Monday 14 January 2013

Smoked cat and paraffin

Is this a possible origin of the phrase 'bells and whistles' as applied to technology boasting extra features? It's more often linked to fairground organs, although surely they don't have whistles - just pipes. 

The late Sir Peter Masefield, ex-chairman of the British Airports Authority, once recalled a job he had been given at [the aircraft manufacturers] Fairey in the mid-thirties as a junior draftsman, designing a holder for a brass handbell and an ultrasonic whistle to fit into the cockpit of the Fleet Air Arm's Fairey Seal bombers. 'The handbell was to be rung after alighting in fog. The whistle was to frighten off flamingos and similar hazards before taking off from (for example) the Nile and Khartoum. In those days they thought of everything.

                        From James Hamilton-Patterson's Empire of the Clouds (Faber and Faber 2010) p. 113.

This comes from a brilliantly indignant account of the rise and fall of the now defunct but once mighty British aircraft industry. We used to be world-leaders in the design and construction of futuristic jet fighters and civilian airliners but decades of dud management and government ineptitude put paid to that. Hamilton-Patterson is eloquent in his contempt for the shifty and expedient ministers and industry time-servers who oversaw the collapse of another British institution, but also retains a schoolboy enthusiasm for the boffins and the builders and (especially) the ice-nerved test pilots who were public figures in their day and are now largely forgotten. 

The author is better known as a novelist than an aviation writer, and you really must read his brilliantly filthy, sick and witty comic trilogy about an anarchic gourmand  named Gerald Samper. If the idea of 'smoked cat and paraffin' raises a smile, this is the book for you. Hamilton-Paterson, who should be much better known, has a Wodehousian flair for comic language and situation. The three books are, in order: Cooking with Fernet Branca, Amazing Disgrace and Rancid Pansies. The third volume's title is a very satisfying anagram. 

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