1922, and Michael Taylor, a British pilot testing the new Mitsubishi 1MF fighter aircraft, crashes his aeroplane into the Pacific Ocean. Upon rescue, he reports that the accident was caused by a group of small grey creatures, each no larger than a cat, that followed him aboard his craft and set about wreaking havoc with the flight controls. His story spreads all the way back to the United Kingdom, and soon other British pilots begin to complain of being plagued by these tiny, goblin-like creatures.
They are soon known amongst the Royal Air Force as ‘gremlins’, and these gremlins are blamed for everything from communication dropouts to engine seizures, electrical failures to bad landings.
At the height of the Battle of Britain in 1940, the British Air Ministry even goes so far as to issue a service manual detailing various methods to deter these bothersome creatures.
All this is now believed to be no more than an attempt to maintain moral amongst the pilots and engineers of the RAF. Indeed, what better way to avoid the loss of confidence that comes from playing the blame game than by shifting the fault onto some imagined, mythical entity.
But, as ever, I have come to find that even the most fantastic of myths more often than not carries a grain of truth.
December 2nd 2003
Sarah Bussey immediately strikes me as cheerful woman, with a warm and motherly demeanour. Currently a local child minder, she was employed as a nurse in the early ’90s at the Arcadia Care Home in Middlesex, a retirement and assisted living facility on the outskirts of the county.
She kindly agrees to meet me on her morning off and we share breakfast at a small café in Lady Bay, Nottingham, where she currently lives and works.
Over a pot of tea and several rounds of toast she tells me her story, specifically her interactions with one David Shipley, a retired World War 2 pilot, whom she met in her first month of working at the Arcadia.
The following are her words.
‘I’d not been there too long when they bought David in. He was a lovely old guy, but that nasty so-and-so dementia was creeping in. It’s a horrid disease. It cleans away your memories and changes your personality. That’s why I left that job in the end. It’s difficult to keep seeing something so terrible happen over and over again.
‘Still, David was prone to long periods of lucidity when he was utterly charming and captivating. I could tell he was a ladies man when he was younger.’
She winks at me over her mug of tea.
‘He would regal the staff and other residents with tales of his exploits in the Second World War. He made them sound so thrilling. He was a natural storyteller.
‘Oddly enough, when he came in he brought this metronome with him, and he would always have it nearby; on the coffee table or the windowsill, just within reach.
‘It used to annoy some of the other nurses, that constant tick-tock, tick-tock, but I didn’t mind it. I asked him about it one day. You know, like why he had it, what it was for.
‘He told me that one time, when he was up in the sky battling the Luftwaffe, he spotted these little grey creatures out on the body of his ‘plane. He said they were nibbling away at the engine and the electrics, trying to make him crash.
‘‘Gremlins’, he called them. ‘Bloody gremlins’.
‘I couldn’t help but think of those little green critters from that pair of movies from the ’80s. I was very small when I saw those films. They shit me up as a kid, I’m not embarrassed to say!
‘Anyway, I asked him what he did about them, these ‘gremlins’.
‘He said that word back on the base what that you had to distract them somehow. Apparently they were an acknowledged thing!
‘So he’s struggling in his chair, trying to pilot this fighter plane and wrestle a hankie or something out of his pocket to wave at them. But it’s no good. So he starts tapping on the glass of the cockpit.
‘He said that the little blighters looked up at him, but then just carried on.
‘So he gets this idea: he starts tapping rhythmically on the perspex, first one spot, then the other, and he reckons this sort of, ‘hypnotises’ them. They stop trying to trash his plane and start watching his hand and nodding their heads in time with his tapping.
‘Somehow he manages to survive the dogfight and land in one piece, even taking some of the ‘blasted Hun’, as he used to call them, out of the sky on the way. When he got out of the plane there was no sign of these so-called ‘gremlins’.
‘And from that day on he says he’s always had a metronome with him, to recreate that tapping. Always on the go, just in case the little bleeders decide to come back and mess with him again.
‘I relayed this to the other nurses, and we all agreed that we’d humour the old boy. We weren’t monsters. We weren’t in the business of making our clients lives miserable just for the sake of it.
‘Eventually, his illness got the better of him, only a few months after he’d come to us.
‘When his family came to take his belongings I asked if we could keep the metronome.
‘I’ll be honest with you, me and some of the other staff had kind of a soft spot for the old fellow, and most of the other residents seemed to find the sound comforting. Like I said, we weren’t monsters.
‘And so it sat by the window of the rec room, just merrily ticking away.
‘And there it stayed. Until Miss Marham started with us.’
Ms Bussey goes on to tell me that Ms Marham was ‘parachuted in’ as a new supervisor, with the remit to cut costs wherever possible. ‘A right old dragon,’ in Ms Bussey’s words.
It seems this new supervisor took umbrage with the small metronomic device that sat in the recreation room, ticking away to the comfort of the residents.
Against the protests of the rest of the staff, Ms Marham stopped Mr Shipley’s metronome and threw the device away.
Ms Bussey continues.
‘Now, we’d never had any kind of technical problems at all up until then. Sure we had the odd fuse blown and that, but nothing major. But the night that silly old bitch threw David’s tick-tock machine away, all Hell seemed to break loose.
‘Everything that could go wrong did.
‘We had alarms tripping for no reason, lights blowing out left, right and centre; even the bloody coffee machine went on the fritz. Over the next few days we must’ve had every local electrician, technician, even a bloody surveyor out. Not one of them could work out what was going on.
‘Then one day one of the residents, this lovely old dear took me to one side. She said that she’d seen ‘them’ at night, chewing on the cables.
‘I asked who she meant by ‘them’.
‘‘David’s gremlins’ she replied.
Ms Bussey went to a local music shop later that day and purchased another metronome. She placed it in the recreation room and set it in motion.
The electrical problems the home had been experiencing ceased that night.
Ms Marham, the ill-tempered supervisor, did not remove this new machine.
As is so often the case, Ms Bussey’s story is merely anecdotal, and I will confess I have not had the time to dig deeply for corroborating evidence for what occurred at the Arcadia Care Home, if it even occurred at all. But Ms Bussey seems sincere, and genuine. As far as I can tell, she has nothing to gain from inventing this little tale.
I will also add here that Ms Bussey never claimed to see these creatures herself.
So, did Mr Shipley, the intrepid character who soared through the skies during World War 2, somehow carry these gremlins with him? Was his belief in them so strong he was somehow able to subconsciously ‘will’ them into existence? And was this belief strong enough to ‘rub off’ onto the other residents? Or were they actual, corporeal creatures, physically capable of causing such turmoil at the care home?
Perhaps all this is nothing more than an amalgamation of folk tales and coincidence, misremeberings and circumstance, happening to collide at just the right time.
I do, however, find it interesting that the same problems that the Ministry of Air took semi-seriously in 1940s should manifest so similarly some 50 years later. Indeed, legends of mischievous entities can be traced throughout history, from the trow of the Orkney and Shetland Islands to the Kobold of Germany.
It does seem that the universe, like these diminutive sprites, does possess a rather a perverse sense of humour when it comes to such things, after all.
Dr Thomas Gotobed
Oddly enough, acclaimed children’s author Roald Dahl wrote a short story called ‘The Gremlins’, based on a similar experience he had in the Second World War. I do find it a shame that the good doctor didn’t seem to have time to investigate this one further.
Oh, and I watched the first Gremlins film when I was young. It ‘shit me up’ too – C.R.