Saturday, February 13, 2010


There is a scene in the 1964 Stanley Kubrick classic Doctor Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, where after the suicide of mad US bomber commander General Jack D. Ripper, British military attaché Lionel Mandrake has a chance to prevent World War Three. 

Without the knowledge of President Merkin Muffley, General Ripper has dispatched the bomber wing to incinerate the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons, but Group Captain Mandrake (one of three memorable roles, along with Muffley and Strangelove, which Peter Sellers plays in the film) realises what is going on, and works out what to do. All he needs to do to save the world is telephone the president, tell him what has happened, and the bombers can be recalled.

Unfortunately, all lines of official communication to the air base are cut and the only way he can contact the president is by public telephone. But to do that he needs coins, and doesn’t have enough. Nor does the ramrod-backed US Marine Colonel ‘Bat’ Guano, played by the ever-crusty Keenan Wynn, who despite his suspicions that Mandrake might be some kind of a commie infiltrator, is slowly accepting the reality of the imminent global peril. Then Mandrake notices a Coca-Cola vending machine, and in a flash of inspiration asks Guano to fire into its slot to get the needed coins. Before he does so, Guano asks deadpan whether Mandrake realises that the machine is the private property of the Coca-Cola Company, thus articulating that American verity that corporate property rights take precedence over all, up to and including saving the world.

I had somewhat similar Strangelovean episode a few years ago, teaching creative writing at a regional university. One of my tutorial classes was at nine o’clock on Friday mornings, a day and time when much of the campus was quiet. The tutorial was in a room off a concrete courtyard, silent but for one thing - a Coca-Cola machine, a ruddy hybrid of Robby The Robot and Amanda Vanstone, loudly humming its busy idiot hum to chill its idiot cans, a coin-activated capitalist plot against the health of our precious bodily fluids, and turning the tutor attempting to tute not thirty metres away into something of a crazed General Ripper himself.

‘What is that pile of junk doing in clearly-audible hum-range of pedagogy?’ I couldn’t help but declare. ‘I need silence to teach - and you to learn! What right does the Coca-Cola Corporation have to put these things near tutorial rooms? Doesn’t it know what it is doing to teaching? And teeth, for that matter...’.

Provoked beyond all known limits by its hideous, ghastly, loathsome presence (writing students please note here my deliberate overuse of adjectives), I snapped, metamorphosing into a noughties Lionel Mandrake. Lacking a sidearm, I did the next best thing. I took direct action. Turned the bastard off at the switch. Cut it off at the knees.

‘See! It can be done!’ I shouted to my students. ‘You don’t have to put up with the machine! You don’t have to tolerate the hum! And you certainly don’t have to drink the crappola! Now I want you all to go to your windows, put your heads out and shout: “I’ve taken all I can, and I’m not taking any more!” - bearing in mind as you do of course that any more is two words and not one.’

Students being what they postmodernly are, well versed in dealing with a babbling incomprehensible tissue of texts, they feigned mild bemusement while pondering the appropriate paperwork to be filled in for a teacher pushed right over the brink of sanity by a mere vending machine. What, they also might have wondered, were the legal ramifications of interfering with the property of the Coca-Cola Corporation in the Howard era? Death by prolonged exposure to Dancing With The Stars, no doubt.

But by now my own seriously unbalanced mind had much, much bigger fish to fry. I was keeping half a mad eye on my class, and the other mad half on the Coke machine. When I was distracted for a mere half-moment, writing something on the whiteboard, it went back on. That hum! I belted out into the courtyard but the offender had decamped. I switched it off. Then it happened again... On. I switched it off. Again it was back on. Off-on-off-on... It began to feel like I was having a rather torrid affair with a Coke machine.

Week after week the mother of all wars raged. I even reported the recalcitrant gizmo to one of the blue polo shirted maintenance people, but the look on his face said it all: “A nut, another nut.”

Nothing happened. The hum, always the hum, inscribing itself into my very flesh like the diabolical gadget in the Kafka story. I was worn down. The hum haunted my nightly insomnia. But I had the last laugh. After my final tutorial I went out into the light, switched the bastard back on a moment, then off for the last time, and walked off into the sunset. Well, late morning.

- Larry Buttrose


  1. Thanks Rae. My cover is blown - and an obvious neo-classicist to boot!