This featurette opens Monty Python’s 1983 film The Meaning of Life, and is my favourite part of the film. Hail Terry Gilliam.
It’s a parody of a pirate movie, filled with swordfights and swashbuckling and people yelling “‘ard to starboard!”. But as with Brazil, it’s actually a kind of fear teabag, steeped in subtle flavors of alarm, disquiet, and anxiety, releasing those flavours upon repeat viewing. You can’t separate The Crimson Permanent Assurance from the year 1983, or from Britain.
Incredibly, people once trusted banks. Almost. The local bank was like the local butcher: probably holding a finger on the scale, but at least you thought you understood him. He was part of your community. He was yours.
In the 80s, that started to change: the globe shrank, trade deals and computerized systems enabled companies to spread their tentacles across continents and oceans, and suddenly your bank was no longer part of your community. It was a shadowy, alien thing from somewhere else. Maybe the outer dark.
Finance has always had aquatic metaphors. Cash flow. Liquid assets. Trickle down. Mutual pools. Skimmed profits. As the financial sector exploded in size and complexity, the metaphors became more pointed. Loan sharks. Corporate raiders. Headhunters. Buccaneers. The idea that finance firms had become something akin to pirates is a compelling one. Amoral entities afloat a sea of cash, with no masters, no Gods, no loyalty but to the firm, flying the flag of civilized commerce only when it suited them. Scuppering enemies with leveraged takeovers. Burying treasure in offshore tax havens. Terry Gilliam’s idea was to make the finance = piracy metaphor literal.
The featurette opens with a bunch of elderly accountants slaving at their desks, while young men with American accents boss them around. (This reflects another British anxiety from the period: that venerable and supposedly honest British institutions would be swallowed by faceless American corporations). When one man gets fired, the rest mutiny, throwing their American overseers “overboard”. They then turn to a life of crime, sailing their building through London as if it were a ship, plundering and pillaging.
It’s a great bit of absurdist comedy, and Gilliam has fun turning accountants into pirates. They wield “cutlasses” made from the blades of office fans, fire “cannons” that are actually spring-loaded desk drawers, etc. There’s little Pythonesque wordplay, and almost every joke is a visual one. It’s almost like watching a comedy sketch made for deaf people; although they’d miss out on the bombastic score.
There’s the usual artsy film touches. The Crimson Permanent Assurance building is almost comically antiquated, even older than the men inside it, but the buildings they plunder are sleek and modern, webs of glass and steel spun by giant spiders (emphasising a theme of old vs new). The opening shot of downtrodden accountants hunched over rows of desks is matched with a parallel shot of the same men pulling oars in a Roman slave galley. The amount of money spent on tiny details must have been staggering. That list of subsidiaries on the corporate boardroom of the Very Big Corporation Of America? There’s actual stuff written there.
The film ends with the narrator cheerfully describing how The Crimson Permanent Assurance took on the world with their business acumen…and we see bleak shots of the building sailing across a desolate skyline, having destroyed everything. Then it falls off the edge of the world, and the rest of the movie begins.
The Pythons each brought something special to their troupe. Cleese and Jones had their characters, Idle had his music, Palin had his writing, Chapman had his dramatic acting skills. But the visions? The dreams? Those, in large part, came care of Mr Gilliam, and here’s proof, sailing across the main.
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This is the autobiography of pioneering aviatrix Hanna Reitsch, who set over forty world records between the 1930s and 1950s: first female flight captain; first woman to fly a helicopter; world distance record in a helicopter; winner of the 1938 German national gliding competition; first woman to pilot a military jet aircraft.
Hanna is famous for what she did, She is also famous for why she did it. From the words German and military and 1938 you might already have drawn the conclusion that she was flying for the Luftwaffe in World War II.
“Her flying skill, desire for publicity, and photogenic qualities made her a star of Nazi propaganda. Physically she was petite in stature, very slender with blonde hair, blue eyes and a ‘ready smile’. She appeared in Nazi propaganda throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s.” – Wikipedia
We all have a cross to bear. In Hanna’s case it was an actual cross, made of iron.
März 1941: Adolf Hitler verleiht Flugkapitän Hanna Reitsch das Eiserne Kreuz [2. Klasse]
Mitte: Hermann GöringIn this book, Hanna comes off as apolitical (although all Nazis were apolitical after the war), and other than some generic, learned-by-rote boilerplate (“I had been brought up to be a patriot”), she offers little commentary on the politics of the time or her own relationship to it. Hanna was only interested in the Nazi party because they allowed her to fly their pioneering warplanes, and much of the book is long, poetry-like meditations on the euphoria of being in the air.
Now I am shivering, all over, in every tissue of my body, and my bare hands turn blue as, nearly ten thousand feet above the earth, in my summer frock, I sit, basking in rain, hail and snow, my streaming hair tossed like seaweed in a storm.
Flying can be addictive: and the thrill must have been even greater for the men and women who were the first. Hanna flew in the years before the thermals were choked with traffic. She flew virgin airlines instead of Virgin Airlines, and saw parts of the earth from angles and altitudes that nobody else ever had.
When flying a plane, certain things have to be done in a certain order. Auxiliary fuel pump off. Flight controls checked. Instruments and radios checked. Altimeter set. Hanna writes like she’s preparing for flight. While a modern writer would probably try to hook the reader with a dramatic mis-en-scene about a near-fatal crash or something, Hanna tells the story more or less in chronological order: her childhood in Silesia, her dreams of being a flying missionary doctor in Africa, her early experiences flying an unpowered glider, her work as a stuntwoman and flight instructor, her arrest in Lisbon as a suspected spy, and her years of military service.
The book doesn’t have a lot of dates. I often found myself asking “what year is it now?” and not arriving at an answer. It’s clear that Hanna’s obsession with flight made her a veteran at an extremely young age. Midway through the book, a man called Wolfram Hirth hires her as an instructor for his school. I assumed she was in her twenties or thirties, then she casually drops a mention that she needed her parents’ permission to skip another year of school.
While teaching Hirth’s students, she learned an important lesson herself: when in the air, it’s extremely easy to return to the ground. Even when you don’t want to.
Before this last pupil took off for his test, I went with him carefully, point by point, through every aspect of his flight. He had done well in his “A” and “B” Tests and, seeming now perfectly at ease and sure of himself, would, I had no doubt, pass this last one quite easily.
He took off in his glider normally and then, for a whole two and a half minutes, flew exactly as the book, without a fault. Now he had only to fly one turn, circle wide and land. He tumed — rather steep but quite well — and then, — plunged in one straight swift dive to earth.
I had never heard before what sound a plane makes when it crashes and at first I could not move. Then I ran down the hillside towards the wreckage, knowing, as I ran, that my pupil was already dead.
It fell to me to break the news to his mother, who lived in a nearby village.
I will never forget how I walked to her cottage through the fields, alone, how the poor, old woman saw me coming and called to me before I could speak:
“Ach, Fräuleinchen — ich weiss schon . Mein Sohn! Mein Sohn ist nicht mehr”
How did the mother know her son was dead? Because he’d had a dream that morning of his controls failing and had told her. There’s a superstitious, mystical quality to some of these early pilots, as though they don’t fully trust their rational faculties. I suspect that most of them have abnormal psychologies.
Hanna herself would have many encounters with death. She describes being trapped inside a storm, performing a stunt in San Paolo that would have killed dozens if it failed (it nearly did), and most seriously, a crash in the legendary rocket-propelled Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet in 1942.
Nobody built planes like the late-era Reich. Nobody should have built planes like the late-era Reich. With the Eastern Front collapsing, Hitler invested wildly in all sorts of unpromising projects, hoping for a magical technological ticket out of Germany’s inevitable defeat.
The results were a series of ghastly Wagnerian nightmares that look like they’re from a comic book and have names that sound like death metal bands. Planes like the Gotha Go 229 (a jet-powered “flying wing” stealth bomber) and the Bachem Ba 349 Natter (a vertical take-off interceptor that famously had no landing gear, with the pilot expected to either eject mid-flight or commit suicide by ramming an enemy plane) were twenty years ahead of their time technically and six hundred years behind ethically.
But the greatest, or worst, of the Nazi experimental warplanes was the Me 163. A lightning-fast “interceptor”, it was little more than a rocket with a human being attached, shooting up to 30,000 feet within ninety seconds on a 4,500 HP backwash of hypergolic combustants. With its regular test pilot Heini Dittmar was hospitalized due to a broken spine, Hanna was chosen to take his place riding the tiger.
To fly the rocket plane, Me 163, was to live through a fantasy of Münchhausen. One took off with a roar and a sheet of flame, then shot steeply upwards to find oneself the next moment in the heart of the empyrean.
To sit in the machine when it was anchored to the ground and be surrounded suddenly with that hellish, flame-spewing din, was an experience unreal enough. Through the window of the cabin, I could see the ground crew start back with wide-open mouths and hands over their ears, while, for my part, it was all I could do to hold on as the machine rocked under a ceaseless succession of explosions. I felt as if I were in the grip of some savage power ascended from the Nether Pit. It seemed incredible than Man could control it.
The Me 163 could attain speeds of up to 1,130 km/h, which meant that “the smallest error of judgement might mean the loss of the machine and [Hanna’s] own death”. Even correct judgement was no guarantee. Her test flight immediately suffered a crippling technical issue – the exposed undercarriage got jammed – and she couldn’t contact the towing plane to abort the test. She successfully flew the plane for a while, but as she attempted to land, the Me 163 stalled due to the protracted undercarriage, and she lost control and tumbled to the ground at over 240 kp/h.
We plunged, striking the earth, then, rending and Cracking, the machine somersaulted over — lurched — and sagged to a stop. The first thing I realised was that I was not hanging in my harness and therefore the machine was right-side up. Quite automatically, my right hand opened the cabin roof— it was intact. Cautiously, I ran my hand down my left arm and hand, then slowly along my sides, chest and legs. To my thankful amazement, nothing was missing and all seemed in working order.
She was wrong: her skull was shattered in six places, her upper jaw was displaced, and her nose was nearly torn away. “Each time I breathed, bubbles of air and blood formed along its edge.” With consciousness fading, Hanna found a pencil and pad and wrote a message explaining why the crash had occurred. She also tied a handerchief around her head so that the her rescue party wouldn’t see her face. It would be a long time before she would fly again.
Her dramatic crash made her a celebrity within the Nazi party, and it was here that she had her most intimate encounters with the inner machinery of the state. Some of it’s funny, like this sitcom-worthy encounter with Hermann Göring.
[Göring] planted his bulk squarely in front of me, his hands resting on his hips.
“What! Is this supposed to be our famous ‘Flugkapitän’? Where’s the rest of her? How can this little person manage to fly at all?”
I did not like the reference to my size. I made a sweep with my hand roughly corresponding to his girth.
“Do you have to look like that to fly?”
In the middle of my sentence, it suddenly struck me with hot embarrassment that, in the circumstances, my gesture might be considered out of place. I tried to halt it in mid-air, but too late — everyone, including Göring, had seen it and there was a great burst of laughter, in which Göring joined.
But mostly these conversations are unsettling, the way it’s unsettling to read a conversation involving a well-programmed chatbot that knows how to say the right things but is clearly non-human. History remembers most of the NSDP’s upper echelon as high-IQ sociopaths, men skilled at reforging reality using words – words that they didn’t truly mean at all.
As Hanna wines and dines with the inner circle of the Party, I was interested to learn about the rifts dividing Nazi Germany – particularly, the conflict between the “Gott Mit Uns” Protestantianism of the Prussian and Weimar eras, and the odd blend of pagan, atheistic, and social Darwinist thought of Heinrich Himmler.
In our family, we had always avoided mentioning the name of Himmler : my mother saw in him the adversary of Christianity and he could therefore have nothing in common with us.
Hanna eventually meets Himmler, and challenges him both on his anti-Christian beliefs and rumors she’s heard about his social policies. This is one of the few times Hanna expresses a political opinion.
We then turned to another problem, about which my feelings were strong, his attitude to women and marriage. I reproached him for looking at the matter from a purely racial and biological stand-point, considering woman only as a bearer of children and through his directives to the SS, about which, admittedly, I had only heard rumours, tending to undermine morality and destroy the sanctity of marriage.
These are probably references to Lebensborn, an SS-initiated breeding program that sought to improve Germany’s racial purity through abduction, insemination, and selective abortion.
Himmler replied to my charges factually and at considerable length. He assured me that he shared my views entirely. His policy had been misrepresented and misinterpreted, either unintentionally or from deliberate malice. It was very important, he said, that these tendentious rumours should not get about, particularly at the present time.
The real problem, Himmler explains, are people who spread rumors. He ends the conversation by thanking Hanna for her outspokenness (which is hard not to read as “you’re toeing the line, so don’t step across it”), and asking her to report all subsequent rumors to him.
But the elite Nazis aren’t just manipulative, they’re also delusional. At a second meeting with Göring (not long after her crash), Hanna is shocked to learn that he believes the Messerschmitt Me 163 to be ready for mass production. She argues with him at length – the plane is a dangerous toy, more likely to kill its pilot than an enemy – but he refuses to allow reality to disturb his illusions. German might and German industry will prevail. A German failure ontologically doesn’t exist. Certain people remained in this state of mind until Berlin crashed down around them.
To be blunt, I was soon asking the “naive or liar” question about Hanna herself. In 1944, she receives an a document by a friend in Stockholm, alleging something (we’re not told what, but can guess) about “gas chambers” in Germany. She queries Himmler about this:
I telephoned Himmler, obtaining permission to visit him at his headquarters in the field. Arrived there, I placed the booklet before him.
“What do you say to this, Reichsführer?”
Himmler picked it up and flicked over the pages. Then, without change of expression, he looked up, eyeing me quietly:
“And you believe this, Frau Hanna?”
“No, of course not.”
Was Hanna telling the truth here? She knew about Lebensborn. Did she not know about the Holocaust? It seems hard to believe. She was an important figure in the Vergeltungswaffe rocket program, which relied on slave labor in camps such as Auschwitz. For her have no idea whatsoever by 1944 is…interesting.
Whatever the case, 1944 is very late in the game. Soon everyone would know.
With the end fast approaching, Hanna became increasingly land-bound, serving in an advisory role to Luftwaffe forces on retreat from Stalingrad. She was a brilliant flyer but had zero skills as a soldier, to the point where she asks a German soldier to help her distinguish German shellbursts from Russian ones. There’s a pervasive grimness to this part of the book. Cities are falling. Critical resource centers and railhubs are being lost. The Russians are pushing west with overwhelming force. Every possible factor is working against the Reich.
There was only one way Germany could have achieved victory: a technological miracle. This was the last hope, that at the eleventh hour some brave scientist would shatter an atom in an interesting way, invent anti-gravity propulsion, or summon Himmler’s Norse gods down from Valhalla to do battle against the Asiatic hordes. This was what Germany needed to win – a Wunder-wuffe, or miracle weapon.
Spoiler: the miracle never occurred. Germany was defeated, and although World War II ended with a mighty science-conjured explosion, it didn’t flash to Germany’s benefit.
Hanna Reitsch was one of the final people to see Adolf Hitler alive. After a harrowing late-night flight into Berlin through heavy Russian flak (the entire city was under siege, and nobody knew if there was even an intact runway left for a landing), she arrived at the Reich Chancellery along with fighter ace Robert Ritter von Greim and then descended to the Fuhrerbunker.
Greim reported on our journey, Hitler listening calmly and attentively. When he had finished, Hitler seized both Greim’s hands and then, turning to me: “Brave woman! So there is still some loyalty and courage left in the world !”
But Hitler didn’t need more loyalty and courage from his followers. It was their loyalty and courage that had brought him to this point. It’s no credit to fight an insane war, nor obey insane orders, and Hanna’s mild questioning of Göring’s miracle planes was a thousand time more useful to the war effort than the blind obedience Hitler demanded from his followers.
He was an utter madman by that point, reality blasted from his brain and leaving only the shifting sand of hope and memory. He was Fuhrer of a nation that existed largely inside his own imagination. He “rewards” Greim by appointing him chief of the German air force…but Germany no longer had an air force to command!
But his life’s final decision was eminently sane: and agreeable to both his supporters and enemies alike.
On our second day in the Bunker, 27th April, I was summoned to Hitler’s study. His face was now even paler, and had become flaccid and putty-coloured, like that of a dotard. He gave me two phials of poison so that, as he said, Greim and I should have at all times “freedom of choice.” Then he said that if the hope of the relief of Berlin by General Wenk was not realized, he and Eva Braun had freely decided that they would depart out of this life.
Hanna ended up not using the phial of poison. She escaped the Fuhrerbunker, and survived well into the 1970s. Her death is a source of mystery and speculation – did she commit suicide using the phial in the end? I’m not so sure. She spent some time in American detention, and they certainly would have taken any means of suicide away from her.
The older ones had been through the First World War, you could tell it from their faces and their scars. After doing their duty for years in the trenches, they had returned home to be insulted and spat upon and have the shoulder-straps torn by hooligans from their uniforms. It was no wonder that their experiences had made them very embittered. “. . . Just as if it was us who had been the trouble-makers,” they said, almost in self defence, “—as if it was a positive pleasure to stop a Lewis gun bullet. . .”
This reminds me of the (possibly exaggerated) stories of Vietnam veterens getting spat on at LAX. It’s a damned sight easier to support the troops when they’re victorious troops. Soldiers from a lost war are often regarded with pity and even suspicion, like broken toys.
This was to be German’s legacy in World War II. Defeat, ruin, national shame, division, and a rebuilding enabled by the erasure of the past. It’s understandable, if only in hindsight, why Hanna cared so much about flying. There wasn’t damned thing worth having on the ground.
The title of the book seems uncannily appropriate. Hanna’s realm was the sky: one that lasted longer than a thousand years.
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And now there is silence, everywhere. Earth and sky seem wrapped in sleep. My glider-bird slumbers, too, gleaming softly against the stars. Beautiful bird, that out-flew the four winds, braved the tempest, shot heavenward, searching out the sky, — soaring higher, as I am soon to learn, than any glider-plane has ever flown before.
“As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives.
Every wife had seven sacks,
Every sack had seven cats,
Every cat had seven kitts.
Kitts, cats, sacks, wives,
How many were going to St. Ives?”
This riddle is as old as the hills (though some hills were formed yesterday), and tests the reader’s memory, multiplication, reading comprehension, and lateral thinking skills. There are several “correct” solutions, and your preferred solution often changes the longer you think about it.
1. The classic answer is “one”. If the narrator met the others on the road, then they must have been going in the other direction, away from St Ives.
2. But what if the narrator is on horseback, and the others are on foot? Then he could have easily overtaken them on the road.
3. The wording is crafty. The man has seven wives; we’re not told that they’re on the road with him. Maybe they’re at home, fanning themselves in a couch while exclaiming “lack a day!” or whatever women in the 18th century did. Same for sacks, cats, and kitts. “With” is a preposition that can either mean “accompanied by” or “characterized by”, and its usage here is unclear.
4. And all the narrator knows is that these people are on the road to St Ives. They needn’t be going there: maybe they’ll stop halfway, have a picnic, and then go back home. I don’t think there’s anything worth seeing at St Ives.
5. Even as a straightforward multiplication problem, the riddle is confusing. Is the answer 2,802 (the geometric series of wives, sacks, cats, kitts, plus the narrator and the husband?). But surely the 49 sacks don’t add to the count – they’re storage for the cats and kitts – so the answer is 2,753. Except line six explicitly tells us to count the kitts, cats, sacks, and wives…but doesn’t say to include the narrator or the husband. So maybe it’s 2,800.
6. To summarise, the correct answer is 1, 9, 2802, 2753, 2800, 69, 420, 666, 1234567890, and many others besides, your choice of which depends on grammatical and syntactical ambiguities. Being able to calculate correctly is no use in linguistic quicksand.
In infosec you sometimes hear the analogy “steel door in a cardboard wall” – a security system attempting to defend a space that’s indefensible. Here, mathematics is like a steel-framed bridge spanning two cliffs of chalk. You can use a calculator to add up numbers. You can create a futuristic quantum D-wave supercomputer with no purpose except to add up numbers. It won’t help. There’s no way to know how many people were going to St Ives, because the answer is ultimately found not in mathematics but in the capricious winds of the English language.
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