Tuesday, 20 December 2011

It is that time of year again

Now we come to the Christmas break where other things get in the way of blogging time.

I will be back in the New Year, have a good one.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

When I were a lad.... 3

A magical moment

Something I saw recently reminded me of an incident from my childhood.  It happened in the winter of 1956 / 1957.  At that time we lived in a small house in a village close to London, an area now a part of Greater London but then it was in Hertfordshire.  Our house was on the side of a small hill and was built on quite a steep slope with a metalled drive running beside the house which led to my father's small business, a Garage where he eked a living repairing cars and selling petrol. 
That night I was sound asleep in bed when Dad came upstairs and woke me up, made me get wrapped up warm and without saying why, he took me out into the winter night.  I don't know what time it was but it must have been late.  We stood on the sloping driveway facing north and when my eyes had adjusted to the dark, high in the Northern sky was the most amazing comet I have ever seen, indeed the first comet I had ever seen. It stretched almost vertically up the sky, tail up just like the images in all the books. That was the only night it was visible at that majestic stage in its path around the sun, because there were clouds for weeks before and after. Although I did not know it at the time, it would have been the Arend - Roland comet which was discovered in November 56 and peaked early in 1957. It came quite close for a comet, within half the distance that the Earth is from the sun, (0.5 AUs) and was quite bright at its peak. 
Many years later in 1997, the brightest comet since then that I saw was the Hale - Bopp comet, which whilst visible for much longer, was disappointing to me because I was expecting to see something more like the Arend - Roland comet.  
The Arend – Roland comet was much more like a comet should be, whilst the Hale – Bopp was much smaller, fuzzier and split into two tails. 
In the intervening fourty odd years, sky photography has improved in leaps and bounds, so the images you can see now are not comparable, but the real thing was magical.
The Arend - Roland comet 1956/57
The Hale - Bopp comet 1997
For those who like to know things, the distance I put in brackets, 0.5AU, is half an Astronomical Unit.  Astronomers think in big numbers, literally astronomically big numbers, so miles or kilometres are much too titchy to use because they will give you great long strings of figures.  An astronomical Unit is the mean distance from the Earth to the Sun and is a useful size for interplanetary distances within our solar system.  It is almost 93 million miles or to be exact, 92 955 887.6miles
For measuring distances between stars, another unit is used, because AUs are much too small for those kinds of distances and although the term Light Year is often used in news reports and movies, real astronomers tend to use the Parsec.
The Parsec is rather complicated as to how it was derived, so I won't bother with that, but it is just over three and a quarter light years and makes a much more useful unit of distance for Astronomers to use between stars, since the nearest star Proxima Centuri is a little over one parsec from us. For even greater distances, the kiloparsec or the megaparsec are used and now we are tlking inter Galactic distances which are turly big.
Ok so a light year?  
 On TV news broadcasts, when the roving reporters are linked to the news desk via satellite, you notice they stand and nod their heads idiotically for a few seconds before replying to the person in the studio. This is because they have not heard the person in the studio yet and although satellites are only a mere 20,000 or so miles high, it takes the TV signal, travelling at the speed of light, a few seconds to go up and bounce down again. It takes the light from the sun just over four minutes to reach us and that is only one AU. It takes over four years to reach Proxima Centuri which is the closest star.  If news reporters ever get to Proxima Centuri, the news will be over four years old by the time it reaches us and any conversation would take near enough nine years to get a reply. So a light year is one damned long way, well 5,878,499,810,000 miles to be exact and since a Parsec is 3.26163626 Light Years, we are talking big big number in miles or kilometres and very very very long distances.


Thursday, 17 November 2011

When I were a lad... 2

A tale of boats and the seaside in the 1960s

From around 1957 to 1968 I lived in Clacton-on-sea.  Whenever I could I would go boating or sailing, sometimes with my friend John who went to the same Technical College I attended.  John lived in Mersea Island and came from a family that was well into the traditions of sailing and boating and we would sail together and muck about in his canoes.  John had two canoes and one was getting a little weathered, so one winter he had started to refurbish it and had found his sailing club commitment was preventing him from finishing the job.  He did not really need two and he realised he was not likely to get it finished in any reasonable time and summer was well on its way, so he decided to cut his losses and sell it.  It was in need of a new canvas upper deck but otherwise was sound.  He was prepared to sell it for a reasonable sum and I eagerly arranged to buy it from him.
It was quite large as canoes go, being a wide two-seater kayak style, with a plywood hull and canvas upper decking and was very stable. I was already familiar with it, having borrowed it once or twice when we went canoeing around Mersea Island and was very pleased he wanted to sell it and I had already decided it was the one for me. I duly parted with the cash and we hoisted it up onto my car’s roof rack and I drove it home. 

It was much too big to go around the back of the guesthouse, so I had to set it on two trestles in the front garden and it only just fitted there. A foot longer and I would have been seriously in trouble. As it was, Mum and Dad, who rather preferred flowers in the garden to a great big half finished canoe, did not greet it with any great enthusiasm, although I think Dad was secretly pleased that I was as interested in boats as he was. I was allowed to keep it there until I had finished the refurbishment but only on the condition that I found a place where I could keep it permanently away from the house. 

A couple of miles along the coast in Holland-on-sea there was a boat club, which allowed members to keep light craft in a locked compound on the top of the cliff, so I arranged to join the club and keep it there, but first I had to finish the decking and re-varnish it.
John had included the material he had intended to use for the top deck when I bought it, which was in fact not canvas but a tough white plastic.  This was fitted by laying it over the framework, cutting around the centre opening where the crew sat and then nailing battens onto the frame with copper pins to grip the edges and hold it in place.  This took very few evenings and soon it was ready for a new coat of varnish. 

Me and my cousin in my finished and seaworthy canoe
During the mid sixties, there were a number of riots reported by the press, taking place at various seaside towns, where Mods and Rockers would congregate at weekends and the rivalries between the two different fashion supporters would occasionally flare up into a small battle fought out on the beaches with bottles, and deck chairs being slung about.
The press found these to be good copy for selling newspapers.  Since it was ‘in the public interest’, the public was informed that major battles were occurring at many seaside resorts and the youth of today were running riot; literally. 
There was a lot of TV coverage as well, and they showed pictures of young men running around in a disorderly fashion on beaches and various seafronts and reported total mayhem.
Because it was good footage (and increased paper circulation), the press had to continue to keep the public well informed, but unfortunately like all trends it would not last long, so something had to be done to prolong these riots for the remaining summer.  For this reason, during the various interviews with the Mods and the Rockers they would slyly ask if they would be attending the next riot, and then name a time and place, insinuating that they knew where the next one would be.  Of course since they were supposed to be spontaneous, no one really knew where they would be least of all the Mods and Rockers themselves.  Once a venue had been suggested by the press, word soon got passed around amongst them that there was to be a good fight at wherever, and so in this way the press made sure that there would be a good turnout of Mods and Rockers at the place of their own choosing. 

I saw a few of these alleged riots, which seemed little different to the normal uncouth behaviour of a minority of the Clacton weekend visitors and continued to walk my dog in the sure knowledge that on Sunday evening when the pubs and fish and chips shops shut, they would all head for the A12 and return home.  Clacton was not a refined place, unlike Frinton a few miles along the coast where the residents had even prevented the use of yellow lines on the road to indicate parking restrictions for many years after they had become commonplace all over the rest of the country, because they were 'vulgar',  In Clacton you could expect a bit of boisterous behaviour now and again.
Agate Road Clacton in the 1960s.  
 Meanwhile back at my canoe, one weekend I was busy sanding the hull ready for another coat of varnish when a couple of lads in mod gear ran down Agate road past me and disappeared out of sight. A few yobs at the sea end of the road strolled into view, shouted something unintelligible at the retreating pair and walked back towards the seafront. Although I was aware of this, I more or less ignored them because it was not particularly unusual and I was in no danger. For all I knew they may have been sworn enemies, or just mates arranging to meet later.  None too concerned I finished what I was doing and washed up went in to watch TV or read a book or whatever.
Later Mum and Dad and I were all watching the early evening news on the TV when there was a report of a serious riot that took place in Clacton. 
Of course we were all interested in this, mostly because it was news to us! 
Allegedly there had been total chaos and reports of cars being turned over and set on fire, with running battles all down the sea front. This was supported with a few seconds of film taken at this outrageous riot, of some young men running along a road and as the camera panned around, we could instantly recognise it was Agate Road with the two louts I had seen running away from about four other louts.  The camera was behind the yelling louts, so you could see there were at least six rioters and if the camera had panned a couple of degrees further round, it would have shown me calmly sanding down my canoe unaware that I was in the centre of this terrible riot.  No doubt they had had to cut out that bit, because it did not help with the impression they were trying to make. Over the next few days, we had about four friends and relatives phone us from other parts of the world to make sure we were still alive.
The reports had implied that there had been total war in Clacton and there were few survivors. According to the press, property had been damaged, blood spilled and general chaos had ensued. 
It amazed me how soon that was cleared up, because when I took the dog out for a walk later that evening, the place seemed quite tidy with no damage anywhere I could see, no burned out cars even though I was walking through the alleged site of a major battleground.  Mind you, I did see a chair on its side in the cliff top gardens.

I wonder where they got these statistics from? Maybe they were arrested before they got to Clacton.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

When I were a lad...

In response to a comment from Chris, this is a small part of something I have been writing for some time. I suppose it is an autobiography but it is what I remember of my life. The problem is that my life continues on, so where do you stop? Anyway, this bit is from my very early days, when I were a lad....

WWII had just ended and things were looking up, we were able to go to the seaside!   Dad had bought an ancient caravan from somewhere, he never paid more than ten pounds for anything like that, so we got real monster. It was ancient and heavy and we first used it at Tankerton in Kent.  Going all the way across  London, this was a real adventure to a distant and exotic place.

Our caravan with our current Standard car towing it.
(Standard is the make, not the description) 
It was sited there for some time and we spent our first post-war holidays there. Some of the family used it too. I remember my cousin Alan enthusing about it. He was also full of the train journey there and back. It was the first time he had ever been on a train in his life and I recall him telling me it went so fast he could see the clouds moving in relation to himself. I don’t think I had ever been on train then.  Because Dad had the Garage, we always went everywhere by car with him or by or bus with Mum. Mum had a fear of trains anyway and in particular the Underground, so even going into central London we either went by car or Green Line bus.

My sister had been to the seaside before but I had never been, or if I had I did not remember because I was too small. It was not always possible to visit most resorts during wartime because of the defences and in many cases land mines all over the beaches. Beaches remained hazardous places for some time after the war, what with UXBs marked off, closing some beaches and barbed wire still in many places, seaside resorts were slow to get back to their normal pre war condition. When we got to Tankerton, despite the mess the beaches were in, to us it was wonderful.
I was given a strict edict not to touch any of the unexploded bombs we may find. They washed up on to the beaches regularly in those days and were often just marked to be disposed of later when the overworked  Bomb Squad could get around to them and so we actually played between them. That seems incredible now, but everyone who had lived through the war in any large town was used to them and we more or less ignored them once they had been spotted and flagged. One day I had been playing on the beach with some other boys with no adults around, when we came across a small bomb, possibly an anti personnel bomb or may be a mortar round, with nice fins on it like a little space ship. We knew we should not touch it so we didn’t, but we were sure in a vague sort of way the grownups should see it and we intended to take it to them.
To avoid touching it we carefully tied a piece of thick string we had found around the tail, religiously avoiding any physical contact with our hands. Once we had got it supported by the string, it was held between me and another boy and we started back to the caravan site with the bomb swinging on the string between us, detonator down.
My Dad was coming down to the beach to find me to tell me a meal was ready when he saw us coming off the beach.  I can still clearly see his reaction to the sight of a group of small boys carrying a bomb.  If you have ever seen a cat that suddenly spots a large dog running towards it with obvious murder in mind, Dad behaved very much like that. He froze crouching slightly and shouted very clearly and surprisingly calmly, ‘STOP WHERE YOU ARE. Put it down VERY gently and come here as quickly as you can.’ We did as we were told wondering what was wrong and ran up to Dad who had come no closer. He then herded us away as quickly as possible and fetched the police who called in the Army.
This WWII UXB was found on a beach near Felixstowe as recently as 2006
Later, when asked why I had disobeyed his explicit instructions to never touch a UXB, I told him completely innocently, that we hadn’t touched it once, only the string had touched it. I was completely sincere, I did not understand that he had meant not to move it. I really believed that it would only go off on contact with human skin.
Later in life, I often remembered that misunderstanding when giving warnings to my own children and tried to make my instructions to them clear by saying them in two different ways.
When my two boys were still at school in the 1980s, one of our friends had problems with an unknown man talking to one of their small sons. He had been told quite clearly not to talk to strangers and when asked why he had talked to this man, he was puzzled and said he was not a stranger he looked quite normal. To the boy, a ‘stranger’ was someone strange looking, not someone he did not know. Kids can be very literal in their interpretations.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Some of my favourite reads, No 1

The Time machine by H G Wells

This book has been as influential in its own sub-genre, time travel, as Wells other novel The War of the Worlds has been in alien invasions, in as much as the concepts he used have given the SF genre a whole bunch of ideas which have been consistently exploited ever since.
This rather short novel, just 102 pages in my edition, is well known but also not known very well. Many people have only experienced this story from the various movie versions which do not in any way capture the sense of wonder that old HG managed to instil into this wonderful story and since movies usually deviate from the original story line, the broader aspects of this novel are usually lost.
I first read when it when I was a teenager, long before I saw any movie versions and I have re-read it many times since and it still holds just as much appeal.

The story has all the ingredients of a good yarn, it involves a lost device that no one can duplicate, a journey into the unknown, with unexpected discoveries of vast scope, love interest, an implacable enemy, loss and a mysterious ending.
Although written in Victorian times it is still very readable, the language is not so different from modern writing and the ideas he coined have never really aged and have been used again and again.

The central character of the story is never named and only referred to as the Time Traveller. He shows his friends a model of what he claims is a time machine and in front of their sceptical gaze, starts the model which vanishes, apparently moving endlessly into the future.
Nothing is explained about how the machine works, or how it is powered but it certainly does something inexplicable.
The next time we see the Time Traveller, is when he arrives late and in a dishevelled state to a dinner party he had arranged with the same friends and on arrival, and only after eating like a starved animal, tells them a fantastic story.
He has built a full scale version of the time machine and claims he has just returned from a trip to the far future.
He spins a tale of discovery and adventure in a distant time where humans have evolved into two separate species, Eoli and Morlocks. He sides with the Eoli and befriends a small woman called Weena, but his time machine is captured by the Morlocks. He eventually recovers his machine and escapes, leaving Weena in the hands of the Morlocks.
In his haste to get away, he accidentally travels to the far distant future and finds the Earth barely habitable with a swollen dim red giant for the sun with strange creatures evolved into ominous and dimly seen forms in the feeble sunlight. He returns back to his own time and relates all this to his friends who are understandably sceptical.
For proof he shows them a flower (in winter) that no one recognises. Determined to rescue Weena, he rests, re-equips himself and sets off on the machine but never returns.

There are so many things about this story that I have never lost, for instance the atmosphere created by the abandoned museum he finds and does not have the opportunity to explore fully. With all its future wonders and hint of strange and incomprehensible machines, it leaves the reader wanting to know more. What could you find in a place like that?
The landscape is littered with ruined and abandoned architectural marvels we never get to explore, and when he arrives at the aged and near dead Earth in the really distant future, here is another understated event with just enough detail to leave you hungry for more. He has created a whole new world with an entirely new ecology, tidally locked to face the sun with one hemisphere forever bathed in the crimson sunlight of a dying sun with the other hemisphere in perpetual dark. What mysteries are here? We never find out, the Time traveller is alarmed by one of the creatures coming towards him and he flees into time again, this time to return home and relate his story.

In some publications, there is an extra part to his tale that somehow got left out of the later printings, called The Grey Men, where after fleeing in panic from the Morlocks into the future he stops his flight before his final excursion to the extreme far future. In this short chapter he encounters small grey rodent like creatures, that he realises are the final stages of humankind’s descent into primitive creatures. This has only occasionally been included in certain printings over the one hundred and fifteen years since its first publication, but since it contributes nothing more to the main story, it is no great loss.

Because the Time Traveller never returns from his second trip the reader must speculate as to what happened.
Did he reach Weena? Was he successful and settled down with her in the future, helping the Eloi to defend themselves against the Morlocks? Was he killed by the Morlocks? Did his machine break down and leave him stranded somewhere?
Having left the reader in such a state of not knowing, many other authors have tried to write a sequel to fill in the gaps but, with mixed results.
Some have been really bad and others brilliant, continuing in the same vein and style with considerable success, but the most significant aspect of this story, and what I feel makes it such a great one is that you are left wondering what happened. A tidy ending giving you all the answers often destroys the charm.
A good case in point of that is Arthur C Clarke’s wonderful ‘Rendezvous with Rama’. A large asteroid sized object enters the solar system and it soon becomes obvious it is not a natural object, but is steered and has come from another star. An expedition is sent to explore it and find it is hollow. They manage to get on board discovering an artificial environment full of mysteries, but they cannot find the builders. Time for exploration is limited because it does not seem to be stopping and it is soon apparent it has not come to visit the Earth at all, but is only using our sun to give it a sling shot to help it on its way to its real destination and is not in the least bit interested in us or our solar system.
The first novel finished with the object speeding on out of the solar system and much like The Time Machine there are many unanswered questions left open, but Clarke finished by saying that the builders seemed to do things in threes, which suggests there will be two more following the first. If he had left it there, it would have been a great novel, but he wrote a series of sequels which essentially ruined the mystery and spoiled the whole thing for me, culminating in a novel I was unable to finish because I got bored with it.
Unlike Wells, Clarke wrote his own sequels although as collaborations with other authors, but The Time machine has had several new authors attempt a sequel to this book.

One of the best in my opinion is ‘The Time Ships’ by Stephen Baxter. The cover leapt out at me when I saw it in the book shop because it showed a scene so well drawn, I immediately recognised it was from Wells’ The Time machine. I had to buy it just to see what it was about and was not disappointed. I read this book from cover to cover in only a few hours. Baxter has introduced the idea that traveling to the future, returning to your own time and then attempting to return to the future again will not work because by returning home and telling people about your experiences in the future, will change that future. So the Time traveller’s second trip pitches him into a different version of the future with disastrous results.

One of the not so good sequels I have read was ‘A Scientific Romance’ by Ronald Wright. It was, he declared on a radio programme I happened to listen to, not Science Fiction. This was said with a sense of disgust for such a low genre, despite having written a story that involved a fictional scientific device. So much for snobbery, but I did not find his extension of the Wells story very entertaining and do not recommend it. It was rather like a lot of mundane 60s SF and more of a post apocalypse novel, complete with disused ruined motorways.

Another book loosely based on The Time Machine is Time After Time, by Karl Alexander
This book is the basis of a movie of the same title and is a strangely entertaining romp, where the Time Traveller is H G Wells himself and it takes the form of a chase through time in an attempt to capture Jack the Ripper. Not a serious attempt at a sequel but fairly entertaining.

Yet another is a rather strange Stem Punk version of Wells’ theme, Morlock Night which similar to The Time Ships, suggests that messing with the future has dire consequences. The author had a second agenda where he wanted to somehow revive King Arthur whom legend says will return in a time of England’s greatest need, and we sure need him in this odd novel. Entertaining and fast paced, but a little predictable towards the end and not a best fit of Wells’ style.

Finally, one of my favourite Wells universe novels is ‘The Space Machine’ by Christopher Priest. Christopher Priest is one of my top ten fave authors and has written some great books. One I particularly like is the Prestige, which has also been made into a passable movie.
The Space machine is a wonderful example of imaginative writing, much in the style of Wells which cleverly combines both of Wells’ novels, the Time Machine and The War of the Worlds into a single story. He does a masterful job blending the two stories seamlessly into a single master work, resulting in a novel that is well worth reading.

There are many more Time Machine sequels, some of which I have read and forgotten as soon as I put the book down, some of these I put it down within a couple of chapters. I assume there will be more to come, The Time Machine is such a durable idea and with so much scope for making up an ending to the story, it will no doubt be returned to over and over again.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Half term and Halloween

November again and last week was half term. It has now become a tradition to spend the half term week with The Granddaughter (TG) at her family home in Cumbria. They live in an interesting town based around a gigantic ship yard where nuclear submarines and surface warships are built or fitted out. Most of the town grew up with the needs of the shipyard but government spending on warships has been in gradual decline since the Second World War as the Navy has reduced the number of ships year on year, so this industry is no longer the huge employer it once was.
Barrow town skyline
Barrow-in-Furness is right on the tip of the Furness peninsular and has sometimes been described as the longest cul-de-sac (dead end) in the UK. It is about 50 minutes from the M6 motorway, which for strangers to our island is the longest major road, linking London with Scotland.
To get from our home to theirs it is usually about a six hour journey from door to door, but can be longer.
An offshore wind farm
The town is on a rather windy part of the English coast and out to sea off the Cumbrian coast there is an impressive wind farm and in the hills around some smaller wind farms make use of the regular prevailing winds.
Lake Windermere in October
Despite being a town based on heavy industry, there are compensations because within half an hour you can be at Lake Windermere and well into the Lake District, an area containing many of Britain’s favourite beauty spots, with lakes, mountains and walks all within this small area.
On the way from Barrow to Lake Windermere you pass the Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway (link), which every October puts on a Witches and Wizards week. One of the stations on this line was used in the filming of the Harry Potter Movies and so you can visit Hogwarts School Station. The line ends at Lakeside, which is the most southerly end of Lake Windermere. From there you can take the passenger boat service up the lake to the three small towns on the lake, Bowness, Windermere and Ambleside.
In Windermere there is the headquarters of the company Lakeland Plastics, a place which specialises in kitchenware and household gadgets. This is somewhere that The Better Half (TBH) always wants to visit when we are in the area. This store has branches all over the UK and do an Internet service but like an Internet book shop, a real bookshop is much better for browsing and finding new authors and Lakeland always seems to have a new selection of must-have gadgets.
Fell Foot park
Fell Foot Park

Some stone steps in Fell Foot

We went for a walk in Fell Foot park, a National Trust property, which was once a large private estate with a big house and landscaped gardens but which is now missing the house and the only remaining structures are the old boat houses bordering the lake.

The Lake shore at Fell Foot
The lake in autumn

A local inhabitant going about his business

Windemere from Fell Foot
 The largest of these is turned into a Tea House with chairs and table along the lake’s edge.
The architecture of this quaint building is eccentric to say the least, with castellation and large almost unworked stones for the lintels and sills on the windows.
The Tea House with its strange lintels
 This is repeated on a larger scale on the front entrance and requires a view from the lake to get the full effect.
This image is borrowed from from the National Trust site for Fell Foot
Meanwhile Halloween was nearly upon us and there were several home grown pumpkins to carve into spooky faces. Pumpkins do not grow to a huge size in northern Britain but TG’s parents work hard at growing many kinds of vegetables and produce some good results.
TG was keen to get the carving done as soon as possible and we all set to designing faces we could carve into our particular pumpkin. The result was quite spooky.

A whole gang of pumpkins

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Ten things

One of my fellow followers belongs to a Coffee Klatch group and has been given the tasks of listing ten things done, like to have done, not done etc, which prompted more followers  (link  another link) of both our blogs to do a similar thing which in turn has prompted me to follow on with another copy cat post.

Ten things not too many other people will have done.
1. Met Julius Caesar – two of them actually, both related.
  One lived on my dad’s little caravan site in the 1950s. The other was a Major in the army, who attended some of my ICT classes when I taught at The Royal Military College of Science.
2. Played with Norman Wisdom’s dog Buttons as a child.
  He too lived in a caravan on my dad’s caravan site, just before making his first movie, Trouble in Store. He then became rich and famous and moved into a posh bungalow nearby.
3. Helped discover Jupiter’s magnetic field.
  For a short time I worked as a technician for a UK astronomy team funded by Florida University.
4. Been shot in the stomach around 1945, just after the outbreak of peace.
 A stray bullet managed to find me half a mile away from an Army rifle range.
5. Had a cabin cruiser fall on me and lived.
 Someone had removed the trestles just before I crawled underneath it to help my dad insert a bung in the bottom of the hull. As he walked across to my side it fell over trapping me underneath it and crushing one leg. No permanent damage, but I have been left with an irrational fear of crawling underneath large cabin cruisers ever since.
6. Been mobbed by teenage fans when working for a pop group they all fancied.
 Had to do some service work on some equipment for Amen Corner just after they had a number one hit. Their house was surrounded by screaming teeny boppers and it was OK going in but they mobbed me when I came out.
7. Knew the actor Trevor Howard, who wanted me to play Oliver in the 1948 version of the movie Oliver Twist.
 I was too shy to even try, so who knows what may have happened if I had. The kid who did play the part has an uncanny resemblance to me when you see photos of us both.
8. Had a grandfather who invented chipboard and then sold the rights, to raise capital for his core business. Which is why I am not a millionaire member of a business dynasty.
9. Been arrested in what was once Yugoslavia.
 Two very large seeming armed men took me into a back room at Ljubljana airport and tried hard to convince themselves I was someone they were looking for. It affected my wife more than me because she was just left outside to worry and no one would tell her what was happening. After about two hours I was released.
10. Invented the Frisbee around 1952, but did not think to market the idea.
  I discovered that a used clutch plate from my dad’s garage could be made to soar across the field behind the garage, which Buttons ( see no 2) chased after like a greyhound.
11. Independently discovered wireless and blotted out all radio reception in our village until asked to stop by an irate neighbour.
 My cousin and I discovered that using headphones you could pick up the sound of a high voltage spark we had been producing. We had an ignition coil out of a Spitfire that we had bought in a surplus shop; we bought the coil not the aircraft. This when connected to a car battery produced a spark about an inch and a half long. We then started sending Morse code to each other. Unknown to us, our spark transmitter was so powerful it drowned out any other radio signal for about half a mile radius.
12. Been inside the crater of a live volcano.
 Vesuvius has tours that go into the crater, or they did about thirty years ago, which was venting smoke.
13. Found an unexploded bomb on a beach and with some friends took it up to show my dad. He was not too delighted.
 Fortunately it was a simple type, with a contact detonator, so we survived because we did not actually drop it or throw it away.
OK so that is ten things within an accuracy of plus or minus 33%

Things I have achieved at least once
1. Walked up Snowdon. Doesn’t sound like much but it was like climbing a mountain for me.
2. Stood on the rim of the Grand Canyon
3. Been up in a balloon
4. Retired whilst still alive
5. Crossed the Rockies
6. Flown a light plane.
7. Toured Europe.
8. Discovered a lost relative or two or ten, well to be honest, they discovered me.
9. Sailed around the Hebrides
10. Seen Niagara Falls.

Things I have never done but would like to
1. Visited Australia or New Zealand for that matter, although I have friends and relatives in Australia
2. Flown in a helicopter
3. Won any kind of race
4. Travelled at or above Mach 1
5. Ridden a Camel
6. Found out where odd socks go
7. Owned a sea going vessel and hold a Skippers ticket
8. Got down to my correct Body Mass Index
9. Been any good at sports
10. Learned English grammar

Things I am happy to have avoided
1. Death, or as the local man replied to the tourist’s question, ‘Have you lived here all your life?’ ‘No not yet.’
2. Spending more than a week in hospital.
3. Becoming senile and forgetting things and oh yes, becoming senile and forgetting things.
4. Going to a football match.
5. Having to send good men out to die horribly.
6. Meeting royalty.
7. Living in the East End or Coronation Street.
8. Eating cabbage.
 Well ever since I left school and could make my own choices about the horrible stuff.
9. Being horribly totally skint, although the present government are working on it. 
 I have starved, but that was because my whole family came down with Influenza all at once and we were unable to feed ourselves for about a week.
10. Conscription, or was that constipation? No matter either will do.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Christmas presents and balloons

This post is about something that occurred more than a month ago. I have intended to post it, but up until now more immediate events have pushed it onto the back burner. The date of this event is significant because it happened on the 31st of August. Not a special date for many, but nonetheless significant.
Last Christmas, The Better Half (TBH) gave me an 'experience' gift for Christmas, this time a balloon flight. We had been trying to book a flight since April and each time we had a date that fitted into our busy schedule, the weather was always too bad on the day of the flight.  So each flight was cancelled one after the other until we started to despair that I would never get to go up. Eventually after eight months of trying, the day arrived when the weather was perfect and I was able to get my Christmas balloon ride and it was brilliant but had a strange ending.

There is an RAF air base near here called Lyneham and that is where they have been repatriating military fatalities for about four years, flying them in from the various theatres of war by Hercules aircraft where they are received with proper ceremony by their fellow servicemen . Their coffins are then transported to Oxford by road, to the Coroner’s office in Oxford where they process each arrival which are then passed on to the relatives for burial. However, RAF Lyneham has been marked for closure for some time as a part of a military spending revue.
The early part of this route passed through the small town of Wootton Bassett and although the arrivals were given military honours at the airfield, the people of Wootton Bassett started to show their own respect quite spontaneously as the hearses passed along their High Street. This entirely unofficial and genuine response, made each funeral procession something special for the bereaved, by doing something no one in officialdom had thought to do publicly.
There are a number of web pages which are all about the amazing response of the local townspeople, who created a tradition which has received a great deal of attention throughout Great Britain. To see this story, follow this link

It started quietly and entirely spontaneously by some local members of the British Legion, an organisation that supports retired members of the armed forces. Learning of the repatriation of casualties through their military connections, some of them decided to honour the dead by simply standing respectfully on the curb side of the route through their town and dipping their British Legion flags as the cars passed.

As a result of their presence, ordinary people going about their normal business in the town would also stop and show their respect too as the coffins passed through. This began during the Iraq wars and over the years grew into a regular ceremony soon becoming the central focus in Britain for showing the public’s support for the armed forces. This unique and spontaneous display of loyalty eventually attracted so much attention from the rest of the country that Wootton Bassett is to be re-named Royal Wootton Bassett by order of Her Majesty the Queen this Sunday. Link to this news story

Prior to this, on August the 31, a ceremony had been arranged, to pass the flag from Wootton Bassett to Brize Norton, to acknowledge what the townspeople had done and to mark the end of the use of Lyneham for this purpose.  New repatriations now take place at RAF Brize Norton, a few miles away near Oxford, where the show of loyalty to the military has continued by members of the public who line the procession path there.  Here is a link to this event.

My balloon flight was also set for the 31st of August and about an hour before the time of the Wootton Bassett ceremony.
TBH and I arrived in good time and as a passenger on the flight and whilst TBH watched, I was roped in along with several of the other passengers, to help get the balloon ready for the flight.
The huge envelope stretched out ready to be unfolded

Everyone helping open it out
 We spread out the envelope and then I was given some thick gloves so that I could help hold the envelope open whilst some other passengers were shown how to fill the envelope with air using a pair of petrol driven fans.  My job was to make sure the opening was wide enough for the fans to start the inflation process.
Helping to keep the envelope open
 Once the balloon had started to expand, the burner was lit and the inflation continued with hot air. I then found out why I had been given gloves, the flames were very hot and quite close to my hands.

Inside the partially inflated balloon

Getting bigger

And bigger
Soon we were able to climb into the basket and suddenly we were several dozen feet up in the air.

Lift off!

Up up and away

TBH's view
It was a marvellous experience, I felt no sense of vertigo or any other sensation, other than a serene feeling of soaring up and away.
Our shadow glides across the park
 We gently rose to a height of about three thousand feet and then started to drift away from the town. After a while, some Champagne was served and we toasted the pilot and each other as we floated along and a communal picture was taken by means of a remote controlled camera which had been hauled out on a line by the pilot.
Although the flight was silent, every now and again the pilot would ignite the burners and for the first  dozen or so times I jumped badly at the sudden roaring noise so close to my ear.
The burner is very hot as well as noisy, and although I was as far away as you can get in the basket, it still felt uncomfortably  close and I was glad I was wearing a hat

Unaware of being watched from above

The M4 motorway, west is to the right

Swindon town
Balloon flights are notoriously difficult to control where and when you come down and require fairly calm conditions, which are most favourable a short time before twilight or shortly after dawn. This was an evening fight, so the time for safe flying comes to an end a little before it is too dark and so you have to come down whilst it is still daylight wherever you happen to be. Where you come down is determined by the speed and direction of the wind. The pilot has a certain amount of control over this, but rather limited choices when he is responsible for the safety of his passengers.

Of all the suitable days for the flight I could have been on with the necessary good weather, the wind that evening was south-west-ish, so our balloon, after taking off from a local park near Swindon, unerringly set out for Lyneham and after passing over Wootton Bassett and then Lyneham Village, unable to go any further safely, our balloon came down in Lyneham airfield.
Wooten Bassett High Street, scene of the ceremony 

Getting low over Lyneham village

Our passing balloon spooked these horses
Ministry Of Defence (MOD) property is not somewhere you should enter without permission, since it normally requires some form of security checking before being allowed inside and even then you have several levels of passes handed out to identified visitors, ranging from an escorted pass, to complete clearance. As far as I know no one on board had security clearance, and although I once held a pass that let me into many secure places in the MOD, but on retirement a few years ago, I had to hand it back.
Some of the the duty staff on the airfield saw the balloon passing by and disappear from view. Thinking it would soon reappear and pass on by, they became concerned when we did not and eventually came to the conclusion that we had landed.
On these trips, the support team in a truck and a small bus follow the balloon so that the paying passengers can be collected from the landing site and bussed back to the launching site and the balloon can be loaded on the truck. The pilot keeps in contact with them and had been able to tell them where we were and so in due course, they arrived at Lyneham’s main gate.  Of course, the guards on duty there would not allow them to enter due to the normal restrictions on access to MOD property and were naturally suspicious since they did not know a balloon had landed on the airfield.
Meanwhile, a Land Rover with two RAF personnel and a patrol car with the MOD Plod (military police) had arrived at the balloon.
The pilot then explained at some length that he had not been able to go any further and had made a forced landing in the biggest open space he could reach. He then went on to ask if our two support vehicles could come in to fetch us. This took a little while and eventually the support vehicles were given passes and allowed in.
During the negotiations we, the passengers, as a part of the ballooning experience had been packing up the balloon and it was ready to be loaded on the truck by the time it arrived.
The sun was almost set by the time the support vehicles arrived, the balloon was loaded and we were escorted off MOD property by the RAF and the military police. After leaving the air base, we were then driven back to Swindon right through Wooten Bassett High Street just after the ceremony there came to an end. The streets were crowded with people leaving the ceremony and we were held up for a while as the police directed the extra traffic into some sort of order. TBH had been getting a little concerned since it was by now pitch dark and was nervous about staying in the park alone in her car, so phoning me to find out what had happened and get an ETA for my return, went off to Sainsbury’s, a local supermarket and had a coffee. By the time our bus had arrived back at the park, she had returned and I was able to tell her all about the flight.

By landing in Lyneham I had followed the exact route that each of the casualties had taken whenever there was repatriation. Any other day, or landing anywhere else and going through Wooten Bassett it would have seemed quite normal but it made me feel rather uncomfortable on that special day, particularly since there were still a lot of people lining the route.
So having been repatriated and returned to TBH, by which time, it was quite late, we bought some fish and chips on our way home and had a late supper.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Trip - part the last - honestly

I know you all thought it was all over, done and dusted, but I have this last episode to add as an end to the long saga of our trip to the USA. I realise that it seems to have gone on forever, but it has taken a great deal longer to write up than it took to happen. Many other things have taken up my time and this posting is sliding between the cracks of the rest of my life.
The final leg of our trip was the least eventful since once over the Rocky Mountains we were passing through the least interesting parts of Colorado and Kansas, both of which are flat and not very picturesque.

The road home
Cattle cooling off in a pond

A lot of farms in Kansas have a second income from oil

The new wind power dwarfs the old

An irrigation rig stretches out to the horizon

Interesting strata

We spent a few more days with the family and then made a tearful farewell at Kansas City airport.
We were flying home via Toronto having used Canada Airlines for the simple reason that we had visited family in Toronto on the way through, see part one. There are no direct flights from Kansas City to home so we always need to take a flight to another airport anyway and Toronto is as good as anywhere else on the way home. Our flight was due to board at 15:45 local time and we got there in good time.
The weather was quite warm, being in the mid 90s Fahrenheit. Inside the airport all was cool as we waited for our flight. An announcement told us our flight was delayed and we were going to have to wait another forty minutes. This was not a problem, since our connecting flight was not until 20:40 after a little over a 2 hour flight, so we had plenty of time to spare.
The little Jazz plane eventually arrived and after a further short delay we boarded and took our seats.
The aircraft then sat on the concrete for thirty minutes in the hot sunshine. It started to get warm inside and after a while we were told that the cause of the delay was that the air circulation system had packed up and the maintenance crew were on to it and we would be leaving shortly.
After a further, increasingly hotter wait, we were given the slightly disturbing announcement that we would be taking off without the air circulation system but because of this would have to fly to Toronto at a lower altitude than normal to maintain air pressure. Another thirty suffocating minutes inside the baking aircraft went by and we were asked to disembark. The flight would not be taking off until the air problem was fixed. By now we were definitely going to miss our connection, so asking the Air Canada staff what we could do about our connecting flight, we were told that we must phone Air Canada’s help desk because they only worked for the company and knew nothing.
When I go to the USA, I take an AT&T cell phone which I top up with a month’s worth of calls to use internally. This had just expired, so TBH went out through customs to the only pay phone in reach and attempted to get some sense from Air Canada. About fifteen minutes later she returned frustrated, saying we will have to do it in Toronto.

Eventually the aircraft was fixed, we were re boarded and it took off for Toronto. We arrived at that airport nearly an hour after our connecting flight had left. We now had to find out where and how we could get on a later flight. This meant passing through customs and going back into Canadian territory. We found a desk which seemed to be the right place to book which had a huge queue, potentially so long we would miss the last flight of the day, so whilst I waited in the queue to keep our place, TBH went to a nearby phone booth and was able to contact Air Canada and find out if we were doing the right thing. To give them their due, from this point on, Air Canada were very helpful and on the phone TBH got us onto the last flight of the day, which left at 22:20 that night, or 23:20PM by my Kansas set watch and my body clock. Tickets were then collected from the normal check in desk and we were able to board normally.
We arrived at Heathrow almost eight hours later just after 10AM the next day local time and now about 7:30AM by my body clock. After the slow queue through Customs and Immigration, we got to the baggage carousel, where we waited and waited for our baggage, but no baggage arrived. After seeing all the passengers from three flights retrieve their bags, I realised something had gone wrong and buttonholed an Air Canada employee who had been standing by the carousel and asked him what to do about no baggage. He too was very helpful and took a lot of trouble, checking other baggage areas around the airport to see if our bags had arrived anywhere else, but to no avail. So off we went to find the what-to-do-about-lost-baggage department and filled in a form. We were assured that the bags were probably on a later flight, probably because the flight we boarded had already had its baggage loaded before we turned up. We had caught the last flight of the day so the next flight would be the following day, so no chance it would turn up whilst we waited. Air Canada scored again in our estimation, since they then told us the baggage would be couriered to us, free of charge, as soon as they received it, probably within the next two days. We hoped they were right.
Of course, we had missed the original 10:15 coach that we had booked to take us home well before this new delay and now had to re-book on a later coach. This cost us a small re-booking fee, but we were able to obtain seats on a reasonably early coach and finally around lunch time local time, after a breakfast/lunch snack at a Café Nero, we were heading down the M4 towards our home, both utterly drained and jet lagged beyond belief.
For some reason, neither I nor TBH are able to sleep on an aircraft, so we were both quite tired and this leg of the journey seemed to take forever. The very last bit of travel was to grab a taxi and after 30 plus hours of being awake and anxious and frustrated, we were finally back home.
After unpacking the minimum necessary from our hand baggage, doing all the necessary tasks and eating a light supper, around eight PM we collapsed into bed. Over the next couple of days we gradually un-jet-lagged and started to feel more human and at the end of that time, a man arrived outside our house in a small van and unloaded our three missing suitcases from the back. He told us cheerfully that he often came to this street, since one of our neighbours travelled a lot and he was often couriering his luggage to his house and it made a change to meet new customers. Obviously delayed luggage is a regular occurrence.
So now it was really all over and all I had to do was to sort through the thousands of photos I had taken and write up our adventures for my blog.
And it is done, over and here are a few more pictures from all parts of the trip.

A seemingly endless train

Feed me Mamma!

A flying set-square

A giant's foot

Trees provide shade for hot summers for many houses in Kamsas but must add to insurance costs when in tornado country

Not Yorkshire, Canada

Special wheels allow this maintenance truck to drive along the railroad track

The rocks of Damocles, I would think twice about living there

The Rockies

Toronto must have some very small vehicles

An unusual house outside Denver
 But as a final word, I must sincerely thank both our hostesses in Canada for making that first part of our trip so interesting and TS without whose indefatigable driving, the trip through the USA would have been much shorter and considerably less interesting.