Ears are strange things. Photo: Getty
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Suzanne Moore: I clipped the hair from pensioners’ ears and prepared to insert the pink goo

How I became a Trainee Audiology Technician. In an actual hospital. I wore a white coat and everything.

When I was on the lovely dole at 16 my mother insisted I got a job. She never cared that I barely went to school but she had some insane idea that I should work. Years later I realised this was something to do with being working class. At the time I thought she was just being a cow.

This is how I became a Trainee Audiology Technician. In an actual hospital. I wore a white coat and everything.

Even now, it’s something I struggle to explain. It never entered my head I would get the job, though I did have loads of science O-levels because my school was a sort of Govian paradise. Only stupid girls did things like English or art.

So there I was in a hospital, having to mend people’s hearing aids.

“I’m getting Radio Caroline, doctor,” some old biddy would say to me. They were not only deaf but gaga if they thought I was a doctor, I reckoned, so I would twerk around with a soldering iron and tell them it was all fine.

The serious part was doing hearing tests, playing different frequencies while they flashed lights if they could hear and I plotted some sort of graph.

Hearing tests can flag up brain tumours. As I made pretty patterns on the graph paper, I only hoped that there would be some other kind of medical indication. Anyway my boss said a lot of it was fake deafness. “It’s all for insurance claims,” he said mysteriously.

A lot of people, especially the old ones, did seem quite deaf as they shouted at me in my white coat.

A better person than me might have enjoyed such a level of responsibility. I merely thought it was better than working in a shop.

The worst thing was having to make ear moulds for the hearing aids. A liquid and a powder had to be made into a pink paste as the patient lay down. Revoltingly, I had to clip the hairs out of their inner ear. You stuck in the paste and moulded it: the trick was to get it out in seven minutes as it heated up and set.

“Try, if you can, not to burn them, Suzanne,” my boss Mr Dryhurst would say.

I didn’t know if he knew that I’d met his son at a Gong gig, where we engaged in lengthy snogging, but certainly he tolerated my utter incompetence with resignation.

One day an old Suffolk boy eyed me up and down with incredulity as I explained the procedure. “The likes of you are not putting that in the likes of me.”

I mixed up the goo and stuck it in his ear, nervously.

Thirty seconds later he was wailing, “Miss! Miss, it’s coming out of the other ear.”

I started screaming. “Mr Dryhurst, I’ve stuck it right through his skull!”

Mr Dryhurst rushed in. “Do not alarm the waiting room,” he said. “Ears are funny things. All sorts of strange sensations can be felt.”

“In one ear and out the other?”

“Indeed.”

What a great boss. I’ve never worn a white coat again, nor been treated with such respect. The NHS is truly a wonderful thing.

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, ISIS vs The World

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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times