They – insufferable cunts who should by now rightfully be mad or dead, this is – say that if you can remember the 1960s you weren’t there. Well, I was there all right, I have the documents to prove it, but there are two shards of memory I can date with certainty to 1969. So maybe I wasn’t there after all. That’s the trouble with certainty. And with setting too much store by the utterances of insufferable cunts, obviously.
The first shard records being anaesthetised for an operation to correct a squint in my left eye. (What is a squint? Do they still exist? Or did they go the way of dropsy and deely boppers?) A gentle man with glasses put a cup over my mouth and nose and I went muzzily to sleep. I must have enjoyed the experience, or been terrified by it, or both, because for some time afterwards I would not shut up about the cup. The deifiers of personal freedom whose worldview still promises to drive our species to extinction underestimate the pleasure we take, the relief we feel, when submitting to power in whose benevolence we can trust. It’s as if they’d never had sex, or been children.
The second is of my sisters, my parents and I gathered around the television set to watch the landing (on the Moon! Splashdowns are ten a penny) of Apollo XI. This shard’s in black and white. The television pictures were colour, but only just. I’d turned three ten days before. The “set” had doors, and when it was switched off the image would shrink to a phosphorescent dot that would remain on the screen for minutes. That particular evening it wasn’t about to be switched off. Perhaps the reason I remember this communal television experience above, say, my second annual exposure to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – which I don’t remember at all, but know must have happened because until 1978 there was a law in the UK requiring all children to enjoy Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at least once a year – is that the other people in the room were all old and wise enough to have been awed by the magnitude of the historical event they were witnessing, and their awe was contagious. But I don’t think that’s the whole story. You don’t need an appreciation of history, or of engineering or philosophy, to get excited about people going to the Moon.
My third shard of memory dates from January 1971 and concerns actual shards. Then, as now, the RAF liked to disturb the peace of the residents of north-eastern England with low-level training flights, and in 1971 their weapon of choice was the Vulcan bomber, in essence a huge delta wing with some afterthoughts bolted on. One day, one of those afterthoughts lost control of his machine – mechanical failure, not human error, if it still matters nearly forty years later – and the crew was forced to eject, leaving the now mindless Vulcan to plummet nose-first into a field a few miles from our home (and about a hundred yards away from a school). For some reason – maybe I asked, four year-olds are capricious and inexplicable – my dad went to the crash site and obtained two sizeable chunks of shattered, warped metal from the wreckage. I’m not sure how he managed this. Probably money changed hands. Vulcans fell from the sky with monotonous regularity in those days, so “they” most likely already knew what had caused the crash. Anyway, there I was on the living room carpet amusing myself with a couple of lumps of debris from an actual former military aeroplane gone catastrophically out of commission. One was smooth on one side and hunched like a shoulder blade or a cut of chicken. The other was more irregular and difficult to place.
The shards had to go back after a few days. Even so, I’ll never understand how “we” managed to emerge victorious from the Cold War while lumps of failed militaria were handed out to unknown toddlers who may well have had communistic tendencies. The amiable, Z Cars image is undermined a little by the fact that the Vulcan crews knew when the day came for them to disgorge their payload of nuclear annihilation on the cities of the Soviet Union they would not have enough fuel to return home. Not that there would have been much of a home to return to.