Gibbous House

By Ewan Lawrie

Nicholas Nickleby meets Psycho in a gothic, 19th-century noir

Monday, 2 November 2015

No News, but I thought you might like

This.... which isn't how it was, but how it might have been.

[Picture was of Teufelsberg, a USAF listening station with an integral - but separate - RAF unit stationed there. I worked there for around 10 years. The photo was taken in 2011 at night. It looked really atmospheric]

The Infinite Scope of Memory

Pass me my mnemo-scope,

careful! It’s versatile.

Put it to your mind’s eye;

it’s all the scopes –

from micro to tele –

from minutiae to mediation.

Which one is it,


Like all good scopes

we use it to spy

on the ‘other’.

Here, let’s gather


- on that other

country: the past.


FROM THE REPORT: ‘How Could Matthias Rust Get to Moscow?’

BY: Douglas Clarke, Radio Free Europe

DATE: 1987-6-2

In both the East and the West, people

are asking how it could have been possible for a

young West German student pilot, Matthias Rust,

to fly a light aircraft unhindered through the

vaunted Soviet air defenses. *


“It's all a game.” Dennis


1. Microscope

It’s a grubby, cloudy slide under the scope.

It looked like any large institution’s open-plan office – except for the radio-electronic hardware. A really close look would tell you it wasn’t a standard computer room; oh yes, there were huge tape disks and servers the size of small vehicles. But the detail of the missing punch card machines would give it away. I remember the clouds. Of dense, aromatic tobacco smoke; Lambert and Butler, Bensons, - Gauloise for the pretentious few. Everyone smoked then. Tax-free in the NAAFI, why not? One 23 year old guy affected a meerschaum; he did look like the keyboard player from Sparks, though. It was a big room to fill with smoke. You could barely see the terminal in front of you. A hideous brown block of metal, green-screened with a lighter green font; Zenith Data Systems on a silver metal plate on the side.

It might have been a weekend. Empty seats everywhere you looked: just a few glum faces in the murk. The rest were enjoying ‘Stand-downs’; gash time off in honour of the Soviet holiday, 28th of May, Border Guard Day. We had no pilots to listen to. The Soviet Tactical Air Force in the German Democratic Republic was having a well-earned rest; the pilots drinking vodka, the ground crews siphoning fuel tanks to brew white lightning. How did we know this? We listened: we monitored Soviet radio transmissions; we heard occasional drunken radio checks on common communications frequencies, streams of slurred words demonstrating the rich variety of Russian expletives. Every Soviet holiday was the same; for us as well as them.

The smoke – and the constantly flickering fluorescent lighting – was hard on the eyes. There were no windows in the top-secret listening station. Top Secret! I remember once seeing its phallic lines on the front page of the Sun during Geoffrey Prime’s treason trial; a year later I was working in it. No real work to do; what did we do that day? Change the slide; turn the knob; focus on the specimen.

Most likely I was listening to a 3-week old recording of a trainee helicopter pilot making landing after landing at an airfield north of Berlin; tapping Cyrillic keys as fast as I could. There were always recordings left over to listen to: we filled databases for faceless bean counters countries away. It would have been about five p.m. Unofficially, our shift had started a quarter of an hour ago, you had to takeover the reins from the off-going crew. You came in a quarter-hour earlier for a 30-second summary and a scrawled note. The hard core would just have been putting their headphones on:

‘The shift starts at five, ok? I’ll start at five.’ Little victories. All they had while in uniform. I never saw the point.

Jock rolled his eyes at me; six hours of head-melting boredom in prospect. He used to string out the administrative duties as long as he could, putting off the donning of the electric hat as long as possible. And he had a hangover; he always did, then. The white noise and static bursts on the cassette recordings made it worse. Twenty years later, we all flinch at loud noises and fail to hear the quiet ones.

At this time the transcription desks would have looked like a ‘70s school language lab, right down to the empty seats. Eddie had a lurid paperback an inch from his nose and one headset earpiece wedged on the top of his head as far from his good ear as possible. Steve had his feet up beside the desktop control box for his cassette player.

Someone would have made a coffee - for the dozen or so people there - before half-an-hour was out. The TV room-cum-kitchen was in the basement. Big Paul McGill disappeared for over an hour once just to make six brews: but then he did once go AWOL for three days to work as a labourer on a building site. We all pretended not to see him as we drove past the Teufelseestrasse S-Bahn station, on our way to work in the Prick in the Sky.

I would have been working at Teufelsberg for five years - off and on - by then. Some took it very seriously: I did too. Only now does the absurdity of it all hit home. You need memory’s lenses to look at the past: the microscope inflates it, the reversed telescope tells the truth; the past is always smaller, sharpened by distance.

2. epocseleT

See me: thinner, younger, smiling less. I run to a bench of radio receivers all set to loudspeaker, a lot of talking; agitated, guttural Russian. It should be brief, hourly checks, drunk or not. Do I hear panic over the ether? Someone has let the tape recordings run out. No-one panics in the room. I don’t know what the disembodied voices said. Gone for ever now. Shrugs all round. Good job the Boss Man has taken a rare stand-down.

‘Dinnae worry’ says Jock ‘It’ll no be the Red Horde heading for London.’

‘We’ll never know now, will we?’ I muse.

‘Who cares who wins?’ snorts Steve. Steve’s dad is the Boss Man on one of the other shifts.

Jock tells me to reload all the cassette recorders in the room, five racks of 16 plus some 8 individual recorders at another listening station; unmanned because ‘we’ve been recording them’. We man-up all the so-called 24-hour posts. The frequencies we monitor are active for a half-hour or so. It transpires the Soviets want to scramble some assets: the responses are vague and evasive: and quite, quite slurred. Things go back to normal. Their periodic radio checks become flat, atonal, perfunctory. An air of anticlimax spreads to the listeners from the listened-to.

Two more guys come in. In cricket whites, a beer or two to the good after the match. Sport is good for morale. They’ve heard the boss isn’t in. They’ll hide in the bogs at shift change and skip out of the building having cheated the Queen of the uniform for an evening. Little, little victories. They are the highest ranked people in the room.

Hours later, I’m nodding off. Back in the ‘Language Lab’ again. Auditory fancies coming through the headphones; helicopters landing by elephants - or landed by them. My head jerks spastically, tape-recording whiplash injury imminent. Someone’s shouting:

‘Hurry, downstairs! Come on, the telly.’

Hauling myself from my seat, as if I can’t bear to leave my vitally important work - it wouldn’t do for anyone to know I’ve slept through most of a C60 cassette, after all – I follow the crowd down to the TV room…

3.  Kaleidoscope

Where it was deathly quiet, except for the sound from the TV. In those pre-satellite days there was no rolling news; no buzz bars ticker-taped world events at the bottom of the screen. The nightly news was on ZDF, with the usual impossibly glamorous, slightly S & M, pastel-power-dresser linking the stories: we strained to follow the newscast German:

‘19 year old Mattias Rust landed his Cessna light aircraft in Red Square earlier today…’

I looked round at the faces; Steve, Jock, Paul, the Cricketers: there must have been others – or were others, not these, actually there? Shift the tube and the patterns look different. A few months ago, in Fuengirola, a 50-something man told me he’d sat next to me on the back row of the ‘Language Lab’ for six months; I didn’t even recognise his name.

So, perhaps, Steve sniggered. Maybe Jock’s face was unreadable. I know I felt sick. It was too near shift change to call in the stood-down personnel. And what good would it have done?

‘Rust departed Finland and crossed into Soviet controlled Airspace before entering Soviet Territory 160 kilometres west of Leningrad…’

Jock shrugged:

‘We cannae hear that from here… It’s no our responsibility.’

In my head, I was translating his words into Russian.


FROM THE REPORT: ‘How Could Matthias Rust Get to Moscow?’

BY: Douglas Clarke, Radio Free Europe

DATE: 1987-6-21

This dramatic incident has caused the dismissal of the head of

the Soviet Air Defense Forces and the forced

retirement of the Soviet Minister of Defense.

Soviet embarrassment over Rust's choice of a

landing spot--in Moscow's Red Square--might have

been a factor in the severity of the official reaction.


“Nobody really knows anything”

Ewan Lawrie, October 1989.

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