Willie is a genius. He’s an inventor. He stopped being an engineer about two decades ago in order to be an inventor. Willie is 75 years old and lives just up the road from me. Every once in a while I see him standing on the threshold of his workshop. He smokes ever-so-thin roll-your-own cigarettes and he wears the kind of clothes that inventors wear – like a cowboy hat that has nothing to do with England.
Not so long ago I asked Willie what he was inventing. He drew deeply on his cigarette and told me that he was designing a new exhaust system for his aircraft. I didn’t know he owned an aircraft; so, I asked him about it and it turned out that Willie was one of six people who, together, owned a small plane. In effect he owned one sixth of a light aircraft. [It occurred to me that since Willie was working on the aircraft’s exhaust then maybe he owned the rear end of the plane. But I kept this thought to myself.]
‘Do you all pilot the plane?’ I asked.
‘Yes – but not all of us at once,’ cackled Willie. His cackle is very Scottish. [Willie comes from near Inverness – just down the road from Culloden in fact. People from near Inverness cackle quite differently from the people in the south of England.]
‘I have a pilot’s licence’ volunteered Willie. ‘And that’s not bad for someone who is 75.’
‘Is there an age limit to being a pilot?’ I asked him.
‘No,’ said Willie. ‘I hope to be flying when I’m in my nineties. As long as you pass the medical – they make sure you can see and that you’re not about to die from a heart attack – well, then you can fly.’
‘Does that mean you sometimes fly over our houses?’ I asked him.
‘Yes. Only the other day we flew over the houses in this very street en route to France.’
Willie paused for a while as he drew on his ever-thinner cigarette. ‘I like France’ he said. ‘I like the food and the wine and I like trying out my French.’
So, we had some fun contrasting France with England and then we had a big laugh as we began to translate English idioms into French:
‘Il pleut des chats et des chiens’ or ‘Et Bob est ton oncle’ or ‘Envoyant le charbon a Newcastle.’ Then Willie came out with: ‘Pierre les corbeaux’ [for ‘Stone the crows’.]
The idea of stoning the crows seemed to touch something off in Willie. Willie has strong views on most things and the stoning of the crows seemed to focus his mind on firing squads, on executions and the like.
‘They,’ he said, ‘They – the French – had the right idea. Over here we’ve still got this f**king silly monarchy. Can you believe it? After all these years we’ve still got a Royal family. It’s a joke. And the press and the BBC all arse around propping up the Royals with their endless guff about how special they all are. F**king sycophants. I’d shoot the lot of them.’ By this time Willie was well into his stride. He tossed his defunct roll-your-own cigarette into the hedge. ‘The French – le bleu, blanc, rouge – did the right thing. They got rid of the aristocracy years ago. The guillotine. That’s what we need. We need the British guillotine.’
‘Maybe that’s something you could invent after you’ve perfected the exhaust system for your plane,’ I said.
‘Good idea,’ said Willie, ‘with a few adjustments, my exhaust could do the trick. Et Voila: La Guillotine Britannique.’
‘We could even link the inventor to his machine; we could call it something to do with Culloden,’ I suggested: ‘What about The Cullodine?’
‘I don’t think that would catch on,’ Willie replied: ‘It’s not cutting edge enough.’