -thirties, -forties.
LB: But then, when people think of, like, Jekyll and Hyde and stuff, that’s kind of…
AK: [I think?] you’re right.
LB: …fin-de-siecle, end of the 19th century, but, but you’re right, you know, it’s, it’s a long period of time, but, but, earlier than later. Um, and… one of the stories that you’ve, both of the stories that you’ve told, all rely quite, quite heavily on machinery, which is something that you never really see in gothic literature at all, and it’s certainly something that came in later into literary consciousness— I mean, I know, famously, um, Tolkien, in The Lord of the Rings…
LB: …there’s a lot of imagery that he puts in Lord of the Rings to do with, um, ah, you know, Mordor being full of all these, sort of, terrifying fiery machines, and a lot of people say this was because he was in the First World War…
LB: And it was rubbish, and machinery was used in an awful way, um, and therefore he was this kind of bucolic-minded writer who thought, ‘I love trees and I love bushes and I love shrubbery and England and I really hate big guns that shoot things and kill people, and are on fire’. And that kind of became the imagery that, that, that warred with each other in Lord of the Rings. And I think it’s interesting that, that there obviously was this kind of, ah, burgeoning of machinery going on in culture around the end of the 19th century and the early 20th century, but gothic literature didn’t seem to want to engage with that, seemed to want to, kind of, hearken back to an earlier age.
AK: You’re, you’re, you’re right, and I think, you know, the other side of that is, is family history and family legends. One of the things that, that, that led us down this, this path. Er, are fundamentally gothic tropes. I was gonna mention, there’s, there’s one gothic story I can think of which does have a machine in it, which is, is unusual, and long past the period of high gothic (high gothic, or whatever). Er, [inaudible] sex stuff. And it’s L.P. Hartley who wrote The Go-Between and, um, Facial Justice, generally a sort of, erm, minor literary novelist. But he wrote a bunch of gothic and ghost stories, which are pretty good. One of them is called “The Travelling Grave”, and it’s about a device…
LB: (chuckling) That sounds amazing.
AK: It’s basically about a coffin that hides in the floor.
AK: Ah, but, I, I won’t spoil it any more than that.
LB: I love it.
LB: Do you think it’s interesting?
AK: Yeah, I do think it’s interesting, and I, and I guess…
LB: I wonder if it’s because there’s more— easier to hide the mystic side of life in something which doesn’t have machinery.
AK: I think a lot of of the impulse which, erm, entrained gothic literature, as well, sort of moved on into science fiction.
LB: That’s a good point.
AK: And that of course got—
LB: It kind of branched out.
AK: Yeah, it kicked off— so, Wells, obviously, was the, the great progenitor[, well, or?] the early progenitor, and, and, that is around the, the time when the overlap [came—?]
LB: And I suppose I mentioned Jekyll and Hyde, erm, and actually that is maybe the first…
LB: …kind of, step on the branch, because that of course is all about, basically, alchemy and science…
LB: Changing these people, rather than, ah, if we step back a bit, we’ve talked previously on this series about, um, “Green Tea”, Sheridan Le Fanu’s story, which is basically, you know, you drink this um, exotic substance and it opens your inner eye, and now we’ve moved on a couple, you know, decade or so, and now it’s about, science has produced this substance that split this person into two different beings, and then we get into the science fiction side of it.
LB: Well, then we’re good, we solved it!
LB: Science fiction.
AK: Go us!
LB: You were saying.
AK: I was saying, um, Al Pollock— so, my, er, my father, as people who’ve read the extracts, ah, from the autobiography I’m publishing, was also in the Air Force, and, and had a, his own arc, which is sufficiently horrible that I don’t want to talk about it here. Er, but, ah, he, he died a long time ago. And I visited, um, with my mother, the squadron, ah, where he used to be stationed. And they showed me the squadron diary that he’d been involved in, in keeping up, because there’s a sort of informal thing that goes alongside the log, which is, had sort of daft pictures of him being very young, getting drunk with other very young people. And then there was this odd picture, er, the, he cut out a newspaper clipping with a cartoon on it, which was hung from— of a banner being hung from Tower Bridge in London, that said “No Hawkers”. The sign you normally see on doors, you know what I mean, no people selling stuff. And I looked around the people there and I said, “What’s, what’s that about?” And they all looked at each other and laughed a bit uncomfortably. And then they told me this story, ah, which I had a hard time believing, and actually when I first looked it up, was quite hard to find online. It’s got a Wikipedia entry and everything now, so I, I guess it’s true. And the story’s about a guy called Al Pollock, who was described as an extremely capable fighter pilot, he was a compatriot of my father’s in the squadron, and in 1968, ah, there was a, er, celebration, I suppose, of the, the fiftieth anniversary of the formation of the RAF, something like that, and, erm, they did a bunch of formation flying, but generally, Al Pollock felt, er, that the RAF had not been accorded sufficient respect, and not enough of a big deal had been made, and that their, you know, as often is the case, in peacetime, er, I think they were facing cuts. So he, ah, peeled off and did some unusual things in order to make his point. First of all he went and, the phrase is ‘beat up’, flew very low level over a couple of American air bases to annoy them, erm, and then he went and beat up the Houses of Parliament.
AK: By which I mean, he flew, in his, um, Hawker Harrier, erm, er, I think it was, um, hence the “No Hawkers” sign, ah, over London and circled the House of Commons three times, ah, at extremely low altitude— low enough altitude, in fact, [lets you?] to drone out the debate in the chamber, which I swear to God was apparently on noise abatement laws at the time, and broke some windows, um, and having made his point, er, however slightly incoherent it was, he decided to head off home. Erm, and, um, he headed off home, and if you know the geography of London, you know that if you sort of turn right at the Houses of Parliament as you come north, and go downriver, extremely quickly, especially if you’re flying in a fast fighter jet…
AK: You come to Tower Bridge. So he’s flying down the river, in a sort of, um, mood of fey belligerence, and he sees Tower Bridge ahead of him, and he says, you know, the idea immediately flashed into his mind, he wrote later, of flying under the upper span, because Tower Bridge is two bridges, and, or, two, two spans, and he said no fighter pilot worth his salt could have resisted it, so he flew under fucking Tower Bridge. In broad daylight, in the middle of London. And, um…
LB: (chuckles) Parliament decided to give lots more money to the RAF!
AK: (laughing) Well, ah…
LB: It was a huge success!
AK: In fact what happened is then he got, ah, got home, got out of his airplane, he got arrested.
LB: Court-martialled, yeah, exactly…
LB: …’cause that’s insane and he should not be allowed near another machine…
AK: Well, funny you should say insane, because he got, um, er, invalided out of the Force on grounds of mental health.
LB: [Oh, now I feel?] bad.
AK: And he, he, he spent a, a lot of time, ah, fighting that, um, er, assessment— I can’t remember what happened in the end but he, he said, you know, ‘I did, um, a stupid thing but I wasn’t, erm…’
LB: Wasn’t crazy.
AK: ‘I wasn’t crazy.’
AK: ‘I did it on purpose.’ And apparently only one person was hurt in the whole process, um, and that was a, um, ah, a gentleman who was cycling across the bridge, and Al Pollock…
LB: And fell over.
AK: …flashed overhead and he fell off his bike…
AK: And tore his trousers…
LB: (continues to laugh)
AK: And Pollock later, later sent him the, the money to get his trousers repaired.
AK: It’s an extremely British story. But, um, the other story about Al Pollock my mother tells, is, is apparently he went into a casino in Gibraltar, ah, when his father and [mine?] were down there (sic), and he took his wallet out of his pocket, and threw it down, um, on the table, and said, ‘Put it on black’…
LB: (laughs). My god.
AK: [She?] didn’t tell me if he’d won or not.
LB: (laughs). I think you have to have that sort of mindset if you’re gonna be an RAF pilot.
LB: You know, you do have the, kind of, just, ‘let’s just go for the crazy thing!’. Well then I think I will end, I think— ‘cause we’ve got— about to run out of time. I think I will end, um, unless you have other stories…
AK: I have [no?] more.
LB: …with a, er, diplomatic story.
AK: I love this one. I think I know the one you mean. Go on!
LB: Well, which one did you think I want to tell? The [nnnnnn?]…
AK: Is it Christmas?
LB: It is Christmas! It is, I thought this one would be the best. And there are many. So my father was a diplomat, and, um, as far as I can tell, diplomacy is entirely responsible for the entire breadth of the English stereotype around the world, because all of it’s true. Um, and there are lots of insider stories about, erm, ridiculous things going on, ah, in diplomatic circles. Although I would like to confirm that in fact I have never been offered a Ferrero Rocher.
AK: I’ll get you one.
LB: Um, within the diplomatic remit. I mean, I have eaten one. And they’re, they’re frankly underwhelming, I mean, get me a Snickers. If you’re gonna get me anything. Um, but there is a story, which allegedly is true, according to my father, erm, which I think sums up, er, diplomacy pretty well. So it’s the ambassador, erm, the British Ambassador to Mexico. And, um, he’s, he’s out there doing his job, and it’s coming up to Christmastime, and he gets a phone call from the local, um, radio station. And they say, er, ‘Mr Ambassador, um, we’d like to ask what you would like for Christmas’. Now, when you’re a diplomat, certainly in the British diplomatic service, is— giving and, er, receiving gifts is a Big Deal.
LB: Um, because on the one hand, er, giving someone a nice gift or receiving one is a great way to foster a relationship, and diplomacy is all about building great relations, so we can have wonderful conversations with people and be friends. Um, to make up for the fact that we have been awful in the past. And, erm, but it’s very important that this doesn’t bleed into bribery, because of course if, if, you know, Mexico decided to give the British Ambassador a Jaguar and then mysteriously, um, he made a nice deal with Mexico in the future, some people might point out that maybe that wasn’t cool. So, um, there are very strict rules about how big a present you can ask for and receive and otherwise it all gets a bit complicated. But of course you don’t want to just say no, ‘cause that’s rude and might damage the relationship, so this poor ambassador sort of said, “Oh, hold on a minute”, and he went back and had this sort of hurried conversation with his team, about what would be the most appropriate thing to ask for, because they wanted to ask for something and not be rude but it couldn’t be too big, and, ooh, what was it gonna be like, and eventually he came back and picked up the phone and he said, um, “Right, we’ve had a talk, um, and I’d like, um, for Christmas, a, um, a small box of fruit.”
LB: And the radio presenter said ‘Okay, thank you very much, Mr Ambassador, erm, we’ll be, you know, running a, a bit about this on Christmas Day, so tune in then’. So the ambassador thinks, fantastic, and goes about his duties, and on Christmas Day, does indeed tune in to the radio programme, to hear this announcer, um, say that they have, ah, you know, ‘merry Christmas everyone’, and they asked a number of ambassadors what they would like for Christmas. And the French ambassador has asked for world peace, the American ambassador says he would like a cure for cancer, and the British ambassador says he would like a small box of fruit. And that—
LB: in a nutshell…
AK and LB: (both laughing)
LB: …is British diplomacy at its best.
AK: What’s, what’s the phrase that your father says he’s, is the strongest terms you’re allowed to use if—
LB: Well, this is certainly— I, I don’t, I bet it hasn’t changed. Um, when he was training to be a diplomat, or was a junior diplomat and was, was being schooled, um, this must have been, what, in the ‘80s, um, he was told that, in a, in a total crisis, and we’re talking essentially, you know, nuclear war…
LB: You are stationed as number one ambassador in a foreign country that has just gone to war with Britain.
LB: So Britain generally is down on nuclear war, particularly when it’s against Britain, we don’t like that, and our ambassadors are told that they shouldn’t like it either, er, but of course we’re, we’re very polite, and we’re famous throughout the world as being, kind of, blundering and sort of polite and sort of, riff riff riff riff riff, um, and very repressed. And we all are. Um, so literally the strongest expression of condemnation my father was told he was ever allowed to make, in the face of actual nuclear annihilation…
LB: …was to go to whoever was in charge in the country where he was stationed and say: ‘This is a matter to which His Majesty’s Government— Her Majesty’s Government— cannot remain indifferent.’
LB: And that was, like, WHOA DEFCON 1! ‘Not remain indifferent!’
LB: But yeah.
AK: [That’s so—?]
LB: Be a diplomat.
AK: Good note to end on.
LB: Well, and, and I would like to, um, just before we do end, say, if anyone who’s listening, I’m sure you have stories similar to ours in your past…
LB: Everybody’s family is complicated and interesting and there’s always a, a sheep-stealer, and a hero, and, um, someone who has a wolf, and a poisonous artefact in the basement, so if you have any stories like that, please do share them with us. Um, they’re fascinating.
AK: Please do. And we will dig into them if you can follow… [inaudible]
LB: (laughing) Alright, thank you very much for listening, everyone! Um, I don’t think that was spooky at all, apart from the hat, really, so I’m not gonna…
AK: [But it won’t stop them?] having a spooky day.
LB: Okay. In spite of us, have a spooky day.