Once upon a time, I worked for a magazine that spelt ‘defence’ ‘defense’.
It was one of three magazines in the stable of an American specialist publisher and I was, for a while, the nearest thing they had to a European editor. I edited press releases – but because they knew I knew nothing, I then sent them on to Boston, for checking, in a weekly package.
For real news, or features, I had to use the telex machine. Ye gods! All those little holes. Correcting a mistake on a ticker tape for a transatlantic telex – what a nightmare.
But anyway. Working for the Journal of Electronic Defense, I went on press trips. Visited places I would otherwise never have seen. Like Le Bourget, the big air show in Paris. There I goggled, awe-struck at the weapons on display.
Dealers in death and destruction, in suits and smiles, stood behind stands, plying their trade. How far? How much? How many?
Once, I drove a tank on a French army base. OK, so it was a tank simulator, but it was fun. Though a wrap-around-skirt and stockings wasn’t the ideal outfit to wear for climbing in and out.
Being the only young woman in a coterie of mostly middle-aged men had its advantages and its disadvantages.
They were taken seriously. I wasn’t. And that was actually, as far as this role was concerned, a very big advantage, because I knew next to nothing about defense. Or attack, as I like to call it.
But soon I understood enough to be able to nod at talk of C3 (Command, Control, Communication) and could discuss military microwaves with reasonable – if false – assurance.
So this weekend brought it all back.
The Southport Air Show. A fun day out for all the family.
It was fantastic, I loved it.
Despite the grey skies. Despite the increasing chill seeping through the concrete sea wall and up through my behind. Despite the rain that finally fell as the Vulcan’s non-arrival was announced.
That is, Vulcan as in V-bomber.
Yes, a death-bringer, let’s not fence around the issue – I was disappointed not to see a death-bringer.
The day – while wonderful, was a salutary reminder of what war means.
We had small aircraft flying by ‘strafing’ and ‘bombing’ the beach. (I suspect there were charges on the beach – but who am I to spoil the illusion).
We had the glamorous Red Arrows tearing across the low clouds in their designed-for-inclement-weather display. Patriotic emissions of red white and blue trailing in pretty patterns to show how skilful their manoeuvres were.
A yelp, synchronised with that of the young Polish woman next to me, burst from my lips as they passed each other, very close, low in the sky over the sea-less beach. Then we shared a laugh.
It was a convivial day. On one side of us were two Polish men and a woman, the other, a big family outing, three generations from north Wales. We missed them when they left.
But there were, for me, some very sombre moments.
The war that I hate to talk about as a waste of lives, in deference to those who gave them – or gave their young years. To the people who still have nightmares.
But perhaps, at its best, Vietnam helped to expose that ridiculous, seemingly never-ending, so-called Cold War.
How silly it seems.
Mutually Assured Destruction.
As I watched their grey forms vanish into the murk, I thought of the people who saw these all-too-real phantom-creature machines for what they were.
Like that old man who’s a charmer, dressed up in his finery, twirling his moustache. Turns out he’s been something evil – a sinister, predatory murderer. Or just a lecher, on a good day.
Well, you know what I mean.
The Typhoon, too, set my nerves rattling. There’s no adequate way of describing the noise it makes, the aural equivalent of a scorching, all the devils in hell screaming at once. As it vanishes straight up into the air, the fire, belching from its rear end in the sea mist, reminds you that it’s real.
It’s the Eurofighter.
It’s not a just a dark toy with a tempestuous name that flies fast, to defend us. It’s a machine designed to destroy.
Fire, I’ll take you to burn. As someone sang.
The music broadcast over the public address system at times made my heart swell with pride, with emotion. A reminder of how easy it is to whip us up into an irrational euphoria.
But it’s important to remember why these planes and helicopters exist.
Because modern, civilised, wealthy, well-fed man, chooses to turn on fellow man. And because we have invented the ultimate, nuclear, weapon, we cannot afford to sit back and be pacific.
Or can we?
I’ll drink to that – and pray for it.