NOSTALGIA (or) an answer to “…AND WHERE THE HELL WAS BIGGLES…”

…AND WHERE THE HELL WAS BIGGLES…

Right here, Right here!!” I rejoiced, on entering the World War section of the Museum of Flight, when my wife and I visited that museum in Seattle a year ago. My exuberance prompted a tolerant smile from her, and, I suppose, a faint hope in her that the other visitors wouldn’t pay much attention to a greybeard behaving like a schoolboy.

Since there are mixed contexts here, some backtracking would be in order.

In common with many other readers, I began my reading habit with books by Enid Blyton. (Why isn’t there a Nobel prize for Contribution to Childhood?) I soon expanded my reading lists to include a variety of ‘adventure’ books. The two series that captivated me for most of my years in middle and senior school were the Biggles books, by W. E. Johns, and the Hornblower books, by C. S. Forester.

What I loved about these books was that they were perfectly suited to my tendency to ‘live the adventure’ in a world of my own.

(This was something I believed I was unique in, until I came across Thurber’s Walter Mitty some years later, and, with that, the realisation that I was, almost certainly, only one among many. For the likes of us, intoxicants, psychotropic substances, even Second Life, hold no appeal at all, since we need nothing but a well written book to break free, to draw inspiration from, or as a creative base.)

But I digress. Back to the world of Biggles – full name: James Bigglesworth – the subject of this piece. (I’ll introduce you to Hornblower later sometime, in another post.)

biggles

I’ll leave it to you to find out more about the author and the series (three cheers for Google and Wikipedia), and the stories themselves (read a couple of books). Suffice it to say that, filling his books (especially the WW I stories) with a wealth of simply explained detail, Johns seemed to know exactly what he was talking about. This made it very easy to ‘live the adventure’.

With these books my imagination took to the skies. I imagined the bumpy take-offs and landings on rough airfields, the freezing air at 10000 feet, the deafening sound of air-cooled rotary engines (my own and those of passing aircraft), the explosive chatter of machine guns, the pungent smell of lubricant, fuel and cordite, the boom of ground artillery aimed (vainly) at me as I flew overhead. I imagined dogfights involving (what I thought would be) climbs, dives, spins, loops, Immelmann turns. I imagined zeroing in on ‘kills’, and following the screaming and burning aircraft down to the ground in the hope that my adversaries would escape death or fatal injury. (Fantasy apart, I think those books helped me understand, at least in part, what the term ‘an officer and gentleman’ meant, and the values that it implied.) I imagined rough landings, even crashes, from which I walked away (sometimes hurt but always steady).

I grew familiar with colourful names like Red Baron and Flying Circus, and with the names of the iconic aircraft of the two WWs (the Bristols, Sopwiths, Nieuports, SPADs, Spitfires, Mustangs, Yaks as well as the Albatrosses, Fokkers, Focke Wulfs, Messerschmitts and Zeroes). I was a regular visitor to libraries, poring over atlases to pinpoint WW locations, and over encyclopedias to find pictures of WW aircraft and flying aces.

Simple line drawings of biplanes and Spitfires became my trademark doodles for a few years, and have, since, remained among my favourites.

And so, when we stepped into the WW section of that museum of flight, it seemed like a dream come true! They have restored specimens, and some full-scale replicas, of WW I and WW II aircraft, photographs, biographies of air aces, spoken and written accounts by some of them, black and white documentaries, and clips from aviation-based war movies. To complete the atmosphere, they have, playing in the background (as if at some distance in the skies above), recorded sounds of aircraft and dogfights. The icing on this cake is the SIMULATORS (in the form of mock fighter cockpits with controls, that face 72” screens) that, in simulated short flights, dogfights, aerobatic displays, even crash landings (!!) enable you to get the feel of flying and ‘being there’ – and how!!

In addition to all this there were, that day, about 15 primary school kids at the museum. In single file behind their teacher and with outstretched arms, they were all (including Teacher) enthusiastically pretending to be planes as they were led past the exhibits, miming banks, yaws, climbs and loops. Some were even giving him correct answers as to which moves by a pilot would result in which actions!

The place was a time machine!! I can’t describe it in any other way! In transporting me to the war years it also transported me to the fantasy world that I’d lived in as a boy.

Closing time was 5pm and we stayed until the museum security reminded us where the exits were. Needless to say, it was a wrench to leave.

(Before you move to the rest of this post, here are some photographs from that visit.) 

DSC09640DSC09655DSC09650DSC09671

[[–     I know half the people on the planet are, or have been, fascinated by flying machines. Jefferson Airplane sang a song for all of us! It’s called ‘Planes’. Here’s a link to a video. (The visuals are just a collage. Listen to the lyrics!)  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L0gnnVcOLNc    –]]

So, this museum visit – a ‘nostalgia’ trip, would you say? I would say so too!

‘Nostalgia’, the Webster tells us, is ‘the pleasure and sadness that is caused by remembering something from the past and wishing that you could experience it again’. Some say that nostalgia is a temporary escape from reality, some that it results from the belief that one prefers the past to the present, some that it demonstrates one’s inability to relate to the present.

However, I have a particular perception of what that word encompasses. I don’t think any of those are the case. I think nostalgia sums up the situations, the experiences and the people that one looks back at fondly because they have armed us with the energy, the attitudes, and the ideals that have helped us, and continue to help us, deal with our circumstances, overcome our fears and difficulties, and go through our lives with a measure of confidence. In short – that of our past that sustains us through our present, and keeps us optimistic as we look to the future.

And now to “….where the hell was Biggles….”

Some of you would recognise this phrase from Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull’s marathon song ‘Thick as a Brick’. (This is not to be confused with its sequel – Anderson’s TAAB2 of 2012.)

thick as a brick

If you haven’t heard the song yet, you should – it’s an amazing piece of rock music with lyrics that offer multiple interpretations, (should you be inclined to attempt interpretation).

Here’s a link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M9JEPeeohYs

I’ve used the line to start with because, though Anderson may have used it in a different context, every time I hear the song, this particular line brings back to me the image I’ve always had of Biggles, the flying ace – in his cockpit as he taxis in after a sortie, in flying gear,his goggles atop his leather flying helmet, his face generally grimy from oil-spray and exhaust fumes except around the eyes, where the goggles would have provided protection.

biggles grimy

I’ve brought the line in again to share a different set of thoughts, more in the sense of Anderson’s context.

His particular verse is:

So! Where the hell was Biggles when you needed him last Saturday?
And where were all the sportsmen who always pulled you through?
They’re all resting down in Cornwall
writing up their memoirs for a paper-back edition
of the Boy Scout Manual.

Some take this to be Anderson’s averment of the meaninglessness of icons or heroes. Doesn’t the ‘…always pulled you through…’ seem to indicate otherwise, though?

But let me contribute my ‘chavanni’s’ worth on the relevance of icons – I think the range between degrees of ‘meaningfulness’ is, in this case, the range between the terms ‘worship’ and ’emulation’.

In hero-worship we consider our icons with awe, and believe they are superhuman and therefore beyond emulation. As a result, when in circumstances that we feel are beyond our capabilities, we wish our icons were by our side to see us through. “Wish you were here”, is the thought. And sometimes, the thought that they are by our side helps us bear with these circumstances till they pass (and, one way or another, they do pass).

In role-model emulation, while we may consider our icons with awe, we believe that they set certain standards or make us aware of certain possibilities to which we can lift our own capability and effort. “Thanks for showing me the way, I think I can take it from here”, is the thought. And sometimes, in coping on our own, we achieve levels that we think our icons would themselves have been proud of.

So, if our heroes weren’t there when we ‘needed them last Saturday’, it was merely because our response to our situation was “wish they were here” when it should’ve been “what would they have done had they been here”.

It’s not as if each of us is fixed at a certain point in this range, however. Most of us move between its various points, sometimes praying and hoping (looking to our icons), sometimes learning and performing (looking to ourselves).

On occasion, we’re smart enough to realise that we are best served by the latter actions, supported by the former. The thing to do, perhaps, is to increase the frequency and regularity of those occasions!

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Old , Gold, and what we can be left with…

 

“I have always been a believer

in the good things of life,

but they don’t always come wrapped

in cellophane…..”

sings Paul Rodgers in the Free song “Sail on”. (You could catch a live version of this on YouTube, but I haven’t provided the link because the audio quality isn’t great.) While, in the song, and in the perception of most, the line could mean that we often have to work hard for what we desire, I’d like to give it a different spin – as a line in praise of looking for second-hand (or, to use the current euphemism, ‘pre-owned’) things – and, through that spin, meander to a somewhat larger thought.

 

Some of the most valued things we’ve gathered at home through the years (for instance – our tireless motorcycle, our rugged display case, our rock-steady turntable, many of our books, LPs and CDs) were discovered through the classifieds, unearthed in thrift stores, flea markets and pavement shops, or found at auctions and garage sales.

 

Why have I not used words such as ‘bought’ or ‘purchased’ even though we must’ve used money for these acquisitions? Simply because such words suffice only for the dreary business of mere commercial transactions, and not for sheer ADVENTURE. And, believe me, we’ve had some thrilling adventures!

 

I’ll take you through a couple which are typical of most of the others. And then I’ll tell you why I think they are nothing but adventure.

 

I really got hooked onto rock and blues early in the Woodstock era – in 1971 (my first year at college). Radio stations would play these amazing new sounds that captivated me entirely. This was stuff the like of which had never been heard before. I would spend all my free time (which was a lot) either glued to the radio, listening to VOA, BBC, Radio Kuwait, Radio Deutsche Welle, and such, or at the USIS or British Council libraries, (no computers or internet in those days!) devouring Records and Recording, Music and Musicians, Downbeat, Rolling Stone and any other music magazine I could lay my hands on. However, it wasn’t till 1976, my first year at work (at a princely wage of 800 rupees a month), that I could think of starting a collection of music to go with the small Philips stereo system that my sister had let me have.

 

Madras had an amazing market in those days – Moore Market, near Madras Central station – a huge building that had a variety of shops in it, and a couple of parallel lanes behind it that were lined with shops selling used things.

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One of these shops (I never really noticed whether it had a name) was a favourite haunt of mine, as it had second hand LPs of all genres of music. The guy who ran the shop (and I never knew his name either – to me he was The Record Guy) knew just a little about pop and rock, but he certainly did know where to get LPs from! He would pick up western music from families emigrating to Australia or the West; from newly-marrieds who’d returned from the West and whose spouses didn’t quite share their preferences in music; from indulgent parents who suddenly dumped their kids’ record collections, convinced that rock and blues were forms of music designed by SATAN (no less) to lead their lambs astray; from sailors who were in port (while their ships discharged and took on cargo) and needed money to paint the town red. I really haven’t a clue of how he heard of his sources. The results however were the gems that could often be found at his place.

 

And so to a typical adventure, back in 1976 –

 

I was left with sixty bucks by the end of the month, salary coming in again in a few days. I cycled over (you’ve met my cycle in my previous post) to The Record Guy’s place after work on Saturday afternoon. Greeted him as I would a close friend (the bounden duty of a regular). Went over to the bin with the western music, and started flipping through the LPs.

 

Went past various sundry albums… Bee Gees (wouldn’t be caught dead with that)… Ventures, Golden Guitar (hmm.. perhaps if nothing else)… Anne Murray, practically new (pass..pass..)… something else… something else… Saturday Night Fever, also practically new (unhunh.. unhunh..)… Aqualung (Holy Smoke!! Tull!! Palpitations! But keep moving! Keep moving! Don’t let on that you’re interested)… something else… (fingers shaking, face must be red, is my hair standing on end? Hope he doesn’t notice!)… something else… Wake of the Flood (Grateful Dead!! Hold on to that bin! Don’t collapse. But don’t stop! Keep going! Heart pounding! Keep going!)… flip through to the end of the lot in the bin, almost forty of them, without even noticing them. (Obviously! With eyes glazed over, what else? Now, turn around casually, stretch arms, link fingers behind head and look around vacantly, move hands to pockets, get a grip on your vocal chords and start what you hope sounds like a bored conversation with The Record Guy.)

 

“What brother! Nothing of interest today. You haven’t got fresh stuff since God knows when.”

“Are you blind? There’s a brand new Anne Murray there, and that big hit Saturday Night Fever. Both came in yesterday. They won’t be around long, I can tell you.”

“Hmm… (Back to the bin. Pick up those two. Look at the jackets with interest. Take the discs out carefully, look at them closely, nod in approval, put them back in the jackets.) … very good condition. Maybe I should take them before someone else does. I’ll give you sixty bucks for them, that’s all I have.”

“Are you mad? (Guffaw, guffaw). I can get forty for each of them. But you’re a regular, so I can let you have them for thirty five each, and that’s the best I can do.”

(Plead a bit. Accuse him of being unfair. Pretend to tug on his heart strings. If he gets the impression that you’re desperate, he won’t budge.) And he doesn’t.

“OK. Obviously you won’t let me have them. But since I’m here, I might as well pick up something.”

(Pick up Aqualung and Wake of the Flood. For God’s sake, don’t squeak or let your hands shake. Put on your most bored voice.)

“So what’ll you give me these two dusty albums for?” (Nothing that gentle soap and water can’t handle)

“They may be dusty, but they’re in good shape. You said you had sixty bucks. I’ll let you have them for that much.”

“Now, you’re the one who’s mad. No one will give you more than twenty for each. I’ll give you forty.”

“Sorry. Really sorry. Forty’s less than I paid for them.”

“Come on. I wasn’t born yesterday. Anyway, I’ll give you forty five.”

“Fifty five.”

“For fifty five you should give me the Ventures album as well!”

“Listen. I’ll give you the three for sixty. Now, if you don’t like that, forget it. Let’s talk about the Cooum instead.”

 

And so it came to pass that two of my most treasured albums found their way into my young collection, along with a little bonus in the form of The Ventures, for sixty rupees.

(Listen to the tracks on the links below, and you’ll see why they’re such great albums.)

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So, Sounds pretty neat, yes? Well, the ploy works sometimes, but flops as many times too! And that just adds to the adventure. But, I’ll come back to that, after I tell you of a more recent episode – as recent as earlier this year.

 

My wife and I were at Thane, Mumbai, a couple of months ago, visiting relatives. One evening, we were at a shopping arcade. The ladies were looking at some kitchen things. I was outside looking around, and spotted the store of a waste paper dealer. There was an old bookshelf in the store, with about thirty books and the legend ‘For Sale’ scrawled on a piece of cardboard that must’ve been torn off an old notebook. I drifted over and peered at the books (in fact, looked down at them – I didn’t really expect to see much in a waste paper store) through the lower halves of my bifocals. I identified a Sidney Sheldon (yawn), a couple of Lustbaders (have already read one, may try the other), a few Hardy Boys and Nancy Drews (don’t kids pick up second hand books these days?) and – I couldn’t believe my eyes – an almost new hardback of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations! The negotiations that followed were similar to those I’d had thirty seven years ago with The Record Guy, and have tried ever since with varying degrees of success and failure. I eventually came down to the book I really wanted, almost as if it were an afterthought.

 

I left the store with the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius in my hand, a broad smile on my face, and great joy and anticipation in my heart – all for a pittance of seventy rupees!

 

Now let me tell you why I consider these, and others like them, episodes of adventure.

 

– To start with, you set out for a second-hand shop or market, or stumble upon one, as a discoverer would – without a clue of what you are likely to chance upon.

– There’s subterfuge to be maintained (at least until, through frequent visits, you’ve built the kind of rapport with the shopkeeper where both of you can assess each others’ expectations). This subterfuge demands: an air of ‘I’m here because I have some time between more important tasks’, a bored look, a flat tone of voice, absolute control over eyes, eyebrows, lips and potential tremble, and the ability to give the impression that one doesn’t really need the object of negotiation and is willing to walk away.

– There’s the thrill of going through the stock: recognition of pieces you know of or have read or heard about; identification of those that you would want to find out more about; exposure to ones that you think seem interesting enough to take a chance with.

– There’s the skilled (or desperate) negotiation that follows.

– Depending on what the object is worth to you, there’s sometimes a seemingly ethical dilemma (am I taking too much advantage of this guy’s goodness and/or ignorance) when you know you can drive the price pretty low. This is fleeting, though, since you quickly assure yourself that no dealer is going to part with any of his stock unless he makes SOMEthing, however little, on the deal.

– There’s joy when you close the deal, or heartbreak when it slips from your grasp.

– When you take the acquisition home and experience it, there’s exultation when it meets or exceeds your expectations (and you feel you have a ‘steal’), or a feeling of disappointment when it falls short (but you don’t think of it as a rip-off, because you know it was one of those times that you erred in judgement, made the wrong call).

– Sometimes you try to find out if the object is otherwise available in the regular stores or other thrift stores, and if it’s not, that’s double the thrill because you know you just managed to be at the right place at the right time. If it is available, you might find that you saved quite a bit on it and (if you’re a scrooge like I am) you’re jubilant that you were able to do so.

 

Doesn’t this add up to adventure? For me, it certainly does ! Perhaps a shade less exciting than white-water rafting, para sailing, or fighting a gorilla bare-handed and bare-chested, but adventure nevertheless!

 

But, (on a slightly serious note) the greatest value of such acquisitions, I believe, is that each one provides us with a memory that we cherish and an experience that we relive when we look back at what life has given us so far.

 

We know money can’t buy us true love (The Beatles, among many others, remind us of that). We’re also told that money can’t buy us happiness. Well, perhaps not as such, but… . One of the pieces of prose that I handled in a recent class presented the idea that our money is well spent not when we acquire mere possessions, but when the expenditure affords us memories and experience.

 

I can’t agree more; that’s just the stuff I’ve been talking of! And it’s not about money only – let’s remember that money has value not in itself, but as a resource – it’s equally (and often more) so about any resources that we expend, such as time, effort, patience, emotion, as you would see from the adventures I’ve narrated.

 

So, here’s what I’ve arrived at. Since happiness lies in experience and memories, it is entirely possible and highly likely that, when resources (including money, irrespective of how little or how much) are well and judiciously spent (isn’t that one way of looking at the term ‘well-invested’?), you could end up with results that prompt some happiness.

 

Food for thought?!

 

 

And now for those tracks –

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Auc23qz6QhE

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IN6mjNMNytY

 

 

TO WHOM IT MAY INTEREST . . . . .

nothing too loose

Hi !!

While my work (namely the stuff that I do to bring home the bacon) has involved a fair amount of writing over the years – correspondence, notes, reports, minutes, legalese, academic content, training manuals, and so on – I have written for public consumption only twice or thrice so far. (On one of those occasions I wrote a letter to the editor of a newspaper doing, as I thought, ‘the right thing’. A little later in this post I’ll tell you how that turned out!)

I’ve kept telling myself, though, that I should write a few more times – to put down things that I recall or have arrived at – for those who may find something in my writing that interests them, for those close to me, and for myself. Those close to me will, I hope, feel obligated to read my stuff, and may then marvel at how someone who didn’t have much to say so far (except to students in class) now feels free to write for anyone willing to read.

Well, I guess I’ve reached the age where a foot in the mouth can’t kill me.

Therefore, dear reader, I subject you to this blog.

What will I write about? I’ll ramble. Rambling, I suppose, is what bloggers do, and must be one of the joys of blogging. However, I’ll try not to get into totally mindless rambling, and it’s to remind myself of that resolution that I’ve titled this blog as I have. The title represents the tempering of the somewhat extreme but more common thought – Nothing To Lose. I won’t be going that far, not just yet! (‘Nothing to lose’ is an interesting thought, though, but more on that later!)

So, let’s see…
– Music, musicians, events, stories – rock, jazz, and blues; Western and Indian classical.
– Good reads – the classics, contemporary fiction, essays, poetry, everyday philosophy, history, current events, and opinions that matter.
– Travel – the little I’ve done, what I’ve read about, and day-dreams.
– My Generation – our quirks, our goof-ups, and the bits we got right.

These, and more like these, are the things I intend to write about in future posts. I’ll write when the spirit moves me, and I hope it moves me often!

As the modern cliché goes – Watch This Space !!

* * * * * * * * * *

About my letter to the editor

I was, at the time that I wrote this letter, a student at Madras Law College (now DAGLC, Chennai) in the first year of the three-year programme that would (eventually) end in the grant of a degree in LAW.
Madras Law College. c 1905
For those who may not know it, Madras Law College, ever since it was established in 1891, has been a breeding ground for practising lawyers (as distinguished from the graduates who, essentially, killed time there, as I did) and politicians – who’ve gone on to be among the country’s best-known ‘helping hand’ professionals, some brilliant at actually helping others, some absolutely brilliant at helping themselves.

It was the academic year 1974-75, a year in which student unrest was rife, with our college being a hotbed. Classes were held only intermittently. In fact, with a couple of months to go for the end of the academic year, we had had only about sixty working days.

Here’s where I got into my ‘good boy’ act. I wrote a letter to the editor of ‘The Hindu’ proclaiming that, contrary to the impression that the general public had of law students, there were some of us who’d joined college to actually study law. Would the (misguided) elements prolonging the agitation please settle down so that college could reopen and we could get back to our primary purpose (the noble pursuit of legal knowledge)?!

I know what you’re thinking – this guy must’ve had a few things missing in his head! I couldn’t believe it myself, when the letter actually appeared in the newspaper! I could’ve kicked myself – I sounded so.. so.. lily-white!!

Well, as fate would have it, (and certainly not because of my brainless action) college did reopen within a week. The day it reopened I cycled over, my heart in my mouth, hoping that no one had noticed the letter. Well, while I wasn’t famous in college, my cycle was – it was a lady’s cycle that I had tried lending some masculinity to by stripping it down to its absolute essentials, its only adornment being a grey canvas knapsack suspended from the handlebar. The guys in college saw the cycle come in and identified me instantly. It was obvious that the letter hadn’t gone unnoticed, because, in the few minutes that it took me to find space in the cycle stand, a small crowd gathered around me.

If times then were as they are now, I daresay I wouldn’t have left that cycle stand with unbroken legs. However, that was a different era. I was one of them, and in those days, you didn’t hurt your own, no matter what. However, over the next fifteen minutes, I heard abuse (in Tamil and English) that made me feel lower than a worm, twenty or more fountain pens were emptied on my head and face, and my glasses were smeared with dirt and grease.

I was contrite. I acknowledged the error of my ways. I begged their forgiveness. And (as Yoda would say) forgiven I was! Everyone calmed down. Guys from the same lot accompanied me to the garden tap, helped me clean up, and then escorted me to the college canteen where, once I had treated everyone to coffee and vadais, my absolution was complete.

If only all our lessons were learnt as easily !

* * * * * * * * * *

Nothing To Lose

We normally use that term to mean, merely, that we run no risk in choosing a course of action, The Enlightened One, however, saw the term very differently. He said that we are bound to earthly life when we desire to hold on to our material possessions and our relationships. His guidance was, therefore, that we should divest ourselves of all these, and only when we have nothing to lose would we be really free (we’d attain Nirvana, He said).

Ever since then, that unique definition of freedom has surfaced frequently, sometimes in different contexts. A modern use that comes to mind almost immediately is Kris Kristofferson’s, in his 1970 song ‘Me and Bobby McGee’: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose….”.
Haven’t heard the song? You can catch it on youtube –

or

But, to return to the original thought – some are confused by it, interpreting it to mean an abdication of all responsibilities. However, the thought should be seen in the light of the Golden Mean – the middle path. We’d then understand the guidance. We should not reach out and seek responsibilities. But we’re not to disown or shun those that are placed on us without our seeking them. These we should bear and deal with, in all sincerity, so that they are met. Once we’ve met those responsibilities, they would cease to be burdensome, and that would be the same as being free of them!

Practical philosophy, you think?