Real men talk bombs, big 'uns and tie badges: Ruth Dudley Edwards survives an attack of pump-action acronyms at the Farnborough Air Show

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The Independent Online
I APPLIED myself seriously to Farnbor ough International. It was a trade day, which meant that, other than freeloaders like me, those attending were knowledgeable journalists, customers and fixers - 98 per cent of them male. I was not content to drink champagne and watch the air show from a balcony. No, the puritan ethic triumphed and I visited the stands of the merchants of death.

I rightly assessed that this was not a world in which I was likely to shine. It's not just because I'm female; it's because of the men with whom I was brought up. In my parents' house, changing a light bulb usually required us to call in the neighbours. We had no car - indeed I am the only member of my immediate family who ever learned to drive, and my parents never recovered from their amazement at my extraordinary achievement.

Yet I was, I thought, plugged into male culture. After all, I borrowed my brother's Billy Bunter and William Brown books. There was little in them, however, about machines. Had I wanted to be prepared for the world of Real Men, I should have paid more attention to my male cousins, who engaged in mystifying practices like car-number spotting and who always elected to go to the airport for their birthday treat, even though in those days Dublin airport only entertained about three planes a day - all of which looked the same to me.

Instead I consorted with non-practical men. I even contrived to marry a man who was never capable of learning to drive. My closest male friend considered that the best justification for living in college was that one could always find a physicist to mend a fuse; and 25 years on, he has never yet taken the great technological leap of travelling by air. Hanging around in this company, I failed to realise that my cousins had been the norm and my family and male friends the exception.

Since my female contemporaries were stranded with small children, I had more male than female friends and thought of myself as an Honorary Chap.

It was therefore a severe shock when I left academic life, accidentally joined the telecommunications world and found myself surrounded by Real Men, who discussed cars and DIY incessantly.

It was the days when politicians talked of the white heat of technology - of which my colleagues and I were allegedly in the forefront. It took me some time to grasp that they made everything far more complicated than it had to be and that they enjoyed impenetrable lingo because it made them feel important. I found the product grindingly boring, but came to realise that these men truly loved hardware and that all the dismissive female remarks about cars and planes and guns and toolboxes being Boys' Toys were rooted in fact.

I have been out of this essentially male world for a long time, but Farnborough brought it all back. Farnborough men were my ex-colleagues writ large: Farnborough lingo was just a slightly more complicated version of theirs.

Defence language is all about multi adjectives: it's a world of head-up displays, leading-edge technology, surface-to-air missiles, hit-to-kill missiles, quadruplex digital fly-by-wire systems, extended-range interceptors, laser-spot track targeting pods and - of course - state-of-the art technology.

It's also all about acronyms, which enable chaps to have conversations completely incomprehensible to anyone outside the charmed circle. There are thousands of them and they're impressively eclectic. Here are a few at random: ALF (Active Low Frequency); BMD (Ballistic Missile Defence); IHUMS (Integrated Health and Usage Monitoring System); JPA (Japan Defence Agency); UNOSOM II (UN Operation in Somalia); and WOW (weight-on-wheels).

And advertisers' prose is couched in the kind of portentous style that only Charlton Heston could ever have got away with: 'It's the kind of dedication that ensures you'll always have the advantage. Even when things get ugly.' No one with a sense of humour or proportion could take it seriously.

I had acquired two male freeloaders to assist my investigations, both deeply ill- equipped for the job. We agreed that the kind of aircraft we liked were those from which Richard Todd used to climb to a chorus of 'Wizard prang, sir'. We were unmoved by most of the fighter aircraft displays, though even I got slightly carried away when the Harrier did various impossible things backwards.

Spurred by champagne and my insistence that they try to behave like Real Men, they initiated several royal-family type conversations with salesmen. Between them they managed to sustain a five-minute conversation about attack helicopters by nodding wisely in important-chap mode and saying things like, 'Ah, yes. But to what level?', or 'It is important, of course, to balance tomorrow's technology against the advantages of maturity'. I lacked the necessary gravitas to talk, so confined myself to behaving like a supportive secretary.

Our biggest problem in taking any of this seriously was equipment names. To the salesmen, these were normal; to us, unfamiliarity made them risible. Hercules and Zeus; Piranha and Viper; Goalkeeper and Truculent. Take the contenders for the Army Air Corps contract for attack helicopter: the Apache Longbow; the Cobra Venom; the Mongoose; the Red Kestrel, and the Tiger. Sadly, the Farnborough programme said, the Comanche and the Werewolf are thought to have little chance.

The sexual imagery was another stumbling block. You don't have to have a dirty mind to find all the concentration on penetration, probing and thrusting a touch over- suggestive.

My investigative friends and I failed to think of a female equivalent of Farnborough. Tupperware parties, perhaps? Girls' naughty lingerie get-togethers? Maybe there is no equivalent. I've been trying to imagine what kind of woman would wear the earrings and pendants advertised in the programmes, which include representations of the Apache, Harrier, Hercules, Spitfire and Tornado - though, not, alas, the Cobra Venom. Is she an Honorary Real Man? Or married to one? Or perhaps I just don't understand Real Women either.

(Photograph omitted)