Peter Rhodes on death rays, vaccinations and how to detect a Scouser

Read the latest column from Peter Rhodes.

Burt Bacharach – Scouse detector
Burt Bacharach – Scouse detector

A 54-year-old Formula One fan from Liverpool attending the Dutch Grand Prix was arrested after being mistaken for a top Italian mafia boss. His innocence was quickly proved. As his lawyer put it: “ I was always convinced he was not it. It would have been a genius of an Italian to have such a strong Liverpool accent.”

Memo to foreign police forces: If you need to tell a visitor from Liverpool and a Mafia boss apart, get them to pronounce the name Burt Bacharach. If he's a genuine Scouser it comes from the back of the throat as “Bairt Bacchharacchh.”

The government is spending (or investing, as they put it) more than £70 million into laser weapons which will zap the enemy using beams of energy rather than ammunition. We have passed this way before. Almost 100 years ago, to be precise.

I recall interviewing the late Bernard Blakemore, one of the first radio experts to be called up when war broke out in 1939. He was sent to Bawdsey Manor, a top-secret establishment on the east coast. He and three others were given a briefing on an invention called RDF or Radio Direction Finding. They were told RDF originated when the War Office asked scientists whether it might be feasible to build a “death ray” to knock out enemy pilots. The answer, from one of Britain’s top radio experts, Robert Watson Watt, was that death rays were a non-starter. But it might be possible to detect enemy aircraft by bouncing radio waves off them. The rest is history. RDF became radar and helped win the war. The death ray was shelved. Until now.

Security for today's death-ray programme will probably be sharper than in 1939. At Bawdsey Manor, the secret signal of a German invasion was three rings on the field telephone. If that happened, the orders were to evacuate the women and destroy all the equipment with hand grenades.

One day, to the boffins' horror, the three rings sounded. Bernard Blakemore recalled the frozen moment: “After a while, somebody said we’d better answer it. It turned out to be someone saying the tea trolley was on its way.”

We've known for years that kids can be injected against polio, against measles, against rubella and against whooping cough. But only in the past few days have the headlines told us that children can be vaccinated against their parents' wishes. Interesting concept.

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