dubiously true stories and cartoons

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


In the closing months of 1989, and an advertisement, placed by a well-known firm of nationwide house builders, appeared in the national press. It was part of a campaign to lure the wealthy, go-getters from the city into buying second homes throughout the rural communities of England.

The cleverly worded slogan, probably dreamt up by some overpaid, cocaine-addicted advertising executive, read thus:  

IT MUST BE . . .

. . . where?

I could think of three places straight off the top of my head – a log cabin in the middle of the Canadian wilderness; a villa overlooking the sea in the South of France; a luxury home on a tropical island paradise – and you can be forgiven for not being surprised that it was none of these homely and luxurious places.

But where could this utopia be?

It was a village and civil parish near King’s Lynn in the county of Norfolk covering an area of 5.73 square miles called . . . Marham.

Beneath the slogan there was a tranquil, chocolate-box picture of Marham’s historic Holy Trinity Church. It looked (and sounded) like the perfect getaway for a well-heeled, stress-filled, hunting, shooting and riding couple who were keen to escape the pressures of city life. They could spend two quality days in their homely and luxurious second property, enjoying the quiet and peaceful atmosphere of the English countryside, before returning to the city feeling refreshed, eager to spend another ball-breaking week wheeling and dealing on the stock-market.

However, one vitally important piece of information was missing from the advertisement, and that was the proximity of a rather large and extremely busy Royal Air Force Station, located less than a mile away from the properties that were up for sale.

At the time RAF Marham was home to two Panavia Tornado fighter squadrons and one Handley Page Victor K2 tanker squadron, as well as the Victor Major Maintenance Unit and 232 Operational Conversion Unit that prepared aircrew for operations on particular types of aircraft and roles. It was a front-line jet fighter unit that operated almost round-the-clock  exercises, so calling it a quiet and peaceful place to live was like handing someone an angry rattlesnake and then saying to them, “Don’t worry, it won’t bite.”

Apart from the much quieter Fenland Gliding Club that was also housed there, the noise that emanated day and night from RAF Marham was deafening.

The RAF personnel who were stationed there (of which I was one) were used to the constant high levels of noise as they had spent their entire careers travelling around the world from one noisy operational unit to another. In fact, I found it difficult to sleep at night when there wasn’t any noise. 

During the 1980s a rare but highly prevalent illness affected almost all of the Tornado pilots at RAF Marham. The first signs of the illness, now officially recognised as Elves and Shoemaker Syndrome, were feelings of superiority; this was quickly followed by a misguided belief that any snags on their aircraft would be magically fixed overnight by elves and an inability to recognise the importance, or indeed existence, of any RAF profession other than fast-jet pilot. Unjustified delusions of grandeur were the final stage of the illness.

A person suffering from Elves and Shoemaker Syndrome could be easily recognised at parties - from midnight onwards they would be consumed with a burning desire to drive cars into swimming pools or set fire to unprotected pianos. 

A page from 'Men in Blue Suits'. Written and pencilled by myself and inked by Andy Bunkle, this was part of 24 page comic book that Andy and I completed over a non-stop 24 hour period in 1989 at RAF Marham in order to raise money for the RAF Benevolent Fund.

After many years of laborious research by the medical profession a cure was eventually found. It was discovered purely by chance that Elves and Shoemaker Syndrome cured itself once the affected Tornado pilot had left the Royal Air Force and joined the real world.  

From there it was a long process of recovery but, given time, their clouded vision and unfounded high opinion of themselves eventually dissipated and they began to recognise that there were many other people in the world that were not fast-jet pilots.

Although some were prone to E&S flashbacks later on in life, the programme of recovery was generally considered a success and over the last twenty years many hundreds of ex-RAF fast-jet pilots have been reintroduced into society where they now lead reasonably normal lives, probably in a quiet and peaceful, homely and luxurious house somewhere in the country.

The local estate agents at Marham had the difficult task of finding a way for their clients to view the properties up for sale when it was, as advertised, quiet and peaceful.

Back in 1980s there was a level of dishonesty attached to the profession (if you could call it that) of estate agents that was not incumbent in any other walk of life. I was only basing this assumption on the estate agents that I myself had encountered when fruitlessly attempting to climb up the property ladder, something that I’d never been truly successful with. I always seemed to buy high and sell low and, in reality, I couldn’t really blame estate agents for that; but that didn’t stop me from believing that on the social ladder of life estate agents were just one rung up from serial killers and people who liked Cliff Richard.

By somehow illicitly obtaining a copy of RAF Marham’s flying programme the local estate agents were able to control when viewings of the properties could be held.

And so it was that Roger and Cynthia, along with hundreds of others like them, purchased their dream second home in the country, both blissfully unaware that they were forcing up the prices in the entire area so that young newly married couples had no chance of ever affording a house in the villages where they had grown up.

Roger and Cynthia would have been shown around their new home by a razor-faced estate agent called Janus, who would have ensured that the aircraft at RAF Marham were silent. He would also have given them assurances that the strange buildings that they passed on the way, the ones surrounded by barbed wire, were just for grain storage and that the gigantic aircraft parked outside them made very little noise when they flew over (failing to add the words ‘another county’ at the end of his sentence).

Once settled in for their first quiet and peaceful weekend, Roger and Cynthia would have taken their hot chocolate drinks upstairs and tucked themselves into bed under their goose-feather quilt encased in its Laura Ashley quilt cover. They would have consulted their filofaxes and then flicked through the pages of their copies of Horse and Hound and The Lady, before kissing each other goodnight, turning off the light and falling into a well-deserved sleep.

The quiet and peaceful, homely and luxurious village of Marham was silent except for the occasional hoot of an owl as it flew over in search of food . . . until, that is, the sirens began to wail at 3am, announcing the start of a major exercise at RAF Marham.

Roger would have sat bolt upright in bed, his silk pajama top wrapped ungainly around his scrawny neck and his head pounding from the sound of the sirens, a million times louder than anything he had heard in the city. The earth-trembling roar of three squadrons of aircraft that had just begun to generate would have reverberated through the foundations of their house quickly afterwards.

It would have sounded to Roger like the end of the world.

“Hell’s teeth!” he would have shouted. “What in God’s name is all that racket?”

Cynthia would not have been able to hear his desperate cries of anguish owing to the gigantic Handley Page Victor K2 thundering over the top of their house, shattering the bedroom windows, cracking the plaster on the walls, causing the chimney to collapse and turning her into a pillar of salt.

The estate agent had also failed to mention that their quiet and peaceful, homely and luxurious house just happened to be directly in line with RAF Marham’s runway.

Understandably, the Trade Description people became involved and the well-known nationwide house builders were ordered to either re-word their advertisement, removing the words ‘quiet and peaceful’, or withdraw it immediately.

They chose to withdraw it.

I, on the other hand, could see a way of re-wording the advertisement and keeping in the offending phrase. It was simple and I couldn’t see why they hadn’t thought of it themselves. Over the following few days I put my idea onto paper, popped it into an envelope and posted it to them by first class mail and eagerly awaited a reply.

My idea for the new advertising campaign

Sadly, they never responded.

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