BE MY FRIEND
Friends are sometimes baffled, if not disturbed, by how much I enjoy a telly programme called ‘Air Crash Investigation’. It’s a series of investigations into different airplane crashes, as the name suggests, all based on genuine crashes, with reconstruction of the last minutes inside the crashing plane, the crash itself, and the aftermath, including the inevitable investigation. Some find it ghoulish, I find it transfixing: people say ‘how can you watch that when you fly so much for a living?’ I tend to smile and shrug and get back to what the first officer said just before the plane battered into a Burger King, killing 40 football supporters who were having sex in the toilets (well, what else would they be doing in a Burger King?).
Recently I asked myself, quite seriously, what actually is it that I like so much about these programmes, and the answer came back – everything, but that everything included the grief stricken testimonies of survivors of the crashes, if there were any, and the testimonies of those who lost loved ones in the crash. These people are just brilliant – still deep in the grief, but they’ve also had to acquire some sense of reconciliation about the circumstances of the crash, and this is conditioned by how much blame can reasonably be apportioned: sometimes the plane has crashed for truly unforeseeable reasons, other times some bastard ground technician in Lagos didn’t bother to tighten a wing nut, sometimes because he was instructed not to for a variety of weird, often cynical reasons. But as the bereaved explain their feelings, trying to hold back the central force of the pain, I find myself really tense and in tears with them – I’m grieving with them – I’ve found a little TV way to deal with my own as yet unfinished grief about the loss of my parents, brother and loved ones.
When I first realised this I thought to myself ‘how sad is this?’ and was embarrassed, but now I think it’s okay and I’m still watching them. It’s like when my dad died and I started watching Diagnosis Murder, with Dick Van Dyke, who I’d turned into an idealized dad. Jeez, here I am, an old man myself now, scrambling around the more esoteric TV channels, looking for sustainable grief vehicles. I should compile a guide – Leven’s Telly Blubs.
But anyway, the point is, just before I started writing this, I was watching Air Crash (the one about the Delta flight to Dallas Fort Worth that gets caught in a storm) when I noticed a text coming in from my friend Fiona to tell me of the death of a long time friend of mine called Max Rynish. I was stunned to hear this, and as I sat there trying to take it in, I realised that another, more deep, underlying reason why I was watching Air Crash, was because of my friendship with Max and the nature of his life’s work.
I first met Max when I was squatting in a house in Formosa Street, London W9 in the Seventies. I was living in the basement and taking lots of LSD, so had painted my flat like a Hammer Horror film set, in black, red and silver – just horrible. Max, who was probably twenty years older than me lived on the ground floor and started coming down to say hello and to find out if I was mad or reasonable. Max himself was clearly a little touched – I think even his closest friends would agree with this, but I was to discover that his touchedness had its roots in heavy experience.
I immediately liked Max, who had the looks and demeanor of a Spitfire squadron leader. In a nutshell, Max was the world’s foremost authority on lighter than air flight and craft – airships to be precise. In the Sixties Max had been approached by a large company who gave him a lot of money to develop a feasibility study on the efficacy of a modern commercial airship system. They’d accepted his initial work and given him the wherewithal to actually build a prototype airship of the sort which would represent a fleet of such commercial craft. There was no doubt in Max’s mind, nor in mine to this day, having been exposed to the research conclusions which Max could demonstrate, that such schemes – a national airship freight system, were viable and cost effective. In the public mind, airships are still considered a bit of a joke, or dangerous – indeed Max first told me the great expression which pertains to so much innovation – ‘the joke, the threat, the obvious’. The Hindenburg disaster, in which, in the golden era of the airship, the airship of that name exploded into flames, killing everyone aboard, still holds sway in mass imagination. The problem with the Hindenburg was that it was kept afloat by hydrogen, an inherently unstable gas in such an operation. It, and all other airships of the time, were obliged to use hydrogen instead of safe helium because the USA had declared that it owned all the helium in the world, and had put it beyond the reasonable commercial reach of concerns like airships.
The firm which gave Max the wherewithal to develop his cargo system AND build a prototype, were more than happy with his work. But they were bought out by a much larger concern which brought an immediate halt to Max’s work, and most brusquely ended the business relationship. Max protested to anybody who would listen about the craziness of this course of action, but the new company countered his protest at every twist and turn – even placing a highly toxic story about him – a character assassination in effect, in the British lampooning journal Private Eye. This in particular was, for me as a much younger man, a real eye opener – that such a journal whose whole schtick was the exposing of mendacity in high and low places should be clearly happy to buy in such spurious stories at the drop of a hat...
Anyway, Max’s world collapsed by degrees until here he was, living in a squatted flat in Little Venice with maniacs like Jackie Leven in the same building. Our friendship grew and Max started taking me to events such as book launches for books which were loosely speaking about heavier-than-air craft and their attendant problems. Typical of these shindigs was the launch of a book called ‘Destination Disaster’ about a horrendous aircraft crash in forest just outside Paris. The launch was some event – the book itself was unsparing in its detailing of the crash and its analysis of why it happened. The publisher even flew across eye witnesses, such as the French gendarme captain who was first on the scene. Also present was a group of heavies from McDonnell Douglas, the company that made the plane, a DC9. They all sat at the back wearing shades and saying absolutely nothing. Nor did they stay for the free booze and nibbles, which I was to learn, was a big part of these occasions for Max (and now me). We were both totally skint, and it meant that about once per month we could get pie-eyed for nothing AND Max knew more about the subject-at-large than anyone else in these rooms, so could hold court confidently even as the room started swaying....
I was genuinely interested in this whole world Max was inhabiting and we became most companionable, but I was also in the process of forming my art terrorist rock band Doll By Doll, so had less and time to be of any help to Max. He however, was mad about Doll By Doll after he came to a few initial shows, so we remained good friends on this basis, and down the long years, he has remained a fixture on my guest lists for shows – always of good cheer and with things to tell me that I wasn’t going to hear anywhere else.
I was avidly watching Air Crash Investigation one day recently when a friend of mine came in the room and chastised me for my ghoulish interest in the show. Without looking away from the telly I said ‘Actually, I used to work in this industrial sector and know quite a lot about it, so my interest in the programme is technical as much as anything’.
My friend said something along the lines of ‘Ya fekkin whit, ya lying bastard?!’
I then rattled off a whole bunch of statistics about the type of plane on the programme and hitherto unsuspected problems of metal fatigue in the ‘C’ locks on its hold. Even I was impressed, and in that small moment, it finally dawned on me just what a poetic soul Max Rynish had been and always would be. And I could see him standing with me at a bar listening, head cocked, while I went on at length about something I ‘believed to be true’, with Max gently interjecting from time to time to clear up a perception, a pronunciation, a point of grammar, or adding an illuminating quote, which was more often than not, a far superior way of articulating whatever it was I was struggling to express.
That’s what friendship is about, and how I wish he was still here, helping me to paint a sky in which something lighter than air could float serenely by, possibly with me and Max aboard, enjoying free nibbles, chuckling, and saying ‘cheers!’