When the war is over….
This is a nod to Gerry Anderson's great puppet show sci-fi, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, a staple of my childhood TV watching. Ah, those amazingly good models, sets and special effects… graced by those puppets with the visible strings, and their "don't come near me, matey, I'm pissed as a rat and I think I've just shat myself" walk…
For those who've never seen a Century 21 puppet sci-fi and are far too young to have been ten or under in the 1960's (dear vanished pre-Thatcher age when a different Britain was fleetingly possible), think of the South Park boys' film, with puppets, Team America, which is both homage to and parody of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's 1960's vision…
These are a series of not-necessarily-related glimpses of life in post-Mysteron Britain. Some looking back on the best time of their lives; others looking forward to an uncertain post-war future.
1) Collyhurst, Manchester, November 2083.
Some things hadn't changed in 2083, he thought, staggering blearily out of the pub into a backstreet strewn with what he hoped was only litter and dead leaves . There's still a mean backstreet part of town, looking pretty much as it did in 1983 or maybe even in 1883, kept tidily away from the eyes of the rich people who are going places in the world, nowhere near the brushed concrete multi-level motorways and the sleek futuristic buildings and the cars and vehicles to die for. And they call it Collyhurst. Particles of breakfast adhered stubbornly to six –or-seven-day stubble on his chin, and to his shabby stained clothing, and he hadn't washed or changed underwear for two or three days. Paul Metcalfe was a war veteran. Right now he was a semi-capable drunk.
Paul Metcalfe was also a total freaked-up mess.
Bloody White. Bloody, bloody, supercilious stuck-up sodding bloody bastard White. And the sodding politicians. Gutless bastards in suits.
He heard a cat screech, and a little bit of him pricked up to full alertness. He saw two of them in front of him, holding knives, and sensed a third, behind. Just for now, it paid to maintain the drunken lurch. But he grinned, inwardly. Situations like this made him feel alive again, in a way he'd rarely felt since White had sacked him from the Organisation.
"Money. Valuables. Give." He heard a voice say. He pretended to fumble in his pocket, gauging the situation. He felt the prick of a knife in his back.
"Hurry it up." A coarse voice urged. Well… they said it…
Metcalfe kicked out hard, feeling five years' of frustration and putting it into the kick. One of the muggers doubled up hard with a groan, falling back into the dustbins which some ancient bylaw said must be a feature of every sleazy back alley. His balled fist pivoted up on his elbow, driving nasal cartilage into the brain tissue of the mugger standing behind him. He winced as he felt the knife go in, but it didn't impede him from taking the third by the lapels and delivering a shattering head-butt. And then a second, because Metcalfe was feeling mean.
He paused to regard the three attackers, two of whom were still and one was feebly groaning. He felt a twinge in his back, went tcchh!, and reached round to pull the knife out. By the feel of it, it had split a kidney in two. Ah well, it'll mend. It always bloody well does.
"Look at it!" he said, conversationally. "This might not be the best jacket in the world, but you've just put a three-inch rip in it. Do you know what invisible mending costs these days?"
His voice was well-modulated upper-middle-class English, suggesting time spent at Sandhurst and in the forces. It sounded incongruous, coming out of one who was only a few more maladjustments to civvy street away from being a tramp.
The terrified mugger tried to dig his way into the street with his shoulderblades. Metcalfe laid him out with a kick to the head – he didn't have to do that, but it gave vent to his feelings - then methodically searched their bodies for cash, drugs and other valuables. He left them in the street, and walked away materially richer and a little bit happier, his shattered kidney already beginning to re-knit itself.
"Dum-DUM; dum-dum-dum-di-dum…" he hummed.
2) Cassell's European History, 2085 edition.
After the unfortunate incident on Mars in 2068, where Captain Conrad Black had ordered the mysterious alien installations be lasered and nuked out of existence, a ten year war erupted between Earth and the alien entities we know as the Mysterons. Black should have been court-martialled for his actions, as he not only exceeded his authority and precipitated a war, he was acting in defiance of the Yellow Card rules for First Contact with an alien species. They had not, and we now know would not have, shot at us: Black's xenophobia got the better of him, and war ensued.
While Black himself was the first victim of the Mysterons' revenge, they did not stop here…
3). The thoughts of Colonel White (Spectrum, retired)
Extract from interview tapes, made for the autobiography of Charles Gray, R.N. and Spectrum, The Gandalf of Cloudbase: From Gray to White. (Hodder and Staunton, 2091)
(Ed. Note:- These tapes were made by Gray's autobiographer during interviews carried out in the St. Cecelia Sunset Home For Terminally Bewildered Military Men, in the twilight of Gray's life)
It was never envisaged that there should only be one Cloudbase: the original defence submission stipulated that there should be a chain of five, allowing unbroken cover in the lower atmosphere and inner space of our planet. Fortunately, Cloudbase One was already in place by 2066, shortly before the war broke out, but defence cuts perpetrated by our friends in the Civil Service, who of course always know best, did for the rest until the Shadowfax came on stream in 2076, shortly before the end of the War.
No, a far bigger threat to us, and one that might perhaps have been anticipated from the start, involved recruitment.
Naturally, only the crème de la crème, the very best, the outstanding and excellent, those who had proved themselves several times over, were invited to join Spectrum.
There was no lack of candidates, and our additional screening and selection processes, far more stringent than those of the SAS or Delta Force, weeded out those who were not quite good enough to make it to the top.
The embarrassing thing was that as Spectrum evolved, we began to run out of colour names for our operatives. While this administrative issue was being sorted out, it necessarily put recruitment on hold, or slowed it to a trickle, and some of the later recruits were necessarily saddled with names they might not have chosen for themselves and which were a bit of a mouthful for radio communication.
At first it was simple: as all colours resolve in White – the Gandalf principle, d'you see, when he overcame Saruman and asserted leadership over the Istari – the commanding officer and director of operations would necessarily become White, the place where all colours resolve. Disappointingly for me, this only attracted the comparatively lowly rank of colonel, and not, as I pressed, at least Brigadier. This meant I had to be, in public, second fiddle to those rather self-satisfied people at UNIT, even though my relationship with Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart was never less than cordial. In public, anyway.
At immediately lower levels, assignation of colours was not a problem. My seven subordinate Majors, for instance, became Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo and Violet. Bad luck for Wayne Violet, who was a large American from the Midwest who was always somewhat sensitive about his designation, but there you go. Never got on with Captain Pink (Very Special Operations), as I recall, and in fact Gavin Pink made some rather unwise presumptions at a Mess Night once.
And you had to have a Captain Black – the total absence of colour – as we thought at the time that was essential. Bit of a colourless personality, Conrad Turner. Time showed this was something of a mistake, but his record was spotless and checked out. Came from Manchester too, so a bit of an oik, ghastly Northerner. Where was I?
Oh yes. Colours.
Onve you're past the basic seven, it starts to get tricky.
Liuetenant Beige, Captain Brown, Captain Lavender – he joined Pink in Very Special Ops – Second Lieutenant Ivory, and so on. Then we had to resort to synonyms and alternates, which is how we got Captain Scarlet, although at the same time we recruited Captain Vermilion, Lieutenant Haemoglobin, Ensign Maroon, Sergeant-Major Cherry, and one or two others. Similarly, with a Major Blue then on the payroll, when we got the chappie who stepped up into his name later, that American Svenson, he started out as Lieutenant Sky Blue. Same thing with Green: until the original Major Green got the chop, Seymour Griffiths was originally Second Lieutenant Dark Jungle Green, although he did raise an objection to that. Caused a hell of a fuss with the Race Relations Board.
Well, one way or the other we got it up to about eighty and we were well pleased with that. Although with Vermilion, Scarlet and Red being so close, chromatically speaking, there could be mistaken identity issues on parade. Those dam' silly uniforms we were issued, you see, that had to be bespoke to each individual. Do you realise how much of our annual budget went on tailoring? Armies issue uniforms for good reason, one of which is cost, dress everyone the same and it keeps cost down. An d they could have been better cut and styled, for the money.
So this was a continual source of contention between Spectrum and the bean-counters back at the Ministry. I was all for changing the situation and making it more anonymous – I mean, we're a top-secret trans-national military operation who need to maintain secrecy and discretion. And then you send a field officer into a tricky secret situation in a bright red tabard and tight trousers, so everyone, including the bloody Mysterons, knows Captain Scarlet's on the case. Not exactly discreet insertion, is it?
But no, they'd come up with the notion of Spectrum, some very senior politician, or maybe his wife, thought up the idea that it would be holistic and pretty and nice if everything were suitably colour-co-ordinated, and that was it. We had to live with it. My adjutant Captain Damson had some inspired ideas, though, and the day he head-hunted Captains Gold and Silberman from the MOSSAD to start our in-house tailoring shop, the uniforms budget actually began to look less frightening and even started to turn a profit.
So where was I? Oh yes, the Mysteron war. This called for massive expansion of the force, and there just weren't enough colour names to go around, I'm afraid. Oh, attrition was helpful, as when the original Green and Blue bought it, we could step others forward into their shoes. Quite helpful, really, as this was, in the end, how promotion went. Forget the official lieutenant, captain, major, structure. The nearer you got to a primary colour, the higher you were in the system. Therefore there could only ever be one Captain Green, but there were positively oodles of hues and sub-tones and DCC's underneath him. Once we realised this, recruitment rocketed, and we could really work to settle those damn' Mysterons' hash.
All changed now, so I hear. Ceasefire, détente, and some of the bloody smoke-rings even being offered Government work.
Well, we tried everything. A regional French bureau, for instance, offering Capitan Rouge, Sous-Leiutenant-Bleu, Vert, Jaune, Purpure, and so on. But then the Frogs demanded autonomy, you know what they're like, and it got to be a bit of a liability.
One of our chaps came back with the Games Workshop model paints catalogue, but there was objection to being called Captain Vermin Brown, Lieutenant Orc-Snot Green, and so on, and damn' right too, silly names. Silly.
Old traditional oil-paints worked better – we got Captain Ochre that way, as well as Captain Burnt Sienna, Captain Dark Umber, Captain Titanium-White, Sub-Lieutenant Ultramarine, and so on.
But back in the day. Damson went back to Earth to get his house redecorated – Mrs Damson was insisting, you know what women are like – and, sterling chap, he had a brainwave in the local hardware store when he saw the rack of DCC's. Snaffled the lot as a matter of state security, and sent 'em up to me. They revolutionised recruiting!
Oh, the DCC's? Dulux Colour Chips. Those clever little cards you pick up, when your missus isn't sure which of seventeen virtually identical shades of beige she wants the kitchen walls to be. All of a sudden, our naming difficulty was solved. We could start a sprog officer out as Lieutenant White With A Hint of Peach, and if he made the grade and normal attrition prevailed, he might expect to progress up the ladder through titles like Lieutenant Magnolia-Peach and Captain Apricot until he was in a position to have a crack at Captain Orange. Or indeed, peach being a subtly variegated range of hues, comprising hints of modulated Yellows or Reds, that it held open all three career tracks. Well… maybe not red, as such. Captain Scarlet being what he was, the normal rules of combat attrition didn't apply. There was quite a lot of career congestion on the Red track. Didn't make Metcalfe popular at all, as he was already thought of as a Flash Harry and a bit showy. Sorry to hear he's had a hard time re-adjusting to Civvie Street, but it's always hard for men of action when a war ends. If he's in difficulties, he can always apply to the Spectrum Benevolent Fund and the relevant Mysteron War Charities.
Gold and Silberman in the tailoring shop were forever kvetching about getting the colour-matching precisely right, but nothing we couldn't put right by sending a regular bus down to the schmatter-shops in London and Manchester.
As I recall, Polly had the same sort of operational difficulties too….
4). Reminiscences of Air Vice-Marshal Dame Polyhymnia Angel, GC, DSO, DBE
Oh, golly, the sort of gels who wanted to become Angels, you wouldn't believe! We got the thick ones, the dopey ones. The ones who thought the naming sequence ran Rhapsody, Harmony, Sunsilk, Timotei, Herbal Essentials. I mean, brains like that, she was just asking to become Leading Aircraftswoman (Second Class) Timotei Angel, i/c sweeping the hangar floor!
Well, there aren't all that many simple musical terms suitable for adaptation into names, there's the problem. Fortissima Angel, she was from Liverpool. A bit loud and brassy, one thought, more your sergeant-pilot, really, not one of the officer classes. Diminuenda Angel, hmm, quiet little thing, needed encouragement. Innuenda Angel, lowered the tone a bit, we had to whip her off-base jolly quickly, let me tell you!
Aubade Angel and Nocturne Angel. Whoever had the idea of those two flying as a section should have been shot. Just couldn't co-ordinate it at all, poor gels. One would be up there as the Dawn Patrol or the Evening Show and she'd only see her wingmate fleetingly for five minutes, before the other one pushed off back to Cloudbase to get her head down.
Let's see. I've got some squadron rolls here…Concerta Angel, Cantabile Angel, Cappella Angel, Capricia Angel, Celeste Angel… tons of "C"'s, no problem there. Serenade Angel, Stretta Angel – apparently that's a convention for two voices singing harmony in opera – but after the obvious, you start running into trouble and you have to wing it a bit. Ein kleine Nachtmuzik Angel – German girl. Linear descendent of von Richtofen, by all accounts, and a dam' good shot. Sibelius' Karelia Suite Angel – "Sweetie", for short.
Then it got silly. Boyzone Angel, Westlife Angel, East-Seventeen Angel, Hannah Montana Angel… at least you could set them on support flights, Transport Command, taxi jobs, that sort of thing, out of the public eye.
Butch Angel and Femme Angel – well, I had to have them both transferred to Very Special Ops after a while, as it was getting embarrassing.
Ah, great days, great days.
5). Collyhurst, Manchester. Later in November, 2083
Paul Metcalfe walked into his usual pub. He'd cleaned up, shaved, even run some of his meagre clothing stock round to the laundry. Getting a few weeks worth of stuntman work on that new TV series was a precarious and insecure way of making a living, but it paid well and should, with care, keep body and soul together for a few months. Although it was a Hell of an effort not to punch that precious little luvvie who was playing Captain Scarlet. Metcalfe laughed, somewhat cynically, at the irony. Nobody had asked him what he used to do for a living or what he'd done during the Mysteron War. Here, he was just the stuntman whilst that little Captain Pink of an actor got to play him… although, a realist, it had taken real self-discipline not to shout out That's bollocks! Captain Scarlet would never have said anything like that! In response to a particularly fatuous piece of dialogue. At worst it could have got him thrown off set. At best the director might have asked Oh yeah? How do you know, then? There was only one particular reply he could have made, and he didn't think, without proof, it would have gone down too well.
Metcalfe had spent his time in between scenes reading Moving Pictures, by Terry Pratchett, a wry satire on the movie business. He found the character of the dog Gaspode to be oddly comforting.
But here, he needed a drink.
He nodded down the bar to a figure half-hidden in shadow , who, taking it to be an invitation, shuffled his stool up to join Metcalfe.
"Hi, Conrad. How's life?"
"Bleedin' awful, mate!" Conrad Turner answered.
Metcalfe winced. Since Captain Black, like himself, had been thrown on the demobilisation scrapheap at the end of the Mysteron War, his life had also seen more downs than ups. He'd also reverted to one of those street-Mancunian accents that could strip old paint from a stubborn door at fifty paces.
We tried to bomb, burn, explode, dismember, disincorpotrate and generally maim each other for eight years, reflected Metcalfe. Which, given that we're both practically immortal, was a total waste of bloody time if ever there was one. Still, no hard feelings.
Feeling a kind of kinship towards his old adversary, and looking into a sort of mirror-image of his own face, Metcalfe signalled for both glasses to be recharged.
"Sorted!" said Captain Black, lifting his glass in tribute. "You were always a good bloke, our Paul!"
"Seen Brown lately?" Metcalfe inquired. Captain Brown was the third Spectrum agent who'd been cursed with indestructibility.
Black snorted, derisively.
"Brown-Noser? Bastard got himself a cushy number in Diplomatic Protection, didn'e. They reckon he can take the blast of a bullet or a bomb, regenerate, and be back at work the next morning. With a tidy bonus in used notes. Bastard!"
"Listen up, Conrad. If you can swallow your pride, and Gods know I had to, SKY-TV are doing a dramatisation of the Mysteron Wars, over at the old Granada studios at Quay Street. I'm on the stunt team covering for that little shit who's playing me… that is, Captain Scarlet. I happen to know they're having problems with hiring a stunt double for their Captain Black. You up for it, if I whisper a word in the right ear?"
"I dunno… who's playing Black?"
Metcalfe told him. Black spluttered with rage.
"That little wanker?"
"It's not easy, I know, But guaranteed cash. And bonuses."
"Welll…." Conrad Turner said, and deflated.
"OK, then. Funny how these things work out, isn't it? White makes you redundant to operational needs. The bleedin' Mysterons kicked me off the team when they signed that flamin' peace treaty. No thank you, no pension, no nothing. Bastards!"
"Bastards" agreed Metcalfe, and called for new drinks.
6) From the personal notes and diaries of Sir Bernard Wooley, KCGB, head of the Home Civil Service of Great Britain just after the Mysteron War.
Well, the War, like any war, really, was bad for business, with so much of our economy being directed into military technology and what with our still having an unemployment problem among the uneducated underclasses. Of, we directed as many of 'em into low-level work as we could, naturally, but the fact remained it was still a damn sight cheaper to have the serious kit like Angel Interceptors manufactured in the Far East, shipped back, and merely assembled by a semi-skilled British workforce.
And of course the Daily Mail and the other newspapers were still screaming at the politicians to slam down hard on the workshy, who of course by definition were all benefit scroungers. And when politicians get panicky about votes and profiles and good publicity, they start chasing short-term policy objectives, which of course makes more work for us.
Ever since the Welfare State first came in , in 1945, no government has grasped the nettle of dismantling it altogether, although some, like the Blair-Brown administration of 1997-2010 have come very close.
We of the Civil Service have always blocked that, naturally, as maintaining the Welfare State in its current form keeps thirty-odd thousand civil servants in worthwhile work. We've always pursued objectives that allow the politicians to be seen as hammering the undeserving poor, whilst not reducing the number of civil servants nor harming their working conditions in any way. It's our first duty in the Welfare State – preserving the working livelihoods of our members and looking after the rights of the civil servants.
Well, look at the pittance any individual benefit claimant actually gets. Pitiful, isn't it? You'd have to have seriously low expectations if you think you can avoid working for the rest of your life by living off the State. No, we take the view that some people have to do well out of the unemployment benefit system, so they might as well be working civil servants. Always have done. The ideal is the maximum number of civil servants and the smallest possible number of claimants. So we can demonstrate real savings in overall cost whilst leaving the structure intact. Therefore, we collaborate with the party in government to make the experience of claiming benefit as thoroughly hideous and unpleasant and bureaucratically impenetrable as we possibly can, so as to deter people from claiming.
Therefore, at the end of the Mysteron war, where the Martians offered their services in reparation for damage caused to Planet earth in a new, sincere, spirit of mutual understanding, we leapt at the chance of getting them to work in Unemployment Benefits where their not inconsiderable skills would be of value, especially in the area of deterring, detecting and prosecuting fraudulent claims. (1)
Of course, there was discontent. Easy to brush off from the claimants themselves, always has been. The few politicians with sympathy for them have long since been weeded out by the party selection and whipping machines, and they're powerless. The ideal target. But we started to get protests and rumblings from employees about having to work in the Benefits Fraud Investigation System alongside a bunch of soul-less, mechanical, robotic aliens with all the compassion of black widow spiders and the blood-lust of Komodo dragons.
Of course, we told the Mysterons that we sympathised, we find our human employees hard work too, but unfortunately they were stuck with them. No exceptions.
Now the Galaxy is open for trade, we've made first contact with a race called the Vogons who specialise in civil service work and have some excitingly radical ideas about further social security reforms . All in all it promises to be a jolly exciting century!
(1) An advert on British television warning about the dangers of benefit fraud used moving cirles of light, very much like the portrayal of Mysterons on Captain Scarlet, to pick out fraudulent claimants in a crowd, warning the viewer that retribution may be closer than you think. This led to their benefits investigation teams getting the nickname of The Mysterons….